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

Monday (3/4/13) 11:23pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Tucker & Dale vs Evil
TV:  Misfits [series two]
Books:  <none>

Tucker & Dale vs Evil
This is the horror-comedy about two genial hillbillies who are falsely accused of being crazed killers when a group of accident-prone college kids visit their cabin in the woods.

This film won me over right from the start.  First off, in any movie featuring movie-star-pretty college kids coming across murderous rednecks, some part of my brain will realize that (1) the rich and beautiful college kids in my life were often dicks, and (2) the rednecks were the people I went to high school with, and they were usually pretty nice to me.  So I was already inclined to like Tucker and Dale at the start of the movie, even if it was clear that the filmmakers knew nothing about Appalachia.  (Seriously, could the bluegrass music in the soundtrack be any more generic?)

Cast Alan Tudyk as Tucker, and you've just sealed the deal right there.

Hell, I was so happy watching Tucker and Dale at the start of this film, that I felt sad that I'd have to watch these two guys "do a movie" instead of just live and breathe and be.  That first scene clearly showed us two characters who have a life of their own, as they bickered about the best way to approach women, and picked up supplies to renovate their new cabin.

I would have happily watched that -- sort of a cinematic take on Bassprov -- but no, there was an inciting incident to get to, and a series of act-two reversals, and so on and so on.  This is always the problem with films: if the characters aren't good enough, I don't care about the plot; if the characters are *too* good, any plot will be a disappointment.

But once the plot showed up, I liked it well enough.  I appreciated that there was the classic genre split between "what the story's about" and "what the story's *really* about".  Yeah, it wasn't rocket science, it was on the nose, but it was at least *there*: the story was ostensibly about Tucker and Dale being wrongfully accused of murder, but it was really about Dale learning to ask a girl out.  And that's really all I ask for from genre fiction -- just *something* to make the story matter a little more than "random crazy stuff happens". 

The real surprise for me was that I loved how logical the two central characters were.  And it illustrated for me just how much improbability you can get away with, so long as your central characters still do things that make sense.  It feels like you have a sort of priority order.  The logistical, plotty stuff that happens can be wildly improbable.  The actions of secondary characters can be somewhat improbable.  But so long as your protagonists are doing things that make sense, you can get away with all the other craziness.

And that's what we see here.  The way the college kids get themselves killed are million-to-one longshots.  The way the college kids draw conclusions about Tucker and Dale is perhaps a bit of a stretch.[1]  But Tucker and Dale keep responding to these astonishing circumstances in ways that seemed reasonable.  I mean, this is one of the only movies I've seen where the usual "We can't call the cops!" argument[2] actually makes sense.  Tucker explains it perfectly, and to top it off, his explanation is borne out perfectly by later events.  When they conclude that this is some kind of suicide pact, they actually seem pretty smart to me, coming to the only conceivable explanation for what, to them, seems like baffling randomness.

If a writer can give me that, I'll forgive bits of stupidity-for-the-sake-of-plot.  Sure, Tucker and Dale should fix the death-trap loose post as soon as they see it.  Sure, Tucker should piece together that Mitch thought he was running from a deformed, chainsaw-wielding maniac.  But apart from that, I saw people responding with surprising and credible intelligence to impossible circumstances -- so between that and the character's likeability, I completely bought in.

I even liked how the show paid off the things it set up.  Sure, it was all kind of obvious.  You could use the offers in act one as a kind of clock: "Oh, they haven't used 'Chad has asthma' yet, so we still have a ways to go."  But most movies just flat-out fail at this -- fail to set anything up *or* pay it off -- so I'll roll with a certain lack of subtlety, especially when it leads to a perfect set-piece like "Allison attempts conflict resolution with the crazed axe-wielder".  (And even then, you could see how round-earth logic got them to that highly implausible point.  Beautifully done.)

I'm not saying this movie is perfect.  Tucker going into action-hero mode at the end felt... well, necessary, plot-wise, but it seemed to make Tucker less Tucker.  Chad being psycho seemed to come from nowhere, which is a failure in a movie where character motivations generally make sense.  This led to a final fight where the actual combat was... well, just combat.  How the two men fought didn't signify much about who they were, and the scene didn't amount to much more than "girl in danger, which boy will win fistfight?"

Honestly, this is just aiming to be a solid three-star film.  It's not aiming to reinvent cinema.  It's not trying to blow you away with spectacle.  It's not obsessed with being Important.  All it wants is to provide a simple, solid story that'll give the audience an hour and a half of engaging entertainment.  God bless three-star films.  One so rarely sees them any more.

Misfits [series two]
This is the second series (AKA "season") of the Channel 4 program about a group of work-release young offenders who gain superpowers.

Pretty much all the things I said about series one here and here still apply: very sharp characters, wonderful day-to-day problems, and a great, specific setting with a wonderfully idiosyncratic look.[3]

Beyond that, though, I have some complaints.  Last time, I finished my discussion of series one by saying, "I'm sure I'll see more of the consequences of series one when I start in on series two."  And it turns out... no.  No we won't.  Instead, the finale of series one was the harbinger of things to come: we'll completely forget about the series-premiere murder and its ever-more-unmanageable consequences, and instead make it a story about the ASBO kids fighting a series of monsters-of-the-week.

So that was a disappointment right off the bat.  Nothing, for me, beat the mounting tension of trying to keep the probation-worker murder under wraps.  The ASBOers kept doing things that made sense, and that kept only making things worse.  I was eager to see what twist would hit the plot next, as the investigation into Tony's disappearance tightened around the kids like a noose.

Throwing that away felt pretty sad.  Plus, it meant that the episodes were more self-contained.  For the most part, each episode hit the reset button, like an 80s sitcom, on the events that happened before it.  As a viewer, you quickly account for that.  Whereas in series one, you might ask, "What will happen next, given the character's objectives and personalities?", in series two, you're more likely to ask, "What will happen next, so that everything gets reset back to normal by the end of the hour?"  So of course Nathan's new brother gets killed off.  Of course blowing the ASBO five's cover gets time-rewound.  Of course the new suitor for one of the leads has a storm-related secret that's a deal-breaker.  Apart from the "Simon from the future" plot in the background, you can expect the show to act like a CBS procedural, timidly retreating from any bold plot move that would make it more difficult to show the episodes in random order.

All that said, a monster-of-the-week structure is not the end of the world.  Buffy did just fine with that.  But these felt like they were also arbitrary monsters of the week.  In Buffy, the A-story (monster!) often seemed to resonate somehow with the B-story (personal stuff!).  If the bad guy was a demon who made everyone sing out their secrets, the episode was really about how all the characters were keeping secrets from each other.  Here in Misfits, the monsters are more like clever ideas -- often *very* clever -- but never anything more than that.

Take Vince, the evil tattooist in episode three.  Vince can make people fall in love.  If this episode were all of a piece, then there would be a thematic resonance around that idea.  The personal story might be about Nathan trying to win over Kelly with PUA techniques and failing.  And the final defeat of Vince might be because, I dunno, Kelly realizes she actually feels something for Nathan that Vince's tattoo-programming can't wipe away, and so she double-crosses him at a vital moment, and...

Oh god that's all awful.  But it illustrates my point: when you use a monster of the week, sure you get a plot engine.  But ideally, you can get a *theme* engine as well.

Instead, Misfits uses its monsters arbitrarily.  Vince has this power because it'll make for an hour of (admittedly awesome) plot confusion.  And when Simon defeats Vince with a single hurled peanut, that symbolizes... nothing.  The peanut is just a peanut.

Plus, the bad guys always feel like they have the same motivation: they want to kill the ASBO kids because they (the bad guys) are kuh-RAZY!  Yes, for some reason the Plot Device Storm took some normal human antipathy and ramped it up to homocidal proportions.  I was okay with its doing that for Tony, but by the fifth time they go to that well, doesn't it feel a bit overdone?

Wow.  That was a lot of kvetching.  It's odd, because I still enjoyed this show on balance.  For instance, series two does a great job of throwing out these evocative openings, like the LED countdown in the series premiere.  And after that, it has a good sense of (heh) timing, putting off the reveal long enough to build suspense, but not so long that the story becomes one long bridging exercise.  For instnace, we find out what the countdown is around episode four, and explore its consequences for the rest of the show.  Similarly, Curtis's flash-forward shows up just a couple of episodes after he has it.

And I like how, when something weird happens, the explanation isn't *always* supernatural.  For instance, Nathan's brother has a middle-aged man in the boot of his car for -- well, irrational reasons, but not supernatural one.  Another thing I love -- a subtle thing that I wish they'd played up more -- is how these post-storm events are slowly, steadily abrading the ASBO kids' ability to deal normally with normal-life events.  When Jessica tells Simon, "You'll think I'm a freak, but I have to tell you this: I'm a virgin," you can see the gears slowly turn in Simon's head: "Oh.  Okay.  Okay, wait, she *isn't* talking about a freaky superpower."  Ditto for the scene with Nathan stomping the hell out of Marnie's afterbirth.  These people now live in a world where "alien baby" makes perfect sense, and of *course* it would be intent on killing them.  Every other damn thing is.

And this reminds me: overall, the show is hilarious -- more so than series one, which was all tightly wrapped up in mounting terror.  They mine humor from Nathan dropping one-liners, from characters just being themselves, and from the ASBOers having to horrible things to avoid getting killed.

I'll finish up by talking about the finale.  I'm of two minds about it.  On the one hand, I love the notion that they'll 'reset' these characters with new powers -- and, logistics-wise, they've opened the door to easily rotating in new characters, even.  So that's a bold move.  And it's great to end series two with a rumination about whether these powers are worth having.  But on the other hand, this felt like the ultimate moment of "let's reset things back to normal."  At that point in the story, it made sense for the characters to move on.  They'd sold their powers.  They'd found enough money to be comfortable.  And their powers had, honestly, caused them nothing but trouble.

So at this point, why do they spend all their ill-gotten wealth on getting new powers?  The sensible character motivation is to keep the money.  But of course, if they do that, the show's over -- or the show changes its basic structure, and Misfits is too timid to do that.  So: the characters need to move on, but the *plot* needs them to buy new powers.  The plot wins, and I'm left with a bunch of people doing something arbitrary.

Ah well.  I'm sure I'll see series three at some point, but I don't a pressing need to see it any time soon.

For next time:  I'll continue to listen to the audiobook of Dark Force Rising, and probably start in on netflix's House of Cards(judovitch can vouch for my teenaged obsession with the BBC original.)

[1] ... and honestly, the way that Chad goes very quickly full psycho take us into pure "the character is doing what the plot needs him to do" territory.  That bugged me, because the rest of the film held together so solidly.
[2] i.e., some character says they can't call the cops, because of reasons, but really because cops would confuse the plot line and keep it from being self-contained and easy to shoot.
[3] They deserve some kind of a prize for using tilt-shift photography in a way that doesn't feel like a cheesy gimmick.  (Ahem
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