Sunday, January 10, 2016

THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1973)

When, in the '40s, Universal's long-running horror franchises entered their decadent period, the studio sought to boost sagging box-office returns by allowing their various creepy critters to cross over into one another's movies. The resulting monster mashes earn most of the abuse heaped on them over the years but their place in cinematic history is a bit more significant than merely signaling the creative decline that eventually sent Universal's once-mighty monsters down the path to the Abbot-and-Costello atrocities. Among other things, a childhood screening of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN eventually gave birth to the entire cinematic career of Spanish horrormeister Paul Naschy. And in 1972 and '73, Spanish fantasist Jesús Franco undertook a trilogy of monster-mashes featuring the classic creeps, one of which has, of late, occupied enough space in my head to become my present subject.

I'm not, I'll confess, particularly fond of DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN, the first of these efforts. Its best idea was Howard Vernon's portrayal of Dracula as a literal living corpse. Sits around silently, unmoving and looking stiff, pasty and dead until suddenly exploding when prodded to action. It's a great image in an otherwise stiff and unmoving film. The second of this run, though, is a different story entirely. Like many Francos, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN--have to love that title, right?--is both an impoverished production and a magnificent little gem of a movie, another example of how Franco could, in his prime, make something great out of practically nothing. The evil immortal Cagliostro murders Frankenstein and steals his monster as part of a plot to use it to cross-breed an army of mutants that will con-kuh duh vorld. Can Frankenstein's daughter stop this evil plan? You know you want it.

Whereas Franco's countryman Naschy always admired the old Universals and employed an almost classical approach when adapting them, Franco's attitude is a sort of irreverent reverence, extending to them as much respect as they deserve while using them as a canvas to play out his own wild and unique fantasies. The Universal monster mashes are deeply embedded in the picture's DNA--Franco even tips his hat to their temporal ambiguities--but Franco's relentless idiosyncrasies indelibly mark this picture as his own. Among other things, his movie features a hulking brute of a Frankenstein's monster with silver skin, a screeching, naked, blind bird-woman who eats flesh and more shrouded mutants than you can shake a stick at. Bizarre camera angles, a focus on fetishistic fixations, a dreamlike narrative, a great, stifling horror-movie atmosphere--it's pure Franco gold.

THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN exists in multiple versions. Some years ago, Image offered a DVD of the Spanish version, from which all the sexy bits had to be either removed or replaced with alternate "clothed" scenes in order to comply with the censorship of the fascist era. Even the "erotic" was stripped from the title. Still a great movie, to be sure, but definitely compromised by the changes. This version's one solid addition was a subplot involving Lina Romay as a gypsy girl. This was Lina's first work with the director. She would, of course, spend the rest of her life as Franco's companion, assistant and muse. Various writers have portrayed her scenes--sometimes inaccurately reported as being only a single scene--as entirely extraneous, which is a misrepresentation. When watching the Spanish cut, it's true her moments do seem at first to come out of nowhere but when, toward the end, their point is made clear, it gives the ending a much harder punch. The French version of the film, which Redemption released in 2012, restores all the material shed by the Spanish but it omits the Romay subplot and the ending isn't as strong for it. Still, unless and until a Dr. Franco-stein turns up to stitch these versions together, the French is definitely the preferred cut of the film. And any version of THE EROTIC (or non-erotic) RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN is worth one's time.

--j.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

From Start To Finish, THE WALKING DEAD Drags

Tonight's WALKING DEAD turned out to be another rather dull affair. The damaged tower outside the wall chose the final moments of the previous ep to fall and take out a portion of the safe zone wall, allowing in the dead. "From Start To Finish" consisted of everyone fleeing the wave of the dead, taking shelter in various houses then mostly just standing around engaged in some of TWD's patented stupidity and making some of TWD's patented speeches instead of doing anything about their predicament.[1] Near the end, Rick suddenly remembers the ol' cover-yourself-in-zombie-stink-camo trick and his group walk out the door between the zombies. The end.

That's the 10 minutes worth of plot that was used to fill tonight's ep. Some of the details:

Glenn arrived outside the safe zone in the last episode. He saw the tower fall and the zombies enter town. An obvious course of action would be to walk back to one of the many cars that, during the herding operation, the Alexandrians parked a short distance from the zone, drive it up, lay down on the horn for a bit and try to lure the zombies away. Instead, he just stands around throughout the entire ep, speechifying with Enid, watching the zombies to-ing and fro-ing, doing nothing.

Rick is the only one who even addresses a potential course of action, if one can apply that label to what he suggests. He wants to stand around and do nothing for a while until, hopefully, the dead bunch up somewhere convenient for him, he can slip out and get to the armory without being eaten and maybe use flares to draw them away. No hurry, though. Rick could, of course, do this right away using the zombie-stink camo trick he employs 20 minutes later--no need to lazily wait around while people elsewhere in the zone are probably fighting for their lives and dying--but TWD is still lost in self-parody mode, so as has been the case throughout this season, memory of that particular technique is turned on and off depending on whether its convenient to what the writers want to arbitrarily happen next. If Rick were to do this right away, it would preclude burning through yet another ep with idle chatter, therefore Rick only thinks of it near the end when his situation deteriorates.

His situation deteriorates because Ron, being an idiot, is all teen angsty over what he sees as Coral trying to steal his girl and with an army of the dead outside (and he's trapped inside with, among others, Rick and Michonne), he decides that's the perfect moment to try to kill his rival for Enid's hand. Only on TWD. He makes his move and in the utterly pointless struggle that ensues ends up smashing a door and letting the dead into the home in which he and most of our heroes are holed up.[2]

Morgan and Carol end up in the same place together. Carol gets it in her head to go downstairs and kill the Wolf whom Morgan has stashed there. Morgan decides he won't let that happen. There's a brief struggle, Morgan strikes down Carol, even though she'd earlier suffered a concussion,[3] the Wolf gets Morgan's stick and brains him with it then manages to escape with a gun and the town's doctor in tow.[4] The Wolf  had promised to kill everyone and having him simply leave without harming anyone after he'd gotten the drop on his captor and five others reeked of a major cop-out, an effort to keep Morgan around a little longer.

Whenever a TWD finale comes along, be it mid- or full-seasonal, the primary question on everyone's mind is "Who is going to die?" It would be nice to have a TWD that encouraged people to look forward to watching for some reason other than what "shocking" death will happen in the finale. This time around, Morgan was the only major player who had been overtly set up for death but I've thought it quite unlikely he'd have finally been brought on as a regular only to be destroyed so soon. My instincts proved correct; TWD opted for a redshirt. Earlier this evening, Arnold Blumberg, the "Doctor of the Dead,"[5] was on Twitter running a poll on "who's going down tonight." I chimed in with my guess:


...which turned out to be correct. Deanna has been doing little more than standing around making grotesque faces and, worse, plans for the future lately. If the axe was going to fall on one of the minors, she was the obvious pick. She was bitten by a zombie near the beginning, spent the ep dying and engaging in the usual Dying People cliche's (giving last speeches aimed at imparting hope to those who will go on, writing notes to those left behind, getting to see the baby "once last time," etc.)[6] and ultimately went out like an idiot, wasting the ammo she'd intended to use on herself on the zombies approaching her, thus ensuring she'd suffer a needlessly horrible death being eaten alive by rotting monsters. No loss there.

The paper-thin plot for this entire season has taken place over a period of only about 24 hours and for weeks, TWD has been merely waging a delaying action aimed at doing as little as possible in order to stretch that plot to the bigger-audience finale. It's a rut into which the series has always fallen. In the end, this midseason finale arrived and we were given what looks more like just another delaying action.

--j.

---

[1] I'm not sure what sort of mind one must have to sit through this ep without greeting the characters' actions with utter incredulity. Everyone runs into houses but no one looks for potential weaknesses that would allow the dead access. Because of this, no one bothers to attempt to barricade any potential weak spots until the dead are already breaking in. For all the talk, talk, talk that consumes much of this ep, no one in any of the various groups talks about what they can do to deal with the situation--the thing that should be foremost on their minds. Only Rick gets a few throwaway lines regarding a potential plan but he's in no hurry. In what should be a fairly extreme emergency, there's no sense of urgency at all. As usual.

[2] Among those holed up there is Jessie's son Sam, who gives an all new definition of "annoying" to the Annoying Kid trope. He spends most of the ep in his room listening to a record of Tiny Tim playing "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" played in an endless loop. The world has ended, Tiny Tim goes on. On the other hand, one could see "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" played in an endless loop as a perfect metaphor for TWD.

[3] Carol suffers a concussion because, when the monsters break into town, she runs and--yes--falls, one of the particularly worn horror movie cliche's; by my count, TWD has used it three times this season. At least she didn't twist her ankle.

[4] The way in which he gets the gun and escapes is bullshit. the Wolf is hemmed into a corner with both Tara and Rosita pointing guns at him while he holds up a knife and threatens to stab the town doctor. In such a situation, one could see Tara giving up her weapon; she's a civilian and one with a personal stake in the matter--but Rosita could have dropped the guy before he even flinched. She doesn't strictly through arbitrary plot contrivance.

[5] And btw, Blumberg's "Doctor of the Dead" podcast is great, even if he is more of a fan of TWD than he should be.

[6] Deanna, who is on her death bead, gets up to see baby Judith that one last time. Rick walks up to check on her, sees Deanna is no longer in her bed then goes into the baby's room to find Deanna hunched over the crib--figuring Deanna had already died and turned, he rushed to kill her, stopping at the last moment when he realizes she's still alive. It provides for a cheap jump-scare and the "see the baby one last time" melodrama but how stupid can Deanna possibly be? She's probably only minutes away from death which will turn her into a flesh-eating monster and she goes into the baby's room?

Monday, November 23, 2015

WALKING DEAD Heads Up, Thumbs Down

THE WALKING DEAD got around to addressing some of the dangling plot-threads it's been avoiding through its last three filler eps but the midseason finale isn't until next week, so even as the series finally starts to deal with these matters, some of which have been left dangling since the first and second eps of the season, the padding required to drag things out to that bigger-audience ep is profuse.

The opening moments of "Heads Up" reveal that--surprise, surprise--Glenn did indeed survive his predicament from "Thank You"; he climbed under a dumpster and hid there until the zombies left. When he crawls out, Enid, who left the safe zone after it was attached by the Wolves, is somehow instantly on the scene to helpfully throw him some drinking water. Absent the use of magic, of course, she had no way of knowing he was under there. Her being there, of all the places in the entire world she could have gone, and finding him just as he emerged is just another of those cosmic coincidences that have become increasingly common this season.

Back at the safe zone, Rick sees Maggie standing watch atop the wall, looking to the west, from whence, she hopes, Glenn will soon return. He mounts the wall and offers her a speech. "When we go out there, it's never easy. It's never simple. It's always a fight. But we've come back from harder things from further away. Glenn, Daryl, Abraham and Sasha, they will too." And so on. As if Maggie is entirely unaware of these things. A hefty helping of screentime-burning low-grade melodrama for the audience but, of course, completely ridiculous as any sort of verbal exchange between these characters.

The scene happens, as noted, while the two of them stand on the wall in plain sight of the gathered dead below. Two eps ago, Rick made a big speech in which his suggested course of action for dealing with the zombies surrounding the town was for everyone there to be quiet and remain out of sight and perhaps the zombies would simply move on. An uncharacteristically good idea from Rick. And, of course, everyone, including, most prominently, Rick himself, proceeded to entirely ignore it. Tonight, we get more of the same. Rick is instructing Ron in the use of firearms and Ron wants to get in some target practice at some of the zombies outside. Rick vetoes this, explaining that the dead outside are spread fairly thin (though only two eps ago, he described the town as completely surrounded by zombies twenty deep) and that he didn't want to risk their bunching up around the source of gunshots, which could result in their overly stressing the wall in that area. He even vetoes target practice in the center of town, which would presumably assuage this problem to an extent. And then shortly afterwards, Rick starts reinforcing the wall, spending an extended period loudly nailing up wood supports on the section of it damaged by the truck collision--the weakest point in the wall.

Viewers, you are being mocked.

Enid and Glenn, meanwhile, basically waste the entire ep. Enid runs away, Glenn chases her down, they argue over whether Enid was going to return to the safe zone with Glenn (something she initially insists she won't do but then relents), then they just dick around, talking, squabbling, no sense of urgency. Glenn is initially terribly concerned about the fate of his wife--the last he heard, zombies were marching on the safe zone--but that seems to go right out the window to make room for this business. And everything that happens between he and Enid is pointless contrivance, there only to eat up screentime. Glenn has absolutely no reason to either pursue her or to insist she return with him; she clearly knows her way around and can take care of herself. Once he's brought her to heel, he's presumably set on immediately returning to town but instead, for no apparent reason, they go in the opposite direction, which appears to be just another geographical foul-up by the writers. A few weeks ago, in my piece about "Thank You," I dealt with the significant geographical problems introduced in that ep. I've prepared a somewhat crude map[1] to illustrate some of them:


Glenn's apparent death happened somewhere in area #6, yet he and Enid, in supposedly traveling back to the safe zone, end up at point #5, where Enid begins to play with the helium balloons our heroes stashed there as part of the zombie herding operation. The two banter. No hurry.

Rick and Morgan finally have a sit-down about Morgan's problematic "all life is precious" philosophy. It's handled much better than one would expect from TWD. Rick learns the Wolves that Morgan allowed to escape were the ones who attacked him and shot up the RV, which killed his plan to lead the zombies away and resulted in the town being surrounded. Morgan confesses he just doesn't know if he can follow his philosophy in this zombified world. Morgan doesn't tell anyone about the Wolf he captured though and in a bit of absolutely unconscionable behavior, he goes to the infirmary and procures precious antibiotics for the homicidal maniac he's keeping locked up. Carol catches on but the ep cuts away before she learns exactly what he's done.

More padding: Rosita teaches a "class" of Alexandrians about how to use a machete, Spencer tries to go off on his own in an effort to lead the zombies away, is nearly eaten and has to be rescued and so on--more events present solely to eat up screentime. After being so generally dreary, "Heads Up" ends on a pretty good last image (though the lead-up to it is marred by another cosmic-scale coincidence) but that can't make up for the fact that a viewer could skip from the third ep of this season to this one without having missed a thing (and most of what happens in this one could have been done in 20 minutes).

--j.

---

[1] As crude as it is, it does manage to incorporate every bit of information we've been given about the area. If I've missed anything, I'm sure eagle-eyed readers will spot it. There is a dried-up creek somewhere along the route taken by Rick and Morgan when they were disposing of Pete's body--a bridge passes over it. There isn't enough info to plot its course and it doesn't matter, so I've ignored it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Not Always Accountable For THE WALKING DEAD

A prologue...

It was dusky Sunday
I greeted with particular dread.
Soon, the autumn evening
Would again yield up THE WALKING DEAD.
It will be back to the safe zone
Where nothing's really very safe,
Where people aren't very bright,
Where they tend not to tend the gate.
Rick and his gang are the new power there;
They've taken over the entire town.
And when anyone questions their wisdom,
The show's writers strike that redshirt down!
Rick and Morgan found a quarry.
It was packed with zombies galore.
About this, something must be done;
"I don't take chances anymore."
But Rick pined to unleash that zombie herd
Within spitting distance of home!
We can lead them away from here, he said.
After that, who cares where they roam?
A really bad idea, it would seem,
But Rick was brave, Rick was strong!
With a guy like that seeing it through,
What could possibly go wrong?
Then everything did, of course,
And in very short order.
Soon, everyone was running.
Soon, all was in disorder.
"They walk, we run," shouted one girl who fled
To let her mates know they weren't beaten.
She fell in a cliche hacked in the ground,
Twisted her ankle and soon was eaten.
Michonne sensed doubts, so she stopped to make a speech
About how Rick's team are vets: "We know what we're doin'."
But the ol' zombie-guts trick plumb slipped her mind
So it was on her team's guts the dead were soon chewin'.
Toward the safe zone the herd was now bound.
Rick sought to head it off at the pass.
He sprinted a mile in 20 minutes--
These writers' version of hauling some ass.
His plan to lead it away didn't work
And he escaped without a second to lose;
Some Wolves that Morgan allowed to run off
Shot up the RV he was planning to use.
So he broke and ran with the dead in pursuit
Right to the gates of the town,
Trapping people there like sardines in a can,
The hungry dead all around.
But Rick is a pro and knew what to say:
"We'll be quiet, unseen, burn no lights at all
"They'll forget we're here and then go away,"
He said in a loud speech made right by the wall.
Then he climbed up that wall to stand a watch
In plain sight of the hungry dead below.
He posts a regular watch there as well,
Thus ensuring the dead will never go.
"I won't watch my family starve," said a fat guy
Who led a raid on the town's food
But Spencer diffused this with a speech of his own
"If you do this, we'll all be screwed."
That fat guy then saw Jessie kill a zombie
Then break into a speech, more corn and cliche.
Fat guy had heard three bad speeches in a row;
How motivated he must have felt that day!
There's a shortage of experienced hands
On hand to deal with the crisis at hand.
In such circumstances, the townsfolk place
Their lives in the hands of Rick's expert band.
Maggie and Coral show this trust their respect--
Two of the few pros still left in the zone--
They both plot to secret themselves out of town,
Each on self-concerned missions of their own.
In the end, neither ends up going;
The safe zone's pantry remains unraided;
The fate of Glenn remains unaddressed;
The problems with Morgan remain unstated;
The Wolf Morgan caught is still unmentioned;
And no word from Daryl, Sasha or Abraham;
No plot advancement in this ep at all,
Just as much filler as in it could be crammed.
The ads for the coming evening's tale
Promise only another bloated side show,
A thing that should just be a subplot
But instead is blown up to a full episode.
So as dusk gives way to dark,
THE WALKING DEAD will soon reappear.
Will they have their bearings back?
Or will they just talk about the deer?

And on to tonight...

There was some talk about the deer in tonight's installment and as the preview last week suggested, this did  indeed turn out to be a filler-packed side adventure, something that could have--and in competent hands, would have--been woven into last two week's non-stories instead of being padded out to fill an entire episode. This one follows Daryl, Sasha and Abraham as they finish the task of moving that zombie herd they've been wrangling since the season opener. The first scene is yet another spectacular shot of a seeming infinity of zombies marching up the road as far as the eye can see but though the title of the ep was "Always Accountable," that huge herd on which we open is something for which the writers entirely failed to account.

Sasha alerts Daryl they're a mile from their intended turnoff. They speed up to put some distance between the creatures and themselves, make a left and are immediately attacked by a gang of thugs with fully automatic weapons who just open fire without word or warning. By one of those cosmic coincidences that substitute for so much of the plotting on TWD, it turns out that in all the roads in all the places in this sparsely-populated apocalyptic world, these attackers were beside the one on to which our heroes turned waiting to ambush an entirely different group. A firefight ensues. Daryl guns his motorcycle and flees into the forest to escape his attackers. Sasha and Abraham defeat theirs but lose their car.

Our heroes now have a serious problem. Thanks to all that gunfire, that huge herd they'd just left a mile down the road is going to be heading their way. Immediate priority: get some new wheels, regroup and get the hell out of Dodge.

Except the writers then forget all about that herd. We don't see it again, don't hear from it, the characters don't mention it and act as if it doesn't exist. Rather than trying to find either Daryl or some transportation, Sasha and Abraham decide to wait for Daryl to find them--they break into a building and hole up! Then they talk about the deer: Sasha doling out one of TWD's patented soap speeches as they opt to settle in for the night![1]

Meanwhile, Daryl, who is just as entirely unconcerned about the zombie herd, encounters a trio of travelers who were the intended quarry of the gunmen. They've apparently left some survivor group that had morphed into a cult. Its nature is never really made clear, just that it was unpleasant and these folks had escaped it. The cult's intentions aren't clear either. It staged the initial ambush as just a kill-on-sight operation but in the rest of the ep, the cultists seem intent on making the escapees return alive. The cultists pursue the trio but after one is bitten by a stray zombie and his arm amputated, they simply leave and are then entirely forgotten. Daryl and the escapees walk around at a leisurely pace, spend the night somewhere in the forest (we aren't shown this), even stop to dig graves when one of their number is killed (in, honestly, a pretty idiotic way). It's TWD--one learns not to expect logic or consistency. The story of these three characters is, in any event, present merely to eat up screentime, just like everything else in this ep. Near the end, Daryl offers to take them to the safe zone; they opt, instead, to steal his motorcycle and ride off the show. Probably the smart move.

Along with the zombies up the road, the fate of the safe zone is pretty much forgotten. The last our heroes heard, half the zombies they were driving had broken off and were headed toward town but throughout all of this extended dicking around by all of them, no one is terribly concerned about it or in any hurry to get back. Daryl was so worried in "Thank You" that he was prepared to abandon the zombie herding operation; here, he just dawdles, seemingly entirely unconcerned even as he tries to recruit the folks he's met to come live at a home he doesn't even know is there anymore.[2] The only word on the subject offered by anyone is a stray line by Abraham on the second day--he says he's confident whatever happened back there is being handled.

Daryl, having lost his ride, finds a gas truck (introduced earlier), finds Sasha and Abraham[3] and they head for home. The end. For the third week in a row, the creators have opted for another extended delaying action aimed solely at getting the series to the midseason break (and its intended "shocking" events) without having to actually write enough of a story to accomplish this.

The dead are walking through their sixth season
And their ratings are still quite strong
But their creators are completely shot
Their show has hung around too long.

--j.

---

[1] The self-parody continues in this ep as well. When Abraham wants to kill a zombie near the building in which they're planning to hole up, Sasha, concerned there may be more gunmen in the area, berates him. "Don't leave a trail of breadcrumbs!" As she carves Daryl's name into the door they're about to enter.

[2] This is particularly egregious in Daryl's case because the series has, at times, gone out of its way to establish his very strong connection to the others. In season 3, he refused to run off with Merle because of it. In season 4, it was established that as one of the uber-capable survivors, he felt personally responsible for protecting and defending the others and was wracked with guilt over having failed to track down GINO, who later returned and destroyed the prison. He's been established as an impulsive man of action, something reflected only an ep earlier in his aborted effort to abandon the herding operation in order to render assistance in dealing with the thread to the safe zone. Nothing is ever really "established" when it comes to TWD characterizations though; looking for any consistency is sheer folly.

[3] Abraham finds a collection of RPGs at one point but the launcher is on the shoulder of a zombie impaled on some collapsed fencing on an overpass. Abraham has set out to pike every zombie he's seen so far in this ep but instead of doing this, he crawls out on the fencing like an idiot to wrestle with the creature for a while, suddenly dealing with the hack writer's version of Inner Pain and nearly getting bitten. The way he gets the launcher is another of those cosmic coincidences but this one is sort of funny and so somewhat forgivable.

Monday, November 9, 2015

WALKING DEAD, Now Hear This!

Tonight, THE WALKING DEAD followed up last week's 90-minute filler ep with a 60-minute filler ep. Its official title was "Now" but a better one would have been "Now Hear This!" With the exclamation point. The characters on TWD never just talk to one another. They don't have ordinary human conversations. As I've long noted--since my very first article on this series, in fact--even banal interactions between them too often tend to be expressed via a form of brutally anti-naturalistic soap-opera speechifying and "Now" was one of the worst dialogue eps in this respect in a while, nearly every significant interaction being some preposterous speech that tries to grandiloquently express some ever-so-profound-and-important sentiment but just ends up leaving any viewer with any sensitivity to dialogue with an ear infection.[1] Now hear this!

It begins with Rick and Michonne's group hauling ass through a horde of zombies that are shambling toward the safe zone. The writers have arbitrarily afflicted Rick with a rather severe case of slug-footedness lately and some of the slow, shuffling creatures are actually outpacing him as he, at a full head of steam, heads for the gate. Two weeks ago, in "Thank You," it took him 20 minutes to run only a mile but by the time you're being outrun by critters that have been corpses for nearly two years, perhaps it's time to pray to the writers for speed that more obviously reflects your script immunity.

Next, it's the script's turn to get slug-footed--pretty much nothing of any substance happens beyond those opening moments. With the town surrounded by zombies, Rick immediately delivers the first speech of the evening, a rundown of the situation intended to boost morale which he packs with gravitas, gesticulation and dramatic pauses though he's only addressing about 10 people who are milling about in his immediate vicinity. Rick tells the assembled the best move is to try to make the dead forget they're there--to be very quiet at all times, pull the drapes at night or, better yet, don't turn on the lights at all. "We try to make this place as quiet as a graveyard to see if they move on." Not a bad idea but, consistent with TWD's descent into self-parody, one delivered as part of this unnecessarily loud speech. The community entirely ignores this advice throughout the ep--we see lights on at night, people talking, even people loudly arguing. Most hilariously, Rick himself is seen shortly after his speech standing on the wall in full view of the dead outside! Worse, he sets up a regular watch there, so there will always be live people in sight of the hungry dead (who, of course, won't be going anywhere as long as this is the case).

Some of the Alexandrians decide the end is nigh and get it in their heads to raid the community pantry, gruffly rejecting the notion that, with the town surrounded by zombies, they need to carefully ration the food. This leads to another big speech, this time by Deanna's son Spencer, who manages to shame the would-be pirates out of their raid with a dimestore angels-of-our-better-natures schtick. Rationing is a necessary measure but food shouldn't really be an immediate concern. One of the filler scenes in "JSS", set earlier that same day, established there was so much that some of it had been sitting there collecting dust for ages and as a consequence of the raid by the Wolves, there are now a lot fewer mouths to feed, both facts that seem to have slipped down a Memory Hole. The Alexandrian leading the pantry raid who was charged with complaining that he didn't want to watch his family starve was a rather fat fellow.

The unintentional self-parody creeps in at every turn. Throughout this season (and the end of last), TWD has constantly hammered the theme that our heroes have been out in the apocalypse and know what they're doing, even as their every action loudly screams otherwise. Tonight during Rick's opening speech, Aaron sounds off at one point with a mini-speech of his own in which he praises their experience and talks about how Daryl has proven wiser than he. "Now," with Daryl, Sasha, Abraham and Glenn--a big portion of their experienced hands--out in the field and away from town, this ep saw both Maggie and Carl independently plot to even further reduce the veteran manpower on hand during the crisis by secreting themselves out of the safe zone to search for, respectively, Glenn and Enid. Put your lives in the hands of these pros, Alexandrians.

Jessie comes across a zombie in a house. She opens the door and kills it but then she, too, must turn to the other ten townspeople who have randomly gathered to watch this and deliver another motivational speech about this being how life looks these days and how they all have to fight.[2] Maggie and Aaron try to slip out through a sewer that leads outside the walls--a rather huge potential security risk to suddenly pull out of a hat like a rabbit at this late date[2a]--but they find the pipe doesn't come out beyond the assembled dead. Aaron notes there are only a few zombies and that they could fight through them but Maggie, in an utterly random and inexplicable twist, suddenly decides not to go and puts a stop to the adventure. Then to "explain" this, she gives yet another speech,[3] this one about how both he and she will just have to live with whatever happens in life. A rambling, teary-eyed diatribe that doesn't explain a thing.[4]

In the end, Maggie and Aaron decide not to go look for Glenn, Carl doesn't go to look for Enid, the Alexandrians don't raid their own community pantry, the fate of Glenn isn't resolved or even touched upon, the Wolf whom Morgan is holding isn't mentioned and the disastrous effects of Morgan's recent behavior remain unaddressed.[5] In short, this was an ep in which there were lots of unintentionally funny moments, lots of dialogue that doesn't remotely approximate any form of actual human interaction but one in which, beyond the opening minutes, absolutely nothing of any consequence happened. Another ep full of foam to tick off the season order and nothing more.

--j.

---

[1] The awful dialogue made me think of last season's "Consumed," and I wasn't really surprised when, just prior to beginning this article, I looked it up and saw that Corey Reed, the writer-of-record on tonight's opus, was a co-writer-of-record on that previous mess.

[2] Alexandrians didn't seem to have much to do tonight but mope around listening to speeches. Fat Guy, who led the raid on the pantry, was, like several others, present for Rick's speech, Aaron's mini-speech in the middle of it, Spencer's speech and Jessie's speech. Imagine how motivated he must have felt that day!

[2a] 9 Nov., 2015 - It also could have been the means of the safe zone's salvation. One of my constant gripes about TWD is how the characters spend so much time on ridiculous soap nonsense at the expense of time devoted to how they can survive their situation--the thing that would, in such a scenario, be their primary focus. Here, someone or a team of someones could slip out through that drain, find some wheels, make a little noise and lure the herd away from town. Instead, it materializes just like that magician's rabbit solely for Maggie's attempted search-and-rescue mission-- or, more specifically, to work in all the melodrama surrounding that--then is forgotten as soon as she changes her mind.

[3] Lauren Cohan has always had trouble keeping Maggie's faux-Southern accent consistent but throughout this ep, it's hilariously awful, particularly when she's doing this big, impassioned speech.

[4] The ep runs a little over 40 minutes sans ads and the total speech-count was five or six, depending on whether one counts Aaron's early remarks as a new speech or as part of Rick's speech.

[5] The ripple-effect of disaster from Morgan's behavior continues; the group of Wolves whom Morgan allowed to escape at the end of "JSS" immediately encountered and tried to kill Rick in the RV at the end of "Thank You." Probably because of damage inflicted by the gun one of those Wolves took before fleeing, the RV wouldn't start and Rick couldn't lead the herd away as he'd planned. As a consequence, the safe zone is now surrounded by the dead. The closest tonight's ep came to addressing any of this was a line in Rick's speech about there being more than needs to be discussed, offered while he was looking right at Morgan.

Monday, November 2, 2015

WALKING DEAD: Here's Not Here. Or There. Or Anywhere [Update Below]

My analysis of THE WALKING DEAD, both here and in the other locales in which I discuss the show, has, of late, been trending toward the idea that TWD has entered the "stuck around way too long" seasons, those follies every long-running show seem to indulge when it's creatively spent but still popular enough to continue getting renewed. I've been surprised by this as it has unfolded. Creatively, the series has rarely been any great shakes--it peaked with the pilot and the fourth season was the only one where any case could be made that the good outweighed the bad. Before last year's midseason break, I predicted that the series' viewership had peaked, that the show had fallen into a painfully predictable formula while having attracted a far larger audience than its creative shortcomings could possibly sustain.[1] The Alexandria Safe Zone storyline offered the opportunity to give the series a shot in the arm. Instead, all of TWD's bad old habits followed it behind those walls too. Before the current season launched, I thought the show had at least one more season before it began to hit that "stuck around way too long" twilight. I was wrong. That twilight is upon us.

I've written a lot here about the series' creative decline. The entire season to date has been built around Rick's Pied Piper plan to lead the quarry zombies away from town, a plan that was not only completely unnecessary (because a plethora of other options were available, every one of them better, safer and far less labor-intensive) but completely insane--so dangerous and subject to armageddon-level disaster if any one of about 50 things go wrong that it wouldn't have been the last thing anyone would consider when contemplating how to deal with the quarry situation only because it never would have been suggested as an option at all. The execution of this plotline has been as bad as the idea. TWD is suffering severe creative rot and has become bogged down in a rigid formula from which its creators are simply unable or unwilling to extract themselves.

Arnold Blumberg and Scott Woodard, who do the "Doctor of the Dead" podcast (which is excellent, btw, and you should be listening), are overly fond of TWD but not uncritical of it. Their love for it often seems to me to be against their own better judgment. In their most recent installment, Scott said the most recent TWD ("Thank You") employed tactics that seemed "beneath THE WALKING DEAD." I'll confess to getting a good laugh from this--I doubt anything is beneath THE WALKING DEAD--but the legitimate point upon which Scott was touching is this creative rot. I wasn't bothered when, at the end of the ep and with the dead closing in on Rick, the RV suddenly wouldn't start but Scott was quite correct about this being a horror movie cliché we've endured for decades. For me, the real groan-inducing example of this same sort of thing was another Arnold and Scott discussed: everyone is running from the shuffling dead and the girl falls and sprains her ankle, a trope so shopworn that publicly donning it as a garment would get one arrested for indecency.

TWD compounds the offense be telegraphing it. Only seconds before it happened, the same girl had tried to bolster the courage of the others, telling them "they [the dead] walk, we run!" That ridiculous reversal really drives home the extent to which TWD has, this season, become like a parody of itself. Any time a redshirt questions Rick, he's immediately killed. With Carter, the season opener set a new record for how long between pronouncement and death these events occur but "Thank You" topped it; it was less than a minute between an Alexandrian ranting about how Rick had dragged them out there to die and one of TWD's patented teleporting zombies materializing in their midst and making hash of the heretic. Rick in the season opener says "I don't take chances anymore" just before electing to release thousands of zombies right on top of their home. Michonne, last week, gives an extended, self-righteous speech about how she, Rick and the others know what they're doing and the Alexiandrians don't while she, the allegedly wise and hardened vet, progressively loses one person after another because she can't remember to use the old "cover yourself with zombie stink" routine, which would have allowed them to walk safely home, zombies or not, at whatever pace they preferred. She knows what she's doing but she doesn't know to use the old "cut off a zombies arms and jaw" routine either, which would have allowed for the same thing.

While it's impossible to receive such things as anything other than self-parody, they're not meant to be taken as such and the conclusion this suggests is that the writers themselves, so unbearably pretentious about their own work in their every public pronouncement, don't really even care what they're writing anymore. This is definitely a "stuck around way too long" season.

That brings me to Glenn's apparent "death" last week and some subsequent events that have led me to question if my TWD writings have also entered a sort of twilight. I write a lot about how TWD is forever mired in a rigid, absolutely unyielding formula and one of the aspects of that formula is that major characters don't die until the writers have spent a great deal of time ham-handedly telegraphing the death. The marked character suddenly gets a series of scenes in which the spotlight is on him or his own subplot or even an entire ep in which he's featured.[2] But however it's done, it's always done. There are never any surprises when it comes to this. The formula is more rigid than that of a slasher movie. And I know this! In my article last week, I wrote that "when he [Glenn] died without prior ceremony, it was as if he hadn't died at all." But even though this was such a radical deviation from a formula from which the series never deviates, I never thought Glenn wasn't dead until I started reading the TWD message boards later that night. Apparently, showrunner Scott Gimple had suggested, on the Talking Dead, that Glenn may still be alive. It had everyone chattering, exactly as was the intention of the whole stunt--twilight seasons love these sorts of gimmicks. Physically, of course, there's no way Glenn comes out of that situation alive. One can forget the physical aspects of this though; they're never going to be explained in a way that's satisfying or, indeed, anything less than an insult. The reason Glenn isn't dead and that we'll eventually have the equivalent of a Bobby-in-the-shower moment when he's revealed to have survived is because he died without any ham-handed ceremony. Over the years, I've occasionally gotten wrong minor details about TWD. I go back into my articles when one turns up and write a footnote correcting the record. That I initially missed this makes me feel as if I've made a major error, my first really big one regarding TWD.

Over the years, I've often felt at various times as if I've said everything about TWD I had to say. I begin to feel as if my articles don't add anything to what's already here or are repetitive. Sometimes, I've made them repetitive on purpose as a sort of private joke on the series' own repetitiveness. Maybe my analysis really has run its course. When it comes to this business regarding Glenn, I should have caught it.

Whether my TWD writing has hung around too long, it's certainly the case that TWD has. "Here's Not Here," tonight's installment, followed the usual TWD pattern; the tense situation the prior ep tried to set up is immediately followed by throwing out the drag-weights, slamming on the brakes, bringing everything to a halt and aggressively eradicating any such tension.[3] So this week, we got a lifeless, soulless, retread flashback unconvincingly explaining how Morgan became a stick-wielding Kwai Chang Caine wannabe whose content-free "all life is precious" ideology makes him a liability and a danger to everyone around him.[4] Last week, in a development I didn't mention in my write-up, the Wolves whom Morgan allowed to escape the safe zone attacked and nearly killed Rick. If tonight's ep was meant to rationalize that sort of behavior, it failed miserably.[5]

AMC clearly realizes TWD has shot its wad. It's why FEAR THE WALKING DEAD ended up as merely a cheap copy-and-paste of the original, an effort to recreate it--and, hopefully, its success--on a much lower budget and to further milk the greying cow. "Here's Not Here" was yet another 90-minute episode, the third one in five eps. TWD typically has trouble even filling the 60 minutes allotted it and has to resort to all manner of padding. All of the recent 90-minute eps have packed in even more of this filler. Tonight's was all filler, an ep that exists for no other purpose than to fill out a slot in the annual order (rather than actually use the time for anything). But 90 minutes allow for more commercials. And AMC just announced TWD has been renewed for another season after the current one.

Milk that cow right to its grave.

--j.

---

[1] That's been born out by the ratings so far. All of TWD's season openers have, throughout its run, added large numbers of viewers over the previous season. This season, viewership for the debut tumbled to a lower level than has been seen since season 3. I'd predicted in various locales that the ratings would either stay flat or go down, particularly after FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, but I was stunned by how radically the ratings dropped.

[2] Sometimes, the character gets an extended storyline in which he's demonized to the point that viewers are glad to see him go.

[3] Yes, I've written that before. Yes, I did it again just then on purpose.

[4] In one of those trillion-to-one cosmic coincidences around which so much of TWD is built, this ep was built around Morgan, still in an insane state after the events of season 3's "Clear," running into and taken in by one of the two or three psychiatrists left in the world, who also happens to be a Zen master.

[5] In the course of it, a fellow Morgan senselessly murdered came back as a zombie and bit his Jedi sensei. One can see this as being Morgan's fault for killing the fellow but given Morgan's recent actions, the reading of it that screams to the viewer is that this was a situation with which Morgan failed to properly deal and that came back with disastrous consequences--if he'd have piked the fellow in the brain, his sensei would still be alive.


UPDATE (2 Nov., 2015) - Lebeau over at Le Blog has done a really good write-up on last night's ep. his thoughts on TWD usually align with mine and we have a sort of friendly competition when it comes to writing about it but I usually write mine first, so I don't get as much chance to plug his pieces. If you're looking for something that covers the episode, his piece this week is definitely better than mine. I thought his was better last week as well but looking at them now, our two articles seem to compliment one another. Read both!

My overriding thought about last night's ep was that it really wasn't worth any time, which is why I didn't give it much time in my piece. Lebeau pretty much agrees with me on its merits but gave it much more considerate treatment and came up with some good observations ("Eastman" being a terrible fake name for the Jedi Master character, for example). Some of the commentary I've seen this morning made me want to add a few more thoughts.

I wrote that Morgan's "all life is precious" ideology is "content-free," but while "Here's Not Here" was meant to establish where Morgan got it, the ep actually does nothing to establish why he picked it up from Eastman. Eastman is a nice guy and brings Morgan back to his senses after he'd practically lost his mind but that doesn't really constitute any reason to adopt Eastman's philosophy. Indeed, Eastman himself is given no clear reason for having adopted it. As the ep proceeded, we learn that Eastman slowly starved to death an evil psychopath who had murdered his family. Eastman says doing this didn't make him feel any better but he still did it. He seems to have adopted the "all life is precious" philosophy in the wake of this in order to find inner peace but he's a fellow who has spent nearly the entire zombie apocalypse in a remote cabin entirely isolated from what was happening in the rest of the world. Outside the confines of the little world he's built for himself, it's often kill or be killed and his view is delusional. Entirely incompatible with reality. Morgan, on the other hand, is, by this point, well aware of what happens outside that little fence that keeps in Eastman's goat. He knows the score. In a 90-minute filler episode, there's never any connection made between Morgan and what Eastman was preaching, no insight, no moment at which Morgan came to see it as a better way, no incident that provided Morgan with any reason to see wisdom in it or to want to make it his own. The two never even have a conversation wherein the state of the world is discussed in relationship to this philosophy. That would require a greater depth than is present in martial arts movie clichés, a depth TWD's overbearingly pretentious writers are entirely incapable of providing. Morgan's adopting Eastman's view is utterly arbitrary, the character suddenly turned into an entirely new character solely because of temporary plot needs. Which is, of course, TWD's usual m.o.

Worse, it can be read as a very serious reduction of the character. Morgan, when he was introduced, was a fellow who just couldn't bring himself to kill the zombie that had once been his wife. This made him very human. It's the reason the character became so beloved. Later, in "Clear," it was revealed that he'd continued to put off killing the creature until, one day, it killed his son. In last night's opus, he senselessly murdered a fellow but didn't pike the fellow's brain. As Lebeau notes, that was an entirely arbitrary decision, and as I wrote, the fellow Morgan murdered came back as a zombie and bit Morgan's Jedi sensei. "One can see this as being Morgan's fault for killing the fellow but given Morgan's recent actions, the reading of it that screams to the viewer is that this was a situation with which Morgan failed to properly deal and that came back with disastrous consequences--if he'd have piked the fellow in the brain, his sensei would still be alive." Toward the end of last season, one of the Wolves turned up at the now-"enlightened" Morgan's camp. He announced his intention was to take everything Morgan had, including his life. Morgan allowed the fellow to live; the same fellow later came back with his Wolf buddies and carried out horrendous atrocities against the Alexandrians. When Morgan faced those marauding Wolves, he stood around like a naive idiot who had never lived so much as a day in this zombified world and didn't know what to do, trying to reason with them while they were committing gruesome murders he could have prevented. When he faced down the final group of them, he told them to run away and allowed them to escape. Minutes later, storytime, they attacked and tried to kill Rick. In arbitrarily imposing this "all life is precious" business, the writers have not only reduced this once-very-human fellow to a one-note caricature--his one all-time-worst mistake repeated into infinity--they've now made him ideologically committed to being nothing more. Morgan, the dumbass who gets others killed because he can never learn his one lesson.

Two weeks ago, in the wake of Morgan's handling of the Wolves, I wrote there was "a time-limit counter practically flashing across the back of his head." As I discussed with Lebeau this morning, "it seems incredible to me that Morgan would be reintroduced into the series just to be killed but a character suddenly getting a featured ep usually means the end is near. I’ll note that the series introduced a new black guy a few weeks ago on camera [Heath] and without killing an established one, which has never happened in the entire run of TWD, and that the midseason finale is rapidly approaching." In the context of this update, I'd also note the longstanding practice by TWD's writers of assassinating the character of popular figures on the series they plan to eliminate. This is done so the audience won't be alienated by the death. I expected Morgan to stick around longer. Maybe TWD won't stick with its usual formula here. Wouldn't that be something?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SUPERGIRL: The Pilot

I've long been a mouthy advocate for getting--finally getting--comic book heroines on the screen and Supergirl has always seemed to me a character with a lot of potential for adaptation. Her one feature appearance, 1984's SUPERGIRL, became a bit of a fiasco and, in turn, became something of a camp classic. She was later introduced into SMALLVILLE, which did hint at all that potential but she was still just a supporting character. I was pleased when Greg Berlanti, a creator of CW's ARROW and THE FLASH, announced he was working on a Supergirl series. Eventually, CBS picked it up and last night, it made its big debut. The pilot is slapdash at times, dramatically confused at others but it left me at least willing to see more.

The series eschews the original--and convoluted and bad--origin of the character in favor of a sort of mucked-up version of one introduced in the comics about a decade ago. In the tv telling, after baby Kal El--Superman--was launched to Earth from a dying Krypton, his cousin Kara Zor El, then 13 years old, was dispatched to look after him. The blast-wave from the explosion of Krypton knocked her ship off course and into the Phantom Zone. When it finally made its way out and to Earth, twenty-four years had passed, though she, preserved in suspended animation, hadn't aged.

Given Superman's own story, the nature of the Phantom Zone, etc., very little of this makes much sense but as quick and dirty as it seems to a comic vet, it effectively sets up everything.

When Kara arrives on Earth, Superman finds her and places her with an adoptive family. It's a long tradition in Superman adaptations to recruit for cameos actors and actresses from previous screen incarnations and here, Kara's adoptive mother is played by Helen Slater, the original screen Supergirl, and her adoptive father by Dean Cain, Superman from LOIS & CLARK. Kara grows up and goes to work as the assistant for media mogul Cat Grant but all the while, she keeps her powers and her real identity secret. When the plane in which her adoptive sister is flying nearly crashes, she's forced into action. She saves the plane but she's photographed, becomes a media sensation and gets hero fever--decides she'll just burst if she doesn't take up the cape and the family business. Supergirl is born.

Melissa Benoist plays Kara in an overly-bright-eyed and maybe way-too-enthusiastic manner that is, at first, rather endearing--the vibe is straight "it's cool that a girl can do this stuff"--but carried too far and too long, it could make her look flighty and stupid. Benoist is basically doing a 15-year-old Supergirl. That would be great if the show featured a teen Supergirl. The character in this series is supposed to be 24 years old.[1] How this will play out is something only time will.

A significant plot point--because it will provide the series' villains--is a Kryptonian prison ship that apparently followed Kara's ship out of the Phantom Zone and to Earth. It seems pretty unlikely a whole prison full of inmates--hardened criminals with the Earth-shattering powers of Kryptonians--have been hiding out on Earth for over a decade without drawing the attention of, say, Superman. There may be a larger plot at work here. Something else to watch. In the pilot's biggest error, the identity of "the General," the central villain revealed at the end, was quite confusing. It's Kara's Kryptonian mother, who, up to that point, hadn't be shown to have a villainous bone in her body, to say nothing of the fact that she's supposed to have been dead for years. In the brief preview for next week's ep, Kara calls her "aunt," so I'm assuming Kara's mother had a twin sister but there's no mention in the pilot of any twin sister.

When it was announced earlier this year, the casting of Mehcad Brooks as Superman's longtime pal Jimmy Olsen caused a bit of an internet stir. Jimmy Olsen is, of course, a very young, short, wimpy, freckle-faced redheaded white guy, whereas Brooks is a 35-year-old, 6'5', 230-or-so-pound muclebound bald black guy with a deep voice--a guy who could, himself, be playing a superhero. And, indeed, he is, in practice, as bizarre a Jimmy Olsen as he looked on paper, a guy who commands nearly every room he's in. While the comic vet in me just can't seem to accept him as a Jimmy Olsen, his Olsen is a very good character--my favorite, in fact, of the supporting roles so far. As it turns out, he knows all about Kara; her cousin filled him in.

Nearly everyone knows about Kara. Olsen knows. Her adoptive sister knows. Her adoptive sister's employer--a secret agency charged with monitoring and countering potential extraterrestrial threats--knows. She even tells a friend at work. The only regular among the  so-far-introduced supporting cast who doesn't know is Kara's boss Cat Grant. This exposure could come back to bite our heroine in the future.

The pilot's biggest shortcoming is that nearly all of the performances are carried out in an over-the-top, anti-naturalistic manner that perpetually borders on camp yet they're so contrary to one another they never cohere as a unified dramatic universe. One sees all of these sorts of performances pretty regularly with genre properties (though, mercifully, not as often as was once the case). With Kara, this sort of characterization can seem charming. With Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant, it's full-blown caricature. And at the other end, Kara's mother/the "General" is insanely over the top, spouting ridiculous, stilted, ever-so-serious dialogue as melodramatically as possible. One could break down each of these by their relative merits but whatever conclusion such an evaluation may yield, few of them seem as if they belong in the same show.

Still, while this wasn't a great pilot--it certainly wasn't up to that of either ARROW or THE FLASH--it was, rough edges aside, a pretty good one. I'm pleased to have Supergirl back on the screen and interested to see where this incarnation goes.

--j.

---

[1] When Kara's boss Cat Grant dubs the mysterious new hero "Supergirl," Kara objects, arguing for "Super Woman," but not only is it a ridiculous objection given how Benoist is playing the character, Benoist is also playing the very scene in which she's making this objection as if she was 15.