torsdag 15 november 2018

The Little Stranger and the poor, daft doctor

I'll probably re-visit the in-flight film subject later, but I feel I should try to write about something book-related as it's been a while. I didn't read as much as I expected during my trip, but I did get through The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (among some decidedly lighter fare). And it was... fine. However, like (if I remember correctly) some reviewers when it first came out, my reaction to it is a little muted. I enjoyed it more than Affinity, certainly, but Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Paying Guests all rank above it in my personal opinion.

So what could be my problem with it, and possibly the problem of the reviewers I mentioned? It's characteristically well-written, and the setting - a run-down, once majestic country house in post-war Britain - is atmospheric. But maybe we Waters readers have become a little spoilt, and expect a different kind of story than the one we're getting. In the novel, the already struggling family - consisting of a mother and her two grown-up children, a son and a daughter - who holds on to the country house Hundreds Hall starts to unravel as what seems to be a malignant spirit haunts them, one after the other. The narrator is Dr Faraday, who has loved Hundreds Hall since he was a child and who is by turns star-struck by and vaguely resentful of the family. Although he isn't originally their GP, a series of events leads him to take over that role and come closer to the family, which gives him a ring seat to witness events when weird things start to happen.

Remembering some mind-boggling twists in other Waters novels, I for one rather expected some brilliant explanation to the hauntings, which would put everything in a new and startling light. But this isn't quite what we get. I suppose we are given an explanation of sorts, but it's tentative and not as surprising as I would have liked. So, it's not really a mystery story with a clever, Agatha Christie-like revelation. Is it a straightforward ghost story, then? Sometimes it reads that way, but the right  kind of tales-before-the-fire atmosphere only materialises fitfully. This is largely due to what is perhaps the book's biggest problem for me: the narrator, Dr Faraday.

Don't get me wrong - I like him, and feel for him. Of the novel's protagonists, he is the only one I truly warmed to; the Ayres, the owners of Hundreds Hall, didn't quite manage to charm me the way they charm the good Doctor. At the same time, Faraday is irritatingly obtuse, and you cringe for him as he blunders his way through the narrative and repeatedly misinterprets people and events. Whatever is behind the strange things that befall the Ayres family, it is perfectly plain that Faraday's explanation - that they're all going loopy - does not cover the facts, yet he insists on it. The son, Rod, feels himself persecuted by a poltergeist, so he must be mad. Mrs Ayres is plagued by what she believes is the ghost of her dead child, so she must be mad. Even if the Doctor himself witnesses a bruise appearing on Mrs Ayres seemingly from nowhere, he still won't admit that there might be more things between heaven and earth than is dreamed of in his philosophy. He may be a man of science, yet an actual ghost would make for a more rational explanation than what he comes up with for everything that's going on. The only things that don't fit the ghost narrative are the malevolence of the "little stranger" - why would Mrs Ayres's beloved dead daughter Susan treat her so cruelly? - and the fact that the hauntings don't start until years after Susan's death. Yet Faraday is so stuck in his "there's no such thing as ghosts" thinking he never sees fit to argue the thing through.

It isn't just the mystery that leaves the Doctor looking a bit of a chump. It's clear to the reader that he misjudges how intimate his friendship with the Ayres really is. The women do give him reason to think that he is more than just their GP, but Rod makes it perfectly plain he doesn't see the Doc as a friend, yet Faraday insists on viewing himself as such. Quite simply, he presumes too much on his acquaintance with the Ayres, and when he's told to back off, he doesn't get it. I was reminded in a way of Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, which also featured an outsider pushing her (in this case) way into a family circle with which she'd become obsessed. Perhaps I've become a little tired of the "outsider who wants to belong" plot, unless it actually leads to the outsider belonging. There's something inherently depressing about it.

I also thought the beginning of the book - before the ghostly stuff gets going - was slow, but there again, there's the question of what you expect. If you view the book not as a mystery, nor as a ghost story, but as a melancholy country house drama, then you're probably in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.         

måndag 5 november 2018

Films I'm glad I saw in-flight

Yes, I know - it's been ages since I blogged. In my defence, I just spent two weeks on the other side of the world, in sunny Sydney, Australia, no less, and the week before that I had to prepare for my journey. Anyway, as I'm still jet-lagged - always a good excuse - an ambitious book-related post which I know is overdue will have to wait a little longer. Instead, a lighter subject (which I might spin out to more than one post): films with which I whiled aways the time during the long flights from Copenhagen to Singapore and from Singapore to Sydney and back. Well, some of them. All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the selection I made. These are films I'm glad I've seen, but which would probably have disappointed me had I gone to the trouble of going to the cinema to watch them.

The Incredibles (rewatch) and Incredibles 2 As I've mentioned before, The Incredibles is one of my least favourite Pixar film. I rewatched it on the way back to Scandinavia after having watched the sequel on the Copenhagen-Singapore flight, and I still have problems with it. Mind you, the "supers are incredible, and you have to be born one to be one" message - which is both irritating, as it devalues merit and hard work, and confusing, as there aren't any supers - isn't hammered home as much as I remember. Nevertheless, if you're not a superhero fan, there's not a lot you can take away from this film. The Parrs are a nice family, with just the right amount of squabbling going on to make them believable, but I don't really feel that spending time with them is enough for me to want to see the first Incredibles film again. Fanboy-gone-bad Syndrome is a great villain, though - a well-realised mix of intelligence and basic immaturity.

Incredibles 2 has smoother animation than the first film (as you'd expect - it has been fourteen years), and the supers-as-aristos message is thankfully absent. The Parrs are still charming, and even more likeable than in the first film (Violet is a bit of a pain, but she has a just grievance). I was doubtful when so much of the pre-marketing centered around Jack-Jack, the baby in the family, as I usually don't enjoy baby antics in films, but his scenes worked well and were funny and sweet. All in all, I would probably have enjoyed the sequel more than the original film if the villain hadn't been so weak. In the film, Helen Parr aka Elastigirl becomes the poster girl for superheroes in a bid to make them legal again, and quickly comes up against the threat of a villain called Screenslaver, who has a grudge against modern technology. Specifically, the villain monologues, people spend more time before their screens seeking vicarious thrills rather than doing things for themselves. Yes, it's that old chestnut, and there lies the first problem. The Incredibles films are supposed to be set in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when the only screen-enslavement going on was a bit of telly-watching. Even if we allow the Screenslaver an uncanny ability to guess the future, when screens become more of a thing, the very alias the villain uses is an anachronism - it's a play on "screen saver", a phenomenon which wasn't around in the Fifties-Sixties because hey, no home computers.

I wouldn't have minded the clichéd motivation of the villain, though, if the Screenslaver's identity hadn't been so insultingly easy to guess. The villain reveal is set up as a twist, which is now standard in Pixar and Disney films, but it really isn't - it's obvious from the start who the Screenslaver will turn out to be, and the as-per-usual red herring is introduced very half-heartedly. This, I hope, will be the end of the twist-villain trope, which has become increasingly tiresome and predictable of late. We need a Scar/Jafar-style villain-in-front-and-centre-of-the-plot again (and no, the solution is not to bring these fine specimens back in lame, live-action copies of the original films).

Solo All right, I'm going to have to be spoilery, as one of the things that really bugged me about this film - apart from it being completely superfluous - is a reveal that comes at the end of it. Solo and his mates have been up against a gang of pirates led by the promisingly named Enfys Nest. In a late showdown, Enfys takes off his helmet, and it turns out that he is... a she, specifically a freckled girl who looks like Anne of Green Gables. And the "pirates" aren't merciless fortune hunters at all, oh no, they're conducting a righteous fight against evil crime corporations like Crimson Dawn, for whom Solo has been working in order to pay off a debt and get a bit of cash, and would Solo like to join the good fight and...

... whoa, stop right there. First, how many freedom fight fantasies can you fit into a franchise? It's bad enough that we have a resistance movement so generic it's simply called the Resistance (or was it the Rebellion in the first films?), which fights the Empire/First Order because... they're bad. Now we have even more shining freedom fighters, whose virtue is apparent as they have a girl leader - not just a woman, but a girl. With the original Resistance, we didn't get a lot of analysing of what it actually entails to fight in a rebellion - it means killing people and getting your hands dirty (and bloody). They did start to address these themes in Rogue One, though. But here, we are back to the old black-and-white crusading spirit - plucky girl vs scarred Paul Bettany on shady luxury space yacht.

Second, we get one of my least favourite scenarios - when a hero/anti-hero decides not to pay back a debt to a villain, because doing so would give the villain too much power or some such guff, and consequently the protagonist ends up being a wanted man. Honestly, hero away if you must, but could you please pay off your debts first? It's only gentlemanly. And third, the Han Solo we encountered in A New Hope was a hard-bitten cynic. Even if he doesn't join the girl guide pirates at the end of this film, he is far closer to being a classic hero here than the original Han was in the original films. We are in a way cheated of the romp with a non-squeaky-clean protagonist we had reason to expect from a film about Han Solo's early career.

Solo is an OK action flick full of action flick clichés, which doesn't tell you anything new about Han's character. As in-flight entertainment, though, it's ideal.

lördag 6 oktober 2018

Jodie’ll probably be all right – it’s Chris Chibnall I’m worried about

The more time progresses, the more I’m starting to wonder whether having  the Doctor regenerate into a woman in Doctor Who wasn’t a genuinely bad idea. I’ve voiced my doubts before, but I also diplomatically said that we’ll wait and see, and a sex change worked well for the Master. The Master isn’t the focus of the whole show, though. The Doctor is the central, iconic, much-loved character of a 50+ year-old series. All that time he’s been a guy. Changing something so fundamental about him as his gender could have serious repercussions, not least because it feels so unnecessary. Was this something real fans of the show were crying out for? Or did BBC just want to make a point about how wonderfully enlightened it is?

Having said all that, I’ve liked the few glimpses we’ve seen so far of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. If anyone can pull this off, it will probably be her – and I love the Yorkshire accent. (Could it be that regional accents always sound cuter in a foreign tongue? There are Swedish regional accents that sound awful to me, but could conceivably appear melodic to, say, a Brit.) Also, my grumpiness regarding the whole female Doctor thing may partly be due to the aggressive way it’s been marketed, along with other changes to the series.

I do hate it when I get the feeling that someone is trying to catch me out with being a bigot about things I’m actually not bigoted about. I happen to love strong and preferably non-stereotypical female leads in films and on TV (though to be honest the feisty, kick-ass female has become something of a stereotype in her own right – but still enjoyable to watch). However, it’s provoking when the new Doctor Who series is being marketed with the tag line “It’s about time” – as if to say “Yes! Haven’t we all waited for the boring old Doctor dude to finally turn into a woman? No? Then you’re a sexist!” Another instance of “Don’t like it? You’re a horrible person” marketing was the boast put forward that the almost-all-new Doctor Who crew of writers included women and people of different ethnical backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the only thing that interests me about writers for Doctor Who is the quality of their writing. If I’d been one of them, I’d have been offended by the implication that I’d been hired, not because of my immensely popular children’s novels or for that tense TV screenplay I wrote, but because of my gender or the colour of my skin.

These are contentious waters, and before I’ve seen the new series I won’t be venturing out further in them. The odd smug, clumsy phrase shouldn’t damn a series of Doctor Who’s pedigree. From what I gather from an article in Doctor Who Magazine, the new Who writers have very solid credentials, and at the end of the day, the one I’m most afraid will be lecturing us rather than entertaining us is a white male: the show-runner himself, Chris Chibnall.

In preparation for the new series, I’ve been rewatching two Chibnall-scripted Doctor Who episodes: 42 and The Power of Three. I couldn’t bear to rewatch the preach-fest two-parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood where a poor woman is roundly berated, and made to hang her head in shame, for (accidentally) killing an obnoxious lizard-being hostage who was goading her, whose venom was poisoning her father and whose species were holding her little boy prisoner. In that situation, world peace would mean little to me too. Dinosaurs On A Spaceship – where a non-reconstructed big game hunter is roped in as one of the Doctor’s team, only so that the strong women on said team could sceptically roll their eyes at him – wasn’t tempting either, especially as I do have a problem with the Doctor cold-bloodedly killing the villain off at the end. True, it’s not out of character: the villain, Solomon the Trader, was guilty of genocide, and the Doctor has been known to be implacable (my heart still goes out to the poor Family of Blood). Still, if Solomon had not been the Trader but rather, say, the Freedom Fighter, I can’t help wondering whether the Doctor wouldn’t have acted differently, even if the atrocities committed had been the same.

On to the episodes I did rewatch, then. 42 is an episode I routinely skip when rewatching Who because of it’s insultingly daft premise. The Doctor and his then companion Martha land on a spaceship which is heading towards a sun, and something on board is possessing some of the crew members and sabotaging the crew’s efforts to get away. In time, the Doctor and Martha realise that the sun in question is alive and taking revenge on the spacecraft because it has scooped out parts of it for fueling purposes. Martha dumps the sun particles back where they came from, and the severely decimated crew is saved.

People who criticise this episode usually give it some credit for its “interesting ecological message”. But it’s the eco message that’s the problem for me, because it’s plain dumb. Once again, a character is shamed (and if we’re to play the gender game, as in the later The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood it’s a woman) for causing the calamity the crew is in. Her failing? Because scooping sun fuel is illegal for some reason, she didn’t “scan for life” before mining the sun. But how the blazes was she to know there could be any life on a sun, or  that the sun itself would be alive, when this is a bonkers premise to begin with? And if the sun is sentient enough to convey the message “burn with me” through possessed crew members, how about instead ventriloquising “I’m alive, you clowns – drop that sun fuel now?”

To be fair, though, 42 didn’t dwell on its wonkily set out moral message too much, and there were other things I quite enjoyed about it, such as Martha’s heart-to-heart with a crew member when they think they are about to die. And I really liked The Power of Three, which is also Chibnall’s latest Who offering (42 was the first). Yes, as has been pointed out, the denouement was a rushed cop-out, the villain reveal a let-down and many questions left unanswered. But who cares, when all kinds of preachiness are mercifully absent? Instead, the main plot – concerning the mysterious appearance on Earth of millions of small cubes, which then do absolutely nothing for a whole year before causing trouble – becomes the pretext for exploring the relationship between the Doctor and his then companions Amy and Rory. He becomes part of their everyday life and hates it. They start to appreciate their everyday life more and worry about how their exploits with the Doctor can have a negative impact on it. “It seems we have two lives – real life and Doctor life.” It’s an insightful and funny (“Patience is for wimps!”) episode about human/Time Lord relationships and some intriguing space stuff. This is the Chris Chibnall I’m hoping we’ll see in the next series, not the PC finger-wagging one. So maybe everything will turn out fine – we humans are “creatures of hope”, after all.

onsdag 12 september 2018

Once Upon A Time final season: Operation Pearly Gates, the strange failure of Voodoo Queen and more

Finally, I have my season seven DVDs of Once Upon A Time, and am thus in full legal possession of the facts of what happens in it and can blog about it. Warning for spoilers ahead: as it's the very last Once season, I'm not even going to try to avoid them.

Simply put, I loved this season. Unlike many fans, I really enjoyed the change of setting, from picturesque Storybrooke to the big-city vibe of Hyperion Heights, a neighbourhood added to gritty Seattle as part of a new curse. Although the season didn't quite live up to my highest expectations, it's still the one I've enjoyed most since seasons one to three. As so often with Once, there are so many promising premises set up that it becomes difficult for the series to deliver on them. Nevertheless, you have to learn to appreciate what you get instead of spending too much time pondering how it could have been done even better.

It is a problem that Emma Swan's not in this season. Like Matthew in Downton Abbey, Emma really is the main character of seasons one to six, to whose story the stories of the other characters are tied. When Jennifer Morrison didn't renew her contract, therefore, the show - like Downton - was knocked slightly off-track, even if it did stomach the blow. Still, the whole concept of season seven being a "new chapter" and centering around Emma's now grown-up son Henry worked creditably, and would have felt completely natural had the show been allowed to continue for one or two seasons more, so there'd be more balance between the Emma and Henry part of the story. The absence (except for the final) of Snow White and Prince David aka Charming was less of a problem. Believe it or not, I actually like Snow and Charming even if they are heroes, but they hadn't had a decent story arc since season three (though at least David had a few good side adventures - poor Snow got practically nothing to work with). Knowing they were living out their happily ever after off-stage was more satisfying than watching them being forced into uninspiring plot lines by writers plainly more interested in villain fun.

And so on to said villain fun. As usual, I could go on the whole day long about Once stories and characters, and will have to restrict myself to one or two themes, concerning my favourite (reformed - yes, really!) villain duo Rumplestiltskin and Regina, aka the Evil Queen. They are both present and correct in this season, which means that to be honest, it's got everything I need.

Did season seven expand on the duo's story in a satisfying way, considering that the finale of season six seemed to provide the ideal cutting-off point for their stories as well as everyone else's? Yes, it did. I admit I rather liked the fact that Rumple got his happy ending at the end of season six while still being alive and kicking - I had expected that his story would end in his dying redemptively and was glad when it didn't. Except now, at the end of season seven, it does. However, taken all in all, it's worth it. A long and blissful life with the ones you love, then a happy afterlife, is the best ending anyone could wish for, and Rumple gets there, with the help of a redemption arc that's much better constructed than the bad-good-bad again-good again roller coaster of season six. Personally, I don't understand why immortals always end up wanting to die, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that they do, so fair dues. And somewhere I am a bit relieved about the whole afterlife business - remembering how the afterlife is organised in Once, one had reason to be a tad worried where Rumple's concerned.

Moreover, Rumple's storyline restored my faith in the pairing the fans call Rumbelle. I shipped Rumbelle as much as the next crazy Rumple fangirl in seasons one to three, but I spent most of seasons four to six wanting to choke the shilly-shallying, hectoring Belle, and the romance more or less limped to the finish line in season six with much of the fizz we'd seen in earlier seasons gone. However, the ultra-romantic and affecting episode Beauty in season seven revived the good old days of Rumbelle lovey-doveyness, and while a guilty part of me will always ship Golden Queen (ship name for Rumple and Regina, very unpopular with die-hard fans), it's hard to quarrel with a love interest whose benevolent influence gets one of the most hard-bitten of fairy-tale villains through the Pearly Gates.

As for Regina, I believe this season is the one - with the possible exception of season three - where she works best as a redeemed character. In season six, she often was the "weak tea" version her evil clone accused her of being, but here she is full of gutsiness and temperament while still being a force for good. One part of her story didn't work, though, and that was her love interest, Doctor Facilier.

Yes, you read that right. And I'm puzzled as to why I didn't like this romance, as I should be one of the few people who have no problem with the concept. I think Dr Facilier in Disney's Princess and the Frog is a great villain - actually I believe we haven't seen anything better villain-wise in animated Disney films since. In Once, Daniel Francis is a suitably suave Facilier, and I loved the way he was introduced in the episode Greenbacks. But him and Regina? I didn't buy it. I don't think it's just my bias talking when I say that there's more heat in one of Regina's "Aw, Reformed Rumple - how cute is that?" glances on her old friend/enemy/teacher/rival/crush than in all of the scenes between Regina and Facilier put together. It's a shame because a pairing between a reformed villain and a villain with no current plans for reform is an idea which could spark some interesting situations. Does Facilier fancy Regina as she is now or the Evil Queen? Is it an old Evil Queen part of Regina that's drawn to Facilier, or does she honestly think she can do a Belle on him? If the series had been renewed, my guess is that Facilier would have been kept on and built up as a Rumple surrogate - it might even have worked. As it was, when he is dispatched by an unreformed version of Rumplestiltskin from the Wish Realm just as he's mocking the original Rumple for going soft and becoming the worst version of himself - "Well, I find that really insulting. I mean, I'm the worst version of me" - I wasn't sorry at all but shamelessly cheering on the badass Rumple doppelganger.

Dearie me, I've run out of time and space for commenting on the Wish Realm, haven't I? As well as for bringing up the alternative (superior) version of Hook (this show loves doppelgangers), the wonderfully catty wicked stepsister Ivy/Drizella, the engaging new Alice in Wonderland and her romance with Robin (daughter of Robin Hood and the Wicked Witch of the West masquerading as Maid Marian - a plot line feasible only in Once), the Cinderella controversy, Zelena getting her happy ending with a surprisingly (given her usual taste in men) tame love interest... Ah, well, maybe another time.

torsdag 30 augusti 2018

The utter pointlessness of the Disney Beauty and the Beast remake

OK. So I know I've voiced my scepticism of Disney's live-action remakes before. But things have reached a point now where I've gone from "hm, not sure about this idea" to "for pity's sake stop making these things - you're strangling your own brand!". I thought Disney was on the wrong track before - now I know it. In fact, I would be willing to bet that we've reached the end of the Disney Revival era and are heading for another "dark age" Mouse-wise.

Catching up with the live-action Beauty and the Beast on Netflix isn't the only thing that's made me worry about Disney's future. First, there were the Wreck-It Ralph 2 trailers where Vanellope meets the Disney princesses on the internet, with various in-jokes ensuing. I normally love all kinds of mash-ups and cross-overs, but the knowingness of the these jokes left me completely cold. It was far too close to the cynical tone of the Shrek franchise for my taste, and the princess cameos show no appreciation of all the good will these girls have brought their brand. Honestly, if the Disney people themselves won't stand up for their princesses, even if they do happen to sing and bond with animals, who will? Compare this with the good-natured fun poked at the princess trope in Enchanted, a film that nevertheless showed that good, old-fashioned magical romance and the rose-tinted world-view of "a real princess" can make the world a little brighter.

Then I saw a video of what to expect of Disney and Pixar in 2019, and would you believe it: just like 2018, the list of upcoming films was made up entirely out of sequels and live-action remakes - three of the latter. Though I am curious about Frozen 2, at this point I would rather have seen something new from my favourite animation studio, just to show their well of ideas hasn't run dry. But no. From Pixar we get Toy Story 4 and from Disney animation Frozen 2 - that's our lot. As for the rest, they are swamping us with their live-action remakes, which I'm more and more convinced are completely pointless.

Which finally leads me to the Beauty and the Beast 2017 remake. First, let me make it clear that I'm not going to compare it to the Once Upon a Time take on Beauty and the Beast at all, as I realise that every version of the story where the Beast turns out to be a mere bland prince - including, um, the original fairy tale - will fall short in my estimation compared to Once's villain-lover's fantasy scenario. The battle here stands solely between the animated classic from the Nineties and the live-action extravaganza of 2017. And the animated film wins hands down.

I didn't hate everything about the remake. The settings were visually stunning - the Beast's castle above all; the musical numbers were neatly choreographed; Kevin Kline's Maurice is the most likeable version of Belle's father I've come across (Maurice in the animated version was nice enough, but too much of a kooky dad stereotype); the villain Gaston and his sidekick Le Fou and their relationship are given some depth, which I found convincing; and Dan Stevens acquits himself creditably as the Beast, with a nice, dry delivery of his grouchy lines, though he has zero chemistry with Emma Watson's Belle. I liked Gaston pointing out to Belle that if she was still a spinster when her father died, she could be reduced to begging on the streets - it was a nice reality-check moment. Finally, including a detail from the original story which wasn't in the animated version - Maurice gets into trouble at the Beast's castle for stealing a rose from the garden for his daughter - was classy.

But the good points don't begin to justify the existence of a remake of the animated Beauty and the Beast, which is superior in every other way. Belle is better in the animated film. Watson has the looks for the part, and did a good job of another bookish heroine, so I can see why they went with her. But her singing, while not as bad as, say Russell Crowe's in Les Mis, isn't much to write home about, whereas Paige O'Hara sang beautifully as animated Belle (and I can vouch for the Swedish dub being top-notch too). Also, animated Belle was a lot more - well - animated than Watson, who doesn't emote much in this film. Moreover, adding an inventor's streak to Belle's character was totally unnecessary. She's bright, she's bookish - character traits which Disney added to her character back in the Nineties and should take full credit for - and that's quite enough to be going on with. Belle's character doesn't have to be "fixed".

The Beast is better in the animated film too, in spite of Stevens's best efforts. He has more character development, and is well-drawn quite literally - if there's one criticism, it's that he looks a little too cuddly for a Beast. Nevertheless, it is better than the freakish CGI Stevens has to put up with, which looks as if the hairy face of a man had been grafted on to the body of an animal of some kind. Animated Beast was all animal (which explains why it was imperative for him to be changed back, cute though he was, just to avoid bestiality).

The romance is better in the animated film. It's quite serious when animated characters have more chemistry than two real actors who aren't exactly rookies, but this is the sad fact. Sparks flew when animated Belle and the Beast danced. There's nothing like that between Watson's and Stevens's Belle and Beast; they look as if they only dance because they know they have to in order to recreate an iconic moment.

The servants are way better in the animated film. There they are charming and full of expression. In the remake, they are odd-looking CGI characters with nothing like the ability to show every emotion they experience during the strange Beast-Belle courtship. A bewildering plot element is added, whereby the servants will not only stay in their present furniture/kitchen utensil form if the Beast fails to break the curse, but will actually become inanimate objects and cease existing as living creatures altogether. This adds gloom to a part of the story that is meant to be light relief, and isn't needed in any way; surely the prospect of becoming human again is all the motivation the servants need in order to encourage a romance between Belle and their master.

There are other bewildering additions in the live-action film, which have been pointed out and criticised elsewhere. One of the strangest were the efforts to somehow make sense of the Enchantress's reasons for casting the curse. This only makes her come across as more of a prize bitch because she is shown to put so much thought into the whole thing. This is a fairy tale (albeit written by a female French author in the 18th century rather than an actual folk tale): an Enchantress is entitled to show up, take a dislike to a prince, curse him and buzz off without giving the incident a second thought, and without having puzzled out whether the prince's servants "deserved" to be cursed along with him. It's what Enchantresses do. Notably, though, these additions don't add up to anything approaching a fresh take on the material. So why, then, make a film which is essentially a rehash of an animated classic, only less good? The live-action Cinderella has a little more reason to exist because the animated version, charming as it is, often pushes the actual Cinderella story to the background in favour of cat and mouse slapstick. The animated Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, keeps to the story and tells it well.

What bothers me is that now that the remake exists, Disney will probably promote it as the Beauty and the Beast adaptation at the cost of the animated film. I can only hope quality will win out in the end, and that somewhere along the line the Mouse will come to its senses and start making worthwhile films again.    

måndag 13 augusti 2018

Heatwave reading: Sanditon

In some ways, selfishly, I miss the heatwave already. It provided such a perfect excuse for not doing anything too ambitious - like reading anything too heavy, let alone blog about it. Using the heatwave as a pretext, as well as the fact that a TV adaptation of Sanditon by Andrew Davies, no less, is in the pipeline, I cheated when it came to the next step in my Jane Austen Rereading Project. Instead of selecting one of her actual novels, I instead chose to reread her novel fragment called Sanditon, ably completed by "another lady" (publisher: Simon & Schuster New York).

Much as I remembered, I actually enjoyed the other lady's efforts more than Austen's. I recall forming a very dim view of Austen's fragment first time around, and while I was less critical this time, I still could not see any signs that Sanditon would have turned out a masterpiece if Austen had finished it. The plot hasn't really got going by the time her narrative ends roughly 70 pages in. Moreover, most of the characters that have been introduced aren't that interesting. Lady Denham, Sanditon's matriarch (though with no children of her own), seems the most promising from a drama point of view, as long as not too much time is spent exploring her stinginess, which is a tedious flaw for a character to have. Mr Parker, with whose family the heroine Charlotte is staying during her Sanditon holiday, is a perfect dear, but there is a limit to how much fun can be had with his overenthusiastic promoting of Sanditon as the new up-and-coming seaside resort. He is saddled with two sisters and a brother who are hypochondriacs - another character quirk it's less than thrilling to read about, though the friendly officiousness of one of the sisters is a trait more calculated to drive the plot forward. Mr Parker's remaining brother Sidney has only just arrived in town when Austen breaks off, and has Love Interest for Charlotte written all over him. We learn little more than that he likes to make fun of his family, which I suppose singles him out as the sensible one but is not very endearing in itself.

There was one character's main flaw that I found interesting: Lady Denham's poor relation Sir Edward is revealed to be much taken with the rakish characters he reads about in novels by authors such as Richardson, and he's dead set to emulate them. In other words, he's a villain-lover, wilfully ignoring novel writers' attempts to set up rakes as an example of how not to behave, and instead siding with the seducers. It's interesting to see an author aware of the fact that readers will sometimes not react to a novel's characters the way the writer intended. Austen is scornful of Sir Edward's "perversity of judgment" and puts it down to his not having "a very strong head", but at least she has taken note of the phenomenon. Though rakes aren't the kind of villains I have time for, my sympathies in the case are rather with Sir Edward. Nevertheless, as he is "downright silly", he doesn't make for much of a villain himself.

The other lady who completes the novel does her very best with the starting point she's given. She doesn't dwell too much on such things as the Parkers' hypochondria, and she puts a lot of effort into making Charlotte - who in Austen's fragment comes across as little more than an observer, and not a very charitable one at that - into a likeable heroine. Charlotte's pining for the lively Sidney raises the novel's stakes just as it threatens to become too much of one seaside excursion after another. Nevertheless, there were times when I still found the novel a little dull. Perfect reading for a heatwave, though.

Andrew Davies will probably be making his own completion of Austen's fragment for his TV adaptation. It will be fun to see what he comes up with, though I do wonder why a star-quality scriptwriter like himself would want to adapt something as slight as Sanditon. Then again, maybe I'm overly harsh. Perhaps there is something inherently unsatisfying about novel fragments, at least for me: I'm no big fan of Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood either. You sort of expect the novel a first-rate writer is working on when he or she dies to be among the best things that author has written, because you assume their skill to develop with every novel they write. But it doesn't always work that way: I can't be the only one to think Great Expectations is a far better novel than Our Mutual Friend. With my expectations of a half-finished masterpiece disappointed, I'm probably more critical of passages I find uninteresting or clumsy (Sapsea in Edwin Drood! Oh dear, oh dear) in a fragment than I would be had they been part of a finished product.

Also, it's understandable if Davies wants to try his hand at something more relaxing after War and Peace and Les Misérables, like a regency romp which can somehow be linked to Jane Austen. And it's not as if I'm not looking forward to watching it. 

torsdag 19 juli 2018

Game of Thrones season three: Shipping Jaimienne

I never came across the phenomenon of “shipping” until I became a Once Upon A Time fan – this particular kind of fan behaviour is pretty big in connection with Once. For those as ignorant as I, to ship two fictional characters is to really, really wish for them to end up in a relationship (hence “ship”). If the two characters are already a couple, you root for them to stay together and be happy. You go “aaah” over their romantic scenes, get upset over their break-ups and view any threat to their relationship with hostility. My delight when I found out that there are others like me, who obsess over the love life of their favourite fictional characters the same way or even more than I do, has been tempered by the circumstance that shippers, apparently, have something of a bad reputation among other fans. They can start “shipping wars” and turn the fandom “toxic”. I can readily believe that plenty of shippers go completely overboard, but crazy fan behaviour (confusing the actors with their characters, harassing writers etc.) tends to be the same whether it’s shipping-based or not. I see no reason for not indulging in some shipping, as long as it’s done responsibly and without becoming a complete pest about it. For my own part, my obsessions tend to be less with a particular couple and more with individual characters (i.e. villains), with whom I am prepared to ship practically anyone as long as my favourite’s getting some.

I will give sceptics of shipping and romantic relationships in drama in general one thing, though: if romance is to be made an important part of the story, it has to be done well. It is generally done well in Once: even if you might not be entirely convinced by all the show’s pairings, a lot of effort is put into the relationship side of things. Now in Game of Thrones, on the other hand…

Which finally brings me to the topic in hand. At long last, I have finished watching season three of Game of Thrones (at this rate, I will never catch up with the rest of the world with my GoT  viewing), and yes,  I’m still interested enough to want to continue with season four. There were times during this season, though, when I was prepared to give the rest of the GoT saga a miss. There are characters who annoy me (Daenerys Targaryen, a soulfully pretty, slave-liberating, somewhat self-righteous contender for the Iron Throne) or don’t interest me at all (principled, pouty Jon Snow), so whenever the story centres on them I’m tempted to twiddle my thumbs. Then there’s the excruciatingly drawn out, deeply unpleasant storyline centring around Theon Greyjoy – already the unluckiest bastard in all the seven kingdoms – being held prisoner and tortured in scene after scene by a sadistic captor who seems to be doing it just for kicks. This was the plotline that nearly made me give up on GoT altogether, because the writers seemed to be torturing Theon just for kicks as well. His sufferings in no way bring the story forward, and yet (to judge from some stray comments on the Net) they are apparently expanded upon compared to what happened in the original novels. For pity’s sake, why? It really bugged me, and I don’t even like Theon very much.

And then there are the romances, which for the most part are unengaging. Several of them follow the same template, too. Tyrion Lannister falls in love with a beautiful slave girl with a mysterious past who doesn’t appear to be very wedded to the Lannister cause. Robb Stark falls in love with a beautiful female medic from another realm who isn’t very wedded to the Stark cause. Jon Snow falls in love with a beautiful “wildling”, i.e. a girl who belongs to the tribes which The Black Watch (which Jon forms part of) is always driving away from the northern border, and who – understandably enough – has no truck with his cause whatsoever. These love interests are little more than horizon-widening plot devices. There’s no interesting dynamic between the characters in the couples in question. The men love the the women because they’re hot. The women love the men, because… they just do. The relationship between Jon and Ygritte the wildling girl takes a potentially interesting turn, but mostly, whenever one of these pairings are on screen, even I find myself longing for some derring-do instead.

There is, however, one potential relationship that shows promise. Jaime Lannister isn’t a character I’ve mentioned before, as I regard him as more or less a waste of space. I suppose I should give him points for trying to be the witty villain who tells his enemies unpleasant truths about themselves, but the fact is, he’s just not very funny, which makes his attempts at wisecracking more irritating than anything else. In this season, the imprisoned Jaime is entrusted to the female warrior Brienne, whose mission it is to engineer a hostage-swap where he’s traded for the Stark family’s two daughters. All sorts of things go awry, however. After having showered insults over Brienne for a long part of the way – mostly on the theme of how unattractive she is – Jaime finds himself minding when she stands in peril of being raped, and comes up with a stratagem to save her. Brienne, for her part, feels herself honour bound to fight Jaime’s corner when the soldiers who pick them up viciously turn on him. Throughout Jaime’s and Brienne’s subsequent adventures, they start looking ut for each other, and come to respect each other.

It might not lead to romance, but I’d love it if it does. If not, at least we’ll have a properly built-up relationship of some sort between a man and a woman which doesn’t hinge on the woman’s sultry charms. The Jaime-Brienne dynamic isn’t the only reason I’ll persevere with Game of Thrones – there are other things to admire, such as the overall first-class acting, the deft plotting which juggles a large number of characters and storylines skilfully, and the no-expense-spared production values which make all those grim fortresses and wealthy slave cities look so convincing. But I confess, at the moment, I’m kind of shipping it.