Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Too Much TV: IRON FIST (2017 - ?)

Word of mouth was already toxic by the time Netflix released the thirteen episodes of Iron Fist in March. The consensus among those who'd had an advance look was that it was easily, by far, the worst of the Marvel Studios Netflix productions. It was troubled before the reviews started coming in, thanks to a stunning bit of "p.c." overreach that saw people demand that the protagonist, Danny Rand, be played by an Asian man. The idea that a blonde white man would become the world's greatest martial artist, offended many who decried a "white savior" trope, as well as some who no doubt simply wanted an Asian actor to get a big payday. Once people finally saw it for themselves, Iron Fist seemed to add injury to insult. Not only was a white man the world's greatest martial artist, at least theoretically, but the martial arts themselves, to many observers, were lame. People simply expected a very different sort of show -- something more like Into the Badlands in modern dress, perhaps -- from what Marvel and Netflix delivered.

Iron Fist stands apart from its sibling shows in the Defenders cycle by abandoning the grungy inner-city milieux of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage for the corporate heights of Marvel's Manhattan. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is super-rich in the comics and is supposed to be on television, but the show introduces him as an Oliver Queen-like castaway reintroducing himself to 21st century America, albeit without the publicity attending the TV Ollie's rescue. A disheveled, barefoot Danny returns home after growing up, having survived the plane crash that killed his parents, in the magical land of Kun-L'un, where he was taught to be The Iron Fist, a living weapon of defense against The Hand, the yellow peril last referenced in Daredevil's second season. As Iron Fist, Danny can channel his chi to make his punching hand like unto a thing of iron, as they used to say in the funnybooks. It glows white-hot and can punch through walls with devastating force. Despite the responsibility placed upon him, Danny's in New York to reclaim his heritage as heir to Rand Enterprises, which has been maintained since the Rand family's disappearance by the children of Harold Meachum, the partner of Danny's dad. The kids, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) don't know what to make of this hairy hobo beating up guards in the lobby of corporate headquarters. Ward, an addict who bullied Danny when they were kids, distrusts the stranger whether he's Danny or not, while Joy more quickly comes to believe our hero's odd story. While he struggles to sort things out with the corporation, Danny hangs out at a more Netflix-typical inner-city dojo run by part-time cage fighter Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). It's so typically Netflix a setting that Defenders mascot-in-advance Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is one of Colleen's students.

The corporate shenanigans continue as we learn Harold Meachum himself (David Wenham), believed long dead by the general public, is alive and in hiding from The Hand, represented by Mme. Gao (Wai Ching Ho) from the Daredevil show. Harold is Ward's puppetmaster but finds himself at odds with his boy, who'd like to get rid of Danny while Dad thinks the kung-fu kid could be useful to him. Publicly acknowledged, Danny has a tumultuous stint on the Rand board of directors that leads to he and the Meachums getting sacked by the board majority, while he, Colleen and Claire battle drug smugglers in New York and China. Things get still more complicated as we discover that The Hand has contending factions, one of which has Colleen as a member, while Ward decides to free himself from his father but finds him very difficult to get rid of, and Danny's old Kun-L'un schoolmate (Sacha Dhawan) arrives in Manhattan to convince our hero to resume his duties at the alma mater.

I actually appreciated the change of pace and setting Iron Fist provided, and one of the show's most pleasant surprises is Ward Meachum's character arc. Ward starts out as the show's number-one scumbag, but as he sobers up and recoils from his dad's unnatural antics he gradually becomes one of the good guys. Tom Pelphrey gives the best performance of the series so far, except maybe for David Wenham's unpredictably devious Harold. Finn Jones has come in for a lot of criticism for a perceived lack of charisma, acting talent and martial arts skills, but those are the limitations of a generic fish-out-of-water character, not necessarily those of an actor who proves himself likable enough. More likable still is Jessica Henwick, if only because Colleen Wing brings more obvious passion to her fight scenes, and is likely to inspire more passion in the male audience. As for the fighting, it is plainly less dynamic, though often better lit, than the standard-setting scenes on Daredevil or the superhuman stunts of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. You can't help thinking that Danny will be the weakest member of The Defenders later this summer, but if Iron Fist disappoints as a martial-arts show it's mainly because the writers had a lot of story to tell and not so much time for fighting as fans would have liked. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, however, I found myself in later episodes marking time impatiently before something (violent) happened. In a way, there was both too much and not enough going on much of the time, and I also suspect that Iron Fist had the lowest budget of any of the Marvel shows so far. It's hard to dispute that it's the weakest of the four shows, but the others set a high enough standard that this one can fall short and still be at least okay. In any event, let's reserve judgment until Defenders on whether we want to see more of Danny Rand after that.

Friday, June 23, 2017

ARES (2016)

There's something almost quaintly old-fashioned about the dystopia imagined by writer-director Jean-Patrick Benes in Ares. His dark future has nothing to do with French politics or demographics, haunted by neither a Muslim underclass nor the National Front. Instead, as was widely anticipated in the late 20th century, the corporations have taken over, with more widespread poverty and the further debasement of French culture as a result -- the latter signified by the death of Le Monde, France's answer to the New York Times. The rabble, as ever, are preoccupied by circuses if not also with bread. Cage fighting has become the leading spectator sport, made available for free on big screens hung from the country's cultural monuments. Fighters are openly sponsored by pharmaceutical companies whose stock value depends on their success in the cage. The competitors are injected with each corporation's proprietary serums in the open before each bout and sometimes between rounds.


Reda Kowalski (Ola Rapace) is about a decade past his prime, ranked #266 in France as the story begins. He fights under the ring name "Ares" when he isn't working as a private-security goon pounding on street protesters, who include his own relatives. His sister is some sort of investigative reporter or hacker who ends up getting arrested in an obvious frame-up. To raise bail money for her, Reda agrees to test a dangerous new super-fighter serum in the cage. It turns out that he's one of the lucky few who can take the drug without dying almost instantly, and there's no guarantee that he'll survive the comedown from his initial high. The stuff works well enough for Ares to score a major upset in the first round of the latest European tournament, and once Reda wakes up after fainting with no ill effects, stock in the company skyrockets. Having bet the farm on himself by proxy, Reda can now spring his sister, but learns that she was killed in prison. C'est la vie.


Reda smells a set-up and soon learns the terrible truth. He knows that he is "patient zero" for the new drug, the first test subject to survive, but thanks to some hackers who were friends with his sister he discovers that the corporation had killed 30,000 people with the stuff before they found him. He takes his revenge by twisting one of the ancient tropes of the fight-game genre and throwing his next fight in the tournament, causing the corporate stock to tank. He's too valuable for them to let him walk away, so their goons take his sister's kids hostage to bring him back in line. Suspecting that he'd refused to take the drug before the last fight, they want to continue experimenting with him, but they've underestimated the cunning of Reda's new friends and how far Reda himself will go to deny them what they want....


For a dystopian film Ares ends rather optimistically with its hero the hero of a presumably successful mass uprising against the corporate regime. It's nice that Benes and his co-writers believe that the masses would be aroused by Reda's story, but it also demonstrates the limits of their dystopian imagination. That aside, Ares is a modestly entertaining cyberpunk variation on oldtime boxing movies. It's clearly limited by a budget that doesn't allow the cage fights to play out before masses of extras in an arena. I'm not sure if the sport would catch on as the filmmakers claim it did without the enthusiasm of a live crowd for TV audiences to respond to, but I suppose you could call it a live version of any fighting-tournament video game, none of which need audiences to get over. The fighting itself is nothing special, but I suppose it doesn't need to be, since Ares is more film noir than martial arts movie in the final analysis. The plot is more compelling than the action, but not compelling enough to hide the datedness of its dystopia. The same film could have been made a quarter-century ago, and while I certainly don't mean to disparage anyone's fear of corporations taking over the world, I do doubt whether that's the subject for any really ambitious dystopian film in our own, already somewhat dystopian time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Too Much TV: AMERICAN GODS (2017-?)

It surprises me sometimes, when I read what other people think of TV shows I like, to see them say, "It starts out slow, but then it gets good." I've seen that said about shows that had me after the first hour. What was "slow" about them? I've been tempted to say that good shows start "slow" only for impatient viewers who don't get what a show is trying to do -- or in the case of The 100, viewers who need time to let the show overcome prejudice against the network the program airs on. But it probably won't surprise you now to see me say that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel starts out slow, but then gets good. What was "slow" about it? First, the first two episodes were deliberately confusing and alienating, probably as a matter of necessity, as the ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky "Lincoln from The 100" Whittle) is abruptly immersed in an unfathomable underworld of conflicting cosmic forces. Second, Whittle's own performance took a while coming to life. The Wikipedia page for the novel (which I haven't read) describes Shadow as "taciturn," and on top of that he starts the series benumbed by the sudden death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning) in a car accident, not to mention the revelation that she was having an affair while he was in jail with his best friend, and was engaged in, er, a lewd act with him when the accident happened. A show like this needs more of a "WTF" sort of point-of-view character than Whittle's Shadow is at first, but he came around eventually. Third, as if Shadow's disorienting adventures and visions aren't enough, the first few episodes include tangental flashbacks to the arrival in America of various old gods, or their worshipers, as well as the alarming exploits of Bilquis (Yeltide Badaki), a wandering love goddess who sucks people in (not that way!!) so they don't come back. In short, for the first couple of hours, American Gods looked like a random collection of crazy shit happening without many clues to what it all meant, or why we should care. But then it got good.

After a violent encounter with what may be the world's tallest leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber), Shadow hires out as the "man" of the amiable grifter Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane in Peter Falk mode). It probably doesn't help the show that anyone who knows folklore can guess who Wednesday really is while Shadow remains clueless until the season finale, but it becomes clear enough to our hero that Wednesday is more influential than he looks. He definitely has a lot of odd friends, and some very dangerous enemies. Shadow drives him around the country as he recruits some of those friends for some sort of showdown he wants to stage in Wisconsin. Being Wednesday's man gets Shadow in trouble not just with the law but with characters who are supposed to be the new gods of the U.S.A. One, a malevolent nerd (Bruce Langley) represents computers or technology in general. Another (Gillian Anderson) represents the media and incarnates as various 20th century female celebrities. Still another, Mr. World (Crispin Glover) possibly represents the impending singularity in his desire to incorporate the old gods into a new global pantheon. Wednesday, at least, isn't having it. He and his allies intend to make a stand for their essential individuality, hoping against the odds to regain worshipers so they can exist on their own terms. Meanwhile, some old gods side with the new -- the Roman Vulcan becomes a god of firearms with a factory town full of crypto-fascist worshipers -- while others like Bilquis are co-opted into serving the modern agenda. How or why exactly entities like "technology" or "the media" incarnate as self-conscious gods is something I hope we'll learn in subsequent seasons, if I don't just read the book first, but even if the assault of the new gods doesn't fully make sense to me, the characters, particularly McShane's Wednesday, have me interested in the impending conflict.

It also helps that we've been given a strong subplot that illustrates both the fantastic potential of the gods and the collateral damage their struggle inflicts. While Shadow and Wednesday wend their way toward Wisconsin, Shadow's wife Laura is on their trail, attended by Mad Sweeney, the big leprechaun. "Dead Wife," as the leprechaun calls her, was reanimated when Shadow placed one of Sweeney's gold coins on her grave. Sweeney can drop coins like Harpo Marx could drop stolen silverware, but this was a special coin, the one that gave the leprechaun his legendary luck. It can restore Laura's consciousness and mobility, and endows her with superhuman strength, she remains a conspicuously rotting corpse, despite a touch-up from a mortician who is also the god Anubis (Chris Obi), though not in any way that really mars her beauty. She's drawn to Shadow because power radiates from him in some unique way, while Wednesday, we learn, is determined to keep Shadow away from her, having gone to the trouble of  having Sweeney use his bad-luck power to kill her in that car accident so that Shadow would leave prison unattached. Her interplay with Sweeney, who despises her despite her guilt-inducing resemblance to a long-lost love of his, and with a Muslim cab driver (Omid Abtahi) on his own quest to find a jinn with whom he'd had a one-night stand, grounds the show in more conventional and sympathetic experiences while Shadow continues to struggle with all his discoveries.

By the time the eight-episode season hit the homestretch, the vignettes that seemed merely whimsical earlier all worked to enhance our understanding of Wednesday's world. The writers could even get away with making most of the penultimate episode a flashback to Sweeney's past. Once American Gods really gets rolling it gives you the sense of a universe constantly opening out, a feeling comparable to what The Magicians gives you of a world where anything can happen and probably will. The show's most underrated element may be its music, credited to Brian Reitzell. It has a uniquely jazzy score, appropriately matching America's music to a new American (or Anglo-American) myth, that works even when it plays over flashbacks to 18th century Ireland. The acting has been pretty good overall, once Whittle found his footing, though Gillian Anderson is decidedly hit-or-miss when impersonating Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and (almost unrecognizably) Judy Garland. I'm still not convinced that the show really makes sense, even on a metamythological level, but after an all-too-short first year that leaves the characters in Kentucky for a comparatively understated cliffhanger, I'm willing to give the producers another chance to convince me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: GIRL OF THE PORT (1930)

There have been lots of great World War I battle scenes in movies from Wings to Wonder Woman, but most of them are missing a little extra something: flamethrowers! They're just about all the battle scene from Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port has going for it, but Glennon makes a lot of a little. He's concerned with the psychological terror of the war while he's there, and the post-traumatic consequences beyond. Jim (Reginald Sharland) is introduced in close-up, anxiously waiting for the battle to start, but he doesn't expect how it does start, with a wave of German troops dispensing "liquid fire." We see a few of them coming, and we see them get Jim's buddy in a trench, and that's all we and Jim need to see. The horror of it reduces him to screaming terror, and leaves him a broken man after the war. Like many broken men of the time, he winds up in the South Pacific, specifically in Suva, Fiji, as a barfly at McDougal's. At this same dive arrives Josie (Sally O'Neil), who must have responded to a want-ad in the Pre-Code version of Craigslist. Josie is here to tend bar and crack wise, telling the regulars that as the daughter of a bouncer and a lady lion tamer, she was "raised on raw meat and red pepper." She befriends a native menial, Kalita, aka "The Corporal" (legendary Olympic swimmer and surfing hero Duke Kahanamoku), a war veteran who's smarter than he sounds and bristles at the insults regularly sent his way by the bar's resident racist, McEwen (Mitchell Lewis). McEwen's bigotry earns him the contempt of English tourists, and for a moment it looks like Girl of the Port is going to make a precocious anti-racist statement for its era. Actually, it does and it doesn't, revealing quickly that McEwen protests too much because he's what they used to call a "half-caste" and asserting that those "touched with the tar brush" tend to be more bigoted than anyone else. McEwen is a bully as well as a bigot, lording it over the wretched Jim, who has to sing "Whiskey Johnny" for drinks. Jim still has some backbone, though, standing up for Josie when she stands up for him. When McEwen calls her a "tabby," Jim can't let the insult stand. He provokes McEwen by calling him a half-caste and lays him out in short order, despite his condition. But when a fire breaks out during the general melee, he has a panic attack, and we learn that he's become a rummy because only booze can calm his terror.  Josie decides to cure him, and a title card notes the irony of her working as a bartender while keeping Jim, whom she tenderly dubs "Bozo," bone dry.

Josie keeps "Bozo" locked up in her cabin despite Kalita's warning that it's "Bad for Missy to take white man in cabin. People say Missy not nice." Jim -- he initially introduces himself to Josie as Jameson, only for her to answer, "I've seen that name on bottles" -- is under lockdown to protect him not only from Demon Rum but from the wrath of McEwen, who warns the couple that half-castes "don't run out like nasty, dirty white trash." Instead, he vows to ruin Jim until he's "lower than any bug-eating bushman." Jim explains his fear of fire in vivid terms. "Whatever it touched it burned," he says of the liquid fire, "Flesh and bone -- and brains." Life coach Josie admonishes him, "You've got to take it on the chin and like it," and urges him to "Cut out the bar varnish for keeps."

Eight weeks later Jim is virtually clean and sober and Josie is oddly trying to distance herself from him. She flinches at his praise, warning him not to "get all Jolson about it," and explains that she doesn't want to be thought of as a gold-digger. This is all very sentimental but there'd be no story left if Bozo stayed on the wagon. All this while, McEwen has been waiting for his chance, and he finally takes it, kidnapping Jim to his private island and getting him freshly drunk. Like a classic melodrama villain, he offers Josie the choice worse than death: he'll release Jim if she'll submit to him and be his "tidy little housekeeper" to make his home more presentable to the tourists. Josie agrees, but takes no chances. She makes McEwen swear on the fetish he wears around his neck. "Swear on this Hindu hocus pocus," she demands, "That'll hold a Malay."

Kalita, who by right would be the head man on the island if not for McEwen, lets Jim know what's gone down and chews him out as eloquently as his pidgin English will allow: "God no want you, man no want you ... fire no want you. Dirt. Coward."  As it happens, the islanders have a firewalking ritual that they perform for the tourists. McEwen actually speaks admiringly of their "spunk," though he's still careful to differentiate himself from the savage natives. No white man, he tells the English, is capable of such a feat, but I say! Isn't that a white man marching through the flames and hot coals right there? And isn't that Sir James, the fellow we're looking for who disappeared six months ago? It certainly is. To prove his manhood to Kalita, Josie and everyone else, Jim walks through the fire to "burn out dirt" and proceeds to give McEwen the flogging he's long deserved before taking Josie away with him to English luxury, having proved himself "the whitest man of you all."

Girl of the Port is an embarrassment of Pre-Code riches or, if you prefer, richly embarrassing to watch. It may still be racist by today's anti-racist standards, but Duke Kahanamoku's authoritative performance belies a lot of the race rhetoric. As Josie, Sally O'Neil takes some getting used to, coming across initially somewhat like Betty Boop playing Sadie Thompson, and then like oldschool Harley Quinn as an AA counselor, but her irreverent earnestness definitely adds to the entertainment value and makes the film almost endlessly quotable. She almost singlehandedly drags the picture across the line dividing the politically incorrect from harmless, hilarious camp. As Jim, Sharland doesn't have much to do but yell "Don't let the fire get me!" every so often, but in the end it's O'Neil's picture, not his. It's the sort of picture that has to be a guilty pleasure, but if you don't feel too guilty about it, it definitely can be a pleasure of some sort.

Friday, June 16, 2017

THREE (2016)

The Chinese director Johnnie To is one of today's best crafters of crime thrillers, but his latest genre exercise sacrifices his talent to technology. Three starts strong enough but goes badly off the rails in an overindulgent final act. The title presumably refers to the lowest score possible on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep if not irreversible unconsciousness, as explained by the neurosurgeons in whose hospital ward most of the action takes place. Like an old all-star-cast medical melodrama, Three introduces us to several patients in the ward, including a childish old man who serves as comedy relief and a patient who angrily discovers that he's partially paralyzed after emergency surgery. His anger is aimed at Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), who has several crises of confidence and conscience as the film goes on. Her newest patient is Shun (Wallace Chung), a gangster who was shot in the head by a cop during an interrogation. Detectives led by Ken (Louis Koo) hover over him at all times, waiting to whisk him to jail once he recovers from surgery. But there's the rub. Shun has suffered a lucky hit that leaves him fully conscious and alert even though the bullet remains lodged dangerously in his brain. Erudite and philosophical in classic movie-villain fashion, he refuses surgery, against Tong's advice, on the assumption that so long as he remains a patient in critical condition, he can't be taken to jail. He's gambling that his gang can work up a plan to break him out of the hospital, while Ken, taking such a plan for granted, prepares his defense. For Tong, their chess match is a frustrating if not terrifying experience, understanding as she does the risk Shun is taking and the dread consequences of any medical error.



So far, so okay, even if Wallace Chung lays the taunting-genius-villain act on a bit thick. Working with admirable economy -- the film is under 90 minutes long -- To deftly sets us the inevitable showdown only to botch it completely. My opinion may just be a matter of taste, however. I happen to think that a good aesthetic principle for thrillers is "less is more." Pacing, achieved through editing, matters more here than in any other genre. But for Three's climax To decides to do without editing entirely. For some inscrutable reason he chooses to shoot most of the attack by Shun's gang on the neurological ward in a single CGI-enhanced take, dialing the speed of the action up and down and making the scene look more like a Zack Snyder ripoff or a scene with that speedy kid from one of the recent X-Men movies, or a video game, than anything dramatic or suspenseful. Of course, it's all set to some sappy pop tune.



Once To finally tears himself away from this spectacle, things don't really get any better. As Shun and Ken dangle unconvincingly from a hospital window, chaos spills into the hospital as a whole while the angry paralyzed guy wheels himself toward a grand stairway in an apparent suicide bid. So out of touch has Johnnie To suddenly become with the basics of thriller filmmaking that he wastes a perfectly good "Odessa steps" situation in a way that should make Brian De Palma want to smack him. More in keeping with medical-melodrama tradition, this poor idiot goes tumbling wheels over head all the way down the stairs only to pick himself up and announce that he is cured and can walk again. Will someone please tell me that Three was a tongue-in-cheek exercise in camp? Whether it was meant that way or not, tongue-in-cheek may be the only way to appreciate this trainwreck of a thriller.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WAR MACHINE (2017)

David Michod's film for Netflix is a fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings' The Operators, itself an expansion of the Rolling Stone magazine expose that led to the fall of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in 2010. In real life McChrystal was ruined by Hastings' revelations of hard drinking by his staff, including the now-more-disgraced Gen. Michael Flynn, and open contempt for the Obama administration. All of this plays out, with the names changed, in War Machine, but the film fails to answer the main question it raises on its own: what has all of this to do with the film's main character, or, more pointedly, what does he have to do with the scandal or the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan.


The fictionalized McChrystal, Gen. Glen McMahon, is played by Brad Pitt, a producer of the film. Pitt is in character-actor mode here, less interested in being a leading man than in making a character, or at least a performance, out of odd postures and a funny voice. McMahon's right hands is often contorted into a kind of claw, while he jogs with a lumbering stride, with his arms hanging almost limp. Michod and Pitt clearly consider the physicality of the actor's portrayal important to the story, showing McMahon shamble through army bases and European cities, but it's hard to figure out what exactly this illustrates apart from Pitt's commitment to the role. Likewise, McMahon's burly burr of a voice sticks out among the generally more naturalistic performances, but not in a good way. It makes McMahon sound like a cartoon character -- at times I thought it might be Pitt's impersonation of George Clooney playing a general in a Coen Bros. film -- when no one else does, except arguably for Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's apoplectic right-hand man, the Gen. Flynn analogue. I don't know whether Pitt arrived at this performance from studying Stanley McChrystal, following Michod's direction or by making it up himself, but it's a huge distraction, and something is terribly wrong with a movie if you start to think of its star performance as a distraction.


It seems like a distraction because Michod appears to be trying to explain both the fall of the real general and the American failure to secure Afghanistan, but nothing in Pitt's performance really helps explain these things. In part that's a major failing on Michod's own part as the screenwriter, since despite the advantage of dramatic license the script fails to make his fictional general either exceptional (except for Pitt's eccentricities) or explanatory. McMahon himself doesn't really seem like a bad guy. He doesn't share in the excesses of his staff and he makes conscientious efforts both to understand the war from the grunt point of view and to be courteous toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president (Ben Kingsley). His main problem seems to be that he sees the war through a haze of organizational jargon and management theory that convinces him that there must be a way to win the war, when others recognize that Afghans will never acquiesce to foreign occupation, no matter what theory you apply to it. In short, for all his apparent virtues McMahon is clueless, but so what? It's not as if he started the war, and it's not as if he was in command long enough to make a difference one way or another, and because of Pitt's mannered performance it's hard to say whether he's a representative U.S. military man. For all I know, Pitt may have made his performance more eccentric than it needed to be because he realized that if he didn't do something to stick out the character of the general would be exposed as a void on screen.


While War Machine has a hollow center it's not a total debacle. When we finally get to see some war, Michod wisely takes the focus off Pitt and gives us a tense battle from the grunt's perspective, climaxing in a soldier's anguished realization that he called a strike on the wrong target. Even Pitt isn't a total loss. After two scenes I decided I'd rather see a two-hander consisting only of Pitt's general and Kingsley's Karzai interacting with each other. In late life Kingsley has become a king of character actors, -- dare I say a mandarin? -- and Pitt raises his game with that kind of partner, as he does during a press-conference showdown with Tilda Swinton as a persistent German critic. Those good scenes, however, expose War Machine as a fragmented collection of vignettes that never really coheres into a compelling story or a distinctive statement on America's Afghan war.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Too Much TV: A note on Adam West

You may have seen a news story the other day reporting that Batman had asked Catwoman to marry him in the latest issue of his comic book. Like a lot of things having to do with comic book heroes -- or, arguably, everything in non-print popular culture having to do with comic book heroes -- that probably doesn't happen without the Batman TV show starring Adam West, who died this weekend at the age of 88. You probably wouldn't be hearing or talking about all these comic-book movies being made today without that show, so credit it or blame it as you please. Batman, itself inspired by some sincere but incompetent movie serials from the 1940s, provoked an ongoing dialectic in which superhero media, with the defiant exception of The Lego Batman Movie, defines itself as the antithesis of the 1966-8 series. For all that the Marvel movies in particular promise the sort of "fun" their DC competition has struggled or refused to provide, it's all "laugh with" fun rather than the "laugh at" fun that made Batman contemptible for generations of comic-book fans. But is that distinction justified? A few days ago I saw a documentary about superheroes in which some talking head testified that, as a child, he took Batman in deadly earnest, impatient between episodes to know how the hero would escape the latest death trap. If comics fans resented reminders of the old show as time went on, it was more because superhero comics had grown more ambitious (or pretentious), and the fans had become proportionately less tolerant of disrespect, than because Batman itself was a mockery of the superhero genre as it was in 1966, when Stan Lee's written narration on the pages of the supposedly more progressive Marvel Comics was not so different in its self-conscious pomposity from William Dozier's spoken narration on the TV show.

West's career probably suffered from the resentment of comics readers who grew up to become filmmakers, while the wider culture, perhaps never sure whether the show was the way it was on purpose or not, judged West a bad actor. Having seen a fair share of his other work, from early TV appearances on westerns to his acclaimed supporting role in Michael Tolkin's The New Age (1994), I can't say that West was a great actor, but Batman transformed his limitations into strengths, while his interaction with Julie Newmar as Catwoman in particular revealed a gift for comic timing that any unprejudiced observer will acknowledge, while sparking what had always been potential between the two characters since their first encounter in 1940 into a lit fuse that has burned intermittently for half a century. In Batman West achieved something genuinely great that he either couldn't do or wasn't allowed to do again. His most obvious limitation was an inability to reinvent himself the way William Shatner, on the opposite side of the same coin, has done. Shatner transformed himself into an almost folkloric figure by taking on the persona of a mountebank ham actor, so that the limitations of his performances as Captain Kirk became extensions of the barnstorming Shatner personality, an entertainment in its own right. But Adam West's futile lobbying for inclusion in Batman movies only made him look pathetic, and he never really became more than a nostalgia act, though some saw his final return to his one great role to voice a cartoon movie last year as a vindication. For in fact, while some comics-shop denizens no doubt still resent the old show, a recent backlash against the "grimdark" tendencies expressed most obnoxiously, to many observers,  in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, points toward a fresh appreciation of West's achievement. Nostalgia, no doubt, will work wonders also. Someday a new generation may watch Adam West as Batman without resentment or contempt, and then history will decide how good he really was.