Saturday, May 15, 2010

And I Beheld Another Beast Coming Up Out of the Earth

Wesley takes on The Beast, with guns blazing,
courtesy of FanPop.

"Apocalypse, Nowish", from Season 4 of Angel, is another example of a good story arc episode since it's jam-packed with excitement from beginning to end. It also helps that the story line advances quite a bit throughout the episode. I also loved how each of those strange, seemingly isolated events culminated in one of the best fight scenes of the entire series when our heroes mixed it up for the first time with The Beast. As usual with Season 4 episodes, the good is tempered by the fact that we know that things will end quite badly for Cordelia Chase. For my own sanity, I'm going to try to enjoy these episodes in their own right and not necessarily judge them against the backdrop of a distasteful season-long story arc.

It seems that I can actually thank the WB network for how well "Apocalypse, Nowish" turned out, since it came out in the commentary that the network had scheduled Episode 7 to be the last Angel episode aired before its almost two-month long Christmas break. Writer Steven DeKnight said they were under enormous pressure to cram as much of the beginning of the upcoming story arc as possible into this particular show, even to the point where they felt compelled to introduce The Beast to the series a few episodes earlier than what they had originally planned.

Commentary and Special Features. I am absolutely thrilled at the sheer volume of commentaries and special features that are included in the Season 4 DVD's. I'm not sure if this will continue throughout the rest of the DVD collection or not, but I'm pretty happy for now. I was actually quite disappointed with the paucity of special features for Seasons 1 - 3. I'm guessing that by Season 4 someone either finally figured out that: A) the extras helped drive DVD sales, and/or B) that the series had matured to the point that more special features were warranted for posterity's sake.

I've generally noticed two types of commentaries in the Angel DVD's so far: one type is filled with a lot of wisecracking and wittiness (and silliness at times), and the other type is more professional and polished. Both types are very informative, though I might have to give a nod towards the latter type for giving more of the technical details that I'm starting to get interested in. (Albeit Joss Whedon is always a treasure-trove of information about the technical details.) I seem to like both types of commentaries equally as well. It was therefore a good juxtaposition to have a light-hearted commentary from Joss Whedon and Alexis Denisof in "Spin the Bottle" with a slightly more technically-oriented commentary from director Vern Gillum and writer Steven S. DeKnight in the very next episode, "Apocalypse, Nowish". It's not to say that the more "professional" commentaries are dry, since they are usually filled with a lot of excellent humor as well.

Cordelia Chase. I'm trying to limit my "Is it Cordelia or is it Jasmine?" comments as much as possible because I realize I'm rehashing this same issue in every episode review. My take on it today is that the creators were trying to confuse the audience during this part of Season 4. As a result, her character would sometimes be vintage wisecracking Cordy, while at other times she'd say or do something that would make us think "What has gotten into this girl?" I will add that this is the episode commentary I alluded to earlier where either Gillum or DeKnight stated that we know something is up with Cordy because of the way she maneuvered Angel out of the picture so that just she and Connor would be the first ones to see The Beast.

One of the commenters noted that Mutant Enemy had received a lot of negative feedback from fans regarding the burgeoning Angel/Cordelia relationship. That didn't surprise me because I understand that was not a popular development at the time. What did surprise me was the explanation that their romantic involvement was set in motion by Jasmine, which I thought was an obvious ploy to deflect criticism from the fans. I think this explanation needlessly diminished the emotional impact of their relationship on the audience. Regardless, it became a moot point when it was apparent that they really were very much in love at the close of Season 5's "You're Welcome".

David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter's big scene together in "Apocalypse, Nowish" was problematic in a few ways. For one thing, it would have been almost impossible to come close to equalling the quality of their scenes together in "Spin the Bottle". Also, I believe it was Steven DeKnight who said that they had to pack an insane amount of information into this episode, and they used a lot of Cordelia's dialogue to bring the audience back up to date on things that had already happened as well as to set up what would be happening in the future. Despite that, I thought Boreanaz and Carpenter were still successfully able to turn this into a remarkably touching scene.

Similar to how I'd like to limit my "Is it Cordelia or Jasmine" commentary, I might try to limit what I have to say about Carpenter's acting in general. I think she's a lovely, wonderful actress who had already proved both her comedic and dramatic abilities by the time the whole Connor/Jasmine arc reared its ugly head. Since I know what's happening to her character, it's almost impossible for me to be totally objective about Charisma's performances since I hated the turn that her character took. I don't want these posts to devolve into a bunch of foul-mouthed rants about how the character of Cordelia Chase was treated (I think I've already done that in the past), so probably the less I say, the better.

Vincent Kartheiser. Gillum and DeKnight had nothing but praise for Kartheiser, which gave me an enormous amount of satisfaction. Connor was a nasty role to have to play, and I thought Kartheiser went above and beyond the call of duty and magnificently rose to the challenge.

DeKnight mentioned that Vincent gave 110% off-screen, meaning that he was still acting entirely in-character even when another actor was being featured in a close-up. DeKnight also mentioned that, "In editing, we can always cut to Vincent, because there's always about twelve things going on behind his eyes." I often compare Kartheiser to Ray Liotta, in that even when he's "normal" he has that dangerous, slightly creepy look about him. He's the guy that you never really know what he's going to do next. Kartheiser's also a natural for those morally ambiguous roles that I adore so much, where when he's "good" he can be "bad" and vice versa.

I also interpreted DeKnight's "In editing, we can always cut to Vincent...." as meaning that Kartheiser could often make the editors' jobs a lot easier since they could always insert a shot of Vincent to round out a scene, or to perhaps pick up a scene that might have seemed to have been flagging a bit.

Vern Gillum added that Vincent could "bail you out of sequences where it may not be holding up where you think it's going to hold up. He can adjust his performance to make it work.........His first take is as good as it gets." To me I think this was a nice way of saying that Kartheiser could, as I alluded to above, cover up weak or flagging performances from other actors and save the scene.

Regarding Kartheiser's scenes with Charisma Carpenter, again, it's hard for me to be objective because of that semi-incestuous "YUCK" factor involved. About all I can say is, I didn't care for most of their scenes, but they could have been worse.

Wesley and Lilah. Regular readers have probably figured out long ago that the Wesley/Lilah scenes are my favorite scenes in the entire series. I was hoping for more insight into the filming of the deliciously insane "Lilah dressing up like Fred" sequence (complete with glasses), and I was absolutely delighted with what I heard. Gillum started off by stating that he had never directed Alexis Denisof and Stephanie Romanov before, and the implication was that he had to get to know how his actors worked. He continued on with a hilarious conversation that he had with Joss Whedon about how these characters were going to be making love in this scene. They talked about how Wes and Lilah had done it on the table, they'd done it in the kitchen, they'd done it in the chair, they'd done it on the floor, they'd done it on the coffee table, and, of course, "the only place left was the sofa!"

Of course if you've memorized the Wesley/Lilah scenes like I have, you know what Gillum said wasn't strictly true, but it was true enough for our purposes and definitely got the point across. Gillum then laughed at the absurdity of how, before this episode, Wesley and Lilah never bothered to have sex in the most "All-American" way possible. He also said that if we knew about these two we'd know how unusual it was for them to have sex in a place as trite as a sofa.

Steven DeKnight then mentioned that he remembered that Joss Whedon had told Gillum he wanted "more thrusting" in the sex scene. I'm not sure if the actors had to hilariously redo the scene and include "more thrusting" or if the scene simply needed to be re-edited. Regardless, DeKnight continued on that "In editing we had a hard time cutting around because in the dailies they [Denisov and Romanov] are acting up a storm." Again, it's obvious that I'm no movie expert, but I assume that means that the editors had a hard time splicing together a complete scene that didn't include too many R-rated camera angles. I will add that Gillum concurred that their acting was "very realistic".

Steven then correctly said that "Stephanie's great in this because she's doing the whole Fred act, but right under that you can see her vulnerability, that it really does hurt her." He then chuckled a few moments later when he pointed out "Wesley's such a cad" when he ordered Lilah to "leave them on". Finally, DeKnight ended the commentary of this scene by noting that the little bit of "thrusting" we saw as their sequence came to a close actually "went on and on" a lot further in the dailies.

I can't possibly imagine what it's like for two actors to have to perform even a simulated sex scene in a movie or TV show. I'm not sure if there's any formal "how to" manual for actors or even any informal industry standards that actors and directors routinely follow. In other words, do the actors have a reasonable idea of what's expected from them when they show up on the set? (Let's be frank about this: does an actor run the risk of getting slapped by his leading lady for doing something that he thinks is required by the script?) For the actors themselves, I'm sure their feelings in performing these scenes run the gamut from "all in a day's work" to needing a few glasses of Scotch to work up the courage to start the filming.

In my "In Their Own Words...." series of posts for both Stephanie and Alexis, I found glimpses and clues in some of their interviews as to how both of them prepared for their roles. Stephanie gave a fascinatingly detailed description of how she prepares by gradually putting herself into her character's place, while it was clear that Alexis also put a lot of thought into his character's personality and motivations.

One question I had in my "Stephanie" post was, how much of the remarkable chemistry that we saw between the two actors was a result of their acting skills and how much was part of the editing process? From what we heard from Gillum and DeKnight, these two actors put so much into their performances (at least in this episode) the editors had to tone things down in the editing room! It was easy to see from their very first scene together in Season 3's "A New World" how Stephanie and Alexis fed off of each other's energy to create some truly remarkable onscreen magic. Wesley and Lilah's relationship was all about sex, and Alexis and Stephanie had an obligation to deliver the goods. We can make crude jokes about how they were certainly willing to put everything they had into their performances, but we also have to give a nod to their work ethic and how far they were willing to go to give both Joss Whedon and the audience some of the best scenes in the entire series.

Fred and Charles. Both DeKnight and Gillum handed out praise to both actors (with special kudos to J. August Richards) for how they handled this scene at the Hyperion Hotel when a strung-out Fred rejected Gunn's easy-going sexual advances. This scene happened directly after the Wesley/Lilah scene, and this is as good a time as any for me to mention how well the Mutant Enemy creators were able to offer the perfect parallels and contrasts between back-to-back scenes. I don't recall that I've ever mentioned it, but Mutant Enemy was so good at this, their perfect scene shifts almost became cliched.

In this case, Wes and Lilah dealt with their dying relationship by having their hottest sexual encounter of the entire series. In contrast, Fred and Charles dealt with their dying relationship by drawing away from each other. (Technically, Fred drew away from Charles). DeKnight and Gillum mentioned how originally Charles was supposed to start off the scene by telling Fred about a terrifying incident from his childhood that explained his extreme fear of rats, but that part was chopped out because the creators didn't want to cut away from a hot sex scene to a gory story about rodents. As usual, they made the correct call.

Although Fred wasn't in Wesley's apartment in his previous scene with Lilah, she was certainly there in spirit. Wesley didn't have any sort of obvious spiritual presence in Fred and Gunn's scene, aside from the fact that both of them knew about the implications of Wesley helping Fred with her plans to dispatch Seidel in "Supersymmetry". However, when Fred gently chided Charles that he didn't have the right to make the "choice" to kill Seidel in her place, it got me on a train of thought about Wesley in his Watcher role. Charles performed the wonderfully gallant act of killing Seidel so Fred would be able to continue on with her life with a clear conscience. Fred resented his gallantry since she felt it was very important for her to take control over Seidel's fate.

Wesley's motivations for helping Fred by giving her weapons, a magic spell, and transportation to the scene of the crime, were less than pure. He was trying to get back into Fred's good graces and, to be blunt, steal her away from Gunn. However, I can't help but think he would have acted much the same way even if he wasn't making a play for Fred. Wesley, with his strong Watcher tendencies, had an almost unique ability to both protect and empower young women. He had a strong nurturing streak that gave these young women the feeling of almost absolute security when they went on with their dangerous missions. Wes wasn't one for strong motivational speeches, and he didn't give the impression that he was pushing people to do anything beyond their capabilities. He just acted calmly and said and did what needed to be done, which gave women the confidence they needed to achieve their goals. Perhaps deep down Fred realized that, if only on a subconscious level?

Speaking of Professor Seidel's gruesome fate, I was happy to see that we could add Lorne to the list of people (Angel, Wesley) who didn't lose a lot of sleep over the killing of this particular human.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. I'm the first to admit that I might be way over-sensitive to perceived slights by the Mutant Enemy creators to Wesley. It seemed like the writers would allow him to figure out and plan the small potatoes stuff, but they rarely allowed him to be the big hero. Quite often when Wes made a huge discovery, the writers made sure Angel was right there with him, as if they were conjoined twins thinking the same thoughts. An example that comes to mind first is how, in After the Fall Volume 4, both Wesley and Angel realized at the same instant that the only way they could save Los Angeles was by allowing Angel to be killed, which would force the Senior Partners to alter the timeline and return Los Angeles to just before the Fall.

I can understand Mutant Enemy's reasoning, since the show was called Angel and not Wesley. Joss Whedon and Alexis Denisof were also quite frank in their "Spin the Bottle" commentary about how Wesley was never allowed to be as cool as Angel. For the most part they were talking about Wesley's dress and demeanor in action sequences (e.g., lack of a leather jacket), but they could easily have been talking about the quick-wittedness department as well. Again, that makes a certain amount of sense because Angel was over 250 years old and had learned a lot over the years. The part that bothered me the most about all of this was that not only did Wesley never get 100% credit for achieving these huge breakthroughs, Mutant Enemy made him stupid at crucial times which always made things end quite badly for everyone else. Think of Wesley's over-reliance on the false Tro-Clon prophecies from Season 3 which eventually ended up with him being banished from the group while Connor ended up being raised in a hell dimension.

So, I have mixed feelings to say the least about this scene in "Apocalypse, Nowish" where Gunn was the one who provided the key to interpreting the papers Angel got from Lilah at Wolfram & Hart that contained all of the information that had been gleaned from the exploding-brain psychics. DeKnight even mentioned in the commentary that they had gone round-and-round in the planning sessions as to who was going to make the discovery, but they decided to give that honor to Gunn so he would be more than "just the muscle" for the group. Again, that makes sense because Gunn was actually quite intelligent and had an ability to see things much more clearly with his common-sense approach. In other words, he could see the obvious when no one else could. He gave the group the start they needed, while Wesley (and Angel, of course) filled in the rest of the blanks.

I was naturally digging how tough-guy Wesley was looking in this scene when Angel and his gang were trying to bring down The Beast in the trendy LA nightclub, particularly his slow-motion shots with guns blazing away. But, true to form, Wesley's bullets were ineffective, and the gang was no closer to defeating The Beast at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning.

Idle Thoughts. Steven DeKnight told us in his commentary that he had written some episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but "Apocalypse, Nowish" was the first episode he had written for Angel. DeKnight went on to say that he loves writing high-energy action sequences and was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to write for Angel, since it had the reputation for having a lot more exciting fight scenes than Buffy.

The title of this post refers to Revelations 13:11 from the King James Version of the New Testament of the Bible.

Fred seemed to make a big deal out of the fact that Gunn "had it in him" after all to murder Professor Seidel. I wonder what she would have thought if Wesley was the one who killed him?

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