Monday, May 01, 2017

7 Days in May | Robert Langdon and Señorita Scorpion

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

I never got around to seeing the new Dan Brown/Robert Langdon movie last fall, so I decided to do that and introduce David to the whole series at the same time. I'm not a huge fan of these, but I do like puzzles and scavenger hunt stories in general, so my base-level interest in these is always going to be enough to get me to look.

The reason I'm not a huge fan is that the Langdon series takes itself so extremely seriously. If I'm going to watch a grown person run around solving puzzles, I prefer the lighter-hearted approach of the National Treasure movies. The Langdon movies have fun plots, but they compete with the joylessness of their hero. I like Robert Langdon - he's a kind person who wants to help whenever he's asked, regardless of what it will cost him - but I don't enjoy him.

Da Vinci Code is my least favorite of the series. I like that the stakes are personal in it, but the plot is all over the place. It's driven by Langdon's being hunted and trying to prove his own innocence, so there's not a lot to contain it. He and his story are able to meander and it's difficult to keep track of how the various clues he's chasing connect to each other. If they even all do.

Angels & Demons (2009)

This is my favorite in the series. I still don't love it, but the narrative is straightforward with a single, clear objective and smaller objectives along the way that are clear about how they fit into the larger one. It also has a ticking clock element that I like. Most of all though, this one makes the most sense as to why there's a scavenger hunt in the first place. In Da Vinci Code and Inferno, there's not a great reason for anyone to have created the elaborate trail of clues. In Angels & Demons, I understand the thinking that went into them.

Inferno (2016)

Like Angels & Demons, there's a straightforward objective and a ticking clock element to Inferno, but those don't do as good a job at keeping the story on track. There's no real reason for the scavenger hunt to exist in the first place and the movie over-complicates itself by questioning everyone's motives. It's trying to introduce paranoia to the adventure, but even while it's doing that it hangs big surprises on the assumption that viewers have unquestioningly trusted some things. I don't think you can have it both ways.

For all that, I still like the movie. That's hugely thanks to Irrfan Khan as the head of a mysterious organization whose objectives I won't spoil. He injects humor and charm into what normally would have been a generic villain. I also very much enjoyed Sidse Babett Knudsen (the Westworld TV series) as the chief representative of the World Health Organization on the case. Her character is a suspect, so I don't want to specify the spoilery things I liked about her, but she made me believe in her (even while I don't believe how her story wraps up).

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Having watched the Hollow Crown adaptation of Shakespeare's Henriad, I also wanted to check out Orson Welles' condensed version. I love Welles both as a filmmaker and an actor and this reminded me of why. Chimes at Midnight tells the story primarily from Falstaff's point of view with some other scenes included for context. Welles brings the right mix of humor and sadness to the part, making me feel sorry for him while simultaneously feeling like he's getting exactly what he's earned.

There's a thesis paper to be written about how Welles sets up shots in this thing, but the movie rewards even a superficial look with beautiful, fascinating compositions and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. Chimes of Midnight is no substitute for the full plays, but it's a great companion piece to them.

Zorro (1957-61)

I started Season 2 of Disney's Zorro and it may be wearing on me a little. I'm still enjoying it, but I'm also aware that I'm pushing through it. If I took a break now, I don't know when I'd get back to it.

Some of what's dampening my enthusiasm is a major change in location. Instead of taking place in Los Angeles, the action's been moved to Monterey where a patriotic trader is trying to gather money for a massive supply shipment. Spain is at war, so the Spanish citizens of California see it as their duty to support their homeland by keeping up business. The trouble is that shipments of investment capital from all over California are being intercepted by bandits, so Don Diego has traveled to Monterey to oversee delivery of the money from LA. Four episodes in and he's still there.

He's accompanied by Bernardo and has also been joined by Sgt Garcia and Cpl Reyes, so the best characters from the first season are still there. But I'm hoping that this storyline wraps up quickly and everyone returns to LA. The locations were such an important part of Season One that I'm not ready to let them go.

One really cool thing though is that Lee Van Cleef plays one of the bandits in the first episode. That's him fighting Zorro in the image above.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)

Indy has finally gone to war in the two episodes I watched this week. In the first, he's already been embroiled in trench warfare for a few months and there's dissension in the ranks. All of the officers in his unit have been killed and Indy suspects one of the men of murder. Indy's already showing some leadership skills though and has become the unofficial leader of the group until they're reassigned to serve temporarily under French command. Most of the episode is about the horrors of trench warfare as the French try to capture a chateau under German control.

The episode ends with Indy's being taken captive with another soldier (Jason Flemyng), which leads into the next about POW camps. The tone moves from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Great Escape and I enjoyed both genres.

Underground (2016-present)

The episode "Minty" from a couple of weeks ago was the one where Underground went from being Really Cool Adventure Show About a Serious Topic to Holy Crap This Is Important and Potentially Life Changing.

As I've mentioned before, one of the enormous strengths of the show is its ability to shift genres as it changes focus from character to character. The entire run time of "Minty" is nothing but Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) talking to a roomful of fellow Abolitionists about her story for an hour. Hinds has been compelling in the role all season, but she carries this entire episode with very few speaking parts from any other characters. It's a great speech and Hinds delivers it masterfully. There's humor, horror, and hope all wrapped into it, but most importantly there are Ideas.

One of the subplots of the show has been about the proper response of Abolitionists to slavery. Some are content to quietly rebel by assisting on the Underground Railroad. Others see the conflict as all out war and want to act accordingly. So far, Jessica De Gouw's Elizabeth has been the character to most struggle with this, but in "Minty" we learn that Tubman has been wrestling, too, and has come to a decision.

I'm a huge pacifist, but that speech stirred me up and made me rethink my posture towards war. Knowing that the metaphorical war that the Abolitionists are talking about will ultimately lead to very literal war, I think about where my country would be right now if people had just kept quietly rebelling and the Civil War never happened. I'm not ready to pick up arms and I don't believe that Underground is suggesting that we do (though it is very pointed in drawing comparisons between the time of the show and today). What it's extremely successful at though is making me want to take some kind of action. And those who know me best know how difficult a thing that is to accomplish.

"The Brand of Señorita Scorpion" by Lee Savage, Jr.

Read another Señorita Scorpion story from a collection I picked up last year. I was looking forward to more adventures of the female Western hero, especially since the first story was mostly told from the perspective of a male character who falls in love with the mysterious heroine. Sadly, that's also the case here. The Señorita doesn't even get mentioned by her cool name; she's just a damsel in distress for the love-struck cowboy to rescue. It's an exciting enough tale, but not what I wanted.

There are two more in the collection, so I'll keep going, but I'm predicting that I don't pick up the second volume.

Jam of the Week: "Foot of the Mountain" by a-ha

It always irritates me when people refer to a-ha as a one-hit wonder. Forgetting for a second the moderate success that their second album had in the US, the dudes had a freaking James Bond theme song. They're not just "Take On Me."

Still, I understand why a lot of folks are surprised that the band had a long and successful (if sporadic) career after the '80s. This is one of my favorites of their recent stuff, which is as good if not better than their earlier hits. It's eight years old (geez, how time does fly), but there was another album in 2015 with yet another (of live, acoustic versions of their songs) rumored for later this year.

1 comment:

Paxton said...

I can't argue with you the merits of the Langdon movies. Which is a shame because in every other situation Tom Hanks makes things BETTER. Baffling. I hate to trot out that old adage, but "the books are better". They explain things a little better especially Inferno which has a different ending which involves Langdon possibly not "saving the day". And, like you said, the Angels & Demons book is the best one. Da Vinci Code is second best. Inferno is third. The other Langdon book, The Lost Symbol, is actually kind of terrible. I'm glad they skipped it in the movies.

But as far as the movies go, I too prefer National Treasure. And I want ANOTHER National Treasure ASAP.


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