Screening Room: ‘The Inventor’

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly)

The latest documentary from the ever-prolific Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear) digs into the dark, weird, and ultimately all-too-familiar story of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who promised a miracle.

The Inventor premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast this Monday on HBO.

My review is at Slant:

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration…

TV Room: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1’

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is out on DVD now. My review is at PopMatters:

A friend who didn’t know much about The Handmaid’s Tale, either the terrifying series or the even darker Margaret Atwood novel it was adapted from, was surprised when I called it an alternate history. All he knew was glimpses of the ads, which highlighted the show’s visual signature: Lines of meek-looking women shrouded in blazing red robes and face-hiding white bonnets. He thought it was some show about 17th century America. That’s by design. This is science fiction set in the future that looks to the past and magnifies the present…

TV Room: ‘House of Cards: Season 3’

“That damned, smiling villain…” Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’ (Netflix)
The third season of House of Cards is out now on DVD for those of you out there not streaming. My review is at PopMatters:

When last we left Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the frenetic second season of House of Cards, he had bested all challenges and ensconced himself in the Oval Office. It was a thunderclap of a climax, his school ring rapping on the desk like a gunshot, the echo calling to mind the long line of rivals he had run over on the way there like human speedbumps. You almost expected the story to end there. But as every striver for the throne from Macbeth back to the Roman emperors discovered, staying in power is as much or more of a struggle than getting there in the first place…

Here’s a trailer, to catch you up:

New on DVD: ‘Batman: The Complete Series’

Batman-DVD setFrom 1966 to 1968, ABC showed one of the greatest series ever to grace the American TV screen. The original Batman TV show was different from pretty much everything that came before. Full of bright Pop Art colors and tongue-in-cheek satire, it both celebrated and mocked the superhero genre in a way that kids could take straight and adults could enjoy as comedy.

Finally, after years of legal wrangling, all 120 episodes are finally available for your viewing pleasure on DVD and Blu-ray. My review of Batman: The Complete Series is at PopMatters.

Also, here’s The Jam performing the unassailably cool theme to Batman:

New on DVD: ‘The Normal Heart’ is Heartrending, But Not Enough

Mark Ruffalo in 'The Normal Heart' (HBO Films)
Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ (HBO Films)

Thenormalheart-DVD coverLarry Kramer’s 1985 play about the battle for gay equality and visibility in the early years of the AIDS epidemic was finally filmed earlier this year for HBO. It’s less facetious than you might think, given the presence of director Ryan Murphy (Glee and Eat, Pray, Love), but can’t quite replicate the gut-punch experience of the play itself.

The Normal Heart is on DVD and Blu-ray now. My review is at PopMatters:

The facts already seem like a tale out of faraway history. A mysterious plague stalks the land, slaughtering half of those who catch it, while craven officials refuse to acknowledge its existence and a terrified minority population is refused help even as they are dying…. Watching Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of The Normal Heart is to be taken back to a time when prejudice didn’t just cost people their dignity, it robbed some of them of their lives…

Here’s the trailer:

Writers’ Corner: The ‘Lost’ Monkey and Ambrose Bierce

Why not in a church? The non-ending of 'Lost'.
Why not in a church? The non-ending of ‘Lost’.

Lost did not end well, to put it mildly. Televised at roughly the same time as the similarly-controversial and anti-dramatic finale of The SopranosLost took all of its seemingly carefully constructed mythology and kicked it out the window in favor of a squishy purgatorial non-conclusion. (As opposed to The Sopranos, which ended rather brilliantly exactly as it had begun: with characters who could not and would not change.)

In the case of Lost, was it bad writing or a failure of will to pull all the pieces together? In this “On Story” interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival, show co-creator Damon Lindelof argues he doesn’t like stories where everything is spelled out. He wants there to be space in the margins for viewers to interpret things. Fair enough. But there’s a difference between spelling everything out as a writer and simply punting.

The best part of the interview comes about eight minutes in, when Lindelof talks about the running joke they had on the show about what would happen if they were canceled prematurely and had to wrap up all the show’s plot tendrils in a matter of weeks. The idea they came up with was brilliant: There was a monkey on the island named Joop; have him do it:

We would just cut to this well-appointed library and this leather chair would spin around and there would be a monkey in a smoking jacket [who would say] “Hello, my name is Joop. I suppose I have some explaining to do.” He would talk for however long we needed to explain things. But Joop actually stood for everything I don’t want to do in storytelling.

An-Occurrence-at-Owl-Creek-Bridge-imageGiven how things did turn out, though, having a talking monkey in a smoking jacket (preferably with a refined Oxbridge accent) show up for a lengthy exposition dump would have been highly more enjoyable than the turgid mess than resulted. By not choosing a dramatic or even philosophical angle for their story to take, the writers of Lost went for a muddled middle, which will never result in successful storytelling.

Elsewhere in the interview, Lindelof references Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as an example of how he didn’t want to craft the show. It’s actually hard to come up with a more apt example of everything that Lost ultimately did do.

“Occurrence” was made into an Oscar-winning short film back in 1962, you can watch all of it here and judge for yourself: