Wednesday, February 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

--j.

Monday, February 23, 2015

THE WALKING DEAD Covers Little Distance 2.0

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

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

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

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

--j.

---

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

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

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

He Talked About the Deer: The Talking Dead of THE WALKING DEAD

In my depressingly extensive writings about THE WALKING DEAD over the years, I've been quite critical of, well, just about everything at one time or another. It's not a special show. I've always trained most of my fire on the writing, which is certainly the source from which most of its problems have arisen. Horrendously uneven pacing, poor or non-existent character motivations, plot-driven characterizations that change with the wind, plot progression being made dependent upon the characters being idiots, a timeline that would require time-travel to make any sense, a persistent focus on ridiculous trivialities at the expense of what should, in a given situation, be the primary concern and the soap melodrama model which dictates most of this.

Another element of the writing I've vigorously raked over the coals--the one to which I've decided to give some extra attention here--is what's passed off as dialogue. Simply put, it's terrible. Characters interact with one another via a sort of brutally anti-naturalistic speechifying, the sorts of things you'll never hear coming out of an actual person's mouth, expressing sentiment that's meant to be profound but is, instead, absolutely preposterous.[1] The first rule of screenwriting is "Show, Don't Tell," and as I've often noted, it's a rule to which TWD's writers were either never exposed or to which they're overtly hostile. TWD doesn't, for example, convey its theme of people trying to hold on to their humanity in the face of adversity by showing them doing so; it conveys this, instead, by having them tell you they're trying to hold on to their humanity in the face of adversity. No event of any significance on TWD is ever allowed to speak for itself. Instead, the series is jam-packed with exposition, with characters constantly bringing everything to a halt in order to rehash events we've already seen, even to other characters who are fully aware of everything they're saying, and telling us what this-and-that is really "about." Scripts are packed with adolescent philosophizing, trying, on the one hand, to convey the darkness of the TWD world by morbid pronouncements (instead of just showing it as a dark place), while, on the other, offering a constant diet of talk about the need to keep going, to keep hope alive and to survive (rather than just showing the characters doing so). The series is ideologically committed to abject humorlessness in all things and its dialogue reflects this--if one gets a laugh (and sometimes, one does), it's entirely unintentional. No cliche is held in reserve--dumb anecdotism, in particular, abounds ("Y'know, I remember back when I was a kid and..."). Dumb language abounds. Dumb abounds.

The immediate spur for my taking up this matter is a phenomenon I've recently observed in various discussions of TWD wherein even some of the series' least critical fans are beginning to complain about the dialogue, offering their impression that the quality of it has, of late, declined. They differ on when this started, but they all have the idea it's relatively recent. What makes this interesting is that, in reality, absolutely nothing about TWD's dialogue has changed--it's exactly as it has been for years. I've interpreted this recent outbreak of discontent as an indication that the series' longstanding shortcomings are finally starting to weigh on its viewers. Take that for what it's worth, alongside my own acknowledgement that this has been exactly what I've been predicting would happen. Confirmation bias can be a powerful thing. Still, I think I may have been on to something here.

Last season, I wrote of an example of TWD's dialogue:

"To pull out a representative moment, when Hershel, who had so far managed to avoid exposure to the mysterious illness plaguing the prison, decides to break quarantine and go tend to those stricken by it, his daughter and others object... [TWD]  handled it by bringing everything to a halt and having Hershel give a grand anti-naturalistic speech justifying his actions as a profound act of humanitarianism in a harsh and unforgiving world. If a hummed version of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' had been added to the soundtrack behind it, it wouldn't have seemed at all out of place."

This is Hershel's speech from the episode in question (s04e03), offered to Rick and Maggie:

"There's so many times we haven't been able to do anything to change what was happening-- what was happening to us. We wished we could but we couldn't. This time, I can. I know I can. So I have to... Listen, damn it! You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe, and you risk your life. Every moment now you don't have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for. Now I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit longer. I can save lives. That's reason enough to risk mine. And you know that."

And that last line is exactly the point. Hershel's little speech isn't telling Maggie or Rick anything they don't already know (and know well), and they both know him too, and know he's not going to be dissuaded from trying to help. The only point of it is the passion of it--the melodrama--and, maybe just as important, the screentime it consumes. Having Hershel say these things is ridiculous.

Consider this exchange from "Them," this week's ep. When the prison fell, siblings Maggie and Beth were separated, and for an extended period Maggie seemed to be entirely indifferent to the fate of her sister then was suddenly devastated when learning Beth had died, the kind of arbitrary characterizations for which TWD is infamous. Here's Maggie expressing her, well, something to Glenn:

Maggie: I never thought she was alive. I just didn't. After Daddy, I don't know if I couldn't. And after what Daryl said, I hoped she was out there alive. And then finding out that she was and then she wasn't in the same day... Seeing her like that, it made it feel like none of it was ever really there. Before... this was just the dark part and I don't know if I want to fight it anymore.

Glenn: You do. You do. And maybe it's a curse nowadays but I don't think so. We fought to be here and we have to keep fighting.

Uh... yeah. How about this astute observation from Bob (from s04e04):

"Everybody makes it, till they don't."

Or Carol, who, in the midst of a mission to rescue Beth from her captors (s05e06), helpfully declares

"I don't think we get to save people anymore."

Daryl, in the same ep, is equally reflective:

"The reason I said we get to start over is because we gotta'."

And here's the two of them together, working on a Deep Thought:

Carol: Who I was with him [Ed], she got burned away. And I was happy about that. I mean, not happy, but... And at the prison I got to be who I always thought I should be, thought I should've been, and then she got burned away. Everything now just consumes you.

Daryl: Well, hey, we ain't ashes.

Indeed. Here's Tyreese (from s04e09) taking a great deal of time to rehash events we've already seen:

"I wanted to die for what I lost. Who I had lost. I stepped out into a crowd of those things just trying to... take it all out on them until they took me. Put them all in front of me so I didn't see anything. But I just kept going. And then later, I was there for Judith with she needed me. I saved her. I brought her back to her dad. And that wouldn't have happened if I had just give up, if I hadn't chosen to live. Noah, this isn't the end."

He got the same duty back in "Isolation" (s04e03), recounting something he'd just done and that we'd just seen him do:

"I came to see Karen and I saw the blood on the floor. Then I smelled them. Somebody dragged them out here and set them on fire. They killed them and set them on fire!"

In "Nebraska" (s02e08), Hershel goes all dark and emo, rehashing what we'd seen in the previous ep:

"I didn't want to believe you. You told me there was no cure, that these people were dead, not sick. I chose not to believe that. But when Shane shot Lou in the chest and she just kept coming, that's when I knew what an ass I'd been, that Annette had been dead long ago and I was feeding a rotten corpse! That's when I knew there was no hope. And when that little girl came out of the barn, the look on your face-- I knew you knew it too."

Bob in the 4th ep of season 4 rehashing what we'd seen in the first ep of season 4:

"The run to the Big Spot, I did it for me... I did it so I could get me a bottle. Of anything. I picked it up, I held it in my hand, but I put it down. I put it down so hard it took the whole damn shelf with it. That's what brought on the walkers and that's what got Zack killed."

When Carl was shot, Lori (in "Save the Last One," s02e03) advanced the notion that it may be better if Carl just dies and she and Rick proceed to discuss it. What great parents, eh? In a moment that became legendary for its unintentional hilarity, Rick ineptly tries to be profound, mostly by rehashing, at length, the events surrounding the shooting:

"Before it happened, we were standing there in the woods and this deer just crossed right in front of us. I swear, it just planted itself there and looked Carl right in the eye. And I looked at Carl looking at that deer, and that deer looking right back at Carl. And that moment just... slipped away. It slipped away. That's what he was talking about when he woke up, not about getting shot or what happened at the church. He talked about something beautiful, something living. There's still a life for us, a place maybe like this. It isn't all death out there. It can't be. We just have to be strong enough, after everything we've seen, to still believe that. Why is it better for Carl to live even in this world? He talked about the deer, Lori. He talked... about... the deer."

In "The Suicide King" (s03e09), Andrea, in Woodbury, offered another moment that became infamous. Faced with a terrified mob on the verge of a riot, she jumped in among the people and offered this terribly unstirring Cliff's Notes version of a speech of which even the longer version would have been pretty shitty:

"Every one of us has suffered. We don't even have funerals anymore because the death never stops. We're never gonna be the same. Ever. So what do we do? We dig deep and we find the strength to carry on. We work together and we rebuild. Not just the fences, the gates, the community, but ourselves. Our hearts, our minds. And years from now, when they write about this plague in the history books, they will write about Woodbury. Yeah, they will. Woodbury. We persevered."

At the end of it, everyone was smiling and slapping one another on the back, all thoughts of violent rebellion quelled.

Yes, that really happened.

My own choice for the most hilarious line ever uttered on TWD--unintentionally hilarious, as with anything funny that ever happens on the show--was offered in deadly earnest by Hershel in reply to Rick (s02e13):

Rick: You're a man of God! Have some faith!

Hershel: I can't profess to understand God's plan, but Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something... a little different in mind.

Maggie telling Hershel what it's really all about (s02e07):

"Things aren't what you think they are. They aren't. Don't do this. Ok, it's not about me and Glenn. It's not about me and you. It's about you. It's about who you are, who you're gonna' be."

Rick telling Hershel what's it's really all about (s02e08):

"You know what the truth is? Nothing has changed. Death is death. It's always been there, whether it's from a heart attack, cancer or a walker. What's the difference? You didn't think it was hopeless before, did you? Now there are people back at home trying to hang on. They need us, even if it's just to give them a reason to go on, even if we don't believe it ourselves. You know what? This-- this isn't about what we believe anymore. It's about them."

Maggie telling Beth what it ain't about and explaining to her something the younger sibling obviously doesn't know (s02e10):

"This isn't just about you. We all lost mom."

Bob on people (s03e04):

"People nowadays are dominoes. What they did [referring to a pair of suicides], maybe it's about not having to watch them fall."

Carol from the same ep:

"It's not about what you say. It's about facing reality. It always comes for us and over and over again. We face it so that we can live."

Good to know, eh? Shane's tender poetry to Lori on their relationship (s02e09):

"What we had, it was real... It was you and it was me and Carl and it was real."

Dale spinning an end-of-the-world Melodrama Queen's epic over the proposed killing of Randall (s02e11):

"...don't you see? If we do this, the people that we were-- the world that we knew is dead. And this new world is ugly. It's... harsh. It's-- it's survival of the fittest."

Tell me if you've ever heard this one before. Lori to Beth (s02e10):

"You have Maggie and your father, Patricia and Jimmy. And you've gotta stay strong for them. I wish I could promise you it would be all right in the end. I can't, but we can make now all right. And we have to."

Another jawdropping moment of unintentional hilarity: Bob and Sasha had fallen in love and when Bob died Sasha simply couldn't bring herself to pike him before he reanimated (she let big brother Tyreese take care of it). In "Coda" (s05e08), Tyreese recounts to her how, earlier, he could have killed one of the cannibalistic Terminusians who had tried to kill he and baby Judith but just couldn't bring himself to finish off the fellow (who later returned with the other cannibals to try to kill our heroes). And after rehashing all of that, this is what Tyreese says to Sasha about these two events (and her reply):

Tyreese: I remember when we were kids and you used to follow me around, copying every little thing I did. What happened to both of us, maybe it's because we're still the same. Just like we were back then. And maybe that's good.

Sasha: You're still the same. And that is good. I don't think I can be. Not anymore. Not anymore.

No, I didn't make that up. And bad anecdotism is a persistent cliche indulged by TWD. From "Indifference" (s04e04):

Rick: Every Sunday [Lori would] make us these pancakes that were just... godawful. Clumps of flour that weren't mixed in right. Thing was, she knew it was bad.

Carol: Why'd she keep at it?

Rick: Well, she wanted us to be the kind of family that ate pancakes on Sunday.

Hmmm... Here's Rick wasting one of the most iconic lines of the comic in this week's "Them" (s05e10):

Rick: When I was a kid, I asked my grandpa once if he ever killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn't answer. He said that was grown-up stuff, so I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. But he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, 'Rest in peace. Now get up and go to war.' And then after a few years of pretending he was dead, he made it out alive. That's the the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then we get to live. But no matter what we find in DC, I know we'll be okay. Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.

Daryl: We ain't them.

One could go on all day--TWD's dialogue is as bad as every other element of its dreadful writing. All but the most incidental exchanges are handled in the same way. Contrary to the recent impressions of some of TWD's fans, there's abosolutely nothing new about this, and many of the examples I've culled aren't even close to the worst. Hopefully, though, they have afforded you, gentle reader, some amusement, and collectively, they've made my overall critique of the series--such as it is--more complete.

--j.

---

[1] Anti-naturalistic dialogue is unfortunately a chronic problem with genre productions, for often understandable if not necessarily forgivable reasons. When it's necessary to explain how one must rejigger a polymorphic induction array to emit 10-power alpha-waves in order to prevent the implosion of time-space, it's difficult to make this seem like normal conversation. TWD doesn't have this excuse; it's about ordinary people just trying to survive. It goes the soap melodrama route by choice.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lookit Them WALKING DEAD

"Them," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, is one of those TWD eps that could be outright great if the writers would just allow it. Very much a minimalist excursion into some of the hard damn times brought on by a world gone dead. The reason minimalism works so well with this series is because it allows its strengths--the better elements of its production design--to come to the fore and, perhaps more importantly, minimizes its major weaknesses--nearly anything that comes out of a characters' mouths. You could see the potential throughout "Them," but the writers kept spoiling it.

As the tale opens, the characters find themselves traveling the backroads of an odd version of Virginia that looks a lot like Georgia and that's suffering the kind of devastating drought one might find in some far-off Southwestern state but never in Virginia or Georgia. Though there's lush foliage all around that seems none the worse for wear, the dry spell seems to have dried up every possible water source and is rapidly doing the same to our heroes, who, bereft of transportation, have taken to walking the roads. One could, if one was so inclined, look at this as a bit of a metatextual joke--in five seasons of TWD, I don't think it has so much as rained--but it isn't really a very funny one.

And there's no place for humor on TWD anyway. The script is mostly the usual cliche-ridden anti-naturalistic faux-profound soap-opera angsting and exposition. TWD's writers haven't any real talent for dialogue but won't allow the actors to show you what their characters are feeling--they make the characters tell you about it. And tell you about it. And tell you about it. Among this, though, were some lines that actually worked, or sort of worked. "Then you won't"--Sasha's pronounced judgment on Noah's questioning whether he will "make it." It's a pitty the drought couldn't prevent this sort of thing from mostly being drowned beneath the same old same ol'. There's a good moment where Maggie is inspecting a car on the side of the road and finds a zombie in the trunk, a frail, sad-looking former woman who had obviously been kidnapped, tied up and left to die there by whoever took her. Maggie initially closes the trunk, not wanting to deal with the sight, but as the creature bumps around, she ops to kill it before leaving but can't get the trunk open again. It's a nice little bit of writing, with very little dialogue. In another moment, Eugene suggests he doesn't think their situation could get any worse and on cue a pack of wild dogs charge out of the forest intent on chowing down on everyone. Yeah, I know. Sasha is quicker on the draw--shoots them down and our heroes cook them and eat them. A perfect opportunity for some jokes, which are, in fact, positively begged by the situation, but TWD's writers fear the series would shatter into a million pieces if they ever allow it to smile about anything, so rather than joking about eating dog it's presented as yet another terribly somber moment. Oh, just look how far our heroes have fallen! This after Daryl was already shown eating a redworm.

Early in the ep, there's a spectacular shot of the worn-out, asses-dragging band wandering up the road in the heat of the day followed by a growing gaggle of slow-shuffling zombies they're too hot and tired to bother killing. That one shot is the highlight of the episode and one of the best shots that has ever appeared on TWD, a series that isn't really noted for the daring of its cinematography. It tells the story of "Them" far better than any of the godawful dialogue with which the writers tell the story.

It's also a source of some really glaring continuity errors. Earlier in the show, Rick is apparently discussing the following dead with Daryl, telling him we'll deal with them when we get to high ground or some other area where we'll have the advantage. The problem: in the shots in which they're having this discussion, the road behind them stretches entirely out of sight in the distance and there isn't a single zombie on it anywhere. The dialogue is completely inexplicable except in retrospect.[See Update below] In the marvelous composition that shortly follows, the dead are present and are shuffling fairly close behind our heroes. A moment later, Sasha and Michonne, bringing up the rear of the living, are talking and the dead are suddenly far behind. Much further away than they were only seconds earlier.

The moment when, after all that heat and toil, it begins to rain is overplayed where a more reserved reaction would have been more powerful. The characters begin to pull out receptacles with which to catch the downpour then, their desperate need for drinking water seeming to have been forgotten, immediately decide instead to take shelter in a nearby barn. More garbage dialogue follows; the series utterly wastes the "we are the walking dead" line from the comic.[1] There's one more inspired beat, a spectacular moment when a collection of zombies try to break into the barn (Seeking shelter from the storm? No zombienadoes on TWD!). Very well edited but a scene without an ending.

The next morning, everything is sunny and peaceful and a new character appears at the barn, bringing, he tells us, good news. A traveling Jehovah's Witness who has been lost in the styx throughout the zombie apocalypse? Only the next ep will tell. This one was a disappointing waste of an ep that, unlike a lot of TWD these days, had a lot of potential.

--j.

---

[1] In the comic, the "we are the walking dead" line was an explosive moment that expressed an ugly truth the characters had been unable or unwilling to recognize. The creators of the show are unwilling to recognize it as well; they made it into a punchline to yet another stupid anecdote that effectively reversed its meaning, turning it from a bleak, hard truth to a part of a story about hope--another how-we're-gonna-make-it-through-this lecture. Horrible, horrible writing.


UPDATE (16 Feb., 2015) - Good ol' Spectre, over on the IMDb's WALKING DEAD board, has pointed out to me that there is, in fact, a visible zombie in the background when Rick is talking to Daryl. I went back and looked at it again and I think he's right. When Daryl and Rick look back and begin talking about the zombies, there is what appears to be at least one of them in the road in the far, far distance. On my significantly-less-than-HD tv, it's almost impossible to distinguish, even when I zoom in on it. Watching it in real time, I hadn't seen it at all.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Nothing & Nothing Much on THE WALKING DEAD

The question found in the title of tonight's midseason debut of THE WALKING DEAD is "What Happened And What's Going On"; my own title of this article is the answer. Tonight's ep reinforces both the extent to which TWD has become a caricature of itself and my own belief that the bad habits that have become ingrained in it are what will eventually do it in. I'm now wondering if the latter may happen much sooner than anyone expects.

It's a running joke on the internet that any time a new black guy shows up on TWD, an established black guy is killed. Over two years ago, I wrote that

"[The arrival of Tyreese] spells bad news for Oscar.. TWD has taken a lot of ribbing for treating T-Dog as the Token Black Guy, an obvious redshirt given virtually nothing to do except be black until such time as he could be bumped off. Earlier this season, the writers introduced Oscar, one of the inmates at the prison our heroes have made home. In the same episode in which Oscar was accepted into the group, T-Dog was finally allowed to be eaten by zombies. At the time, it led to a lot of Token Black Guy jokes on the various TWD message boards. At the time, some of these jokes were of questionable taste. Tonight, the writers lived down to all of them, though. The opening introduces Tyreese--by the end of the ep, Oscar is pushing up daisies."

This has become a good deal more than a just a joke--it has become a part of TWD's formula. The introduction of Father Gabriel, yet another black fellow, led almost immediately to the death of Bob. Back in November, I wrote that "the fresh arrival of Noah as a potential regular should have Tyreese and Gabriel feeling rather nervous just now." Tonight, our heroes accompanied Noah to his home, a gated community in Virginia[1] that had barricaded itself against the dead. They discover it has been overrun and everyone killed. Tyreese, trying to be reassuring, tells Noah he's one of them now. Minutes later, Tyreese is bitten by a zombie--as always happens on TWD, he suddenly gets really stupid in order to allow this to happen--and by episode's end he's dead. Nothing else of any real substance happens; it's yet another example of building the series around a "shocking" death that, because of rigid adherence to formula, is entirely predicatable and thus non-shocking.[2]

Tonight's ep was also yet another example of TWD's very bad habit of taking 10 minutes worth of plot material and stretching it to fill an hour. The characters discover Noah's neighborhood is dead within minutes then spend most of the rest of the ep standing around expressing their existential angst in the standard horrendously-written pseudo-profound speeches to one another. When Tyreese is attacked and bitten, Noah immediately runs to fetch the others, but this emergency situation doesn't add any sense of immediacy to the story. Instead, the ep just slows down even more, with large amounts of screen-time spent indulging the dying Tyreese's instantly-appearing delusional conversations with already-departed comrades and foes. Even the imagined ghost of GINO puts in an appearance. Noah finally finds the others, they remove Tyreese's arm, drag him from the neighborhood and head back to base with the intention of cauterizing the wound, but Tyreese dies along the way. For further filler, the writers go back to Glen Mazzara's technique of throwing in zombie action to give the impression of something happening: Tyreese, while waiting a seeming infinity for Noah to retrieve the others, is attacked by a second zombie, who bites him again on the same wound on the same arm--he has to overcome and kill it. Then later, as the group is trying to get Tyreese through the gate of the former community, they have to fight off a gaggle of zombies who have gathered outside. More zombie action and CGI gore, signifying, like the rest of the ep, nothing.[3]

This was TWD on autopilot, a series that isn't even trying anymore, and where there ain't nothin' goin' on. Collectively, it managed to eat up another hour, which, when it comes to TWD, is far too often the only point.

--j.

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[1] This trek into Virginia occurs after the entire series has already established the entire series the danger of traveling any real distance. In season 1, our heroes didn't want to go to Ft. Benning because it was such a long trip (though it was only about a hundred miles). The beginning of season 3 established that in 8 months on the road they'd been fored to remain in a relatively small geographic area. In season 4, a trip to an animal med facility only 50 miles away turned into a disaster the charaters barely survived. This season, immediately prior to this episode, Abe's group couldn't even make it out of the state (just as they'd been unable to make it very far back in season 4). Then suddenly we get a 500+ mile trip into Virginia without any apparent difficulties, one that happens off-screen. The punchline is that Rick and Glenn, in discussing the matter, both essentially admit they didn't even believe the neighborhood would still be there and only brought Noah there because it's what Beth--dead Beth--wanted.

[2] As I've covered here into infinity, most of TWD's standard formula is rooted in the cowardice of its creators. They absolutely refuse to risk a loss of audience by offering viewers anything that challenges them, and stick with the safe formula. I fail to see, however, why this black-guy-in/black-guy-out rule should be a rule. It isn't rooted in cowardice or in any other obvious need yet it seems to be as carved-in-stone as the rest of the formula. From whence does it come?

Noah and Gabriel, be fearful--Morgan is on our heroes' trail and he's bound to catch up eventually.

[3] The much bigger news from AMC tonight was the series premiere of BETTER CALL SAUL, the much-anticipated prequel to BREAKING BAD. As it turned out, it was a great premiere. AMC's custom is to repeat an original program during the late-night hours, but in what I suspect is an indication of how much respect AMC is going to give this new series, BETTER CALL SAUL won't be so repeated. Instead, AMC is going to repeat tonight's godawful TWD (and its companion TALKING DEAD) no less than three times in a row.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Many Devils of DAREDEVIL (2003)

Earlier today, Netflix released the first substantial trailer--a glorified teaser, really--for their upcoming series based on the Marvel comic Daredevil. The initial reaction from online fandom seems to be one of excitement and even glee of a most giddy character. I've been a DD fan myself since I was but a wee lad, but in general, I tend to be more cautious in my optimism for such projects. Still, I'll readily concede that I'm quite pleased with what I saw. If the tone of the trailer reflects that of the series, we may have a winner on our hands.

This will be DD's second screen adaptation, and that he's getting a second chance is something akin to a  miracle after the first. The release of the new trailer seems as good an opportunity as any to conduct an autopsy on the corpse that is that previous outing, and "corpse" is the right word for it. DAREDEVIL (2003) was a spectacular failure, a near-complete creative abortion. The comic on which it was based is packed with literally years of great--and wonderfully cinematic--plot material that could have been adapted to the screen. Where did a film with so much potential go so terribly wrong?

One place it didn't fail was at the box office. The studio, which had tried to shape the film into a summer blockbuster tentpole, eventually assigned it a Febrary release, a traditional dead-zone for moviegoing where big films are exiled when the moneymen have no confidence in them.[1] The idea is to allow a movie the chance to become the king of a substnatially smaller hill rather than quickly wash out and disappear in the torrent of a more competitive season. Sometimes it works. DAREDEVIL was one of those times. On a budget of $78 million, it managed to draw nearly $180 million. A victory due less to its merits than to the fact there was little else showing.[2]

It would be the film's only success.

When DAREDEVIL was in development, Mark Steven Johnson reportedly lobbied hard to get the directing assignment. That he eventually landed it is still baffling. His only previous directing experience was an insipid children's movie he'd ground out 5 years earlier (SIMON BIRCH). He is, by his own description, a comic fanboy and perhaps it was felt a fanboy could understand the material. Johnson succeeded only in proving that being a fanboy doesn't translate into talent as a cinematic storyteller.[3] It did, however, contribute to the royal mess he made of this film. I could unlimber my rhetorical arsenal and be quite extensively unkind in my assessment of Johnson, but his film speaks to that louder than any tirade I could unleash. His shortcomings are painfully obvious in every frame. DAREDEVIL was doomed from the moment he landed the director's chair.

Johnson also wrote the screenplay for the film, which went over about as well as his direction. Instead of trying to tell a single story well, Johnson the fanboy tried to cram in years worth of material from the comics featuring the rather complicated central character, whose origin and later m.o. had to be established, Elektra, DD's college love who becomes his adversary, the Kingpin, the ultimate crime-boss of New York who becomes DD's greatest enemy, Ben Urich, a reporter who learns DD's real identity and becomes an ally, Bullseye, DD's mutant arch-nemesis, and so on. The result is an unfocused mess, a virtually plotless, completely illogical spectacle of would-be colorful characters crashing into one another.

The direction of the actors shows the same lack of focus. Ben Affleck, essaying the title character, has, in the years since the film's release, gotten a lot of abuse for his performance but I'm inclined to be a lot less critical. Actors can only do so much; beyond a certain point they're at the mercy of the script and of those behind the camera. The performances of Affleck and the other cast members are all over the board, veering wildly from entirely naturalistic to absurdist camp melodrama with no effort at a consistent tone. Joe Pantoliano as Urich and Colin Farrell as Bullseye offer the only two performances that are internally consistent from beginning to end, but they're at opposite poles that represent the film's extremes. Pantoliano is a down-to-earth guy who plays his relatively small part straight and to the point. Colin Farrell mugs, spouts ridiculous dialogue in a way-over-the-top-of-the-top manner, bounces around on wires--his character seems as if he's come in from an entirely different movie and every second he spends on screen is a painful embarrassment.

The studio suits made all of this much worse. In the wake of SPIDER-MAN's phenomenal success in 2002 they wanted to ape that film by piling on the CGI and filling the movie with lots of ludicrous wirebound action scenes--things Spider-Man could probably do but that DD most certainly could not. So instead of a Jet Li in a red suit--the only thing you really need to do Daredevil--we get DD the super-grasshopper who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and drop 40 stories off the side of a building, land on his feet and just keep going.

DAREDEVIL is another one of those productions about which I'm loath to say anything particularly positive merely because doing so risks leaving the false impression that there's any significant merit in it. In its favor, I will allow that the film's visualization of DD's "radar" is well done; there is an undercurrent of violence and nihilism in portions of the film that is appropriate to the material, some awareness of the romanticism of the Daredevil character; some of the music, particularly the two Evanescence turnes ("Bring Me To Life" and "My Immortal"), suit Daredevil--at least considered generically--remarkably well.

After the film's release, Johnson prepared a significantly longer director's cut. This second release is undeniably a better film, but its merits have been absurdly overstated in some quarters. It's not the vast improvement some will assert. Comparing it to the theatrical cut is like making the argument that this pile stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't really want to step in either. After Johnson's film (and the even-worse follow-up ELEKTRA), Daredevil is extremely lucky to be getting another chance. It took 12 years and Marvel finally reacquring the screen rights to see it through but if today's teaser is any indication, the new series seems to be on the right track. Hopefully, it will be as good as it feels right now and will leave this film, at the moment the title character's greatest exposure to the larger public, a fading memory.

--j.

Gratuitous Plug Dept. - I have, if you can believe it, launched a third Facebook group in recent weeks. A celebration of the darker side of comics. We talk Daredevil there. Also the Batman, horror comics, street-level heroes, crime stories. In short, "4-Color Noir." If that interests you, come by and join in--the more the merrier.

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[1] The current-in-the-works Batman/Superman film was recently moved back to this same period--read into that what you will.

[2] And even at that, it was only the 2nd biggest February release that year.

[3] He hasn't developed any of that in the years since DAREDEVIL either.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Supergals & Bob Haney

Self-Promotion Dept. - I was a fan of the great American art of the comic book before I could even read the books myself (and I could read before most kids my age could even identify all of their letters). Frustrated by a string of setbacks with my movie projects--the story of my life--I've launched a pair of comic-related Facebook groups in the last few days.

Prolific and pulpy, unapologetically eccentric, wildly imaginative and, frequently, gloriously mad is the work of Bob Haney, writer of comic books. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Haney wrote an astonishing array of tales in nearly every genre, their quality ranging from madcap masterpieces to hacked-out-for-pay mush. He put in a very long run on "The Brave & The Bold," including the bulk of its particularly fine incarnation as a team-up-with-the-Batman book, when it was a key work in returning the Caped Crusader to his darker crime-fighter roots. He's a co-creator of the Teen Titans, Metamorpho the Element Man and many others. His work touched nearly every major DC Comics character. And he is spectacularly underappreciated for all of this. So I've set up "Haneyverse: The Brave & Bold Worlds of Bob Haney," something of an effort to give the Haney his due.

Last week, Marvel launched AGENT CARTER, their first female-led screen adaptation. In the midst of the current boom in comic book movies, I've frequently griped about the sparcity of superheroines who have made the leap from page to screen (including here), and parallel with the new show, I launched "Supergals: Heroines & Villainesses of Page & Screen." Not just those who go from page to screen, by any means. Besides just being a great, rich subject and a place people can use to rave about it, I have some more personal reasons for starting it--nieces, cousins, girls and women in general and others in particular.

If either interest you, come by and join in. The more the merrier.

--j.