Bastille Day

Your alligators are sewn on backwards

bastilleIn a college screenwriting class, I once wrote a script I thought was pretty good.  My professor even told me that every few semesters, one student script really stands out, and that this was the one.  I’ve since lost it, but if it had actually been produced, I assume I’d be cringing at it now.  I still think the characters were better than what you get in your standard Hollywood action fare, but instead of existing for the same reasons real people with complicated histories exist (i.e. no reason), their collected backstories served the larger narrative, one that needed them to come together to connect plot dots, a plot full of conspiracies, corrupt government officials, gunfire, and a sainted young white dude who can puzzle it all out.  I get bummed out thinking about it.  Even if I was on the right track (not with that script in particular, but moving toward something good), even if the dialogue was alright and the plot resolution reasonable and the characters okay to spend time with, the produced result probably would have turned out looking a lot like Bastille Day.  And it would deserve a crappy review.

Bastille Day pits a bunch of ex-HBO main-supporting actors against a terrorism conspiracy in Paris (sadly evoking thoughts of the recent tragedies there and in Nice): Special Agent Briar (Idris Elba), a generic cowboy cop, gets mixed into the investigation of a bombing accidentally triggered by Michael Mason (Richard Madden).  Briar is guided along by his classically beleaguered CIA superior, Tom (Anatol Yusef), and slightly more sympathetic agent Karen (Kelly Reilly) who mainly exist to emphasize how badass Briar is, and how evil the generic European bad guys are, respectively.  As straightforward as it sounds, the Island Syndrome never becomes exhausting because the actors never seem bored playing tropes straight and saying things like “I know an asshole when I see one.”

The tritagonist of the film, Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) mostly exists as a target/ingenue/plot device, but it’s worth noting that every significant story movement is catalyzed by her: deciding at a certain moment not to trigger a bomb, bashing a corrupt cop over the head with a flashlight like someone out of a Lucia Berlin story (Google it), saving the dudes’ asses, and heroically rushing through a line of riot police in order to incite action.  The latter scene evokes great historical moments captured in photographs, including recent ones of women standing up to body-armored men with machine guns and shields, and even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to do so, it’s one of the few moments worth taking away from the film (taking farther, at least, than your after-film chat with your filmgoing partners about what you just witnessed).

Speaking of the story, it’s pretty clear who the real bad guy is from the beginning, but the “why” continues to change, and the action doesn’t hit a low enough gear to reveal much depth.  The villains seem like stereotypical fear-mongering bombers who don’t mind creating collateral damage in order to keep citizens angry at the police (they use hashtags to guide protesters to the next significant location), which at first feels like an uncomfortable criticism of gullible internet-surfing social justice warriors who spend their days looking for stuff to protest, but it turns out that the bad guys are actually the police themselves.  Why are they doing this?  Because they’re pissed that no one appreciates them.  Wait, but they’re killing and manipulating citizens.  Why wouldn’t the people walk around chanting NWA lyrics?  Just when the layers seem to be peeled back as far as they’ll go, the filmmakers decide to settle on plain ol’ greed to justify the bad police’s actions: their endgame is to use the gigantic protesters vs. police rumble as a cover to lift mass amounts of cash from the Bank of France during the Bastille Day Parade.  It’s not that it’s lame in and of itself; it’s that it never seems like we need Stringer Bell, Robb Stark, and Meyer Lansky to take care of a bunch of cream puffs like these guys.

That said, the protest side-story does sit uncomfortably, if only because the filmmakers’ intentions with it are never made clear. It’s not half as bad as Christopher Nolan’s opportunistic and disrespectful treatment of the Occupy movement in The Dark Knight Rises, though.

BD is ultimately harmless, I think.  But it really does rely on the actors, not the writing/story/characterization – for instance, it wouldn’t have been watchable with, say, Keanu Reeves and Mark Ruffalo as the two non-buddy heroes, and it almost reaches that point in scenes that feature the tedious villains talking to each other.  Why didn’t they cast Anatol Yusef, an actor who can play deep menace with very little effort, as the evil police boss instead of Lee Van Cleef’s character from Escape from New York?  This isn’t intended to be the aforementioned “crappy review” I would have given my own movie.  But in a world where American action films come with a write-by-numbers kit, it seems to be very, very difficult to avoid making the same movie again and again.  My script didn’t come with the kit, but it also did: by the time I was twenty, I’d seen this movie a thousand times.

I get it, though.  It’s an Idris Elba vehicle, and an argument for his candidacy for the position of James Bond.  Fine.  If you have to keep making 007 movies, cast him as James Bond.  Just don’t have him sing the theme song.

220px-bastille_day_28film29Bastille Day (2016); written by Andrew Baldwin and James Watkins; directed by James Watkins; starring Idris Elba, Richard Madden, and Charlotte Le Bon.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

You just can’t run from the funnel of love

loversleftJim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive takes a few cues from Karen Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and continues the recent trend (perhaps popularized by Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and HBO’s True Blood) of stories about vampires who have evolved past their savage desires to feed on human blood in favor of either mixing with society or keeping to themselves.  In Russell’s story, the main characters, a couple not so different from Jarmusch’s protagonists, discover raw lemons as a temporary placation.  In True Blood, human blood is synthesized into a bottled beverage, eliminating the need for murder altogether.  Jarmusch’s vampire yarn is a bit grittier and more cynical, although not overtly so: vampires must keep themselves hidden from humans, who have no idea they exist, and must scrounge up whatever blood they can find by looting hospitals and making deals with blood bank doctors.

But of course, this isn’t really a vampire story.  The word vampire is never spoken, and the parameters of vampirism are never laid out, aside from drinking blood, not going out during the day, and being able to “turn” others.  It’s a film about the failure of the twenty-first century and the bleakness of humanity’s future due to willed ignorance and backwards ways of thinking.  Not a particularly fresh theme in and of itself (truth and accuracy notwithstanding), but Jarmusch explores it through a fascinating character study, absent of silly exposition or literal dystopia.  Dystopia might be coming, but somehow, it’s more frightening to be a prisoner in the actual world we live in.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) have been married for several centuries.  Eve has spent the past few years in Tangier, where she obtains her blood from Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who goes by the name “Kit” since he is “supposed to be dead.”  No explanation is given for how Marlowe was turned, but the film’s great efforts to shove aside lore and backstory aid its focus, and these omissions never actually feel like omissions.  Just think of the degree of “hiding” that Marlowe has to do: he’s not only been hiding his identity for hundreds of years, but he’s also been hiding his influence on Shakespeare, whose portrait, complete with a dart in its head, he keeps on his wall.  Adam, on the other hand, lives in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood as a reclusive (albeit massively wealthy) musician obsessed with anonymity.  He broods, contemplates the sad state of the world and its treatment of artists and scientists (“They’re still bitching about Darwin.  Still!”), creates complex music that the underground scene cannot get enough of, and procures rarities from local rock-n’-roller Ian (Anton Yelchin).  One of these is a wooden bullet, and we know what those can do if applied to a vampire’s heart.  Eve blames Adam’s suicidal romanticism on “Those people he used to hang out with” – y’know, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, without whom Jarmusch’s movie would not exist.

Adam is saved by a video chat with Eve, and the two reunite in Detroit.  The couple do not interact with each other until roughly a half-hour into the film, and thus the amount of time we spend with them driving the streets, exploring museums at night, listening to rough cuts of Adam’s new tunes, and lying around in bed, is well-earned and well-put-off until we have some context.  Adam obtains his blood from Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a blood bank worker who is more than happy to drop some “O-Negativo” off the back of a truck in exchange for a thicker wad of cash than he’s making doing honest work.  Notably, Adam goes by the pseudonym “Doctor Faust,” a reference to the most famous of the real-life Marlowe’s work (a derivative work in which a deal is made with the devil).  Still, Adam claims to have no heroes.

The film’s movement is made up of anti-narrative, as many of Jarmusch’s films are, though critics’ claims that the film continues Jarmusch’s “rebellion against narrative” may be a bit erroneous.  Dead Man‘s exploratory scenes relied entirely upon plot points, rebel against them as it might.  Similarly, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, and Ghost Dog feature a protagonist on a journey initiated by himself, and the real exploration (as well as the occasional inaccessible philosophizing) happens during the breaths in between.  Here, with Eve and Adam, we have two characters who want nothing to do with plot.  They do not want a story.  They’ve had enough of it.  Yet inconveniences are thrust upon them, and when the story does move forward, it is dragged kicking and screaming (not that its quiet characters do either).  The few “happenings” in the film involve Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the young vampire sister of Eve, who has lately invaded everyone’s dreams as a way to say that she’s coming to visit.  Neither Eve nor Adam wants Ava around to spoil what they have, especially Adam, who wishes Ava were dead (a reference is made to something that happened 87 years ago, but Eve and Adam were both there, so the specifics are not revealed, as that would be a violation where exposition is concerned).  Ava shows up, and things change.  Unlike Eve and Adam, Ava is curious, fresh-faced, eager for new experiences.  Do they dislike her because she’s been a perpetual teenager for centuries?  Or because she’s an amalgamation of who they used to be (name and otherwise)?

As expected, Ava ruins things in a single night, and again, movement is forced upon the couple.  In the end, as two blood-deprived vamps descend upon unsuspecting lovers in a back alley in Tangier, following Adam’s haunting justification – “What choice do we have?” – we see how quickly and easily one’s identity can be compromised in a world wherein that identity is not even acknowledged, let alone nurtured.  This is not to say that the film’s ending constitutes some broad idea, or even that is has to mean something, but there is, on the part of the characters, at least a “shift” if not flat-out growth – it’s subtle and reluctant, and greater parts sad than happy.

This is Jarmusch’s best film in a while.  Unlike many of Jarmusch’s others,  Only Lovers Left Alive is not saturated by obvious themes, nor does it revolve around a sainted everyman.  In the tradition of those films, however, it grooves to a magical, sludgy soundtrack that makes the tiniest of movements seem dire and urgent.  Planning a flight is excruciating.  Tiny interior things such as Adam taking interest in another musician (Yasmine Hamdan) contain multitudes of significance, while major flourishes like kicking Ava out of the house seem routine and likely to happen again.  The main cast make up a sad, wonderful family that is not only worthwhile to spend time with, but also carries the pain and quintessence of the “last people on Earth” while simultaneously being unaware of it and just trying to live.  It’s particularly affecting to realize in retrospect that Mia Wasikowska’s mischievous Ava inhabits the truest identity in the film, representing where things once were and where they’re unknowingly going again, and she, much like the film’s featured recluses, goes undernourished.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014); written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska.

 

Game of Thrones vs. Camelot

Winter is coming…for television

I know what you think this is going to be.  The same thing I thought it was going to be: me scribbling away while two over-budgeted, derivative fantasy epics beat each other into the ground in a debate over whose sword is broader.  In reality, it has become a handicap match: HBO and Starz vs. me and my patience.

I know this comes as a shock, but I’m not a fan of fantasy epics, neither in literature nor film.  You could counterpoint that by reminding me that I made Wings Over Arda, an adaptation of the early works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but the stories I adapted are based upon and written in the form of mythology, not high fantasy (it’s in the writing style, certainly not the content, I’ll give you that).  My prose (narrative fiction), prize-winning and otherwise, is, for the most part, contemporary.  Wings was a venture I did with friends (for fun) and something I’d wanted to get out of my system for a long time.

Let me begin by saying two things: yes, they’re both engaging shows, and yes, I’m going to spoil what happens in order to illustrate a few points.

Camelot currently has more episodes on the table, and these episodes are packed with gifted headline actors (Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green, Jamie Campbell Bower) and an inspired supporting cast (James Purefoy, Liam Cunningham, Clive Standen, Chipo Chung).  The story follows a 21st-century retelling of the King Arthur mythology, and refreshingly begins with a young Arthur taking the throne.  There are no Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Mordred or any of that baloney here; we’re knee-deep in the good stuff right at the outset.  Eva Green plays Morgan (based upon the legendary Morgana le Fay, a sorceress who serves as an antagonist in most versions of the story) as a powerful woman with an agenda.  Sure, she’s harboring dark powers inside her, she refuses to cooperate with her half-brother, and she’s planning to capture the throne of Camelot through devious and contemptible means, but her character is more than Arthur’s antagonist.  Expansive sections of each episode are devoted to Morgan’s story, focusing on her personal struggles – hatred for her mother, gathering allies she doesn’t want for the sake of her eventual goals, and coexisting with her two advisers, Vivian (Chipo Chung) and Sybil (Sinéad Cusack).  Yep, a court of powerful women with real concerns and aspirations.  Call me crazy, but don’t Morgan’s claims to the throne seem… well, warranted?  This is the first real roadblock the show hits, and I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Rounding out the principal cast is Joseph Fiennes, who remains likable no matter what role he takes on.  Here, he plays one of the show’s three central characters, Merlin, portrayed as a godless sorcerer who considers his magic an addiction and a curse, not a glorious gift worthy of celebration.  His motives are murky from the start – why is he in such a hurry to shove Arthur onto the throne?  Merlin’s political agenda isn’t secreted, thankfully, so a certain tension is built between the young king and his most trusted adviser right from the first episode.

Here’s where I get tripped up.  Arthur is played as a weasel from his first scene, in which he’s sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend.  He falls for Guinevere (Tamsen Egerton), the betrothed of his champion knight, and despite some weak resistance from the latter, Arthur steals her.  He whines and defies Merlin’s wisdom throughout the story, which is acceptable for the sake of a conflict, but we have no real reason to root for Arthur’s side over Morgan’s other than the fact that the narrative dictates it.  Arthur and Guinevere are both naive and dishonest.  Morgan’s a pretty straightforward lady, and I dare you to argue that she uses and usurps any more than Arthur and Merlin do.  I know I can’t hope for a profound revelation concerning the respective honor of Team Arthur over Team Morgan, but I shouldn’t have to force myself to root for the good guys.

Let’s shift gears before we get to the column process.  Game of Thrones, the other show in question, is a serial epic currently airing on HBO, based all-too-closely on the works of George R.R. Martin, who claims not to be ripping off J.R.R Tolkien, but uses the same middle initials and names numerous characters after Tolkien’s.  Derivative?  Yeah, sure.  But surely having Mark Addy and Sean Bean in the starring roles of the series will create a legacy for these bloated novels, right?

Unfortunately, HBO is deceiving us.  This series spans several gigantic books, and Ned Stark (Sean Bean’s character) doesn’t make it past the first one.  Sorry; he’s just a hook to get fans of The Lord of the Rings to watch, and it worked, because the show was picked up for a second season before the first episode even finished premiering.

At least the show is better than George R.R. Martin’s literary nightmare, with its grammar errors, unimaginative sentences, laconic phrasing, tons of dialogue, vague statements, ellipses and italics everywhere.  Par for the course in genre fiction, I know, but your average ambitious tenth-grader can write this stuff.

If you have no attachment to the actors, there’s a lot to like in GoT.  As with Camelot, we’re in a medieval setting, although this one has monsters running around and indiscriminately slaughtering people.  The series begins with some of this footage, followed by Ned Stark beheading a deserter with the largest phallic symbol you’ve ever seen on television.  From there, the story grows.  A war is brewing due to tension between Lords and houses, in large part because of a secret romance between Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey).  Ned’s daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner), an adorable redhead, is soon to be betrothed to the son of the King (Mark Addy), the bratty Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).  Why isn’t he attracted to Sansa?  I couldn’t tell you.  On the other side of the story, we’ve got Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who has been sold off as a trophy bride for the sake of an alliance between her brother and Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the leader of a vicious horde of barbaric, stereotypical foreign warriors who dance around fires, walk around naked, and babble in a gibberish language no one else in the universe feels like learning.  Perhaps the most impressive and inspired piece of casting comes in the form of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, the trouble-making brother of Jaime.  Dinklage gets to play a serious role here, which is a refreshing (and much deserved) change.  Despite the fact that he constantly reminds the audience and other characters of his dwarfism, he has a surprisingly generous load of dialogue and plot activity (note: “activity” does not equal “profound relevance to important events”).  His character has a long tenure in the series, so expect to see a lot of him, particularly alongside Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), the story’s Boring Hero.

Neither show hides its intended audience.  The first episode of both shows involves numerous fully nude women, including the lead actresses, and often in explicit sex scenes.  Eva Green drops her entire ensemble in the finale of Camelot‘s second episode for absolutely no reason, and one can tell she doesn’t know why she’s doing it.  Clarke is unnecessarily stripped down and groped in GoT’s first episode, as well as being brutally raped in the episode’s ending.  On that same note, the rape by Khal Drogo continues in the following episode, and after seeking sex advice from one of her handmaids (because in this world, all women are apparently masters of seduction), she learns how to please Drogo by her own will, and is thenceforth proud to be his wife and to be carrying his child.  Let me get this straight: she was forced into a marriage, traded as an object as casually as you might trade a bag of marbles for a pack of gum, was repeatedly (and graphically) raped, and now she’s totally fine with this because her dominant husband let her be on top for a night?  I see what they’re trying to do: she’s gradually earning the favor of Drogo’s people over her brother, learning to be the queen of the Horde and so on, but do not be fooled: Daenerys is not a “strong female character.”  She represents female complacence in the guise of strength and independence.  We’re supposed to believe she not only forgot/forgave her rape and abuse, but embraced one of the most egregious offenders, simply because she was able to slide into a position of minor power.  Any self-respecting woman would have arranged the deaths of both of these abusive miscreants by the second episode.

You’re not off the hook, Camelot.  The court of women is good to have, but Morgan frequently bickers with Sybil, her mother figure, herself a corrupt nun who burned a nunnery to the ground and supports the dastardly overthrow of King Arthur.  Morgan relies on alliances with men, namely King Lot (James Purefoy), which are gained purely through sexual seduction.  If the respective psychologies of both shows are to be followed, then all women are seductive experts who gain no pleasure from sex unless they’re cheating, are adept at using sex for personal gain, and are sexually cooperative if it suits them.  On an unrelated note, Purefoy plays a perfect villain, but is unceremoniously dumped from the cast when he dies in the second episode during a contrived fight scene.

The gore and gratuity are there, too.  GoT is a bit more violent, frequently showing gruesome decapitations and tossing the F word around as though the producers are trying to lure Sam Jackson in.  Camelot is graphic in other ways, showing realistic aftermaths of sexual encounters and some violence against animals (including a preposterous scene in which Guinevere siphons blood from the neck of a long-dead deer as if it’s the gas tank of a minivan), and often spares us seeing the exact process by which the heads actually come off.

Storywise, Camelot is creative and often surprising in its retelling of the Arthur tales.  The telling of the Sword of Gods and the Lady of the Lake are very well-done, as is the character progression – namely Merlin and Morgan, and to lesser extents, Gawain and Sybil.  Arthur and Guinevere are still boring and unsympathetic, although Arthur did wear cool armor in one episode, which I’m guessing is supposed to substitute for personality.  Fiennes remains the emphatic savior of the show, and if it gets a second season, it will be because of him and Green.

GoT‘s storytelling is not exactly plodding, but it’s slow.  If you’re not interested in one of the three main groups of characters, you’ll be pausing the DVR to run to the kitchen and dig for stimulants.  That said, the actors approach their roles with enthusiasm and dedication, and if nothing else, this series should get some young faces recognized and should bolster the more seasoned ones.

As far as picking a winner, I won’t (if you read the intro, you knew I wasn’t going to).  My conclusion, however, is that there must be one extreme or the other with these shows: if you watch one, there’s no reason not to watch the other.  They’re engaging, enjoyable, and more thoughtful than the lion’s share of network brain-junk.  They both do dramatic dialogue scenes well, particularly GoT, where there is fiery tension even when characters discuss what they want for breakfast.  They’re almost companion pieces to each other, with their rich worlds, glorified battles and near-unwavering misogyny.  Camelot, as some have noted, is not as grand a production as GoT, but is likely to remain art long after GoT has devolved into a franchise (which is, sadly, what people want now).

I’m not made of stone.  I know these stories are set in the middle-ages, but we, the viewers, are not.  If you’re claiming that these are “modern” adaptations, I want to see why.  Here’s a hint: I’m not talking about impressive special effects.