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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Supergirl: The Importance of Being Kara



Kara Danvers isn't meant to fetch coffee. She isn't meant to blend in. She isn't meant to be anything less than excellent. Because Kara Danvers was born Kara Zor-El on the planet Krypton, and our world has come to know her as Supergirl. Supergirl debuted last night on CBS as everything it was meant to be: the first network television show about a comic book female superhero since Lynda Carter wore Wonder Woman's satin tights nearly 40 years ago. More importantly, Supergirl inherited and proudly wore on her sleeve the legacy of her older cousin Superman, specifically the legacy of Superman's most revered and beloved popular incarnation: Richard Donner's Superman starring the late Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Supergirl did this while forging her own path through the skies, all while remaining charmingly and winningly Supergirl, thanks to the effervescent, character-defining performance of Melissa Benoist. She is Supergirl, now and forever.

In many ways, Supergirl is the fusion and fruition of the sum lessons in recent years executive producer Greg Berlanti has learned from his runaway hit superhero shows Arrow and The Flash. Berlanti and his Supergirl team, executive producers Ali Adler, Sarah Schechter, AJ Kreisberg, and Geoff Johns, with the biggest assist ever from David Rappaport Casting for finding the perfect Supergirl in Melissa Benoist to wear the red cape and coat of arms of the House of El, are blending a frothy super cocktail, mixing equal parts homage to Superman's classic tropes, their modern sensibilities of how to do a superhero show, and a healthy and welcome dose of girl power feminism. Supergirl isn't just for girls, Supergirl is a hero for everyone, but how timely and important is her presence as someone girls can look up to? In a pop culture usually reveling in dark, tormented anti-heroes (the Arrow is even one of them, though he's looking to lighten up after going Green), Supergirl is a shining beacon of optimism. She's a nice person and she's fun -- even moreso than The Flash -- and while the superhero life she chose will bring with it bleak, terrible moments and heartache, Supergirl promises to meet it all with a gee whiz sense of fun and adventure. And, most importantly, with the Hope the S on her chest represents.

What's more, Supergirl isn't alone. Her cousin may be off doing his own thing -- hey, it's a big world, even for flying cousins from Krypton -- but in tried and true Berlanti fashion, Supergirl is a superhero with an all-important support system. Her work life as Kara Danvers may put her in the crosshairs of her tough as nails boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), CatCo CEO and the second most powerful woman in National City, but she has Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer James (not "Jimmy") Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), sent by her cousin Clark Kent himself, to watch her back. Plus she has Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) for extra support, though Winn is already quickly learning that being in Supergirl's Friend Zone may be worse than being trapped in the Phantom Zone. James and Winn, two smart, good looking guys at work who are into her -- poor Kara? CatCo is the 21st century update of the Daily Planet from Superman: The Movie mixed with a winking dose of The Devil Wears Prada, but Supergirl captures the goofy rhythms and comedy of Christopher Reeve knowingly prat falling across the Daily Planet in ways the heavy handed Superman Returns largely missed. Plus if Kara ever wants to go home for advice from her adoptive Earth parents, she need only visit the Danvers played by former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain. The classic Krypton connections run deep on Supergirl, all wonderful nods to the past that Berlanti and his team, superfans themselves, embrace wholeheartedly.

Meanwhile, Supergirl introduced the DEO, the Departmartment of Extranormal Operations, an alien-fighting strike force headed by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) that counts Kara's adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) as an agent. The DEO is an interesting spin on the established backup squads Arrow and The Flash enjoy; unlike Team Arrow and the techies at STAR Labs, who are all ride or die loyal to their superheroes, the DEO isn't necessarily Team Supergirl. Alex Danvers may do anything to protect her Super sister, but the DEO intriguingly blames Kara for inadvertently bringing scores of alien criminals to Earth. The Camp Rozz concept not only brings with it an untold number of baddies for Kara to fight, but it cleverly and immediately gives her a mission and raison d'etre to indulge in superheroics. Kara will have to prove herself, not just to the world, but to the DEO. But the overarching lesson of all this support is one of the hallmarks of the Greg Berlanti superhero shows: no matter how super they are -- and it doesn't get more super than Supergirl -- they (nor we) can't do it alone. We need our family, we need our friends, we need loved ones to watch our backs, to pick us up when we're knocked down, to straighten us up when we're off our path. Just as Alex does to Kara when she doubts herself in the pilot episode. We are the sum total of who we have in our lives. We're super together.

To me, the most important and telling line of dialogue Kara utters is the reason why she confided who she really is to Winn on the CatCo roof: "I really want someone to be excited for me." This is who Kara is: she's extraordinary and she not only wants to be what and who she is, she wants an attagirl. And why not? She caught an airplane falling from the sky, she saved hundreds of lives. She did an unbelievably courageous and heroic thing. Why would she want to hide herself now? In Supergirl, we're about to watch Kara Zor-El become the hero she was always meant to be, not as a shadow or reflection of her famous cousin, but on her own merits. Kara is going into the family business of crimefighting and world-saving, and she really wants us to be excited for her. Her optimism is infectuous, Kara choosing to wear the S on her chest is a meaningful, life-affirming act on her part. It is an awesome thing, to embrace who you are, to take the steps to become everything you're meant to be. Supergirl is here for a reason, to be a new light to show us the way. We're so lucky to have her. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jem and the Holograms



Glamour and Glitter, Fashion and Fame

Jem and the Holograms is a surprisingly earnest attempt to tell a contemporary rags to riches story of a nobody who becomes a famous pop star, centering on themes of finding identity and authenticity in a music industry that prizes manufactured celebrity. "You're famous, not just Internet famous!" is excitedly announced to Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), a talented but introverted orphan, who reluctantly uploads a song on YouTube in the guise of her face-painted, pink-wigged persona "Jem." Her viral video "gets, like, a million hits" (and more likes and positive comments than hateful messages from trolls - hey, it's a movie!), which attracts the attention of a major LA record producer, played by Juliette Lewis. Accepting an offer for herself and her three "sisters," her actual younger sibling Kimber (Stefanie Scott), rebellious Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), and kleptomaniac Shana (Aurora Perrineau) to perform three concert dates in LA, Jerrica narrates her improbable 30 day rise to fame as Jem in the manner a modern teenager would, via a YouTube confessional video. When the four girls are whisked to LA by Lewis, they leave behind their aunt Molly Ringwald, thereby being passed from the care of one famous 1980's actress to another.

Fans of the Jem and the Holograms cartoon who are of a certain age will bemoan the movie's eschewing the cartoon's mythology for a modern setting and laser focus on speaking to the Tumblr-posting, Instagramming youth of today. Sorry, moms, this Jem is for them. Jem provides odes to the 1980s in Jem's KISS-inspired glam rock look and how her band performs with keytars and flying V guitars. The way the famous dialogue from the cartoon is worked into the screenplay is truly outrageous. However, the movie is maybe 10% comprised of YouTube and Instagram style videos of various fans of all ages, genders, and races confessing their love for Jem and how she inspired them intercut throughout. (Director Jon M. Chu drops in a couple of his famous friends to do gushing Jem tributes, including one that was particularly electrifying.) Jem also outright borrows the staccato drumbeat style of Birdman and Whiplash, as well as homaging the iconography of the biggest female-led teen franchise of the decade, The Hunger Games. Jerrica and her sisters' makeovers blatantly echo how Katniss was transformed into the Girl on Fire by Cinna and her pink dress during her second performance as Jem would make Caesar Flickerman positively gush all over the stage. Jem and the Holograms is a gumball machine hoping to provide a flavor that will please everyone.

"Okay, here's where it gets weird," Jerrica promises halfway through the movie, and she wasn't kidding. Beating Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the big screen, Jerrica happens to have her own version of R2-D2/BB-8, a cute little robot called 5N3RGY ("Synergy"). And yes, Jem does say "It's showtime, Synergy!" How could she not? In between rehearsals, performing shows, and learning how to be pop stars, Jerrica and her sisters launch themselves on a scavenger hunt across LA, following clues left behind by Jerrica and Kimber's dead father. Their father was a loving weirdo, a rock music-loving inventor who did a lot of bizarre forward-thinking, hiding key parts of Synergy around LA, expecting his daughter to find them, coincidentally right when she was having her greatest crisis of self. Her reward for repairing Synergy is a hologram just like Artoo showed Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, where her dead father provides Jerrica with the secret plans to the destroy the Death Star with a heartfelt ten minute speech about how special she is and how she was always his favorite -- with not a word about her younger sister, his other daughter! Not even a "tell your sister I said 'hey.'"

Meanwhile, becoming the famous pop star Jem isn't without its turmoil. Jerrica finds herself embroiled in a mother-son power struggle within their record studio between Lewis and Rio (Ryan Guzman), who becomes Jerrica's handler and of course sides firmly with his new hot young teen girl friends. Jerrica is pressured to sign on the dotted line as a solo star and send her sisters packing, or else they won't have the money to let Ringwald keep their home from being foreclosed. Once Jerrica signs her exclusive contract (she signs it "Jem," a plot point the movie doesn't follow up on) with Lewis, the screenplay launches into a bewildering third act full of bizarre circumstances and plot holes. Kimber, Aja, and Shana turn on Jem, accusing her of abandoning them and craving a solo career -- which isn't the case at all and could have been immediately settled with a simple conversation, but screenwriting 101 said the band must break up at the end of Act II to reunite in Act III, so. (The band's reunion happens outside Jerrica and Kimber's childhood home, where the family living inside must have been wondering what those five weirdos were doing outside on their porch.) There's also a strange heist subplot involving breaking into the Starlight Records building safe to steal back Jerrica's earrings that had Rio hijack his mother's car and hide Jerrica in the trunk, none of which was necessary when he's the number two person in the company and has access to go where ever he wants. When Lewis finds out, she puts the building on lockdown and demands they find Jem, never once looking in the Hollywood Hills mansion she provided Jerrica as her LA home base. And why was Lewis so intent on forcing Jerrica to be a solo act when Jem and her sisters as a band was clearly working?

Jem and the Holograms is a rock star story of "glamour, glitter, fashion, and fame" where there's no mention of drugs, no drinking, and the only restriction on Jerrica and her sisters, all of whom are minors, is a midnight curfew, which they freely break (and is already 3 hours later than the curfew Hugh Hefner imposes on his Playmates.) And yet, there are moments when Jem and the Holograms hits exactly the right notes, such as their first live performance when the electricity inexplicably cuts out in the venue and Jem energetically leads the audience into an acoustic number to close her set. (Each of her sets seem to consist of only one song.) Jem's music is decidedly pure "gets stuck in your head" modern pop in the Taylor Swift mode. But Jem's secret weapon is Aubrey Peeples herself, a bright, winning performer who endearingly conveys Jerrica's struggles against the artifice of her Jem persona, her "secret identity crisis." The message of Jem and the Holograms seems to be that the people who love Jem project themselves onto Jem, therefore, as Jem tells her fans, "You're all Jem." Which suits the current pop culture where all you need is a camera and an Internet connection to become your own superstar. But what of the Misfits, the evil version of Jem and the Holograms in the cartoon who try continually to destroy Jem? They're in there too, in a post-credits coda surprise setting up a sequel the filmmakers clearly hope for -- if Jem and the Holograms can make enough ca$h.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Beasts of No Nation



"When this war is over, I am thinking I cannot go back to doing childish things."

In America, children play Call of Duty on their PlayStations. In the unnamed West African country setting of Cary Joji Fukunaga's urgent and astonishing Beasts of No Nation, children who should be playing together and enjoying their childhood are conscripted to fight a real war. Beasts of No Nation is the story of one such child, Agu (Abraham Attah), who grew up in a "buffer zone" surrounded by the fighting of his country's civil war, until government troops roll into his village and slaughter his father, grandfather and brother. Separated from his mother and baby siblings, perhaps forever, Agu is forced to flee into the bush until he's "saved" by the NDF, a ragtag battalion of young rebel soldiers lead by their Commandant (Idris Elba, the only professional actor in the picture). With the NDF, Agu is indoctrinated into a horrible world of war; he learns how to kill with his bare hands, participates in the wonton slaughter of his people, and struggles to survive and gain acceptance among the other children fighting this brutal war. All of this shatters his innocence in tragic, heartbreaking ways, as we learn through his touching conversations with God via Agu's voice over narration.

Beasts of No Nation can be seen as a grim sort of Peter Pan story, with Elba's Commandant as a grown up Pan and the Lost Boys his battalion. "I am their father and they are my family," Elba declares to his Supreme Commander, and we see Elba is the end result of a lifetime of fighting a rebellious war, his own innocence and even his belief in his cause lost long ago. Elba entertains his young, devoted, fanatical soldiers with ganji, stories of women they will bed and how they will share in their country's "resources" when they win the war, but the darkest side of his nature is seen when he takes special interest in Agu, inviting him into his bed as he has his other favorite boy, a mute named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye). "Everyone betrays you in the end," the increasingly desperate Elba warns Agu, after he has committed himself and his battalion into mutiny against the NDF. By the time the exhausted and disillusioned battalion abandons Elba and surrenders to UN forces, Agu has seen and participated in countless horrors and suffers from untreated PTSD. In spite of the harrowing and appalling ordeals Agu endures, Fukunaga, who incredibly wrote, directed and shot Beasts of No Nation in Kenya, ends on a hopeful note. Beasts of No Nations opens with the sounds of happy children playing and by its end, that sound never seemed so sweet and earned.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Paper Towns



"Everyone gets a miracle," Quentin (Nat Wolff), the young hero of Paper Towns muses. In his case, his miracle was getting far the hell away from Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). Adapted from John Green's young adult novel, but less successfully than last year's moneymaking tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns follows the earnest romantic feelings Quentin has towards Margo Roth Spiegelman, or MRS, as she likes to sign things. They became next door neighbors when they were very young, and Quentin has loved her ever since, even after they grew apart as teenagers. He is a good, unadventurous student on track to becoming a doctor, a life plan which Margo Roth Spiegelman scoffed at to his face, calling it the "saddest thing [she's] ever heard." She grew into her high school's fabled, most desirable wild child, the stuff of legend and endless gossip. But she is awful.

After years of ignoring him, Margo Roth Spiegelman climbs through Quentin's bedroom window out of the blue and enlists his aid in a night of breaking and entering and vandalism, mainly because she "needs a getaway driver." She's out for revenge against her ex-boyfriend and other friends who wronged her. "We rain fire on our enemies," she proudly declares. Quentin, dazzled by her sudden attention, doesn't register that she is a sociopath. Together, they spend a long Orlando night commiting a few outright criminal acts, of which there are absolutely zero consequences. Quentin believes they've bonded again at long last. What else could it mean that they touched paint-stained index fingers like E.T. and Eliott? The next day, she ups and disappears. What happened to her? Who cares. Good riddance.

It is when Margo Roth Spiegelman vanishes that Paper Towns actually gets interesting. Quentin, however, believes himself in love and charged with a secret mission by Margo Roth Spiegelman to come and find her. Turning to a junior detective, Quentin enlists his two teenage chums, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), to decipher the "clues" Margo Roth Spiegelman has left behind. The friendship between the three bros, all nerds, two of whom looking forward to senior prom and possessing healthy teenage desires towards the girls at their school who aren't criminals, is believable and realistic. They even befriend Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo Roth Spiegelman's best friend and a genuinely nice person, who doesn't understand the scorn Margo Roth Spiegelman had for her before vanishing.

When Quentin figures out the secret meaning behind what "Paper Towns" are, the group of friends, along with Radar's girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), decide to road trip to upstate New York to find Margo Roth Spiegelman. It's a fool's errand, which everyone except Quentin comes to understand after arriving at their destination with no Margo Roth Spiegelman to be found. Which is for the best, as they make returning to Orlando for the senior prom their correct priority. All except Quentin, who stays behind in the paper town to finally reunite with Margo Roth Spiegelman and come to the realization that she's the Paper Town. To its credit, Paper Towns does have its head on straight that Margo Roth Spiegelman is no dream girl, and Quentin's intended life path sans who he thought was the love of his life is the correct one after all. So all's well that ends well for Quentin. As for the dangerous, unstable Margo Roth Spiegelman, she's on her proper path: a one way trip to Belle Reve Prison and a date with the Suicide Squad.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Martian



The Martian is as unusual an anomaly as a human being surviving alone on Mars for over a year: a major Hollywood blockbuster where there are no obvious villains, no turns or betrayals, and where every character is an stalwart example of the best and brightest a person can be, all working together to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem. The best and brightest of all is Matt Damon, in maximum movie star mode as astronaut Mark Watney, a heroic botanist accidentally left behind and thought dead when his team is forced to abort their 31 day Mars mission. His forlorn crew mates, including Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, and their commander Jessica Chastain, mourn his loss, and the Director of NASA, Jeff Daniels, announces to the world that Mark Watney died on Mars. Except Watney is very much alive, and must find a way to continue to survive alone on a hostile alien world with the supplies he has on hand until he can contact NASA and be rescued. The next mission to Mars is scheduled in four years. What can he do? How can he stay alive? Watney's answer to all his problems: "science the shit out of it."

Problem: Food. Watney realizes he has enough food intended orginally for six people but even with rationing, he'll run out long before rescue comes. Solution: become the first and greatest farmer Mars has ever seen, using the crew's discarded feces and Martian dirt to grow crops of potatoes. Problem: Water.  Solution: Luckily, Watney knows the formula to make water and only manages to blow himself up once in the process. Problem: communicating with NASA. Solution: Watney, takes his land rover out on a dangerous excursion and finds the Pathfinder probe that arrived on Mars long before he did. Its radio linkup to NASA still works. Voila! Conversation and email are now possible. Watney's efforts to survive are simply ingenious. But even if nothing else goes wrong -- and lots of things go terribly wrong -- Watney is still months, if not years, away from rescue. 

On Earth, a team of dedicated minds at NASA, including Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, put their giant brains and resources to work to bring Watney home. The Martian gives us a rosy and inviting view of NASA, where despite politics and internal squabbling, plans are made to rescue the first man ever to survive on Mars alone. When NASA's efforts to save time and cut corners end in mission failure, The Martian offers an extraordinary solution, giving us a glimpse of what can happen if the Chinese space program and NASA are able to work together. "This is not about politics, strictly cooperation between space agencies," the Chinese announce, extraordinarily. Like Apollo 13, which The Martian is a spiritual successor of, space and all that can go wrong in space, is the villain and the problem, and the welcome message is human beings, working together, can overcome anything.

Directed by Sir Ridley Scott, who delivers his tightest and most crowd-pleasing film in a decade,  The Martian is a prime example of how to adapt a bestselling novel. Screenwriter Drew Goddard retained most of the ingenious and humorous plot and character beats of the novel, often verbatim, while Sir Ridley uses the power of cinema to deliver rousing emotional moments. The third act attempt to rescue Watney is pure hero stuff, as his crew mates, who turned their Hermes space ship around back to Mars, put their own lives on the line to fetch their friend.  A malnourished and emaciated Watney, strapped to a stripped down tin can missing a roof and rocketed through the Martian atmosphere to literally be caught by his friends doing "a flyby," is a white knuckle, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Like Guardians of the Galaxy a year ago, The Martian embraces (with a lot of complaints from Watney) pop hits from the 1970s, which has now become Hollywood's go-to soundtrack for deep space adventure. One hopes The Martian reignites public interest in NASA and space exploration. The Martian shines a brilliant light on what can be achieved by intelligent people from all walks of life working united towards a common goal. It's simply a joy to watch a movie called The Martian and come out of it feeling really good about humanity.