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.

onsdag 30 november 2016

Time to be a grown-up with The Crown

Sometimes I worry that, what with all my wallowing in animated films, sci-fi, fairy-tale-inspired fantasy and not least youtube clips commenting on these phenomena, I will no longer be able to appreciate more mature and sophisticated ways of entertainment when they come along. What if I've devolved into a mere "beast", like the Macra in Doctor Who? Is it maybe a bad sign that I know who the Macra in Doctor Who are?

My fears seemed to be confirmed when I started to watch the undoubtedly-for-grown-ups Netflix series The Crown, which has been praised by just about every costume-drama viewer in the world. The first scene shows the present Elizabeth II's father, George VI, coughing up blood in the bathroom, and my first reactions were childish enough: "Eugh!" and "Right. Bored now."

Luckily, things picked up from there. There's no denying - and who would want to? - that the series is very well done indeed, and can easily hold a candle to anything BBC or ITV at its most lavish produce. The acting is superb - once again Claire Foy shines, this time as the main character Queen Elizabeth - the setting breathes authenticity and the script creates entirely believable scenes for the characters. You keep thinking "yes, it must have been exactly like this". There's not even clunky exposition camouflaged as dialogue of the kind you otherwise always get even in the best costume dramas: this means that some bit-players' identity remains a mystery until it is natural for someone to mention their name, but it's worth it as we then don't get stilted explanatory remarks such as "Ah, Mike, my dear cousin/friend since childhood" (yes, I'm still not sure how Prince Philip and Mike know each other) or "do you really think I can take on Churchill, Lord Salisbury, also known for unfathomable reasons as Bobbety?". Peter Morgan also wrote the script to the film The Queen and the play The Audience - both of which I've seen and enjoyed - and you trust him implicitly when it comes to capturing the personalities of the Queen and her entourage. The tone is even more assured in The Crown than in the other Elizabeth II-themed pieces mentioned, where some things would grate (the too-laboured stag metaphor in The Queen and some PMs in The Audience who were caricatured rather than convincingly portrayed).

But - to be honest - not a lot happens, does it? I've watched six episodes out of the first ten to be released, and though, thanks to the smoothness and believability, the story doesn't creak, it certainly moves at a rather majestic pace. Maybe it is partly my devolved Macra brain: the timing for watching The Crown could undeniably have been better, as after the sugar rush of two seasons of Once Upon A Time, it felt very much like slow-carb TV. All the same, I'm starting to wonder whether Elizabeth II's reign is that interesting a chunk of English history, and whether (whisper it) the characters are as fascinating as all that. They're certainly likeable: The Crown ought to give the senior members of the British royal family a well-deserved popularity boost. Even so, inveterate consumer of royal gossip as I am, I still fail to be engrossed by the small niggles of the Queen's and Prince Philip's essentially stable and happy marriage. Each episode features one main plot-line with not many sub-plots to speak of, and I did find myself thinking more than once that they weren't really worth all the time and attention lavished on them.

Of course it's a good series. I don't even feel resentful when people call it "the new Downton", because I know what they're driving at. This is period drama of the highest quality, plus an enjoyable way to learn more about recent British history (I had never even heard of the killing London fog of 1952). But Downton (not being hampered by reality) had more intricate plot-lines and a larger cast of characters to engage in. With the risk of sounding like the philistine Emperor in Amadeus complaining about the Marriage of Figaro having "too many notes", I'd say that for me at least, The Crown has too few storylines and too few main characters to be truly addictive. Not to mention no villains whatsoever (an amusingly catty Duke of Windsor doesn't count).

In spite of its level of ambition, I think the rest of the series will do well as post-gym watching, when I feel in the appropriate calm zen mode. Right now, though, Once season three awaits: maybe Neverland is the best place for me.

onsdag 16 november 2016

Fairy tales, mash-ups and villains = magically addictive viewing

That idea I had about mixing escapist viewing with serious stuff like Danish crime dramas? Stuff that. Lately it's been escapism, in the shape of the TV series Once Upon A Time, all the way. I'm now halfway through season two, and planning to invest in the remaining seasons available on DVD in the very near future.

So what's it about? Well, there's this town in present-day Maine, Storybrooke, where the Evil Queen from Snow White has entrapped various characters from different fairy tales, plus the odd character from other tales with a fantastic dimension, using a curse which wiped their memories and halted time, so that the town folk neither age nor have any memory of their previous fairy-tale existence. The only one who can break the curse is the daughter of Snow White and Prince James aka Charming, who was smuggled out of a magic portal before the curse hit. Once grown-up, she is brought into town by her son, whom she had given away for adoption, but who has figured out what's going on with the aid of a book, and so goes out to find her. The heroine, Emma Swan, naturally doesn't believe her son's fairy-tale fantasies, but she quickly grows attached to him and stays in the town for his sake. The big problem is, his adoptive mother is the Evil Queen herself, also known as Regina Mills the town mayor. And that's just season one.

Yep, it does sound extraordinarily geeky. When I try to explain the series' premise to an outsider, I usually drift off in the middle, embarrassingly aware of the fact. But then I am geeky, and fond of fairy tales and mash-ups/cross-overs where fictional characters from different stories interact. For anyone who feels the same, I think I can guarantee that a good time will be had with Once.

The series' attractions? Let's start at the top:

1) Rumplestiltskin's in it! Yeah, they basically had me at "You can't go to him. He's dangerous." Rumplestiltskin's my favourite fairy-tale villain, even if, in the original Grimm story, his appearance is not impressive (he seems to be some sort of gnome) and his motives unclear (what did he want with that first-born anyway? Eat it?). You can't fault that M.O. though - giving some hapless fairy-tale character exactly what they want, but at a price. In the words of the voodoo spirit friends of another purveyor of magical deals, Dr Facilier in The Princess and the Frog: "Well, you got what you wanted/But you lost what you had". It's the diabolical pact without the too-scary diabolical bit, and it works a treat as a villain storyline. Even Rumplestiltskin in Shrek Forever After, lisping silliness notwithstanding (one more reason why I'm no big fan of the Shrek franchise is that it tends to poke fun at its villains) managed to be the most formidable antagonist the green ogre's come across. It's hard to withstand an enemy who can use your own desires against you.

Rumplestiltskin in Once is the best version of the character one could hope for. For one, they've scrapped the gnome bit: originally, he's a man very much down on his luck who gets hold of almost unlimited dark magical power and is then understandingly reluctant to let it go, even it does turn him into a malicious, greenish kind of goblin. The goblin version of Rumplestiltskin may be a teeny bit OTT, not that I'm not still thrilled every time a character - especially the really good and worthy ones - is suckered into making a deal with him. But his Storybrooke persona, the wealthy businessman cum lawyer Mr Gold ("'He owns this place.' 'The hotel?' 'The town.'") is just perfect - gangly, sardonic, super-clever, and with a deliciously impenetrable master plan. It is also worth noting that, like the original character and unlike, say, Facilier, Rumplestiltskin/Gold always delivers on his side of a deal. He doesn't cheat and fulfil your wishes in some horrible way. Many of the characters' happiness is dependent on deals they once made with him, which explains why they keep falling into his traps.

2) The Evil Queen has a case: Like most of the fairy-tale characters in Once, the Evil Queen Regina (not Grimhilde in this version, then) is nicely fleshed out with a strong back-story (the storyline in Once is split between Storybrooke and flashbacks to Fairyland). It provides the perfect villain motive in that it's good but not too good: you're not made to feel yourself that Snow White deserves all she gets, but you can see why Regina might think it. Her strongest case, though, is her present-day one against Emma. Imagine the natural mother of your adopted child showing up after ten years, settling down near you, getting all the affection of your boy, encouraging him to think of you as a wicked character from a fairy tale... And then to top it all your lover starts to make eyes at her. You wouldn't have to be an evil queen to be furious. In fact, if it weren't for the fairy-tale thing Regina would have right on her side, and for most of season one Emma doesn't even believe in the fairy-tale thing, which makes her feelings nicely conflicted.

3) I actually like Snow White: Who'd have thought it? Films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror have tried to make something of Snow White, but not particularly successfully in my view. Simply giving a girl martial arts skills doesn't make her a memorable heroine. Snow White aka Mary Margaret Blanchard in Once, on the other hand, is just the right mixture of sweet and spunky to be likeable. Though essentially a good person, she has flaws which make her endearing, and you end up hoping she and her man will come together, even if a lot of potentially tiresome fuss is made about their "true love".

4) "Evil is made, not born" I recently rewatched all the Harry Potter films and was so fed up with the relentless smugness of the good characters by the end that I almost saw the point of joining up with the noseless one. In Once, both good and bad characters grapple with their motives, which prompts some discussion about what constitutes good and evil. In spite of the quote (a statement made by the two head villains, and they would say that), evil turns out to be very much a matter of choice. The wicked characters tend to go for the wrong choices - though redemption is possible, they pull back out of vindictiveness or love of power - but that doesn't mean the good characters always make the right ones. Simply, the characterisation is more nuanced than what one is used to in fairy-tale-themed stories.

Look, I'm not saying it's The West Wing. But the script is sassy, the cliff-hangers are effective and both the fairy-tale part and the small-town soap opera part work well. I'm not sure kids would enjoy it much, though, fairy-tale content notwithstanding: not that it's too scary, but relationships play a large part in the story, which I imagine could get boring for a child, as could all the am-I-a-bad-parent agonising. It's fairy tales for adults, then: nerdy adults, ideally with a penchant for villains. Does that description fit anyone but me? The series is a hit, so possibly yes.

Oh, and just for the record: I'm not at all keen on the matinee idol version of Captain Hook who turns up in season two, but I imagine those without my bias in favour of his (metaphorical) crocodile will probably think differently.                          

onsdag 2 november 2016

Let Maleficent be Maleficent

Poor Maleficent. She's not my favourite Disney villain by a long chalk - in fact, she's not even my favourite Disney villainess (that would be Ursula the sea-witch in The Little Mermaid). However, she deserves far better than she got in the live-action film bearing her name which was released in 2014 and which I've now finally watched.

I have to admit I was prejudiced against Maleficent from the start. Reviews of it suggested that the film was an attempt to rehabilitate the main character in the same manner as the book and later musical Wicked did the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. This seemed to me to defeat the very reason the film was made in the first place. Maleficent had been voted the villain Disney fans wanted to see more of, and the film was a consequence of that - but if you're an admirer of the bad fairy in the original animated Sleeping Beauty, chances are you're not interested in seeing her portrayed as not so very bad after all. What the original Maleficent has is style - she goes about her villainous business with panache and without a trace of regret or vulnerability. To attempt a whitewash would be to take away the only thing she has going for her.

Still, there's no denying that there's room for development as far as Maleficent's character is concerned. In the original fairy tale, the (nameless) fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty only appears at the beginning of the tale, and her curse is the result of her being miffed at not being invited to the christening. This is classic folk tale logic - according to them, supernatural beings are often notoriously thin-skinned, and you commit a breach of etiquette against them at your peril. Now, Disney's Maleficent in the original animated film not only curses the infant Aurora, she also sticks around to make sure that what she's foretold is fulfilled (which makes you wonder - why not just sit back and let the magic run its course? Doesn't she trust her own curses?). Her continued active efforts to ensure Aurora gets no happy ending do make the "not invited to the party" motive seem a tad threadbare. Maybe giving the character a back-story and a more credible motive to go with it would not be such a bad thing after all?

I hadn't seen much of Maleficent, however, before I realised that it fulfilled my worst fears. It wasn't only an attempt to whitewash Maleficent, but a singularly bad attempt. A pompous female narrator tells us of two neighbouring countries, one peopled by selfish, greedy humans, and one an idyllic place full of magical creatures whom the humans envy. Argh - please not the "greedy humans versus peaceful species living in harmony with nature" plot, one of my all-time pet hates! It gets worse. We see a young Maleficent - why is she even called that if she's not evil yet? - flying over the enchanted woodlands and sunnily greeting various revoltingly cutesy CGI critters. She's plainly as good as good can be, so her descent into baby-cursing must be entirely due to those pesky humans. True enough, it's when her childhood sweetheart Stephan betrays her that she goes off the rails. When the King decrees that whoever kills Maleficent will succeed him, Stephan drugs her, steals her wings - he can't quite bring himself to kill her, though with hindsight that would have been wiser - and becomes king on the strength of it. On the plus side, no-one hunts Maleficent any more, as it's assumed Stephan killed her when he nabbed the wings. On the minus side, she's really upset.

You'd think the whole betrayal-and-wing-stealing setup would prove a better motive for Maleficent than not being invited to a christening, but it's so clumsily done it adds nothing to the original story, quite the reverse. Maleficent's back-story is for the most part narrated rather than built up by potentially character-developing dialogue - it's a schoolbook example of telling rather than showing. I found myself far preferring the old, un-reconstructed Maleficent: she was plainly a bad fairy by profession, and cursing newborns is the kind of thing bad fairies do - all part of a usual day in the life of a fairy-tale villain. New Maleficent, on the other hand, seems to think she has some moral justification for making sure Stephan's child fell into eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday - but fond as she was of her wings, this is a wildly disproportionate retaliation. By making the newborn-cursing part of a revenge-on-the-ex plot, Maleficent actually manages to highlight the horror of it rather than making it more understandable.

The film then gets even sillier as Maleficent warms to Aurora and eventually tries her darndest to break her own curse - at this point, there's no longer any attempt made to align what's happening with the plot in the animated film. And in the end, I kid you not, it is not the Prince's smooch that wakes Aurora, but Maleficent's repentant kiss (on the forehead - there are limits). She's grown to love her, see, so this is "true love's kiss". Not that that's much of a comfort to the girl's real parents - her blameless mother who's died not knowing what will happen to her child and her increasingly unhinged father (and wouldn't you be if someone cursed your kid? It's not paranoia if it's real). And don't get me started on Maleficent's treatment of the three good fairies - charming comic sidekicks in the original Disney classic, inept and woefully unfunny in this film.

Fleshing out the character of fairy-tale villains is a tall order, as they're pretty hardcore, and the original tales - not being exercises in psychological realism - don't give you many hints regarding the inner workings of their mind. But it can be done. I recently watched the first season of the TV series Once Upon A Time and was completely sold on it - which, let's just say, is not particularly surprising. I'll be gushing more about its attractions at some later date. Suffice it to say, for now, that the fairy-tale villains in Once may be rendered more complex by a tragic back-story or two, but they are nevertheless still villains - they choose to become bad, and to remain bad. Real affection towards a select few people in their lives doesn't make them less of a menace to everyone else. This, I think, would have been an approach which could have worked with Maleficent too: an attempt to enrich her character without prettifying or excusing her obvious malevolence. In fact, Maleficent does appear in Once, but only as a minor character: it will be interesting to see if she is reintroduced later, and what in that case this franchise's take on her will be.

As it is, I will let yet another version of Maleficent have the last word: the cheerfully messy teenage romcom Descendants shown on Disney Channel, about the second generation of Disney villains navigating high school, features a thoroughly rotten-to-the-core Maleficent, interestingly not the least bit inspired by the 2014 film, only by the animated classic. She tries to persuade her increasingly doubtful daughter (there's no clue as to who the father is - the film doesn't really address where villain babies come from) to carry out her wicked plans in a catchy musical number which includes the lyrics (abbreviated): "Don't you want to be evil? Don't you want to be cool?" In its simplicity, I think this sums up the character of the bad fairy - at least in her Disney version - far better than anything in Maleficent.   

torsdag 20 oktober 2016

Why so glum, haute couture chum?

It's the first autumn without a new series of Downton, and yes, I do miss it, if not as passionately as I'd anticipated. As regards the future of Downton's characters, I've pretty much settled it in my imagination to my own satisfaction. What I miss most about the series is my level of engagement in it. I have a number of series piled up for test-watching purposes, and not a few turn out to be well-made. However, there's no way any characters' troublesome working or love life (or lack thereof) will turn any of my hairs white (which, I swear, actually happened with Downton series six).

If no absorbing fictional universe where you'd happily spend hours, first actually watching the series then speculating about what may happen next or has happened before, is forthcoming, then can one at least hope for a little dose of escapism? I know I'm not really entitled to too much of it at this time of year. In January, I needed escapism to get me through the beginning of the new year; in February, to get me through the post-Downton slump after having watched last year's series a second time; in June, to temper pre-holiday grumpiness; in August, to alleviate post-holiday sadness. If there was ever a time for more ambitious viewing and reading, this is it. Plus I have discovered one escapism series on the nerdy part of the scale (rather than the costume-drama one) which will do well to mix up realistic Danish crime series and grim adultery thrillers with. All the same, just one teeny frothy costume drama with romances and pretty dresses, even if sadly free from under-butlers, would not go amiss.

So I had some little hope for The Collection, which has started airing on Swedish television - especially as it was touted as "the most glamorous series ever" by one TV presenter. Alas, though, the pilot turned out to be unexpectedly gloomy. It started unpromisingly with a silent scene - no dialogue, no music, just sinister tinkling from a couple of rusty cans hung up to scare away birds from a long-forgotten vegetable garden - where a corpse is buried, and very inexpertly if I may say so. I have an aversion against silent scenes in TV and films, especially at the very beginning: they usually signal pretentiousness and lack of pace. We then jump back a few days in order to get an explanation for the corpse, but when it comes it is not nearly good enough. I like crime drama, but I just have to ask: does every series have to include a murder now, even when there's no good reason to murder anyone?

Yes, there are a few pretty dresses - the series is after all about a fashion house trying to make its mark in post-WWII Paris - but they don't make up for the general downbeat feel of the plot. The fashion house in question is led by Paul Sabine, and the chief designer is his brother Claude. In a nice stereotype-busting role reversal, scrubbed-up, besuited Paul is the straight one, advantageously married to a beautiful and well-connected American. Whereas scruffy, macho Claude, who lives and rarely works in a Bohemian flat with his cat is the gay one - he's dangerously into rough sailors. Neither of them is a barrel of laughs, though. Paul is glum because he has business problems - it's hard to feel too sorry for him, as he unnecessarily rubs his new business partner up the wrong way, which leads to an entirely avoidable "succeed with your next collection or else" ultimatum. Claude is glum because his family play merry havoc with his love life in the most misguided "get the lazy brother to work" drive I've ever seen. Other glum characters include a pretty seamstress who has had to give her illegitimate baby away (the series takes ages exploring her grief on the train back). A new career as a dress model beckons, but after a couple of happy pictures around Paris to gay accordion music it all goes pear-shaped, and the shrinking violet refuses ever to try again, in spite of getting three separate pep talks (I did enjoy Claude's Beauty and the Beast-inspired one). Frances de la Tour puts in a characteristically classy, scary turn as the matriarch of the Sabine family, but not even she is happy.

If the pilot had been less down in the mouth, I would more easily have forgiven some shoddy plotting: for instance, an unsuspecting Paul buys the very derelict cottage next to which his mother's loyal thug of a chauffeur has buried Claude's sailor boyfriend (victim of the scantily explained murder mentioned above). Seriously, what are the odds? The corpse has not been dicovered yet, but as I heard those cans tinkling forebodingly yet again I'm not sure I didn't groan aloud. As it appears now, The Collection isn't frothy enough for light entertainment, but neither is it deep enough for serious drama.

I'll give it another try, though. The pilot of a series rarely shows it at its best. As Paul waxes lyrical about fashion collections symbolising Paris rising from the ashes like a phoenix, one can hope the phoenix bit is still to come. We've certainly had the ashes bit.