Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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April 30, 2018

Why Fund the Arts?

A little over two years ago a post here bemoaned the impact of austerity on the arts. Now I’d like to re-examine the topic with a considerably more critical eye.

The clash between Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey still carries much weight. Art subsidies can easily be presented as a middle-class rip-off.  Take the funding of cinema, distribution rather than production that is. Cinema is not in any trouble. Well, historically it is, but let’s not open that can of worms here. Cinema is not in any trouble. (Hear, hear) There are cinemas everywhere, and people go to them ever Saturday night.  Advertisements for cinema roar at you from buses and phones, radios and televisions, billboards and newspapers. You would have to be in a coma not to have some subliminal awareness of what blockbuster is playing right now. Cinema is not in peril. What is in peril are unpopular films. Now, I like unpopular films. I routinely end up in screen 3 of the IFI, watching the films that are the most unpopular in the home of unpopular films. When the IFI writes to the Government they are obliged to camouflage their simple request for subsidies that they may show films nobody wants to see. That is brutal, but it’s the truth. I personally benefit enormously from this; I saw Alex Ross Perry’s masterful Queen of Earth during its six day run in the IFI. I am an appreciable percentage of its entire Irish audience. But should everybody else have to pay so that I can indulge my obscure tastes? Is that right and proper that Sean Citizen stump up so that I can watch a film flickering on the big screen as intended by ARP rather than get with the programme and just watch it on Amazon video?

A key argument against cutting arts funding in the last decade’s ceaseless austerity was that art develops empathy, and is therefore very useful for society. But the current obsession here, in England, and in America with *representation* completely vitiates that contention. I have identified completely with Seth Cohen, Rory Gilmore, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Esther Greenwood, and multiple characters in Brideshead Revisited and Michael Chabon novels. But the American Jewish experience is alien to me, as is the small town New England female adolescence. I know nothing of vampiric existential angst, or of 1950s female depression. I am neither a gay English aristocrat, nor a depressed creative writing student. I can look at all these characters that not like me, in nationality or gender or class or era or humanity or life experience, and empathise… But *representation* can be summed up by Mark Waid celebrating the much loathed character of Rose Tico purely because young Asian-American girls can look at an Asian-American woman onscreen and empathise – with themselves. That is not empathy. There is a GK Chesterton quote that hits this at an angle: “They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves”. Representation is the opposite of empathy because it demands that art be a mirror held up to the person consuming the art. No work of empathy is to be done in imagining themselves in someone else’s life, and looking in this solipsistic mirror they expect that art will be representing them with positive feedback only, please; this is a safe space, you know.

April 25, 2018

From the Archives: Jumper

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds the last wide-release Hayden Christensen movie just days after the now neglected actor celebrated his 37th birthday.

Doug Liman, the director of The Bourne Identity, tries to reinvigorate the fantasy genre by bringing his trademark edgy handheld camera style to bear on new blockbuster Jumper but fails miserably. Jumper’s main problem is a wretched script that is the work of three screenwriters as well as the original novelist Stephen Gould. This film is transparently meant to establish an Origin Myth for an action franchise but it rushes through its set-up with unseemly haste. You will long for more detail on the mythic past of the teleporting Jumpers and their mortal enemies the Paladins but you will neither get that nor a good reason to care about any of these characters. This is all the odder given that the screenwriters boast Fight Club, Batman Begins and Mr & Mrs Smith on their collective resumes. Jumper thus bears the dreaded hallmarks of extensive studio meddling during its protracted post-production.

A brief prologue shows our hero David Rice discovering his power to teleport after a school bully’s prank leaves him fatally trapped under the ice in a fast flowing river. He then uses this new found ability to escape his abusive father and relocate to NYC where he robs a bank and lives off the proceeds for the next 8 years. In Hayden Christensen’s first scene as the grown up David he walks past a TV news report about people stuck on rooftops in a flood which asks how can these people be saved when no one can reach them? ‘Well, a Jumper could reach them…’ you mutter…but David just heads to the fridge for a beer before flitting off for a night on the town in London. David is selfish to a fault and Christensen’s utterly flat performance doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. Jumper slows to a crawl when he revisits Ann Arbor to whisk off his high-school sweetheart Millie (The OC’s Rachel Bilson) for a Roman holiday. Exactly why she agrees to go should become one of cinema’s most enduring mysteries. In Rome David meets Jamie Bell’s Griffin, a Jumper dedicated to killing the Paladins who have hunted the super-powered mutant Jumpers for centuries, and reluctantly teams up with him to defeat Roland, leader of the quasi-religious Paladins.

Jumper’s teleportation heavy action sequences involving ‘blink and you miss it’ globe-trotting underwhelm for the most part, with the exception of some extremely dangerous teleportation enhanced fast driving, and Jamie Bell’s line “God, I hate Chechnya” when the Jumpers unexpectedly land in a warzone. Samuel L Jackson as Roland, the vicious Jumper-hunter, has some fun sporting a fetching white hair-do but his role, rather like the film, is too underwritten for him to really make an impact. Ultimately (and ironically) for a film about people who never walk when they can teleport Jumper ends up a sadly pedestrian affair.

2/5

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

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Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded. Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

May 21, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D

Director Bryan Singer triumphantly returns to the franchise he launched in 2000 to link two ensembles together for one of the classic Claremont/Byrne comics stories.

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Professor X (Patrick Stewart) narrates a Terminator 2 cold open as dead bodies are piled amidst rubble while machines hunt down and kill mutants and humans. Can this war of extinction be won by changing the past? X, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travel to a Chinese monastery where mutants familiar [Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore)] and strange [Blink (Fan BingBing), whose portal-creating power is visually intricate] are kept one step ahead of Sentinels by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back thru time. Defeating the Sentinels means preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, then being captured by Major Stryker (Josh Helman); actions which kick-start the program and see her DNA make the Sentinels unstoppable. Only Wolverine can physically survive the time-shift, but in 1973 he is reliant on the broken men Charles (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) patching up their differences with the imprisoned Erik (Michael Fassbender). But might the past be immutable?

The X-movies are a farrago of continuity, and this instalment ignores that (Wolverine has adamantium claws? Professor X has his own body?). It’s a sequel toFirst Class, with Charles and Erik rejoining battle for Mystique’s soul; as a wonderful exchange has it – “You got inside her head.” “That’s not my power, Charles.” The future, with Sentinels attacking like The Matrix’s squiddies, is mostly a glorified framing device; but its startling killing of characters in the prologue establishes the stakes. The past is a foreign country; where Singer displays X-2 vim. Beast acts as Q in freeing Erik, Wolverine gets two wonderful sight gags, and there’s a delightful nod to the parentage of Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The fast-talking Quicksilver’s mischievous liberation of Erik is the outstanding action sequence; it’s like watching Seth Cohen wielding superpowers. Erik’s curving of a bullet at the Paris summit is thrilling, as is the idea that time is course-correcting their meddling. But Page has precious little to do, and the great Fassbender is overshadowed by McAvoy and Jackman as they get all the best lines.

This lands somewhere around X-2 and First Class, but I preferred First Class because Erik was less muddled. The future comes into play in the finale, and Magneto battling future sentinels while Erik manipulates old sentinels is a brilliant cross-cutting of action sequences to interrogate character; questioning the ability of people to change even as the future characters hope their younger selves will change. Lawrence (more recognisable as Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever was) is a world of swagger away from First Class; Mystique is a driven and accomplished spy. She wants to kill Bolivar for murdering her friends just like Erik wanted to vengefully kill Shaw. Charles once again is opposed to such motives. But in First Class Erik flung missiles back at people, here his villainy becomes incomprehensibly pre-emptive; as if the Singer special sequence where he retrieves his helmet unleashes a need for flair; the option of silent sabotage of the Sentinel programme doesn’t cut it, when you can (undoubtedly quite counter-productively) stage a stadium-sized spectacle of terrorism. But this is quibbling about what is only the third superb X-movie in the series: an intricate, thoughtful adventure in which Singer returns from the wilderness with surprising confidence.

The ending made me think of the Doctor’s emphatic lines at the end of Moffat’s Doctor Who Blitz story in 2005. And after suffering thru X-3 we surely all deserve that calibre of resolution.

4/5

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

I’ve written two pieces about Zack Snyder and one about re-booting the Superman franchise, so here’s my clever ploy to avoid repeating myself by this time writing a blog about Zack Snyder’s re-booting of Superman.

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Man of Steel hits cinemas this Friday. The promotional push has come oddly late, here at any rate, with nary a poster or TV spot visible until June 3rd for a movie out June 14th. But Warner Bros has obvious confidence in this project, muttering as they are of their expectations that it will break the $1 billion dollar mark, so it’s obviously a considered choice. But have Zack Snyder’s choices as the rebooting director been equally considered? It’s long been my contention that limits are good, that Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’ is better than Death Proof and Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2 because he had to creatively respond to artistic limitations rather than engage in his usual self-indulgence. Inglourious Basterds likewise needed to be a hit with some urgency so he had to rein himself in from his original grandiose vision. You could even speculate, as I have, that, given a small budget Richard Kelly’s imagination is focused onto small-scale scenarios which hum with wit and heart, but that given a large budget his vision becomes hopelessly diffuse as it expands over ever more elaborate conspiracies; always involving water, time-travel or aliens. I say this because I think that, unlike the unloved Sucker-Punch which was co-written and directed by Snyder as an R movie and then edited into a PG-13 after the shoot, receiving Goyer’s PG-13 Man of Steel script and bringing his flourishes to bear is the best thing that could happen to him creatively.

Snyder has cast intriguingly and well. Laurence Fishburne has the natural authority you want from a Perry White, Amy Adams has the comic timing and also the abrasiveness to be Lois Lane, and the double-act of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents looks very promising. Russell Crowe as Jor-El looks like a solid choice, although it depends largely on the levels of pompousness depicted on Krypton – which we’re promised will be a caped society, whatever that means, perhaps Gerard Butler’s Sparta. By far the best choice is Michael Shannon as General Zod, a move every bit as bizarre as Scarecrow and French Connection star Gene Hackman putting aside grittiness and realism to don a comedy wig as Lex Luthor in 1978. Shannon, from the latest trailer, is bringing the baffled questioning tone of his Revolutionary Road madman as well as the customary menacing fury of Boardwalk Empire and The Iceman. Indeed the only obvious dud in the casting is picking Henry Cavill as Superman, so, only mildly important then… Cavill is physically perfect for the part, but being built like Superman is only half the task, you need the comic timing to be Clark too. Brandon Routh had the physique for Superman, but his Clark wasn’t very good, and the film suffered as a result. Cavill abundantly does not have great comic timing, which makes the promises from Snyder and Goyer that this Clark is an interpretation we’ve never seen before a worrying admission/pre-emption of comic timing failure.

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And comedy is the big worry when it comes to Man of Steel. The teaser trailer which made it look like Clark was going to spend the whole film moping around the Pacific Northwest ruing the Discovery Channel’s decision to once again not pick his crew to feature on the next season of Deadliest Catch started the concerns. The next trailer deepened those concern, eschewing as it did super-action and seeming to promise a deeply sombre Superman which would resemble nothing else so much as a dramatisation of Seth Cohen’s essay on the loneliness of being Superman which moved his teacher to tears… Finally we got a trailer that softened the pomposity of grand thematic statements about sacrifice, leadership, moral examples by showing us some super-action, but sadly said super-action looked as if it was directed by Michael Bay in blacks, blues, greys and red with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on hand with his customary supernova to backlight the action. It also seemed to suggest this interpretation’s Lois might play like the reporter in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, debunking the small-town hero under the guise of romance and then feeling guilty. Except Goyer can’t write Capra. Indeed, under his own steam he’s given us Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield and Jumper, while the Brothers Nolan, without him, have penned Memento, The Prestige and Inception. You feel sure the Nolans work hard to pen gags, but Superman cinematically needs some good gags or it will implode.

And then there’s the CGI… Brandishing the ‘Produced by Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy’ on your promotional material only goes so far. Nolan shoots on film, on location and in meticulously dressed sound-stages, and with largely practical effects – oftentimes where anybody else would just use ghastly CGI – rendered with a very precise eye for detail by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Snyder really … doesn’t. Zod’s CGI armour and awful looking spaceship stood out for me like a sore thumb, because, along with the CGI cape for Superman, they’re the sort of bizarre decisions that could really blight a movie. Richard Donner said his Superman aimed at not at reality but at verisimilitude, but it appears Snyder has with customary abandon decided to abandon verisimilitude and go for total fantasy. Partly this is because of the times we live in, but also partly because Snyder is not particularly attached to reality at the best of times. But no matter how sombre the trailers make it look, no matter how emotionally devastating the handling of Clark’s pivotal relationships are, and no matter how thrilling it is too see a Superman Begins in which his morality is in formation – and close to Hancock than himself as a result – the scripting by David S Goyer won’t matter a damn if you just tune out when you notice that, like certain action sequences in the blighted Star Wars prequels, not one thing onscreen is actually real. And Sucker-Punch does not inspire confidence there…

So, there you go. This Man of Steel has a strong chance of crash-landing, but it could soar – let’s hope…

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.

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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.

August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

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