Trash TV Guru — “Gotham” Episode 1, “Pilot”


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Okay, fair enough, I’m kinda late to the party here since Arleigh has already chimed in with his thoughts on the rather unimaginatively-titled first episode of Fox’s new Gotham TV series, Pilot, but as  the closest thing to a “Bat-fanatic” here at TTSL, I thought I’d go ahead and offer a second opinion — even if it’s not terribly different from the first one you fine folks have read here.

Let’s start by stating the obvious — between Year OneEarth OneZero Year, and Batman Begins, the origins of the Dark Knight detective have been done to death on the printed page and the silver screen over the last couple of decades, so only the venue is really “new” here, the basic outlines of the story this show is going to present are already well-known — aren’t they?

Well, yes and no. We all know how the series “ends,” whenever that happens to be — Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl and becomes Batman. Similarly, we all know how the story begins — wealthy socialites Thomas and Martha Wayne are gunned down in the notorious “Crime Alley” neighborhood of Gotham City in front of their young-at-the-time son, (here played by David Mazouz) and his life is, obviously, forever changed.

It’s what happens in between those well-established “bookends” that  events in Gotham will be playing out, and there does seem to be ample room for either whole-cloth invention, or creative re-interpretation, within the confines of that territory, and this pilot episode shows that, as was done with Smallville over the course, of — what,  ten seasons? — the principal creative minds at work here, most notably executive producer (and writer of this opening salvo) Bruno Heller, will be doing a little of both.

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Apparently the main plot thread, at least running through the first season, will see clean-cut rookie detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his crooked partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), investigating the Wayne murders, and this initial episode largely focuses on them chasing a red herring in the form of a small-time hood named Mario Pepper (Daniel Stewart Sherman) , who they end up killing while he’s trying to escape, to the equal parts relief and despair of his wife and young plant-loving daughter, Ivy (Clare Foley). There’s some painfully strained dialogue that will probably make long-time Bat-fans cringe interspersed here and there, and a couple of scenes that are downright painful to watch, but by and large the story moves along at a reasonable enough little clip, the twists and turns our two protagonists encounter are generally involving, and the stage seems to be set for at least a modestly entertaining yarn as things progress.

Was the episode a great intro to the series? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Was it good enough? Sure, what the hell — I’ll be back next week for more, at any rate, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

So, how about a rundown of what Heller and director Danny Cannon get right, and what they get wrong, shall we? First, the good stuff : Mazouz is excellent as the pre-pubescent Bruce Wayne, and shows  pretty remarkable acting range for a kid. He’s by turns heartbroken, sullen, withdrawn, and determined. Good show all around. McKenzie displays a requisite amount of “regular-guy charm” as the show’s ostensible lead. Logue is a magnificent casting choice for a gruff and cynical veteran detective who’s definitely on the take — probably from more than one source — but may not be completely beyond redemption. Camren Bicondova largely lurks behind the scenes as a young Selina Kyle, but she exudes mysterious charisma to spare and you’ll definitely want to see more of her. John Doman seems intent on giving crime boss Carmine Falcome a whole new layer of depth and a set of complex motivations that really have me interested in finding out just what makes him tick. Cory Michael Smith is the perfect blend of genius and creepy in his role as police scientist Edward Nygma, who will “grow up” to become, of course, The Riddler. And Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot delivers his lines — and performs his physical actions — with a kind of just-beneath-the-surface insanity that shows that if and when he does become The Penguin, he’ll probably be more of the Danny DeVito ilk than the Burgess Meredith one.

The real show-stealer, though, is Jada Pinkett Smith as new character Fish Mooney, a second-tier — for now — player in the local mob scene who has brains, ambition, cunning, and sex appeal to spare. She seems to be having the time of her life sinking her teeth into the role, and it certainly shows. And if she’s not enjoying herself, well then — guess her acting is even better than I’m giving it credit for.

Oh, and just as a quick aside : does anyone else think the scene where she’s auditioning a struggling young stand-up comic for her club might be the first appearance in this series of, well — you-know-who? Maybe I’m over-thinking things, but I had to put it out there regardless.

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It’s not as if Heller isn’t prone to offering other subtle hints in this episode’s script, either — one of Gordon’s superior officers just happens to be named Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara), and folks who have read Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman : Year One know that name well. Likewise, fans of the Gotham Central comics series will already be well familiar with the names Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya (played by Andrew Stewart-Jones and Victoria Cartagena, respectively), who pop up here as GCPD internal affairs agents. They’re not given much to do, admittedly, but a word of warning to Heller and all other series writers as far as this subject goes : Renee Montoya, in particular, is someone with a lot of hard-core fans, being that she represents one of the few positive portrayals of strong, independent, lesbian women of color anywhere in mainstream comics. Treat her right, or ignore her altogether, but don’t get this one wrong. There are some lurid hints dropped that she has “a past” with Gordon’s fiancee, Barbara (Erin Richards), but I wouldn’t suggest playing Montoya for pure soap opera value — it would be tremendously disrespectful to a character that was truly groundbreaking on the printed page.

Which brings us to what Gotham, at least so far, seems to be getting wrong (apart from some occasionally dodgy set design and CGI work and the script flaws previously mentioned) : Sean Pertwee (son of my second-favorite Doctor to Tom Baker) is a good casting choice as Alfred, and his protectiveness of his young charge certainly shows through, but Heller writes him as a semi-militaristic hard-ass in a move that seems to be a direct nod to the risible work of writer Geoff Johns in his limp Batman :Earth One graphic novel (please note I’m only singling out Johns’ script for criticism, as Gary Frank’s art on that book was superb). I hope they don’t go too far down that road with the world’s most famous fictional butler. Poison Ivy appears to be the victim of a radically different “re-imagining” that, so far, looks a lot less than promising. The overall tone of the proceedings appear overly concerned with shoe-horning in too many specific Bat-elements and not doing enough to establish the city as an entity separate from its most famous vigilante crime-fighter. And having Barbara be a well-heeled, glamorous socialite is a bit of a betrayal of the working-class roots of Jim Gordon and his family that we’ve all come to know — he just doesn’t look right lounging around in her fashionable penthouse apartment.

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All in all, then, what we’ve got  is a case of “some good, some bad.” By the time the episode was over I was reasonably optimistic that, despite the “mix n, match” approach to re-invention and outright invention that I mentioned earlier,  we’re not looking at another Smallville clone here — i.e. a show that amounts to little more than Beverly Hills, 90210 with super-powers. The jury is still out, though,  on whether or not this show’s creators have enough of a different spin to add to the Bat-mythos to make this a worthwhile project. They’re borrowing influences from a wide range of sources, some of which I would’ve preferred having them ignore altogether, but it’s probably safe to assume that only some of those things will prove to be major factors in the series going forward. How far forward I go along with it remains to be seen, as there was nothing in the pilot episode to make me say “alright, awesome, I’m all in!” — nor was there enough to make me throw up my hands and walk away in disgust. We’ll call how I feel about things “cautious optimism” for now, with the greater emphasis being on “cautious.” Heller and co. have me interested — not it’s time to impress me.

Back to School #74: The Perks of Being A Wallflower (dir by Stephen Chbosky)


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“We are infinite.” — Charlie (Logan Lerman) in The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012)

So, here’s the thing.  In general, I try not to judge people.  I have friends (and family) of all races, religion, and political ideologies.  I may not always agree with you but I will always respect your right to disagree.  With that being said, if you don’t love the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, then I’m worried about you.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is based on a novel that I read and loved right before I entered high school.  In fact, I loved the novel so much that I had my doubts about whether or not the film could do it justice.  Of course, if I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that the film was directed by the same man who wrote the book, Stephen Chbosky.  Everything that made Wallflower such a powerful book — the honesty, the understanding of teen angst, the underlying sadness — is perfectly captured in the film.

Wallflower tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a painfully shy and emotionally sensitive high school freshman.  Charlie starts the school year under the weight of two tragedies — the suicide of his best friend and the death of his aunt.  Because he’s so shy, Charlie struggles to fit in and make friends, though he does find a mentor of sorts in his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd, playing the type of teacher that we all wish we could have had in high school).

Charlie, however, does not find a mentor in shop class, which is taught by Mr. Callahan (Tom Freaking Savini!).  However, he does meet Patrick (Ezra Miller), a witty and cynical senior who, because he’s openly gay, is as much of an outcast as Charlie.  Patrick introduces Charlie to Sam (Emma Watson).  Charlie assumes that Sam and Patrick are dating (especially after he sees them dancing together) but later he learns that they are actually stepsiblings and that Patrick is secretly seeing a closeted jock named Brad (Johnny Simmons).  That works out well for Charlie because he has a crush on the free-spirited Sam.

The rest of the film follows Charlie as he survives his first year in school and Patrick and Sam as they complete their final year.  It’s a long but exciting year in which Charlie discovers everything from drugs to the mysteries of sex to the pleasures of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Even more importantly, it’s a year that forces Charlie to confront his own unresolved emotional issues.

Sensitively acted by the three leads and featuring a great soundtrack, The Perks of Being A Wallflower is one of the best films about growing up that I’ve ever seen.  For me, there is no scene that best captures everything that’s great about being young than the scene where Sam, upon hearing David Bowie’s Heroes on the radio, demands to be driving through a tunnel.  It’s a great scene from a great movie that celebrates both just how scary and amazing it is to have your entire life ahead of you and the special friendships that help us survive.

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Back to School #73: 21 Jump Street (dir by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)


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Though the TV series that its based is a bit before my time, the 2012 comedy 21 Jump Street is a personal favorite of mine.  The film tells the story of how nerdy Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and popular but none-too-intelligent jock Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) first met in high school, went to the police academy together, both turned out to really bad cops together, and then returned to high school together.

Why did they return to high school?  Because they’re both working undercover now!  As part of a recently revived program from the 80s (and that would apparently be the original television series), young cops are being sent undercover into high school.  As all the other cops involved with the program appear to be super cops, Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) has every reason to believe that Schmidt and Jenko will be able to discover who is responsible for dealing a dangerous new synthetic drug known as HFS.

One of the things that makes 21 Jump Street work is that, at no point, does the film pretend that either Channing Tatum or Jonah Hill could still pass for a high school student.  One of the film’s best moments comes when a drug dealing environmentalist/student named Eric Molson (Dave Franco, brother of my beloved James) tells Jenko that he suspects that Jenko may be a cop.  “Why?” Jenko asks.  “You’re taste in music. The fact that you look like a fucking forty-year old man,” Eric replies.

Not surprisingly, Jenko and Schmidt prove themselves to be fairly clueless about how high school has changed.  One thing that I’ve always found interesting about high school films is that often times, regardless of when a particularly film might be set, it still feels like it’s taking place ten to twenty years in the past.  That’s largely because most high school films are made by directors who are trying to relive their youth and, as a result, they end up making a film about a high school in 2014 where all of the students look and act as if they’re living in the 90s.  The truth of the matter is that things change pretty quickly.

That’s one reason why I haven’t set foot back in my high school since I graduated.  As much fun as I did have in high school and even though I’ve been told that I can still pass for high school age (and I still constantly get asked for ID), the fact of the matter is that it’s no longer 2004.

When Jenko and Schmidt return to high school, they do so expecting to have to return to their previous teenager personas.  That’s good news for Jenko and not so good news for Schmidt.  However, once they arrive (and after their class schedules accidentally get switched), they discover that high school has changed.  Jocks like Jenko no longer rule the school and Schmidt is now one of the popular kids…

Before I saw 21 Jump Street, I knew that Jonah Hill was funny.  But the film’s big surprise was that Channing Tatum is just as funny.  Throughout the film, Tatum shows a willingness to poke fun at his own image and proves that he can deliver an absurd one-liner as masterfully as just about anyone else working today.  There’s a lot of reasons why 21 Jump Street is a funny film.  It’s full of funny lines and the movie features a lot of very sharp satire of both the action and the teen genres.  But the true pleasure of the film comes from the comedic chemistry between Tatum and Hill.

It’s just a lot of fun to watch.

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Back to School #72: Fish Tank (dir by Andrea Arnold)


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Released in 20o9 (and appearing in American theaters in 2010), the British film Fish Tank is another one of those films that I love but occasionally have trouble watching.  Much like Thirteen, it’s a film that, in some ways, hits pretty close to home for me.  Though the film might be about a 15 year-old English girl living in a London council estate and I’m a Texas girl who grew up all over the Southwest, there’s a lot about Fish Tank to which I related.

The film tells the story of 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis).  Mia lives in a tiny flat with her mother (Kierston Wareing), who appears to be only a few years older than her daughter, and her younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths).  She has recently been kicked out of school and is facing an undeniably bleak future.  She spends her time wandering around the estates, an oppressive atmosphere of concrete, poverty, and hostility.  When we first meet Mia, she is arguing with another girl over a dance routine.  The argument quickly turns violent and, as the film makes clear, that violence isn’t particularly shocking.  Mia is an angry girl, one who cannot relate to her family or her surroundings without striking out.  That’s what you do when you don’t have a future to look forward to.  You strike out at the present.

In fact, the only time that Mia is happy is when she’s dancing.  She breaks into deserted apartments so she can practice her routine and have a few moments of freedom.  And it’s not so much that Mia is a great dancer or that she’s had any training.  (In fact, actress Katie Jarvis was reportedly not comfortable with having to dance on camera.)  Instead, there’s a raw power to the way that Mia dances.  It’s the only non-destructive way that she has to get out her anger and to express herself.  It’s the only way that she has to let the world know that she’s special and, when she’s dancing, she’s in control of the future.

Things briefly look better when Mia’s mother starts to date the handsome Connor O’Reilly (Michael Fassbender).  At first, Connor seems almost perfect.  Along with bringing some momentary peace to the household, Connor is one of the few characters in the film to show anything resembling kindness to Mia.  Connor encourages her to go to an audition.  Connor takes the entire family out to the countryside, giving Mia a break from the oppressive atmosphere of the estates.  When Mia wades out into a pond and cuts her foot, Connor is the one who bandages it.  Connor seems to be perfect.  Of course, it helps that he’s played by a pre-12 Years A Slave Michael Fassbender.

But, of course, Connor isn’t perfect.

About halfway through the film, Fish Tank takes a disturbing turn and things proceed to get even more disturbing from there.  And I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen Fish Tank. 

(I will however say that, much as Juno made it difficult for me to ever truly trust Jason Bateman, Fish Tank had the same effect as far as Michael Fassbender is concerned.)

Directed by Andrea Arnold in a semi-documentary style, Fish Tank works mostly because of the performance of Katie Jarvis.  This was her film debut and she was apparently asked to audition after a production assistant saw her having a loud argument with her boyfriend at a train station.  To a certain extent, you could argue that she’s largely playing herself but I think that does a disservice to both Katie Jarvis as an actress and the film itself.  It’s a great performance, one of the best acting debuts in the history of film.

Earlier, I compared Fish Tank to Thirteen, both in its portrayal of an angry teenager and the fact that I could not help but relate to both film’s lead characters.  Also like Thirteen, Fish Tank ends on a deeply ambiguous note.  I’ll just say that I hope things work out well for Mia and, despite all of her troubles, I think they will.  If Mia can survive, then there is hope for us all.

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