On The Construction Of Artificial Families

We’re re-watching Firefly these days with a friend of ours. Not quite through yet, but I can’t remain silent any longer:

Firefly is incredibly awesome!

Mhm…

While this is a perfectly adequate description of Firefly, I think I need to elaborate a bit.

My three favourite series of all time are Firefly, Babylon 5 and Rome. Star Trek and Futurama also feature somewhere in the list, albeit further down.

What makes Firefly stand out among all those excellent series are the characters. Mal and Inara. Zoe and Wash. Kaylee and Simon. River and Jayne and the Shepherd. And Serenity, for Firefly has managed what few shows centering around space travel have ever done: it has given the ship a personality. Whenever Serenity gets hurt I hurt with her. Neither the Enterprise (A-E), nor Galactica nor the Andromeda has ever done that for me (and with Andromeda they tried real hard to give the ship a personality, literally). I could go on for hours about how wonderful the ship-set is, how organic if feels. How much love must have gone into its design. But I shan’t, because, well, this post is about families, not set design.

The thing that made Buffy so great (and that made Dollhouse so awfully mediocre) is Joss Whedon’s talent for creating families. Artificial families. With very few exceptions the characters in Buffy aren’t actually related by blood. The same goes for Angel, although in this case the term “blood relation” takes on a whole new meaning, I guess. Still, they function as a family. I haven’t seen enough of Angel to make an educated statement in this matter, but at least in Buffy Xander, Willow, Gilles and our dear Buffy form a tight-knit group from the very beginning. Dollhouse doesn’t have that; the very format of the show doesn’t allow for strong ties between the characters, and thus the show fails.

Firefly is easily Whedon’s Magnum Opus. In thirteen episodes it manages what other shows don’t manage in as many seasons. (A lie, but it sounded good. The two really long shows that I can think of at the moment, The X-Files and ER, manage quite well on the subject of character relations. Back to the topic at hand.)

I want to adopt every single one of these characters. They are all lovely, and wonderful and, most of all, good. The goodness radiates from them like heat. Not only Kaylee,who has often been described as the heart and soul of the Serenity, all the others too.

There is one scene, in an early episode, I can’t come up with the name right now, in which Simon asks Mal why he didn’t hand him and River over to the Alliance. Mal’s answer is short and to the point, only twelve words all in all, but to me it embodies the spirit of the show:

You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?

Two simple sentences, yet they manage to wrench my heart every time I hear them. Because for Mal that is really all there is to it. Simon and River are crew, they’re family, and that is all that matters. And this sentiment seems to fill the entire ship. Everyone, including Jayne (who could as a rule do with a little less greed and a little more brains), stands by it – come rain, come shine. They form a family that is stronger and closer than any ties ever formed by blood. Nine people, some of them so fundamentally different that one marvels how they can stand to be in the same room together, and yet each and every single one of them would rather die than forsake one of the others. Stealing and cheating seems to be okay though, just for the record.

It is a shame that Firefly had to end so soon. We are three episodes from the end at the moment and I dread and yearn in equal measures for every minute of it. I find some consolation, and it grieves me to say this but it is still true, that Joss Whedon frequently states that he wanted to go down a much darker road with Firefly. To make it edgy and base and bloody. And all in all I think it might be a mercy that Kaylee and Book and Inara didn’t have to go through that. And that we didn’t have to watch how Mal slowly turns on Jayne and Simon and Wash, one after the other.

Better to burn brightly and briefly than to go out in a slurred, ugly whimper, I think.

He’s already mad, at least let him keep his pants!

So, on Friday we went to watch 2012. (Yes, I’m healthy enough to go to the cinema, so I must also be healthy enough to blog.)

To begin with: I like Roland Emmerich. Not because I see it as my patriotic duty or because he and me were, by some freak accident, born in the same country, but because I think he can be a damn fine director. Note that I say “can be”.

I loved Stargate and The Day After Tomorrow and 10.000 BC and I also have a soft spot for Eight Legged Freaks, which he only produced. But it appears that Roland Emmerich is a man at one with the universe, always intent on balancing things out, and so he gave us The Patriot and Independence Day and Godzilla. Balance. The good and the bad. The man would make one hell of a Buddhist.

Anyway. 2012:

The trailer was, to put it in one word: awesome. It had great music, it had pretty CGI, it had a giraffe. What more can you ask for?

A movie that is good. How about that?

Was 2012 a bad movie? Well… not quite. But it wasn’t good either. To come back to the topic of balance: apparently Roland Emmerich has given up on the idea of making good and bad movies in equal amounts and just thought “what the hell,  I’ll be more efficient if I just make a movie that has an homogeneous mix of good and bad scenes”.

Spiffing idea.

I won’t go into detail on the plot, since I don’t feel up to unravelling that particular gordian knot so soon after recovering from the flu, but let’s look at some specific character moments and motivations, just for kicks.

John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, the man of a thousand coincidences. Not only does he either accidentally meet or already know all the major players of this movie (okay, so three of them are his wife and children), his character also constantly gets abused in most horrific ways by the scriptwriter (hey, wait, that’s Mr. Emmerich too.) To say once, and only once, that it would be a terrible coincidence for a little published writer like Jackson Curtis to make it on the ark ships and then for that guy to actually make it on the ark… well that is already pushing the powers of cliché to the breaking point, but Dr. Adrian Helmsley (played by Serenity-Evil-Übervillain Chiwetel Ejiofor) insists on repeating this line as if he had swallowed a broken record player.  Speaking of cliché…

Dr. Adrian Helmsley: Mr. Curtis, there is only one way to save us all. You have to go on a suicide death dive!

Jackson Curtis: Okay. Death is better than staying with my stupid ex-wife, who’s already smooching me although I let her current husband drop into an oversized gearbox five minutes ago.

Dr. Adrian Helmsley: Your sacrifice will be remembered. I have the president’s daughter with me here, because she’s black, like me, and she didn’t have any action scenes so far. She’ll do the remembering for me, because I can only remember one li… What would be the chances of Jackson Curtis, a little known author, ending up on…

President’s Daughter: Shut up. But I do think you’re kind of cute. Also you’re the only black guy in this flick that isn’t somebody’s dad.

Jackson Pollock Curtis: Hey… guys. I already said yes. Anyway… can I take my kid?

Adrian Healy Helmsley: Sure, of course you can…

Everyone (including the drowning Russian chick that the movie is going to forget about after this scene): What?!?

Jackson Samuel: Well, I thought suicide death dives were the perfect thing to build up a better dad-son-relationship kinda thing.

Everyone (including drowned and now zombified Russian chick): Oh, okay.

Michael Jackson and his son dive through endless tunnels.

(V.O. as they dive): Who was stupid enough anyway to build these arks in a way that you can only start up the engine if all the doors are closed?

Adrian Helmsley sneaks away with an embarrassed facial expression while everyone is trying to figure that one out.

Meanwhile under water on the death dive: Holding your air for so long seems impossible, especially since the movie insists on cutting back to the bridge of the ark for extended dialogue sequences, but they make it to the jammed hydraulics chamber. Bits of Gordon, the kid’s stepdad referenced earlier in this scene, are floating in the murky water.

Jackson Five: Gurgle blubber grargh. (Kid hold the flashlight so that I can see what I’m doing.)

Kid: Blubber, shlubber bubble gurgle. (Okay dad. Will do. Am I blue in the face?)

Jackson Curtis: Gurgle. (Yes.)

Kid:… (Has drowned.)

The ark slams into Mount Everest and everybody on board dies. Since the other two arks are full of multimillionaires, politicians, telephone sanitizers and hairdressers, mankind goes extinct.

Yes, anyway. That took a little longer than I thought it would. Back to the real movie.

I could point out other character and plot inconsistencies by the bucketload. Like the Russian chick that seems to be superglued to her boyfriend. At least he tries to ditch her twice in the movie and they always kind of end up together again, or at least in close physical proximity. Or the fact that the Italian prime minister chooses to stay behind with his people and face the coming apocalypse only armed with his faith in God. That’s Berlusconi for you, Roland Emmerich nailed him perfectly. Or… well, there is actually just one more character that I’d like to talk about.

Charlie Frost aka Woody-nobody-ever-gives-me-serious-parts-Harrelson. Now, here’s your classical mad conspiracy theorist. No one is ever going to do that part better than Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, but let’s give Mr. Harrelson points for trying. Nice touches all around. And they even resisted the lure of having a motorcycle-out-racing-the-pyroclastic-explosion-sequence (if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know what I mean).  But, and here’s the thing that really, majorly pissed me off:

They have a character like that, who’s clearly off his rocker, who’s kind of funny and tragic and also a little heroic. And they have to ruin his last scene, his death, by doing a f**king ass crack joke. Seriously. Words fail me. He’s already mad, at least let him keep his pants on when he kicks the bucket.

So *takes deep breath* enough ranting. 2012 is, despite all its flaws, a good movie.

Okay. A mediocre movie. It didn’t make me want to kill myself. Jonas agrees. For all its faults it somehow manages to be decent.

With another composer and a slightly better script it might even have been a good movie. The right ideas are all there. And it even manages to look good, except for everything surrounding the suicide death dive, which is out-of-proportion bad. Come to think of it… a new cut, eliminating that entire useless last minute complication, would probably already save the movie.

This one will never enter even the top 100 of my favourite movies, but it won’t make it into the worst 100 either. I don’t regret seeing it. At least I got a review out of it. And it has a giraffe in a spacesuit. Sweet.

Getting To Know Me Part II (movies)

You are what you eat, they say, and although I resent the implication that I might be a chicken drumstick, I find the idea of getting to know a person by what they like and dislike to be true-ish.

So, for all those out there who are interested, here is a list of my ten favorite movies (not necessarily in the right order):

  1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
  2. The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998)
  3. K-Pax (2001)
  4. In the Bedroom (2001)
  5. Hellboy (2004)
  6. Mystery Men (1999)
  7. Quills (2000)
  8. The Boat That Rocked (2009); a.k.a. Pirate Radio for all those poor people in the U.S. who will only see the cut version.
  9. The Mummy Returns (2001)
  10. Sunshine (2007)

Honourable mentions should go to Condorman (1981), which was my first favourite movie ever, back when I was little more than a semi-conscious blob, and to Ladyhawke (1985), which was my favourite movie when I was a slightly more conscious blob that thought that Matthew Broderick was cute and that Rutger Hauer had to be an A-list actor. (I had only seen Blade Runner and Ladyhawke at that point… an easy mistake to make under those circumstances.)

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but that’s usually the way it is.

Back in Black

Black DynamiteBlaxploitation is back. And this time it is back to stay.

Okay, maybe not, considering that Black Dynamite, as seen by us last Saturday at the Fantasy Filmfest in Frankfurt, is more of a blaxploitation spoof than a pureblooded representative of the genre. Also I doubt that many can achieve the level of brilliance that Scott Sanders, Michael Jai White and Byron Minns have created.

I’ll spare you a lengthy retelling of our previous experiences with blaxploitation, both spoof and the real thing, and ask you to just believe me when I say that not long ago I would have sworn on my cat’s immortal soul that me and the blaxploitation genre just don’t mix well. (It’s a different story for Jonas, of course; he adores it.)

Anyway, Black Dynamite swept me off my feet and left me feeling vaguely bereft at the thought that no sequel is in sight.

Can you dig it? Yeah, I can.

So go and watch Black Dynamite. Enjoy.

Two Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back

Land of the LostOkay… first of all, I’m not dead yet. Only very busy. And when I’m not busy I’m playing Risen. And when I’m neither playing Risen nor busy, I’m going to the cinema. Like on Wednesday.

On Wednesday we saw Land of the Lost. And that’s two hours of my life I won’t ever get back. Only it felt more like seventeen.

Why did we go to see that movie, I hear you ask. Did we not see the trailer? Did we not read the reviews? Have we lost our minds? Has our sanity deserted us? Should I maybe stop with the rhetorics and give you a straight answer?

Yes, we did see the trailer, and I admit that it was dreadful. And yes, we read the reviews, and they didn’t sound good either. But trailers can be misleading. (Okay, I’ll admit it, usually in a bad way – I’m thinking of Planet of the Apes here). And if I were to recount all the times in recent years when we absolutely loved a movie that had been trashed to tiny little bits by the reviews, this would be a much longer article.

The chief reason why we went to see Land of the Lost was that its director, Brad Silberling, has done some very impressive movies in the past. Moonlight Mile is one of Jonas’s favourite movies ever and both City of Angels and Lemony Snicket were pretty damn good. (I also loved Caspar to bits, but that was when I was fifteen.)

As for Land of the Lost: You got a director of proven brilliance, dinosaurs, time travel, A Chorus Line, parallel dimensions, lizard people, very good sets and locations and the producer of Eva Longoria Sex Tape as one of the screenwriters. What could possibly go wrong?

Mhm… reading what I just wrote, I can see the flaw in my argument. It’s called Chris Henchy. Not that I don’t think that his colleague, Mr. Alex McNicholas, isn’t equally responsible for this cinematical disaster. (Also he’s one of the staff writers for Saturday Night Live, which makes me think that the casting of SNL regular Jorma Taccone in the role of Cha-Ka the Eternally Awful might be his bad.)

It’s not just that the movie is incoherent – which it is, extensively so. Incoherent to the point where, in the very beginning, I was wondering if we were seeing a damaged cut or if the projectionist had once again mixed up the reels. (It happens. I spent most of my youth thinking that Pretty Woman was a postmodern masterpiece due to such a mistake.)

It’s also not exclusively due to the fact that it has enough poo and sex jokes to make Adam Sandler sick to the stomach. (Sex and poo joke density was measured at 11.73 on a scale of 1 to 10.)

Neither is it that the actors are telephoning in their lines. (Not true, I think they might have been using morse code.)

No, the actual reason for the incredible badness of this movie is the script. Our cat – yes you heard me, our fucking CAT – could have written a better script. She could have written a better script in her sleep, her paws behind her ears and drooling on our sofa.

We’re talking bad here on a level of  “the rustling of the popcorn bag in the row behind us was more interesting than the dialogue.” And I wish I was kidding, I really do.

The plot had more holes than a sieve. The parts that did make sense (in the broadest of terms) were boring. No, it’s not a good idea to have a ten minute speech about the true value of friendship, loyalty and love when a T-Rex is standing right next to you. And french kissing a monkey is not funny. Neither is A Chorus Line, at least not inherently so. (I love the show though, second musical  I ever saw.)  And I don’t want to see Anna Friel’s legs ever again. And the same goes for Cha-Ka, now officially the most terrible, awful, disgusting, dislikeable and stupid movie character ever. If Mr. Taccone would please contact me I’d be happy to give him his award, delivered speedily and with great precision through the barrel of a shotgun.

I can only conclude that Brad Silberling made this movie after falling on very hard times. Maybe he has gambling debts, borrowed money from the wrong people, now the Mafia is after him. He needs money, as quick as possible. Haunted, alone, a prize set on his head, dead or alive, his only chance is to direct a movie. Nothing matters, only the paycheck that will finally get the bounty hunters off his ass. So he does it. He directs Land of the Lost, forever ruining his career, but saving his live in the process. That has to be it. There is no other explanation.

The only question that remains now is this: has he never heard of Alan Smithee?

Beer-Flavoured Soft Serve

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Appearances may be deceiving, and so this is not a post about some extremely disgusting Bavarian recipe that I want to share with you. Also Wasting Away is not a bad movie.

(Mhm… maybe there’s money in this one. I bet beer-flavoured ice cream would be the thing in Bavaria. Need to think on that.)

Anyway. I had the opportunity to see Wasting Away last Monday at the Fantasy Film Fest. The festival, which I have been attending for ten odd years now, has in the past never ceased to amaze me, both with the quality of the movies that it shows, as well as with the incredible badness of other movies that it shows. It has become something of an artform for festival attendees to sort through the newspeak yuck in the program and find the few movies that are worth watching. In recent years it has always been a bit of a hit and miss scenario for me, but this year I seem to have finally managed to get the knack. Black Dynamite, Push, District 9, Wasting Away and Moon all have been excellent movies. (And then there was Trick ‘r Treat, which just goes to show that they can’t all be winners.)

So… about Wasting Away: I didn’t have very high hopes for this one. The movie seems to have left almost no traces on the web, and as previously mentioned the festival program cannot be trusted under any circumstances to provide accurate descriptions of the movies on offer. Tapping in the dark and willing to risk seeing a bad movie for the good of mankind I bought a ticket.

And I was not disappointed. Wasting Away is a clever zombie comedy with superb writing. The actors, most of them totally unknown to me hitherto, are brilliantly cast and manage to imbue their characters with dignity despite the funny nature of the movie. Especially Colby French as janitor-turned-super-soldier Nick Steele is a delight to watch. But I could praise every single one of the protagonists in the same manner. The cinematography is wonderful in an unassuming kind of way and I love the use of black and white versus colour images.

Wasting Away starts out a little slow, but after five or six minutes of introduction, all shot in black and white, we meet our four principal protagonists and the beer-flavoured soft serve from the headline. The soft serve is squeaky green and infested with the zombie drug, but the protagonists are sure it’s just a trick of the light. And after that the fun starts in earnest. From here on the movie is divided into black and white scenes that show us the world from the bland point of view of those not infected with the zombie mutagen, and in bright crisp colour to enlighten us as to how a zombie sees the world. I’m sure there is some very deep philosophical interpretation to this, but I am too tired to think of it right now. And when self-declared super-soldier Nick Steele hits the scene, all bets are off and the movie transcends the boundaries of the good far into the divine.

All I can say to sum this up is that the movie is a little jewel that deserves more attention. Worldwide release in major cinemas. Sequels. Tie-in novels. Beer-flavoured Happy Meal promotions. Anything. Anything to give the world the wonderful gift of zombie vision.

Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Plot

As some of you may know and others not, I have co-written two traditional Christmas pantomimes in recent years, and writing another one always seemed like a good idea. One of the subjects that caught my interest was the Harry Potter series, so I was recently rather dismayed to find out that David Yates had beat me to it.

Let’s rewind and see how it came to this tragic discovery:

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Yes. Anyway. Since it has been a couple of days since I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I decided to rewatch the trailers (all eleventy billion of them) in order to prepare for my very first blog post.

The results were staggering. The images, the music, the dynamic camera moves, the stunning pace: it all transported me back in time. Back, not to 2005, when I read and greatly enjoyed the book, but to 2001.

Mhm… some of you may think. 2001. That’s odd. Why 2001?

Planet of the Apes, that’s why.

The images were great. The music was stunning. The pace was riveting. And back then I still had some respect for Mark Wahlberg. (Yes, I liked M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening a lot. And Mark Wahlberg was good in it. But some sins can’t be forgiven. Shooter, for example.) Analytically speaking the only difference is that with Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Plot I knew that the movie would be shite a pile of excrement ten miles high.

How did I know this?

Well, that it was directed by the same person who did Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a dead giveaway.

What he did to the sixth Harry Potter film was nothing short of dooming the series to a slow and painful death. Sure, all the upcoming movies will make mountains of money and the critics will praise them over the moon, but ever since Yates took over the helm, plot elements that will be crucial to the culmination of the series have been cut, rewritten and generally shat on in a way that pretty much makes the story unsalvagable.

That having been said let’s focus on the main event of the evening, Harry Potter and the Hard-Boiled Persimmon.

The beginning of the movie had been praised much, mostly by bloated movie critics who are more likely to judge a movie by its projected ticket sales than by its actual merit. Still, I expected the opening sequence to be stunning, and it was. The only thing that wasn’t quite expected was that the magic would only last thirty seconds. But it’s an imperfect world, I guess.

I was also rather surprised that the abduction of Mr. Ollivander was featured in the movie, seeing that it isn’t in the book. Yes, I understand the concept of poetic license, and it’s a good one, in theory, but it was interesting to see the poor man abducted, his shop smashed to smithereens, dozens of witnesses around and for the rest of the movie no one seems to care.

At about seventeen hours into the movie the unforgettable Lavender Brown makes her entrance. Please note that I use ‘unforgettable’ in this context as a negative term. She doesn’t have the pigtails, she doesn’t have the freckles, the writing is far too bad and she doesn’t turn to the camera to say ‘Hello boys and girls’, but for all other intents and purposes Lavender appears to have escaped from an asylum for unbelievable panto characters. I shall make a point of finding said institution (I suspect it to be near the Leavesden Film Studios where Harry Potter and the Hollow Brick Penguin was filmed) and donating some money to hire more guards. Or maybe buy an extra layer of barbed wire for the fence.  Just to be on the safe side. It is bad enough that David Yates will be directing the next two movies – nothing I can do about that – but I’d rather not take any more chances.

There are, however, some things that I have to admire about the movie. The marketing, for example. Turning Harry Potter and the Hobo Bear Practitioner into a crossover with the other hugely successful film franchise of the 2000’s, namely Batman The Lord of the Rings, was a daring and visionary move. Having Gollum appear in a multiple cameo part as Inferi 1 – 217 was something Hitchcock would’ve been proud of, or Kubrick, or Woody Allen, back when he was good. Stunning. David Yates, I salute you.

Finally, I shall also take a few seconds to congratulate Steve Kloves for finally getting rid of his image as a good screenwriter. Having written movies such as the first four movies in the Harry Potter series, the wonderful Wonder Boys and the equally fabulous  Fabulous Baker Boys, his longtime fans as well as key figures in the industry felt that it was high time for a new direction in his writing: straight down. His stunning new style is maybe best showcased in the antepenultimate scene of the movie (it might also have been the penultimate scene, I just thought I’d show off my vocabulary… neat, eh?). To have Snape simply and boringly explain that he is the Half-Blood Prince really gets rid of a lot of inconvenient plot and dialogue in one fell swoop. I and all my friends who are admirers of the series weren’t in the least disappointed. Congrats, Steve.

There is other stuff that I feel the need to lament in great detail, but I’m running out of sarcasm. Still, it would have been nice to hear a word or two about the elder wand, or about the Ministry of Magic and the current political climate in the wizarding world, or maybe to catch a glimpse of Dobby. But maybe I’m just daydreaming of a place were fantasy movies are still good.

Nice thought, though.