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.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


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.