Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Diatribes

"On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: how many good third movies in a franchise can people name?" 
~Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight Rises is not a great film. It is not a great Batman film, nor is it a great summer blockbuster. It is not a bad film, by any stretch, nor even a mediocre film; we may generously even call it "good" if we allow the whole to amount to more than the sum quality of its parts. But shrouded in the shadow of what I might with only minor hesitation call the two greatest superhero films of all time, the latter of which is probably the masterwork of Nolan's career to date, TDKR cannot help but be a disappointment. 

Where to begin? Perhaps it is best to take the worst of the pain from the outset: TDKR is in many ways a sloppy, haphazard, and bloated film from a director (Nolan the Elder, Christopher) and screenwriter (Nolan the Younger, Jonathan) I have often praised for attention to the finer details of the craft and a general coherence of vision, both of which are sorely lacking on display here. The first half of the film in particular is the worst kind of drudgery, reminiscent of nothing more than the Wachowski brothers in its endless, self-important exposition full of sound and fury but signifying nothing; it aches to watch J. Nolan striving for such profundity with every line, hoping desperately to achieve aphorism of grand philosophical portent and instead landing upon grandiosity. TDKR desperately, crudely longs to be Wagnerian but achieves only the Shatnerian; I can think of no closer analog to the failure than that of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and the two films share more in common both structurally and thematically than I am comfortable examining, but I will momentarily force myself to do so anyhow.

At their worst moments here the Nolans achieve near-Schumacher levels of absurdity. The clumsiness is often staggering to the point of camp: when Bane's (Tom Hardy) pet physicist began tinkering with Wayne's Unobtainium Reactor and a single jump-cut later declared "This is now a four megaton NUCLEAR BOMB!" I along with half the theater burst into unrestrained, un-welcomed laughter that would time and again re-emerge at each bout of similarly contrived nonsense. TDKR is no more intellectually insulting than your average Big Summer Movie, but these sorts of hokey hijinks have less place in the moral or physical universe of Nolan's Batman than they do in a Roger Moore Bond film. If Tom Hardy's mustache had been accessible through his oxygen mask as Bane he would certainly have twirled it with impunity, but alas that he is forced to limit himself to faux-Victorian posturing complete with the two-handed "Moriarty Grip" on his upper jacket lining at all times, from which I half expected him to pull a snuff box and monocle at any moment. At Hardy's most restrained he is reasonably intimidating as a faithfully intellectual Frankenstein's monster, but it is impossible to take him seriously when he is tossing quips like "Ask for the devil and he shall appear," "BEHOLD your liberation," and "I AM GOTHAM'S RECKONING!" along with literally dozens of other such Miltonian bon mots on a practically per-line basis, none of which serve to make him even fractionally as frightening as Ledger's Joker at his most banal. Alfred Pennyworth is the next worst offender, and even the incomparable Michael Caine is incapable of convincing us of the sincerity behind his ludicrously over-scripted lectures and lamentations this time around. Beyond that, the less said about Selina Kyle's (Anne Hathaway's) purring pontifications, the better, though the script does at least afford her Catwoman a few crowning moments of confidence in her cracks. 

TDKR's script is overloaded near to the breaking with enough textbook examples of Telling over Showing to give a high school creative writing teacher an aneurism. I've already heard it argued that the interminable exposition is justified by the expansive number of characters dealt with in the narrative, but that argument fails to hold much water when one considers how much more effectively that same challenge was overcome in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight through establishing imagery and just generally more effective filmmaking, which seems to have been a secondary concern for Nolan this time around the block. The film also fails against its predecessors on a more thematic level in its thoroughly confused philosophy and general disregard for consequences and characters. The more that is revealed of Bane's scheme and motivations, the less they make any coherent sense, especially where a particularly jarring "revelation" is concerned in the final act.

In making TDKR as blatant an Important Message film as it was clearly intended to be, the Nolans manage to subvert the very essence of The Dark Knight's core motifs, taking the basic hope in humanity offered in the Joker's ideological defeat by the conscience of everyday citizens and turning it on its head in a Randian anti-populist diatribe that shows those same Gothamites reduced to mindless mobs in service of Bane's amusement, absent any legitimate behavioral justification beyond the demands of the plot and Nolan's overwhelming desire to evoke Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. It's as bad an example of world-building as it is incongruous with the film's own established moral universe, and that message commitment to a set piece over the concerns of the film's soul muddles Bruce Wayne/Batman's (Christian Bale) own character arc to the point of incomprehension, however hard the screenplay tries to substitute unearned epiphanies for genuine development (going so far in breaking the rules of the world as to introduce crucial plot information otherwise unknown to Wayne through what is immediately established as a hallucination). This kind of writing is as lackadaisical as it is lazy, and the knowledge that J. Nolan is capable of so much better only makes it all the more devastating in its actualization.

I have been harder on the film than it deserves in focusing so intently on its flaws; granted, they are legion, far more abundant than I have outlined here, but for all of them TDKR still retains enough craft to commend it. Its sequences of action, though much sparser and of smaller consequence than their operatic accompaniment tricks us into believing, are as visceral and entertaining as any in the trilogy, and Nolan must still be commended for his commitment to practical – and powerful – effects over typical Hollywood CGI saturation. Most of the actors do quality work given the shortcomings of the script – need I even speak of Gary Oldman's unwavering dedication? –  and if the editing is shoddy it at least serves to showcase their commitment even in the film's excesses. Zimmer does nothing new or interesting with his musical reprisals, but his spartan score is as functionally effective as ever, even if I do wish Nolan had relied less on its shrill, throbbing strings to establish the stakes of the climax.

Though TDKR – loud and proud in its portents as it is – closes with a literal bang, it resonates as scarcely more than a cinematic whimper. Those of us with adoration for its progenitors owe it some measure of respect as a not-disastrous end to the trilogy, I suppose, but I suspect non-fans with less stake in its success will ultimately get more enjoyment from the serviceable final product than those of us with an emotional investment in its endeavors.

Grade: B- (and it feels generous; I am overriding my gut reaction in bumping it above a C letter level)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Of Recent Random Ramblings

Welcome to this edition of the Micro-Review Roundup, which for the most part comprises aggregate expansions of recent ramblings on my Twitter feed. And yes, I've been on a bit of a Horror kick recently, for anyone who somehow had any question on that. I suppose it's just that time of the month... which I of course mean the recent full moon phase.

Film: Ted
Seth MacFarlane, 2012

An overly long and relatively restrained Family Guy episode with enough laughs in the first act to make the latter slog worthwhile. As always, could benefit from significantly more dark absurdism and significantly fewer 80s pop cultural references (though the balance of non-sequitur sequences is just about right this time). With a revamped second half, some much-needed editing, and more directorial experience from MacFarlane, this could have had the makings of a more notable comedy gem, but in its present form it's fairly disposable network TV fare scarcely worth comparing to animated raunch comedy classics like South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut or even the mixed success of The Simpsons Movie.
Grade: C

Film: Hellraiser
Clive Barker, 1987

A minor classic of Lovecraftian body horror equal parts the love child of Stephen King and David Cronenberg. Thoughtfully disturbing in its visceral dissection (pun intended, and forgive me for it) of human psychosexuality and the extremities of carnal desire, occasionally marred by some shaky cinematography and loose editing. Still as unsettling today as it ever was, and easily one of the greatest genre works of the 80s (not that its competition was particularly stellar).
As a bonus, also boasts the most frightening appearance of Plastic Jesus in cinematic history.
Grade: B

Film: Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Tony Randel (Heavy creative oversight from Clive Barker), 1998

That rarest of creatures, a Horror sequel worthy of its predecessor's dark legacy. Struggles with initially glacial pacing and some ill-conceived re-imaginings of Hellraiser's characters and creatures, but atones for those shortcomings with stronger cast performances, an unnerving new villain, and a uniquely memorable vision of hell. Where Hellraiser may torment your waking imagination, Hellbound is the fel stuff that will haunt your dreams. Bonus points for its practically overnight production and release within a year of its progenitor, all managed on a functionally microscopic budget.
Grade: B-

Film: Bram Stoker's Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992

By far the most faithful adaptation to Bram Stoker's original work, at least where tone is concerned, Coppola's Dracula remains relevant as perhaps the most wholeheartedly authentic visual realization of the Gothic genre to date. The film is a tour de force of lavish sensuality, oozing more style in every operatic scene than all the gallons of blood spilled in its breathtakingly brief 128 minutes running time. The cast is just as committed to the raw theatricality on view here, Gary Oldman entering the annals of vampiric legend as an utterly convincing incarnation of a passionate and tragically accursed Dracula, Anthony Hopkins devouring the scenery with all Van Helsing's eccentric excitability, and Tom Waits lurching about as the most entertainingly unhinged Renfield yet seen on screen. Keanu Reeves is the sole chink in the film's illustriously decorated armor, delivering in place of acting not only a constant mugging that would put the comic reaction shots of Hammer to shame, but also perfecting the most exquisitely tortured approximation of an English accent in living memory.
"LOVE NEVER DIES," promises the appropriately lush theatrical poster, and neither shall a film as lovingly devoted to its vision as this Gothic masterpiece.
Grade: A-

Film: Night of the Living Dead
George Romero, 1968

The Ur-Zombie grandfather of them all, still just as unsettling in its high-concept exploitation even after fifty years of imitators. Brutish, nasty, and short, Romero's original remains as effective as it is primarily for its single-minded devotion to the desecration of all that is sacred in human society, playing both on the cultural fears of the Cold War and our more timeless aversions to death, decay, predation, destruction of identity, incest, cannibalism, and virtually every other primal fear or unthinkable taboo to haunt our psyches across the boundaries of community. A community which is so violated here as to leave generations pondering our own hypothetical reactions to such a loss of basic humanity.
Ever tense in its craft and composition, well-acted across the board (particularly by the now iconic Duane Jones), and marred only by its nonexistent effects budget and rampant misogyny (even for its time, judging by a few  historic critical reactions), Night of the Living Dead remains the purest codification of its genre, surpassed in overall quality only by the tiniest handful of its successors, if ever at all.
"They're coming for you, Barbara. They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
Grade: A-

Film: The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
(And no, I will not be commenting on any of the differences in editions except to say that, as someone familiar with each, the cuts are not distinct enough that I would consider them worth contrasting in so small a space.)

On recently revisiting Friedkin's The Exorcist and Kubrick's The Shining after aeons, my initial reaction of re-appraisal was to note that, while both are near masterpieces of cinematic art, but both are minor failures as horror films. The Exorcist is tense, no doubt, paced with near perfection in the mounting terror not of the demon but of Chris MacNeil's (Ellyn Burstyn) increasingly helpless concern for her daughter's soul. I would hardly be the first to note that Pazuzu is not a particularly threatening villain from a secular perspective – certainly not compared to his Cenobite siblings or even the Paranormal possessor – but the horror at play is still somewhat effective empathically, again through the cypher of Burstyn's preeminent portrayal of a parent's deepest fears.
Though light on frights no one could claim The Exorcist is slim on style, and unlike the plethora of progeny it spawned it is just as profoundly substantial, both as well-crafted cinema and as a study of familial psychology. I care much less than I once did for the vague spiritual struggles of the auxiliary Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and his Catholic cohorts, too often recounted as the foci of the film, but their priestly presence certainly lends the climax its memorable dramatic weight. Nor can enough be said of Regan/Pazuzu's brilliantly executed joint performance by Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge.
Grade: B+

Film: The Shining
Stanley Kubrick, 1980

Few times have I desired to love a film as much as I would like to love Kubrick's celebrated classic The Shining, but alas that I must be content to respect it. The Shining is a beautiful film no doubt, an exercise in compositional perfection out of which I could probably pick more favorite shots than any dozen other such films combined. From the jaw-dropping grandeur of its opening mountain credits to the skin-crawling spectacle of the flooding elevators to the unforgettable focal clash of the baby-blue Grady girls with the sickly-hued halls, The Shining is a display of Kubrick's mise-en-scène at its absolute most effective.
Such a pity, then, that it suffers more from Kubrick's clinical detachment than any of his other works to that date. So abstract is Kubrick in his surreal approach to setting that he leaves behind both his actors and the characters they are so desperately (over)working to present. Jack Nicholson's iconic turn as Jack Torrance is unforgettable, yes, but as entertaining as it is to watch the King of Crazy go axe-frenzy out of cabin fever, his performance is too ridiculous to find frightening on any serious level. Shelley Duvall's Wendy too is a mess of mewling hysterics, and the only moment of any palpable tension between the two – as well as the only truly terrifying moment in the film – is found when Jack is mercifully off-screen and Wendy discovers the horrible truth of his manuscript (which, of course, the viewer had surmised a near two-hour's time earlier in Nicholson's mad mugging).
As gorgeous as is Kubrick's imagery and as indelible is Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkin's baroque score, The Shining is less successful as a sum narrative than as a collection of spectacularly effective imagery. And who knows, given that we're dealing with Kubrick here that may just have been the artistic intent all along.
Grade: A-

Song: What Makes You Beautiful
One Direction, 2012

So catchy it should be criminal, but the lovable kind of criminal like Robin Hood or the Artful Dodger, "What Makes You Beautiful" is an adorable chart debut by X Factor finalists One Direction and probably the least offensive ear worm of the year to date. WBYB is a pristine example of everything there is to like about boy bands – yes, even they have their redeeming qualities – what with its uplifting, heart-baring lyrics, its flawless rhythmic structure (for which, it has been noted, a great deal is owed to Pink), and an infinitely hummable bridge practically guaranteed to send all nearby victims bursting into the chorus whether willingly or unwillingly.
Yes, in terms of depth it's still the musical equivalent of a two-foot wading pool, but I challenge anyone to make it through a full listening without cracking a smile, or at least the hint of an acquiescent grin.
Grade: B+

Song: Good Feeling
"Flo Rida" (With emphasis on the quotes), 2011

Yes, this one is more than a little late, but I feel justified in reviewing it given that it's still topping charts and that no one seems to be calling this clown on his tripe. Content to prove himself the most shameless hack in the music industry, Flo Rida once again samples a refrain from an old classic (in this case Etta James's "Something's Got a Hold On Me" already resampled as Avicii's "Levels"), surrounds it with the most disposable flavors of rap on the radio, and calls it a day. Sure, the end product still retains some residual quality, but rather than support the cretin who led an entire generation to believe he was responsible for "You Spin Me 'Round," why not spare your own dignity and give this trash a pass in favor of a more honest club remix of the original Etta James?
Grade: C+ (Though artistic integrity here would merit an F for plagiarism, were we to carry the classroom metaphor.) 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Great Disposability

By now there's really no point in discussing whether The Amazing Spider-Man was "necessary" or not; "necessary" has never been and will never be a core consideration of Hollywood studio execs, except insofar as it is necessary they continue to make huge piles of money from their property investments – and Spider-Man is nothing if not a lucrative property. There's no arguing against the fact that the new Spidey is redundant, of course, but if that were an unforgivable fault we should have to discard every major superhero tentpole film of the past decade not directed by Christopher Nolan. Let's not pretend, for instance, that CGI technology has not advanced in leaps and bounds since 2002, a time when even the most ardent accolades of Raimi's work were willing to admit that Spidey's visual incarnation rather more resembled a transplanted cartoon than a tangible character, particularly in the embarrassing street fight sequences.

That said, I come to bury The Amazing Spider-Man, not to praise it. Raimi's was and is the definitive version of the friendly neighborhood web-slinger, capturing every ounce of Lee and Kirby's larger-than-life sense of super-powered fun and "gee whiz!" comic pizazz. Certainly, it had it flaws, none the least of which was a perpetually torpid Tobey Maguire who could never quite make believable the transition from pitiable Parker to spectacular Spider-Man, but as a blockbuster based on a beloved American myth it was as complete a package as anyone could have asked for, fan or no, and the fact that at least one of its sequels was every bit as compelling an addition to the genre is of no small note by Hollywood standards of property decay.

The Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, is every bit as turgid as Spider-Man was frenetic, and as bloated in its own self-importance as its predecessor was lackadaisical. Of course, to compare the premier studio work of a novice independent film and music video director like Marc Webb (thrown here into an exceptionally cynical production even by Hollywood reckoning) with the loving craft of a B-movie veteran like Sam Raimi is to invite such contrasts, and I suppose we all knew from the first trailer exactly what we were getting here. TASM is a mess, plain and simple, a textbook example of exactly how not to successfully transcribe a comic to the silver screen, from its painfully familiar opening scenes of Peter's childhood and parental separation (especially now that aping Nolan's Batman saga has become the modus operandi for the genre) to its interminable origin sequences that insist upon gorging a solid half of the film's running time with heavy-handed character development for a character with whom everyone watching the film is already intimately familiar. Granted, Andrew Garfield is better and more rounded in the role than Tobey "walking-lopsided-grin" Maguire ever was, but even his nuanced work is so hampered by the insipid screenplay and shoddy editing as to render him ridiculous in moments that should have been poignant (the entire theater erupted in laughter at his reaction to a certain inevitable family death) and creepy when the camera was clearly going for cute (how many lingering shots of lecherous grins do we really need per love scene anyway?). Emma Stone fares a little better as a Gwen Stacy literally written for her talents, though at times her character seems shoehorned into the narrative by the demands of the inevitable saga-to-be.

After ten minutes of this, trust me when I say
 the "erotic medical treatment moment" is way more awkward than it sounds on paper.

In that regard, she's not the only victim. I've already used the adjective "bloated" to summarize the movie's major issues, and I can think of no better term to invoke again in comparing it to the disastrous third entry of Raimi's original trilogy. Criminally stupid dialogue aside, TASM's script is stuffed beyond capacity with sideplots within sideplots within sideplots, all packed between pell-mell introductory cuts of characters intended for recycling at a later date while largely ignoring the superhero aspect of what is, ostensibly anyway, a superhero film. Parker finally does don the darker-and-grittier suit, but only after a short eternity of tedium culminating in a so-bad-it's-hilarious moment of epiphany that, in ripping off both its predecessor and Batman Begins simultaneously, exemplifies exactly how much TASM is not either of those films and has no hope of being anything comparable. By then it's too little, too late anyway, and we are treated to but a few brief moments of costumed crime-fighting that manage to make a blazing car cliffhanger sequence tedious before being thrust into the showdown with Rhys Ifans's Dr. Connor/Lizard "homage" to both the Jekyll/Hyde story and Defoe's infinitely superior schizophrenic turn as the Green Goblin.

TASM feels like every second of its 136-minute running time, offering reprieve only in a few moments of satisfying arachnobatics and a glut of unintentionally humorous one-liners punctuated by some seriously dedicated mugging. I've already forgotten every note of James Horner's soundtrack (which I'd wager he probably has too), and I have nothing to say about the cinematography except that the team would have done better to have gone for broke with the camera work and filmed all the web-slinging scenes with tracking over-the-shoulder shots; it would have at least carried more of that Cloverfield-esque theme park appeal, because Lord knows TASM has nothing to say for itself as a film qua film.

About the only other thing I can say in its favor is that it avoids recycling Ben Parker's "With great power comes great responsibility" speech, instead substituting a remedial philosophy course summation of Kant's Categorical Imperative peppered with a heavy pinch of Peter Singer's ethics of duty, as peculiar an espousal of morality in a mainstream American movie as I can ever recall having heard. And even that manages to sound pretty insipid in context. The film ends with the now-compulsory mid-credit "bonus" sequence, and the questions this one raises are nowhere half so important as the one on everyone's mind right now: is The Amazing Spider-Man worse than Spider-Man 3? Apples and oranges, I tell you. Granted, a worm-ridden apple and an underripe orange, but at the end of the day I wouldn't recommend eating either unless you're on the brink of starvation. And even then you're likely to get sick off it.

Grade: C-

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Near, Far, Wherever You Are

For all the strides we've made toward LGBT equality as a society, it's prudent to remember that we've quite a long way to go before achieving anything resembling equitable acceptance of non-heteronormative relationships. Case in point, the strikingly inoffensive I Love You Phillip Morris, which  despite starring one of the most popular comedic actors in film history took nearly two years to find a distributer willing to front it to cinemas in the United States after its Sundance debut in January 2009, and even then only after some desperate measures of self-censorship. In marked contrast with the British ad campaign for the film I witnessed while residing in London (which included public buses plastered back-to-front with the title poster and a robust web placement rate), stateside promotion for the film was virtually nonexistent, a few perfunctory art festival hooks notwithstanding. Consequently, when ILYPM finally did reach those select few theaters , it received little if any attention from the American public, a public that has time and again flocked to dozens of inferior Jim Carrey vehicles but who were unwilling to give this particular gem – the finest acting performance of his career, or so many have deemed it – the time of day.
I'll let my readers draw the appropriate conclusions.

That said, I don't want to give the impression that ILYPM is the best Carrey film – an honor unlikely ever to be stripped from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to my quite-spotted mind anyway – nor am I even willing to argue that it represents his best performance – that I would almost certainly grant to his turn in the near modern classic The Truman Show. Nor, it must also be conceded, is LYPM anywhere near the funniest film of Carrey's career, and to that I will add no specific speculation except that, to my shameful admission, I got more genuine laughs out of the insipid Fun with Dick and Jane than I did hence. But of all Carrey's comedies, romantic or otherwise, ILYPM represents some of the most interesting work Carrey has ever displayed on screen, and it's refreshing after so many years of his increasingly over-the-top antics to reminded that he achieved his fame for good reasons, foremost among them his mastery of malleable expression and his impeccable comedic timing.

Much credit for ILYPM's charm must be given to directorial and screenwriting team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who display in their debut mainstream feature a more thorough understanding of character comedy than most industry players do after decades. While ILYPM is certainly a rougher effort than their more successful followup Crazy, Stupid, Love (which, incidentally, reveals what happened to the missing comma in I Love You Phillip Morris), it is a quirky, touching take on the genre in its own right, playing up to the strengths of script with a give-and-take approach to narrative that wobbles between quick-cut perfection and downright cheapness with its flippant "just kidding" reveals from an obviously unreliable narrator. When this works, it works very well, and it ties the framing of the film to the narrator Steven Russell's (Carrey) voice insightfully while setting up a number of his best lines for maximum punch. When this fails, it's usually because of inconsistent application, particularly in the final act of the film when the narrative itself runs out of steam and devolves into a bit of a gag-driven farce (not unlike its successor Crazy, Stupid, Love in that regard). In other respects the film's visuals leave something to be desired; the over-saturated color palette just feels like a Sundance standby at this point and serves to distract more than any particular purpose, and the inconsistent attempts to ape Wes Anderson angles feel forced and out of place with the film's whimsical sense of time and space.

"This really happened. It really did," opens the film, well aware of our skepticism at Hollywood narratives "based on true stories," but as far as my light research has been able to confirm, in this case it actually did, more or less. Steven Jay Russell, at the film's outset, recounts the story of his life from his deathbed, and it's as bizarre a tale of star-crossed lovers as ever found root in real events. Having learned of his adoption in a tellingly misplaced moment of familial awkwardness, a young Steven vows to become "the best man, no, the best person I could be," and instantly we jump to twenty-odd years later where he has become a Cleaver-esque nuclear father, a friendly-neighborhood police officer, and an enthusiastic church accompanist. After making contact with his biological mother through illicit use of his police access and finding, to his devastation, that he was and still remains an unwanted middle child, Steven experiences the first of several epiphanies and relocates his family from Virginia Beach to Floria, whereupon he reveals to us in one of the film's most effective moments of "surprise" narration that he is in fact gay and has begun seeing men by night while pretending to be working long hours at a Cisco food distribution center. On the way home from one such encounter he becomes the victim of a car accident and undergoes a second epiphany, deciding to out himself to his wife and the world and, in an insightful revelation of his latent lack of responsibility even as a concept, determines on a whim to leave his family for the carefree life of a South Beach single. A few top-shelf martinis and Burberry bags later he realizes, however, that "being gay is expensive" and launches a career in con-artistry that will shape his persona – and the narrative force – throughout the rest of the film.

Ultimately his tricks lead up to his arrest for insurance fraud and a would-be brief prison sentence, wherein he meets the titular Phillip Morris (Ewan MacGregor) and the film finds its true impetus. It's love at first sight as the unbelievably trusting Morris (in prison for, of all things, failing to return a rental car) falls for Steven's smooth advances, and for motives initially unclear Steven not only allows himself to fall equally head over heels for Phillip but dedicates his every effort from thereon out to providing for Phillip in every way possible. This initially means mostly smuggling goods to Phillip's cell across the yard and protecting him from the more menacing aspects of of prison life, but culminates in Steven's escape from prison and his impersonation of a lawyer to secure Phillip's release before the end of his term. Having freed his lover and vowed to give him the best of life's offerings, Steven soon finds himself returning to his con-man ways, and so begins a cycle of re-imprisonment and Houdini-like escapades of escape that would be the stuff of the most ridiculous comic contrivance if it weren't for them being a very real matter of public record, and along the way we see a romance a portrayal of love as idyllically pure as it is harmful for both lovers involved, along with a character study of a man so defined by his obsession that he sacrifices his very identity in pursuit of that ill-defined ideal.

And that's only a broad sketch of the thing. If ILYPM sounds convoluted, it is, at times to its detriment as a coherent narrative but more often to its own unique advantage as the strangest kind of offbeat biopic ever to find a niche in the rom-com genre. Though rarely ever outright funny, the film exudes such charm in even the most detestable moments of its narrator's actions that one can't help but find him endearing, to say nothing of the heartbreakingly honest performance by MacGregor as the sweetest, most pathetic southern ingenue to fall for the wiles of a gentleman caller since Laura Wingfield. Phillip's extended reaction shot to Steven's final and greatest deception manages to strike a double note as simultaneously the most moving and ridiculous moment of the entire film, exemplifying the oddball sentiment of the piece as punctuated by the last reprise of the fanciful score.

In the end, it's hard to know exactly what to make of ILYPM, which fails both as a structured narrative thanks to its madcap third act and as a comedy thanks to its lack of genuinely funny moments – all are amusing and most are delightful, but almost none are likely to induce actual laughter. Still, the whole thing is just so damn likable that it's hard not to give it a recommendation. Carrey and MacGregor are both in top form here, which will be enough of an incentive for some of you, all else disregarded. I've already made more than enough mention of the charm on display in ILYPM's every character, its every absurd moment, and I suppose if I can find no better words to describe the underlying quality of the film, I'd do best to say it's delightful and leave it at that.

Grade: B+

Monday, June 18, 2012

No More Thor Puns

Critical consensus be damned: Thor may have been an even more unnecessary addition to the superhero film glut than its 2011 summer rival Captain America, but to my mind it's the more outright entertaining of the two. At least Thor didn't repeatedly try to lull me to slumber with its endless Nazi Hydra raid montage sequences and blurry "vintage" palette overlays, to say nothing of half-hearted patriotic propaganda and stupefyingly bland protagonist.
Not that Thor is altogether any more interesting a character than fellow cardboard cutout Captain America, but at least the God of Thunder has a flashier weapon (and consequently more dazzling fight sequences) and a kickass younger brother to upstage him the entire film. Which is a good place to start, since just about any substantial advantage Thor as a film can claim over its rival is due to a single screen-stealing performance by Tom Hiddleston as the trickster god and sometime villain Loki (who of course has since taken even more prominent center stage in The Avengers, albeit with some disappointing character decay). Of all the A- and B-listers visibly struggling to deliver a script one might generously call "stilted," only Hiddleston succeeds, hitting exactly the right notes of grandiosity – this is a film about rainbow-surfing gods and a grade-school approximations of Shakespearean English, after all – and genuine pathos, ending up as the most effectively sympathetic super villain to my memory since Alfred Molina's turn as Doctor Octopus (because, let's face it, to call Thomas Church's Sandman a "villain" in the theatric sense is more than a little cynical). Anthony Hopkins is less successful as an inappropriately low-key Odin; something tells me the role would have been better served by the larger-than-life likes of BRIAN BLESSED(!) than the naturalistic Hopkins, but such speculation is pointless by now.
Chris Hemsworth's Thor is even less deserving of mention than Chris Evans's Cap, munching incoherently over the hamfest of a script and alternating a goofy grin with a sanguine scowl as his exclusive expressions of personality. Which, to be fair, is just about all that one could ask of a Thor, particularly within the confines of this screenplay. Is it evident yet that I have not a shred of affection for this character? Of Natalie Portman I shall say nothing but thank the gods her agent salvaged her summer with the Black Swan booking, or between Thor, Your Highness and No Strings Attached, 2011 might have been the death of her already flagging career.

Visually speaking, Thor delivers mightily on its $150 million budget. Valhalla is a jaw-dropping piece of computer-generated construction, an image of a celestial city as tangible as it is otherworldly in its oceanic clouds and floating castles. It's a shame the screenplay and Kenneth Branagh's disinterested direction fail so completely to take advantage of this, denigrating one of the most impressive CG sets in history to perfunctory scene-establishment use and wholly failing to give the slightest impression that this beautiful world is actually lived in. And despite the early promise of invasion and a siege of mythic proportions, the film's action sequences make little use of Valhalla itself except [minor spoiler alert] for one brief but admittedly magnifient duel over aforementioned rainbow bridge.
The bulk of the film, unfortunately, takes place in a (figuratively) god-forsaken border town of New Mexico, and whatever real life beauty that setting possesses is lost on Branagh and his hapless camera crew, who probably couldn't frame an interesting shot if their lives depended on it (seeing as their paychecks certainly didn't). The earthling ensemble dwelling in these parts is every bit as insipid as Thor's Asgardian coterie is irksome, stumbling through the motions to aid Thor on his quest back to godhood with contrived plot compulsion as opposed to actual character impetus.

And on that note, in accordance with reviewing tradition I should probably get around to summarizing the film's plot, such as it is. In a nutshell: Thor, a spoiled young turd of a god-prince, is about to be crowned king of Asgard when the ceremony is interrupted by the infiltration of a few hostile Frost Giants, of whom allfather Odin's creatively titled golem Destroyer makes short, hot work. Thor is pissed (the more frequently displayed of his two emotions) and, against his father's orders, leads a team comprising his brother Loki and his firmly forgettable friends "The Warriors Three" (of whom there are inexplicably four, which will puzzle everyone unfamiliar with the comics and Sif's relationship to Thor) to the Frost Giant home world of Jotunheim with the intent of smashing everything that moves in retaliation for a failed theft attempt by three already-dead giants. Odin arrives in the nick of time to stop the slaughter and, on the sudden revelation that his son is a total dick, punishes Thor by separating him from his hammer Mjolnir, thus rendering him impotent (phallic symbolism is kind of inescapable with this character), and banishing him to Midgard (earth) with the stipulation that he must prove his worthiness in order to take up the hammer again and return to godhood. All this hullabaloo proves a bit much for the aging Odin, who collapses into "the Odinsleep" (see what kind of creativity we're dealing with here?) just after revealing to his neglected son Loki that he can't be king because he's actually adopted and therefore genetically unfit for the crown. Slightly miffed by this revelation, Loki steps in to manage the kingdom in his father's absence, which seems to be fine with everyone but Thor's four Warriors Three, who immediately start plotting to undermine Loki's legal authority and return Thor to Asgard in blatant disregard of Odin's last command.  Meanwhile, on earth, Nameless Female Love Interest astrophysicist Jane Foster (Portman) is chasing wormholes in the New Mexico desert and (literally) runs into Thor when he's thrown down to earth in a cosmic twister. Thor is naturally dazed and confused in his de-powered fish-out-of-water state on an alien world, and hijinks ensue for a while until the plot kicks back in. He then marches off to get his hammer and prove his worthiness to his father, an admittedly distant possibility given his personality, but not one which Loki is willing to risk. Thus, roughly two-thirds through the film, does the "central" conflict begin in earnest. 

If it has not yet become clear from this synopsis, a critical flaw of the film is the fact that Thor is kind of a huge asshole, to say nothing of a dumb one, which wouldn't be an issue per se if the plot itself did not require that he undergo a major character reformation in order to reclaim his powers and prove himself worthy of the throne of Asgard, a reformation of which there is no on-screen evidence whatsoever, neither in the muddled script nor Hemsworth's two-note acting nor Branagh's hopeless direction. A fringe benefit of this epic failure is that, thanks both to an uncharacteristically empathetic screenplay and an exceptionally nuanced performance by Hiddleston, Loki is left to fill the dramatic gaps as a misguided young intellect striving in equal parts for the good of his adoptive kingdom and for the approval of his distant father. The end result is one of the most captivating antagonists in the genre's history, which, granted, isn't saying much on its own, but the fact that a villain as historically disposable as Loki manages to become the one memorable element of as soporific a film as Thor is certainly worth talking about. Especially given the unexpected moment of ambiguous self-sacrifice in the film's final act.

That solitary commendable performance aside, Thor is pretty standard, flashy popcorn fair with limited appeal outside superhero fans and drinking game enthusiasts (take a shot for every incorrect declension of "thou" – two shots for butchered conjugations!). Branagh probably wasn't the worst choice of directors on the planet, as many have hyperbolically claimed, but he was far from the best, though Thor is at least more tolerable than any of his recent Shakespeare adaptations. And that, I suppose, is something.

Grade: C+, and that generous "plus" is 100% Hiddleston's doing.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hulk, Do Your Thing

Like everyone else still riding the funtastic thrill wave of The Avengers, I've been on a bit of Hulk high for the past few weeks, and what better way to celebrate the historically underappreciated green lug than with a viewing of his very own 2009 double-feature, the dangling yet honestly titled Hulk Vs [sic].  Hulk versus what? I'm glad you asked, because you're in for a treat, bub.

The first of the two features produced by Marvel Animation and visualized by the outsource animation wizards at Madhouse – wizards indeed, for how else could they continue to weave such immaculate spells as Death Note and Last Order whilst magicking out dozens of lesser licenses per day with the same careful craft? – is Hulk Vs WOLVERINE!!! (caps and exclamations added by yours truly for ecstatic emphasis). Reasons to be excited for such a match are manifold, but primary among them are, first, that who wouldn't want to see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unbreakable adamantium object (with a rapid healing factor to boot), and second, that most previous animated versions of Wolverine, being television features, have been forced to severely censor his trademark ferocity to such ludicrous lengths as the now infamous Android Rage Principle, which states that Wolverine must never use his claws directly against foes made of organic material except indirectly to chop a tree or telephone pole down on top of them, the most egregious offender of his trope being the iconic 90s X-Men series. Thanks to Wolverine's incredible popularity, this tends to lead most animated series to an unhealthy overuse of robotic foes, particularly the old-school purple sentinels which, despite their colossal size and hyper-advanced weaponry (as well as the expectedly prohibitive cost of production thereof), became the de facto mooks of said 90s series and its successors.
Hulk Vs Wolverine, as a direct-to-DVD feature, need follow no such expectations. There will be blood.

Getting down to the feature itself, I'm disappointed to say that it's markedly the less successful of the two, despite its superior animation and character design. For the first few scenes of Wolverine hunting an unknown beast in his native Canadian territory, the short is as engaging in its pacing and character development as it is in its gorgeous scene work and mounting visual tension as the predator nears his prey. It's important to note that the expected role reversal never really occurs in as full effect as it should for something billed as a Hulk feature; it is very clear from the outset that writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost (both veterans of the field and frequent Marvel collaborators) are far more interested in Logan as a character than Bruce Banner, as the latter's brief appearance on screen as a sobbing, sniveling coward (the last of disparagements that should ever be applied to Banner) heightening the tension of an audience well aware of the Hulk's capabilities but undercutting sympathies of Banner as a protagonist in his own right.

 But as obviously invested as the writers are in Wolverine, the animators are more so. Of all the animated depictions of the world's favorite X-man to date, none have better captured the savagery of his form in motion. Pitting him up against a foe as hulking as the Hulk is an excellent way to accentuate the crouched, reflexive restraint that actually characterizes his fighting style, not the blind berserking rushes into which he habitually throws himself in so many other depictions. This Wolverine is worthy of his namesake, snarling and snapping as he dodges blows from a much more powerful but more lumbering foe, darting about with mustelidaean litheness from point to point while quick jabs of his claws bleed his enemy to exhaustion – or so would be the case if his opponent were anyone but the Hulk. Their combat is enhanced with only the slightest anime flourishes that serve more to accentuate the impossible angles and Grecian superimpositions more characteristic of western comics than of manga, and the result is a stunning clash of titans riveting enough that it feels criminally brief when it is finally interrupted.

And what a rude interruption that is. For if Hulk is given thematic short thrift in Wolverine's shadow during the first act, both are subordinated to foils in the second and third, the spotlight of which is seized entirely by the arrival of the Weapon X gang, who proceed to dominate the action of the remaining film so wholly as to make the film their own. While an intolerable abuse of the property from the perspective of a fan expecting the promise inherent in a picture entitled Hulk Vs Wolverine, from a film perspective it's a probably more structurally interesting than watching two unkillable rage monsters tearing apart the Rockies for a solid thirty-seven minutes (though I would be the first to volunteer for such a screening). At some points it practically becomes the Deadpool Vs Everyone Who Wants Him to Shut the Hell Up movie, which is, granted, not half as painful as it sounds given some better than adequate writing and a defining performance by video game veteran Nolan North (think Nathan Drake of Uncharted and his casting will seem all the more obviously inspired). Unfortunately, the meaning of the shift in focus is ultimately just that we're forced to watch Hulk smash and Wolverine slash everything in a confined laboratory environment with endless steel corridors as opposed to a vibrantly inked northern wilderness, but it's entertaining for what it is nonetheless.

Despite my general lack of use for Thor as a character or a licensed property, I have no problem asserting that Hulk Vs Thor is the narratively stronger of the two pictures, though certainly the uglier. For one thing, it is far purer in its intent and delivery: Loki, as always, plans to kill his bigger, better-looking brother and take over Asgard for himself, this time by means of unleashing a mind-controlled Hulk on the gates of the celestial city. Hulk smashes, Thor bashes, and – thank goodness, for the first feature had me worried – Bruce Banner gets some serious screen time and appropriate exploration as the strong character he is.

Sadly, the animation is a far weaker effort than that on display in HvW, despite the creative staff's clear preference for this story. There is a distractingly "floaty" quality to all character motions that drastically reduces the impact (figuratively speaking) of the kind of force we should be seeing in blows delivered by two of the most physically powerful beings in the classic Marvel canon. Wire-fu comes to mind, which makes sense given the past projects of the particular animators involved, and while that might be appropriate for a Shonen ninja it's certainly jarring when applied to creatures as grounded in their real-world physicality as Hulk and Thor. The scene work, too, is lacking, and a generic Asgard manages to look pitifully contrived and flat by comparison to the rich watercolors of mountain grandeur on display in HvW. Even more disappointing is Hell, which turns out to be a collection of poorly defined crags against some monotoned lava and a blank black sky, though Hela's draconic character design is easily the most inspired of the figures on screen in the film.

That said, the plotting is more than sufficient to make up for the artistic weaknesses, with Banner being forced by separation from the Hulk to make a choice so desperate that I would be cruel to mention it here and thereby detract from the moment for new viewers. Suffice it to say that there is a three-minute dreamscape sequence which managed to bring me to tears. Yes, to tears, in a Marvel animated feature. Ponder that for a moment and consider whether you as a fan have a moral obligation to see this film if only for that sequence. The more talented members of the cast bring a lot more life to the animation in these scenes than they would otherwise deserve, with Graham McTavish in particular voicing an appropriately slimy Loki and Bryce Johnson bringing a lot more pathos to Banner than I've ever seen him display in his live action roles.

Obviously this double feature was never intended to comprise some great work of Art, or even anything more profound than a commercially motivated, relatively high-budgeted piece of indulgent fan fiction. But if you don't have enough love for the Hulk, Wolverine, and god-knows-maybe-even-Thor as characters to be drooling at the thought of watching them thrash one another in mostly quality animation for a solid 82 minutes, then I don't know why you bothered to read this far in the first place. The rest of you, go forth and indulge thyselves accordingly.

Grade: B+ qua American superhero animation, C- qua some more meaningful standard of film quality.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?"

In the past few months I've partaken in several discussions on Ridley Scott's career decline and the possibility of redemption Prometheus represented – quite appropriately, metaphorically speaking – for his directorial reputation. Certainly all the elements seemed to be there: a return to a beloved universe of his own creation, a cast of some of the most brilliant actors working in film today, and a viral campaign to re-infect even the most immune of the old fan base. Tragically, the whole amounts to significantly less than the sum of its parts, and I would rather spend an eternity chained to a cliff whilst eagles daily devour my liver than sit through his bloated wreck of a might-have-been-masterpiece again.

Obviously I hyperbolize, but it's no more than this self-proclaimed titan of a film deserves. The true tragedy is the amount of potential evident in every mishandled moment; beyond the aforementioned elements of promise, there is enough quality footage on display that any half-decent creative team could have made something twice as coherent, three times as watchable, and – most importantly – half as long. Because, sweet Jesus, does Prometheus feel long despite its modest 124 minute running time, the pain of which could have been greatly alleviated by removal of virtually all expository scenes. As it stands, the Prometheus now playing in cinemas should never have left the editing room floor, and frankly I'm not sure whether to blame editor Pietro Scalia, Scott himself, or the two of them in unholy collusion. 

But getting back to those expository scenes, they are some of the most intellectually insulting I've ever been subjected to in scifi, and god is that saying something. Not only do they fail in forty five minutes to convey any more useful information than even the most maladroit member of the viewing public could have gleaned in four minutes from any of the already overlong film trailers, but they stumble about that redundant task in the most ham-fistedly reprobate manner possible. Somewhere between 1979 and 2012, Scott apparently converted from a position of cautiously skeptical humanism in the face of a dark and overwhelming cosmos to, of all things, a blatant evangelism for vague Mulderian religiosity and, believe it or not, Intelligent Design. Yes, you heard right, folks: the man who brought us the most abject realism in scifi horror history with a creature terrifying precisely for its unmatched evolutionary sexual adaptability has now released a two-hour polemic on the Search for the Great Questions of Life That Everyone Must Secretly Want to Ask Our Creator(s). Not that the ID crowd is likely to be pleased to see the Answer portrayed as something as insipid as "humanity originated as a result of failed bioweapon experimentation by a race of giant blue...humans (but bald!)" and now look, I've gone and spoiled something revealed in the first two minutes of the film yet that we are supposed to regard as mysterious for the ensuing 122 minutes of "revelatory" exploration. 

The screenplay is as every bit as stupid as its it seems to think its audience is, and god bless the cast for trying so damn hard to make the most out of every. awful. line. they are expected to choke out with a straight face and good conscience. Fassbender as the Symbolically Named android David steals the show with his O'Toole-inspired performance, and Noomi Rapace does an admirable job trying to fulfill the ersatz-Ripley expectations saddled upon her by the miserable script, but neither they nor anyone else are up to the task of saving a ship as lost as Prometheus' direction. Charlize Theron is uncharacteristically awkward in her ordinarily apt role as the resident ice queen, no doubt struggling to find the slightest element of believability in her character's forced Elektra complexes. And I won't even bother to guess what Scott was thinking when he put Guy Pierce in the least-convincing old man suit this side of a theatre freshman makeup class.

But I digress. Unlike Avatar, a big dumb summer blockbuster that also took itself far too seriously yet still managed to entertain, Prometheus cannot fall back on gorgeous CGI spectacle or breathtaking world-building to carry the day. The planet – or moon? – in question is grey, cratered, and, like the too-shiny CG creatures eventually on display, nowhere near as tactile or convincing as its iteration in Alien. Gone is the iconic used-future aesthetic of the Nostromo, replaced by a generic Trekkian interior (think DS9) complete with requisite holodeck and cocktail bar, made frightening only for a few brief seconds of invasion in the final moments of the film's meandering. As for the alien temple/ship whose cavernous corridors never even come into play, there is little to be said of its over-lit passages save that they hold not even a candle's flame to the perturbing otherness of their predecessor. It hardly helps that the camera crew seems to have nothing more interesting to do than to sit back and stare through static, IMAX-friendly frames with all the visual ingenuity of a C-SPAN recording.   

Surely, one might ask, Prometheus could still in some way be worthy of its horror legacy if it were at least horrifying, even a little? No such luck, my friends. Prometheus is about as scary as a Scientology lecture and only half as well plotted. Where Alien was all slowly-mounting tension climaxed with psychosexual revulsion and sheer nightmare survival instinct, Prometheus is an exercise in the worst kind of Syfy Channel tedium, lacking even in the cheap "gotchas!" that give those campy creature flicks some reason to exist. Even the inevitable appearance of the xenomorph itself is a total letdown, forced as it is by some misguided attempt at continuity-bridging that, with a stinging slap to the face of every fan, still somehow manages to break continuity in the most egregious way imaginable. As with all else in this wreck I blame Scott's ever-mounting incompetence with age. Harsh, perhaps, but if his growing slew of less-than-palatable mass-market garbage over the past decade is not enough to make everyone wonder whether he isn't completely out of creative ideas, then I don't know what is. How many more Hannibals will it take before we stop letting him near beloved thriller franchises? Prometheus, sad to say, deserves not even that sequel's sad legacy.

Grade: D+ for fans, C for general audiences.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Valar Morghulis

There's something about the Game of Thrones pop cultural phenomenon that awakens in me an inner demon, a loathsome creature with lensless horn-rimmed glasses and ill-matched vintage sweaters which pauses from its task of cataloging musical esoterica to rise up from my bile at scream to the heavens,
That demon be damned to the depths from which it crawled, and cleansed of its wicked influence I shall rise to the task of explicating George R.R. Martin's works for the world.
Valar morghulis; valar dohaeris.
For our beloved rock-dwellers, A Game of Thrones is a now hugely popular HBO television series based on the Song of Ice and Fire saga – the first of which, of course, is A Game of Thrones – by aforementioned author Martin. The books and show alike – for, as we will find, there is virtually no distinction but in medium – are a low (i.e. non-romantic) fantasy set in a crapsack medieval world strongly reminiscent of the British War of the Roses and devoid of most of the standard (read: Tolkienian) trappings of the genre. The world of Westeros is a place where the weak perish, the fittest thrive, and dreams go to die. So, you know, rather not unlike real life for for the vast majority of humanity throughout  our history. Principal to this nihilistic thrust is Martin's stern dedication to authorial objectivity, the end result being that he writes with no guiding set of ideals or thesis save perhaps that of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan: total, abject realism. Not even cynicism, in truth, for there are indeed heroes in Martin's world, men and women of virtue and honor who fight for their beliefs...and die painful deaths for their inflexible idealism. But more on that later.

Martin's greatest gift as an author, and now screenwriter, has always been his extended world- and character-building; though he has certainly contributed fine entries to the fantasy and scifi genres in the form of short stories and novellas, few have ever disputed the status of A Song of Ice and Fire as his magnum opus – assuming he ever gets around to finishing it. The TV adaptation is strong evidence for the stature of the characters: despite there being already dozens of principals by the end of the second season/book, all are so distinctly well-drawn – and now well-acted – that one encounters little difficulty keeping them all sorted out mentally even in the midst of what is possibly the most complicated political intrigue to appear on screen since...well, I'll be damned if I can think of anything else even close to as complex. Though no one character or set of characters can claim preferential authorial treatment as they struggle through this web, there are certainly standouts that will probably go down in the annals of the great literary creations of history.

For most fans no one better identifies this than Tyrion Lannister, now brought even more largely to life by the incomparable Peter Dinklage, Americenglish accent notwithstanding. A heartfelt finger to all stereotypical dwarven roles of fantasy and fiction yore throughout the ages, Tyrion stands tall as a masterful player of the Game and one of the most deeply noble – yet resourceful – souls in the series, a sharp mind and sharper tongue his primary defenses against a world full to 'flowing with hatred and prejudice. Tyrion is no saint, for he has seen saints like Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) fall faster and further than any sinner, but his own suffering has, despite hardening his will, softened his heart to the plight of those around him. Noble Ned Stark may be the hero the world deserves, but Tyrion Lannister is the one it needs.

Of course, Tyrion is but one man, a "half-man" at that, and the remainder of the dramatis personæ, whose casting could not have been more immaculate in a nerd's wildest dreams, are as colorful as their collective morality is grey. Any given episode of GoT packs more intrigue and sexual drama into its one-hour slot than half a season's worth of Rome, and Cersei Lannister could give Atia of the Julii a run for her incestuously-acquisitioned money any day of the week. Sean Bean is the embodiment of stoicism as Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark, a hard yet just and loving vision of a Boromir that might have been had he possessed Ned's indomitable fortitude to resist the lure of the Ring. Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley) is every bit his match, a driven woman who upon losing her children sets her eyes against all tears and marches south to war for her family, aspersions cast upon her gender and motherhood be damned in the face of her dedication. Cersei (Lena Heady), similarly, refuses to be constrained by the social limitations on her womanhood, seizing power for her and her beloved children with a ruthlessness to rival Machiavelli's prince. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his half-brother Robb Stark (Richard Madden) are two sides of their same father's coin, one struggling to find his identity in Ned's legacy of honor against an eldritch foe more primal than any petty human mores, the other striving to be be worthy of the crown his father died to defend without fully understanding its implications for himself and for the kingdom as a whole. Joffrey Lannister (Jack Gleeson) is as vile a villain as any spoiled psychopath ever to be thrust by privilege into power, and his twice-grandfather Tywin (Charles Dance) dominates his every scene with the calm, dangerous dignity of a lion on the hunt, assured in his power over his pride and prey alike...

...and there must I stop, for even a cursory survey of the remaining players of the Game, kings and pawns and all between, would take far more time than I have available for present discourse. Suffice it to say that if there has ever been a richer pantheon in a TV drama, I remain wholly unaware of its existence. Of the plot, I can say even less without inevitably spoiling myriad surprises of which I would not presume to deprive any poor soul still stranger to the series. Sibilance.

Not much, therefore, remains to be said on the subject of characters: they are legion, and they are humanity. Structurally, despite its perpetual balancing act of literally hundreds of plots and subplots, GoT achieves virtual perfection. Though it has received notable criticism for its reliance on long exposition to convey important plot and character elements (frequently labeled "sexposition" for its tendency to occur during intercourse), the device is both necessary and effective as a means to tell a story so complex and of so many agents that viewers could not possibly be expected to keep track of them otherwise. Its frequent portrayal of women as objects of sexual gratification, however, is a trickier issue despite the accurate sexism and misogyny of the source period. Certainly there are feminist elements to be found in many of its characters and situations, but there's also an undeniable sense of HBO playing up the titillation angle wherever and whenever they think they can get away with it, despite some occasional and blatantly concessional male nudity for "balance." In spite of the show's fantastic quality in all other departments, GoT is doing less than nothing to alter its studio's traditional reputation as a "boob tube" content provider.

Any other possible complaints tend to be minor and episodic in nature. Not even a series with as high a murder-per-minute ratio as GoT can escape the odd transitional episode drag, not to mention a few tricky plot holes they've managed to dig for themselves in departure from Martin's more carefully crafted original narrative. Thus far they've done an admirable job justifying and filling those accordingly, but it could certainly be a problem down the road as altered butterfly currents beat up hurricanes in the time stream (though nowhere near so badly as the butchery of that metaphor).

And on that note, I misled when I earlier lauded Martin's objectivity, for in actuality he has none: his craft is defined, rather, by a mastery of authorial subjectivity, in that he inhabits his various characters so fully that his voice is drowned out by their own. Great writers of prose have speculated on the phenomenon of losing control of their work to their characters, and Martin holds the artistic distinction of never having tried to secure control in the first place. He has built the stage to dramatic perfection and set the players upon it, but like the best directors he has allowed them to move freely through the tale in exploration of their impulses, living and choosing their fates even as they entwine one another inexorably in those choices. All his world's a stage, a tale, a game, and all the players are but pieces with'n it.

What else can I say but hic sunt dracones? Go watch the show. As the most visceral political drama since Battlestar Galactica and the the finest fantasy adaptation yet to grace the small screen, Game of Thrones is literary and television history in the making.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Metabolic Media Metastasis

Community Season 1 Retrospective: Yes, I'm aware that I'm two years late to the party, but there's a lot of quality stuff on TV these days and it takes a long time to catch up with recommendations. Plus a season is a massive investment by comparison with a film or a modestly-lengthened novel, so it takes a lot of recommendation to get me to sit down with one in the first place.

Let's get the dirty business out of the way: Community is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Dan Harmon is a clever writer obsessed with his own cleverness to the point where he tangles himself up in so many layers of smug postmodern self-referentiality that he strangles his own jokes to death and resuscitates them for additional stranglings in case anyone missed his brilliance the first, second, third, and four-hundredth stranglings around. Ironically, of course, because God forbid Harmon be so mainstream as to allow us to swallow one full scene of dialogue without choking on intertextuality. Take this early exchange:

ABED: Will they or won't they? Sexual tension.
JEFF: Abed, it makes the group uncomfortable when you talk about us like we're characters in a show you're watching.
ABED: Well, that's sort of my gimmick. But we did lean on it pretty hard last week. I can lay low for an episode.

Sure, it's cute the first time. But by the end of the episode the "Abed realizes he is in a television show and provides amusing meta-analysis" gag has been invoked upwards of a dozen times, and by the end of the season it's practically been enshrined in the heart of the show's brand, culminating in a season two premier containing the sequence after a blatant recap of the events of the first-season finale:

ABED: Do you have a wealthy uncle, or an old drinking buddy who may have had a sex-change?
JEFF: Abed, why are you mining my life for classic sitcom scenarios?
ABED: I guess I'm just excited about the new year, looking for ways to improve things. I'm hoping we can move away from the soapy, relationship-ey stuff and into bigger self-contained escapades.

Excuse me while I suffocate from the thick cloud of smug. I'll be back after rinsing my mouth with some heartfelt Modern Family sincerity followed by a dose of honest It's Always Sunny in Philadelphian cynicism for balance. Harmon is what would happen if Seth MacFarlane and Diablo Cody had a neglected brainchild with an inferiority complex whose upbringing was left to its loving but slightly overindulgent grandparents Lena Dunham and Joss Whedon.

All that suffocating smugness aside, I can't for one minute deny that Community is hilarious, probably one of the funniest sitcoms of the past decade (no matter how obviously it thinks it's something better than – no, something transcendent to a classic sitcom), but the cast owes as much praise for this as the writing. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of any other comedic ensemble with this much explosive chemistry in the mix, episode after episode of re-ignition and restoration.

I'm going to assume everyone is familiar with the concept of the show by now – and if not the Wikipedian synopsis is a mere click away–  so let's get right to the character breakdown. Pierce (Chevy Chase) is the best of the bunch, and by all accounts his baffled sincerity is as reflective of Chase's grandiose self-unawareness as of any actual acting ability, which works just fine since the ignorance is funny as hell to watch. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a close second, and perhaps the most bug-eyed, reflexively racist yet sincere take on her particular set of stereotypes to date, again hilarious in execution (for all the characters in this show, after all, are self-conscious stereotypes of such an egalitarian order that there is scarcely any room left for judgment in the face of such overwhelming good humor). Jeff (Joel McHale) is, of course, the glue that holds the group together, though trapped awkwardly between the role of the straight man, the Casanova, and the trickster he probably nets fewer genuine laughs of his own accord than he does in reactions from the group as a whole. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Annie (Alison Brie) both hold their own as two intelligent, misplaced young idealists who have seen their bright futures delayed (and possibly shattered) for altogether different reasons, though neither have really gotten the script attention their complex and tragically amusing characters deserve; perhaps that will be rectified with the second season, which I have only just begun to consume. Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi), on the other hand, are far less interesting characters – a two-dimensional cartoon in Troy's case – whose goofy shtick has in a single season managed to wear out three seasons' worth of welcome. Harmon and his writing crew are clearly in love with their dynamic duo, and there's a particularly excruciating sequence analyzing the Happy Days infamous "Fonzie water skies over a shark" episode that suggests these two might soon be responsible for some Community shark-jumping themselves. Their over-saturation notwithstanding, the two admittedly have some side-clenching moments, and their post-episode "sketch" sequences are consistently amusing.

I'd be remiss not to mention the fantastic ensemble work going on. Sociopathic, emotionally crippled Chinese-Jewish-American Spanish teacher "Señor" Chang (Ken Jeong) steals the spotlight in his every scene, taking his character so far over the top that he winds up back at a perfect medium of insanity recalling the best breakdown moments of John Landis protagonists at his screenwriting peak. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) is nearly as amusing in his own ambiguously-something gaucheness, and probably the most entertaining example of the show's candid treatment of prejudices, all blissful unawareness and  unsettling enthusiasm. John Oliver is a little less successful as egotistical psychology professor Dr. Ian Duncan, leaning a bit too heavily on his exaggerated British mannerisms and boorish condescension, but even he – like everyone else in the show – has his moments of comedic brilliance.

All in all, Community is a startling, social boundary-pushing spin on the classic fish-out-of-water sitcom, held together in all its zaniness by a brilliant cast and some not-quite-brilliant-but-admittedly-excellent writing. If it's not the funniest thing on network television today, it's certainly close to it, and with Modern Family starting to drop the laughter ball I'll be curious to see whether Community picks it up and carries the court in its following seasons. Future reactions to follow.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It's Actually Ambidextrous

Ursula K. Le Guin  – which I always thought an unnecessarily long moniker on her part, considering that she's easily the most famous Le Guin on the planet – is the uncontested queen of science fiction, though given her gender politics she might prefer a more neutral honorific. Shall we go with "democratically elected literary dictator for life"? I doubt she'd be any happier with that title, but I'm sure she'd concede once I convinced her of its necessity for the greater good, for if there are any more empathic, more humanely insightful authors writing in the genre I remain blissfully unaware of their existence.

The Left Hand of Darkness is as exemplary a piece of Le Guin's style and philosophy as she's ever written, and probably the best introduction anyone could find to her work this side of the Earthsea saga (which is admittedly a bit more of an investment and more appropriate for the most hardcore fantasy enthusiasts). Harold Bloom famously wrote of the book that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time," which is exactly the kind of hyperbolic yet essentially right-spirited praise I would have heaped upon the work myself had I read it at the time of its publication (1969, twenty years prior to the formation of my zygote) without the benefit of hindsight to reveal how dated some aspects of the novel would one day appear in comparison with Tolkien's timeless masterpiece. Still, Left Hand is certainly more worthy of the "high lit" label than 99.999...% of the crap masquerading as science fiction (most of it published under the Tor and Bantam labels, of course), and you know a woman's doing damn fine work as an author when even as blatant a misogynist as Bloom recognizes her craft.

I wish I could give it the analysis it deserves at present, but due to my massive backlog of pending critiques (specifically of works not forty-three years old) I'm going to have to summarize it with nothing but Twitter hashtags until a full review at a later date: #GenderBender #FirstContact #AlienSurvivalSaga #LikeNothingYou'veEverRead.

Arbitrary Numerical Score: 9/10

Monday, April 2, 2012

For They Shall (Not) Be Satisfied

Disclaimer: this review offers no context for the film's narrative and a number of my comments on that score, making the assumption you have read my earlier review of the novel.

I realize it's considered bad form to start off a review of any piece by lambasting it for its weakest element, but I cannot tell you just how tempted I was to entitle this critique "Shake Shake, Shake Shake-a-Shake It." Of all the major tentpole films in recent decades that have tortured the audience with madly aggressive handheld camera work, The Hunger Games is surely the most egregious offender, and small wonder coming from the cinematographer who brought us the incomprehensibly muddled rugby sequences of Invictus. Good luck following any of the actual action in the action flick portion of the film (i.e. the entire third act), and to the easily motion sick among you I recommend skipping the greasy popcorn this time around. Additionally, I should warn any of you with editing experience or cinematographic aspirations to prepare yourselves from aneurism at the breakneck cuts between the various handheld angles, even when they manage to defy all story logic and to sever continuity of action.

Still, while the shoddy camerawork and editing may mar every moment of motion in THG (which are, admittedly, not quite as abundant as you might think if you have seen only the trailers and never read the novel), the mise-en-scène of the first act act is nearly skillful enough to compensate for it. The opening shots of an impoverished, post-post-industrial Appalachia establish in seconds a desperate, pervasive quietus that colors and contextualizes the (initially) sparse dialogue every bit as effectively as did Collins's prose. Harsh browns and yellows of torn and faded clothing clash with the verdant green of the forest to reveal  a humanity humbled by its own sins and betrayals, a pitiful remnant of civilization clinging to a newly victorious wild, whose trees stand sentinel opposite the too-clean white of the Capitol officers.
In the case of the first thirty minutes of THG, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.

The subdued anguish of these early scenes is embodied nowhere more effectively than in the haunting complexion worn by Jennifer Lawrence, a shoe-in for her second Academy Award nomination and strong contender for the award itself, if I may be so bold as to mention the possibility in March. Yond Katniss Everdeen has a lean and hungry look, and if Lawrence's eyes perhaps do not contain the latent danger I pictured from my reading, they certainly reveal a cold sort of fire that is equally unsettling. Yes, you troubling naysayers, Lawrence is perhaps a healthier weight than would be expected given her character's circumstances and the descriptions of the text, but it is unreasonable and reprehensible to hold all Hollywood stars to the metamorphic – and downright dangerous – physical standards of the kind held by Christian Bale for his method.
Morally disquieting criticisms of her physicality aside (and yes, she is almost certainly the wrong ethnicity for the part), Lawrence delivers a stunning performance to put the collective cast of the Harry Potter franchise to shame. Every look, every line is delivered as Katniss, and her hyper-expressive eyes reveal as pathos every bit as powerful as the desperate opening landscapes, entire generations of unseen oppression weighed in every half-pensive, half-smoldering look.

What a shame, then, that Lawrence's dramatic weight is arguably the film's only impetus to move its meaning beyond the opening act. Were we to sever the first half hour or so of The Hunger Games from its culmination, we might be left with a compelling short sci-fi flick on the psychological effects of systemic  oppression, a study in the desperation of subsistence and the poignancy of self-sacrifice. Alas that the show must go on. Other than a moment of appallingly bad CGI, there is little to complain about in the second act save for its interminability and lack of imagination, but the third act not only manages to careen into a madcap handycam misadventure but to betray the entire core concept of the story in the process, and to do it in the laziest way possible to boot.
That is a strong claim, so allow me to elaborate.

Those of you who read my review of the novel might recall some of my descriptions of social commentary in THG, including its harsh deconstruction of consumerist culture in the western world and specifically the degeneracy of the entertainment industry.
-Semi-Spoilers Ahead-
Perspective: The Hunger Games is a movie about children forced to fight to the death for the reality TV kicks of an callous, morally debased bourgeoisie. Twenty-three of them are brutally murdered, usually on-screen.
Unironic comment I heard from a eight-to-ten-year-old child walking out of the theater with his parents: "That was so AWESOME, Mom, can I get a bow and arrow?"His mother laughed, of course. Kids say the darndest things, right?
Suffice it to say that the moment brought new meaning to the phrase "a culture of death," and certainly not in the way Pope John Paul II might have used it.

We can talk all day about the distinctions between Morality and Art – and I have, believe me – but in this case it's a rather moot discussion since THG isn't particularly good art anyway. It's a poorly filmed, well-acted, occasionally gripping but mostly-just-functional action flick about kids killing each other. No, it's not high art, but it's pretty decent spring-blockbuster entertainment. And what's really disturbing about it is that it's not disturbing.

Everyone and their mom remembers being forced at some young age to stomach their way through Golding's Lord of the Flies in either novel or film format (usually both), but did any of us actually enjoy it? I don't mean "enjoy" in the sense of an aesthetically moving experience; I mean "enjoy" as in "have a swell ol' time." And I'm guessing the answer is a fairly unanimous "HELL no." Lord of the Flies is enjoyable in the same way a root canal is; it's painful as anything to get through, but the hope going in is that you'll in some way be a better (or in this case more educated) person at the end of the ordeal, or at least more prepared to deal with some of the darker elements of human nature.

The Hunger Games novel was a similar experience for me, albeit a more intense and readable one than Golding's ponderous piece of the canon. The Hunger Games film, however, was a different animal altogether, not a horrific ordeal to induce frightful contemplation but an invigorating PG-13 survival adventure piece in the vein of Swiss Family Robinson. A film that downplays the horror of desperation and frenzied murder in favor of the "fun" of the thing or the totally badass way Katniss can put an arrow through an eye a hundred yards out. Also, teen romance, because nothing says Hollywood integrity like transforming a complex, calculated survival relationship facade to a grab for Twilight's piece of the teenybopper pie*!

Total inversion of its original media message aside, eminently unadventurous director Gary Ross misses almost every opportunity to turn the latter half of his film into something artistically worthwhile. Never mind the "meaning" of the reality TV conceit: Ross fails to take advantage of its film potential in anything more than the most cursory fashion, throwing us a few overindulgent clips of the "gamemaker" control panel and Donald Sutherland's paycheck while ignoring the manifold opportunities of the television format itself, to say nothing of capitol reactions beyond sweeping views of Stanley Tucci's character's studio audience (a Caesar Flickerman whom he handles quit well, admittedly). What we are left with is as generic an action adventure set as anyone could have concocted, complete with a climax that not only flaunts its pathetic CGI budget but openly flouts the novel's original depiction of the hybrid child-wolf monsters in the most insulting way possible.

In the end, The Hunger Games is a wasted opportunity with little hope for sequel improvement unless Ross is torn from the helm by some act of divine mercy. Those who haven't read the book and do not intend to do so might enjoy this well-acted, artificially vanilla-flavored Hollywood teen flic, but fans are are advised to enter with low expectations if they must enter at all.

Arbitrary Numerical Score: 6/10 as a film (mostly for the first act), and 4/10 as an adaptation.

* And may God have mercy on the soul of whoever is responsible for that vile marketing label.