It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel blind

Cinema loves end-of-the-world tales – but then, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t get a big dose of endorphins out of watching zombie hordes ravaging mankind, asteroids punching holes through our planet, or killer chickens devouring us in revenge for kazillions of McNuggets? (Apparently we taste especially good with secret sauce.)

Obviously there’s a certain potency in telling stories of the end of the world that’s difficult to come by when what’s at stake is much smaller. End of your village? Your high school? Your local Tesco’s? Doesn’t quite pack the same punch as the potential end of everyone you ever loved, hated, sat next to in maths classes, bought frozen peas from.

The main problem with Fernando Mereilles’ Blindness is that it doesn’t just want to tell a story about an almost-apocalypse. It wants to have meaning beyond that generated by its story and the plight of its characters. It wants to be symbolic, too, and literary, which isn’t surprising as the film is based on a novel by Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago. Unfortunately the story doesn’t carry the weight of some deeper, symbolic meaning. As a tale of a Very Special Apocalypse it works well enough, in a depressing Lars von Triery way, but it fails to live up to its own ambitions to such an extent, it risks turning the audience against itself. I’m always willing to feel empathy for fictional characters, like the bleeding heart liberal literature lover that I am, but I found myself getting annoyed with the way the film managed to escalate the sheer horridness of its scenario over and over again, mistaking misery for depth.

It’s a shame, because there’s so much skill in almost every facet of the film. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is largely impecable, the editing works. Yet the flawed apocalypse extravaganza that is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later finally works better as a film, mainly because it tries to be less and succeeds to be more. Mereilles’ film, undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two movies, fails to live up to what it so obviously tries to be, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a noble failure, the emphasis being on the latter.

P.S.: Having said that, I’m greatly looking forward to the director’s future work. After City of God and The Constant Gardener, Mereilles would have to turn out the equivalent of Lady in the Water or The Village for me to start thinking that the previous displays of his talent were mere flukes. Even one of his failures is vastly more interesting viewing than a successful Brett Ratner flick.

P.P.S.: Blindness was adapted for the screen by Canadian author/director/actor Don McKellar (who also has a small part in the film). For people looking for an interesting end-of-the-world film that succeeds better, perhaps for trying less hard, check out his Last Night, the sort of apocalypse movie that only the Canadians could pull off.

More series business

How many different series can a person watch and still keep them all apart? Right now we’re watching Angel, House  M.D., Carnivale and Heroes and Grey’s Anatomy, I’m rewatching Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica and Life on Mars, we’ve just finished Fringe and we’re waiting to continue The Sopranos and Buffy. Well, at least no one can accuse me of being a total elitist snob when it comes to telly series…

I enjoyed Fringe because it fulfilled my post-X-Files FBI-investigating-weird-shit cravings. Is it a good series? Not particularly – it’s repetitive, some of the acting is dubious and with half the episodes I think that I’ve seen them before, only Mulder and Scully did them better. It’s great turn-off-your-brain TV fast-food, though, and I’m looking forward to more Leonard Nimoy in season 2. “It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth?” (Damn you, YouTube, for not having a clip of that scene!)

The answer is, "No."

Grey’s Anatomy has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and throughout much of season 4 it wasn’t all that much of a pleasure, to be honest. The series’ problem – well, main problem – is that they’ve got a number of very good actors and even the middling actors know their parts by now, but the writing (especially with respect to character development) covers the whole range from maudlin to obvious to plain bad, with the occasional strong scene. If the series could decide to be a comedy, it wouldn’t matter that most of the characters are written to be highly unprofessional so much of the time (typical example: some patient is dying and needs urgent care, and doctor X decides that this is the right moment to ask doctor Y why they didn’t have sex the previous night – remind me not to get ill in TV Seattle…). It takes very good writing to make the constant jumps from quirky comedy to serious (melo)drama work if the characters aren’t to come across as nincompoops at the mercy of the script. Season 5 had many of those weaknesses, but it had enough strong moments to keep me watching. Still, there are some developments and storylines that just annoy the hell out of me: a resident at a big Seattle hospital going more or less bankrupt from one day to the next because Daddy cuts her trust fund? Swapping one interesting lesbian character for cute but eternally bland blondie because you want eye candy rather than an actual character? Derek Shepard yet again going all pompously self-righteous, and still no one takes one of those circular saws to his perfectly coiffed head?

If we all gang up and stab him with scalpels, it shouldn't take too long...

In the meantime, I’m rather enjoying where Angel season 3 is taking us. Yes, there were a couple of false steps – Gunn and Wesley going all mooney over Fred wasn’t cute, it was just annoying, and having it go on for several episodes made me want to go Angelus on them all – but it’s fascinating to see how Angel, Cordelia and especially Wesley develop during the season. Just 2-3 more episodes to go until season 4 – and I’m ignoring all those people who say that it’s one of the worst seasons ever in the Whedonverse, because it’s something we have to get through before season 5 and “Smile Time” and the (wait for it) bitter-sweet finale. (Yes, Lucy, I put that there just for you…)

Oh, before I forget: gotta love this recent article in The Onion: Next Tarantino Movie An Homage To Beloved Tarantino Movies Of Director’s Youth.

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. How many fights is that? A lot.

And finally: I’ll be writing a weekly entry at The Best Shows You’re Not Watching, alternating between Six Feet Under and Life on Mars. You can find the first one here. Let me know what you think!

Blood gets in my eyes

I think I’ve figured out Grey’s Anatomy. They hire a band of lobotomised monkeys reared on a solid diet of bad soap operas and mashed bananas, and those monkeys write a dozen episodes or so that make me think, “If it wasn’t for Bailey, I wouldn’t continue watching this.” It’s the monkeys who are responsible for badly written, repetitive dreck such as George and Izzie’s relationship, or the nth circle of Meredith-and-McWilltheyorwonttheygettogether? hell. And then, just as I think, “I could be using this time to grate my toenails into a fine dust, or stare at a wall, or re-read The Mists of Avalon, they go down to the attic and get the real writers, the ones with talent and who don’t actively enjoy flinging poo at each other, from their cages, and those writers blink at the computer screens. And then they write the big double episodes, where there’s a major disaster, everyone’s covered in blood, people are dying all over the place…

… and the people working at Seattle Grace pull their heads out of their asses with a resounding pop! (yes, I know, you didn’t actually need that image) and show that they can actually be professional. The show becomes as watchable as it was at the beginning. And you care about the characters again.

And then the writers go back to their rusty cages, and out come the monkeys, with yet more ideas: “Ook ook ook, how about Derek sleeping with this nurse, ook ook, and Mere can’t handle it, and-”

\"It was the best of times, it was the *blurst* of times? Stupid monkey!\"

This is where we leave the chimps to their work and mashed bananas. Yes, they just showed the two-parter “Crash into me”, and it made me like the series again. It was well written, effectively structured, it was moving (yes, it was also manipulative, but why would we watch hospital soaps if we didn’t want to be manipulated into caring?), it was funny and sad and thrilling. And it reminded me why there was a time when I didn’t try to will Callie off screen every time she appeared, with one short, throwaway line at Sloane’s expense.

Some especially nice moments:

  • Bailey’s handling of the white supremacist was great to watch – but Christina very much had a point when she told Bailey she resented having been used by her to goad Swastika Man – that she resented, in effect, having been made use of for racial reasons. And Bailey knew it. And yes, it was a bad moment for Christina to speak up, but she was right to do so.
  • George’s scene with the Tattooed Git. “A black woman saved your life at a great personal cost, so maybe next time you’re looking at your tattoo and you’re thinking how much better all us white guys are than everyone else, you think about that. Because between you and me, if I’d been alone in that OR, you’d probably be dead right now. And since we’re sharing belief systems, I believe if you were dead? The world would be a better place.” It may not read like much, but coming from gentle George with his slight stutter, it packs a punch.
  • What Bailey does to the swastika tattoo.
  • Hahn: “You won’t hit on me?”
    Sloane: “I can’t promise that.”
  • Hahn: “If I say please?”
    Callie, with the coolest half-smile: “He still can’t promise that.”
    Hee!

\"It\'s for the monkeys! They\'ve run out of red ink for their typewriter ribbons.\"

Chekhov’s carotid artery

If you’re watching a hospital soap, and it introduces a patient whose carotid artery is only protected by a thin flap of skin after an operation, what do you think’ll happen?

Yes, it’s Tuesday, which means that yesterday evening was Grey’s Anatomy. While it didn’t figure any pencils-in-eyesockets, it was still not exactly the show I should be watching while eating merguez. However, what usually ruined my appetite while watching the show was the increasing lack of development as far as the characters and their relationships are concerned. At times, the show now feels like E.R. as scripted by Beckett – for all the romantic back-and-froing, there’s a distinct lack of getting anywhere.

However, while too many of the characters now behave like lobotomised idiots who shouldn’t be allowed to practice medicine (they’d probably be taxed by practising the recorder), the patients are where it’s at. The Grey writer are quite amazing, really: it takes them 3+ seasons to make me bored and annoyed with the main cast, yet it takes them 30 minutes to make me care about characters who come into the series to be sick and die.

Can’t say I care yet about Carotid Artery Boy, mainly because I keep looking at him and thinking, “I wonder if it’s full moon already…” Yep, that’s the problem you get when you play a werewolf on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I’d be the same if Leonard Nimoy turned up on House… “Do they have green blood on stock? I wonder…” Putting Greg House and Mr Spock in the same room would be sheer geek awesomeness, though.)

P.S.: Don’t worry, an entry on Fun Home is still to follow. Hopefully even before the move. (Sigh.)

Soap gets in my eyes

I’ve admitted this before: I watch Grey’s Anatomy. And here comes an even bigger admission: no, I don’t just watch it because my girlfriend does. In fact, I like it – or rather, I used to like it. I liked the characters, especially Bailey and Christina.

Throughout the third season, though, I’ve started to find several of the characters kickable. In some cases that’s because they’re snivelling, self-righteous idiots. Which is fine, really; I don’t need everyone in the series I watch to be 100% likeable. I’d even say that series that try to make their characters too likeable will quickly become insipid.

They’re expecting me to speak those lines? And in front of other people?

What I mind, though, is how some characters have been reduced more and more to one-dimensional cardboard cutouts of their former selves. The worst offender in that respect is Izzie. She’s never been the most complex character – but within the confines of the genre of medical soap, she had some depth and even genuine tragedy.

Lately, though, her character has been reduced to one thing, and one thing only: pining for George. I don’t mind her pining, but I very much mind this being her only characteristic. (And no, saving Bambi does not make her a fuller, more interesting character.) Some actors can pull off two-dimensionality well and even make it into something more interesting – Bailey isn’t a cool character to watch because her writing is so much more complex, but Chandra Wilson turns the scripts into a living, breathing human being. When her material is good, Katherine Heigl does well, but with the sheer insipidity that she’s been given throughout the last ten episodes or so Izzie is becoming more and more ridiculous and unbelievable as a character.

And I can’t believe that I’m getting worked up about a medical soap! Gotta go watch some HBO, gotta go watch some HBO…

Her name is Bambi?

Nope, but it might as well be… Okay, what on earth am I talking about? Grey’s Anatomy season 4, which just started over here.

I’ll get it out of the way first and foremost. I basically like Grey’s Anatomy. I like watching many of the characters, and usually, when it gets too soppy, I just bite my tongue until the next time Christina or Bailey are back on screen and then I’m okay. However, I got very tired of the non-medical soap opera in season 3. And the season 4 starter didn’t much convince me that change was inevitable, however much Meredith rambled on about it in her voice-over.

And what I really mind, not specifically about this series but about so many soap operas in general: I don’t want to be told who to like and who to dislike. I want to figure that out for myself. And I especially dislike being told (implicitly, of course, but not very subtly) that I’m supposed to like character A when I’ve just come to the conclusion that character A is an idiot and is wasting my time. And no, just because a character is made out to be all cute and adorable doesn’t mean that I can’t dislike her.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lexie Grey.

Yes. She’s cute as a button. I hate her.

(Warning: If you’re tired of my “I love HBO” sermons, this is where you go and read that other blog. You know, the one by that guy who writes about these things. And there are pictures and stuff.)

That’s one of the things I love about Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood, or even Battlestar Galactica (okay, that one isn’t HBO). No one tells me that I have to like Tony Soprano or Alma Garret or Nate Fisher. In fact, it’s absolutely okay for me to dislike Starbuck (which I don’t – but I could!) or Claire or Carmela. And, what is more important, the characters are deeper, more real – they can’t be reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys. You may feel understanding for them, but that doesn’t stop you from shouting at them in the next scene, telling them to stop being so fucking stupid, goddamnit, cocksuckers!

Okay… perhaps I should try to reduce the weekly dose of Deadwood.

No more House calls for a while

On Monday, Swiss television showed the season 3 finales of both House, M.D. and Lost. We haven’t seen the latter yet, but it probably says it all that the best moment of House, at least for me, was the Chase/Cameron kiss. That scene was sweet, but the actual medical case was too vague and the character interaction not very interesting. The House vs. God angle had also been done previously. All in all it felt like the series could do with a couple of months off. Seeing as season 4, cut short by striking writers, is just about over in the States, we might get it fairly soon…

Gregory House, looking dark and depressed in between snarky quips

… but first, we’ve got the grand return of Grey’s Anatomy (at a point where I sometimes feel that if I have to watch McDreamy be a self-righteous, self-infatuated git for another minute, I’ll find the actor and put his face through a meat grinder), doubled up with Private Practice, the Grey spin-off that got started in an atrociously written and at best adequately acted two-parter on its mother series.

How’s a man to cope – especially when this man knows that there are only six more episodes of Deadwood? Like, ever? Come to think of it, I’d like to see a cross-over where some select characters from Grey’s Anatomy and perhaps Desperate Housewives stop by the picturesque little town of Deadwood. Derek Shepherd could open a practice with Dan Doherty as opthalmologist. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, unless you’re still hoping to watch season 3 of Deadwood.)

Six Feet Under is also almost over – two more episodes. What next? We’ve got a fair choice of series: Rome, The Wire, Carnivàle, season 6 of The Sopranos. Then there’s more escapist or pulpy fare: Heroes, Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Dexter. I’ve heard very good things about the latter series, especially season 2 – which came as a bit of a surprise, as the second Dexter novel was quite a bit weaker than the first. I guess that sometimes film and TV can improve on books…

And to end this very meandering blog entry, here’s a YouTube clip – the very effective opening credits for Dexter, a show whose ‘hero’ is a serial killer… who is intent on only killing ‘bad guys’: