It’s about cats. Singing and dancing cats. You’ll love it.

Years ago, I went to see the stage version of The Lion King in London. As the lights went down and people stopped talking, knowing that the show was about to begin, a kid one or two rows in front of me piped up. “I don’t like lions!” Well, tough, kid, you’re going to get lions, whether you like them or not.

Most people like lions, if they keep their distance and don’t attempt to eat you or your loved ones. What many people don’t like? Musicals. Some people don’t like action films, others aren’t really into horror movies, but I don’t think there’s a single genre that as many people claim not to like as musicals. To be honest, though: until a few years ago, I would have said the same, though I may have qualified it a bit more – I don’t like the Platonic ideal (i.e. the pretentiously formulated stereotype) of a musical that people may think of when the genre comes up. At the same time, some of the films I liked best growing up were musicals, such as Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve even rewatched some musicals that didn’t click for me when I was growing up, like West Side Story, and I’ve come to greatly enjoy them. Similarly, “Once More With Feeling” is one of my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Killer, and I’d defend its artistic merits as much as I would those of my favourite less jazz-handy episodes.

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Fighting the franchise funk

Over the last few years we’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies with a friend who lives abroad; every time she’s been over, we watched another one or two of the films, and over the holidays we saw the two parts of Deathly Hallows, in my case for the third or fourth time. As far as I’m aware, the first part fared less well with critics and audiences than the second one, and it’s clear why: it’s definitely the less crowd-pleasing film of the two. Its plot meanders, what big setpieces there are don’t feel as cathartic as the showdown against Voldemort, and a lot of the movie seems to be dedicated to Harry, Hermione and, with some interruptions, Ron hiking, camping and generally looking wet, cold and miserable.

Nonetheless, rewatching the two films, I found myself clearly preferring the first one. Deathly Hallows Part 2 largely works because it’s the end of a journey, but it feels (and felt even when I first watched it) perfunctory to some extent. We need to resolve the different plot strands, we need to bring closure to Snape’s story, we need to dispose of the remaining horcruxes and of Voldemort himself – but little of this feels like it tells us anything about the characters. We know that Harry is brave, Hermione is smart and Ron is, well, Ron, and we also know that the visual effects wizards are great at doing what they do, as are the designers, artists and everyone else responsible for the way the film looks and sounds. After a while, though, setpieces become interchangeable, and while the escape from a fiery Room of Requirement is exciting in the moment, it’s also strangely bland. It’s a Harry Potter movie, of course there would be some chase or fight involving pixel magic, derring do and last-minute escapes. It’s fan service to some extent, but fan service isn’t automatically bad.

It's quidditch time!

However, there are moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1 that are decidedly different, that are quiet and unexpected, that have nothing to do with crowd-pleasing 3D whooshery. The film already starts with some of these scenes, filled with foreboding and sadness, as Hermione for instance wipes herself from her parents’ memories so they’d be safe. It’s a largely wordless scene, not of teary farewells but of loss and poignant resolve. Another scene I found surprising and delighting was the animated Tale of the Three Brothers; and later, as Ron is temporarily off and Harry and Hermione are alone, Nick Cave’s “O Children” plays on the radio, and Harry engages his friend of many years in a clumsy, sweet dance. It doesn’t further the plot, and it doesn’t get the pulse racing with excitement and danger – but it surprised and enchanted this muggle here more than all of the final part of the final part of Harry Potter.

Obviously the Potteriad wouldn’t have worked, or at least been as successful, if all it consisted of were these quiet, unexpected, intimate moments (though it would be intriguing to see someone try their hand at creating the Before Sunrise of the wizarding world) – but for me it highlights both the shortcomings and the potential of big franchises. Many of the fans love the Harry Potter films for the magic and the world, the quidditch matches and firebreathing dragons and wizards’ duels, so obviously these are things by which later instalments are judged. We want what we know, what is comfortable, because that’s how we came to love the franchise. These expectations are reasonable, but they’re also a trap, keeping a franchise frozen like an insect in amber. It’s similar with something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we get some variation between the different strands – Iron Man isn’t the same as Captain America, whose pulpy WW2 first instalment and more sombre second film differ from Thor‘s sci-fi/mythology mashup – but we know what we’ll get, namely some good action setpieces, some snarky humour and a band of heroic characters that need to put their rivalries and disagreement aside and come together as a family to defeat some colourful yet dull villain – or, if you’re lucky, Tom Hiddleston.

Loki here!

Franchises are the storytelling equivalent of comfort food: when you want a plate of spaghetti, you don’t want it to surprise you with chopped coriander or shiitake mushrooms or a honey-aceto balsamico reduction with shavings of shock-frosted lamb’s kidney. The line between comfort food and tinned spaghetti is thin, though, and there’s always a risk of that exciting quidditch match or that bit where the Hulk goes smash getting stale, to the extent where you hardly know which particular instalment you’re watching at the time. Franchises thrive on constancy, on giving fans what they want, but they can’t be that and that only if they want to be alive and vibrant. They need scenes like Harry and Hermione’s awkward dance to Nick Cave, just like they need Trevor “I am (not) the Mandarin” Slattery. They need to be willing to withhold the simple, immediate gratification of More Of The Same” at times if they want to be good and not just safe. And there’s potential in exactly this: fans know what to expect, so you can surprise them by playing with the format. The most memorable episodes in TV series (which tend to be prone to becoming formulaic) are often the ones that, once the format has been established, play with the formula: Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body”or “Once More With Feeling”, House M.D.‘s “Three Stories”,  M*A*S*H‘s “The Interview”. It’s because people know the formula that they see how it’s played with, and if it works, it can create some of the most memorable moments a franchise can afford.

Doing that with an entire film is risky: people who go and watch a Harry Potter movie want to see an adventure for the whole family, with magic and special effects setpieces. Iron Man fans want an action comedy with explosions, flying metal suits and Robert Downey Jr. doing what he does so well. But the safety net of the franchise shouldn’t become a prison. By all means, establish a formula, make us fall in love with the flying brooms, the comic-book villainy, the TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers and light sabres. But use those things as a starting point. Don’t just give us what we already know we want: surprise us and win our hearts again by whisking us into a clumsy, earnest dance to the strains of “O Children”. Because being a franchise doesn’t mean we want to watch the same movie over and over again, forever stuck on repeat.

Doctors and vampires and ghosts, oh my!

Okay, time for a confession: although I have a UK passport, I fail the Brit Purity Test on several counts. 1) I don’t like football. 2) I am painfully indifferent to cricket. 3) I neither love nor hate Marmite.

The most egregious, though, is this: 4) I don’t get Doctor Who.

Let me repeat that: I don’t get Doctor Who. Admittedly, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but what I’ve seen has left me… non-plussed, I guess. Somewhat confused at what all the fuss is about.

Let’s start at the beginning. My mum, the born-and-bred Brit in the nuclear family, was never much into sci-fi, and she told me at an early age that Doctor Who was a load of rubbish. Living in a country far, far away (let’s put it like this: we can see Europe from here!), it was never on TV, at least as far as I could tell, so I was never able to catch an episode as a kid. I had some faint awareness of the series and its trappings: that weirdo blue phone box-looking thing, a ’70s guy with curly hair and a long, multicoloured scarf, and low-rent, evil R2D2-alikes going “Exterminate! Exterminate!” like so many homicidal Stephen Hawkings. But I’d never seen an episode.

Growing up, I picked up info about the series here and there – but it was only a few years ago, when Doctor Who got the Christopher Eccleston treatment that I thought perhaps I should check it out. A few years later I got a three-episode DVD set for Christmas, which had been gathering dust on a shelf until a week or two ago, when I decided that The Time Had Come. I was going to check out the series and finally get an idea of what all the fuss is about. (For the record, the three episodes I’ve seen are the first episodes featuring Eccleston as the Doctor.)

For the first two episodes (“Rose” and “The End of the World”), I simply didn’t get it at all. The acting was broad, the writing lacked wit, Billie Piper… actually, Piper, an actress I don’t usually like, was probably the best thing about it, keeping things relatively grounded. My main problem, though, was that the series seemed to be firmly aimed at kids. I understand that it’s something of a UK tradition for children to watch the series while hiding behind the sofa because it’s allegedly scary (hundreds of thousands of British kids must’ve grown up afraid of plastic trashcans…), but since so many of the people extolling the virtues of Doctor Who were in their 20s and 30s, I expected something more, well, mature? I don’t mind tongue in cheek, but the winking, isn’t-this-a-lark tone reminded me mostly of Christmas pantos. The humour mostly fell flat, and the cheesy production values didn’t feel charming so much as smugly self-satisfied, less idiosyncratic style than shtick.

I came this close to getting it, though, with the third episode, “The Unquiet Dead”, featuring Charles Dickens (acted by Simon Callow with genuine charm) and space zombies. The ingredients were the same – moderately scary villains with a sci-fi slant, tongue-in-cheek humour, Billie Piper’s mouth hanging open – but Mark Gatiss’ scriptworked, added to which the episode knew well enough to take its central conceits seriously enough. With the tone a lot less all over the place, I could see why people would take to the character and to the series’ mix of sci-fi, mild horror and British eccentricity. (In fact, I hope this Gatiss fellow finds some more writing jobs – if only there was another BBC series about an eccentric, intellectually brilliant main character with a loyal companion where the man could use his talents…)

I might end up checking out more episodes, in the hope that they are more along the lines of “The Unquiet Dead” – but I’m not sure I trust the series to balance its tone so it doesn’t come across feeling silly rather than charming and pandering rather than scary. We’re currently watching another BBC series that to my mind has similar problems with tone: Being Human. I enjoy the series well enough, but it is very hit-and-miss in how it combines high-concept, whimsical sitcom, horror clichés, Neil Gaimanesque supernatural-meets-the-mundane and character-driven drama.

In fact, both of these series have given me a new appreciation for Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy. Whedon isn’t always perfect, and when he’s bad he’s ghastly – but he is amazingly deft when it comes to juggling wildly different tones and managing to be funny, poignant and scary at the same time. While his sense of humour is also very ironic, it maintains the integrity of his characters and what they’re going through; the occasional wink to the audience is handled well enough for the audience to chortle but still take the protagonists seriously. And all of this in spite of similarly cheesy production values as in Doctor Who.

So there it is, good people. Give me Whedon instead of Time Lords in Tardises (Tardii?). The question remains: where do I hand in my passport?

P.S.: None of this would’ve happened if I had been raised on a steady diet of Doctor Who, The Ashes and Man U. But I did watch Casualty religiously for several years – shouldn’t that count for something?

If you wish upon a star spangled banner

We’re slowly sidling up to the fifth season of The West Wing – apparently the one where most people agree things went down the drain. From what you can read on the web, it’s held in about as much esteem as Buffy the Vampire Slayer S6. Well, if that means that we’ve got The West Wing‘s “Once More With Feelings” to look forward to, I guess I can cope.

We’ve just seen the President decide not to stand idly by while a genocide takes place in an African country. The situation’s an obvious take on Rwanda, and on the United States’ mealy-mouthed reaction to that genocide, right down to the semantic games played to justify inaction. President Bartlet asks one of his staffers, “Why is a Kudanese life worth less to me than an American life?”, and the staffer replies, honestly: “I don’t know, but it is.”

Except that’s not good enough any more for the President. He decides that the US lose any justification they have to self-righteousness if they do not intervene. Basically, Bartlet does what Clinton, back in 1994, didn’t do, for various reasons.

Watching The West Wing now, years after it was first broadcast, I was a bit non-plussed by this storyline. As it developed, it felt very much like a “What if?”, but one that had strong elements of left-wing wish fulfilment. What if we could go back to 1994 and act differently? What if we’d lived up to the standards we set for ourselves, and the image we project of the United States? Nothing against a “What if?” scenario, but this one felt a bit like “Well, if we finally do the right thing in fiction, that must be worth something, right?”

Admittedly, this isn’t altogether fair to the series. For one thing, the storyline has only just begun, and I doubt it’ll remain as clear-cut. The series has never suggested that what ought to be done is easy or that it doesn’t have any repercussions. More than that, though, President Bartlet’s decision to intervene is obviously not entirely selfless – after all, the previous season’s final episode had him deciding to have the Foreign Minister of a Middle Eastern state assassinated due to his close ties to Islamist terrorists. While The West Wing has a weird habit of forgetting everything about characters it doesn’t quite know what to do with (Where’s Ainsley at? Where’s the girl, Jed? Where the fuck is Ainsley, huh, Jed? – Ah, to be honest, she can stay lost in the same place as Mandy, for all I care…), it doesn’t forget its characters’ transgressions – and hey, if there’s anything white liberals, especially of the lapsed Catholic persuasion, are really good at, it’s guilt, isn’t it?

On a very different note: when Donald Moffat turned up as C.J. Cregg’s dad a couple of episodes ago, my first thought was: “It’s the President!”  Moffat’s one of the US actors who have played POTUS (in his case in the Tom Clancy movie Clear and Present Danger) – which made me think that it would be fun to have a West Wing episode where all the guest stars are erstwhile presidents of the United States. Of course James Cromwell would beat them all… and a quick Google search has revealed to me that he may just turn up on the series. Guess what he’ll be playing…

Always running… from something!

Avid readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m fairly keen on Messrs. Vaughn and Whedon’s work in comics… so when Joss Whedon was set to write the next series of Runaways, I was excited. Both writers have similar strengths; their writing is witty, they create ensemble casts of characters that gel extremely well, and they tell a good story while providing more than enough ambiguity to keep things interesting beyond the plot.

I recently re-read Vaughn’s original three Runaways volumes and apart from a couple of minor issues (such as the slightly inconsistent quality of the artwork – there’s some gorgeous work there, but some panels and some of the inking feel rushed) I greatly enjoyed it. Coming away from Whedon’s run with the kids, however, has left me somewhat disappointed. When he’s at his best, Whedon is a fantastic storyteller, getting you involved way more than I would have expected from stories about teen vampire slayers or space cowboys. He’s not infallible, though; his first Serenity comic, while not abysmal, was in no way as memorable as the TV series, for instance.

And now, Dead End Kids: my first and main thought throughout was, “I wonder what Brian K. Vaughn would have made out of the material.” Again, Whedon’s writing isn’t bad, but there’s little of the sense of surprise or freshness that Vaughn’s stories had. The kids feel ever so slightly less real and more like comic book teens. (And don’t think you can worm your way into my heart by introducing a new regular character that comes from where I live, insiduous comic!) The art is absolutely fine, but it lacks the quirk of Alphona’s best panels. And the time travel gimmick, while fun, also comes across as a tad overused. In that respect, the story feels a bit as if Joss Whedon had written an episode of Star Trek.

Nevertheless, there are moments when Whedon’s talent shows. Even if the time travel plot is a tad overdone, its denouement is more poignant than I would have expected. There are some interesting hints at the direction in which especially one character might develop, with a daringly cruel punishment for two of the story’s villains. And there’s a couple of pages ending in the death of a minor (or should I say “small”?) character that had me giggle and go “Yewwww!” at the same time.

Was it worth getting the comic? Yes. Was it as good as the other volumes? That’s a definite no. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to Vaughn’s use of Whedon’s characters now. If I’m lucky, the first two volumes of Buffy: Season Eight (the comic-book continuation of a certain barely known TV series that Whedon supposedly had a hand in) should arrive this week, and if memory serves Vaughn has penned a Faith storyline. Should be fun to see how that one’s turned out.

On a very different note: we completed The Wire season 2. ***Warning: some spoilers to follow.*** Apparently there are people that didn’t like the second season too much, mainly because they wanted more Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell and everyone’s favourite junkie Bubbles and fewer paunchy white guys with bald spots and union shenanigans. Okay, I could have done with more Bubbles too (who couldn’t?), but season 1, while tighter, didn’t have the tragedy of Frank Sobotka. The ending of episode 11, “Bad Dreams”, builds up to one of the saddest fade-outs I can remember. In a way, the reveal at the beginning of the twelfth and final episode of the season isn’t half as sad as seeing Frank walk towards his fate. Even Ziggy, one of the major fuckheads of television history, becomes a tragic character when you see the larger context of what is going on. Yet for all the sadness that permeates the season ending, the series never loses the anger and sense of humour that make it bearable. At least in the first two seasons – I may very well be setting myself up for a broken heart in any of the three remaining seasons.

… do as the Belgians do

After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – “Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was.

Pause.

It’s in Belgium.

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is an effective, strangely affecting black comedy. It’s by no means a great movie, but what it does it does tremendously well. Many of the reviews compare it to Tarantino’s films and to the modern Brit gangster flicks such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but both of these comparisons miss the persuasive streak of sadness that runs through the film.

Clearly there are elements of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but these similarities only go skin deep. (Two humanised hitmen spouting funny, quotable lines.) A more apt comparison would be Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, both in its absurdity and in the way its characters are acutely aware of their guilt yet unable to verbalise their feelings. Both Pinter’s early play and McDonagh’s film work as comedy, yet it wouldn’t be fair to either to dismiss them as just that.

A lot of the sadness that permeates (yes, I’m using that pretentious word – deal with it) the film, clearly helped by the medieval morbidity of Bruges and Carter Burwell’s simple yet effective score, comes from Brendan Gleeson. However, while Gleeson’s performance is spot on, it isn’t that different from many of his earlier dubious yet loveable characters (his best to date, as far as I can tell at least, would probably be Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General). For me, the true standout performance, surprisingly, was Colin Farrell, both funnier and more touching than I’ve ever seen him. (Disconcertingly, Farrell’s second best performance was in a Joel Schumacher film, Tigerland. How’s that for scary?)

In Bruges falters towards the end, with a finale that ramps up the absurdity at the price of its earlier moodiness, but the film remains a small gem composed of moments of unexpected beauty. And how often do you get the chance to see Ralph Fiennes play the Ben Kingsley part from Sexy Beast?

Coming up next (hopefully sooner than this update): Is it possible that the Goofy Beast was slightly disappointed with a Joss Whedon-penned comic? (No, not Buffy.)

Mais le chat, elle ne reviendra jamais…

I don’t particularly like superhero comics.

I treasure my copies of Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Top Ten, Promethea (notice something?), Arkham Asylum, Superman: Red Son.

And now the complete Joss Whedon run of Astonishing X-Men.

Contradiction? No. What I like is that those books and those writers do something interesting, memorable, sometimes subversive and often just plain cool with the superhero template.

While I’ll always consider Watchmen one of the masterpieces of comics (and, if pressed on the matter, literature altogether), I’ve got a special soft spot for Whedon’s X-Men. Moore is a fantastic writer but he’s mainly an ideas man. Almost no one beats my man Whedon (check out this male white nerd and his command of embarrassing language!) at characters. Firefly and Buffy wouldn’t be a tenth as good if you didn’t want to spend time with the characters. Whedon is adept at making you fall in love with the characters…

… and then breaking your heart.

I’m over what he did to Wash. No, really, I am. I know why he did it and I appreciate it. I want fictional characters to generate feelings in me, and I’m the kind of morbid git who takes the death of a character as final proof of these feelings. Thing is, unless I can believe that a character may die, I will not develop any deep feelings towards that character because, well, they’re not real. In a way, what makes characters real for me (apart from good writing and acting, of course) is that they have a life, and that life may end. If I know that a character can’t and won’t die (because the writers, producers or fans won’t allow it), then they’re no more real to me than my avatar in a computer game, with an unlimited supply of credits.

The flipside of that is, of course, that it allows writers like Joss Whedon, again and again, to break my heart. And, morbid Whedon-bitch that I am, I like the way it hurts.

But if I ever meet him in real life, I’ll have to kick the man’s shin until it drops off.

P.S.: I don’t care whether you’re into superhero comics or not. If you’ve liked any of Joss Whedon’s writing, if you enjoyed Firefly (in spite of not being a sci-fi fan), if you got into Buffy (in spite of the bad make up and silly special effects and, worse, the whole high school vibe) – read Astonishing X-Men. For some silly reason, I started with vol. 2, definitely the weakest of the run, yet I was still hooked on his character writing.

P.P.S.: Another thing that Whedon does very well is sexual attraction. And there’s some of that in Astonishing X-Men, in the last place where you might expect it. Hee.

P.P.P.S.: Yes, today’s blog entry has a title à clef. I’m allowed to be pretentious every now and then.