Mar 222017
 

Iron Fist was a comic character I loved when I was a kid even though he was marginal and even if I didn’t have many issues with him in them. The issue where he was killed (back when people died in comics and stayed dead) completely upset me. So I have some bias toward buy-in when it comes to the Netflix series.

Oddly though, I’m not feeling it, which means that, of the five seasons of television springing from Netflix’s and Marvel’s collaboration I’ve liked only Jessica Jones. That’s not a great record. (And I’ve really not liked Daredevil.)

I’m not done with (and not binging) Iron Fist though so maybe things will turn around. For now I just want to note for future reference that the thing that drives me crazy with the series so far is the sense that Danny Rand isn’t so much a character as he is a mash-up of various possiblities of how to imagine the character.

Contradictory responses and desires are one way to generate the illusion of depth and complexity. But here, the variations in character traits read as confusion because they so often manifest at moments when the shift enables a plot development. So Danny’s naive but menacing when he needs to be misunderstood enough to be confined to a mental hospital, but he’s controlled and cagey when he needs to suddenly have money and cultivate allies. And the difference between the two feel less like personae adopted by a complex character than alternative versions of the character, each appearing when necessary to advance the plot.

This interaction between plotting and character development makes sense, but I hadn’t thought of it so directly before watching the initial episodes of this show.

So maybe more to come about the series…

 March 22, 2017  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
May 152016
 

Daredevil season 2 posterThe second season of Daredevil is chatty enough that by episode three, I was making mental comparisons to Interview with a Vampire. (“Oh Louis, Louis. Still whining, Louis.”)

And this chatter just never stops. Over and over, characters spend whole episodes tied down in small rooms or living previous events through a flashback, and they spend that time talking peudo-philosophical claptrap to each other as if it meant something. Technically, it’s the noire-crime-vigilante equivalent of Geordi and Data explaining that maybe they could recalibrate the positronic emitter: it’s incidental genre-flavored business that moves you to the next plot point. Only here it is treated as the thing itself and goes on forever.

Worse most of these interminable monologues are delivered by either Charlie Cox, who I find near unwatchably dull, or by Jon Bernthal, who played my least favorite character on Walking Dead (a show in which I disliked everyone, so there was serious competition for the spot of “least favorite”).

Daredevil only ever lurches forward at moments when people are untied, let out of their rooms and things actually happen. In the final episodes, when the story has to be wrapped up in a rush, events pick up speed and life begins to gleam through the gloomy cracks. It’s even exciting. I just wish that it didn’t all feel like a quick push to get to the long list of “unresolved and soon to be revisited issues” of the final episode.

This show is trying something new and is figuring things out as it goes along. I also really like Jessica Karen (a fave from True Blood). So I am willing to cut some slack. But I hope that it will get over this hump so that I won’t have to.

 May 15, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Feb 262016
 

Jessica Jones

This show is a superhero version of Sleeping with the Enemy. It’s gut-wrenching, relentless and left me anxious enough that I had to watch episodes one by one, slowly over a span of weeks. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that I hated my way through most of the season.

And yet, I kept going back to the show because unlike Arrow, nearly every character in the series — and there are a lot of them — is authentic and compelling. (The notable exception is Simpson, a troubled white guy super-soldier cliché.) Unlike Daredevil, in which ethical posturing mostly reduces to a decidedly non-ethical preoccupation with self-definition and identity, Jessica Jones explores both the nature and the extent of the mutual obligations created when people share trauma. These constitute genuinely complex ethical stakes, and the story, despite remaining a superhero series, doesn’t pull away from them or dodge their implications.

By the end of the final episode, I’d come around: this is the best cinematic/televisual story Marvel has ever done, and I’m all in for the next season.

 February 26, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Feb 162016
 

Arrow_promo_-_Destiny_leaves_its_mark_-_city_backgroundMy brother finally decided to watch this show and once he got going, tore through all three seasons one after the other. He conceded it had a rough start but insisted it was much better than I had allowed. Based on his reaction, I decided to at least watch to the end of the first season.

And what do I think now that I have?

The show does get better and seems to be trying to cut loose its original framing and replace it with something new. This is most obvious in the move away from the idiotic book-as-motivation that drove the plot early on. There is also a move toward a longer-term and more complex cross-episode narrative arc. As part of this the sister and the mother have receded a bit into storylines that make more sense than those they started with. The ex-girlfriend plot line can’t disappear but seems to be shifting toward less annoying ground. (The death of the best friend in the final episode helps with that.) Most importantly, with Felicity, the show has found its first genuinely likable (even if stereotyped) character. At last.

There are still things to dislike. The show is written in large part for a tween/teen audience and this results in painfully stilted posturing in the relentlessly central romantic relationships. When characters talk to each other romantically, they say what I imagine a teenager might imagine an adult saying or doing at that moment, and it kinda makes me nuts.

I’m also not a huge fan of the through-the-roof machismo. I take it as an attempt to disavow the way shirtless male bodies are subject to an eroticized gaze in every single episode. (Exhibit A: the chiaroscuro pecs and abs in the series poster.) Still, it’s pretty off-putting.

So what now? Well, I suppose that, despite my reservations, I’d be willing to watch the beginning of the next season just to see how the reinvention that is clearly under way proceeds.

 February 16, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Dec 192015
 

Fantastic Four

Unless you are Oedipus or David Copperfield, your story should probably jump to the interesting stuff right away rather than starting with your birth.

But then these characters do spend years inside isolated, steel grey research bunkers wearing headphones and typing on keyboards before spending years in isolated, steel grey military bunkers wearing headphones and typing on keyboards. Aside from a couple CGI powered Disney rides in a metal capsule they never really leave, they never go anywhere.

So maybe “I was born” is their story’s sweet fruit and not to be missed.

 December 19, 2015  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Aug 062015
 

Avengers UltronMarvel has been everywhere these past few years (and years and years) and have been hard at work importing a large-scale, intertextual, story world from their comic properties to the movies. In doing so, they’ve gone a long way toward recreating their segment of film production in the image of the comic book market.

I’m no specialist (there are researchers who are), but I see the comic-film market as governed by two narrative impulses. The first is an elaborate cross-film machine that builds toward event movies like the first Avengers, which arrived after years of individual films and post-credit teaser segments. The second is the production of episodic filler pieces that may technically contribute to the build up for the next event but essentially “feed the beast” by offering up the cinematic equivalent of a stand-alone comic story.

Ant-Man, with its stock story, is a product of this second impulse; Avengers: Age of Ultron, the first. Or more precisely, it seems designed to move the machine forward while shutting down the event that was the first film. This means dealign with certain problems I suspect are inherent in Marvel’s model of film production.

Production Problems?

Comics and movies are deeply related in practice. Both present visual interpretations of scripts in media that rely on montage and a careful control of point-of-view. A film’s storyboards capture this relationship perfectly: created as a stage in film production, they look like comic books. Yet the two industries are very different too, and I have questions about how those differences play out in the long term.

Actors: Marvel’s success these past few years has rested upon the work of a few talented actors and/or stars. But this is no longer the Hollywood of the 30s, and these actors are not studio property. They are free to work elsewhere, and many of them clearly define success in ways that require they work outside of the realm of superhero films. How much juice can you squeeze from the Johansson-Ruffalo-Downey Jr. lemon, if someone like Chris Evans—a star whose entire career is based on performances in superhero films—condescends to the genre and is vocal about his intent to complete his contract with Marvel and do other things?

Avengers Ultron (1)

Directors: All of contemporary film culture lionizes the director as an artist, a creator. Not every director makes art, but today, that means that those who don’t have failed or are hacks. Marvel has, as with actors, benefited from the contributions of some very talented directors, but Marvel’s overall approach harkens back to a pre-Griffin production model in which the studio is the artist and the marketable name. The director is an employee, talented and respected, but taking direction. Which top-notch directors (and I’m not even talking auteurs here) will accept to work like this? Branagh is probably not coming back. Whedon’s clearly done. Directors make movies that pay in order to make the movies they want all the time, but I’m curious who will make Marvel’s movies in the coming years.

Narrative: How many years can a series of films drag out an single explicit story arc? TV and film have been exploring this limit for at least the past few decades. HBO’s programming like Deadwood and now The Game of Thrones are notable examples, but there are others. Film series that adapt books have been doing the same in cinema, although they have until recently been strongly episodic: think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games (and its imitators like Divergent and now The Maze Runner.)

Marvel is pushing things further by not directly adapting established books and by replacing a long-running series of films with a large-scale network of films. This is fascinating. Is there any other instance in the history of cinema of an entire studio’s production being devoted to the development of a single story-world?. But it’s also potentially exhausting. Who can (or will) keep up? I’m actually pretty bored with the post-credit teaser of Josh Brolin in purple-face trying to sound ominous and am lost regarding what he’s supposedly plotting. I think it had something to do with the ice-people in the first Thor movie way back in 2011?

The latest Avengers directly addresses the first and last of these concerns. The story both cleans out the stable of actors who are going elsewhere and introduces those who will fill the team in coming instalments. This last bit is, I presume, the first tease in the buildup for the next major event-movie in the cycle. The star power of those leaving and those arriving is shockingly different though. So I’m curious how that plays out.

What’s interesting

All that said, a few things about the movie itself stuck out for me, so I want to note them.

Avengers is a war film. By that I mean, I’m surprised how heavily it draw on the conventions of the war film. How many of the earlier films did the same? They are certainly all obsessed with the military and militarism. (cf. thoughts about epic fantasy while reading Battle Cry of Freedom.)

Ultron is clearly a place-holder villain of the sort you see in one-off instalments in comics. Freed of the burden of surviving and becoming an On-going Threat To Our Very Existence®, he gets to have a wacky plan to kill everybody “wwhahahahahaha!” And I liked that. I also LOVED that when he is finally defeated, he is destroyed off-screen, a nice and oddly respectful touch that avoids glorying in his death.

This movie has so very many parts, all in the air at once, all needing to be juggled, and somehow Whedon holds it all together and it works. It was exhausting, but I’m very impressed by what he pulls off. With smart writing and clever direction.

This was the first film I watched in my blockbuster marathon.

 August 6, 2015  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Jun 302015
 

I stopped watching this series early on, and then, encouraged by my brother who loved it, and the positive attention it was receiving from people I read on the web, I pushed through to the end and finished it.

I understand the attention it received: it’s a good series. There are inspired moments both in the directing and the acting. The writing is also top-notch first-season work. Ultimately though, I couldn’t tolerate the violence.

Which got me thinking: what is it about the violence in this show that reads so differently from the violence of something like John Wick? I think there are two things going on.

First, the investment asked of me as I watch the violence in the two stories is not the same. In Daredevil, Murdock acts out of a sense of justice and morality. He is there to solve Hell’s Kitchen’s problems by doing what is right, what is needed. So in a sense, the show asks me to accept that sometimes, you need to beat the shit out of people, break their bones and joints, and even, sometimes, throw them off buildings, and I won’t go there. John Wick is very different. It is a film about grief and anger, and Wick is clearly not doing the right thing. The right thing was leaving violence behind in the life recalled (after its loss) at the beginning of the film. The film’s violence happens after a fall from grace and asks for nothing from me but basic empathy — yes, grief and anger can drive people to doing terrible things — and in exchange, it offers catharsis.

Second, the two stories link themselves to the world outside the story differently. John Wick builds a fantastic, genre-appropriate world that is vast but discrete and the narrative plays out within it in exaggerated but finite terms. Wick’s world is not “the real world.” Daredevil on the other hand — and this is a key aspect of Marvel’s emerging house style — presents its fictional world as an allegory of our world and the “necessary violence” of the protagonist as an insight into what’s needed to solve its problems. I think that view of the world is wrong, ugly, even perverse, and so the allegory ruins the whole show for me.

I’ve written about this same problem in relation to Jack ReacherArrow and Justified.

 June 30, 2015  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Sep 152014
 

Capt America Winter SoldierSo many people raved about this film to me that I was actually looking forward to it, and it was okay. But just okay.

I am caught off guard though by Chris Evans’s mascara and rose-colored lip pigment. They were exaggerated and unsettling when set against the tough-guy masculinity otherwise on display. Was this effect intentional or just a case of make-up badly calibrated for HD?

 

 September 15, 2014  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Jul 172014
 

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterI enjoyed this movie. It was predictable and self-important, but a nice distraction. Set against the other films logged right after it though, it’s also clearly a lightweight. I can barely remember anything from it except various cringeworthy moments (all of which involve John McAvoy or Nicholas Hoult).

What I’ll remember the screening for (as opposed to the movie) was that it was the first time I got to see a digital projector crash and die. One minute image, then static, then colour bars then static, then blue screen of death. Nicely concrete reminder of what “digital filmmaking” is and entails.

 July 17, 2014  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Sep 152013
 

When the trailer for this movie came out, I couldn’t imagine who cared. I was very much over stories like these, over everything Marvel and was ready to leave all of them to the 13 year-olds. I’d sorted out what I thought had interested me in the recent years’ deluge of superhero films when I’d realized it was a window onto screenwriting (cf. Genre as Director) and had little interest in keeping up to date. But my brother and sisters kept pushing me to see it, and after I had, I was glad they did.

The setting was a welcome change to the generic “American Somewhere” of most of these films. (Interesting to think about non-American superheroes. Is it an intensely national form?) Japan offered variety all on its own and opened up possibilities and mysteries of character and of plot by making orientalism and culture-crossing thematic (mildly, but still).

More importantly, the fatal flaw of superhero films was fixed. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that everybody in this film wears normal clothes. (Although they did and it helped.) No, the film created real conflict with real stakes. Specifically, Logan wants something he cannot possibly want and has to learn that he doesn’t. Learning it involves real danger for him for most of the films runtime. When at the end, he returns to normal and the familiar climactic battle begins, the screenplay finds a way to raise the stakes and suggest real danger still exists. By putting Wolverine’s iconic feature–his claws, the centerpiece of the brush-drawn advertising–by putting his claws (not his life or the life of someone he cares about) on the table, the stakes become real even in this absurdly unreal film. The final scenes are, as a result, genuinely suspenseful and gut-wrenching.

 September 15, 2013  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,