Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In Praise Of CW's THE FLASH

                I’ve grown up with the Justice League as “my heroes.” When I was a kid, I imitated the Power Rangers, the X-Men, Pokémon… But the Justice League, and indeed the DC heroes, were the stories and sagas I had to go and seek myself. Everything else, they were on TV everyday of my childhood. Superman, I sought out and bought a VHS anthology of the old Max Fleisher cartoons and a cassette recording of the Bud Collyer radio show. I had a recording of that episode where George Reeves’ Superman visits I Love Lucy. Batman, I had to stay up late to catch reruns of the 1960s Adam West series, or wait ‘til my parents had gone to bed so I could watch Batman Returns without getting in trouble. That animated series, along with Superman’s, and the Justice League’s later, became the standard-bearer for how I interpreted these heroes. Wonder Woman and everyone beneath the Trinity were even more difficult to find. But I did. I found their comics. And I loved them. They were all these normal people, who had been gifted with god-like abilities, and they used them for good.

People, older people, seem to think there was a point in our history where we were less cynical. If there was a time like that, it wasn’t during my childhood. Even during that decade of immortality that was the 1990s, I was surrounded by friends and classmates who thought every villain would just kick any pansy-ass hero’s ass, who found the villains to be cooler and glorified Darth Vader, Jason, or Shredder, who wanted anti-heroes to be just as bad as the bad guys, and thought heroes were too damn boring. As a wrestling fan, I knew the prevailing attitude: the heels were awesome, the faces were dorks. It’s the attitude that gave all the DC heroes (and the larger comic book world, but these folks in particular) their grittiness and psychological hang-ups: an inundation of cynicism, pessimism, but especially disappointment. People had been let down by their heroes in real life. So people wanted their hero stories to be more “realistic”, and to them, realism meant heroes weren’t realistic. No one was good for goodness’ sake.

                Which is why to me, the heroes of the Justice League have remained relevant. Because as the world has for real gotten darker, scarier, and harder and harder to comprehend politically, socially, and universally, there’s been an unexpected demand for our heroes to be brighter, bigger, and better than us. But they always were that. We chose to make them something else. They just needed us to believe in them again. We still want to relate to them, but we want them to be the best in us again.

Like I said, clinging to a belief in heroes is difficult, because so many in our real world disappoint us, because nothing can be so black and white and clear cut in reality as a battle of good and evil is. But comics, mythology, is not clear cut. Comics are messy, confused, poignant, melodramatic, sad, uplifting, enlightening, relevant, reactive. Sometimes, our mythology reflects the times as they are. And other times, they have to be escapist. And escapist is when comics and their characters get to be their best. They don’t always have to be completely removed from our own reality, but there needs to be a touch of optimism and a purposeful striving to be better in the writing of our myths. It’s that optimism that distinguishes them from the real world.

Fantasy and fiction are not just our chance to create a different world, but a world that we ourselves would like to see, a better world than we have in our lives at present. And our real world feels bogged down by natural disasters, by humans at their worst and monstrous, by powerful evils who control the world and wish to keep themselves on top, by powerless leaders who are corrupt, by a dying planet, by more and more news that sounds more and more hopeless everyday, not to mention an infinite amount of data being poured into the internet by people complaining, calling each other out on pointless shit, by belittling each other, and by harping on the slightest flaw in any person who dares to try and be better than they are. Every motivation is questionable. Every agenda is political. Every action is judged and scrutinized.

It’s why a show as unabashedly optimistic as The Flash continues to amaze me, two years running. Last night was Season 2’s finale and, with no spoilers, the show has managed to avoid any sort of second season slump. It managed to dig deeper, go bigger, and make us believe.

When I think of each of the heroes of the Justice League, there’s a few words I think of that boil down their essence to me, and why I am captivated by them. Superman: hope. Batman: loyalty, vengeance. Aquaman: destiny, honor. Martian Manhunter: tragedy, legacy. Wonder Woman: compassion. Often portrayed as a warrior, she understands the most important lesson of fighting: fight only when you must. Diplomacy, logic, science, reason, must first prevail. Failing those things, we fight. And that’s unfortunate for everyone else, because that’s what Wonder Woman is best at. Green Lantern, particularly Hal Jordan, is service. “Space cop” is sometimes used to jokingly refer to the Lanterns, but Jordan has taken an oath to serve and protect, and he upholds those values. I always find it fascinating the Lantern and Flash dichotomy, because Hal can be described, “right place, right time.” Abin Sur, a dying Lantern, crash lands nearby Hal, and gifts him the Green Ring of Willpower. The Flash, Barry Allen, is “wrong place, wrong time.” Struck by lightning and a cocktail of chemicals, he becomes The Fastest Man Alive. Hal becomes a hero seemingly because he has no choice. Barry becomes a hero because he does.

The show and the recent comics have given Barry more of a personal motivation behind becoming The Flash, which is the death of his mother, Nora. But for me, Flash has never needed this. Prior to this, he is the only one in the League who becomes what he is because he chooses to. He was initially driven neither by circumstance (Manhunter, Lantern, Green Arrow) or necessity (Batman, Cyborg), or destiny (Superman, Aquaman, Shazam) or lineage (Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl), Barry gets to choose to become a hero. That is a powerful idea. It also gives him a distinguishing characteristic amongst his League compatriots.

                But the other big aspect for me about The Flash is the obligation of family. Read deep enough into the comics and practically everyone related to The Flash is a fellow speedster, or at the very least a do-gooder. And they are also a family. There aren’t too many other places in the DC Universe where a family is emphasized. The Shazam family is one, and the Bat-Family, as it’s referred to, are certainly an important non-traditional family but that’s not their main function. The Flash and his family, the Allens and the Wests, have all sorts of squabbles and dynamics: the kids growing up, obligations to each other and to life, living up to others’ legacies, feeling a sense of connectedness that defies any expanse of existence. And to place at the center of this entire universe the death of one boy’s mother, makes Barry’s choice deeper. I initially wasn’t keen on the idea of this backstory, but the show has made it important, enhanced Barry’s decision rather than reducing its impact. Nora’s death was of course a major arc of the first season, but “The Runaway Dinosaur” just a couple weeks ago helped us understand Barry’s processing of grief and loss, and allowed him to come to terms with allowing that death to affect him. Again, the emphasis of a family learning about each other and understanding their relationships and impacts on each other becomes especially powerful (and difficult) when one of those people can no longer grow and learn and teach from the relationship. Batman’s parents, who were also lost and was the incentive to Bruce Wayne creating his superhero identity, quickly become non-entities, brought up occasionally as reminders, but lacking major influences in Bruce’s life. Barry however, never feels far from that night where he lost Nora.

                All this makes Flash and company ripe for a family-friendly comedy/drama on The CW, where things can get sweet and saccharine and sad real fast. But something curious that I think people are starting to realize, is that a show with heart and optimism doesn’t have to be without its darkness, and it doesn’t have to be completely devoid of tragedy and dilemma, but it can also do those things without diving into melodrama and terrible soap opera performances. A show that is optimistic doesn’t mean it’s all fluff and meaningless, likewise it doesn’t have to get so dark that we are now in the gritty/grim-dark extremism and sadism of the 90s. But I don’t deny that it doesn’t sound crazy: a TV show about a superhero, adapted from comic books, is a compelling show, well-written, well-performed, and genuinely thrilling as well as touching.

                But The Flash has managed to do all this. Where I think Arrow is a mixed bag of quality and inconsistency, where Jessica Jones has a superhero who is trying hard to not be a superhero and the show reflects that, where Gotham is an utter (sometimes fun) mess, Legends Of Tomorrow is incredibly camp and falls on the lighter fare of the spectrum, where Daredevil is incredibly, unforgivably brutal, and where Supergirl can occasionally verge too far into soap opera territory, The Flash manages to balance everything beautifully, while shying away from nothing that make superheroes and comics great. There are moments of comedy and snark, deftly acted scenes of pathos, fully realized, consistent characters who straddle the line of realistically relatable and fantastically fictional, fight scenes of good versus evil, brainstorm scenes of goofy plans and science talk, couples’ mounting romantic tensions, families getting to know each other and avoiding disappointing each other while sometimes fighting out of love, occasionally too-on-the-nose dialogue, wackadoo plot necessities… like The Speed Force.

                Practically the first big storyline is Barry learning, understanding, and entering The Speed Force. Even in this rant, I can’t fully begin to explain to you The Speed Force. It’s such a batshit insane plot device, so delightfully comic books, that I never thought they would ever attempt it on the show. But there it was, staring at me right in the face in the first season. There was Barry Allen, traveling through time, having the multiverse revealed to him, seeing glimpses of the alternate, infinite Earths.

It felt like the initial Avengers movies were shying away from anything too crazy and only now getting to something truly other-worldly like Doctor Strange, or even previous to this, in the X-Men movies when they finally introduced Juggernaut and they said, “He’s a mutant! Forget the Jewel of Cyttorak! We can’t get into aliens and all that! WHO SAID KREE SKRULL WAR!” and even Phoenix was, misguidedly, a latent sort of “mega-evolution” that was kept locked away in Jean Grey’s mind all along, instead of its likewise otherworldly origins, it feels like the team behind The Flash just went, “FUCK IT! PUT IT ALL IN!” and we immediately had so much on the table: Speed Force, Gorilla Grodd, King Shark, Earth 2, Supergirl, time travel, doppelgängers.

                And what’s most impressive, is that it still works as a TV show, not simply a comics adaptation. Of all the shows, it feels the easiest to put in front of a non-comics fan and have them genuinely enjoy it. Anecdotally, that’s been the reaction I’ve gotten from people I’ve introduced the show to. My favorite, a girl I worked with, had to suffer practically daily almost all of us in the office talk endlessly about comic books, TV shows, and movies. But when Flash went up on Netflix, she binged it… and fell in love with everyone and everything. When you make the characters just relatable enough, but you keep what makes comics special and distinct, you get something truly beautiful and effective.

   Perhaps we’ve also grown more accepting of what can be done on television and what characters will pass for drama: we have the two Winchesters on Supernatural, vampires on all kinds of shows like Vampire Diaries, ghosts, aliens, and mind-fucks like Lost or post-apocalypse shows like The 100. I came of age when drama was almost exclusively realistic. Yes, centered on places ripe for drama: The West Wing, The Sopranos, House, but still people and problems we could relate to and understand. It’s inherently more difficult to ask audiences to buy into characters that are not human. But if you can give them enough human qualities, if you can make them relatable enough, we will embrace them. Look at what Wall-E does with no dialogue. Or any of the Pixar movies, really. And look at the unbridled success of the Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, Thor… all incredibly gifted and truly special, but by emphasizing the humanity of those characters just enough, we suddenly have compelling characters that we embrace. At the center of it all, there have to be characters that we care about.

                And it seems silly to say, but the characters are the heart of this show. I love all these characters. We just have it in our minds how a character should be. I definitely have an image of what Barry Allen is, who he is. But Grant Gustin suddenly makes him a person that I can understand, laugh with, admire. He brings it to another level. He’s different from what I imagine him to be from the comics, but it’s a good different. It’s him embodying the archetype of The Flash for me. It’s like I’m meeting the guy that The Flash of the comics is based on, the man behind the legend.

When I first started reading Flash comics, Barry and Iris were already together. So I love Iris. I wasn’t immediately in love with Candice Patton, but she has won me over this season, as she has begun to take more immediate agency in the proceedings. I wasn’t sure about Keiynan Lonsdale as Wally either, and some of his initial episodes were iffy for me, but he has since won me over as well. He’s smart, he’s determined, and he’s going to make an awesome speedster when they finally pull the trigger. One guy I of course loved immediately was Jesse L. Martin’s Joe West, but that’s because Jesse L. Martin is absolutely the best, always. He’s the best detective from Law & Order (I will fight anyone who says otherwise, especially if you think it’s Benjamin Bratt). He’s the best part of the Rent movie. And he’s stellar on this show. Everyone has these complicated double roles they all have to play, and Joe’s is this confident father figure to Iris and Barry, but with Wally he has this other role as so unsure, but he’s trying to make the best of it.

                Carlos Valdes was the one I was most nervous for. Vibe has never been my favorite character in the comics, portrayed rather inconsistently, as he’s been kind of the runt of whatever team he’s placed on. But Carlos has given the character a lot of heart while maintaining his role on the show as the pop culture wisecracker. He’s come into his own as well. Again, thinking about that duel role, Cisco is smart and gifted, but with his superpowers, he is still learning them and understanding them, and he goes from fish in water to fish out of water so fast and flawlessly.

                The most striking part for me is how good the cast is as a unit, how they work together and how fascinating it is to watch them shift pairings and dynamics constantly. Every episode asks for different combinations of people working together on different things and in different capacities, and each person gets a chance to shine. They make every moment work, because they’ve given us real characters to get behind. There is a quiet moment during “Invincible” just last week, where everyone is together, and it feels right. It’s not forced, it’s not clichéd. They are having dinner, and they are at peace. It’s a “quiet before the storm moment” to be sure, but it doesn’t reduce the impact of how special it feels. By contrast, the gang all sitting and eating Chinese food at the end of a Supergirl episode a while back just doesn’t bring with it the same sense of home.

    On top of this, the show has managed to introduce a lot of twists and turns, some of them interesting, some of them are still loose ends, a lot have been batshit insane, but I haven’t a complaint among them. They’ve all done their job as plot devices of raising the stakes, adding depth to characters, layering the plot, or laying the tracks for a future event, or, and as is often the case on the show, all at once. The characters continue to exercise agency over events and deal with consequences as they arise. It never feels like thin avatars working through plot formulas. They are people working through life. And life in the Flash universe is crazy. Also, it’s not to say that everything’s perfect. Certainly, there were a couple episodes that functioned as filler between the bigger episodes. Occasionally, a character is far too earnest so as to become melodramatic. But the good so far outweighs the bad that these moments are fleeting.

                It’s a lot like Barry Allen’s Flash himself, who moves so fast that he sees and comprehends all of time simultaneously: all elements occur in every moment, and he realizes the scariest, greatest part: life is still constantly in motion, growing, changing, never stopping. Again, no spoilers for the finale, “The Race Of His Life”, but it is like all those things, all those plot devices happening at once: we get deeper characterization, layout for season 3, wrap-up of this solid season, and higher stakes for our characters. The last three episodes have been emotionally taxing for everyone, and we’re not allowed to dwell on any one moment before the next one is hitting us in the face. Barry is told to run, because he has to keep up, and we, like Barry, have to enjoy the moments while we can. Barry and his family on the show are teaching us to enjoy those moments, because there are so many, and they will be so many different things for us. They will make us laugh, make us cry, make us fall in love, make us angry, surprise us by our inability, surprise us by our rising to the occasion, disappoint us, enrich us. We have to slow it all down in our minds, process each part, love the time we’re given, find our meaning and our significance, and remember the most important stuff, because before we know it, that moment, like so many others, is in the rearview mirror.

I’m grateful to The Flash, because in two seasons it has managed to teach us what superheroes can be, and what they can mean. Society has changed, experiences have changed, but our heroes represent our values, and those haven’t really changed. We’ve wanted them to wear different masks and create different meanings for us, but really, what they represent for us hasn’t changed. And to have a show on the air adapted from a medium that until recently was not seen as important or impactful, with characters that are earnest with no agenda, quirky without being ironic and detached, and heroic without being burdened while still presenting an internal struggle, a world that is so much our own but at the same time distinctly fantastical, and at the heart of it all is a family of love, that is really phenomenal. And as far as TV Rants go, I cannot recommend CW’s The Flash enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Remembering The Macho Man

A couple days ago, it was the 5th anniversary of the death of the wrestler known as Randy Savage. I say wrestler, but in a good way, Randy was so much more. He was larger than life, he was a performer, he was an artist, he was a method actor, he was a committed athlete, a gifted speaker, an intense personality, and a genuine guy. Was he always the good guy? Much like his wrestling persona, he wasn’t always, but that is unimportant.

Regardless, Randy became someone to be admired. And that’s difficult, especially in the era that he was most popular in, a time when heroes were very all-American and Hulk Hogan-like, and all the heels were so dynamic. Flair was flamboyant and a chickenshit, and yes he got cheered but we loved to hate him, and we loved to see him get his ass kicked. Most of the rest of the heels were more worthy of our boos, because they thought themselves so superior to all of us: Rude physically, Iron Sheik mentally, Jake The Snake psychologically, Mr. Perfect in every way. Savage, for all intents and purposes, was supposed to be a heel. He was egotistical and flamboyant. He was jealous and territorial, fighting off people, denying an inferiority complex while exhibiting all the behavior of one with a superiority complex. He sometimes cheated to win (although so did Hogan, and no one demanded you do anything other than cheer for him) he sometimes interfered in matches he had no business interfering in, and he for the most part seemed certifiably unstable and insane.

But the problem was he was a heel in every aspect except his ring-work. He didn’t work like a heel. He didn’t necessarily work like a face either. He was just an excellent worker. He was smooth, proficient, psychologically sound, and it made sense, because he was more work-rate size than the upper card faces and nowhere near imposing enough to be a monster heel in that time. But Flair was the flamboyant-out-of-the-ring/dirty-player-in-the-ring heel. Savage would talk and boast and yell and scream that he was better than everybody and he would beat anybody, and the problem was that when he got in the ring, he did just that. He was Intercontinental Champion and was a fighting champion. He took Steamboat to the limit at Wrestlemania 3 before losing by being outsmarted and overworked. He was World Champion, and lost only to Hogan because his jealous rage got in his way. Perhaps that was the problem. It was a template that would be followed by Shawn Michaels years later as he flowed from heel to face to heel to face again. There were even shades of it in CM Punk during his most elevated prominence. Savage would just not get out of his own way. He was never content with his accomplishments. He couldn’t be convinced or reasoned with verbally, and even physically he was never willing to accept when he’d been put down. And it was this fiery, irascible, dangerous personality that should have made him hated. But he was so goddamn charming and convincing on the mic, and so compelling in the ring, that it presented a conundrum to people like me. I loved Savage, but I also hated him. I was always a little scared for Miss Elizabeth’s safety. I never thought Savage would purposely hurt her, but I always worried that him flying too far off the handle would lead to her being caught in Randy’s own crossfire.

The friendship and subsequent meltdown of said friendship with Hogan was all Savage. It put Hogan on the defensive, which you rarely got to see, and there could have been big things for Savage with the face of the company in his corner. But there is at least some truth to the idea that if he’d maintained it, Savage would always be second fiddle to Hogan. And like I said, he wasn’t content with playing second fiddle. He was deserving of the top spot. There was no one else like Savage. And some fans as we’ve gotten older will be quick to mention that Hogan was a more capable worker than he was allowed to be in WWF. And while I acknowledge that, it doesn’t change anything. He worked a style that got him over, and whether it was him or the company mandating that all his in-ring performances look the same, they were bland. Watching Savage was exciting. He worked a different style against Hogan than he did against Flair than he did against Perfect or Steamboat. Hogan’s story in the ring was always the same. And maybe the old adage is true, that Hogan was the name that got people into the arenas, and it was workers like Savage that kept them coming back for more. But in a fair world, it’s someone like Savage who is the top star, because he was a star.

So there was always this conflicted mix of emotions watching Savage. He was my favorite wrestler, hands down. I wanted him to succeed but I also wanted him to be safe, and be reasonable, and not shoot himself in the foot constantly. The fact that he did made him this surprisingly tragic figure of the wrestling world. I say surprisingly, because it’s a rather complex characterization for a titan. He was already good at what he did, he was already fire on the mic, he didn’t need his psychological hang-ups to keep him relevant.

Or maybe he did. Years later, he’s cited as one of the greatest characters and performers to come out of that era, or any era. And maybe that’s precisely because he was so complex. I, and so many others, wanted Randy to be the winner of all things, but knew that he was at his best when he wasn’t.

It’s a difficult role to play, especially in an arena so unique as wrestling, where winning and losing and titles and all are scripted, but the connection the performers make to the audience is very real. Randy was never hard to love. He was magical, he was always on, he dazzled in the ring, he was funny, frightening, fascinating.

And I miss him. There’s so many designations in wrestling fandom, like in other fandoms. There’s people who legitimately loved Hulk Hogan. There’s people who loved Hogan for his work in Japan and not in WWF, because they’re alternative like that. There are people who loved Savage or Warrior, simply because they weren’t Hogan, and they aren’t going to be told who to cheer for. There are also people who love Savage retroactively, because they realize later, as they got older, and as they got smarter, that he was the better worker, that he was an acumen meant to be admired. But there are also those, and you could hear them whenever Pomp And Circumstance boomed through any arena across the country or even the world, that loved him because it was Randy Savage. Those lines get blurry here and there, but I was in that camp from the time I turned on a wrestling program. The first match I ever saw on video was Savage and Warrior’s Retirement Match at Wrestlemania VII. And I loved them both. But Savage was the one you could connect to, you could see his eyes, you saw his face, and you saw his ability. After that, I was hooked. And I’ve been a fan ever since. Wrestling’s seen some dark days, and it’s been through some shitty days. But it can be beautiful. Savage was one of those to watch if you wanted to see wrestling at its best. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand all that was happening. I didn’t get what Savage was mad about all the time. I barely understood that he was a character. All I knew was that even through that uncertainty, I couldn’t stop watching him. I looked forward to him on commentary. He was the only reason I watched WCW. He was the only reason I even bothered to watch TNA. He’s the reason I’m a wrestling fan. I go back and just marvel with newfound appreciation matches I was enthralled with as a kid. The way he came to the ring, simultaneously a warrior ready to fight, and a king surveying his kingdom. The way he argued with the ref, and what unbelievable things he must’ve been yelling at them and how was it they never corpsed in his face. The way he ran the ropes. The glide from one move to the next. The effortless body slam and the almost machine-like way he’d then make his way to the apron and the top rope. The way he flew with that top rope elbow, and the way that he made it look absolutely devastating. 

There was and never will be another one like him. And that gets said a lot, and it gets placed on a lot of wrestlers, but that’s just the nature of the business. The good ones (and yes, a lot of the bad ones) are so uniquely gifted. But Savage was the complete package. And he could have had any promotion in the world revolve around him. Heel or face. It didn’t matter. They cheered because it was Randy. I miss the Macho Man. I miss Savage. I miss Randy. Randy was a hero.

From The Gorilla Position, Rest In Peace, sir.

Epilogue - My favorite promo:

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Remembering David Bowie, By The Roles He Didn't Play

Three weeks ago, artist, musician, singer/songwriter, rock star, glam-god, king of freaks, David Bowie lost the battle to cancer. So many were impacted by his life and legacy and his influence on a lot of music is undeniable, while his own music is quite iconic. What is most curious is that Bowie's style and ability was never singled out. He was never married to one style or another. If you didn't like the poppy Modern Love, then try the ballady Man Who Sold The World. If Space Oddity wasn't your story, then maybe Suffragette City or John I'm Only Dancing. If not Rebel Rebel, how about Young Americans? There was something somewhere in his repertoire for everybody, and that is something that can't be said of every artist. The music, thankfully, lives on forever.

Like other musicians, Bowie occasionally made forays into acting. His star may have been much too bright for the likes of the silver screen, a pattern which would follow him through much of his attempted film career. Perhaps though, that is the trade-off. For just one more remarkable actor, we instead got the singularly remarkable David Bowie.

Here are some reflections on the most memorable roles he didn't get to play.

The Thin White Duke auditioned for Lord of the Rings, but was turned down to play Elrond, Elf Lord of Rivendell.

The most famous of these roles was that of Elrond, mostly because Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy ended up going on to become one of the most successful series of all time, and many actors have since expressed regret for passing up the chance to do the roles they were offered. Notably, Sean Connery turned down Gandalf, the part that eventually went to Sir Ian McKellen, because Connery didn't understand or know the part he was being asked to play. Unlike the rest of the list, Bowie actively campaigned for the role of the Elf who eventually brings together the Fellowship, and plays an integral role in the final chapter. As far as I can tell, his seems to be the only audition that has the attached story of rejection included for the public to see.

According to Jackson, Bowie was too high-profile for the movie series. Some may misunderstand the meaning, as even Hugo Weaving, who eventually got the part, was already unmistakable as Agent Smith, the villain of the original Matrix movie. There were other well-known actors in other roles too, but none carried the name and notability of Bowie. Not at the time, anyway. Liv Tyler, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, were all known but not high profile. Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen were taking on their highest profile roles in this film. Sir Ian is nigh-unrecognizable beneath that beard. John Rhys-Davies may be the most established, and he was a supporting character in his highest profile outing previous to this. Bowie was a star unto himself, a larger-than-life personality that may have been quite the strain on the movie's ensemble foundation. While it would have been magical to have Bowie as a magical being in the trilogy, it perhaps was for the best. But it is the most spectacular of what-if's.

Ziggy Stardust was announced to be playing Bond villain Max Zorin, but turned it down as the film went into filming.

What would end up being third Bond Roger Moore's seventh and final outing as 007 featured one of the more popular and creepy villains of the Bond canon, certainly one of the more memorable of Moore's tenure (the other being Scaramanga, played by the remarkable Christopher Lee, also RIP). That is certainly in large part thanks to Christopher Walken, who makes his mark on the series.

But how fascinating could it have been to have the glam star go head-to-head with James Bond as the charismatic, withdrawn, slightly androgynous microchip mogul? Something off-putting and compelling all at once, not unlike his turn as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. We'll never know though, since Bowie didn't want to spend all his time sitting around while his stunt man did everything, according to him. It's an unfortunate assessment too, since Walken gets some of the best acting parts for a Bond villain, at least in that era, and he would have greatly outshone a Moore who was certainly past his prime and phoning it in.

Apocryphally, Major Tom was attached to play Captain Hook in the Spielberg sequel.

Somewhere in the misty sands of time between Hook becoming a years-later sequel rather than another remake of the classic story, Bowie was supposedly attached to play the aging Captain James Hook.

Now, knowing the final product, it's hard for me to imagine anyone but Dustin Hoffman nailing this role. But Bowie just might have had the charm to do it. Also, going back to Jackson's assessment of the Lord of the Rings situation, Bowie would have had more make-up and hair on his side. Hoffman is very nearly unrecognizable to me beneath that huge head of hair and ridiculous 'brows and 'stache combo. With that and perhaps even some prosthetics, Bowie may have disappeared altogether. It's an electric combination to think about: Williams as the Pan and Bowie as the dark and sinister man.

It would be interesting to have seen a slightly later-era Bowie take on a character that was dealing with aging and passing his prime. Not that Bowie in the early 90s was anywhere near past his prime, but it was certainly a time after his most notable work, much like Hook does for the Captain, who has bested both Peter Pan and the Crocodile when we meet up with him in the story.

A well-known Hollywood legend was that the Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels semi-remake of Bedtime Stories was inspired by Jagger & Bowie's Dancing In The Street music video.

A short one, but incredibly fascinating to me, since I love the movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin. According to the writers, they adapted a screenplay of the David Niven/Marlon Brando con movie with the two rock stars in mind.

While Caine and Martin are unquestionably two seasoned comedians at the top of their game in this movie (Caine at his most wittily suave, Martin at his most bumbling debonair) there is a certain camp, rather Ocean's 11 charm to having Bowie as Caine and Jagger as Martin. It's especially true when you've seen the music video which is lovely, but batshit for the star power that it's in it. Then you think about the fact that the writers said they were inspired to have those two as the leads for the movie because they saw that music video... It adds up to a truly zany, insane film. And I'm slightly disappointed I didn't get to see it.

Apparently, David himself was also rather perturbed that they were also passed up for it, maybe even never asked at all.

When it was put out there that Tim Burton was going to be remaking the Batman franchise, The Man Who Fell To Earth was rumored to be sought for The Man Who Wanted To Watch The World Burn.

Throughout The Caped Crusader's long film tenure, dozens upon dozens of high profile names have been attached to all the roles as they get announced. So it's with a grain of salt that I include it here.

This one does have a specific timeframe, at least. Burton was looking to reboot the franchise for the big screen, bring Batman back to his roots as an asskicker, bring back the series' darkness and slightly more grounded reality (though not to the extent that Christopher Nolan's trilogy would go to a couple decades later). Around that time, Bowie was one of many actors rumored to be courted for the role. It's a stellar list of awesome creeps and weirdos: Willem Dafoe, Tim Curry, Robin Williams (who, sadly and famously was used unknowingly as a bargaining chip to eventually get Jack Nicholson to sign on, and was possibly never seriously considered) and John Lithgow (James Woods and John Glover have also been rumored to be on that list). Out of all those, Bowie may have been the most unlikely casting, and it might have worked, when you think about it: Michael Keaton, a comedian known for his farce, plays the tortured identity of Batman, while the rockstar who was most famous for playing an alien would play his most famous, otherwordly adversary.

Bowie definitely has the chops for it, and it may have worked quite well. Again, going back to this Jackson argument about Bowie's indelibility, Nicholson for me has always had that same problem. So even going back and watching it now, and even giving due credit, and as good as it is, it's never far from Nicholson. Which is perhaps both its greatest weakness and greatest strength. Much like Bowie, must have been both curse and blessing to be the persona of David Bowie.

The King of the Goblins may have once been attached to play the King of the Underworld.

The most apocryphal story, because I can't seem to find his name linked to the movie anywhere but one place, There's a good chance that Bowie was at one time approached to voice the fire-headed lord of the damned, in the Disney Greek mythology, gospel infused hero's journey Hercules. Nothing else is said, except that he turned it down, before producers turned to John Lithgow, whose interpretation was unexpected but they attempted to make it work, and fired him after a couple months of filming, before ultimately turning to James Woods, who gave yet another unexpected performance, one that ultimately worked better with the film overall.

Bowie's would have been really something remarkable, though. His amazing, expressive voice coupled with the fact that you were removing the visual element of his performance, meant that for once, he would have had no limits on what he could do acting-wise. And for a star who was most known for breaking any and all limits set around him, it would have been an outstanding challenge.

Goodbye, Ziggy Stardust. We salute you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Miss That Was Les Miserables

Last night, due to the winter storm locking everyone in, my roommates and I decided to watch a good movie, A League Of Their Own (neither of them had seen it), and then we elected to watch a rather bad movie, Les Miserables (which we'd all seen, and do Javert impressions around the house constantly).

Now, when I say bad movie, there's a lot of different sub-categorizations I like to use.
First, there's a truly bad movie. There are no redeeming qualities to it. There's not even little joys to be found, weird choices or over-the-top bad acting, or a terribly on-the-nose script. Some or all of those things would bump it into the next category...
...The batshit, so-bad-it's-good movie. This is where you'll find your The Room's, and Birdemics. They are, objectively, terrible movies, but elements of them are just so insane that you can't help but watch them. But if the choices rather incite anger or frustration more often than glee, then you move into a third category...
...The joyless, bad and boring movie. It'd be one thing if it was just bad. But if they are trying very hard, or there's a good concept in there, or there's some good performances, or what have you, you fall into this final category. A lot of nostalgia-tinged pieces will fall into this. Labyrinth for me falls into this category now. It's not a good movie. David Bowie is outstanding, that goes without saying. The puppetry is par excellence, because of course it's Jim Henson. But nothing happens in the movie. You don't understand character motivations and you don't really care that anyone gets what they want by the end. And other than Dance Magic, there's not really another song you can sing off the top of your head.

Les Miserables falls somewhere between the latter two categories.

When this movie first came out 4 years ago, I wanted to like it. Les Miz has always been one of my favorite musicals of all time. The music is of course unforgettable, and with the right actors, you will fall in love with pretty much all the characters (except maybe Cosette, who never does anything, and is defined purely by Marius loving her, and possibly just for being beautiful, because she does nothing of substance that we see in the proceedings of the musical).
I loved the casting all around. Everyone made sense to me, I was pleased to see they all had at least some music background, whether it be music or musicals. They were all good actors whom I admired, and the amount of the thought that was being put into the film seemed to all herald good things for it. So what went wrong? What kept it from being as good as Chicago, or Hairspray, or hell, even Into the Woods?

First, I think the initial conceit of the movie worked in opposition to being a good adaptation of a musical. Tom Hooper's idea of everyone singing live on camera is all fine in theory, but the close-ups are unbearably jarring. They're not pleasing cinematically. The more aesthetic shots, like panning to the sky during Javert's song Stars, or craning out during Bring Him Home, that's what we see movies for. These extreme close-ups take out everything that is visually interesting from the shot.
The fact that everyone was treating that like a big deal, that they were actually singing live on the set, and it not really being that big a deal hurts the idea of the movie. Frankly, for a lot of the songs, I would've liked to hear the best possible takes of the voice. When you see a musical live on stage, you expect them to be singing live, and of course they are. In a movie, you are willing to excuse the idea that they are lip-syncing because the expectation is that they are going to put the best record of the performance together, because this what will be on tape forever. (Did I really just say tape? Oh, boy...)
Some of the lines got sung in ways that are inexplicable. And that wouldn't be the case if they went and overlaid good takes. They also wouldn't have had to do this confining close-up business, and opened up the movie to be more cinematic. The opening with the chain gang pulling in the boat is so epic, the time jumps with the camera flying over the city are awesome. Why would you want all these beautiful songs filmed so claustrophobically?

I'll pause here and say that the one time it works, is Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed A Dream as Fantine. Holy shit, girl. All the praise she gets for that solo is well-deserved. How cool would it have been if she'd been the one part of this film that was done like that? She sang it live, on the set, and they got it down in just a couple takes? Again, Hathaway is fantastic.

Lastly on this note, I think the orchestral arrangement suffers greatly from this choice. During music interludes, the orchestration is robust, vibrant. Accompanying singers though, even group numbers, it feels thinned out. Is that a limitation of the sound mixing, because the voice capture was only so high? It seems unlikely in this technological day and age, but regardless, the music is definitely not as rich as it could be.

The second thing involves a much larger, over-arching discussion, and that is what makes a good adaptation, versus what makes a good film? Are the two necessarily working in opposition to each other? For some, "purists," it would seem that way.
When Into The Woods made cuts here and there and even to a lesser extent when Sweeney Todd did it, there was a kind of outcry from musical theatre enthusiasts about how they weren't sticking to the source material. It's kind of a whole spirit or letter idea. If you do a straightforward adaptation of everything on page and put it on film, do you have a good movie?
One need only look at the Harry Potter series to see this very argument at work, and the case for distilling the essence of the source material into something filmworthy making for much better films. The first two Potter films are the most faithful straightforward adaptations. They suffer from overly long running times with nothing much of note happening, many elements included that never pay off, and characters that don't develop because we don't have the benefit of a narrator explaining things to us. Order of the Phoenix is the best step in the opposite direction. It gets the essence of the book, while making a very interesting film. In fact, I think it does the book one better, because not much happens in that book.

Les Miz is not "unfilmable", but some thought has to be put into what makes a film a good film, and not just what makes a faithful adaptation.
I mentioned earlier that Cosette does next to nothing in the musical. That she is simply defined by other characters. First, by Fantine, then the Thendardiers, then Valjean, and finally Marius. It's not that she doesn't have any agency, it's that she doesn't even really have a character.
I have no idea what her character is like in the book. To this day, and most likely for the rest of my days, I will never read Victor Hugo's novel. I'm sure it's great, but I attempted it in high school and I don't know if you can rage-quit a book, but that's basically what happened.

Anyway, this is a flaw of the musical. This is an opportunity to improve something that doesn't quite work in the musical. Some advantages are taken: I feel the Thenardiers actually do love each other in the movie, as one of my roommates said: a good relationship of terrible people; I like the attempt at more character development for Valjean, confessing he feels he has purpose once he has the young Cosette; I also appreciated the attempt at humanizing Javert in a very quiet moment, where he pins one of his medals onto the lapel of the murdered Gavroche after the fall of the barricade.

But there's definitely not enough development of Cosette as a character. Even Eponine suffers from the adaptation, particularly her relationship with Marius, which I think is lacking here in the film. Again, there were also opportunities to express these through the cinematography, but constrained by the close-ups, we sacrifice that as well. One particular one that stuck out to me was during the song A Heart Full of Love. It's composed entirely of close-ups, with the exception of one racked focus shot of Marius in the foreground and Eponine behind him. We never get to see Marius and Cosette in the same shot, and I would've really loved to see a shot of all three of them, the two lovers together, Eponine away some distance, left alone. Because here's the thing, without moments like that expressed through the visuals, I felt no connection to Eponine when she sings On My Own.
Now, of course she sang it great. And we all know On My Own well (how many times have we heard it at auditions?) so we didn't need everything because we had it going in, but taking it purely from the movie, I just don't get enough sense of it. Even her death scene isn't treated with the love that she feels for Marius. On My Own shouldn't be the first and only indication that she loves him. Otherwise, why does she do these things for him? Why does she remain friends with him? Why does she take him to Cosette?

And lastly, and unfortunately my biggest issue, is the casting of the movie.
I said earlier that I was confident in the casting. And I stand by that. When they were all announced, you couldn't have convinced me that any of them were a bad choice.
But as it turns out, we lucked out on Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Everyone else was just... serviceable.
Chief among the best other than Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne as Marius (which when you think about it, isn't that great of a role, but Redmayne manages to do a lot with not much), and Samantha Barks as Eponine, even though again, she's doing a lot with so little. Everyone else is just okay. Helena Bonham Carter isn't quite brassy enough for Madame Thenardier. Sacha Baron Cohen isn't as colorful as he could be, although I think he does a good "film version" of a somewhat menacing Thenardier. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe though, are both out of their depth in terms of what abilities are needed to pull off these very demanding roles.

And what should have happened was that it should have been helmed by a cast that knows those roles and knows what they're doing. I know Rent didn't quite work with most of the original Broadway cast, but that was because of its soulless adaptation to film. This needed to be done by a Broadway cast of veterans. John Owen Jones, Alfie Boe, J. Mark McVey... all outstanding and believable Jean Valjeans. Norm Lewis for Javert. And if we needed star power still, you still have Hathaway as Fantine, you could have put Lea Michele in as Eponine, kept Seyfried for Cosette, and then shuffled the Thenardiers, Enjolras, and Marius.

Here's the thing that I find confusing. They wanted to adapt Les Miserables to a movie, because they knew it would be popular. But then they put only established stars into the cast because they needed box office draws. But why? Is that because they don't have enough faith in the notoriety of the musical? Well, then why adapt at all, then? If their thinking was we have to throw stars in here or no one's going to buy a ticket, then why do Les Miz? Les Miz is a hard show to do. That's why it needed more skilled Broadway veterans to do pull it off. Because at the end of it, it's the music and the songs that everyone remembers and loves. And with the exception of Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream, nothing else quite compares. Hugh Jackman is an accomplished song and dance man with actual Broadway shows under his belt, but he's not qualified to sing a demanding and high role like Valjean, and it shows, because he's clearly struggling through a lot of it. Same with Russell Crowe. There are shades of a good voice in there, and I've seen him sing in other instances, but in this movie, maybe it's the nerves, maybe it's the range, but he brings no dynamics to his songs, and he sounds completely out of his league. Amanda Seyfried has also done other musical movies but she's just not up to scratch for Cosette, who sings so much high harmony in this show.

And that's the catch-22 of it: I can't think of better people to play these roles who are Hollywood stars. And to make it this all-star cast of stars who are outmatched by the material, they were never going to hit it home. Les Miz could have been their chance to take some world class actors and turn them into stars, and do the adaptation of a beloved musical right. Instead, they tried too hard to make it a bigger deal than it actually was with not enough class to back it up.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Great, Big, Epic Star Wars Post

I want to put things into perspective. Online, the Prequel Trilogy is absolutely reviled. To the point that websites and blogs and videos are filled with countless hours and pages of everything that is wrong with them and how they should be fixed. Meet people in person though, and usually the response is more reasonable. Yes, the prequels were not well liked, but do they deserve the hate and vitriol spit at them? Maybe for some things, but in the grand scheme, they’re middle ground in terms of quality films. I’ve definitely seen way worse. There’s definitely more disappointing iterations of a beloved property out there.

Ultimately, the prequels were never necessary. Some things are just better left to the imagination. When Charlie And The Chocolate Factory came out, the most egregious mistake for me was Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka getting this unnecessary backstory of a cold father figure who was a dentist that traumatized a young Wonka. We never needed a reason for why Wonka was the way he was. None of that story is present in the book either, because it just wasn’t important. And this decision coming up against what we know and love of the character made the two difficult to reconcile. That’s what happened overall with Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker. The transformation we saw was not dramatically satisfying. We couldn’t reconcile the intimidating figure of Darth Vader from the original trilogy to the underdeveloped, kind of whiny, impulsive, and brash Anakin Skywalker of the prequels. Could it have been done properly, could Darth Vader have been given a backstory worthy of the regard we hold him in? Absolutely. And there are seeds of good ideas present, but they aren’t developed properly and they are overshadowed by a myriad of distractions and problems having to do with 1) too many extraneous elements thrown in, 2) a lot of pressure to get the prequels lined up well with the originals and tying into that, 3) an unwarranted need to connect and tie absolutely every loose end within the continuity of just six movies.

But anyway, the idea of the first two parts of this post is to talk about things that a lot of people won’t often address: what is good about the prequels, and what is not good about the originals.

Admittedly? There’s not a whole lot for either. And when I say what works and what doesn’t, it’s the really big stuff. No nitpicking things like why is the Death Star’s weakness so blatant; no irrelevant things, like the lightsaber fights being “cooler” in the prequels than the originals; and some things I just left off the table. For instance, while I like many others find it unfortunate that Episodes 4-6 feature one woman in a prominent role with an additional two women who figure into one scene of one movie each, I can’t really cite that as a complaint because that’s true of so many movies. It’s a problem, to be sure, but Star Wars is far from the only film guilty of this.

But I do think it’s important to acknowledge things that work in weaker movies, and things that don’t work in better movies. It’s how we learn to tell better stories. It’s how we make those stories more entertaining. Is everything everybody’s cup of tea? Of course not. Your mileage may vary with the ensuing. So let me know! I am always down to talk Star Wars. So with that being said, Episode 1:

Things That The Prequel Trilogy Gets Right
The universe was opened up to be a more diverse setting
The prequels thankfully opened up the universe. The original trilogy’s settings cover a desert planet of Tatooine, Yavin (most of which we don’t see, but looks like jungle), snowy wasteland Hoth, swampy Dagobah, Cloud City on Bespin (and we don’t even see the rest of the planet), and then the forest moon of Endor.

With much of the proceedings taking place on one planet per movie, plus the planets feeling rather static because of their “one-note” make-up, I occasionally forget that Star Wars takes place in quite a big place.

Finally, we get to see more of the galaxy than before. Naboo, Coruscant, Geonosis, Kashyyk, Kamino, Utapau, Mustafar, and during the Order 66 sequence, we even get to see small glimpses of Cato Neimodia, Saleucami, Mygeeto (where one of my favorites, Ki Adi Mundi dies), and Felucia, that crazy, psychedelic-colored looking plant planet. Aesthetically, the prequel planets have more dynamic to them than just “snow”, “swamp”, “forest”, “desert.” We get to see deep ocean depths of Naboo as well as its palatial architecture. Coruscant outdoes Bespin as a sprawling city-planet. Kashyyk and Utapau have more realistic geography and Mustafar, while being one-note as well, is not as static because of its active volcano backdrop.

Basically, watching chronologically, it helps set the stage of a huge and multi-faceted universe for three movies before once again depositing us on Tatooine to begin Luke’s story in Episode IV.

The music was given more room to carry emotional drama, rather than be just thematic
For all the iconic music of the original trilogy, there is some truly moving music in the prequels. In fact, a lot of the storytelling is done through the music, even more so than the original trilogy. Music reflects mood more, the internal drama of the characters on-screen. Multiple scenes throughout the prequels take place without dialogue, and it’s actually where the prequels are at their strongest: the characters’ dialogue is replaced by powerful music, and the visuals are rendered beautifully. There’s a depth to the pieces, and some of that certainly has to do with more use of a choir in addition to the full orchestra. Of course, some of the music is edited over the film poorly, and is rendered forgettable as a result, which suggests a lack of confidence in the music, and that’s too bad. I wish they’d given it more of a chance, and I wish people watching the movies went back and gave the music more of a chance, instead of just remembering Duel of the Fates (which is awesome). Music to punctuate battle scenes is solid, but music brought about by the emotional struggles of the character is important, and more well done in the prequels.

The one character who is enhanced and grows and avoids prequel disaster is Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi -
With the exception of some of Episode I, where he is somewhat inconsistent (or simply isn’t given enough to do until after Qui-Gon’s death) Ewan McGregor excels as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The characters who traverse both trilogies are all over the board: Chewbacca doesn’t figure too much into the prequels, C-3PO is overused as a comic device in Episode II (while his backstory in Episode I is really straining believability), R2-D2 is mostly unscathed (though he becomes much more of a deus ex machina), and Yoda is unleashed as a badass but he’s not always handled so well (I think giving away a lightsaber duel of his in Episode II was too soon). Obi-Wan is mysterious, and Sir Alec Guinness gives the Jedi Master a lot of subtlety. Like I said in the intro, sometimes characters don’t fare well when we go back and try to fill in the blanks of their history. But the character we see in IV-VI is the appropriate ending of the arc in I-III. Obi-Wan is a teacher and mentor, soon a general, slightly rebellious (like his master), an accomplished duelist and strategist, and a masterful Jedi.

Ewan McGregor manages to pull off a good approximation of a young Guinness while also bringing his own spin to it. I’ll talk about it later, but the franchise overall is seriously lackluster in the acting department. The prequels have a well-established cast of actors who are all good in other movies. It simply doesn’t make sense that putting them into Star Wars would suddenly make them bad actors. But most of them turn in bad performances. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most charismatic actors ever, and he can’t overcome the wooden dialogue he’s given. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen are excellent when they aren’t forced to deliver the same awful dialogue. When they are just reacting, they are good, compelling. Liam Neeson never looks totally comfortable in his movie, nor does Jimmy Smits.

But McGregor handles everything thrown at him throughout the series, to the point where the prequel trilogy essentially becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi’s story, the story of him trying to rein in a rebellious student of his own, and his subsequent friendship, brotherhood, and sense of betrayal, as well as his sense of loss at the conclusion of Episode III. Anakin’s journey to Darth Vader and eventual redemption spans all six movies. Luke’s story is A New Hope to Return of the Jedi. Phantom Menace until Revenge of the Sith is all Obi-Wan. Speak to anyone about the prequels and the one that everyone absolutely can agree on is that Ewan McGregor is the greatest saving grace of the trilogy.

To a lesser degree, Ian McDiarmid as Senator/Emperor Palpatine / Darth Sidious becomes the other most successful casting of the prequels -
McDiarmid really chews the scenery, especially during Episode III, once he succumbs completely to being the Emperor. It’s not quite the prolific performance that McGregor pulls off, but it’s a compelling performance nonetheless. It also can’t be discredited that Palpatine actually manages to get away with his machinations and pulls off one of the greatest Xanatos Gambits you’re ever likely to see.

Again, it gives us some solid connective tissue for characters spanning the trilogies. We get to see just how deftly Palpatine manipulates the entire situation and how the entire series rests squarely in his lap. Never is he out of control, never is he in any jeopardy. He carefully puppeted the entire saga, until Luke Skywalker defied him.

The performance is at times campy and broad but it still works, because we give the villains a pass for that a lot, which is why I don’t rank it as significantly as McGregor’s turn. But it gives us a consistent villain to believe in. Rewatch the Opera scene in Revenge, it’s what the prequels should have been, political intrigue and subtle manipulation, instead of embargoes and trade agreements. He also has one of my favorite line-readings of the entire series, when Mace Windu comes to arrest him: “Are you threatening me, Master Jedi?” I get chills.

The first time I saw Star Wars was in 1997, it was on VHS, it was the first special edition that had been done. To me, it is perfect. I loved it immediately. Of course realistically, nothing is perfect, but the entire experience was so defining, and so wonderful, I was sold immediately. I bought every toy, I built every LEGO, and choreographed my own lightsaber battles. This episode is presented with nothing but love.
Episode 2:

Things That the Original Trilogy Got Wrong
Across the board, the acting is horrible -
With the occasional exceptions of Alec Guinness, who adds some subtlety, and Harrison Ford who gets a choice role to shine in, the acting of the original trilogy is nothing to write home about. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is unlikeably whiny. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia is wildly inconsistent (as are most of the characters) and she has this weird accent on her lines. Billy Dee Williams still sounds like he’s doing that Colt 45 commercial and doesn’t fit in this movie series. McDiarmid isn’t doing nearly as much in the originals. And even Guinness and Ford make grating choices here and there. These folks are also fine to good actors, and yet they are inauthentic and flat. Or their choices make no sense.

Basically, Star Wars benefits from establishing a world full of exciting potential and following a familiar enough archetypal story that we can accept the broad strokes as is. But under scrutiny, the characters suffer from their lame acting and no director giving them a consistent line to draw from. And actually, lack of direction leads me to my next point.

It’s fairly obvious to me that A New Hope wasn’t written to continue any long, over-arching story, and no foreshadowing is laid out properly for the ensuing events of Empire or Jedi -
It has always felt to me like George Lucas was making it all up as he went along and depending on where you go on the internet, that is confirmed or denied. Whether it’s true or not, there are clues in how A New Hope is laid out that they didn’t know what was going to happen in Empire or Jedi. Why is Darth Vader, the most powerful Sith Lord, a lap-dog to Grand Moff Tarkin? Why does Obi-Wan call him ‘Darth’?

On more personal levels, the Luke-Leia-Han love triangle isn’t set up (probably because the trio simply bickers through A New Hope), I have a problem with the Emperor only mentioned in passing and Yoda never being mentioned at all, I also have a problem with Obi-Wan not recognizing R2-D2 or C-3PO. These are personal and nit-picky to be sure. I said I would try and avoid those as major complaints, but they all lead me to the actual complaint that A New Hope feels to me like it sets up a self-contained story, not a three-part saga.

Overall, Return of the Jedi is an all-around mess -
Speaking of that three-part saga, Return of the Jedi is as wildly inconsistent as the acting involved in the trilogy it caps off. Jedi for me more blatantly rips off A New Hope than Episode 7 does (more on that later). It starts on a desert planet (the same desert planet, actually), it ends on a forest body, the strike team has to destroy the Death Star. There are some bright spots. Luke and Vader’s lightsaber clash is my favorite storytelling duel (close second is Anakin/Obi-Wan and Yoda/Palpatine from III), and the opening act, the rescue of Han from Jabba, is awesome but feels entirely separate from the rest of the movie. Also, another nitpicking point, why do they go through all that trouble of bringing back the Alliance’s greatest pilot only for him to lead a ground team to Endor? A smaller indication of what I’m talking about, though.

People deride the Ewoks and all that, but I get the symbolism of the conflict: a strong native though primitive force can overcome an organized and oppressive military power with home turf advantage and the element of surprise. My complaint comes with the tone. We didn’t see enough devastation on the side of the Ewoks. For them, it should have been a tragic and difficult conflict but we never really understood the stakes for them. Overall though, I don’t find it as offensive as some people do (although personally, I find the Gungan conflict to be a better representation of a comic relief army done well).

But in between those bookends, there’s some difficult stuff to get through. Yoda’s death feels dropped in, some of the dogfight is pretty boring (much of it is a retread from A New Hope) and until the Ewoks join the fight a lot of the Endor scenes are pretty plodding. Overall, it’s simply not as tight narratively as Empire, and it doesn’t have as compelling of a story as A New Hope. As trilogies go, it’s good not great, and that’s really too bad for something as monumental as Star Wars.

And finally, Episode 3:

Responding To Criticisms Of Episode 7: The Force Awakens
Kylo Ren is a bad villain -
I simply disagree with this assessment of the character. Kylo Ren is seemingly the first new Sith apprentice in this new era, and there is nothing to judge him against except for one: Anakin Skywalker prior to his Darth Vader transformation. Compared to Darth Vader, of course he pales. But compared to Anakin, he makes for a really interesting villain. He is tortured, conflicted, angsty, and ultimately succumbs to the Dark Side feeling it’s his only choice. That’s Anakin exactly in II and III, but he, similarly to Luke in IV, comes off whiny and unlikeable. We can’t relate to Anakin’s struggle. Kylo Ren’s struggle, while still mostly unrelateable, is handled more realistically and more tolerably. Kylo Ren is the angsty, immature, hot-tempered teen/twenty-something that Anakin should have been.

Kylo Ren is an interesting villain. The reasons he comes up short are interesting. And that’s what we demand of our villains. The fact that he doesn’t even compare to Darth Vader is part of what’s interesting about him.

Rey is an overpowered Mary Sue -
I’ve complained several times about how whiny both Anakin and Luke are throughout their respective stories, and it was so refreshing to see the protagonist not be so needy and angsty. We see a few moments of vulnerability, but they feel earned.

Rey is a loner who has to take care of herself and has learned to become self-sufficient. She is seemingly Force-sensitive too, so things sway in her favor. It makes sense that she is 1) withdrawn emotionally but because of her past is capable of emotional connection, she would be a horrible protagonist if she lacked emotion; 2) more than capable as both a pilot and a hand-to-hand combatant because she has to fend for herself as a scavenger trying to survive; and 3) fares rather well thrown into tricky situations, because she is first compelled to survive.

Is Rey on a Mary Sue level? Some will say so, but I think those folks are incorrect. Particularly if she is a Skywalker, (or at least trained by a Skywalker and is Force-sensitive) then her aptitude for combat and proclivity to the Force make sense. It’s obvious that Rey has some sort of connection to Skywalker and whether that means she is one, or she is a Kenobi, or whatever theory you want to subscribe to, she’s no stranger to Force training. With no training, Luke blows up the Death Star. With not nearly enough training, he fares about as well he could against Darth Vader in lightsaber combat (though it could be argued that Luke was protected by plot there, as in Vader wasn’t trying to kill him, and it’s hard to argue with you there). Considering everything surrounding the lightsaber confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren, Rey does about as well as expected and again, she’s shown to have combat training.

Her piloting and mechanic skills are used by the plot to bond her to Han Solo, which is brief but beautiful. I really enjoyed that established connection for the movie.

Yes, on a meta- level, it is important that she is a capable and strong female protagonist. Is it inauthentic though? No. For me, there are enough examples of similarly powered and leveled individuals within the universe and outside the universe of Star Wars that she doesn’t stick out as particularly glaring.

The First Order’s plan was to build basically just ANOTHER Death Star -
Simply, bigger is better. The idea was that a splintered military power was going to perfect their own attempt at a Death Star. And they pulled it off. They instead used a planet, saving some time on building, they used the planet’s own resources for material, and they harvested power from stars and suns. On top of that, the Starkiller did not have to warp to within any reasonable range to obliterate its target. And once again, it one-ups the Death Star by managing to destroy multiple targets.
It's simple math, really.

Here’s the thing. It’s not sound military strategy, but we see examples of it all the time: when a good idea develops, people don’t try and find a different idea, they try and perfect that idea. Once planes were introduced to combat, no one tried to push underground warfare, opposing sides attempted to develop better planes. The First Order was following exactly that line of human thinking.

Here’s the other thing. In terms of space combat, there is no better idea than a superweapon capable of obliterating a planet. So once the Death Star was created, there was no better idea to come up with than a better Death Star. Star Destroyers and the like were good for planetary occupation. But if a planet was simply a target or not useful or were completely defiant, then the Death Star was the effective symbol of complete power in the universe. So I never found it weird that again they came up with the idea of something like the Death Star. Again, if the goal is planetary destruction, they already created the ideal superweapon.

It’s just A New Hope all over again -
Now, I don’t disagree with this. I want to make that clear. But is this really a criticism of a movie that is well-acted, well-written, and manages to balance nostalgia and novelty while diversifying the cast and giving us opportunity to branch into new territory while also redeeming the franchise from the prequels. It had a lot to do, and it accomplished what it set out to do.

A New Hope is also repeated in beats by Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. There’s a noticeable lack of complaint for those though. I mentioned this fact earlier, but A New Hope follows closely an archetypal story of Overcoming The Monster. It does this so people can more immediately latch onto the characters and the world, instead of focusing on the plot. Force Awakens does borrow a lot from its predecessor, but a lot is cosmetic and ineffectual to the proceedings. And things that feel more blatant become painfully important and will likely have further-reaching repercussions down the line. For instance, Mos Eisley on Tatooine in A New Hope is the meeting place for Luke and Obi-Wan and Han and Chewie. It’s used as a transitional plot point. Maz Kanata’s castle on Takodana in Force Awakens plays the same plot point, but houses more important proceedings. It was important for Maz and Rey to meet, for reasons we will soon see I’m sure (not least of which are having to do with that lightsaber) and there were significant character developments for Rey, Finn, and even Han. So yes, again, beats are borrowed from A New Hope, but they are used to greater effect. During my first viewing, I noticed that it was A New Hope (and that’s how I predicted a lot about what was going to happen) and I was unsure if that hurt it or helped it, but on my second viewing it enhanced everything immensely for me. Like I said, everything was given more meaning and more significance.

Ultimately too, the universe is cyclical. And when you think of Star Wars on a mythical level, it makes sense. It’s not a criticism of the movie, it’s inherent to the story they are telling. Again, the beats echo throughout the story over and over: an isolated hero eventually joins events larger than they ever imagined, a mentor shows them the way until they meet their end, a villain builds an unconquerable superweapon, the ragtag heroes make a valiant effort shut it down. It’s the epic clash of good and evil, it’s history repeating itself. And this time, it was done with better acting, better writing, and more diversity. And for me and many others, simply that was enough.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fine. Call It A Reboot. But For Reasons Unbeknownst, Don't Call It A Comeback.

I took a lot of 2015 re-evaluating exactly what I wanted this Blog to be, and figuring out what I would want it to focus on. I originally enjoyed the idea that it was going to be a scattered blog about whatever tickled my fancy, whatever thought I was having at that moment, but I soon arrived at the conclusion that it doesn't do me much good as someone who strives for people and things to have their own identity. And I didn't just want the blog to be a wasteland of miscellaneous thoughts. So what did I want to re-orient and focus my writing on? At least in terms of the Blog, it's still a delightfully broad category, but more mindful of pop culture, nerd culture, things of that ilk. 

For one, I think it's a necessary escapism, both for me and anyone who is willing to read this. The world is just full of depressing stuff, and I, like many others, are bombarded with it constantly. It doesn't mean that I don't want to think about those things, think about what I should be doing to help fix those situations, but I don't need to be invested in it 100% of the time. It's nice and refreshing to turn that critical thinking to something more mindless, more fun. 
Artistic endeavors are unbelievably important too. I guess I shouldn't say 'mindless', but in terms of the world, I know entertainment, pop culture, those things aren't the most important, but that doesn't diminish their goodness. And what a time to be a nerd. I grew up possibly as one of the last generations where 'nerd' was still an exclusively bad thing. But nerds make culture now. Things I never thought would be important and mainstream to others are. 

So what is the Blog going to be about now? TV, music, movies, comics, video games, musicals, wrestling, improv. 
I won't lie, I got lazy and didn't draw the Penguin.
Still stuff that I find interesting, but far less about me, and far more about all the weirdness and coolness that is around us everyday if we just take the time to turn off the bullshit and the noise about what people tell you is important, and instead focus on what we care about. Which, in the grand scheme of things, are rather simple. Simple pleasures of life. 

I've kept some of the relevant older posts from the last couple years. In the coming weeks, some separate pages will be added to archive some of the other stuff I just liked writing. There's also pieces I've been meaning to redo. So that's something. 
If you've visited this page at any time, thanks for that. If this is your first time, check back on Sundays, see what I have in store. If you like it, leave a comment, send me an email, follow along. All I can offer is fun and folly. Join me, won't you?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains

I could write for pages about pretty much every single Batman villain, because they are quite simply the best. Without thinking too hard about it, I jotted down the first five villains I could think of when I thought of "favorite characters." And then, again without thinking too hard, I put them in the order least to most. It's definitely a crowded list. Certainly at least the top tier, all warrant a spot on the best-of. But these five are characters I find particularly fascinating, and in some ways I identify with. And that's not so disturbing to say when you remember that the most successful and "coolest" of Batman's villains are those that may (and often do) operate as extensions of Batman's own psyche. They represent the darkest incarnations of his own personality. Where Batman represents order and restraint, Joker represents his release and need for chaos; Riddler is Bruce's obsession with riddles and his intellect; the Penguin, and even Hush, came from families of wealth and influence, but had no grounding in reality and morality; Bane is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter, all things that Bruce prides himself on being superior in to his foes.

So, here it is. For better or worse, my Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains.

5.) Harley Quinn
Real Name: Dr. Harleen Quinzel
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Variations of Joker's clown/jester persona though she has branched off into her own aesthetic since her debut. She's a proficient combatant, and favors heavy melee weapons, like her trademark baseball bat and giant hammer. Harley's madness has mostly been expressed through her wardrobe, which has changed extensively with each progressive incarnation. Some have been viewed as overly (and needlessly) sexual but I think those are beside the point. Again, I view them solely as an expression of her madness, and some of that is wrapped up in her own sexual identity.

I love Harley, and I definitely love that she's managed to grow into her own persona apart from The Joker. That all certainly still informs her character, but it no longer defines her solely. I think in many ways they've managed to do things with the character that they may be hesitant to do with The Joker because of his status as an icon. Harley's got a bit more chameleon qualities to her. And that's true for her character too. Like I said, the external expression of herself is part of her finding an identity amidst an already very-colorful world.

The best interpretations of Harley also preserve her abilities as a doctor, as a psychologist. The concept of a character who has slipped into psychopathy despite knowing all the signs and dangers is way more interesting to me than someone who has always been crazy. Certainly, she's likely always had that potential pre-Harley, but to have that unlocked and then to watch her journey and progression into darkness while again, being someone trained to see those warning signs and red flags is beautifully tragic. Like all the best dysfunctional relationships, I feel terrible for Harley who loves a man that will never truly love her back, but I also just want Harley to be loved if that's what she wants. There's also something quietly disturbing about Harley, who is more dangerous to other people because she is not solely focused on the Batman like The Joker is.

Pictured here, I like the Harley costume from Arkham Knight. Another good one is the Injustice Regime version. And of course, you can't go wrong with the old-school, Animated Series jester version. Her recent run in Suicide Squad and her own solo books are proving the character's growing popularity.

4.) The Joker
Real Name: ???
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The Joker ostensibly has no powers, but his deep insanity and psychopathy often seems to push his system into withstanding unspeakable amounts of punishment and he has occasionally shown feats of strength and durability and has gone toe-to-toe with Batman several times. Though he seems to be all chaos and bedlam, some find him to be extremely cunning and clever. I also have a personal theory that Joker's real superpower is timing (like, impeccable comic timing).

Even if you don't love The Joker, he's like The Beatles. You have to respect him. He's Batman's most popular villain, one of his most enduring, and at various points throughout his tenure has been both the most entertaining and the most frightening.

People hate clowns, it's just a fact of life. And regardless of how ridiculous an incarnation of the Joker can be, it still manages to frighten you deep down. There's something delightfully insane about Cesar Romero not shaving his mustache underneath the white make-up. It makes the character just a hint more disturbing. I grew up on Mark Hamill's Joker which will always be the best for me, but we've been gifted with awesome interpretations many times over. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger both added menace and nuance to a role so disturbing it warrants consideration that it's best to leave this character up to the limitless expanses of comic book imagination, rather than burdening a real person to portray the embodiment of true psychopathy.

At his best, Joker is the worst. Throughout his long history it's been interpreted as mindless mayhem or extremely calculated ruthlessness hazed by a fog of idiocy. Is he so insane he's a genius, or is he masking genius intellect by feigning insanity? Either way works for me. What I love at the end of it all is the "locked in immortal combat" aspect of his and Batman's relationship. Why does one not simply kill the other? Because it completes the journey for both of them. Batman removing the Joker removes his purpose, Joker killing Batman removes his.

It's hard to un-seat some of the enduringly popular stories focusing on the Joker, like The Killing Joke, but most recently, the New 52's slow-burn of his re-introduction (at the launch, Joker escaped Arkham not before having his face cut off and left nailed to a wall) where he returned to reclaim his face (and wore the disgusting, decomposing thing strapped to his scarry, scarry facial remains) and set up the fantastic Death of the Family storyline. It was well worth the wait, and that along with Endgame, has made Joker the scariest he's been in years. And of course, you can't go wrong with the Arkham games, where he is once again voiced by Mark Hamill.

My favorite alternate Joker voices though, (Troy Baker kind of doesn't count since he's doing a straight send-up of Hamill's, although it is flawless) would be John DiMaggio's turn in Under the Red Hood, Kevin Michael Richardson's Joker from The Batman, and for a more subdued, creepy take, I like both Brent Spiner's from Young Justice, and Michael Emerson's from The Dark Knight Returns.

Art credit to: Sherwood-Art
3.) Talia Al Ghul
Alias: Leviathan
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - An incredibly accomplished assassin and hand-to-hand combatant, who is not afraid to use lethal force. She has on and off been head of the League of Assassins and has headed Leviathan for a while. Talia has also been romantically involved with Bruce Wayne/Batman over the years, to the point that she is the mother of the fourth Robin, Damian Wayne.

There's something so intriguing to me about Talia being one of the only women Bruce has ever loved. Selina often fills that role but there never feels like there's any pay-off with that relationship, it just feels like it goes on forever. Talia and Bruce however, are both manipulated by her father at various times (see: Arkham City for my favorite encapsulation of that relationship) and Damian adds an extra element of complexity to their relationship. Talia is what Batman could be if he adjusted his morality somewhat. If he one day decided that he knew exactly what was best for everyone, he could rule a network (like Batman Inc.) and the world with his moral code and ensure everyone's safety. But at the end of the day, Bruce has a heart, Talia does not.

Which is what fascinates me about Talia, in that she is lacking that moral compass, but still believes in her own cause. She believes more in the importance of vengeance, of control, of superiority of mind and body. It doesn't make her all that different from Bruce, but her morality is what drives them apart. Damian even says it himself: though he has his mother's upbringing and training, he now has his father as his partner, and that has made all the difference to the fourth Robin.

I love Talia, and I honestly think she was done a disservice with the movie Dark Knight Rises. From the beginning, she should have been a clear threat and not a last-minute swerve for the audience, most of whom already saw it coming anyway. It also did a disservice to Bane's character, but that's a different story. It was a complicated, thorough plan to be sure, highlighting her deception skills, but we never see her skills as a combatant, and that's where the deadly combination is: that she has her father's abilities of deception as well as the League's deadly assassin technique. I do hope a better version of the character comes along, but for now, Batman Inc. brings her story arc to completion.

2.) The Riddler
Real Name: Edward Nigma
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The early villains tend to suffer from being extremely gimmick-heavy, and Riddler may be one of the longer-suffering. At best, he is creator of complex mind-games and puzzles leading into Jigsaw-level death traps (like in the Arkham games), at worst he is a flop-sweaty knock-off of the Joker, whose obsessive compulsive disorder drives him to leave complex riddles at scenes of the crimes that Batman solves and lead to his eventual undoing (like in the Adam West-era Batman). But Riddler is a genius-level intellect, and he mirrors Batman in a lot of ways, one being that he is constantly his own worst enemy, whether it be his crippling need for perfection or his crippling need to constantly prove himself.

I think it's become intrinsic to the character that he inevitably fails, and it is also self-inflicted. Riddler's more grounded psychopathy and descent into madness has always made him distinct for me from the Joker and I'm glad that more modern interpretations have treated them as such. Being thought of as a knock-off though has allowed for some fascinating interpretations of the character, like a handicapped arms dealer, a Gothic, more lethal version, and my favorite, the Arkham series' complicated puzzle-maker, obsessed with proving his intellectual superiority to Batman. He's also one of the villains that works as an ally, even reforming entirely from a life of crime for a period. He proves extremely helpful because of intelligence and intuition of the human mind.

Like I said, Wally Wingert's voice acting of the character is what really brought it to life. From Arkham Asylum to the end in Knight, he brought out more layered aspects of the character and made me love him. I just wanted to see him get it in the end, because he was such a pain in the ass. Riddler's struggle to rise from second best is something everyone can relate to, and that's what has made the character stand the test of time.

1.) Mr. Freeze
Real Name: Victor Fries
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Like the Riddler, many of Freeze's early crimes revolved around "cold" and "ice" themed capers, but over the years his suit has also granted him enhanced strength and durability as well as the ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures, putting those who would challenge him on his own turf at a distinct disadvantage. Freeze, like Batman, is driven by the "death" of a loved one, in this case his wife Nora, who is preserved forever in a block of ice until a cure for her terminal disease can be found. Freeze is incapable of letting her go, and many of his crimes are driven by the injustice he has felt by a system that neglects him and her. All of Freeze's weapons remain ice-themed, but with decidedly more deadly consequences and implications than they once did.

It really speaks to the specific generation of Batman you grew up in when you analyze one's favorite villains. Talia being the exception that was used a bit more sparingly, my first 5 were all exceptionally done in the Batman animated series from WB. Freeze was an especially tragic character and given real dramatic weight by his voice portrayal by Michael Ansara.

We were also the perfect generation for the Arkham series of games, again where all five of these villains have great portrayals and great voice actors. Maurice LaMarche outdoes himself on a truly great Freeze and of course, Freeze has the best boss battle of the entire series, where Batman is forced to change his plan of attack on every single offensive strike. It's really in the upper echelon of boss battles, and I highly recommend it for video game players who've missed out on it previously.

Freeze stands as one of my most favorite villains because he has one of the more realistic downfalls. It's not so hard to believe that love drove an individual mad, because we've seen the lengths people in love go to for the one they hold most dear. As the Joker is fond of saying, everyone's just one bad day away from insanity. Freeze has taken a lifetime there.

There you have it. Who are your favorites in the Rogues Gallery? Anybody on the lower tiers you are particularly fond of? I'm a huge fan of The Ventriloquist and Calendar Man.