Monday, January 25, 2010

SMALLVILLE: Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating Superboy

[Note: the remarks that follow are based on the first four seasons of SMALLVILLE, and are written without knowledge of subsequent seasons.]

SMALLVILLE is terribly addictive. The ongoing revisionist tale of Superman's youth was several seasons old before I first jumped on board. Exposed to it by a friend, I started at the beginning and found myself fanatically absorbing the entire first season in four days and most of the second in a few more before, other life matters intervening, slowing my intake to a more leisurely pace and, at the dawn of season 3, putting it aside entirely. I picked it up again in recent days and in spite of some naysayers who'd told me its quality dropped off at that point, found it no less captivating. I've flown through season 3 and most of season 4 and decided, tonight, I'd finally sit down and write about it a little, under the title I conceived for a review of it after I first started watching it nearly five years ago.

SMALLVILLE is Stan Lee's version of Superboy. Stan, mind you, has had nothing whatsoever to do with the production of SMALLVILLE and he never wrote DC Comics' Superboy or any of the Superman books on which the show is based but the show's debt to Stan is, like the comic medium's debt to him, virtually incalculable. When he hit his stride, Stan was the proletarian poet of pathos, a prolific pioneer of funny-book fantasy who fashioned fascinatingly flawed characters, relentlessly burdened by brimming barrels of almost unbearable angst. In his hands, their extraordinary abilities were often as much curse as blessing and their lives were divided between living out soap-opera-ish personal dramas and bravely battling their way through grand, operatic adventures filled with wicked irony, plentiful plot twists, resounding triumphs and torturous tragedy. And Stan loved alliteration. Credit where credit's due, SMALLVILLE picked up its own penchant for same from the DC books from which it was drawn but it's definitely Marvel rather than DC Comics to which the show is most indebted. Even those viewers with no knowledge of Stan's work would immediately recognize the show in the description I just offered. If Stan and the Marvel gang had created Superboy back in the 1960s, this is how it would have been and if Stan and the Marvel gang hadn't done what they did then, there wouldn't be a SMALLVILLE today.

A lot of people on the internet, it seems, wouldn't find the latter to be so terrible a thing and though my overall assessment of the series certainly differs from theirs, I'd even agree with a lot of the criticism they've directed at it but they'd be wrong to refract my remarks about its addictiveness as quips about addictions often being bad things. SMALLVILLE, it's true, suffers from many of the same weaknesses as the '60s Marvel books it so resembles. It has a lot of their strengths as well though, and there's a very good reason why, in that era, Marvel became the industry leader in this sort of story and remained so for nearly five decades while DC's post-Marvel history became primarily a story of repeated efforts to copy what Marvel was doing.

Rather than bland stuffed shirts, Stan wanted his characters to be "real people with real problems." As Spider-Man, the Thing and so many others learned under his direction, sometimes it sucks to be a superman. With great powers came great responsibilities but the same abilities that could allow one of sufficiently altruistic bent to be a great benefit to mankind could also make one's life a real mess. Clark Kent, SMALLVILLE's embryonic Superman, learns the hard way that living with a secret identity means living a perpetual lie that requires daily deception of almost everyone around him. Adolescence is hard enough as it is but Clark finds it's even harder when--X-Men style--it brings sudden manifestations of new powers he doesn't understand and can't control very well. Trying to live something akin to a normal life can, in any case, be rather tricky when one is forever having to run off and save some damsel (or dude) in distress or battle some dangerous mutant. Throw in the revelation that he's from another planet and that his alien birth-father may have intended him to conquer the Earth AND that said father seems to have left a computerized simulation of himself on Earth to "guide" Clark to that goal, whether Clark likes it or not, and you've got a serious angst-fest on your hands.

Stan loved constructing his little soap-opera subplots and milking them for all they were worth and SMALLVILLE lifts a page (or two or a thousand) from his many books, setting up a love triangle between Clark, Lana Lang (the girl he adores) and Chloe Sullivan (a girl who adores him).[1] The fourth party to the affair is Clark's secret, which, like that of Stan's Spider-man, perpetually fouls him up with both women. Clark's affection for Lana has always seemed very contrived to me because it's something that has never been given any sort of real foundation. Lana isn't someone with whom Clark falls in love because of who she is. She's just Clark's dream girl and why he would find her so compelling is never explored. Making it worse is the fact that Lana (Kristen Kruek) is, unfortunately, never really allowed to be very interesting. It's hard to say much about her character--she doesn't really have much of one. Chloe, on the other hand, is a keeper. She's an original creation of the show, an intrepid girl reporter for the school newspaper--essentially the series' stand-in for Lois Lane.[2] One of the shortcomings of the tri-angle is that Chloe, so well-written and so vibrantly brought to life by the beautiful Allison Mack, is so much better a character than cold fish Lana that it's almost impossible to believe Clark (or anyone else) would prefer Lana to her. One is forever watching and thinking "Clark is an idiot!" But, warts and all, the dynamics of this triangle underlie, to some degree, nearly every episode after it's introduced and the series has managed to wring some very touching moments from it.

Then there are those pesky Luthors, who are forever trying to uncover Clark's secrets and have, toward that end, limitless resources at their disposal. SMALLVILLE appropriates from the Superboy comics the notion of a teenage friendship between Clark and Lex Luthor, the man who will one day become his greatest enemy. In the early seasons of the show, Lex has some sinister quirks about him but he isn't a villain yet and the series has, as an aim, charting, alongside Clark's rise to hero-hood, Lex's decline to dastardly no-goodnik. By way of character motivation, the Super-comics posited for decades the notion that, as teens, Lex and Superboy were friends but that this ended in a lab accident for which Lex blamed Superboy--the decades of feral enmity that followed were laid at the feet of Luthor's anger at Superboy/man over losing his hair in that accident. A fellow so brilliant he could create devices that threatened entire worlds thus tragically spent much of his adult life trying to kill Superman rather than simply joining the Hair Club For Men. Fortunately, those behind SMALLVILLE had a much better idea and brought it to large life in one of the series' great original contributions to the Superman mythos, the character of Lionel Luthor, Lex's father. Lionel is expressionistic foreshadowing personified--he is the very bad guy Lex will one day become.[3] Lionel gives Lex something he didn't have in the comics, a past that plausibly explains why he turns out the way he does. Lionel and Lex go at each other like cats and dogs, their relationship a perpetual feud between a seemingly omnipotent chessmaster and his unwilling understudy. Lex is horrified by the thought of becoming his father's son and goes to great lengths to resist it, which makes for an interesting character study. The series makes good use of the fact that the viewer already knows how it turns out in the end by making an interesting, well-played, and original tale of how it happens; it's a story we've never seen, and it's a good one.

Michael Rosenbaum is spot-on as Lex, who, in his hands, is aloof, obsessive and seems possessed of a terrible darkness lurking just below his calm exterior. If I have one serious complaint about the show's treatment of Lex, it's that I dislike how so many bad guys who come along are allowed to so easily makes him their bitch. His father is always ten steps ahead of him and that always seems about right. Lex, however--even young Lex--needs to be at least ten steps ahead of everyone else (and with most "ordinary" people, he is). Lex Luthor doesn't call some security firm to deal with tattooed thugs who phase through walls, rough him up and blackmail him--he gets his hands on some badass Anti-Tattoed Phasing Thug technology and makes them wish they'd never been born. In the first two seasons, he ends up on the wrong end of abuse way too often and comes across, as a consequence, as far too ineffectual. You can't build an arch-villain that way, even if those abusing him are possessed of super-powers.

A lot of people end up with super-powers in Smallville. Clark's arrival on Earth as a child was accompanied by a punishing "meteor shower"--a hail of Kryptonite, the radioactive chunks of Clark's destroyed home planet Krypton. In the comics, Kryptonite is lethal to Superman but harmless to humans. The creators of SMALLVILLE decided, instead, to allow it to affect ordinary people, making its radiation a source of all manner of bizarre mutations. This offered a handy means of providing Clark with super-powered adversaries but the basic plotline--someone is exposed to Kryptonite, gains super-powers, goes nuts and is, in the end, stopped by Clark--was, for the longest time, repeated almost every week. The repetitiveness of the "freak of the week" formula became a top complaint by the show's detractors.

The show is, of course, guilty as charged on the point. It did run the formula to ribbons in the early seasons. Whatever one makes of the stories for which the freaks were used, there are other types of stories to tell in a series of this nature. Relying so heavily on the formula didn't give them a lot of room to be told.[4] The freaks, who are mostly one-shot characters, are sometimes allowed to take up too much of an already-limited running time, time that would be better spent with some of the regular characters and extended plotlines. And a small town in Kansas where, nearly every week, someone gains super-powers and goes on a murderous rampage and practically no one notices? Please.

But I do think those who most harshly criticize the freaks tend to overlook the good use the writers get out of most of them. SMALLVILLE's writers have demonstrated an enduring fascination with creating parallel storylines that compare and contrast the characters and their lives by holding them up against various mirror images of themselves--it's virtually the defining characteristic of the show's storytelling. The freaks have been especially useful in facilitating this. Taking another page from Stan Lee's playbook, the freaks are expressionistic constructs. They have quirks, obsessions, cravings that mirror those of the regular cast and, gaining powers that allow them to act on such impulses without restraint, are made to serve as twisted, amped-up-to-the-nth-degree alternate versions of the series regulars. Even given the repetitiveness of the basic "freak of the week" formula, this has allowed for some first-rate storytelling. Clark is forever pining for Lana? The writers throw in a freak who is utterly obsessed with her and eventually decides to do something about it. Chloe craves the warmth of a romantic relationship? Send a freak her way who craves warmth as well--he drains the body heat off those around him, leaving them corpse-sicles. SMALLVILLE is a show on which the characters are learning and growing as they go and this provides a useful means of dramatizing part of that process.

While the freaks sometimes take away from time that would be better spent elsewhere, they also often raise themes that are, unfortunately, too rich to properly mine in the time allotted. One of the rare freaks who made a return appearance, for example, was a shape-shifting girl who assumed the identity of others, one after another. As a consequence of doing so too often and for too long, she'd lost her own. A very appropriate theme for SMALLVILLE. Her return appearance in which it was broached had the potential to be a real keeper but, squeezed into a single, already-cramped episode, the idea barely got lip-service.

That isn't to suggest the series doesn't find something closer to the right balance more often than not. It does. There are weaknesses in the writing though, there's no denying that. The generous rehashing of the "freak of the week" plot isn't the only repetitive element in the writers' work. Among other things, Chloe and especially Lana are stalked, kidnapped and otherwise menaced far too often. It's a convention of the genre, it's true, but if it's going to be so overused the writers need to at least show a little more imagination in how and why it's done. Blatantly contrived drama rears its ugly head from time to time. Clark's inexplicable attraction to and preference for Lana is only one example. Another is Clark's horrified overreaction, in the pilot, to learning he was an alien. Still another is a pair of episodes with a telepathic kid who is dying. Clark becomes very attached to him and starts speaking of him as his brother but the episodes never establish why he would come to feel this way and the viewer can't even come close to buying it. It just comes across as hokey and insincere[5] The series is woefully in need of something that establishes a firm rationale for Clark keeping his powers secret from his inner circle of friends. We haven't really been given one and watching episode after episode, it's impossible to believe he would be so secretive for no real reason given how badly it disrupts his life. To their credit, the writers do seem to recognize this and make an occasional effort to address the matter. Never, in my view, particularly satisfactorily.

One of the least forgivable shortcomings in the writing is the terminal underwriting of Clark's adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. For large portions of the early seasons the writers treated them as little more than props. They were almost entirely undeveloped as characters and after the show established itself, were given virtually nothing to do. Their function too often became standing around looking grimly concerned about Clark, reciting cliche homilies and repeatedly offering the same two or three canned sentiments warning him against the many dangers he may face in anything he may decide to do. Their dialogue eventually became virtually interchangeable from episode to episode. In the second season Martha started getting some other things to do and season 3 saw the beginning of some work on Jonathan but as of 3/4 of the way through season 4, both characters are still terribly neglected.[6] One could argue it isn't really their show but it seems gnawingly shortsighted when the parts are essayed by John Schneider and Anette O'Toole. They do their best to breath life into the characters and do, at times, manage some nice touches but it's unfortunate that, with two such solid talents at their disposal, the writers haven't shown more vision.

That isn't the only case of shortsightedness by the series' creators (though it is, in my view, the most glaring). While individual episodes are often quite good, the writers don't always keep an eye on the bigger picture. The show is going somewhere. They tend to lose sight of this. Continuity gaffes also crop up from time to time. At one point, Martha Kent goes to work for Lionel Luthor, which inflames Jonathan, but after Martha discovers that Lionel has accumulated a tremendous amount of data on Clark (one of the series best plot-twists yet), Jonathan starts to see the benefit of having her in a position to keep tabs on Lionel's activities. This happens at the end of an episode; by the beginning of the next--only seconds later, when watching it on disc as I do--it's as if that never happened, and after having gone into a rage at Lionel, Jonathan stands credibly accused of his attempted murder.

All these caveats aside though, the writing on the show is, as a rule, quite good,[7] and that Quite Good makes a good mate with all the Quite Goods I've already mentioned. And there are plenty of others. The series' cinematography is of the quality of a feature film--rich, expressionistic, beautiful. Lots of imaginative camera-work. Great special effects work, particularly for television. The production design is uniformly first-rate. The series' technical elements are superb in every aspect. It's a regular breeding pool of Quite Good that vastly outweighs the series' shortcomings, and its ultimate offspring is, in my view, the best thing other media have done for the Superman mythos since the first Richard Donner movie.[8] It is endearing and, I suspect, will prove enduring (if, with 9 seasons under its belt and more likely to follow, it can't already be said to be so). Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would have Quite Good reason to be proud of it.

Stan Lee, I think, has even more reason.

--j.

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[1] Actually, this was preceded by another Stan-esque triangle involving Clark, Lana, and Whitney Fordman (Lana's beau as the show opens) but Whitney was edged out of the picture very quickly--he'd been effectively gone for some time before its made official.

[2] It's hard to overstate how well she's done; Chloe is a solid-enough character that she could carry a series of her own.

[3] While the series creators deserve a round of applause for their part in crafting Lionel, the real kudos belong to John Glover for making such an evil bastard such a relentless delight to watch; Lionel gets some of his complexity from the pages of the scripts but Glover is really the one who brings it to life and makes it work, and he so owns the role it's difficult to imagine anyone else pulling it off and impossible to imagine anyone doing it as well.

[4] But to be fair, the series does eventually start telling some of them.

[5] The second episode, in which the boy dies, also strikes one of the most monumentally false notes of the run to date. The boy is dying and this provides the basis for a story built around the theme of Clark coming to grips with his limitations. The boy's impending death is used to demonstrate that Clark can't help everyone. And then, of course, Clark does help the kid, taking the boy up in a hot-air balloon as he'd always wanted.

[6] The consequences of leaving them so underwritten is that the viewer can never develop a feel for who they are. This is particularly problematic in Jonathan's case because all we ever saw him do in the early seasons is obsess over the need to maintain Clark's secret and serve up one mindless rant after another against "the Luthors." These rants were frequently astonishingly unfair when directed at Lex and made Jonathan come across as a real prick, with little to contradict the impression (when, in one second-season episode, Lex finally tells him to shove it, one feels like cheering). He's also prone to other behavior that makes him not only unlikable but a rather poor father to an embryonic Superman. Several times now, he's blindly rushed off in angry--possibly murderous--rages at other characters. Because it was never given a proper foundation, his behavior toward Martha's father, when that character was introduced, came across as remarkably petty and even cruel. Ditto regarding a character in another episode who mistakenly thought she was Clark's mother. No one writing the show seems to realize this or think about it.

[7] In spite of the fact that it does have too much overly serious, underly naturalistic talk about "destiny," SMALLVILLE mostly avoids the stilted, unnatural dialogue and over-the-top delivery so many filmmakers impose upon genre projects of this sort. When, in season 4, Lana Lang is possessed by the spirit of a dead witch and is handled in that way, it's surprisingly jarring.

[8] From shortly after I started watching it, I began to wish Warner Brothers would simply let the show evolve into the Superman feature-film franchise it was then in the process of rebooting. After the unfortunate SUPERMAN RETURNS, I felt even more strongly that this would have been the course to follow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

APPALOOSA (2008)

I like a good Western. I love a great one. I watched APPALOOSA. It's a Western. Wanted to love it. I liked it. Watch it, and you'll understand why I'm writing this way.

All right, enough of that.

APPALOOSA is the tale of Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, a pair of no-nonsense town-tamers-for-hire who rent out their law-enforcement skills to the town for which the film is named after a no-good cattle baron murders the town marshal and his deputies. Westernalia ensues. There's a love interest, Indians, gun-play--everything you'd expect in a Western. The film runs nearly two hours but only has enough story for about an-hour-and-a-half, and while, overall, it isn't really a great movie, it's a reasonably good one, and certainly enough great work went into it that I didn't feel it wasted any of my time.

The movie has several things in its favor.

The first is its dialog. Fantastic writing, a crossbreed of short, clipped, stylized, Hemingwayesque hardboiled, and quasi-aristocratic 19th century formalism. Very much unlike--and even against the grain of--what's usually found in Westerns. Very good.

Ed Harris directed as well as co-starred, and you can tell an actor was behind the camera, because it's all about the characters, which can be a problem in movies directed by actors, but in this case is actually the second thing working in APPALOOSA's favor. They're good characters, or mostly good, and the cast that portray them is as rock-solid as it gets, starting at the top with Harris and Viggo Mortensen, all the way down to the bit-players. A hell of a cast.[*]

Its third strength is a subtlety in the storytelling that is quite striking. Striking as subtlety goes, anyway. APPALOOSA doesn't go for emotional or visceral manipulation, not once--it shows what's happening, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide what the characters are thinking. This gives us some ambiguity with which to play, which means every viewer, by filling in the gaps, makes it a different movie in his or her own head, and that's not only good filmmaking; it's a kind I find particularly appealing. Of course, the problem with it is that those who don't want to (or can't) use their heads will probably just end up hating it, because it seems, to them, as empty as their own heads. But a movie comprehensible to a complete moron isn't a goal particularly well-suited for the creation of quality cinema, either, in spite of what Hollywood's money-men seem to think.

APPALOOSA's fourth strength is its score, which is, like the storytelling, subtle, and often quite good. Some of it isn't at all the sort of music you generally hear in Westerns, and while some of it isn't particularly standout-ish on the scale of Really Frickin' Impressive, it does work with the picture, really coming through very well at several points in the movie. This and its original elements certainly make it worth a mention.

The film's major faults are really only two. First is that it didn't quite have enough story for its running time, which meant some padding. No big deal, really. Second, and the major one, is that, for all it has going for it, it fails to be really great. I love a great Western. I liked APPALOOSA.

What else can you say?

--j.

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[*] Renée Zellweger, the female lead, has been singled out as an exception to this in some of the commentary on the film, which often marks her as an example of awful miscasting. I can see that perspective, but I think it's more a case of her just having a thankless part.