Sunday, June 5, 2016

'Baltasse' - Magician Yann Frisch

Taking a bit of a break from writing this magical Sunday and I'm going to share one of my favorite magical routines.

Yann Frisch is a French sleight-of-hand magician. The video itself is from a talk show called Vivement Dimanche. The routine is called Baltasse (combining the language's words for 'ball' and 'cup') and won the amazing Frisch FISM's grand prix in close-up magic in 2012. (There's a video that exists of both the championship performance, as well as an earlier video from 2012 that went viral that same year). I like this one for its angle and proximity to the performer. You get to see a lot more of his facial expressions and there's some fun subtlety to his performance.

I mean, what can I say about the performance?
First, I love magic routines that have a story, and this one has a man plagued and driven insane by the appearance and disappearance of red balls, mostly out of his cup of water. And all he wants is a drink.
Second, I love that it's a variation of Cups & Balls, which is a classic magician's routine. A nod of respect to history and legacy.
Third, the addition of non-magical elements can be tricky, such as juggling. But this guy adds in those elements beautifully. I also like the comedy he manages: his stretching, his head-bonk on the table, his different reactions to the balls basically having a mind of their own, whether it's disappointment, confusion, or resignation.
Fourth, the guy is just frikkin' fast. Check out 2:08. Moving the ball from his mouth to thin air is incredible. His showmanship is impeccable, because this comes out of a rather cool sequence where he's made three and then four balls appear, then making them disappear one at a time. The build and pace of it is just effortless and makes for a cool moment.
Fifth, it's a fun routine. Magic doesn't need to strive to be high art, it can often become that on its own. But this routine tells a story, cleanly and quickly, it's funny and charming, and the big moments sell big.

Always loved magic. As I got older, I gained an appreciation for the showmanship of it all, rather than simply the impressiveness of the illusion. Magic sadly isn't real, but there are moments in a routine as solid as this that make you doubt, if only for a moment, whether that's true or not.

Til next time!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Pros And Cons Of "The Joker Is Jason Todd" Theory

Suicide Squad is imminent. Jared Leto’s Joker is figuring into the proceedings somehow, and even with the movie still a couple months away, what little we’ve seen has become extremely divisive in terms of how people are responding to his portrayal of the iconic super-villain. It’s symptomatic of the time we live in, as we’ve become completely inundated with the amount of information we’re privy to, Squad in particular being announced as a release two years ago, and every trailer being picked apart and analyzed to death, with no context or objectivity to the whole thing. And it’s not just Suicide Squad. Movies are being hyped sooner, every single little news story or rumor is inflated in its impact, everyone in every aspect of social media must give their input immediately, and everyone has to have an exact, polarized opinion – they either hate it as the worst thing ever, or love it as the best thing ever. There is, if any, very little middle ground.

                That’s an exaggeration, of course. There’s much in the middle ground, which is where I like to think my blog and many people lie. You just don’t hear as much from this reasoned middle ground, because the two extremes are quite literally shouting at each other, occasionally with death threats (fandoms have almost completely replaced religious sects in the ideologies department). Nevertheless, it remains true that people are quick to judge, and that all aspects of our culture, particularly our entertainment, are more than happy to feed the monster with teasers, addressing rumors, candid interviews, leaked information, just anything to build hype. The entire process of building to superhero movies for me has definitely become wearisome. The movies themselves remain great to outstanding, but it feels like I live more often these days in constant media blackout simply because I’m tired of hearing another seven reasons Jared Leto’s Joker is going to be the worst/best Joker, or someone making a stupid video about why they’re definitely not going to see a movie.

                Leto’s Joker in particular is especially corrosive. Maybe it’s because years later one of the strongest things to come out of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is Heath Ledger’s unbelievably unsettling performance, maybe it’s because Joker himself is so iconic and everyone just has a vastly different opinion on who and what he should be, or hell, and I’m among definitely among these, my most definitive Joker is Mark Hamill’s from the animated series and the Arkham series, and the movie portrayals have been so far removed from that that it’s almost like watching a completely different character. So I can’t tell you for sure what it is, but the reality is, we can’t have a DC movie-verse without Joker. Someone’s gotta do it. It just seems though, that from what little we’ve seen of Leto, some people are so heavily opposed to it that they’ve come up with alternate theories that basically amount to the actor not playing the Joker as we know him to be. I’ve heard protesting to the castings before, I remember the vitriol thrown Heath Ledger’s way before he even made an appearance in the teasers. (I was confident, I didn’t know he’d end up being so great.) People didn’t like Henry Cavill for Superman. They were angry about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. But I have never seen anyone go to the lengths of proposing alternate theories for who their character might actually be. This is a recent phenomenon. The only other one I know, also  recent, and incredibly poorly thought out, was that Ben Affleck in Batman V. Superman was not Bruce Wayne/Batman, he was actually Deathstroke, taking over the Bat-mantle. That’s a layered movie beyond the grasp of Hollywood, but more importantly than that, it’s just dumb.

                Similarly, a theory has been posed that this Joker in Suicide Squad is someone who watched and idolized the real Joker because of the media’s constant coverage of his exploits and the subsequent seeming glorification of these grisly deeds. This one I actually don’t mind. It’s a fun theory, but again, I think too deep of a thinker for a Hollywood action film (ultimately unnecessary too). The one I’m not as drawn to though, is specifically cornering Jared Leto’s Joker as a deranged Jason Todd. In deference to my place in the middle ground, I’ve decided to analyze the pros and cons of the theory, instead of dismissing it outright. Maybe we’ll discover some insight. But first, important, who, you might ask, is Jason Todd?

                Oh boy.

                Batman took up his mantle in 1939. In an effort to appeal more to kids, kid sidekicks became a thing, and Robin was created for Batman just about a year later, in 1940. This Robin, Richard “Dick” Grayson, orphaned son of an acrobat family The Flying Graysons who were killed in an accident during a show of theirs, is the longest-tenured, most famous, and most linked to the role. Some remember Burt Ward’s “Holy mashed potatoes!” Robin from the 60s Adam West series. And for the most part he was the squeaky do-gooder until the 1970s where he grew up and branched off on his own, eventually becoming Nightwing, like Batman only with a sense of humor, and the greatest ass in comics. Jason Todd became Robin in the early 80s. At this point, he was exactly the same. In-universe, they altered him to look like Dick too. (Jason had red hair, dyed it black). So he was drawn exactly the same too. Then Crisis On Infinite Earths happened. The universe got rebooted, and a new origin for Jason was written, where he became the street kid who was angry, rebellious, eager for validation from Batman and eager to effectively replace and even surpass the precedent set by Dick Grayson. The new characterization proved to be so unpopular that in a storyline called Death In The Family, fans could vote on whether they wanted Jason to die or live. Being the cynical crowd we are, Jason was voted to die, and was beaten to death by The Joker. Jason was resurrected 20 years later, as The Red Hood, a violent, revenge-crazed villain, later turned anti-hero vigilante.

                And I’m sure everyone’s familiar with The Joker, but just in case you have never been on the internet or watched a movie, or understand any reference… The Joker has become one of, if not the, most closely associated villain of Batman’s rogues gallery, his most ever-present adversary, one of the most recognizable villains ever, and deadliest and most intimidating villains of the DC universe. The Joker has no apparent superpowers to speak of, although he does exhibit remarkable durability and is pretty skilled in hand-to-hand combat. In-continuity, he’s killed Jason Todd, crippled Barbara Gordon, and most recently had his face removed and returned a year later to reclaim and wear it like a mask. In the Adam West series, he was portrayed by the deliriously loony Cesar Romero. He was first brought to the big screen unforgettably by Jack Nicholson and later in 2008, some say definitively, by Heath Ledger. Mark Hamill is the most indelibly linked voice actor for his work on the original animated series in the 90s, and the Arkham video game series from ’09 and ’15. The laugh is always unmistakable and scary. The suit is impeccable. The green hair dye is a nightmare (I know, I’ve done it). Harley Quinn, initially a sidekick on the animated show, has become a full character in her own right.

                So now, the theory. The Joker we see in Suicide Squad is not the “real” Joker, it is Jason Todd. There’s a couple possibilities here, but let’s say it’s not a spirit-breaking experiment like what happens Arkham Knight. And let’s say something like the Dark Knight trilogy happened prior to the Squad movie. So in this continuity, Ledger’s Joker is responsible for the “killing” of Jason Todd. And let’s say for the purposes of this scenario, Ben Affleck’s Batman kills Ledger’s Joker. The real Joker is dead, Jason is presumed dead, Affleck’s Bruce Wayne retires the Batman. Then, a new Joker crops up, uniting disparate gangs throughout Gotham under his rule, still unhinged, but looking to be more brutal and deadly than he was before. It’s confusing, and definitely intimidating, the idea that your worst and greatest enemy, who also robbed you of your humanity and destroyed a young man’s innocence, is seemingly back from the dead. The question is does the theory of that same young man, so broken by his experience, assuming the mantle of the man whom many believed had killed him in the first place, only to seek vengeance against his former mentor who failed to save him?

                It’s not a bad theory, at all. To start, let’s look at its strengths:
- It shows character development – Jason goes from a rebellious youth, to wanting to prove himself to someone who chose him, saw potential in him, and took a chance on him, to someone who is abandoned and left behind which brings him to his breaking point, he goes insane, taking on the role of his killer, only to return and seek closure for his mentor abandoning him. It’s a fantastic, poetic arc.

- It keeps the relationships familial – The best character development is based on the strength of the relationships between the characters. Having a former sidekick, who we see cared for and essentially adopted by Batman, succumb to the darkest of dark sides, is a tragedy in itself, and something that Batman in some way does have to live with, regardless of how responsible he was for everything.

- It somewhat explains different versions of the Joker – Well, it really only explains the transition from Heath Ledger to Jared Leto. There are strong traces of Ledger’s performance in Leto too (for instance, I think the voices are rather similar) which in-universe can suggest an “influence” of the former to the latter. But you can’t disregard other parts of “evidence” to fit your theory. So what about Jack Nicholson’s Joker? What about Batman himself also looking and acting differently in almost every movie? So this is a weak pro, but I’ll keep it here nonetheless.

- There are opportunities for interesting stories to be told – With Jason Todd as The Joker, there is a chance for Batman to bring Jason to redemption. There’s also a chance he’s dragged deeper into the darkness. There’s a story in there where he can dismantle the Bat-family, because of his intimate knowledge of them. So it presents marvelous storytelling opportunities, and that’s never a bad thing!

                One problem though with the last point, those were all the elements thrown into the game Arkham Knight, and all of this was accomplished without turning Jason Todd into the Joker. (Knight’s got other problems too, which we won’t get into here, namely that the reveal was played as a twist and it should have never been a twist.)

                On the other hand:
- It reduces the impact of the character of the Joker – The Joker is an agent of chaos and uncertainty. His character is an opposite of Batman’s in many, many ways. We see Batman’s origin explicitly. A couple details may change with each retelling, but the overall origin remains the same every time. We saw the birth and beginnings of the character. The Joker literally just shows up one day. In The Dark Knight, we get one of my favorite ideas of the Joker: that he himself keeps changing his origins. We then can’t accept anything for sure, not the origins presented in Joker, or The Killing Joke, or even this idea of Joe Chill. Basically, what I’m saying is that The Joker operates strongest when we don’t know his backstory, we don’t always understand his motivations outside of hurting people, of breaking Batman, of getting to see the world burn.

- It trivializes the death of Jason Todd – His eventual resurrection did this anyway, but bringing back the character to be Batman’s main adversary makes the death less impactful. For me, Jason Todd is Batman’s greatest failure. It’s a cool progression when you think of the Robins as a whole: Dick Grayson is his greatest success because he became better than Batman; Tim Drake is the eventual heir, because he had exactly what it would take to be Batman; Damian is his true son, his true heir, but he’ll never be Batman; Jason Todd represents the great failure. Jason was not entitled to anything, like Damian, he didn’t earn anything like Tim, and he wasn’t better than Dick Grayson. It became his greatest downfall, attempting to prove himself better than Dick. The choice of Jason and his subsequent loss affects Batman permanently for years. It changes how he takes on sidekicks, how he chooses to train them, how close he allows himself to get to people, and who he allows into his world in the first place. It closes him off from future prospects, it makes him double down on protecting his existing family, like Dick and Barbara. It motivates him in his quest, it serves as a renewal of his vows to his parents who by this point are long gone. As many storytelling opportunities it allows with a living Jason Todd, it serves more character development and allows for even more centered on the psyche of Batman if Jason stays dead.

- It humanizes the Joker – I admit it: I’m not a fan of Jason Todd. As you can tell from the previous paragraph, I preferred he’d stayed dead. I am a huge fan of the Joker. I think he’s a fascinating character and a huge part of that staying power I touched on in the first con. He’s such an all-encompassing character, flexible and moldable. Terrifying in his seeming lack of humanity. Some villains we like because we can relate to them in some way. Darth Vader. Lex Luthor. But the Joker also operates precisely because we don’t relate to him. And to give him Jason Todd’s story, to suddenly make him a man who feels wronged, to give him a personal motivation in his actions, humanizes the Joker, and whether we agree with him or not, we now can see his reasoning, we can see what is now motivating him. It’s still wrong, but it still makes him less interesting. The Joker works because we always have to ask, “Why is he doing this!?” but Jason gives us the answer. It’s why I don’t like origin stories for Joker in general.

                So there it is, a crash course into the lives of Jason Todd and The Joker. I’m confident Suicide Squad isn’t planning some big twist reveal of this. Otherwise, again, it operates with the same problems that Arkham Knight did. Knight wanted so badly for this to be the twist of their story, that Jason Todd was the villain all along, that they hid his identity, but then had to show his origin story throughout the proceedings, so we as the player knew who he was during the reveal. Otherwise, there’s no dramatic appeal. Likewise, there’s no dramatic appeal in this character we don’t know being a character we all know. That’s a, “Um… Okay.” moment if I’ve ever heard one.

                I’m looking forward to Leto’s Joker. It looks like a really fun, rather unsettling take on the character. Everyone in the trailers so far make me really excited to see. Can he capture the electricity and unnerving, disturbing aura of Heath Ledger? Probably not. But that’s no reason to dismiss him out of hand. There’s room enough in this world for many Jokers. I have every confidence that Leto will nonetheless be a spectacle to behold. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Love-Hate Relationship With The Legends Of Tomorrow

On the opposite end of the scale for me this season from The Flash was the debuting Legends of Tomorrow. The lofty promises and goals laid out at the beginning all made me very hopeful and excited for the series. As it wore on over its 16 episodes though, the series more and more left a lot to be desired. Some of this was forgiven by the eventual reveal of the last two episodes (which I will be spoiling here, since it’s relevant to the discussion of the show’s overall quality) but not everything. But we’ll get there.
A ragtag group of misfits must travel through time to stop an immortal genius from taking over the world in the future. Some of them are superpowered, some of them are villains, and they just can’t seem to get along or get it together! There is nothing better. Any pitch that starts with: a ragtag group of misfits needs no more explanation for me to get on board. But when it’s DC, and the immortal genius happens to be Vandal Savage, one of my all-time favorite villains ever, then you have got everything going for you! Six seasons and a movie, let’s do this!

Okay… I didn’t realize they were going to immediately interact with Vandal Savage so often. Nobody’s going to kill him? Oh, weird. Ah, I see, only Hawkgirl and Hawkman can kill him, because they’re… linked by an immortal curse of reincarnation? Wait a minute… That’s not Vandal Savage. That’s Hath-Set, an entirely separate villain, linked to the Hawks origins in ancient Egypt. Well, the Arrowverse has been doing this to varying degrees of success, so maybe it’s fine… Oh, Hawkman’s dead. So now it’s up to Hawkgirl. But we’re not going to send Hawkgirl into direct confrontation with Savage anymore? Kind of defeats the purpose of the mission, but okay… Hope this team comes up with a plan. Oh, they can’t find Savage anymore. Hope they start working as a team. Wow, they are all incapable. Well, now she’s incapable of killing him, because… love? Oh. Oh! Wait, it doesn’t matter anyway, guys. No one could have killed Savage even if they tried. Remember the Time Lords? OH! I mean the Time Masters? Yeah, turns out they were working with him the whole time. Also, they can manipulate time as they see fit. No one has been responsible for their own actions this whole time. Talk about sucks.

A paragraph-sized version of my growing frustration and confusion with the season. Week-to-week, it was an increasingly difficult show to watch. But could it have been better? Are there pieces of a successful show in there? Of course there are.

If you start here, this is the most basic premise of the season:
- A person petitions a governing body to allow him jurisdiction to bring in a war criminal. They deny him this, so he goes rogue.
- He assembles a team of somewhat qualified mercenaries who won’t be missed to aid him.
- The group, barely functioning as a unit, are overwhelmed in their initial struggles with trying to bring this criminal to justice.
- Many struggles along the way, loss of comrades, complications with interpersonal dynamics, our group of heroes gets split up, other agendas get brought to the forefront, our villain is continuously underestimated.
- In the final act, the group understands the meaning of working together, they overcome their differences, and initially bring our war criminal to the original governing body to face justice.
- Unfortunately, in a twist, the governing body is corrupt, having manipulated all the previous events, and allows the villain to carry on his activity as normal.
- The team works together to purge this corruption, and then, now being restored and stronger than ever, makes a coordinated last stand to bring the villain to his end. Happy ending.

        This formula works. It should be an effective story. The narrative’s all in place. Tightly-woven, well-paced. Well, that would be the first problem. If this were a two-hour movie, it would’ve worked. The first two bullet points are the opening act, we meet all the characters and the central conflict. Second act kicks off with the team leader, in this case Rip Hunter (played by Arthur Darvill, if only to further confuse the Gallifreyan time traveler thing) who is refused by the Time Masters, reveals his personal reasons for wanting to bring in Savage. This splinters the team somewhat, as it feels they were brought in under false pretenses. The third act reveal is the Time Masters working in tandem with Vandal Savage. Our finale is the team destroying the Oculus, which was revealed to be manipulating all of space and time, and the epic conclusion of a fight with Savage spanning three different periods of time. But this story had to be instead spread out over 16 hour-long episodes. That means two things: a lot of filler, and a lot of things ending up not making sense.

        The filler, you can mostly tolerate, because with any time travel plot, you get all the usual stuff: 60s/70s, cowboys, the techno-future, dystopia-future… I was sad we didn’t get dinosaurs though. Anyway, they used most of the filler time developing their characters and their relationships, and cool plots in their different time destinations. It was mostly fine, some of it solid.

         But the reveal that all the proceedings of the season were pre-determined by the Time Masters’ Oculus just cheapens everything: the conflict, the plot, the development, the obstacles, and the overcoming of those obstacles. Basically, we have just watched a show with no stakes. It is not a good twist this far into the game. Again, in a two-hour movie, with the tighter narrative, the twist works, because it’s sudden and unexpected, and you can build in clues to the eventual reveal. Ocean’s 12 has a late third act reveal that undoes much of what we’ve been watching thus far, but it pays off to understand the con. Something like The Prestige or Sixth Sense is enhanced by their late-act reveal, because it undoes what we’ve seen, but deepens the narrative. But in this drawn out, season-long mystery, it comes out of nowhere. People online have been saying you can see foreshadowing of it. And I guess you can, but not enough. The Time Masters are almost forgotten about entirely for much of the last third of the season practically until the reveal itself. So what you are watching up until then is two very frustrating things: a villain who is caught completely unaware and then gets away to fight again by sheer luck and because of the second thing – a team of heroes who are woefully, impossibly incompetent, and are undone by their own inability. Unlike the previous good examples, we are getting a reveal that does nothing to enhance the viewing. Because the reveal doesn’t make sense.

         Why then, if everything was under the control of the Masters the whole time, was a member of the team captured and turned into Chronos, a bounty hunter sent to kill them? Why was The Pilgrim, an even deadlier and more efficient bounty hunter, sent to kill their younger selves and remove them permanently from the timeline? Why did they allow the team to unite? Why did they allow Rip to embark on the journey at all, if everything was in fact, controlled by them from the beginning? If they wanted Savage to succeed in his plan to take over the world, why didn’t they simply remove the obstacles to begin with? On the outset, this sounds like I’m making a one of those completely reductive and frivolous plot hole arguments, where the story would be over in the first beat if this question were answered sensibly. “Why don’t the Fellowship fly the Eagles to Mount Doom?” Because then there’d be no story. But here, there is a story. And the reveal doesn’t help it. A better reveal perhaps would be as Rip brings Savage before the Masters Council, they set him free for the same reasons (Savage is the only one able to unite the world for when the Thanagarians invade Earth about a century later following his conquest) but then Savage kills the Council. This fixes one of many problems.

         One bigger problem though, is that Savage is a terrible villain. Like I said at the beginning, I was so excited for Vandal Savage to be the main antagonist of this first season. In the comics and even the cartoons he’s appeared in, he’s hyper-intelligent, super-strong, manipulative, charming, and intimidating. He’s one of the more successful curators of a defeat to the Justice League. He’s an immortal who has whispered in the ears of great kings, he has amassed great power and wealth over the millennia. Savage sank Atlantis. He was Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper, advised Napoleon and Hitler, he’s behind Project Cadmus, he’s possessed the Spear of Destiny... my favorite accomplishment, he can tell you the vintage of wine by hearing it poured. None of this is the Savage we get to see in the show. He seems to manage to lead several cults throughout time, but we never get to see him be the brutal manipulator he can be, excepting “River of Time” where we see him slowly get into the heads of several of the heroes onboard the Waverider, and later in the same episode, when we see him single-handedly dismantle the team in physical combat.

         But like I said, throughout the rest of the series, we never see this badass threat that is Savage. We see him stumble and bumble into meeting the heroes (who he has re-remember every time) who, through their own stumbling and bumbling, botch every attempt to kill him or stop him. And yeah, the heroes are no better, unfortunately. Told repeatedly that they cannot interfere with time-fixed events, they repeatedly interfere with time-fixed events. Martin Stein helps cure a boy with an, at the time, incurable disease in the Wild West, everyone’s past selves are removed from the timeline to avoid assassination and hopefully the timeline just works itself out, and the team constantly has to correct mistakes they’ve made simply because they interfered. Even if the heroes aren’t their fully realized selves yet, and this is them learning how to be the heroes they’ll become, does that mean we have to start with them being completely unprepared and incapable? And there’s so many good heroes you’re starting with! Franz Drameh and Victor Garber as Jax and Martin Stein (combine to form Firestorm), Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance (The White Canary) from Arrow, Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer’s Atom, Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller as the criminal duo Heat Have (Rory) and Captain Cold (Snart), and Falk Hentschel and Ciara Renee’s Hawkman and Hawkgirl. It’s a more than capable cast, and they’re playing some of the most interesting characters of this entire TV universe that’s been created.

          The weakest characterization is Hawkgirl, which is unfortunate, because they’re relying solely on her to kill Vandal Savage, because she’s the only one able to do so after Hawkman dies, and because of the curse. And just when we think we’re starting to get a depth to her character, it becomes her love story with Routh’s Ray Palmer, a relationship which has many bumps along the way, not least of which is the fact that she and Hawkman are destined to be together in all their incarnations, so any relationship with any person outside of that will always end in heartbreak. I mean, poetic and romantic, but really rather unnecessary except to pad out this show. Contrast it with what felt like the less forced and actually rather charming budding romance between Sara and Miller’s Snart, which never comes to fruition though we do get some closure before Snart’s death, and it’s an even more glaring problem to me.

          Both these sides though, some people feel are explained by the reveal of the Oculus, being that everyone has no agency over their actions, they are simply following a predetermined script. So any faults, any oversight, any inconsistencies are overwritten by the now-ever-present idea in the background of the Oculus. But again, if you’re investing 16 weeks into this TV show that is an hour long, and the Oculus isn’t something that gets revealed until week 14 or 15, it does nothing but add to the cumulative frustration of having invested so much time and expecting so much.  What I had said in The Flash post is that everything is done with cumulative value. Every detour, every sidestep, has something to do with the end goal of making Barry Allen The Flash. His love story with Iris, his insistence on helping Earth 2, the fury and frustration he feels in the finale, or even during his time in the Speed Force, all of this leads to something, and it leads to a better character and a better story at the end of it all. What Legends did was pad runtimes of their episodes with sideplots that amounted to nothing, characterizations that ultimately meant nothing, all to build to a reveal that made almost no sense.

          So what would I have changed about the show? Well, the opening premise is good, the only thing I would change is just straight up removing Vandal Savage from the proceedings. I hate it. Just make him Hath-Set. Because of Rip Hunter’s dalliance in the past Hath-Set acquires time travel capabilities, essentially becoming immortal. The Time Masters believe it is too dangerous for Rip to attempt to stop Hath-Set, especially because he was sloppy as fuck assassinating him in the past already. Rip goes rogue, and his assemblage doesn’t include the two Hawks. Part of the season is them having to find them before Hath-Set does. Half their meetings are confrontations amidst the Hawks’ various incarnations. Then, the eventual future plot is more interesting: Rip and co. manage to recruit Hawkgirl (perhaps even by way of Cinnamon and Jonah Hex in the Wild West) and Hath-Set manages to find a Hawkman incarnation who doesn’t know he’s the reincarnated Hawkman yet, and so brainwashes him to be one of his closest lieutenants. You can keep the curse storyline, since that was inherent to the Hath-Set/Hawks dynamic anyway, which allows Hath-Set to essentially become immortal, imbibing the blood of his lieutenant. I would also remove the Oculus, as well as the insistence of adhering to a timeline. If in fact there are “fixed points” in history and time, then the timeline auto-corrects itself anyway, despite interference from time keepers. Therefore, the team can intervene as they see fit. I mean, it didn’t seem to matter in the actual show anyway, some episodes were greatly affected by timeline interference, some were not, and simply hand-waved by throwaway lines. So let’s just remove it! Give us a real time travel adventure! Some of the episodes can require reconnaissance and restraint, sure. The Cold War episode set in Russia would require more undercover work, but that’s not every episode. Let’s change it up. And then that gives real stakes to the Time Masters attempting to apprehend or kill the Legends. I would remove the Chronos sub-plot because again, it doesn’t make sense anyway. Just have the assassin be The Pilgrim the whole time. So The Pilgrim is moving in one direction through time, the Legends are attempting to follow Hath-Set in another, and this necessitates more liberal use of the Waverider’s jump ship, because a couple of the team have to constantly split off and stop The Pilgrim from killing their younger selves. The Pilgrim was a great character, wasted in its potential, and far more threatening than Chronos anyway. It all leads to the ending, where the Time Masters instead arrest Rip and co. but Hath-Set kills the Time Masters. Now no one is supervising time at all. Hath-Set is free to move about the universe entirely. Hawkman awakens and he kills Hath-Set. But because they’re in the future, and at the edge of time, it doesn’t do anything to the timeline. Then the finale plays out as it did on the show, except Snart sacrifices himself to jump the Waverider instead of blowing up the Oculus. The team takes out Hath-Set in three different time periods with one change: Rory kills Hath-Set in his fight with Snart’s gun. Poetic justice.

          What I said about The Pilgrim, a lot of wasted potential, for me sums up the entire first season. There were so many great characters, and such a marvelous opportunity, and it all felt thrown away for a rubbish twist. It looks like the creative team may have learned from their mistakes, and the teaser for the second season seems to be promising a lot. Outside interviews with the team also seem to suggest that they’re throwing more caution to the wind and going far more balls-to-the-wall for the second season, which seemingly is going to include the Justice Society, itself very exciting. The prospect of a new villain, a shake-up of the team, and more ambitious storylines that hold their own are all very good things to look forward to. I hope Legends can deliver, because I’ll be watching next season and I want it to be a successful show. I hope Routh’s Ray Palmer and Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance in particular return, because they were my favorites. Victor Garber as Martin Stein was a welcome addition to the proceedings this season (and he was such a good actor that it was mind-blowing he was doing a superhero show on the CW) and I also hope he returns. It was also a show that gave us a fantastic Jonah Hex, who I really want to be on the next team, because that guy was outstanding. I’m looking forward to season 2, but after this first season, I go into it cautiously optimistic.

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.