Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Too Much TV: LOST IN SPACE (2018 - ?)

As a kid, I hated Lost in Space. I pretty much hated all those silly shows from the mid-Sixties that dominated syndicated TV when I was growing up. I even went through that comics fan's phase when you hate Batman until you appreciate how funny it is on its own terms. But Irwin Allen's sci-fi show only ever seemed stupid, part of a profound dumbing down of American TV that came when the major networks went all-color. It's one of those shows reputed to be less dumb and kiddified in its one black-and-white season, but I've never had the courage to try verifying that for myself. Suffice it to say that if any title could stand a radical reboot on the Battlestar Galactica model, it was Lost in Space. But would the presumed target audience recognize the new thing as Lost in Space without the sniveling comedy relief and the snarky robot and the goofy aliens they and the rest of the crew met every week? Or was I wrong about who the target audience was? Was the familiar name only meant to get people's attention while the show itself catered to more modern story expectations and sensibilities.

The new creative team had credentials possibly worthy of Irwin Allen, having written the better-than-expected Dracula Untold but also the recent Power Rangers reboot movie and such big flops as The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt. Their end product, however, is more modest and straightforward than that filmography might anticipate. The new show's main line of revision is a familiar one: female empowerment. In the new story of humans fleeing their dying planet, the mother, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is the real leader with the major scientific and technical credentials, while her estranged husband John  (Toby "Captain Flint" Stephens) is basically a grunt, though an elite one as a Navy SEAL. As for the kids, the teenage girls Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) are the real brains. Good old Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) is no slouch, but Mom had to fake some test results after an attack of nerves left the boy with a score unfit for space colonization. To top things off, the old show's villain-turned-clown,Dr.Smith, literally has his identity stolen by the show's new, somewhat darker antagonist. June Harris (Parker Posey) got into space by poisoning her sister and stealing her identity. During the panic created by a mysterious robot attack (You can't really do a gender flip here), she steals the ID badge of one "Z. Smith" (Billy Mumy!) to  get access to a landing craft. We haven't learned yet after the first season whether June has any vocation other than survival, but she applies herself to her calling with a subtle ruthlessness, insinuating herself into the Robinsons' temporary household while constantly watching for ways to turn them against each other, and also coveting the alien robot, which has somehow bonded with Will, as her ultimate defense against other people. Because "Smith" is female, she's likely to remind viewers of the archetypal female "from hell" of Lifetime movies, but there's a purity to June's sociopathy, unleavened so far by any sexuality, that makes her almost inhuman, yet fascinating to observe. She's almost perfectly amoral, utterly incapable of imagining that she may not deserve to survive, and for that she may actually seem more sympathetic to today's narcissists than her male model was fifty years ago.

As with any reboot of an old TV series, there's both more and less story here than in the original. The first season is one ten-part story and future seasons will no doubt be likewise, and while modern shows lose out on variety of stories they usually gain in emotional depth. Inevitably modern shows focus more on the relationships among regular characters than on the interventions of guest stars, and with the new Lost in Space you get the now-expected family tensions as well as the addition of a larger supporting cast (along with Ignacio Serricchio as a new, roguish Don West) promising a wider range of relationships. Of course, we may never see those supporting players again after the season-ending cliffhanger that sees the Robinsons, West and "Smith" sucked through a wormhole, but even if being lost in space means getting cut off from the rest of humanity, it wouldn't surprise me if the rest of the Resolute crew reappear at some point, since the imperative for relationships makes the current situation too potentially incestuous for anyone's good. For all that, on some level, or for some viewers, this is still a show about a boy and his robot, and by keeping that relationship near the forefront the new show manages to be recognizably Lost in Space while retaining its options to expand the story in any number of promising directions. If the new creators play their cards right, their show could come closer to pleasing everybody than the original ever did.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

THE TROJAN HORSE (La guerra di Troia, 1961)

In the absence of a definitive beginning-to-end narrative of the Trojan War, writers ever since have told the story to suit themselves. Giorgio Ferroni's Trojan Horse is an attempt to fill the gap between Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid, stressing Aeneas's heroic role during the last stage of the war, after the death of Hector. With Steve Reeves as Aeneas you have to wonder how the Greeks could prevail, since the ancestor of Romans is shown to be stronger than Ajax and a better fighter than Achilles. To be fair, this film's Achilles (Arturo Dominici) is a lot older than you might expect and invincible only by repute. Still, it's an original idea of this film, as far as I know, that Aeneas had Achilles at the point of mortal defeat before glory-hog Paris hit the Myrmidon leader with his famous poisoned arrow.

Fans of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy will be horrified to learn that Paris (Warner Bentivegna) is the villain of this piece. On top of the war being his fault, he feels that his royal status entitles him to military leadership when Aeneas, who also loves Paris's sister Creusa, is clearly more qualified. He blows a chance to defeat the Greeks decisively when Aeneas arrives with fresh allies after a diplomatic mission because he resents the hero taking the initiative without his say-so, and his blind vanity brings the title construct, the instrument of Troy's destruction, within the city's gates. Paris is also the picture's most interesting character because it treats him in almost noirish fashion as a hapless sap of a victim of that apex femme fatale, Helen of Troy (Hedy Vessel). Almost a living Barbie, Helen sees the handwriting on the wall for Paris and his city and can't be bothered hiding her contempt.

The best scene in the film has nothing to do with Aenas: after the Greeks inside the horse have opened the gates, Paris panics and asks Helen what he should do. She makes a few disinterested suggestions but surmises that he'll simply wait there to be killed. Sure enough, the angry ex, Menelaus of Sparta (Nando Tamberlani) appears with vengeance on his mind. He slaps a tiara off Helen's head, then orders Paris to pick it up and wear it. He then orders Paris onto a bed, but before you can worry about what he has in mind he stabs the pathetic Trojan. He then orders Helen to deliver the deathblow and kill whatever memory she has of Paris as a romantic hero, but this proves unnecessary, first because Paris dies quick and second because Helen had given up on him long ago. Epic stuff in its own way.

The more I see peplum films in their proper widescreen format, the more respect I have for their production values. All you need to do is watch Mill of the Stone Women to appreciae what Giorgio Ferroni was capable of visually, and while Trojan Horse is nowhere near the level of that minor masterpiece of production design the film does boast some impressive Trojan sets and reasonable sized armies in action. Unfortunately, it has the common failing of may films of its genre: uninspired combat. The duels pitting Aeneas against Achilles and Ajax aren't awful by any means, but the full-scale battle scenes are lifeless, mere assemblages of men waving swords or javelins at each other until told to stop. Of course, people probably didn't go to these movies to see hordes of soldiers fighting. They went to see the musclemen do their thing, and as far as that goes all I need to say is that Reeves is presented convincingly as an epic hero. Fans of the Aeneid may be disappointed by the absence of the hero's father Anchises, but Reeves presumably got to trod more Virgilian territory in the sequel to this picture, The Avenger, which if all goes well you should read more about this summer.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Too Much TV: THE TERROR (2018)

Back in the 1980s I remember seeing lurid, grimly fascinating photographs of dead crewmembers of the Franklin expedition, exhumed from Arctic ice in frozen mummification. Sir John Franklin led one of the last attempts to find the chimerical "Northwest Passage" to the Pacific Ocean in 1845. He and all hands from his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, died. The fate of the expedition and the horrifying retrieval of its dead inspired Dan Simmons to write a fantastical reimagining of the expedition. His 2007 novel in turn inspired David Kajganich's adaptation for AMC. Simmons's novel idea was to add to the crew's already overwhelming woes the plotting of a malcontent matinee and imposter calling himself Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitas) and the degradation of a monster that is not quite a bear and not quite anything else. Nagaitas makes a nicely hateful villain while the tuunbaq, a kind of demon, provides the more overtly spectacular horrors as he targets the white intruders upon Inuit (or Netsilik) land with the uncertain if not reluctant guidance of a native woman the British call Lady Silence (Nivea Nielsen). The actual hero of the piece, after Franklin himself (Ciaran Hinds) is eliminated early, is his colleague, Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). Crozier evolves into an indefatigably resilient character, overcoming his own alcoholism the hard way, along with other failings, as he takes responsibility for himself and the increasingly desperate men, many of them driven mad or simply debilitated by the expedition's ample supply of tainted canned goods. Harris heads a strong ensemble that passes the essential test of appearing and sounding plausibly like 19th century people; little feels anachronistic here. The overall production is exemplary, with some of the best CGI simulations of sky and landscape that I've seen on TV or film. It helps, of course, that we rarely get the sort of unnatural blue sky that always gives things away, but credit is still due to the virtual craftsmanship employed. The true story of the Franklin expedition is so horrific that it'd be hard to botch a fictional version, but Kajganich and his team of writers and directors deserve credit in turn for avoiding the traps (or tropes) that TV conventions set for creators. More successful at evoking period and mood than The Alienist, The Terror should serve as an example of how to do a modern miniseries right.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Too Much TV: KRYPTON (2018 - ?)

Inspired at least in part on the Gotham show's premise that the breeding ground of a hero is of inherent interest even before the hero himself appears, Krypton is the latest variation on an increasingly dystopian myth. Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster saw Superman's home world as a sort of utopia of ultimate human development, yet there was a seed of dystopia in Jor-El's failure to convince his rulers of the crisis facing their planet. You could argue that the Jor-El myth is the starting point for the modern Cassandra trope in which an expert correctly identifies or predicts disaster but goes unheeded for any number of petty reasons. As Krypton's history has undergone multiple revisions since the mid-1980s, many writers have stressed the negative aspects of Krypton, which in earlier times had been an object of wistful nostalgia for Superman. There is little lovable about the planet as it's portrayed on the current series, developed by Man of Steel co-writer David S. Goyer. Krypton is politically fragmented and, at least in the city of Kandor, burdened by a caste system that privileges the Guilded (I like the pun on "gilded") and oppresses the Rankless. Among the latter we find Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), whose once prestigious family was relegated after his grandfather Val-El (Ian McElhinney, who persists as a sentient hologram) was executed for subversive scientific research. Despite his disreputable status, people are interested in Seg. The de facto ruler of Kandor, Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan) thinks the young man will make a good genetic mate for his daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day), while a stranger who calls himself Adam and claims to be from another world (Shaun Sipos) claims that Seg has a destiny of literally universal import.

Adam claims to be from a future time in which Seg's grandson is the greatest of all heroes. He's come to the past after learning that "Superman's greatest enemy" was plotting to eliminate the hero from history, presumably by killing Seg-El. Adam can monitor the success of his and the enemy's efforts by the rate of decay of a Superman cape, which serves as this show's equivalent of the leaves on The Shannara Chronicles' Ellcrys tree. Somehow I don't think the effects of time travel can be measured so gradually, but let's move on. Val-El's clandestine research appears to confirm Adam's suspicion that the enemy is Brainiac, the cyborg collector of worlds who in comics history captured the city of Kandor and kept it in a bottle for years before Superman rescued it. In fact, the green-skinned villain has already infiltrated the planet, taking over the body and mind of Kandor's spiritual leader, the Face of Rao (toad-voiced Blake Ritson, like Cowan an alumnus of Goyer's Da Vinci's Demons series). In the meantime, Kandor has problems of its own creation, including a nihilistic terrorist movement known as Black Zero and the ambition of Daron-Vex, who conspires with the military Zod family to assassinate the Face. And for what it's worth, the youngest of the Zods, Lyta (Georgina Campbell) is in love with Seg-El, who has already conceived an heir, in Krypton's sexless fashion, with Nyssa-Vex. This raises the tantalizing idea that Jor-El and the comics' General Zod are half-brothers, and this is at least half-confirmed when the General himself, Dru-Zod (Colin Salmon) turns up in the Black Zero camp, having come back in time to change history by thwarting Brainiac, whose seizure of Kandor will destabilize the planet and ensure its destruction. The General's appearance throws Adam's calculations of ultimate enmity into question, but portraying the man who plans to save Krypton as the anyone's greatest enemy is a hard sell, even if saving Krypton means no Superman for the greater universe. As we learn, saving Kandor and Krypton could have even worse consequences for the universe, given the increasing resemblance in the current collective imagination of Kryptonians to the conquering superhuman Saiyans of the Dragon Ball Z mythos, with Superman as the benevolent Goku who won't be in the way if General Zod gets his way.

Like other prequel shows, Krypton succumbs to the temptation to do more than foreshadow the hero's career by having familiar antagonists show up in his past. We have not only Brainiac and General Zod but a dormant Doomsday as well, which leaves you wondering when Lex "Superman's Greatest Enemy" Luthor will make his grand entrance. Since time travel is a big part of superhero mythology, however, the presence of canonical Superman villains doesn't seem like as much of a cop-out as it was when the Enterprise show had to have virtually every famous alien race from Star Trek generations before humans presumably met them. Comics fans thrive on time paradoxes anyway so these interventions actually do more than the scheming of the main characters to keep the show stimulating. Leave the time travel element out and Krypton is little more than standard backstabbing fantasy intrigue stuff on a sometimes shockingly limited budget (cramped indoor sets for public spaces; few extras, etc.). Seg-El himself isn't much of a personality, or else Cameron Cuffe isn't, and you could believe that the show could do without him after the season-ending cliffhanger so long as Nyssa and Lyta are both with child. Adam Strange, a DC Comics character going back to the 1950s, is a generic zero-to-hero type who hasn't quite gotten to hero yet as the first season ends, and few other characters have much more meat or depth to them, while Brainiac does little more than croak commercial-break climactic threats like "Your world is mine!" when he's only after one city. Despite all this, as a comics fan Krypton held my interest more for the way its potential paradoxes stimulated my imagination than for what was going on on screen at any given moment. The idea of Krypton is often more entertaining than its actuality, but for me its ideas are the real essence of the show, and entertaining enough that I'm willing to keep watching for what it tries to throw at me next.

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


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.