Wednesday, December 31, 2014


10. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)


This is the movie of the year in critical terms, so if you haven’t been convinced by all the rest, I doubt that taking the no. 10 spot on this list is going to be what pushes you over the edge. But I still have to give props to Richard Linklater just for committing to such a bold, involved choice as shooting a narrative film over a span of 12 years without much sense of what the story would be (because how could you?). The result is a blend of documentary and narrative, sort of a halfway point between the 7 Up Series and watching the Harry Potter kids actually become adults throughout that series.

Due to the bold filming strategy, the movie can be fitful and shapeless at times, but only inasmuch as life itself is. Boyhood isn’t my favorite Linklater (the Before series is his magnum opus, but Dazed And Confused will always be first in my heart), but it is an incredible achievement and wholly unique experience. And if it does snag him some Oscars, I’m more than cool with that.


Watch It For: The inimitable experience of watching children grow into young adults over the span of hours

Trendspotting: America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Texas)

9. The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)


The Raid is one of the best action movies ever made. Hell, it may be the very best for all I care to argue such a fine subjective point. And The Raid 2 is definitely a lesser sequel, a classic example of subtraction by addition. Whereas the original benefits hugely from its slight runtime, being about 88 minutes of outrageous ass-kicking crammed into a 98 minute movie, the sequel has the same 88 minutes of outrageous ass-kicking with an extra hour of familiar crime “epic” tropes, none of which are done especially well.

But what works, works like 700 motherfuckers. Beneath the fat, the action is, impossibly, even bigger and better than the original, and did I mention that the original might be the greatest action movie ever made? There are parts of this film where you disconnect from the actual narrative and just marvel that the actors can continue to push themselves through this choreography, filmmaking magic be damned. It is brutal, inventive, exhilarating stuff, and there is a metric shitload of it. If you have the slightest appreciation for kung fu, or car chases, or Asian cinema in general, you owe it to yourself to watch The Raid 2 (and the original, although it’s not as if you need to follow the finer points of the plot to really enjoy these movies). Then in 5 years time when everyone in America is wondering where Gareth Evans came from, you’ll be all “Jakarta, bitches! You didn’t know???” Because you’re kind of a hipster and a bit of a d-bag, but mostly only when you’ve been drinking, and look, reader, we don’t have to make like a whole big thing out of this right now, okay? I probably shouldn’t have said anything at all. You’re great. Really. Let’s just talk about something else.


Watch It For: Hammers. Bats.  Cars. Shotguns. Hot Stoves. Scimitar-Knives.  BEST. ACTION. EVER.

Trendspotting: Surprisingly Rough Action

8. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)


There is nothing aspirational about Blue Ruin. There is suspense, but not excitement. Revenge, but no catharsis. Violence, but no glamour (a true rarity, even amongst “gritty” revenge-type pictures). Inevitability, but no predictability.

At times, Blue Ruin feels like the best follow up to Breaking Bad we’ve gotten thus far, with a mild-mannered protagonist digging himself deeper and deeper into shit with each ill-considered extralegal foray. The difference being that while Walter White was a bonafide genius with a milquetoast personality, Macon Blair’s Dwight is actually, thoroughly and completely, just some dude. He’s bad at this stuff, but not comically bad, or unable to come up with a clever idea when he has the chance to think. But mostly he’s just muddling through, with nothing but a sense of desperation-quickly-curdling-into-resignation as his “secret weapon”. It’s a tremendous, unsparing movie with an incredible, and incredibly free of vanity, lead performance. It’s a movie you’ve seen a million times before, but presented in a way you’ve never seen before. It’s great, is what I’m getting at.


Watch It For: The triumphant return of Buzz McAllister to the big screen.

Trendspotting: America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Virginia)

7. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)


Vampires are soooo played out right now, particularly sexy vampires. And Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton – which seriously, could there be a more perfect casting? At this point playing a corporate suit in Michael Clayton feels like more of a stretch than a centuries old, gothy vampiress – could have walked out straight off the set of an Ann Rice adaptation, with their flowing hair and open robes exposing lithe, alabaster smooth torsos. But while they are undeniably sexy, that sexiness comes from their being beautiful people who are genuinely in grown-up love with each other. They are sensual creatures, but not in the dangerous way that even Twilight (in its repressed, dumb-fisted way) is able to tap into, and are old enough to have grown a little bored with sensuality.

Similarly, while Hiddleston’s Adam could be described as brooding, it is not in the guilt-ridden way of an Angel/Edward/Louis. His despair is not for his soul, but for the human race, and its inability to appreciate and cultivate the things that make life worth living (much less living forever). He and Swinton’s Eve are more identifiable as bohemians than monsters; indeed, this could be almost be the same movie if it was just about an aging couple of art-tistes; soaking in music, poetry and literature and ruing the “zombies” inability to take care of themselves or appreciate genius when it periodically shines its light upon them. Not for nothing is the movie set mostly in the ruins of Detroit.

Plotless, tensionless, hypnotic, somehow passionate and pretentious and completely, undeniably cool. Only Lovers Left Alive seems to bring absolutely nothing new to the table, and breathe life into the most tired of genres in spite of itself.


Watch It For: The seductive chemistry between the leads.

Trendspotting: America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Detroit), I Think Tilda Swinton Is Kinda Fucking With Us At This Point, “Trashy” Material Done Really Well, Marriage Examined Through An Extreme Lens

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers)


With the caveat that I am a total Marvel fanboy, I think 2014 has been the best year yet for their studios, starting with Winter Soldier continuing the trend of superhero films being the one genre where sequels are better than their predecessors. That it also managed to give the turgid Agents Of SHIELD show a kick in the pants is just icing on what is already a very enjoyable, 70s-flavored cake.

Chris Evans continues to make a role that could easily be saintly Wonderbread into a living, breathing, believable exemplar of sainthood. And asskicking. The Russo brothers bring a physicality and weight to the action that stands out from the rest of Marvel’s output, along with a willingness to play dirty; the murder of innocents is more blunt here than in the other films, and the Terminator-like Winter Soldier and his lackeys are not shy in the least about bringing guns to a fistfight. It’s also more of an ensemble piece than most solo superhero films, with Scarlett Johannson, Anthony Mackie and even Sam Jackson all getting the opportunity to banter and throw down along with Cap and acquitting themselves admirably. I tend to enjoy Marvel movies as comedic adventure romps, more akin to the Amblin entertainments of the 80s than a Die Hard or Predator. But Winter Soldier is the first one that I think really works as a pure action movie. And a damn good one at that.


Watch It For: The freeway attack, which rivals Spiderman 2’s train fight for the best superhero action sequence ever in my book.

Trendspotting: Same Shit Just Better (Marvel), Chris Evans Kicking Ass And Sticking It To The Man, “Trashy” Material done Really Well

5. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund)


I watch a lot of movies, so one thing I love is when I watch or even hear about a movie with a premise that makes me go “I have never seen this movie before”. Originality is no guarantee of quality, of course (I’ve never seen a movie quite like The Room either, for all that’s worth), but I value this more and more as I grow older. Force Majeure has such a concept – vacationing family caught in an avalanche has to figure out how to go back to normal after the father panics and flees without them.

It’s a unique and uncomfortable situation, but the movie is surprisingly funny in spite of itself, even if it’s periodically bracing in its deconstruction of the male ego and queasily accurate in depicting the passive-aggressive argumentation of couples that don’t fight-fight. I’d give it points for uniqueness regardless, but it is a truly rare thing to see a movie this impeccably acted, meticulously shot and unflinchingly honest about difficult subject matter.


Watch It For: The beauty of the Alps transposed with the ugliness of a disintegrating marriage

Trendspotting: Marriage Examined Through An Extreme Lens

4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)


I’m going to be as non-specific as possible here, but I highly recommend seeing Gone Girl with as little knowledge as possible. I think my experience was made all the better by not even knowing the basic shape of the story beyond “girl goes missing –> mystery”.

David Fincher may be our least pretentious master filmmaker, having at this point fully embraced the Hitchockian tradition of elevating lurid, pulpy material into great cinema. Gone Girl is absolutely wonderful pulp, starting with a fairly grounded, insightful adult love story and just getting progressively loopier and bloodier and dryly, blackly funnier as it hurtles to its gloriously fucked conclusion.

Along the way, Fincher and Gillian Flynn get in some sharp commentary on the media and relationships, get a shockingly fun performance from Tyler Perry, and hopefully put the phenomenal Carrie Coon on the radars of people without the cable package or patience to stick with The Leftovers. But the star of the show is unquestionably Rosamund Pike, taking as near-impossible a character as could appear on paper and bringing her to breathtaking, charming, terrifying life. She deserves to vault to the top of the A-List for this one, without a doubt.


Watch It For: Rosamund Pike making herself a household name and almost certainly winning herself an Oscar along the way.

Trendspotting: “Trashy” Material Done Really Well, America Is Not Just NYC/LA (Missouri), Marriage Examined Through An Extreme Lens

3. Snowpiercer (Joon Ho Bong)


At a glance, we have a million movies like Snowpiercer coming at us. If you closed your eyes and pointed randomly at a list of the highest grossing movies of the last several years, you might not pick an actioner based on a comic book about overthrowing a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it’d almost certainly be somewhere in that Venn Diagram. But Snowpiercer distinguishes itself in many ways, becoming sort of action movie I wish we got all the time: stridently weird, firmly R-rated, elaborately and colorfully staged, and with an unabashed political/cultural POV.  This is a movie packed to the gills, with strange, big choices (particularly in Tilda Swinton’s performance, which falls somewhere between outright genius and losing a bet).

The movie is also, despite being English-language, delightfully Korean in the way it veers tonally from scene to scene and car to car, with moments of absurd comedy mixed with the brutal violence (the gloriously insane classroom sequence, the New Year celebration) and some of the darkest character moments of the year. If Guardians Of The Galaxy wasn’t weird or rough enough for your tastes, then I’ll have some more words for you in a moment, but this may be the film you were looking for.


Watch It For: The best axe fight in cinema history.

Trendspotting: Surprisingly Rough Action, Tilda Swinton Is Definitely Fucking With Us At This Point, Chris Evans Kicking Ass And Sticking It To The Man

2. Guardians Of The Galaxy (James Gunn)


No movie in recent years has been as disserved by a single word as Guardians Of The Galaxy has by the word “just”.  Remove that word and pans turn to raves. Naysayers will say it’s “just” another Marvel movie (as if Marvel movies haven’t been uniformly entertaining), that it’s “just” hilarious (as if the comedy portion of an action-comedy is an afterthought).  That it “just” has some superficially weird elements (as if we’re awash in movies prominently featuring space raccoons, immortal, monosyllabic trees and God-Skull mines) and “just” coasts by on general good-naturedness (as if we aren’t awash in ugly, soulless, generally unpleasant movies vying for exactly the same cultural real estate) and the chemistry of its heroes (as if any movie of this ilk wouldn’t kill for the chemistry that space racoon has with its costars).

All of these claims are, in my opinion, dismissive of the genuine craft and smarts that go into making even commercial entertainment product, but the one I object to the most is that it is “just” fun. As if fun is an easy thing, or a trifling one, and not the umbrella term for everything we as humans want once our basic needs for food and shelter are met. Guardians is a fun ride. That’s a rare and wonderful thing, and one that I do not want to undervalue the way we always tend to around awards/listing time.

Because Guardians was handily the best time I had at the movies this year. I sat there with a cold beer, my best girl and about the most diverse audience I can recall drawing (a half dozen races, aged 6 to 60something), and for 2 hours we reacted entirely as one, laughing at the same gags and bobbing our heads to the same needle drops and getting choked up a little at the way the CGI raccoon tenses up (gah…) for just a second when the space thug tries to pet him. I wouldn’t give those 2 hours back for damn near anything, and this being my list, “just” that counts for an awful lot.

If you can look at this image and not smile, let’s you and me never hang out
 Watch It For: GROOT

Trendspotting: Same Shit Just Better (Marvel), “Trashy” Material Done Really Well

1. Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)


Wes Anderson is not for everyone, and Grand Budapest Hotel is not likely to convert anyone who didn’t enjoy Moonrise Kingdom or The Life Aquatic (which is to say, monsters). But for those of us blessed with a heart, sense of irony, or love of centered shot composition, this movie is a delightful romp laced with an even deeper vein of melancholy than we’re used to from Anderson.

Despite sporting some fine supporting turns from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton and F. Murray Abraham, the film is carried entirely, gloriously on the shoulders of Ralph Fiennes’s flamboyant, profane, verbose, liberally-perfumed Gustave H. If Grand Budapest does not wind up hailed throughout the ages as a masterpiece, Fiennes’s performance will be remembered and hopefully rewarded (I think that dark streak to the film and its coda will be enough to override the Academy’s bias against rewarding comedic performances, but who knows) as a an expansive tour-de-force.

But the bleakness of the coda elevates things, by making an eloquent statement on why such frivolity, such precise manners, such obsession with everything-in-it’s-right-place as found in the works of Gustave H. and Wes Anderson, is important. In a world of horror and war and pointlessness, the fussiness and fawning of Gustave convinces his guests, however briefly, that they matter, and matter desperately. Maybe that brief escape, be it to a crumbling hotel or a little movie, is the best we can hope to do for each other, amidst the tragedies and degradation that comprise the “real” world.
Or maybe just fuck it. While it lasted, it was nice. Grand Budapest’s narrator (well, one of them) implies that this is enough to say for a career, a relationship, a life even, to be called worthwhile. It’s certainly enough for a movie. Because as I tried to articulate my love for this and Guardians in particular, I was reminded of my favorite quote from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay.  When the comics-creating protagonists find their creations under attack for being “just” escapist junk food, one reflects:
“Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf…
The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge…That was the magic—not the apparent magic of a silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world—the reality—that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised."


Watch It For:  Fiennes. It’s as charming and watchable performance as any I can recall; a hilarious, instantly-indelible comedic creations. I would’ve watched an entire movie of just him in prison.

Trendspotting: Same Shit Just Better (Wes Anderson), Is That Tilda Swinton Still Fucking With Us?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014



Having thoroughly conquered the multiplex, superheroes are now invading television in greater numbers than ever before.  Both Marvel (via ABC and Netflix) and DC (via the CW and Fox) are putting their characters on smaller screens.  With Marvel, I have a lot of curiosity and a decent amount of hope for the Defenders Netflix miniseries, but Agents Of SHIELD still struggles to make either its original heroes or D-List superbeings pop onscreen.  And unfortunately, it’s still carrying the standard for the House Of Ideas on the TV front.  But while DC has done well for itself with a lesser hero in the genre pond of the CW, it is now stepping it up by taking to a “proper” network with their crown jewel, Batman.

Sort of, anyway.  Gotham is a strange beast in that it’s a Batman series that has cut itself off from actually using Batman.  Agents of SHIELD has a similar issue conceptually, and offers little in the way of examples for how to construct a series whose appeal is based on being part of a greater, more colorful world without being able to actually use the best, most colorful pieces of that world.  This is a spin-off problem.  Try and explain why I should want to watch Gotham/AOS without mentioning Batman/the Avengers.  It’s not easy to do, right?

Still, this is not insurmountable. There are positives to Gotham’s concept, in that Jim Gordon is an inherently better character than Phil Coulson, and more important to his respective mythos. Also, Batman has by far the best rogue’s gallery in the history of comics, which goes a long way towards making Gotham the most fully realized setting in the medium.  And apparently Gotham Central has been one of DC’s best books of the last decade, so the GCPD is fertile enough ground for ongoing stories.

There’s still quite a bit wrong with Gotham’s basic premise, don’t get me wrong. But the problems aren’t spin-off problems, they’re prequel problems. Gordon’s rise paralleling Gotham’s fall is rife with potential, as is the dramatic irony of his ultimate triumph over the traditional mafia clearing the way for the takeover of the freaks that make Batman necessary (though that’s probably series-finale sort of stuff).  No, the problems with Gotham arise from the decision to set the series so early in the timeline that neither Batman nor any of his major antagonists are anywhere near the portion of the story when they become the figures that actually make this story interesting. Chud message board luminary The Prankster had the following to say, which I will simply quote instead of paraphrasing:

The “prequel problem” is thus: most stories, if they’re at all well-constructed, start at the point where things get interesting for the protagonists or the world of the story. This means that, almost by definition, the stuff that came before is going to be less interesting. There’s a website called Wordplayer run by screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot, and whatever you think of those guys they make some great points about how stories are constructed. One of their essays is about the “off-screen movie”, and the importance of creating a story where things are happening that we DON’T see, either parallel to the main action or before the events of the story (or, for that matter, afterwards). When you fill in all the blanks, you ironically remove depth from characters and the story, because you create the impression that nothing happens to these characters when you’re not looking at them, and thus, the story seems inert and unreal. They used the example of a character who execs insist be given more “screen time” but had nothing to do. Before, she would pop in and out of the story and create mystery; with the added screentime, she was established as a character who hung around and didn’t do anything.

This principle applies to prequels. Part of the fun of Star Wars is that it creates a huge, rich world full of history that’s glancingly mentioned but creates the impression of (pseudo-)reality. When the prequels went back and showed us everything, it destroyed this sense.

Stories “start at the point where things get interesting.”  Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? So why the infatuation with prequels and “secret origin” stories of late?  I guess it’s not overly complicated.  Everyone wants everything to be a neverending franchise, a perpetual cash generator, and so the desire is to start at the beginning and never get anywhere close to an ending.  That’s a model that has reaped great rewards for both network television and the comic book industry over the last century, and a show like this represents the merger of those two great American artrevenue formstreams, so this probably isn’t anything to be that shocked about.  But while this approach has done very well financially for these media, it’s hard to deny that it has been a hindrance creatively.  A story is not a story without an ending, not really, which is a large part of why things like superhero comics, daytime soaps, or Republic serials, for all their popularity, are not considered high art.

Does Gotham have a proper story to tell, one about its city and its police?  Can they manage to tell such a story in a way that focuses on what it means to Gordon, rather than setting the table for the actual hero waiting in the wings?  That remains to be seen, but things get off on the wrong foot straight out of the gate.  This is a show about Gordon, and we aren’t even introduced to him until after an extended sequence depicting the murder of Batman’s parents…told for some reason, through the eyes of a tween Catwoman**.

Look, I know that they have to depict this bit of the iconography, and it may seem like a minor point to harp on.  But introductions are extremely important, and the 2nd episode repeats the mistake by once again opening on Baby Bruce Wayne before moving on to the cops and crooks that he can’t really interact with, the ones who, oh yeah, also make up the main body of what this show is and has to be.  What’s worse is that our actual intro to Gordon, when we get to it, isn’t half bad.  He’s confronted with a criminal of a lunatic variety that the rest of the police aren’t prepared for, and once his decency and level-headedness defuse the situation, the corruption of the force immediately reasserts itself and wipes out his good deed.  That’s the story the series is telling in a scene.  But unfortunately, what it showed us is that embryonic Batman and Catwoman take precedence.

This premise is all wrapped up in the Batman mythos, obviously, but that premise is also that we will get to see Gotham develop slowly over time into the madhouse we know from so much other media.
A more specific problem with prequels is that they so frequently lose track of their own story in the rush to cram in a bunch of references that carry no more weight than a wink, and tie off loose ends that weren’t actually loose.  X-Men: First Class was a largely successful reboot and prequel, but a lot of the goodwill it builds over its runtime  is squandered by the ill-conceived sequence on the beach at the end.  The movie has largely completed its own story, but there is a palpable sense of panic that sets in at the last second, a desperation to shove all of the various characters into the precise positions we’ll find them in 40 years later, in the span of a few minutes.  I suppose it’s hard for a project whose whole raison d’etre is to fill in gaps to accept that there are some gaps that it is okay, even preferable, to leave open, or else you run into the flattening effect Prankster referenced above.  I mean, c’mon, 40 years?  We can do some math ourselves.

Are Gotham’s first couple episodes on this level?  No.  But they do go overboard giving time to Baby Wayne, Kittenwoman, proto-Penguin and Riddler, a potential Joker, etc.  This is a problem on several levels.  In the broadest conceptual terms, the more this show allows itself to be “about” the larger mythos, the more it drives home the point that it can only show us the stuff we’re really interested in before the point where it gets really interesting.  On a smaller level, the arc of the season(s) is going to be for us to see the rise of the freaks, and the pilot probably went too far on that score for what should be a very gradual process.  But that’s not an uncommon issue for pilots; in their eagerness to sell their basic dramatic engine and conceit, they’ll frequently overreach, resolve a bit too much and then have to walk things back to a place from which viable storylines can spin out on a weekly basis.  The pilot of The Shield is a good example in this regard – it packs an explosive finish that definitely digs its hooks in deep, but it will be years of slow building before Mackey gets back to a level of villainy on par with that displayed in his introduction.

Agents Of SHIELD has the same problem, shifted slightly over.  Gotham hamstrings itself by placing its action too far in front of the main event, whereas AOS places its action just to the left of the real attractions.  The result is two shows struggling to live in the shadow of their progenitors, without moving too far from the warm, comfy glow of brand recognition that resides at the heart of this mixed metaphor.  Now, I’m a lifelong and unabashed Marvel zombie, but for this reason I am much more hopeful about Gotham’ s prospects than AOS’s.  It’s true that AOS saw an uptick in quality once their status quo was forcibly overthrown by the big screen upheaval of The Winter Soldier, but it’s still little better than tolerable on its good days and really, how good a sign is it that such a desperately needed course correction had to be foisted upon it by the mothership?  I’d love to be wrong about this, but I think we’ve seen pretty close to the best this show will ever have to offer us, and it’s just kinda okay.

Similarly, I’d love to be proven wrong about Gotham’s premise putting it in an insurmountable hole, but I also see more reason to think that might be the case.  For one, I have a decent amount of faith in showrunner Bruno Heller, whose Rome was one of HBO’s more unappreciated efforts, and demonstrated a facility I think will be vital for pulling off the tone this show is going for.  Rome tackles material that has both the gravity of history and the grandeur of myth, but Heller grounded it in a pulpy sensibility that kept things fun and lively without skimping on the brutality and ahem, adult situations that we demand of an HBO original.  It got to have its pulp and its gravitas too, in a way that was ultimately quite enjoyable.

How this relates back to Gotham is that it is going for a similar balancing act with more overtly clashing tones.  Right out of the gate it is mixing the lurid theatricality of the Burton films on the villain side of things with a throwback 70s vibe on the cops’ end, where Gordon’s material so far owes more to Serpico than anything Bruce Timm has done.  Rome tells me that Heller understands that the words “grim”, “gritty” and “realistic” are not interchangeable.  Gotham needs to be gritty, but not realistic, and that’s a distinction few seem interested in parsing.

Because here’s the rub: this needs to be a show where guy named Oswald Cobblepot can kill people with an umbrella, and sooner or later a mafia enforcer turns up half crocodile.  But in order for the show to tell a real story about its main character, it also has to remain a show about a good man’s failure.  That Gordon is doomed to fail to save his city does not doom the series; there is nobility to be found in a losing fight, perhaps more than any other.  But that’s a tough narrative ball to keep your eye on, particularly when you’re occupying a primetime network spot trying to skew broad with what is ostensibly a children’s property.

Also giving me hope is Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue’s immediate chemistry (which duh, it’s Donal Logue, dude would have chemistry with a hemorrhoid pillow), as the square jawed idealist and slovenly realist who would make a great buddy cop pairing if their dislike of each other didn’t feel so genuine, and Bullock’s defeatism so lived in and sincere. He doesn’t even hate his partner; he just knows the fight is already lost.

I also took an immediate liking to the less-familiar villains, Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone, who embody the camp and gravitas the show needs to balance.  Mooney is the show’s most significant original creation, and Jada Pinkett-Smith devours scenery like she’s facing the electric chair in the morning.  It’s kind of wonderful, and provided a nicely grounded counterpoint by the late-pilot entrance of Falcone.  It’s important that these characters work, because they are small enough fish in the grand scheme of things that Gordon can score some actual wins by taking them down, which is going to be a rare but necessary thing if the show is going to continue to be swarmed with Penguins, Ivys, Riddlers, etc.  But Falcone is especially significant because of what he represents.

Falcone’s role in the mythology is that of the last traditional mafia don to fall to the rising tide of freaks in Gotham, and that is obviously going to be a big part of the show’s overall arc.  As previously mentioned, endings are a vital part of storytelling, and this angle allows a show permanently mired in the beginnings of a story to be about the end of something.  John Doman brings a weathered authority to the role, and in his brief talk with Gordon presents a genuinely interesting angle for the character.  Falcone styles himself as part of Gotham’s gentry; the least reputable, sure, but just as vital protector of the status quo and law and order (which, he avows, you can’t have organized crime without) as the vaunted Thomas Wayne.  What this does is set up Gordon and Falcone as the old guard, destined to be supplanted by Batman and the Joker at the vanguard of Gotham’s war on crime.  The Joker famously just wants to watch the world burn, but Carmine sees crime as having a purpose (even if it’s just profit), to the point that his involvement in the framing of Pepper is motivated by a desire not to let the Waynes’ murder spark a fire that will destabilize the city.

I really like the dynamic this sets up, and the dramatic irony created by having Gordon take down the devil he knows, while only we know how much worse the replacement will be.  But whether Gotham follows up on the promising tracks it lays in these first 2 episodes, or ultimately drowns itself in references to a more interesting story than the one it’s telling remains to be seen.  I’ll give it a season to find out (Logue alone is worth that), and perhaps keep checking in on it and/or AOS’s progress, if they start succeeding, or failing in an interesting enough way. Unfortunately, neither show is doing either just yet.

*I haven’t seen Arrow, but am told its fun and is successful enough to have back-doored a series for a slightly bigger name in the Flash

**Sidebar: her intro sequence rings abjectly absurd due to entirely unnecessary prop choices. Selina tears open the bag of a society lady, who, as they are wont to do, is grocery shopping late at night in the theater district. Said grocery bag spills out naught but two half gallons of milk, one of which she snatches up. She then ducks into an alley, and goes to pour some out for a stray cat from a jug that is suddenly 7/8 empty.  I just…why any of this? Just too expensive to shoot a stunt-pour from a full bottle?

Saturday, August 9, 2014



I was a Marvel geek as a kid, and I pretty much love the current wave of movies they have put out.  Having just seen Guardians Of The Galaxy, I thought I’d use this space to talk about it a bit, see if I can get into the heads of those that dislike the MCU in general, and of course do the ranking thing, because this is the internet, and the internet don’t take kindly to opinions what don’t come in list form.



I’ve written about my problems with this show before, but this is just a remarkably small, unimaginative show to place in such a colorful, expansive universe.  It made some strides at the end of the year, post-Winter Soldier, but the characters remain bland and undistinguished, the dialogue routinely falls flat, and the production values are embarrassing.  It’s only bone-deep Marvel partisanship that will bring me back next year.  They’re adding Mockingbird, guys!!!



10. Iron Man 2

The complaints aren’t wrong.  It’s too concerned with setting up the shared universe, at the expense of its own story.  Which is true but not as big a sin as some make out – the shared universe is at the heart of what makes these movies special in spite of the fairly rigid formula and frequently lackluster villains.  That’s another critique that comes up for this film, which is only partially accurate.  The villains are actually pretty good, and have distinct motivations that go beyond “get magic rock, destroy world”. But Rockwell is having too much fun to be menacing.  Although he may just be further ahead of the curve than Favreau or his studio overlords were at this point; as time goes on, it becomes more and more apparent to me that these movies are as much comedies as they are EPIC ACTION SAGAS (something DC seems determined to deny, to their overall detriment).  Rockwell is giving a performance for an 80’s comedy, someone who wants to bulldoze the rec center, not rule the multiverse.  Unfortunately, Rourke is also underused as the legitimate threat, and his backstory actually makes him the scrappy underdog to Tony Stark’s trust fund D-Bag, which feels a bit off.  Also, it suffers from speeding through some potentially rich Tony/Rhodey conflict with a newly recast Cheadle, who hasn’t had time to settle into a groove with Downey.

But in the end, there’s only so bad you can make a movie with that cast and suits of over-weaponized flying armor. This is the bottom of the heap for the films, but still slots in just fine on FX’s Sunday afternoon hangover rotation.

9. The Incredible Hulk


Probably the most forgettable of the bunch, due largely to none of the principals making it out of Phase I (though there’s technically nothing to stop the Abomination or Tim Blake Nelson’s Leader from joining Red Skull, Loki and whoever else in a Masters Of Evil movie down the line).  It does have a pretty great action sequence, though true to what will become form for many of these flicks, it comes in the middle rather than the climax.  And it has an underrated villain, with distinctive motivations, in Tim Roth’s Blonsky.  As mentioned, one of the biggest gripes with the Marvelverse is the generic baddies, but looking at my rankings, I’m struck that the ones with the best realized villains are crowded near the bottom, and my favorites overall tend to have the most standard “KILL ERRYBODY CUZ YAY EEEEEEEEEEEVIL” schemes.  Which underlines just how much these movies live by their heroes, which they are universally nailing….with the exception of Norton’s Banner.  He’s perfectly serviceable, and honestly makes more sense as a physical presence than either Bana or Ruffalo, but the latter just managed to resonate with audiences in a way that Norton didn’t.  Though to be fair, he never got to work off Downey, Evans, or even Sam Jackson.

8. Thor

There are a few Marvel movies that I’m just amazed work on any level, much less found a real degree of mainstream acceptance.  Of them, Thor is both my least favorite and probably most miraculous, if only for coming first.  The problems it has are really quite glaring.  Arbitrary, distracting Dutch angles.  One of the few casting bum notes (not that it isn’t perfect on paper) in the MCU with Anthony Hopkins’ lethargic performance.  An almost grindhouse-y budget consciousness that sends a truly cosmic storyline on an extended detour to a deserted backlot.  A glaringly tacked-on introduction of Hawkeye that can’t even manage to look cool to counterbalance its utter superfluousness.

But what it nails is the big stuff that saves even these lesser efforts – tone and casting.  Thor was always my least favorite character in the comics, combining about all the worst aspects of superheroes.  Overpowered a la Superman (he’s literally a god, after all), with an unappealing combination of low IQ and high ego, and a costume that stands out as overly goofy even when sharing a panel with Captain America and Quasar.  But Chris Hemsworth was a hell of a find, not just because he could make the ridiculous Technicolor toga sexy.  He finds a real heart to the Odinson that I never saw on the page, and gives him a genuine sense of humor despite most of the humor of the character being of the unwitting kind.  And he’s matched at every step by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, the most unlikely breakout star of the whole shebang.  He’s sly, he’s funny, he’s tragic without ever becoming fully pitiable.  I don’t want to start throwing the word “Shakespearean” around, because I don’t think I really know what it means in this context, but suffice to say that the relationship between the brothers is a wellspring of both humor and something approaching gravitas.

7. Iron Man

This is many people’s pick for best of the bunch, but that’s mostly because it came first, in my opinion.  That’s a perfectly good reason, as it means that the elements it shares with its descendants are freshest, but also roughest around the edges.  The action beats are more fun than exciting, and it peaks well before the climax, but the groundwork for everything is laid here, including Robert Downey Jr. effortlessly establishing that Marvel Studio productions are, for all their CGI boomsplashery, modern film’s most pure star vehicles.  It’s his very particular charisma that carries the film as a stealth comedy, and made us even kinda like Gwyneth Paltrow again.
Ultimately, though, I look at this like a great TV pilot. It can be really good, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t, really) represent the very best of what the series is going to be capable of, if it is to run for a dozen plus more entries.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger


This is the first Marvel movie to garner bonus points for deviating from the established tone and setting of the MCU.  Now, there are some who say that the differences are “merely” cosmetic, that this is just every other Marvel movie, transplanted to 1945.  A similarly themed debate is currently going on about how Guardians Of The Galaxy is just “surface weird” or “colorful” and not genuinely weird because it has a traditional 3 Act structure built around a shameless Macguffin.  I can only surmise that to some, words like “weird,” “creative,” “personal,” “innovative,” etc. only apply to films that feature entirely original characters with no recognizable relation to established archetypes, and creates an entirely new setting with no discernible influences from scratch, while utterly disregarding every convention of dramatic storytelling. Which are all fine goals, but if you try to do them all at once, you’d end up with an unwatchably incoherent, plotless, paceless soup (or maybe a Jodorowsky movie, if you’re really lucky).  It doesn’t mean that movies that mix up a formula by introducing a throwback vibe or a talking raccoon as a major dramatic character aren’t taking risks.  It’s just that the magic of hindsight has a way of making any risk that paid off into a boring, safe, obvious choice.

Which is to say, it’s remarkable in general that Marvel has been able to drag the mainstream to a place where they accept their sentient tree and jock-y magic psuedovikings spouting pseudo-Olde Englishe as legitimate heroes.  And it’s remarkable in particular that Chris Evans and Joe Johnston were able to get them to embrace such a square, old-fashioned hero in the age of the antihero.  Sure, the movie relies a bit too heavily on montages for action beats, and it doesn’t use Hugo Weaving to the best of his cartoon-villainy abilities.  But Evans and Atwell bring a ton of personality to a very sweet, chaste, ultimately sad romance, it fully commits to being a throwback piece, and allows Captain America to endear himself to us the old-fashioned way: by punching Nazis.  And yes, I know HYDRA are not really Nazis in the film.  They’re more like uber-nazis that think the SS are too pansy, which is just as good.

5. Thor: The Dark World


I don’t remember the specifics of this movie too well a year later.  But I remember that I was thoroughly entertained throughout, and laughed a ton.  I remember that the bad guys had a great design but little personality, a victim of Loki’s breakout status.  Which is a fair trade-off, imo; Loki and Thor’s dynamic is the best part of this sub-franchise by far, and as discussed earlier the alchemical secret that Marvel has uncovered is how to not make the villains matter too much to the overall strength of the film.  I’m still puzzling over how that works, actually.  All other superhero movies I can think of, most notably the Batman and James Bond franchises, really live and die on the strength of their villains.  It’s not even just superheroes; even at this point I’m hesitant to say that you can make any sort of decent fantasy/action movie without striking villains (if you want a single sentence explanation for what makes the original Star Wars trilogy so much better than the prequels, that’s as good as any).  But here these 10 movies are, with about 2.5 effectively realized baddies between them, and me either kinda liking or outright loving every last one, like some sorta sucker.

Maybe it’s something about having a hero that is so fully formed and engaging that you don’t even need a full on nemesis with their own POV to depict their character. It’s enough to put them in front of a really steep hill and watch them struggle to climb it. If you think about it, the main conflict in the Avengers doesn’t arise from wondering how the team will ever be able to overpower Loki.  It comes from the question of whether they’ll be able to get out of their own ways in time to kick his ass (which several of them can, and do, by themselves).  And the entire Iron Man series up to this point has been populated with villains that are riding the hero’s coattails in terms of creating weapons to challenge the ones he already has.

Or maybe it’s just that these movies really are just comedies, where truly imposing villainy is secondary to general flair.  This thesis is still under construction.

4. Iron Man 3


The best thing about the Iron Man movies is that they felt like ersatz Shane Black movies.  So it stands to reason that the best of the bunch should result when they just cut the shit and brought Black himself in.  The climax is a little overly busy, in a bad, weightless way (as opposed to Thor 2’s overly busy, but fun and inventive climax), and I am annoyed by how transparently they went for the Pepper death fake-out (a comic trope that is no less shitty for being “classic”, and is already getting overused in the films).  But…it’s funny.  And surprised me way more than these “cookie-cutter” productions are supposed too.  Particularly with everything involving Trevor Slattery, which was sort of genius in how it elided a troublesome bit of comics history, but also, come on, “His Lear was the toast of Croydon” is just a funny string of words, whether you understand the actual idea they’re supposed to convey or not.

I guess by the 8th time out, this isn’t exactly rocket science.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier


I’ve been talking about how these movies work largely based on their comedic chops, and more or less despite the effectiveness of their action and suspense beats. So naturally, when you bring in a pair of directors whose primary credit is from the (transcendent) sitcom Community…you wind up with one of the least comedic efforts, with the best shot action in the entire MCU.  Shrug.

Having succeeded making First Avenger a throwback to 40’s war movies, they naturally went on to make Winter Soldier a throwback to 70’s conspiracy thrillers. One can only imagine that in 2017, Captain America: Serpent Society On A Plane will be a throwback to 90’s slacker comedies, with Cap sharing an incongruously-spacious loft space while struggling to get their boutique record label off the ground, and Sam has to gently push Cap to stop denying his feelings for Black Widow and eventually parachute in to interrupt her wedding to Quicksilver….

Anyway, Winter Soldier.  It underuses the titular figure by relegating him to a mute henchman role, seemingly afraid to push him too far into villainy before the inevitable redemption arc.  Which is not too terrible, as his action sequences kick enough ass to make up for it.  The only really bum note is the elaborate Fury death fake-out, which is a load of shit, because if any of the “major” heroes is actually expendable to the MCU going forward, it’s that guy.  But it also effortlessly nails the introduction of Falcon, integrates Black Widow well, and succeeds in turning Captain America into something approaching an ensemble piece.  And I’ll take one of those over a one-man show every day of the week.  It’s probably why the widely-favored Iron Man movies rank comparatively low for me, and why my top two spots are reserved for:

2. Guardians Of The Galaxy


I loved this movie.  It’s colorful and goofy and fast-paced and heartfelt at the right moments (things got a bit misty at Groot’s last line, and at the moment where Rocket lets Drax pet him, and not only because I was half drunk).  And I’ll acknowledge most of the complaints, or at least the ones that don’t revolve around everyone thinking they are experts on the effects of human exposure to the vacuum of space.  Yes, Ronan is thinly sketched bad guy.  Yes, the Infinity Stone is a particularly naked Macguffin; it’s even lamp-shaded with a line*.  Yes, the climax is straight out of the Care Bears.  Yes, Thanos does nothing but sit and look kind of dumb.  Actually, that last one does bother me a bit. T hey have not done well building up Thanos so far, though I suppose they have another 4 years to work out the kinks before he has to take center stage.

But here’s a few ways to get me to overlook any flaws your movie might possess:

–   Include a talking raccoon as a major character, and not have him be a joke sidekick, but basically the Han Solo of the group.
–   Put a combination jack-off joke/Jackson Pollock reference in a family film. I spent the next 5 minutes cackling while thinking about all the parents in the audience wracking their brains trying to figure out how they were going to explain that when their 8 year-old asked why it was funny.
–   Balance your ensemble well. Give everyone a purpose, a personality, and some moments to shine. Guardians has to introduce 5 different heroes, none of which have any mainstream cache, but it is one shiny-ass movie from top to bottom.
–   Have Zoe Saldana kick ass in green body paint. Look, I told you not all of this was rocket science.
–   Set a good chunk of a movie in the severed head of a dead god floating in outer space.
–   Have a running gag about the heroes stealing prosthetic limbs from handicapped people, for no real reason.
–   Keep it to 2 hours. Seriously, not everything is an epic, particularly comedic action romps.
–   Howard the Duck easter egg. This is kind of a no-brainer in a Marvel movie, but it applies all the same to westerns, erotic thrillers, and period musicals.
–   Have the hero challenge the evil space overlord to a dance-off.
–   Have Michael Rooker play an asshole.  If he’s painted a stupid color, all the better.
–   End in a big Care Bears climax.  Seriously. It’s hokey, but I’m a sucker for stories about ragtag groups pulling together to do things they could never accomplish on their own.  Fantasy stories like this can make that theme very literal, and I’ll fall for it pretty much every time.  I am a skeptic by nature.  I do not believe in gods or ghosts or magic or reincarnation or Celestials.  But I do believe in a very specific kind of alchemy, a mysterious process that happens when people come together and become more than the sum of our parts.  There can be a weight that I could never hope to lift, that would crush me into the ground if I tried to shoulder it.  But give me one good friend, and together we can carry five of them.  It’s nonsensical, it’s sappy, it’s neither grim nor gritty nor grounded, but it is always going to resonate with me. Because it’s the one kind of magic I believe in.

1. The Avengers


Guardians may get off to a stronger start, but I can forgive a wobbly start very easily if it leads to a strong finish, and The Avengers has the strongest finish of any superhero movie…yeah, just any.  Even the best of the genre, like Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, blow their big action load before getting to into an entirely new sequence for the emotional climax.  And as wonderfully as Guardians introduces and integrates each member of its team, their coming together can’t match the momentousness that comes from bringing together multiple established franchises in such a shockingly coherent, effortless, and fun way.  I’ve gushed at length about the amazing high-wire act The Avengers makes look easy, but I’ll just add that another of its accomplishments is to make the most entertaining scenes come from the heroes bickering with each other.  We’ve already become attached to each of these heroes individually, and it’s no mean feat to make these clashes pop while not making any one of them act out of character or into the “jerk” for the purposes of a particular argument.

Also, Avengers has a Hulk.  And it’s not afraid to use it, but also has the discipline to withhold it until the moments it will have maximum impact.  And it has the best Marvel villain running around with Loki, and Thanos still removed enough to be mysterious rather than looking silly and nonthreatening.  Plus, for no real reason, cameos from Harry Dean Stanton and Powers Boothe.  But mainly, it’s got great action, great characters, and is really funny.  To the extent that Marvel has a secret, that’s about it.  It’s about having a good time with charismatic heroes.  It’s not dark or edgy or even “cool” really, but it is simple and fun and good-natured in a way that maybe even holds them back from creating truly memorable, hateful villains, but also makes all the shortcomings easy to overlook.

For me, anyway. Your mileage probably varies, but that’s only because you’re probably an asshole.

Love and kisses,

*which includes a reference that has bothered some, since Pulp Fiction came out after Quill left Earth, but given that Earth and its culture are not unknown or inaccessible to the rest of the galaxy, it doesn’t feel worthy of a No-Prize to concoct as scenario where he might have seen the most popular movie of the 90s

Tuesday, June 17, 2014



I’ve made a few references in the past to “Blackwater” being the best episode Game Of Thrones was ever likely to produce, but it’s possible that “The Children” may have surpassed it as my favorite.  It’s not as focused and cohesive as the big battle episode, but then I maintain that the series’ appeal actually derives in large part from its lack of such attributes.  In seasons past, the major fireworks went down in the penultimate episode, with the finale being a rapid reworking of the board that felt more like a traditional premiere.  But while “Watchers On The Wall” delivered the major spectacle, it has nothing approaching the far-reaching consequences of the series of climaxes that fill “The Children”.  And, it must be said, a lot of my love for the episode flows from the immense sense of relief that Tyrion, Brienne, and all of the other sympathetic characters had made it out alive.  I’m sure that Season 5 will contain its share of horrors (not least of which seems to be some sort of FrankenMountain), but it is also poised to offer us Tyrion, Varys, Arya and Jorah in a single scene.  Never did I dare to dream of such a treasure.

But let’s focus on things that have actually happened first.  At the Wall, Stannis rides in to save the day, as anticipated.  Stannis has never been my favorite, but an influx of fresh blood is precisely what the Wall needs to stay at the level it has spent the past season clawing its way up to (which would be “better than Dragonstone or the Dreadfort, not as good as anything else,” if we’re getting technical).  And I do like that the Boltons are now sitting between him and the rest of the nation he intends to rule.  I mean, he must have ships that could just sail around to King’s Landing, but he’s not exactly known for picking his battles based on expedience.

The face of a man who wipes exactly three times, no matter the circumstances or consistency
This is the face of a man who allows himself exactly three 
wipes, no matter the circumstances or consistency at issue
But the character stuff trumps the plot developments up North, which is surprising since it’s focused on Jon Snow.  Jon has developed into one of my favored, if not favorite, characters throughout the year.  He has really come into his own, demonstrated by the way he coolly gives orders to “One True King” Stannis, his thoughtful talks with Tormund and Mance about the finer points of mourning and kneeling, and my favorite exchange of the episode, in regards to the fallen giant:

“He was their king. The last of a bloodline that stretches back before the First Men.”
“Gren came from a farm.”

I know Gren didn’t make much of an impression on most people, but I’ve been surprisingly moved by his sacrifice, once again this week when even Mance honored it with a toast.  What can I say? I’m very much a second son, and always more drawn to sidekicks and simple men stepping up to huge plates that they didn’t have to, rather than the protagonists with the stink of destiny all over them.

Destiny and a lilac emulsifying conditioner
Destiny and a lilac emulsifying conditioner
So it would stand to reason that I was also moved by Jojen Reed’s death, but…nope.  I don’t know what the deal was there.  He wasn’t an unsympathetic character, but I had him marked for redundancy and death from his introduction, and I never got a sense of who he was beyond the guy who knew the basics of warging.  Which is a fairly simple concept anyway.  But even if I don’t mourn Jojen, I did enjoy the sequence that offed him.  It marked Bran officially wandering into a D&D module, complete with giants and wolves battling skeleton warriors (that move with a frightening speed compared to the shambling White Walker zombies, though I assume both get marching orders from the same place), wizened sages spouting cryptic prophecy, and an elf child who apparently studied Prodigal Sorcery under Tim The Enchanter.

If that paragraph made perfect sense to you, you have fully and objectively wasted your life
If that last sentence made perfect sense to you, 
you have fully and objectively wasted your life
This is fun stuff, and all but confirms that Bran is going to warg his way into one of Dany’s dragons in the end.  Possibly the big one, as it has gone rogue, roasting kids and prompting the khaleesi to lock up the other two in the catacombs of Mereen.  This is not the most dramatic development of the week, but I do wonder if maybe the episode should’ve ended on this note instead of where it did?  I’m a much bigger fan of Arya than Dany in general, but her standing on a ship deck is not the most striking image on which to close such an explosive finale.  Whereas there is a tradition to be upheld in having seasons end on shots of dragons or White Walkers, and they really outdid themselves with the sound design of the beasts keening after their mother.  I dunno, I just felt like something more fantastical than a sailboat was called for.
But I don’t want to begrudge Arya or Maisie Williams their big moments.  While I was disappointed that she did not take up Brienne as her new mentor, having her ship off to Braavos (the most badass, underexplored corner of the map) is a fine alternative, and the brawl between the Hound and Brienne was somehow even more brutal and awesome than the Mountain vs. the Viper or any other action the show has ever done.  This is exactly the sort of showdown that I’ve talked about in prior weeks, where we have 2 evenly matched opponents who both feel like they could plausibly get the upper hand on the other at any point, and despite audience loyalty to both, and it most definitely did not end in a draw.  And so I was a nervous wreck throughout, waiting for Pod to interfere and get himself killed giving Brienne the opening she needed to prevail.  Which made it all the sweeter when that didn’t happen, of course.  I mean, I liked the Hound as a character, but guy was an unrepentant murderer of children.  It would’ve been a much bigger bummer to see Brienne take the loss.  And that last scene between Rory McCann and Maisie Williams was worth just about anything.  Arya has become a truly cold customer, as she decides to ignore the dog’s lesson about where the heart is, while honoring the one about the dead not needing silver.  I suppose the TV dictum is that if we don’t watch him actually expire, we should assume the Hound will be back, but I hope they don’t cheapen that scene in that way. Not that I’m overly worried about it.

If he doesn't get to come back, no one does
If he doesn’t get to come back, no one does
 But Tyrion will be back!  I know the circumstances of his fleeing Westeros were sad, but I was so convinced that offing him would be Martin’s piece de resistance of misery that I was in cold sweats throughout the back half of the episode. Needless to say, I am very, very relieved that this was not the case.  And I never expected him to take out the old man on his way (whereas killing Shae, while I did not see it coming specifically, feels more like the type of awfulness that would accompany a last minute escape in Martin’s world).  But her character had run its course, and I’d be lying if I said any sadness I felt about her death wasn’t more than offset by the giddiness of realizing that Varys was going to accompany the Imp across the Narrow Sea.

But the main event is of course the toilet-murder of Lord Tywin.  We all know that Lannisters pay their debts, and in hindsight much of this season can be seen as being about just how deep Tywin in particular had sunk them to keep the Iron Throne in the family.  The season opened with a sequence showing him in total triumph, but it was immediately followed by a scene were he was defied by his eldest son, and by the finale, his daughter had also rebelled, disabusing him of his convenient, strategic ignorance as to their incestuous practices.  And of course it closes with his being shot to death on the crapper by the son he has spent years abusing and trying with decreasing subtlety to get killed.

This is obviously both traumatic and cathartic for Tyrion.  But Tywin was similar to the Hound in that I recognize them as bad guys in the abstract, but enjoyed the performances and dynamics they brought to the table so much that I wasn’t eager to see them go.  So it comes down to the manner they are taken out, and for those of us who have endured Red Weddings and Greyjoy geldings and Viper manglings over the years, it feels good to see someone we like strike back at their tormentor. Is it justice?  Not exactly, but it’s a lot closer than what would’ve happened if the old man had his way.  In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been so worried; I think Martin is savvier than he is generally given credit for when it comes to what degree of tragedy the audience can take before needed a little respite, and while I can see the complaint that Oberyn was introduced solely to raise our hopes for the crushing, following that directly with killing the most beloved character would be too much for a book that also contained last season’s massacre in its second half.  And the MO of the show has consistently been to bump off the wiser, steadier hands at any particular wheel while the rejects and marginal figures find ways to keep swimming.  But I wasn’t thinking that clearly, because this show has fucked with me so consistently and effectively for so many years that I never know what to think in the moment, no matter how many words I write about it after the fact.

On an unrelated note, I tend to down at least a bottle of wine before each episode ends.  It's...don't question my methods, okay internet?
On an unrelated note, I tend to down at least a bottle
 of wine before each episode ends. It’s…
don’t question my methods, okay internet?
Anyway, with Tywin gone, the consequences for Westeros as a whole will probably be dire.  Cersei and Jaime are poised to be the primary movers in King’s Landing, but how long will House Lannister stand with their credit cards maxed out, their king and Hand murdered in quick succession in their very seats of power, and lacking the brainpower of Tywin, Tyrion or Varys to smooth things over?  With the Tyrells, Martells, Littlefingers, and eventually Baratheons scheming to depose them?

Is it 2015 yet? Oh, come on!


Tuesday, June 10, 2014



“Watchers On The Wall” is set up to be Blackwater 2: Black Waterer.  And it’s a noble effort, but ultimately it can’t match the intensity of the show’s finest hour, even with Neil Marshal outdoing his own direction.  Castle Black, when you get down to brass tacks, simply lacks the depth of interesting characters that King’s Landing is packed with.  Also there is a more straightforward good guys vs bad guys dynamic at play here, whereas I imagine there were a good many people rooting for Stannis to take the throne, if only to remove Joffrey.  But what it lacks in the series trademark emotional complexity, it makes up for in spectacle and execution.

This is, handily, the best action the series has ever done, and it is delivered on a scale that dwarfs even the battles at Astapor (where the dragons and Unsullied tore through a handful of unarmed opponents) and Blackwater (which featured a clash of larger forces but basically confined it to small groups on one stretch of dirt).  It’s got a better sense of geography, of shifting tactics, and also a cathartic sense of paying off a storyline that has been slooooowly building for 4 years.  Plus it has giants riding mammoths and its big surprise tactic, the giant anchor sweeping the Wildlings off the Wall, is even cooler and more surprising than the Wildfire maneuver.

"Come men!  Follow my silky, voluminous curls to victory!!!"
“Come men! Follow my silky, voluminous curls TO VICTORY!!!”

Unfortunately, that sense of climax is undercut by the indecisiveness of the battle’s outcome.  I’ve talked before about how the show mines tension from not having a clear-cut “power rankings” (much as we like to amuse ourselves with them on the message board) so that we know going in that say, Ser Allister doesn’t stand a chance against Tormund or the head Thenn.  But the other thing that gives the periodic clashes between different characters or factions such a charge is that Martin is unflinching about providing them with definite winners and losers.  Sure, you have the occasional dust up like Jaime’s with Ned or Brienne that ends in a draw, but I’ve never had a sense that these skirmishes were being contrived to provide the audience with chances to see their fan favorites in action without committing to any real consequences.

This of course applies to more than just duels.  Just ask the Starks, or Greyjoys, or Martells, and they’ll tell you that the big overarching conflicts are just as susceptible to major, definitive swings of fortune as any individual swordfight.  Not that I don’t expect all of those families (with the possible exception of the Greyjoys – they’ve lost all the ground they gained in the second season and there’s still a fire leech out there with Balon’s name on it) to come back in some major ways, but it’s been clear for years that Martin doesn’t get bogged down trying to ensure that the primary conflicts remain at a familiar equilibrium, to better keep the audience oriented.  That’s a concern for a syndicated TV show, not so much a series of fantasy epics.  It also gives the series, for as slooooowly as some of its storylines can develop, a consistent sense of forward momentum.  Having source material, particularly one so ruthless with the audience’s desires, means that from the very first episode this series was going places.  Dany's storyline aside, I’ve never had a sense that certain characters or dynamics are being kept in stasis for the sake of padding out a 20-some episode season or to flatter the ego of a particular breakout star, as will happen with a traditional network series.

Or else we all know who would've been getting top billing the last 3 years
Or else we all know who would’ve been getting top billing the last 3 years

Which is all a roundabout way of getting back to the point that if “Watchers On The Wall” feels a little lightweight, it is because Game Of Thrones is generally not a show that ends its conflicts in a draw.  Take Stannis, for example. There’s no denying that his story has been frustratingly stalled since Blackwater, but that in turn allows Blackwater to still feel important in hindsight, despite the lack of major character deaths it produced – the defeat was significant, and not just for those people that prefer Stannis to the Lannisters.  The battle for Castle Black mainly functions at this point to serve up a second cliffhanger on top of last week’s (cruelly ignored altogether).  The Watch still holds the Wall, Mance’s army still hopelessly outnumbers them, and the only real development is that the marauders south of The Wall have been eliminated.  You could have replaced this whole battle with Jon leading another sortie against Tormund and the Thenns when they were camped outside Mole’s Town and end up in the exact same place, narratively.

"Before I die...tell me...(ack) you get such bounce and volume from your bangs?"
“Before I die…tell me…(ack)…one time…
how your bangs maintain such bounce and volume?”
That being said, the battle does deliver on the fantasy spectacle level, and result in some surprisingly effective character deaths.  Ygritte dies in Jon’s arms, in a moment that was nicely acted but had been such a foregone conclusion for so long that I didn’t get too misty over it.  On the other hand, I was surprisingly moved by poor Pip’s bloody death, and Grenn going out like an ABSOLUTE BOSS.  I know some people are disappointed that we didn’t see more of the actual fight with the giant, but I wouldn’t change a single thing about how that was presented.  We didn’t know those guys all that well, but they’ve been familiar long enough that their deaths managed to resonate.

There were also good character and action bits to spare.  Thorne acknowledging (without apologizing) that he was wrong about the tunnel, then proving himself to be a legit badass rather than the Dwayne T. Johnson (edit:  Robinson.  Oof.  Geek credentials revoked) of Westeros.  Tormund’s restless, grunting berserker rage (I swear, Kristofer Hivju looked more feral than Ghost as he relentlessly prowled the castle).  The swooping, 360 degree shot of the carnage within the walls.  The absurdly awesome giant arrow sending some poor bastard halfway to the moon before crashing down into the courtyard.  Sam’s quickdraw on the crossbow (and even better, his delivery of “is it over, then?” to Pip).  Jon embedding a hammer in the main cannibal’s skull.

Early frontrunner for the 2014 "Image Most Likely To Provoke A Led Zeppelin Reunion" Emmy
 The only thing the battle was missing was Tyri-…..ohshitohshitohshit, guys, I just remembered what happened with Tyrion and Oberyn last week! Oh fuckme, they’re gonna kill him I just know it I know it ah fuck fuckfuckfuck…..


Is it Sunday yet? Oh, come on!


Thursday, June 5, 2014



Sorry about the hold up, folks.  I’m out of the country this week, and it took me a couple days to find a way to watch the episode on an iffy internet connection.  It also means no pictures and probably more typos this week.  I know, I know, life on the internet is almost as harsh as it is in Westeros.  At least the episode wasn’t the least bit eventful or anything.

So things had been going good for too long in Westeros. This is a relative measure, obviously, as there has been slaughter and mutilation to spare throughout this 4th season, but we also hadn’t seen the death of really sympathetic character since the Red Wedding.  I’ve talked previously about how an inordinate amount of the damage this year was being taken by the outright heels (Joffrey, the slave masters, Arya’s tormentors, crazy aunt Lysa, the Watch mutineers, hell, you can go ahead and throw the grimy faux-Bonham Carter whore that menaces Gilly in there too), and expressed trepidation about things swinging back against the “good guys” before too long.  And with the closing sequence of “The Mountain And The Viper”, that pendulum shifts sharply.

But first there are other goings on in the world.  In Essos, Dany finally learns of Jorah’s previous occupation spying on her, and reacts poorly.  She notes that it was his reporting about her pregnancy that prompted the Westerosi’s assassination attempt, but ignores his protests that he also foiled the attempt – and has risked his life for her many times over since. She had to react somehow, but losing Jorah is more of a blow than I think she realizes.  She may not need his swordarm with Daario and Selmy and Grey Worm knocking about, but none of those guys seem interested in tempering her fiery-er instincts, as has already become necessary to rule even a single city.  Oddly enough, I am heartened by this turn of events; I had been thinking that Jorah’s increasing redundancy in the khaleesi’s service and generally likeable nature spelled doom for him all season, but I enjoy Ian Glenn’s performance so much that I’m glad that he will be spinning off into another part of the narrative instead of leaving it in a bloody mist of head trauma.

But we’re not there yet.  In other parts, Gilly and Sam Jr. also get a reprieve from what seems like certain death at the hands of the marauding Wildlings.  Good thing Ygritte is an ol’ softy (we’ll ignore for the moment the four other people she murdered in the sequence).  The rest of the Wall stuff is just the guys reacting to the attack.  I’m sure there will be a lot more to say about this story after next week’s coming Wallstravaganza, so let’s  just move on to the Boltons.

Theon’s life of misery continues apace, as he’s forced to impersonate (I guess?) himself to help the Boltons reclaim a muddy castle that will solidify their hold on the North.  Names were prominent this week, with Ramsay getting his father’s bestowed upon him at last, a new name to match the one he took from Theon.  This is bad news for those of us who find the relentless sadism of his scenes wearying, but at least it means that there will be a really hiss-worthy villain waiting for Bran Stark to root out of Winterfell when he and Hodor return triumphantly riding a mastodon or whatever.

Or perhaps his sister will beat him to the punch.  Sansa makes major strides towards becoming a legitimate political power this week, reclaiming her own name so she can pull Littlefinger from the fire.  Her reasoning seems simple enough, as he is the devil she knows, but it’s unclear just how deep she’s thrown in with him.  Did she give him “what he wants” after that cutaway?  Does she know exactly what the plan is for little Lord Arryn?  All of a sudden Lady Stark has secrets from us as the audience, and I’m more intrigued by her than I’ve ever been.

Something else occurred to me as she was descending the steps of the Eyrie, looking regal and sinister in a way we’ve never seen.  We’ve talked about Arya cycling through various tutors in the deadly arts, learning to survive the storm of swords that has covered Westeros, but Sansa has been going through her own education, as people like Cersei, Olenna, Tyrion, and now Littlefinger show her, sometimes unwittingly, how to play the game of thrones.  Oddly enough, the Stark girls now seem poised to grow into the positions of their hated enemies, the Lannisters – Arya is becoming Jaime, a deadly, charismatic killer with little interest in the titles and ruling that come with her name, while Sansa is poised to be the next Cersei, an ostensible trophy wife who is ruthless in leveraging her beauty and family name to get what she wants.

But that’s in the future.  This week, the main even is, obviously, the trial by combat that ends as brutally as it possibly could for all parties, including us viewers.  I should’ve known Oberyn was doomed from the moment I named him as a new favorite character a few weeks back.  I’m sorry to see him go, as Pedro Pascal’s performance was a real live wire, bringing an intelligence to the portrayal that tempered both his righteousness and hedonism into something that felt lived in and real, instead of simplistic, inconsistent notes.  But note that what gets him killed is his insistence on hearing the Mountain name names – both his sister’s and Tywin Lannister’s.

His death is brutal physically, but also emotionally, because it dooms Tyrion along with him.  As ever, Tyrion’s fate is sealed because even his champion puts him second to his real objective.  The Imp is a second son to the last.  And one of the more interesting facets of “The Mountain And The Viper” is how it addresses the grimness of the GOT universe head-on. Tyrion and Jaime, after musing over how many different forms of homicide have names of their own (except murder of a cousin, as cousin-killer Jaime notes), remember another cousin with highly allegorical brain damage.  Beetles or people, why do we return to watch them get ground so relentlessly to dust?  Are we foolish to think there is a point to be mined from witnessing such nonstop misery?  Is it enough to cheer the donkey when it randomly kicks the life out of the crusher?

It’s not just Tyrion who has noticed the harshness of this world; just look at all the people that use that phrasing within the episode.  Littlefinger: “My lady was not meant for a world as brutal as ours.”  Illyria: “Don’t leave me alone in this world.” Ranger Who Looks Kind Of Like Bronn: “When I’m done with this world, I don’t want to come back.”  Or just note Arya’s (perfect) black laugh at the news of her aunt’s death.  These people know that this world is unforgiving, and that there are far more beetles in it than there are crushers.  How they handle that knowledge is one of the more interesting aspects of human nature to examine, in my opinion, and that is part of the appeal of a dark series such as this.

Or maybe I’m just a perverse simpleton who can’t look away from a pair of naked breasts or a skull being popped like a grape, no matter how much I liked the guy it was attached to.  Either way, it looks like there will be more crushings on the way next week when the Wildlings finally reach the Wall.

Is it Sunday yet? Oh, come on!