Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Modest Proposal

As you surely know, Mr. Keeley and I are feverishly preparing for the release of Marmaduke. In these final days before the marvelous occasion, we feel that we must redouble our efforts. After all, intense study of 54 years worth of daily cartoons is quite time consuming. The delicate lines of the illustrations, the writing's subtle critique of dog-human relations, and all of Marmaduke's unique complexities demand hours of contemplation.

Frankly, we at Me and Matt on Media know our place; with the film event of the year happening in mere days, we do not expect many of you to make the time to read our blog. So, we are taking the week off – humbly stepping aside in honor of this landmark cultural moment.

In lieu of our thoughts, we invite you to share your own. What are you doing to prepare? What does the film mean to you? How has the franchise brought you closer to your own canine companion? Hopefully, your input will allow this blog to become a community of sorts for Marmaduke lovers, and we will be able to embark on this experience together.

Regular posts will resume this weekend with Mr. Keeley's initial reaction to the film – the first in a twelve-part series that will meticulously deconstruct it. Until then, the floor is yours.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rage, Rage Against Fox's Cancellation

There was a lot of screaming and blood and only fleeting moments of clarity; it was a long struggle, but 24 has finally breathed its last. As we stand with its maimed corpse before us, I can't say I feel all that bad for the show.

Way back in 2001, I was enthralled by 24's premiere, and I continued to watch the show (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) for the next six years. The formula was simple and, throughout the series' entire run, the producers never dared to mess with it: Start the action rolling in Hour One and do not stop until the moment Hour Twenty-Four ends. It does not matter if the story is following evil terrorists, conniving bureaucrats, omniscient IT people, or that singular lunatic called Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) – that ticking time bomb (metaphorical or otherwise) never stops until it absolutely must.

Sure, one could give credit to the writers for delivering so consistently on raw tension and thrills, but I won't. By the end of Day Six, I was fully convinced that those people made the crap up as they went along. There were points where it all coalesced beautifully (namely the end of Day Five), but there were oh-so-many where it was an incoherent ramble. At no point in my time as a 24 fan did I ever watch the final episode of a season and find myself able to recall where it began; no given season ever featured any substantial themes or arcs tying things together on a large scale, and I cannot remember any individual episode that did these things effectively on a small scale. So, while the writing was certainly complex (practically byzantine at times), I never felt that it even approached the level of depth necessary to make me give a damn.

In fact, the writing often held the show back. Hilariously bad recurrences abounded: Jack's daughter stumbling into idiotic slasher movie situations, espionage tech that was able to do anything with a few taps of a keyboard (unless the plot necessitated a complication), White House staffs that were full of Machiavellian twats, use of fourth wall-shattering phrases like "within the hour" or "before the end of the hour," the United States government's forgiveness of Jack Bauer's genocidal inclinations, and the torture.

Oh, yes. The torture.

One can forgive a show for being silly, but 24's constant glamorization of torture was so destructive that the real-life United States Army sent a brigadier general to beg, producer, Joel Surnow to stop. He did not oblige. In his eight years on our TV screens, Jack Bauer never stopped using torture as his primary means for getting the job done. That's eight years of jacking people to car batteries, shooting housewives in the knee, taking power drills to flesh, biting off body parts, and just, plain beating the living shit out of anyone and everyone. Not only do countless real-life interrogation experts emphatically state that these tactics are ineffective, but many have found that American soldiers and agents have been compelled to replicate them by watching 24 while in the field.

Now, I'm no advocate of the school of thought that suggests well-adjusted people will become deviants merely by seeing evil acts committed in fiction, but the US Army is not populated by alarmist PTA members; if they are taking issue, there's likely a real problem. Besides, alarmist PTA members should have been saying something about this show. On a week-to-week basis, it featured prolonged sequences of graphic violence that would probably push the boundaries of the MPAA's R rating, except it was being shown on broadcast television at nine PM with a TV-14 rating.

(Censorship sucks, but blatant hypocrisy is worse. In the years since 24's debut, the supposed profusion of sex and profanity on broadcast TV has become the subject of many moral crusades. Yet, has there been a peep about violence so vile that the Army finds it morally objectionable? No. Give me a fucking break.)

Even within the show's plot, all of this sadism proved extremely damaging. It eventually became impossible to take Jack Bauer seriously as a character. He was almost entirely defined by relentless anger (and apparent invincibility). There was that one moment at the very end of Day Three where Jack cries, and there were the occasional lectures from Jack's daughter, but these attempts at lending some humanity to the character could not overshadow his usual behavior. Besides, even these moments were meant to highlight just how impossible it was for him to change; the writers wanted us to think there was nothing more to him. I suppose this could have qualified as tragic, but that would have required the character to suffer more consistently (see: House); Jack rarely seemed to mind his own faults or be adequately punished for them.

It is not worth discussing specific supporting characters. Most of them were glorified plot devices – mainly there to deliver exposition. The villains suffered the most from this. They were generally bad action movie stereotypes: The Eastern Bloc military men, the Mexican drug lords, the Russian intelligence agents, the Chinese intelligence agents and – last, but certainly not least – the Muslim extremists. The show came under fire for making particularly heavy use of that last one. While the criticism was certainly justified in earlier seasons, it seems to be one of the few areas where the writers became repentant. The final few hours of the series portrayed the president of a Muslim country being victimized by both the American and the Russian presidents. It was a nice surprise from a show that was largely incorrigible.

All of these flaws should have rendered the show unwatchable, but I cannot deny how certain aspects of it were always effective. The music, the editing, the directing, the camerawork... 24's uniquely cinematic feel was always its ace in the hole. The characters could be discussing cake recipes in Tagalog, and 24 would still have you on the edge of your seat.

The end-of-episode recap sequence below illustrates this fact well. Nothing really happens here, but that doesn't stop it from being intense:

The show's ability to pull off the shaky-cam aesthetic better than many movies do, but on a fraction of the budget, was a testament to how well it was made. Deep-focus shots would turn someone typing at an office computer into a life-or-death act of espionage... quick zooms would turn a shocked stare from a stiff politician into a scream for help... and, for better or for worse, a quick whip of the camera would turn a punch from Jack into a fatal blow. It is easy to overlook how difficult it is to orchestrate such shots while still keeping them coherent and immersive.

It is even easier to overlook how difficult it is to make an incoherent story seem coherent. Those iconic split-screens were always a very powerful tool. Their geometric layout gave the subliminal impression that the story's various pieces fit together better than they really did. Nothing, however, did more to this end than the music. Sean Callery's score never let up, submerging the viewer in a world of constant tension and ensuring that the visceral impact always hit first and hit hardest.

These achievements ensure that I will look back on the show with at least some fondness. Yet this series was always its own worst enemy. For all of 24's style and ambition, the show's makers could never harness these powerful qualities to create something of true substance – a failure that proved toxic as the years went on. Perhaps a limited run of one or two seasons could have remedied this but, they way things played out, 24's nastiest faults have left the deepest impression.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Bumpy Road to Redemption

As Mr. Hollis-Lima said in his previous post, Red Dead Redemption is a fine game. I've spent far too much time playing it this week, and I have no doubt that I shall devote just as many hours to it next week. And yet Red Dead, despite its six-year development, doesn't feel quite so polished as I might have hoped. It's a great achievement for Rockstar, but I can't help but feel it should have been greater.

Red Dead Redemption takes place in somewhere in the Generic West in 1911. There are trains and telegraphs and occasional automobiles, but lives still come very cheap. I suppose that Rockstar wanted to tell a story about the end of the West, which is fine, but the Red Dead world seems too violent to be believable for 1911. Videogames always exaggerate, but this, to me, takes suspension of disbelief a tad too far. Aside from this, the game's worldbuilding is mostly sound, something of a surprise after the maddeningly poor open sequence, where Our Hero rides the train to the town of Armadillo and listens in on some of the most hackneyed, tedious, and implausible conversations ever committed to Blu-Ray. There's a satirical intent – one of the speakers may even discuss Manifest Destiny – but the complete lack of subtlety bodes ill for the remainder of the game. The writing does improve, but never enough to make one forget that ill-starred sequence.

While the West of Red Dead Redemption does offer many peaceful pursuits such as horseshoes, poker, drinking, herding, horse-breaking, and exploration, sooner or later the guns will come out. When they do, many players will be disappointed. There's a cover system, but it's awkward. There's no separate button for hand-to-hand combat, making non-lethal methods very difficult. There's a bullet time mode called "Dead Eye" that's a lot of fun to use, but it makes fights far too easy. Finally, there's very little to remind players that their weapons come from a different era. The guns aren't terribly distinct from those in games set a hundred years later; they just fire a tad slower. And perhaps because one sees the game from over Marston's shoulder, these virtual weapons lack the virtual heft that might make them memorable. I suppose they recoil, but I never notice it. I'm too far removed from the action to see.

Violence in Red Dead Redemption is fast, common, and not terribly effecting. The game borrows its aesthetics from films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Unforgiven, but the great Western directors knew how to give their gunfights suspense and significance. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may be an epic, but there's a grand total of one killing in the entire movie. Or consider the opening to Once Upon a Time in the West: We know to expect killing, but Leone brilliantly draws out the suspense with seeming inconsequential details like the dripping of water or a fly's buzzing. In Rockstar's game instant gratification rules. Perhaps it's a weakness of the medium?

Another problem is the game's save system. There's an auto-save system, and usually a manual save point is only a minute or two away, and, in the wild, players can even strike up a campsite to serve their saving needs. Unfortunately, Red Dead Redemption stops being player-friendly the moment the state puts a price on John Marston's head. Fugitives cannot save in their usual "home" areas, nor can they set up camps. You can't save the game until the bounty is paid or the crime is pardoned. Unfortunately, it's very easy to accidentally commit a crime: the harsh Western climate breeds despair; policemen and civilians have the regrettable habit of throwing themselves between your gun and your target.

Once I lost half an hour of progress because I died without saving, on my way to pay my "debt to society." Cause of death? A glitch that threw my character hundreds of feet into the air. The game celebrated my eventual return to Earth with a display of ragdoll physics and the game over screen. I was not happy. Though Red Dead Redemption usually works very well, it has far more glitches and technical infelicities than most games with $100 million development tags. There's a good deal of clipping, some pop-in, and the occasional freeze. At least I haven't run into the infamous magic carts yet.

Red Dead Redemption is at least a very good game; it may well be a great one. Like Mr. Hollis-Lima, I look forward to playing more of it. I just wish the game had a little more polish, a little more subtlety, and far fewer glitches.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taming the Open World

Grand Theft Auto IV was a great game, but it had its problems. Most notably, it suffered from a crippling discordance between its gameplay and its story. Merely a few hours into Red Dead Redemption, I already feel as though it is shaping up to be a considerable improvement over its spiritual predecessor. Red Dead has an advantage over Grand Theft Auto: cowboys are so very cool, and that type of cool has largely gone untapped by video games. Rockstar has captured every conceivable nuance of that cool in this game, but the genre's effect on the overall experience of the game runs far deeper than most will probably realize. Red Dead is thoughtfully designed to portray the Wild West with true complexity, neither allowing any of its facets to obscure its blemishes nor mute them. While capturing the cool of being a cowboy is one of this game's strong points, the way the game captures the ugliness may just prove to be its most enduring achievement.

Capturing that cool is no small achievement, and Rockstar finds it in the details. If the player taps the up button on the directional pad, the protagonist, John Marston, whistles. No matter where he is, this results in his horse running into the area. It is a great feature from a gameplay standpoint; hijacking as a means of transportation, the go-to in Grand Theft Auto, would be rather difficult in an open desert. (Also, Marston is trying to go straight, gorram it.) Far and away the best part of this feature, however, is how it allows Marston to get a running start and, without ever missing a step, hop onto the horse the moment it comes running up alongside him. Once I discovered this stunt, I never began my travels any other way. It is just too freaking cool to not do. Galloping along a path, at full speed, into the sunset is such a thrill that I look back at Grand Theft Auto and scoff; there is no way that playing as a city-dweller could capture this feeling. It also helps that the few miles of land I have seen thus far are so visually impressive. Day, night, dusk, dawn, cloudy or clear – it is all beautiful. Details like the crystal-clear stars in a sky devoid of light pollution or, yes, even the lone tumbleweed puttering through a quiet town all draw the player into Marston's world.

This nuanced design extends to a careful control of Red Dead's tone as the player traverses its world. Nothing detracted more from Grand Theft Auto IV's story than a lack of such control. The streets were crowded with caricatures of modern Americans and with cars that bounced around the roads like pinballs. It was virtually impossible to prevent the protagonist from plowing down a crowd of fat morons, one of whom would then scream, "Cheesy vagina!" and squander all of a given mission's dramatic weight. It was amusing in a way, but it clashed with the game's very grounded narrative about a man seeking absolution for his dark past. There are no such problems in Red Dead Redemption. The game's satirical streak is woven much more subtly into the experience, and far more importantly, the game design does not force the player to behave in a way that disrupts its own main character's redemption arc. John Marston has an unseemly past, but he is trying to do better. Even at his worst, he has never been in it for cheap, violent thrills, and this game ensures that the player will most likely feel the same way. There are few pedestrians to run over on horseback and, if the player does manage to find one to trample, there is little comedic value to it.

The fact that Marston's morality extends beyond the game's core storyline to pervade the entire experience means that said storyline has exponentially more impact. When something disturbing happens within a mission, the player is actually driven to feel the emotion because the event is not buried in an experience full of whimsical, lighthearted sadism. Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City was full of obnoxious, self-absorbed jerks, but none of them perpetrated anything approaching the level of destruction that the player invariably did. Here, Marston only sullies his hands if the player truly wants him to. Consequently even the most sadistic player likely won't be completely numb to witnessing the spectacle of, say, a stickup ending with a shopkeeper getting shot point-blank. The player has not been complicit in a multitude of equally cruel acts, so the events are thrown into relief, and the violence carries weight.

One such instance of violence came when I witnessed a drunk man attempting to rape a woman outside of a saloon. My reaction was to draw my pistol and shoot the man. It not only left me with a strong feeling of righteousness but also the much deeper sensation that I was part of a believable moral landscape. Regardless of whether I had shot the man or simply walked away, my actions would have fit the scale of the game's narrative; it would not have been a bout of cartoonish sociopathy that the game would later have to forget in order to progress the plot. This consistency leads to a more immersive experience than the tonal whiplash caused by Grand Theft Auto's gameplay.

There is a tremendous amount of technical skill evident throughout Red Dead Redemption's world, and it leads Rockstar to the rare achievement of doing justice to the western genre in a video game. The game's careful modulation of tone and morality, however, represents an even greater achievement: Rockstar has elevated the medium of the open-world game.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ford's Finest? Pretty Close

Mr. Hollis-Lima and I generally have very similar tastes in film; but our tastes diverge when it comes to Westerns. I grew up watching John Ford films; I might well have been disowned if I decided that I didn't care for The Searchers. Thankfully, I never had to face such an aesthetic-familial dilemma; I have always thought The Searchers a great film. But my favorite Western – another John Ford and John Wayne collaboration – is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Most Westerns of the last twenty-odd years have been "revisionist" pieces. Some, like Unforgiven, look set to become classics. Others are best-remembered for inspiring overrated science fiction. Today, however, most critics would agree that the pioneering (perhaps a loaded word?) revisionist director was John Ford, who was also, of course, the most important "classical" Western director. In The Searchers, John Wayne plays a violent man with an abiding, if understandable, hatred of Indians. Cheyenne Autumn, Ford's penultimate film, follows an abused group of Cheyenne along the Trail of Tears. While The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance occasionally delves into racial matters, it spends far more time exploring violence, politics, and their relation to each other.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, like many Westerns, begins with a train arriving in a small town. Neither gunmen nor tumbleweed greet the train; Shinbone is a thriving small town, with a high school and a telephone line. We never do learn what state Shinbone is a part of, even when that state's famous senator, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) shows up in town to attend the paltry funeral of forgotten rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As Stoddard's wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), and other friends of the deceased stand vigil over the bare coffin, Stoddard tells an old story to the assembled reporters of the Shinbone Star. Thirty years ago, Tom Doniphon was a friend and mentor to Stoddard. Thirty years ago, Doniphon saved Stoddard's life.

Most of the movie is a flashback to the events of thirty years before, the events that brought Stoddard to prominence, success, and matrimony. When Stoddard, a young lawyer, first arrived in Shinbone, it was a far different town – dusty, violent, and dominated by the bandit and killer Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard, innocent believer in law and order, quickly runs afoul of Liberty, and finds that the legal system in Shinbone is far from capable of dealing with the outlaw. Stoddard, left penniless by Liberty's robbery, works a waiter and dishwasher for a pair of Swedish immigrants; his idealism quickly wins the heart of Hallie, Doniphon's presumed belle. Though he would much prefer to live a peaceful life, Stoddard comes to realize that, in Shinbone, a man must carry a gun to ensure justice. It's hardly a spoiler to say that Valance and Stoddard eventually duel.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the young idealist grabs a gun and turns pragmatist. One of two heroes nearly drinks himself to death; later, he's sanguine about a crime he committed: "Cold-blooded murder? I can live with that." Liberty is on the payroll of the cattle barons who want to keep Shinbone's territory part of the open range; Stoddard and Doniphon want enclosures and railways and statehood. The heroes may wear wide-brimmed hats, but the true cowboys are on the villain's side. And what are we to make of a film that celebrates America, but features a callous killer named Liberty?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may lead to somber reflection and dour blog posts, but despite all its moral seriousness, it's a very funny film. Andy Devine appears as a good-hearted, if cowering and incompetent, marshal; his endless dereliction of duty is a running joke. Edmond O'Brien's drunken newspaper editor has several hilarious speeches and one or two inspiring ones, while John Carradine makes the most of the small role of a hypocritical politician. Even John Wayne gets a few good lines – and one great kick – in.

I have not seen the entirety of John Ford's oeuvre; the man was prolific. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may not be Ford's single best film; many would argue that The Searchers is better. But Liberty Valance is clearly one of Ford's best, and therefore one of cinema's best. This is a movie to watch and to force friends to watch. Mr. Hollis-Lima, you've been warned.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Still in Beta, but Mostly Bug-Free

Shockingly, I am going against popular opinion on this one. I enjoyed Iron Man 2 more than I did its predecessor. I always thought the first, while hardly a failure, suffered from a poorly structured plot. Sure Robert Downey Jr. was a ton of fun as playboy, Tony Stark, but too much time was spent explaining how he became Iron Man. It left far too little time for establishing the eventual villain and building toward their fight. The second film is not a huge improvement over the first – the plot still has its flaws – but it has more going on. Since most of these new plot threads are interesting and fun in their own right, a slightly denser Iron Man proves to be a slightly better one.

Neither one of these films would have been half the pleasure they are without Downey. He steals just about every scene he is in and, considering the caliber of his co-stars, that is saying something. The Iron Man films are a couple of those films wherein the plot is probably the least interesting aspect. Following Stark through his day-to-day shenanigans is endless fun, and it practically made me dread the moment when the bad guy first has to appear and mess up Stark's day.

Here, director, Jon Favreau must also get credit. He unapologetically allows the film's first act to be breezy, filled with sharp, fun banter between Stark and his confidant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In fact, there were a few moments where Iron Man 2, of all things, felt like Hollywood's first true screwball comedy in years.

Iron Man 2 never gets any heavier than it must, but it also does not generally let the comedy overstay its welcome or deprive the story of its due gravity. The first moment Stark encounters Ivan Venko, a physicist with a personal vendetta, is appropriately dramatic. He uses his electric whips to slice through Formula One cars as they drive by. There is no smile on Stark's face the moment he pulls himself out of his car's wreckage and desperately tries to avoid being cut in half. Things do not get too intense, though. The scene climaxes with a moment of giddy gadget porn: Pepper tosses him a suitcase, which expands to build a portable Iron Man suit around Stark's body.

Naturally, Venko is apprehended. The subsequent jail cell conversation with Stark sets the stage for the remainder of the film. He states that he had no intention of killing Stark. He simply wants to expose Iron Man's mortality to the world, then watch as he destroys himself. It may sound like typical villain monologuing, but it generally holds true for this movie; most of the struggle Stark faces in this film is personal. He is enjoying unparalleled amounts of added fame, but reality is catching up with him. Stark is becoming his own worst enemy; he has unresolved issues with his father, a faltering business, a hidden sickness, drinking problems, and a slight case of narcissism.

Even the literal villain of the film embodies this idea. He resents Stark for having all of the opportunities that he never received and, as such, he is Stark's polar opposite: Silent, calculating and grungy. He knows Stark does not care whom his father stepped on in order to build the empire that would eventually spawn a superhero, and he wants to hold the mirror up to Stark; he wants to force him to confront this hypocrisy.

Thankfully, that all makes Iron Man 2 sound far darker and introspective than it is. All of the internal struggle is laced with humor, so it only manages to weigh down one or two scenes. Watching him regain clarity in the midst of all his problems is important, anyway; if all the audience ever saw was his slick exterior, he would probably become grating. The movie may briefly lose its momentum midway through but, by the time Stark begins to rebuild his life, the journey has made it even easier to root for him.

There are a few too many coincidences along the way, though. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up with a box full of Stark's father's mementos right when Stark hits rock bottom. (I love seeing Jackson in these movies, especially considering that he provides the connective tissue that will ultimately lead to 2012's Avengers movie, but I could see how his presence is not explained well enough for the uninitiated.) He provides an awfully convenient way to force Stark's daddy issues, as well as some solutions to his other problems. Stark's friend, Lt. Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) naively steals one of his suits and indirectly hands it to the enemy. Also, Venko seems to change his mind at some point and decide to flat-out kill Iron Man. As a result of all this haste, Stark's internal issues are mostly resolved before the final act. It makes the story feel a bit episodic. Good writing ties everything together in a meaningful way, so as to make it all greater than the sum of its parts. That never happens here.

As dire as all of that sounds, Favreau consistently maintains a great balance between comedy and drama, allowing Downey to smooth over most of the plot's inconsistencies with his charm. (The one exception is Sam Rockwell as the conniving business rival, Justin Hammer. He most definitely overstays his welcome on the screen.) It does not make Iron Man 2 a great comic book movie, but it means things hold together well enough for it to remain a good one.

Most importantly, it also means that the final act's pyrotechnics can be enjoyed without much in the way of nagging frustration. There is not anything terribly high-concept about Favreau's action sequences, but that is not a complaint. Some acrobatics, a justified fixation with Stark's tech, a few good jokes and glamour shots in all of the right places add up to actions sequences that are hard to complain about.

In fact, I find most of this film hard to complain about. It manages to be great fun without ever veering into brainlessness. It even deepens the main character a bit and expands the world he inhabits. The problems from the first film remain, albeit slightly mitigated, but the strengths also do. So, yes, Iron Man 2 is not the definitive chapter in Tony Stark's story. If the filmmakers getting it wrong is this much fun, however, I will gladly keep coming back until they get it right.

For a different perspective on Iron Man 2, check out Mr. Keeley's review from this past weekend.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iron Man 2: Too Much of Too Little

Superhero movies are supposed to be crowd-pleasers before they are critic-pleasers. A few, most notably The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, and the original Iron Man, manage to be both. Most movie fans expected that Iron Man 2 would be just as good, if not better, than its predecessor. After all, the new movie had a higher budget, retained director Jon Favreau, and starred Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson and Don Cheadle, in addition to returning stars Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 disappoints. Instead of The Dark Knight, Marvel Studios has made a modern day Batman Returns. It's not bad, just not especially good.

All the movie's performances are good; it's just that the film's proportions are off. Robert Downey, Jr. is still great as Tony Stark, playboy superhero of the western world. Unfortunately, we don't see him as much as we'd like, and he spends altogether too much time building miniature hadron collider thingies and worrying about his health and far too little time being flippant, funny, and cruel. Sam Rockwell plays would-be Stark industrialist Justin Hammer as a ranting dandy. His schtick is funny at first, but gets old quickly, as the script gives him little to do but repeat himself. By the movie's end, we have seen far too much of him. He exits handcuffed and vowing revenge. I hope that Iron Man 3 doesn't pick up that plot thread.

Scarlett Johansson is always a pleasure to watch and no one can complain of her catsuit, but she doesn't get to do very much until the movie's final battle, and even there she plays an ancillary role. Finally, Mickey Rourke's Whiplash is a very cool and quite intimidating villain. Even outside of costume he's compelling, funny, and ever-so-slightly scary. Still, one goes to superhero films in large part to watch epic duels between superheroes and supervillains. Rourke has maybe ten minutes of costumed villainy, and his final appearance is a horrible anticlimax.

The original Iron Man had some fine action sequences, but Ironmonger wasn't an especially interesting foe. He was, after all, just a slower and beefier version of the real Iron Man. Whiplash is a far more visually exciting creation – those electric whips call out for creative action choreography, yet they never receive it, save for a few shots in Whiplash's introductory ambush. When Whiplash reappears at the end, he looks great. Unfortunately, our hero dispatches him in about half the time he spent taking out some rather boring and quite unintimidating faux-Iron Man drones. The aerial combat between Iron Man and the drones, for all its momentum and speed and pyrotechnics, didn't really impress me, aside from a few unusually creative moments in the middle.

Long before the first trailers for Iron Man 2 appeared, fans were wondering if the new movie would address Tony Stark's drinking problem – Tony's vices were never limited to just womanizing and driving too fast. Iron Man 2 features more than one scene of inebriation, and I suppose these sequences have their point. They please a certain kind of fan and they add a little metatextual commentary, as Robert Downey, Jr. has indeed overcome real-life drinking problems. Unfortunately, I found that I could only take the depressed, drunken, and sick Tony Stark in small doses. Downey, as usual, gives a completely convincing performance, but his character briefly turns into a bit of a boor. If you want to watch Downey having fun, you might be better served watching him in last year's underrated Sherlock Holmes.

Iron Man 2 runs two hours, but feels longer. Ironically enough, I wonder if additional scenes might have made the film seem punchier. Some comedic scenes were apparently cut, and I've noticed a few lighthearted moments from trailers and promotional material that didn't show up in the finished film. Director Jon Favreau says he wanted a slightly darker film. I suppose he got what he wanted, Iron Man 2 lost some of the first movie's vitality and fun.

I didn't want to write such a harsh review; I didn't hate Iron Man 2, and I would even recommend it to someone looking for an enjoyable summer movie. Iron Man 2 left me pleased, but not stunned or moved or really excited. It's good, but not essential.

Check the blog next week for Mr. Hollis-Lima's impressions of Iron Man 2.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Won't Bow, Don't Know How

I always chuckle to myself when I hear people praising Glee simply for being a TV musical. Sure, such shows are rare, but they did exist prior to the birth of American Idol's love child. For example, Glee's other, illegitimate parent: High School Musical. That franchise could hardly be described as overlooked, but people still seem to forget that it got to the well first. Meanwhile, the honor of being both ahead of Glee and often overlooked goes to HBO's Flight of the Conchords. It was infinitely more creative and incisive than Glee will ever be. Flight of the Conchords recently came to a (not altogether premature) end, but it still proved that TV musicals do not have to be glossy, vapid, teen-centric dreck.

The best argument for that point yet, however, is HBO's most recent premiere: Treme.

Set in late 2005 New Orleans, this series takes place in the gaping wounds created by Hurricane Katrina. It follows nearly a dozen main characters as they struggle to rebuild – or struggle to decide if they should rebuild – their lives. They occasionally cross paths, but they have few things in common. All that really ties them together is the city: its food, its politics, its ancestry and, of course, its music.

It would have been easy for creators, Eric Overmyer and David Simon to make this series a downer and a polemic. Yet they understand that any peoples' collective horror results in something far more complex than anger and grief.

They also understand that New Orleans traditionally does not cleave to such emotions. That is why the main thread of the series' premiere is such a brilliant introduction. It is a funeral. It is also one of countless funerals that these characters will be attending in the coming weeks. Yet this one gets the same treatment that any would: A full band. First, the band performs a brief dirge – music conveying loss the way only it can. Second, anything but a dirge – the grief is abandoned for an upbeat jazz procession through the neighborhood in which nearly every citizen participates.

I knew very little about the city (or its music) before watching this 80 minute episode, but once I finished it, I understood something that would be impossible to convey so effectively with mere exposition: Something new and beautiful would come from all of this loss. It's just a matter of how and when.

That is not to say that this show does not direct anger where it is due. Taken as a whole, one could say that the series is seething. Creighton (John Goodman) seems intent on making a career out of cursing at people until justice is served, and Davis (Steve Zahn) tends to blame his comical misfortune on broad social injustices. Overall, however, the show is far less direct in its criticism of New Orleans' abandonment by the country at large, preferring to couch it in the details of the characters' lives. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the show's opening titles, where upbeat music plays over scenes of mold-ridden walls and waterlogged photos:

This borderline-irrational resilience in the face of complete devastation is what drives many of the characters. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) fights to keep her roofless tavern open, despite the fact that she now lives hours away and her roofer keeps conning her. Janette (Kim Dickens) refuses to close her restaurant, even when faulty gas lines make it impossible to heat food properly. Albert (Clarke Peters) is sleeping on the floor of a dusty bar, so that he can slowly reassemble his tribe of Mardi Gras performers in time for the holiday.

The show's subtlety is augmented by its authenticity. According to this Time article, Treme is shot entirely on location in New Orleans. When one watches the show, this fact is more depressing than anything else; much of the damage remains five years later. Yet any attempts to manufacture this level of destruction would have rung decidedly false. The reality of the city brings horror, as well as hope, through the details: There are empty streets filled with empty houses and only the sounds of distant dogs and occasional military flyovers, yes, but this makes the sight of a pedestrian (particularly a dancing one) all the more powerful.

Of course, this brings us back to the one aspect that could never, ever have been faked and which Treme goes to considerable lengths to present honestly: The music. A number of the series' main cast members are musicians in their own right, but the series is filled with fantastic cameos by local jazz musicians as well as more widely known stars. Since just about every character is a musician and/or a music lover, much time is spent within real New Orleans jazz holes, listening to real New Orleans jazz. Again, I know nothing about music, so I cannot elaborate on this, but god damn is the music in this show good. While some of it is in the background, the filmmakers rarely pass up an opportunity to let the plot momentarily slip away, let the camera wander through the crowded club, and let the music take over.

While the hard plot may slip away in these moments, the show's themes do not. Just like with the funeral march, the music's context within the show introduces to the viewer to the emotions motivating the music, as the viewer is being introduced to the music itself. This is the way musicals are supposed to work, but when they are as raw as this one, it elevates the genre. So, while Glee momentarily enjoys its high profile and its unfounded praise as resurrector of the TV musical, I will be savoring every moment of Treme – not because it is just any musical TV series, but because it is shaping up to be a truly excellent one.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Network: Transmission Problems

Not only is Network considered one of the seventies' many classic films, but for months two people whose opinion I generally respect have also been urging me to watch it. I heard that the film was prophetic, topical, and blackly humorous. So when I sat down to finally watch the film last night, I expected to love it. Alas, I can't say that I appreciated the film nearly as much as I expected.

Network, though thirty-four years old, still occasionally appears in discussions about popular culture and television. Not surprising, given that yesterday's satirical nightmare has become today's accepted reality. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the old-guard news anchor at UBS, the eponymous television network. His wife's dead, he's drinking too much, and his ratings are nonexistent. When the corporate suits, generally represented by the cynical and obnoxious Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), decide to drop his show, Beale retaliates by announcing that he will end his tenure at UBS by killing himself on air. Beale's best friend Max (William Holden) rightly thinks the anchor needs mental help, but "television incarnate," the cynical VP of programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) decides to keep the lunatic on air – he's damn good for the ratings. Diana, ascendant after Beale's runaway success, is soon adding soothsayers and game show sets to the news show and in talks with a communist militant group that would just love their own television show.

Both Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck have reflected on their similarities to Howard Beale; as they aren't entirely film literate, they seem to think their resemblances a positive thing. Beale's punditry is paranoid and preacher-esque; he's clearly insane. Peter Finch deserved the Oscar he won for this picture, but I can't help but think that the script lets him down. While his rants are entertaining the first few times we hear them, it's hard to believe that anyone would tune in night after night to watch the man – Finch is too believable as a lunatic to be acceptable as a showman. His madness grates on the nerves; even in the exaggerated comic world of Network, I could not accept his success.

Perhaps I'm less cynical than screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky? There are some nice rants about television and the evils of "the tube," but surely this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Television's vices are hardly distinct from film's. Indeed, the first news shows were the current events reels, and surely vapid police procedurals and war stories descend from old cinematic serials? I suppose that when one is "as mad as hell" – as this film is – such distinctions don't come easily.

For a film about the dumbing down of culture, Network has far too many bits of clumsy exposition. There are some great and entertaining speeches that would nonetheless be far better were they far shorter. Equally frustrating is the characters' habit of inserting narration into their conversations: "In the ten months since CCA..." "We've lived together six months..." "I've been an anchor for..." Surely there's a better way to impart information to the audience. The film actually possesses an omniscient narrator, but his appearances are few and far between. I would have preferred a few more voiceovers to the intrusive and forced dialogue. Finally, I'm not sure that Network really coheres as a film – while cruel and satiric all the way through, the film has an unpleasant tendency to shuffle between dry and zany black humor. Network is never quite sure what it wants to be; its pieces never quite fit together. The ending should be a triumph of morbid humor, but instead seems forced and tacked on.

Network's actors do their best with an uneven script. Though Peter Finch's performance is the film's most famous, I thought that Faye Dunaway was far more entertaining. With her fast talk, cold wit, and cynicism, she's a sort of screwball antiheroine. She's a remarkably energetic presence, especially when contrasted with her costars, most of whom are tired and middle-aged men. William Holden's Max Schumaker may be old-fashioned and out-of-date, but he's also the film's moral voice, the only principal who even approaches decency. Unlike everyone around him, he still knows how to feel shame.

For all that it's a fine, important and historic film, I didn't especially like Network. It's entertaining and funny, but the script is a mess and has a tendency to undermine the movie's best aspects. This should have been a great film, but instead it turned out an OK one. Sometimes great performances and good directing can't make up for mediocre writing.