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

Thursday (7/17/14) 8:19pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  St Trinian's (2007)
TV:  The Inexplicable Universe, True Detective [1x06-1x08]
Books:  Veronica Mars: The Ten Thousand Dollar Tan Line

St Trinian's (2007)
This is 2007's reboot of the fifty-year-old Ealing Studios film franchise about a notorious girls' boarding school where the students run amok with criminal mayhem.  This is the first movie I'm watching to prepare for the September/October run of Reform School for Wayward Girls at the Hideout Theatre.

Let's get this right out of the way: no, it's not a good movie.  It's a bad movie, but it's bad in a fun way.  It strains to be funny with random gags all over the place, and the plot is a soggy mess, but it's light and fun and, in spite of how it plays at being risqué, harmless.

What's weird is, there's this movie that's roughly on the level of Police Academy in terms of quality filmmaking, and there's a murderers' row of good actors in the flick.  Somehow, Colin Firth is in this movie, as are Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, Mischa Barton, Lena Headey, and Lily Cole.  It creates sustained cognitive dissonance -- I spent whole scenes of the film thinking, "That's Colin Firth.  How is Colin Firth in this movie?"[1]

Maybe ten jokes miss for every one that hits, but the movie keeps trying its best, like a determined little puppy.  In the end, I'm just not the target audience: it was probably winning entertainment for British tween girls, but it's more like innocuous background noise for me.

(Side note: somehow, David Tennant is in the sequel.)

The Inexplicable Universe
This was a short instructional series astrophysics lectures that Neal deGrasse Tyson recorded for The Teaching Company.

It's interesting, in that it's a sort of low-rent dry run for his big-budget network reboot of Cosmos.  In this, the "ship of the imagination" is replaced by a bland living-room-like soundstage -- a setting that looks like a stock photo you'd find in a 5"x7" picture frame from Target -- and the show occasionally cuts away to the finest CGI from the mid-1990s.  (Which is odd, since this was made within the last few years.)

Still, it has some advantages over its big-budget successor.  The Inexplicable Universe goes into more detail about astrophysics, digging into some topics (e.g., the Standard Model of particle physics) that the more broadly-aimed Cosmos avoided.  If you kinda sorta know your way around astronomy, then The Inexplicable Universe will occasionally surprise you with things you didn't already know.

Structurally, it's just a string of little 20-minute lectures, with Tyson speaking (apparently) extemporaneously about relativity or antimatter or wormholes.  It doesn't add up to any larger structure or statement.  But the material is interesting, and Tyson's enthusiasm is infectious.

True Detective [1x06-1x08] (spoilers)
This is the HBO limited-run anthology drama which (this season) is about a pair of Louisiana detectives trying to catch a serial killer with apparent ties to the occult.  These episodes finish off season one.

There are a lot of things about this show that are not unique.  Two detectives tracking down a series of leads, one to the next to the next, is not unique -- you'll see that in every procedural from Sherlock to Castle.  The Big Bad serial killer who uses grisly occult imagery is not new -- off the top of my head, Dexter, Hannibal, and the alphabet soup of CBS crime procedurals all work from that playbook at one time or another.  The show's depiction of a crumbling marriage is pretty cliché, as is the "detective who doesn't play by the rules and gets suspended from duty" -- hell, the sergeant even asks for Cole's badge and gun, fercrissakes.[2]  Even the structure of following a single case for the entire season originated way back with Murder One and arguably reached its apex with The Wire.

I see two things that *are* unique about this show.

First off, the two leads are just beautifully drawn.  Yes, their bickering in the first half of the season felt a little like forced sitcom banter -- i.e., the writer can't think of a genuine conflict between these two characters, so s/he'll make them arbitrarily mean and snippy at each other for no reasons beyond (1) making the audience *think* they're watching conflict and (2) providing snappy one-liners.  And yes, they're both perilously close to parodies of hard-core machismo.  But all that said, I know exactly who these people are, and these are characters I haven't seen before.  Matthew McConnnaughey is on target to be the first man to win both an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year, and he richly deserves it.

The second thing that's unique is that this show follows a single case over the course of *twenty years*.  And that can give things a weight that procedurals often can't convey.  A bland crime-of-the-week show is as light as air -- no matter how dark it gets, the crime will be solved by the end of the hour, and they'll hit the reset button and go back to normal next time.  This can be the opposite of that -- instead, we watch this one case, this one stone-cold whodunnit, tear away at these detectives, year after year after year.  At the end, when Marty Hart says "I'm fine, I'm fine," and then bursts into tears, you *get* it in a way that maybe you can't even put into words.[3]

The procedural aspect of the show never got that interesting to me -- in particular, Marty figuring out the "green ears" clue at a useful moment felt very Murder, She Wrote.  The closing action sequence was riveting and *expertly* filmed, but at the same time, it was by-the-numbers.  It felt like it was halfway between the end of every thriller I've seen, and the middle of every first-person shooter I've played (complete with fog of war and a smoothly roving camera).

But the more the show leaned into those two unique things -- the more it was about these specific characters, and the cost to them of sticking to this case for so long -- the more I was into it.  Granted, I thought it was a bit wussy of the show *not* to end on Marty screaming for help as the flare faded over the domed, temple-like building -- by my reckoning, a story in this genre *shouldn't* have a happy ending -- but once they'd gone beyond that point and done their "hey, Hall and Cole are all better!" sop, they made it firmly about the two characters.  They gave Cole a long monolog.  They gave both men a chance to just *be*.

In the end, I don't quite understand the raving acclaim this show is getting, but I enjoyed the show, and I'm glad I watched it.

Veronica Mars: The Ten Thousand Dollar Tan Line [audiobook]
This is Rob Thomas's literary follow-up to the 2014 fan-funded film.  It follows Ms. Mars as she investigates the disappearance of two teenage girls from Neptune during spring break.

My main takeaway from this novel is "I'm very glad I listened to the audiobook instead of reading the novel."  For me, the book cinched that Frozen was no fluke, and Kirsten Bell is a very, very good voice actress.  All in all, I paid attention a little bit to the book and a lot to Ms. Bell's performance.

The book itself is kind of slight.  I'll trot out my favorite old standby: "for a novel, it's a very good screenplay."  Apparently, The Ten Thousand Dollar Tan Line was originally intended to be the first Veronica Mars movie, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the book feels like an adapted screenplay.  Scenes run about movie-scene length.  They open with descriptions of the setting, and they continue with dialog and action.

There's very little of the dizzying interiority that novels allow.  You never, say, follow a loose thought on a lazy tangent, or go streaking through a tear of historical background, or expand on some philosophical point.  Instead, the novel presents you with nothing but the details you see and the details you hear -- the stuff that would be in the screenplay.  All of this makes it kind of thin gruel (if entertaining gruel) as a novel, but it makes it a great foundation for a performance as an audiobook.

And Ms. Bell absolutely nails it, slipping on her old character with practiced ease, and providing a range of other character voices ranging from eerie, dead-on impressions (Mac) to gentle suggestions of how a character talks (Weevil).  Meanwhile, she absolutely grounds the piece emotionally, which is especially handy when the story goes to lurid, soap-opera-like places, which is (in turn) most of the time.

The story itself?  Eh, it's a crime procedural.  It plods along with the expected allotment of surprise left turns and misleads.  (Though are they really surprises if you know they must be coming?)  On an emotional level, it's supposed to be about something deeper than just solving the crime, but that never really resonated with me.  In one emotional through-line, Keith Mars was forced into what is usually the "woman who says 'no'" role:[4] he pushes back against the hero doing the one thing we showed up to the story to see them do.  Yes, Keith has very logical reasons for telling Veronica, "No, don't do all this investigating."  But we read a Veronica Mars story to *see* said investigating, so we know that (1) Keith is going to lose this argument, and (2) Keith's reasons are the sorts of things that we have been ignoring, via suspension of disbelief.  Yes, it's unsafe for Veronica to take on a case like this -- but we let it slide, because we showed up to see Veronica take on a case like this.

In a way, the "woman who says 'no'" role always tries to make the reader (or viewer) feel like a chump for buying into the story, and that always has a distancing effect.

The second emotional through-line is about Veronica resolving some animosity towards her recovering-alcoholic mother.  But this one never feels quite earned -- it feels more like, "Veronica feels a lifelong bitterness towards her mom, and then solves a case involving her mom, and then everything's better."  One problem here is that the show's understanding of what it's like to grow up with an alcoholic parent never quite rings true.  But also, Veronica never really has to sacrifice anything, personally, to make things right with this part of her past.  Yes, she puts herself in danger (and puts in a lot of work hours) to solve the case of the missing girls, but that's kind of at right angles to her own long-lingering issues.  Things with mom just sort of become all better for no reason.

So I imagine the book-as-a-book might have been a bit of a bore -- a decent-enough page-turner and as pleasant as hearing a legacy band play your favorite ten-year-old single, but nothing that really sticks with you.  But as an audiobook, it's a chance for Ms. Bell to do stellar work, and in that, it entertains.

For next week: more reform-school movies, as I prepare for our August rehearsals.  I'm also watching the first season of Enlightened.  Meanwhile, Lindsey and I are watching Cosmos, and we'll probably also start watching Spaced this week.  On my own, I've started reading We3 by Grant Morrison (I read it a little bit at a time, so as not to get *completely* emotionally wrecked) and Edward Tufte's classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  I'm also listening to Stephen Fry narrate a selection of Chekhov short stories.

[1] Then at the end: "How is it that Colin Firth and Rupert-Everett-in-drag are singing a love duet over the closing credits?
[2] Does that ever actually happen outside of cheesy crime procedurals?
[3] I wonder if this show would have felt the same if I'd seen it when I was young.  These wide spans of time might have just felt inaccessible and theoretical back when I was a teenager.
[4] Quoting
an earlier post:

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.

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