Talking Movies

February 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a blog post proper? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-fourth pormanteau post on matters of course!

The Valley of the Short

National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom has been an odd watch. Coming off the back of 4 seasons of The West Wing re-runs on TG4 it’s been quite nice to see Bradley Whitford in light suits walking around corridors again, but this time affecting a drawl and dispensing gnomic wisdom. Elsewhere it’s been fascinating learning about Facebook before Facebook in the shape of TheGlobe.com, but there’s no compelling reason this couldn’t all have been a documentary; even if that would mean losing Josh Lyman himself. Making it a docudrama is a baffling decision, and one which ‘creator’ Matthew Carnahan seems to have interpreted as license to war on the fourth wall to make sure we understand that what little drama there is is not as factual as the documentary surrounding it. Interestingly enough in light of Vice’s suffering the law of diminishing returns when employing the tricks of The Big Short the deployment of those self-same tricks here actually work reasonably well, and even include a musical number; something filmed for but dropped from Vice.

You Don’t Know Dick

All roads lead back to Vice… The more I’ve thought about Vice the more uneasy I am about it. McKay’s interest in Dick Cheney is that which animates all Presidential biographers – the years in the Oval Office. So why bother making a film about the years leading up to it as well, and not just zero in on those eight years? Those eight years, after all, are what really (and clearly) gets McKay’s goat. And yet Vice gallops thru them, offering Cheney’s infamous (and cheerfully repeated by myself and Emmet Ryan during writing sessions, explicitly mentioning that Vice-Presidential imprimatur) “Go F*** Yourself” to Senator Patrick Leahy, and his accidental shooting someone while hunting, almost totally decontextualised, purely because they had to be included; because they’d been fodder for the SNL writers, as McKay once was. The scene in which Cheney demands to see all intelligence, no matter how flimsy, is presented as his quest for a fictional casus belli to invade Iraq. I’ve been thinking though of how that scene could be written, with the same misgivings by the agency directors, and the same outcome, but an entirely different and equally plausible motivation for Cheney’s actions. The truth is that is possible for many scenes in Vice, because McKay always assumes the absolute worst of Cheney, usually in the absence of any information whatsoever. So try this on for size as reason for trampling the constitution beneath his feet:

CIA: There’s only one source for that, Mister Vice-President, that’s why it’s not included.

CHENEY: I want to see everything.

FBI: But, Mister Vice-President, we have to sift thru the intelligence to determine what’s credible.

CHENEY: Do you? Is that what you did when you dismissed as ‘racial profiling’ a flag on an Arabic man saying he didn’t need to learn how to land the plane, just how to fly it? 3,000 Americans are dead because we dropped the ball. We dropped the ball, and they died. So from now on I see EVERYTHING. I don’t care how ‘credible’ you think it is. I need to see EVERYTHING. We are not going to have another 9/11, not on my watch. Now get out of here, and don’t fumble the f****** ball again…

And now perhaps imagine how McKay would handle a similar scene involving President Obama justifying lethal drone strikes on American citizens without any due process.

 

Our long national nightmare is over

And once again with The West Wing re-runs on TG4, because Declan Rice’s statement last night contained a fatal phrase that immediately had me humming Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore ditty. I have felt, almost from the beginning of this will he/won’t he saga, that it was unseemly. And as it progressed I felt it was increasingly humiliating for us to be so desperately begging someone to play for us. Especially as he is ‘a proud Englishman’. Sing it!

But in spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

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July 24, 2018

From the Archives: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archive dredges up a sequel that really should have stayed hidden deep down.

There are some spooky things about this film, none of them to do with the plot. It’s been ten years since the first X-Files film Fight the Future, six years since the show ended, and eight years since everyone stopped caring. So why release this film against the all powerful Dark Knight when it’s so obviously a Hallowe’en film? Every scene takes place in a snowy West Virginia winter and the story eschews alien conspiracies for straight horror. Even odder, given that The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel, original show writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are pitting against it a sequel that is not faster, harder and better. Where Fight the Future went for big effects (remember the glorious tastelessness of its opening Oklahoma bombing recreation?) this is a sequel that aims to be quieter (!!), and fails…

This film believes itself to be a low-key emotional character study spliced with some deliciously grotesque shlock horror. Fox Mulder is a broken man (we know this because he has a beard) while Dana Scully is working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital. Scully is asked by the FBI to bring Mulder in for a consult on the case of a missing agent, as the only leads come from a psychic paedophile priest Fr Joe, played with surprisingly unshowy aplomb by Billy Connolly as a man tormented by his instincts and desperate for redemption and forgiveness. Mulder is rejuvenated by the case (he shaves off his beard) but Scully remains sceptical, some things never change.

This film never descends to George Lucas dialogue but most scenes between Mulder and Scully take five minutes to run thru three simple ideas; “You need to trust people again, take this job Mulder”, “This job has too much darkness Mulder, you should drop it”, and “This job is all I know how to do Scully”; these longeurs lead to musings –  like the hilarious notion that the militant atheism of Dawkins, so hip since 9/11, will be infuriated by the unashamed leaps of faith taken by Mulder and Scully in believing in the supernatural. Scully may doubt the existence of God as much as ever but she still curses him…

This film is too low-key for its own good. Chris Carter directed episodes of the TV show with more visual flair than he displays here. Amanda Peet and Xzibit do their level best with under-written roles as FBI agents. Callum Keith Rennie, a Canadian character actor best known for his Cylon in Battlestar Galactica and undercover cop in Due South, outshines them in lead support as a sinister Russian serial killer/organ-harvester. A suspenseful chase scene involving him is a highlight but such moments are offset by Scully’s sub-plot which is insultingly emotionally manipulative. It’s nice to see Mulder & Scully together again as older characters, but it would be better if they were in a worthy conspiracy laden sequel and not merely an efficient horror movie.

3/5

April 25, 2016

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours

elementary

 

INT.HILL OF BEANS PRODUCTION OFFICE, BROOKLYN-DAY

 

CRAIG SWEENY, writer/producer, clenches and unclenches his fists as he walks along a corridor. He slows as he approaches the office at the end of the corridor from which we hear two loud voices. He gulps. Sweat trickles off his unclenched fist.

 

TITLE: 18 MONTHS AGO.

 

Sweeny slowly pushes open the door, and hovers in the doorway while ROBERT DOHERTY jumps to his feet to bellow at a phone on speaker emitting a dial tone.

 

DOHERTY: AND GOOD DAY TO YOU TOO, ‘SIR’!

 

Doherty picks up the phone and throws it off the desk. The receiver lands on the hard wooden chair on the supplicant side of the desk, while the body dangles in mid-air as the cord is attached on the other side of the desk.

 

DOHERTY: (looks up at Sweeny) Telemarketer.

SWEENY: Oh. Uh, hey, uh, Robert, do, uh, do you have, uh, a minute? Maybe?

DOHERTY: What? A minute? Oh, yes, certainly. Take a seat. In fact, it’s great that you’re here, Craig, I want to explain to someone a fantastic wheeze I just concocted.

SWEENY: Well, actually I-

DOHERTY: I said sit down sir!

 

Sweeny dives into the supplicant chair, and ends up sitting on the receiver. He tries to subtly move it out from under him while Doherty relaxes back into a leather armchair.

 

SWEENY: SO… I got this offer-

DOHERTY: If we get cancelled I have come up with a golden parachute to beat the bank. Have you read any of the Game of Thrones books?

SWEENY: No.

DOHERTY: Ah! Neither have I, and one of us needs to, so that means you. Read them all in the next week and report back to me then. Also make some character notes. And some notes on the house style employed.

SWEENY: I-

DOHERTY: Don’t interrupt! Now, George RR Martin is a decrepit old man. We all know this. What we all know but are too hidebound by bourgeois niceties to say is that, like Robert Jordan, he is going to die before he finishes writing the novels. Indeed he may well die before he even finishes the next book as he clearly has no interest in actually writing it. But, and how many times have I tried to impress this on you Sweeny, never present just a problem, always present the solution too. So! The solution – we pull a Patterson.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Would you stop interrupting me?! Now, if James Patterson can come over all medieval craftsman and give anonymous people 50 page treatments which they then flesh out and he later okays before putting it out under his own name, then why can’t we do the same for decrepitly old George RR?

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: He tells us, verbally, so that he doesn’t have to strain himself with the idea of committing something to paper, his ideas on what happens next, be they e’er so vague. We secretly record it, as the whole occasion will happen in front of a roaring fireplace as we get him roaring drunk. You transcribe it, I read it, work up a treatment, give it you, and you write it all up with the help of whoever we can keep on from the writers’ room.

SWEENY: Alright…

DOHERTY: And everyone’s happy. A new novel appears, it seems RRish enough to be going on with, and it’s been done fast, so nobody’s dead, and nobody’s left millions of fans howling at him for wasting a good chunk of their lives.

SWEENY: Right…

DOHERTY: Now we just need to pitch it to his publishers. If only I had the requisite confidence you need in these situations… (gazes abstractedly at the roof)

SWEENY: Um, Robert?

DOHERTY: Oh, I thought you’d gone. Why haven’t you gone?
SWEENY: I’ve been offered another gig.

DOHERTY: What? You traitor! Where??
SWEENY: CBS.

DOHERTY: You double-dealing traitor! I have nursed a viper in my bosom! (He goes to throw the phone at Sweeny, realises he’s already thrown it, makes a few attempts to lean over his desk and grab it, but grabs only air, and slumps back in his chair)

SWEENY: They want me to develop Limitless.

DOHERTY: … The Bradley Cooper film?

SWEENY: Yes.

DOHERTY: I don’t see it as a TV show.

SWEENY: Well. I thought it might make for a good procedural.

DOHERTY: How so?

SWEENY: Well, suppose that we have Cooper appear in the pilot as a Senator. Suppose he wants NZT kept on the down-low, but suppose the Feds know about it, and then suppose that he cultivates a guy inside the Feds to keep them guessing.

DOHERTY: A healthy amount of supposition! So, set-up. What’s the week by week?

SWEENY: Why would the FBI keep a guy around? NZT makes you smarter. So he can see patterns nobody else can, the drug makes him the best analyst they have!

DOHERTY: (lilts) One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours. (mutters) Haha, said the title.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Some day, Sweeny, you may join myself and Deadpool in an elite club. Yes, I think I can see this working qua show.

SWEENY: So, are you okay with me working on it?

DOHERTY: Yes! I see great possibilities. I was talking to a network lawyer and he said that he’s fairly sure that with a bit more screen-time he can get Clyde the turtle a SAG card, and then we can all share the health benefits with a nod and a wink to a tame doctor. Do you think you can give your hero a pet turtle that he uses for expository purposes?

 

Before Sweeny can answer BORIS sticks his head in the door.

 

DOHERTY: NO! THAT LINE REMAINS! DAMN TASTE AND DECENCY! YES! WATSON CAN DIRECT ANOTHER EPISODE IF SHE REALLY MUST! AND IT HAS TO BE PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! IF HE CAN’T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN PURPLE AND MAUVE HE SHOULDN’T BE A PRODUCTION DESIGNER!

 

Boris nods at the answers to the three questions he didn’t get to ask, and sidles away. No matter how many times Sweeny sees Doherty do this, he is always amazed.

 

SWEENY: How did you?

DOHERTY: Do you need to ask? Honestly, Craig, this is the level you need to be at to ascend to show-runner. Incidentally I have an idea for a Ferris Bueller episode.

SWEENY: That sounds more like a season six conceit.

DOHERTY: AHA! I’m so proud, I knew you had it in you. My tutelage is second to none. Well of course it’s a season six conceit, but I have no confidence in getting that far so let’s put it in your show.

SWEENY: WHAT?! I haven’t written a final draft pilot script! I can’t start putting nonsense conceits in the show from the get-go.

DOHERTY: Nobody’s saying make the pilot bonkers, or the first regular episode barmy, wait till about episode 7. Also, I’ll be coming aboard your ship if mine sinks.

SWEENY: (suspiciously) As what?

DOHERTY: It’s nearly Thanksgiving, I might come as a turkey. (beat) (beat) (Doherty waits for raillery from Sweeny) (beat) (realises it’s not coming) Sorry, my mistake I thought we were doing something there that we weren’t actually doing. Creative Consultant.

SWEENY: Will you actually just be a creative consultant? Or will you try and be a backseat show-runner.

DOHERTY: Creative Consultant. Advise and Consent. A hopeless yes-man. I am a shy and retiring individual, as you know.

 

Boris sticks his head in the door again.

 

DOHERTY: F****** LILAC?!!! IS THIS SOME ILL-CONCEIVED APRIL FOOLS’ DAY PRANK?!!

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

sicario_image_2

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

February 5, 2015

Selma

Selma brings to vivid life the struggle for civil rights in 1965 Alabama with a fiery performance from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.

SELMA

Four schoolgirls are murdered in a church bombing in Selma. Any prospect for justice is defeated by the refusal of Registrar (Clay Chappell) to allow people like Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote (on ever shifting sands of spurious tests), thereby ensuring all-white juries. And so MLK (Oyelowo) rolls into town to whip up a mass demonstration to pressure LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to put aside the Great Society and pass a Voting Rights Act instead. Little does he know that as well as facing the obvious threat of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), his henchman Col. Al Lingo (Stephen Root), and the vicious Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stanley Houston), he will face the shadowy threat of J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) attempting to turn King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) against him. Can MLK stay the course?

Oyelowo oozes charisma as he delivers three set-piece speeches during this film. But he also shows us a vulnerable side to King; riven by guilt over the deaths of protestors drawn by his rhetoric, self-doubt about whether his leadership will achieve civil rights, and shame at his infidelities. The other black leaders Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar J Dorsey), James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), James Forman (Trai Byers), Rev. Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Rev. Vivian (Corey Reynolds), are, perhaps inevitably, less particularised; but the ensemble is equal to the challenge laid down by Oyelowo’s lead performance. Selma is especially interesting when it explores conflict between these men; with egoism and principle equally important in arguments over leadership and non-violence; and when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) arrives in town.

But Selma has heavy baggage. Director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub is not that outrageous. Even if she did rewrite Paul Webb’s script as much as claimed she’d deserve a nod only for writing. The ones hard done by are Oyelowo and cinematographer Bradford Young; who once again does extraordinary things with warm shadows in MLK’s intimate moments of doubt. But the depiction of LBJ, as uninterested in civil rights and conniving at J Edgar sending a sex-tape to Coretta, has been hauled over the coals by Maureen Dowd, and her central charge; “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season”; rings uncomfortably true. Rather David O Russell’s ‘Some of this actually happened’ than claiming your fictions are truer than history.

Selma is an extremely moving, often upsetting, chronicle of an extraordinary event, powered by a magnificent lead performance, but it’s not history and must be taken with much salt.

3.5/5

November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

Zack-and-Hodgins-Playing-under-the-pressure-zackaroni-and-hodgepodge-3852460-1024-683

The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

October 6, 2011

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

3e earlier this year aired House re-runs from season 3 right up to the season 6 finale. Being concurrent with season 7’s run of awful Thirteen-free episodes it made me think about how Olivia Wilde’s character sums up the evolution of the show…

My jaw dropped, seeing season 3 Cameron again after three years of Thirteen, as I realised just how boring she was. Cameron’s wishy-washy inconsistent moralising and romantic moping appear utterly bland next to Thirteen’s sarcastic brilliant bisexual drug-addicted self-destructive doctor cursed with the early and hellish death sentence of Huntington’s disease. Some of this may be due to the actresses, after all Wilde also set The OC alight with a luminous portrayal of another bisexual hell-raiser, and the show never really recovered from the end of her recurring role as Alex, while Jennifer Morrison has never been that exciting. But it’s also partly because Morrison’s character is emblematic of a different dynamic within the show. Chase had to murder James Earl Jone’s African dictator early in season 6 to torch his marriage with the departing Cameron and properly make the leap from one dynamic in the show to the other.

The dynamic I’m referring to is the change from the original style of cipher characters surrounding the Holmesian House dripping occasional back-story points around plots written for the sake of a damn good medical mystery, to medical mystery plots chosen because of the character angles of strong personalities surrounding House that they allowed to be explored. A prime example of this is the season 6 episode where Thirteen chooses a case because the patient is in an open marriage, and House sabotages the reserved communication between Sam and Wilson to try and force a relationship ending fight even as he and Thirteen gleefully cajole Taub into attempting an open marriage. The original dynamic is last glimpsed in House’s season 4 disappointment at a lucky diagnosis and his obsessive pursuit of the G&T answer, and his enabling of Zeljko Ivanek, his mirror, in season 5 because he needed to know ‘why’…

House has always had a stronger connection with Thirteen than with any of his other doctors. When House drugs her to confirm his hunch that she’s hiding Huntington’s she drugs him right back to do a liver biopsy, a little more sadistically than is medically necessary: “You drugged me” “You drugged me” “Ouch!” “Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to say that might pinch a little.” She’s also been granted zinging one-liners every bit as outrageous as House’s. When House claimed of Cuddy, “I kinda hit that last night, so now she’s all on my jock”, Thirteen immediately rejoined, “She looks remarkably good for someone on rufies”. The bond comes from Thirteen’s nihilism and skill. When House fires her for drug-taking then hires her back after she comforted a patient she quickly cracks his motivation, “You wanted to see if I could still make a connection. You’re trying to save me!”

The extremely ill-advised decision to replace Thirteen with Masters, rather than the bizarre car-crash in the season finale, may well be judged the moment where House jumped the shark. Amber Tamblyn’s incredibly irritating one-note doctor who is scrupulously honest to the point of self-destructive and veritably societal-destroying stupidity, a trait even more aggravating than Cameron’s inconsistent moralising, sucked the dramatic life out of every scene she was in. The writers even seemed to admit their mistake with an in-camera apology, or perhaps merely an unconscious admission of guilt, when Masters stuck up for, and enabled the release of, a patient who turned out to be a cannibal serial killer wanted by the FBI. It begged comparison with Thirteen’s diagnosing of psychopathy in a patient who gave her the creeps – as House noted, “Odd that she’s the only one here to have the natural reaction to a predator circling the waters”.

Little wonder that the show seemed to visibly perk up at the end of the season as House drove to a prison early in the morning to welcome back to his team a just released Thirteen. Compliments showered on her included, “You have the best poker face of anyone I’ve ever met”, while she later dispensed to him the stoic wisdom regarding their misery, “We are what we are, and lotteries are stupid”, before, after breaking into his house to check on his depressed state, displaying both the edge and the bracing honesty that bind the two, “Cuddy and Wilson both asked me separately to break in. You’re an idiot.” House has a chance to do something truly remarkable if it can keep running long enough to break our hearts by gradually depicting a slow physical decline for the beloved Thirteen. Here’s hoping it can pretend last year never happened…

House season 8 begins its run on Sky 1 at 10pm tonight.

July 28, 2010

Snyder’s Sensibility

Does Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, have an identifiable and disturbing filmic sensibility or is it too early in his career to judge?

In a previous blog entry I wrote about misgivings regarding Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic comic Watchmen. These included the fact that Snyder’s Rorschach growled like Batman, rendering him heroic, whereas Moore gave Rorschach peculiar syntax to indicate his damaged state – this raised the worry that Snyder viewed Rorschach’s interior monologue as colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview rather than reprehensible ravings. More alarming was the linked problem of violence and visuals as, to masquerade as a blockbuster, Snyder had added violence, eliding Moore’s satirical point about the need for violent spectacle, and then reversing Moore’s intentions in Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s intentionally lame rescue of people from a fire, which made their subsequent sex even more pointedly pathetic, by filming it as slow-mo heroic firestorms followed by ‘Hallelujah’ scored sex…

One could argue Snyder was demonstrating that he had only one style of directing, slow-mo ultra-violence, but what if it was a sensibility that colours his approach to all material? Dawn of the Dead threw out what little social satire there was in Romero’s original movie, about survivors repulsing zombies from a shopping mall, and instead indulged in that easiest of cheap horror tricks, fast-running zombies, as well as oceans of gore and needlessly nasty moments like a zombie baby trying to eat someone seconds after being born from an infected mother. Dawn’s writer went on to write and direct the joyous Slither so the majority of the blame must lie with Snyder. 300, which may be the cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of Bush America, works wonderfully as a musical comedy without music so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast, but Snyder in all seriousness made an action movie about freedom, and the people I know who hate 300 are uniformly the ones who took it seriously, like Snyder, rather than comically.

I wrote previously on the dilemma of criticising bad films without encouraging more of the same. I have since seen the ultimate cut of Watchmen in such a manner as to avoid both such encouragement and the vengeance of the FBI. I’m aware Ultimate Watchmen is not the theatrical cut most people saw, but the interpolation of the animated Black Freighter storyline along with its sheer wide-screen nature makes it more considered than a cut running an hour shorter could be, which allows some interesting observations. It remains a curiosity rather than a good movie, as it hews so closely to the comic, but Snyder is more restrained than I would have thought possible and one can only have a small number of quibbles with his adaptation.

These quibbles though feed the idea that there is a distinctive Snyder Sensibility, as their presence in the shorter theatrical cut emphasises both that Snyder wanted to include them above all else, and that they are jarring wrong notes. The ‘Hallelujah’ sex scene is painfully funny, and unintentionally so, and misses the point on two levels of its source equivalent by being heroic (even down to the climaxing fire-burst from Archie) because the preceding fire rescue has been presented in a bombastic rather than cringe-inducing fashion, and by following the failed sex scene which fails to juxtapose TV commentary on Veidt’s athletics prowess with Nite Owl’s impotence – an omission that makes a nonsense of interpretations of the alley scene as necessary misdirection because of the superpowers displayed in the opening fight. By the alley scene I of course mean the infamous moment when Silk Spectre, an out of shape human devoid of superpowers, rips the bone straight out of a man’s arm in a spray of blood with her bare hands. To quote Dean Winchester – “What the Hell?!” The other quibbles are Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the blood seeping out from the toilet after Rorschach flushes Big Figure, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer.

Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off thereby ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him in agony when Moore slashes his throat for an instant death? Why replace water with blood and have Rorschach graphically kill the child murderer rather than Mad Max him? Snyder adds sadism to an already nasty story, makes explicit violence that was elided, and prioritises super slo-mo sex and violence over logic. This is a sensibility. He may grow out of this seeming love of sadism for its own sake – Ultimate Watchmen displays new maturity – but if not he may become the new Tim Burton…

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