Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Unapologetically Adult

Probably the hardest thing to accomplish when depicting a famous superhero before they became one is sacrificing the tropes we've come to identify with them. Mark Clamen in Critics at Large suggests that Gotham more than compensates with a compelling backstory.

Dark City: FOX's Gotham

Donal Logue and Benjamin McKenzie star in Gotham, on FOX
"…with a very few examples of cruelty he will be more compassionate than those who, out of excessive mercy, permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering; for these usually harm the community at large, while the executions that come from the prince harm particular individuals." Machiavelli, The Prince 

"You can't have organized crime without law and order." Don Falcone, Gotham 
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the premiere episode of Gotham. I had pre-set expectations for FOX's much publicized Batman-without-Batman prequel series, and they were mainly skeptical. Ten years of Smallville(especially the more tortured plot and character elements of its final season) loomed large in my mind as September approached. As fun as the notion of a story set in Gotham years before the arrival of its caped and cowled crusader might be in theory, Gotham seemed a project destined to be over-burdened by a famously established future continuity and a wealth of film and television adaptations of the Batman universe. Developed for television by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, HBO's Rome), the show promises to tell the largely unwritten story of a young James Gordon, destined of course to become Police Commissioner Gordon and Batman's best official defender, but who for now is still a rookie detective finding his way in a thoroughly corrupt police department. However, if the pilot is any indication of its ambitions, Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie, Southland) is merely the face of the show's real main character, the city of Gotham itself.

Robin Lord Taylor and Benjamin McKenzie in Gotham
Gotham comes to the small screen with all the advantages and disadvantages of stepping in to a well-established, deeply beloved and (to some) exhausted franchise. It has a built-in audience of viewers but an equally large audience of waiting naysayers whose expectations can never be satisfied. But it also has advantages over other "young" series (e.g. "young Merlin", "young Superman" or even now, amazingly, "young Mary, Queen of Scots"), which come with a primarily teenage cast and inevitable teen storylines. Gotham is in contrast an unapologetically adult show – even if its youngest characters, young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz, Touch), and Selina "Cat" Kyle (Camren Bicondova) with her preternatural agility, pixie haircut and unexplained goggles, are already shaping up to be the show's most intriguing. Batman and Batman stories come in all flavours and styles – from the colourfully camp to the morbidly existential – but its universe is no stranger to moral ambiguity, something that this show thoroughly embraces.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Counterfeit Sex

Gillian Flynn's novel of a highly dysfunctional couple, a marriage of ciphers, was a sensation when it came out. When David Fincher directed the adaptation, many admirers cited the satire. Nick Coccoma in Critics at Large couldn't find it.

S&M: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Ben Affleck stars in David Fincher's Gone Girl

This review contains major spoilers for Gone Girl

“It was long. It was awkward. It had a terrible ending.” So one fellow patron declared at the conclusion of Gone Girl, the latest offering from David Fincher. I might nuance the first statement a bit. Fincher’s movie clocks in at two and a half hours, and though you don’t feel every second ticking by, you certainly sense the lugubrious pace by the second half. As to the ending, it’s insane for sure. The truth is, though, that the wheels fall off this bus well before the finale—about the same time the minutes start to hit you like a bag of rocks. And finally, some might dub the film’s feeling as awkward, the go-to adjective of we Millennials. But I would reach for a stronger descriptive. Sadomasochistic, for instance. Despite these quibbles, the tenor of the moviegoer’s opinion I’d agree with. Fincher’s taken Gillian Flynn’s novel and rendered it into a narrative that not only lacks almost any dint of crime genre thrills, mystery, and tension, but also exposes the shoddy character of the author’s writing. Not having read the book, I don’t know if these problems derive from the source material or Fincher’s direction. What I do know is that Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick Dunne saves this movie, even as it turns the filmmaker's intent on its ear.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tonal Trouble

When a director of Jonathan Demme's caliber sets out to tackle Ibsen, it can raise your expectations until you discover that Demme would perhaps find a more companionable relationship with Chekhov. Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large discusses the the dismantling of A Master Builder, to be released soon on DVD by the Criterion Collection.

Ibsen Gone Wrong: A Master Builder

Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in A Master Builder

AndrĂ© Gregory’s staging of Uncle Vanya (in the David Mamet translation), rehearsed over nearly five years and brought to the screen in 1994 by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, is one of the great achievements in modern American cinema. (I’d say it’s the best movie of the nineties, as well the best rendering of Chekhov I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see.) But Gregory and Jonathan Demme come a cropper with their film of A Master Builder, from Wallace Shawn’s version of Ibsen’s 1892 play, even though Gregory rehearsed it with his cast for even longer than he and his actors worked on Vanya. Ibsen is notoriously difficult to pull off, and Master Builder poses even more daunting challenges than the plays he wrote between 1879 (A Doll House) and 1890 (Hedda Gabler). Some of those texts – The Lady from the Sea and The Wild Duck – have symbolist leanings, but essentially he’s working within a realist framework and with the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama, which he alters in daring ways that made Victorian audiences uneasy. Master Builder, though, moved Ibsen more firmly toward the symbolism of works like Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken. Yet Gregory and his cast – with a single concession – treat it as if it were Chekhov, with disastrous results.