Sunday, August 29, 2010

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn 2010)

Look at it this way: The book is about the limits of fantasies, about a guy who discovers his dream of being a real superhero is boring until it ends up with him stabbed, tortured, humiliated and in true Peter-Parker-style worse off than when he started. Except that Parker at least knows he helped people while Kick-Ass takes down a drug dealer purely by accident and another superhero with even more elaborate fantasies simply executed with a bullet to the head.

The movie is about how fun it would be to live a superhero's life, about how despite a few setbacks that everybody experiences at the start the hero takes down a drug dealer, gets the girl, makes friends and rides a jaunty jetpack around NYC. In short, the movie wallows in the fantasies that the book attacks.

Admittedly the movie starts off more or less the same but there's one scene where you can see it change. Kick-Ass climbs into Katie's open window at night to admit that he's really Dave, her supposedly gay bff, and oh yeah that he's not gay. Despite initial shock and attacking him with sporting equipment she then decides instead to take him to bed and become his girlfriend. The whole thing is so beyond-implausible that I was sure this was an imaginary sequence, even well after the scene had ended. In the book Dave only reveals that he's not gay, prompting Katie to have him beaten up before she taunts him with her boyfriend and has her other friends ridicule him. A bit extreme but not just more plausible but more to the point. (It may also be worth noting that with this change to Katie and the movie having Mindy's mother actually be dead pretty much every woman in the movie becomes a sex object or a nobody like Red Mist's mom. The book won't win any feminist awards but at least there's some autonomy to the characters.)

It's not that the story is too medium-specific to comics but that Vaughn didn't rethink it enough as a movie. Mostly what he did was change the comics references to movie ones (such as Spider-Man and Batman not the book's She-Hulk and Nova), stretch the story too far then force the ending into something more conventional. It appears that he was originally headed towards the book's ending which is why the scene with Hit-Girl's "origin" clearly states that it's not entirely true. No surprise that nearly all the sex from the book is gone - same thing happened with Wanted. And it's one thing to show an 11-year-old girl as a mass murderer but the book's scene where she sniffs cocaine (believing it to be a power enhancer) clearly had to go. It doesn't help that the movie was made on too-obvious sets and a CGI NYC which only makes it more unrealistic. And I'm still not sure why he revealed Red Mist's identity so early unless it's more of the Hollywood idea that audiences hate surprises. (Which certainly doesn't bode well for the adaptation of Chosen.)

The book isn't exactly subtle and Millar wasn't trying to be but it does have its own consistency and some psychological depth. Millar at least shows Hit-Girl reacting to her father's death - the movie just has her shrug it off like some b-movie action star. It's hard to tell if Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage were miscast or if they were deliberately playing up the characters' happy talk falseness - falseness that is a key part of the book but that the movie takes as completely true. But then superhero comics have a fairly long tradition of self-examination that's not common in movies and could even be traced (if you're willing to stretch) back to Don Quixote and Northanger Abbey. Kick-Ass the movie had possibilities but it would have required a filmmaker who actually understood the purpose of the story and was willing to follow that path.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Wire

I must be sick because descriptions of The Wire (the TV show not the magazine) as a sociological examination of the American city actually sounded good to me. "Complex", "bleak", "stark", "deep" are often used and that's not even getting to the superlatives ("greatest show ever" or some variation is common). So yeah this is definitely my kind of show.

Except, well, I don't think it is. I watched the first two discs (first five episodes) and was very surprised, almost shocked even, at how conventional and un-complex, un-bleak the show is. Just look at it this way: A ragtag team of misfits who don't get along are tucked away in a crumbling basement while trying to take down a criminal mastermind (who Mabuse-like most law enforcement have never even heard of). One has a temper problem, one can't stop talking, one is so righteous that he got busted down to routine duties, etc. Gosh, they even have a lesbian - how broadminded is that! And oh yeah the drug dealers are given almost equal time. One wants to move up in the organization, one is street muscle, one is mostly a businessman, etc. Gosh, they even have a gay drug dealer - how broadminded is that!

And to be honest I don't particularly care about how original the story may or may not be. (Claims that it's based on journalistic reality are of course a way to avoid dealing with the actual show.) What seems most odd is how clumsy it's put together. There are several monologues that are clearly meant as actor showcases - they're blatantly, almost agressively, unrealistic though not to the point that even sympathetic viewers might call them Brechtian. They feel inserted whenever exposition or background or character info is needed. One of them when the drug dealer explains in bizarre detail how he murdered a woman seems oddly placed since it reveals a killer when there was no reason to do so. (And who had the idea for the scene investigating the apartment where the murder happened to have the dialogue be entirely variations on a curse word? That's more like a Saturday Night Live sketch.) David Simon claimed he was making a response to the procedurals that dominate TV crime shows so it makes sense that he would remove the mystery from a murder mystery. Still, in this specific case there's no real benefit unless it's later in the season that I haven't seen yet.

Trying to portray a surveillance society comes in fits even though that's the reference in the series title. One particularly odd moment is a cut to video security camera images of the drug dealers leaving a building and getting into cars. The image itself is pure padding--there isn't the slightest narrative purpose unless they were trying to document modern urban transportation methods--but the jump to a black-and-white video image is jarring for no purpose, especially since it's the only such moment in the episode. We do get bits about the use of pagers and public phones but it's hardly as interesting as Clockers for instance.

For all I know The Wire improves. I keep thinking of watching Babylon 5 the first time and after about the fourth or fifth episode asking some friends who were big supporters (in fact they helped bring it to TNT for the final season) that it was merely ok so far and does it get any better. They said absolutely yes and were absolutely right so I wonder whether The Wire really does get down to business later or whether it stays with this sloppy, half-hearted drama that's not particularly dramatic. There's no way it can retroactively improve these early episodes but there's a chance that with all the basics out of the way it can start moving to worthwhile territory. I just don't think it's worth my time to go along with the journey.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman 2009)

Reitman previously gave us the godawful Juno but since Up in the Air is merely pedestrian and predictable I suppose that counts as some kind of progress. It's a movie where as soon as two antagonistic characters are sent on a road trip you know they will come to some kind of mutual admiration. Where the confident young hotshot will learn life isn't what she expects. Where when Clooney's character Ryan decides (on stage during a lecture no less) to surprise visit his girlfriend that she will turn out to have another life. Where an employee that threatens suicide but nobody believes her will follow through. Where when his sister mentions they can't travel anywhere on their honeymoon Ryan will eventually give them some of his hoarded airline miles.

To some degree predictability doesn't much matter since most art depends on it. Many of Shakespeare's plays dealt with stories familiar to the original audiences and Stanley Wells has noted that he even avoided many of the surprise twists often found in work by his contemporaries. What matters in Up in the Air is that Reitman is trying to create an illusion of hard-earned wisdom or at least surprise but the film is as unsurprising (and less imaginative) than, say, 27 Dresses. Apparently the idea is that we see Ryan learn how alienated he really is, how he really does need other people, which seems a little odd given that Ryan and much of the first half is basically comic despite the on-screen firings. As viewers we already know Ryan is alienated just as we know Daffy Duck has a temper problem so seeing their realization doesn't have much point. This isn't a tragedy - we aren't seeing Oedipus have a bad moment or even Falstaff hearing "I know thee not old man".

In fact one of the main problems with Up in the Air is to even consider Ryan alienated. There are after all many people who are perfectly happy in such circumstances, who don't need this intricate web of other people that the film ultimately insists is the norm. Perhaps the most interesting scene is one where Ryan has Natalie "sell" him on the idea of marriage but she sputters because she clearly has never really thought about the "why". (Can you imagine what Hawks or Sturges would have made of this material? Or going a completely different direction Mike Leigh? It's certainly unfair to compare Reitman to them but at least that shows why it's easy to say he wasn't even trying.) By the end of the film it's clear that, even despite Alex's offer of cheerful adultery, Reitman is firmly on the idea that there are no other options other than the most straightforward, mainstream one.

And that's only a problem because unlike a romantic comedy Reitman is pretending to be open-minded. Just look at the scene where Ryan has to convince his sister's fiance to go through with the wedding. Where you might expect some kind of smart dialogue or even quasi-clever argument Ryan simply drones on for a while, just as he previously had been the world's most monotonous inspirational speaker. (Which early in the film I thought was part of the joke but later wondered if there was some disconnect from the script.) An argument could be made that the fiance really doesn't need convincing, that he really wants the wedding but simply needs a push over last-minute jitters, but that's not what's in the film. Are we really supposed to think Ryan is finally being a big brother? Or that his clumsy "do you want to be alone" talk really works?

There is supposedly some kind of topicality in the fact that Ryan is hired to fire people (though the book appeared in 2001). If anything this is even more implausible and ultimately grating. We get brief talking head shots of various reactions to the firings and in one scene Ryan convincing a fired employee that he's now free to pursue his interest in cooking. Are we really supposed to think this is what happens? That the firing was a "good thing"? The only reason I suspect so is the incredibly ill-conceived sequence at the end where another series of talking heads tell us how fortunate they are to have, well, whatever/whoever it is that they have. You probably couldn't come up with a more cynically manipulative "happy" ending and if nothing else it shows that Up in the Air has absolutely nothing to say about the current economic situation or in fact about corporate America. As far as we get from the film the firings are simply something that happens like a tornado. Apart from a bit at the start about Ryan being hired because the actual managers don't have the courage, there's no hint that firings are actual decisions made by actual people and in many cases are not at all necessary - they're done to preserve profitability not to preserve the actual existence of the company. So while viewers are sold on the idea that Ryan offers a humane way to do the firings, that's as far as the film is willing to go.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Should we watch TV?

Over the past year and a half I've watched more TV that any other time in my life. The trigger was an HD set that I received for Christmas but the accelerants were the wide availability of shows on DVD and some current ones that I actually felt like watching. So I've plowed through entire seasons of many shows while keeping up with several others but at some point it's hard not to wonder whether it was worth the trouble. I watched How I Met Your Mother, for instance, purely because it was on with a group of other shows I liked even though I realized that whatever the show had worthwhile was gone this season (yes even the cliched musical bit) and I watched purely out of habit.

The June 18th Entertainment Weekly said "it's just a fact" that TV is now better than the movies though typically they only mean mainstream Hollywood movies. And it's also worth noting that they're only talking about fiction TV. Their examples include Glee, Modern Family and Lost for the ones I've seen and Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Good Wife and Dexter for the ones I haven't. Now to be fair their examples aren't considered good but "worthy of spirited and enthusiastic discussion" as a kind of weasel way to avoid the glaring fact that Glee is objectively bad (characters so stereotyped they border on offensive, implausible stories that go nowhere, unimaginative staging, a sad conviction that pastiche is art) and burned up all its inspiration in the first half of the season.

But one catch of course in saying that Mad Men is better than current movies is this compares one season (13 episodes) to about six movies. If there are a couple of tedious episodes, a meandering storyline that goes through the entire season and a fair amount of filler that all gets ignored if the overall impact is mostly positive. So to compare that to a far-more-compact movie or two isn't quite a level field.

I'm not really arguing one way or the other whether "TV is better than the movies" but this is really just a long way into my main question whether TV is worth the time involved. I recently started True Blood and even after the third episode the main stories hadn't really been brought into focus - this is after three hours which even an overly long movie would have been already finished. Watching the first season of Fringe I almost gave up until learning what the big reveal would be and that the creators had increased the speed of the story to maintain interest. After seeing the whole season this only made me wonder what it would have been like without that increase because this moved so slowly that it did indeed feel like a waste of time. And at the moment I'm stalled halfway through season three of Lost because it's become so tedious that it's tricky to picture getting through even the rest of this season. (But considering that the general opinion is that I'm at the weakest part of the entire series I'm likely to give it a try.)

Somebody I trust has recommended Damages and in fact it sounds like my kinda show. But what I'm now looking at is whether it's worth going through what would be the equivalent of about 6 movies or 2-3 books for one season. Put that way the answer is a clear "no" but I suspect that at some point I'll actually check out the first ep or two then continue just to finish it.

One reason, actually probably the main reason, that TV creates this idea of "better" is the familiarity factor - you know the characters, the basic story, the parameters so it's comforting to visit this regularly and too often this comfort can be misunderstood as substance. At its best this extended storytelling mode can allow for depth, variety and effects that simply aren't possible in a movie - examples would be Babylon 5, The Sopranos (at least the first four seasons), The Simpsons. Even second and third tier shows can benefit from this though far too often they're just padding out a thin story.

The familiarity factor is why I stuck with How I Met Your Mother until it got to the point that I felt insulted when watching it, or that I'm continuing to watch True Blood even though so far it appears to be completely lightweight. I won't be the first person to suggest that American TV suffers from its insistence on 13 or 24 episode seasons and continuing the show for multiple seasons. Fawlty Towers stands out as nearly perfect because there are only 12 episodes (which was two seasons). Watching True Blood I often wonder why the creators thought to do it as a TV show instead of a movie since so far there's not enough story for an entire season. Something similar happens in comics where a story that would have taken one issue in the 60s now goes on for five or six (and that's not counting all the completely useless spinoffs and miniseries to tie-in to events). Or even books since there was no reason for Harry Potter to take up seven volumes - three would have been more than enough.

Now that the novelty of watching entire seasons on an HD TV has worn off this is the kind of calculation that's becoming more common for me though certainly everybody does it to some degree. To get back to that list I'm sure at some point to check out Mad Men, I like the Dexter books but heard the TV show is watered down and again don't see where there's enough material for a series, Breaking Bad is a toss up and The Good Wife sounds like a real snooze.