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.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

On the Big Screen: READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

For better or worse, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg's Battle Royale. While those to whom that sentence might mean something figure it out for themselves, let me add that this adaptation of Ernest Cline's latter-day cyberpunk novel, co-written by the author, reminded me a little of Around the World in 80 Days -- the 1956 Oscar winner, that is, -- in that people may be more interested in scrutinizing each frame for some cameo by a pop-culture character than in the actual plot of the film. When this hits home video it'll probably have the slowest playback of any movie as completists strive to catch 'em all, and that's excusable, since the plot is basic stuff. In Dystopia 2045 nearly everyone escapes from the misery of everyday life by partaking of the Oasis, a VR multiverse created by geek genius James Halliday (current Spielberg alter ego/good luck charm Mark Rylance). The late Halliday has promised effective ownership and creative control over the place to whoever can complete a series of challenges and acquire the keys to the virtual kingdom. Among the favorites on this quest are Parzival, aka Wade Watts of Columbus OH (Tye Sheridan), and Art3mis, aka Samantha Cook of parts unknown (Olivia Cooke), who is as much interested in denying victory to the debt-peon hordes working for the IOI corporation as in winning the quest herself. At IOI, toady turned tycoon Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) hopes that victory in the quest will allow maximum commercialization of the Oasis, which we the audience are meant to see as an evil innovation -- which is rich considering how thoroughly infested the place is already with people using copyrighted cartoon, comics and movie characters as their avatars. In short, it's a treasure hunt with riddles, and Wade/Parzival's extensive scholarship in the minutiae of Halliday's exhaustively chronicled or recreated existence has an intellectual advantage over the competition, or at least the good luck to have insights tying the clues to  that are absolutely correct. Assisted by some friendly ethnic types -- a black woman whose avatar is some sort of male cyborg orc and two Asians who take quite predictable forms -- our heroes remain mostly a step ahead of the plodding Sorrento, an unimaginative character who can't remember his passwords and whose avatar looks like the idiot spawn of Superman and Captain Sternn (see, I can do it too!), and his real and virtual henchmen, until the corporate boob gets the upper hand for the sake of drama. Then it's time to rally the hosts for an epic battle of the memes that becomes less epic -- perhaps deliberately so -- when Spielberg peeks behind the curtain to show us the common people of Columbus doing their part by holding a mass conniption fit in the streets. Have you never yet shaken the suspicion that the person striding ahead of you chattering away on his or her Bluetooth is actually just a good old-fashioned paranoid schizophrenic? If so, then this fleeting moment may be the most frightening or the funniest in the whole film.

I suppose I sound mean, but this is still a Spielberg film in the old style and the old man can still stage entertaining action and does so with some extra relish now that he can play with so many licensed properties at once. Ready Player One is crowd-pleasing light entertainment on that level, but otherwise it's pretty dumb if not stupidly fatalistic in its ultimate acquiescence in dystopia. Sure, the world has gone to shit, though apparently not in any way that actually motivates people to change society itself, but we damn well can't let that bad old corporation turn our privately-held virtual commons to shit, now that there's a new boss as opposed to the old boss who was too much of a dweeb to be truly evil. The film's ultimate revolution consists of shutting down the Oasis two days a week so that boys can meet girls the way Halliday never could manage. Huzzah! Meanwhile, our hero is a cypher and his allies, dispersed across the globe though they may be, can appear by his side almost instantly in the real world, dystopia having not at all affected communications and transportation. They're cyphers too, pretty much -- but oh! One of them is a woman pretending to be male, and another is an 11 year old pretending to be an adult, played by an actor pretending to be a child, on the evidence I saw and heard. What of it? The film's fatal flaw is that it lacks the sort of "welcome to the desert of the real" moment that makes The Matrix potent, however silly I thought that was, to the present day. In fact, despite often heroic efforts by Spielberg's most loyal sidekick, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it's alarmingly hard sometimes -- most damningly in what should be one of the film's most dramatic scenes, when corporate drones blow up the trailer-tower where Wade's aunt and uncle live -- to tell the real from the virtual world.

Scratch that. The film's real fatal flaw is that Eighties bullshit. Apparently the novel is like that, too, and if Cline explained it there -- like maybe it's because everyone emulates Halliday, who grew up back then -- he didn't translate it into his screenplay. It's as if the dystopian event that made Wade's world happened around 1999 rather than in the 2020s. There's precious little evidence in the picture that the 21st century actually took place, while one of our heroic quintet is chided for never having watched The Shining, as if 80% of teens today have seen the Kubrick film. Rationalize this as ye may, but I call it just another excuse to sell a nostalgic soundtrack album alongside Alan Silvestri's John Williams pastiche of a score, called into being presumably because the old master can't keep up with Spielberg any longer. The implausibility of this omnipresent nostalgia pretty much took me out of the picture, since it sounded like no future any sensible person might imagine, and none of the heroic characters had enough gravitas to draw me back in. Best in show goes to Mendelsohn, who between this and Rogue One may become the go-to organization-man loser villain of our time. And to be fair once more, even if the story and overall concept here are shallow if not cynical, but not satirical enough for their own good, Steven Spielberg is still a master of eye-candy spectacle and despite all I've said, I'm geek enough myself to have had some fun spotting all the pop-culture characters running around. If that sounds like fun to you, and if you don't expect anything deep, you probably won't be disappointed.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Too Much TV: THE ALIENIST (2018)

It hasn't been widely reported that Caleb Carr gave an interview effectively repudiating TNT'S adaptation of his blockbuster 1994 novel shortly before it began airing back in January. Carr is credited as a "consulting producer" despite wanting his name removed, and had only seen the first two episodes of the ten-part miniseries at the time of the interview. He singled out Brian Geraghty's performance as police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt as one of several bad decisions the producers made. In fact, Geraghty is pretty bad, but I think I understand why. On the screen, the energetic, charismatic Roosevelt would be more likely to upstage Carr's fictional protagonists than he was in print. The writers clearly meant to tone Teddy down, but I think there's still enough awareness of what the man was like for people to notice something wrong with Geraghty's glum, almost introverted performance. This can only ever be a minor complaint, however, because The Alienist isn't primarily about Roosevelt.

In the story, the hands-on reforming commissioner facilitates the formation of a team of investigators to track down a serial killer preying on boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. The team itself consists of artist/journalist John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans), pioneer police woman Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), high-tech crime fighters Marcus and Lucas Isaacson  (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) and the title character, proto-psychologist Lazlo Kreizler  (Daniel Bruehl), whose entourage of patients-turned-servants also helps out. They face resistance from corrupt and vested interests all around, from Roosevelt's political enemies in the police department to members of the proverbial 400 at the top levels of society as they combine early forensic techniques with Kreizler's innovative attempts at psychological profiling. The mystery is basically a procedural on a massive scale, filmed at highly-publicized expense with Budapest playing the role of Old New York quite impressively. It's been more than twenty years since I read the novel so I remembered little about it to compare the miniseries with, at least as far as the plot was concerned. I ended up more impressed with the show's queasy detailing of the sordid underbelly of the 1890s metropolis than with the solving of the mystery.

If the miniseries has a major weakness, it's that it's probably too long for the material and grows repetitive in its clichéd interviews with vintage madmen, among other things. Apart from that, Geraghty's wasn't the only performance lacking something. While Evans fairly effortlessly made himself a man of the time, Fanning seemed to struggle uncomfortably with her character, who is progressive in practice but isn't written like the archetypally spunky or sassy progressive female heroine. Sara is often grimly straitlaced, and Fanning sometimes reminded me of the rugged he-men in old movies itching to tear off the monkey suits forced on them by formal occasions. That might be the correct impression to leave, but I somehow didn't think it deliberate. As for our Alienist, Bruehl is handicapped by having to play a deeply introverted, self-repressing  character, trapped by the trope that will force Kreizler to come to terms with his own traumatic past. The German actor had already shown in Captain America:Civil War that he had difficulty investing characters with strong emotions in English, and he's little better here, often appearing preoccupied, furtive or sulky in a manner unbecoming the protagonist of the story. Despite the sometimes questionable performances there was a lot worth looking at in this spectacular production, even if the actual mystery didn't enthrall you. Carr published a sequel in 1997 and a long-awaited third novel will appear later this year, but my hunch is that this is the one chance you'll get to see Carr's New York on screen anytime soon.  The least I can say is that most viewers should get something entertaining out of it, though your results may vary.