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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (3/16/09) 9:36pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Coraline [in 3-D]
TV:  Burn Notice [2x06-2x08] [spoilers], Burn Notice [2x09-2x11] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>



Coraline [in 3-D]
First, a confession:  I'm not a fan of Neil Gaiman.  Don't get me wrong, he seems like a great guy.  I respect the wide esteem the whole world has for Sandman, even if I've never shared it on the multiple occasions I've tried to read the books.  I've tried reading American Gods twice, and pretty much wanted to throw it at the wall both times (trickier on the second attempt, as I was listening to it on an audiobook in the car).  I read Stardust and liked it well enough; same for Good Omens -- but neither of them had me thinking, "Where can I find more Neil Gaiman books?"

I think I just have an instinctive "gack" reaction to Ponderous Talk of Weyard Magick-that's-so-effing-magical-we-put-a-k-on-it -- and no offense, but that's going to make much of Gaiman's output (even Neverwhere, which was relatively light) a bit of a slog.

So I approached the Coraline film with a bit of trepidation.

But I figured it was worth my while to see what Harry Selnick's been up to, and to see the film in 3D -- especially since filmmakers are starting to get past the "I will use 3D to put a GIANT CHAINSAW IN YOUR FACE OMG WHRRRRR" uses of the technology.

To my surprise, I quite liked the movie.

Frankly, I could take or leave the 3D aspect of it.  Images got blurry when they went too far out of the focal plane, and I wound up wearing the polarizing glasses on top of my regular glasses, which was a bit awkward.  And while it was certainly interesting to see effective 3D on the big screen, I don't think it did much to draw me into the film.  When I watch a non-3D movie with competent direction, my brain reconstructs the third dimension just fine, and this felt like pretty much the same experience.[1]

I'd heard that Neil Gaiman was finding success writing children's literature these days, and that always made sense to me.  More specifically, it made sense to me that the tendencies that grated on me in his adult fiction might generate creepy fairy tales that I'd like perfectly well.  Why this is so is something of a mystery to me.  It's all about context, I guess.

In any case, the movie itself had me thinking about issues similar to this comment from Ms. innocentsmithCoraline is a fairy tale, so it abides by fairy-tale logic, as opposed to real/round-earth logic.  The next thing happens in the story because either (1) that feels like the next thing that should happen in the story, and/or (2) that's the next thing that *always* happens in stories like this.

Of course Coraline has to recover the captured eyes of the three lost children.  Sure, those characters are sort of shoehorned in towards the end of act II, but... well, dammit, there's supposed by a quest at this point.  It's supposed to be repetitive somehow.  It's supposed to be difficult.  So now we have a magical quest for lost eyes, okay?

And yes, of course the neighbors *happen* to have the useful magic-thingy for locating said eyes.  No, there's no round-earth reason why the actors should have it, but the hero *always* winds up with a magic-thingmabob at this point in the story.

For that matter, of course the Other Mother winds up being hideously evil -- didn't your parents tell you not to talk to strangers?  If it's a fairly tale, then we expect it to reflect the usual moral strictures on good and bad (or 'unwise') behavior.

So Coraline follows the same well-worn path of a thousand other stories, and it earns our goodwill by giving us a fairy tale that's put together like a fairy-tale *should* be.  Like I said about the time-travel mechanics in "The Constant":  you could complain, but that would just be churlish.

The movie also earns our goodwill because, I would argue, this movie isn't mainly about its story.  It's mainly about a bunch of cool spectacles that Mr. Selnick wants to show us.[2]  The world of the Other Mother and the Other Father lets Selnick cut loose with a garden of impossible carnivorous moonflowers, an Busby-Berkeley rat-circus, an elaborate piano-playing contraption (hooray for John Linnell!), and so on.  Seeing all of these sights is just plain fun -- and since Selnick is adapting one of Gaiman's prose novels, he can do nearly whatever the hell he wants.

Sure, if you or I were the O. M., we'd just capture the girl, yank out her eyes, and have done with -- but, really, where's the fun in that?

So maybe I'll check out The Graveyard Book at some point.  Perhaps this "Neil" fellow is on to something.


Burn Notice [2x06-2x08] [spoilers]
The second season continues with the episodes "Bad Blood", "Rough Seas", and "Double Booked".

In episode six, the stasis was getting to me.  We all have our limits when it comes to breezy, repetitive escapism, and apparenly seventeen episodes is mine.  And it's frustrating, because you can still build an interesting world even using a largely episodic storyline.  Veronica Mars, for example, concentrated on moving its soap-operatic storylines along and reusing its secondary characters, even though it had the exact same structure as Burn Notice, complete with A-stories that neatly tied off at the end of every hour.

And it's not like Burn Notice wasn't trying.  Matt Nix did lay down an overall arc for (say) Sam Axe's relationship troubles and Fiona's effort to move on after breaking things off with Michael.[4]  And we do see that minor characters like Barry don't completely hit the reset button whenever the credits roll.

You sense that if they pushed a *tiny* bit more narrative into the C-stories (that is, the family/relationship threads), or put a *little* more effort into introducing new locations and reusing secondary characters[5] -- into world-building, essentially -- then they could create something with a lot more emotional resonance for the full-season viewers without taking away from the breezy fun of individual episodes.

Okay, so I had all that written, and I figured it would be my review for this batch of episodes.

Then, with "Rough Seas", things started turning around.[6]  Sure, the A-story was as-per-usual, but they brought back a secondary character, Virgil the repo man, as the client.  And then they had him reignite his relationship with Michael's mother, and forced Michael to deal with that.  Perfect!  They're reusing a secondary character, and they're pushing the family-life narrative forward.

Then they topped that with "Double Booked".

A brief sidebar:   sometimes exhausting a show's concept can be a good thing.  To explain by example:  there's an improv game called "New Choice" where you'll do a scene, and a director will occasionally ring a 'new choice' bell, at which point you have to replace what you just said with something new.  The director's strategy is often to ring the bell over and over, until you exhaust every normal response you can think of ("Welcome to Jamaica."  "May I take your bags?"  "Hello!") until you finally scrape something bizarre off the bottom of the barrel ("I'm made entirely of spoons!")[7]

The same thing can happen with show concepts.  When you've exhausted every possible variation of your basic show setup, then you hit a breaking point.  Either you get repetitive (and, in short order, cancelled), or you come up with weak, arbitrary material (c.f. the middle seasons of The Simpsons)... or you find something different and exciting and new.  I think we can all think of popular shows that have pulled this off, and I started to see signs of it with Burn Notice.

In "Double Booked", Michael gets hired by another burned agent to kill off an innocent woman.  Michael has to take the job in order to ensure it goes *wrong*.  It's a great inversion of the usual storyline ("Recover the gold that was stolen from the orphanage by pirates!"), it has something to say about what spies are like in this universe, and it gives you a feeling like maybe all sorts of crazy stuff could happen on this show.

And, as usual, it's very intimidating to the would-be spec writer.


Burn Notice [2x09-2x11] [spoilers]
The show peaks with "Good Soldier". 

First off:  to my astonishment, I have to say something nice about John Dickson.  You remember, John Dickson? the guy who scores this show?  The guy I previously described as "my nemesis," and whose music I described as "bland and cheap and awful?"  He's doing something right in these episodes:  he's writing less music.

In season one, especially, you'd have (say) a heartfelt scene between Michael and his mother, with solid acting on both sides, and everything would be going fine... and then this treacly-sounding piano would wander in from a Lifetime movie-of-the-week and it would make you feel ashamed for giving a damn about either character.

Towards the middle of season two, John Dickson gets out of the way.  Sure, he hasn't started writing *good* music cues, but he's writing fewer awful ones.

Another brief side note:  Burn Notice has now added elaborate, 60s-spy-movie-style split-screens to their arsenal of stylistic tics.  Again, I think this works fine.  They use the cutesy editing technique to help them get the story across, they use the technique sparingly, and it contribute's to the show's unique look without breaking their budget.

But, okay, back to the show proper.  "The Good Soldier" was where the burners' assassination *almost* happened, except somebody tried to slaughter Carla's entire operations team.  What's interesting here is that it feels like a season finale:  it essentially closes the book on one story (Carla et al set up the assassination) and opens the book on the next one (Carla employs Michael to figure out who tried to stop the hit).  So instead of an unwieldy 22-episode season, we have two neat 11-episode half-seasons.

Different narrative shows find different ways to handle the gargantuan 22-episode order.  LOST is currently splitting its fifth season into three 'acts' of roughly equal length.  Veronica Mars, in its third season, employed four- or five-episode arcs.  Most non-network shows avoid the problem entirely by using shorter season orders.  Other shows have handled things by running a plot over the complete season, but only touching on the main story arc in occasional episodes.

Splitting the season in half is a very neat solution, especially if, as here, it coincides with the show itself taking a break.  (See also:  the latest season of Battlestar Galactica.)

I guess what I enjoy most about this is that I'm watching TV first discover this problem (it's hard to drive a story arc over 22 episodes) and then start experimenting with ways to solve it.  It's exciting to watch a medium learn new things.

After that, though, it was back to business as usual:  conning con artists, conning gangsters.  Solid episodes, I have nothing interesting to say about them.


For next time:  more of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, more Burn Notice, more Bonk.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Chopin.

Nothing new in the world of podcasts, though I highly recommend the Sound Opinions episode dedicated to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.


[1] ... although it's a credit to the technology that I wasn't thinking, "Oh!  Look!  This is in 3D!" through the whole running time.  I'm sure this paragraph to bite me in the ass years from now when it reads like, "I declare!  The talkies will never be popular!"

[2] I'm not saying that this is all empty spectacle, or that the story is weak; I'm just saying that the spectacle is the main draw here.

[3] ... whether or not this is accurate to most fairy-tale source material.  Apparently half of Grimm's Fairy Tales come across as the ramblings of insane Bavarians on crack.

[4] They don't fall prey to "the Moonlighting myth" -- "Oh noes, we have to keep all the relationships EXACTLY THE SAME or the show will DIE!"  Er -- no, if you keep everything exactly the same, it'll feel dull and artificial and your audience will wander off to play video games.

[5] Side note:  if I were king of entertainmentland, I'd make all shows re-use secondary characters more.  Maybe it's a budgeting constraint that keeps them from doing this? or perhaps a misguided effort at realism?  ("Oh, surely they wouldn't encounter the same person *again*.")

[6] I swear, the best part of writing these reviews are when I carp about some flaw and then my complaint magically travels into the past, where the showrunner corrects for it.

[7] Yes, improvisors, I am oversimplifying for purposes of this explanation.  (My apologies.)

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From:innocentsmith
Date:Monday (3/16/09) 10:43pm
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Apparently half of Grimm's Fairy Tales come across as the ramblings of insane Bavarians on crack.

*gigglesnort* Very true. Well, some of them were French Huguenot ramblings, but still, definitely, on crack.

What I figure this is is a breakdown of our being able to understand the sensibility that produced those particular tales. Like the "...Shakespeare, please stop trying to be funny, you're embarrassing yourself" feeling one gets sometimes after the five zillionth pun, or reading the majority of all Victorian bestsellers and trying to figure out why it was such a hit. I mean, if you want to devote years to understanding that particular time and place and why it produced that particular brand of crack, more power to you and I think you should have all the funding you need, but ... sometimes it's...kind of a good thing that the world moves on from, like, "The Jew Among Thorns," you know?

The particular awesomeness of a lot of these stories is that they have managed to retain their authenticity and relevance for so long, but...not all of them by any means, no.

So maybe I'll check out The Graveyard Book at some point. Perhaps this "Neil" fellow is on to something.

*nods nods* You might also try Ananzi Boys - it's much more tightly constructed and fun than a lot of Gneil's stuff. Or a lot of his short stories are excellent. I'm not crazy about some of his work in novels, either, to be honest, though I do love Sandman and adore his writing style in general.

"I'm made entirely of spoons!"

I heard that in Michael Palin's voice. Is that wrong?

Veronica Mars, in its third season, employed four- or five-episode arcs

Oh, Jesus, don't remind me. *hides from the Veronica/Logan B-stories*

if I were king of entertainmentland, I'd make all shows re-use secondary characters more. Maybe it's a budgeting constraint that keeps them from doing this? or perhaps a misguided effort at realism? ("Oh, surely they wouldn't encounter the same person *again*.")


My guess would be it's trouble re-booking the same actor for the character, due to the likelihood that they might have commitments elsewhere at any given time, and/or they might be asking for more money the next time around because they know you have another story you want to tell with them in it. Or that you'd have to explain the backstory to viewers who are watching out of sequence? Or maybe it's just a perception that those things might be an issue, which leads to a tendency not to do that with plots? It is a pity, because I agree that it's usually fun and happy-making in a sort of combination of "ooh, hey, I know that guy, my patience with this series has paid off!" to the related "OMG continuity glee" feeling one gets from a well-constructed plot. And, though it does depend on the show in q., frankly I'd think it'd be more realistic to show the same guy turning up now and then - I mean, that's kind of how life works, isn't it? Ah well.
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From:hujhax
Date:Tuesday (3/17/09) 8:14am
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Like the "...Shakespeare, please stop trying to be funny, you're embarrassing yourself" feeling one gets sometimes after the five zillionth pun [...]

Heh -- this relates to some things I have to say about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which should be up with the next media-update....

[...] sometimes it's...kind of a good thing that the world moves on from, like, "The Jew Among Thorns," you know?

I'm going to just assume that's about a time-travelling rabbi who solves crimes.

I heard that in Michael Palin's voice. Is that wrong?

... and is it just me, or is he saying it like it's a perfectly valid point in the middle of some argument?

("I'm made entirely of spoons, and you don't see me complaining....")

My guess would be it's trouble re-booking the same actor for the character, due to the likelihood that they might have commitments elsewhere at any given time, and/or they might be asking for more money the next time around because they know you have another story you want to tell with them in it.

*nods*  That's a strong possibility, although I think it's less likely with regional productions.  Burn Notice, IIRC, hires a lot of local Miami actors, and I doubt they'd say "Oh hell no, I don't have time for this cable-network drama."

Honestly, my guess is that it's like the ham story -- these concerns were perfectly valid for *all* shows up to, say, ten years ago (no regional production, less interest in serialization), and that led to conventions that showrunners still follow even though they're no longer useful.

(Oh, also:  it must depend on the actor to some extent.  If your guest star isn't that talented or isn't that pleasant to work with, I guess you won't see him/her again.)

I mean, that's kind of how life works, isn't it?

*nods*

And like you said, it must depend on the show.  If your show is set in a high school in a small town, it would make sense that you'd reuse characters (and indeed, shows like Freaks and Geeks and Friday Night Lights do [did] very well at this).  If your show is more anthology-like or client-driven (say, X-Files or Boston Legal), then I suppose one would be less likely to see those same people again and again.
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From:puppybane
Date:Tuesday (3/17/09) 8:34am
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the most recent episode of How I Met Your Mother just did this, bringing back a characters crazy ex for some brief flashbacks. Actually, 2 exes. Of course one of them is apparently NPH's boyfriend, but still. That show is very good at bringing back things from precious episodes.
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From:jefpeanutbutter
Date:Wednesday (3/18/09) 1:22am
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How do you feel about the 3D effect in movies in general? Is there a movie whose 3D you liked a lot? Did you see Beowulf in 3D? (I would guess that you didn't like the film. I loved Beowulf for a number of reasons, and its 3D effect was one of them).
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From:hujhax
Date:Wednesday (3/18/09) 8:46am

re: 3D

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Good question.  The only film I've seen in 3D lately was the most recent Harry Potter film.  I suppose I had pretty much the same response to 3D with that one.  (And no, I still haven't gotten around to seeing Beowulf.)
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From:jefpeanutbutter
Date:Wednesday (3/18/09) 11:20am

Re: 3D

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Well then, here's the schedule: http://www.localendar.com/public/tshm
I want to see U23D, too (pee-oh).
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From:hujhax
Date:Wednesday (3/18/09) 11:43am

Re: 3D

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~ cool ~
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