Thursday, April 24, 2014

Culture Shock 04.24.14: The king is dead, and I feel fine

He's dead, Jim.
I hope you're up to speed on "Game of Thrones." Spoilers are coming.

While the TV series deviates from the novels in many respects, HBO's "Game of Thrones" doesn't shy away from the one thing for which author George R.R. Martin has become best known: killing off your favorite characters in the most shocking, gruesome and heartbreaking ways possible.

It can be devastating. And since most "Game of Thrones" viewers evidently haven't read the books, Twitter explodes every time a major character dies. (Twitter is so much better than a water cooler.)

First it was poor Ned Stark. We'd been led to believe he was the star of the show, then boom. At the end of season 1, his head's on a pike.

We should have suspected as much. Dying is what Sean Bean's characters do best.

Then came the "Red Wedding." You can Google it. Some viewers are still in therapy for that one.

So, occasionally, as if in some half-hearted attempt to make it up to us, Martin kills off someone we  want to see dead. Two episodes into season 4, the TV show caught up to the most satisfying "Game of Thrones" death of them all.

Here lies Joffrey Baratheon, the most hated character on television. Indeed, possibly the most hated character in all of fiction. Hated by readers. Hated by viewers. Hated by small, inoffensive woodland creatures. And hated, most of all, by his fellow "Game of Thrones" characters, one of whom decided to do him in.

King Joffrey died as he lived, as a royal pain to all around him. He played second fiddle to no one. He may have been stupid, arrogant, petty, murderous, selfish, ignorant and, above all, a whiner, but no one came close to stoking the white hot burning hatred he did. He generated enough seething hatred to keep winter at bay.

And now he's gone — poisoned at his own royal wedding. He choked, he gagged, he turned an amusing shade of purple and then he died, crying in his mother's arms like the pathetic little loser brat he always was. The Red Wedding was tragic, but the "Purple Wedding," as fans call it, was a party.

Did I remember to mention Joffrey's mother is also his aunt, making him the slow-witted, inbred spawn of an incestuous relationship between sister and brother? I don't know how that could have slipped my mind.

Joffrey's mother/aunt Cersei (Lena Headey) is the only character who didn't hate Joffrey, and her lack of hatred is why everyone hates her. She knew full well the sort of monster she was raising. It brings to mind the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who said, "I am nursing a viper in Rome's bosom."

That viper was the mad Emperor Caligula, who, coincidentally, had a fondness for incest.

The only problem with Joffrey's death is it didn't take long enough. I think most of us would have happily watched an entire hour of Joffrey retching his liquefied guts out while crying for Mommy.

Joffrey's demise is probably the most satisfying screen death since Anne Archer unloaded a handgun into Glenn Close.

Yes, Martin deserves credit for creating such a despicable character in the first place, for dredging up such a hateful beast from the dark recesses of his sick, twisted mind. But most of the credit goes to Jack Gleeson, who brought the towheaded twerp to life — and death.

If anyone in the "Game of Thrones" cast deserves an Emmy, it's Gleeson, who had the thankless task of giving us someone to hate, and he excelled beyond all our hopes. In a show full of characters deserving of painful, lingering deaths, he outdid them all.

And Gleeson did it without much of a character to work with, really. Other screen villains at least get to be witty or smart. Not Joffrey. He was pure awfulness, with no redeeming or even faintly humanizing qualities. He was nothing but id.

In terms of the story, King Joffrey's death means little. Westeros is still a brutal land besieged by bloodthirsty tyrants and soft-hearted fools. But for a brief moment, it brought America together.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Culture Shock 04.17.14: 'Oculus' is a clever chiller that exceeds expectations

Any movie starring Karen Gillan ("Doctor Who”) and Katee Sackhoff ("Battlestar Galactica”) seems bound to raise some unrealistic expectations.

But surprisingly, director/screenwriter Mike Flanagan's "Oculus” meets expectations and more.

"Oculus” is a creepy, clever horror film that challenges both its cast and the audience to keep up.

The story unfolds half in flashback. We learn that 11 years ago, Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane, "CSI: Miami”) tortured and murdered his wife Marie (Sackhoff). He then tried to kill the couple's two children, 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan).

But Tim managed to grab his father's gun and kill him first. That's the official story, anyway.

Ever since, Tim has been in a psychiatric hospital, where the doctors have helped him come to terms with what he had to do.

In the present day, the now 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites of the upcoming "Maleficent”) is ready to leave the hospital and start living his life, as near normal as he can. But his older sister (Gillan) expects him to help take care of unfinished business first.

That unfinished business involves an antique mirror their father kept in his home office – a mirror Kaylie believes is possessed by an evil that drove both of their parents mad. But that's exactly the ghost story Tim's doctors convinced him was a delusion, a fantasy concocted by a frightened boy to avoid the reality of his having killed his father.

"They really did a number on your head,” Kaylie tells Tim when she learns he no longer believes in the magic mirror, the ghosts inside it, or that it possessed their father and turned him into a deranged killer.

As far as Tim is concerned, that's crazy talk. What's more likely, he asks, that a couple of scared kids made up a story or that a mirror is haunted? He has a point. Then he repeats the psychological explanation his doctors gave him, how memories aren't like recordings. Instead, they're as much invention as reality. Another good point, and one to keep and mind, if you can.

For Kaylie, who bounced between foster homes and endured the taunts of classmates, the mirror is an obsession. It's implied she took a job in an auction house just so she could track down the mirror, which was sold off following her parents' deaths. Now the mirror is in Kaylie's possession at last, and she has just a few days before it goes off to its next unlucky owner.

That's a few days to prove the mirror is evil and her father wasn't a murderer but a victim.

Some of the film's most harrowing moments come during the flashbacks, and Sackhoff delivers most of them. The mirror plays with Marie's head almost from the start, toying with her insecurities even as one of the spirits inside it (Kate Siegel) seduces her husband.

Gillan is equally good as the confident and determined older Kaylie, whose ingenious plan to make the mirror reveal itself may be just a bit too ingenious for her and Tim's own good.

Basso and Ryan, as the young Kaylie and Tim, are a pleasant surprise. In a genre where children usually run the gamut from grating to insufferable, they deliver emotional performances that elicit our sympathy rather than our annoyance.

While "Oculus” shouldn't be confused with Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset recently acquired by Facebook, it does much the same thing. It makes the unreal seem real. Where "Oculus” excels is in making us almost as disoriented as the characters onscreen.

Flanagan's Escher painting of a narrative jumps between past and present, illusion and (maybe) reality. If you come away thinking the story has resolved into a neat conclusion, think again.

Is the mirror even haunted, or is it all a delusion? And if it is a delusion, whose delusion is it?

Even the final scene should keep you guessing. We see through the movie darkly.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Culture Shock 04.10.14: 'Captain America' pits patriotism vs. the government

Since he defrosted 50 years ago in "The Avengers" Vol. 1, No. 4, Captain America has been at odds with his government almost as often as he's been on its payroll.

The world of Vietnam and Watergate into which Steve Rogers awoke is nowhere near as black and white as the world of Hitler and Tojo he left behind. In a 1974 "Captain America" storyline, Rogers becomes so disillusioned he abandons his Captain America alter ego, taking on a new costume and a new name: Nomad. He becomes a patriot without a country.

His Nomad persona was short-lived, but not so the idea behind it. Ever since, Captain America, the iconic symbol of freedom and patriotism, has drawn a bright line between serving America's ideals and serving its government. That's the Captain America we get in the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." And it's one of the franchise's best.

Picking up where "The Avengers" left off, Captain America (Chris Evans) is still working for the global spy agency SHIELD and still catching up on everything he missed since going into deep freeze in 1945. (He still hasn't crossed "Star Wars" off his to-do list.)

Cap's latest mission teams him with an elite SHIELD strike force and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow to rescue a ship hijacked by pirates. From the start things aren't all they seem. The ship isn't just any ship. It's crewed by SHIELD personnel on a classified mission, and Rogers is already getting tired of cleaning up SHIELD's little accidents.

Back at headquarters, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides it's time to bring Cap in on the big secret. SHIELD is about to launch Project Insight. Three specially designed SHIELD helicarriers will stay airborne at all times, identifying and eliminating threats before they happen.

Project Insight is preemptive war meets the National Security Agency, and Rogers is far from convinced. "This isn't freedom," he says in a trailer-worthy summation. "This is fear."

Like the underrated "Iron Man 3," this is a superhero movie with more going on than the surface pyrotechnics. This is the comic book equivalent of a post-Watergate thriller. It's no coincidence that Fury's immediate superior in the SHIELD hierarchy is played by Robert Redford ("Three Days of the Condor," "All the President's Men"). Redford brings more than gravitas; he brings a direct link to 1970s paranoia. But like they say, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?

When an attempt is made on Fury's life, all signs point to an inside job. SHIELD has been compromised, and Cap isn't sure he can trust anyone. Even the Black Widow, who helped Cap save the world during the Battle of New York, isn't above suspicion.

The only person to whom Cap can turn is a fellow Army vet, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and even Sam has a secret, although one that's not a secret to readers of the "Captain America" comic.

All the while, threats from Cap's past keep cropping up, from Hydra, the formerly Nazi-backed super-science cult, to mad scientist Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) to the mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

While that may seem like too much for one movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo skillfully juggle all the balls screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely throw at them. And they still find time to stage some of the best action sequences in any of the Marvel films to date.

In her third supporting outing as the Black Widow, Johansson proves it's past time the Widow got her own movie. And Mackie is instantly likable in his sidekick role. But it's Evans who must and does carry the film, giving Cap a humanity other iconic characters often lack. (I'm thinking of Henry Cavill's Superman in "Man of Steel," who always seems to be faking it.)

By the time "The Winter Soldier" reaches its climax, Captain America stands ready to reveal everyone's dirty secrets. He has become Marvel's Edward Snowden, which is only appropriate, given Snowden has become the real world's Nomad.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Culture Shock 04.03.14: 'Ms. 45' gives audience a lot to think about

Thana is a seamstress working in New York's garment district. Every day after work, she and her co-workers run a gauntlet.

Judging by director Abel Ferrara's 1981 film "Ms. 45," men in New York City have little to do but stand on street corners and hurl lewd comments at every woman who walks by. Thana's friends, being New Yorkers, give as good as they get. But Thana (Zoƫ Lund) is mute. All she can do is passively absorb each unwelcome come-on.

Then Ferrara cuts to Thana shopping in a supermarket. She's in the meat department, of course. She has moved from one kind of meat market to another.

It's easy to read one's sexual politics into "Ms. 45." Ferrara, who also directed the even more controversial "Bad Lieutenant" with Harvey Keitel, and Nicholas St. John, Ferrara's go-to screenwriter, give us a lot to work with. But at its core, "Ms. 45" is simpler than that.

"Ms. 45" is what can happen when the voiceless fight back.

Long out of print, "Ms. 45" returns looking better than ever. Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theater, has restored and released "Ms. 45" on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon's video on demand. And early-'80s New York's grime and seediness have seldom been reproduced in such clarity and detail.

"Ms. 45" deserves no less. While overshadowed by "Bad Lieutenant," "Ms. 45" is Ferrara's masterpiece, anchored by Lund's affecting performance. The multi-talented Lund, who died in 1999, wrote the screenplay for "Bad Lieutenant," but in "Ms. 45," she is Ferrara's muse.

Ferrara wastes no time taking Thana's situation from bad to worse. On one of her walks home, a man in a clown mask (Ferrara) pulls Thana into an alley and sexually assaults her. Afterward, she walks home, dazed, only to walk in on a burglar, who then assaults her a second time.

The double attacks recall the most infamous of rape/revenge films: 1978's "I Spit on Your Grave," which wore its feminist revenge fantasy ambitions on its sleeve when originally released under the title "Day of the Woman."

"Ms. 45" is a direct descendant of "I Spit on Your Grave" and 1972's "The Last House on the Left," although it's more stylish and less lurid then either of those polarizing exploitation flicks.

When Thana turns the tables and kills her second attacker, the symbolism is ripe. First she sends him reeling with a blow from a glass apple paperweight, then she finishes him off with an iron. The overworked symbols of woman's deception and domesticity get their revenge.

And so does Thana.

When she kills a pimp, she strikes a blow for women everywhere. And when she kills an Arab oil sheik looking for a good time, it's almost was if she were standing up for all America. This is just a few years after the Arab oil embargo, after all.

In the film's most memorable scene, Ferrara stages a standoff that could have come out of a Sergio Leone Western. She lures a half dozen would-be attackers into an alley and guns them down with the kind of cold-blooded precision that would impress Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name.

As perversely playful as the scene is, though, it's also a sign Thana has crossed the line. From here, her vigilante justice descends into indiscriminate violence. No man is innocent, and no man is safe. The heroine's dark turn is what sets "Ms. 45" apart from the rape/revenge films that came before it. You might not agree with Camille Keaton's bloody rampage in "I Spit on Your Grave," but you at least know her victims have it coming.

By the time Thana dons her Halloween party costume — a nun's habit — she has become an angel of death. Unable to speak, unable to make others listen, Thana's story comes down to this.

Deprived of her voice for so long, Thana finds it again only at the very end. And in the end, all she can do is scream.