Friday, July 31, 2015
Daredevil has officially bumped Guardians of the Galaxy out of my top three favorite Marvel superhero projects to date. So, in light of this, here's my new ranking:
(3) The Avengers
(1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
So how did Daredevil billy-club its way into the number two spot? Well, it's because I never, ever thought in my wildest dreams that a big-budgeted T.V. project would come along and give so many casual viewers a reason to love this relatively-obscure character half as much as I do. To this day my top three favorite Marvel superheroes are Spider-Man, Wolverine and Daredevil.
If you haven't already guessed, I'm a big fan of low-powered, underdog superheroes and Daredevil definitely qualifies. At a formative age, young Matt Murdock (Skylar Gaertner) selflessly rescues a pedestrian from certain death but gets doused in a corona of toxic chemicals in the process. This deprives Matt of his eyesight but it also heightens his other perceptions to superhuman levels. With this "radar sense" he can take an instant snapshot of his surroundings, anticipate an incoming attack and even tell when someone is lying just by listening to their elevated heartbeat.
He's doted upon by his dad, "Battlin'" Jack Murdock, a struggling, uneducated prizefighter who does whatever he can to give his son a leg up in life. Realizing that he's more valuable to his son dead than alive, Jack wins a fixed match that he's supposed to throw and a local mob boss has him rubbed out. Young Matt is left alone but thanks to his dad's unexpected windfall he's financially secure for the time being.
During an extended stay in an orphanage, Matt struggles to control his emerging powers. A mysterious benefactor by the name of Stick (Scott Glenn) suddenly comes out of the woodwork to teach the kid how to fight and exploit his new-found abilities. Whatever you think of Stick's hard-assed methods, Matt is both capable and focused by the time his enigmatic mentor vanishes as suddenly as he appeared.
Using his dad's "inheritance" money, adult Matt (Charlie Cox) enters law school. While he's there he meets and befriends the goofy, pure-hearted Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, played by Elden Henson. After a painful internship with a "1-800-SUE-4-CASH" outfit, the two idealistic attorneys strike out by themselves to set up their own defense-based legal practice. Their mission statement: to stand up for the innocent against overwhelming odds.
It isn't very long before their first adversarial Goliath rears his bald pate. Looking to capitalize on the damage done to Hell's Kitchen during the Battle of New York as depicted in The Avengers, shadowy industrialist Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) strives to re-work the venerable borough in his own image. Unfortunately he's doing it with the aid of the Russian mob and a pretty vicious drug ring. He also has serious anger management issues and tends to casually murder anyone who vaguely inconveniences him.
When a former secretary named Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) gets an unintended glimpse into Fisk's shady methods, Matt comes to her rescue as the black-garbed "Devil of Hell's Kitchen". Now allied with Foggy, Karen and a world-weary reporter named Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), Matt attempts to take down Fisk's criminal empire both in the courts and on the streets. Unfortunately he soon realizes that the forces arrayed against him are virtually insurmountable.
The writing in Daredevil is so patient, so sure-footed and so compelling that you'll be hard-pressed not to binge watch all thirteen episodes in one sitting. Information is meted out in economic little parcels which results in some pretty compulsive viewing. You want to keep watching just to see what precious new tidbit you'll be privy to next. One haunting early image shows the deplorable and inexplicable state of Madame Gao's (Wai Ching Ho) assembly-line workers. We only see them for a few seconds but it's more than enough to make us ponder how many episodes we can watch in a row before losing control of our bodily functions.
Show runner Steven DeKnight and his screenwriters are clearly fans of ol' Horn Head or at the very least they've digested a metric crap-ton of the character's comic book lore. We've got pivotal scenes set in Josie's Bar, there's an incompetent petty-crook-turned-snitch named Turk and Matt takes solace in his Catholic faith by indulging in soul-searching tête-à-têtes with his spiritual adviser Father Lantom, played by Peter McRobbie. Daredevil even starts his adventuring career wearing the all-black thrift-store ninja outfit with the combat boots, cargo pants, spandex shirt and headband.
Which brings me to one of the few demerits of the entire series: the red costume that Matt eventually "upgrades" to looks pretty durned goofy. The horn-spiked cowl, with its creepy, glow-in-the-dark eyes, is pretty much spot-on but would it have killed them to stamp a friggin' double-D on the chest? Again this is just a nitpick but it seems like such a no-brainer. Hopefully they'll tweak the design in the second season so that it doesn't just look like a maroon-colored mish-mash of biker gear and hockey equipment.
Now, even though I didn't completely loathe Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil from back in 2003 (particularly the Director's Cut that followed five years later), this Netflix format already has that movie totally beat. With thirteen, fifty-minute episodes to work with, the producers can really take their time building on and exploring the intense world of Daredevil. Matt's origins, Wilson Fisk's background, and the criminal quagmire that Hell's Kitchen now finds itself mired in is covered with respectful detail.
But that's not to say that the show is pedestrian in any way. Yes, large tracts of screen time tick by without Daredevil showing up but the writing and the performances are so strong that you won't care. I call this the "Iron Man Effect". Even if you completely removed the super-hero quotient from the show you'd still be left with what amounts to a crackerjack legal procedural. In fact, Daredevil often feels like a mash-up between Lawn & Order, The Wire and Chris Nolan's Batman movies. The fact that there's a blind guy with radar vision who shows up periodically to punch people in the mush is almost incidental.
But when Daredevil does show up the tone is electric. The fight scenes are some of the best I've ever seen period: gritty, fast, brutal, and vicious. The brawl that caps out the end of episode two is, by far, the most authentic, dramatic and original fistfight in television history. The only time I've ever seen anything vaguely comparable is in a hard-boiled Korean action movie like Old Boy.
If you've seen this episode you know exactly what I'm talking about. Daredevil invades a rundown tenement where Russian mobsters are holding a little boy hostage. Our hero infiltrates the building, takes a quick inventory of his foes and then systematically goes to work. Already gravely wounded from a previous encounter, Matt tries to end the fight as quickly as possible but things don't go according to plan. Every time he knocks these goons down they just keep getting back up again. And instead of attacking him as if they've taken a number, they swarm him in groups of twos and threes. Slowly Matt starts to get winded. Clearly he's more skilled than these guys but how can he possibly hope to defeat them all?
The battle wears on and on. Slowly, inexorably, Matt uses his special abilities, his fighting skills, his environment, his smarts and a pretty hefty dollop of pain rage to turn the tide. Episode director Phil Abraham and fight coordinator Philip Silvera keep the battle grinding on during one, long, merciless, continuous take. Sometimes we can't see what's going on because the action has spilled into another room but eventually things heave back into our line of sight. When our hero emerges from this epic tilt exhausted, battered and victorious we feel as if we've gone the distance with him. While watching this incredible fight scene I actually felt like a helpless bystander, alternately desperate to throw in the towel or lend a hand. It's a truly historic sequence.
As great as the creative fisticuffs are, it's the contemporary writing that kept me watching obsessively. Thanks to that fucking jerk Giuliani shutting down all the strip bars, Hell's Kitchen isn't quite the cesspool of filth, crime, and human misery that it used to be back in the 80's. It's also why the character of Wilson Fisk is so perfectly depicted here. In the original comics, he's the Kingpin of Crime, a larger-than-life mob boss who's in competition with the Owl, the Yakuza and a slew of other gangs. He's got his pudgy mitts in a slew of stereotypically-shady doings: racketeering, gambling, drugs, prostitution...all the usual vices.
Fast forward to 2014. Petty crime in New York City has dropped considerably but white collar crime is at an all-time high. Nowadays it's all about the vanishingly middle class. Forty-eight percent of the nation's wealth is now in the hands of the richest one-percent and that's exactly what the character of Wilson Fisk is all about.
In his defense, Fisk didn't inherit his wealth; he's a self-made man. Via a series of flashbacks we learn that his dad was a ripe bastard with unrealistic political aspirations that were meant to put him on easy street. He's depicted as an abusive jackass who constantly browbeats (and traditionally beats) his pragmatic wife whilst berating his pudgy son for being "soft". When young Wilson is forced to watch his father beat down a neighborhood punk after the kid casts aspirations on the Fisk name, the programming is set. The best way to answer those who disrespect you is to unleash the beast and let loose with a little bit of the ol' ultra-violence.
For the adult Wilson, control is of the essence. In one episode we get to see his O.C.D.-style daily routine which always seems to involve scrambled eggs, donning the next suit in order on the rack and putting on his dad's cufflinks. It's not a crime empire that Wilson is striving for, it's a world of order and stability. If you're looking for a radical contrast between depictions of the Kingpin compare D'Onofrio's measured, borderline Aspergers-tinged turn versus Michael Clarke Duncan's swagga in the Daredevil movie. To highlight this contrast, the name "Kingpin" isn't even used once during the show's thirteen episode run.
Given his woeful origins, difficulty in relating to people, and his vaguely-noble motivations, you almost feel sorry for the dude. This is all thanks to D'Onofrio who was literally the best possible choice for this role. Each one of his line deliveries is so measured, so telling, and so rife with pathos and barely-coiled rage that he's positively magnetic to watch. The writers of Daredevil abide by the same tenant that I personally subscribe to: antagonists are never completely and wholly evil. D'Onofrio's Kingpin is a foil for the modern age: a super-rich, super-powerful guy who's been living in his own world a bit too long. Fisk is the villain here simply because his methods and motivations don't jibe with most normal people. And frankly this is infinitely more interesting to me than the usual melodramatic, mustache-twirling bad guy.
I first saw Charlie Cox in Stone of Destiny and I really like the guy. His casting wasn't super-obvious to me and I was kind of expecting someone more seasoned but he completely hits it out of the park during his very first scene. Vaguely scruffy with only the slightest intimation of red hair, Cox capably sells the character's physical blindness as well as his unique gifts. Whether he's kicking ass in a desperate fight scene, sharing a tender moment with Clair Temple (Rosario Dawson), delivering a mouthful of legalese or struggling with some huge ethical crisis, Cox is sure-footed throughout. Also, major bonus points to the producers for picking the perfectly-cast Skylar Gaertner as young Matt.
In the comics Foggy Nelson has always been portrayed as Matt's schlubby, goofy wing man; a competent lawyer with his heart in the right place even if his head isn't always in the game. Between the screenwriters and actor Elden Hensen, the character finally feels three-dimensional to me. Foggy is the perfect sounding board for the audience, a guy who's always trying to figure out how a sightless man can be so inhumanly aware of things. Yes, Foggy serves as the primary source of comic relief but his actions are also integral to the plot, particularly where it concerns a past flame, of all things. It also doesn't hurt that Henson is downright hilarious and gets to serve up some of the show's best one-liners. After a mid-series revelation puts him at odds with Matt, Hensen's passionate performance will rend your heart.
Having lived on an emotional roller-coaster for seven seasons as Baby Vamp Jessica on True Blood, Deborah Ann Woll is in fine form here as Karen Page. Writers often fail to deliver tough and interesting female characters, crafting them as nothing more complex than men with boobs but mercifully things are a lot more nuanced here. After barely avoiding an attempt on her life and then watching several innocent people die, Karen finally snaps when she's abducted by Fisk's right-hand man Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore). Deborah does a fine job showing the emotional repercussions of her fateful decision, juggling wounded, evasive, chipper, and resolute with considerable aplomb.
It's my understanding that the character of Karen has come under fire for her single-minded drive to bring Fisk down at any cost. I'd counter this by pointing out that her gambit actually works where everything else failed. Yes, her actions trigger a veritable shit-storm of collateral damage but ultimately it's Fisk who's responsible for all of the mayhem. Just put yourself in her place; if someone wanted you dead and you had absolutely no way to defend yourself and your loved ones, you'd probably take some pretty desperate measures as well.
Vondie Curtis-Hall also deserves major props as old-school reporter Ben Urich. In another timely update, the once-respectable newspaper that he works for has been reduced to a fluffy shadow of its former self. Ben would like nothing more than to take Fisk down but he's been de-fanged by his spineless editors and cowed by threats of financial ruin while caring for his ailing wife. Throughout the entire season Curtis-Hall is an absolute pleasure to watch. His well-worn countenance is used to great effect, conveying a constant diet of unease coupled with renewed vigor after Karen spurs him into action.
A host of A-list talent rounds out a terrific supporting cast. Veteran character actor Bob Gunton is sufficiently bitchy and wise-assed as Fisk's nominal business partner Leland Owlsley. The impeccable Scott Glenn is maddeningly-cold and acerbic as the enigmatic Stick. Wai Ching Ho raises the bar on practiced deception as Madame Gao. Ayelet Zurer is just off-kilter enough to sell her unflappable devotion to Fisk. Rosario Awesome, er, Dawson is a source of comfort and perspective as Claire Temple. Finally Toby Leonard Moore is perfectly tuned as Fisk's unflappable major-domo Wesley.
Now I'm sure some people will bitch that the story just comes down to another mano-a-mano dust-up between the two opposing forces but I'd argue that the way in which this happens is downright brilliant. I love how the screenwriters had plenty of time to incorporate Matt's past failures into an over-arching learning curve. Up until the very last minute it looks as if Fisk is just as untouchable as ever, but Matt and his allies have learned from their past mistakes and the battle is truly joined. It makes for an incredibly tense and thrilling finale.
Seriously, Daredevil is something of a minor miracle. I have no idea what confluence of astrological alignment brought together this particular creative team with this, at best, C-tier Marvel superhero who just so happens to be one of my favorites. Words can't convey how relieved I am that such a relatively intimate, gritty, clarion, surgically-attuned story came out around the same time as the epic-scale puzzle piece that was Age of Ultron. It gives me hope that Marvel Studios can still wring a few more home runs out of the ol' Bullpen before the whole thing inevitably founders under its own weight.
Friday, July 24, 2015
Jurassic Park was one of the last major studio summer blockbusters to be made with the skill and sensibilities that characterize 70's and 80's-era film-making. Even though Spielberg had a bunch of fancy new digital toys to play with, it certainly didn't make him complacent. As a result, the movie is well-plotted, well-acted and features interesting character arcs and still-relevant thematic underpinnings.
When paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neil) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) receive an unexpected visit from eccentric one-percenter John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), their curiosity is understandably piqued. Acting like the cat that ate the canary, Hammond tempts them with an offer they can't refuse: if they sign off on his secretive new prehistoric theme park he'll finance their research for the next three years. Naturally they agree to help him.
En route to the park's remote island location we're introduced to rock star mathematician and chaos theory proponent Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Malcolm already seems suspicious about Hammond's plan and when they get to the island his skittishness is vindicated. When they arrive on Isla Nublar they discover that the billionaire has used DNA recovered from blood in the bellies of amber-preserved mosquitoes to resurrect real, live dinosaurs.
The park's minor glitches soon go from vaguely annoying to potentially deadly when greedy computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) disables the park's security systems during a botched heist. This strands Alan, Malcolm, insurance lawyer Donald Genarro (Martin Ferrero) and Hammond's two grand kids Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joeseph Mazzello) right by the T-Rex paddock. Soon all hell breaks loose and the human characters suddenly find themselves tumbling several steps down the food chain.
Unlike so many contemporary action movies which spoil so much in the trailers, Jurassic Park waits until your ass is firmly ensconced in that theater seat before trotting out the amusement park thrills. Indeed the script's philosophy appears to be "good things come to those who wait". Fortunately this isn't a chore since John Hammond's coy, child-like, "I-know-something-you-don't-know" attitude is ridiculously compelling. You wanna keep watching just to find out what the smarmy old codger is so excited about.
We also get some stellar protagonists to root for right out of the gate. Within a few economic moments of screen time we see that Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant is knowledgeable, passionate and hates children almost as much is Donald Trump hates Mexicans. Neill has a lot of fun with the role, throwing in some super-quirky moments which come off as inspired brilliance. I love his weak-in-the-knees reaction to his first dino-sighting, his intense, egg-sniffing soliloquy about the resilience of prehistoric reproduction and the scene in which he scares the fertilizer out of a disrespectful brat for liking velociraptors to giant chickens.
Eventually Spielberg hits us with a double-barreled blast of his trademark wonderment. When we see the first dinosaur at the twenty-minute mark, Sam Neill's reaction pretty much mirrors that of theater-goers back in 1993. The impact of this scene is further jacked up by a tantalizing crane shot that shows the character's stunned reactions, several low P.O.V.'s that Spielberg later exploited in the under-rated War of the Worlds and, of course, that rousing John Williams orchestral score.
Even moments of potentially-dry exposition are delivered with flair and originality. Granted original novelist Michael Crichton probably deserves as much credit for this as Spielberg does, but the park's animated orientation sequence is pure genius. Not only does this goofy little cartoon explain all the scientific mumbo-jumbo in an economic and entertaining way, it's also well in-step with the milieu. In a lesser film, like, oh, I dunno, a Star Wars prequel, Hammond would just stand there and yammer at the other characters in a ten-minute orgy of dialogue-delivered exposition.
After buying the film's main conceit wholesale we're then treated to one of the best scenes in cinema history. It's the sort of moment that modern blockbusters don't feel the need to include, always to their detriment. The characters meet over some haute cuisine and debate the ethics of Hammond's venture. Their host is both naïve and blasé about the whole thing, Alan and Ellie are dealing with unexpected feelings of extinction, and the lawyer is presumably touching himself underneath the table while thinking about all of that potentially- filthy lucre.
Meanwhile Jeff Goldblum calmly packs up the entire scene and walks off with it, delivering one of the best cinematic mic drops evar:
This one simple moment distinguishes Jurassic Park from most of the shitty, interchangeable noisemakers that sluice out of the Hollywood poop chute every summer. It also keeps the film as fresh and relevant as it was back in 1993. The ethical dilemma posed by the same science used to resurrect the dinosaurs could very easily substitute for various contemporary hot button issues like genetic engineering, GMO's and singularity-level artificial intelligence.
That's not to say that the film is just a bunch of eggheads sitting around debating ethics. Things quickly get very hairy at the ol' T-Rex paddock. Spielberg, master showman that he is, has already established this location about fifteen minutes ago when Grant and company first passed by it. As audience members back in 1993 we all smiled with bloodthirsty anticipation as Hammond tried to lure the T-Rex out with a feeder goat. And just like the characters in the movie we were all gravely disappointed when absolutely nothing happened.
But this is exactly what you'd expect at a regular ol' non-dinosaur-related wild game reserve. Sure, you've given the animals a huge enclosure but this makes it a lot harder for us to see them. Clearly Spielberg is telling us that these creatures aren't going to emerge from the woods and start tap-dancing for our amusement. And therein lies the rub. We paid to see some hot dino action, goddammit, and if we don't get it, those Trip Advisor reviews are gonna be carnivore-level vicious!
Spielberg then proceeds to trot out that old adage "be careful what you wish for." The torrential rain gets worse. After a flash of lightning the feeder goat suddenly vanishes. Intimations of impact tremors are first betrayed by a glass of rippling water. Soon the footfalls become palpable. A bloody goat leg flies out of the jungle and lands on top of the kid's tour car. And then everything goes completely and utterly bat-shit nuts.
Gary Rydstrom's sound design for all of the dinosaurs, particularly the T-Rex, is absolutely brilliant. After the beast heralds its approach with a DTS-optimized roar that sounds like a combination of a rabid elephant and reality rending asunder, we see a tentative limb test the fence for an electrical charge. The creature's subsequent attack on the tour vehicles is such a master class of action and suspense that viewers will find themselves perched on on the edge of their seat the entire time. Credit the actors as well for selling this elaborate smoke n' mirrors trick to a positively stunned audience.
Now admittedly Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler isn't half as interesting as Dern's actual performance. For example, Ellie likes kids because, hey, ALL GIRLS LIKE KIDS. Perhaps her best moment comes when the park first breaks down and they lose contact with the tour. She finds Hammond sulking alone in the cafeteria, gorging himself on the melting ice cream. During this poignant scene she manages to spur him into action all the while reconciling her own fears. I love that little throw-away moment when she absently samples the ice cream and then feels compelled to admit how good it tastes.
"I spared no expense," Hammond says, now resigned to the demise of his childhood dream.
This scene is particularly impactful because, through it all, Hammond has been relentlessly-optimistic, downright positive and impossibly genial. The fact that Richard Attenborough was cast as Santa Claus in the remake of Miracle On 34'th Street is no coincidence. He's just so earnest and wide-eyed that you actually find yourself hoping that this five-masted ship of hubris will right itself, even though it would be detrimental to your entertainment value.
Another choice scene involving Dern and Attenborough occurs much later when Ellie volunteers to manually reactivate the electrical grid.
John Hammond: It ought to be me really going.
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Why?
John Hammond: Well, I'm a...And you're, um, a...
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.
This exchange might sounds a tad anachronistic but coming from the grandfatherly Attenborough the comment almost sounds like misplaced chivalry. Twenty two years ago it gave Dern a chance to remind us all that limitations placed on women in action movies is downright idiotic. Back then she still had to fight for her cinematic rights, even after the trailblazing efforts of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley.
What I like most about Dern's performance is that it's relatable. Ellie is a paleobotanist, not Lara Croft so it's no surprise that she takes a tumble during her desperate dash for the generator. At one point, the persistently-cranky Samuel L. Jackson gives Spielberg a hand in an impish nod to Jaws. Sorry, but if that shit happened to me I'd be all like ' I don't care if I dropped that four-hundred dollar floodlight on the floor, I'll drag that bitch twenty miles before I stop runnin'.'
After the T-Rex attack, Alan is forced to guide Hammond's two precocious grand kids all the way back to the orientation center. Now under normal circumstances, I'd accuse Spielberg of deliberately pandering to kids if not for the fact that Tim and Lex also appear in Crichton's original novel. At least the kids are well cast, serve up some low-level comic relief and provide grist for Alan's character arc.
The kids are also at the heart of the film's best sequence, the velociraptor attack. You wouldn't think it possible that Spielberg and his team could possibly top the T-Rex scene from earlier but you'd be wrong. Michael Kahn's crackerjack editing gives the set-piece a frenetic pace rarely matched by contemporary blockbusters. And despite the low lighting and a zillion reflective surfaces, master cinematographer Dean Cundey gives the sequence crystal clarity as well as a cool, icy tone that mirrors the dead eyes of the raptors themselves.
And even though I realize how ridiculously improbable it is, that final shot inside the orientation center is pure money. I still get chills hearing the T-Rex proclaim his dominance over the world as the "When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth" banner flutters to the ground in front of him. It's the sort of moment that was clearly brainstormed on set and these little touches make Jurassic Park the stuff of pop culture legend.
Three years later Independence Day was released, presaging the end of intelligent blockbusters. Pretty soon it became de rigueur for summer tent pole action movie to blatantly embrace cliches, serve up laughably poor dialogue and / or wallow in rank stupidity. Every once and awhile a movie comes along that manages to incorporate style and substance but for the most part old-school sensibilities like character development, original plots and compelling themes are about as extinct as half of the cast of Jurassic Park.
Thankfully this venerable, twenty-two-year-old classic, forever preserved in digital amber, will always be around to remind us what a real summer action movie used to look like.