May Variety Pack

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but it’s a good time for them, since I’ve seen a couple of movies, none of which necessarily warrant a longer write-up. Of course, having said that, I’ll probably write more about each than was originally planned… Anyway, without much further ado, here goes.

Iron Man 3

I’m not really familiar with the Iron Man comics. I’ve read the occasional Marvel comic, but my interest was usually piqued by a writer doing a limited run, say, Joss Whedon or Brian K. Vaughan. I very much enjoyed the first Iron Man film for its sense of fun, something that Christopher Nolan’s po-faced Batman movies very much lacked. Iron Man 2, though… The less said, the better. Even Robert Downey Jr couldn’t salvage that one, nor could Don Cheadle joining the cast to replace Terrence Howard, an actor I have an irrational dislike of.

Ah, but who is Felix and who is Oscar?

I went into the third Iron Man film expecting RDJ being RDJ, plus some cool, exciting action set pieces. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was a super hero movie almost as good as The Avengers. The latter does that thing Whedon does so well, bringing together an ensemble and playing them off each other in great ways, but it’s flabby in its structure and pacing. Iron Man 3 is also too long, but damn it, if it doesn’t entertain almost during its entire run! Shane Black’s script is great fun and a surprising amount of wit, the action is exciting, and (comic readers, you may want to skip to the next paragraph) the Mandarin’s re-invention is clever and effective, with Ben Kingsley having more fun than he’s had since his guest appearance on The Sopranos. I’d say that this film is the second-best of the Marvel films to date (admittedly, I haven’t seen Captain America, which supposedly is great popcorn cinema too) and better than The Avengers in a couple of ways.

Hey, it’s even made me enjoy Gwyneth Paltrow, which is a rare occurrence these days.

Side Effects

There was a time when I would have been deeply sad for Steven Soderbergh to retire from movie making. These days, not so much – while I did enjoy Contagion, as depressingly eager as that film was to kill off everyone I cared about, I came to enjoy Soderbergh most during his productive phase in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and most of his films in the last ten years haven’t done much for me. He’s always been eminently skilled, but I found his Che rather unengaging, The Informant! felt like it wanted to be a Coen Brothers movie instead, and Ocean’s Thirteen was a tired retread of Ocean’s Eleven (whereas the more flawed Ocean’s Twelve was, unexpectedly, a formally daring slice of Nouvelle Nouvelle Vague). Little of Soderbergh’s filmography in the last decade has held my interest other than in a rather abstract, “Let’s see what he’s doing this time” way.

That's it, bitches, I'm outta here! Ahem.

Apparently Side Effects is his last movie, although it’s likely he’ll still be making films for TV – at which point the distinction becomes somewhat moot, especially for someone who watches most things on DVD and Blu-ray. Is it a worthwhile sort-of-swan song? Well, let’s put it like this: I won’t remember much about the film in a month or so. It’s an effective genre piece, the sort of thriller that’s constructed like clockwork, and it did manage to surprise me once or twice, but as so many thrillers that put the emphasis on structure rather than characters it comes off as a rather empty experience in the end. There’s a mean streak in the script, which is undercut by Soderbergh using a rather clinical style; shot differently, say by a Brian De Palma, the film would feel sleazy, whereas now it feels like a stylish but very slight genre piece, with a number of interesting tangents simply not developed further. In the end, I came away reasonably entertained, but I don’t think the film will leave much of a trace in my mind a month from now. Except the glib ending that pushed the reset button on one character and the effects the story has on him: that one I’m likely to remember for a while, but not in any good way.

Ah well. I won’t mourn for Steven Soderbergh, based on this film. I’ll just go to my DVD shelf and get out Traffic, Solaris and Ocean’s 11. And if I really need a fix, I may just give that Behind the Candelabra a camp, over-the-top twirl.

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?

Late to the Party: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Mwhahahahahaha!

I know I’m once again half a year (or more) behind the rest of the internet – but I finally got around to watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, done by the Whedon brothers and some of their mates for a song and a half.

So that's coming along well then...

A lot has already been written about Dr Horrible, perhaps the world’s first internet-spawned super-villain musical starring Doogie Howser, M.D. So, not to bore people too much, let me fast-forward through the important bits (skip to the end!): I liked it a lot, the songs are infectious, it does have rather major tonal shifts, to the extent where some people thought that the ending sucked because it turned a light-and-frothy lark into something dark and depressing. Several critics accused Joss Whedon of doing what he always does (make the audience care about characters only to do horr- erm, heinous things to them) and of creating a female character that was supposedly a sexist cliché with no life or meaning of her own beyond what she meant to the male protagonists/antagonists.

While clearly some people might not enjoy Dr. Horrible, I do think that those who were surprised by the darkness of the ending weren’t really watching this. While the tone of the first two acts is largely fun and witty, there are some major scenes (and, perhaps more importantly, songs) that hinted at less fun things to come. I mean, honestly, people! Didn’t you watch the beginning of Act II? Or Penny’s song?

That’s also where my problem with the second main complaint comes in, namely that Penny (or “Whats-her-name”, as her close friends of the press know her) isn’t so much a character as a plot device. For one thing, clearly all of the three main characters are primarily stereotypes (with a couple of individual quirks, because otherwise it wouldn’t be Whedon). If Dr. Horrible is bad because Penny isn’t a character of Chekhovian richness, what about Captain Hammer, corporate tool? If any one character remains barely one-dimensional, it’s him. And yes, Penny is definitely also a projection pane for all the “nice guys” out there who secretly carry a torch for the nice, shy, somewhat nerdy girl with the cute smile, just as Billy is a perfect identification figure – which makes the ending more effective, in my opinion.

But what makes her a richer character than some have acknowledged is how, to some extent, she is complicit in what happens. Penny isn’t blind to Captain Hammer’s less charming qualities, but she projects her own needs onto him as much as Billy projects his onto her. Listen to her laundromat song and look at her face while she sings it, and it’s obvious that the character isn’t some Mother Theresa of the Laundromats: her niceness, her need to help others, these are a self-willed resignation that she’ll never get what she really wants, so the best she can hope for is to try and make things better for others while she’s pretty much given up on herself and her own wishes. Once the Hammer-man enters the pic, she can pretend that he’s her means of being happy, until even she can’t ignore his downright idiocy and vulgarity. But all of this is an act of will on her part: to do for others what she cannot do for herself, to resign herself to Captain Hammer because, well, it’s not as if she could do any better, could she?

I could spout some more pseudo-psychological drivel here, but I’m going to spare you. If you haven’t seen Dr. Horrible (and my post so far hasn’t turned you off it), do check it out. Get the DVD and you’ll even get Commentary! the Musical, Wiccan subtitles (?!) and fan-submitted application videos to the Evil League of Evil, such as this one:

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.

Whys and wherefores: hot monkey love for Brian K. Vaughan

I’ve been re-reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man over the last week or two, in preparation for the last volume to come out. (It shouldn’t be much longer than another month or so.) In the last few years, Vaughan has become one of my favourite comic writers. He’s no Alan Moore and he’s no Neil Gaiman (then again, these days Gaiman himself is no Neil Gaiman, it would seem), but his appeal is entirely different from those. In style, and in quality, he’s much closer to Joss Whedon – Vaughan knows how to tell a good story with wit and people it with characters you care about.

Like most of the Vaughan comics I’ve read, Y: The Last Man is a great example of high concept: the story’s premise is that every male mammal on Earth dies under mysterious circumstances, except for one Yorick Brown, ex-literature major and hobby escape artist, and his monkey Ampersand. However, it isn’t the premise that makes this a fun, exciting, witty ride. The world of Y takes a sketchy starting point and fills it with credible detail. (Well, mostly – I’m still not sure I buy the S/M intervention staged for Yorick in volume 4…) And, just like Whedon at his best, it’s just great fun to listen to his characters. This is one of the comics where much of the action is in the talking – but when there is action, it means something more than the nth installment of Super Guy vs. Evil Dude.

There\'s a monkey on your back, dude...

There’s perhaps one thing that I dislike a bit about Y, and it’s no coincidence perhaps that Vaughan also writes for the TV series Lost: at times the narrative meanders, goes zig zag. Most detours are fun enough to follow, but like Lost this is a series that at least pretends to have a plan, and just like Lost this pretense isn’t always very convincing. Without a plan, it feels like the story is arbitrary, which weakens the central mysteries and unanswered questions, such as, “What killed all the dudes?”, arguably a bigger question than “What exactly is that Smoke Monster?”. At times, if it wasn’t for the writing and characters, you’d be tempted to say, “So? Where exactly is this going?” I don’t mind some element of making it up as you go along, but arbitrariness is poison for a plot-heavy narrative.

And this might out me as the biggest closet case in history (which would come as a surprise to myself, really), but… Why is it that 90% of the women in Y are hot, slim, curvy babes? For once, we can’t blame the comic artist – Pia Guerra, the series’ co-creator and lead penciller, is very much a woman. So, for once, don’t blame us XY types!

P.S.: Other Brian K. Vaughan comics that come with the Goofy Beast Seal of Approval: Runaways, Ex Machina and the one-shot Pride of Baghdad.

Pride of Baghdad