FESTIVUS EDITION

Airing of grievances, feats of strength! All proceeds go to The Human Fund

The mission of Milton’s Comics + Culture Radar, for 364 days of the year, is to highlight what’s good to read and watch. To shine a light on hidden sources of excellence. To raise the banner for high quality comics, films, television and other entertainment.

But today’s a different matter. It’s the holy day, the Festivus for the rest of us, and:

Airing of Grievances

The Wasted Opportunity that Was “Away” from Netflix

As a proud Houstonian, I’m a wee bit sensitive to the portrayals of NASA in popular culture. NASA is not only a symbol of local pride, it’s a shorthand for the virtues of excellence, attention to detail, competence, and problem-solving. And yet the showrunners of this program decided to make their version of NASA be populated by morons with petty squabbles and exhibits A, B, and C of the Peter Principle. The head of mission control, in particular, is an insult to the institution. A role renowned for decisiveness, clarity, and strength is warped into a bumbling buffoon, filled with doubt. The character was written - and the directors apparently asked for - a performance more befitting a crazy aunt or uncle.

And then there’s the astronauts, who are largely given shallow personality defects and interpersonal conflicts befitting a poorly run daytime soap opera.

This is an act of criminal squandering of potential. Netflix clearly felt strongly enough about the concept to give it a serious budget and excellent production values. The otherwise incredible talents of Hilary Swank and Josh Charles are not enough to save the omni-shambles collapsing around them in every corner of these episodes. It continues to baffle me when writers given the privilege of telling stories like this, they choose to awkwardly focus on badly-conceived borderline reality-tv “personal drama” antics instead of the inherently dramatic condition of humans exploring the frontier of space.

The fatal miscasting in “DEVS”

Alex Garland is one of the most talented writer-directors working today. “Ex Machina” was a brilliant exploration of the coming age of artificial intelligence, it had a flair of Kubrickian contemplation about the near future. It made me doubly excited to see him given an opportunity to explore sci-fi ideas at length with a show on FX.

Apparently, when casting the main character, Garland put all of his faith in the Kuleshov Effect - a concept that suggests film actors can convey more with less. It’s a common detail to see in a behind-the-scenes documentary on filmmaking - if you see a director interacting with an actor, it’s often to tell them to do less, to pull back. The subtlety of film acting almost requires a form of restraint.

The lead performance in “Devs” isn’t subtle. It’s void of anything resembling human emotion. If they had cast a muppet instead, it would’ve been a better choice - at least with a muppet, audiences can project human emotions on to the puppeteer’s movements. Instead, we get this travesty. I had to stop watching the show about 3-4 episodes in, I just couldn’t continue. I’ve never had to do that based on a single performance, in any film/tv project I’ve ever seen. And it’s frustrating because the rest of the cast is stellar and the ideas explored in the first few episodes seemed rewarding and challenging. It’s only the first year of the 2020s decade, but worst television performance of the decade is already locked up.

The Ahistorical Stank of “Mank”

On paper, this was the film I should’ve most enjoyed in 2020. The “citizen” part of my Twitter handle @citizenmilton is a reference to my favorite, and still the best, film of all time - Citizen Kane. One of my favorite directors (David Fincher) chose to make a movie about it, focusing on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.

There is a wealth of dramatic potential in exploring Mank as a character - and the film often succeeds - but it is ultimately a failure, in that it revives a thoroughly debunked claim that Orson Welles did not deserve co-writing credit for “Kane.” There is a voluminous record on this false claim, but here’s one of many essays about the issue. Fincher could’ve spent 45 minutes at any public library to learn more about the topic. Instead, he propagates a false narrative that serves the surviving Mankiewicz family members view of events. Had this alternate history served some dramatic narrative purpose, I could’ve enjoyed the film as a whole, but focusing primarily on the authorship claims robs the otherwise fertile territory. These are titanic figures in film history! Exploring the actual truth of their relationship - even speculatively - would’ve been fascinating.

Rapid-Fire Grievances

  • The big twist in the second episode of the anime “Deca Dence” reveals that everything they got you emotionally invested in the first episode was actually just B.S. It felt like a betrayal. I stopped watching. I’ll maybe give it a second shot, I hear so many good things, but this was an unforced error at best.

  • The faux shock wannabe antics of Amazon’s “Utopia” sank what could’ve otherwise been a timely and immersive piece of entertainment. Unmotivated acts of extreme violence, for the sake of shock-value, completely took me out of it.

  • CAN WE GET AN EDITOR (TV)? The fascinating HBO documentary “The Vow” about the NXVIM sex cult was a 9-hour slow-boiling epic that could’ve covered all of its topics in about 100 minutes.

  • CAN WE GET AN EDITOR (PODCAST)? The “Winds of Change” podcast about the idea that the Scorpions’ hit cold-war anthem was actually written by the CIA spent untold hours speculating and speculating - the whole thing could’ve been told in 25 minutes.

  • The lack of audience and impact of AppleTV’s “For All Mankind” is an outrage. Everyone needs to see this incredible television program!

  • Rude-ass people spoiling every episode of The Mandalorian. You know who you are. Tsk tsk.

EVERGREEN GRIEVANCE

Until such time as this cultural sin is rectified, I will bring it up every year at Festivus:

COVID19 - THE MOTHERSHIP OF GRIEVANCES FOR 2020

We all know the suffering that Covid19 has caused: the toll in human lives, the depression-level slide in employment numbers, the strain in our everyday lives as we try to go on and stay safe. This newsletter isn’t the place to expand on that topic, and frankly all of these cultural complaints are inconsequential in the grander scheme - it’s a privilege to even be in such a condition to complain about such trivial matters. I’m thankful for the health of my friends and family. I have already written at length on my sadness at the loss of moviegoing rituals. Here’s hoping 2021 ushers in a new roaring ‘20s, filled with celebrations and deeper connections for all of us.