TV & Movies

The Musketeer (Wait? What? Aren’t You Missing Several of Them?)

There are going to be spoilers in this post, but if you take my advice you won’t watch this movie so it won’t matter.  But YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED — SPOILERS AHEAD!
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I made the mistake of watching part of The Musketeer while I ate dinner. Oh Lordy (my new favorite phrase thanks to Mr. Comey) what an awful mess. This mess dates from 2001. They should have just remastered and reissued the 1973 Richard Lester version staring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, etc.
 
So, the new movie. They had to make up a new villain in place of Rochefort who could be even badder! (that’s a term of art) than Rochefort played by Tim Roth who seems to specialize in playing mincing bad guys. And (gasp) he’s the evil baddy who killed D’Artagnan’s mommy and daddy _in front of him_ when he was just a little boy.  Why, oh why does every studio exec thinks there has to be some tragic explanation for a young man wanting to become a musketeer?  Why does everybody had to have an arc?  Dear god with Princess of Mars they kept trying to give John Carter an arc by having him a hopeless coward until he finds courage because of the love of Dejah Thoris.  Or a hopeless alcoholic tormented by memories of the Civil War until he becomes sober because of love of Dejah Thoris, and in John Carter they seemed to settle on his arc being that Carter was a truculent asshole at the beginning of the movie and he becomes somewhat less of an asshole because of the love of Dejah Thoris.
But back to The Musketeer.
 
Athos who is such a powerful figure in the ’73 version and as I recall in the novel as well is just a surly dude who never does much.  Both Artemis and Porthos are scarcely present.  Planchet ended up being the most interesting character.  The actor playing D’Artagnan began life as a male model and I was no impressed.  He also had this sort of valley boy accent and style of delivery which jarred me right out of the movie almost every time he opened his mouth.  It was at the point where he apparently decided to ride his horse to death that I checked out.  Spoiler — the horse makes a miraculous recovery.  Truth is when a horse is forced to run until they literally collapse beneath the rider they almost never get up again.  So yeah, I didn’t stick around for the thrilling conclusion.  I watched my recording of Dr. Who instead.  Much more satisfying.

When Less Is More

This is going to be a post about GUARDIAN’S OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 so there will be SPOILERS!!!!!  SPOILERS!!!!!  SPOILERS!!!!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

 

 

I like most of the Marvel movies.  I really liked the first Guardians movie.  I liked Ant Man.  I adored the first two acts of Captain America: The First Avenger.  I liked Thor because of the fascinating family dynamic and charismatic villain.  The first Iron Man film.  Winter Soldier.  Are you starting to see a pattern here?  What I like are movies that don’t lose sight of their characters and their themes in a dizzying kaleidoscope of special effect and CGI battles.

Which meant I had high hopes for the latest Guardians movie.  I had been waiting eagerly for this film.  And when it was all over I felt let down.  I’m not saying the movie was bad.  It wasn’t especially when you consider that the bar had been set so low that it was practically underground by Batman versus Superman and X Men: Apocalypse, but this lacked the authenticity and kindness of the first Guardians movie.

Yes there was humor though some of it felt forced as it was squeezed between CGI spectacles.  There were a lot of characters and subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere except to set up the next movie and since I haven’t read all these comics I had no idea of the significance.  Case in point — Yondu being thrown out of the Ravager clubhouse because of Quill.  I’m not sure what it added.  I think we could have had the Ravagers show up for the funeral without that first scene.  Did those batteries Rocket stole ever actually ever pay off?  I think they might have been part of the big kaboom at the end that killed Ego’s planet, but by that point I was sort of numb from all the CGI to be sure.

Just because the technology allows you to design and code these bloated sequences doesn’t mean you should.  Contrast all the computer wizardry in this film with the initial fight sequence in the first film between Gamora and Quill with Rocket and Groot orbiting on the outskirts as they try to capture Quill.  And then there is that the gonzo, totally fun escape from the Nova Corps prison.  Those were joyful, comedic, exciting and interesting sequences in the way a great Jackie Chan fight sequence just leaves you wanting to pump the air and dance.

This second film also hit one of my buttons.  I understand these are superheroes or aliens with strange physiologies, but there is a point where the punishment being meted out to the characters makes me go “Oh Come On.  Every bone in their body is now broken and no, you can’t outrun a massive explosion.”  And in that moment I have been kicked out of the movie and it has failed to transport me out of my own humdrum world and into this cinematic adventure.

I wanted more of Peter talking about growing up without a father.  The whole David Hasselhoff riff was terrific.  I would rather have had one less pointless space battle with the gold people who sounded like a bunch of valley girls and boys and seen more of Ego with Peter’s mom.  Drak seemed schizophrenic vibrating between outburst of wild laughter and making remarks that hit me as more cruel than funny.  There was a moment where Mantis finally touches the pain that Drak carries and it felt like this was a moment that mattered, but then it was gone in the blink of an eye.

Quill comes out pretty well in this installment.  Baby Groot was cute.  I felt like Rocket and Gamora were the most short changed.  The two characters that were far and away the most interesting were Nebula and Yondu.  Their storylines actually addressed issues of loneliness, loss, fathers and sons, sisters, jealousy, rejection, the inability to speak honestly and emotionally to the people in your life.  Throughout the film there were questions about the human condition and the human heart in conflict with itself that had meaning and then another giant CGI action sequence would stomp through and crush them.

 

If you don’t have a story and a theme underlying that story no amount of effects is going to make up the deficit.  People are hungry for stories that tell us something about ourselves, illuminate deeper questions.  If all they get is spectacle they will go away unsatisfied and empty, and the real shame here is that there was a story with heart at the core of this movie that got lost under all the frenetic action.

Arrival & Rogue One

I ended up seeing ARRIVAL and ROGUE ONE relatively close together.  I liked both movies a lot, and have been mulling over the similarities and differences for the past month or more.  I think I’m ready to take a stab at talking about them.

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In many ways they have the same theme — courage and sacrifice are sometimes worth the pain.  In one film the sacrifice is personal.  In the other epic, but at their core that’s what they are both exploring.

There are also huge differences.  Rogue One has giant action sequences, explosions, ships colliding, cities destroyed.  In Arrival there is one action sequence which lasts all of two minutes if that.  The tension is generated by the ticking clock, the sense of days, weeks passing, the stakes growing ever higher, but quietly which makes them seem all the more significant.  Sometimes a whisper can be as powerful as a shout.

Both films have at their heart a woman.  Both embrace loves that cannot last.   Both act out of love of family — one for a father, the other for a child.  Both embrace hope despite knowing that ultimately everything ends in death.

I’ve heard some quibbles that the explosion aboard the alien ship in Arrival came out of nowhere and felt like a studio note.  I don’t agree.  I thought it was set up well, but this was a movie that required enormous focus and concentration.  Three times they go to the officer who ultimately sets the bomb aboard the ship.  He talks with his wife.  He watches an Alex Jones/Infowars type figure, he talks with his fellow soldiers.  Ultimately he acts out of fear and with the only tools he has — violence and killing.

What can I find to critique in Arrival?  Not much.  Perhaps Jeremy Renner.  I didn’t totally buy him as the brash, brilliant physicist.  I thought Amy Adams was damn near perfect.  It’s a brave actress who allows herself to be shown as older, rumpled, dressed in cargo pants and a tee shirt.  Not since Ripley in Aliens have I seen it handled so well. 

I have more quibbles with Rogue One — I wanted a bit more of Jen’s life before she was a criminal in a work gang.  I thought they wasted Forest Whitaker.  All of the companions were appealing though Baze Malbus got short changed.  His gun seemed to get more attention then him.  It also might have been interesting to have one of those characters be an alien rather then all humans. 

I thought the references to the Force felt out of place and didn’t mesh with the first film where everyone viewed the Jedi as quaint figures and the Force as something silly.

I was fascinated with Vader’s choice of a home base.  The world where he was maimed and lost the love of his life?  He decides to build a palace and live there?  Really?  Wow that guy has some real psychological issues.  And it was also an incongruous moment given the fact Vader seemed to be a lackey of Tarkin in A New Hope.  Now he has a palace and a majordomo?    

I thought the use of the Death Star twice undercut the point of the first film where it kills a planet.  I also didn’t believe the Empire would blow up its base where they stored all their data.  I was ultimately willing to buy the shield that could cover a planet, but I did have to swallow hard a couple of times.

The recreation of Peter Cushing was uncanny.  My first viewing of the film was just a few days after we had lost Carrie Fisher so it was a very bittersweet moment to see our princess at the end.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more of villain in this film.  He was interesting and more complex then most.  I also would have wished for more from Mads Mikkelsen.  He’s a wonderful actor.

There were also some very uncomfortable resonances to real life.  The images of the stormtroopers moving through the crooked streets of the city with a tank grinding along in the midst of them, the exotic dress, the stone buildings brought to mind other images of occupying troops.  One couldn’t help thinking about American troops patrolling ancient cities in the Middle East.  And we were being asked to cheer and root for terrorists.

Which is the point where the two films diverge.  One explicitly embraces violence as a tool for change.  The other eschews violence, begs for patience, for communication, for understanding.  Near the beginning of Rogue One Cassian kills an informant, a man who has been helping the resistance because he fears he’s become a liability.  I still found Cassian yummy; he broods so well. 

The aliens in Arrival tell us they are bringing us a weapon, and it turns out to be the gift of language.  A new way to see the universe and ourselves in that vastness, and a new way to communicate.  The impending war is averted with a message from a dying wife to her beloved husband.

What both of our heroines accept is loss and death.  Jen knows that she and her companions are on a suicide mission.  She eschews love and life for the greater good, and perhaps there is a sense of expiation of her and Cassian’s sins.

Amy knows that her daughter will die.  That the man she loves will not accept that inevitable death and will leave her.  Embracing love and motherhood is going to hurt, but she accepts the pain and the sacrifice so that she can truly live.

All in all a very good year for science fiction movies.  I hope Arrival wins Best Picture though I know it won’t so may it win the Hugo and the Nebula.  In a year without Arrival I would be cheering for Rogue One, but ultimately Arrival is the deeper more compassionate film.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

What can you say about a movie that is kind and sweet?  I say hooray and what a pleasant change from CGI violence and redemptive violence as the solution to every problem, and manufacturing conflict between friends and natural allies.  (I’m looking at you Captain America: Civil War and Batman versus Superman.)

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First the few quibbles I did have with the film.  I don’t think the flashing newspaper articles effectively set up the ultimate villain.  It was too quick and there was no context to the rest of the story.  Perhaps if Gellert Grindelwald had been tied in some fashion to Newt it would have worked better.  For me that eventual twist and reveal wasn’t set up well enough and hints dropped gracefully enough to make it seem integrated.

I love Eddie Redmayne and he portrayed a shy, on the autism spectrum figure very well.  He did tend to mumble so i missed some of his dialog.  I want to see the film again to see what I missed.  I also wanted a little better set up to the idea that wizards generally just destroy the magical creatures as heedlessly as humans drove the passenger pigeon to extinction and are well on the way to doing that to tigers, elephants, rhinos, giraffes — I’ll stop, it’s too depressing.

What I liked.  A lot.  Rowling in her screenplay managed to gracefully talk about anti-miscegenation laws, gay reparative therapy (otherwise known as torture), the dangers of fundamentalism, the problems faced by a smart, ambitious woman who steps out of line as exemplified by our heroine, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein.  How the system is stacked against the “little guy”.

There is also a lovely little B story was about the muggle/no mag Kowalski and Queenie, Tina’s sister.  It’s a gentle love story.  It’s about a good man with a dream that instead of being nurtured and assisted is thwarted by greed and bureaucracy.  it’s about hard choices when Kowalski walks away from the woman he loves because to do otherwise would endanger her.  And he’s doing more then just walking away.  He’s consigning her to oblivion as he is forced to forget her and the magic he has experienced.

There’s a great deal of poignancy in this movie. Rowling leaves us with hope that things will get better, lovers will be reunited, but the adult knowledge that sometimes when evil is done its effects can’t be totally washed away.

Accountants, Arrivals and Other Strangeness

I got caught up on a few movies the past couple of weeks.  I thought I’d try to gather my thoughts about all of them in one place rather then single posts about each.  YES, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

THE ACCOUNTANT — this was almost a good movie.  it wasn’t horrible, but it went completely sideways in the final third.  When it was about an autistic child then man trying to cope in the world, and when it was about forensic accounting it was really interesting and well done.

And then it became a study in studio notes.  I felt like I could hear every script meeting that took place and I expect some of them occurred while they were actually shooting the film.  They kept pasting things on in the hope they would stick.  The geeky girl — maybe they can have a romance?  Whoops, no, that isn’t working.  Forget her.  Abusive dad?  Or maybe he really loves his sons and they love him?  We could never decide you, audience, try to figure it out.  The treasury department agents — woman with dark secrets, boss who is a bad guy, or maybe a good guy.

I was okay with our hero not only being a math savant, but also a bad ass with a gun and in physical combat.  Dad was a crazy military dude so okay, but when they had his nemesis be his brother?  That was when the shark was well and truly jumped.  They couldn’t even figure out that relationship.  Did they hate each other?  Love each other?  Brother blamed our autistic hero for dad’s death, but it seemed like dad wanted to go to mom’s funeral.  And if the brother was going to be a big deal then he needed to be feathered in a lot more gracefully than he was.

There was one nice surprise at the end of the film, but that relationship was also short changed so they could try to make the abortive romance work.  Ben Affleck did some nice work, but it ultimately ended up feeling desperate.

DR. STRANGE —  It’s a Marvel movie.  Upper middle of the pack I’d say.  Enjoyable.  I liked it better the second time.  I am struck by how these lesser known titles are turning out to be really charming movies — Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy which I adore, and now Dr. Strange.  Cumberbatch is very appealing and seems to be having fun which meant the audience had fun too.  I also quite liked the fact they took the curse off the cloak (cloaks always look silly in modern day) by making the silly thing a character.

My biggest problem is that I share the arrogant doctor’s attitude about mystic mumbo jumbo.  Start offering to balance my aura or telling me about Uri Geller and I’m likely to get a blank stare and a polite but frozen smile.  I like the Marvel universe when it’s about aliens and infinity stones.  They dealt with the Asgardians by saying they seem like gods, but their not really gods.  Now we have magical powers.  I share Thor’s desire to drown his woes in beer.

THE ARRIVAL — What can I say?  It’s elegiac.  A science fiction movie built around linguistics.  A theme that life, no matter what tragedies it may hold, is worth living to the fullest.  It’s also a beautiful celebration of smart people doing smart things.  You know… the elites using their education and their brains to solve complex issues as opposed to people setting off a bomb to fix a perceived problem.  I want to see it again so I can really study the structure and the nuance.

It’s About The Theme, Stupid

Over the past two weeks I’ve seen two movies.  STAR TREK: BEYOND and last night SUICIDE SQUAD.  I only went to see the Trek film because I had been asked to do an interview about it.  I had been actively looking forward to Suicide Squad.  My reactions to both were polar opposites of what I expected.

NOW THERE ARE GOING TO BE SPOILERS!!!!!!!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

I ended up enjoying Beyond far more than I expected, (I kept murmuring to myself, “why oh why couldn’t we have had some humor and charm in Next Generation?” while I was watching, but I digress.  It wasn’t until I sat down for the interview that I realized why it worked.  And it all comes back to something that I write about with great regularity — Simon Pegg who penned the script, had an actual theme. 

Kirk in the opening is a man who is finding his role as captain of the Enterprise confining.  It’s routine missions, patrols.  Nothing very exciting is occurring.  He chafes in the harness.

Krall is a former Star Fleet officer who had led men into battle against alien threats.  When the Federation was formed and forged peace with many of these former adversaries Krall was furious and disgusted.  He viewed the peace as a betrayal of the men and women who had fought.  Then his ship gets stranded, Star Fleet doesn’t send help and his bitterness becomes rage.

Of course in his own mind he is the hero of the piece.  Krall is a man trying to make it clear that human kind can only advance through conflict, war, loss, and ultimately military victory.  He leads the assault on the space station partly for vengeance, and mostly to shock the humans out of their complacency.  He does not believe that through unity there is strength.

Krall is the cautionary tale for James T. Kirk.  During the course of the film Kirk realizes that his chafing at the confines of the Federation could lead him to the same place as Krall.  He accepts that his duty is to his crew.  It is in this movie that his full maturation occurs.  He was a callow, cocky man in the first film.  The second film — well, lets just pretend that one didn’t happen.  In Beyond Kirk becomes a man and a leader.

There is a wonderful visual moment at the end of Beyond when Krall sees his reflection in a shard of glass and realizes he has become a monster.  Which led to one of the major missteps for me in the film.  If this had been classic Trek Krall would have recovered his identity as Captain Edison and helped Kirk save the station.  Instead he continued to fight.  I actually viewed the final fight through that lens and assumed he had helped Kirk, but apparently that was me reading into the moment.

There were silly little things in the movie that bugged me.  How is it that Krall and his remaining crew forgot where they parked their ship?  Why didn’t anybody stop by now and then and check on the old bucket?  How did they learn that the missing part of the alien bio-weapon was aboard the Enterprise?  And who flies around with a motorcycle parked on the bridge?  But again, those are nits.  What worked was there was a narrative that had subtext, dealt with larger issues and didn’t beat me over the head with The Message.  (I couldn’t help but feel the script was a direct rebuke of Trumpism, but of course that is serendipity.)

And then there is Suicide Squad.  *sigh* I have no idea what this movie was trying to say.  That the only way you accomplish anything is to be a stone cold killer?  Even our supposed good guy Amanda Waller portrayed by Viola Davis (who made a heroic effort to salvage this film) is a murderous psycho.

Will Smith also gave it his best to inject some humor and honest emotion into the movie, but it fell flat.

When a movie has to spend the first, at least, thirty minutes doing a “let’s look at the files and give you the backstory” to introduce the characters you’re in trouble.  Truthfully it felt like an hour had passed while Waller briefed government guys.  When Rick Flag was introduced I thought he was going to be the tough but compassionate commander who brings them all together.  At last, I thought, this will become the Dirty Dozen.  Instead he had all the personality of a wet dish rag.  I can’t fault the actor.  He literally had nothing to work with. 

The story was an incoherent mess.  Was the Joker the villain?  The Enchantress?  Granted she was building a big unexplained argle, bargle, gazpacho (hat tip to Jim Wright Stonekettle Station for this wonderful turn of phrase) machine to destroy all the humans.  Because they no longer worshiped her and her brother?  Hey, honey, if you kill all the humans then there’s no one at all left to worship you.  Tiny flaw in your plan.

If I’m incredibly generous I could say the theme of the film was people acting out of love.  Deadshot out of love for his daughter.  Flag for the archeologist.  Joker for Harley Quinn, El Diablo trying to expiate his sin for not loving his family enough or the right way.  But man am I being generous.

Captain America: Civil War

Saturday was my day to finally see the latest Captain America movie though it really wasn’t a Cap movie.  It more of an Avengers movie.  I liked it — with reservations — and feel like I need to see it again.  One thing it did very nicely was start a passionate discussion among the folks with whom I’d seen the movie.  What did I like — the new Spiderman was adorable.  He really was a teenager.  It was fun to see Antman return.  The Black Panther — OMG what a gorgeous, interesting man.  My heart has belonged to the Captain ever since the first film, and I could look at Sebastian Stan all day.  One of my friends rather ironically said it was the best superhero/kung fu movies and he’s not wrong.  The fight sequences were gorgeous.  Here’s where I stand.  I think I need to watch this movie again, but here are my initial thoughts.

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Where I ran into problems was with motivations and set ups.  What threw me was how Captain America, a man who reached adulthood during the Depression and WWII would suddenly turn into McArthur.  The one thing I thought would always be front and center for Steve Rogers is the idea that the military needs civilian oversight.  It’s been one of the founding principles of our country since the Constitution was drafted.  So now he thinks the heroes (who are like armies in terms of their powers) should make all the calls about when to fight and when to refrain?  Is it because it’s the UN and he’s an America First kind of guy?  It just seemed odd.

Then there was the cryptic exchange with Tony near the end of the film about how Bucky/Winter Soldier had killed Tony’s parents.  Tony asks Steve “Did you know?”, and the Captain says “Yes.”  Okay did I blink and miss something during the movie?  How did Steve know?  He was in the ice when Howard and Mrs. Stark were killed.  Did Bucky tell him?  Did he see the video?  And who shot that?  And why was Stark driving around with what appeared to be super soldier serum in the trunk of his car?  This guy knew the threats that existed but he just heads off to the airport with a powerful weapon in the trunk of the Impala?

Which brings me to Tony’s OTT reaction when he realizes Bucky was the killer and now Tony goes absolutely Biblical on the Cap’s ass.  Tony is smarter than this.  By this point in the film he knows he’s been manipulated, they have all been manipulated to fight each other.  So now he suddenly sees this footage and he doesn’t go — “Oh, okay, somebody is fucking with me.  Well, I’m not playing.”  It felt almost as contrived as the incredibly stupid throw down between Batman and Superman in Batman versus Superman (which was a terrible movie.  Don’t go see it.  See Civil War instead.)

Okay, I’m back.  Where was I?

My other question was “who is this movie about?”  Ostensibly Captain America, but you could argue it’s Tony’s movie, and then you’ve got Black Panther who ends up being the most mature of the supers along with Vision.  It sees like those guys should be put in charge with the authority to send people to their rooms and ground them from superhero play time for at least three weeks.

Ironically by the end of the movie I realized that in many ways this movie was about Zemo, and he was frankly more interesting then a lot of the bickering heroes.  He was clearly smarter then they were, but I kept wondering how did he find all these secret documents?  I wanted to know more about his journey, his search for the tools to exact vengeance on the people who had destroyed his life.

I think the film does raise really interesting issues and questions.  I think some of my disquiet is due to the fact it is just so busy.  I’ve found that for me I like these movies more when the are more focused, more about a single individual in emotional pain and conflict.  The first Iron Man movie, the first Captain America movie, the second Toby McGuire Spiderman movie, X-Men First Class and X-Men Days of Future Past.  I was also watching the movie with friends who aren’t as immersed in the Marvel cinematic universe as I am, and they were utterly baffled.    We face this problem with Wild Cards.  When have we become too self-referential?  When is backstory too much backstory?  It’s probably why people keep falling back on origin stories even though I am so sick of them.  You aren’t carrying around all this history.

Bottom line — I’m going to see it again, and see if it works better for me.  I didn’t dislike the movie.  I just found it not as strong as I’d hoped.

 

Gender Differences in Casting Choices

I can’t watch every show that out there.  Not with some 144 scripted dramas currently showing on various platforms, however, in the shows I do watch I’m noticing a trend that is bothering me.  Extremely interesting and charismatic male leads, and woman characters that aren’t as strong or interesting.  It really hit me last night as I was watching the latest episode of Lucifer.  A very problematic show that I keep watching because of the amazing job being done by Tom Ellis in the lead role as Lucifer.  The show has improved once they got away from the “case of the week” set ups and are dealing more with supernatural issues.  It also drives me crazy that women are all ready to drop their panties for him, but not men.  They tried to take some of the curse off that by showing him in bed with both men and women, but it hasn’t taken away the bad taste.  But I digress.

Here’s the problem when it comes to gender issues and I’m going to stay on Lucifer since it’s the one that made my head explode — Chloe has to be the worst cop ever to wear the badge.  The violations of basic evidentiary rules make me nuts, but putting all that aside.  She’s not a strong character.  The actress just can’t hold her own against Ellis or D.B. Woodside who is compelling as Amenadiel.  They are finally giving the demon Mazikeen something to do, and that’s helping, but it seemed to take a long time for them to realize she might be interesting, and instead we were treated to the psychiatrist and the police captain, and every random woman going cross eyed for Lucifer and Chloe being maudlin and incompetent.

Then there’s Arrow and the problematic Laurel.  Up against the sister Sara played with great verve by Caity Lotz poor Laurel is very weak tea.  Felicity was great but the ditzy but brilliant thing was starting to wear a bit thin for me, and her reaction to Oliver’s decision to keep his son secret weakened her in my eyes.  I liked Thea a great deal, but the character seems to be less and less present in the cast.  Which leaves us once again with powerful male figures in Oliver, Diggle and Malcolm Merlyn.

Castle — I gave up on the show because the only thing propping up Beckett was Nathan Fillion in the lead role and the two cops in her unit who where terrific.

Gotham — the only stand out female character is Cat Woman.

The Magicians — Poor Alice is no match for Elliot and Penny or even Quentin.  Julia — everything she tries seems to end in disaster.

The Flash — the woman portraying Iris is improving, Caitlin gets to mope a lot, and they are playing against Barry, Joe, and the terrific Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells.

Last night I found myself longing for Buffy.

Some of this is the fault of the writers for not giving these women something meaty and powerful to do, but some of it is due to casting choices picking actresses who aren’t able to show strength and I’m not just talking about the ability to kick ass.  It’s their ability to be as compelling, charming, threatening, witty, in short as interesting as the men with whom they are matched.

And it’s not impossible.  I’ve already mentioned Buffy where we had not only Buffy but Willow and Arya and Dawn.  On Agents of SHIELD we have Skye/Daisy, and May.  Person of Interest — dear god, what incredible characters starting with Detective Carter, Root, Shaw, Zoe.   Orphan Black — many of the various clones are fascinating and of course you have Tatiana Maslany in the role and she’s stunning.

I’m sure people will be able to come up with shows that have powerful female leads of which I’m unaware — The Good Wife, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal?  But for a lot of the genre shows that I have been watching the presence of powerful, interesting women are pretty slim.  I find this depressing and I’m not sure how this can be countered.  But I’m going to try when I have the opportunity.

Adaptations — The Magicians

I’ve done a lot of adaptations.  It’s a tricky skill, but fun.  You have to take from the underlying material the essential themes, the emotional sense of the work, keep the characters relatively intact, but be willing to make changes because film and print are two different mediums and they tell stories in different ways.  The emotional impact is ultimately the same, but how you get there is different.  You have to know what to cut and what to expand.

Right now I’m watching a master class in adaptation.  It’s a show called The Magicians, and it’s on SyFy.  Yeah, I know, crazy, right?  I started watching the show which has great production values, excellent writing and overall a very fine cast.  I was so impressed that I bought the first book and started reading.

This is a case where the filmed version is better than the book.

Okay, I’m going to talk specifics from the book and the show which means there are going to be SPOILERS!!!!!!! so stop reading now if you hate SPOILERS!!!!!!

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I’ve only read the first book and I have to be honest.  While I found the world and the characters interesting the book read more like an outline then a well plotted narrative.  It felt like the author was exploring his world, but didn’t totally have a handle on the story he wanted to tell.

Enter the writing team who adapted the book series for television.  Right away they made a number of changes.  The characters are all older — heading to graduate school rather then high school kids heading to college.  That has worked well.  They have also slowed down the action.  In the book Quentin rushes through Brakebills.  In the show he’s still in his first year.  It’s working far better.

Apparently the entire story line about Julia, the girl who didn’t get into Hogwarts… er Brakebills, and so becomes a hedge witch begins in book two, but the screenwriters rightly decided to weave her story in with Quentin’s adventures at the school.  They find ways to have the two former friends cross paths, and there is an interesting echo in that both of them take casual actions that start to have dreadful consequences.

The show is much darker in tone then the book and the villain far more horrifying.  In the book his face is obscured by a tree branch.  In the show they use a cloud of moths.  Now whenever I see a moth I find myself shuddering.  Again as a visual cue it’s brilliant.

A recent episode of the show is the one that really made me hope I have the opportunity to meet with the creative team behind The Magicians and shake their hand.  First a bit of context.  In The Magicians there is a beloved fantasy book series about a magical place called Fillory and the three children who got to travel there.  Yes, very much a call back to C.S. Lewis, but that’s the set up.  At the end of book one our heroes defeat The Beast, and have a conversation with the sister who tells why her brother turned into this monstrous figure.  In the book she casually tosses out the information that the author of the Fillory books molested her brother when he was a boy.  It is literally almost a throw away line.

The show found a far more powerful and interesting way to give us this information.  Out of a sentence or two in the book the television writers crafted an entire episode and it was a damn good one.  Our heroes have gone to tour the author’s home in search of a magical object.  They break in after-hours, and since they are all magicians they begin to see ghostly scenes from the past.  They see the author coercing the brother into undressing while the older man takes photos, and then it’s very clear they go off to have sex.  Quentin who has adored and revered this writer is sickened, horrified and we see him start to lose some of his geeky innocence and self-doubt and become a man.

As for this magical object.  In the book one of the characters just buys it from a magical junk salesman and it happens off stage.  He then just turns up and says, “Hey, I have this magic thingee and it takes you to a different world.”  Again the adaptors allowed the protagonists to “protag”.  They go in search of this object after they’ve discovered that it exists instead of it all being by happenstance.

Bottom line if you’ve toyed with adapting take a look at this show.  In its own right it’s a terrific hour of television, and for writers it’s an inspiration and, like I said, a master class in adaptation.

Back to Bond… James Bond

I just finished watching Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace back to back. Guess what — Quantum isn’t a bad movie.  The problem was that it was the second half of a movie that got broken into two parts.

Quantum seems to pick up like one day after the end of Royale, but for viewers two years had passed and by then we’d forgotten a lot of the details.

Bond is killing his way through people as he tries to find out who was behind Vesper’s death, but his rage and obsession don’t make a lot of sense if you don’t have a fairly detailed memory of Casino Royale.  His casual use of women leading to their deaths and M’s reaction again only has meaning when you think about Bond’s confusion over Vesper — did he love her or did he hate her, is she the bitch that he labeled her or the love of his life?

The death of Rene Mathis with Bond cradling the man in his arms (I’m wondering if they copied it for the end of Skyfall where Bond is cradling M?) has no meaning or emotional resonance unless you remember that Bond erroneously accused Mathis of working for the bad guys in Casino.

The final scene of the movie has no impact emotionally or intellectually unless you remember that Vesper betrayed Britain to protect the man she loved.  She believed he was a prisoner and she acted to protect him.

Now we get to the end of Quantum and discover that the man Vesper loved worked for this shady Quantum organization and used his charms to seduce female agents.  We see him doing it to a Canadian agent and handing out the lover’s knot necklaces (which was such a telling symbol in Royale) like popcorn, but again if you don’t remember the necklace Vesper was wearing and her love for this man then the scene is just confusing.  Who is this guy?  Why should I care?

I did feel like the theme was muddled if not down right contradictory.  With the young hispanic agent Bond is encouraging her to take vengeance on the corrupt police chief and find closure, but then he doesn’t kill Vesper’s duplicitous lover.  Maybe because all the deaths that Bond has dealt throughout the money haven’t brought Bond closure and peace?  Then why did he suggest it for Camille Montes as a way to lay her ghosts to rest?

I’m not saying Quantum is a great movie, but it is when compared the mess that was Spectre.  Why on Earth did they think it was a good idea to have all the Bond antagonists from Royale, Quantum and Skyfall be the puppets of Blofeld?  I digress.  I think if you make Casino Royale and Quantum a double feature you’ll be pleased with the result.

 

Due Process in a Superhero Universe

Tuesday night George and I were having a long conversation via text.  (Yes, Mr. Wordstar is a texting monster.  He’s the reason I had to go with unlimited texting.)  Truthfully we should have just picked up the phone and talked, but oh well.

Anyway, GRRM wanted to know if I had watched the latest episode of The Flash yet.  I hadn’t because of the time difference between L.A. and Santa Fe,  but we ended up talking about how the Star Labs Scooby gang keep locking people up in the basement in tiny rooms that appear to have no bed, no toilet, and that we never see them get a meal.  George asked if this bothered me?

My response — oh Hell yes!  Especially since one of the characters is a police officer and supposedly a good cop and a good man.

I understand this is fantasy and that super villains have enormous powers, BUT that doesn’t mean we throw out the Constitution with its guarantees of Due Process, right to a speedy trial, legal counsel.  I think they get away with it on The Flash because Barry seems so sweet and kind and approachable and the kids in the gang are all so cute.  Or you take the other approach and allow Jim Gordon in Gotham to become a vigilante cop which pretty much undermines the nature of the character.  But none of these disguise the fact that what is occurring is a grotesque undermining of the rule of law.

Yes, it’ makes things harder if you have to think about and address these issues, but that makes for good story telling and better writing.  To do otherwise is just lazy.  I can promise you if we even get Wild Cards going as a TV series we’re not going to dodge these tough questions and even tougher solutions.

Comparisons

After writing for most of yesterday and staying warm while the rain and wind battered the house I decided to spend the evening on a movie binge.  Guardians of the Galaxy was on followed by Avengers — Ultron.  Boy is Guardians a _much_ better movie than Ultron. There was a seed of a good movie in among all the endless and often pointless action sequences in Ultron, but it gasped and died under the weight of the CGI action.
I noticed something else.  When Whedon thinks something is going off the rails he has a tendency to just tell you in the dialog.  It happened back in a later episode of ANGEL.  Angel and some of his Scooby gang have gone into a magical bookstore, and Angel is asking the proprietor a question.  I don’t remember the details, just that there was a lot of hand waving and nonsense being spouted and Angel then says, “You’re just making this shit up now, aren’t you?”  Or words to that effect.  That was at a time when the series was really flailing and floundering.
And Whedon did it again in Ultron when he gives Hawkeye the line to the Scarlet Witch.  “We’re fighting an army of robots — and I have a bow and arrow.”  He then goes on to add, “None of this makes sense.”  You were so right Clint.
Contrast all that frenzied action with Guardians.  Yes, there is action in the movie, but we learn more about the characters in everyone of those scenes — Rocket wants the guy’s leg because it would be funny, Gamora’s resigned statement “I’m going to die with the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”  How Peter will try to fast talk his way out of situations before resorting to fighting.  How Drax is so literal minded that he can’t understand a metaphor.  That apparently everyone in the galaxy apart from Peter, Rocket and the Ravagers are irony impaired.
What the two films do have in common is that at their heart is an ordinary man — Hawkeye in Avengers, Peter in Guardians.  Maybe that’s why I like to write about “nats” in the Wild Cards universe.  Ordinary people who can still be heroes.  There was exemplified in that underwhelming Superman Returns reboot back in 2006.  The one thing that worked in that movie was the role of Lois’s boyfriend, Richard White.  He proved to be just as heroic as the Man of Steel as he fought to save the life of the woman he loved and her child.  That was the most emotionally satisfying moment in the film.
Maybe it’s because there are just too damn many characters that have to be serviced in the Avengers films.  Which seems to be the case because the smaller movies are working better — Ant Man, Guardians, the Captain America films, the first Iron Man, Thor.
I point out these problems in the hope they find a way to address them before the next big blockbuster hits the screen.  I love these superhero franchises.  I watch Agents of SHIELD, and The Flash, and Arrow, and Legends, etc. etc.  I’ve enjoyed many of the movies, but I hope there aren’t too many more Ultrons in the pipeline.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I went over to the Cinépolis last night for a second watch of The Force Awakens, and I’m ready to discuss the movie.  There are going to be a SPOILERS so if you hate SPOILERS and if for some reason you haven’t managed to see this film yet don’t read anymore because there are going to be SPOILERS!!!!!!!!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I had seen the film on opening day with Len Wein and Chris Valada.  As with the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek film I liked the “feel” of the movie.  What I hadn’t expected was that the structure is basically identical to episode IV A New Hope.  (Or as I know it — Star Wars because I saw it on opening day back in 1977.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t actually the first day since the theater had added a midnight showing of the movie to accommodate all the crowds so technically it was the second day.)  Point being I love Star Wars.  I saw the original film six or seven times while I was taking the bar review course and studying for the bar exam.  Star Wars kept me sane.  I even managed to pass the bar and I give Star Wars some of the credit for that.  But I digress.

Back to this latest film.  Well, compared to the three prequel films it was Shakespeare.  During my first viewing I was taken aback by the constant call backs to the first film.  “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, the similar beats to the first movie — everybody looking for a Droid that has a piece of critical information, a desert planet, an alien bar with an alien jazz band, a honking big weapon that brave X-Wing pilots have to destroy. 

There are differences.  In the original film Luke can’t wait to get off Tatooine.  In Awakens Rey wants to stay and even keeps trying to get back to her desert world.  The similarities are that both of them are great pilots and unknowingly strong in the Force.

I really appreciated that we got to see the world from the point of view of a storm trooper and Finn is a darling.  I also really liked the fact he wasn’t a top commander or something special.  He was a janitor.

Poe is sexy and fun.  I liked the fact that he couldn’t resist our villain’s Force powers, but Rey could.  That was a nice touch.

It was a relief to see women in roles other then princess and slave.  It was also great to see an ethnically diverse cast.

I thought the youngsters they brought in were all terrific, especially Daisy Ridley.  For me it was great to see the old timers — Leia and Han and Chewie.  And our new young villain.  I thought Ben/Kylo Ren was terrific.  Not only is he very pretty he’s the kind of tortured character I just love.

So now I’m in my second viewing and I actually ended up liking the film much better than the first time I saw the movie.  I went in knowing it was derivative, and I expected the great visuals of the crashed imperial ships and walkers, and the exciting action sequences so I could sort of ignore them.  This time I just focused on the dialog, the characters and the actors performances.

And as a film it worked much better for me.  Why — because this time I saw the theme and how that theme was subtly supported throughout the film in the exchanges between the characters.  Here’s a short hand I used at a panel discussion last month — plot is the shit that happens.  Theme is what is all means.  If you don’t know your theme before you start writing you are never going to produce a satisfying book or film.  

So, what was the theme of this movie?  It’s a story about lost and abandoned children.

Finn — torn from his home and his family as a child and molded into a killing machine.  Though unlike his fellow conscripts he resists and find his soul.  But in terms of how he was raised he’s not a moral man or a hero.  To his companion he’s a failure and a traitor.

Rey left by her family, guardians?  Some unknown somebodies on a desolate world and told to wait.  She’s been waiting, lost and alone and wondering why they abandoned her?  What was wrong with her?

Ben/Kylo Ren.  Growing up in the shadow of parents who are legends. Tormented with powers he can’t control.  A father who is at heart an irresponsible child and walked away.  A mother who was too busy for him.  There is a telling line of dialog from Leia when she says “I should never have sent him away.”  That has to make a kid wonder — “what’s wrong with me?”  He’s given into the care of an emotionally distant uncle who tries to mold him in the Jedi ways which aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy.  And when Luke screws up and Ben turns to the dark side Luke walks away — another abandonment.

Just as Thor is the story of a distant and abusive father who fosters a toxic relationship between two siblings this is a film about bad parenting and as such I thought it worked.  It certainly worked much better for me upon this second viewing.

An aside.  I’m guessing that Luke is Rey’s father which absolutely makes him the leading candidate for the shittiest parent in the galaxy award.

And yeah, Kylo Ren and Rey were my favorite characters though I really loved Finn and Poe too.

Mockingjay Part 1

I have really enjoyed the first two Hunger Games films.  Jennifer Lawrence proves forever lays to rest the argument that women can’t be action heroes.  Her portrayal of Katniss Everdeen is fierce and powerful.  I wanted to be ready for the final installment of the franchise so I  streamed Mockingjay Part 1 to the XBox and gave it a watch.

They should have made one really long movie rather then break it up.  I understand why they did — the financial incentives to milk this for all it was worth were always going to trump story, but there wasn’t enough material to carry a movie.  Katniss broods and proves she can’t act.  (Actually a tough thing for a good actress to do).  They blow up shit.  Or rather other people blow up shit.  It’s the capital that destroys the hospital, faceless hoards who blow up the dam and hydroelectric plant, the capital that bombs district 13.

There is an exciting rescue mission to rescue Katniss’s love, Peeta.  Except it’s not very exciting when you’re watching it on a heads up camera display.  I haven’t read past the first book, but this struck me as a bad decision based on being true to the underlying material.  Maybe in the book Katniss didn’t go to the capital to free her sweetie, but in the movie she sure as hell should have gone along.  If I’d been adapting this that’s what I would have done.  Because Katniss watching the action on a TV screen is boring and it effectively neuters her.  Yeah, yeah, I understand how they wouldn’t want to risk their symbol but she seems passive as a result.

Basically Katniss, the protagonist of this film never actually protags.  She’s taken places where she can react to things.  React to the hospital getting bombed, react to the bombing of District 13, react to Peeta being rescued, react to Peeta trying to kill her.

Her impassioned speech after the hospital is bombed is her best moment, but truly the most effective thing a named character does in this movie is when Peeta breaks training and risks more torture to warn district 13 that they are about to be attacked.  Actually when you think about it Peeta is the hero of this particular installment.

Which is a shame because while I really like that character I want to see Katniss kicking ass, shooting arrows and taking names.

Spectre

Otherwise known as the-Bond-franchise-takes-a-trip-down-memory-lane-and-we-remember-that-road-was-pretty-damn-silly.  This film was a real disappointment for me.  I’d been looking forward to it for months and last night I headed over for the 9:30 showing at the Cinepolis.  Thank god I was at the sybaritic theater with the big leather reclining seats with footrests and waiters ready to bring you food and alcohol.  I should have gone with the alcohol.  I almost ordered a margarita about halfway through the film.  I wish I had.

 

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Even in the cold light of morning I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell this movie was about.  I know the plot — big organization has its tentacles in everything and is seeking world domination, but for some reason the villain is obsessed with James and has to screw with his life by killing every woman he’s loved and sending psychopaths after Bond because…..daddy?

This had the effect of undercutting all of Bond’s victories in the previous films because if it turns out the villains weren’t actually the real villain then Bond and M and everyone at MI-6 look like morons.  There’s also the problem that if you were going to build on James being an orphan then they should have given us some hint of Oberhauser in Skyfall.  Instead the foster father just comes out of nowhere.  If these men had spent some years together in childhood then give me some sense of those years.  If I’d been writing this I would have put Oberhauser on stage early.  Have him come to James for help, make them companions, play the relationship and then reveal the jealousy and the betrayal.

There was more lazy plotting — “I went to Mexico City because M sent me a message from the grave.”  Ugh.  How about having the new M very concerned about this move to rely on technology rather than people and he sends Bond into the field?  Or as I suggested earlier make Oberhauser the catalyst.  Also, please don’t make the new spy/drone master part of Spectre.  It made everything just feel too convenient.  Also, they already played this beat in Skyfall with the clueless bureaucrats messing with the spies.  I guess they thought having C be a traitor took the curse off.  It didn’t.  I liked having M be more involved in the action and Q was just great.  Some of the action sequences were very exciting, but…….

When we finally meet Oberhauser/Blofeld complete with a white Persian cat I really started to have a huge amount of sympathy for Daniel Craig.  I wanted out of the movie theater so I can see why he wants out of the franchise.  Craig did seem to be sleepwalking through this movie.  The entire scene at the North African secret lair with the torture chair device and the villainous monologue had me checking my watch.  For me the gritty, grounded feel of the first films was what brought me back to being a huge Bond fan.  (Didn’t hurt that Craig is gorgeous and a terrific actor), but this film seemed to go back to tired tropes.  I think if you’re going to go flamboyant then it has to be embraced throughout the movie.  This film felt schizophrenic as it bounced between camp and realism.

The women.  Oy.  There are precisely 3 in the film.  The Italian widow who has maybe five lines.  Moneypenny who gets to answer the phone.  And Swan who gets to take Bond to a hotel room to discover an evidence stash and then, inexplicably, go with him to the Secret Lair even though she says she wants no part of her father’s world.  Guess the sex was just that good.  Here’s a personal note — Craig is looking his age which is fine for the idea of the weary warrior, but Léa Seydoux looked way too young for him.  It kept pulling me out of the film.

I know the moment at the end where Bond doesn’t kill Oberhauser,and throws away the gun is supposed to be a big emotional moment but it felt contrived and almost an afterthought.  If the theme was going to be “Bond decides to no longer be a killer” then that tension needed to be laid in throughout the entire film.

For me Skyfall worked so well because it had a coherent theme.  It was about making cold, calculated decisions and the consequences of those choices.  The irony (in the best way, the use of irony to highlight a story) is that the problem is solved not by M’s emotionless assessments, but by Bond making a purely emotional decision to protect this woman who has dominated his life.

I have no idea what the theme of this movie was supposed to be.  I won’t be adding this Bond film to my collection.

 

Appearances

  • Helsinki Worldcon August 9th – 13th
  • GoH at Tuscon November 10-12, Tucson AZ
  • Boskone February 16-18, 2018
  • GoH at Convergence July 5-8, 2018

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