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-