Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday Morning Media Review: The Extra Man (2010)

Welcome to the Saturday Morning Media Review, 
in which I review a movie or television show that I've recently seen.

The Extra Man (2010)

Paul Dano redeems himself after his monochromatic performance in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) in this comedic gem based on author-raconteur Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name. Ames continues to indulge his penchant for perversion as he recounts the lives of men who cannot control their sexual impulses. In all of his personal and fictional works, highly depraved individuals are surprisingly the most capable of expressing humanity and tenderness towards the most vulnerable members of society. Considering that most of his stories are set in New York City, a locale that tends to attract the self-obsessed, this is no mean feat.

After a “crippling brassiere incident,” Louis Ives (Dano) is fired from his job teaching English at a fancy Princeton prep school. He decides it’s the perfect time to move to Manhattan, where he can pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He rents a small room from one Henry H. Harrison (Kevin Kline), a flamboyant man who wages a daily war against modernity. He survives by serving as an “extra” man for wealthy, lonely older women. He’s not a male escort, he is quick to point out, but simply filling in the gap left by deceased husbands. His job is more about gallantly keeping the women company rather than providing sexual gratification. Ives delves deeper into his personal perversions as his preoccupation with women’s lingerie continues to dog him; he frequents a dominatrix to receive absolution through spanking, although Harrison makes it abundantly clear that he abhors even the mere allusion to sex. The movie reaches a head when Harrison returns from a trip to Palm Beach and finds Ives grotesquely dressed as a woman. Harrison forgives Ives for his transgressions, perhaps because he has grown so attached to his young protégé. For his part, Ives realizes that fulfillment does not lie in dressing as a woman but instead seizing life as a man. Also starring John C. Reilly as the hairy but helpful neighbor Gershon and the understated Katie Holmes as Ives’ luminescent co-worker Mary.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Governor Does Some Thinking and We All Suffer

“Dead Weight”
“You can’t think forever. Sooner or later, you’re going to make a move,” the Governor admonishes Meghan. The Gov and Meghan are playing chess, a game of strategy that is also being played in his mind. The pawns are key members of the camp; Martinez, Pete, and Mitch. How can he move them around—or knock them off the board—to his greatest advantage? He gives some clues about his own father in this episode; not surprisingly, the Gov’s dad beat him—a lot. Brian is settling in nicely, hanging up the laundry. We flash back to when he fell in the pit. Martinez helps him out. The two new rules are: Martinez is in charge and no “diddling”? Really, Martinez? Is that what they’re calling it now? Uh oh. The Gov is not too good at taking orders.
I used too much starch in these shorts.

The Gov is already talking about he and Lilly as an “us,” meaning this camp is a dump and I wanted better for us. The leaky roof in their camper is a far cry from his former digs at Woodbury. Martinez, brothers Mitch and Pete, and the Gov go looking for a survivalist’s cabin, hoping to raid it for supplies. Instead, they find a decapitated body tied to a tree, dressed in camo, and wearing a sign saying “LIAR.”
They find more decapitated bodies, including one reclining in an armchair on the front lawn with a “RAPIST” sign hanging around his neck. Finally they reach the cabin, only to find the owner of the house dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, propped up next to the creaky front door with a “MURDERER” sign affixed to his body. A strange banging is heard as they walk through the darkened house. It’s only a walker locked in a closet. OK, a couple of walkers, and a few rolling, disembodied heads, snapping their jaws. No biggie! Pete is not doing well under pressure, but the Governor’s quick reflexes kick in as he makes short work of these undead intruders.
Martinez confides that if it weren’t for Meghan, he would have left him in the walker pit. You seem different now, he says. Are you? I am, the Governor affirms. The men wonder about the identity of the biters in the cabin. Were they the survivalist’s wife and kid? They reminisce about pre-apocalyptic life. Brian is mum about his past, claiming he “survived.”

Meghan, Lilly, Martinez, Alicia, and Tara yuk it up over potted meat and beers while a highly reticent Governor sulks. Everyone except for Meghan is nicely toasted. The damn roof of their camper is leaking again, so Brian grabs some duct tape. Cut to Martinez and Brian driving golf balls off the roof of yet another camper. Essentially, post-apocalyptic neighborhoods have been reduced to a series of pretty pathetic trailers. Martinez ironically observes that the family has humanized the Governor right before Brian swings a nine-iron right into the back of Martinez’s head and pushes him off the side of the trailer, dragging him into the pit of biters. He’s back! The Governor tells Martinez, “I don’t want it,” as he shoves him into the pit. Martinez had witnessed the Governor’s massacre. Plus, there’s room for only one leader, and his name is Brian, not Martinez, dammit! So there.
The camp is clamoring for a leader in the wake of Martinez’ death. Pete volunteers himself as temporary head de camp until they can get their shizz together enough to hold a formal vote. Pete, Mitch, and Brian go hunting. The catch of the day is…squirrel. Too bad Daryl’s not around to snag a deer. They come across another encampment. Mitch wants to rob them. The Gov is silent. Pete says that’s the wrong thing to do, which is bad news for Pete; to the Governor, moral relativism rules. You do what you have to do to protect your own. Looks like someone beat them to robbing the camp, which is what happens when you hesitate. Everyone’s dead and the supplies are gone. Mitch stabs a dying man in the head, which is good news for Mitch. The Governor takes note, favorably. Mitch is what is known as a “self-starter.”
Brian tells Tara and Meghan that they’re leaving tonight. Why? He senses bad things are about to happen. Cut to Brian, new family, and Tara’s new girlfriend Alicia driving out of the camp at night. A large pack of walkers have gotten themselves stuck in the mud, or is it quicksand? Whichever, there doesn’t seem to be a way out. Now the Governor is stuck, too. He’s back to playing the chess game that he hoped to avoid.
Back at camp, the Gov is busy visiting various trailers. First, he stabs and strangles Pete. Er, I mean, he “survives,” his euphemism for cleaning house. He then calls on Mitch, who has no idea what’s up. The Gov badmouths Pete for being one of those guys that always do the right thing no matter what. Eww, just like Rick. The Gov maintains that he’s running things now, and now it’s okay to do whatever it takes—no moral quandaries here—to protect the camp and its people. “We’ll do the only thing.” Oh, and did you know that Pete died on a supply run, as a hero? Oh, Governor, your softer side was so short lived! Into the pond dead Pete goes, without a discernible head wound.
The Gov is cleaning the crusties out of his bad eye. In a moment of tenderness, Lilly touches his face. Meghan almost becomes a snack for a walker hiding behind a hanging, laundered sheet, but the Governor shoots him in the head at the last minute. As an alternative to his floating head collection, the Gov keeps Pete in the pond into which he threw him, safely weighted to the bottom but groping wildly for the surface. Underwater Pete lives to serve out the rest of his undead days as Brian’s first trophy.
The Gov spies on the prison, specifically Rick and Carl oohing and aahing over peapods. Then he sees Hershel and Michonne out on their run. He aims his gun, presumably at Michonne. The old Governor is back, and he’s drawn stark lines between what’s his (Lilly and Meghan) and everyone else. He’s awfully provincial; he tends to glom onto a group to protect and own and then will do anything to keep them safe.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Who's Your Daddy?

             I am going to write about dads today. I will not yet touch upon the role of women in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Like that of men, it is ever evolving. However, it is my contention that the roles of women, children, and the elderly are more fluid. Men are expected to be traditional providers, whereas the other groups can contribute in different ways. Notably, the characters of Andrea, Michonne, Carl, and Hershel illustrate this, which I will elaborate upon in future posts.
The figure of father is very important in The Walking Dead. We have Hershel the gentleman farmer, father to Maggie and Beth. He also serves as a father to the other group members, dispensing counsel and comfort when needed. In addition to being the primary protector of the Atlanta group, Rick is willing to kill to protect his family. Shane paid the ultimate price for attempting to take advantage of Rick's temporary absence by trying to usurp his paternal role. Dale cared for Andrea so deeply that he risked his own life to prevent her from committing suicide in the fiery CDC explosion. She, in turn, repeatedly confided in him as she would her own biological father. Woodburians had the Governor to look up to, and of course he is also father to his undead daughter Penny, whom he kept sequestered in his apartment. You could say that God is dead in the apocalyptic world, because He has let down his flock so profoundly that they feel compelled to seek out new guidance on earth in the form of mortal man. That is, there is no Father, only father.
In the episode entitled “Live Bait,” the Governor attempts to erase his past. He leaves the persona of Philip Blake behind to become “Brian Harriet,” a name he saw in a graffiti message on the side of an abandoned building. Forms of communication in the post-apocalyptic world are primitive; people often leave desperate messages for loved ones scrawled on signposts or blank walls. Now it is easy to become someone else, because most of the people who may have known your original identity are dead. The Governor is forced to, maybe even happy to, reinvent himself, to embrace his rebirth.
For a price, you too can dress up like the Governor.

First, he ritually cleanses house by murdering the followers who enlisted to ambush Rick’s prison. He achieves two goals in doing so: he ensures that no survivors remain to tell the story of humiliating defeat at the hands of Rick’s group. He also realizes that he is losing Woodbury, which began to slip away from him even before he attacks the prison. People were starting to flee; they no longer felt safe under his leadership. He had failed to protect them. On a superficial level, the Woodbury militia also openly defied his orders by refusing to return to the prison to resume the fight. The scene was eerily reminiscent of cult leader Jim Jones’ final act, in which he murdered his 909 followers in 1978—men, women, and children—by forcing them to drink cyanide-laced grape Flavor-Aid. Those who refused to drink or tried to escape were shot. The difference is that, unlike the Governor, Jim Jones had been obsessed with death his entire life; he shot himself.
The Governor has no desire to bring about his own death. He needs to stay alive to reinvent himself. His formal role as leader, however, is no more; Brian Herriet will do for now. It is a blank slate upon which he can imprint a new persona made up of aspects of his former self. He helps Tara and Lilly by disposing of their dead father and retrieving an oxygen tank from a nursing home overrun with walkers so that the old man can live a bit longer. He saves Lilly’s daughter, little Megan, from vicious zombies, holding her close as he probably once did his deceased daughter Penny. When a bedraggled Governor first looks up to Tara and Lilly’s apartment to see Megan standing at the window, her silhouette undoubtedly reminded him of Penny, waiting for her daddy to come home.

It is true that Blake has little compunction about using violence to achieve his ends. You might even say that he enjoys inflicting pain and exerting his power over others.  However, he has human needs too. For example, he responds positively to Lilly’s overtures; the Governor requires sexual affirmation. His attachment to Megan also reveals that he misses being a protective father, not just to a group of followers, but more importantly on the micro level of daddy. When Michonne kills zombie Penny, this is devastatingly taken away from him.
Who is this new man? In “Live Bait” the Governor undergoes a baptism by fire. First, he sets the abandoned town of Woodbury afire. Then he burns the last remaining image of his family: himself, his wife, and his daughter. Before he set it alight, he carefully folds his own image out of the picture, leaving just his wife and daughter. When he finally does burn it, he destroys Philip Blake, his role as husband and father to these two specific individuals.
This does not mean that he has entirely abandoned the notion of being a father and a—dare I say it—lover. In the latest episode, in fact, he embraces both. For the time being, Lilly and Megan have filled in a void. I think these are the two constants we have in the character of the Governor. He will always have to lead someone. This new world cries out for leadership. Small groups of desperate, disparate individuals are hungry for someone to reassure them that it’s going to be okay, that this nightmare, this holocaust will be over one day. In the meantime, providing them with the essentials of life like food and safe shelter is enough. The Woodburians enjoyed such a life for a time, complete with the occasional block party featuring cold lemonade and laughing children. But this was an illusion. Once the fortifying walls came down, Rick’s group attacked, and the Governor killed his own people, Woodburians were on their own again. Many joined Rick’s group for this reason; they replaced one father with another, seemingly more benevolent one. But is he? 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Governor's Hairy Return

“Live Bait”
Welcome back, Governor! This episode picks up from when we last saw the Governor and his henchmen. You will recall that he had just gunned down his followers and fellow inhabitants of Woodbury who had the bad luck of going on the failed mission to ambush the prison. After killing the militia group Jim Jones style (with a semi-automatic weapon rather than cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid), the Governor and his loyal but stunned henchmen (Shumpert and Martinez) drive away. Hereafter, I will refer to the Governor as Philip, the Gov (or Governor), his new, assumed name, Brian, and Kris. Confusing? You bet. But the Governor is a man of many a varied personae, as “Live Bait” will reveal, so my choice to use all four of his names is not that strange.
Not the Governor! He seemed so normal.

Later, at an encampment, a crawling walker puts the moves on him and he barely blinks. Henchman Martinez takes her out before she can nibble on Philip.  When he wakes, he is alone. Upon his return to Woodbury, the battered town is now overrun with walkers, hardly resembling the idyllic haven it once was. The Governor sets it ablaze. What happened to his henchmen? Did zombies get to them? Are they running a sinister errand for him? All will be answered soon.
The Governor channels the ghost of Kris Kristofferson after leaving Woodbury for the last time. His hair is wild, his clothes are tattered, and now he is sporting a scraggly beard. Don’t forget the eye patch! He cuts quite the mysterious figure. In a voiceover, the gruff Gov is having a conversation with at least one woman in which he recounts the fall of Woodbury. He mentions that the leader “lost it,” but conveniently fails to note that he was the one who lost it.
Burn, baby, burn.

The Gov stumbles upon an armed family by candlelight, holed up in an apartment building. He’s not talking much. His welcoming hostess Tara warns him that she’ll kill him six ways till Sunday if he tries anything fishy. She’s with her sister Lilly and her sister’s daughter, Megan, as well as her dad Don, who’s oxygen-dependent. They’ve been living off the huge food truck their dad used to drive for a living. The Gov seems rather cowed, not his usual prepossessed self. But he’s as sneaky as ever, preferring to give a fake name—Brian Harriet, rather than his real moniker Philip. The Gov is no fan of the butterbeans his lovely hostesses deign to share, because straight out the window they go. He prefers to sample some canned cat food, as far as I can tell.
I’m wondering what horrible fate is going to befall this family. What will happen when the Governor gets his mojo back, and his true psychopathic self emerges? Don sends the Gov—I mean Brian—on a search for a keen backgammon set that belongs to a neighbor named Bill Jenkins. The Gov finds some bullets under the bed, as well as several discarded prosthetic limbs in a bathroom. Looks like Bill shot himself and reanimated in the bathtub, so the Gov puts the man out of his misery. He then helps himself to Bill’s gun. There is nothing more pathetic than a legless zombie.
The Gov saved a pic of his wife and Penny, but folds himself out of the picture. His gesture reminds me of Carol distancing herself from memories of her daughter. The man in the picture may as well be dead. The Governor has no one left, not even his adoring throngs at Woodbury.
Tara’s sister asks the Gov to get some oxygen from a nursing home a few blocks away; Don has stage IV lung cancer. Kris obliges, armed with the gun he took from Bill. Old zombies. Great. Maybe these zombies will be too weak to attack. They are bedridden and wheelchair bound, after all. The more amazing aspect of this scene is that the Gov is actually doing something nice. Unfortunately, the nursing home’s employees are a tad more spry than the residents, and the Gov narrowly escapes with one oxygen tank. Cue the Benny Hill music!

The Gov gets some tender, nursely treatment from Tara’s sister. He works his understated charms on Megan. In hushed, Desperado-like tones, he shares the abridged, G-rated story about how he lost his eye.
The Gov loses his Kris Kristofferson look and regains his former, clean-shaven appearance. Heavy symbolism with their chess game: After drawing an eye patch on the bearded King, Megan tells the Gov that it looks like him. Cute. Then the situation turns very scary, very fast. There is no such thing as a peaceful death. Don passes away, so the Gov swiftly intervenes to save Tara from being attacked. The women aren’t accustomed to seeing this, having been holed up in their apartment. Tara thanks him for his quick thinking, and attempts a fist bump, which the Gov returns. Thanks for doing me a solid, Brian!
The Gov burns his only family picture. Is this a symbolic gesture? He tosses it out the window. Will he start a massive fire? Tara’s sister wants them to join the Gov, which he doesn’t want at all. That would definitely put a crimp in his plans for revenge.
Everyone is on the road in Don's old food delivery truck. Is the Governor planning to repopulate the earth by inseminating these two poor women? They stop by a stream/lake/pond for a stretch. Cozy sleeping quarters back there in the truck. Lilly is lonely. She comes on to the Gov, cozying up for a little southern comfort. He’s apparently a little lonely and horny, too, because step one to repopulate the earth begins…
The truck’s engine turns over several times, to no avail. They walk. Megan is lagging a bit in the back. The Gov is on high alert; they’re very vulnerable, after all. A small herd of walkers shuffle about ahead.  Tara has sprained her ankle. They rush through the woods. The two women are hobbled, while the Gov carries Megan. The Gov lands in a pit with her and kills the walkers in disgustingly hideous ways. The dulcet sounds of submachine gunfire resonate in the background. Martinez is back, looking down into the pit with a submachine gun slung on his shoulder. Until next week, I bid you adieu, and happy Dead watching!