torsdag 8 september 2016

The Night Manager or Stereotype City

"He's sleeping with the nanny. The cliché."

Yes it is, sweetheart, and that's not the end of it. Look around you and you will see plenty more. How about the ruthless capitalist villain; his eye candy the vulnerable blonde who sends money, Fantine-like, to her hidden-away child; the camp henchman; the libertine toff (that would be your hubby sleeping with the nanny); his embittered wife (that would be you); and, for that matter, the strong, silent, troubled hero you're talking to. What's more, back in London, we have a fearlessly crusading, underfinanced female agent (she's also pregnant), struggling with male superiors such as the well-meaning but intimidated one and the obviously crooked as a pin one. By the end of episode four, I realised why I cared so little about the characters in the TV series The Night Manager: each and every one of them was a stereotype.

It was still entertaining enough, mind you, because it's well-paced, well-directed, well-produced and very well acted indeed. But I didn't expect a drama based on a work by a famous name such as John le Carré to be as frankly shallow as this. Maybe I did suspect that Richard Roper, the seemingly philantropic businessman who is really a vile illegal arms dealer (well of course: a businessman helping refugees? We can't have that!) would not turn out to be a wonder of complexity. Still, I thought there would be some interest shown in the psychological forces at work in an undercover operation where, however worthy the cause, there's always an element of betrayal. But no: the audience's main interest is supposed to be simply whether Jonathan Pine, the eponymous night manager, will manage to nail the dastardly Roper. Not what drives them, what they really think of each other or if they're actually that dissimilar. Basically, The Night Manager is Bond as TV, with a side-helping (mercifully not too owerpowering) of moral indignation. All Roper needs to fit the Bond villain template is a white cat.

It's a pity, because Hugh Laurie does such excellent work as Roper, dispelling all memories of Bertie Wooster (mind you, I think even Bertie would have sussed who the mole in his operation was before Roper does). He's suitably world-weary, authoritative and charismatic, but he gets precious little to work with. In spite of the odd villain monologue, we never really discover what makes Roper tick: just like Pine himself, he remains oddly remote. Does he love his vulnerable blonde girlfriend, for unknown reasons called Jed, for example? Does she ever love him, before she finds out what he does for a living and falls for Pine instead, or is she only in it for the money? Does Pine love her? I know it's hard to interact with stereotypes, but the leading men in this drama could at least have been given a chance. Instead, Roper talks a great deal without saying anything revealing, and Pine doesn't even talk much. He just stares intently.

Another problem with Roper, as I've already hinted, is that he's a such a complete blockhead it's a wonder the crusading agent Angela Burr hasn't caught him ages ago. First, he elbows aside his oldest friend on the say-so of a shady lawyer who's been got at by Angela (and not in a very angelic way either, incidentally: she manipulates him when he's distraught over his daughter's suicide), in order to make room for Pine whom he has known for five minutes and who, oooh, just happened to be there to foil a kidnap attempt on Roper's son (staged, what did you think?). In no time at all, Pine is privy to Roper's darkest secrets and his new straw man. The shady lawyer is discovered to be a mole: Roper smells no rat. Pine starts an affair with Jed: his boss notices nothing amiss. Another leak is suspected: Roper suspects his best friend, his next-best friend and his girlfriend (at least he's not far wrong there), but not the new guy, who joined the team at around the time when the leaks started. I mean, seriously: it's hard to have any kind of respect for a head villain, however stylish, who's so incredibly gullible.

What's a villain-lover to do? I, for my part, took to rooting for Roper's displaced-by-Pine sidekick, Major Corkoran aka Corky the camp henchman. Yes, he wouldn't look too out of place as one of the hitmen in Diamonds Are Forever, but he has a bit more going for him than his dim mate-cum-boss: he's suspicious of Pine from the word go; he quickly guesses Pine's interest for Jed; Tom Hollander, who plays him, milks every line and every pause, and as Corkoran starts to come apart at the seams he manages to transcend the stereotype at least a little bit. Go Corky, say I, and if that makes me predictable at least I'm in good company.

A lot can be said about how Olivia Coleman admirably manages to make Angela not too unsufferably virtuous, but you don't expect me to waste too much time on a mere goody-two-shoes, do you? Instead, let me ponder, as a last reflection, the conundrum that is Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine.

Is Hiddleston really that attractive? Seeing as 1) he played Loki in the films about Thor (reimagined as a superhero) 2) played him quite superbly if clips from the films are to be trusted then 3) if you are into villains and the least bit acquainted with old Viking mythology, it follows that yes, Hiddleston must be attractive. His eyes are too close together for him to be conventionally handsome, but they are very intensely blue, and he does look clever. He can pass for the thinking woman's crumpet - but as Pine, he's supposed to be everyone's crumpet. Even after tanning and workouts Hiddleston looks a bit out of place as a taciturn action man, and it's a mystery to me why he's gone to all this trouble to land a part like this. With his pixie-like face, he could have got all kinds of new meaty villain roles: instead, as Pine, he has to scowl purposefully while all the opportunities for dripping sarcasm and menace go to Hollander and occasionally Laurie. Enjoying the career change yet, Tom? I do hope that Bond bid proves worth it.               

torsdag 1 september 2016

Moriarty variations

Professor Moriarty is dead, to begin with. Or is he? In the beginning of Anthony Horowitz's novel Moriarty, two men meet in a crypt near the Reichenbach Falls where the body of a tall, thin reptilian-looking man is laid out. Everything points to this being the Professor himself, among other things a coded letter found on his person from an American crime lord, suggesting they meet, supposedly with a view to join forces. The novel starts out, then, as a hunt for another master criminal. The two men - Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, who has studied Sherlock Holmes's methods - team up in order to hunt down Moriarty's American counterpart Clarence Devereaux, who is planning to establish himself in England.

But wait a bit. Isn't the novel called Moriarty? It can't be all about this Devereaux chap then, can it? That would be cheating. Well, I don't think I will be revealing too much if I say that the title isn't a cheat. All is clearly not as it seems in a novel that starts with the line "Does anyone really believe what happened at the Reichenbach Falls?". Chase and Jones are soon made aware that someone is killing off Devereaux's London agents one by one. Is this someone Moriarty, or does his soul go marching on in the shape of his criminal organisation? And if a criminal merger was under way, why would Devereaux's men be a target for Moriarty's crowd?

The story is an enjoyable adventure story on its own terms, irrespective of the Moriarty factor. Chase and Jones make a dynamic duo, and their fast-blossoming friendship is all the more affecting because you suspect that they never will be the new Holmes and Watson - something, or someone, is sure to put paid to any such plans. The picture of Moriarty that emerges is satisfying, on the whole. We get the abstract thinker with a certain detachment to his fellow men and to what may befall them through his criminal activity. Conan Doyle's Moriarty made sure those in his employ who were caught got the best legal defence money could buy, and Horowitz's Moriarty shows the same "honour among thieves" tendency. Unlike John Gardner's version, he has little in common with a modern gangster. At one point, Devereaux threatens Jones's family, and the two sleuths are appalled at his ungentlemanly behaviour - it is made clear that the English Napoleon of Crime would never stoop to this. Yet isn't it exactly the first step any serious criminal would take nowadays? Make no mistake, though, Horowitz's Moriarty can be chilling when he chooses, and the loyalty he feels towards his own men can sometimes strengthen his ruthlessness towards everyone else. Compared to him, Devereaux is decidedly second rate.

If there is one thing that separates Conan Doyle's Moriarty from Horowitz's, it's the degree of showiness. We are led to believe that many of the peculiarities the Professor displays in his conversation with Holmes in The Final Problem are more or less play-acting. This is a bit disappointing, but vital to the structure of Horowitz's story. The novel is reminiscent of Christie's The Secret Adversary, but an adversary can't remain very secret if he stalks about with a large domed forehead moving his head from side to side like a snake.

A Moriarty who appealed even more to me is the protagonist in the first Professor Moriarty novel by Michael Kurland, The Infernal Device. There are more books in this series, and I look forward to reading them as well. Here's a Professor who lives up to his billing. He's scientifically minded - in fact, science is his passion while crime is simply his job. He's a cold rationalist and in many ways the mirror image of his enemy Sherlock Holmes. His organisation is impressive, and his employees are full of respect, even fondess, for him. Plus he's as tall, stooping and dome-headed as one could possibly ask for. As Moriarty is in the front and centre of the plot, he can afford to be as showy as he pleases. Other pluses with The Infernal Device are Moriarty's newly recruited sidekick Benjamin Barnett - an American journalist heavily in the Professor's debt who gamely accepts becoming part of his doubtful outfit without any time-consuming scruples - and the fact that we actually get to meet Holmes and Watson (they don't feature in Moriarty, but then Holmes is believed to be dead in that one).

Kurland's Moriarty has his own "moral code" which can be perplexing. He's affronted that Holmes would think him capable of abducting a seventeen-year-old girl, but the crimes he does commit - a high-profile bank robbery, for instance - could very well lead to human misery on an impressive scale, and you'd think a genius would be able to work out the possible implications of his deeds. I find it convincing, though, that both Kurland's and Horowitz's Moriartys have a kind of moral blindness which clouds their judgement enough for them to become criminal masterminds in the first place.

It's funny how fascinated many, including me, have become with a fictional character who only makes an appearance in one of the Holmes stories, and then in such a way as to apparently make it impossible to reintroduce him (then Conan Doyle did think that The Final Problem would be final). We are told that when Holmes first mentions Moriarty in this story, Watson has never heard of him. Then Holmes tells Watson of his very first meeting with the Professor - so even if Holmes has been fighting Moriarty for a while, the possibility for prequels seems to be ruled out, as the two antagonists have never actually met before. And then, of course, the Professor dies, thus apparently ruling out any chances of a Moriarty sequel.

What Horowitz, Kurland and many others have done is simply to doubt the truthfulness of The Final Problem. There is some basis in Conan Doyle's own work for this - Holmes makes a reference to Moriarty somewhere (in The Valley of Fear, I think), and Watson appears fully aware of his master criminal status there. Moreover, if Watson is mistaken (Horowitz) or lying, probably for some honourable reason such as loyalty to Holmes (Kurland), it opens up the possibility of more Moriarty adventures, set before or after his supposed demise at the Reichenbach Falls. It seems a price worth paying. Moriarty purists like myself would do well to remember, though, that reintroducing Moriarty at all goes against Conan Doyle's own narrative. Consequently, one can't very well complain if further liberties are taken. Not that that's ever stopped me.  

torsdag 18 augusti 2016

Questions raised by the beginning of The Musketeers (series three)

Finally, some new costume drama. My clever TV box, remembering an old setting, has recorded most of The Musketeers series three from one of the more obscure Swedish channels. This will give me a chance to catch up, though I suspect I'll invest in a box set sooner or later. Though often supremely silly, The Musketeers remains an entertaining caper. If you are going to play fast and loose with history, then better to do it this way than with leaden dialogue spiced up (or not) with random sex and violence (yes, I'm looking at you, Versailles).

One reason it's hard to ever get really upset with The Musketeers is the importance it attaches to its villains. This is not to say that they are in any way complex or subtle. Goodness knows you'd be hard pressed to find more black-and-white characterisation in any other half-way ambitious drama. However, for every series there are one or two villains right at the heart of the plot, being given plenty of airtime and displaying considerable panache. It's as if the creaters of the series started each new installment of episodes by asking themselves: "Right, who will be the villain this time, and what charismatic actor are we going to entice into playing him?" (The memorable baddies are not all male, I have to confess: the gutsy Milady, who doesn't feature this time around, leaves quite a gap.) First time round, we had Richelieu, played by none other than Peter Capaldi. When Capaldi had to leave to play The Doctor - and even I will have to concede that that was a better gig - Richelieu was, very foolishly in my view, killed off years before his time. Why didn't they just hire another actor to play the Cardinal? Capaldi's brilliant but not irreplaceable when there are so many top-notch actors around, and we would have understood. However, at least the need for a head villain was immediately met by bringing in Marc Warren's attractive if lamentably bonkers Rochefort. He was dispatched at the end of series two, but villain-lovers need not fret: this time around, we have two head villains, played by Rupert Everett no less (though this casting poses its own problems, as addressed below) and Matthew McNulty (the ghastly Moray's far more appealing business partner in The Paradise).

I must say, though, that the absurdity level of the two first episodes of series three is alarmingly high, and that they raise a great number of questions - few of which, I suspect, will be answered during this final run of the series:

Why cast a good-looking actor like Rupert Everett only to cover him in prosthetics? I know handsome actors sometimes longingly talk about playing someone ugly. Well, that's tough, but just as there are plenty of parts that can only be played credibly by lookers, so there are others where it makes every sense to cast an actor less favoured by nature than, say, Rupert Everett. Everett's character in The Musketeers, Feron, is ravaged and even slightly disfigured by illness (either that or old war wounds: it has yet to be made clear). As a consequence, Everett's pleasing features are covered with a not very convincing mask of prosthetics which severely hampers his acting, as does the sometimes lamentably low quality of the villain-banter lines he's given. If they'd cast someone who looked a bit more worn and weatherbeaten to start with, the make-up department wouldn't have had to over-strain itself and there would have been more room for acting. I'm not going to complain about seeing Everett in anything, though, and the other villain, McNulty's Lucien Grimaud, is an absolute dish - enough to convince any villain-fancier that there may be merit to a dark and handsome brooder after all (as long as there's no scything).

Where's the Dauphin's brother? The most preposterous plot development in The Musketeers - with the exception of killing off Richelieu before his time - is the one involving Aramis, Queen Anne and the future Louis XIV. Yes, it's true: in this series, the Sun King's dad is none other than Aramis the love-lorn musketeer. Mind, Aramis and the Queen really love each other, and they only did it the once, so that's all right then, even if it means that the royal bloodline is messed up completely. As it's hinted that Louis XIII is infertile - I mean, he and Anne are married for ages without a baby, Aramis beds Anne once, and wham! - I was dying to find out how The Musketeers would explain the birth of royal baby number two, the infamous Philippe. Would Louis be allowed to be the father this time around? But that would mean - yikes - that the Orléans branch were the legitimate heirs to the Crown all along! Or is the father Aramis again, on a singularly bad day? Or someone else entirely? In which case, how would Aramis react to his one true love fooling around with yet another man?

It seems these questions proved too hard for the series makers to resolve: little Louis is now four or five years old, and still he appears to be an only child. So have they really written out an actual member of the royal family so as to bolster the claim that a fictional musketeer fathered Louis XIV? Or perhaps they've just played around with the chronology, and we will find out how the Queen's second kid came about later - maybe like this...

Will Feron father the next royal prince?  He's the King's resentful (illegitimate) brother. He's called Philippe. He has a sinister, handsome male sidekick. It sort of fits - the poisonous apple wouldn't fall far from the tree. But how would Feron get the Queen pregnant? They don't seem very pally, and a rape resulting in a pregnancy would surely be too dark for a family-friendly series such as this one. Besides which, the Queen could defend herself against the fit Rochefort, so a wreck like Feron wouldn't pose any problem for her. Maybe Philippe is Feron's child, but not the Queen's? And the royal family take him on for some reason? Admittedly, totally disregarding historical facts opens up fascinating possibilities.

What's the deal with the Red Guard? Even in the original films (no, I haven't read the books), the Musketeers' rivalry with the Red Guard annoyed me. Why waste time on silly one-upmanship when you're serving the same country and the same government? In the series, the Musketeer-Red Guard feud is still going strong, much like the Guard itself whose continued existence puzzles me. I've always assumed that they were the Cardinal's men - hence the colour. But even without the Cardinal his soldiers are still around, serving as minions for whichever villain the Musketeers are facing at the moment. What's the Red Guard's official role, exactly? And how was Constance playing a prank on them in the first episode meant to make anything better?    

All for one, one for all, all for...what? The original Musketeers were proud of being the King's men. In this series, though, they don't display any great affection towards the King - severely caricatured throughout - or even kingship itself. They are too busy pleasing modern audiences with their soulful concern for the plight of the poor, even when the said poor make no bones about wanting the King out of the way. D'Artagnan listens sympathetically to the leader of a group of war refugees (yeah, I know - I told you they weren't subtle) uttering twaddle like "Is it rebellion to fight against injustice?". YES. That's exactly what it is, at least in the eyes of any rebel - who ever heard of fighting against justice? Former Musketeer boss Treville destroys the refugees' seditious pamphlets because if they were found "they would all be hanged". Very probably, Treville, and as a minister of the Crown, you should really be OK with this - why are you protecting people ready to overthrow the government of which you are a member? The Musketeers are patriots, which is all very well, but what do they stand for apart from that? You can either be a budding revolutionary or a good Musketeer - you can't be both.      

torsdag 11 augusti 2016

In vain pursuit of a little light reading

There's no such thing as a foolproof enjoyable read, is there? Not even rereads are quite safe, as there's always the risk that you won't like a novel so much as the previous time/s you read it. My system of "safe bet" authors - if I've enjoyed more than one novel from an author, then I assume I'm going to enjoy all of them - has let me down twice recently, and just as I was going back to work and needed a pick-me-up, too.

True, Dawn French doesn't quite have the official safe-bet status, as I'd only read one of her novels - A Tiny Bit Marvellous - when I started on her latest, According to Yes. But I really liked ATBM, plus I've found much of the French and Saunders material hilarious, so I thought I could reasonably expect great entertainment from According to Yes. And yet the chapters went by without raising so much as a giggle. As I realised, about two thirds through, that the book wasn't going to get any funnier, and as I still hadn't warmed to the heroine Rosie - which it is sort of the point of the story - I gave up on it, after checking that one of the more criticised characters would be all right. He was. They all were. You can't accuse According to Yes for skimping on the feelgood factor, but the feeling good is very much on the heroine's terms. She, a chaotic English nanny, is going to "save" an Upper East Side clan from their humdrum lives and teach them to have fun. Her wit and wisdom are never challenged as one family member after the other are bowled over by her carefree ways. I never thought I could have much in common with an elegant Upper East Side matriarch, but my sympathies were more and more with Glenn, the family's grandmother and the most Rosie-resistent of the characters, especially in passages which were supposedly told from her perspective but which were really criticisms of her (the novel is told in the third person). What do you call those kind of passages - "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head narration"? Does narratology have a good term for it? Anyway, Glenn is going to give in to the reign of Rosie eventually - of course she is - but this isn't my idea of fun.

The second disappointment was Pompeii by Robert Harris. As I've mentioned, I've read quite a lot of Harris's novels by now, and I was a sure as I could be that as long as he kept off the gloomy subject of Nazi crimes against humanity, I would find his writing enjoyable. And then, ancient Rome, which he handled so well in his Cicero books! Alas, Pompeii has so far been quite a different matter from the Cicero trilogy, but then this is an earlier work. For one thing, the author's learning isn't worn so lightly, and the hero is the priggiest I've yet come across in a Harris novel, which is saying something considering he's up against types such as Picquart in An Officer and A Spy and Xavier March (why March? That's not a German name) in Fatherland. What really surprised me, though, was the schematic depiction of the rest of the cast. A dastardly millionaire who feeds one of his slaves to his eels? His fair and innocent daughter? A consistently hostile foreman (the hero is a young engineer struggling with a failing acqueduct)? Really? Honestly, even Harris's Nazis were nuanced compared to this lot.

We even get more examples of "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head-narration" (I really must find a better term), this time with the Bad Millionaire as its subject. I was particularly annoyed about coming across this stereotype yet again (he's an ex-slave too, so not only do we have an illustration of modern society's prejudices but of Ancient Rome's prejudices as well). During my holidays, I twice came across the "let's stick it to the multi-millionaire" plot - and this in chick lit books, which aren't exactly Das Kapital. Is there no escape anywhere from the mindset which makes a virtue of resenting those who are richer than us? I'm seriously considering chucking Pompeii in, too - and I don't think I will be trying Harris's The Fear Index in a hurry.     

lördag 30 juli 2016

Bond confusion

Partly in quest of blogging inspiration, I watched all of two hefty films yesterday, Steve Jobs and Spectre. So, two men with intimacy issues who make an impact on the world: Jobs and James Bond. Which of them is the better blog subject? I'll take the easy route - it is, after all, still my holiday, for two days more - and choose Bond. I may return to Jobs, and why it puzzles me that we should care whether he was a good dad or not, at a later date.

As I've discussed before, Daniel Craig's Bond doesn't really work for me. Nevertheless, Skyfall was a really good film, and I approached Spectre with cautious optimism. Well, I liked it better than Casino Royale (so tedious, in spite of Mads Mikkelsen, that I've forgotten most of it, which is unfortunate as Bond keeps moping over his lost love from this film, Vesper Lynd) and A Quantum of Solace, but compared to Skyfall it is oddly shoddy. Before I go further into said shoddiness, though, a troubling aspect of the Craig Bond films has to be addressed: the reintroducing of iconic Bond film characters as if they were brand new.

There was talk, I dimly remember, of Casino Royale being a "reboot" of the Bond franchise, which essentially means you start all over again and pretend that previous films with the same hero never happened. It's common with superhero films, where a new team may be anxious to distance themselves from creaky or embarrassingly larky predecessors. I can understand reboots in this context - though they seem to come at an alarming rate lately - but Bond is something else. The only reason there was a Casino Royale were the twenty odd Bond films that had gone before. The Bond story has been a continuous one from the sixties onwards, and surely you expect the hero to be the same and carry with him all the experiences from his previous incarnations.

Yes, this poses a credibility problem, to say the least. Bond and some of the key players - Miss Moneypenny, for instance - take on Time Lord properties: they barely age and sometimes change their faces, but remain essentially the same person although the world around them has moved on from the Cold War to the Internet Age. It is just as well that the time bubble conceit isn't overused. Some secret service staff are simply replaced - M and Q for example, where a new character (often successfully) takes over the function of an old one while bringing something fresh into the mix. Nevertheless, I much preferred the Time Lord-y way of handling Bond's timelessness to the idea that we should disregard all Bond films before Casino Royale - especially since Craig is, in my view, the least Bondlike of all the Bonds, while his predecessor Pierce Brosnan was one of my favourites.

At first, I ignored the talks of a reboot - after all Judi Dench's M was the same who was introduced ticking off Pierce Brosnan's Bond in Goldeneye, so how could it not be a continuing story? That Felix Leiter showed up with all arms and legs intact was not enough to alert me to the possibility that the film makers meant what they said about starting over (to tell the truth, since I'm not a Bond expert, I'd forgotten that he was the one being maimed by a shark in Licence to Kill). In the otherwise excellent Skyfall, though, a puzzling thing happened. A fellow agent of Bond's was revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, who had only just discovered that she was more efficient behind a desk than in the field. Sorry? But Samantha Bond (and the game girls who filled the part before her) was Miss Moneypenny! You can't just write them out of the story. What true Bond fan would do that? I've nothing against Naomie Harris's plucky and attractive Miss Moneypenny, who mercifully has a love life of her own. But does she have to be the Miss Moneypenny? Can't she be Samantha Bond's niece, or something?

In Spectre it happens again: a classic Bond character - one of the villains this time - is reintroduced, and Bond has plainly never been up against him before. (Warning: the subtitles give away his identity and ruin the surprise completely.) The effect is extremely weird: we have a prequel situation - an "origins" story to use superhero-film speak - taking place decades after Bond's first tussles with the villain in question. It doesn't help that the villain role is so underwritten not even Christoph Waltz - a safe pair of hands when you need a baddie, as all Hollywood knows - can do a lot with it. His motives for resenting Bond, not to mention for killing his own dad, are weak in the extreme. (I kept waiting for the reveal that Bond killed his dad - now that would have been a motive.) Let's just say, this particular Bond villain has had more impressive outings.

Here's where the aforementioned shoddiness comes in. Not only is a promising villain-hero relationship thrown away, there are other elements to the plot and characters that don't seem to have been properly thought through. When Bond moves in on the widow of a man he's killed (I did like his explanation: "He was an assassin. He wouldn't have taken it personally") he claims that she "stayed loyal to a man you hated". How does he know what her feelings were? Later, the widow says that her spouse"spent more time with them [his partners in crime] than he did with me". Does that sound like the complaint of a woman who hated her husband? And how does it square with her previous statement that members of the criminal organisation in question only meet rarely?

Later, Ralph Fiennes as M struggles with a speech where he claims the double-0 programme is humane (albeit only in comparison with drones and the like). In the first proper hero-villain showdown, Bond rises fresh as a daisy after a session of gruelling torture and blows up the villain base without much trouble. I know the "why don't they just shoot him?" question is a eternal one and applies to practically all action films, but the dastardly mastermind's reasons for keeping Bond alive are foggier than ever, especially as he must know about what happened to his associate in A Quantum of Solace. If Bond gets the better of you, there isn't even a guarantee that he'll kill you nicely. For the sake of self-preservation, if nothing else, you should just put a bullet though him.

My main gripe is the whole reboot setup, though. Does this mean Ralph Fiennes's M is the original M, and Ben Whishaw's Q the original Q? It fairly does my head in.

"You only live twice, Mister Bond" as, erm, someone said. In fact, Bond and the person in question live a great deal more often than twice. Which is fine by me, as long as they live their lives in the right order.

tisdag 12 juli 2016

DreamWorks works – but not as well as Disney’s best

Holiday time – which should mean more time and energy for ambitious blog posts, but never does. Instead, I’ll try to turn lazy hours watching animated films on Netflix to some blogging use. Disney features are thin on the ground here, but I have had the opportunity to catch up on the DreamWorks back catalogue instead.

I have watched some animated films from DreamWorks before, but as a faithful Disney admirer, I’ve not exactly torn the DVDs of its main competitor’s films off the shelves the moment they arrive. This consumer behaviour is not quite as stupid as it sounds, as there actually is – or at least has been – bad blood between Disney and DreamWorks. The head of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was formerly head of the animation department at Disney but left in 1994 after a blistering row when he was passed over for promotion (google for details). This seems to have led to more hostility than was strictly necessary between the two companies, as shown in the nasty digs at Disney films in the Shrek franchise.

Still, there is no reason for a fan of animated films to take sides in this quarrel, which by now ought to be history anyway. Instead, one should be able to shamelessly take advantage of the fact that there are two big American studios (plus various challengers) churning out animated films rather than one. Here are the DreamWorks films (well, most of them) I’ve seen to date, plus some positive comparisons with Disney films just to show my goodwill:

The Prince of Egypt (1998): I know the genre has old and respectable roots, but I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with adaptations of Biblical tales. Finding a more or less loosely Bible-based yarn boring makes me feel shallow and impious, and yet they are often on the over-solemn side. The Prince works well, though. Its main focus is on the relationship between Moses and the Pharaoh-to-be Rameses, who grow up as brothers only to find themselves at opposite sides of the mother of a conflict. This tale of brotherly love strained beyond endurance is affecting, the animation is beautiful, the songs good and the religious content sensitively handled. I’m not sure the curse of the first-born is a suitable topic for a family film, though.
As good as Disney’s: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

The Road to El Dorado (2000): I like this early, 2-D stuff from DreamWorks a lot: here’s a straightforward, well-animated adventure story with likeable characters, free from take-that-Disney sassiness. Kenneth Branagh makes an impression as the voice of one of the leads, but the voice talent prize goes to Armand Assante as an apocalypse-embracing high priest.
Better than Disney’s: Pocahontas (1995).

The Shrek franchise (2001-): I won’t go too far into why I’m not that into the green ogre, as I’ve addressed the subject before. Suffice to say, the animation is good and the central relationship between Shrek and Fiona often touching. But I’m put off by the knowing “we’re so not Disney” style, and the films have little of interest to say about being cast as the bad guy.
Better than Disney’s: Dinosaur (2000).

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003): I was surprised to learn that this film was released after the first Shrek film. It is very much in the same tradition as The Road to El Dorado: a 2-D adventure yarn, rendered pleasingly unpredictable by the fact that the hero is an anti-hero who needs quite a lot of prompting to do the right thing. The vocal talent is unnecessarily starry, but they do a good job, and Michelle Pfeiffer at least is worth the extra cash as purring goddess of chaos Eris. Good, well-drawn fun that deserved to do better at the box office.
Better than Disney’s: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).

Madagascar (2005): It says something for my level of enthusiasm for this franchise that I’ve only seen the first film and have yet to catch up on the rest. But I will, eventually, because it was a fun caper. What bugs me here is the computer animation of the film’s animal protagonists, which I found downright ugly. I know they’re meant to be comic animals, but when you remember the beautiful animal animation in The Lion King they become hard to look at.
Better than Disney’s: Brother Bear (2003). The animals looked better but the story…       

Kung Fu Panda (2008) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) Beautifully animated, with a sweet hero  in the good-natured, food-loving panda Po. I especially liked the second film, where Po is pitted against a traumatised peacock villain, and which contains the following exchange:  “How did you find peace?[…] I scarred you for life!” “See, that’s the thing, Shen. Scars heal.” “No, they don’t. Wounds heal.” “Oh, yeah. What do scars do? They fade, I guess?” The film’s message that you have to let go of old grudges to find Inner Peace seems especially relevant for this animation studio. My only problem with this franchise is I’m not really interested in Kung  Fu.
Better than Disney’s: Bolt (2008).             

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009): Again, I was surprised by relatively recent release date. This tale of female empowerment is quite endearing – why marry some self-satisfied loser when you can be a ginormous monster? – and the monster sidekicks unexpectedly un-irritating. The computer animation of the human characters lets the film down, though. Never mind the monsters and aliens: the humans are the ugliest creatures on the block.
Better than Disney’s: Chicken Little (2005).

Megamind (2010): Of all the animated films supposedly from a baddie’s perspective, which was quite the fashion for a while, this is my favourite. It had at least some insightful things to say about a bad guy’s lot (he “never gets the girl”) and highlights the extreme annoyingness of some so-called heroes. Still the premise – that a villainous mastermind would be at a loss and grow eventually bored if he actually defeated the hero – doesn’t feel as interesting as its opposite would have been. Don’t superheroes in particular need villains more than the other way around?
As good as Disney’s: Wreck-It Ralph, which had a similar theme. And way better than Illumination’s Despicable Me.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014): I enjoyed these films: they’re not over-sophisticated, with a sweet central theme of friendship, and again the sidekicks work surprisingly well. This franchise produces nice shorts too. The whininess of the hero is a drawback, but the dragon is darling.
Better than Disney’s: Treasure Planet (2002). Yes, I know, I’m running out of useful Disney comparisons. I’ve tried not to cheat and use Pixar films, but let me just say I liked the Dragon films far better than  Monsters University (2013), which was a major disappointment.     

My overall impression of the DreamWorks films, then, is that they’re of a high quality and trump some of Disney’s lesser works: not everything The Mouse produces is solid gold. Still, they never  quite reach the dizzying heights of most of the films from the Disney Renaissance (like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, all produced on Katzenberg’s watch by the way) or of recent Disney hits like Frozen and Zootopia. To use phraseology from Kung Fu Panda, I’m afraid there is a secret ingredient where animated films are concerned, and that Disney’s got it. But there’s no need to mope because you’re not elected Dragon Warrior: you can still be part of the Furious Five (i.e. still be bloody good).

onsdag 6 juli 2016

Caesar is the man

This may not be the ideal time to express admiration for a politician who puts his career before his country, but it can’t be helped. The third part of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, Dictator, confirms what I already suspected in Lustrum: Gaius Julius Caesar is the Roman for a villain-loving girl like me. He’s intelligent, charming, elegant, multi-talented and keen on handing out strategically thought-through pardons (to Romans, that is, not to Gallic tribes: I’m sad to say they’re pretty much history once their paths cross with Caesar’s). Perhaps most importantly of all, he also has a sense of humour. He enjoys Cicero’s jokes, even when they’re at his own expense, and you suspect that this is one reason why he has more patience with Cicero’s political to-ing and fro-ing than one would expect. Sometimes I could not help thinking that Cicero would have done better to stick with Caesar from the beginning, though I can see why some of his actions – like starting a civil war and, once in power, proclaiming himself a god – would be a little hard to swallow.

I re-read Imperium and Lustrum before moving on to Dictator and was reminded of how much I  enjoyed dwelling in the world of Cicero’s Rome, as told by Harris. It’s mostly down to the author’s skill, of course. He’s a dab hand at both gripping prose and strong characterization, and the dialogues are blissfully down-to-earth and not written in the stilted historical fictionese which blights so much of the genre.The political intrigues manage to be both riveting and educational (did you know there were two Brutuses?). Descriptions related to life in Ancient Rome only occur when they’re directly relevant to the story of Cicero and his faithful slave and secretary (and the trilogy’s narrator) Tiro, who is finally granted his freedom in this last novel. But Harris is also helped by the nature of his heroes. Cicero is far from being a saint: sometimes, he even comes across as a bit of a turncoat. Tiro, who existed but whose personality is in all probability imagined by Harris, is a sweet man and perhaps the most humane of the characters – he is the only one in Cicero’s circle who shows any regret for “Caesar the man” when the latter is assassinated – but his loyalty to Cicero keeps him from ever getting on his high horse in moral matters, because then he’d be forced to judge his wily master as well.

In his sympathetic telling of the career of a man who tries to do the decent thing but doesn’t always succeed (I’m talking about Cicero here: Caesar didn’t care a scrap about doing the decent thing), Harris avoids being bogged down with an obvious moral message. I’ve read three other Harris novels apart from the Cicero trilogy: An Officer and A Spy, The Ghost and most recently, for my sins, Fatherland. They are all good, An Officer and A Spy especially: Harris always delivers on the readability front. But though he’s careful not to preach overtly, I did occasionally feel, in particular with Fatherland, like I was having my fingers slapped by a ruler wielded by a teacher with a moral mission.  Moreover, Harris’s heroes tend to be dour types, intelligent but humourless  – a bit like Octavian in Dictator, as a matter of fact. The more easy-going Cicero and Tiro are easily the protagonists you would most like to spend an evening at a restaurant (or a taverna) with.

Having said that, another of my favourite characters in the Cicero trilogy is Caesar’s polar opposite, the unkempt, uncompromising idealist Cato. Everyone thinks he’s a pain with his unbending adherence to an often wrong-headed moral code, but there is an engaging bluntness to his truth-telling, which has a rhetorical power of his own. Here’s a man whose moral fibre does impress me. Perhaps the trick of getting readers to swallow a dose of morality is not to try too hard.