Saturday, May 26, 2018

Too Much TV: FAHRENHEIT 451 (2018)

With all the talent involved it's stunning how bad the new version of Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic is, but 2018 is probably both the right and the wrong time for dystopias. The Donald Trump presidency has put a lot of people in a dystopian frame of mind, but that creates too great a temptation to turn any dystopia into a commentary on Trump and Trumpism, which are at most symptoms of potential dystopia rather than precipitating events. If someone uses "America" and "again" in the same sentence, especially as a slogan, as is done in Ramin Bahrani's film, it's all too obvious that you're saying something about Trump that isn't necessarily relevant to Bradbury's vision. Worse, however, is the new film's preoccupation with social media as the alternative to not only literature but all the arts, demonstrated mainly by using the fronts of skyscrapers as Facebook Watch style screens flooded with comment emojis (and words!) and constant invocation of "the Nine" as the place where everyone looks at everything. The story's message is muddled for no good reason by the idea that some of the classics, at least, survive in emoji translation, as if that somehow dilutes their dangerous potential. In general, Bahrani goes for a "day after tomorrow" look rather than the more futuristic vision Francois Truffaut aspired to in his 1966 adaptation, the Second Civil War that led to the rejection of books, on the ground that they provoke ideas that in turn provoke conflict, having happened only very recently from appearances. Bahrani's 451 is arguably more about 2018 than Bradbury's or Truffaut's were about the actual dates of their creation, to the new film's disadvantage. Its presentism arguably explains its abject failure as a dystopia, since it portrays a moment where the new order doesn't really seem to have sunk in, but must still resort to terror against a resistance (the "Eels") of uncertain scope. We never do meet true believers who take the post-literate order for granted, or at least we encounter none as important characters in the story. Instead, we get a villainous authority figure, the top "fireman" of Cleveland (Michael Shannon) who appears obsessed with text, writing excerpts from literature from memory on cigarette papers only to destroy them, even as he lectures his protege Montag (Michael B. Jordan) on the perils of books. This character is too ambiguous for the story's own good, while Montag himself, Bradbury's protagonist, is fatally detached from the ordinary dull society that actually alienates him; the scenes featuring his wife (Laura Harrier) were left on the cutting room floor for some reason. Perhaps Bahrani decided that her storyline and its preoccupation with status and conformity dated the overall story as a relic of the suburban Fifties. Whatever his reason, he reduces Montag to a loner who is, if anything, egged on to explore books by his conflicted commander -- and worse, he saddles the character with a hackneyed "fathers and sons" story in which flashbacks conveniently reveal long-suppressed truths about the elder fireman's fate. For an indie filmmaker who won acclaim for social-realist views of immigrant and working-class life, Bahrani is strangely determined here to reduce Bradbury's fiction to a collection of genre cliches, down to an inept climax involving a bird infected with the sum total of human knowledge needing to fly through a hole in a barn in a race against time with Shannon's slow-motion flamethrower, distracted by a Montag angling for martyrdom. As I recall, the Truffaut Fahrenheit is generally thought of as a failure, yet in retrospect it seems superior to the new Fahrenheit in every way. It shouldn't have been so, because it really isn't that hard to see how a consensus against uncomfortable ideas could arise in our time, and it shouldn't have been hard to translate that vision to film, yet the new film pays only lip service to how appealing and tempting that reaction might be in its rush to turn Bradbury's dystopia into just another action movie.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cheyenne, Cheyenne, where will you be camping tonight?...



Starting in 1955, Cheyenne was the first hourlong western series. Technically it wasn't quite that long at first; as part of Warner Bros. Presents, it had to make room for studio promos during its first season. Still, it proved that more substantial stories could be told in the western genre, and it made Clint Walker a star. Cheyenne wasn't exactly an adult western of the sort playing in contemporary movie theaters; Cheyenne Bodie was more a conventional goody-good than a conflicted figure, but the massive Walker gave the role a physical authority and gravitas that made his heroism convincing. Adding to the gravitas was the poignant theme song underscoring Cheyenne's status as a classic wandering hero, as restless as he was virtuous. Walker was restless in his own fashion, fighting with his studio and walking away from the show for a year, but he was also idealistic in his own fashion. He was perhaps too cartoonishly big a man to succeed in the movies, but he gave a game, interesting performance as an ex-con sideshow cowboy in a more adult, spaghetti-influenced western, Robert Sparr's bleak More Dead Than Alive (1969) -- yet he was uncomfortable with the whole project. It was too dark for his taste, almost a betrayal of the heroic ideal he apparently truly believed in, though I don't know how he felt about his best-known film performance as one of The Dirty Dozen. Like many TV western stars, Walker enjoyed a long life, falling approximately one week short of his 91st birthday. He lived to see Cheyenne regain a place on cable TV and proliferate on DVD, and to be recognized, if not as a real cowboy, then as a true pioneer.

This video of the Cheyenne theme song was uploaded to YouTube by Alan Fisher.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

DEADPOOL 2 (2018) in SPOILERVISION

Tim Miller's Deadpool was one of the surprise hits of 2016 and the first proof that an R-rated brand-name superhero movie could succeed at the box office. Miller is gone but the star and writers remain; in fact, Ryan Reynolds, who plays Deadpool, has joined the writing team for the sequel, and the greater creative control granted him reportedly helped drive Miller from the franchise. So what's different? In some respects Deadpool 2 is a more conventional superhero movie thematically, despite the continued in-joking and fourth wall-breaking Reynolds indulges in, extending here to assassinating himself a couple of times to prevent bad career decisions. Even in the relatively irreverent first film, you get a standard origin story and you're meant to sympathize with Wade Wilson through his formative ordeals even as you laugh at his ultraviolence and raunchy jokes. In the sequel, you're not only expected to empathize with Deadpool even more, but you're supposed to follow him through a storyline sometimes more typical of a CW show. Recovering with the X-Men as a trainee after the death of his beloved (Morena Baccarin) makes him ineffectively suicidal -- he can't even blow himself to pieces as long as someone picks them up -- he gradually befriends a troubled young mutant (Julian Dennison) who literally burns for vengeance against his tormentors at a private school dedicated to suppressing mutant abilities. Naturally, a man comes from the future to kill the kid, for should history run its course the kid will graduate from revenge to gratuitous mass murder. Deadpool is determined to keep Cable (Josh "Thanos" Brolin) from killing the kid, but eventually realizes that the real solution is to keep the kid from taking his revenge. Let that sink in: Deadpool is going to tell someone not to kill someone. I understand that Reynolds et al are self-conscious and somewhat tounge-in-cheek about taking up this trope, but it still bogs the film down a bit. Why does it need to be conscientious about anything, after all?

The answer is probably that no matter how wacky or trangressive the films are meant to be, their success is still presumed to depend on the hero being likable in a very conventional way. It makes Deadpool 2 a somewhat"X-hausting" picture not unlike some classic comedies in which the story is something you must endure between the more inspired bits of grand guignol comedy or meta joking. It leaves Josh Brolin in the flesh an inferior antagonist to the CGI-enhanced Brolin of Avengers: Infinity War, but that was probably inevitable once it became clear, as it was all along to comics fans, that Cable isn't really a villain. No one really rises to the level of "big bad," despite the appearance of the Juggernaut (voiced and mo-capped by "himself," i.e. Reynolds), a major X-Men villain who provides the returning, long-suffering Colossus someone to have a CGI fight with. To be fair, a largely comic film like this might not need an epic villain, but the lack of one adds to the impression that Deadpool 2 is often simply spinning its wheels. It doesn't help that new director David Leitch (fresh from Atomic Blonde) doesn't do much to make the action fresh, though individual fight gags are often quite entertaining in the expected outrageous way. And make no mistake: the funniest parts of this film are wildly hilarious, and there are plenty of funny moments. There are easily enough to recommend the sequel to fans of the original, but don't fall for the hype that says the second film surpasses the first. If anything, Deadpool 2 proves that there's a plateau for this sort of film, and this franchise already got there. It's still hanging around there and may do so for some time and some films yet, but I don't think it's ever going to get much better than the first time.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

It was interesting of TCM to run Toshio Matsumoto's film in the "Underground" time slot instead of during the customary foreign-film slot, as if the programmers thought Funeral Parade of Roses might be too radical for their regular foreign-film audience. Radical it certainly is, flaunting its Godard influence and featuring a "gay boy" as its hero. It's of a piece with contemporary Japanese New Wave cinema in its attention to political protest in the country, but its suggestion of an affinity between political and sexual radicals proves problematic given its sometimes satiric presentation of cross-dressing homosexual youth. Given the way it speeds-up catfights between transvestites or between them and a girl gang and presents them like scenes from silent slapstick, you have to wonder whether the film is pro-gay at all. You could believe that Matsumoto finds gayness as another form of rebellion as an end unto itself. He doesn't exactly hint at greater depths when he stages interviews with protagonist Eddie ("Peter," a performer best known as the Fool in Kurosawa's Ran) and other "gay boys" that show them unable to articulate intelligible reasons for their behavior, though one arguably gives the right answer, by today's standards at least, by stating that he was simply born that way. There doesn't seem to be much more depth to the political radicals we encounter, who seem as much preoccupied with making experimental films, getting high and having orgies as with staging demonstrations that seem little more than performance art. They're such losers at times that they drop eye drops on their tongues in a desperate effort to get high. One suspects that most of them couldn't articulate their motives any more eloquently than the gay boys do. Meanwhile, critics make a big deal of the Oedipus angle of Eddie's story, in which he becomes the madam (after fighting his predecessor) for a pimp/gangster who turns out to be his father, whose wife died by frequently-flashbacked violence. Once all becomes clear -- Eddie has kept photos of his family with the father's face burned out -- the dad kills himself and Eddie decides that the only thing to do is put his eyes out in classic style. Whatever effect he aims for is undercut when he makes his way downstairs to a street, where a crowd has gathered, but instead of reacting with appropriate horror they mostly shrug and go their way. They've probably grown accustomed to such performances, while the sheer archetypal nature of Eddie's situation simply underscores the extent to which he, like others, is playing a role rather than living a life, just like those people whose protests are nothing more than performance.  It didn't surprise me to learn that Matsumoto, who died last year, didn't make many feature films in his career, since Funeral Parade, howevermuch it revels in its radical techniques, expresses an inescapable pessimism about cinema's ability to change the world. It may change the way we see it, but whether anything can change how we behave and treat each other seems open to doubt after this film.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) in SPOILERVISION

The other day I rewatched Justice League and liked it even less than the first time. As a result, I watched Avengers: Infinity War under the most favorable conditions. I'm sorry, as a DC Comics fan, to report that the Russo brothers' film, the first part of two despite Marvel Studios' desperate efforts to deny this, makes last fall's DC extravaganza look cheesy and cheap in almost every way. But I had trepidations going in just the same, because I was afraid that Marvel would repeat one of Warner Bros.' crucial mistakes. My worry was that, despite his occasional appearances going back to an Avengers post-credits scene, Thanos the Titan would leave everyone cold the way Justice League's Steppenwolf did, that he'd have no personality but his power. I've always wanted to see a mega-powerful supervillain in action on film. but Justice League taught everyone that power without personality is dead on arrival. You can sort of get away with having a mega-powerful villain without much personality in comic books because a great artist can make that power visually attractive in a way Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon largely failed to manage with Steppenwolf, while old-school writers like Stan Lee could give villains personality with bombastic rodomontade that no movie writer could get away with. A movie mega-villain simply has to be more rounded; he can't be a mere combination of powers and taunts.

Fortunately, Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Sean McFeely, picking up hints from James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films, largely rose to the challenge. The most important of those hints is the fraught relationship between Thanos and his daughters Gamora and Nebula, which gets fleshed out considerably here. It was still up to Markus and McFeely themselves, however, to give us the why of Thanos, and it was especially up to Brolin to make the why plausible in practice. They came up with something different from the comic-book Thanos, or at least the character as Jim Starlin created him, who's usually out to exterminate all life because of his infatuation with a personified Death. The movie Thanos is a comparatively familiar type, perhaps especially to the comics-reading audience. He's ultimately a utilitarian, seeking the greatest good for the greatest number but rigging his calculation to reduce the greatest number to only half of all currently living things. There's an air of arrogant self-pity to him, the resentment of all those who fail to appreciate how eminently reasonable his semi-annihilation scheme is, or the willpower it all takes, who can't look past the cost to the benefits. In his own mind he's humane but he lacks any humanism, any regard for each individual life as an end unto itself. It genuinely hurts him especially that his favorite adopted daughter Gamora has never appreciated what he's trying to do. But in short he's like what any number of people living today might be like with an Infinity Gauntlet and godlike power. What Brolin does exceptionally well is recognize that Thanos, even at his worst, isn't really alien to us. There's a weary weight to the Titan that becomes most obvious when he plays the role of father, and a sort of resigned attitude toward inevitable resistance. You get the sense that it's all been hard work for him, and of course it only gets harder as his work comes to the attention first of Thor and the Hulk, picking up from Ragnarok, then Dr. Strange, and eventually the whole crew, some of whom eventually join forces uneasily with the Guardians, for one can join forces with that bunch in no other way, to try to stop our villain from finishing his Infinity Stone collection.

Infinity War has an understandably choppy start, made more difficult by the introduction of Thanos's four henchmen, who really do exemplify power without personality. The Guardians threaten to grow increasingly insufferable, though they have their funny moments, but the actors adapt well to the story's inexorably darkening tone. Brolin gives the best performance almost by default because there are simply too many heroes for any to give a standout performance, but there are some good ensemble acting moments, especially when Robert Downey's Tony Stark clashes with Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange, an alpha male in the same mode, or with Chris Pratt's Star-Lord, who wishes he were one. The action scenes are inevitably too busy to match the near-perfection of the set pieces in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, but as the story gains momentum the action gains an intensity arguably unseen anywhere but in the final Doomsday fight in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. As the end near it's hard to suppress the impulse to root for someone, anyone, to take Thanos down, and for that reason the mega-downer cliffhanger ending may be hard for some to take. For them I can only prescribe patience -- and it's not like most people haven't had to deal with drastic cliffhangers on TV. We comic-book readers are especially used to this sort of thing, but if the ending of Infinity War affects people strongly or perhaps even offensively, it's still proof that Marvel Studios has succeeded massively at what they've tried to do. Unlike their competition, and despite my doubts, they simply know what they're doing better than anyone else making comic book movies. Of course, that may only mean that Avengers 4, or whatever they end up calling it, will prove a massive disappointment. For now, however, Marvel deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Too Much TV: BLACK LIGHTNING (2018 - ?)

The latest DC Comics series on the CW looks very much like a belated response to the challenge of Netflix's Marvel Comics shows. Inevitably it'll remind people of Luke Cage because of its largely black cast and its focus on inner-city crime. It also resembles the Netflix shows in its shorter format -- the first season only had thirteen episodes -- and in its freedom from the increasingly tiresome relationship preoccupations of Greg Berlanti's other productions. While the other shows are about "family" in the intimate-friendship-with-a-common-purpose sense, Black Lightning is about a literal family. The father, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), is a high-school principal and former costumed vigilante with metahuman power over electricity who returns to crimefighting when a local gang -- ironically or in-jokingly named "The One Hundred" as if after the network's brutal sci-fi series, which will take over this show's time slot for its new season -- starts pushing an especially dangerous new drug at his school. Jeff's a divorcee, but his return to action and the manifestation of mutant powers by his daughters bring him and his ex-wife (Christine Adams), a scientist, back together. The elder daughter (Nafessa Williams) gains superhuman strength by disciplined inhaling. The younger, still a student (China Anne McClain), develops the ability to generate energy, which she uses to give her dad an occasional jump-start. There's some predictable secrets-are-bad drama as the elder daughter (speaking of predictable, she's a lesbian) discovers that dad has hid his superhero activity from her for years, and then the younger daughter discovers that dad and sis have kept their powers secret from her. But you get the impression that showrunner Salim Akil hurried to fill out the CW checklist of tropes so he could move on to matters that interested him more. We heard nothing of "Thunder's" love life during the second half of the season, for instance, and from that point the show is largely free of the "drama" that always threatens to define the Berlanti shows to the detriment of superhero storytelling.

If it matters, Black Lightning takes place on none of the multiple Earths on which the other Berlanti shows take place, and doesn't seem designed to fit the now-annual crossover pattern. On Black Lightning's Earth Supergirl is one of many comic-book characters, while most actual superhumans are the products of government experiments, most notoriously a Tuskegee-esque program intended to render inner-city populations docile. That program created superhumans as a side-effect, but most of them have been confined in suspended animation by the shadowy ASA. In the present, that organization conspires with the drug gangs to introduce greenlight, an enhanced version of the original drug, to the youth of Freeland where the Pierces live. A repentant former ASA operative, Peter Gambi (James Remar), acts as Black Lightning's informant and tech specialist, but that's the extent of the hero's support team. In a pinch, Gambi will join the action with guns blazing, and in one such scene, wielding two guns with a scarf over his mouth, he looked tantalizingly like The Shadow, but nothing has really followed from that. In any event, the show's main focus is on its gangster villains. Like Luke Cage, it has two charismatic villains, teasing one as the successor of the other. Tobias Whale, an albino (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III) has developed a healing factor that keeps him from aging while enhancing his strength. Whale killed Jefferson Pierce's father many years ago, and more recently Pierce thought he'd killed Whale. His reappearance -- he was actually saved by Gambi -- provokes the return of Black Lightning. While Whale has been Black Lightning's arch-enemy since the characters were created in the 1970s, he's upstaged in the middle of the season by a surly underling known as LaLa (William Catlett) who, apparently executed by Whale, comes back from the dead with mysterious powers of his own, haunted by the people he's killed. Catlett gives the best performance of the season, a low-key mental breakdown as LaLa struggles to comprehend what's happened to him while moving to usurp Whale's leadership while the boss recovers from an assassination attempt.There's something both tragic and threatening about him, especially when he learns that he'd been Tobias's stooge all along. Until then, LaLa was just about the most frightening villain, judging by attitude rather than raw power, that the Berlantiverse has produced.

Black Lightning seems designed to annoy comics fans who resent political or social commentary on their shows. Early on there's a gratuitous scene in which Thunder destroys a Confederate statue -- our only evidence that Freeland is somewhere in the South -- and in the first episode Jefferson Pierce is subject to racial profiling. More effectively, in a later episode in which Pierce is framed for drug-dealing, we're shown his harrowing, humiliating journey to a jail cell, including the ultimate indignity of a cavity search. The writers sometimes go cartoonishly overboard in expressing white villains' racism, but there's something compelling in about the emergence of superheroes from exploitative government experimentation that shouldn't be dismissed as partisan paranoia. More importantly, the show works very well as a superhero story. From their powers to their unashamedly colorful costumes, Black Lightning and Thunder can pull off impressive superhero tricks and look good doing so. Superhero fans should be able to enjoy the show regardless of their political leanings -- left, right or indifferent. While not on the level of Luke Cage or the best Netflix Marvel shows, Black Lightning is a breath of fresh air on The CW that one hopes won't grow stale in its second season, when the temptation to lapse into convention and cliche will certainly be strong.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Too Much TV: COUNTERPART (2018 - ?)

Starz's newest dramatic series, created by Justin Marks, is a showcase for Academy Award winning character actor and insurance pitchman J. K. Simmons. The former J. Jonah Jameson and present-day Commissioner Gordon gets to play a dual role in this high-concept sci-fi show. He plays Howard Silk, a mild-mannered Berlin-based UN bureaucrat going through a grave crisis. His wife Emily (Olivia Williams) is in a coma following a traffic accident, and her relatives' lawyer is badgering Howard to have her moved to a British facility. He faces a whole new crisis when his superiors bring him face to face with himself. Howard learns that sometime in the 1980s a portal to an alternate universe opened in East Berlin; that his office has been responsible for monitoring traffic between the universes; and that people on "the other side" are physically identical to their "prime" selves, but otherwise very different. The other Howard Silk, despite looking as much a chinless wonder as the first one, is an arrogant badass who works at a higher level for the equivalent agency to our Howard's. He's here against protocol to warn of an assassination attempt against comatose Emily. He thwarts the attempt, but the assassin, a tomboyish woman known as Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), escapes to kill another day, albeit scarred by a bullet through her right cheek. In drips and drabs, our Howard, suddenly promoted and sent to the other side to impersonate his other self, learns of a long-simmering conspiracy to infiltrate other-side sleeper agents, changelings in effect, in place of disappeared civilians, the better to carry out terrorist attacks. You see, the two universes have evolved different histories: 9/11 never happened on the other side, but the world was devastated by a plague that many there blame on our side. The other Howard is trying to thwart the conspiracy of vengeance, and so is another important figure in their intelligence bureaucracy: the other Emily, whose husband had said was dead. We learn eventually that our Emily was involved as well, and was targeted for vehicular assassination for that reason. Despite their clashing personalities, the two Howards must work in concert, if not really together, in spite of compromised bureaucracies on both sides, to stop the sleeper agents from carrying out their vengeance agenda.

The best and simplest praise I can give Simmons is that you can always tell which Howard you're dealing with thanks to their different styles of dialogue and other details of body language. The actor deserves still more credit because the differences between the Howards can't be reduced to any obvious "mirror universe" dichotomy. If you must make Star Trek comparisons, than Counterpart puts me more in mind of the episode where Captain Kirk is split into two people, each an imperfect version of his true self, one dangerously passive, the other violently aggressive. The two Howards don't differ in the same way, but you can see that each has qualities the other lacks, for better or worse. This is best illustrated as our Howard befriends the other Emily and meets a daughter who doesn't exist in his world, both unsurprisingly estranged from their Howard -- who, we learn, was corresponding with our Emily before the "accident," and who indignantly discovers her affair with another man. It tells us a lot about the two Howards that the other Howard throws this in our Howard's face the first chance he gets -- only to be told that our Howard knew but forgave Emily -- but has not yet told our Howard by season's end that our Emily is waking from her coma. For that matter, he'd at first told our Howard that his own wife, the other Emily, was dead. For all that, there's no problem accepting the other Howard as a good guy, or at least that he's on the right side, since there's no sympathy to be had for the sleeper conspiracy. The most we get is a closer look at one sleeper who's murdered and replaced her counterpart, the wife (Nazanin Boniadi) of a high-ranking figure in Howard's agency (Harry Lloyd), whose child she's borne. Neither is really very sympathetic, so one can view their subplot with relative objectivity. Meanwhile, the show's focus on Baldwin often seems like a distraction from the main story. We learn that her counterpart in our world was a concert violinist who gets killed during an attempt to take out Baldwin herself, while Baldwin enters a lesbian relationship with the violinist's close friend who discovers the truth implausibly late. It will all seem a waste if Serraiocco leaves the show as the season-finale suggests, but I suspect the writers have more in store for her unless the actress has gotten another gig already. But if the point of Baldwin is ultimately elusive, it matters little since Counterpart remains The J.K. Simmons Show despite strong performances from Williams, Lloyd, Boniadi and others, including an effetely malevolent Stephen Rea as an other-side spymaster. It's very rare for someone like Simmons to get an opportunity like this and he definitely makes the most of it. He makes such a strong impression here that  not only will I be back to watch the second season, but I'll be calling the guy in the Farmers commercials "Howard" for the foreseeable future.