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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (3/18/14) 1:23am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Spoilers throughout.]

Movies:   Veronica Mars, American Hustle
TV:   Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x12-1x14]
Books:  <none>
Other:  Wicked [musical, Austin 3/9/14 performance]

Veronica Mars
This is the new movie about a former teenage detective who returns to her hometown a decade later to clear an old friend of a murder charge.  It's a continuation of the TV series of the same name, and was funded via an unprecedented kickstarter campaign.

This movie has gotten sharply divided reviews.  Its positive reviews say, "It's like an episode of the TV show, and it's filled with references that only fans will get!"  Its negative reviews say, "It's like an episode of the TV show, and it's filled with references that only fans will get."  Both sides are saying the same thing; the salient difference is whether they go with the excited exclamation point or the disappointed full-stop.

My expectations for this movie had varied all over the place.  I was absolutely gobsmacked by the initial announcement of the kickstarter, and happily forked over $200 to the movie effort.  Then, over time, I started thinking about how damned hard it is to make a movie based on a TV show.  Yes, they both involve people doing stuff onscreen, but the structures are so, so different.

Let's be insultingly reductive.

TV is discursive; a show meanders through its world, gradually expanding its scope.  Movies are focussed; a movie hinges on one person going on one mission to achieve one objective.  TV serves a broad cast of characters -- even if one has focus, that hero is just one character among many, and a lot of the story comes from the clashing viewpoints of different characters.  Movies focus on one protagonist -- even if there are significant secondary characters, those lesser characters are there to help or impede the protagonist's mission, and their viewpoint only exists to bring the hero's viewpoint into sharper relief.

In my odd little mind, a TV show is like a train set, and a movie is like a toy rocket.[1]

So even in the best TV-to-movie adaptations (like, say, Serenity), you can see the screenwriter sweating.  They struggle to work in all the characters.  They struggle to catch up the audience with all of the show's world-building.  They struggle to find one single story that has enough heft to justify an entire movie.  And even when they succeed, you've got something that's sharply different from what you remember -- like a quick, frantic sprint through the world of the show.

But I started seeing footage from the movie, and I felt good about it again.  They had found a credible place for the title character to be (far from Neptune, getting her first lawyer gig) and something for the movie to be about (whether it's worth getting back into the PI game one last time).

Then when I saw the preview of the first couple minutes of the movie, I felt worried again.  It was basically a two-minute slideshow with voiceover, summarizing the salient points of the TV show.  Very very "tell, don't show".

So my expectations oscillated between "awesome!" and "terrible!", but the truth is, Veronica Mars is a solid, three-star movie.  It doesn't have ambitions beyond "tell another story with these characters", and that's fine.  It succeeds at what it sets out to do, and it's entertaining and fun.

Yes, there is pandering to the fans.  Two scenes in, there's a knowing allusion to kickstarter that might as well break the fourth wall and wink at the audience.  One character drops a cutesy reference to the fourth-season pilot-treatment with Ms. Mars at the FBI.  But generally, the show handles its fan-pandering pretty deftly.  The story manages to introduce a favorite character in nearly every scene, but all of that just seems to 'fall out' of the natural progress of the story.  Yes, if Veronica gets arrested for breaking and entering, she'll run into Deputy Sachs ("Kudos on rockin' that 'stache 'til it came back in style.") and meet up with local two-bit lawyer Cliff McCormack.  In fact, the only awkwardness came from introducing characters who *weren't* in the original show, like the weird tangent that introduces an uncredited James Franco as himself.

And other references mostly stay in the background.  The kickstarter dollar total shows up repeatedly in the key art as a set of lotto numbers.  Bell's real-life husband plays a douchey club guy who unsuccessfully hits on Veronica Mars.  Veronica calls up Wallace and opens a conversation with "I need a favor."  Stuff like that can float past a 'normal' viewer without a bump.

That said, I do wonder what this movie would be like for people who never saw the show.  I suspect that some bits of exposition -- say, Gia Goodman mentioning Veronica's role in outing her father as a pedophile -- would feel a little odd.  For the show's fans, it's a handy reminder of the relevant episode -- "Oh, *that's* who Gia is!" -- whereas others might well wonder, "Why is this secondary character throwing in a line of gratuitous backstory?"

But I suppose I'm just talking *around* the movie itself.

On one level, the show is a mystery thriller.  As such, it's serviceable.  Clues are followed.  Witnesses are questioned.  And the final resolution of the mystery is  chilling and dark enough to be worthy of the show, with an action scene that is pretty damn tense.

But at the same time, it's not an amazing mystery-thriller plot.  The mystery isn't about anything, thematically, beyond just "someone got killed and the reasons are mysterious."  The movie doesn't exist because Rob Thomas thought of this amazing crime story and had to present it, it exists because he wanted to revisit these characters.  The main focus is not on making the most amazing mystery ever, but on the massive amounts of plot acrobatics required to get all of these beloved characters back into one narrative a decade later.  The mystery story is a sort of scaffolding for the character work -- which, if we're perfectly honest, is kind of how it worked in the original show.

And that's okay by me -- I was delighted to see these characters again.  It was perfect, seeing that Mac and Wallace, the two friends who felt like the biggest outsiders in high school, had grown up to be possibly the most functional adults of all the Neptune alumni.  I thought they made a game effort with Veronica's story, giving her a conflict where she's trying to bury the whole 'teen detective' chapter of her life and move on a straightforward job that will make her lots of money.  Everybody has to choose, sometimes, between a path where they're comfortable and a path where they're most themselves, so it feels like that story is *about* something.

Will it blow away newcomers to the Veronica-verse?  Will it convince casual viewers to go back and watch the TV show?  Nah, probably not.  But I had a great time watching it, and it was well worth my sizable kickstarter contribution.

One last note: man, they teal-and-oranged the *hell* out of their cinematography on this film.  Long stretches of the movie felt like black and white, simply because the whole color spectrum had been reduced to teal shadows and orange highlights.  I guess it's just one of those things, like bad kerning, that you can't not notice, after a while.

Okay, absolutely the last note: I love how they set themselves up for a sequel in this movie.  Most movies set up a sequel in kind of a dickish way.  Some films add a few seconds at the end implying that the Big Bad isn't *really* vanquished, thus undercutting the sense of closure for the entire film.  Other films show the start of an unrelated story at the end of the film, which, again, makes things feel structurally wonky.  Either way, putting a cliffhanger at the end of the movie is hamhanded and clumsy.  It's banging a pot and shouting, in your best Monty Python "Gumby" voice, "THERE'S GONNA BE ANOTHER MOVIE!"  And the way the business tends to go, odds are there's not gonna be another movie, and your cliffhangery attempt to gin up interest for a sequel will seem, in retrospect, sad and desperate.

Veronica Mars goes a more sophisticated route: they set up a story element in the *middle* of the film that's not part of the main plot, and not resolved by the end.[7]  We don't know why Deputy Sachs got killed.  We don't know what kind of conspiracy Keith Mars was getting close to.  But that's not a big, blinking, neon-sign question-mark in the foreground -- it's a question mark sitting in the background.  It's a big question mark, and it's sitting right there, but it's not drawing attention to itself.  I certainly didn't hit the end of the movie thinking, "Wait, we didn't learn who killed Sachs!"  The end of the movie felt like the end; it felt satisfying.  But later, I found myself wondering about it.  And if later movies (or books, or online series) explore that question, it'll feel like a perfectly organic outgrowth from that story thread.


American Hustle
This is the David O. Russell film about a couple of con artists working a government sting operation in the late 70s.  (It's loosely based on the Abscam operation.)

I'm kind of surprised, in retrospect, that this became such a 'prestige' picture.  It was nominated for a whole raft of Oscars, and was only the fifteenth film in history to get nominated for Oscars in all four acting categories.  Yet what I saw felt like the big-budget film equivalent of Burn Notice -- an entertaining crime caper that's not really about anything, but passes the time agreeably.  It felt like a solid, three-star movie -- the sort of thing that, come awards season, steps out of the way so that more ambitious films can duke it out.

It's a movie about con artists, so it goes exactly the way you expect it to go: there's a job, the job goes wrong, the job goes really wrong, and then finally you realize that the most experienced con artists in the scenario were running a con that was one level deeper than everything else.  Sure, it feels like the same screenwriter-pixie-dust that allows for, say, an action-movie villain to predict every single move the hero is going to make[1], but it makes for a fun surprise for the audience when we get the rug pulled out from under us, however awkwardly.

In any case, it felt like a serviceable version of that traditional film structure.

While it has very little to do with the late 70s as they actually were, it revels in being that over-the-top, glossy version of the 70s that kids assume it was like.  And this extends beyond the period detail to the story itself -- Louis CK is the only actor who acts like a recognizable human being here, and that's by design.  American Hustle is designed to be a long, frenzied coke binge in movie form.  It's a world where you don't just disagree with your FBI boss, you bash him across the head with a landline phone, and you can't argue with your wife in anything less than a long, sustained screaming match, you might as well not bother.  Everything is big, and loud, and stylized, and fashion-glitzy, and amped up, all the time.

Usually a tone like that wears me down as a viewer -- but in this case, I just watched the film a little bit at a time, so it never got irritating.

So in the end, I'm just kind of perplexed.  American Hustle a good movie.  It's a fun movie.  It has phenomenal performances across the board, and a really sharp sense of setting.  I don't begrudge anyone thinking it's the best film of the year, but... surely there were more interesting films out there.  Right?


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x12-1x14]
This is the ABC show about a team of investigative crimefighters in a world of superheroes.  The latest episodes I've seen are "Seeds", "T.R.A.C.K.S.", and "T.A.H.I.T.I.".

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a little like a dog that's trying to stand up on very slippery ice.  It gets up, slowly, unsteadily, and it looks like it's going to be okay, but then suddenly all four legs give out and it flops down helplessly on the ground.  You *want* the dog to be okay.  You feel bad for watching it struggle for so long.  But you think that, if it just gets its feet under it once, it'll be good to go.  So you stick around just a bit longer.

It always feels like it's really *close* to being a good show.  Having a team of scoobies investigate something supernatural every week has been a solid TV-show concept from Kolchak: The Night Stalker to, well Supernatural.  They created a central cast with different outlooks that should be able to bounce off of each other interesting ways.  Every time I watch an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode that doesn't work, it's like I'm watching a machine that's been constructed perfectly that, when it's turned on, only grinds its gears and blows out a capacitor.

"Seeds" felt like a step in the right direction, filled with things that should work.  Yes, let's get off the damn plane and go investigate the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy -- expanding the world of this TV show is a breath of fresh air.  But then, the coolest "hidden room" that an enclave of brilliant scientists-in-training can come up with is... a dreary L. A. nightclub? with a pool table?  And then there was a long stretch of the episode given over to Fitz and Simmons giving a sort of anonymous speech about... I dunno, the vision statement of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Again, it's a show that's doing so many things right on paper that it's more and more fascinating to watch it not work.

"T.R.A.C.K.S.", on the other hand, was something of a triumph.  They were finally showing some initiative.  They found fun character beats to play while the entire team took on fake identities.  (Please make Simmons attempting to do improv a regular thing on this show.  Please?)  They played with the structure of the show, which finally brought us something we wouldn't have seen on an action show in 1986.  And they gave us a pretty straightforward story: a thing got stolen, they tried to get it back, and instead things got worse and worse.  (Also, Mike Peterson was revealed to be "Deathlok", which is apparently very exciting to Marvel fans.)

It felt like "T.R.A.C.K.S." could be the "good version" of the show.  It focused on the here and now, not on vaguely-intimated conspiracies or suggestions of what might happen down the line.  It knew what to do with the central cast -- which was mostly "have them fight the bad guys with whatever they had to hand".  A more sensible show might have started with a series of modest little caper stories like this, and then started to build up to a larger, conspiracy-filled storyline.  (See also: Dollhouse.)  Build your foundation, find your rhythms, find your characters, *then* venture towards crazytown.  Leave utter, without-a-net fearlessness to scrappy cable shows like Terriers and Orphan Black.

So I would have loved it if "T.R.A.C.K.S." were followed by another simple, engaging, self-contained thriller.  I wanted S.H.I.E.L.D. to get a few more of these under its belt before changing gears.  But... no.  With T.A.H.I.T.I., it switched back to the larger story arc, where the vaguely-defied "Clairvoyant" is using the vaguely-defined "Centipede" organization to achieve vaguely-defined ends which are bad, because of reasons. 

And the episode pretty much fell on its face.  The notion that the bad guy actually *wanted* Skye to get shot so that Coulson would figure out the resurrection technology felt really dodgy.  If a screenwriter makes the villain say, "Ha-ha!  You have played perfectly into my hands!", I will not assume the villain is brilliant.  I will assume the screenwriter is lazy.  I will further assume that the villain is an idiot who made a plan that required on a *lot* of lucky breaks, and just happens to have succeeded this time by wild coincidence.  I far prefer villains like Iago or Admiral Thrawn -- fictional characters who observe, and think, and improvise.  Leave the villains who make elaborate, swiss-watch, precognitive plans in the bin labeled "tropes we delight in making fun of."

And then we have to save Skye, because, I dunno, *other* reasons.  And that involves breaking into a dark, anonymous warehouse.  The warehouse has two guards... who have *no* personality at all.  This is another bizarre place where the show, on paper, should be good.  Our heroes get ready to attack the warehouse.  We cut to the guards, and they are... what?  Are they like Desmond Hume, possibly mad from isolation?  Are they the Bad News Bears of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, bottom-of-the-barrel losers who are put where they will presumably do the least damage?  Seriously, show, just... make a choice.  Because ANY CHOICE WILL BE THE RIGHT ONE.

But instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actively avoids being a good show.  The guards appear to be doing nothing, and when the attack squad shows up at their front door, they arm themselves like... well, like actors instructed to "pick up the guns and walk to your mark".  My only guess is, well, the good guys are going to shoot these guards, so if the guards have no personality then we'll ask fewer uncomfortable moral questions about our heroes.  (But in that case, wouldn't you eliminate their POV and put them in masks?)

And then, the latest big shocking reveal with Coulson's resurrection is that... it's because of a substance from an alien corpse.

Um... okay.  Apparently a magical drug that brings a dead guy back from the dead, that's okay, but if it's from an alien corpse?  THERE, SIR, WE DRAW THE LINE.  Coulson goes batty, saying, "No! Don't inject the drug!" and lying to everyone about what he discovered in T.A.H.I.T.I. for reasons that are opaque to me, but which feel like "because the screenwriters needed drama".

And meanwhile, Bill Paxton felt pretty wasted to me.  Agent Garrett is gruff with moments of humor, and... that's about it.  I feel like any character actor could have done that.

And by the end, Skye seems pretty much back to normal, and we drop this ongoing Centipede/Clairvoyant stuff to follow a newly-arrived Asgardian.  So, um, now we have a new story arc, I guess?

It's strange.  I respect a show for *not* falling into a pattern.  One of the most breathtaking things about Terriers is how it flips from story arcs, to self-contained procedurals, to, for a short span, just being a show about weddings, all without a hint of flop-sweat.  But Terriers was a show that started out at the top of its game and didn't let up, so it could pull off these crazily-ambitious choices and get away with it.

On the other hand, I just want Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to calm the hell down.  I want it to stop its crazy, desperate hand-waving about large-scale conspiracies (making it the latest in a long line of shows that took all the wrong lessons from LOST).  I want it to just be a simple show about a team of misfit agents taking on self-contained jobs.  And I want to do that until it's *ready* to do things that are more ambitious.  Don't tell me I'm concerned about Skye's shadowy origins in a small Chinese village if you still haven't nailed down who Skye *is*.  Don't tell me that we are all in dire trouble from the Clairvoyant if I have no idea what the Clairvoyant wants.

Don't go mythology-first.  Go characters-first, and let the mythology build around them.  Build your simple stories, and let the more complicated ones emerge over time.

Ah well.  Maybe "Yes Men" will set things right.


Wicked [musical, Austin 3/9/14 performance]
A couple of weeks ago, I checked out the touring production of Wicked, the 2003 Broadway musical based on the book of the same name, which re-tells The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West.

I've always been intrigued by this story idea, even after the book turned out to be... possibly the second-worst book I've ever read.[3]

This particular production had a phenomenal set design (their setup and build must have been horrendously difficult) and the level of professionalism you'd expect for a touring Broadway show.[4]

As for the show itself, it somehow pulls a good musical out of a bad book.  It all-but-ignores the book's shrill, endless, clumsy pontificating -- it shows that the people of Oz are discriminating against its (talking, sentient) animals, and that's that.  They've established that this world is a fascist dictatorship.  Talking more about that would be redundant.  Instead, they focus on the relationship between Galinda (eventually "the Good Witch of the North") and Elfaba (eventually "the Wicked Witch of the West"), which is good, because there's actually a story there.  They strip the plot of as much extraneous detail as possible -- which is good, both because a musical doesn't allow much room for plot, and because the book was almost *all* extraneous detail -- giving us a straightforward "Elfie goes to Oz-Hogwarts, becomes a promising magic-student, realizes there are evil things happening, and becomes a renegade".

You can build a show around that.  You can follow her relationship with Galinda through that.  There's room for songs in that.

They strained a bit to manufacture a happy ending for the show, but I appreciated the effort.  The book ends the same way the movie does -- a dead puddle of witch -- with lots of angst added on to that, and lots of open questions regarding whether the witch was *really* dead or whether Dorothy had *really* returned to Kansas.  For killing off its protagonist, it had a surprising lack of closure or resolution, and felt like the story didn't "end" so much as "stop".  "Welp, she's dead now, better write a smattering of additional pages and call it a day."

The musical wisely says "Screw that," dismisses the book's 'edgy' rebellion against stories that, like, have a *structure*, maaaan, and manufactures a happy ending.  Yes, everything you saw in the movie happened, but Elfie faked her own death, and after Dorothy's departure, Galinda makes things right in the land of Oz.  (If you're fifteen, you can make the usual wearying arguments that real life isn't *like* that, with neat happy endings.  Yes, we know.)  It resolves the story and makes us feel like we watched something self-contained.

But so far I'm mostly talking about how much I hate the book.  I like the musical.  No, I probably don't like it as much as you do, but I like it.[5]  Sure, "Defying Gravity" is the show's standout, but there are a half-dozen other catchy songs to back it up.  The lyrics have cute wordplay and clever multisyllabic rhyming.  As Lindsey has pointed out to me, the whole show deftly weaves leitmotifs throughout the songs and underscoring, making it feel like it's all of a piece.

Sure, there are things that bug me.  The framing device felt unnecessary.  Making the tinman and the scarecrow turn out to be actually OMG CHARACTERS FROM THE SHOW felt a little too clever even for *my* tastes.[6]  Sometimes it felt less like an emotional, engaging story, and more like an interesting intellectual exercise, like they'd taken apart a machine, and we were watching to see if they could construct it into something different while carefully re-using the full set of parts.  There's a spectrum, I suppose, between musicals that happen "over there", on the stage, at a safe distance, and the ones that get at something universal, showing you something deeply personal that you didn't ever think anybody else really understood.  For me, Wicked is more the former than the latter, and that's perfectly okay.

Unfortunately, this is the only production of Wicked I've seen, so I have nothing to compare it to.  I know this production suffered from the "Galinda outshines Elfaba" problem that the show has always had.  The two leads of that show are invariably in shadows cast by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, who originated the roles.  This production's Galinda leaned a bit more towards imitating Chenoweth's performance, while Elfaba went to great lengths to make the character her own.  Both approaches have their pluses and minuses.  Some of Chenoweth's choices were really good and worth imitating, but you don't want to be *too* slavish.  Meanwhile, taking a bolder, more original choice with a performance can go either really well or really badly.

But there, I reach the end of what I know about musical theater.  This far out of my element, I can just say it was a hell of a spectacle, it had a nice, clever story, and the songs were catchy.  Huzzah!


For next time, I'll watch Gravity.  I'm still catching up on podcasts, but eventually I'll start on The Better Angels of Our Nature.

________
[1] No, I don't know why I go for a children's-toy metaphor here.
[2] "Wait, how did Señor Überevil know to wait for Action Two-Fists in that *particular* alley next to that *particular* building."
"Well, apparently movie villains can predict everything that happens in a film."
"Fair enough."
[3] Dubious top honors in that category go to
Devil on the Moon.
[4] At this point in my life, I can't watch musical theater performance without thinking, "Yup, I could do that for about ten to fifteen seconds before I collapsed and died of old."
[5] That should probably be the motto of this blog, I suppose.
[6] I call this the "Star Wars Universe Problem", where you re-use the same characters so many times, and so improbably, that it starts feeling like the whole world only has about eight people in it.
[7] The TV show used this technique as well.  The first main arc in season three resolved a story point left dangling in a season-two episode.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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