onsdag 22 februari 2017

Moana/Vaiana: Nice, but the new formula's getting old

Usually, I have no problem producing opinions enough about an animated Disney film to fill a post or two. But with Moana - marketed in most of Europe as Vaiana, for copyright reasons apparently - I find myself struggling a bit. (It's a name, how can you copyright it? Wouldn't whoever owns the rights be thrilled over the extra free advertisement? Don't tell me the Italian, er, entertainment profile actually had anything to do with this decision? Anyway...) I didn't dislike it by any means: it has an engaging heroine, a likeable, flawed hero, some hummable tunes and, towards the end especially, a touching moment or two. However, for once when watching an animated Disney film in a cinema I found my attention wandering. I actually spent some of the time thinking about possible storylines for Frozen 2 - a subject for another time - because Frozen this film ain't.

For one thing, it takes a goodish while to get started. The plot hurdle which prevents Vaiana - I'll be a good little European and call her that, since they went through the trouble of making an English version of the film where she's called Vaiana throughout (seriously) - from leaving her home island right away to find her destiny just feels contrived. Not until she gets away at last and finally runs into the vain demigod Maui on a desert island did the film gain interest for my part. Sweet as Vaiana is, she is your usual, plucky Disney heroine who is in fact far braver and more resourceful than her male counterpart etc.; it's nothing we haven't seen before. Maui is funnier - his musical number "You're welcome" was the best one in my book  - and a more rounded character. In fact, I found him far more likeable than Kristoff in Frozen, and I thought it a pity that there was no romance forthcoming between the protagonists.

But this is now a standard ingredient in the new Disney formula. It started with Merida in Pixar's Brave, which wasn't even that big a hit. Then Frozen happened, and love-interest-free Elsa got spectacularly popular. Someone at Disney must clearly have thought: "Hey, maybe she's so popular because she doesn't have a love interest? She's a strong, independent female character who doesn't waste time with lovey-dovey stuff... This is clearly the way forward." Now, I don't think Elsa's lack of love life had much to do with her popularity - it was more down to her interesting story arc and a great song - but, nevertheless, the animated Disney films since Frozen have been remarkably devoid of romance. True, many of the old Disney prince/princess pairings were beyond bland (aren't Disney princes the most colossal waste of space? With the exception, perhaps, of one...). But there have been many sweet romances too - think of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, for instance. I really miss the romance ingredient, and I can't see why Disney heroines shouldn't be able to be strong and independent and have some love as well.

Another thing the new Disney formula has all but done away with is the centre-stage villain. For a few years now, Disney films have had plot twists relating to the villain side of things, and it's true that when done well these twists give you some pleasingly jaw-dropping moments. By now, though, I would welcome the recurrence of a villain in the Scar or Jafar mould - obvious, yes, but brainy, suave and full of sarky (ideally British-accented) villain banter. We're sort of onto surprise villain reveals by this time, anyway - I can't say I fell off the sofa by the twist in Big Hero 6, for instance. Vaiana does have one obvious, almost-centre stage villain in the giant crab Tamatoa, but he's... well, he's a crab. His villain song Shiny has its moments - I like the part where he suddenly gets really mean and personal in his attack on Maui - but it's not memorable in the same way as, say, Scar's Be Prepared or Doctor Facilier's Friends on the Other Side. When I remember the first-class bad guys Disney has been able to produce in the past, I really can't get too excited about a boastful, singing crab, though to his credit he does at least relish his own villainy.

Yes, I imagine that Frozen's success was helped by the fact that the Disney formula had some new, fresh ingredients. But if you use them over and over, then they won't feel as fresh anymore. If you ask me, there's nothing wrong with adding some more traditional but spicy ingredients in the form of a romance or a charismatic, attention-grabbing villain. Next time, could we please have them back?

onsdag 8 februari 2017

The Halcyon and the first-episode problem

Swedish television has been fairly quick off the mark and has already aired the first episode of the new ITV costume drama The Halcyon, premiered in the UK not so long ago. And I must say it was far from terrible. My expectations weren't that high. I'd read an article about the show that sounded as if the people involved thought they were slightly better than Downton - never a good sign - because the employees at the eponymous hotel were more independent than the supposedly over-deferential Downton staff. (Where does this idea come from that the Downton servants were deferential? Remember Miss O'Brien and the soap? Thomas framing Rose's dad-in-law? Edna nearly tricking Branson into marriage? Downton servants have been up to all kinds of mischief, even if the remaining ones do sing "Auld Lang Syne" in the final episode.) Moreover, one interviewed actress referred to her part as a "trope". This seemed to bear out my suspicion that the series was mostly about the setting - "Hey, let's do a TV series about a glamorous hotel in London during WWII where the guests lived the high life while bombs rained down" - and that the characters would be puppets representing a particular demographic, social caste and (caricatured) political opinion. Here's the snooty society lady - there's the pretty, honest girl who cleans the rooms, or something along those lines. A bit like Maid in Manhattan, only in wartime London and without the romcommy froth.

There was a bit of that, I suppose; one of the characters is a pretty, honest receptionist, for instance, and both Lord Hamilton's (the hotel owner's) wife and mistress are good at being snooty in their own special way. But on the whole, things could have been a whole lot more schematic. The script wasn't scintillating, but neither did it clunk, and the story flowed smoothly. The acting was good, and you got a feeling that this could shape up to become something.

It's not there yet, mind you. The WWII setting is a drawback; there's even a wicked Nazi siren, as in the Upstairs Downstairs sequel, and where Nazis go in, nuance goes out. The emotional stakes aren't very high as yet. So Lord Hamilton doesn't see the point of his younger son's university career? Call that a fraught father-son relationship? Lady Hamilton (I think she was the "trope" mentioned in the article, but Olivia Williams plays her very well, so maybe she was short-changing herself and her part) bemoans the past at one time, recalling how in love with her husband she once was before their marriage deteriorated because of his serial unfaithfulness. But there's nothing in the lukewarm present to suggest there was ever a deathless romance there. The sweet receptionist is set up to be in a love triangle between an American journalist and the eldest Hamilton son, but again: no fireworks so far. Also, aside from the Nazi siren, there's no sign of a villain. The hotel manager Mr Garland has a rather nice arm-twisting scene with an English newspaper man (who meekly goes along with camouflaging a blatant case of blackmail as a friendly chat - "I like you too"), but something tells me this doesn't make him the villain, only a harassed individual trying to hold everything together in times of crisis.

I didn't, in short, start to care for any of the characters in the first episode, with the possible exception of Garland. But then that's the problem with first episodes, especially in ensemble pieces. When the main players and the whole set-up have to be introduced and put in place, there's really no time to introduce in-depth characterisation right away. So what can you do to get a viewer hooked?

A clever, funny script is one way to impress - but, as I said, The Halcyon's script, though in no way bad, doesn't offer much in the way of sparkle. There's also the "style first, substance later" trick which works especially well with villains: a character can be entertaining even before his/her motives are explained. That's not The Halcyon's way either. What it does do is establish at least one relationship between main characters that shows promise of development. Lady Hamilton despises Mr Garland, whose duties include keeping her husband's bits of skirt out of her sight, and he in his turn isn't too keen on her, as his loyalties lie with Lord Hamilton. Just when the lady has decided to give up on her marriage and retire to the country, however, her husband has a heart attack, and she has to step into the breach for the sake of the hotel. So, will she and Garland learn to work together and appreciate each other's good parts, how long will it take and to what degree can we expect them to become matey? Even knowing the characters as little as I do, I'm mildly interested in how this particular plot line plays out.

A piece of advice routinely handed out to hopeful authors is "what story do you want to tell?", and though I find it irritating - how could anyone possibly know that until they've told it? - there's some truth in it, as it highlights the importance of a human interest angle. To decide a setting that appeals to you and then randomly throw some characters into it, as I feared The Halcyon would do, isn't a promising way to start a story. From the start, the characters' story-arcs have to come first, and the back-drop should stay exactly that: a back-drop. The Halcyon might succeed in this or it might not, but at least there's room for hope.

torsdag 26 januari 2017

Vampire ambivalence

I blame Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian - at least in part - for there not having been a book-themed blog post for a while. It took me ages to finish, and now I've finally done so I don't have that much to say about it. Simply put, it was too long. At first, I was engrossed, and the premise was intriguing. The story has several strands, the common theme being the search for the tomb of the real, historical Dracula - who in this book happens to actually be a vampire.

The narrator, while a young girl, stumbles upon a mysterious book and some papers, and coaxes her reluctant father to tell the story behind them. When he was a young historian, the narrator's father Paul one day found a book with only a dragon symbol and the word "Drakulya" printed inside it among his possessions. When he showed the book to his mentor, Professor Rossi, it turned out Rossi once came upon a book with an identical dragon print in it, which made him curious about the Dracula legend - after a series of unfortunate events, though, he gave up his research on the matter. Shortly after revealing this to Paul, Rossi vanished, and Paul went in pursuit both of him and the elusive Dracula together with Rossi's unacknowledged, embittered daughter Helen. We follow Rossi's travels before he gave up on the vampire trail, Paul's and Helen's adventures while trying to find Rossi, and finally what happens to the narrator when she tries to find her father, who mysteriously ups and leaves "to find her mother" whom she believed dead. Now and again, the protagonists come upon others who have also been given a dragon book, and a pattern emerges: the book owners first become obsessed about finding the truth about Dracula, and then bad things happen to them.

I liked the intricate plot lines and the dragon book mystery, and Paul in particular is a likeable character - as Kostova also showed in The Swan Thieves, she knows how to handle slightly gauche male protagonists who nevertheless attract the interest of strong women, and don't run a mile when they do so. Also, she deserves kudos for managing to link the historical Dracula - a brutal Wallachian ruler heavily into impaling, but with little points in common with the black-clad cape-wearer of legend - to a vampire plot without it seeming ridiculous. However, the plot goes on and on without us seeming to come nearer to Dracula's lair, until I was heartily sick both of atmospheric Central European scenes of little relevance to the story and the faux-scholarly document chase. When Dracula finally appears, he's actually not a bad undead villain at all - he has grace and dignity. But we first properly meet him after 600 pages, and by that time I'd lost interest. When the plot finally picks up pace, it was - for me, at least - too late.

Still, my problems with this vampire story were not connected to the vampire, and that is worth something. I feel strangely torn about vampires (and am also shockingly ill-informed about the legends attached to them - I've seen one film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but have never even come close to reading it). On the one hand, they are my favourites among the classic horror story monsters out there. Pale, spare men in swirling black capes, maybe (if one is lucky) looking like Christopher Lee and sensibly going for their primarily female victims' necks - what's not to like? Plus, you could call vampires the thinking woman's monster. When I read that in various teenage yarns vampires are said to have enormous strength I considered it something of a betrayal. Surely, Dracula and his ilk aren't about brawn, they're about brains - or, well, sort of - about looking brainy, at any rate.

On the other hand, I'm just not into the horror genre, and a favourite horror story monster is still a horror story monster. I'm not even sure if a creature whose main function is to scare the living daylights out of heroes, heorines and readers/watchers can be called a villain at all. Interesting villains have a story which tells you something about the human condition: they experience love, desire, ambition, resentment, bitterness and other emotions which we can relate to, even if we would perhaps handle them differently. Even unemotional villains show an aspect of what it means to be human, namely what happens when you allow yourself to be ruled entirely by reason. Also, they make us curious about what froze their feelings in the first place. A vampire's motivation, on the other hand, is just too alien for us to engage with, and the actual gore and practicalities involved in sucking blood tend to be off-putting. Pale, cape-clad gentleman bending over one's neck: fine. Pale, cape-clad gentleman actually biting it until he draws blood, then slurping up the blood while he gets an unpleasant red sheen in his eyes - eugh.

Now emotional vampirism, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. A sinister figure who seems to gather strength by draining his or her often unsuspecting victims of their zest for life in suitably subtle ways - that's a villain scenario with a great deal of promise (though still with a fairly high too-scary-for-cuteness factor). After all, when a baddie is called a "blood-sucker", it's usually good news from a villain-lover's perspective. The best kind of blood-sucking, then, I would argue, is the metaphorical kind.              

onsdag 18 januari 2017

Should this be Sherlock's final problem?

I've been a huge fan of the BBC series Sherlock since the start and was pleasantly surprised when the episodes of series four premiered on Netflix merely a day after they were aired in the UK. (A bit tough on those who don't have Netflix, but there you go.) At the same time, I was a bit apprehensive. The Christmas special The Abominable Bride from approximately a year ago wasn't much to write home about in my view - it over-used the dream-within-a-dream conceit to a ridiculous extent and was at the same time faintly preachy about Victorians and their views on women. So had Sherlock ended up being just a little bit too much in love with itself?

Well, hard to say. Series four was better that The Abominable Bride, but a certain smugness does seem to have crept into the franchise. Of course, in a way, it was always there. The previous episodes have had plenty of tricksiness-for-its-own-sake scenes, and sometimes when Sherlock was behaving badly and getting away with it, you felt that there was an element of wish-fulfilment about it on the part of the script-writers. But you were prepared to overlook it and embrace the clever-clever style, because at the heart of the story was the touching friendship between Sherlock and Watson which made the show into something more than a series of mind games. The side characters were engaging, too, and the acting was always top notch.

The side characters are still good (though Lestrade and Molly get a little short-changed this time around) and the acting's still marvellous. But the main problem for me with series four is that suddenly I stopped caring about the Sherlock-Watson friendship. I thought the series makers dealt well with the potential hurdle of Watson's marriage in series three by making his wife, Mary, an extraordinarily clever and unpredictable woman who unexpectedly really liked Sherlock. It appeared the transformation from dynamic duo to dynamic trio had been successfully negotiated: however, in series four, the strain starts to show. The focus changes from Sherlock's and Watson's relationship to each other to their relationship to Mary, and when they find themselves down to two again, some of the old warmth has been lost along the way.

Because this vital part of the setup didn't work, the show's weaknesses appeared more clearly. Sherlock's flippiness and Watson's staidness started to grate in a way they hadn't done before. Then there was the smugness. The Six Thatchers wasn't quite the anti-Thatcherite tract which some reviewers claimed - as in the story it was inspired by, The Six Napoleons, six busts of the titular statesman/woman are smashed to pieces, but the identity of the smashee doesn't prove to be important - but still there was a sneering undercurrent in Sherlock's comments about the first bust-owner's collection of Thatcher memorabilia which ill accorded with his character. One must remember that Sherlock, though played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is not in fact Benedict Cumberbatch, but a detective obsessed with solving puzzles and with little time to spare for having fashionable opinions about current affairs. This wrong note was made worse by the fact that the said bust-owner, a Tory MP, had just lost his son in a heartbreaking mini-mystery-within-a-mystery incident which was easily the most affecting part of the episode. Sherlock was rude to the grieving parents, as could have been expected, and more intent on the minor but intriguing problem of the missing bust than on explaining their son's death, which I can also buy. But preening luvviedom on top of that? Please.

Nor was this the last time Sherlock got my goat in this episode. At the end of it, he made a belittling speech about the main culprit's supposedly humdrum life, a speech which proves to have dire consequences - but the life in question didn't sound so bad to me. In fact, it sounded a bit like my life. What kind of rarefied air do these people breathe if they think a perfectly decent nine-to-five job (and in London, for heaven's sake) must needs make someone embittered and jealous? I don't begrudge anyone the thrill of working on a labour of love as Sherlock and getting paid for it too, but they needn't be patronising prats about it.

The following two episodes dialled down the smugness, and episode two - The Lying Detective - was probably the best in my view, not least because of a stellar performance from Toby Jones as Culverton Smith, a rich and respected businessman and philanthropist who also happens to be a serial killer. Here's the thing, though: at least the nine-to-five villain was sane. In both episode two and three, Sherlock once again goes with the "barmy villain" plot.

I've accepted that Sherlock baddies will usually not float my boat - neither Jim Moriarty nor Charles Augustus Magnussen was designed to make even my villain-loving heart flutter - but two psychotic villains in a row does seem like a cop-out. After having been pampered with the careful villain-character-building of Once Upon A Time, it was especially hard for me to accept as the only rationale of an antagonist's behaviour that he/she was loopy. Then again, Once is more villain-orientated than Sherlock (in fact more villain-orientated than most shows, bless it). In Sherlock, the villain's main function is to prove an intellectual challenge worthy of the ultra-smart detective: psychological credibility is optional. When you're starting to become a little disenchanted with said detective, though, the crackpot-genius enemy storyline doesn't feel strong enough to fully engage you. The plot of episode three, The Final Problem, reminded me of an Avengers episode going extra dark (that is, The Avengers as in John Steed plus feisty female sidekick, not as in superheroes). Nothing wrong with that, but you expect a bit more emotional heft from Sherlock.

The Final Problem needn't, in fact, be the final problem of Sherlock. Do I think it should be? Well, not really: I still enjoy the show too much not to want to watch more of it. I liked seeing so much of Mycroft, and the running joke in episode three about him once having played Lady Bracknell in a school production of The Importance of Being Earnest was both sweet and funny. (The series could in fact have benefited from more fun and sweetness in the same vein.) If Sherlock series five comes along, I'll not be complaining. But they need to watch their step.     

lördag 7 januari 2017

Rogue One: Whatever's the matter with Orson Krennic?

Geeks are usually well attuned to villain matters, which is one reason why I tend to indulge my geeky side when I need cheering up (and not only then, to tell the truth). After watching Rogue One in the local cinema, I watched two Youtube reviews of it where the reviewers (two per piece) went into a happy trance over a scene where Darth Vader kicked serious rebel ass without even breaking into a sweat. These are moments in life when I feel like saying: "Chewie, we're home." Classic 19th-century fiction and costume dramas are full of great villains, but you'll be hard pressed to meet soulmates among your fellow readers/viewers who feel like you do about them. Youtube isn't exactly awash with videos of people enthusing: "Wow, didn't Carker completely own Dombey in Chapter 45 of Dombey and Son? He must be one of the greatest villains ever." But geeks get the whole bad guy thing. Which makes it strange that so far, there hasn't been more talk about how underwhelming the main antagonist of Rogue One is.

It's a pity, because the actor playing Orson Krennic, the imperial Death Star project leader (or something), looks the part, and I don't think he's really bad either. Maybe the directing is at fault? Or should we blame that style-cramping white cape? I thought a white outfit for an imperial officer (matching the stormtrooper theme) was a neat idea in theory: it could be used as a signal that all the Empire's stooges may not see themselves as bad guys, and thus may not feel the need to don a black villain ensemble. But sadly, in practice, that white cape looked like a sheet and was really distracting. Krennic's biggest problem, though, is that he's bested and outsmarted at every turn. Governor Tarkin, heavily CGId to look like the late Peter Cushing who played him in the original, walks all over him. Losing out to the original Tarkin wouldn't have been any great shame, and losing out to a new version of Tarkin played by villain pro Guy Henry shouldn't be shaming either, but the eerie CGI which tries to recreate Cushing's handsome, vulturish features (no, that's not a contradiction in terms) makes the Tarkin-Krennic scenes feel like Krennic is fighting with a hologram - and losing.

But that's not the end of his humiliations. He sees Vader in order to complain about being usurped by Tarkin, and is basically told to stop whining. He is completely taken in by the basic distraction strategy of the Rogue One crew, which makes it possible for a select few of them to break into a high-security archive full of important strategic Empire stuff and transmit the Death Star plans out into space, while the stormtroopers are fighting the rest of the rebels on the beaches (!). Even his one apparent triumph - kidnapping the scientific genius Galen Erso and forcing him to work on developing the imperial Death Star - turns out to be a mistake as Galen secretly builds in a weakness in the Death Star which the rebels can then exploit. Does Krennic notice? Does he heck.

The few scenes where Krennic could have been allowed to shine don't work either. The very first, where he banters with Galen and his wife who are both in full goodness-will-prevail mode, should be the perfect starting point for a villain, but it falls flat. Here, I think the directing must be to blame, or the actor was having an off day. The exchange "You confuse peace with tyranny" "You have to start somewhere" is a quite passable villain quip and should have zinged or generated some kind of this-man-has-no-conscience-menace, but it doesn't. In a later scene, Krennic extracts a confession from Galen about being in touch with the rebels by threatening to gun down his whole scientific team as a group punishment. I wish I could say that you can't guess what happens next, but you can. Yes, it's the old villain-shoots-them-all-anyway cliché, and it's not even clever: where is the Empire going to dig up a new top scientific team at such short notice?

It's hard to define a villain's job description, but what he must do at least 99% of the time is pose some kind of threat to one or several of the main characters - because he has a grievance against them, or because they're simply in his way and the easiest way from A to B is to crush them underfoot. (There are some villains like Bulstrode in Middlemarch who don't quite fit this template - but that's a discussion for another day.) But Krennic, I'm sorry to say, is too stupid to be threatening. He also suffers from the same problem as the rest of the characters in this film: there's no back-story or explanation of his motivation. The thing about Rogue One is we are never going to see any of the protagonists again, and because they don't have a future somewhere the decision was made not to give them much of a past either. The ragtag rebels-within-the-rebellion group led by the disillusioned seasoned killer Cassian and Galen's daughter Jyn Erso are likeable, but with the exception of Jyn we have no idea where they're coming from. Why did the imperial pilot defect? Why is he so devoted to Galen? We don't know, nor will we ever know: the man's cannon-fodder.

Still, Rogue One is a good adventure flick, though definitely not one for the kids - the death toll is astronomic. One thing it succeeded in was to throw some mud on the supposedly heroic rebellion, which I found interesting. Cassian tells Jyn that he has committed no end of atrocities in the name of the rebellion, and the suicide mission to get the Death Star plans is a way for him to redeem himself. We can see that the rebel leaders are trigger-happy: the original plan (not known to Jyn) is to kill Galen rather than extract him from the Empire's grasp. We also have Jyn's old mentor who is an "extremist", which leaves us wondering what he's done (apart from torturing innocent pilots by means of a squid alien) which would make even the not-too-squeamish-seeming rebel leaders balk at having anything to do with him. One scene takes place in an Empire-occupied city, and we see a few stormtroopers kicking about in a goofy-cocky way. Later the city is used for Death Star target practice, which sort of answers the question why a rebellion is needed, but at the time the scene takes place I remember thinking: "What, that's the only way the Empire makes its tyrannous presence felt? I'd rather have some goofy stormtroopers trudging about the streets than put my faith in informant-killers and torturers-by-squid obsessed with a Cause." In this general way, rather than in the characterisation, the black-and-white Star Wars universe does get a tiny bit more nuanced. You can see why someone would actually go for the imperial peace and tyranny option rather than join the unreliable rebels.

Oh, and the droid's really funny.

lördag 31 december 2016

2016 – Not as bad as all that

I feel a little like Louis XVI who infamously wrote “rien” (nothing) in his diary on 14 July 1789 (because the poor man hadn’t been informed of the attack on the Bastille yet – in this instance, at least, it was not a sign of lacking political acumen). You hear a lot these days about 2016 being a disastrous year. And it’s true, there were a couple of events in 2016 which I’d wished would have had a different outcome. But I can’t help feeling that there’s little use whining about it. It certainly makes no sense to say that “2016 can’t be over soon enough”. It’s in 2017 that we will face the consequences of decisions made in 2016, and then we will learn if we were right to moan about them in the first place. It must be very irritating for those who think that by and large people got it right in 2016 to hear all the “as we all know, 2016 was a ghastly year” comments, as if there were an unshakeable consensus about this. Let’s just see what happens. To quote Spamalot, we’re not dead yet.

What further complicates matters is that for me personally, 2016 was actually not such a bad year. Things got less hectic and more enjoyable at work. I acquired a new villain crush which, though a tad embarrassing considering said villain’s origin as a vicious fairy-tale gnome (at least he’s straight, which makes a nice change – and not a gnome, though still pretty vicious), helped me face the first Downton-free year since the series ended with equanimity. There was room for moral-uplifting travelling combined with binge book-buying. My gloomy thoughts about an end of the costume-drama boom seemed to be put to shame with the appearance of The Crown. Maybe the history in this series is a bit too recent for it to really qualify as a costume drama, but it feels like one and shows that there is still a market for TV series based on family spats in a period setting. At the beginning of the year, I had a lovely time with the marvellous though sadly Carker-free Dickensian. Book-wise, the year was a little more meagre: I didn’t discover some new favourite in my preferred genre of middle-brow historical fiction. Dictator, the final volume of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, was great though.

On this shallow, cultural consumption level, the auspices for 2017 look more or less promising. This year at least, there’s bound to be a new Jasper Fforde novel – plus there will be more Doctor Who and Sherlock after an age of waiting. Apparently, a drama set in a London luxury hotel during WWII which sounds satisfyingly Downton-inspired is in the offing (it also sounds a bit clichéd, but at least someone is trying). There’ll be a new series of Victoria – I’ve finally watched the first four episodes of series one, and thoroughly enjoyed them, not least thanks to Rufus Sewell’s far-too-atttractive-for-historical-accuracy Melbourne. Harris’s new thriller Conclave about the election of a pope seems interesting: maybe there’ll be a worthwhile Cardinal villain in it. And who knows, maybe Julian Fellowes will finally get underway with his new period drama series The Gilded Age (I’ve all but given up waiting for a Downton movie).

With Louis XVI-like obliviousness, I’m resolved to be optimistic. Everything may yet turn out better than we feared in 2017. I may not have to fill out an ESTA form in order to enter the UK in future. Perhaps that sanctimonious cow Belle will even see sense in season 6 of Once Upon a Time and give her loving (if villainous) husband another chance – though that seems like the longest shot of all.

onsdag 14 december 2016

Maybe not fantastic beasts - but quite enjoyable beasts (and people)

I was quite expecting a fitting title for a blog entry on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to be "unremarkable films and where to find them". But as it happens, I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts far more than I expected, though it's hard to explain why. After all, I'm more interested in relationships between the human characters in any given story than in any searching for and gawping over animals, fantastic or otherwise. The film's characterisation is sketchy and the plot isn't up to much - one of the plot twists is a cheat, as one of the few facts we are told about a certain magic phenomenon turns out to be untrue. And yet, the film has charm. It sets up the stall for a new five-film saga (quintology?) nicely, and I actually have some hope of liking these films more than I did the original Harry Potter ones.

For one, the protagonists, though we don't get any in-depth insights into their psyche, seem a sweet bunch. Newt Scamander, the hero, may be very much wedded to the task of looking after magical beasties, but this far he's endearingly nerdish rather than a moralistic magical-animal-rights crusader. His love interest Tina may start their acquaintance off by arresting him, but what could have been an annoying "what have you done you foolish man" storyline becomes something more sympathetic as we realise that she is almost as out of her depth as he is. Jacob Kowalski, the Ordinary Joe who gets sucked into the adventure when his briefcase is mixed up with Newt's fantastic-beast-filled one, may not have much else to do than to stare wonderingly with his mouth open, but you still buy the premise that he's a man who tends to be liked (while Newt is often found annoying). Instead of wasting the audience's time by complaining, like so many inadvertently-sucked-into-adventure characters do, Kowalski just goes with it, loving every minute of the magic derring-do and befriending Newt, Tina and her glamorous sister Queenie - especially Queenie - in no time.

I have less problems with this hero quartet so far than I had with the Harry Potter trio. Harry had no chance of living up to the hype, and had a tendency to gloat over his enemies' misfortunes - witness his glee over Dudley falling into the snake tank at the zoo or over Draco being turned into a ferret - that wasn't entirely dignified in someone with Chosen One status (I'm pretty sick of the Chosen One plot-line by now, as it creates unnecessary fuss over ordinary, flawed characters who would be more bearable as one good guy among many). Ron, whom I found quite funny at first, got increasingly irritating. He certainly didn't deserve Hermione, the best of the bunch as a dedicated swot who was dismayed when the yearly exams were cancelled "in celebration" (what kind of sub-standard educational institution is Hogwarts anyway?). But even Hermione could be tiresome when caught in "goodness will prevail" slanging matches with the bad guys - not that the villain banter they countered with was much to write home about either. Newt and Co. don't set out to be heroes - they simply want to make sure Newt's critters are all right - which makes them, so far at least, less self-righteous than Harry's team.

How do the villains compare then? Well, the jury's still out here. I loved Colin Farrell as the sinister chief of police Graves, but it doesn't look as if this will be a repeat performance. I had hoped to learn a little more about the head villain, Gellert Grindelwald, but we don't really. Grindelwald is a wizard who's mentioned in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films, but not much beyond that - they're so tight-lipped about him that much of the back-story in which he is a significant player remains a mystery for viewers like me, who haven't read the books. It's not even made clear that he's a dark wizard, only that he was chummy with Dumbledore at one time. So what happened? Did he turn bad, or was he bad all the time and fooled Dumbledore (which it's hardly impossible to do)? Were he and Dumbledore lovers? Was that Dumbledore's "dark secret" which Rita Skeeter wrote about, but which we're never told about although we actually see Hermione reading the book? C'mon, spill!

What we learn about Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts is that we wants to wage an all-out war on non-magic folk, or "no-majes"as they're called stateside (better than "muggles", anyway). As the locals are more hostile than in Europe and the resident wizard council is set on keeping all use of magic underground so as not to provoke them, you can see his point in a way, but it makes for a boring, impersonal villain motive. Grindelwald as glimpsed on photographs in the Deathly Hallows films was arrestingly handsome in his youth, which makes Johnny Depp's ravaged appearance in the role a disappointment. Even at his cutest, Depp has another kind of good looks than the Hallows heartbreaker, and he is far from his cutest here. As for the magic-hating "Second Salemers", they make Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist look like a subtle character study. However, let's remember that the original Harry Potter villains, though they looked the part, weren't always as skilled at the actual mischief-making. The Malfoys in particular were what Miss Denker in Downton would call "merely ornamental" (what ornaments, though). Anyway, Grindelwald and his followers won't have to try as hard as all that to outdo Voldemort and his not-so-merry men.

With the stunning setting of 1920s New York - complete with magic touches like speakeasys owned by goblins - likeable if somewhat thin characters and well-CGIed magic creatures, Fantastic Beasts has surprisingly much going for it. I'll actually make sure to watch the next film in the cinema too: those sweeping camera angles alone make it worthwhile not to simply wait for the DVD.