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

Tuesday (11/19/13) 3:23am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:   Stardust [spoilers]
TV:   Archer [season three], Orphan Black [1x08-1x10] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Stardust [spoilers]
This is the Matthew Vaughn adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel about an English villager who befriends and protects a sentient fallen star.

It's always struck me as strange that The Princess Bride didn't spawn a genre.  Ever since Indiana Jones, we've seen countless TV and film properties that are obvious attempts to retread that movie.  Ever since Die Hard, we've seen countless showdowns between sardonic heroes and Eurotrash terrorists based around self-contained locations.[1]  And then there's The Princess Bride, a lovely gem of a movie that sits somewhere between 'a parody of fantasy stories' and 'a proper fantasy story that just happens to be really, really funny'.  And after that... nothing.  Forays into the fantasy genre have all taken themselves rather seriously, either going the gritty, Game of Thrones route where everyone's getting stabbed and/or raped, or going the clean-scrubbed, Beauty and the Beast route, where the characters are sometimes comic, but god forbid we gently poke fun at the story itself.

So it's nice to see Stardust venture into the abandoned field that The Princess Bride staked out and left fallow.  Is Stardust as good as The Princess Bride?  No, not even remotely, but the film is pleasant enough, and again, it's nice to see somebody *trying*.

It's a terrifically messy film, which is both a flaw and a virtue.  They set up a storyline with a set of fratricidal princes.  The princes spend the movie killing each other for the chance to capture Yvaine, the fallen star.  In the end, the princes have no effect on the film's climax -- the last brother shows up only to get killed almost immediately -- or the plot in general.  Then there's a tacked-on bit after the denouement where we see that, lo!, our hero was actually the heir to the kingdom that the brothers were all fighting over!  Because of reasons!  So now there'll be a coronation!  Because now Tristan is king!  (... which left me thinking, wait, did Dunstan die or something?)

Obviously this is not a movie that's too concerned with Swiss-watch elegance.  But that meandering quality lets it indulge in a lot of fun world building.  Hey, let's go through a magical bazaar.  Zeppelin pirates?  Sure!  And hey, here's Robert DeNiro as the world's most swashbucklingest transvestite.  Ghosts!  Magical spells!  That goat just turned into a guy!  That guy just turned into a lady!  Hey, here's a giant CGI castle!  And so on.  Even though none of it really hangs together, there's still a delightful excess of invention.

Side note: there was one bit of dialog between Dunstan and Una that was, to my mind, the perfect example of annoying Neil Gaiman dialog:

"See anything you like?"
"Definitely.  I mean, what I meant was these ones, the blue ones.  How much are they?"
"They might be the color of your hair.  Or they might be all of your memories before you were three."
Okay, here's why I find that grating.  Say this is the world where Una is magical, and assumes Dunstan is magical too.  Then, her dialog should reflect an assumption of shared knowledge: "Oh, that price is pretty variable, but it's usually some small-but-irreplaceable intangible, you know, like 'hair color' or 'pre-verbal memory'."  Say that, instead, this is the world where Una is magical, and knows that Dunstan is not magical.  Then, her dialog should be expository: "We don't charge money; instead you trade something irreplaceable and intangible for this flower."

To my ears, you only get the dialog that Gaiman wrote if Una is acting like a pretentious twat.  It sounds to me like some self-absorbed hipster rattling off bands he knows you've never heard of, or a teenager who has decided that the made-up word 'scrumpf' is the coolest thing ever, and titters a bit every time he says 'scrumpf' to you because YOU DON'T KNOW, MAN.  It's a sort of heightened language that aims to feel like the dialog style of old fairy tales, and instead strikes me as the dialog style of somebody at the Renn Faire trying way too hard to sound 'magickal'.

It shouldn't surprise anybody that most of Gaiman's work is kind of a trial for me.  I was pleasantly surprised that that was the only dialog in the movie that gave me that bilious "Gaiman reaction" -- but I suppose Stardust, for most of its running time, doesn't take itself too seriously, and that keeps the pretention at bay.  So instead, you just get Gaiman's wonderful ideas, cobbled together into something like a story, and that makes for a fun hour and a half.

Archer (season 3)
This is the third season of FX's surreal cartoon parody of James-Bond-style spy stories.

The thing I like best about Archer is that Adam Reed, who writes all the episodes, is trying desperately to avoid getting bored.  The first season was pretty straightforward, mostly devoted to setting up the world and sharply sketching in the characters.  In the second season we saw serialization creeping in with, say, the cancer story arc.  And it didn't feel like that was shoehorned in after some FX notes ("viewers like story arcs!"), but it was just Adam Reed trying new stuff.

And fortunately, that sense of experimentation continues into the third season.  There are structural novelties, like the three-part story about Archer becoming a pirate.  The individual episodes go in wild directions, with episodes devoted to -- surprise -- Pam's history in the illegal Japanese drift-racing circuit, or the bottle show set in Mallory's apartment, or the episode that's basically wall-to-wall Burt Reynolds fanboying.

And even with all those whimsical adventures, they do a solid job of balancing "what the episode is about" (e.g., 'Burt Reynolds saves Archer from Cuban hit men') against "what the episode is *really* about" (e.g., 'Archer learns to accept his mother dating').  That simple 'single layer of depth' like it should be an easy thing to do, but many shows (ahemAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D.ahem) fail even to do that.

Side note: this time around with Archer, it suddenly occurred to me that Lana is the classic "woman who says 'no'" character.  This is Mo Ryan's term for the character, usually the wife of the protagonist, who keeps nagging him to stop, stop, stop doing the thing that's the whole point of the show.  It's Skylar telling Walter White to stop cooking meth.  It's Alice telling Ralph Kramden to stop with his latest get-rich-quick scheme.  Its implied "women are not awesome" message is always depressing, and it often feels like story padding -- the screenwriters invent a conflict over doing <x> when you *know* that the hero will do <x>, because <x> is what the show is about.

So it's surprising to me that I find Lana so entertaining, when "women who say 'no'" characters are usually such a drag.

But Lana is unique is several important ways.  First off, Lana is almost always *right*.  She isn't some scandalized, pearl-clutching type telling the hero not to do something outré and awesome.  She isn't someone telling the hero to be safe and timid.  And, while she *does* tell the hero to stop doing the thing we showed up to see -- i.e., "stop being such an incompetent spy", when we've showed up to watch incompetent spying, a *true* "woman who says 'no'" would constantly advise Archer to get out of the spying business completely, and stay home and, I don't know, write travel guides or something.  She's still up for spying, and spying is cool.

Also, Lana acts as an audience surrogate.  She says what we're all thinking about Archer's latest bit of idiocy, and that's always a relief.  And she always expresses it in a really funny way.  This is in contrast to, say, the hot wife from a classic "fat comedian with a hot wife" sitcom, who comes up with criticisms we weren't really thinking: if the comedian wants to go on a zip-line forest adventure, *none* of us are thinking, "no, he should stay home instead and have tea with his mother-in-law" -- but the "woman who says 'no'" will voice *that* criticism, one that we can't relate to.  And in this hypothetical sitcom case, the wife will either deliver a line that's completely straight (if it's a sitcom where *only* the male protagonist gets the good one-liners), or that's fairly simple and straightforward sarcasm (if it's more of an ensemble piece).

Instead, Lana gets to really revel in her righteous anger, with the heightened emotion leading her to some hilariously heightened language.

In fact, my only complaint about Lana is that they write her with mostly negative objectives.  We know what Lana doesn't want -- she doesn't want Archer to botch their latest ISIS job -- but I don't feel like I know what Lana *does* want.  If she had some little goal that was all her own, and not "get Archer to stop <x>ing", it might make her more relatable.

Orphan Black [1x08-1x10] [spoilers]
These are the last few episodes of the Canadian sci-fi show about a small-time crook who realizes she's the result of a sinister worldwide cloning experiment.

The end of this season felt a bit like a space probe being "slingshotted" around a planet.  For the longest time, it seems to be targeted at the planet.  It gets closer, and closer, and closer to colliding with it.  Then, at the last minute, you discover that no, it's going to just miss that target and go streaking off in another direction at incredible speed.

In Orphan Black, I was expecting everything to come together: the clones would figure out what the experiment was all about; we'd learn about the Prolethians, the religious order that unleashed Helena on the world; there would be some final confrontation with Leakey.  In retrospect, I feel like that was pure idiocy on my part.  Really, Peter?  Orphan Black is going to tie everything up and just... stop?  If there's one thing we've learned over these ten episodes, it's that Orphan Black doesn't know the meaning of the word 'stop', instead mistaking it for a synonym for "go even faster, and in an unexpected direction".

So what we're left with in these last few episodes is a season-end that *feels* like a normal, 'resolve everything' ending -- all the characters come together, major characters are killed, major revelations are made about the shadowy organizations pursuing the clones -- but in the end, *nothing* is resolved.  Allison has mistakenly killed her neighbor, has no idea that her husband is her monitor, and has signed away her life to the Neolutionists.  Cosima is dying of a respiratory disease, and is working with Delphine to track down the truth about the original experiments.  Sarah has lost Kira to Mrs. Sadler and has no idea where to find her.  And this is where I come back to my labored "slingshot" simile: everything seemed on-target for landing at a resolution, but instead, all the main characters have been whipped off into perilous and unexpected directions.

For next time, I'll write about the latest episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati.

[1] This seems like an appropriate place to recommend
"Bad Breaks", my favorite Burn Notice episode which is centered around a Die Hard-esque bank-robbery scenario.

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