30.7.11

True Blood

The premise of the show is that a Japanese firm has managed to synthesize human blood, bottle it and sell it, removing the need for vampires to kill humans and allowing them (those that desire it) to re-enter society. But choosing to go mainstream isn't easy. In the illiberal South where the show is set, the vampire Bill Compton has to confront small-town ignorance, and the disdain of other vampires in his attempts to fit in.

This setup means the show can easily comment on issues of privilege and minority-rights, and to its great credit, it takes those opportunities. Characters have passionate arguments about being black, gay or female and dealing with prejudice. But how exactly can a vampire metaphor reflect these different experiences? Before the invention of True Blood, vamps were, of necessity, murderers. Even when this necessity is removed, many choose to continue living outside the law. The show is clever in balancing the value of tolerance (Sookie) against the very real danger vampires pose to human life (Sam). To me, the closest parallel that suggested itself is the attitude many Bulgarians have towards Roma gypsies, who have a reputation of keeping to a way of life that is incompatible or even hostile to the majority. Now, I would argue a priori that Roma gypsies, and other such racial-cultural minorities, have been criminalized by society. By portraying these issues using vampires (who certainly have inhuman powers, and seem to have difficulty restraining their lust and bloodlust) the show is in danger of suggesting that real-world minorities are discriminated against because they have something in their nature that is wrong with them.

This sounds pretty sensitive, even for me. But imagine if the show managed to confront this difficulty head on. Why are vampires so anti-social? Maybe because they are products of society just as everyone else is. Maybe their anarchic libertinism is just another social construct. Maybe they haven't so much created their identity, as believed the identity others have thrust upon them. A natural conclusion to Bill's story might be the re-establishment of that normal boring domestic lifestyle he lost so long ago.

Needless to say, I don't think True Blood is going in this direction. The social-commentary aspect of the show seems to be a cool little side order to the fiery main meal. In the words of creator Alan Ball, this series is all about the 'terrors of intimacy'. Louisiana is hot, sticky and very very sexy. God and public approval try (and usually fail) to keep a lid on passionate excess. Our heroine Sookie is a telepath constantly facing up to the hypocrisy that results. Eavesdropping on everyone's dirty little secrets for most of her 25 years has miraculously resulted in a open and benevolent disposition. Like her brother Jason, Sookie is dim enough get into some pretty hairy situations. But while Jason is led into innumerable scrapes by his egoism, Sookie gets there by being nigh-suicidally selfless.

Sookie's superpower isn't telepathy so much as the ability to not be ruined by telepathy. You would expect her to be withdrawn or misanthropic, resigned or angry. Instead she's awkward but cheerful, and bursting with goodwill. This despite not being able to go on dates because she is able to hear all the beastly things prospective boyfriends are thinking about. But Bill is a vampire, thus unreadable. Plus he's tall, dark, handsome, and seems to be playing nice. Romance ensues, with much gothic archness. The traditional thematic features of vampire stories are retained: lust and pain, sex and death. But Sookie's telepathy, and some self-awareness, could allow for a deeper exploration of the psychological drives behind such desires and fears. Why does she forgo dating the safe and dependable (and pretty cute) Sam? At points I wonder if her unlimited reserves of generosity concerning vampires is pathological: an obsessive need to will a malevolent world to be better, or get torn to pieces. Sookie's optimism often looks more like a death wish.

I'm in the middle of season one as I write this, and am still unsure of whether the show is able to go in these directions. We are saddled with a murder mystery plot, and various side-plots involving knockout supporting characters: Jason, Tara, Sam, Lafayette. Diverting as these guys are, they often drain time and interest away from the central couple, and leave the potential depths that could be explored through that relationship unvisited. And if the main characters remain in Edward and Bella mode, then I don't think I'm going to stick with them through to Season 2.

28.7.11

Thor Review

I wrote another review for M+, but I don't think it's going to be published, in which case it might as well go here as well. Again, a more 'professional' version of the rambling over here. Should say that this film is shaping up to be my favourite of this year...

Inspired by the success of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios have become more confident about giving unknown superheroes to quirky filmmakers: Thor is brought to us by none other than Shakespearian thespian of renown Kenneth Branagh. Another inspired choice. Branagh delivers the operatic pathos / bathos required for a film about space-gods, but more importantly, he could use his name to attract the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård and Idris Elba to the ensuing silliness. Most importantly, he brought with him the magnificent Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who walks away with this film in his pocket. Comparisons with Ledger’s Joker will and should be made.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to inherit the Asgardian throne from his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins in typical scenery-chewing form), but he is proud, over-confident, and more than a little stupid. The diplomatic fiasco he wreaks convinces Odin that his son is unfit for rule. Thor is cast down, like Lucifer, from heaven, like Christ, to earth. His hammer, like Excalibur, is jammed in a piece of rock to be prized free when Thor proves his worth. Meanwhile, Thor’s mischievous, manipulative and inscrutable brother Loki becomes king.

To say more would be spoiling it, since Loki’s motives remain unpredictable up until the very end. In itself an impressive dramatic achievement, and one that is enhanced as the complexity of the character comes into view. But you can find intelligence everywhere in this film. The religious and mythological tropes pointed out above suggest multiple readings and resonances. Thor’s sojourn on Earth does not just teach him humility. This is a world without gods, without certainties, filled with people trying to create them for themselves. Thor becomes involved in assisting the life-project of one such mortal: Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is an astrophysicist investigating wormholes, the rainbow bridges Asgardians control. Chris Hemsworth’s charisma (and fittingly divine abs) obviously have a part to play in their inevitable romance, but it is as benevolent emissary of a more magical world that he wins Jane over. But not just that. Thor is a barbarian in New Mexico, and the film extracts superb comedy from his neanderthal qualities. This is the story of hunkishness civilized, the acceptance of self-sacrifice. In the process of proving himself to his father, Thor proves himself to Jane.

The film’s focus on Thor and Loki’s duel, while rewarding, doesn’t leave much room for the other characters. Natalie Portman is typically charming and funny, but she has precious little time to establish her growing attraction to Thor, hence the final triumphant kiss feels rather sudden. Skarsgård and Elba have even less material to work with, so it is impressive that Branagh gives them just enough space to hint at depths left unexplored. Even Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis, who exists solely to provide comic relief, is given a subtle one-liner pay-off. I got the impression that Branagh (understandably, given his background) cares about his actors and wanted to push their creative buttons. This attentiveness to details of character is welcome in a genre that usually encourages attentiveness to details of spectacle.

Indeed, there are problems, perhaps not entirely soluble, to do with pacing and visuals. Representing heaven is an ancient quandary in the field of imaginative endeavour (just ask Milton), so perhaps we should not be too judgmental if Asgard’s glossiness leaves us rather unimpressed. However, the ruined world of Jotunheim is similarly drab on the design front, and the battle which it stages will leave you hankering for your LOTR DVDs. More significant is the awkward way the film has to jam together plot and origin story, Earth and Asgard. The bracketing device at the beginning tries and does not quite succeed in creating a sense of urgency to the first act, although once Thor is exiled the energy levels pick up substantially. Nevertheless, these flaws are not extensive enough to spoil this film, which otherwise offers emotional and intellectual delights few superhero films have delivered. It’s going to be a big year for Marvel Studios, with Captain America and X-Men: First Class both coming out soon. Thor has them launching into it with their best foot forward.

Source Code Review

I have another thing up at the M+ magazine, which I want to post here as well, a tidied-up version of the blathering over here. This one's the director's cut:

Duncan Jones replaces the monotonous cabin-fever of Moon with express trains, bombs and inter-dimensional travel with his second feature film. However, the thematic concerns remain the same: little guys trapped inside tyrannous organizations that nevertheless ensure the peace and comfort of the majority. Where does personal fulfillment fit in with the duty you have towards others? Jake Gyllenhaal takes over from Sam Rockwell as the decent guy put under extreme pressure to do the right thing, and while not quite hitting the breakdown as hard, he is likable enough to keep you invested in the role. Vera Farmiga is even better as the C.O. of Gyllenhaal’s mission, going from cool efficiency, impatience, on to empathy, and then to defiance and heroism. Michelle Monaghan is given thin material as the romantic interest, but her charm saves the character. With Gyllenhaal, she manages to sell the corny notion of eight-minute chunks of life having the potential to contain universes of experience.

The film stumbles with its generically creepy villain, who’s motives are skimmed over rather than delved into. Some of the other flourishes made by Jones fall a little flat. It’s difficult to escape cliche with a side-plot about the search for approval from a distant father, although Gyllenhaal handles the scene admirably. There is also talk of going to India to find yourself, which while self-aware, fails to inspire. Some may find the film’s conclusion a little disappointing, the rousing bitter-sweet crescendo thrown away by another twist in the narrative. I’m also obliged to inform you that the film contains uses of ‘quantum’ which my more scientifically-minded friends insist is absurd, although since I don’t understand this ‘quantum’, I cannot possibly comment. But these are arguments to have in the pub after watching the film, which you should definitely do. Source Code is a compact, involving SF thriller asking those big existential questions, and it demonstrates that Jones’s trajectory is on the up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Allow me to moan frustrated about the horribly disfigured aspect my 3D glasses gave to this film. The spectacle cast in shadow, almost unrecognizable, to no purpose whatsoever. I paid the pounds sterling equivalent of £6 for this shit (this in a cineplex in Varna) and feel royally ripped-off. Kill this fad dead, please, movie-theatre-going public, I implore you.

THAT rant over with, we can move on to say that this final chapter was thoroughly enjoyable, with slight reservations. Radcliff will never be Harry Potter, but the onrush of events and the gravity of the melodrama serve to disguise that fact. Indeed, there is really very little space for the kind of character-building Part 1 indulged in, which comes as a relief. Shorter, sharper pay-offs, and a greater emphasis on metaphor and theme, make this installment arguably the best of an uneven series.

Two things, really, one done well and the other not. Heaven is hard to do in fiction, but the white plain stretching to pillars blurred with refracting light did the business. And the call-back in the final scene at King's Cross is overt, underlining the importance of free-will. What do I do now? -- that endless question. Death or the courage to go on. You get to decide.

But a Harry Potter film wouldn't be a true Harry Potter film without at least one concluding scene botched. Immediately after Harry threw the broken pieces of the Elder Wand off the bridge, I began to direct the scene differently in my head. Cut the sweep, Mr. Yates. Radcliff should have let Grint's question hang in the air, then grin and say "Yes!", giving the audience the impression that he WILL claim invincibility, greatness. And then he should have calmly snapped the wand in two, and dropped it as if it were worthless. Stepping down, trading a determined look with Grint, then Watson, and they all smile at each other. And they walk back to Hogwarts, like they always have before, picking up the threads of conversation as the camera cranes away. Power rejected as an empty prize, our heroes settle for love and normality -- the family dramas at platform 9 3/4 which close the film. THE POINT, of all of it, bottled, quietly sipped. THAT'S how it should have been done.

13.7.11

'Either the universe is a confused mass and intertexture, soon to be dispersed; or one orderly whole, under a providence. If the former; why should I wish to stay longer in this confused mixture; or be solicitous about any thing, further than how to become earth again? Or, why should I be disturbed about any thing? The dispersion will overtake me, do what I please. But, if the latter be the case; then I adore the governour of the whole, I stand firm, and trust in him.' - Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations

[Admin note: I'm gonna be away a while, so posts might get EVEN MORE sporadic. Two things I should note in passing. One: Game of Thrones contains enough scenes that improve on the book (Renly + Loras, Robert + Cercei) to counter-balance the chapters in the book it ruins (all the scenes with Lysa Arryn). In other words, I'm sticking with the show. Two: Steph Swainston has written some of the best fantasy novels I have ever read, which makes her decision to quit and become a chemistry teacher very sad indeed... Right, off to the motherland where all those flouncy quotations I keep posting here get worked up into a twelve hundred word dissertation. It will happen.]

6.7.11

"And since all hope of this were vain and idle, if no universal mind presided; since without such a supreme intelligence and providential care, the distracted universe must be condemn’d to suffer infinite calamitys; ’tis here the generous mind labours to discover that healing cause by which the interest of the whole is securely establish’d, the beauty of things, and the universal order happily sustain’d. This, Palemon, is the labour of your soul: and this its melancholy; when unsuccessfully pursuing the supreme beauty, it meets with darkning clouds which intercept its sight." - Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, The Moralists

3.7.11

Gone Baby Gone

Right, yeah, ok, slightly stretching credibility, this one. But this is genre, right? That final shot shoulda toldya that the TV you've got in yr livingroom transmits packaged payloads of emotional manipulation and moral dilemmas for your entertainment and edification. Right? It don't have to be real. Just relax into it!

...is my attitude to all plotting matters. But Ben Affleck does enough of the clever set-up and pay-off to earn some previously unforthcoming respect. The vaguely Catholic absolutism of the private crime-fighter comes into conflict with the institutional utilitarianism of the police department. But the Catholic thing comes back another way. At the beginning Patrick goes on about the irrevocable importance of community: you take the girl out of Dorchester, but you SHOULD NEVER take the Dorchester out of the girl. This is where she belongs.

And to its credit, the film tries to make no judgement about Patrick's rigidity on this and all issues. I get the feeling both Afflecks wanted to portray him in as noble a light as possible. But at the same time, events and context are designed to demonstrate just how misconceived his attitude is.

Good to see Michael K. Williams and Amy Ryan from The Wire fame in this film. The latter especially did wonders as the negligent drug-abusing mother. The scene in which she has to extract the promise from Patrick got pretty arch, but she managed to conjure some emotion into it. Michelle Monaghan (again) not given enough, which got rather annoying. And while Morgan Freeman was excellent in the finale, he really did ham it up something awful in the tool-up-and-get-ready scene. Casey Affleck does great, although with that raspy whine, he's really better off playing cowards or serial killers. Oh, and when Ed Harris puts on those sunglasses, you just KNOW he's up to no good. Why? Because, hello! He's Ed Harris!

2.7.11

Game Of Thrones

"The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are." - Ser Jorah Mormont

"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." - Queen Cersei Lannister

"The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that's true, Lord Eddard, tell me ... why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?" - Lord Varys "the Spider"

Should re-post this ramble over here:

Shit's hitting the fan in A Game of Thrones. Bout time. A book this long is going to have some problems plot and pace wise, but once it gets down to it, it's riveting. And I do admire the thought behind the world-building. I've studied a little bit of medieval history in my time, and Martin has certainly done his homework. If anything (I'll say this of Mieville as well) you'd want MORE of that on show. Why is the monarchy so influential if each house has their own army? How does Drogo distribute tribute and ensure loyalty in his khalasar? I've got my own answers, and perhaps there are answers down the line. But if the project is to make fantasy "realistic" (go from exploring myth / symbol to the kind of social commentary you find in SF) then my medieval-geek glands need just a little bit... more.

Characterisation IS kinda thin, tho. My friend who's watching the series described Prince Joffrey as Draco Malfoy without the depth, and he's right (so far...). Personally, I get the feeling Stark wouldn't last a week faced with real Anglo-Saxon / Carolingian warlords. What is this code of honour he sticks to really ABOUT? I cheered Littlefinger on every time he skewered it. Wouldn't Stark have been more interesting and convincing as a conflicted anti-hero doing beastly things in office whilst trying to protect and care for his family? Maybe that's down the line as well...

Anyway. Haven't enjoyed a fantasy book this much in years. I feel a binge coming on.

To add: I've only seen the first couple of episodes of the HBO series, and so far it seems like a pretty straight adaptation. The book is pretty televisual to start with -- chapters are always single scenes (sometimes intercut with flashbacks and dream-sequences) headed by p.o.v. characters. If anything, adapting it could have been an opportunity to fix some of the book's limitations. But instead, the world and characters were rendered even more simplistic and unoriginal, with blood and boobs tacked on most gratuitously. At times, the style reminded me of The Golden Compass film. With both projects, the creators forgot that the source material won its readers by building fully immersive worlds where social structures were coherent and you could see the dirt underneath a character's fingernails.

Also: expect all of these opinions to change once I actually finish reading the book / watching the show!

Dusk + Blackdown / Elijah + Skilliam / Loefah

I should probably shut up about my FWD>> excursions after last time's embarrassments. But do want to post the suggestion that the instrumental grime pushed by the Butterz camp stomps all over the piss-weak uk house Joy O and cohorts are offering. Just sayin' the only thing I heard Loefah play that could stand up to the Royal-Ts and D.O.K.s leaned heavily on the footwork. Even the Butterz stuff I'm not that keen on has a swing / personality / energy "Sicko Cell" will just never match.

Confess to being all a flutter at the sight of D Double E and Terror Danjah in the room -- absolute superstars in an alternate reality where pop music isn't about cynically conning the consumer.