Saturday, May 9, 2015

Where Law Meets Reality: Daredevil

Charlie Cox and Rosario Dawson in Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix.

Matt: I can't see, not like everyone else, but I can feel. […] All of the fragments form a sort of…  impressionistic painting.
Claire: Okay, but what does that look like? Like, what do you... actually see?
Matt: A world on fire.
When Netflix launched Marvel's Daredevil last month, the series entered a crowded field. Superheroes are everywhere on television right now. Against the proliferating DC-televison universe (Gotham on Fox; Arrow and The Flash on The CW, with another Arrow spinoff, Legends of Tomorrow just announced today, and CBS's Supergirl currently in production), Marvel seems intent on conquering the small screen all on its own. Daredevil joins Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which will air its second season finale this Tuesday) and Marvel's Agent Carter, whose brief run (also on ABC) will be followed by a second season next year. Moreover, Daredevil marks the first of four projected Netflix/Marvel team-ups, the next one being A.K.A. Jessica Jones (starring Krysten Ritter and David Tennant), currently in production and set to air sometime later in 2015. At some point in the future, Daredevil and Jessica Jones will team up with the stars of the as-yet-unproduced shows Iron Fist and Luke Cage for a multi-cast miniseries, The Defenders. On paper, all of this sounds overwhelmingly ambitious, and for this viewer it is, maybe dizzyingly so – but if the first step of that journey of a thousand miles is Daredevil, Marvel might just pull it off.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Parting Glance of War: HBO’s Band of Brothers

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day, the official surrender of the German government that brought the Second World War to a close in Europe. Such a round number of decades, bursting rather rudely into the centennial memorial of the Great War, reminds us yet again of the inextricable links that bound the two conflicts together. In their causes, personalities, strategies, and consequences, the world wars were two shoes that dropped from the same nationalistic European corpus. And they landed on the globe with catastrophic impact. Walt Whitman famously said of the American Civil War that the real war would never make it into the books. That declaration would apply even more fittingly for World War II. Over 60 million human beings died in the conflict, one person every three seconds for six years. The proportions of the war’s scope, chaos, brutality, and moral stakes seem to exceed all categories of meaningful expression.

Still, dozens of movies have taken the war as their subject, many made right in the midst of the conflagration. HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers aired almost fourteen years ago now, and the decade and a half since has solidified its standing as one of the finest World War II films around. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced the show, deciding to adapt historian Steven E. Ambrose’s book of the same title after the critical and commercial success of their movie Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Ryan and Ambrose lay at the center of the nostalgic wave for the war that swept the nation in the Nineties, as the country reckoned with the rapid disappearance of the generation that served at home and abroad. Ambrose placed an emphasis on oral histories in his methodology, underscoring the experience of the common soldiers, sailors, and airmen in his writing. In Band of Brothers, he follows a small group of infantrymen, E Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, from their training at the war’s outset through their fighting in Europe until the war’s close.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

One Hundred Years On...: Erik Larson's Dead Wake and Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania

RMS Lusitania coming into port (1907-13).

It may never have attained the fame of the Titanic but the Lusitania, the massive British cruise ship sunk by a German U-boat one hundred years ago today, on May 7, 1915, still had the makings of a terrible, lasting tragedy. Two new books, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown) and Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age by Greg King and Penny Wilson (St. Martin’s Press), both delve into the sinking. But neither is a fully satisfying read.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

This Freberg You Will Not Change: Stan Freberg (1926-2015)

(Photo Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Stan Freberg, who died last month at the age of 88, was the first American show business figure I ever saw referred to as a “satirist,” by people who clearly meant to convey that his stuff was on a sharper, smarter level than the comedy of mere funnymen. When someone like Bob Hope did a sketch about Bonanza or Batman on one of his TV specials, the subject of the sketch didn’t really matter, and there was nothing that could be called a point of view: the dumb topical jokes about politicians and other celebrities could go just as well with any backdrop, and the targets of the spoofs were probably chosen on the basis of which funny costumes Hope and his guest stars preferred to wear.

Freberg’s musical parodies and takeoffs on TV and radio shows had precision: he would zero in on something about a performer that struck him as especially inane and go to town on it. And they had bite: unlike the comedians who want to make it clear that it’s all in good fun when they crack wise about one of their esteemed colleagues, Freberg, like some of the later performers who made their names on Saturday Night Live and other post-rock generation revues, was out to draw blood. He had the smart-adolescent’s deeply personal resentment of inanity and mediocrity, as if Johnny Ray  had made a million dollars singing like that just to piss him off. All in good fun, his ass; Freberg was out for revenge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fighting for Fun – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Note: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

During the climactic battle of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) tells his team, “If you’re hurt, hurt them back. If you’re killed… walk it off.” It’s a snarky quip that encapsulates the whole film: gone is the comic energy that glowed at the heart of The Avengers (2012), but that doesn’t stop director/geek deity Joss Whedon from doing his damnedest to keep the franchise limping along, and fighting to be fun through to its last overstuffed, brooding gasp. Whether or not it’s a fight that he and his ever-inflating cast actually win… is a matter of opinion.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Something Old, Something New: The King and I & Something Rotten!

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara in The King and I, at the Lincoln Center. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The first five or ten minutes of Bartlett Sher’s new production of The King and I are spectacular. The ship carrying Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her son Louis (Jake Lucas) to Siam, where she has been contracted to teach the royal children, glides across the stage of the Vivian Beaumont (at Lincoln Center), then makes a slow right-angled turn and moves toward the audience, shrouded in steam, while representatives of the court march down the aisles to meet it. The thirty-piece orchestra underneath the thrust renders the Richard Rodgers music with the robustness that can only be nostalgic for New York theatregoers who are middle-aged or older. And you feel blanketed by the sumptuousness of Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting. Seeing the show at a Wednesday matinee late in previews, I thought to myself, “Is it possible that Sher is going to make me care about The King and I the way he made me care about South Pacific?” (His South Pacific, which opened at the Beaumont in 2008, is the best production of a musical I’ve ever seen.)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Perils of Dinner in Olen Steinhauer’s All the Old Knives

The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria.

In fiction, film and drama, dinner often becomes a cauldron for seething tensions and revelations of buried secrets. In the espionage thrillers of Olen Steinhauer, the author doubles down the possibility for something horrific to occur. In The Cairo Affair (Minotaur Books, 2014), one of the most dramatic scenes occurs early in the novel when, during the course of a dinner in Budapest, a diplomat husband confronts his wife about an affair that she had during their previous posting in Cairo. She confesses her infidelity and is about to explain when a professional hitman kills her husband, a death that drives her back to Cairo and into the murky world of intelligence as she searches for answers about why and who is responsible for the death of her husband. In Steinhauer’s subsequent and most recent novel, All the Old Knives (Minotaur Books, 2015), again a dinner, this time between two ex-lovers, one currently still a CIA agent and the other a former operative, sets up the possibility that could have fatal consequences for one or both of them.