Thursday, 29 June 2017

Not Swimming but Drowning

Devoted lifeguard Mitch Buchannon butts heads with a brash new recruit, as they uncover a criminal plot that threatens the future of the day. 

Andy Warhol got it wrong. It’s not that everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes; it's that all moderately successful, mediocre television shows are destined to be reborn as feature films. Baywatch manages to repackage every aspect of the series, except the reason it was popular in the first place. Indeed, just as nobody ever bought a Pirelli calendar simply to find out the date, the world didn’t tune into Baywatch for over a decade purely for the lifeguarding instruction. Let’s face it: it was all about the fantasy American lifestyle of sun, sea and semi-naked flesh jiggling along beaches in slow-mo. Apart from that, and those little red floaty things they carried around, can anyone honestly remember anything else about Baywatch?

That movie could have been a golden opportunity. Previous films based on retro TV shows have taught us: the only way to repackage such brand-name is with heavy measures of irony and self-satire. Of course, that is what you would from a movie based on a TV series that became famous for slow-motion shots of star Pamela Anderson jiggling down a beach in her bikini. Baywatch as a series, now looks jaw-droppingly goofy and harmless - actually, it did then too - and the movie would have been smart to satirize the show’s innocuous underworld drama and cheesy male gaze, playing up the dated absurdity of it all. But no. The film’s director, Seth Gordon and its screenwriters, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, have shaped Baywatch onto the theme of the moment: a bunch of good-looking lifeguards, devoted to keeping their beach a safe cool magical place.

Dwayne Johnson makes a good David Hasselhoff stand-in, with his winning mix of comic charm, calm authority and absurdly pumped physique as always.  Plus, his chemistry with Efron is likeable. In fact, Johnson and Efron possess impressive muscles, but the performers have never done as much heavy lifting as they do here. And to their credit, they succeed to some degree. Johnson employs his big smile, effortless charm and surprising comic gifts to make the film watchable. And Efron, who has come to rely on his obnoxious frat-boy persona takes off his shirt … a lot.

Now onto the women. “Babe” lifeguards are smart, centred and self-aware. They are 21st-century women who aren’t about to turn into pin-up fodder for losers. They wear their butt-hugging red bathing suits with dignity and pride, which makes this a highly sexually responsible Baywatch. But while the female form is on ample display here - courtesy of not only the comic Rohrbach, but also Alexandra Daddario (who starred along Dwayne Johnson in San Andreas) and Ilfenesh Hadera as CJ’s female colleagues at Emerald Bay - Johnson’s massive physique and Efron’s abs receive equally generous exposure.

Similarly, the film directed by Seth Gordon, shows off its big budget with large-scale action sequences. The causal throwaway gags are actually far funnier, such as Mitch addressing Matt with a series of nicknames including “Malibu Ken” and, most amusingly, “High School Musical”. Finally, and naturally, there are brief appearances by original stars Hasselhoff (who seems to be making ironic cameos his late-career specialty) and Anderson, but those, too, are underwhelming. Anderson’s is so momentary, that you wonder why it was even included.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Nevertheless, She Persisted.

Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, Princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny. 

It may have taken four films to get there, but the DCEU has finally produced a good old-fashioned superhero movie. Wonder Woman opened last week and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The film itself has had its share of controversy though; beginning with male outcry concerning female only screenings (grow up, gentlemen), to the literal dark cloud that the DCEU seems to have built around its franchise. Wonder Woman is also the first major studio superhero film directed by a woman and it shows in a number of subtle, yet important ways. As tight as Gadot's outfit may be, Diana is always framed as an agent of power, rather than its object. 

Before getting to Gal Gadot excellent performance as Wonder Woman. I have to say that I never knew how much I wanted to see Robin Wright do a backflip off of a horse only to springboard off a shield and fire arrows into three German soldiers. Then, I saw Wonder Woman, and I immediately knew I wanted to see that again. Now, Gal Gadot is excellent. Dawn of Justice proved us she could handle the kicking and the punching, here, she gets actual honest-to-goodness dialogue and invests Diana with excitable exuberance, defiance and a disarming belief in doing the right thing. Gadot balances the toughness and confidence of a warrior with the childlike confusion of someone who's never known a world filled with hatred, hunger, greed, selfishness and even death. To go from that world to the devastating reality of WWII requires an actress who can just as easily embody childlike glee and unfathomable sadness. As it stands, this film is intermittently spot on, particularly in the pops of humour and romance between the exotically kick-ass yet approachable Gal Gadot and the supremely charismatic Chris Pine, as an American working for British Intelligence. 

It is no secret that the superhero genre is seen as a "boys club". Most female superheroes are either spawned from their male counterparts or started out as villains and become heroes. She-Hulk was spawned from her raging cousin after a blood transfusion. Batgirl was a librarian who had a crush on Batman. Catwoman started out as a straight-up villain but has evolved into a sort of anti-hero. And Wonder Woman herself was sort of inspired by male heroes. Plus, the history of superhero girlfriend is a long one, from Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, Emma Stone's Gwen Stacey to Natalie Portman's Jane Foster and Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes. These women are professional plot points more than people. 

However, with Steve Trevor, we have a fully realised character who is much an active participant in our heroine's journey as he is in the larger narrative; some will say that is because he is a man and not a woman but allow me to disagree with you here.       

Wonder Woman is clearly a female centred movie but let's talk about the men of Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor is, in fact, a fully realised character, who is much an active participant in our heroine's journey. Watching his onscreen journey, there was an instant realisation that he is a new entry in the superhero genre. In the case of this film, the presence of a fully formed protagonist does not come at the expense of the other characters. Moreover, ego does not get in the way of progress. Or, as Trevor succinctly puts it: "I can save today, but you can save the world.". Apart from that, General Ludendorff says to Diana "As magnificent as you are, you are no match for me.". Let's face it, it wouldn't be the first time a man has underestimated the potential of a better-qualified woman.  

As a woman, it is impossible not to feel a sense of ownership over the first female-led superhero flick since Catwoman in 2004. And it is impossible not to feel a warm swell of relief that she is a glorious badass, one who wears her femininity with the same pride and poise that she wears her armour plated-bra. Even if this film doesn't quite transcend the traits of franchise product as it checks off the list of action-fantasy requisites. This origin story, with its direct and relatively uncluttered trajectory, offers a welcome change of pace from a superhero realm that is often overloaded with interconnections and cross-references. 

Wonder Woman changes everything in the DCEU. And it does so by looking to the past, taking inspiration from the likes of Thor and Captain America. But the film's biggest debt is to Superman The Movie. Both structurally - the opening half-hour in Themyscira is the same as the Krypton segment of Richard Donner's movies - and tonally. Like Christopher Reeve's Superman, Gal Gadot's Diana is a bright beacon of hope in a world of darkness.

The masterstroke of this origin story is that it accentuates and celebrates Diana's feminine traits. Her secret weapon is not the bullet-repealing jewellery, not her swordplay and not her ability to fire shockwaves from her wrists. It is not even her luxurious swooshing hair. It is her empathy. Although now that I mentioned it, the hair is pretty impressive! Indeed, above all, what truly stands out about Wonder Woman is its ability to show love in all its forms. Whether it is the love between a mother and her daughter, the sisterhood and same-sex relationships of the women of Themyscira, the bond between sisters, the camaraderie between Steve and his friends, the platonic and romantic love between Steve and Diana, the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, love of a country, or an overall love for humanity; this film embraces and embodies love. 

Throughout the whole film, Lindy Hemming's superb costume designs are in sync with production designer Aline Bonetto's vivid locales. Contrasting the poetic, not-quite-real timelessness of Themyscira, the all female isle where Diana was raised, with the prosaic reality of early-20th-century Europe. The choice to set the action during WWII may make some uncomfortable. However, it gives Patty Jenkins a chance to play with themes of female empowerment, feminism and standing up against oppression. 

Today, the amalgam of industry awards and wall-to-wall press coverage routinely creates boy wonders who break and transcend the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. Girl wonders have been considerably harder to come by, not because there haven't been or aren't incredibly talented women of all ages directing critically successful films and making important contributions to filmmaking, but because the mainstream film industry and its environs have been resistant to acknowledge the contributions of women who make films, or have excluded them from the discussion entirely. 

Patty Jenkins and the screenwriters were tasked with giving audiences their first major female superhero onscreen in more than a decade. But, in the process, audiences got supporting characters and a love interest that wrestled with their own insecurities in a way that was unique within the crowded superhero space. This type of characterisation is the work of strong filmmaker, who has trust in their story and actors, as well as the audience. Because good filmmaking is about giving the audience things that they did not know they had always wanted. 

Patty Jenkins, after Katherine Bigelow before her, may be our next girl wonder. the early press coverage of Jenkins has started to construct her mythology. If these initial media reports are any indication of what is to come, Jenkins is well positioned to achieve girl wonder status, becoming an inspiration for future directors, who happen to be female. But Jenkins remains one director in a sea of men. 

Overall, Wonder Woman has been a symbol of strength for decades, and her time in the spotlight is long overdue. In a male-dominated landscape, Wonder Woman is poised to be the first female superhero that actually resonates with fans, both male and female. What really matters to me are the little girls who are finally going to see a strong female role model.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

House of Cards - Season 5

Netflix's flagship drama is back, Frank Underwood is more corrupt and less subtle than ever before. The fifth season of House of Cards is the first without longtime showrunner: Beau Willimon. It is fashionable to say that politically driven shows like Scandal and House of Cards have been made irrelevant by the Trump Administration because no scheme the show's writers dream up could be nuttier than whatever headline you read right before you clicked on this review.

The fifth season picks up just two weeks away from the election that was already dragged through the second half of Season 4 and will continue to be important through most of this season.   

Executive producer David Fincher set the stylistic tone of the series from the pilot and the hermetic isolation of his D.C. interiors. The show's distinctive atmosphere is a landscape of alienation - from power, from humanity, from joy - in which the president turns to the audience and describes how he will use them, the American people, as pawns for an upcoming scheme. 

Frank's push to get Claire nominated as veep filled me with enthusiasm for two reasons; the first one is that Robin Wright has been (and continues to be) the cast member who has shown the most dynamic range in recent seasons and giving her more to do is smart, especially since Claire seems to be better at the game than her husband is. Secondly, because the idea of political and personal space blurring in the White House is a compelling one. Moreover, Kevin Spacey is as amusing as ever. He is almost always the broader performer in any given room, but that is part of the show's design - a way of drawing us into the character's almost omnisciently evil mindset. Watch House of Cards long enough and you start to think the way Frank does. 

Both of them are more of a team here than ever before, a power couple bonded by their desire to stay in the White House indefinitely, as well as by the knowledge that they will never find a mate more suitable than the one that (sometimes) sleep next to them. Plus, Claire's fourth-wall breaking close-up at the end of Season 4 - the first of such close-up she'd been given - hinted at a deeper self-possession. There are more where that come from. 

In House of Cards, there are no just desserts for the political operatives who grasp power simply for power's sake. Frank and Claire Underwood never have better angels and always win, in a story that will run for as long as Netflix can make it. This said story is a nightmare. And yet this season might still be preferable to reading the news coming out of the US right now. At least Frank and Claire repeatedly demonstrate that they know exactly what they are doing. The fantasy of competent people in charge might be enough to be soothing, even when they are murdering yet another bunch of soul who crossed their path. 

House of Cards continues to be adept of mimicking and criticking media narratives, with a facility that tends to, transcends the plot of the show. The artificial news alerts ring the truest of nearly anything else it does; and for once, the life-or-death stakes embraced by the show's flawed journalists seem rather believable. Frank is a withholding guide to his confident, the audience - a few episodes might go by before he finally turns to the camera and tells us what he is really thinking. So much of what the viewer understands portrays, the mainstream media is a well-meaning institution riddled with exploitable weaknesses, just like democracy itself. Indeed, the show's primary storytelling conceit is itself a mini media critique. Frank's asides to the fourth-wall are the only times he tells the unembellished, unadulterated truth. And yet the only other times he looks directly at the camera is when he addresses the American people through news cameras.

The finale improves its own metaphor with a few shots that echo iconic moments from the real-life Obama Administration. One is a situation room tableau where Claire has the same position and pose as Hilary Clinton does in a much-publicized photo from the night Osama Bin Laden was assassinated. The other is also from that night - Claire's declaration of war, nearly the last scene of the season, looks almost identical to Obama's address to the public announcing Bin Laden's death.

Finally, in my opinion, Season 5 is undoubtedly the series weakest - evens weaker than Season 3. The show has steadily killed off or disappeared the most endearing characters in its supporting cast - Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Rachel Brosnahan, Molly Parker, Mahershala Ali, just to name a few. And what is left is the world where tyrants won: the world barely worth living in. Now, why would I write about House of Cards if I don't like it that much anymore? Because, dear readers, I am a (wanna-be) critic, not a recapper, and House of Cards remains a show people discuss, one worthy of attention or at least thirteen hours of episodic viewing. Also, I used to LOVE the show or maybe that makes me more genuinely objective when I say that eventually, this season gets better.

Overall, House of Cards has always been a fun show since Season 1 and in its fifth season, it is still addictive. It knows itself and its audience so well, that it can't in good conscience be labelled as a guilty pleasure anymore. Robin Wright is still very good as is Kevin Spacey. Kinnaman has some moments at the very beginning of the season. The fifth season kept me watching through to the finale. It's the little things.