Thursday, August 28, 2014

Culture Shock 08.28.14: Something borrowed, something 'Who'

Peter Capaldi, left, is the Doctor and Jenna Coleman is Clara in the 2014
season of the BBC's "Doctor Who," airing on BBC America.
"Don't look in that mirror," the Doctor barks while still in the throes of post-regeneration delirium. "It's absolutely furious!"

The only constant in the universe is change, and "Doctor Who" (Saturday nights, BBC America) has seen plenty of that in its 50-plus years. This time, it's a biggie. Matt Smith's manic, absentminded professor is gone, but not forgotten. In his place is a more mature and cantankerous Time Lord portrayed with gusto by 56-year-old Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.

If Capaldi's visage is anything, it's furious. Showrunner Steven Moffat, now in his fourth year at the helm, turns that into an asset. Even Capaldi's eyebrows, which "Doctor Who" fans glimpsed to near universal delight in last year's 50th anniversary special, are potentially lethal weapons.

"They're attack eyebrows," the Doctor says after studying his new face. "You could take bottle tops off with these!"

One thing we know about the new Doctor: He has a gift for dialogue. His one-liners can kill.

The Doctor is always dangerous, but he usually plays the fool, lulling unwary opponents into a false sense of security. "My dear, no one could be as stupid as he seems," a villain once said of Tom Baker's Doctor, the iconic one with the endearingly ridiculous scarf. But Capaldi's Doctor seems ready to dispense with the pretense, and the scarf.

"I've moved on from that," he says. "It'd look stupid."

He's dangerous, and you should bloody well be terrified, especially if you're an old foe such as the Daleks or the Cybermen or, as in the season opener, "rubbish robots from the dawn of time."

But no one is more frightened than the Doctor's current traveling companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), who is finally coming into her own as a character, even as the Doctor undergoes his most jarring regeneration since the show's classic era. Going from personable to prickly isn't an easy transition, as poor Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) learned. Although, in all fairness, poor scripts and tacky production during Six's tenure were the far bigger issues.

If anyone can make such a character compelling, it's Capaldi, whose Doctor has already displayed little flourishes reminiscent of Capaldi's wickedly brilliant Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed political enforcer of "In the Loop" and "The Thick of It," only without the swearing.

The combination is something like another TV doctor: Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. In a preview for Capaldi's second episode, the Doctor even finds himself playing doctor to "a Dalek so damaged it's turned good. Morality as malfunction. How do I resist?"

But back to Capaldi's first outing, "Deep Breath." Moffat slows the pace and allows the story and characters to — forgive the pun — breathe. "Deep Breath" is a character study, a meditation on the nature of identity. That's a deep subject for a character who's had a dozen of them.

"Deep Breath" is structured around an ancient Greek thought experiment. Say your name is Theseus, and say you have a ship. Over time, the ship's planks become worn, and you replace them one by one until one day, finally, you've replaced them all. Is it the same ship you started with? Now say you saved all the worn planks and reassembled them. Now you have two ships. So, which is the true ship of Theseus?

The Greeks came up with many possible answers, and so does "Deep Breath." The Doctor's cyborg foes have rebuilt themselves so many times there's nothing of the originals left. For Clara, the question is whether the new Doctor is still the man she knew.

To ease the transition, Moffat brings back the Doctor's Victorian gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. The Doctor changes, but some things remain the same.

And sometimes one of those old, worn planks washes up ready to set sail again. An older, more temperamental Doctor gallivanting around time and space in a blue box with a schoolteacher who feels out of her depth? That seems familiar.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Culture Shock 08.21.14: Aronofsky's 'Noah' sails Bible's subtext

If he'd stuck to the text, Darren Aronofsky might have gotten a 30-minute short subject out of Noah's ark. So, like other filmmakers, from Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson, he embellished.

If nothing else, it's a daring experiment, and after months to mull it over, I'm still undecided as to whether Aronofsky's "Noah" — now on Blu-ray and DVD — is a success or merely an ambitious failure.

Perhaps the fact I'm still thinking about it answers the question.

Aronofsky takes the story of Noah and uses it to hammer away at a subtext that runs throughout the book of Genesis: Cities are bad news.

From the start, cities in the Bible are a source of evil and violence. The first city, we're told, was built by the first murderer, Cain. Cain also is a "tiller of the earth," and we know from archeology that the agricultural revolution of the Late Stone Age made possible the rise of cities, displacing nomadic shepherds such as Cain's victim, Abel.

A few generations later, the lineage of Cain produces his namesake, Tubal-Cain. The first man credited with forging tools of bronze, Tubal-Cain makes possible the first great armies, based in fortified city-states and armed with bronze weapons. With the Bronze Age comes the first arms race.

Later still, Abraham would leave the city-state Ur and become a wilderness nomad, returning to the old ways, yet always running into trouble whenever he comes upon a city, whether in Egypt or the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah.

Adam and Eve's fall may have brought sin into the world, but it's Cain's sin, the first murder, that drives "Noah." We meet the teenage Noah just before he witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of the aforementioned Tubal-Cain. This is one of Aronofsky's embellishments — using figures who appear in the Bible solely for the purpose of genealogy — but it allows him to kick off the story with what amounts to a reenactment of Cain killing Abel. Noah is descended from Cain's other brother, Seth, so the tale retains the brother-against-brother conflict.

Noah (Russell Crowe) is portrayed as a shepherd, like Abel before him. He, his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons, including rebellious middle son Ham (Logan Lerman), live among the windswept hills, far from the temptations of the city, where a battle-scarred Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) rules and all life is cheap.

By "all life" I mean all animal life — people and critters. It's here that Aronofsky is most likely to rub his audience the wrong way. Noah is a devout vegetarian, which kind of makes sense if you think about who you want to captain a boat full of the last breeding pairs on Earth. Tubal-Cain and the other children of Cain, however, obsess over eating meat, which they say keeps them strong and ready for battle. Again, this is Aronofsky compressing all of Genesis into Noah's story: The world before the Fall, the world Noah still represents, was a world without death. But Aronofsky isn't subtle about it.

As for the sin that leads the Creator — the only name "Noah" uses for God — to flood the world and start over, here Aronofsky and the Bible agree, as the only sin Genesis specifically mentions to explain the flood is violence.

"Noah" starts strong, aided by Aronofsky's often quirky choices. Anthony Hopkins hams it up as Methuselah, played as an ancient wizard, and Noah gets help building the ark from rock-encrusted angels who vaguely resemble the golems of medieval Jewish folklore. "Noah" is the Bible as Hollywood fantasy film. But once the rain starts, the movie stops, and we spend what feels like 40 days and nights watching Noah's mental collapse. Savior is too big a job for a mere human.

Noah and Tubal-Cain are both zealots, and Tubal-Cain can twist scripture as well as anyone. As Shakespeare said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."

Aronofsky is neither devil nor angel. He's just a man who made a movie that will make you think. That is its own justification — and just maybe its own reward.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Culture Shock 08.07.14: 'Guardians' builds a world but doesn't do much with it

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is a fun if frivolous ride, but unless you're steeped in Marvel Comics lore, it doesn't leave much to ponder after the lights come up. After the more character-driven stories of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Iron Man 3" and Fox's "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "Guardians" seems like a step backward.

If nothing else, it shows Marvel Studios was wise to build up to "The Avengers" rather than to throw the entire team at us at once.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" tosses us into the deep end without a life preserver. It quickly assembles its quintet of mismatched heroes and launches them on a mission that involves run-ins with some of Marvel's most out-there characters. In a way, "Guardians" feels a lot like "Iron Man 2." It's tasked with building the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's too busy with that to tell much of a story. At least with "Iron Man 2," "Iron Man" had already laid a foundation.

In "Guardians" we get just hints of each character's back story, but everyone's back story sounds more interesting than the story we're watching.

"Iron Man 2" also had the virtuoso performances of Robert Downey Jr. and Sam Rockwell to fall back on. The standout performances of "Guardians of the Galaxy" belong to a raccoon and a tree.

The CGI duo of Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) steal the show, along with the occasional piece of alien technology. Rocket is a genetically engineered raccoon, which makes him an ill-tempered freak even in a galaxy full of ill-tempered freaks. Groot is a walking, talking plant whose utterances all translate into English as "I am Groot," which is sure to be the catchphrase of the year. Together, Rocket and Groot are a Han Solo/Chewbacca double act.

There's more than a little "Star Wars" in the movie's DNA, but "Guardians" mostly takes after its grandparents, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Our window into Marvel's larger universe is Star-Lord. But everyone calls him Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of "Parks & Recreation" making a surprisingly successful transition to action hero). Peter is an Earthling who grew up in space. Abducted by aliens when he was still a child, Peter has the pop-culture sensibilities of the 1980s. And thanks to a mix tape his mom gave him before she died, he has the musical sensibilities of the 1970s. Like Buck, he's out of time. Like Flash, he's out of place.

Quill eventually forms an uneasy alliance with Rocket, Groot and two revenge-minded killers, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista). Their task is to keep a mysterious and powerful orb from falling into the hands of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Not for the first time, a Marvel film is let down by its villain. Ronan is a one-note genocidal maniac, and we're clearly just marking time until the power behind him (Thanos, played by an uncredited Josh Brolin) makes his move — probably in "The Avengers 3."

Somehow, Ronan the Accuser manages to be even more boring than Malekith the Accursed was in "Thor: The Dark World." I know Marvel is raking in the money anyway, but if I may offer some free advice: Stay away from villains with names like Someone the Somethinger.

If "Guardians" skimps on the story and character development, it at least succeeds in opening up the Marvel Universe for future adventures, and director James Gunn, who got his start in Lloyd Kaufman's infamous Troma film studio, is a good tour guide. "Guardians" zips along at a breezy pace, introducing us along the way to major Marvel players such as the Nova Corps, the Kree, the Celestials and, most memorably, the Collector (Benicio Del Toro).

The Guardians' journey to meet the Collector is breathtaking — a voyage that looks like we've fallen into an issue of Omni magazine. This is quite a world Gunn and Marvel have built.

The good news is Gunn is already signed to write and direct the sequel. So, having built this world, he can show us what he can do with it. But for now, I'm still waiting to see.