Archive for April, 2010

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

protest or forget: the Beast Below

Protest: The Beast Below

Protest: The Beast Below

Once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.

An often excellent episode, The Beast Below struggled to fit in some emotional bonding between this new Doctor and his companion (and the audience). Amy hasn’t had time to change out of her sleepwear before being thrown into an adventure of unimaginable horror – and nearly thrown out of her tenure as a companion after only a few minutes in the Tardis.

Part of the splendid set and character design, the Smilers had an image worthy of gracing a generation’s nightmares but didn’t really do much. They embody the police state the Doctor immediately sees – continuing the Sherlock Holmes-esque attention to detail that led him to a solution last week – but they are not the horror, and neither is the titular beast below who carries the remnants of the British, Welsh, and Northern Irish people on its back. The true monsters, as Rod Serling continually remonstrated, are us.

Except that’s not quite it. Every other country in the world, when the Earth was blasted by solar flares in the 29th century, was able to get it together to make colony ships and seek their new fortunes. Only England and its hangers-on – once the Scots abandoned them, bless their wise ginger heads – were left behind, listening to their children cry, and not building a fecking spaceship! Even though they were entirely capable of whipping up an airtight city/massive torture device, sans blueprints, once they’d “trapped” a beast capable of carrying one.

Perhaps they were waiting for Rupert Murdoch to do it for them, having voted against a 2% VAT raise that would have funded a publicly built ship?

No, the horror is specifically within “us” the British people, who cannot conceive of altruism. The Doctor (admiringly) describes the ship on first glance as an idea, as “Britain but metal.” They are searching for a new home, but bringing the worst of the old one with them, the paranoia and self-made horror that they give themselves the option not to face.

The episode not only captures a peculiarly self-loathing twist on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas but the UK’s pre-election gestalt, being presented with two choices that are not choices at all, but allow one to stop contemplating the self-made nightmare we live in and – more importantly – accept that this is how it must be rather than seeking the hard work of possible solutions. It was the designers of the city who chose to feed “protesters and citizens of limited value” – including children who tested poorly – to the Beast. That can’t be blamed on the panic that would drive a people to trap and torture a benevolent creature who intended to rescue them from the beginning (and continues to do so even after centuries of torment). This is heart of darkness territory.

It’s deliberately written into the text, providing one of my favorite Doctor Who characters of the last few years: Liz Ten, a middle-aged, confident, compassionate Action Queen who seeks to truly serve her people even if it gets her sent to the Tower – historically not a good end for a monarch.

Liz Ten: The Beast Below

Liz Ten: The Beast Below

Even Liz Ten, lionhearted, dutiful Liz Ten, chooses every ten years to continue this nightmare. She was, in fact, one of its architects. What hope is there that the rest of us wouldn’t slam down that ‘Forget’ button in a heartbeat, facing the same choice?

The Doctor proves to carry this within himself as well, even before he realises this is more than another fun adventure. He judges his new companion rather harshly, without thinking – “Oh lovely, you’re a cheery one!” – and presents her with his own unfair binary decision. When Amy hesitates about running off into an unknown police state, on her own, in her pyjamas, he replies shortly: “This or Leadworth. What will Amy Pond choose?” And he’s gleeful when she meekly accepts: “Ha ha, gotcha!” It seems that neither a pep talk – perhaps including his new Number One Rule of “you don’t ever decide what I need to know,” on pain of immediate abandonment – nor a quick detour into the Tardis to get a pair of pants on was a viable option.

And he’s awfully quick to snap out “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” after being able to at least face the horror, unlike everyone else, if not think through it. Fortunately, Amy out-Doctors the Doctor by seeing an obvious detail once his anti-human blinders were crazy-glued to his temples and saves both the poor beast and the vaguely intra-genocidal race on its back, and there’s hugging all round, and we can safely move on to the rest of the season without dissolving into blobs of self-loathing recrimination.

To sum up, pretty dark stuff for a children’s show. Pretty dark stuff for a post-watershed adult show, really. I like it, a lot, and I like that the hero-lead of an action show has the character depth to fuck up so badly and come back from it a little wiser.

…but is this Doctor Who?

dreams whipping by: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes

Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes is a film that is better to have watched than watch, both irritating and enthralling, an impatience I’ve experienced with other Jim Jarmusch projects. It particularly suits this collection of vignettes. though, because it’s a feeling shared by nearly all of the characters. Wanting nothing more than to contemplate the pleasurable minor vices of the title, they are forced instead to interact with other people, to navigate through shared antipathy and neediness.

There’s something painfully nostalgic about these spaces, pre-smoking ban cafes and diners and bars. They offer at their best a luxurious anonymity, somewhere to pause for the price of bottomless coffee with only a pack of cigarettes, a book, or one’s thoughts for company. These places were going extinct when I fell in love with them, uniquely uncool places with an accumulation of calcified locals. It felt like trespassing in another decade, one with real adults, and being tolerated rather than welcomed, a surprisingly fruitful atmosphere for in-depth navel gazing. The drink-up-and-get-out anonymity offered by the chains that replaced these joints (along with their significantly better coffee) just isn’t the same.

Meeting for coffee is defined as undefined, lacking the commitment of a meal or even a drink. Someone’s late, someone’s waiting, someone has someplace better to be, someone really doesn’t. It’s the dentist’s waiting room of sociability, one eye always on the door and wishing the liminal uncomfortableness will mercifully end, wishing for enough time to somehow make it end well. Chess patterns lurk in every vignette, reflecting the patrons’ inability to simply converse or share the quiet, perpetually competing for the upper hand, to be interesting or admired or just the first person to leave the table. Offenses are passed back and forth like sugar jars, but no one has the gumption to fight, cringing at the formica instead. No one comes off well (I found myself really disliking Tom Waits, in fact, who I otherwise admire very much), but they are all too familiar, mapping onto personal memories and tingeing them tragicomic.

It’s a film of fleeting pleasures (dipping into the light nonsense of a conversation shared en masse by everyone with a cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other) and punishing self-awareness amid the impossibility of truly meeting anyone else, blindly focused on how we’re coming across ourselves. We’ve met, we’ve conversed, going through the steps of the dance without ever getting to our feet. Are we friends? Why don’t I enjoy your company, when I want to, when I’ve made the effort to see you? Why can’t we share something as meaninglessly solacing as coffee and cigarettes?

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

14 years since fish custard: The Eleventh Hour

Amy Pond - The Eleventh Hour

Steven Moffat‘s first offering as head writer offers a series paradoxically both more emotionally mature and more a pure kid’s/kid-at-heart’s show. In this episode, at least, the eleventh doctor works well on both levels, providing a doctor and companion kids can identify with (craving fun and adventure while being continually denied this – and basic reliability – by adults) with more adult observations and irritations.

There’s a lot of imagination and dress-up here, without smugly highlighting how wonderful it all is.  Despite a weak, tacked-on opener (uck, I am so sick of Zone 1 London being fellated on my tv screen!), the Doctor quickly landed in a better place, a child’s room in a small village that demands a rich inner life to ward off stultifying boredom.  Little Amelia prays to Santa for help rather than God (apologising for waking him up at Easter) because Santa is a far more relatable and important figure to a 7-year-old than a Creator that’s never left a new PS3 game under the tree. There’s a little nostalgia porn here for adults, as Amelia is wearing an adorable and timeless nightgown and cardigan rather than a Hannah Montana branded top and short-shorts…or whatever tweens demanded in 1996. She’s ridiculously capable, unhesitatingly cooking up a variety of snacks for the Doctor – who immediately spits out all of them as disgusting and settles on an odd combination of two highly processed after-school snacks (acts most children could identify with).

Twelve years later, now-Amy presents first as a policewoman – foreshadowing her impressive (if not hugely intelligent) bravery in the face of the unknown – and then as someone who dresses up as a variety of adults for work. A nudge from the Doctor is all that’s required to make her briefly take up the authority inherent to her outfit, getting her in place to confront the monster of the week. This is the wonder of play in a nutshell – pretend to be something, and you become it, at least for the length of the game.

There’s a very adult look in Amy’s eyes, though. Having had those eyes opened – and quite possibly her young life ruined – by a brief glimpse of a fantastic other life, she spent her childhood first with an omnipresent imaginary friend and then with a series of psychiatrists who clearly felt play had become dangerous delusion. Seeing her childhood fantasy (and possibly adult – in exactly what context did she have Rory dress up as the Raggedy Doctor?) in the flesh leaves her with the expression of someone who fears they’ve suffered a psychotic break, and that that might not be such a bad thing. Ultimately, joining up with the Doctor is a flight from adult responsibility into fantasy – does she really expect the time traveller who’s repeatedly overshot his intended landing by years to hit so small a target as a few hours, and make it back in time to be married?

Lots of talk about the Companion and nearly none about the Doctor – hard to tell. It always takes a few episodes for the important facets of a new regeneration to be revealed. But so far, the new guy is more fun than silly or camp. He delegates both responsibility and credit. He’s quite clearly a child at heart but aware of the duties of a powerful adult, making sure to properly scare off the dangerous aliens, and dress correctly for the occasion as well. He’s also got a bit of  Sherlock Holmes thing going, able to take in a world of detail in a glance.

I like him. I like them both. Can’t wait to see where they take us.

the Eleventh Doctor/The Eleventh Hour

(screenshots nicked from the always-entertaining nostalgia_lj.)

Lost, Actually: Happily Ever After


symbolic Driveshaft/Dexter Stratton ring

Happily Ever After is another episode that offers possible big-picture answers, but filtered though one character’s heavily biased perspective. Here, they break out Desmond, Lost’s go-to guy for bringing the heart to lacklustre mini-arcs. Introduced in the second season premier, Desmond is a modern-day Odysseus, spending much of his adult life attempting to simultaneously return to his first love while running from himself – first into a monastery, then the military, and finally the seven seas. He was the rare Islander who got exactly his desired happy ending after much travail – helped along by a contemporary Penelope not content to simply wait at home when she can fund a worldwide search – so he deserves a little celebratory hyperbole where love is concerned.

Daniel and Charlie, however, don’t. And unlike Jacob and the Man in Black in Ab Aeterno, they don’t have a real reason to alter their conversation to suit their reluctant disciple’s mindset. They’re speaking from the heart…unfortunately. Bizarro-world Charlie is following the example of noted relationship guru Bella Swan, seeking near-death experiences in order to have visions of a lost love. Fellow musician Daniel is moved not to compose a Michelle for the 00s but spontaneously emit advanced quantum mechanics equations in his sleep (which is actually a adorable nerdlinger reaction to love at first sight) after spotting a pre-blind date Charlotte. Their Harlequin descriptions (“I’ve seen something real. I’ve seen the truth.”) resonate with Desmond when he has his own magnetically-induced visions and ultimately lead him to resume his role as the helpful visionary spanner in the works.

nerd love

nerd love

There was an awful lot of arc-y goodness in this episode, particularly the hint that Eloise and Charles Widmore are the architects or maintainers of the flash-sideways universe and quite possibly at odds in that venture, but the bulk of the character interactions gave lip service to the Power of Love. Only one kind of love, mind you – platonic or parental or any other sort of love has no place saving the world. No, long-term relationships are a person’s sole anchor (or Constant) in a real world, and the only motivation to return. (Sorry, Ji Yeon.)

Desmond, with his decade of love, loss, and reunion can be forgiven a few goggle-eyed flights of near-poetry, but can Daniel or Charlie’s mutual-but-unconsummated crushes with women they’ve known less than three months really be called “spectacular, consciousness-altering love”? It’s unfair to expect and adult audience the show has often forced to educate themselves in classical philosophy and modern quantum physics to roll with that.

After all, that insane giddiness only lasts during a few weeks of infatuation in any ultimately functional relationship. Then, the connection is primarily fantasy, the unreasonable expectation that this time, this person will fulfill every desire, and it naturally doesn’t last beyond actually getting to know each other. Love isn’t something like an eternal first shot of heroin, wiping away all problems and wrapping both in superficial bliss, despite a total lack of specific connection (sorry, 99% of fanfiction.net). Good long-term relationships are better defined as things that make most aspects of your life happier and more interesting, and provides at least a distraction from the rest. And that’s absolutely brilliant.

I think, as a character, Desmond certainly gets that. I hope the writers do as well (although the Jack/Kate/Sawyer romantic plot tumor doesn’t give me a lot of hope).

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