Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Road To Infinity - Episode 1 -- Iron Man

Over on SoundCloud, I have been hosting a new podcast since the onset of the New Year. In anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War, inspired by a post online that said you can watch one MCU movie a week until it premieres on May 4th, I thought why not do a podcast to go along with it?

And so began The Road To Infinity: A Marvel Movie Podcast, rewatching the 18 movies of the MCU in the lead-up to Infinity War, revisiting the friends we've made along the way, seeing what's held up over the past 10 years, and nitpicking all the things we love to rag on about the MCU.

Ostensibly, it's a celebration, but we are nerds and our nitpicks are inevitable. Everyone has personal tastes. And the majority of us so far have been filthy casuals: people who became fans of these characters through the movies themselves. A couple of exceptions here and there, of course, some Marvel Comics fans, and some Avengers fans. But for the most part, it's my awesome friends talking about what they love and what they didn't love about the different movies of the Marvel Universe.

Are all of them good? Of course not. Some of them are great. A few are boring. Do the villains always work? Unfortunately, for the most part, they don't. But the ones that do, are pretty stellar. Are the jokes always funny? Depends on who is directing, honestly. As someone who grew up a DC fan, and getting to appreciate these films simply as a lover of film and nerdy things, it's been refreshing to find there's more positive than negative out there.

The biggest inspiration for the podcast for me was this newer trend of overly negative prejudice to everything. Now, this fandom negativity has always been present, but I've noticed it become so much more prevalent. It doesn't feel like we're allowed to like things just because we like them anymore. It feels more like if someone can find anything even remotely negative about an experience, that dismisses the experience altogether. And the more specific problem is that as people slant more and more negative, with YouTube channels like CinemaSins, or people writing up or filming hours-long theses on destroying and discrediting a movie simply because they didn't like it, is that they're actually not any more literate or articulate about what they didn't like about said piece of work.

Like I said, people are welcome to their personal tastes. Film, TV, comics, comedy, art... it's all subjective. Everything is not for everyone. But the reaction of the fandom these days is to more quickly disgrace people who actually enjoyed things. "If you enjoyed it, you must not be a real fan." Maybe it does deviate from the source material. Maybe not every choice is the choice you would have made. But people are still free to like something just as much as you are free to not like something. I think what really annoys me is people investing so much time into something they hated. If you didn't like a movie, why spend any more time with it than you had to? You didn't enjoy it, find something you do. Please don't waste your time telling someone who did enjoy it why they shouldn't.

So for me, and for the most part, the podcast is a celebration. It's positive, what do we love about the MCU? But of course, there's some talk about what just doesn't work for people with these movies.
What I love about my friends though, is that maybe they aren't experts on everything, but they know what they're talking about because they know themselves. They're able to articulate and debate what works and what doesn't with a specific topic. It's why I love them, it's why I wanted to record with them, and it's why I think you'll enjoy listening to them.

We've got two months almost completely under our belt, so I'm going to start reposting them here.
This is Episode 1: Iron Man!

People take for granted that launching a shared universe on film was unheard of before Iron Man.
We'd had some crossovers here and there:
Alien VS. Predator brought together two exclusive worlds, as did Freddy VS. Jason.
The X-Men were isolated in their own world, as were the Fantastic Four, as was Spider-Man. Even Batman and Superman didn't seem to occupy the same world, although that might have happened if Superman Returns had performed better and Batman Begins and Nolan's trilogy didn't isolate themselves. (Imagine Routh's Superman and Bale's Batman facing off instead.)

People also forget that maybe in the comics world, Iron Man meant something, but he didn't to the general population. DC was putting Nolan, who had helmed heady, introspective thrillers Memento and Insomnia, in charge of their most popular franchise character. Marvel was allowing the director of Elf, Jon Favreau to take a last priority solo act on the road for his big screen debut.

Basically, no one knew what to expect, but expectations were low. And then we got blown away. Batman Begins gave us a gritty, cerebral reboot of an insane character that had gone off the rails in the 90s. Iron Man more than managed to introduce us to a new kind of hero: One who was fun, charming, and not afraid to be the superhero while every other hero had a secret identity. It was totally different from anything we'd seen before. It was grounded, while still being funny. It was superheroic, without being formulaic.

Robert Downey Jr. is a gem. This is where it all started. Enjoy, The Road To Infinity!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Hairspray Live! (1 Year Later) VS. Hairspray The Musical Film (10 Years Later)

Guys, I think Hairspray accidentally became one of my favorite musicals. The earnestness, the comedy, the catchy tunes... There's some very complex racial politics going on in the middle of this 60s musical, and instead of shying away from it, the musical embraces it. (Admittedly, it shies away from going further, but while it's not necessary to be totally bubbly and positive, a musical does tend to be optimistic, which Hairspray is).

I watched and loved the movie back in '07, at a time when I was not expecting to enjoy it. Chicago came out in 2002 and gave us a talented cast with dynamic cinematography and an inspired way to justify the musical numbers. Following that was 03's Phantom Of The Opera, which is beautiful but uninspired. In '05, much of the original casts for both Rent and The Producers reprised their roles in the film adaptations. While the casts came off relatively fine, the adaptations lacked cinematic complexity. Rent felt like a series of music videos. Once the songs started, the cast came alive and sounded great. The script in between (adapted from the sung-thru lyrics) is awkward at best. The Producers is a bit unsure of itself. It feels like they filmed the stage play, including that everyone is just chewing the scenery for the back row that doesn't exist. It's funny and fun here and there but is still just as awkward.

Dreamgirls is the one exception from this weird time between Chicago and Hairspray. And let's face it. Dreamgirls is the real hero here. If this one hadn't worked after what should have been three sure-fire hits, big screen movie musicals probably would have gone away for a bit. The cast is stellar, particularly Jennifer Hudson, who it goes without saying, won an Oscar for that role. But it's also far more imaginative than its predecessors, and succeeds not simply as an adaptation of a stage musical but as a movie in its own right.

And it's the same with Hairspray. A movie that manages to add to the show's heart, and find some truly meaningful little moments in a big and bold musical. Subtle differences really make an impact. Corny, not Tracy, declares his show fully integrated, which makes more sense from the man whose name is in the marquee. Little Inez ultimately takes the Miss Hairspray trophy, which works and helps to fortify the declaration. "I Know Where I've Been" manages a montage that culminates in a riot with the police. The racial tensions of the 60s are far more prevalent and able to be emphasized in a film. "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" gets to be a split scene, both a funny scene with John Travolta's Edna, and a silly seduction scene between Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. The subtle touch of "The New Girl In Town" transitioning from the three white girls (led by Amber) singing a cut-and-dry version to the three black girls singing a punched up version, then learning through Motormouth and Velma's exchange that the song was originally written by those three girls, even though Velma claims that they can't sing "our songs." Nikki Blonsky's earnest "It's so lovely to meet you." to Mr. Pinky during "Welcome To The 60's" melts my heart. In fact, that entire song feels stronger to me as a relationship-builder between Edna and Tracy. I love their back-and-forth bit at the end of the song ("Mama's lookin' at herself and wond'rin'. 'where ya been?'" "Where YOU been!?") and I love the dream sequence for "You're Timeless To Me" with Travolta and Walken.

I've seen the show live a couple times since then, and honestly I greatly prefer the film. For me, it just works. You get to see Michelle Pfeiffer and John Travolta in a musical movie together. Where else does that happen? Certainly not Grease! That's two separate movies!

Anyway, one year ago was the airing of Hairspray Live, and I can't believe it's been a whole year. I rewatched it recently, and I stand by what I said originally. It's ambitious and energetic, and a lot of it pays off. There's a couple of missed cues and oddities, but who cares. That's the joy of it being a live event. Again, it's down to the cast, who are all strong players, and there's some true Broadway royalty in their ranks, something that doesn't always get to happen in film.

Comparing the two might seem silly, but it's inevitable. So let's have some fun with it, and have the casts go toe-to-toe, shall we?

Round 1!
Prudy Pingleton - an unfaltering die-hard conservative, Prudy disapproves of both integration and female ambition. Penny, her daughter is not allowed to dance, talk to boys, or perspire.
Film - Allison Janney - There are not many forces comparable to the likes of Allison Janney, whom I have loved since her days on The West Wing. She is perfectly cast as the uptight, upright paranoid (seemingly single?) mother.
Live - Andrea Martin - Martin, whom I've seen in Fiddler On The Roof, and also loved in My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, is one of the only comic forces that I could think of to go against Janney, and she makes this opening round a tight fight.
Tale Of The Tape - Both have a good bit of physical comedy, with Janney cliff-diving over the coffee table, and Martin's belabored action roll over the bed. I will say what tips it in Martin's favor for me is that we do get to see a redemption arc at the end for the character, when she sees how happy Seaweed makes her daughter. Janney's humanizing is absent from the film, since she does not attend the "You Can't Stop The Beat" finale live.
Winner - Andrea Martin

Round 2!
Velma Von Tussle - An intolerable, intolerant, blatant racist and appearancist, a former beauty queen bent on capturing her former glory even vicariously, Velma is the embodiment of the villainy of this movie. She's a great antagonist, because we love to hate her.
Film - Michelle Pfeiffer - You can't argue that Pfeiffer is the best part about Grease 2. Whether that means a lot to you or not I guess depends on if you actually liked the movie. I didn't. But I LOVED Pfeiffer in it. And it's just a treat to have Pfeiffer here both in a musical again and playing a villain. She's shameless and sultry. And it's a joy to watch.
Live - Kristin Chenoweth - Chenoweth is a rare treasure in and of herself. I mean, we already know her vocal range is unbelievable, it's just too bad she doesn't really get to show it off in this role. Instead, we see her shameless comic timing. And she needs that timing and the accompanying boldness to handle some of Velma's much more off-color racist jokes delivered straight to the POC members of the cast. It could be awkward, but it's Chenoweth, so it isn't.
Tale Of The Tape - Chenoweth covers the songs easily, and the comedy masterfully, but that doesn't mean Pfeiffer's a slouch at all here. She's a deliciously evil villain, and we see a lot her machinations almost work out for her. She gets comeuppance and no redemption, which for me in this case (unlike Janney) works. It's wonderful to see Chenoweth in the role, because she does as expected. I think Pfeiffer's got the jump on a lot of the generation who would watch Live and not the film first. She's gonna be an unexpected surprise for them.
Winner - Michelle Pfeiffer

Round 3!
Wilbur Turnblad - The unassuming, absent-minded, personable joke shop owner is the emotional center of the Turnblads, providing a comforting shoulder and ear to daughter Tracy, as well keeping both the parenting and romance of his relationship with Edna well-stoked. Suffice to say, they make a great team and balance each other out. He's faithful, he's trustworthy, and he's silly sweet.
Film - Christopher Walken - Walken's off-beat timing and demeanor really sell a character like Wilbur to me. He's completely oblivious during the seduction scene, he's completely heartwarming when he tells Edna, "You're the best dancer I've ever seen," and he's wonderful with his daughter, played by Blonsky.
Live - Martin Short - Short is a theatrical performer, by and large. He's larger than life, even in what is essentially a straight man role. He has his moments, though. I love when they're at Motormouth's, Velma and Amber having just departed, and Little Inez asks, "Are all white people like that?" and Wilbur replies: "No. Just most of them." Short effortlessly layers the delivery with his trademark humor atop a layer of innocent frankness. It's a tough truth to admit to, but Short makes it both honest and funny. He's heartfelt to be sure, and he definitely plays off Fierstein's Edna well.
Tale Of The Tape - This one's surprisingly not that even of a call for me. I love Short, and I always have and will. In terms of a dopey dad with a heart of gold though, he's simply outmatched. Walken woke up playing this role. Woke up on a bed of whoopie cushions.
Winner - Christopher Walken

Round 4!
Corny Collins - Smiley, smooth, and silky TV personality, everything about The Corny Collins Show is upbeat and welcoming, much like him. It's a delight to see that Corny off-camera is just as genuine and forward-thinking as is on-screen personality is disarming and charming. My fear is that they end up being jerks, but Corny is not. His name is on the sign, but he never acts like he's a bigger deal than that, and instead in fact uses his show as a platform for social change, all with a wink and a song.
Film - James Marsden - Marsden does not get nearly enough credit. His role in The Notebook is largely ignored even though he did nothing wrong and was nothing but a great match for Rachel McAdams' character. Similarly, in X-Men his Cyclops is meaninglessly cast aside even though he's supposed to be the field leader. And there must be something about Scott that Jean loves, which we don't see in the movies. Marsden deserves way more credit for just how good he is. Here, he's unexpectedly perfectly cast. His singing is not only good, but almost appropriate for the time, with his runs and phrasing. His "(It's) Hairspray" is not a showstopper, but there's some amazing vocal chops hiding in there. He also makes absolute gold out of his moments with Velma ("Gee Velma, how do you fire Corny Collins from the Corny Collins Show?") and with Motormouth ("Maybelle. Let's go. This is your time.") UGH. Gets me every time.
Live - Derek Hough - Didn't know much about this gent before he showed up here, and he surprised me! I loved him. Thought he fit Corny perfectly. His dancing was great (I feel like that's what he was hired based on first) and the personality was all there. He takes "Ladies Choice" here (which is sung by Efron's Link Larkin in the movie) and does some awesome runs on it.
Tale Of The Tape - My only issue with Hough is that he looks like one of the kids. Marsden looks like a TV host, with a council of dancers who are high school-aged. It's a minor thing, but considering how neck-and-neck this round is, it's the little things like that that will tip the scales.
Winner - James Marsden

Round 5!
Amber Von Tussle - The heir apparent, simply because she's a Von Tussle, she in her mind is the star singer and dancer of the Corny Collins Show, and really takes issue with Tracy becoming the new It Girl in her place. My favorite character in the show, for no other reason other than the reason that it's completely, shamelessly chaotic neutral. She's self-serving and conceited, but she knows it. And she knows she looks darn good doing it. It's a tough role as well, but if she's matched up against a good Tracy, the audience will be behind Tracy and Amber will have done her job.
Film - Brittany Snow - Snow is simply perfection. I think she's cast perfectly in her element, and plays the part right. I'm sad that "Mama I'm A Big Girl Now" and "Cooties" are cut, because we don't get to hear more of Snow, but her "New Girl In Town" is preppy and peppy, and she deftly balances her school and "career" frustrations as well as tension with her mother. Snow's Amber is more than aware of her mother's selfish ambitions.
Live - Dove Cameron - I also did not know Cameron until this performance and I was blown away. She absolutely nails it. She owns the big note in "Mama I'm A Big Girl Now", and she's got some vocal chops in the short amount of time she has with "Cooties." I am likewise sad we don't get "New Girl In Town" in the live version. Cameron's Amber plays much more tag team partner with her mom (who bears quite a family resemblance) but she's no less selfish and awesome. Her comic timing is great. (She has a great moment before "Cooties" with Corny, who asks if she's ready. She's about to launch into a prepared sound bite, he cuts her off, and without missing a beat, she simply says, "Okay!" It's expert level.)
Tale Of The Tape - Like I said, I truly love Snow in the role, I think she's got it. But Cameron was delightfully on point, and she gets to sing Amber's big numbers in the live show. I gotta give it to the live show.
Winner - Dove Cameron

Round 6!
Motormouth Maybelle - Maybelle is the sub-in host on Corny's show for the poorly named "Negro Day." Despite that regressiveness, she takes to the role with gusto, and serves the kids council so that they can get national attention. She's brassy, sassy, speaks her mind, and isn't afraid to stand up for what's right. She also knows all too well the societal ills surrounding their Day on the show and their neighborhood, so she's constantly a voice of reason when hot-headedness may prevail.
Film - Queen Latifah - As a veteran from the original movie musical that found its mark, I expected nothing less from Queen, who delivered in Spades. Her Maybelle is effortless and charming, and she says so much with just facial reactions in so many scenes.
Live - Jennifer Hudson - And as the Oscar winner of the other truly great movie musical preceding Hairspray, Ms. Hudson had also set her own bar quite high. Similarly, she owns the role as well.
Tale Of The Tape - Hudson brings home the showstopper with soul. "I Know Where I've Been" brings out real tears from the rest of the cast as Hudson belts and preaches every single last note in that song. Latifah's rendition is a bit more subdued, but she really brings it on "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" as well as "You Can't Stop The Beat." Again, it's a tough call. They both own the role, so it goes to the one that I think truly stopped the show and all eyes were on her.
Winner - Jennifer Hudson

Round 7!
Seaweed J. Stubbs - The Link Larkin of "Negro Day," Seaweed is a rubber-legged, sure-footed dancer with a soulful voice. He befriends Tracy in an unlikely dynamic duo, and charms the pigtails off Penny Pingleton, all while being a steadfast voice of reason and a leader to his group of friends.
Film - Elijah Kelley - Kelley, and both of these gentlemen for that matter, were relatively unknown to me before this experience. Kelley, who I think resembles a young Sammy Davis, is in many respects just as talented. The voice is angelic, the dance moves are electric. He's got some good acting moments too, particularly opposite Tracy and Penny.
Live - Ephraim Sykes - Again, a relative unknown to me, but Sykes make the most of his screentime. He's funny and forward, and he's got the moves to match. He backs off a bit on the vocals, but that's likely because he's also singing live and doesn't let up on the dance moves.
Tale Of The Tape - A reminder that I do this not to discredit the losing party of the round, because 1) these face-offs are about talent and everyone has been absolutely equally matched and 2) picking one or the other often comes down to minuscule differences, occasionally ones that are not even in their control. So keep that in mind when I say: Kelley's performance just left such an impact on me. No one could have done exactly the same.
Winner - Elijah Kelley

Round 8!
Penny Pingleton - Tracy's slightly put-upon, somewhat burdened worry-wart friend, the Piglet of the group, Penny has to have some dynamic vocals as well as impeccable comic sensibility.
Film - Amanda Bynes - I know recent troubles have plagued the child star, but when we were both kids (Bynes and I are around the same age) I had a crush on her when she was doing All That and The Amanda Show. She was funny. Simply put. She knew how to use her physicality, her expression, her voice, and she had the timing. In the film, she's still got all of it. This may be one of her last stellar movie performances, though I admit I didn't look up her filmography in prep for this. I know it's not really up to her, but I love that Penny in the film dresses in a curtain for the finale. How Sound Of Music.
Live - Ariana Grande - And how funny this round is, because my current crush is Grande, since I heard "Problem" and "Bang, Bang" and was wowed by her unbelievable vocals. When she hosted Saturday Night Live and she got to show off her impressions and comedy, I was taken. Her interviews can be surprisingly deadpan and sarcastic and perhaps it's because she comes off kind of quiet and shy her interviewers often don't catch it. Grande proves that same comic sensibility in the live show, my favorite moment among them comes near the top when she tries to talk to Tracy through the TV, and when Short explains that it's a TV she can't hear you, her "Ohhh..." nails the moment.
Tale Of The Tape - I think Bynes is great in the movie comedy-wise, but she's outmatched vocally by the rest of the cast and other Penny's, Grande among them. In addition to comedy, Grande manages a vocal progression for Penny throughout the show. She's holding back during "Mama I'm A Big Girl Now", until she's hitting money notes during "Without Love." It's a subtle arc that speaks to Penny finding herself throughout the story.
Winner - Ariana Grande

Round 9!
Edna Turnblad - The Turnblad matriarch, she's the boss. No one messes with her, because she can turn on a dime. Silly, supportive, then no-nonsense and intimidating. There's a more subtle progression of Edna's own intolerance to acceptance that anchors the show as well. It's interesting to remember that Tracy, even though she's the main character, manages a very charmed arc through the story. She only has to be herself and ends up with a happy ending. There's nothing wrong with that, but when you realize that, it's how you realize it's everyone else's arcs that are way more important because of how Tracy influences their lives. Link learns appearance is a silly basis for a relationship after being the hot guy with the hot girl. Penny learns to embrace her awkwardness and through that becomes self-confident. Amber and Velma eventually learn tolerance from Tracy. Seaweed integrates the Corny Collins Show, thanks to the help of his new friend. And Edna, her mother, finds the confidence to love herself again, and take a more progressive role as a woman. When Edna bursts out of that giant Hairspray can, she emerges a new woman.
Film - John Travolta - Travolta is doing something absolutely earnest and I don't think is doing tongue-in-cheek at all. It's Travolta playing a woman, not a campy, sort of flamboyant man. Some moments with the prosthetic don't quite leap the uncanny valley, but that's not Travolta's fault, and the heart is certainly in the right place. Like I said in the intro, I believe in the mom/daughter relationship of Travolta's Edna and Blonsky's Tracy. I think Travolta is utterly sweet and we feel bad for her when she says she doesn't want to go outside. It's why we're rooting for her when she joins the dance in the finale. It's a triumphant moment.
Live - Harvey Fierstein - One of my great disappointments in life is that I never got to see Fierstein do Edna live. Incidentally, I saw Fierstein in the same production of Fiddler On The Roof that I saw Martin in, and I truly fell in love with him there. The iconic, crazy raspy voice may not be everyone's cup of tea and they may never move past it to see the truly outstanding performance behind it, but that's their loss. Fierstein originated this role and you can see he loves every moment of it. There are moments you watch the show and you completely forget it's Fierstein, you just think it's this deep-voiced woman who is funny as hell and singing her heart out. You can see she's the boss. It's charming and such a treat to see such an unforgettable performance by the only performer associated with this iconic role.
Tale Of The Tape - This could be the most contentious round of the whole fight. I think the picture sums up the dynamic well. Do you want a sweet, vulnerable Edna? Travolta's your gal. Do you want more intimidation and mother hen Edna? Then go Fierstein. It's funny, but it's true. They really own those moments captured in the picture there. Travolta's Edna is at her best when she's giggling and supportive. Fierstein's Edna is unbeatable at the confrontational moments, when he gets down into his lower register. I think Travolta creates some truly great emotional moments in the film and they'll be viewable forever. But ultimately, you have to choose the definitive performance, and that belongs to just one fabulous queen.
Winner - Harvey Fierstein

Round 10!
Link Larkin - The heartthrob and lead dancer on the Corny Collins Show, Link initially is vapid and doe-eyed. A pretty face with not much behind it. As he meets and develops relationships with people outside his comfort zone, he realizes there's much more to the world, and much more to himself. We see him transform into a genuinely caring person, not only sympathetic but patient. One of my favorite moments in the live show is Amber trying to get Link to leave Motormouth's record store. She expects him to follow and Link does not. He very level-headedly tells her that she is being rude and that he thinks she should go. It's a great character moment.
Film - Zac Efron - Efron was more or less coming right out of the first High School Musical previous to this. We didn't know he'd been dubbed at this point, and he seemed to take to the musical theater of it all well, but we didn't have much to go on. I truly think his performance here kept him relevant in the comedy and movie world a decade later. He handles all the comedy with a natural flair, and his singing and dancing are good without question. Link takes two songs in the proceedings, "Ladies Choice" and the earlier "It Takes Two."
Live - Garrett Clayton - Clayton actually looks really similar to Efron to me. He's an outstanding dancer, and he does a lot of the singing pretty effortlessly.
Tale Of The Tape - I think the problem with me is that I am just too taken with how good Efron is in this part. It's made for him, much more so than High School Musical ever was. I think Clayton is good, but he and Baillio are also missing a bit of something from their chemistry, it never quite clicks. Efron absolutely looks like the teen idol, and then backs it up with substance.
Winner - Zac Efron

Final Round!
Tracy Turnblad - A sweetheart who just wants to dance, Tracy is trying to break away from her demanding mother, and be a star. She never lets her weight get in the way, as other characters berate her for it. In fact, she never lets it get her down or ever feels sorry for herself. I guess that's because she has the most awesome parents in the world, in Edna and Wilbur. Tracy makes everyone's lives better, and her naivete is endearing rather than annoying.
Film - Nikki Blonsky - I'm sad that Blonsky never got to do much more than this role because she's outstanding in it. She never lets herself get lost in the shuffle, but never demands attention. She's as sweet and earnest as Tracy should be. I also think her finale dress is stellar.
Live - Maddie Baillio - To get to be introduced to the world through something like this is one thing, to knock it out of the park is another. Baillio does it, and makes it all look rather easy. From minute one, she's great. She's got a huge voice and her dancing is impeccable.
Tale Of The Tape - Baillio's got a good bit more sass in her performance which I love. I think that may be because she actually gets to do "Mama I'm A Big Girl Now" which is cut from the movie's proceedings. Blonsky has a unique gratefulness in her performance that makes her Tracy so pitch perfect. It's a close call. Very close. So I'll give it to the "original."
Winner - Nikki Blonsky

Final Tally:
Film - 6
Live - 5
One point difference. That's all. And fractions of difference between the two performances.
At the end of the day, it's just what you prefer. The film makes some strong choices and the performers are prepped and game. The live show is energetic and busy, and the performers knock it out despite the anxiety of live TV. They're all gifted and in the end it's a preference, it's a feeling.
So what do you think? Did I get it right? Do you disagree? Let me know!
Also, let me know, is anyone excited about The Christmas Story Live? Didn't know about it until today, didn't know it was a musical until a moment after that. Is it... is it going to be good?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Ranking The Wrestling Gimmicks and Characters of Netflix's Original Series, GLOW

My roommate and I planned on watching only the pilot of the new Netflix series, a fictionalized account of a televised wrestling promotion that aired episodes in the mid 80s called GLOW. The pilot was so unexpectedly good, we ended up watching through to the halfway point of the debut season together before he had to leave. I ended up finishing the remainder of the series the same evening.

Besides the series relating to entertainment that I have always been fascinated by and loved, the acting and writing on the show made for an enthralling viewing experience. Not every character gets a huge moment unfortunately, but you can see threads that they are setting up for a returning season.

And the performances that do get to shine truly do. Especially revelatory to me was Marc Maron as Sam Sylvia, the director of the series. I also found a lot of clever subversions for character types: Gayle Rankin's Sheila is committed 24/7 to the she-wolf gimmick and the reasoning behind it took a more mature tone than I was expecting. Britney Young's Carmen (whom I know from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) plays the gentle giant, Machu Picchu and rather than a size issue, her central conflict is with her father and their wrestling legacy. She comes from a famous wrestling family (The LumberJacksons) and her father is against her wrestling because she's a woman. Even Alison Brie, the main character Ruth, gets an unexpected arc as she develops into the show's heel (the bad guy).

There's still some issues of underdeveloped characters or wholly offensive gimmicks but the 80s wrestling scene was awash with racial stereotypes among other things. And there are a couple moments where those issues are addressed head on. Kia Stevens, who is one of the few professional wrestlers in the main women's cast and plays one of my favorite lady wrestlers ever, Awesome Kong, is saddled with a gimmick known as The Welfare Queen. At first, she is getting a kick out of it, but soon worries about her, a black woman, portraying a negative stereotype associated with poor, black people. Sam brings her aside to talk it out and explains that it's a commentary and criticism of the stereotype: that her arc is going to involve her confronting this stereotype and overcoming it. It's a great scene (with solid acting from Stevens) and I don't believe Sam's character is feeding her bullshit, but we don't see a whole lot of payoff for it in these episodes.

Similarly, her tag team partner for their first show is Sydelle Noel's Cherry Bang. Her gimmick is Junkchain, the name of which alone reeks of blaxploitation. Fortunately, she quickly turns makes it into a Pam Grier ass-kicker. Cherry also becomes responsible for training the other girls to get them into fighting shape. I really like Cherry and there are a lot of threads of interesting stories brought up throughout the initial ten episodes, but none of them feel wrapped up satisfyingly by the end of the series. That said, she's an amazing actor, and she needs a more prominent role for second series.

But overall, the pacing of the show is well thought out, and it never feels slow. It all keeps growing perfectly and climaxes with their big live show that really does come together. And as an ensemble, I love the dynamic. At any given moment, I am despising a character I am rooting for and then loving a character I was previously wanting to see get their ass kicked. It's dynamic, it's complicated, but presented broadly and cleverly. Sounds like wrestling to me.

So I thought I'd speak to the aspect of the show that I understand the most, and that I'm most used to deconstructing. Here's my ranking of all the ladies' gimmicks and characters they portrayed for the series:

13.) Scab
Real Name: Justine Biagi
Played by: Britt Baron
The Girl: Justine is the most mysterious and keeps to herself a lot. She ends up offering the biggest twist of this first season, but in terms of the wrestling she comes up on the bottom of the list. She's working with Britannica at one point, and they have potential for a feud later on, but other than that, we don't know too much else.
The Gimmick: Seems to be a punk rocker/anarchy hybrid. Rebel youth.
The Good: The outfit was super simple and the gimmick itself has a lot of room for growth in a lot of different directions.
The Bad: I'm just not a fan of generic rocker gimmicks. This one seemed to have an edge to it, but it's that fake edge, you know, "I'm so against the mainstream! Bleh!" sort of thing. Also, we never see her take a match so it's truly hard to judge.

12.) Vicky The Viking
Real Name: Reggie Walsh
Played by: Marianna Palka
The Girl: An interesting thread is that Reggie originally has the Liberty Belle gimmick, because she's a competitive wrestler with gold medals. It gets taken unceremoniously to be bestowed on Debbie and is never really brought up again. Reggie herself kind of gets lost in the shuffle.
The Gimmick: At one point, Maron's Sylvia tells another wrestler, "I don't want you to just become a prop." And this is exactly the fate of Reggie's Vicky The Viking. Outside of her horned hat, not much memorable here.
The Good: That said, I love a Viking gimmick. It's ancient history enough that it can be played with and embellished. Walsh is a larger girl so it's a good fit for the role, and she could be a destroyer in upcoming seasons.
The Bad: Now that being said, I know a Viking gimmick is just a step above a Pirate gimmick. It's just so obvious. So hopefully they can add another layer to it. Like The Berserker. Oh, please, look up The Berserker. I think that was just a legit crazy person.

11.) The She-Wolf
Real Name: Sheila
Played by: Gayle Rankin
The Girl: Sheila's gimmick is one that she had already committed to prior to the series. It starts as that weird archetype of a character who always wears the same thing everyday or is antisocial and eats the exact same thing from home every single day. In a particularly sweet scene, Ruth reveals that she sympathizes with what motivates Sheila to commit to the gimmick 24/7. She has a subtly beautiful arc going on in the background of much of the season.
The Gimmick: That said, there isn't much to the gimmick. I do admire the idea of her wanting to avoid being reductive. She doesn't want to add explicit wolf ears (her hairdo, later revealed to be a wig, imply wolf ears), or claws. She also doesn't want to do promos about being afraid of the full moon, because that's makes her a werewolf, and "those aren't real." But we also don't see her act very wolf-like, except in the final show where she becomes a rabid and feral version of her character.
The Good: I love full commitment gimmicks. Reminds me of Undertaker and Mankind, gimmicks of that nature. She's got a very clear internal logic to her character.
The Bad: Again, a lot of this logic is not external, and so we're left feeling a little detached from the She-Wolf. Maybe she's a wolf raised by humans, and so feels confused about her identity in that regard? She just needs another wrinkle like that to connect us.

10.) Beirut The Mad Bomber
Real Name: Arthie Premkumar
Played by: Sunita Mani
The Girl: Arthie is the quiet one, who gets low-key excited when action starts in the ring, or drama gets stirred. You can also see her studying, taking notes, while she's living at the Dusty Spur. These two things suggest a deeper character than we are shown. I also love that her grandmother loves wrestling, we see her watching some at one point.
The Gimmick: Unfortunately, the gimmick is the hardest for me to stomach of the offensive racial stereotypes in the show. It also feels like it's the least confronted of that lot. Beirut the Mad Bomber is nothing but a villain an amalgam of derogatory racial stereotypes.
The Good: Arthie has a commitment to the character, even though we clearly see she's uncomfortable with it. Perhaps we get to see a better thought-out evolution of her character that's a little more progressive.
The Bad: I mean, watch her match in the final episode. It's cringeworthy. The primitive scream, the evil make-up... It's the worst of wrestling, but I rank it higher because of Arthie's commitment to the gimmick.

9.) Fortune Cookie
Real Name: Jenny Chey
Played by: Ellen Wong
The Girl: Jenny's quiet, and we don't get to see much of a personality until it's Sheila's birthday late in the season. Then we get to see how she's a bit of a perfectionist and a very enthusiastic and loyal friend. Similar to Arthie, she has some misgivings about her eventual gimmick, but there's fortunately more redeeming qualities to it than Mad Bomber.
The Gimmick: Fortune Cookie is a mix of two stereotypes: the innocent Asian flower and the naturally expert Asian fighter. She carries a sword. She wears a rice paddy hat. She teams up with the Russian in the finale for a Red Scare team. It's ridiculous, but somehow slightly less offensive than the previous.
The Good: At least this gimmick proves to be a capable fighter. And she is someone to be feared because her skills are formidable.
The Bad: It's too bad they're such stereotypical characteristics given to the Asian girl. Although during the scene where everyone's picking their own outfits in Bash's wardrobe she picks the furry outfit. So maybe she shouldn't be left to her own devices?

8.) Machu Picchu
Real Name: Carmen Wade
Played by: Britney Young
The Girl: Carmen is easily my favorite of the girls on the roster. She's sweet without being overly saccharine, and she's earnest without ever being grating. She also feels the most relateable, with her struggles: going against her family's wishes, trying to make a name for herself without the shadow of her legacy, and getting stage fright because she's never taken such strides for herself before. Again, I also loved that her central conflict was not her size. Of course, in wrestling size is an advantage, but I was worried about the show recycling this age-old obstacle for the "big girl." Carmen's struggle with her wrestling family legacy makes for some good moments in the mid-season.
The Gimmick: So since we're ranking the gimmicks, Machu Picchu falls toward the bottom half of the list because there isn't much else to it. Other than the wonderful nickname "The Gentle Giant," I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to root here for. That said, I love the moment where she thinks she's gonna be a villain, because children will be scared of her, and Bash tells her, "What? Kids will love you." And I agree. It's got room to become a great babyface.
The Good: Like I said, it's a great babyface idea. I think one possible layer to add is a bit like Mice and Men. She just doesn't realize her own strength. So she's friendly and fun when she comes out, and is an absolute killer in the ring, and is actually holding back for fear of truly, badly hurting her opponents.
The Bad: Again, at the moment, she doesn't have a whole lot to the character. I don't remember any promos she did, and her match didn't have much story to it, it was really just Bash (as the announcer) turning her stage fright into "mountain fever" and making the story of the match about her overcoming that.

7.) Melrose
Real Name: Melanie Rosen
Played by: Jackie Tohn
The Girl: Mel is one of the characters that I would go from hating to loving and hating and loving again all in one episode. She's the party girl, out late, not really committed, playing pranks, alienating herself among the girls. But she becomes very spirited, unifying the girls several times, and being a blunt voice of reason when things go off the rails.
The Gimmick: I honestly really love the Melanie Rosen > Melrose morph. The other characters constantly hate it in the show, but I love it. And it gives her a perfect gimmick to follow, the Hollywood starlet, the party girl. Her entrance carried by the guys is great, and even though it's whispered, it's the epitome of the character when she tells them, "Better not fucking drop me."
The Good: The best gimmicks are close to the real person. It has to be something they're able to turn on and turn off. Mel already is Melrose. When Cherry rips her down for not really being all that interesting and only pretending to lead a wild and crazy lifestyle, she's right. But it also makes her perfect at pretending to be something more than she is.
The Bad: I'll say the only bad part of it is that Bash and her seem to land on a more dominatrix style gimmick while in the wardrobe. Considering a dominatrix has pretty much never worked in wrestling, I would've loved to see them try.

6.) Junkchain
Real Name: Cherry Bang
Played by: Sydelle Noel
The Girl: Cherry is a fighter, a stuntwoman, and an out of work aspiring actor. She's tough, impersonal, and no-nonsense. When she's with her husband, we get to see her softer side which is nice. She's a natural leader of the team, and gets very invested in the girls' well-being and futures.
The Gimmick: Bad-ass Pam Grier ass-kicker? Hell yes. There's not too much else to it. The jumpsuit is cool, she owns the role well, and there's certainly a sense of justice that she carries with her.
The Good: Cherry is believable in the role. I love that she bends the world to her will. Initially, she and Welfare Queen fight the Rosenblatts and refuses to take shit for being two black women beating up two white old ladies. And she makes them wear KKK robes? So she can kick their racist asses? I love it.
The Bad: A dangerous line this walks is one that a lot of black wrestlers were saddled with in the 80s and early 90s: there is no gimmick, your gimmick is that you're black. Again, Cherry's character name is Junkchain. It's dicey. But since Cherry has so much control over how her character is presented and doesn't take backtalk from anyone, I think it's very cool.

5.) Ethel and Edna Rosenblatt (The Beatdown Bitties)
Real Name: Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekka Johnson
Played by: Stacey Beswick and Dawn Rivecca
The Girl(s): They become the pranksters once everyone moves into the complex, and we know they're hairstylists and always together. Other than that, they're mostly background comic relief moments and they have one solid moment before going out in the KKK robes where they show their own misgivings of the gimmick.
The Gimmick: Ethel and Edna is a really funny tag team idea. They are a great comic act. Some of the lines they have in the finale as they walk out had me laughing. And it's just so absurd. Two old ladies are gonna wrestle? Awesome.
The Good: Again, they're fantastic at their parts. They'll be great for comedy sketches and promos down the line.
The Bad: I don't know much else that you can do with this gimmick. It's a bit one-note, but fortunately there's a lot of mileage in the idea.

4.) Britannica
Real Name: Rhonda Richardson
Played by: Kate Nash
The Girl: Australian, sweet, and very capable at her character. She really likes Sam and they're seeing each other for a while until she realizes he's just not that into her. I'm glad she gets to walk away from the relationship before he has a chance to nuke it. She also comes up with the GLOW rap, and it's an interesting feel-good moment, but I like that it hints at something more to her character that maybe we'll see.
The Gimmick: Britannica is the smartest girl in the world, complete with suspenders, bow-tie, and book. But the double entendres abound, because she's also showing off her physical assets way more than her smarts.
The Good: I love clever gimmicks like this. She fronts as a genius, but the real story is her sexuality, which she plays to her advantage. All of her promos include some sort of innuendo.
The Bad: Not much here, except I do have this theory of Rhonda taking on a different gimmick (an Olivia Newton-John "Let's Get Physical" character) and Arthie, who is actually smart, takes over the Britannica character to morph it into something more legit.

3.) The Welfare Queen
Real Name: Tamme Dawson
Played by: Kia Stevens
The Girl: Tamme is great, and owns her character. We don't get to see too much of her story, save for one scene where she points out that her son will be watching and doesn't want to come off as a stereotype to him. I'd like to see more of her personal life in another season. Kia is an unexpectedly great actor.
The Gimmick: The Welfare Queen is freeloading off government money. She throws foodstamps, she buys expensive products like a fur coat that she doesn't need, and she flaunts it in front of the fiscally conservative for heat.
The Good: Again, Kia has great commitment and color to the character. It should be a villain, but it's so endearing.
The Bad: It's another black racial stereotype, and we never see this progression and evolution of it that Sam alludes to that eventually convinces Tamme to maintain the character. Maybe it'll happen next season.

2.) Liberty Belle 
Real Name: Debbie Eagan
Played by: Betty Gilpin
The Girl: Debbie is an out of work soap star who was very popular when she was a household name. She leaves to have a baby, and her husband never seems all that supportive of her career choices anyhow. I love when Carmen takes her to a match and she finally gets it, she finally gets wrestling. It's the moment I truly get behind her and become invested in her success. Before then, she's playing the entitled star, the ringer brought in who doesn't have a knack for the biz, and also steals a gimmick which doesn't endear her to the others.
The Gimmick: Liberty is the all-American vanilla hero. But I do love the bit of an edge that Debbie gives it, calling out Communists, talking about our superior weapons, and talking up our intense sense of patriotism.
The Good: It could be an incredibly broad and safe patriot gimmick, like Lex Luger but Debbie adds good color to it. The added layer of her coming from the audience, pretending to be a typical housewife is even better, giving her this down-home American suburban air.
The Bad: Not much here. Besides the fact that I think All-American gimmicks are boring. Debbie (and Betty playing her) though, makes her far more interesting than that.

1.) Zoya The Destroya
Real Name: Ruth Wilder
Played by: Alison Brie
The Girl: Ruth is by all intents and purposes our protagonist for the show. We are rooting for her the most. There's a lot of depth to her character, and her relationship with Debbie is great. I love that it's not fully resolved by the end. And I love that Ruth has to deal with becoming a role she does not want, before eventually coming to own it fully.
The Gimmick: Zoya is a proud Russian patriot, the perfect villain for the all-American housewife.
The Good: She makes anti-American jokes, she talks about the struggles in Russia that her make her a tougher, smarter, superior opponent, and her outfits are amazing.
The Bad: It's a character, so eventually it may have to evolve and become more than just a broad stereotype for the American hero to beat up. But for now, Ruth's commitment to the gimmick is great, and more than sufficient to put her at the top of the rankings.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

This Week In The DC-CWverse - Week 10 -- Supergirl fights for love; The Flash battles magic; The Legends of Tomorrow find their minds; Arrow finds his soul.

Supergirl “Distant Sun”
As I was saying last week, it’s felt like a lot of episodes for both Supergirl and The Flash in particular have been holdovers in between the bigger, important arcs. The reunion of the Daxam Royals essentially serves as the two-parter of the season, and this chapter I think delivers even better than the first one did. Again, I prefer Mon El and Kara when they are not falling apart. It’s much cuter, it’s much stronger, and for me it’s much more interesting. Having obstacles thrown in that make them throw in the towel on their relationship is no longer a viable conflict in my mind. So instead, show me them dealing with their adjusting relationship and day-to-day life. A small change from previous episodes is when the first trouble of the morning arrives, Mon El offers to tag along and “get ‘em together”, Kara just says yes. It’s now the power couple, and it’s a dynamic worth exploring. I will also say Chris Wood is masterful in his comedy. He’s really pulling the majority of the weight on that end of the show right now, while still being an awesome romantic interest. I liked his line to Kara as she rushed off before breakfast in bed: “I’ll just…get a head-start on those dishes!” and later on, Winn compliments him on his use of the word ‘palette,’ he replies: “Thanks! I cook now!” His delivery is perfect, and is a good reminder of how funny the show can be when it is able to. Another little change to their dynamic later on that I love, is after Mon El returns from interrogating his parents about the bounty on Kara, she asks him where he was and he simply tells her, where in previous episodes we would have seen him lie or not say anything, and it would lead to another fight between the two. The changes are small, and it’s refreshing.

Kevin Smith’s first foray into Supergirl was an okay episode. It was nothing amazing, I’d say safe. As interesting as the world building was, it didn’t have much in terms of stakes. Or at least, in its execution, I never felt a true sense of danger. There is a lot here though that is built upon from that first Smith episode: Winn uses the same warp door from that adventure to get the crew aboard the Daxam ship. And that was also the first episode we saw Mon El’s mother and father searching for their son. This episode though is exceptional in its pacing, and juggles its subplot very well. It concerns Maggie and Alex running into one of Maggie’s ex’s. Now, Maggie and Alex are already my favorite relationship on the show. In addition to the fact that I just can’t think of another straightforward presentation of a lesbian relationship on television that’s as good. There’s also been a lot of layers added to their relationship, and another was added here. Alex finds out from Emily (the ex-) that it was actually Maggie who cheated on her and ruined their relationship years ago. Maggie had told her otherwise. Alex is home to confront her and tells her it is not because she cheated, but because she recognizes a pattern that Maggie is unwilling to talk about pain in her life because she doesn’t trust anyone to help her. It’s a really beautiful scene. I cried a bit. I see a lot of my emotional hang-ups in Maggie, as well as a lot of my idealism in Alex. The fact that the dynamic is switched here in this episode, with Alex kind of being the caretaker, reflects a growth in their relationship. It shows Alex growing in maturity and awareness and understanding. She is comfortable in her own skin now because she is in a relationship where she is happy. You don’t want to enter relationships with the intent of changing people, but when we can help each other through our personal hang-ups, it leads to a mutual growth in the individual people as well as the couple.

Tempering the sensitive scenes are some crazy violence. It’s eventually revealed that Queen Rhea put out the bounty, and during a conversation with Kara and Mon El, Rhea just decides to take matters into her own hands, draws some Kryptonite sais and proceeds to cut up Kara. It appears King Lar Gand knew nothing of the bounty, and assumed Mon El was returning with them of his own accord. Rhea’s revealed to be crazy though, and has chosen to go to any lengths to retrieve her son, even if it means he no longer wants to. I’m just a little disappointed that we have another crazy woman archetype for a long-arc villain, but it’s Teri Hatcher and seeing her be absolutely ruthless like this again is wonderful. The episode ends with her coldly killing King Lar Gand for allowing Mon El to stay on Earth and essentially defying her wishes. She’s gone full-on psychopath, people. We’re heading for a big showdown possibly at the end of this season. It took us a bit to get to our big bad for the season, but I think it was well worth the wait. I’m excited for the eventual meeting of Queen Rhea and Jeremiah Danvers (played by the distant past’s Lois and Clark, Hatcher and Cain).

Congrats to Kevin Smith for helming this one, because this was my favorite episode of the season. Getting to see J’onn be a badass again (he masquerades as Kara on the Daxam ship then morphs to his green self to take out the guards) and then having a gladiator-style face-off with the former Hercules in Kevin Sorbo is the kind of thing I live for and can only happen in the ridiculousness that is the DC-CWverse.

The Flash“Abra Kadabra”
Another kind of loopy interloper arrives on The Flash, but Abra Kadabra feels legit dangerous this time. The gravity of the situation is escalated by the fact that Gypsy returns to Earth 1 to apprehend him for crimes on her Earth. It’s possible he holds the secret of Savitar’s identity but it’s also more likely he’s making a game of it all. I do take issue with the fact that Barry is so immediately willing to believe him when he says he can help. Iris calls him on it rightly so in their scene together, saying how do we know he’s telling the truth. Barry only offers up, “I know he is. It is true.” With no other evidence. Maybe if we’d caught a glimpse of Abra at the murder of Iris West in the future, we’d be more inclined to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. But nothing in the data of the episode provides evidence that Abra actually knows Savitar’s identity, and so the gambit Family Flash is playing with him is incredibly dangerous and ultimately fruitless.

That being said, some crazy stuff happens in this episode. We get several fun action sequences with Abra outwitting the team on multiple occasions, including two vibers and two speedsters. I enjoyed the fact that it’s Barry who ultimately catches him, scaling buildings, vibrating through the time ship, and apprehending our villain. A pattern Barry unfortunately faces throughout the show’s tenure has been either he is useless or clueless in battle until his friends provide play-by-play. This was not true here. He led the field team and came through in a clutch and it’s nice to see. Last week, the musical episode also allowed us to see a bit of earlier seasons Flash, the “eat Chinese take-out in uniform” Flash. Obviously it’s been an emotionally heavy and taxing season with Flashpoint and now Savitar making Barry question his value as a hero, but the musical episode made me remember how much I miss the fun Barry that always balanced out Oliver Queen. It’s a weird moment when Flash’s team has been fraying since the start of this storyline, while on Arrow we’re starting to see more light brought to their secret lair.

I liked the initial interactions of Cisco and Gypsy. I thought it was fun and different, but as the relationship has continued, we haven’t seen a lot of it develop romantically, so when Cisco gets meaningful about it I don’t understand the transition. He asks, what are we. At the end, she asks where does that leave us. But we’ve seen no real development other than Cisco awkwardly flirting and Gypsy not returning anything in kind. Sure the revelation that her partner in work and love fell victim to Abra gives her pause, but we haven’t seen any kind of development for them thus far. The kiss last episode they were together was funny and unexpected, but it doesn’t amount to defining any sort of relationship.

Joe was the MVP of the episode though, taking matters into his own hands. I’m so happy that almost every episode I get to say this show does not deserve the talent of Jesse L. Martin and this is his highlight reel, he nails it. He goes to bargain with Abra for the name of Savitar but Gypsy distracts him and Abra gets away. When Gypsy later confronts him about his mistake, he takes a hard stance against her. Totally unexpected. I loved the line, “I took two oaths: one to uphold the law, the other to protect my family. Which one do you think I honor first!?” Joe West, a cop among metahumans, stands tall and brave because he is a father, and a family man. I’m glad that they told Joe West about Iris’ death, because it leads to scenes of absolute conviction like this, but I also sympathize with Joe the father when he breathlessly admits to Barry at one point, “I really wish you hadn’t told me about this sometimes.”
Later, he gives us an amazing monologue about being a father. It’s so beautifully earnest, and Candice Patton looks legitimately moved by it all. Much like Supergirl this week, we have beautifully constructed and sensitive scenes like this tempered by fantastic action sequences against Abra. Another excellent scene is after Caitlin wakes from her highly invasive and mutilating surgery scene. (In Abra’s escape, he blows up the lobby where Joe, Julian, and Caitlin are standing, and Caitlin gets impaled by some metal piping.) Unable to operate on herself and with no one else qualified to do the job, Julius has to be walked through extracting the shrapnel. It’s graphic and gross and I haven’t gotten uncomfortable watching a show like this in a while. Afterward, Caitlin passes out and when she wakes, her and Julius share a moment of forgiveness and admiration. They both just saw each other through a very harrowing moment and came out of it stronger. I’m loving Caitlin and Julian together, and now we get to see how they come through this next phase…

Because at the end of the episode, Caitlin dies. But Julian rips off the power dampening necklace and from the bed rises Killer Frost. Oh, now you’re going away for a month, Flash? How dare you.

Legends Of Tomorrow“Doomworld”
The penultimate chapter is always that difficult chapter to put together. Think The Empire Strikes Back. Think The Two Towers. There’s transition to it, but it also has to stand on its own. There’s development, but we also have to set up for the final confrontation. Legends’ Doomworld is that middle chapter. And for the most part, it sets us up perfectly for the final showdown and finale, while still being a very fun entry on its own.

We are dropped right into the re-written world of Eobard Thawne, where he is a successful scientist and businessman in Central City’s Star Labs, Damien runs Star City as its mayor with Sara and Amaya doing his bidding hunting down vigilantes (they catch and kill Felicity at the top of the episode, seemingly the last stray vigilante of the old Arrow team, whose masks adorn a trophy case of Darhk’s), Malcolm has his family (and his hand) back, Snart and Mick are running amok playing bank robbers. I say playing, because Snart owns the police and the banks, so there’s no longer stakes to their heists. Jax is Stein’s boss, Ray is a janitor, and Nate is a conspiracy theorist.

Again, it’s so unabashedly time travel and sci-fi, and I can’t help but love it. The main arc has become Mick Rory’s redemption. We see here that he realizes what a mistake he’s made. He has to atone for correcting everything, even though most of the episode is now him trying to course correct. He learns that the Legends truly trusted him even if they didn’t always show it properly, but that the Legion sought to control him, not befriend him like he’d originally thought. He realized that the Legends, misguided as they were sometimes, were always upstanding in their intentions. It’s thanks to his playing both sides that brings everyone together at the reactor core where Eobard plans to throw the Spear.

Everyone fights each other then realizes that they should be fighting Eobard. But Eobard outwits everyone, because he’s the speedster. He knows and they know he can kill any of them in a second. He warns them not retaliate, and to remember this day of grace he granted them. With the Spear gone, no one knows what do.

They lose Amaya in the process, though I hope not permanently. Because I saw a lot of potential in that character, outside of just being a love interest for Nate. At the end Sara suggests time travel as the solution, and that they have to find the Wave Rider (which has been a souvenir on a desk for the previous year and so) and I hope this leads to them getting Amaya back on the team.

The performances you have to give the most kudos to are the villains. We have some truly compelling and entertaining villains, and the way they work together reminds me of Adam West Batman days, just with the antagonists way more sophisticated. Darhk does a fantastic “villain’s monologue” to a captured and dying Sara Lance, which she escapes from at the last minute because hero magic, but Barrowman’s Malcolm compliments him on an excellent speech even though it may have been wasted. Snart is frustratingingly good in this role as the dominant smart guy. It’s so cool to see him in his earlier incarnation, but I do miss the character development he witnessed over a season with the Legends. Snart makes a passing reference to Prison Break, suggesting he and Mick get captured and break their way out “just like the old days.” And again, it’s truly Mick’s episode to lose, and he does not. He puts together a complete and compelling performance, trying to give us a lot of nuance with essentially only one face he allows himself to make. Mick’s journey is one of redemption and growth, and it’s great to see. As funny as Mick has been all season, it’s nice to see a moment where he gets to grow as the other Legends have.

So the Legends and the Legion, and all of reality itself, are on the brink of a war with Eobard, who controls all the pieces. I don’t know how the finale ends up. I couldn’t be more excited for something I’m totally unclear on how to predict.

I mentioned earlier that Flash has seen much more fraying while Arrow’s team, while showing initial signs of fraying (Felicity’s Helix connection, Curtis retiring from the field, Thea going away, Rory going away, Evelyn’s betrayal) is actually growing stronger. Curtis’ new role has introduced the very helpful T-Spheres. Felicity’s newfound connection has helped with multiple investigations and other than the “tit-for-tat” hacking courtesy, there doesn’t seem to be anything nefarious about Helix as of yet. Dinah and Rene and Diggle have proven to be an effective field team.

The episode concerns itself with Ollie’s soul. Where does it stand, how much did Adrian corrupt, what is the solution? At first we’re met with a broken and guilty Ollie who has given up. He has returned to work and has nothing more to say to Chase, as they each return to their mutual offices. Everyone is fired up to do something but Ollie insists on all of them standing down. They take matters into their own hands, but it’s soon revealed that Ollie is turning to Anatoli. He has a plan, a plan that Chase wouldn’t expect. He is asking Anatoli to kill Chase. Now I understand the significance of the flashbacks. This moment has a huge impact if you’ve been investing yourself in those five years in Hell. Ollie is resorting to the Bratva, nothing but ruthless, hired killers. We see that he is not as broken as we initially thought, he is desperate. And he is going to do what it takes, without bringing more saints to sinnerhood.

It all boils down to an intense scene of bros and brotherhood, with no one but Ollie and Diggle left standing, as it all started. Their scene is probably my favorite dramatic one of the week. Diggle puts it all out on the line. He knows Ollie’s better side and he will continue to fight for it everyday even when Ollie himself has lost sight of it. It’s moving and it speaks to a core theme of Arrow. The mission of the Green Arrow has always need to evolve. As overused as the phrase has become, it truly must be something else. And the next step has always been to be bigger than one person. Ollie cannot do it alone, more importantly he does not have to. He has a huge support team to bring this all home. And in Anatoli he sees where the other path would lead him. If he closed everyone off, and made his decisions to keep everyone else safe, he loses himself. He loses his humanity. The Anatoli we see in Star City is not the one we meet in the flashbacks. He is changed, hardened, shut off. The Bratva are willing to fight for Anatoli for pay, for loyalty. The Arrow family is fighting for Ollie because they love him, because they are truly family. They are a family formed in trust, which is always stronger than a family forged in bloodshed.

All four shows really hit the ground running this week, to leave us on cliffhangers for late April. We’re now steering towards pretty crazy conclusions for all four shows. Supergirl was easily the most directionless, but now has a worthy (and female!) big bad. Flash has telegraphed their path for a while, but new wrinkles have been added along the way, and Barry’s trip to the future could be interesting. And the Legends showdown is going to be interesting. Black Flash is in that holding pen… And Arrow ends on a truly chilling note with Adrian killing his witness protection officers, and smiling and whistling as he drives off avoiding the police. Let’s bring these shows home with a bang, folks!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This Week In The DC-CWverse - Week 9 -- Supergirl meets the parents; The Flash and Supergirl put on a show; Legends of Tomorrow meet the Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien; and Arrow calls it quits.

So the twist we all saw coming with Mon El came to pass this week. The Daxamite King and Queen (played by one-time Hercules, Kevin Sorbo and opposite Dean Cain’s Clark Kent the intrepid Lois Lane, Teri Hatcher) arrive to retrieve their son, the Prince of Daxam. It’s a bit difficult at this point to sympathize for the central couple, as this is now a recurring theme for them, breaking up once more. However, this does add a ton of character development for Mon El, who defies his parents, refusing to return home, and choosing instead to remain on Earth. Kara, he says, makes him a better person, even if they do not remain together.

I can’t shake the feeling that there’s villainy afoot for our King and Queen of Daxam. If everything we’ve heard is true about the oppressive rule of the royal family on their home planet, they appear to be too forward-thinking and calm in their demeanor. They also let Mon El go incredibly easily, despite spreading a search across the cosmos to find him again. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of them, and something tells me we’re going to see a tragic blood feud where Mon El finally gains his hero wings.

 In the week’s B-Plot (which frankly felt more like the A-Plot), we at first learn that Lyra is not everything she says she is. She has Winn break them into a museum under pretenses of a tryst, but he gets arrested for stealing priceless artwork when surveillance footage shows Winn at the museum but not Lyra. Lyra’s people it turns out can’t be captured on film. When they track her down, Winn is willing to believe that Lyra really is stealing the art to pay off a debt owed by her brother Bastian to a smuggler named Mandrax. Once again, while the main couple struggles through their growing pains, the side characters prove to have a much stronger bond. Lyra’s actor was much more believable in this episode than previous ones. I don’t know if it was the prosthetics, the choices, or the lines, but I had a real hard time getting behind Lyra in previous installments. Here, her and Winn showed a good chemistry and a level of maturity for giving each other the benefit of the doubt: Winn trusting that Lyra is telling the truth, Lyra seeing Winn for a man who truly cares. It makes Mon El and Kara’s fight seem petty, and Winn even highlights this when he and Kara share a scene and he tells her that people can still have good reasons for doing bad things.

And to be fair to Mon El, I am willing to believe that he did want an opportunity to start anew. Why would he lie otherwise? His royalty could have been leveraged, but he chose instead to carve a new beginning for himself on Earth. He met Kara too, and his life changed for the better. I can see how in wanting to start fresh but basing it on covering up the past, he was conflicted about whether or not he should be honest with Kara. After all, we can’t help whom we fall in love with. I can understand Kara’s frustration as well though. I think the balance of the fight though is thrown off by the mere exhaustion of seeing them break up once again. I believe in their chemistry, and I want them to be together. But for a normal relationship, if a couple were breaking up this often, it doesn’t bode well.
The action picked up a lot on Supergirl this week, and I was glad to see it. I wish the CW shows could consider doing shorter seasons. I think this second season for Supergirl (and similarly with The Flash) the good episodes have been superior to the first season’s. But the filler’s been killer. Kara and Mon El’s rocky relationship is one such victim of the filler, as has Guardian, who has been pretty rudderless since he debuted. Like I said though, I enjoyed the fight sequences this week, especially with Mandrax at the finale.

In the tag, we get Darren Criss’ Music Meister who puts Supergirl in a coma and hops off to see Barry Allen as we crossover into…

The Flash“Duet”
I had very high hopes going into the long-awaited musical episode of The Flash. For the most part, I am happy to say it did not disappoint. Criss is charismatic as all get out for his role, and it’s a charming oddball in a universe suddenly filled with charming oddballs (Kara even mentions Mxy in passing, saying she’s tired of inter-dimensional beings visiting). You have such a vast amount of musical talent spanning all four shows that this was highly anticipated for all the fans. And we definitely got some good out of it.

Kara opens the episode proper with her rendition of “Moon River.” It’s straightforward and sweet. Melissa sounds great. I’m sad we didn’t get at least one more solo from her, but it is a Flash episode after all, so I’ll give it a pass.

Then it’s the proper opening number, “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.” I’m glad they used covers. With Glee and Smash, it’s been awesome to have good renditions of classic songs put out into the world for new generations to hear and connect to. I also enjoy when people think of songs a bit off the beaten track. I wouldn’t have thought to make “Love” the opening number but it works thematically, and the arrangement makes it incredibly stirring. Carlos Valdez, Jeremy Jordan, and John Barrowman provide the main vocals (in the mutual alternate reality of the musical world created by the movie musical-obsessed Kara and Barry, Cisco is a waiter and Winn is the pianist at a bar owned by Malcolm Merlyn who in this universe goes by Cutter Moran) and while they all sound awesome, I gotta give props to Jordan who kills it on his vocals.

As I was watching the episode, I kept thinking, gosh, why does this sound so weird? And I realized, it’s because this cast can actually sing. And production is allowing them to sing as if this were a musical. Nothing sounds over-produced. They sounded like a Broadway cast recording. They weren’t auto-tuned, they were properly sound mixed, and they allowed these voices to shine. It’s really a treat.

Flash and Supergirl are charged with following the script of the musical to get out of it. They find out two gangsters’ daughter Millie has gone missing and was last seen at Cutter’s club. They agree to help recover her safely. They find her instead in the arms of Tommy, Cutter’s son, and they are madly in love. It’s the age-old star-crossed lovers tale, set in gangster Central City. We know it well, and I love the uncomfortable irony for Kara and Barry when Tommy and Millie are being “played by” Mon El and Iris.

Everything is easier in musicals, so the pair tell their parents about their love and their parents are more than accepting. It’s then that we get pretty much the best treat of the musical episode, the best pay-off: “More I Cannot Wish You”, from Guys And Dolls, sung as a trio by Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman. It is everything I want and need it to be, they all sound wonderful, and I watched the segment like Barry was watching it in the show: a dopey grin, and clapping like a hysteric fan as each new part happened.

The song also helps our two heroes understand their situations. Barry realizes he can’t make his decisions out of fear, he has to make them out of love. Fear is only holding him back, keeping him from making the best decisions. Kara realizes that people do things out of love that seem hurtful or selfish, but are well-intentioned.

Rachel Bloom, who is phenomenal on My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, penned the next number, “Super Friend,” a fun throwback duet for Barry and Kara. It’s a fun number, made charming by the two leads who dance and sing high with a lot of pep, but I think there could have been more to the number. I hope they do another musical next season, because this isn’t anywhere near some of the best numbers from Crazy Ex- and I think Rachel can do even more given more opportunity.
Interspersed with the musical segments, we keep returning to the real world of Earth 1, where J’onn and Mon El took Kara, following the Music Meister. Barry is also comatose, so when the Music Meister goes and runs amuk, it’s up to Cisco, Wally, and J’onn to save the day. The team-up is very cool, and worth it. It manages to provide a more than sufficient action sequence in an episode we all expected probably wasn’t going to have one. Vibe makes portals while J’onn and Cisco lay the beatdown in a very cool team-up.

Back in the musical world, the real Iris and Mon El make it into the alternate reality to save a dying Kara and Barry just in the knick of time. It’s a kind of goofy, clumsy resolution that only a musical has the charm to pull off: with the power of love. By the end, the couples are fixed and we get one last number from Barry, written by the songwriting music duo Pasek & Paul (who just won Best Original Song for La La Land, and whom I know, because I used to sing their song “Monticello” for cabarets). It’s a very sweet number, but again one that I don’t think shows off the ability of Pasek & Paul. (To be fair, I’m not all that blown away by City of Stars or any of La La Land for that matter anyway.) But I do love the songwriting team, like I love Rachel Bloom. These are good songs, but they have definitely written better.

So overall, it’s a solid entry into musical TV episode canon. The original numbers are sweet, but not stellar, but the opening number and the Guys and Dolls cover nail it. (Going off my earlier point about off-beat numbers chosen well, the Guys And Dolls song is so unexpected too, but what a perfect song choice.) It’s a fluffy ending, but it resolves some plots for the main characters. Everyone in the episode performs top-notch. My small complaints are why did Music Meister say he was doing it just to teach them a lesson when we saw him attempt to rob a bank? How was that part of the lesson? And also, Barry mentions Superman in his and Kara’s duet, and I don’t recall the two meeting. Oh well. Musicals!

Legends Of Tomorrow“Fellowship Of The Spear”
It’s too bad that Legends is a bit lost in the shuffle, with Supergirl and Flash kicking it into high gear, and Arrow really going balls to the wall to make up for two seasons in agony. Because Legends is really turning in some quality time travel fun. They are at their best when they are slightly irreverent history meddlers with historic figures that are fun. This week, it’s Tolkien. Back when he was a soldier during the Great War. The Legends are after the Blood of Christ to activate the Spear of Destiny and it seems a vile is buried on a French battlefield that Tolkien studied in his college days before joining the war effort.

It’s just absurd enough to get all our characters together. For the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward formula for the Legends. They arrive, assist in the war effort, arrange a momentary cease-fire (Rip doing so by quoting the Black Gate speech from Return Of The King, with Tolkien sitting beside him, therefore eventually inspiring the speech he pens), find the artifact, and lead the Legion right to it. The Blood gets destroyed, but that’s okay: Malcolm’s been away (hear he moonlights owning a night club in gangster country) recovering what is basically the instruction manual of the Spear.

The main conflict of the episode and the last couple has been Mick’s growing mistrust of his place on the team. The others seemingly do not trust him, and he’s always relegated to the role of tough guy, but he’ll never feel fully accepted. A part of him I’m sure wants that, as that’s what we all want, acceptance. But a part of him is remining him that he is a criminal. And he always has been. And he’s gone soft siding with the good guys for this long. This doubt has manifested itself in the form of his friend Leonard Snart, Captain Cold. Cold derides him for all is goody two-shoeing. It’s been happening for a while now, but this episode delivers something truly unexpected, when the hallucination of Snart delivers a very real punch to the face of Mick during their exchange on the battlefield.

It’s the real Snart, pulled from earlier in the timeline by Eobard to assist them. The con all along was to get Snart to convince Mick to take the Spear for themselves. By the episode’s end, it happens.
We sacrifice some character development and some interaction this week for some bigger action sequences and set pieces. It’s a lot of moving parts, bringing everyone together on a battlefield in France, and the main arc is all Mick’s, so a lot of the other characters get lost in the shuffle. Outside of Rip’s rendition of the Black Gate Speech, there isn’t too much else. A possible good divide was hinted at when Amaya gained the Spear and planned to use it, only to be shot down by the rest of the Legends. It was also an interesting wrinkle to me when Mick asked her to come along when he and Snart left at the end. We knew she’d say no, but I was intrigued at the possibility of her at least following them under false pretenses.

The episode ends on a huge cliffhanger, with the Legion chanting from the Manuscript and the Spear illuminating. I have a feeling the next episode’s gonna be crazy.

I’m also glad I saved Legends for last this week because boy was Arrow HEAVY.
Adrian finally has Ollie where he wants him: locked up. He’s trying to get him to confess to something but Ollie has no idea what. He tortures him, he nearly kills him, he brings out a destroyed Evelyn who also nearly kills him.

The flashbacks finally arrive at a meaningful story, as we see the sordid tale of Anatoli, Kovar, Ollie, and the Bratva. Anatoli warns Ollie repeatedly that he cannot simply hide his monster, pretend it is something else. He says it will only bring him ruin.

So finally, the flashbacks are more appropriately lining up with current events. Of course, that’s what they’ve always been designed to do, but it’s taken them a while to get the balance right: you don’t want the past storytelling to be so on the nose that it looks like the protagonist is simply repeating a pattern in his life over and over again, but you also don’t want the story to be so broad that we as the audience fail to see the connection to the present conflict. Previous seasons have been mostly miss with this, and this season got much more back on track, especially with flashbacks to the first season. The Bratva storyline has been a challenging one to follow though, and this episode fortunately gave us the payoff it needed.

We learn Ollie’s lesson at the same time he does. We learn that he’s lied to himself for so long. He kills because he likes it. He’s a killer in the truest sense of the word. And how this undoes him is that he cannot demand others be better when he himself fails to, and he established an entire movement not because he wanted to do better, but because he wanted to kill. He believed killing was right, while touting that this other way would be the better way forward. He is a hypocrite.

The episode is intense and dramatic. Adrian Chase really kicks it into a new gear with his intensity and madness. Evelyn plays up the deceit beautifully. Most upsetting is when Ollie comes to at the end of the episode and sees he’s been let go. He’s free, because his true self is free. And the freedom of that, is the doom of the rest of his life that he’s built. The episode ends with him telling his team that he’s shutting it all down. We believe it too. We see it in the eyes of a broken, disturbed, and haunted man who no longer believes in himself.