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

Monday (10/28/13) 11:53pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:   Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
TV:   Doctor Who [7x10-7x13] [spoilers], QI [series two, series three], Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x02-1x05], Orphan Black [1x05-1x07] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
This is the 2001 animated film about bounty hunters in space; it is based on the animé series of the same name.

It had been seven years since I'd seen the original TV show, but I remembered the basic world.  Wisely, the film doesn't try to retread the plot of the series, but instead sends its characters off on a new, self-contained adventure.

That adventure itself is kind of ignorable.  It's interesting: for action movies in the 2000s, it's not enough for something normal to be at stake.  It can't just be Indiana Jones saving an Indian village from Mola Ram.  No, it always has to be ALL OF HUMANITY MIGHT BE OBLITERATED, all the time.  This has two deleterious effects: first, it creates stakes that are hard to relate to.  (Think of Arthur Dent trying, and failing, to wrap his head around the destruction of the entire earth.)  And second, it makes all the action movies feel kind of the same.  There are only so many ways a bad guy can destroy humanity, and there are only so many motivations he (seems like it's always a "he") can have for doing so.

So, there's this guy, and he's the classic "nigh-omnipotent villain".  You know the type: he has whatever powers the screenwriters need him to have from one moment to the next.  And he's going to destroy all of humanity using -- let's spin the wheel and it lands on... nanobots!  Okay, so he's going to destroy all of humanity using nanobots.  And he's doing it for, I don't know, reasons, or something.

So that procedural plods along.  The villain appears.  They find clues about the villain.  They follow said clues.  They get in fights.  It's mostly stuff you've seen before.

But the *way* they tell the story is a nice change of pace -- one that, to my tastes, makes up for that by-the-numbers storytelling.  There's the pacing, for example.  Unlike most action movies, this movie *has* it.  At about the halfway point, for example, they take about five minutes for a long conversation in a prison.  It's just two prison cells, and just Spike and Elektra, having a long, relaxed conversation about their pasts.

To my mind, this harks back to action films from the 70s.

A lot of their shot composition evokes this nostalgia, too.  Apparently the director deliberately went for a "live-action look" with this film, and what's strange is that it results in a movie that feels more "live-action-y" than most actual live-action action movies you see these days.  For instance, they include the classic shot of the protagonist walking along a busy street and chatting with someone.  Modern action movies would probably follow the conversation along with a series of closeups, and maybe some tracking two-shots.  But this film does the classic 70s thing: they plant the camera for a static wide shot, with the protagonist captured in a narrow depth of field.  So we see the whole city around Spike, with out-of-focus details in the foreground and background, and countless extras going about their day.  And the city itself is full of detail -- bits of signage, damage on the buildings, rusty and elaborate, rusting substructure on an elevated rail line -- without the busy and incomprehensible look that crops up frequently in, say, the Star Wars prequels.

In the end, they succeed so much at giving the Bebop universe a "live-action feel" that the show's world is much more convincing than, say, John Carter, whose version of Mars (ha! same planet) feels curiously weightless, sound-stage-y, and rubbed clean of any lived-in detail.

The things that were good about the TV show carry over to the movie.  The characters are still sharp and clearly written, and it's great fun watching them bounce off of each other.  The soundtrack is just the most gorgeous damn thing in the world.  It's funny when it wants to be funny, and the action scenes (especially the one on the doomed monorail) are gripping as hell.

I just wish it had told me a story that wasn't quite so *safe*.  Ah well.


Doctor Who [7x11-7x13] [spoilers]
I finally watched the conclusion to the latest season of Doctor Who, the nigh-on-fifty-year-old BBC science fiction program about a time-travelling alien.

And that's the rest of series seven.  Last time I worried that "Hide" would wind up being the high point of the season; in the end, "Hide" was, in fact, the high point of the season.  "The Crimson Horror" was a pleasant lark, mostly becuase it implied the existence of a breezy show in which the Paternoster gang goes on adventures every week.  , Gaiman's series-seven episode, was (*sigh*) yet another visit to the Cyberman well.  It had its moments -- evil!Doctor was a nice change of pace and the emperor was pleasant -- but generally the good guys made such stupid decisions that I wanted them to die.

And then we finished up with "The Name of the Doctor".  This had some strong ideas.  For example, I love the notion that time travelers have to make some effort never to learn anything about their eventual deaths.  They invented other gobbledygook along the way, such as the TARDIS actively resisting landing there, that felt intuitively right.  And we finally learned what the deal was with Clara Oswald.

Apparently, the deal is "she is not very interesting."

That's too cruel, I suppose.  But the answer to the puzzle -- the solution to "why does Clara keep appearing in different timelines, saving the Doctor, and dying?" -- is just that: it's just an answer to a puzzle.  Her disappearance into the Doctor's tangled timestream wasn't something I had strong feelings about, because I didn't feel much of anything towards Clara as a character.  Plot-wise, it did vanquish the Great Intelligence (at least until the next time we see the Great Intelligence) but the Big Bad was going to get eliminated one way or another.  It didn't *kill* Clara, so it's not like the leap into the timestream was much of a sacrifice for her.

It just solved a puzzle.

And what's more, the solution is the same thing it always is with Moffat: "all along, something has been moving backwards through the timestream you've watched."  It's like the crack we see throughout series five that gets generated at the end of that series.  It's a trick he uses with lovely, baroque complexity in "Blink".  But in the end, it seems to be the only trick he has up his sleeve for this show.

I was never too engaged in sorting out the answer to "why is Clara showing up everywhere?"  If I had, I would have found the eventual answer unsatisfying, because it relies on arbitrary non-science.  Why does Clara show up everywhere?  "Because they encounter a timestream representation of the Doctor's previous lives, which she jumps into.  She then splits out into various different spots along the timeline, always at points where she needs to save the Doctor."  Y'know, like you do.  Really, at this point you might as well say that "Clara shows up everywhere because of reasons" or "Clara shows up everywhere because a wizard did it."

And I'm still queasy about Moffat's attitude towards women in his work.  The reveal about Clara *literally* defines her in terms of her relationship to the Doctor.  Up to this point, Clara didn't seem to have a lot going on, character-wise -- she was just somebody who followed the Doctor around and was vaguely snarky.  The final reveal about her nature could have told us more about who Clara herself is -- who she is, say, when the Doctor isn't around.  But no, it tells us that her only meaning in this story -- the only quality that defines the only female lead in this world -- is that she's a helpmeet for the male protagonist.

Oy.  I miss Donna Noble.

It occurs to me that I've completely overlooked "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS".  I suppose it didn't make much of an impression.  It was fifty minutes of "things are happening, because of reasons".  You can't really make any predictions of how the story will proceed, because the TARDIS operates by arbitrary, plot-spackle logic.  The reveal regarding the salvage crew had emotional consequences, I suppose, but none of them were defined enough (beyond "antagonists to the Doctor") for me to really connect to them.

Ah well.  "Day of the Doctor" should be fun.


QI [series two, series three]
QI is a comedic trivia show hosted by Stephen Fry.  In it, points are given for being *interesting*, rather than being accurate.  It's become my go-to show to watch while exercising, and it's still by turns fascinating and hilarious.

At this point, I'm keen to figure out more about how the show works.  Alan Davies, for example, serves several important functions.  He keeps the show from being 'a bunch of smart people trying to out-smart each other'.  It's like he demonstrates to the other panelists, by example, that it's okay on the show to look stupid or silly.  He takes the curse off of getting a dreaded 'forfeit' in the game by getting plenty of them himself.

Meanwhile, he keeps a sense of mischief in the show -- that exciting feeling that the panelists might do *anything*, and the show is always on the edge of going spectacularly off the rails.  And this helps add some variety to the show -- Davies antagonizes the host so persistently that he keeps Fry from being stuck in the same gently avuncular mood the entire time.[1]

On top of that, because Davies is so good-natured, he can be the butt of nearly every mean-spirited thing in the show, and he won't mind.  And because Davies doesn't mind, neither do we, and neither do the panelists.  If a panelist's buzzer makes an embarrassing noise, it won't be nearly as bad as the one Alan has.  If they get a low score, Alan will almost certainly have a lower one.  And so on.

You could do this show without Alan Davies.  It would still have fascinating facts.  Stephen Fry would still have ample opportunity to revel in the English language.  But the spirit of the show -- the rollicking, off-balance quality it has -- would go dead.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x02-1x05]
I've watched some more episodes of the Joss Whedon TV show about agents who investigate superhero-related happenings in the Marvel universe.

In the pilot, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. felt like it was kind of vapid -- but it was vapid in a way that left room for it to develop.  Sure, the characters were mostly blank, but those were blanks that they could fill in later on, and archetypes they could cleverly subvert.  Sure, it set up a pretty stock "monster of the week" show structure, but that meant the show could find ways to sneak out of that structural box.  Sure, it didn't seem to be *about* anything (beyond a vague nod to Occupy Wall Street sentiments), but later adventures could correspond to real-life themes.

It was a plain pilot, but it didn't have to be a plain show, so long as that show had ambition.

Episodes two through five have demonstrated that no, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not have ambition.  All Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to do is to be the best action show of 1986.  Every episode has a baddie of the week, and our quasi-A-Team goes after them, and... that's about it.  I think it came from an alternate universe where the last quarter-century of advancements in TV storytelling have somehow not happened.

This is especially ironic, since many of those advancements came from Whedon's earlier work.  In particular, all Mutant Enemy shows have had a strong sense of metaphor: a dichotomy between "what the show is about" and "what the show is really about".  "Surprise" is about Angel turning evil; it's *really* about dudes acting like jerks after getting laid.

With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I'm sure they're *trying* to create a meaning for these little action stories -- and yes, people could lecture me at length about what they were going for with one plot element or another -- but I just wasn't seeing it.  More importantly, I wasn't *feeling* it.  There was a story that was about a pyrokinetic street magician[2]; deep down, it was really... a story about a pyrokinetic street magician.

Okay, so there's no real thematic heft -- but what about serialization?  Serialization is a thing that's happened in drama since those halcyon days of 1980s yawners.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have it.  It doesn't even have the "USA Network" brand of serialization one sees in shows like Burn Notice, where we see spend 90% of the show handling a case-of-the-week and 10% of the show addressing the case-of-the-season.  Instead, there are elements that persist through the episodes -- yes, Skye is not sure she trusts S.H.I.E.L.D., no, they don't really know what's up with Centipede -- but those are largely *static*.

For example, we know, as of 1x05, that Skye is looking for her parents.  That's something central to her character.  That's a major plot point.  They're only dispensing that five episodes in.  They'll probably spend the season gently ooching towards revealing who Skye's parents are, and then finally show us in 1x22.

Most modern shows make that seem laughably slow.  If Orphan Black were telling a story like that, Skye would have already found her parents, had some reason she couldn't tell them who she was, gotten dispatched by them to *find* their lost daughter, realized they were looking for the daughter in order to *kill* her, and then found out they were going to kill the daughter (her) because she had a chip in her head that, when activated, would turn her into a psychotic killing machine.  ("Ho-kay, what's happening in episode six, then?")

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not that.  I could have watched episodes 1x02-1x05 in any order.

So the show lacks these other layers of meaning that modern dramas have.  So I guess we have to assess it on its own terms: is it at least a *good* action series from 1986?

It certainly has better spectacle at its disposal than old-timey shows had.  TV, with its limited budgets and punishing production schedules, still has nothing on film in this department, but the effects are nice and the people are pretty.

The episode plots work well enough.  Still, the overall shape of the show is so set in stone that you always know what's coming.  There are surprises where there are supposed to be surprises, and that weakens the surprise.  And you know that, by the end, they're going to catch the bad guy and pretty much revert to the state they were in at the start of the episode.

So that leaves us with the characters: is this insignificant shrug of a plot at least happening to people I care about?  And unfortunately, the show hasn't advanced much past its pilot.  Clark Gregg is doing amazing work as Agent Coulson.  Ming Na-Wen is hinting at unseen depths as Melinda May.[3]  Everyone else is doing a wonderful job at being pretty.  They're still not sure what to do with Agent Ward.  Fitz and Simmons are still interchangeable -- yes, the characters point this out as a running gag; no, pointing out a problem doesn't make it stop being a problem.

And Skye is still troublesome.  One message I want to give to everyone in the world: nobody just *happens* to be a computer hacker.  It's not a hobby you pick up like embroidering samplers or collecting sunglasses.  It's more an outgrowth of having a particular kind of personality.  People who work in computer security aren't *like* you and me.  In a crowd of kids at Disneyland, the future computer hacker is the one craning his or her head around and taking notes of all the hidden exits they use to dispatch security officers when there's trouble.

Bruce Schneier tells a story of getting an ant-farm kit as a kid whose instructions said you could send your address in to receive a batch of ants in the mail.  "Wow," thought tiny Bruce Schneier.  "I can get a surprise shipment of ants sent to anybody in the world."  Hackers don't just hack security systems for a living -- for them, the *world* is a security system, and they are constantly hacking it.  They can't not.

If Skye were a hacker, she would *act* like one.  She'd idly try to pick locks around the airship.  She'd use every conversation to poke around and try to get people to give up information.  If there weren't puzzles to work at, she'd find puzzles.  If you wanted to torture her, you'd put a scrambled Rubik's Cube on the other side of a locked glass door.

Yes, I know: Peter, you're an idiot.  Why the hell are you whining about an inaccurate personality for a computer hacker?  This is a world with dudes who can shoot fire, or manipulate gravity, or turn into giant green monsters -- verisimilitude is not a top priority.

But my point here is that, if Skye acted like a computer hacker, she'd at least be acting like *something*.  As it is, she just comes across as vaguely whiny and vaguely snarky (in a way that distances her emotionally from the action).  And sure, the show tries to *tell* us that she has a personality ("hey! look! she's lost and searching for her parents!"), but it doesn't correlate to anything unique or affecting in how she acts.

Okay, so we have bland characters.  But do they at least have interesting relationships?

Something cute occurred to me today.  "Wouldn't it be neat," I thought, "if Simmons were *just* good enough at hacking to realize that Skye was much, much better than her at it?  And then Simmons spent the entire series basically fangirling over what Skye did?"

That could make a lot of things click into place.  It would establish that Fitz & Simmons can't do computer security -- that they *need* Skye on these jobs.  It gives Simmons an attitude towards Skye.  It could give Skye an attitude towards Simmons that isn't just "generically grumpy".  It could throw Fitz's crush on Skye into sharper relief, especially if he *really* doesn't know hacking.  (Imagine Fitz throwing in the smartest-sounding statement about RSA encryption he can think of into a conversation, only to have both women kind of roll their eyes at him.)  And then Fitz and Simmons have some tension, now that Simmons suddenly has a repartee with Skye that Fitz desperately wants.

And hey, it would give us some lady-conversations that would pass the Bechdel test, and it would give any woman who's actually *into* computers a happy sigh of recognition.  But... I'm getting off topic.

Look, I'm not saying I've had the best idea ever here.  But if you do a thought experiment like this -- "what if <x> had this attitude towards <y>?" -- it starts demonstrating how many relationships on the show just *aren't there*.  Simmons fangirling at Skye isn't a great idea, but it's better than Simmons *nothing*-ing at Skye.  Fitz sulkily resenting Simmons isn't a great idea, but it's better than Fitz *nothing*-ing Simmons.

As it is, most of what passes for relationships on the show are just characters idly bickering at each other for no reason other than "that's what TV people do".[4]

So really, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is kind of a wasteland.  At this point I'm mostly watching it to make fun of it[5], and to enjoy Clark Gregg's performance.  I'm sure the show will continue to be very pretty and amusing as time goes on.


Orphan Black [1x05-1x07] [spoilers]
Since last time, I've watched a few more episodes of the Canadian sci-fi show about a small-time crook who realizes she's the result of a sinister worldwide cloning experiment.  And since last time, this show has not let up on the gas pedal.  It's still the case that, by the time you're wondering if they'll zig, they've already zigged, zagged, zopped, and revealed that all of your zigs are now diamonds.

But it's been interesting watching the show's overall trajectory change course.  Yes, Orphan Black is still introducing new threads -- and I have to stop here and mention that their handling of the 'monitors' is just wonderful.  Introducing that Paul was secretly monitoring Beth was brilliant, but layering onto that the fact that Paul has no idea *why* he's monitoring her -- that's genius.  And the way that episode ends is stunning, with Sarah's big confrontation with Paul flipping 180° into a horrible realization that Paul had been essentially forced into driving Beth to suicide.  And *ending the episode* with Paul telling her, with hints of anger and of fear, that he has no idea what his handlers want -- just pack it in and go home, TV writers.  You're not going to top that any time soon.

*fans self*  Whew.  Where was I?  Oh, right: "Orphan Black is still introducing new threads."  But now, those threads are starting to converge.  The new threads are tying disparate plot elements to Matt Frewer's creepy Neolution movement, and there's the sense that this crazy momentum is now barrelling downhill, towards a point where everything comes together.[6]

And the network of relationships is fascinating.  If Spartacus was a world where everyone wanted something from everyone else, and everyone had blackmail material on everyone else, Orphan Black is a world where everyone is lying to everyone else, and everyone faces massive consequences if those lies are exposed.  Part of the fun is watching a talented-but-out-of-her-depth operator like Sarah save her own skin by keeping everyone in the dark about as much as possible for as long as possible.  (Watch, for example, how long she puts off telling Paul about the clones -- I actually had a moment of "Ohh!  Riiight!  Almost nobody knows about that!")

By all reports, Orphan Black sticks the landing with the end of season one, so I'm sure-as-hell looking forward to seeing that.


I've started watching season three of Archer; this coming week, I'll watch more of that.

________
[1] But still, he does it with such warmth and good nature that you can't help liking everyone involved.
[2] This ensured endless references to both Arrested Development *and* Avatar: The Last Airbender.
[3] Someone at the AVClub pointed out that, interestingly, the two most repressed characters are hinting at the richest inner lives, while the expressive youngsters who can talk all about their feelings aren't really given deep feelings to express.
[4] As Mo Ryan sagely pointed out, people being cranky at each other isn't conflict -- it's just a possible sign of low blood sugar.
[5] 1x05 gave lots of opportunities for that.  The high point was a scene set in "Austin", which included signage from Culver City, California, and a municipal bus displaying the route "AUSTIN".  (Huh?  "Only the most stoned people in the city would get on that bus," I posted.)
[6] I fail at metaphors today.

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