Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Too Much TV: GOTHAM (2014-present)

Ever since DC Comics consciously remade its fictional universe -- make that a multiverse -- following the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries (1985-6), superhero comics have been in a state of almost perpetual revision. Between full-scale reboots, after which nothing from the printed past may be taken for granted, there are periodic retcons in which the past is revised selectively without disrupting the regular monthly continuity. In the long run it all blends together and a kind of folklore evolves. Bruno Heller's Gotham is a work of folklore in progress. Unlike Arrow, in which Greg Berlanti effectively worked with a blank slate given the relative obscurity of his protagonist, and made his own Green Arrow mythos almost from whole cloth, Gotham is consciously rewriting a history with which most viewers by now are at least somewhat familiar. Heller and his writers are practicing a form of revisionism common in comics that's essentially retroactive. When a character like Batman has been published for more than 75 years, mythos accumulates haphazardly until the present bears little resemblance to the earliest stories. In the post-Crisis era comics readers (and writers) are encouraged to think of the entire published canon as one epic story -- at least until the continuity is rebooted -- when previously, throughout the "Golden Age" and much of the "Silver Age," last month's story rarely had anything to do with next month's story. Looking back on this chaos, the modern imagination dreams of imposing order and, more importantly, dramatic unity all the way back to the very beginning. Hence Gotham.

The three most important supporting characters in Batman's mythos, as it's evolved over all those years, are (in no particular order) Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, Commissioner Gordon of the Gotham City police department, and Selina Kyle, an arch-enemy in her role as Catwoman but also for many readers the love of Batman's life. We can guess their importance to Batman, as DC now measures it, by their prominence on Gotham. Only one of these characters, Gordon, was present in the first Batman story, which was not an origin story. In his original form, the Commissioner was an elderly, clueless placeholder whom Bruce Wayne pumped for information about crimes that had been kept out of the news, and it was a big joke at the end of that first 1939 episode that Gordon considered Wayne something of a bore while we learned in the last panel that the "bored playboy" was the Batman who cracked the Case of the Chemical Syndicate. Neil Hamilton's portrayal on the beloved/infamous 1966 TV series and Pat Hingle's performance in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movie cycle (1989-97) approximate this original version. Comics gradually moved past that, making Jim Gordon more of a confidant of Batman than a crony of Bruce Wayne and more like a peer as a detective and crimefighter, to the point that comics writers now seem ignorant of what a commissioner of police actually does while imagining Gordon as a hands-on detective-in-chief. As Gordon became a more rounded character -- his role as Batgirl's father contributed to this as well -- his connection with Batman and Bruce Wayne was grounded further back in the character's history. In Frank Miller's post-Crisis reboot story Batman: Year One (1987, now irrelevant after the "New 52" reboot of 2011), Gordon is a veteran cop and incorruptible troublemaker transferred to Gotham as a lieutenant just as Bruce Wayne is going on his first tentative crimefighting patrols. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) takes a bigger leap backward. Now Gordon (Gary Oldman in a definitive rendering) is present virtually at the creation, already in Gotham and comforting little Bruce on the night the boy's parents were murdered.

This is where Heller places his Gordon (Ben McKenzie), Gotham's protagonist, but in his own breathtaking bit of retrospective revisionism, he has little Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) actually witness the shooting of the Waynes. Selina first appeared in comics in 1940 and didn't even get her name until 1951, and it wasn't until the late 1970s that she was aggressively promoted as The One for Batman, a campaign (against some intense competition) that climaxed with the improbable happy ending of Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. The logic of retrospective revisionism (retrovisionism?) seems to require the the hero's great love and the hero's great friend (note that this is Jim Gordon and not Dick Grayson or any other Robin) be part of the hero's story from as early a point as seems plausible. In Gotham little Selina has actually lived in Wayne Manor for a short period already, placed there by Gordon as much in the hope of reforming the precocious street thief as in securing her cooperation with the Wayne murder investigation. She has already met cute with little Bruce (David Mazouz) and kissed him, but she's also already dumped him and lied to him about what she did or didn't see that terrible night. Oh well: everyone knows this relationship will take a lot of time.

As for Alfred, Batman's butler was one of the first characters to be retconned. Appearing originally as a roly-poly, clean-shaven man, Alfred quickly morphed into a copy of William Austin, the tall, pencil-mustached actor who played him in the infamous/beloved 1943 Batman serial. Whatever he looked like, Alfred Pennyworth joined the Wayne household well after Bruce began his costumed career, but like Gordon (and like Selina now) he was rooted deeper in Bruce's past. Batman: Year One is the key text here as well; Miller established that Alfred had served Bruce's parents, and Nolan and Heller followed his lead. In the post-Crisis era Alfred also evolved from the fussy British stereotype of early stories, or the Gielgud to Batman's Dudley Moore in Miller's Dark Knight Returns, into a more effective helper in Batman's work by virtue of a shadowy military background increasingly emphasized in comics, Nolan's movies, and Heller's show. No live-action Alfred since Austin (and his successor in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin) has tried to look like Austin, and Heller's (Sean Pertwee) is no exception. Pertwee is as far as we've gone from the traditional Jeevesian or Arthur Treacherish figure; his Alfred wasn't bred for butlering and Heller presents him essentially as a substitute father figure for little Bruce, who really has two when you count Gordon. As a military man, Gotham's Alfred is Bruce's first teacher in the fighting arts, if not the only one if the show doesn't let Master Wayne leave to go on his teenaged wanderings around the world.

Gotham is set about a decade before Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, but is presumably set in our present day. It's an island unto itself in DC's evolving multimedia multiverse, unrelated to Berlanti's current shows on the CW and his forthcoming Supergirl show on CBS, and not a prequel to the Nolan films or the new cinematic universe of next year's Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It has two main purposes: to foreshadow Batman's career and to establish Jim Gordon as a long-suffering lone battler (more or less) against relentless crime and intractible corruption whose collaboration with a masked vigilante will be understandable by the end. The show actually has three separate casts of characters: the embryo versions of Batman and his antagonists, ranging from Selina's ragamuffin friend, the future Poison Ivy, to the precocious but socially awkward polce forensic scientist Ed Nygma; the Gotham police force, all of whom are established comics characters, most notably Gordon's inconsistently cynical partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue); and the Gotham underworld whose conflicts give the show most of its short-term momentum. Crossing the line between two sets of characters is Oswald Kapelput (Robin Lord Taylor), a verbally pretentious but physically awkward hanger-on destined to become The Penguin, who in comics has evolved from a tuxedoed bandit with an umbrella gimmick into a more conventional crimelord with many of the grotesque traits of Danny DeVito's incarnation in Burton's Batman Returns. By comparison Taylor is a boyishly slight figure who compensates for his unimposing appearance with bursts of brutality. During the first season Oswald, a second-generation immigrant whose mother (Carol Kane) may as well have been Simka from Taxi, has been jockeying for position amid a three-way power struggle involving Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni, both canonical gangsters, and Heller's major addition to the Gotham mythos, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Falcone's ambitious protege and Oswald's onetime mentor. Having no destiny we know of from comics, Fish is the show's wild card and one of its most hated characters. That may be partly because she's a stranger to the Gotham of comics, but it's more likely because Pinkett's performance embodies the show's split personality. Fish is capable of a gangster's raw violence, but she also indulges in flights of melodrama or just plain camp that Heller's writers (prominently including Ben Edlund, the creator of The Tick) use to identify Gotham as part of a comic-book world. The contrast in tone between this excess of eccentricity and the procedural formulae of Gordon's scenes is jarring, as if Heller hasn't decided if the show is one thing or another or hasn't figured out how it can be both seamlessly.

It doesn't help that Gotham tries to be a third thing, a "CW style" soap opera focused on Gordon's fragile relationship with Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), the heiress who is the future commissioner's canonical first wife and Batgirl's mom. Barbara is Fish Mooney's main rival for the show's most-hated character because she brings nothing to it but soap opera. An addict from an unhappy home, Barbara bounces between Gordon and another cop, her old flame Renee Montoya (the dreaded gay agenda!!!) while Gordon seeks a safe harbor with Arkham Asylum medico Lesie Thompkins, whose canonical role as Bruce Wayne's first responder Gotham's Jim has usurped. Gordon's troubled love life is foisted on us, it seems, more as a matter of duty than a matter of inspiration. Meanwhile, Heller keeps some extra plotlines simmering on the backburners, including a link between the Wayne murders and dirty dealings at the family megacorporation and the malign influence of the vivisectionist Dr. Dohlmacher, who kidnaps the children of Gotham and the passengers of ships at sea (including a fugitive Fish Mooney) to harvest body parts for medical and other purposes.

Gotham has been fascinating and disappointing from the beginning. The major disappointment has been the stupidity of its writing, from its inane mystery plots to Gordon's leadenly earnest dialogue. It has several compensating features, especially the acting of Taylor as Penguin and Logue as the show's most complex cop, as well as Cory Michael Smith as a strangely likable and plainly fragile Ed Nygma, while the fact that Heller is playing a long game encourages patience as his world unfolds. But my overall attitude toward the show is fascinated pessimism. Heller seems to be painting himself into a corner of a huge room by giving us a main character, Gordon, who seems doomed to years of failure, not to mention personal unhappiness, before Bruce finally suits up to save the day. Gordon must fail to stem the tide of crime or else who needs a Batman? Whatever victories he scores hardly can inspire hope, or else who needs a Batman? The show's own argument may be that Gordon's tenacity against all odds inspires Batman, but will that be enough for us? Gotham promises us a decade of muddling through at best, while leaving us asking such questions as: how can Bruce and Selina fail to recognize each other as adults, no matter what costumes they wear? Whether Gotham will be worth watching over the long haul depends almost entirely on whether Ben McKenzie is worth watching. Fortunately, his acting is better than his dialogue and Gordon has grown on me during the season. The question for the future, since Gotham will have at least a second season, is what we want to see Gordon do, perhaps more than what we want to see Gotham City become. One is inescapably linked to the other.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

On the Big Screen: LEVIATHAN (2014)

Nearly every review of Andrei Zvyagintsev's film comments on the picture of Vladimir Putin hanging in a crooked mayor's office as he negotiates the payment of blackmail to a Moscow lawyer who has dirt on him. But the film's real comment on Russia's prime minister comes during a drunken picnic as the guys plan some target practice. After the birthday boy spoiled the first round by taking out a row of vodka bottles with an AK-47, he brings out a series of portraits of past Soviet leaders for the next round. We see Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al, while the collector mentions that he has a picture of Boris Yeltsin, whom he considers a small fry. As for the present generation (i.e. Putin), he says: let them ripen on the wall for a while. In other words, the jury is still out on the country's current controversial leader. Some outsiders expect every Russian cultural product to reflect on Putin in some way, since so many people abroad seem to obsess over him. In this case, Leviathan's corrupt, drunken, thuggish mayor should represent a thuggish corruption unique to Putin's Russia. If anything, however, Zyagintsev is part of a much older Russian cultural tradition that's as self-critical (if not "self hating") as any American trend. He may be a 21st century Dostoevsky, except that he seems to spurn, or at least keep a critical distance from spiritual solace. Meanwhile, Russians may not have the same tradition of anti-government thinking that we have in the U.S., and may not take one corrupt politician to represent politicians or rulers as a whole. Rather, there's a long "If the Tsar only knew" tradition that holds individual politicians rather than the central government responsible for local corruption. Zvyagintsev clearly sees something very wrong with Russia, but he most likely thinks it was wrong long before Putin came along.

Ironically, Zyagintsev, who won a screenplay award at Cannes but lost Best Foreign Film to Ida at the Oscars, claims to have been inspired by an American tragedy. If so, his Russification of the story includes a telling difference. In the American case, an aggrieved property owner attacked his municipal government with an armored bulldozer before the cops shot him down. That seems like a characteristically American climax somehow. In Leviathan, the aggrieved property owner, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), doesn't get to go so dramatically berserk. He takes out his frustrations on his straying second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), only to end up apparently framed for her murder when her suicide looks more likely to us. The drunken thuggish mayor (Roman Madyadov) wants Kolya's land and has manipulated the law to drive him off with a payment far below the property's value. Kolya's old army buddy Dima is the Moscow lawyer who appears to save the day by blackmailing the mayor. But everything falls apart as Dima starts an affair with Lillia, only to be discovered by Kolya's borderline-delinquent son Roma (Sergei Prokhodaev) at the picnic. Dima's defeat is complete when the mayor and his goons beat him up, tease his execution-style murder and leave him tied up in a ditch miles away from town. Lilya has a chance to go to Moscow with Dima but chooses to return to Kolya despite his drunken threat to kill her. He wants to reconcile but Roma has always hated his stepmother and his eavesdropping on some rough reconciliation sex in the basement sends him over the edge, and eventually does likewise for Lilya. Kolya's only recourse is drunken despair. A priest compares him to Job -- hence Leviathan as in "Can you bait Leviathan with a fishhook," though the presence of whales and whale bones in this coastal town also justify the title. Job's problem, the priest says, was that he was preoccupied with the meaning of life, the point being that only God can figure that out and that Kolya should stop sulking and stewing over his grievances and misfortunes. Faith, then, is Kolya's only hope, except that he's off to jail for fifteen years while a brand-new church rises where Kolya's home once stood.

What solace can the church offer if its foundation is built on crime? Leviathan gives us starkly different visions of the church, contrasting the priest who attempts to console Kolya, and who collects day-old bread from the store for the poor, with a more worldly prelate who acts as the mayor's spiritual advisor and gets to consecrate the new church building. The poor priest challenges Kolya's despair, answering his "where was your god?" question with: My god is doing fine; how about yours? Yet Zvyagintsev makes even this presumably well-meaning divine somewhat repellent by visually equating his distribution of bread with the slopping of hogs. I don't know if that was his intent, but the juxtaposition definitely is intentional, though the point may be that people are hogs, not that religion is slop. Leviathan certainly portrays a squalid Russia, one that seems to run on vodka, and for which there are no easy alternatives. The most a Russian might say in his country's defense is that Zvyagintsev is more misanthrope than self-hater. If so, he's a curiously reticent misanthrope, at least by American standards. His preference is to distance us from violence if he can't avoid showing it. We don't see the fight at the picnic in which Kolya beats up Lilya and Dima, for instance, while we see Dima beaten up by the mayor's goons from behind the windshield of a car with its radio playing. Spiritual brutalization rather than violence seems to be his subject, and the overall tone of the film isn't distant in the American satiric style that often seems condescending. Leviathan is too empathetic and indignant for satire. Zvyagintsev sparks our anger over Kolya's treatment and encourages us to hold on to it by denying him or us a catharsis. If the church's answers are unsatisfactory, it's up to his Russian audience to think of something themselves. It's enough for us foreigners to understand that "get rid of Putin" isn't answer enough for the problems Leviathan diagnoses. While the film is inescapably about Russia on some level, I think global audiences will appreciate this worthy film more if they recognize the universality of the human conditions it portrays instead of striving to see it as a political statement.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

THE MIGHTY (1929)

George Bancroft broke into unlikely stardom in his mid-forties, at the end of the silent era. He was the big burly type who personified manliness for some audiences, a sort of sexier Wallace Beery. Bancroft had the benefit of working with up-and-coming director Josef von Sternberg in two silent classics, Underworld and The Docks of New York, and in his second talkie, Thunderbolt. John Cromwell directed The Mighty, Bancroft's third talkie and third starring role in 1929. Bancroft plays a gangster transformed by war. Blake Greeson gets his draft notice in 1917 but ignores it while planning a bank robbery to impress gang leader Shiv Sterky (Warner "Charlie Chan" Oland). Blake may not be interested in war, but war is interested in him. To be precise, a small squad of soldiers catches up with him at a local dive and effectively presses him into service, though not without a barroom brawl.


Greeson actually takes well to war, and so does the movie. World War I may have been a plague on mankind, but it was a godsend to film directors. The Mighty is no All Quiet on the Western Front, but Cromwell shoots some impressive overhead tracking shots of soldiers crossing No Man's Land. The war is a proving ground for both Greeson and Jerry Patterson, a gung-ho but "nervous" young lieutenant who envies Greeson's strength and courage but despises his attitude. Greeson gets promoted ahead of Patterson, which seems to prove to both men that you have to think the way Greeson thinks -- like a thug -- in order to do what he can do. But Greeson rethinks his assumptions when Patterson overcomes his nervousness and several wounds to take out a German machine-gun nest, at the cost of his own life.


The Mighty seems poised to be a more ambitious film than it actually ends up being. After the Armistice Greeson returns to America and goes to Patterson's home town. One of his old cronies, Dogey Franks (Raymond Hatton), is on board the train and is stunned to see his pal treated as a war hero. Blake is just about as stunned by the impromptu ceremony at the train station, during which he's given the proverbial key to the city. Dogey playfully heckles Greeson during the march through the station, but he also takes the key-to-the-city concept a little too literally, believing that Blake now has an in to all the town's riches. Blake himself is clearly troubled by the honors heaped upon him. Cromwell films the walk through the station with a tracking shot similar to the war scenes, then cuts to a point-of-view shot as Greeson discovers Patterson's sister (Esther Ralston) sitting in a car waiting to convey him to the family home. The director effectively conveys that this is a moment of dread for Greeson without requiring Bancroft to explain it to the audience by emoting.


At this point the film gives in to melodrama. The city fathers convince Greeson to become their chief of police, believing him eminently qualified by virtue of killing Germans to clean up their town. Blake continues to wear his army uniform on his new job, both as a reminder of the real source of his authority and a sign of his ambivalence toward his position. Dogey has drawn Shiv Starkey and the rest of the gang to town in the expectation that Blake will throw it wide open to them. That's Blake's idea also, after first cleaning up the native criminal element to establish his bona fides. But as Blake falls in love with Louise Patterson, he feels more compelled to live up to the image her brother created in his letters to her. It sounds like Jerry built him up as a total hero, though the cynical attitude toward war Blake expresses to her might bely that. The war was just a big gang fight to Greeson, but Louise shares what we assume was Jerry's belief that something more was at stake. Right or wrong, won't someone always fight for his gang? Aren't you a traitor if you go against the gang? Louise answers by citing not Benedict Arnold but George Washington. He was a traitor to Great Britain, but for the right cause. The gears in Blake's head have already been turning but this conversation accelerates them.


In the end it's not so different from the western archetype of the fugitive outlaw who becomes sheriff in a town where the people don't know him and ends up driving off or shooting down his erstwhile outlaw buddies. Subtler points about Blake Greeson's readjustment are lost amid the cliches, while the dialogue gets corny in a way that weighs down the actors. Bancroft is loose and natural in the early scenes, but turns stiff and ponderous in heroic mode, while seeing Warner Oland as a gangster makes it a good thing he found work on the other side of the law. The Mighty starts strong but sputters to its finish. It may have been an omen for Bancroft's career as a leading man, which hadn't long to go.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Too Much TV: ARROW (2012-present)

On the big screen, it is a notorious fact that DC Comics and its corporate parent Warner Bros. have fallen far behind Marvel Comics and its corporate parent Disney in exploiting the full potential of its comic book universe. Despite the massive success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, by the time Nolan was done Marvel had surged past DC and Warners, with The Avengers outgrossing The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Worse, Nolan left DC no hooks on which to hang a universe, and so Warners had to start from scratch, with Nolan's help, with 2013's Man of Steel, and now has to wait until 2016 for a full-scale universe rollout with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Part of the problem for DC was that their first effort to launch another movie franchise following the historic phenomenon of The Dark Knight was Martin Campbell's Green Lantern, a debacle on nearly every level made more embarrassing by Marvel's increasing success introducing relatively unfamiliar characters. As a writer and producer of Green Lantern, Greg Berlanti has a share of the blame for handicapping the DC cinematic universe. That makes it somewhat ironic that Berlanti deserves nearly all the credit for DC's dominance over Marvel on television. As of this fall he'll be personally responsible for three DC shows, out of a larger number on the air or in development, while Marvel struggles along with Agents of SHIELD. As DC continues to proliferate, Arrow's debut in Fall 2012 appears to mark a new era in genre television. A number of factors account for DC's TV success, and to date it's unclear how much Berlanti's production team really has to do with it.

One of DC's biggest advantages is actually Marvel's self-imposed handicap. Agents of SHIELD is a spinoff of Marvel's movie universe, and that automatically makes the show a kind of minor-league operation, occasionally blessed by the appearance of movie characters but limited by a presumed reluctance to "waste" Marvel's more interesting characters and concepts on television when they might make millions if not billions in movies. For DC, however, movies and television are separate universes that do not cross over. The movie Flash, for instance, will be played by someone other than Grant Gustin, who plays Flash on TV. While this disappoints some of Gustin's new fans who'd like to see him on the big screen, the benefit of separate universes is that nearly everything in DC's repertoire is available for use in both TV and movies. On Arrow, for instance, Ra's al-Ghul has emerged as a major antagonist despite being a Batman villain who figured prominently in Nolan's films, and a version of the Suicide Squad will exist parallel to the movie franchise scheduled to launch late next year. With the possible exception of Superman and Batman themselves (not counting Bruce Wayne as a child, as seen of the non-Berlanti Gotham show), everything is up for grabs in DC's TV universe. As a result, the TV universe doesn't automatically seem second rate the way Agents of SHIELD does as an appendage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can't say too much about SHIELD since I quit watching after the first four episodes. I'm told it's gotten much better since then, but the initial decision to base the show around original and initially uninteresting characters alienated me from the project. I couldn't help thinking that Joss Whedon & co. made up these new characters because more established characters were off-limits, while Greg Berlanti had far fewer constraints.

But if Berlanti had fewer restraints, Arrow's presence on the CW network imposed certain obligations. The CW was the home of the most successful superhero series ever, the Superman-prequel Smallville, but it's better known as a network with virtually a house genre tailored to a predominantly female audience. As with Smallville, there are more "soap opera" elements to Arrow than many male fans are comfortable with, just as there's arguably a greater preoccupation with beefcake than with cheesecake. It must have been disturbing to the still mainly male readership of DC Comics to see ads for Arrow highlighting its shirtless male stars during the show's second season. Less superficially, Arrow sets the tone for modern superhero shows by emphasizing the emotional complications and consequences of living with a secret identity, or with secrets of any sort. The necessity of a double life and its benefits for hero and loved ones alike are no longer taken for granted. Hardly an hour of Arrow goes by without characters freaking out over secrets that had been kept from them, secrets being equivalent to lies. Trust is always at stake. I'm assured that these issues really matter to female viewers, but I admit that the repetition of these themes sometimes leaves me longing for Hawksian professionalism as practiced by more grown-up characters. Ours is a less self-assured, less stoic culture, however, and in Nolan's term Arrow is arguably the hero or the show we deserve.

Arrow, of course, is based on Green Arrow, one of DC's oldest and longest-lasting characters. Created in 1941, GA was one of the few DC superheroes to be published uninterruptedly through the entire "Golden Age" of comics and into the "Silver Age" that began in the mid-1950s. The definitive form of the character didn't appear until 1969, when artist Neal Adams and writer Denny O'Neil turned Oliver Queen into a bearded radical, in attitude if not in conduct more like his ancient Robin Hood model. Berlanti's Oliver Queen bears little resemblance to that Green Arrow, but the show retains the traditional origin story in which Ollie (Stephen Amell) acquires his skills while stuck on a desert island. Since TV abhors a lone hero, however, Ollie has a number of teachers during his years on the island, most prominently Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett, playing a character borrowed from Teen Titans comics), an Australian special forces officer on a secret mission destined to become Arrow's nemesis in the second season. Arrow developed along Kung Fu lines, cross-cutting between Ollie's present-day vigilante adventures in Starling City and his younger self's struggles on the island. While the flashbacks are often thematically relevant, they also have a dramatic continuity of their own independent of Ollie's reminiscences. Since TV really abhors a lone hero, Ollie -- known initially as "the Hood" or "the Starling City Vigilante" before he settled on the show title in the second season -- gradually accumulated a little support network on top of a more extensive family than Queen had in the comics. He didn't get his traditional sidekick, Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) until late in the first season, but by that time he already had a competent wingman in erstwhile government agent and bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey) and a too-beautiful-to-be-true computer genius in Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). These helpers often give Ollie moral guidance, steering him away from his early execution-style vendetta against the city's corrupt elite ("You have failed this city!" was his catchphrase) toward less ambiguous heroism dedicated to protecting rather than punishing people.

During its first two season Arrow felt like a show that was evolving in ways its creators hadn't intended, but to their joy. The most likely departure from script was the mass shipping of Ollie and Felicity -- "Ollicity" in the obnoxious jargon of shipping -- at the expense of Ollie's original love interest, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy). The Lance name signaled that Laura was destined to become the Black Canary, Green Arrow's partner in crimefighting and romance, but only in the third season has Laurel donned that costume, inheriting it from a sister whose return from the seeming dead in the second season seemed like a delaying action until Cassidy was ready for the requirements of a heroic role. For the first two years of the show Laurel was probably its most hated character because she existed almost exclusively on a soap-opera level, and Ollicity filled the void as Rickards rose from occasional comic bit player to virtual co-star of the show. There seems to be an effort this year to undermine Ollicity now that Laurel is ready to play her destined role, but I don't care to predict how things will evolve on this front.

In any event, as an old comic book fan I watched the show for the action, which worked on a level unprecedented for TV superhero shows. The show's peak so far is the second half of the second season, when Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke) emerged as a master villain and madman fuelled by a strength-enhancing drug and an obsession with punishing Ollie for the death of a woman Slade loved. Using a religious cult as a front, Slade built an army of superhuman killers, forcing Ollie and friends to get help from the as yet-unseen Ra's al-Ghul's League of Assassins to save Starling City from destruction from within and without as a frantic U.S. government considered extreme measures to contain Slade's army. The show has lost steam since then, and the return to prominence of the first season's Big Bad, Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman), is a troubling sign. Malcolm was the father of Ollie's best friend Tommy, who died in a Merlyn-engineered earthquake at the end of Season One, but in Season Two it was revealed during one of his brief appearances that he's also the father of Ollie's sister Thea (Willa Holland), an oft-troubled and sometimes addicted girl (whose nickname, "Speedy," was Roy Harper's in the early comics) whom Malcolm has trained to be a warrior if not a killer in his own image. Since family is very important on TV, I worry that Malcolm will be treated like family and thus become a permanent part of the show after already wearing out his welcome, despite the show's tease of a redemption arc for this mass murderer.With too much emphasis on Malcolm and Thea, Arrow could go the way of Heroes, the onetime phenomenon (now scheduled for a comeback) that grew tiresome for its refusal to move beyond its original villains and family dynamics. Arrow has never been a great show, but it has often been fun, yet it may be less fun the longer Malcolm hangs around and discourages the writers from trying new things.  There are troubling signs that they may not have had any real idea of what to do beyond the first two seasons. They're already assured of a fourth season, but they'll need to work harder than ever to deserve a fifth. That being said, Arrow's place in TV history is already assured, even if its progeny eventually surpass it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

DVR Diary: THE IRON CURTAIN (1948)

William Wellman's red-scare drama for Twentieth Century-Fox has one of the most interesting soundtracks of the 1940s. Alfred Newman conducted and presumably curated a selection of themes duly credited to contemporary Soviet composers: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc. The idea seems to have been to craft a background musical portrait of Soviet communism. The music in the picture is both diegetic and non-diegetic. For laymen, that means some of the Soviet music is simply soundtrack (non-diegetic) and some is heard by the characters in the story. For instance, in the cipher office where Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews) works, music blares at all times for security reasons, so that people can't hear anything in adjoining offices. Later, another character hears a snatch of Shostakovich and identifies it as the first stirring of proletarian culture. For a non-diegetic example, during a moment of moral crisis Gouzenko hears voices from earlier scenes in the picture while we hear a particularly hellish bit from Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Throughout, the Soviet music is strident, turbulent, frenetic. The Iron Curtain soundtrack is a Fantasia of totalitarian themes and terror. Depending on your taste in classical music, it may be a more effective argument against Stalinism than the film itself.

The historic Iron Curtain was located by Winston Churchill in eastern Europe, but the Gouzenko story and the Iron Curtain movie take place in Canada. Gouzenko is assigned to the Soviet embassy in Ottowa as a cipher clerk while World War II is still in progress and the USSR is Canada's ally against Nazi Germany. The film shows the Soviets already looking ahead to a resumption of the irrepressible class struggle. Embassy workers and Canadian communists are shown recruiting people (including a member of parliament) to spy on their government and military, and later on the atomic bomb program under way in the U.S. Gouzenko is a loyal communist initially, despite an early mis-step when he recites to his new boss his actual personal background instead of the fake details that have been prepared for him. Gouzenko is warned not to make friends with Canadians, but that's no problem until his wife (Gene Tierney) is sent over to live with him. She can't help trying to make friends with neighbors, especially after their son is born. Occasionally they take walks through the city, once stopping awkwardly outside a church as hymns play inside. It's hard to tell what we're supposed to make of their apparent distress. Does the churchiness of it all disturb them in some way, or do they recognize this as something inviting yet forbidden to them? Later in the picture, an older Soviet observes that he's old enough to know what truth is, or was, while Gouzenko's generation isn't so lucky. That seems to be the screenplay's dig at Soviet atheism, but what's really subversive for the Gouzenkos is the sheer fact of family life. It makes them start to think of having lives of their own, which isn't part, apparently, of the Soviet program.

Gouzenko is increasingly uncomfortable with the embassy's involvement in atomic spying. To him and his wife it all seems to promise a new war so soon after the victory over Germany. Igor (many actors pronounce it "Eager") is also troubled by the breakdown of a colleague grown guilty over his role in state terror. That unfortunate is duly shipped back to Moscow -- it's a damning fact that no one looks forward to being recalled to the old country -- and when Igor learns that his family is to return home after he trains a replacement, the Gouzenkos make a personal decision to defect and a moral decision to expose the atomic spy network. What follows apparently follows fairly closely the events of their actual defection, which fortunately fits the framework of a "they won't believe me" thriller. The Gouzenkos are spurned by government, law enforcement and media, none of the above taking them seriously. In a historically accurate yet thematically significant detail, only when the embassy staff invades the sanctity of the Gouzenko home, having discovered his theft of damning documents, do the police take action to protect the defectors. Governments and other institutions may not be reliable, but at least our society -- Canada for this purpose being effectively an extension of the U.S. -- respects property and family when totalitarianism doesn't.

Like other anti-communist films, Iron Curtain isn't really ideological if that word leads you to expect a defense of capitalism against communism. Communism is primarily a political threat, the tyranny over humanity of a conspiratorial, paranoid party. Curtain is less a polemical or patriotic film than a kind of film noir, and while cinematographer Charles G. Clarke didn't work much in that genre he makes an effectively noirish impression here. Unfortunately, Gouzenko's story doesn't give Andrews much to work with, and Tierney gets even less, and the postwar Fox gimmick of portentous pseudo-documentary narration distances the audience further from the characters. Wellman directs anonymously; it really could have been anyone behind the camera and for all I know the job was a loyalty test like I Married A Communist was at RKO. The music really is the most interesting thing about the picture; it so overwhelms the mostly uninspired proceedings that audiences might have wondered who really had the more interesting culture. More likely they just found the music too loud.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

I watch too much TV

My blog productivity took a big dip last year. Part of that had to do with personal issues that no longer apply, but so far in 2015 I haven't gotten back up to speed. While my postings for 2012 and 2013 are inflated because many of those years' posts are based on newspaper clippings, I still feel that I'm not writing as much as I should. One enduring reason for this is that I've been reading more over the past year, though my reading in the pulps did result in several posts in 2014 and may still bear fruit in a new blog this year. The main stumbling block now is that I spend too much time watching TV, by which I mean TV shows rather than movies. Until about two years ago I was just about totally cut off from modern TV trends. I never watched The Sopranos or Breaking Bad; I've never seen an hour of Mad Men or The Wire. I caught a random hour of the first season of Game of Thrones, but instead of watching further I worked my way through the first of the novels last year and plan to start the second soon. I watched practically no series television from the time I started blogging until the fall of 2012, and then the balance started to tip the other way. TV gradually became more interesting if not better than it was before, until I found myself with less time to take screencaps or write reviews at the length and frequency I had taken for granted before. Something had to give -- and now I propose to give more space here to the shows I'm watching, to account for my interest in them. Don't come looking for the best shows on television, but I'll stick up for at least a couple of them as indisputably good if not great programs. Others may count as guilty pleasures, not just of the present but of the past as well. Much of what I'll review here is based on comic books, and I'll touch on the ways in which superhero stories are reshaped for TV formats and TV audiences, and the ways in which compulsive retellings reshape our modern folklore. Overall, my choice of subjects may disappoint many of the more committed connoisseurs of television, but I think they'll live up to our continuing mandate to explore a wild world of cinema. And of course, I'll continue to review movies, including newer theatrical releases once winter lets up around here and I feel like traveling more on weekends again. By the time I get all of this out of my system the main TV season will be over, and all other things being equal this blog should get back to normal, at least for the summer. For now, stay tuned.

Monday, February 16, 2015

DVR Diary: THE WEIRD MAN (1983)

The English title pretty accurately describes what you'll see in Chang Cheh's film, the last the legendary martial-arts director made for the Shaw Bros. studio, but I had a feeling the original Chinese title wouldn't be so tantalizingly prosaic. I ran the original through a couple of online translation programs and discovered that Shaw Bros. intended some sort of play on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Google produced "Theurgy and the Sundance Kid" while Bing offered "Avatar vs. Cassidy." Since The Weird Man is not a buddy movie, the studio may have hoped to convey the dual nature of its protagonist, but that's just my desperate guess. After some perfunctory court intrigue, featuring bad acting by the dubbing artists I heard on the El Rey broadcast, we're introduced to Yu Ji, a Taoist priest with the power to heal. The picture sets him up as a Christlike figure, or else people from the Christian world are likely to see him that way. The powers that be scheme to destroy him, while he tells his five disciples that he's destined to die so he can be reborn. He is challenged to produce rain for a drought-stricken city or die on a pyre. He refuses to perform on demand, but the skies open up just as his pyre is lit. The people demand that Yu Ji be spared, but he's decapitated instead, smoke billowing from his neck. This, apparently, is just what he planned.

Yu Ji's disciples are under strict instructions on how to treat his body. They manage to snatch the head and body and reunite them in a mystic pool, the corpse floating toward the head until it reattaches. The hirsute priest is restored and assumes a meditative pose as his new body literally springs to life: a younger, clean-shaven figure in a loincloth. If anyone in the picture is a Weird Man, it's this guy. Yu Ji has gone to all this trouble in order to become an omnipotent mischief maker. He can possess other people's bodies -- actor Ricky Cheng Tien Chi dons drag when he takes over women -- and use them to fight the bad guys. Try to slice him and he strikes back with silk scarves, soap bubbles, balloons, etc. His only vulnerability is that he must touch base with his old body once each day, once a disciple has tapped old Yu Ji's forehead three times. That done, he can promptly return to wherever he was making mischief before. If it is not done, is that the end of the Weird Man? Unfortunately, we never really find out. Chang Cheh apparently expects us to find the title character's cavorting hilarious or else, at the end of the line with Shaw Bros., he doesn't give a damn anymore. I found it all too reminiscent of bad sci-fi comedies where aliens have all sorts of wacky powers, usually including telekinesis so they can levitate people, just because ... you know .. they're advanced! In the title role, Ricky Cheng Tien Chi and his perpetual smirk are pretty insufferable, but I must admit that the film as a whole has the same sort of allure that a trainwreck has. It was terrible, but I couldn't look away. That may be a recommendation for some people, and it's definitely as close to one as you're going to see here.