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?

Friday, May 29, 2015

MISS MEADOWS (2014)

A few weeks ago, I took a look at Karen Leigh Hopkins' film MISS MEADOWS, starring Katey Holmes as a smiling, ludicrously sweet schoolmarm who has a side gig as a murderous vigilante. Think DEATH WISH done as a black comedy starring Marry Poppins in the lead.

That premise is pure gold. Unfortunately, the movie is unwilling to entirely commit to it. Holmes' way-over-the-top character wears saddle-shoes and vintage dresses and drives a Metropolitan Nash that looks as if it just rolled off the line. She tap-dances while reading poetry, fetishizes proper grammar, tends her lovely garden and dotes on the children in her care at her work and at--yes, it goes there--her Sunday school. The character is a top-to-bottom parody, an utterly stylized fantasy not even remotely like any real person in the real world. Not a problem if the goal is black comedy. A significant problem though, if, as happens here, the film repeatedly tries to digress into straight drama and expects the viewer to suddenly accept it as such. These digressions aren't overbearing--the bulk of the movie still fits comfortably in the dark comedy milieu--but they do pop up repeatedly and manage to muddle the tone quite badly at times, effectively subverting any subversiveness the film manages to wring out of its premise. In a black comedy, the fact that Ms. Meadows is constantly running across pedophiles, killers and other scum worthy of death is just part of the joke; if it's meant to be taken seriously, it's just stupid. While the romance with the love-interest sheriff is often amusing, the sex scene is... rather strange. Probably the most bizarre thing in the movie and certainly a moment that epitomizes the failure to commit to a consistent tone. MISS MEADOWS never really decides what it wants to be. Reflecting this indecision, the film's trailer advertises it as straight--and rather heavy--drama, an horrendous misrepresentation of the film that, more than the film itself, inspired me to come here this morning and offer a few words on the subject. Anyone drawn to the film by it would likely be appalled.

MISS MEADOWS isn't a bad movie. It's just, overall, not a particularly memorable one, which is is a shame because a lot of the pieces for something far better were there.

--j.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Self Promotion Dept.

I'm doing some press criticism--or press critic criticism--at MRC Watch lately. It's a blog devoted to a critique of the Media Research Center, a big right-wing Ministry of Truth operation. I decided to take the opportunity to open what I hope will be a wider examination of the corporate press (for whenever I'm able to write it), and also launched News Reviews to that end.

A bit removed from the usual subject here. If they interest you, check 'em out.

--j.

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.