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

Monday (11/12/18) 9:33pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Star Wars: Han Solo [comic], Lovecraft Country
Movies:  Solo: A Star Wars Story
TV:  Archer (season 5), Superstore (season 1)

Star Wars: Han Solo by Marjorie Liu, Mark Brooks, and Olivier Coipel [comic]
This is the 2016 comic miniseries in which Han Solo enters a prestigious spaceship race while working a spy mission for the Rebellion.

This was my palate-cleanser after watching Solo: A Star Wars Story.  After reading the excellent Lando one-off, I figured this would be at least a satisfying Han Solo adventure.

And on that, it delivered.  It's a fun adventure, set sometime between IV and V.  It introduces a fun gallery of pilots, spies, and smugglers, with some great alien character designs.  It gives us what we want from a Solo story: thrilling spaceship battles, white-knuckled daredevil piloting, and some romantic tension with Her Worshipfulness.  It has a tight, well-constructed plot — he's picking up spies, and one of them is a double-agent, but which one? — and the story eventually reveals itself to be surprisingly heartfelt, connecting to that central question of whether Han Solo ever really 'belongs' anywhere.

Honestly, it's a little frustrating, in that it makes telling a good Han Solo story look easy.  It makes you look back at Solo: A Star Wars Story and despair for what could have been.


Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
This is the 2016 book about an African-American family in the Jim Crow era that finds itself embroiled in a vast Lovecraftian conspiracy.  Jordan Peele is currently adapting it into a TV series for HBO.

This book is great.  Drop what you're doing and read it right now.

The elevator pitch is simple: in the mid-1950s, an African-American family has to fight Lovecraftian horrors *and* the systemic racism of Jim Crow, and there are eerie similarities between the two.  At this point, you should already know if this is for you — if it is, then yes, drop what you're doing and read it right now.

It's ironic that this concept works, given what a monstrous racist Lovecraft was[1], but think about, say, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", where you come to a town, and everyone looks at you funny, and then after dark they literally come after you and try to kill you because, well, you're not one of them.  As the book points out, that's not fiction for a lot of Americans.  This was literally any "sundown town" in the 50s — cities where, if you were black, and you stuck around after dusk, the cops would straight-up kill you.

So that's the concept.

The execution is masterful.

For starters, this is a world in which Lovecraft exists — one of the first characters we see owns a Lovecraft short-story collection.  Via that, it engages directly with the racism in Lovecraft's work, with the book's African-American protagonists debating some of the different takes on his legacy that we're still discussing today.  And, on a more subtle level, it points out the obvious: genre fiction, like the book itself, has always had a black fanbase.  And those fans have had to contend with genres that ignore them or are outright hostile to them.  A lot of the characters in Lovecraft Country actively grapple with whether it's worth putting up with the bad parts to get to the thrilling tales of aliens and monsters.

And then there's the story structure itself.

Lovecraft's style does not lend itself to novels.  He was primarily a short-story writer, and his usual plot structure is almost optimized for the short-story length.  You follow a protagonist who makes increasingly terrifying discoveries about the world and then is left knowing that some unspeakable evil is out there, and that humanity is therefore doomed.  It's not really about an indefatigable hero pursuing a goal, so much as a delicate and fainting-spell-prone fellow stumbling into more and more things that he did not want to know.

It's hard to stretch that out to four hundred pages.

It's a neat coincidence that Lovecraft Country is becoming a TV series, because it was originally conceived of as a TV series.  And that structure plays out in the book: each member of Atticus's extended family gets their own little Lovecraft short story, as the book patiently moves through different subtypes of Lovecraftian fiction.  Meanwhile, there's a "Big Bad" pursuing the family throughout, threading all the individual stories together.  They even leave things open for a second season at the end.

And the stories themselves are fabulous.  Mr. Ruff is an exceptional genre writer, with prose that's smooth and evocative, fun to read aloud without ever becoming precious or getting in its own way.  He details the varied settings impeccably, and uses limited third person to engagingly convey each protagonist's state of mind.  And he clearly groks the source material, creating the proper slow-then-quick build as each character learns something awful and secretive about the novel's world.

I don't think there's much else to say, really — it's a great novel, and it's a perfect fit for a TV adaptation.  I look forward to seeing how it turns out.


Solo: A Star Wars Story
This is the 2018 one-off Star Wars movie that gives us the origin story of Han Solo.

Before I go one step further: this movie is fine.  It's pleasant to watch.  It's easy to follow.  I don't regret having watched it.

I say this, because anything I say about the movie is going to make it sound like I hated it.  Why?

Because the ways in which this movie is good are very, very boring; and the ways in which this movie is bad are very, very interesting.

So, yes, there are things that the movie does well, but they are bog-standard action-movie things.  Yes, there are fun side characters, with Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, and Woody Harrelson doing lovely work.  They do great design work, showing us new corners of the Star-Wars-verse that still feel of a piece with what we've seen before.[2]  They do a fine job solving the sudoku puzzle of "create an action set-piece that happens at the correct minute of the film in which there is a ticking clock and three separate teams that must finish independent, difficult, and visually-engaging tasks."

But none of this is interesting to talk about.  Woody Harrelson has had a line in likable antiheroes for longer than many Solo fans have been alive.  Design work been excellent throughout the franchise (re-)reboot.  And there's nothing to say about set-piece design beyond, "Yup, you solved the math problem correctly!  Five points to Hollydor!"

But the things that went wrong, the blunders they made, they just... they should have sent a poet.

I mean, how do you make any movie, any movie at all in which Han Solo is the least interesting character?  Just, mathematically, how do you do that?  He practically walks away with the original trilogy, and even his geriatric appearance in Force Awakens nearly walks away with that one, too.  And here, you watch Han get his charisma blown off the screen by literally every scene partner he has.

"Well," you think, "maybe they were set an impossible task.  Maybe it's unreasonable to expect a new actor to step into the shoes of such a beloved character, to strike a balance between their own voice and expression, and to recreate a portrayal that feels custom-made for the original actor who played it some forty years ago.  Maybe that just can't be done."

Then Lando shows up, and you're like, "Welp, guess *that* argument's bullshit," and you're back to square one.

Everyone loves Lando in this movie, and everyone is right to do so.  Putting Donald Glover in the role felt a little stunt-y when I heard it — "Hey!  Here's an African-American actor that geeks love!" — but he absolutely delivers.  It feels like he translates his joy in getting to play Lando into Lando's joy at getting to *be* Lando.  And that alone makes a character endlessly watchable — there's a powerful charisma to any person who's giddy that *they get to be themselves*.  Mr. Glover evokes the familiar mannerisms without falling into an impression, he adds weight to underwritten lines, he makes the 80s-womanizer aspects of the character feel (to my outside view) positive and respectful... it's just astoundingly good.

Okay, then, maybe Alden Ehrenreich is the weak link here — maybe he's just a bad actor.  But, no, he did fine work in Hail, Caesar!  And Han Solo is not, I would say, the most subtle or nuanced role, only accessible to the most masterful of thespians.  I could easily see Mr. Ehrenreich putting in an adequate performance here.  And he's frankly not doing anything terribly *wrong* here that you can immediately put your finger on.  He's not doing *great* work, sure, but it's weird how the bland result falls so far short of the respectable effort.

Okay, maybe the script is letting him down.  And here I think we start to get somewhere.  At its core, the movie is asking "where did Han Solo come from?"  And right away, there's a red flag: that is a question literally no one wants answered.  When the movie was announced, Star Wars fandom collectively did a headtilt and said, "Uh, ok, I guess."  And if you ask me, they were right to do so.[3]

Frankly, I think A New Hope is *already* Han's origin story.  It's how he goes from someone normal for this universe — an everyday smuggler surviving by his wits — to someone unique — that same smuggler, roped into the Rebellion against his better judgment, and forced to constantly assess his lifelong self-protection against his latent/repressed morality.  There's no "how did he become a random smuggler?" question that's particularly interesting to answer.[4]

And then there's *how* Han goes about pursuing his objectives in this story.[5]  There's a reliable formula in place for both Indiana Jones and Han Solo.  You give the Harrison Ford character a task.  It's not impossible, but it's difficult, and risky, and the sort of thing you wouldn't want on your todo list.  The Harrison Ford character enacts a plan.  It's clever, maybe a mite more clever than what the audience would come up with, but it isn't complicated, and it isn't genius, and it isn't quite up to the level of the problem.  Ergo, it goes wrong.  And then the Harrison Ford character really *excels* at improvising his way out of the mess he's landed in — that's where he's a superhero, when he's (say) desperately keeping snakes at bay in the Well of Souls or handling an unexpected visit from Greedo.

So you relate to him as he gets into his SNAFUs, and you *wish* you could be like him as he gets himself out of them.

Solo doesn't seem to 'get' this rhythm.  Instead, it has Solo doing stupid things, getting himself into trouble, and then having more competent secondary characters bailing him out.  And that's... problematic, if you want to get the audience's sympathy.[6]  After a while, you find yourself wishing for an alternate-history route, where Han's blundering gets him killed and we spend the rest of the movie adventuring with one of the superior side characters instead.

And on a deeper level, if this is an origin story for Han, I don't really see what we're origin-ing.  Put another way, I don't see Han starting at point A, changing and growing over the course of the movie, and ending up at point B.  He doesn't learn anything, beyond "don't trust this one girl you had a crush on years ago".  He's a vague, optimistic character that winds up on a bunch of adventures, and winds up a vague, optimistic character by the end.

That's just weird.  Even bad movies don't screw that up — they usually just beat you over the head: "SEE?  THIS CHARACTER HAS LEARNED A THING!"[7], erring on the side of being too blunt about it.  They don't just let their hero meander through, unless it's a movie like The Big Lebowski, where that itself is a 'thing', a central part of the theme, which is not what's happening here.[8]

I guess the troubled production history is to blame?  This film was sort of a perfect storm: the machine wanted to make another one-off film, they figured "young Han Solo" would print money, they let Miller and Lord make a comic, improvisatory take on the idea, they decided no, that's a terrible idea, and they hired Ron Howard to rein it in until it was relatively average.  And so you get a film that does normal action-adventure really well — top-notch performances, solidly-built set-pieces, the best production design you could hope for — all in service of a film that nobody really wanted to make.[9]

Again, the ways this movie is uniquely bad, you can just pore over them forever.


Archer (season 5)
This is the fifth season of the 2009 FX (now FXX) show about super-spy Sterling Archer and bumbling spy-agency co-workers.  In this season, their spy agency is put out of business and they then scramble to sell off a mysterious shipment of cocaine they wound up with.

It's pleasant and fun.

A useful term from TV Tropes: "Flanderization".  This is where a sitcom character starts out relatively realistic, but as the show goes on, normal traits get exaggerated further and further for comic effect until they are absolutely not round-earth humans.  What I find interesting about Archer at this point is that all its characters are fully-Flanderized.  They may have started with some measure of relative normalcy, but now everything is turned up to ten, in every direction, all the time, and so they pretty much spend the entirety of every episode acting crazy and shouting at each other.

But that's not necessarily bad.  Archer has the good sense to lean *into* this unapologetically — with Pam, for example, they just saddle her with whatever traits the show needs, season after season, so that now she's a cocaine-addicted fistfighting Tokyo drift-racer, on top of being some sort of admin (?) with the spy agency.  The wall-to-wall Flanderization is almost what the show is *about* at this point.

The downside is that it's hard to really feel anything about any storylines that happen in this universe.  So it's not that surprising that showrunner/sole writer Adam Reed strains so hard, in these later seasons, to keep himself from getting bored.  Send them to topple a South American dictatorship?  Great!  Make Carol/Cheryl a #1 country-music star?  Okay!  And while we're at it, let's blow up ISIS and make them all drug dealers.  Their "AU seasons", starting with season eight ("Dreamland", film-noir), feels like the natural endpoint for this process.

All in all, it holds my interest.  The jokes still land.  The characters, while zany, are comfortable and familiar.  There's a plot happening in the background, and it seems well-constructed, but it doesn't really demand one's attention.

This was a good distraction from the immiserating character-flaggelation of The Leftovers, but I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to watch it.

       
Superstore (season 1)
This is the first season of the 2015 comedy about employees at a Wal-Mart-like superstore.

The bizarre implosion of the Rosanne reboot spawned a million think-pieces, all along the lines of "o woe, who will represent working-class America now?"  And it was kinda baffling, as any TV nerd could rattle off a half-dozen shows that did so, perhaps none of them more salient than Superstore.

So: we already do have our show about the working class, and it's Superstore.  And it's not about the old white dude who works at the factory in the rust belt, because, between offshoring and automation, those jobs barely exist.  Instead, it's a diverse cast of employees who are scraping by in thankless service jobs for mega-conglomerates that make Veridian Dynamics look moral and compassionate by comparison.  This is where the working class is now.

So on some level, Superstore is fascinating for just being that — for being 2015's take on Taxi or The Honeymooners, the anti-aspirational comedy about the people who struggle to get by.

Beyond that, though, the execution is... okay.  At its core, this is pretty journeyman sitcomming.  It's a network show, with episodes often running under nineteen minutes.  They usually set three plotlines going — and by the time you've got to the C-plot, you really don't have time to tell a story.  It feels a little bit more like a Harold, with three quick sketches that are on the same theme, and just not enough room to make a beginning, middle, and end.

The characters are a mixed bag.  Their protagonist is mostly a cipher — for most of the season, he's not endowed with much more than "he's an outsider with a vaguely-privileged background".  The female lead, played by the excellent America Ferrara, does good work, but she's saddled with the "disapproving and competent woman-who-says-no" sitcom trope that we're all frankly a little tired of by now.

Beyond that, the character bench is rich.  Mark McKinney is just a treasure as Glenn, a towering example of how you can play an over-the-top sitcom character — he's the very Christian, very well-meaning store manager — with charisma and depth.  Even when everything's heightened, you can give a performance a sort of verisimilitude *within* that reality, and that's what he does here.  The other secondary roles are fun, starting as clear one-note characters, and getting some fun details (like Dina's menagerie of birds) later on.

Best of all, the show seems to figure out, over the course of season one, that it's really *about* labor.  Sure, the hijinks in the store are fun — the little interstitial scenes are like some twisted version of Ozu "pillow shots" — but the hijinks get dull over the course of 11 episodes.  When the show really digs in to, say, Glenn losing his family store to Cloud 9, or the staff's accidental demand for a workers' strike, it starts to find its heart.  And along the way, that sneering take on inept corporate greed creates most of the best comedy, like its mid-90s corporate anti-racism video from "MC Cool Cloud".

So: it's interesting that the show exists, and its kind of bland structure is spruced up by some fun side characters and an occasional stab at satire.


For next week: I'm watching season one of The Leftovers and reading How to Improvise a Full-Length Play.  (It's where "story spine" comes from!)

_______
[1] If your friend *Robert E. Howard* is telling you Jesus, man, tone it down a notch with the racism, you really need to think about your life choices.
[2] I was especially intrigued with what a grimy, slogging land battle feels like for infantry grunts in this world.
[3] These days, Star Wars fandom feels like a bunch of racist, sexist, gamergate-adjacent nerd-turds, so I hate agreeing with them about *anything*.
[4] ... though the Star Wars 'legends' (AKA "the old EU") books have a goddamn excellent story for this.  I am baffled that they didn't just film it.
[5] Kudos to Lindsey for pointing this out.
[6] It also feels a bit like, "Hey, look, another young white dude, endlessly failing upwards."
[7] Or there are movie like Doctor Strange, where a moment's consideration reveals that, no, the hero has learned nothing, but it least presents the *appearance* of progress.
[8] Well now all I want is a Coen Brothers crime caper set in Star Wars.[8b]
[8b] Though, to be fair, I've wanted ever since they announced non-saga movies.
[9] And it's an action movie helmed by two (three?) directors that don't really do action movies, leading to countless firefights where you don't quite get the geography of what's going on, and you're just waiting for the clumsy pew-pew to stop.

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