Monday, August 31, 2015

Not Close, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Only Goes So Far

"So Close, Yet So Far," the second installment of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, dramatically ramps up the pace from the series' unfortunate pilot but the writing continues to be just terrible.

Travis has just seen Nick's drug dealer Calvin turned into a mindless killer who keeps coming after being repeatedly rammed by a truck. He panics and, in a leap of logic that clears the Grand Canyon, immediately decides it's time for the family to pack up and leave the city! In the previous installment of FTWD, everyone was going about their normal, everyday lives in Los Angeles and showing no real concern for any problem. There's some sort of virus going around--so many people were sick that the schools closed early. Calvin, however, wasn't sick and Travis knew it, because he'd seen Calvin earlier that day. Calvin hadn't been felled by any illness--he'd been shot. There's no reason at all for Travis to connect the two or to conclude there's any sort of major problem. Underscoring this, the press and the internet, which would be single-mindedly drowning in coverage of some illness that turns people into mindless killers (or even one that didn't but was widespread), has been entirely silent on the matter and even as Travis is making his pronouncement about leaving the city, Nick is flipping through local radio stations and noting that no one is talking about it.

TWD would never be mistaken for a smart show--not, at least, by anyone qualified to render the judgment--but the idea that a national and probably even international zombie outbreak could occur and be so entirely covered up, presumably by malevolent officialdom, is the worst insult to the intelligence of viewers this franchise has ever delivered. It's absolute bottom-of-the-barrel writing. and this entire series is being premised on it.[1]

A lot of tonight's installment focused on making the already-terminally-unlikable characters even more unlikable. When Travis, in his irrational panic, becomes obsessed with finding his son Chris, Chris, seeing his father calling, puts on his headphones and listens to loud music instead of picking up. Liza, Travis' ex-wife, gets more screentime but mostly just to show her being bitchy and refusing to listen to Travis, treating his fearful entreaties about the safety of their son as if she's trying to reargue a custody dispute. Alicia finds her boyfriend Matt, who went M.I.A. last week, deathly ill. Her family spirits her away, leaving the stricken fellow in bed. It's unclear what they tell her about what's happening but as soon as she's left at home with instructions to stay there, she starts to go back to boyfriend's place. Later, Madison's neighbor is attacked by a zombie and rather than going to the neighbor's aid, Madison tells her daughter not to look at it and barricades the door with her body to prevent her daughter from rendering assistance. Charming.[2]

With only 4 eps left, FTWD continues to be worthy of the original--another creative abortion that leaves one shaking one's head at the waste of such a rich premise.

--j.

---

[1] Offering some inadvertent metatextual commentary on this, Nick, at one point, notes that no one is talking about it and says this makes it seem as if it isn't real. No kidding.

[2] And continuing TWD's habit of decimating black characters, the black high-school principal introduced last week bit the dust this time around.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Z NATION in Meme

Z NATION returns for its second season on 11 Sept. It's a good show. I like it. It deserves a larger audience and it can draw one. The pilot, which is arguably the weakest ep of the entire series, has proven a difficult hurdle for some to overcome and the series is constantly bad-mouthed by WALKING DEAD fanboys, which makes for a negative buzz it has to overcome. Perhaps it has, to some extent. My impression is that it's a series a lot of people missed and then discovered in the down months--those behind it wisely rushed it to home video and Netflix, where it makes for great marathon viewing. I know I've brought about a dozen people to the show, probably more (those are just the ones who have told me) My articles on it seem to have a healthy readership and I pimp it whenever the opportunity arises and would encourage any other fans to do the same. I spent a little time today putting together some ZN memes. Nothing fancy, just some amusing moments from season 1 that will perhaps make ZN viewers smile and act as conversation-starters with non-viewers:



--j.



Monday, August 24, 2015

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Pilot Missing A Plane

In the last two or three weeks, some of you--you know who you are--have been bombarding me with questions about whether I'm going to be watching and writing about the new FEAR THE WALKING DEAD series. Until fairly recently, I'd been avoiding both the series and the questions. My first look at material from it didn't go so well. And didn't speak very well of its creators.

Thankfully, the pilot itself featured no further replication of material from the execrable WORLD WAR Z. Unfortunately, it didn't feature much of anything else either. The beginning of a zombie apocalypse is, in competent hands, a story with all sorts of potential and Los Angeles is a good setting for it. The creators of FTWD decided it would be just peachy to tell it through the eyes of a collection of dysfunctional, unbearably obnoxious, uninteresting and unlikable people--a complete fail when it comes to the central cast.

This is only one of the sins of the mother series carried over to the offspring.

The pilot ran half-an-hour longer than the usual hour-long timeslot but huge portions of it were taken up with filler material that added nothing but running time. The characters fail to share vital information with one another solely for the metatextual purpose of artificially extending the underwritten story. Nick, a junky, encounters a zombie in a drug-den as the ep opens. He tells Travis, his mother's boyfriend, about it, Travis checks it out (unarmed exploration of a crack-house and in the middle of the night) and finds an incredible amount of gore--as in, someone, maybe several someones, obviously died horrible deaths at the scene. He doesn't take the info to the police, which is, in context, somewhat forgivable, but when he tells his girlfriend, Nick's mother, about it, he only says something bad seems to have happened there--not a word about thick gouts of gore on the floor and wall. And, lacking this information, she just blows him off. And he lets her do it, even  as she accuses him of acting as her son's "enabler" by talking about it (she wants to dismiss the son's entire story as some drug-fueled hallucination). This is done solely to allow a later twist to convince her she needs to see it for herself and we get the same explore-the-crime-scene sequence repeated with the two of them, leading to the same conclusion--something bad happened here--and adding nothing but running time.

A common pitfall for prequels is that we, the viewers, already know where it's all going. Among other things, we go into any such project facing the prospect of watching characters figure out a very long list of things we already know, which is dull. There are a few ways to overcome such problems. One is to play on what the audience knows but the characters don't. There are two or three very minor tips of the hat to this in FTWD, no more. Another is to handle the familiar material in new and interesting ways. There's certainly none of that in FTWD--it's shot as flatly, dully and straightforwardly as its parent program. Another is to allow time to jump so as to let the characters learn off camera things we already know. Still another--the big one--is to tell a part of the story that hasn't yet been told. FTWD's untold story is, of course, how it all happened--how the world died while Rick was in a coma. That doesn't mean one provides some explanation for the zombie bug--Robert Kirkman is right in saying that should never be explained. How does the apocalypse start though? In what populations does zombie-ism show up? What's the reaction to it? How does it spread--globally down to outside one's back door? Why do the living fail to contain it? Los Angeles is huge. The tale could be told from a wide range of perspectives. Lots of disparate characters from different walks of life, occupations, social classes. See it happen through a variety of eyes, characters who could either come together or whose story could simply continue alongside others. This could be a great story and it's the one great story built into FTWD's premise.

Alas, it's the one story FTWD's writers seem entirely uninterested in telling. The pilot script (which is just awful) dodges it at every turn. The news cycle apparently doesn't exist at all in this world. As zombie-ism begins to swell and make its presence known, there's no word from officialdom at any level. Even as the school at which the two leads work empties out from the sick, the only thing the characters learn comes from bootlegged Youtube vids of cops shooting it out with a zombie on the freeway (a scenario and scene directly lifted from George Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD). The script focuses almost entirely on the ridiculous family melodrama scenarios and there's no exploration from any quarter of what could possibly be happening and how. One random kid at the school seems to have figured it out and he's presented as some sort of weirdo. There's no effort to create any sort of sustained atmosphere of concern or fear or uncertainty--for the most part, everyone just goes on about their business--woe is me over the poor junkie, woe is me over my unappreciative son, woe is me, the overachieving daughter, etc.--and barely even mentions what's happening.[1] And the dialogue piles on the clich├ęs as thick as the Los Angeles smog--if one's ear is sensitive to such things, it would be prudent to keep antibiotics handy.

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD certainly didn't take off in its oversized inaugural episode. This pilot is definitely missing a plane.

--j.

---

[1] UPDATE (25 Aug., 2015) - I'd be remiss--and was remiss the first time around--if I didn't mention that among the other sins of the parent series carried over to the spin-off is the habit of killing the black guy. On TWD, this has become like a long-running joke. The FTWD pilot introduces two black characters, Calvin, who is Nick's drug-dealer pal, and Matt, who is teen daughter Alicia's boyfriend. By the end of the ep, Matt is among those who have disappeared to an unknown fate while Calvin tries to kill Nick and ends up being killed himself.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fearing FEAR THE WALKING DEAD

The new FEAR THE WALKING DEAD series soon to debut has a lot of my regulars asking me if I'm going to be writing about it. If I didn't know otherwise, I'd say this means they hate me and are plotting against me. The answer is, I don't know if I'll be writing about it. The idea of a second TWD--if, at least, it turns out to be another TWD--makes my head hurt. It could, of course, turn out to be good. One always hopes for the best. This week, I was asked if I'd seen the trailer for the new series. I hadn't, so I took a look at it. To my dismay, it seems one of the models for the new series was our old pal WORLD WAR Z.

The FEAR THE WALKING DEAD trailer is here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDxew5SguVw

In it, we have:

Sweet domestic moment before the storm.
The characters get stuck in traffic.
Motorcycle rockets by their door.
Helicopter overhead.
"Do you see anything?"
Chaos up ahead (in WWZ, it came from behind).
Cop bullets prove ineffective against the dead.
Leaving the vehicle and fleeing.
Getting off the road and taking shelter in Hispanic home.

Not only is all of this stuff directly lifted from WORLD WAR Z, most of it ended up in the WORLD WAR Z trailer (in exactly the same order):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcwTxRuq-uk

WWZ is, of course, just about the worst possible model the show--or any show--could have used and even if it had been the best thing since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, this sort of direct replication of another picture is fucking embarrassing. I don't know if I'll be writing about the new series. I do know this makes my head hurt even more.

--j.

Friday, July 31, 2015

THE GRAVE (1996)

I used to make a regular practice of digging through late-night cable looking for good, obscure movies. The 1990s were boom years for cinema and with so many great productions it was easy for scores of top-notch flicks to fall through the cracks. I certainly found plenty. One of my all-time favorite cinemarchaeological discoveries from those days is a gem from 1996 called THE GRAVE.

The movie opens with a raspy-voiced old inmate in a shadowy jail-cell, passing the time by talking to a visitor (played by Keith David). "Ever hear the one about the grave?" It's one, he says, that's "guaranteed ta' chill yer shit," and he proceeds to unspool a fine bogey tale about a pair of Southern-fried idiots in a North Carolina prison who, hearing the story of a creepy old rich dude allegedly buried with his fortune, break out and undertake an outlaw odyssey to make off with the loot.

But nothing on their adventure will go as planned...

THE GRAVE was made by Josh and Jonas Pate, their first picture, and for what is, at heart, a somewhat old-fashioned Southern Gothic spook-story, it's utterly idiosyncratic. How many horror movies have you ever seen, for example, that featured an assortment of traditional gospel tunes on the soundtrack? The characters are an endlessly entertaining collection of rednecks and white-trash losers essayed by a killer cast--Gabrielle Anwar, Donal Logue, Josh Charles, Anthony Michael Hall, Craig Scheffer, Eric Roberts (who has an hilarious cameo) and on and on. The script, probably the movie's biggest asset, is steeped in a boiled-down version of common Southern vernacular that only rarely makes it to film--full of hysterical dialogue, there seems to be something funny and quotable packed into every other line.

THE GRAVE is a horror story though, one that becomes progressively darker as it unfolds, and its smart sense of humor follows, becoming appropriately grim as the lights go out but never entirely losing that trace of a twinkle in the eye--if you like such stories, you'll greet the last scene with an evil grin, if not a full-blast guffaw.

That such a great flick is a genre production is, as I see it, another feather in its cap. I'm a horror fan but for all the great cinema to come out of the '90s, the decade was a sparse one for horror. The genre as a whole seemed in a downward spiral, with only a handful of great productions raging against the dying of the darkness. This was definitely one of them.

Its genre, being so out-of-step with its times, may have even played a role in relegating it to obscurity. It made not a ripple when it first appeared and it seems to have become even more obscure as time has passed. Premium cable tends to repeat everything ad infinitum but even there, where I first discovered it, THE GRAVE was a rarity. I've never seen it aired anywhere after the '90s. It has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray.  I had trouble even finding an image from it to post with this article. It just fell through the cracks, which is particularly surprising considering the subsequent career paths of many of those involved.

In any event, a great little movie. I try, from time to time, to make some noise around the internet on its behalf.

--j.

[This particular bit of noise, I'll concede, may not do it any favors. I usually don't care for writing straight movie reviews--movies, as I see it, should be able to stand on their own and speak for themselves. I suspect when I re-read this one, it will end up sounding like I'm taking a brief essay worth of space to say "It's great!" But it is great, so what else can you say?]

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Cinema Cult

Self-Promotion Dept. - I've just launched a Facebook group for my movie work, Cinema Cult Productions. For those of you on Facebook, I've also launched, as a sort of sister group, Cinema Cult, where we talk about motion pictures. If, dear reader, you're interested, drop in and join us. The more the merrier.

--j.

Monday, June 8, 2015

On "Filmmaker-Driven" Hollywood

Filmmaking is an art. It's also carpentry. And though this often pains the soul of many an artist, it's also commerce. A lot of that pained soul stuff comes from the fact that, far too often, it's far too much carpentry and commerce, with very little Art in sight. In general, the amount of Art in the mix tends to diminish in direct proportion to how much money is involved in a production. Movies are a business. At the upper end, a really, really big business. One isn't weaving a caricature in saying the modern studio system of corporate Hollywood is a factory run by business-suited MBAs without a creative bone in their bodies who care not a whit for "art" and just want something very familiar that will reliably bring a healthy return on their investment. The managers and money-men form a gauntlet aimed at stamping out anything original or risky and, at the level of the huge-budget tentpole blockbusters that draw the most attention, anything that could conceivably challenge the dumbest son of a bitch who may wander into a theater to take in a picture.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that in assembling the new DC Comics cinematic universe--a series of films that all fall within that huge-budget tentpole category--Warner Brothers had adopted a strategy of "filmmaker-driven" productions.

Hey, it was right there in the Hollywood Reporter! Attributed to "a Warners insider." The fact that everything else in the article seemed to refute the notion dissuaded neither its author nor the authors of the half-dozen or so click-bait articles that spun off the original from dutifully parroting this line all over the internet. Last week, Greg Silverman, WB's President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production (don't you love pompously long titles in all caps?), was interviewed for the same publication and described this strategy:

"We have a great strategy for the DC films, which is to take these beloved characters and put them in the hands of master filmmakers and make sure they all coordinate with each other... The filmmakers who are tackling these properties are making great movies about superheroes; they aren't making superhero movies."

Even without the contradictory information available in this particular case, the "filmmaker-driven" claim should have set off the Bigtime Bullshit Alarm among seasoned Hollywood observers.[1] Whatever allowance one may reasonably make for taxonomic ambiguities, Hollywood is not in the business of producing the kind of personal art projects the "filmmaker-driven" phrase implies, particularly not at the upbudget blockbuster level. As the reporting on the development of the DC cinematic universe suggests--practically screams, in fact--it isn't something Warner Brothers is doing either.

Warner is, of course, pursuing a piece of the lucrative pie on which Marvel has been feasting with its comic adaptations. Marvel built its universe by introducing its characters in individual films that, while referencing one another at times, were basically separate, self-contained productions, each one adding new elements to the shared universe by telling its own story. By the time the characters were thrown together in THE AVENGERS, they were already fleshed out, familiar and had developed their own audience to bring to the dance. The team-up film, in turn, could focus on telling its own story rather than having to spend its time introducing half a dozen characters. Warner wants to build a similar franchise around the Justice League but rather than building it by making films around the individual characters, the studio is apparently introducing most of the characters at once in the upcoming BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. A Wonder Woman solo film will follow, then its immediately on to a full Justice League picture. Its easy to see this as chasing those big AVENGERS dollars without being willing to put in the work. That this strategy is different, though, and seems, in the abstract, ill-considered doesn't mean it's doomed to failure. If there's a feasible plan for such an approach, it's worth a shot.

Except there isn't. Those at Warner seem to be telling the world they're developing a "filmmaker-driven" strategy in contrast with Marvel (where, it's said, producer Kevin Feige rules) because there isn't any strategy at all.

What's implied by the idea of a "filmmaker-driven" movie is one in which the filmmaker is involved from the origin of the project. Dreams it up, writes it (or has it written), puts together the cast, the crew, the whole ball of wax, then makes the picture with full creative control over it. I'm hoping to finish up such a project this weekend, a minor short film I and some of my little team have created. I'd love to see Warner adopt such an approach with their DC properties but the studio will no more do that than it will screen its next DC picture for free in perpetuity. That's not how Hollywood works and it's definitely not how Warner has been developing the DC properties.

How "filmmaker-driven," for example, is a project wherein the director gets to play no part in casting his own lead? In a shared universe of films, each new project binds future productions. The new screen incarnations of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash have already been cast and are apparently being introduced in the upcoming BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN feature. Zack Snyder isn't making the Wonder Woman movie but any Wonder Woman creative team is going to end up stuck with his absolutely horrendous choice of Gal Gadot to play the film's central character. Everyone working on all the subsequent films featuring these characters will be in the same position.[2]

On that Wonder Woman project, the studio hired much-beloved tv director Michelle MacLaren then brought in no less than five writers. Not to work together or with the director but to work on competing scripts--as the Hollywood Reporter described it, each was given a treatment and told to write a first act based on it. "A source not involved in the films but with close ties to the studio says the process on Wonder Woman 'felt like they were throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck.'" Actress and writer Kelly Marcel was approached to work on the script but bowed out because of "her concern about the number of players who were involved." A few months after MacLaren had been hired, she left the project. The official reason was the usual, "creative differences." Variety reported that, while the studio put the five writers to work, "executives simultaneously tested story concepts. 'They didn't like MacLaren's test,' said one studio executive."

So much for "filmmaker-driven."[3] With AQUAMAN, the story sounds the same. From THR:

"On Aquaman... sources say Warner commissioned scripts from three writers, one of whom followed the studio's direction only to be told the rules governing the universe had changed and his work no longer was usable."

Warner may have introduced a few new twists here but they're not really innovators in this--the Hollywood studios are masters at taking something good and making a complete mess of it. It's all carpentry and commerce, little art. It's possible something will eventually emerge from the process that's worth a couple hours of time. The emergence of something particularly memorable or even great, though, is very unlikely. The awesome potential locked away in the source material will probably remain untapped. With this breed of picture, mediocrity rules. It's there in the Marvel pictures as well. Though a few have managed to rise above it, they're typically great for what they are, not great. And maybe that's all they need to be. It would certainly be nice to see more that were. An unfortunate reality of contemporary effects-laden tentpole pictures is that they don't even have to be good to make lots and lots of money. Even if something like BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN turns out to be an embarrassing failure, it's pretty much guaranteed a hefty box office. That's no such guarantee with some of the lesser characters but no one behind these pictures is going to be losing any money on them. I'm a comic book lifer and I want all of these movies to succeed but what I mean by that is that I want them to be good, not just to make money. I'm an observer who doesn't like the ugly studio politics around projects like these DC movies, the perpetual passing of the buck, ass-covering, disingenuousness[4] and contempt for the genuinely creative. I'm also a filmmaker, one who has little use for corporate Hollywood with its gauntlet of managers and money-men or most of its safe, tested-to-oblivion, mass-consumption pap which more often than not gives a black eye to the entire notion of film as an artform. When one makes a movie, one must put one's heart and sometimes years of one's life into it. It's hard work. I know what a "filmmaker-driven" movie is--I live it. I find it rather offensive when some talentless, blow-dried, business-suited prick who is pulling down more money per month for crushing art than I'll have available in a year for making it starts describing what's happening at Warner as "filmmaker-driven." Boris reacts as I do:


--j.

---

[1] That alarm should have been particularly loud given the context; Warner is floating it in an attempt to counter the criticism that its DC "universe" is haphazard and poorly planned. It's a serious criticism with a few decades of serious history behind it. When it comes to adapting the DC characters to the big screen, the gang at Warner Brothers simply doesn't have a clue and, with few exceptions, never has had one. We're 17 years into a major boom in comic book movie adaptations--it began with BLADE back in 1998--to which Warner, which owns some of the most iconic superheroes ever created, has contributed almost nothing of any merit. Wonder Woman has been launched as a screen project perhaps half a dozen times since the '90s, every effort falling apart. With the exception of a proposed tv series that made it to pilot stage then failed, there hasn't been a live-action Wonder Woman since the last original episode of the Lynda Carter tv series aired in 1979. Joss Whedon's effort to create a WW feature were cold-shouldered by the studio suits until he finally left, went over to Marvel and wrote and directed THE AVENGERS, which made $1.5 billion. For 8 years, Warner has tried to jump the gun by producing a Justice League movie without first introducing the individual characters; each attempt has fallen apart. Both GREEN LANTERN (2011) and JONAH HEX (2010) made it to the screen as utter clusterfucks. Though the three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan were, in my view, misguided creative failures, the films were big box-office hits, which would prove most unfortunate for future productions. Warner spent years developing then abandoning one Superman project after another around ideas so bad it's difficult to believe they were ever even seriously considered. Eventually, there emerged SUPERMAN RETURNS, which rejected the suggested radical revisions but had a raft of problems all its own. Intended to reboot the franchise, the film proved a dull and terribly misguided project that, after a disappointing reception, was also abandoned. Warner went back to some of those godawful ideas from prior projects and ground out the abomination that was MAN OF STEEL, which, among other things, tried to ape the Nolan Batflicks by adopting an inappropriately dark tone and turning Superman into a brooding anti-hero. The character, which had no more than superficial connections to any prior version of Superman, was dropped into a brainless, explosion-filled idiot-fest and, of course, Warner decided to use the film as the basis for their newest effort at a DC cinematic universe. On these projects, Warner doesn't know what it's doing.

[2] Makers of most sequels, of course, have this same problem but in the case of the DC movies, the subsequent films aren't really sequels; they're the movies that will first throw a spotlight on the characters and that those characters have to carry. It's also the case that sequels happen because a property has proven a bankable success; here, future filmmakers are being tied to Zach Snyder's choices merely because Snyder wants to feature the Justice League characters in bit parts that will do nothing to test their bankability.

[3] In the immediate aftermath of MacLaren's departure, Devin Faruci from Birth.Movies.Death wrote:

"The official reason for her leaving is 'creative differences,' and that seems legit according to the scuttlebutt that has reached me. MacLaren and Warner Bros couldn't agree on anything - including what time period to set the movie. More than that, MacLaren had some very particular visions for the film, visions that maybe would have alienated fandom. Although perhaps Diana having a tiger sidekick/pet she could talk with would have appealed to people more than I expect."

If it seemed odd to Faruci that, after the godawful choice of Gal Gadot to play Wonder Woman, the studio would suddenly become concerned about things that could have "alienated fandom," he didn't say. The account the gossips were feeding him reeks of a smear. A few days later, Variety referenced "multiple sources close to the project" who described a project that most certainly wouldn't have "alientated fandom":

"MacLaren envisioned the DC Comics-based 'Wonder Woman' movie as an epic origin tale in the vein of 'Braveheart,' whereas Warner wanted a more character-driven story that was less heavy on action."

Unless we're to read the Warner preference as being weasel-wording for a lower-budget picture--which is possible--the latter sounds about as likely as Mel Gibson being cast as Wonder Woman. Variety's sources also said studio executives were concerned about MacLaren being able to handle the rigors of a feature, particularly one featuring large-scale action, when her experience has been in television. MacLaren, whose resume includes both GAME OF THRONES and BREAKING BAD, knows how to handle both large-scale action and character-driven drama just fine, and this too smells like a smear. MacLaren herself hasn't made any public statement about her departure from the project.

[4] After Warner had hired then fired Michelle MacLaren then hired Patty Jenkins, Silverman, in his THR interview, actually denied the studio had been specifically looking for a female director for Wonder Woman. They were just the best two the studio had eyed. What do you say to something like that?