Friday, May 26, 2017

Hagsploitation and Old Hollywood

At a certain point in FX’s miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan, Warner Brothers’ studio head Jack Warner throws a tantrum upon realizing that his box office strategy of pitting two aging actresses against each other in a film has been stolen by a rival studio. Warner, a relic from Hollywood’s earliest of days, feels he has proprietary rights to older women beating themselves up for his monetary and personal gain. “Hagsploitation”, he terms it. And while Warner didn’t have the exclusive rights to a plotline, he wasn’t far off from his belief that people, particularly women, were exploitable and that the best way to exploit them was to make them exploit each other.

That nuance is emblematic of the entire miniseries which was sold as a camp-fest featuring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford respectively, but ended up being a much more thoughtful meditation on aging, the role of women in the professional space, and how hubris, that old favorite of screenwriters everywhere, is ultimately an ambitious person’s worst enemy.

Dahhhling, what say we finish these drinks and then go talk to that handsome Mr. Draper we're hearing so much about?

 
Feud: Bette and Joan is the latest from the mind of Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, and just about everything else on television. While Feud revisits many tropes that Murphy loves (anything set in the 1960s, Los Angeles in general, Jessica Lange), it’s arguably his most mature work, outstripping even The People v. O.J. Simpson. By relying on events that are either confirmed to be true or at least strongly sourced, often from original sources themselves, Murphy is able to present a much more coherent storyline and develop more nuanced themes than when he’s cooking up his next creepy ghost scene or figuring out which musical number to get his cast to sign. Murphy loves high concept television, but clearly he does best when pairing those high concepts with real events.

And the reality of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend. Feud finds time to present not only the big ticket items from Joan manipulating the 1963 Oscars to humiliate Bette to Bette’s statement upon learning of Joan’s death in 1977 (“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good,” Bette was quoted as saying. “Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”) And yet it also finds the time to show us both of these characters at their best. Joan moving through the studios and the awards ceremonies, a pro expertly glad-handing the studio bosses, schmoozing with the talent, and mentoring the younger performers, illustrates how she attained the heights that she did. Likewise, Bette uses her outsider status to churn the press and manipulate from behind the scenes to improve her status.

Clearly, the real life Bette and Joan were not catty stereotypes perpetuated by gossip and later movies like Mommie Dearest. In keeping with the nuanced take on them, Susan Sarandon and, in particular, Jessica Lange give compelling performances that bring out all those qualities, good, bad and ugly. While the actresses bear only a passing physical resemblance to their characters, both actresses wisely aim to create breathing characters instead of just relying on physical mimicry.

Original still for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Feud's recreation

Where Feud excels the most is in underlining the ultimate tragedy of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: that, like the line from Baby Jane, all this time they could have been friends. Had Bette and Joan partnered together, as indeed they halfheartedly tried to at times, they could have exerted tremendous pressure on the studios. Instead, they fell into waring with each other, seeing each other as rivals rather than co-conspirators. And while machinations on the part of male studio heads certainly facilitated that rivalry, the miniseries gives us a sense of how the women’s insecurities factored in.

In one of the show’s best scenes, the two square off against each other in a verbal fight scene that ends sorrowfully. Bette, perennially viewed as one of the most talented actresses of her era but never one who was pretty enough to truly be a star, spits at Joan, “How did it feel to be the most beautiful actress in history?”

“It felt great,” Joan spits back before pausing and adding quietly, “And it was never enough. How did it feel to be the most talented?”

“It felt fine,” Bette returns, venomously, but clearly shaken. “And it was never enough.”

These were two actresses who, by rights, could have been a forceful duo but were both undermined by feeling inadequate in the face of each other. Joan, always seen as a Hollywood beauty, struggled to be appreciated for her talent and not just her face. Bette, somewhat resigned to being the character actress because it was bringing her Oscar nominations and wins, was never going to be awarded the approval of her industry because she didn’t look like a cover girl. And through it all was a studio system run by men who understood that the only way to make sure that these women didn’t kick them all out of their precarious positions was to keep them at each other’s throats.

This picture need more sexism and misogyny, I say! MOAR!

As such, it’s tempting to try to watch the show through the lens of modern Hollywood which, despite being 40 years on from the final scenes, is still very much stuck in the same mode. It’s not news that finding roles for women over the age of 40 is difficult, nor is it a surprise that Hollywood remains enraptured by the next “it” girl before turning her over for someone new within a year or two. But if anything, Feud takes pains to keep the story tight and focused and avoids underlining the comparisons to modern Hollywood too much. That approach works in its favor by allowing the audience to stay with the story instead of seeking out any too-clever-by-half references to the modern world. In fact, the show avoids irony almost entirely with the possible exception of a few lines in the final episode where an aging Joan admits that the only actress she sees in Hollywood in the 1970s with the kind of real star power that her generation of women had is Faye Dunaway. (In fact, that was a sentiment that Crawford voiced in real life before she died, obviously unaware of Dunaway’s eventual role in defining Crawford’s legacy for a new generation of people.)

Feud tells a remarkably restrained story about how women fight each other to the benefit of men and how hard it is to deviate from that pattern so long as men control the money. Watch it for the social commentary or just for the utterly on-point production design which faithfully recreates not only the 1960s but the specific looks that two titans of early Hollywood both cultivated for themselves. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yes, It Is Wrong You Think Gilbert is Kinda Hot (and Other Observations)

***THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS***

Yes, here we are, folks. Netflix (and CBC's) long-awaited (dreaded?) Anne With an E is finally available, streaming stateside on Netflix. 

   I talk way too much and have all kinds of codependency and anger issues. PLEASE KEEP ME.

This adaptation has been subject to a pretty unfair tongue-lashing by the chattering classes. There has been a lot of propaganda against this adaptation in the press, and so what I will do here is try to give the positives and negatives of this new version and let you thinking, autonomous adults make up your own minds about whether or not to watch or if you like it.

Let me first start off by saying that there is no bigger L.M. Montgomery geek than yours truly. I was legit OBSESSED with L.M. Montgomery. I read all of her books, anthologized short story collections, several biographies, and her personal published journals. I visited P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, and I have been to actual Green Gables. I spent most of junior high watching the Megan Follows Anne and its subsequent sequel, and I spent a good portion of my time imagining I was Ilse Burnley in an adaptation of Emily of New Moon. I also was a YUUUUUGE fan of Kevin Sullivan's Road to Avonlea series, watching all of the episodes multiple times. 

I have cred.

Here's what I do like:

AmyBeth McNulty was born to play this role. That is all there is to it. This girl is mad gifted. She looks exactly like Anne, it's true, but beyond that, her performance -- please don't throw rocks at me -- surpasses that of Follows. I understand that a lot of the differences between the performances have to do with script and direction, but I see McNulty showing a wider range of emotions. For instance, during Anne's first scene at Green Gables, McNulty bursts into tears upon being told by Marilla that there has been a mistake. Anne has been deprived of love an acceptance her entire life and it is so clear and so sensitively and beautifully portrayed by McNulty. Compared to Follows, who was directed to be upset, but what really comes through in Follows' version of this scene is Anne being like, "But wait! I'm kooky."

This kid made me cry. Legit. She has been breaking my heart. The way she inhabits this role is on par with Follows -- she is Anne.

Also outstanding is veteran actress Geraldine James in the role of Marilla. It's not easy stepping into Colleen Dewhurst's shoes, but James does an outstanding job as the no-nonsense Marilla, portraying her as a woman disinclined to tolerate shenanigans but doesn't come off as a cold-hearted bitch. This is no small task. 

I also love RH Thomson (FAN SERVICE!!!!) as Jasper Dale -- I mean, Matthew Cuthbert. Of course, die-hards know that Thomson played a very similar role on Road to Avonlea as bumbling inventor/town recluse (and later husband to Olivia King), Jasper Dale. So, this is familiar territory for Thomson. His Matthew is spot-on and so lovable. 

For the supporting cast, Walking Trigger Warning Rachel Lynde is deftly handled by Corinne Koslo; Odd Squad actress Dalila Bela portrays a very believable Diana Barry. 

And...what about Gilbert Blythe? 

How can I make Anne not hate me?

Maybe I could brood harder.

The writers have ramped up the tension/attraction between Anne and Gilbert in this version. In the Sullivan one, it's there, but it's a lot more subtle. In this version, Anne is a little more honest with herself and she knows she'd like Gilbert to maybe pull on more than her hair. They've also made him more attractive by killing off his father and making him into an orphan. That makes him sad. Men become substantially hotter when they are sad. Fact. 

I really like this portrayal of Gilbert. He is played by Lucas Jade Zumann and he is just...a dude. He seems very real and very believable. 

So, let me digress here and address some complaints.

Here's the thing: It's been thirty years since the Sullivan adaptation. It was already several years old by the time I saw it. Anne of Green Gables is one of those books that has been getting remade over and over and over again; the first film version appeared in 1919. The Sullivan version is considered the definitive Anne, and I would actually really like Netflix to put it on streaming, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room for new takes on the story. 

As for complaints that Anne is a family story and that this version is too dark and depressing -- like, did we read the same story? Anne is a victim of systematic abuse and neglect. She's an orphan in a world that has very little sympathy for orphan children. The only reason she has survived up until this point is because she has created this fantasy world around her. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have been able to deal with reality. She did have to live in an orphanage (and orphanages at this point in time were not nice places), and she was put out into service with a family where the father was a drunkard who got so mad at times that he broke mirrors and windows, and they had more children than they could realistically care for. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that, during this time period, and considering the situation she was in, Anne could very well have been beaten. I do not see anything wrong with directly addressing Anne's emotional and psychological scars because they are part of her story. The whole point of Anne is that she is able to overcome her past and succeed through the love and support of her new family and friends in Avonlea. 

Personally, I would simply like to know when we are going to find out that Anne is a wizard. I mean, think about it. She's an orphan. She was mistreated by people who were supposed to be caring for her. She has visceral reactions to what she perceives are injustices. I'm not saying that Anne and Gilbert are Harry Potter's parents, I'm just saying they're probably his parents. 

"Mum, he called you 'Carrots.'
"I know, son. Stand back while I cut this bitch."

Moving along here, a couple other things I actually like are the fact that the Avonlea kids are actually kids and they look like kids. Megan Follows portrayed Anne as a 16-year-old, while the late Jonathan Crombie played Gilbert at 19. While I know that playing down is done all the time, sometimes it adds more to a piece when the youth roles are filled by young and extremely capable actors. 

The young cast is very impressive -- on the same level as the child actors on Road to Avonlea. It's also nice to see the "minor" characters like Ruby Gillis and Josie Pye getting more screen time. The Sullivan adaptation didn't seem to have much room for the other kids in Avonlea, focusing primarily on Anne, Diana, and Gilbert. 

With all of that said, if you are on the fence about whether to check the show out or not, I would suggested watching at least the first episode with an open mind. It follows the book pretty much verbatim, and it is full of fabulous performances and lush scenery. I also really enjoy the flashbacks not just to Anne's life, but to Matthew and Marilla's childhood, especially Marilla's aborted romance with John Blythe.

Having gotten my gushing out of the way, here's what I don't like: 

I understand that the producers want to make the show modern and relatable, and want to bring in some issues relevant the present day. However, what the writers and producers have misunderstood is part of Anne's appeal is that it is a timeless story, so there really is no need to bring in "modernizing" influences. Granted, this is not my show, and so if I wanted to make my historical drama more pertinent, I think I would not go about it in such a heavy-handed fashion. There's a really adorable feminist club in Avonlea, but it's run by a bunch of bitchy hypocrites. Anne gives lectures to straw-man type characters about the capabilities of females etc. 

Yawn. 

Look. For those viewers seeking moral validation in their entertainment: This story is already feminist. It's about a brother and sister who ask for a boy and are given a girl instead, and they decide to keep the girl. Anne is smart, sassy, independent, and capable. She doesn't chase after boys, and she dreams of being educated and having her own life. It's not necessary to beat us over the head with a stick about how forward-thinking she is.

Oh, Matthew! This view from my moral high horse is so virtuous!

I feel like this has been done with period pieces. A lot. There's a spunky, outspoken heroine who shocks everyone by telling them that women can do things men can't. Like she's the only one who's ever thought of that before. And she's gonna blaze a trail. Because well-behaved women rarely make history. Right. That's why we've all forgotten completely about Queen Victoria. 

Ladies, you can work! You have so many choices! Yes, Anne who was forced to work from the time she could walk is going to go around demanding the right of women to work. And what about female servants like Mary Jo, WHO HAVE TO FUCKING WORK? The fact that Anne can choose between a career and family have NOTHING TO DO with her being female. AND IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FEMINISM. They have to do with her social class. That's it. She got a class promotion. Poor women have always had to work. Period. Now, if she wants to go be a suffragette, that's great, but I'm guessing she doesn't want to go back to scrubbing floors.  

Secondly, I don't understand why Anne has to give the reverend a bunch of attitude about religion. L.M. Montgomery was married to a minister.  I also don't understand why the Avonlea reverend was changed from a kindly, gentle man in the novel to an insufferable, closed-minded sexist. 

I understand that the writers want to bring a new take on Anne, but is this the best they've got? Anne spouts pandering platitudes about how girls are just as good as boys and people should be accepted because they're different. This is coming from someone who is a complete jerk to Jerry Butte upon their first meeting because she doesn't want him there because she's afraid that will make her place at Green Gables precarious. She only starts to be nice to Jerry after he gets his ass kicked in Charlottetown. Again, this is someone who has to work for a living; he gets no say in whether or not he goes to school.

Honestly, sometimes these lines were making me cringe. What artistic purpose does it serve? Anne was never in the business of giving moral lectures to people. She was too busy fucking up puddings with dead mice and dyeing her hair green to get all up on her high horse and spout sanctimonious harangues. Anne never thought she was better than anyone else. 

Except Josie Pye. 

Please let her throw more shade at Josie Pye. 

I bind thee, Josie Pye. I bind thee from doing harm to yourself or other people.

And why is Billy Andrews a punk?

Please nobody get mad at me, but why is Aunt Josephine a lesbian? I get it; let's be inclusive. But...why? Is there an artistic purpose that's served? You can't just reboot a story and say, "Oh, this time, so-and-so is gay" and have that be considered a bold creative move. Gay people aren't signifiers of how progressive you think you are. They're people.

I also do not like the Stranger Danger plotlines. Similarly, I really felt uncomfortable with the Matthew suicide plot. Richard Farnsworth, who portrayed Matthew in the 1985 version, did commit suicide in real life and he did use a gun, and I just thought that was really not cool. 

Don't get me wrong; some of the new plotlines and writing are very compelling and very good. It's just sometimes the show jumps the rails and the Morality Police jump out, reminding us all about some trite popular notions. I do feel that there is enough in the book to fill out several episodes. There were many incidents in the Sullivan version that were blended, or cut altogether. 

One other thing is, and I know this is nitpicky, I don't like the contemporary dialogue thrown into the episodes. For instance, like "Bud" and "Seriously, what's your problem" and "A cute girl is a cute girl" are out of place. Your audience isn't stupid; they'll understand if you use more complicated vocabulary and words that have more than two syllables. 

To wrap up: If you're curious about the show, do yourself a favor and watch it. It has a lot of positive points, and they more or less outweigh the negatives. What I see here is a show trying to find its legs, and I think it might be a good idea to bring in some of the writing team from Road to Avonlea. The incidents that are taken from the book are really nicely adapted, so I would like to see them doing more of that and following more in the footsteps of the successful Sullivan series. 

"But what DO boys want, Marilla?"
"Cheetos and beer, my child. And video games."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Maybe We Should Have Risen a Little More

ABC’s recent miniseries When We Rise introduces its audience to each of its three main protagonists the same way: sexually. In Arizona, teenager Cleve Jones is caught shirtless and making out with a fellow male student.  Elsewhere, Peace Corps volunteer Roma Guy steals a passionate clandestine kiss from her fellow female volunteer as she prepares to end her tour and return to the United States. In Vietnam, US Naval Officer Ken Jones meets his shipmate in a shabby room for an illicit tryst.

As such, When We Rise takes a slightly daring position in not hiding the very thing that makes most heterosexual people, even ones who are fully supportive of gay rights, feel squicky about – gay sex. It also meta-textually echoes the entire thesis statement of When We Rise; namely, that gay people and gay history shouldn’t remain hidden, even if it makes people uncomfortable to think about. Even in a post-Obergefell world, that sentiment is significant and still kind of radical. Watching the seven-hour miniseries, it really makes you wish the rest of the story had lived up to the promise of those first ten minutes.

How do you feel about this logo? Just kinda there? Get used to that feeling. It's going to follow you through the entire series.

There’s nothing inherently offensive about When We Rise, which is sort of its problem. For a series that's all about the struggle of a group of people who literally had to scream in order to be noticed, its tone is entirely the same as a librarian shushing an excited reader. It’s a more-or-less honest take on late 20th/early 21st century history. Unfortunately, it is to actual history what Epcot Center is to international relations, full of surface-level understanding and representation that never tries to peel back the onion any further than the first layer. By the end of the miniseries, the show’s own message is somewhat diluted. The audience feels talked at, not brought along. This is risky, particularly in a world where anyone can say they support LGBT rights while at the same time supporting leaders who take those rights away.

If the goal is to foster an understanding in the viewing public of people living differently from them, the key to doing that is to get people by the emotions, not by the events. Watching When We Rise feels a bit like cramming for a history final where it’s important to remember when a protest occurred or a law was passed, not the reasons why those things happened.  In that way, the show lacks a good hook to hang its own message on.

Maybe if they had gotten Kendall Jenner?

That’s one of the reasons why watching it feels so maddening, because Cleve, Roma, and Ken are all real people, not fictional characters. Cleve Jones is the creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and an activist to this day. Roma Guy and her wife are the founders of the Women’s Building in San Francisco as well as numerous health care and homelessness organizations. Ken Jones is arguably one of the originators of the modern intersectional school of thought linking the LGBT community with the African American community and beyond. Bottom line: each one of these real-life heroes have an amazing story to tell and, sadly, each one feels like they get short shrift even with a biographical miniseries that takes as long to watch as an average workday.

The show gives us 40 years of history told through these people’s lives. It’s a shame that during that time we never get to know any of them. Major events happen off camera or in between chapters where significant leaps in time occur. AIDS becomes a major issue for about an hour before quickly fading into the background, even though several major characters become infected in that time. It’s particularly jarring when, roughly halfway through the miniseries, the actors playing the younger twentysomething versions of their characters are replaced by the actors who take on the middle-aged and older versions. While that transition in any biopic is always potentially awkward, it feels even more so here partially due to the skill level difference between the younger actors and their far more experienced older counterparts.

It is a requirement that all LGBT activists have practiced left arm-raising skills.

Mary-Louise Parker, playing the older Roma, arguably does the most heroic work, molding the character into someone who more or less sounds like a real human being. Guy Pierce likewise manages to find a compelling core to the elder Cleve, despite being made to utter some truly cringe-worthy lines. By contrast, Michael K Williams is criminally underused as the older version of Ken Jones. The storyline for his younger counterpart, played by Jonathan Majors, is probably the best thing about the early hours of the miniseries, as it outlines the struggles that Ken faces not only as a gay man but as a black one as well, continually set apart from both communities in one way or another. The added focus on his transition from military officer to private civilian in a city that, for the first time, affords him some avenues for expression makes Williams’ portrayal feel almost sidelined when Jones’s story starts to fall by the wayside in the second half.

And you guys. We need to talk about the dialogue. It’s hard to waltz around this; it’s just bad. Characters don’t have dialogue, they have talking points and thesis statements. Cleve and Roma, in particular, seem to only speak to other people as if they’re reading from a particularly overly dramatic college essay. So much of their dialogue seems designed solely for the writers to convey their various mission statements instead of dramatizing real events. “You all are more powerful than you know,” says the Widow Norton in a particularly clumsy cameo during one early scene. “When did you first know…that you needed to rise?” asks a young writer of the adult Cleve, establishing a framing device for the entire miniseries that would be dropped two hours later. The cardinal rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” In that vein, When We Rise misses the mark almost universally.

Which, frankly, is surprising. The project is based off the real life memoirs of Cleve Jones, published in 2016. The head writer is Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Gus Van Sant directed the first two hours of the series. Thomas Schlamme, a long-time television veteran probably most famous for being one of the chief creative forces behind The West Wing lends the show a polished look. Whatever you think about any one of those three people, they are established professionals at what they do. Yet somehow, there’s never a moment when the series becomes anything more than the sum of its parts. I'm not sure who is to blame, but those who know me should know that I always think even the best performances can't overcome shabby writing.

thot

When We Rise does do some things right. Unlike recent questionable attempts at dramatizing LBGT history, the miniseries is smart to tell the stories of three different kinds of LGBT people, not just white men. In addition to Roma (a woman) and Ken (a black man), the show finds time to introduce other LGBT pioneers, most notably Cecillia Chung (played by Ivory Acuino) and Pat Norman (played by Whoopi Goldberg).

It also shows that the LGBT community is not, actually, always one big happy family. The series illustrates the factions that develop in the long struggle for rights and showcase how those factions can work at odds to each other. That it does this non-judgmentally is one of its strength; the series isn’t pointing fingers here, it’s merely highlighting the notion that just because people can be grouped together in one category does not make them a unified voice.


Ultimately, When We Rise is attempting to bite off more than it can chew. Even confining itself to only 40 years of history still feels rushed, particularly considering that it has to find ways to keep tabs on the lives of three very dynamic people when an eight-hour biography on just one of them would have taken the same amount of time. The series wants to present a sweeping epic of gay rights, however any attempt to do that in a way that would do it justice would take days, not hours. Gay rights did not begin in the 1970s and they do not end with marriage equality. And while it is refreshing to see the stories of people who have mostly been ignored by history finally getting some attention, the rushed pace, explain-y dialogue, and uneven casting results in a story that never feels exciting. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Immortal Iron Fist

I have a Marvel Unlimited subscription. There was really no question that I was going to watch the Netflix/Marvel Iron Fist for reasons of completeness if nothing else.

Marvel's Defenders: Gotta catch 'em all.
You have questions. I have answers. Mild spoilers for this show (and Daredevil as it builds on that) below.

1) What's this show about?

It's the story of Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a billionaire orphan who ended up stranded at a trans-dimensional Tibetan monastery and learned how to turn his fist into a steel-door denting weapon. Now he's back in New York, and vigilantism will occur. 

No, it's really not more complicated than that. To reiterate: billionaire orphan rescued from fateful plane crash by monks, develops magic martial arts punching power, comes back to New York, fights ninja-themed crime. 

2) How ethnically insensitive is Iron Fist?

There's been a lot of controversy about this issue, so I thought I might get this one out of the way early. The portrayal of Asian ethnicity and culture in Iron Fist is, I feel, what would count as "really good for 1987." There's a notable lack of East Asian folks behind the camera (maybe one director, and I'm not including the RZA, who did direct an episode, but yes, I am aware the Wu-Tang Clan are not, in fact, from Asia) which comes out in the treatment of settings, characters, etc., even though there's a definite effort not to be completely stereotypical.

What I mean by the above is that the show is clearly "Asian through non-Asian people's eyes." That's not the worst crime against humanity, but with a big budget product with years of development, it's not a great look, and I hope Marvel tries harder in the future. 

One thing that tweaks me just a little, though, is that Iron Fist gets so much flak because the main character learns martial arts in a trans-dimensional Tibetan monastery but is not Asian, whereas Daredevil hits all of the same major plot points in a more insensitive manner, but we give it more of a pass, possibly because it's so much worse at cultural sensitivity we don't even see the appropriation. Here's a chart:


Plot point
Daredevil treatment
Iron Fist treatment
Young white boy who develops special powers is orphaned at an early age and gets martial arts training from an Asian-themed organization...
Of mostly white guys, run by an old white guy with a John Wayne-y accent
Of Buddhist monks, mostly played by Asian actors
The hero’s main antagonist is The Hand, a ninja death cult best described as...
A weird Asian magic ninja group straight out of a Sax Rohmer (author of The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu and many, many other racist pulps) novel.
An Asian-themed Hydra with magic, but clearly including a lot of normal people with normal-ish motivations and not just a weird death cult of zombie ninjas all the way down.
The hero’s martial-arty love interest played by an Asian actress is...

Elektra, a one-woman killing machine.
  1. One of three women with more than a couple speaking lines in the entire season; 
  2. An antagonist with severe impulse control issues, leading to Daredevil basically trying to "fix" her; and
  3. As the only notable Asian member of the Asian-themed martial-arty organization that trained Daredevil, clearly also a [mild spoiler] Macguffin for The Hand, because you know, that had to be the Asian character.
Colleen Wing, a down-on-her-luck martial arts instructor.

A complex, but fundamentally good, character who is treated by the Iron Fist as an equal.

For the record, not the only non-pushover woman on the show, unlike, say, Daredevil.

The character of Madame Gao, played by Wai Ching Ho, can be summarized as…
“Inscrutable” dragon lady combined with evil grandma.
A complicated and clever adversary to the Iron Fist, less rooted in an Asian-ness than from a wisdom that comes from being super-old.
Asian organized crime in the show is...
Run by Madame Gao in a weird magic way or by Hand ninja in an often weirder magic way.
Partly the Hand, but also some Chinese Goodfellas types who, while they do martial arts, aren’t treated as some sort of different type of criminal like “the Triads” or “the Yakuza” are in other shows; they’re an ethnically-homogenous organized crime group that happens to be Chinese.

This is not to absolve Iron Fist of its sins, but to say that, if we call out Iron Fist but just sort of let Daredevil slide, we're basically just reserving sensitivity to Asian culture for explicitly Asian-branded shows.

Now, on top of this, Iron Fist's treatment of women is a significant improvement over Daredevil. Most notable is that the Iron Fist for much of the show rolls in a team of three, that three usually being Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Much of the time, the Iron Fist is planning to do something impulsive and stupid, and Claire and Colleen tell him, "no Danny, that's impulsive and stupid," and guess what? That's treated by the show as good advice, and half the time the Iron Fist actually listens. That's right, a superhero show where the white guy superhero doesn't just blow off or become emotionally unavailable to the women in his life when they tell him not to do something dumb! Also he doesn't lie to them all the time!

3) Does that mean Iron Fist passes the "Bechdel Test"?

Sort of! 

The problem is that, often, two women are talking about a man in a non-romantic way. For example, there's a long scene where Colleen and Claire are looking after an unconscious man with a sucking chest wound, and arguing over whether it's safe to bring him to the hospital. For the Bechdel Test, does that count as a conversation "about a man"? Other examples of where this is complicated:
  • Claire and Colleen talking with Danny over whether or not to kill a particular man
  • Colleen and Jeri discuss some legal trouble that Colleen and Danny have gotten themselves into
  • Two members of the Hand, both women, where one is upbraiding the other for being disloyal to the organization due to not following the orders of a male superior.
So, yes, women are far more visible in Iron Fist than in Daredevil; they're clearly half of society and in a wide variety of roles. But, as we've established, being better than Daredevil is kind of a low bar.
Average number of actresses with lines in a scene with Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup).
If neither Claire or Colleen are in the scene, the likelihood of two women having more than a line in a scene drops logarithmically. Joy Meachum (a childhood friend of Danny's and major corporate power player) operates in a world where the only other women, except very occasionally Jeri Hogarth, are assistants or less senior board members with few if any lines. If it's not to Claire or Colleen, I don't think Madame Gao ever speaks directly to a woman in this show. 

4) So, apart from that, how's the show?

Perfectly acceptable. If you are willing to watch Marvel's Agents of SHIELD for an entire 26-episode season without shutting it off mid-way through saying that it's "too comic-booky," then you'll find Iron Fist perfectly diverting. 
Shirtless Finn Jones. You're welcome.
The big problem with Iron Fist is that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were bigger than just a comic book punchy-punchy story; they dealt with being a comic book character in a world with sexism or racism; a world where punching through doors and not worrying too much about being shot wasn't sufficient to protect someone from man's inhumanity to his fellow man. Iron Fist is not that deep, and doesn't mean to be. He's a guy who makes his fist glow and punches ninjas with it. I mean, if you want it to be a story about white privilege, he basically buys his way out of being arrested at least once on the show. But that's so not the point Iron Fist is trying to make. 

Pacing is decent, acting is pretty good (great performance from Carrie-Ann Moss reprising her Jessica Jones role as attorney Jeri Hogarth). 

Characterization is a little spotty. Danny Rand has some PTSD and anger issues, but they don't manifest consistently or always plausibly. The Meachum sibilings Joy and Ward (Tom Pelphry) -- the chief corporate officers of Rand Enterprises, the company that gives the Iron Fist his billionaire fortune -- keep switching sides between "good," "self-interested," and "evil" in ways that seem to fit the plot more than any sort of organic development. 

The martial arts scenes are some of the best I've seen. One of my complaints about a lot of shows (CW shows like Arrow especially) is that the fight choreography does not distinguish between when a superhero takes on a ninja master and when he/she takes on a guy who has no training at all except in the duration of the fight. Iron Fist does. When the Iron Fist takes on less-well-trained people, he moves like water through them. It's only on the better adversaries that it even looks like it's hard for him. 

The martial arts scenes are also entertaining when they're set up to pay homage to various Hong Kong action films. Keep an eye out!

Also, one of the better comic show depictions of a functional drug addict, surprisingly. 

5) Does there happen to be a minor plot point that depends on a legal controversy that makes you dumber about the law?

Why yes, there is! 

Midway through the season, there's a plot point about whether a Rand Enterprises plant on Staten Island is causing cancer. 15 people in a half-mile radius around the plant have gotten cancer. And there's a legal action by the cancer sufferers against Rand.

I won't tell you how the plot point is resolved, but the big problem with this plot point is that key facts as to whether this case is meritorious are left vague so the main characters can have a moral dilemma about it. The writers wanted some characters to say "no money for you!" without seeming totally heartless, but also didn't want to go so far as to actually show that the plaintiffs didn't have a case.

The problem is, it's really mostly one way or another depending on the science.

I used to do toxic torts, so I know these cases and the way they're litigated pretty well. In order for a plaintiff to actually have a chance of winning in court, the plaintiffs need more or less three things:

  1. biological plausibility - science that shows that the Rand plant emissions could cause the cancer in question. For example, I worked with estrogenic chemicals alleged to cause breast and reproductive cancers. Those same chemicals weren't linked to, say, lung cancer or leukemia. Benzene is linked to blood cancers but not, say, prostate cancer.
  2. science showing level of risk - If I increase your risk of cancer by .0001%, should I be liable if you get cancer? Courts in America basically have said that I have to at least double your risk of cancer before there's liability. So the Rand plant emissions would have to be scientifically shown to double or more the risk of whatever cancers they cause.
  3. elimination of other causes - plaintiffs can't have been exposed to large amounts of other carcinogens, have bad family histories of cancer, etc. and expect to prove that the Rand plant caused their cancer. This is super-problematic for the linked Marvel universe as we know at least the following fictional environmental issues:
    • New York suffered an attack by alien robots that probably were made of toxic metal and almost certainly released a crap-ton of ionizing radiation. 
    • And do you know where NYC dumps debris from stuff like "the Incident"? The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, probably somewhere near the Rand plant given zoning laws. That's where all the toxic metal shards and radioactive monster corpses went if they were too mangled for SHIELD, the U.S. government, or Tony Stark to grab for study.
    • We know from Agents of SHIELD that a teratogenic substance -- Terrigen -- has been introduced into the American food supply through contaminated fish.  
Now, if we actually knew how close plaintiffs were to proving any of the above, the moral dilemma becomes less fuzzy, it's either, "they probably were poisoned by the plant, but we have better-paid and better-sounding experts so we can roll the dice and bury them with endless litigation" or "these plaintiffs have bad luck but they almost certainly didn't get cancer from the Rand plant any more than they got it from vaccines." 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Great Place to Get Away With It All

Even if you’re not a comic book fan, there’s a story that I promise you already know about the “All-American Teen” who could never decide between which two girls he liked most. Archie Andrews has been a staple of the comic book world since his debut in 1939. He’s been imagined and reimagined in books, movies, radio, and TV shows steadily for nearly 80 years. Now, with their new series Riverdale, it’s the CW’s turn.

See? Milkshakes! Totally family-friendly, right?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a network knows for its teen-friendly audience would be eager to get their hands on such an iconic property as Archie. What may be new is the particularly CW-y gloss that the network has applied to the story. The Archie comics have typically been a slice of small town Anywhere, USA, with a largely non-threatening cast of characters telling innocent stories.

Like most comics which have had to figure out ways of telling stories about characters that don’t age even as the world around them does, Riverdale has attempted to keep up with the times, beginning to add non-white characters and plots while mostly keeping to non-offensive, apolitical storytelling. In that way, the crux of the characters always remains the same with the DNA of the story remaining remarkably similar to the comics.

Archie, as usual, is presented as a fairly typical boy next door. He struggles with normal teen problems like balancing schoolwork with football practice and trying to become a musician. The girl next door, terminally sweet and understanding Betty Cooper, nurses a long-standing crush on Archie. Meanwhile, rich girl from New York Veronica Lodge moves to town with her mother seeking to escape the legal troubles her financially criminal father has made for them back in the city. And thus we get the classic set up of All American ginger boy choosing between Blonde good girl and Raven-haired sophisticate.

Fact: Google's autocomplete suggestion for searching images of Betty and Veronica is "Betty and Veronica kiss"

But! A twist! This is the CW. A simple, down-home teenage coming of age story was never in the cards. Riverdale adds some new dimensions, taking us away from Pleasantville and dropping us right smack in the middle of Twin Peaks. The driving action of Riverdale is focused much less on dates to the prom and much more on the dead body of Jason Blossom, fellow teen who went missing over the summer and is found at the river with a bullet in his head. His twin sister, Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom, is cagey and also the only witness to his mysterious disappearance. Meanwhile, Archie’s affections for Betty and Veronica are significantly overshadowed by his own secret – he’s been having sex with one of his teachers since the summer and the two are struggling to stay under the radar. There are even hints that the teacher herself may not be the sweet, lovelorn sop she appears to be as her subtle manipulations of Archie begin to show themselves over the first few episodes. Meanwhile, a much more emo Jughead narrates the action, recounting the story and how it dovetails with his own falling out with his old friends in classic Philip Marlowe style.

"She smelled the way a good hamburger looks after midnight..."

Despite growing out of the wellspring of all modern teenage drama, Riverdale owes almost an equal debt to other teen-focused genre benders as it does to its source material. Veronica Mars and Vampire Diaries, two shows that also focused on the lives of teenagers told through a noir-coated lens, are particularly evident inspirations. And like those attempts at presenting more mature, nuanced teenagers, Riverdale strides confidently up to some provocative themes, albeit in a sometimes clunky way.

When Archie wants to write music for girl supergroup Josie and the Pussycats, Josie herself shuts Archie down, rightfully pointing out the unlikelihood that white boy Archie can write in the voice of three black women. “No, baby, you don’t,” Josie tells Archie when he tries to tell her that he understands that the girls face obstacles. While the set-up is a little strawman-y, it’s still significant that a primetime network showed a black girl unpacking privilege to the white boy hero of his own story.

In the same episode, Betty and Veronica confront the boys of the football team who have been dating and then ranking the girls they go out with using a secret journal after Veronica is made the butt of a social media joke by the captain of the team. “I will not be slut-shamed,” Veronica huffs before joining with a group of girls, including Ethyl, played by guest star Shannon Purser (Barb of Stranger Things) who gets a much better ending to her story than in her last series. One characters even winks to the audience at the end with the line, “Hashtag JusticeForEthyl.” And while the pushback against slut-shaming smacks of empowerment, it also lacks the courage of its own convictions. None of the girls in the players’ book, after all, actually did any of what the players said. As such, they weren’t reclaiming their right to enjoy their sexualities, merely defending their good reputations.

Riverdale’s updating of its classic themes and motifs actually isn’t without precedent. That Archie has taken such a turn away from his staid reputation actually isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that somehow, over the past several years, Archie has become one of the more subversive properties in American comics. For example, here are just a few of the things that have ACTUALLY HAPPENED in his books:

·         In 2010, Archie Comics introduced the character of Kevin Keller, an openly gay high school student who becomes part of the gang. The character has carried over into the CW series and even has a will-they-or-won’t-they storyline with Moose, another classic character from the comics.
·         Jughead officially came out of the closet in 2016 as asexual. Really, this shouldn’t be a surprise given that Judhead’s only real love stories have ever been centered on hamburgers.
·         In 2015, Archie and his friends faced off against the Predator. Yes, that one. It…didn’t end well.
·         Archie finally married Betty.
·         Archie finally married Veronica.
·         Betty and Veronica finally got sick of Archie and married each other.
·         Archie died, albeit in a future timeline. In the story, Archie is shot in the stomach saving Kevin, who has become a US Senator, from an assassination attempt.
·         Possibly best of all, the long-running series Life With Archie was cancelled and somewhat replaced with a new series called Afterlife With Archie, in which a zombie outbreak occurs in Riverdale (thanks to Jughead) and the crew must contend with a Walking Dead-esque future. The series is played for straight-up horror, not an ounce of camp to be found.

So it’s not crazy that Archie, typical American teenager, finds himself in this iteration at the forefront of murder, intrigue, and not a little sexual tension. (Seriously, Archie’s abs are actually a plot point in multiple episodes.) The show leans into the camp factor, fully aware that it’s occupying the middle space in the Venn diagram of teenage love stories, 80s-era evening soap operas, and modern social awareness. And while it may not be the most innovative thing on television, it’s proving highly watchable.

Archie DAAAYYM-drews

Riverdale airs Thursday nights on the CW.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Yasssss Queen

Is your domestic political situation getting you down? Is it mirroring that of your average banana republic? Is your political discourse devolving into an ever-festering sewer of hyperventilating outrage and batshit insane conspiracy theories? Is someone trying to build a wall out of tacos and rage on your southern border? 

Well, never fear. ITV has installed teevee's Jenna Coleman (Dr. Who) as the queen of bloody England. Literally. She is now the queen and will henceforth be in charge. Stand aside and let Miss Thing run this bitch.

Sashay, shante

So, here's what happened. George III of England and Hanover (yes, that George III) had a fuckton of kids. A literal fuckton. What's the best way to ensure a smooth succession and have heirs to spare? Fuck like rabbits

There has been much speculation that Queen Charlotte's brandishing of her dairy products caused the royal squires to assemble posthaste to the sovereign quadrangle.

One would think with all of these offspring, keeping the Hanovers on the throne would be no biggie. Actually, not so much. It turns out that keeping your daughters locked in the palace, and not allowing them to marry isn't a good strategy toward procuring an heir. Neither is being unable/unwilling to stop your sons from having licentious (and public) affairs with every passing tart.  George III's sons who made it to adulthood, George (Prince Regent, then George IV); William (William IV); Edward, Duke of Kent; Ernest Augustus (Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover); Prince Frederick, Duke of Albany and York; Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge; and Augustus, Duke of Sussex, all failed to produce legitimate offspring (or they entered into morganatic marriage, which by definition made their children ineligible to inherit). 

Well, that's not entirely true. George IV put aside his drinking, whoring, gambling, and skirt-chasing aside long enough to marry Caroline of Brunswick, whom he hated, but impregnated and then abandoned. Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales. Thus securing the monarchy, George and his fellow brothers went back to drinking, whoring, and gambling. Accompanying these vices were good doses of immorality, wickedness, iniquity, villainy, lechery, and moral turpitude. Everything was going along swimmingly. Princess Charlotte was popular -- viewed by the British public and the press as a welcome antidote to her father's and uncles' debauchery.

Look at Miss Thing snagging King Leopold of Belgium.

AAAAAnnnd then Princess Charlotte died in childbirth. THUD. 

Princess Charlotte's tomb monument...I'm not saying you shouldn't blink, but...

FFS DON'T BLINK

Enter Clara. 

I mean Queen Victoria. 

The remaining male offspring of George III and Queen Charlotte (who were well into their 50s and 60s by the time of Princess Charlotte's death in 1817), rushed around to find a willing woman of childbearing age upon whom to beget a child. The first to the finish line (HA!) was Edward, Duke of Kent, who married Victoria, Princess of Leiningen, sister of Charlotte's widowed husband King Leopold. Princess Victoria of England was born in 1819. 

Having fulfilled his duty, the Duke of Kent dropped dead the following year.

Princess Victoria was left to be raised by her (by all accounts) controlling, parvenu mother, and her mother's advisor (some say LOVAH), John Conroy.

Side note: There is a conspiracy theory among some royal historians that the Duke of Kent was not actually Victoria's father. Rather, the conspiracy posits that John Conroy was her natural father. The line of reasoning comes from Victoria's introduction of the gene for hemophilia into the royal bloodline. There were no known hemophiliacs in the Hanover line until Victoria (the suspected carrier) passed the gene onto her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (infamously, Tsarevich Aleksei of Russia). However, Conroy was't known to have been a hemophiliac, and hemophilia has been known to arise in children of older fathers.

So, given all of that unnecessary historical context, what should we make of Victoria, airing on PBS this month?

PRINCE ALBERT IS HOT AF. 

Hold onto your ovaries, ladies.

Seriously. I am not all into the serious, moody, brooding type (shut up, Clovis), but OMG. That floppy hair. That dickish, condescending attitude. 

Gloriana.

Get it, girl,  


Episode I: Homegirl Awakens 

Episode I begins at the time history takes note of Victoria -- upon the death of her uncle, Princess Victoria becomes queen at the age of 18. 

Victoria, however, shows her immaturity pretty much right off the bat. Screenwriter Daisy Goodwin has chosen to focus on the Flora Hastings affair, which really happened, and which did indeed mark a turning-point in Victoria's reign.

A side note about Daisy Goodwin. I was a little hesitant to watch this drama when I discovered that Daisy Goodwin wrote the screenplay. I have read one historical fiction novel by Goodwin, and I can't say that it was terrible, but it was THE SILLIEST book I have read in a long, long time. It was amazing. Go read it. I giggled through the whole thing.  

However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the level of detail and relative historical accuracy displayed in Goodwin's screenplay.  The miniseries is based on Goodwin's novel, also called VictoriaFor this, Goodwin drew on her reading of Queen Victoria's diaries.

Goodwin  takes some...creative liberties with the relationship between Lord Melbourne and Queen Victoria. It is entirely possible that Victoria had feelings for Melbourne, because let's face it, she probably had a ton of daddy issues, but there's no extant evidence to suggest that Victoria was in the lovez with Melbourne, nor he with her. Their relationship certainly was very close, but Victoria tended to get close to her PMs, forming a close bond with Benjamin Disraeli later in life. It is all very juicy to watch, though. 

Rufus Sewell and Jenna Coleman are both very well cast in this. Coleman is especially noteworthy, convincingly playing an 18-year-old (she's 30).


Yo, dawg.
The action of the first episode is primarily centered around Victoria's struggle for independence from her mother and the presumptuous Conroy. Is he portrayal of Conroy and Victoria's mother entirely historically correct? Well, from what I have read about Conroy and the Duchess of Kent, it's not far off. In fact, the portrayal of the duchess is actually more flattering than some biographical accounts that I have read. Victoria was undoubtedly much more attached to her governess Lehzen than she was to her actual mother, and had more daughterly feelings toward her. Conroy is generally viewed as something of a villain, out to control Victoria, and, according to some accounts, to inveigle himself into the monarchy itself. In any case, the movie does a good job of setting up the conflict between Victoria and her mother and Conroy. 


Yo. 
Even those unfamiliar with the actual history behind all of this can get some satisfaction from how delightfully bitchy Victoria gets to be toward them.

However, Victoria's inexperience and immaturity are brought to the fore in the Flora Hastings affair. Basically, members of Victoria's court decided that her mother's lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora, was pregnant. In the movie, it is Victoria who accuses Lady Flora, but in actuality, it was Lehzen. Hastings had been visiting Dr. Clark because of pain and swelling in her abdomen, and I imagine after bleeding and sweating her, he decided she was pregnant, and not, you know, dying of fucking cancer. You have to remember this is 1839 and an unmarried pregnant woman at court was ESCANDELO!

Dang.
Lehzen passed her suspicions onto the queen and Lord Melbourne, and Queen Victoria wrote in her journals that she suspected Conroy was the father. So, the takeaway is the Flora Hastings affair did happen, only not exactly as it goes down in the movie. 

Of course, the only problem with the whole scenario was that Lady Flora wasn't preg. She agreed to be examined by royal physicians, and that is when they discovered the tumor. She died a few months later, but Victoria did reportedly visit her on her deathbed.

I gonna haunt dat bitch her dreamz yo.
The political intrigue following the affair wasn't quite as complex as it is in the series. Flora's father, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, was actually a Whig.

However, Flora's brother and Conroy stirred up some press hysteria, in an attempt to get Victoria to LEARN HER LESSON ALREADY and appoint Conroy to some kind of advisory position. 

Homegirl wasn't having it. As guilty as Victoria felt about the Hastings affair, she kept Conroy at a distance, and eventually finagled a way to have him leave court for good. 

Welp, that's all for Episode 1. Stay tuned for Episodes 2 and 3, brought to you by the letter Z.