Zero K

(Note: this piece originally appeared on my (TW) Tumblr as part of my Informalities series, on 09 June 2016). 

The simplicity of its core struggle, of the ages-old, archetypal conflict between fathers and sons wrought over generational variances in perceptions of love and of purpose, makes DeLillo’s latest, ZERO K, tower above all of his works since UNDERWORLD.

That simplicity leads you, sans coddling, into a labyrinth, its foundation erected at a futurist crossroads of technological ethics and immortality, where a father and a son confront their terrors of abandonment, of love lost through love preserved, and stare over the precipice of their lives without, one staring headlong into the hope of unknown future that may never be, the other into the unknown future that only he can make.

(TW)

DAREDEVIL, Season Two

(Note: this piece originally appeared on my (TW) Tumblr as part of my Informalities series, on 02 May 2016). 

Expectation is a cruel mistress.

While it couldn’t be the revelatory experience of season one, DAREDEVIL season two was nonetheless felled by the lack of a compelling central villain, the overabundance of stop-and-go moralizing, the grating Nelson-Murdock-Page soap opera–all the more disheartening when the dynamic between the three characters was much of what made season one special–and, as with JESSICA JONES before it and, to a lesser extent, DAREDEVIL’s own first season, a meandering, sometimes excruciating middle third.

In other words, DAREDEVIL has become a typical Marvel project.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots: Bernthal’s Punisher and Yung’s Elektra were spectacular additions (in spite of leading to the aforementioned stop-and-go moralizing); Scott Glenn was, again, note-perfect as the wonderfully uncompromising asshole, Stick;  Vincent D’Onofrio’s brief appearance revitalized the sagging middle and made a promising set-up for a third season; and Karen Page’s evolution into the new Ben Urich is intriguing.

But.

The most troubling aspect of DAREDEVIL’s second season is that, in spite of D’Onofrio and the promise of his efforts to reclaim his throne and the shades of BORN AGAIN that it cast, its conclusion didn’t leave me with breathless excitement and anticipation for a third, a stark contrast to my ebullience at the conclusion of the first and the promise it held, a promise not met.

Still, I would much prefer a third season of DAREDEVIL to the “street-level Avengers” team-up THE DEFENDERS but, alas, the insistence that everything in the Marvel Cinematic/Streaming/Television Universe lead to a team-up is all-compassing, the Dark Side of connectivity unleashed: everything a perpetual set-up for some future promise, some future expectation, the soul-sapper of storytelling,

At least Robert Downey Jr. hasn’t shown up.

Yet.

(TW)

On THE WEST WING

“What are you thinking about?”
“Tomorrow.”

Idealism is, at its best, a marriage of hope and pragmatism: the belief in the best vision of the world and the tenacity to realize that vision in the face of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles hurled from every direction. When those of an idealistic persuasion rise to the position of governance, to the opportunity to realize their vision, a battle is waged between preserving and realizing the pragmatic idealism that paved the rocky path from campaign to governance and the danger of compromising oneself amidst the reality of the systemic corruption, unrepentant self-interest, and the dinner theater of the political stage, where the dinner rolls are stale and useful only as weapons to hurl at those who disagree in stubborn, childish, arm-crossing and tantrum-throwing displays of churlishness.

That THE WEST WING so deftly examined those battles, both between walk-and-talk White House staffers and between the detritus-strewn aisles of American politics, with each and every episode is a testament to both its timeliness and timelessness.

During its initial airing (1999-2006), I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Boston with a television whose sole means of communication with the outside world was a pair of $20 Radio Shack bunny ears. My choices were limited: Fox, Pax, or QVC and, as I watched endless reruns of THE SIMPSONS and SEINFELD amidst the fall of my musical aspirations and the backdrop of Bush Junior’s second war in Iraq, my inchoate understanding of the world grew in incremental realizations that the imperialistic, xenophobic propoganda wrapped in flag-waving bravado of the Bush Junior years was not right, let alone human and, when coupled in 2004 with the doldrums of the Kerry campaign, whose namesake was the most ineffective Democratic “standard-bearer” since Dukakis, and the resulant election night heartbreak leads me, in retrospect, to one inescapable truth: had I watched THE WEST WING in its initial airing, I would have slipped further into a despondency wrought by the chasm between the hope of the alternate present of the Bartlet administration, in which an honorable and flawed human being sat in the Oval Office with the humility and sense of duty it deserves, and the cowboy-boot-up-your-ass spur of the then-reality of the world stage in which the leader of the free world was a rodeo clown who didn’t wear the right makeup and the best chance of unseating him was a piece of snowboarding driftwood.

In bringing humanity to the image propogated by the bullet-point-and-Capitol-backdrop sound bite reciters that appear, see-sawing from drone-like chess pieces or well-timed volcanic eruptions of vacuous, rhetorical bullshit, THE WEST WING showed that the people making the laws of our land and halting the march towards World War III were just that, people: some energized, some overwhelmed, some attaining personal self-actualization of their mission in the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue–the sacrifice being only family, sleep, and health–by the weight of winning the prize that they sought on the pandering, baby-kissing, hand-shake-and-break reality show of the campaign trail.

That’s not to say that the show was without its faults: the often heavy-handed descents into soapboxing to the detriment of drama; the abysmal Toby-leaked-space-shuttle stuff in the seventh-season and subsequent efforts to show that the show hadn’t lost sight of the Bartlet administration in its twilight; and, most notoriously, nearly all of the show’s fifth season, the first of the post-Sorkin era, which hemmed and hawed its way to find direction, until the magnificent Israeli-Palestinian peace summit sequence at Camp David, which sadly, was all-too-presecient in its harrowing depiction of (then former-) Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s near-fatal heart attack (John Spencer, who played McGarry, tragically died of a heart attack midway through the show’s final season).

At its best, THE WEST WING represents the epitome of a concept I hold dear: that the best television shows are filled with characters that you look forward to seeing with each passing week. As we approached the end of the series (we watched all 156 episodes in a four-month Netflix binge), I began to lament that I would soon never see these characters again; now I understand why my wife (who watched the show during its initial airing) would perk up as soon as Toby (Richard Schiff) showed up on BURN NOTICE or MAN OF STEEL or Donna (Janel Maloney) appeared on HOUSE or THE BLACKLIST or House Speaker Haffley (Steven Culp) showed up on LONGMIRE: it was a chance to see them, if not in character, again after THE WEST WING–and the Bartlets–had flown off on Marine One at the first light of the new Santos administration.

And now, like the show itself, I must bring this to an end.

I’ve been writing this piece on and off for the four months in which THE WEST WING was an indelible part of our lives and the thought of crafting a final word for a piece on a show that I never wanted to end has been a struggle. So I’ve decided that I won’t have the final word.

A recent Twitter exchange:

Erstwhile, on FARGO: A Review

Note: while this is not a recap of the events of the first season of FX’s  FARGO, spoilers will be, in spite of my best efforts, inevitable. 

 
Three words spring to mind when a translation of a film to a television series or vice versa is announced. The first is “ballsy”: can the producers really expect to bring something that the other didn’t? The second and third are “cash grab”: because let’s be honest, in most cases of adaptation and/or translation, the almighty dollar is a skilled and convincing orator.  And, when the starting point for translation is an absolute masterpiece like the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, FARGO, cynicism is not only warranted, but unavoidable.

 
In the case of FARGO, that cynicism was completely unwarranted.

 
From the first scene to the last, the first season of Noah Hawley’s serialized exploration of the Coen Brothers’ snow-blanketed, “oh yah,” hunting-hat adorned and wood-chippered world, rises above mere imitation to become, like its precursor, as masterwork of its chosen medium, hurling the viewer into a world that is both as close as the backyard barbeque and as foreign as the surface of Bradbury’s Mars and populated by some of the most distinctive, flawed, and charming characters to come to televised life in recent memory.

 
Billy Bob Thornton gives the performance of his career–a career filled with performances of his career–as Lorne Malvo, a hitman with a penchant for twisting and manipulating the lives of all who dare enter his orbit, making death seem the easy way out, from mindfucking a lowly hotel kid to piss in the owner’s gas tank, to manipulating Martin Freeman’s Lester into “being a man,” to making Oliver Platt’s supermarket king Stavros Milos, in the most overt connection to the Coen Brothers’ film, believe that the travails and blackmail that befall him are God’s vengeance for his becoming an insufferable ass on his way to lording over a supermarket empire where it’s always “July in January.”

 
Thornton’s Malvo is, like the best fictional villains, a force of nature, a chameleonic alpha predator (his “why do we see the most shades of green” exchange with Colin Hanks’s Gus will send chills down your spine) who toys with his prey before ending them in the tradition of the best of the best: of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; of Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER; of Heath Ledger’s Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT; of Christopher Lee’s first performance as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA; of Anthony Hopkins’s first performance of Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS; and of Darth Vader in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

 
The lynchpins of FARGO, and the shots that set off the devasting events of the series are the insecurities and the perception of a demolished masculinity of Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygard, who goes from slippery little shit to more of a monster than Malvo in his quest for an awakened, bastardized form of masculinity and self-preservation. Lester is the kid who was picked on at school and who never got over it, always running on the thin ice of perception and paranoia, desperately trying to put one foot in front of the other; he’s the guy who, in a burning building, would cry out “women and children first” but flee the inferno before anyone else, then set his shirt on fire for the third-degree burns so he can say that he tried to save everyone, all the while saying “oh, geez.”

 
In Alison Tolman’s Molly Solverson, as with her spiritual precursor, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, we are given one of the great female protagonists of television: no-nonsense, relentless (though there was  one scene which stood out as untrue to her character; you will probably be able to spot it), and driven to solve the tangled web of the murder of her mentor, Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle, who, though appearing in less than 1/10th of the series, manages to stay with the viewer for the entire series, much akin to Linus Roache’s exemplary and underrated performance as Thomas Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS). Tolman brings rationality, doggedness and a willingness to see beyond the mirage of peace and tranquility wrought by lifelong connections and small-town neighborliness (given voice by Thurman’s successor, Chief Bill Oswalt, portrayed by Bob Odenkirk in a post-BREAKING BAD, pre-BETTER CALL SAUL foray into brilliance).  Through Molly’s eyes, we see the pendulum of horrific and heartbreaking swing back and forth as FARGO makes its way towards its inevitable and endlessly satisfying conclusion.

 
The ultimate success of FARGO lies in its willingness to veer wildly through a slalom course of tone and character: within a single scene, FARGO can be laugh-out-loud funny and, seconds later, shatter the viewer with heartbreak and violence. In the hands of less capable storytellers, these tonal permutations would feel half-baked and representative of indecision; in FARGO, these permutations are essential elements of both the world and themes that hurl the viewer through an addictive and visceral television experience, one that can only be described as “aces,” with a Billy Bob Thornton smile and finger-gun.

TW

MAN OF STEEL – A Ponder

I’m coming at MAN OF STEEL as someone who has loathed every one of Zack Snyder’s films and who holds fondly in his heart the memories of Supermans past, from the punisher of social ills of Siegel and Shuster to the ray-smacking silent guardian of Fleischer; from the cranial-bonking animated flight stylings of Kirk Alyn and the wall-smashing Eisenhowerness of George Reeves to the good-citizen family man of the 50s and the Byrne-dom of the post-Crisis; from the cat-saving, Earth-spinning smile of Christopher Reeve’s bank to the left and kneeling before Zod, Richard Pryor and Kinda-Dolph-Lundgren; from Superfriends to Ruby-Spears; from his splash-page city-saving sacrifice at the hands of Doomsday and resurrection as none of four reclaimers, but rather the mulleted version of himself to Grant Morrison’s defining “All-Star” bookend; from Brandon Routh’s tiny-S shield and his sing-song final victory in “Final Crisis”; from Dean Cain’s penchant for hair gel against John Shea to Bruce Timm and the fight between Supes and Darkseid; from every line, every word and every iteration to every half-tone dot of blue, yellow and red, I have found excellence and transcendance in every single iteration of the character.

MAN OF STEEL is no exception.

Before I go further, this ponderance will discuss the entirety of the film, including SPOILERS. I discuss them at length, so if you haven’t seen the film, go see it and come back later.

MAN OF STEEL is  “Superman Begins,” down to the omni-present father figures, the flashback structure and the conclusion. As BATMAN BEGINS was eight years ago and CASINO ROYALE was seven years ago (wow), MAN OF STEEL is the reinvention of the mythology for this generation, one not beholden to the ideals of what came before or from anyone’s memory of the character. It is as foreign as John Byrne’s Superman would have been to George Reeves, and it needs to be. It is a transitional film, the passing of a mythology from one generation to the other.

In our minds, we want our heroes perfect; in our hearts we know they are not. Superman, unlike his dark counterpart with a thing for hanging out with bats, represents the ideal in all of us, the hope that we strive for and the ultimate fantasy: to be invulnerable, to be able to soar among the skies and to save those in need. The various attempts at “humanizing” Superman and making him “relatable” are the Catch-22 of Superman:  Superman is the ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don’t character: for him to be dramatic, he must have flaws; for him to be an ideal, he must have none. He must be both simultaneously. He enjoys little of the elasticity of character of Batman because of his status as iconic ideal. Batman isn’t an ideal; he is what we could become, a kick-ass cautionary tale of obsession run amok, the sacrificing of all around for one goal.

MAN OF STEEL strikes the right balance between the ideal and the dramatic. As embodied by Henry Cavill, Superman is on his way, unsure of himself and with only fight or flight built in (literally,  sometimes both fighting while flying or flying while fighting). Cavill’s Superman represents something more important than the ideal: the desire within us to grow into that ideal. He is not perfect: every step, every action, from his first jumps before flight to his anguish at being forced into killing Zod (a brilliant performance from Michael Shannon, whose intensity makes Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS-another, though more overt, instance of villain as formative influence-seem benign) were steps towards the ideal.

The performances of Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, as Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, respectively, borrow much of their gravitas and heart from the unsung hero of Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy: Linus Roache as Thomas Wayne.  Both actors steal the show, Crowe with all of his screen time (rare for a cinematic Jor-El) and Costner with so little of his (“you are my son” Jesus Christ still makes me tear up). Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, was his anchor to humanity through a tender word (“Focus on the sound of my voice”) rather than a halting hand in the middle of a tornado, a powerful sacrifice and self-realization that said “you will be needed, but now is not the time.”

The time was when a brutal attack-the likes of which have been unseen on cinema screens in such a visceral and gut-wrenching assault on the senses- is unleashed. We couldn’t save ourselves from Zod’s zealotry and carnage; we needed Superman. MAN OF STEEL successfully showed us the unimaginable, the thing of our nightmares: something we can’t handle ourselves, and something that would make us look to the stars for a solution.

If MAN OF STEEL is the transitional film to a new generation, then Amy Adams’ pitch-perfect Lois Lane (and the best since Phyllis Coates, surpassing, I suspect, even her) represents the transition of Kal from his beginnings as the son of El and Kent to his legacy as Clark and Superman. And, lest we forget, we finally-FINALLY-have excised the most nauseating and insulting aspect of the Superman canon: Lois now knows that Clark is Superman, making the final “re-introduction” scene pop with knowing and charm; “Welcome to the Planet” is as gleeful and smile-inducing as Daniel Craig’s first utterance of “Bond, James Bond” at the end of CASINO ROYALE.

There are certainly kinks that need to be ironed out in subsequent entries to the series: Goyer’s writing continues to plod and use subtext as a blackjack (of note is the “Krypton had its chance” line, which played like a first draft line and an ignored edit, perhaps in fading red ink, to “add subtext later”; perhaps more restraint in his Zod-ass-kicking instead of a super-powered Kryptonian bull-in-a-city-shop fan service and fuck you to Singer to “punch things,” but again, he’s new at this (but come on, Darkseid didn’t do that much damage); Zimmer’s score, while bringing chills with the fourth to minor third theme notes, falls back on his old tricks (granted, I still dig those old tricks, but he was far more inventive in his SHERLOCK HOLMES and FROST/NIXON scores); the “American Icon” scenes were delivered with something less than conviction and felt out of place (He’s kinda hot, blergh).

I have to hand it to Zack Snyder: he came into his own with this one, delivering a rousing adventure free of his Shatner-slo-fast-schick that featured a hero on his way to an ideal, the most heroic journey all of us take.