Saturday, April 18, 2015

MAN OF STEEL (2013) & Dumb Darkness

Perusing Facebook tonight, my eye plucked from the plentiful geeky puffery that perpetually passes through my feed a brief op-ed piece from Uproxx that purports to explain "Why the DC Universe is Dark and Gritty." Released alongside the first substantial trailer for BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and authored by a Dan Seitz, it makes a show of tackling criticism that has been leveled at the tone of DC's cinematic offerings but mostly manages to rather spectacularly miss the point of that criticism. It seems a good hook on which to hang my long-delayed review of MAN OF STEEL.

Seitz begins by beating up a straw man, "the implied idea that nobody wants to see dark and gritty superhero movies." If anyone had ever seriously pursued that line the box-office figures Seitz cites are sufficient to refute it, but of course that hasn't been the argument. That a movie featuring some species of dark tone can make lots of money says nothing about whether it should have that tone. Obviously, the Batman should be dark, but what critics in the fan community have noted--and what Seitz entirely sidesteps while in defense of darkness--was that the version of "dark" adopted by MAN OF STEEL, the film that launched DC's new cinematic universe, was entirely inappropriate to the character and material. And those critics are correct. Nothing about that judgment precludes a darker project utilizing the character but there's a certain all-American cornball-ism inherent in Superman. Truth and justice, sometimes "the American way," offered with a wink from a friend who is here to help. Superman is, to one extent or another, the big blue boyscout, a godlike square, a guy with a good heart and pure intentions who, raised as one of us, uses his great powers to protect us. That sort of thing may be frowned upon in some quarters today but with Superman, that's the nature of the character. Superman is not a brooding, alienated anti-hero and if you lose what I've just described and turn him into one, you may be trendy and kewl but you aren't doing Superman anymore.[1] The superbeing from MOS who wallows in constant angst, who chooses to let his adoptive father die for nothing when it would be child's play to save the man[2] and who zips around amidst falling skyscrapers utterly indifferent to--and, in fact, helping cause--hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths is no more Superman than he is Bob Newhart.[3] No one involved in the production of MAN OF STEEL had the slightest interest in making a Superman movie and they didn't.

Superman isn't even the protagonist in MOS. The film is about a civil conflict on a long-dead world being continued on Earth, a fight between an exiled criminal and the ghost of his dead enemy. While Superman is the title character in what's supposed to be the beginning of a franchise built around him, he's virtually irrelevant to the story. He merely shows up to act as the proxy of a dead father he never even knew in the final act of a battle that happened before he was born.

Seitz argues that "the entire point of these movies" is that "the good guy wins against all odds. All we’re really talking about here is how brightly lit his path happens to be as he gets to his inevitable destination." Even setting aside the question of this truncated notion of what the films should be, one can't escape (even though Seitz doesn't address) the fact that the hero's triumphant "win" at the end of MOS occurs over an almost indescribable excess of carnage and death, horrors which, in the movie, are, for all intents and purposes, entirely without consequence. Put on the screen before one's eyes then not even touched upon.[4] Elsewhere, in reply to critics who had slammed the film for its humorlessness and, more broadly, joylessness, Seitz asserts that the film "just wants you to take the idea of a man who can fly and bend steel with his bare hands seriously." Is it really necessary to point out that this consequence-free destruction hardly bespeaks a serious, mature engagement with the material?

The rest of the film doesn't fare any better on that score.

For decades, comic Superman's extraordinary powers have been said to come from the reaction of his Kryptonian physiology to  Earth's yellow sun. MOS alters this equation--they're now the result of a combination of Earth's sun and atmosphere. Appropriately, when Superman goes on the villains' ship and breathes its Kryptonian atmosphere, he loses his powers. But throughout the film, the Kryptonian villains walk around on Earth in spacesuits that pump Kryptonian air for them to breathe yet have all the godlike powers of Superman anyway. Zod, their leader, wants to terraform Earth, giving it a Kryptonian atmosphere, which would presumably take away their powers. Why in hell would anyone who could live as a demi-god want to do that? It gets better too, because he also asserts that merely living on Earth as it is, sans terraforming, would require years of pain to adjust to its atmosphere, then when his suit is damaged he adjusts to the Earth atmosphere almost immediately. Zod has a world engine that can make over the Earth into a clone of Krypton but the process will destroy its inhabitants. This same world engine could presumably make over any planet in exactly the same way but he wants to use it on Earth because, well, because he's the designated villain and that's just the sort of evil stuff villains do. To defeat the villains at the end, Superman opens a black hole within the Earth's atmosphere!

These are just some examples of how "seriously" MOS takes its premise. For Seitz, though, humorlessness and "darkness" equal "seriously." It's a view one encountered with depressing regularity in the early '90s, when the mad proliferation of the sort of rubbish "dark" comics MAN OF STEEL is aping helped to very nearly run the entire industry into the ground. Seitz doesn't stop short of implying the inverse either, that because THE AVENGERS has humor, it doesn't take itself at all seriously, another unfortunate manifestation of that same constipated early-'90s attitude.

In reality, the "serious" MOS is nothing more than a big, stupid, noisy, explosion-filled special effects show aimed straight at the lowest common denominator, a perfect example of the absolute worst breed of Hollywood tentpole spectacle[5] that is utterly off-putting to anyone with any respect for the character.[6] Awash in muted colors, mindless video-game violence,[7] trendy brooding and consequence-free disaster porn, it's a 2+-hour insult, a $225 million rape of a venerable American classic and a black mark on its 77-year history, one Warner Brothers now aims to use as the foundation of its big DC cinematic universe. Pity these iconic characters that they find themselves in the hands of such creatures.[8]

--j.

---

[1] The inappropriately bleak tone is accompanied by inappropriately bleak, shitty, washed-out, near-black-and-white cinematography--lifted, without alteration, straight from the Nolan bat-flicks. But, hey, at least Jon Peters got his Superman-in-black battling a giant robot spider at the end, eh?

UPDATE (24 April, 2015) - The folks at VideoLab have gone back into MAN OF STEEL and done their best to restore color to its cinematography, creating in the process a much better look (and repeating the process with the BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN trailer):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du-eYiD9OfM

In a development that might best be filed under "Butthurt Fanboys Dept.," an article at Furiousfanboys.com claims that VideoLab artificially darkened their "before" clips of both MOS and the BvsS trailer in order to make their restoration look better. I haven't compared theirs against the originals yet, but whether there was any sweetening of the pot, it's very clear that the restoration footage looks far better than the released film.

[2] A pay-off for an earlier scene wherein, as a boy, Clark saves an entire bus full of his schoolmates from drowning but nearly has his powers exposed and his adoptive father Jonathan, the man who, in the mythos, plays such a central role in imparting to Clark his sense of moral purpose, tells the boy it may have been better to simply let them drown. John Schneider, who essayed Jonathan Kent on SMALLVILLE, recently registered the outrage every fan of the Superman mythos owes that moment.

[3] Bob Newhart would actually be a welcome presence because he would at least bring some humor to a picture so entirely lacking it.

[4] Thursday, Joss Whedon revealed he had designed his upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON as a refutation of this sort of thing.

[5] That such movies have been a dime-a-dozen for a few decades gives some wider context to Seitz's effort to argue in favor of such films on the grounds that "it's nice to have a little variety."

[6] Superman's killing Zod at the end of the film created some controversy in the fan community, where many hold that Superman should never kill at all. I don't share this view; in his line of work, that sort of thing may sometimes be necessary. My own objection to that moment was his immediate and over-acted, depth-of-his-soul grief at having taken out a monster who had just committed mass murder against helpless innocents on the scale of a war, was promising more and was in the process of carrying out that promise. To kill someone is a terrible thing but this kind of totally unbalanced reaction suggests a rather profound moral deformity. Salve your conscience later, hero--there are people still dying in the rubble who need your help.

[7] Also mind-numbing. The movie turns into a CGI cartoon for what feels like about 40 minutes in which big sections of the world are being completely destroyed by battling superbeings yet the computer-generated images are so divorced from any semblance of humanity that it becomes boring, like watching a demo you can't skip.

[8] Though to be fair, Warner Brothers' tv-based DC products have fared much better. DC doesn't have a cohesive universe sewn between its tv and feature productions like Marvel and this has made a mess of the various projects, which feature or will soon feature two Flashes, two Supermen, two Deadshots, two Deathstrokes, two Bruce Waynes (both set in the present but one being a 40-something adult hero and the other being a young, pre-Batman teen), and on and on.

Monday, March 30, 2015

THE WALKING DEAD Stretch To Conquer

A little self-promotion up front: I've launched a Facebook page to promote some of my writing endeavors. It's here. If my writing interests you, give it a like.

When, a few weeks ago, it was announced that THE WALKING DEAD's season ender would be expanded to 90 minutes, I was curious as to what that would mean. Typically, the series' creators struggle to fill even their regular one-hour timeslot. Tonight, that extra running-time meant an ep that would, in competent editorial hands, have lasted 53 commercial-free minutes came out at 63. The ep, randomly titled "Conquer," is laden with filler, repetitive scenes, scenes that go on and on. TWD has a tradition of finales that are somewhere between terrible and terribly underwhelming. It's possible to say this was one of the better ones so long as one notes how little it had to do to accomplish that.

As the finale approached, the series creators followed a dismal tradition of their own, making the rounds in the press pimping hints of major cast deaths. As always happens, speculation regarding this became the major source of buzz surrounding the ep. Will it be Daryl? Will it be Maggie? Carol? Glenn? I'm always a bit surprised that some of the people who are allegedly such big fans of the series seem to pay it--and its rules--so little mind. There are no surprise deaths on TWD.[1] On Facebook earlier today, I wrote "Unless TWD suddenly breaks all precedent, we aren't going to see any deaths among the major players." And, indeed, we didn't. I also wrote that "TWD often doesn't set up a redshirt death until the ep in which it occurs." Tonight, Deanna's husband is suddenly given a very prominent moment with Maggie; by the end, he's suddenly history (in a ludicrously contrived manner).

Sasha is still behaving suicidally. Father Gabriel is still a cowardly, back-stabbing dog. Nicholas lures Glenn into an ambush and tries to kill him; Glenn gets the upper hand but still can't bring himself to end this treacherous character. Morgan has coincidentally arrived in the same area of Virginia as our heroes following the map he coincidentally found back in Georgia. When a pair of fellows are about to be eaten, he coincidentally turns up just in time to save the day (using ninja skills he's somehow acquired), and those fellows just coincidentally turn out to be Daryl and Aaron, who had fallen into a remarkably silly zombie-trap laid by the mysterious "wolves" group that has been haunting the perimeter of the series.[2] For a season finale, there's a distinct lack of payoff. Rick sort of comes to see that when it comes to the business of preparing the Alexandrians to survive the zombified world, he's been going at it all wrong and Deanna maybe comes to see it's an uglier world than she previously wanted to admit. No real surprises.[see Addendum below]

Some amusing bits: In an entirely pointless filler scene, Carol visits Pete--she bring shim a casserole! She's tiny in comparison yet threatens him with a knife she, the ace survivalist, holds the wrong way. After his rampage last week, Rick's purloined gun was confiscated. Carol gives him another. Rick then walks down the street, meeting and greeting several people along the way, and when he gets home we see him from behind and he has the new gun is tucked in the rear of his waistband with his shirt bunched up between it and himself--fully visible to anyone. In one of TWD's patented time-gaps, Rick discovers the gate has been left open (by Gabriel) and some bleeding something has slipped in; in broad daylight, he goes to look for whatever it is and it suddenly turns night. From daylight to pitch-black dark. The characters sitting around a campfire holding a meeting on Rick's fate even comment on it (the darkness, not the instantaneous changeover).[3] At one point in a scuffle, Aaron takes out a zombie with a machete in a moment replicated from George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. As with most such moments TWD has duplicated over the years, it mostly just help illustrate why it's a bad idea for TWD to attempt to replicate such moments (it looks awful).

Season 5 had a rock-solid opening episode then immediately collapsed into the usual mishmash of mediocrity with outright awfulness. By the time Aaron found the group in the back half, the series had become nearly unwatchable. The Safe Zone storyline gave TWD a shot in the arm but continues to be plagued by most of the problems that have dragged it down for so long. It is what it is. Too good. Too bad.

--j.

---

[1] Insert my usual thought: Wouldn't it be great to have a TWD that generates a lot of buzz for something besides its use of character deaths as shock-tactics? One that instead drew attention because it was, say, well written?

[2] Three huge trailers meant to look as if they're full of canned goods but actually full of zombies; when anyone tries to open one, they all spring open, freeing the creatures. Why anyone would bother with such an elaborate and dangerous-to-set trap is anyone's guess, and it should, of course, be entirely ineffective--if not immediately nabbed, all anyone has to do is run back out the same gate through which he entered--outpacing the zombies is no problem unless they are of the TWD patented teleporting variety. The "wolves" behind it were careful to select only the most elite zombies--those who are not only teleporters but ninja who know to be perfectly still and silent inside the containers while Daryl and Aaron walk all around them, talking the whole time.

[3] This particular time-lapse has the effect of making Rick, who is supposed to be the uber-competent fellow in the story, look incredibly incompetent. One or more creatures have slipped inside the gate, one of them leaving a trail, and he apparently goes running through the town for an hour or more looking for them without ever sounding the alarm or even telling anyone else they've gotten in.


ADDENDUM (30 March, 2015) - Today's internet fan reaction seems quite divided. Some of the pro-"Conquer" commentary has, in my view, quite radically overstated the amount of payoff in the ep. In spite of some huff and bluster on this point, TWD advanced very little. By the end, practically all of the characters, even those who were given significant screentime throughout it, are exactly where they were before it began. Nicholas spends most of the ep trying to kill Glenn and Glenn still can't bring himself to kill the weasel, leaving their conflict right where it was before. Sasha and Gabriel are given significant screentime; both, like Carol, Maggie, Daryl, Rosita, etc., finish exactly where they were before the ep began. Eugene and Abraham have a moment where they make up, but prior eps had left the impression they'd already done so. In a post-credit sequence, Michonne takes up her sword again but she'd already assured Rick, near the beginning of the ep, that she was with him. The only ones who really changed were Rick and Deanna. Rick has a come-to-his-senses moment wherein he walks away from his desire to launch a coup against the Alexandrians while the accidental killing of Deanna's husband by Pete suddenly brings about a full 180 in her "thinking." This isn't just unsatisfying because of the extremely contrived nature of the scenario or the instantaneousness of her flip-flop; it falls flat because, as I've covered here, it's never been a credibly-written conflict in the first place. Rick's big speech at the end is essentially a rehash of his "I'm not your Governor" speech from season 3.

Monday, March 23, 2015

When THE WALKING DEAD Try, It Works

Another week where I initially passed on writing about THE WALKING DEAD but I've decided to offer up some thoughts anyway.

"Try" was a big improvement over last week's installment. The Safe Zone settings and storylines continue to work. The cold opening wherein Deanna and her family sit around with long faces and listen to her now-dead son's CD is surreal--they're a tad on the elderly side for Nine Inch Nails, which isn't exactly nostalgia-invoking music for the just-departed--but that incredibly poor choice aside (the sequence would have worked best with no music at all), the rest of it works. Carol leaves a casserole at the door with a condolence letter; Deanna leaves the casserole outside and burns the condolence. Yikes!

There's friction in paradise. Deanna interrogated her dead son's cowardly and murderous sidekick whom Glenn inexplicably brought back to town after the weasel had murdered Noah. Weasel-boy makes up a story wherein he's the hero and the others just left poor Aiden to die. Deanna expresses skepticism of the weasel's account. Glenn, meanwhile, tells Rick what really happened. Did Glenn bother to tell Deanna? There's no indication of it. It's possible it could have happened off screen but TWD is a series that perpetually indulges in that most brainless of movie and tv tropes wherein the only reason a story is allowed to continue is because the people in it don't communicate to one another the basic information that would prevent it from doing so, and this is likely another example of it. For her doubts about weasel-boy's tale (which could just as easily be a consequence of her knowledge that her son was a real dumbass), our heroes seem the butt of most of her suspicion. She doesn't need a casserole left at her door; she needs the truth.

Rick, in his 8.0 villain mode, tells Glenn the Alexandrians don't know what they're doing. "...their rules? We don't answer to them." Glenn notes the obvious--"we are 'them,' Rick." Glenn's view is that they have to teach the Alexandrians; Rick is still planning his big takeover.

In a later conversation with Deanna, Rick raises the matter of Pete beating his wife and she reveals that she already knows about it. Rick's solution is to separate them. Deanna asks what he would do if Pete didn't accept that and Rick goes right for the nuclear option. "I kill him." Deanna doesn't have much use for that solution. Her own is to "exile him, if it comes to that," but she's known about the problem for a while and hasn't done anything and doesn't do anything and is skeptical of doing anything.

This is arbitrarily-imposed silliness. For that matter, it's moronic for Rick, given the situation, to have put this to Deanna in the first place. As happens so often on TWD, the story proceeds because the principals refuse to have an adult conversation. Obviously, the abuse is intolerable. Rick is the constable and Deeanna the leader of the town, which makes it their job to deal with the situation. So what do we do about it? The question is never addressed. If worse came to worse and Rick wants Pete dead--as he clearly does--Pete could have simply been made to disappear one night, never to be seen again.

Rick, in a very well-done sequence, confronts Jessie about the abuse then ultimately ends up in a fight with Pete. By the end of it, with Deanna and a few of the other townspeople standing around,[1] an entirely out-of-control Rick pulls his purloined gun and launches his coup attempt. "You want to live? You want this place to keep standing? Your way of living is done!" He rants and raves in similar "I am your king, bring me your gold" fashion until Michonne turns up and clocks him.

Deanna isn't looking very favorably on the idea of Rick staying in town and after that little stunt this is entirely understandable but it must be said that Deanna has been handled pretty poorly in these last few eps. She greeted our heroes, upon their entry into the Safe Zone, with a great deal of enthusiasm. Her darkening attitude toward them has appeared rapidly and with very little actual cause. Her ranting at Rick about how killing people was "uncivilized" would carry a lot more weight if the previous ep hadn't established it was the Alexandrians' policy to simply leave people behind when they get in a jam.

Other developments: Michonne and Rosita learn of Sasha's seemingly suicidal hunting of the dead outside the walls of the Safe Zone. Too much time is spent on this, a matter of very little consequence--it seems to be present solely to provide some gratuitous zombie-killing[2] (or set up Sasha for death). Carl and Enid have some fun frolicking in the zombie-infested forests. Most significantly, Daryl and Aaron, out in the bush, find signs of another group of humans, then find the corpse of a woman who was intentionally tied to a tree and left for the zombies.

This was a surprisingly well-directed ep, with several nice flourishes.[3] The director was Michael Satrazemis, who I didn't immediately recognize but it turns out he did "The Grove" last year, which was excellent, and "Slabtown" earlier this season (he's been a cameraman on the series for some time). The writer of record for "Try" was Angela Kang. She remains a bit of an enigma. In her early work on the series, an ep bearing her name was guaranteed to earn a place at the bottom of the drearily deep TWD barrel. In season 4, she emerged as Kang the Conqueror and authored some of the best eps in the entire TWD canon. This season, it's been back down in the muck again with "Four Walls & A Roof" (co-authored with Corey Reed) and "Coda." This wasn't quite a return to the Conqueror but it was closer to it than to her other work.

Next week is the season ender. "Try" didn't provide much of a set up for it, which makes me think there's a bigger story behind AMC's recently announced expansion of the last ep to 90 minutes. In spite of significant warts, the Alexandria Safe Zone story has, overall, been a winner for TWD and "Try" is another relatively solid entry, if one that, frustratingly, continues to get tripped up in TWD's usual bag of bullshit problems. It would be nice if I could offer some non-attenuated praise for it but the series just doesn't earn that. Not yet.

--j.

---

[1] The Safe Zone is supposed to be a large community, but perhaps because of budgetary concerns there are never more than a handful of people around.

[2] And I dislike that sort of thing. More than that, it's patronizing (from creators who have no grounds to patronize anyone) and offensive. When he took over as showrunner, Glen Mazzara interpreted the dissatisfaction with the dullness of the series at that time as stemming from a lack of action and opted to throw zombies at the problem rather than fixing it. The result was just a lot of zombie killing and action attempting to mask the fact that nothing was really happening. Scott Gimple, when he assumed the showrunner job, initially backed away from this but as with so many other bad habits, he eventually fell back into it. The lack of scenes of zombie-killing has never been TWD's problem.

[3] The fight between Rick and Pete was very well done and very realistic for a tv fight (though not necessarily "realistic" in Pete being able to more than hold his own). Some slow-mo running through the forest by Carl and Enid, a nice lingering shot of a zombie before a break, the gruesome discovery, by Daryl and Aaron, of the woman fed to zombies and so on.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Spend Mother Dick on THE WALKING DEAD

"Spend," tonight's WALKING DEAD, continued some of the better work from last week, and was somewhat hobbled by some of TWD's usual problems.

It kicked off with Noah suddenly being given some focus. He says he's in it (the Safe Zone) for the long haul, wants to be an architect and begins a journal to record all the things he's going to learn. Everyone knows what that means on TWD and, indeed, before the end he's zombie chow.[1]

Noah's death is an ugly affair, graphic, protracted and gruesome, and it didn't even win the title in any of those departments. That honor belonged to Aiden, who has proven himself to be a Grade-A Dumbass in virtually every scene in which he's appeared. Tonight, his dumbassery caught up to him and he became a gory feast for a gaggle of deads. Before his end though, he confessed that the people on his previous crew had died because, when trouble descended, he and his sidekick ran off and left them.

This isn't the only such revelation. Abraham is working on a construction crew building an extension of the Safe Zone's wall. A herd of zombies comes through the site, one of the workers on lookout ends up falling in the midst of them and the rest of the crew just back away, giving up the fallen woman for dead. It's subsequently revealed that the Alexandrians' have a general policy of leaving behind anyone who ends up in such a situation.[2] As usual, everything on TWD has to be ludicrously exaggerated, every point a hammer to the face, and showing that the Alexandrians have this policy is meant to emphasize in this way their cowardice, weakness and incompetence. To note the obvious, this isn't even remotely credible--if they were this dumb they never would have survived so long, much less thrived. On the other side of the coin, both Abraham and Glenn are suddenly given ESP powers they've never previously demonstrated--both have a moment of pause wherein they realize zombies are coming before the presence of the dead is apparent. Again, an over-the-top exaggeration intended to portray our heroes as being, in contrast to those worthless and horrible Alexandrians, uber-competent and indispensable. Deanna, who oversees the Safe Zone, is concerned about so many of Rick's gang being placed in leadership positions. The godawful Father Gabriel, who had overstayed his welcome on the series about 3 minutes after he was introduced, decides to turn up at her door and even further inflame her anxieties. He locked his own congregation out of his church and let them be killed (which suggests he'll fit in well with the Alexandrians) but he tells her the new arrivals are not good people, that they're dangerous and untrustworthy and that they've committed "unspeakable" acts (the worst one, I would suggest, was keeping Father Gabriel alive and with them). Her apparent concern about the new arrivals is hardly credible given the very poor light the ep casts on the Alexandrians, but what can you do? It's THE WALKING DEAD.

"Spend" was, for TWD, another pretty good ep, but this time around I can't help but feel that judgment emphasizes the gap between "pretty good" for TWD and pretty good.

--j.

---

[1] Noah finally breaks TWD's black-guy-in/black-guy-out cycle; now, it seems, the writers just want to reduce the number of black guys, period.

[2] Abraham, for his part, charges into the midst of the dead, rescues her and ends up the crew foreman as a consequence.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forget THE WALKING DEAD

I wasn't going to write about "Forget," the most recent installment of THE WALKING DEAD, but a lot of commentary on the TWD message boards I sometimes haunt has inspired me to offer a few thoughts on it.

The last three eps, which have introduced the tv version of the Alexandria Safe Zone storyline from the comics, have brought about a major shift in the focus of the series. If one ignores the fact that this storyline is being built around one of TWD's patented radical and arbitrary shifts in Rick, its central character, it has worked rather well so far. Overall, "Forget" was easily the best episode of TWD since the present season's opener.

A brief tackle of the Rick shift: As I've so often noted, TWD's soap melodrama model means, among other things, that characterizations are dictated almost entirely by temporary plot considerations, which makes any charge that someone on TWD is acting "out of character" a tricky one to make in all but the most general way. In stark contrast to competently written character drama, none of TWD's principals are, at any stage of the creative process, conceptualized as real human beings. How they're written at any given moment--their personalities, motivations, etc.--is dependent upon who they have to be in order to get on screen whatever the writers want to put on the screen at that moment, and the former shifts with the latter. The newest version of Rick is the 8th major incarnation [see Appendix below], a Rick that is, to the extent that anyone on TWD can be said to be, way out of character; Rick as a sinister quasi-villain.

The overlapping B-plot mini-tales within the Safe Zone, which have been pleasingly dense, have focused heavily on the difficulties faced by Rick's group, a hardened band of traumatized survivors of some of the uglier aspects of the zombie apocalypse, in adjusting to life within a mini-civilization wherein, throughout the crisis, the world has pretty much gone on just as it was before. They're scarred fish out of water in a place that looks just like the everyday world viewers take for granted but that seems to them an alien paradise.

Rick has brought trouble to paradise. I've often written about how TWD demonizes overt survivalist sentiment. Reflecting the perceived mores of its middle American audience, it's essentially conservative in its point of view. "Stay the course" is, in a thousand variations, what the characters say in mindnumbingly repetitive fashion. "If we just stay the course, we'll make it through all of this." And anyone who, heaven forbid, tries, instead, to adapt by adopting an overtly survivalistic outlook is demonized. That theme is at the core of the current A-plot. In "The Distance," Rick was suddenly reinvented as a paranoid, dangerously stupid thug whose jaw-droppingly dumb decisions--born of those nasty survivalist concerns--nearly get everyone killed. At the beginning of "Remember," this new version of Rick was interviewed by Deanna, the congresswoman who oversees the Safe Zone. Of the world outside, he tells her, "People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness. They measure you by what they can take from you, by how they can use you to live." In typically ham-handed TWD style, this turned out to be Rick warning her about himself--that opening scene is bookended by the final moment of the ep wherein Rick says "We’ll make it work. And if they can’t make it, then we’ll just take this place." At the beginning of the next and most recent ep, he, Carol and Daryl are plotting to steal a cache of guns from the Alexandrians for the purpose of militarily taking over the Safe Zone "if necessary." All the while, the would-be coup-sters are quite full of themselves, talking about how "lucky" the Alexandrians have been to have survived so far and how "lucky" they are that Rick's group has turned up, a degree of hubris as extreme as it is dangerous.

It's been somewhat depressing [1] to watch the internet discussions of these developments and see so many reflexively adopt the viewpoint of the plotters, parroting their scripted rationalizations and angrily insisting Rick and co. are merely being "cautious" and looking out for the best interests of the community. Would-be dictators always think they know what's best for their community, and one of the things nearly all of them share is that they never actually do. The Alexandrians have done just fine for two years; the group under Rick's leadership certainly can't say the same. Rick perceives the Alexandrians as "soft." Deanna tells him she wants them there specifically because of their experience on the outside. The last two eps have exposed both significant potential weaknesses in the security of the Safe Zone and the inexperience of its population. Our regulars have pointed out a few problems and made some suggestions for correcting them but they're certainly not sounding any alarm bells or suggesting any major overhaul of anything. Instead of working with the population, Rick is conspiring to take over, to make himself the Governor.

The survivalist conspirators have been made to look pretty bad. Aside from their plot, Rick has also developed a crush on a married woman. Nearly kissed her in a room full of people. After everything he went through with his own wife and Shane, Rick sees the lady walking the streets of the Safe Zone with her husband and at the sight of the other man reaches back and fingers the purloined pistol he's stashed in his waistband in the small of his back. When his co-conspirator Carol is stealing the weapons, her activity is observed by a child and she proceeds to offer a long, sadistic monologue about how, if the boy stays quiet about what he's seen, she'll make him some cookies, but if he should tell anyone she'll kidnap him and tie him to a tree outside the walls so zombies will slowly tear him to pieces and eat him alive. It's a situation that could, in better hands, have been treated with a blackly humorous twinkle; on TWD, from which humor is banished, it's played entirely straight, Carol, who lost her daughter, who taught the children the use of weapons and who needlessly murdered people to protect them, is suddenly terrorizing a child.

In the course of the ep, Aaron, who brought our heroes to the Safe Zone, gets chummy with Daryl and offers him a job as a recruiter for the community. Aaron wants him because, as he explains, Daryl is a guy who can tell the good people from the bad. Daryl, to his credit, proves him right--when the conspirators next meet, he refuses to take any of the weapons Carol has stolen.[2]

Unlike most of TWD, all of this makes for some relatively good television, even if that judgment is dependent upon "Forget"-ing the series prior to the last 3 eps. As noted earlier, the plotters have a significant segment of online fandom endorsing their "reasoning," a segment that, it seems to me, is bound to be disappointed by whatever is to come.[3] To have future episodes eventually side with them would break all precedent but it would also be quite interesting and utterly deplorable. And quite interesting in the way it is so utterly deplorable. So, very unlikely.

--j.

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[1] Though not surprising--while TWD's writers were demonizing survivalist platitudes by turning Shane into a deplorable villain and having him mouth them, there emerged a significant contingent of pro-Shane viewers, sympathetic to those survival concerns regardless of their source.

[2] Showrunner Scott Gimple has always liked Michonne and never liked Rick; Michonne has been presented as a voice of reason, someone who is ready to give the Safe Zone a chance, someone who would be horrified by the activities of the plotters.

[3] I probably am as well. I have no confidence in these writers' abilities to handle in a compelling manner anything of any real complexity.


APPENDIX: The Eight Ricks

[Note: This is adapted from an earlier article, upon which I've freely expanded]

In the first five seasons of TWD to date, there have been eight major versions of Rick. Though there are some overlapping elements at times, all of these are essentially independent of one another, radical changes of direction that are suddenly and arbitrarily imposed at some point, none of them organically growing out of the earlier versions.

In season 1, we get Rick 1.0, a sheriff's deputy thrust into an extraordinary situation who, in spite of some shortcomings, manages to demonstrate significant leadership skills; he's smart, assertive, tough, brave, and, when need be, a real hardass. This is the Rick who walked into certain death in "Vatos" because he knew death was better than giving up those guns and leaving his man behind.

In season 2 though, this original completely disappears and is suddenly replaced by the pathetic Rick 2.0, who is overly emotional, indecisive, weak-willed, and just plain dumb--almost the polar opposite of 1.0 in every way and no leader at all. This is the Rick who can't get off the pot on the matter of Randall, who herds dangerous zombies right through the camp where everyone sleeps in service of the delusions of an unreasonable old man.

By the end of the season, he's still remarkably dumb, but he's shed a lot of the other unappealing attributes the writers had arbitrarily imposed on him. He's Rick 3.0, the Ricktator, the automaton whose word is law and who doesn't really care what anyone else has to say about anything. If the Ricktator was smart, he'd realize that making himself a Ricktator wasn't, and looking over the leadership of Rick 2.0, he'd have to conclude it had been one big fuck-up and that he was definitely not the guy who needed absolute power.

The Ricktator emotionally abandons his wife--in more than 8 months of living in close quarters, we're told he barely even spoke to her. Then, when she dies, Rick 4.0 appears, Crazy Rick, a version who is so upset about this development--the death of this woman he'd so entirely abandoned--that he instantly turns into the bad television version of foaming-at-the-mouth, way-over-the-top-of-the-top Stark Raving Mad, to the point that he's even having conversations with imaginary voices and chasing around the ghost of his wife. And as abject and out-of-control as his lunacy is shown to be, it's still made to turn on and off at the writers' convenience.

Toward the end of that season, right out of nowhere, that pathetic 2.0 version of Rick suddenly returns. This could be seen as either a 5.0 model or a 2.1 (I prefer the former--easier to keep straight). This is the supine Rick who sits through that pointless meeting with GINO then is going to turn over one of his own to the madman to slowly torture to death, even as he admits it won't help anything. He gives a speech at the end of the season and relinquishes his throne.

The next to appear was Rick 6.0, Farmer Rick the Pacifist, a fellow who is trying to get away from it all and live a quiet, easygoing life. Surrounded by a world of flesh-eating ghouls, he'd put away both his own gun and that of his son, infantilizing the boy in the name of imposing some idealized notion of childhood. Dangerously stupid but in different ways from the other dumb versions. This is the Rick who, when called to the fence by GINO, limply declines at first, asserting there's a council that manages things now. When he does slink down to confront his foe, steely determination and matter-of-factly laying down the law would have won the day, but instead he weeps and begs like some pathetic weakling and the prison is lost.

Rick 7.0 appears at the end of that same season, when Rick throws himself into a melee and tears out a guy's throat with his teeth. This is hardcore Rick, who has realized it's a harsh world and has finally gotten in touch with his inner Mean. When they screw with him, they don't know who they're screwing with. Hard but pragmatic, he plots to violently free Beth from the hospital but is still smart enough to listen to a more pacific solution if it will work. When Michonne suggests they should go to D.C. on the assumption that there must be other survivors there in shelters, places in which they could build a life, he recognizes the wisdom in this and leads everyone forward.[*]

And that last is the big turning point. 7.0 led them toward D.C. on that assumption and then when the possibility of a shelter presented itself, he was not only uninterested, he was initially violently opposed to even looking into it. From pretty much the moment he punched Aaron, he's suddenly 8.0, the paranoid and dangerously stupid thug Rick described above, who, among other things, began conspiring to steal the Alexandrians' guns in order to eventually take over the Safe Zone, totally dumping on the trust of the people there absent any real motive and toward no conceivable positive end. Entirely arbitrary characterizations pulled straight out of the writers' asses.

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[*] He's also willing to indulge idealism to the point of impracticality--he takes the group on the 400-mile trip into Virginia to return Noah to his home, even though he doesn't really believe it will still be there, because that was a Beth's wish.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Big, Fat Disappointment: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Took me a while but I finally saw A DAME TO KILL FOR. Loved SIN CITY (2005). Really wanted to see this one. Bad word of mouth made me shelve it for a bit--didn't want my heart broken--but some mechanical troubles last night left me with some time on my hand--my computer has a condition--so I popped it in and gave it a once-over.

SIN CITY cost forty-million bucks and made a nice pile of green for an R-rated pic. Creators Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller managed to spend $25 million more on this one and couldn't even make back their budget.  A DAME TO KILL FOR is mostly empty and uninspired--not worth killing for at all and trying to thrill on autopilot on her last call after a long night. The pieces are all there--tough guys, beautiful dames, grifters, grafters, mugs, pugs, thugs, gore, cynicism and darkness--but it's all just style without much of the fun. Few sparks. Nothing holding it all together. The extra dough (for a lot shorter show) seems to have bought a lot more computer graphics than the original had but little else. The near-decade of technological advances between them sure as hell isn't apparent--everything looks way cheaper than it did before. Mickey Rourke's Franken-Marv makeup is slapped-on and crude this time around and not in any good way. Jessica Alba is still playing what's supposed to be the hottest number in town as a stripper who makes it a point to never strip. There are no less than three assaults on the heavily armed compounds of rich assholes, two featuring Marv and two as the climactic setpieces of two of the film's three longer stories. The graphics are on overload, to the point of becoming quite overbearing. Badly CGI'd cars go up CGI'd winding roads over and over again. Bodies and parts of them fly through the ether. While the violence in the original was gleefully profuse and over-the-top, it always had a point; here, it's even more over the top but the glee is most definitely gone, and a lot of it--maybe even most--is just gratuitous. There for its own sake. And even with all its blood and thunder, A DAME TO KILL FOR manages to be pretty damn dull. Not boring, just mostly uninteresting. Quite a trick.

Eva Green one-sheet
banned by the MPAA.
It ain't all bad though. A lot of what I've just been bitching about gets in the way of what are, at heart, some pretty good stories. "Just Another Saturday Night" is a throwaway piece that doesn't really go anywhere, and "Nancy's Last Dance" is pretty forgettable--more like a highlight reel of a bunch of stuff we've already seen--but "The Long, Bad Night," about a gambler who earns immortality by showing up the most powerful man in Basin City, is a keeper, and the title story "A Dame To Kill For" is definitely the highlight. Its pacing often sucks--the style fucking up the substance--and all the other shit weighs it down but it has a killer cast--as does the entire picture--and most importantly, it has Eva Green. Manute, her maniacal, superhuman manservant, describes her character (Ava) as a goddess who enslaves men to her will. Robert Rodriguez reportedly wanted Angelina Jolie to play the part and she was the obvious model for the comic original but for whatever reason that didn't work out, which is just as well. When it comes to goddesses who could enslave men to her will, Eva Green will do just fine. Gotta' fess up, I'm a big fan, and of all the Sin City comic tales, "A Dame To Kill For" is probably my favorite. The screen version doesn't live up to it and yeah, that's disappointing after how well the first film's adaptations were handled, but it's far from terrible.

For that matter, the movie isn't really terrible. A lot of critics burned it all to hell like it was something personal with them. Maybe with some of them it was--they didn't like the first one and it was great and made a pile of dough anyway, so they doubled down on this one. Can't say it doesn't earn some abuse. It should have been a lot better. As it is, it's, Eva excepted, depressingly middling. An overpriced monument to the declining powers of its creators. Not a complete failure but no getting around it, it was the Big Fat Disappointment.

--j.

Monday, February 23, 2015

THE WALKING DEAD Covers Little Distance 2.0

Not much to say about tonight's TWD. "The Distance" is a title that would pretty much fit any of the last few eps, but not for the reasons TWD's creators would probably care to admit.

Only two eps ago, Rick had agreed with Michonne that the group should go to D.C., on the grounds that it was a reasonable assumption there must be people there in some sort of safe area. On this, the entire future of the group was staked and a long journey undertaken. Tonight, the opportunity to find such a safe area presented itself and Rick did one of those astonishing 180-degree flips TWD's soap melodrama format often imposes on its characters. As usual, the writers chose to demonize overt survivalist sentiment; Rick's caution about trusting the stranger who has landed in their midst promising sanctuary is taken to a cartoonish extreme, leaving him looking like a vicious and completely unreasonable jerk desperately looking for some excuse not to go to the sanctuary.[1] Aaron, the stranger in question, tells our heroes how to get to the Safe Zone and Rick insists on taking a different route. Aaron warns him that this proposed alternate direction is extremely unsafe and Rick not only insists on taking it anyway but insists on doing so at night![2] I'd like to be able to praise the sequence that followed, wherein the group, following Rick's lead, takes to vehicles and ends up plowing right into a zombie herd. Some fun, over-the-top gore and violence of the sort one rarely gets from TWD. But it's all just there to hit that anti-survivalist theme again. Rick's hypercaution nearly got them all killed.[2]

Insert my standard complaint here about every bit of plot progression on TWD being made dependent upon characters doing mind-numbingly stupid things. This was one of the worst Rick examples since he decided to hand over Michonne to GINO. Add to it the team Rick dispatches after Aaron tells him his partner is waiting up the road with a pair of vehicles. Rick doesn't believe this and doesn't even want to check it out! Daryl or Michonne could have quietly slipped through the forest and checked out the situation. Michonne even volunteers to do so. Instead, Rick sends a large, heavily armed party whose ninja-like investigative technique was to walk abreast of one another right up the road in broad daylight. Glenn, running that particular operation, tells the others to shoot anyone who comes at them! Aaron is supposed to be a recruiter who "auditions" new people for the Safe Zone, a job that requires building trust with strangers, but when he tells hyper-paranoid Rick he has applesauce for baby Judith and Rick insists he eat a bite of it first to prove it isn't drugged or poisoned, he goes through an elaborate song-and-dance to try to get out of eating it (he does eventually eat it but the entire incident, which mostly seems aimed at eating up screentime, certainly doesn't speak to his skills as a recruiter). Later, instead of a stealth recon of the route Aaron proposes (and that Rick doesn't trust), Rick has everyone mount up and, in the dark, drive into a place Aaron said isn't safe (which he also doesn't have checked in advance), because, he says, they can use the cover of night if there is some sort of ambush ahead. In the dark, where any bushwackers ahead can see their headlights coming long before they get there but they can't see any bushwackers that may be ahead.

After some zombie combat--in the dark, up the road that wasn't safe--the group escapes and spends the rest of the ep traveling to the Safe Zone, weathering an automotive breakdown written in solely to fill out the running time and arriving at its gates just in time for the closing credits to roll. "The Distance" is a title that would adequately cover the last several installments of the series. Like them, it's yet another ep in which almost nothing of any substance actually happens and most of the running-time is taken up with filler.[3] This particular problem isn't as bad now as it was under Mazzara, to be sure, but the last three eps have been so packed with padding they could survive a reentry from space.

--j.

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[1] In the pre-credit sequence, Rick slugs the stranger--totally unprovoked and against a fellow who had already been disarmed and restrained by the others.

[2] Consistent with showrunner Scott Gimple's apparent biases regarding the characters, Rick was being a dick tonight, while Michonne was the voice of reason.

[3] A complaint that has recently started rearing its head again among TWD internet fans is the assertion that AMC is starting to pack a lot more ads into the episodes. On one board this week, a poster insisted to me that AMC was running so many ads that TWD's running time without them was down to about half an hour! TWD, of course, runs 42-43 minutes a week sans ads, just as it always has. This complaint always starts turning up when the series starts piling on so much padding. Because so little is actually happening on screen between them, the commercial breaks begin to seem overbearing.