Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Doctor Who and The Art of Pretension

Everyone enjoys media in different ways; some crave action, others go in for emotional investment, a few for intricate stories and well developed characters, and some just like watching the pretty lights.  I speak here of pure, visceral pleasure derived by an individual from a work, not an evaluation of artistic merit or an appreciation of form.  However, within each group of culture fetishists there exists a hardcore that seems impossible to please to many fans.  Assuredly, many of these people are simply taking full advantage of the amazing capacity the internet gives us to be opinionated assholes (hi), but many, through one factor or another, have added another category of enjoyment to their filters

Could I have done better?

Now, to truly fit into this category, a critical mass of not necessarily positive traits must build up.  A self referential critical consumer must:
1) Consume enough media and works within the criticized work's genre to have thorough understanding of the tropes and storytelling methods entailed
2) Have the academic training in the relevant literature necessary to be able to properly suggest an alternative to a criticized element
3) Have a high enough opinion of themselves that they believe that, in a complete role reversal, they actually could have done a superior job than the artist whose work they consume.

For example, let us consider the epilogue to the Harry Potter series.  Someone who falls into none of the above 3 categories might say "That epilogue was fucking terrible," someone who meets only the first might say "That epilogue was worse than Hitler, here's a list of similar media who executed an end to an epic series more gracefully," someone who meets the first and second qualifications might say "That epilogue was so bad it made me lose faith in the human species, and I know precisely how I would've improved on it," while someone who is described by all three will say "That epilogue violated me personally, with a cactus, I know precisely how I would have improved it, and now let me tell my friends about it incessantly/post fan-fiction I claim is the 'real' canon (those people exist)/post a blog all about it."

As you have probably gathered by now, either from knowing me or from my tactful balance of self deprecating humor with obvious desire for everyone to hear what I think, I count myself among this self chosen few.  This is not necessarily a good thing.  There are plenty of films, books, and other works of art that this standard, which is just as subjective as any other standard of enjoyment, has striped of enjoyment for me.  In most walks of life (and in mine so far), all it would do is strip me of precious happiness that could have been and spice that sullenness up with pretension.  As an aspiring filmmaker, I have been able to write it off as of yet, because the practice of story crafting is actually invaluable, but so far it hasn't been exactly rewarding in a concrete sense.

This is not to say this attitude cannot be enjoyable in its own right.  There is a thrill in seeing where a work of art went wrong, a voyeuristic supremacy in being able to know with 100% certainty that an artist's work pales before your imagined version of it that you could never muster the nerve to say to their face.  And often, these imagined works are a joy in their own right, provided you can find anyone willing to sympathize.  I would say that its your choice whether or not the pros outweigh the cons, but I really don't believe it is.  I, for one, cannot simply turn it off, it is an inherent component of the brain processes I have spent 22 years expertly honing for consuming media.

Now, as the title suggests, what has made me think a moderate amount about this aspect of media consumption and write about it on the internet is Doctor Who, specifically the first 3 episodes of the second part of the current sixth series, if that description is even slightly helpful.  Here's the part where I should probably advise you that massive spoilers follow, and also that I'm only going to be providing the bones of context about the show, so if you are either not familiar with Doctor Who or are a bit behind on your viewing you may want to stop reading at the end of this paragraph.

Alright, are they gone?  Good, now that its just the cool kids,  we can get down to business.  Normally, Doctor Who is one of the few things that can be exempted from the question of possible improvement, not because I can stop asking it, but because I can always rely on the answer being "Of course you couldn't have done better, its Doctor Fucking Who."  In fact, even this rare moment of criticism comes from a string of episodes I still profoundly enjoyed, which actually served to make the one major mistake all the more glaring.

The midseason finale, "A Good Man Goes To War," was an instant classic, with wrenching emotional punch and an insane twist.  One hour of television contained two of my favorite all time televised moments; the unspeakable terror of baby Melody dissolving in Amy's arms, followed quickly by the assurance that in the long run everything would be okay, because that baby would grow up to be the ass kicking River Song.  But, with an emotional impact that huge for both the characters and the audience, and the whole middle of that life to be played out, the show left itself with a vital question: where do we go from here?  Obviously, no matter how her adulthood plays out, Amy and Rory still want their child back, and the chance to raise her, and the Doctor has promised to give it to them, but how can we pull this off without completely rewriting history?  Unfortunately for a show about time travel, Steven Moffat and the rest of the show decided to rewrite history in a different way.  In the first episode after it broke for summer, it turns out Amy and Rory did get to raise their daughter, in the form of their childhood friend Mels, secretly their daughter all along.  Now, this raises a whole series of unaddressed questions, such as "Was melody transported through time from her last regeneration in mid twentieth century New York to late twentieth century England, or was she secretly pretending to be much younger than she actually is," and "If she was already brainwashed to kill The Doctor, was she actually her parent's friend or just manipulating them for years to gain access to him," or "Does it violate causality if you're the original catalyst for your parents hooking up?"  However, its most significant repercussion, and the only one stated outright in the episode, is that since Amy and Rory have already spent their entire lives entangled with their daughter's timestream, it makes attempting to rescue and raise her a moot point.

Now, you can label that as a brilliant strategy by The Doctor's enemies to protect their weapon, or a punt by writers who found that they had plot-twisted themselves into a corner, but my real issue is with what comes next: Amy and Rory just get over it.  The next two episodes of the show contain not a single line of dialogue, character moment, or even implication that this young married couple are learning to accept that they will never be able to raise the child they just learned that they have.  For other characters, this might have been understandable, but a child with Amy has been shown as Rory's idea of a perfect future since "Amy's Choice" in series 5.  But even beyond the wildly out of character moment, what makes this nonchalance infuriating is that these episodes are structured perfectly for metaphorical explorations of these adult fears.  "Night Terrors" has our human heroes thrown into a giant, empty doll's house, menaced by childhood icons, and sharing the house with a cranky old woman who is completely alone.  Add in the framing story of even a couple who cannot physically have children being parents while they are not and another kid with dangerous potential, and the symbolism is practically screaming, but none of the characters seem to hear it, let alone respond.  The next episode, "The Girl Who Waited," revolves around Amy literally growing old and bitter alone.  Seriously.

Of course, its possible that this is just subtlety and my desire for more explicit acknowledgement is just me being another brash American misunderstanding British television, but considering that "Night Terrors" was relocated from the first half of the show with very little alteration and "The Girl Who Waited" already uses its themes to explore Amy and Rory's relationship, I think its more likely that the potentially brilliant metaphors are entirely accidental.  There are also several reasons other than either lack of talent or active malevolence to either the characters or the fans (looking at you, people who bitch on fan forums) for this oversight.  Television writing is a collaborative process, even more than cinematic screenwriting.  A showrunner writes season premiers, finales, and event episodes, and provides the bones of a season long narrative that must be told in between.  Individual lead writers then craft independent ideas for episodes that fit somewhere in that progression, and incorporate the necessary elements of metaplot that showrunners discuss with them  Its entirely possible the rich symbolism of "Night Terrors" and "The Girl Who Waited" was simply lost in communication between showrunner and writer.  Its also possible that producers looked at the overall feel of the season and decided that there was too much baby stuff and emotional drama, and mandated that episodes in the interior of the season give us a monster of the week lull before the second half builds again to the season finale.

Whatever the reason, I think this is the single biggest missed opportunities in television that I can name.  With everything that is already going right for Doctor Who, this sustained emotional drama and brilliant use of the premise to create metaphor could have been the catalyst for a launch from 'universally critically respected genre program' to 'genius dramatic art in the same category as Breaking Bad.'  Maybe the remainder of this season still will be able to make that transition, but for this egregious oversight of perfect storytelling opportunities, I have to say for the first time since I started watching Doctor Who

I think I could've done better.

All I need now is an army of meanwhiles and neverweres

Monday, April 11, 2011


Someday, far in the future, some young whippersnapper will ask you over the hum of the Insectoid death gliders what the movies of the first and second decade of the 21st century were like.  At this point, you will have two options: go into a long winded rant about how they don't make real movies anymore and kids today are too lazy to watch them on anything but their ocular implants, or show them Hanna.

Hanna is many things, most of which I'm usually a fan of.  Its a genre film while still being smart, its an action film without being ashamed of it, its a coming of age story that doesn't feel disjointed.  It has a badass teenage girl as a protagonist.  Its a postmodern fairytale.  That last one alone is normally enough to sell me on anything, I'm a sucker for that crap.  But everything it does, someone else has done before, recently, and usually better.  But it still merited a watch, and thus, a review.

Hanna starts with our title character (played excellently by Saoirse Ronan) taking down a deer of some sort in an arctic forest with nothing but a bow, arrow, and the amazing power of being a protagonist.  Remember this scene, campers, we'll be revisiting it.  Eric Bana (also excellent) is quickly introduced, and by means of a friendly spar to the death we've already gotten to the action.  All in all, good way to start a movie.  After that, I became conflicted about the first part of the film.  On one hand, they were in the forest.  In Finland.  Nothing much going, and we do spend a decent chunk of time on it.  On the other hand, the scenery is gorgeous and shot perfectly for a sense of the awe of the place, and for me the fairy tale desire to leave home in the forest to see the wider world happens too quickly to be balanced by the sense of belonging, of actual home that anyone who had lived their whole life this way would inevitably develop to become apparent on screen, and this could have been very effective later in the film as a bittersweet reminder of how far our hero has come.  The relationship between our only two characters is explored well, if shallowly, the option to leave is given, and the film is off.  At this point, what had been a meticulously shot, almost monotone composition gives way to wildly kinetic fights and chase scenes that dominate the rest of the running time, and I have to say, its a fun transition.  Hanna herself is never allowed the breather that that she needs for us to see that she's as shocked by this as we are, so I'll just give the director (Joe Wright, previously known for Atonement and pride and Prejudice) the benefit of the doubt ans assume some 3 second reaction shot ended up on the cutting room floor.  In the aftermath, we're introduced to Cate Blanchet's character, frigid southern CIA operative #47, and a travelling British family whose surname is probably Comingofagesubplot.  Say it fast enough and with a Welsh accent, and it'd even be believable.  Hanna runs away, discovers that she's a genetically engineered super soldier, runs away, kicks some ass, runs away, has a great moment of attempting to recapture her non-existent childhood in the Grimm huse, runs away some more, has an emotional confrontation with Bana, and runs away.  Finally, in the last 3 minutes of the film, she is cornered by Blanchett walking through the least subtle piece of symbolism in recent memory, and is forced to turn the tables on her, becoming the pursuer and revisiting the first scene of the film (told you to remember it) before shooting her wicked stepmother/big bad wolf/underdeveloped cliche nemesis in the face, and then a slam cut to the title screen and we're done.  Um, okay...

Hanna has its share of problems, as a lot of more qualified reviewers have noted.  In particular, Scott Tobias lists its missed opportunities and meaninglessness at The AV Club and Eric Hynes does a great job pointing out its flaws in gender roles at The Village Voice, but what struck me most was the sheer contrast between the originality of its direction and the unoriginality of almost every aspect of its creation.  Our villain is the offbrand CIA, our teen female hero has a revenge motivation and genetic engineering backstory, and once the second is introduced seems to mix up their roles.  The Chemical Brothers soundtrack comes right on the heels of much less distracting, far superior efforts from Daft Punk and Trent Reznor.  The action is stylishly shot, but it still feels just like Bourne Jr, as do the <<MEDICAL ADVISORY FOR THOSE EASILY NAUSEOUS AND/OR THOSE THAT GO TO MOVIES DRUNK>>multiple shaky cam shots and pointless focus blurs.  The fairy tale tropes are there, but there's no meditation or deconstruction to them, which is essential when trying to tell this kind of story.  Most importantly, we miss out on the most important aspect of a fairy tale or coming of age story: watching our hero grow up.  By the end of the film, Hanna has killed a lot of people, she's learned a lot of new things, she's had experiences she never dreamed of in the forest, she's confronted her Father, she's even made and awkwardly kissed a friend.  But I can't for the life of me figure out how the girl who has been trained her whole life as a killing machine is any different in the moment she mercilessly guns down her enemy than she was in the moment she took the deer, which isn't surprising, considering she's only given a few measly minutes to turn the tables on her foes and start defining her own world like an adult.  Don't get me wrong, Hanna also does a lot right; the action is cool, the direction is truly inventive and contributes strongly to the ambient tension, and movies spent primarily running away are so common that they've stopped being unoriginal and become a genre.  But with such strong performances from Ronan and Bana, their characters should have been much better, and related to each other much more interestingly.  Ultimately, Hanna falls into the recent glut of films that think themselves smarter than they actually are, but if you're just in the mood for popcorn fun, its worth a matinee ticket.  Just go sober

Monday, March 7, 2011

Rango; Or Fear and Loathing Slightly Outside Las Vegas

Before anything else, you need to know this about Rango: do not take small children to see this film, unless they are among the small minority of kids that enjoy nightmares, Hunter S. Thompson references, and filthy sexual innuendo.  If they are, please report yourself to Social Services.  But if you are an adult looking for a bizarrely good time, go see Rango
The film opens on Johnny Depp being reliably insane, setting up the framing metaphor of a chameleon with identity issues, desperately trying to direct and star in a play of his own invention, cast mainly with the inanimate objects that litter his tank.  This isn't exactly a subtle image, but its a brilliant one.  Actors define identities for a living, but moving between roles can leave them without their own personalities, especially ones whose roles sometimes descend into impressions *cough*. The emotional themes of the film are loneliness, authenticity, and defining identity, and all of them are right there in one scene, before we have any inkling of plot, while still feeling relevant.  Just as a feat of screenwriting, that is admirable in its efficiency and eloquence, and a tribute to the talent of script craftsman John Logan.  Our reptilian hero is next ejected from the car in which he was apparently being transported, just as he came to the realization that any story needs conflict, and the post-modern credentials of the film mount further.  One in-retrospect-malfittingly-zany action sequence and Raoul Duke cameo later, and we're straight to the mexican armadillo with the ability to regenerate from bisection in a few moments time on a philosophical pilgrimage to find the Spirit of the West, and the plot is in motion.  Do you remember when I said this movie was not for children?  Its because its impossible to even make sense of a description of the events in Rango whilst sober.  Knowing that, I'm going to allow all of you to take a short break and ingest the mind altering substance of your choice.  In the spirit of the father of Gonzo, I recommend Peyote or Ether, whichever you happen to currently have in the trunk of your convertible (Note: I do not actually ingest or recommend hallucinogenic drugs.  Please do not report me to the internet police)

Back?  If these words appear to be crawling from the screen in order to attack you, you're still too high.  Go play with this until you feel better.  For the rest of you, rest assured that there's actually a reason behind this nonsensicality, which also explains the unique animation and the seemingly random call-back to Depp's previous, much more drug soaked role.  The animation, created in ILM's first foray into a full digital film, is advised and heavily influenced by Ralph Steadman, Gonzo artist extraordinaire and the animator behind the images that have become forever associated with HST's books.  The sense of weirdness and absurdity inherent in that style infects every aspect of the film, from the gleefully mad, pitch perfect voice acting to the hypnotically kinetic action to the gorgeously colored acid trip-esque landscape.  Ultimately, that is a good thing.  Rango has no major faults, and is unlike any other experience you'll have at the movies in the foreseeable future while still being accessible and acceptable on a tween level.  Its gorgeous to look at, fun to watch, intellectually rewarding on its postmodern levels, the best western satire since Blazing Saddles, and a great western in its own right.  With heavyweight Pixar's only scheduled film this year a sequel to their least critically well received film ever, Dreamworks serving up a Shrek spin-off and a Kung Fu Panda sequel, and Disney taking another Robert Zemeckis guided trip into the uncanny valley, the Animated Film oscar might already have been won for 2011.

Oh, and for those of you either still on the fence or still tripping, I'll leave you with this:
Yes, that is a gigantic, black-hat rattlesnake with a gattling gun for a rattler.  Let me repeat that - A giant. Rattlesnake.  Gattling gun for a rattler.  Played as a perfect western villain.  By Bill Nighy.  If that alone is not enough reason for you to see this film, something is wrong with your sense of awesome

Friday, February 18, 2011

Chapter I: In Which The Premise is Described

The Introduction
Do not be alarmed fair denizens of the internet, you have not travelled back in time to 2003.  No, someone has instead decided to start a blog long, long after they ceased to be relevant.  Why?  Well, partially because I love movies and tv so much that I can't help myself, I need to talk about them with someone, even if it is the vast, uncaring ocean that is the internet.  Partially because I over think most things, and media more than anything else, so it might be helpful to know what parts are my brain doing laps and which ones actually make sense.  Mostly, however, I have created this blog for your convenience.   Now ignoring my long rants about film production, hollywood politics, whatever movie we just walked out of, what was on tv last night, or the 9327th reason Joss Whedon is awesome will be as convenient as politely following this blog then casually ignoring it in your RSS feed.  You're welcome.

The Rules
Under ideal circumstances, this blog will update twice weekly.  Once a week, usually on Monday, I will write a full review of a movie currently in theaters after my first time seeing it, which makes a nice excuse for me to go to the movies at least once a week.  Now, there are many slow weeks in the hollywood release schedule, and other sources of new cinema are limited to me, so this means that there will be weeks when I am paying to see and then spending my time to review a movie that I fully expect to be horrible.  Though it will be difficult, I will take comfort knowing that I am the first person in the history of the internet to write humorous reviews of bad movies.  The second weekly post, occurring whenever the hell I get around to it, will be a miscellaneous pop culture review, changing subject from week to week, but most commonly an episode of a currently running show that aired that week.  However, other than that, anything is fair game.  A review of an older movie that I particularly love or hate?  Of course.  A season vs. season or episode vs. episode battle between classic tv?  All the time.  A bitter, spiteful, overly personal attack on whoever or whatever is angering me in media at the moment?  Almost certainly.  Previously unpublished naked pictures of a famous celebrity?  Probably not, but you should probably subscribe and check every post thoroughly just to be sure.

Finally, I am not a professional.  I am a student writing about what I love more than almost anything for no other reason than that I love doing it.  That officially makes your opinion just as (or, in some cases, much more) legitimate than mine.  However, that will in no way stop me from portraying my opinion as absolute, incontrovertible fact until presented with either an eloquent, well reasoned argument to the contrary or a bribe (paypal accepted).  If you have feedback, disagreement, argument, poorly spelled obscenity, or offers for cheap v1@g_Ra to share, please do so in the comments, I look forward to the rational discourse.

For everyone reading so you can politely claim to have seen this when I inevitably steer conversations toward the awesomeness of my blog, this is your stop.  I hereby release you from any familial, colegial, or social bounds that would force the yoke of my ramblings upon you.  For everyone reading because they're anonymously stalking me, keep it up, I secretly know you exist and find all your actions either sweet or terrifying, depending on which you intended me to feel.  But for all of you reading because you love movies as much as I do, I sincerely hope you enjoy what's coming.  Thanks

- Chris