Saturday, 28 September 2013

Solid, Healthy Inaugural, Except Lacked Drama

What's that, DC? A Gotham TV show without Batman? Sure...
(Update 2: Now with added spelling!)

So, this ASHIELD business, then.  Fellow X-book-botherer Abigail Brady tweeted that this was Whedon's best pilot to date. Spoilers: I think she's wrong.  It's probably his second best. Certainly it beats "Ghost" (I don't think I've ever seen "Echo", but the very fact I can't remember or care I can't remember pretty much sums up my attitude to Dollhouse), and "City Of" too.  "Welcome to the Hellmouth" is harder compare, partially because it was seventeen years ago, partially because very few people knew who Whedon was when it was first shown, and partially because the Marvel connection has jolted my fanboy reflexes, and it's pointless to pretend otherwise.

So while I'm tempted to give "Pilot" the edge, it's a close-run thing. Not that it matters, because "Serenity" blows it out of the water.

The reason is simple, while both "Serenity" and "Pilot" contain enough coalescing plot threads to pique the interest, only the former managed any character beats worthy of the title.  I might be wondering what precisely happened to Agent Coulson after the conclusion of Avengers Assemble (given the current story is so obvious I was surprised it wasn't actually in the film itself, I'm glad they're going a different route), and what happened to Agent May to make her so action-shy, but I couldn't give the remotest damn about either of them as people.  Which, obviously, is hardly an insurmountable problem forty-five minutes into a television series. But compare this to the first slice of Firefly. Yes, it was twice the length, but we were only a few minutes in when Wash got out the plastic dinosaurs and sealed the deal right then and there.  Jayne and Mal hardly took much more time.  Not everyone was served just as well, admittedly, but no-one felt like the essentially blank slate of... well, everyone here, really, except possibly Fitz.

The problem is rather exacerbated by Clark Gregg, who frankly is an actor of fairly limited range, and who already feels overextended and uncomfortable.  He has an easy-going competent charm, but I'm just not seeing anything else there.  The last tine I remember an actor so narrow heading up a TV show was John Barrowman and Torchwood, and that ended up less a train crash so much as a train falling off a cliff and smashing into a passenger plane on the way down.

There are suggestions online that the show's debut is a victim of his own hype, which might be true.  One could also certainly argue that my point here isn't that the ASHIELD pilot has problems so much as "Serenity" was utterly remarkable.  Both are perfectly reasonable points.  We'll see how things develop.  But unless Gregg has hidden depths that will soon be brought to the surface, it may not all be smooth flying on the SHIELD Helicarrier.

Update: I can't believe I forgot to mention this, but the pilot does at least get credit for its political message. Of course, it would be nice to live in a world where it wouldn't be political to point out the idea that every motivated, law-abiding person can automatically find work is obviously ridiculous, but alas the right-wing exists, so that ain't happening.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Blind Spots

"I fear to watch, yet I cannot turn away" - Milhouse Van Houten

Attempting to add to a Phil Sandifer analysis isn't usually necessary - I haven't felt the need since I took apart "The Sea Devils" - but the man is a self-admitted dislike of horror, which means whenever Doctor Who veers into that particular stomping ground, he can on occasion miss things.

Which brings us to "Blink", AKA "The Carey Mulligan Mysteries". For those few who haven't seen it, the astonishingly simple premise of "Blink" is alien monsters who will creep up on you and eat you (essentially), but only when you're not looking at them. "What Time Is It, Mr Wolf?" with a bodycount.

Now, because Sandifer is both very smart and steeped in Who lore, he makes a wonderful point about this:
The Weeping Angels are, in point of fact, a gleefully dark Doctor Who joke: they’re monsters that make hiding behind the sofa pointless. No, worse than pointless; hiding behind the sofa is the single stupidest thing you could possibly do in the face of a Weeping Angel.
As I say, lovely.  I wouldn't want to contradict that idea.  But I also think it could stand to be added to, because the idea Sandifer is nodding to is - perhaps unsurprisingly - one horror has brushed up against before.

The central conceit of "Blink" is that the aliens don't move when anyone is looking, and that "anyone" includes the viewer.  There's no other way to interpret the scene of the Weeping Angels wrestling with the TARDIS [1]. The viewer is a direct part of events, Heisenberging things all over the shop with their pesky gaze.

This does two things.  On the most obvious level, it involves the viewer directly in the narrative.  This was being done as early as 1959, when William Castle roped up a fake skeleton to go whizzing over the heads of people watching the premiere of House on Haunted Hill.  The 1974 film The Beast Must Die (also known as Black Werewolf, which rather gives the plot twist away) had a deliriously strange "Werewolf break" towards the end of the movie so that people had time to decide who the werewolf actually was.

Obviously, these early examples are very crude.  Things get more subtle a few decades later, with films like Ju-On. Now, I don't actually see why Ju-On (better known as the original Japanese The Grudge) gets as much praise as it does - it's messy and veers too much into silliness, though I may simply have failed to make sufficient allowances for its small budget. In any case, there is one scene in there that's very interesting for our purposes. Towards the end of the film, one of the characters begins to suspect the forces at work against her aren't quite as... external as she might have hoped, and intuits this has something to do with looking through bars - it doesn't really make much sense. Anyway, to test her theory, she places her hands against her face so she can peek through the cracks in her fingers at a mirror, whereupon her own face is suddenly replaced by that of the dead woman stalking her.

Like I say, this makes no sense.  Ignore that, and focus on what's happening here.  The film is positing that things actually get worse when you're peeking through your fingers. I watched this film with friends as part of my yearly Halloweenapalooza extravaganza, and one person started screaming at this point because she'd been watching this woman watch herself through the cracks in her fingers through the cracks in her fingers.

This is part of a more general theme in the film that the things that make one feel safe - as oppose to actually be safe - are at best useless and at worst counter-productive.  There's a scene where someone hides under her covers only to find the ghost inside the bed as well that performs a similar function.  But the example of the ghost in the mirror is more scary because it directly suggests to the viewer that trying to avoid viewing the horror will make the horror worse.  That it will make the viewer a target.

That's an incredibly powerful idea. The "children behind the sofa" idea so indivisible from Doctor Who is just one way in which a viewer can deal with watching something they can't quite actually watch [2].  Looking away or closing one's eyes is just a less ostentatious method of achieving the same result.  Indeed, it's not just horror flicks that people deal with this way; the idea of "closing your eyes" to both one's own problems and those of the world is of course a well-known one.

Ju-On and "Blink" both tell us that this is a bad idea.  That failing to absorb the horror in front of you will make it worse.  It will make you a target. You've somehow become trapped in something you thought wasn't going to involve you, and you're only hope is to keep your focus on events you'd much rather never have thought about happening.

That's where the core of "Blink" lies, in a deliberately and wonderfully malicious way of messing with the viewer's heads. That this is also a pretty funny joke I cannot deny.  This time round, however, it's the horror we should be focusing on.

That, and the Angels.

[1] Well, there is, and that's that the TARDIS has 360 degree vision.  But even that doesn't wash out other instances in the episode. It's not until Season Five that we see the Angels moving, and as is gleefully pointed out in the comment thread below Sandifer's post, that's only because the Angels are moving in-between the frames.

[2] One of my own favourite coping strategies is to reach for the pause button, which of course then received the "Blink" treatment in Season Five's "Time of Angels", the Weeping Angel's sophomore appearance.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

"Wall Street II Is The New Birth Of A Nation"

I can't wait for the Newsroom epsiode on the AIG CEO :
The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that — sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.”:
"Just as bad".

But hey, if we can't sort out the damage these worthless cocktrumpets and their political gimps with a fix that will fit on a fortune cookie, clearly we're just not being serious enough. Clearly we want to replace capitalism with unicorns and drum circles.

There is little in this world more contemptible and insidious than the idea that the more someone cares, the less they should be respected, and that the more things clearly needs to be fixed, the more laughable it is to try doing anything.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Sorkin Go Home Also

I love how sci-fi this shot seems. I blame the blue lighting, and Doctor Who.
I'm still enjoying The Newsroom more than a lot of people think that I should be, but to be blunt, last night's episode was pretty damn problematic. 

First of all, lampshading awful writing does not magically make that writing good. If you've written yourself into such a position that you need a miraculously implausible slice of good fortune to show up in order to escape, you done fucked up, son.  Pointing that fact out doesn't cure your problem, it just makes the condition seem one born of laziness rather than incompetence. Not that the former makes the latter impossible, of course.

Secondly - and here's the real problem - how the merry hell can anyone who wants to be considered an intelligent political left-of-centre thinker (and from both his scripts and from his commentary online, this is clearly something Sorkin wants a great deal) find themselves in a position where Occupy Wall Street requires less respect than Tim Russett? Tim freaking Russett. The guy who automatically assumed any government official we was talking to spoke off the record, so that they could feel he's their bestest friend, or some shit?

For all that Sorkin gets pilloried for being preachy - and I'm not going to say that's a totally ridiculous criticism - he's often at his best when he's punching upward. Ripping apart the modern Republican Party seems to me a perfectly sensible thing for a drama program to be doing. God knows we can't expect it from the US media.

(Brief interlude: I never got around to telling Chuck Todd to go fuck himself.  Todd?  Buddy?  Go fuck yourself.  Now.  Don't return to any form of life until you have. Dedicating your life to repeating what the rich and powerful have told you isn't journalism. It's getting yourself bought without even the decency to stay bought. Running the Republican press office must be functionally indistinguishable from bribing magpies).

Punching down, though? Fuck you, Sorkin.  I really don't have any interest in listening to a rich white guy writing dialogue for another rich white guy to tell those vastly less well off how they should model their protests so that all the rich white guys will pay attention.  If it were just Will himself, that wouldn't be quite so bad - I don't have any problem with characters espousing positions I disagree with, even if I suspect the writer is on their characters side.  But everyone gets in on this. Last episode Mackenzie was furious with Will for giving a pro-drone idiot the run of their airtime. This week he's an unbearable arse to a young woman who's greatest flaw seems to be that she's dedicating her life to an obviously correct cause that might outstrip her ability to deal with it, and everyone's laughing right along with him. Christ, the only time we've seen Maggie giggle post-Uganda, and it's because of how Will ripped someone apart for his own amusement.

Look. I'm not saying none of the show's criticisms are without merit - though unlike Sorkin's attacks on the GOP, nor are those criticisms difficult to find amongst the mainstream media.  There is certainly some truth to the suggestion that OWS' refusal to engage on anyone's terms but their own is making their job harder - you can argue that's a price worth paying, but if you're taking that route, take it and don't complain about the consequences. But the fact that OWS has goals that are so far-reaching and nebulous is a direct consequence of how entrenched the problem has become.  Telling OWS they need to stick to a single demand is no less ridiculous than insisting doctors choose a single medicine when they visit disaster zones.  The demands are expansive because they have to be.  The message Shelley is so clearly trying to get across - not that Sorkin ever quite lets her say it, because then the beat-down would have to be interrupted - is that OWS knows they can't get done what they want done on their own.  They need others to help out.  They're not willing to say who specifically they want to do it, they just want people to know it needs to be done.  Will's huffing and puffing is nothing more than him saying "I won't help you do this thing that needs doing unless you specifically ask me to, and tell people they should like me because of it."

(Again, that's actually entirely in character for Will.  It's the fact no-one seems interested in calling him on it that's the problem).

Mainly though, I keep coming back to just one line.  One moment where Will basically tells Shelley the problem here is that she's not taking things seriously enough.  The ridiculously wealthy white guy who spends his days getting paid millions to argue with people and his nights drinking Manhattans and fucking leggy blondes wants to tell a young woman who spends her days earning a pittance teaching at colleage and her nights shivering in a park to protest how screwed up her country has become that she's the one who needs to think more seriously about how best to help America.

"What system would you replace capitalism with?"  Jesus, just listen to yourself.  Protesting police brutality does not mean people want rid of organised crime control.  Protesting the engorged might of the US military does not mean people want to be defended by nothing more than fences and the ocean.  Will McAvoy spent last night constructing a strawman he could tear into, again and again, because that's easier than wondering whether a wealthy white guy with access to millions of viewers might be able to help out - "oh no, you want like seven different things. That's too many to think about; I'm going back to my penthouse apartment to sulk about how Emily Mortimer".

And when I say "Will McAvoy", you better believe I mean "Aaron Sorkin".  I've never understood why people give Sorkin so much grief for writing autobiographically - I couldn't possibly be less interested in where the man gets his plots and characters - but then it's never been this ugly before.  I'm willing to concede that this might be part of a longer story, and maybe Will will see the light whilst lighting his cigarettes with spare Ben Franklins.  Right now, though, the World According to Sorkin has never seemed so unchallenged, nor so unpleasant.

Update: I forgot to mention in all the OWS anger, but I was none too impressed with McAvoy's stance on the N*****head issue, either.   This time the wealthy white guy is telling liberals they shouldn't be holding Rick Perry responsible for someone else naming a cabin he uses, and that maybe liberals are scrambling too hard to escape "our shared history".  To which the obvious rejoinder is "what do you mean our shared history, white man?"  I cannot and wouldn't want to speak for all black liberals, obviously, but the ones I know argued Perry screwed up here, and I think I'll be listening to them on this issue, thank you very much.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Tale Of Cocktails #41

Sex On The Beach

3 oz vodka
1 1/2 oz peach Schnapps
3 oz cranberry juice
3 oz orange juice
Taste: 8
Look: 6    
Cost: 8
Name: 4
Prep: 9
Alcohol: 4
Overall: 6.9

Preparation: Combine ingredients with ice and stir.
General Comments: Forever doomed to be the neglected sibling of the Woo Woo, this is not a cocktail entirely without game.  The orange doesn't add much, but neither does it take much away, so the overall flavour is still pretty good. 

On the other hand, it looks a bit murky, and it has a fucking awful name. I stand entirely with the Mitchell and Webb Sound position that all such drinks should be renamed things like "A Cold Shower And An Early Night" or "A Long Think About What I've Done".  If you can't find a way to actually talk about sex in weird places with total strangers, the fault is yours.  Don't try to horn in on those with sufficient wit and charm to get away with it by naming drinks after it.  It's only a small step from that to naming cocktails after racial slurs, and I think we can all agree that's a bridge better left uncrossed.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Friday Felicia: Sibling Rivalry

Not sure how many of you glorious peeps regularly watch Co-Optitude, but there's literally no valid reason for not doing so. Felicia Day and her brother Man-Felicia (possibly not his real name) play 16 and 32 bit games without the slightest idea of what they're doing, whilst shouting.

The latest episode is a particular joy, perfectly capturing the delirious and hilarious bewilderment of sitting down to play Super Smash Bros. for the first time.  I once tried to write a review of a later iteration of the game that reflected the joyful chaos, but it really doesn't work unless you see it happening first hand.  So go do that.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

We Want To Choose The Dude Who Ignores Us

Shorter Jim Arkedis: all those nasty non-democratic countries are stopping us doing the things the people in our democratic countries don't want us to do.

I've no interest in going to the mat for Putin in general, of course, but with specific reference to international affairs it's worth noting that the only difference between the Russian form of government and the American one is that the former doesn't waste three-eights of its time arguing over who gets to be the next person to utterly ignore public opinion. 

"There Are Brighter Things Than Diamonds..."

After the horrible experience of reading Perdido Street Station I promised myself I'd never dive back into Mieville's work - particularly not if it involved the world of Bas-Lag - but, well, I got this free in a goody bag and I was in-between Horus Heresy novels to inflict on Fliss, so against my better judgement I decided to give this a go.

Whatever else I might want to say about Mieville, I'll give him this: he's somehow managed to produce a book that's simultaneously worse, better and frighteningly similar to Perdido... all at the same time.
(Spoilers follow, including some for Perdido Street Station)

Monday, 16 September 2013

Turned To Jelly

This time next week
Well, this is embarrassing. After years of insisting the human world could survive whilst the octopuses were too busy fighting amongst themselves to take us on (this will be the subject of my first screenplay; Uwe Boll has expressed an interest. Presumably), it turns out that it’s actually the jellyfish that are going to punch our clock, evolutionarily speaking. The only thing that can stop them is, apparently, larger and more toothsome jellyfish, which sounds like a plan with an obvious and problematic endpoint.

I suppose I should get at least partial credit for figuring all those vertebrae cluttering up dry land were only a fad, at least. I should also note that when we were in Scotland in June the locals were discussing how the standard jellyfish horde had failed to arrive this year. People’s response to this tiny anecdotal data point can tell you a lot about them, actually:

Climate change denier: there is no jellyfish problem; scientists just want more money to invent unnecessary and dangerous jelly dissolving weapons.

Cynic: there is no situation in this world so bad it won’t get work.

Statistician: why are you bothering me with this frivolity?

Indisputably correct: the jellyfish didn’t come to Scotland because they’re massing to attack.

(h/t Erik Loomis)

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

That Hard, Sick Darwin

(Trigger warning)

Well look who's back.

To be clear, it's none of my business how someone sexually abused as a child chooses to process, frame and refer to that experienced. Furthermore, it doesn't seem unreasonable to postulate that there are degrees of severity as regards sexual abuse, though in practise that argument only ever seems to get made by people trying to downplay the severity of events I'm not crazy about downplaying (though again, see my first point).

One could also point out that the context here is fuzzy - flat-out telling people that it's no big deal if you were touched by a child is a different kettle of fish to being specifically asked about one's own experiences and choosing not to be judgemental about them - and whatever else may be true, Dawkins is clearly a man who could do with being less judgemental. 

Even if we grant all that, though, it beggars belief that Dawkins is comfortable announcing that not only did it not do him harm, he doesn't think all the other boys at his school exposed to such treatment were harmed either.  There's simply no way Dawkins has either the qualifications or the understanding of his schoolmates' later lives as a group to make that call.  (Update: the full interview which Slate summarises seems to suggest Dawkins is only specifically referring to his own friends here, so it's entirely possible he still keeps in contact with them and feels he can speak for them.  That doesn't overcome the qualification issue, though.)

But then of course, lazy unsupportable generalisation is pretty much what the man does best.  That and horrendous hyperbole.  For those keeping score, then:


Today probably isn't the right day for me to complain about bad experiences with aeroplanes.

I can never get over how utterly beautiful the 9-11 memorial is.  Just so simple and gorgeous. 

Of course, while it's been precisely 12 years since the fall of the WTC, it's also four decades to the day since Augusto Pinochet seized control of Chile.  The wonderful Jane Carnall gives a taste of the remarkeable story of the UK response over at her place.  Short answer, the unions put a lot of effort and risk into not letting the military vehicles they were working on from getting shipped overseas to a bloodthirsty tyrant, and had some impressive success right up until Margaret Thatcher showed up.

Speaking of whom, what a terribly difficult year it's been for poor old David Cameron. He's not been able to persuade the opposition either to produce shameless hagiographies of a woman who supported violent dictators, or to condemn violent dictators by blowing foreigners up.

Never have their been so many restrictions to be an unfeeling, hypocritical bumgargoyle. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Five Things I Learned In Belcaire

Not pictured: the remote-controlled plane we were
forced to abandon on the roof. O'Neill II, we salute you.

1. If you're nervous about driving in a new country, the best thing to do is to do it on twisty turny mountain roads whilst at the wheel of a small tank.  This will bring you close to death with such regularity that you begin to welcome it simply as an alternative to the unbearable pressure.  Which is a kind of success, in its own way.

2. Carcassonne is exceptionally pretty, especially the old castle.  Indeed, it's so gorgeous, I wasn't able to focus well enough on the game of Carcassonne we played in the castle's courtyard.  That's my excuse for losing by two points, anyway: pretty scenery.  Well, that and the farmers.  Fucking farmers; they spend all game lazing around in fields only to rise up at the last moment and screw me over.

3. A private pool provides an excellent opportunity to devise interesting new games and activities.  It won't be long before I'm ready to patent my new game, named "Asymmetric Ball Touch".  The first and most basic rule is as follows: one team can touch the ball, and the other can't.  All further rules are caught up in committee; details will be released when possible.

4. Iron Sky is absolutely as good as it could ever have been, in that it's clearly rubbish, but has some surprisingly funny lines and clever ideas, a brilliantly cynical ending, and CGI that somehow manages to be almost as pretty as Julia Dietze.  Highly recommended if you're drunk and with friends. On no account watch alone and/or sober.

5. There is no finger food on this earth that can beat out the little pellets of duck fat Tomsk and Chemie found at the local farmer's market.  The only problem is finding a name fit to describe them. "Duck scratchings" was contemplated but rejected due to a lack of crunch.  "Meat raisins" was met with scorn from our resident vegetarian - though they get vegetarian bacon, which strikes me as a far greater crime against descriptive language.

In summary, a pretty damn excellent holiday.  The flight back was an utter disaster, of course, but that's getting its own post, so as not to contaminate anything here.