Talking Movies

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

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November 27, 2012

An Arrow of a different colour

I root for shows to stay on the air, not least because so many shows I’ve loved (Cupid, Studio 60, Vengeance Unlimited) have been prematurely cancelled, but … I really hope Arrow gets scrapped soon.

There’s been a Smallville-sized gap in my world for a year now, and so Arrow you’d imagine would be right up my street. But it’s not, it’s really not; for many reasons, mostly to do with other programmes. Arrow is a show that seems to have been created by putting other hits in a blender, and then just running with whatever derivative gloop emerged. It would appear that the producers noticed that Revenge was popular last season and so figured they also could surf the zeitgeist and take down 99%ers every week, complete with Green Arrow drawing a line thru the name of the fat cat he’d successfully ruined; just like Emily’s crossing an X thru the face of the person in the group photo she’d destroyed at the end of early episodes of Revenge. Every time I see the Queen mansion in Arrow all I can think of is Lex Luthor’s mansion in Smallville. If it’s not actually the same exterior then it sure looks like it, and it’s just a bit distracting. Furthermore while Arrow fails to match the charm of early Smallville, it’s overdosing on the angst that soon blighted that show. 5 episodes in and Laurel Dinah Lance has already stated, for not particularly clear reasons, that she and Oliver Queen can never be together. Even though their character names make it blindingly obvious they will be, eventually. And so Clark and Lana nonsense begins anew…

But these aren’t even the most aggravating or troubling derivative elements of Arrow. The constant flashbacks, to Oliver Queen’s 5 years on a remote island where he became Green Arrow, complete with meaningful life lessons from a cryptically wise Chinese Arrow screamed LOST and that was before The Others showed up… It was bad enough having to endure a flashback vignette every week that related to the main story, but now there are well-organised and well-resourced military personnel on an island where shipwrecked survivors are hunting animals for food. These Others are led by a man with staring eyes, just like Ben Linus, who is the Big Bad of the show, not least because he has sadistic torturer Deathstroke at his disposal. And then for the final kicker it’s revealed that the Mandarin name for the island means … Purgatory. Just, no… we don’t need more LOST meanderings, six years of pointless nonsense was enough. And then there’s the Nolan riffing. In the first episode Oliver was seen at a grinder getting his weapons sharp, in a scene shot farcically like its model in Batman Begins where Bruce makes his first throwing Bats. But then a shadowed Oliver goes on to growl to Laurel about he can give her leverage for a case, just like Batman growled as he gave his lawyer love interest Rachel leverage on Judge Faden. That’d be okay if perhaps Arrow appreciated why Nolan’s Batman worked…

But Arrow doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how comic-book superheroes operate. When in the pilot Oliver Queen, out of costume, caught a criminal who’d kidnapped him and then broke his neck shouting “No one can know my secret!” it was an enormous shock, because it was such a stunning mis-step, and anti-Nolan to the nth degree despite all the borrowings from Nolan elsewhere. It was a return to the ethics or lack thereof of Tim Burton’s Batman who very deliberately murdered the Joker as well as carelessly offing God knows how many goons along the way. Green Arrow’s subsequent shooting of a corrupt tycoon with an arrow thru the hand was far nastier than Batman dropping Sal Maroni to break his ankles, because Nolan’s Batman was being forced to extremes by the Joker’s madness whereas that’s just how this Green Arrow rolls… And for all Green Arrow’s homicidal antics by the end of episode 4 he’s been arrested by the police for being Green Arrow. So his first murder was in vain… Only things get even better. You see, like The Joker, Loki and Silva – he planned on getting caught! He wanted them to lock him up in the MCU Skybase Churchill Bunker Queen mansion. Because, like The Dark Knight Rises, the important thing is not that Oliver Queen is Green Arrow but that there will always be a Green Arrow, no matter who’s under the hood…

Except, why should we care who is under the hood if he’s just a cold-blooded killer? Nolan’s Batman famously only has one rule – don’t kill people. Maim the hell out of them, by all means, but don’t kill them. Arrow seems to think it can lift huge chunks from Nolan’s Bat-verse and then also appropriate the industrial slaughter of Maggie Q’s Nikita, but Nikita comes from a dark place – that’s the character. She’s a drug addict who killed people before she got forced by the government to join a secret government agency and kill people before she went rogue and embarked on a new mission to kill bad people. Killing is an essential part of Nikita as a character, but not killing has always been an equally essential part of DC Comics’ superheroes as characters. David S Goyer noted that they very deliberately had Batman throw Joker off a building and then save him in The Dark Knight as a riposte to the end of Burton’s Batman because both he and Christopher Nolan felt that Batman killing Joker had been a terrible tonal mistake. And it was a mistake, just witness the brilliance of the scene that Batman then shares with the Joker dangling from a rope. There’s a mystical connection between those two characters that doesn’t allow for simple killing. Superman can’t simply knock off Lex Luthor, and it goes beyond the morality of the characters to a sense of epic grandeur. This isn’t just comic-book bilge incidentally, look at Albert Camus’ description in The Rebel of Spartacus seeking out his opposing number Crassus to die in single combat against him and him alone.

The amorality of the lead character who should be a straight arrow, as it were, is only one part of the problem though. Oliver Queen in Smallville was transparently a Batman substitute, but Justin Hartley’s performance as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow had a nonchalance entirely absent from Stephen Amell’s wooden earnestness in Arrow. Some of this may be due to the different functions of the character, Hartley was there for sparring with earnest Clark Kent whereas Amell as lead character to some degree is earnest Clark Kent. But Hartley’s Green Arrow had the same formative traumas in his past, and it didn’t swamp the character’s traditional sardonic nature, while Amell’s inert demeanour never allows him to convince as the party animal that makes Oliver Queen such close kin to Bruce Wayne. Nolan allowed us to see that public Bruce Wayne, private Bruce Wayne and Batman were three distinct personalities; and that private Bruce Wayne was a good man. But Arrow has failed to make private Oliver Queen much more likeable than public Oliver Queen. And this points to a bigger problem.

Thor and John Carter placed alongside Arrow seem to indicate that we are in the middle of a bona fide scriptwriting crisis. There’s a distinction between a rogue and a dick that appears to have been lost. Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter was deeply unlikeable as a hero, and the film was reduced to not only bafflingly introducing Bryan Cranston as a metaphorical cat to be saved, but then introducing an actual dog to be saved as well later, in a vain effort to get us to like Carter.  Thor meanwhile was entirely upended by the fact that Thor was a thoroughly unlikeable jerk who only became bearable in the last act of the film, which enabled the suave Tom Hiddleston as Loki to steal the entire movie as the cleverer brother forever cleaning up the messes of his petulant blowhard sibling. A classic rogue, like Han Solo, or even Ian Somerhalder’s Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, is cocky, likeable, and from the perspective of the other characters entirely unreliable, even though the audience always has a sneaking suspicion that the bad boy will come through in the end no matter how many times he weasels out on doing the right thing along the way to serve his own agenda. But Thor, John Carter, and Arrow are sunk by heroes who aren’t remotely likeable. Arrow has dropped the Green to emphasise its edginess but it’s dropped its character’s resonance too…

I’m sticking with Arrow for now to see Seth Gabel aka Jeremy Darling from Dirty Sexy Money as Vertigo, but once Gabel leaves the show I won’t be far behind.

May 18, 2011

Win Win

Tom McCarthy’s third film as writer/director, after The Station Agent and The Visitor, is another understated little gem.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer in New Providence, New Jersey, whose legal practice is struggling almost as much as the abysmal high-school wrestling team he coaches. In dire need of money he spots an unethical opportunity to get $1,500 a month simply by acting as guardian for an elderly client with early dementia whose estranged daughter cannot be located. His plans are complicated, however, by the unexpected arrival of the man’s taciturn grandson Kyle. The boy is quickly adopted by the Flaherty family and, as he becomes more outgoing, his unsuspected prowess at wrestling sees him rapidly become the star of Flaherty’s high-school team. This win-win scenario is threatened by the sudden appearance of Kyle’s unstable mother (Melanie Lynskey) who may unravel everyone’s happiness by exposing the original deceit regarding Leo’s guardianship that Mike has engaged in…

It would be ridiculous to label McCarthy a cinematic American Chekhov, but it is accurate to say that his films sometimes feel like the best modern American short stories come to life. He has a regard for mundane details, defeated characters, and everyday struggles, and treats them with a humane sympathy and an eye for comic absurdity that makes them truly engaging. Giamatti is as wonderful as ever as a good man who has done one bad thing out of desperation but has parlayed it into a number of good things, all of which are now in peril because of his original sin. Amy Ryan is fantastic as Mike’s wife Jackie, a loving mother; whose violent verbal reproaches of Kyle’s mother Cindy belie an all encompassing compassion; counterpointed by Lynskey’s tremendously ambiguous turn as the unreliable Cindy. Jeffrey Tambor meanwhile has some wonderful moments as Mike’s assistant coach and fellow struggling lawyer who advocates ignoring their clanging office boiler until it explodes rather than pay for repairs.

This realistic portrait of an America in recession, where the villains are faceless systems of bureaucracy and a tanking economy, is rarely seen in pop culture, but McCarthy also has a talent for achieving redemptive moments without straying into bombast. There are numerous such moments here, from a guitar led montage of small victories in life, and the effect Kyle has on the worst member of the team Stemler, to the developing bond between Kyle and Mike, and the initiation into selfless responsibility of Mike’s roguish friend Tommy – enthusiastically played by Bobby Cannavale (TV’s Cupid himself). Indeed the ‘victory’ of Stemler despite Tommy’s doubts encapsulates McCarthy’s message, winning by ignoring your own morality just isn’t satisfying.

Win Win isn’t quite as good a film as the more revelatory The Visitor, but you never know where a Tom McCarthy film is going, and these days that’s most praiseworthy.

3.5/5

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