Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

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November 22, 2016

Re-Routh Superman!

The guest appearance of Superman on Supergirl for 2 episodes; which displayed more wit, swagger, and simple sure grasp of the character than Zack Snyder’s 2 movies; led me back to thinking about a couple of unrelated moments this summer.

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I was watching Legends of Tomorrow, the audacious episode where three of our heroes are left behind in 1950s America, and someone walked past, stopped, and asked “Is that Superman?” And yes, it kind of was. Brandon Routh, bespectacled, waistcoated, and jacketed, was lecturing excitedly on physics and slightly bumbling in keeping the space-time continuum free of catastrophic paradoxes. I have always considered that Routh in Superman Returns was a fine Superman, but I was less sold on his Clark Kent. His sensational cameo in Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, effectively playing Bizarro for extra meta-laughs, served notice that the still young Routh was developing his comedy chops apace. But with Legends of Tomorrow there is no doubt that the secret identities Ray Palmer and Clark Kent are starting to become interchangeable on occasion, and if Routh is secretly auditioning to get his cape back (Hell, Routh’s superhero guise still involves wearing a suit largely composed of red and blue), he’s certainly won me over regarding his ability to play Clark. So, with Snyder now having failed miserably, twice, to show that he understands in the slightest the character of Superman, has any coherent vision of how to direct Super-action, or has any sense of humour, might it not be time to simply pretend the whole thing was a fever dream and make a semi-sequel to Superman Returns, bringing back Routh to the role he only got one shot at?

DC's Legends of Tomorrow -- "Left Behind" -- Image LGN109A_0220b.jpg -- Pictured: Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer/Atom -- Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW -- © 2016 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW — © 2016 The CW

And the second unrelated moment… Watching Olivia Munn in X-Men: Apocalypse after watching her in season 3 of The Newsroom I was once again disappointed at how an actress who dominates a television screen ended up standing around like a mislaid prop on the big screen. If there was only some role in a superhero movie that would be as juicy for Munn as Sorkin’s creation Sloan Sabbith was… If only she could again play a journalist, someone with an overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop. Someone like… Lois Lane. In 2010 I wrote on this blog that Lois “lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you. Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics.” Take a look at Munn in action as Sloan in the clip below, and imagine a Lois whose breath-taking abrasiveness in the service of the Daily Planet becomes perversely loveable.

The Snyderverse demonstrably is not working, and the Berlantiverse demonstrably is; surely it’s time for DC to acknowledge reality, reverse the reboot, and give Brandon Routh back his cape and give Olivia Munn another charismatic vinegary role.

August 6, 2016

Suicide Squad

Fury auteur David Ayer gets to play with Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery and the result is an amusing, supernatural-tinged comic-book guys and gals on a mission flick.

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Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) needs more meta-humans to keep America safe in the wake of Superman’s death. So she turns to the dark side of the force, more or less literally in the case of alien witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). When Midway City is torn apart by an eruption of supernatural power Joel Kinnaman’s long-suffering Rick Flagg has to lead into combat the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), angry mercenary Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), half-man half-crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), repentant pyrotechnic Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and the woman who put the psycho in psychotherapy, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). But true love never did run smooth and the Joker (Jared Leto) is out to reclaim his woman from the forces of evil – i.e. the government.

All eyes were on Robbie’s take on Harley, and it’s a creditable one. There are notes of winsomeness and instability, and the accent is nice when it’s played up. Her brief interactions with Leto’s Mistah J are a comic-book fan’s delight to finally see in live action, but only capture part of the full twisted relationship. Leto is severely underused but makes an impact; he’s more or less Paul Dini’s comics Joker – sinister, but playful. Interestingly Leto’s method madness is apparent onscreen as his appearance in a scene seems to genuinely unsettle all the other players. Will Smith confirms the finding of Focus, that he has found where he left his charisma, even if Ayer doesn’t feed him enough good one-liners. Or anyone else for that matter. Perhaps he was too busy constructing a wishlist for his music supervisors. Suicide Squad‘s budget must have gone in large part on music rights as a preposterous amount of hit songs are blasted out at the least provocation. You could almost imagine Ayer was working through his frustration at never before having helmed a project with the heft to simply buy the rights.

Smith beautifully disses the ‘swirling trash in the sky’ that has become the cinematic convention of the apocalypse this summer, and somehow Suicide Squad feels more faithful to Ghostbusters than the travesty remake; with an ancient evil speaking with a low growl through a young woman, all leading to a confrontation at ornate steps leading to a portal to another dimension. This ‘trippy magic stuff’ as Harley dubs it is a world away from any previous Batman film, and with Batman making cameo appearances here, and the squad’s backstories being sketched in like so many short tales from Dini and Timm, the feel of a comic-book being (at times uncomfortably) plastered up on screen is omnipresent; especially a detail about the Joker’s luck. Smith and Kinnaman have a very Ayer arc, the oft wooden Courtney is surprisingly funny, and Davis is terrific in the surprisingly central role of Waller. But the film’s construction feels a bit off, rattling by in under two hours; the allegation that a severe and needless re-cut took place certainly seems supported by the finish product where a soulful bar scene jumps up a creative level and seems like a refugee from a better more muted movie.

Despite labouring under Zack Snyder’s ‘artistic direction’ somehow all concerned come out of this tour with credit. If only Affleck and Ayer could create their own DC visions utterly unconnected to the Arch-Positivist.

3/5

*Postscript – Aug 12th: After a week of revelations about cut Joker scenes it seems the choppy quality is Ayer’s vision being traduced, and I impugned him on the musical front. This is not David O Russell’s American Hustle jukebox wishlist, but likely how people who make trailers cut a film, sequence after sequence of 2 minute rawk montages…

July 19, 2015

Comic-Con 2015

Another year, another San Diego love-in of Hollywood’s brightest stars and all things comic-book and fandom-y, but what were the cinematic highlights of Comic-Con 2015? Here’s a teaser of my round-up for HeadStuff.org.

Suicide Squad

Fury writer/director David Ayer took to the stage to talk trash about Marvel, claiming DC had the better villains; and then backed it up with the first look at Suicide Squad. It’s kind of staggering that a film not scheduled for release until August 2016 could have such a polished trailer, down to the spine-tingling version of ‘I Started a Joke’. While the sheer size of the cast still worries, it looks like Ayer’s promise to deliver The Dirty Dozen with DC characters holds good. And for all Will Smith’s prominence as a perceptive but depressed Deadshot in the trailer, there are really only two characters that matter: Harley Quinn and her Puddin’. Margot Robbie appears an inspired choice for the first cinematic incarnation of Dr Quinzell, hitting notes of naivety, menace, playfulness, and sheer insanity. Jared Leto, who has received endless inane stick over the appearance of his Joker, also seems a perfect fit as the Harlequin of Hate. In full make-up his wiry frame makes him seem similar to the Joker as drawn by Dustin Nguyen, in close-up the much-debated steel teeth rock, and his sinister lines could actually be Batman dialogue; which is quite intriguing.

Click here for the full piece on HeadStuff.org, with X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, The Man from UNCLE, Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice in the mix.

June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

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Zack Snyder reboots Superman as total fantasy, throwing an immense amount of sound and CGI fury at us, but succeeding only in obscuring his characters.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe), chief scientist of Krypton, commits heresy by the natural birth of his son Kal-El; as for centuries Kryptonians have been artificially bred for specific duties. But this regimented society is about to literally implode from its own hubris, despite a last-gasp coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) to protect the race from the folly of their ruling council. All hope for Krypton’s future is dispatched by Jor-El, encoded in the cells of his son, to a distant planet once scouted for colonisation – Earth. Kal is raised as Clark by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who counsel him to keep his powers secret. Clark works menial jobs and secretly saves people. But when he hears of an anomalous object found by the military in the Arctic he drifts north, where his powers are observed by reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Her story is rubbished by her editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but soon all earth believes it because Zod has come, and he wants Kal-El…

Man of Steel makes you appreciate Superman Returns. Singer’s visual style often mistook ponderous for majestic, but Snyder fails to fashion an action sequence to match its airplane crash as his crash-zooms and shakycam render everything an incomprehensible haze of action. The much-touted Battle of Smallville is a blur of CGI explosions, the Superman flying effects are less convincing than Donner’s owing to constant whip-panning, and Metropolis’s destruction by a gravity machine (which sounds like a nifty bass line) doesn’t match Bay’s trashing of Chicago skyscrapers in Transformers 3. Snyder was measured in Watchmen, so this is retrograde for him, but perhaps it’s his directorial response to David S Goyer writing Superman as total fantasy unhooked from any reality. Krypton is a CGI nightmare filled with fantastical creatures out of the Star Wars prequels, and bears little resemblance to previous imaginings. The film abruptly jumps from the destruction of Krypton to grown-up Clark saving an oil rig, perhaps to anticipate audience annoyance at being told this origin story yet again.

But we are told it, in momentum-killing flashbacks which clumsily rehash Batman Begins, although Costner shines in them as the voice of Kansan decency; with one truly stunning scene. Goyer’s script too often sketches personalities. Luckily Cavill, once he dons the suit, transforms vocally and becomes a rather good Superman, and Adams is a fantastic Lois. Finally cinematically we have a reporter capable of discovering who Superman is by dogged investigating! Shannon injects some complexity into Zod, but the script raises notions of Spartan destiny and Christian choice and then does nothing with them. Commander Faora (Antje Traue)’s chilling line about a lack of morality being an evolutionary advantage is a typical example of undeveloped potential. Goyer’s contrivance to weaken Superman without introducing Kryptonite is so mind-blowingly inconsistent that you’ll become unengaged enough to notice Adams acts beside a fellow Smallville alumnus, and that Law & Order and West Wing stars save the world. Incredibly Goyer’s finale has two horrendous wrong notes, and these are huge clangers akin to Batman tossing Joker off a building and then giggling when he goes splat on the sidewalk…

Man of Steel largely eschews comedy and realistically choreographed action, but aggravatingly some of its characterisation is quite brilliant. Okay attempt, Zack… Who’s next?

2.5/5

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.

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

December 3, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part II

If you’ve read the previous piece then you’ll be aware that I was quite often watching the adventures of the young(ish) Clark Kent for laughs.

So, why did I stick with Smallville? Season 1 was fun. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was consistently entertaining, promised great future developments (not least when Lex’s future was glimpsed and it showed a white-suited black-gloved President causing a nuclear apocalypse), and the central conceit of a good Lex and a young Superman being friends was irresistible. You also had a nice thwarted but plausible relationship with Lana, complemented by Chloe’s loveable cub-reporter in the making digging around for meteor freaks for her Wall of Weird oblivious to the fact that her best friend was the freakiest. Season 2 was where the wheels fell off the wagon. I stopped watching for a while, as the removal of the obstacle didn’t lead to Clark and Lana becoming a couple, but instead to Millar & Gough ratcheting up the badly-written teen angst to unbearable levels. It also began a trend of dotting poorly explained ‘important arc plot points’ randomly at the end of episodes, and then forgetting about them for weeks, something which over the years eventually made the show both incomprehensible and unintentionally hilarious. Still the idea that Lex was prophesied to go bad by Indian Caves intrigued… Season 3 was loudly rumoured to have Ian Somerhalder starring as Batman, and Drew Z Greenberg writing episodes inspired by The Dead Zone. Only one of those happened though. Somerhalder was terrific as a haunted bad boy who disappointingly turned out to be Lionel’s stooge, but there was a nice exit for him in a Frequency inspired episode, and Chloe became more complex as she dallied with Lionel’s patronage. The best moments of this season though couldn’t rescue the overall sense of portentous drift, exemplified by the awful finale which killed off half the cast to the strains of opera.

I dragged myself back for season 4 because Jensen Ackles had joined the cast, and was surprised by a belter of an opener which kick-started an excellent fourth season that I regard as the highpoint of the series. A badly needed sense of fun was restored along with a completely new skill at touching moments. Millar and Gough finally lightened up, letting Clark fly in the season premiere with accompanying dialogue of “What is that? Is that a bird?” “Maybe it’s a plane”, while that episode for the first time in years actually felt like this show was derived from Superman comics, rather than The Flash; which is what the stubbornly non-flying Clark had made it veer towards. Ackles’ villain enlivened an actually well-developed arc chasing crystals that would create the Fortress of Solitude. Erica Durance unexpectedly arrived as Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (and made Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang look wish-washy) and developed a wonderful spiky relationship with Clark. Chloe finally got to know Clark’s secret and, in a beautiful touch, had to teach an amnesiac Clark how to use his powers – in the knowledge that she’d have to go back to pretending she didn’t know about them soon enough.

Season 5 started off with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude and Clark and Chloe becoming a super-team: she detects crime, he fights it. The T-1000 reinterpretation of the Kryptonian artificial intelligence Braniac was rather great, and the Buffy overtones of James Marsters appearing for the writing of his colleague Steven S DeKnight were complemented by the ‘Clark goes to College and has a hard time of it’ feel that echoed season 4 of Buffy. There was a priceless conversation in which Clark and Chloe attempted to discuss the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ problem, but the quickly reversed proposal to Lana which led to Jonathan Kent’s death was a disastrous mis-step for the show that brought proceedings down to the level of season 2’s angst in its insistence on burdening Clark with farcical levels of guilt; because apparently that’s what real drama is all about. The decision to move Lana towards Lex romantically was nicely done, but the feeling that Clark should be further down the road towards being Superman was starting to nag. The finale which saw Lex taken over by Zod’s spirit and Clark trapped in the Phantom Zone burned down the house in style.

Season 6 saw Clark roar back from the Phantom Zone but in doing so unleash a horde of loose phantoms, the rounding up of which became his season arc mission. It was a step down from the previous two arcs but this season was characterised by let-downs as Lex possessed by Zod was dealt with far too easily, Green Arrow’s arrival promised a Batman like level of conflict that never really arrived, and Lana and Lex’s marriage bafflingly retreated from emotionally destroying Clark. However a finale in which Bizarro arrived and all the female leads died was a stunning episode. Season 7 saw the arrival of Supergirl, who was never really given a compelling reason to be on the show, while Bizzarro was dispatched too easily only to gleefully reappear undetected, but still arguably underused. The revelation that Chloe had become a meteor freak thru continued exposure was brilliant, not least her struggle to keep the secret from her boyfriend Jimmy. Lex finally killed Lionel, and also bafflingly his brother the Daily Planet editor, to become a supervillain rather than previous season’s St Lex being lied to by Clark. However Clark still not being Superman rather undermined their apocalyptic clash. Season 8 saw Lex replaced by his ret-conned protégé Tess Mercer while Sam Witwer starred as Clark’s ret-conned Kryptonian stowaway Doomsday. Chloe’s descent into darkness as she was taken over by Braniac was delicious, but her half-romance with Witwer’s heroic EMT was always unintentionally funny as she and Clark defended him against Jimmy’s charge that this man was obviously a serial killer, despite continual evidence supporting Jimmy. This left an extremely bitter aftertaste when Jimmy was unnecessarily killed in the finale to guilt-trip Chloe for trying to separate man and beast to save the man. Oh, then Clark abandoned her.

Season 9 saw General Zod, as a Kandorian clone, pop up in Tess’ mansion (it was never really satisfactorily explained how) thus beginning endless half-written political machinations between Clark and Zod over leadership of the Kandorians. Tess was revealed as a member of the shadowy organisation Checkmate run by Pam Grier, and hilariously Senator Martha Kent reappeared as their nemesis the Red Queen, who’d been acting sinisterly to keep Clark’s secret safe. Brian Austin Green as Metallo was absolutely thrown away, and it became all too noticeable for budget reasons that Metropolis only had one street – shot from different angles. Season 10 introduced Jack Kirby’s villain Darkseid as the final season nemesis but he never really showed up properly, but manipulated his minions in a number of poorly explained sub-plots, while The Suicide Squad were almost entirely squandered. Ultimately not just Lionel but then Lex returned for the finale where Clark finally just became Superman – after previous inane episodes had set a new record for ‘well that was easy’ moments, not least one of the minions of Darkseid destroying the Bow of Orion with contemptuous ease, having proclaimed loudly that it was the only weapon that Darkseid feared. The End…

Smallville ran for 10 seasons. Along the way there were heartbreaking episodes, such as Chloe’s reunion with her stricken mother who for a brief while was lucid again, adorable episodes, such as the first appearance of Krypto the Superdog, and brilliantly fun episodes, like the formation of the Justice League. But all too often episodes were entirely dependent on having a cute high concept or a good writer simply amusing themselves. So we got Steven S DeKnight writing Saw with Lionel Luthor, while someone else Fassbendered in rewriting The Game with Oliver Queen as Michael Douglas and Chloe as Sean Penn. What could be great on a micro level could never really break out of the shackles that kept the show from being great on a macro level. Hence the crippling levels of angst, endless body-swap episodes, Clark affected by shade of Kryptonite episodes, and parallel universe episodes. Watching the finale you realised that Erica Durance and Kristin Kreuk each starred in 7 seasons of Smallville but that Durance made Kreuk’s performance look anaemic from the moment she arrived, and the crushing weight of the mythology made you impatient for Lois and Clark from that point on. The show left Smallville itself in the rear-view mirror in season 5 but persisted in refusing to let Clark fly or don the cape for so long that it became increasingly infuriating/embarrasing. The handling of the major villains always disappointed – a synecdoche for the whole show. The implicit hook of the souring of Clark and Lex’s friendship was never paid off satisfactorily. Lex was in 7 seasons of Smallville, but at no point did you feel there was a clear endpoint planned where he and Clark would rise to their respective destinies. Its own continuously imperilled success condemned Smallville to continually deferred gratification.

Smallville never quite achieved its promise, but it handsomely saw off the challenge of Superman Returns, and kept live-action Superman viable despite all the nay-saying about the redundancy of the character in a Dark Knight world, and that’s not to be sneezed at. I just hope that Allison Mack and Erica Durance manage to walk into better written TV roles.

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

September 1, 2011

5 Reasons to salute Captain America

If its abrupt drop in showings in Dundrum is anything to go by Captain America is not getting much love from Irish cinemagoers. But here’re 5 reasons why it should…

“A Good Man
GK Chesterton memorably quipped that Nietzsche had never convincingly explained why, other than to gratify Nietzsche’s own perverse desires, anyone should desire that an ubermensch be modelled on Cesare Borgia rather than on Parsifal. This sentiment underscores all the scenes between Chris Evans and Stanley Tucci; “Do you want to kill Nazis?” “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies, wherever they are”; but the scene in which Tucci explains why he chose Evans over the physically stronger candidates and entreats him to remain the same – “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man” – is the best fictional articulation I’ve seen of Greg Garrett’s joyous reading of the creation of Superman by two Jewish comic-book writers as a rebuttal of Hitler’s Aryan psychosis – protecting the weak is what a real ubermensch would do.

“Dr Herzog I Presume
I thought I was losing my mind and simply hearing Werner Herzog everywhere when Hugo Weaving’s boo-hiss Nazi villain first appeared, but it turns out that he did base Dr Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull’s accent on everyone’s favourite German auteur. It’s an uncannily accurate impersonation, and nice because it delivers an odd musicality to Weaving’s delivery, as well as being an actual German accent; not one dreamt up by RADA trained British actors in the 1940s…

Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones Fassbenders his way thru the film in his accustomed role as old Texan grouch. His fantastic one-liners include “I’m not kissing you” after the climactic clinch, “I better find two more then” after shooting a Hydra stormtrooper mid-way thru his ‘Cut off one head, and –’ mantra, and “He’s still skinny” after egregiously failing to make his point by throwing a dummy grenade at the potentials to see which are the brightest and best.

Doomed Romance
Hayley Atwell is becoming quite the specialist in doomed affairs after The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited. Her tentative romance with Evans here is a terrific antidote to Bay’s Pearl Harbor nonsense, and makes for a quite upsetting finale when the flagged from the beginning suicide mission finally comes to pass, complete with their final stoic radio exchange. The Captain’s despair that he’s woken up to a world in which she’s been dead for 30 years could be absolutely heartbreaking in The Avengers. Presuming Whedon manages to learn how to write again. I’m still bitter about Buffy Season Eight

Steampunk Nazis
From the first appearance of the Red Skull’s jaw-droppingly stylised car, there’s a determination to grant Hydra technology too advanced for the era, especially their District 9 rip-off guns, to heighten the threat they pose. Admittedly the steampunk element gets a bit out of control towards the end of the film, but it’s quite a nice addition to the Captain America mythos for most of the proceedings, and feels less contrived than most of Del Toro’s clockwork nonsense.

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