Posts from the ‘critique’ Category

the word is now a virus: Pontypool

Pontypool is in one way a simple satire with a single didactic message: English-speaking media is turning citizens into empty-headed and desperately violent zombies, and the only way to save yourself is to excise the language entirely. Metaphorical tumor and healthy flesh must be sacrificed together, and refuge is to be found in the less id-baiting vocabulary of Lacan’s French.

Why Lacan? The seemingly random words that punctured each person with this verbal infection made me think of his famous near-koan, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”

Horror is at its most effective, though, when it has some solid conceptual underpinnings, remains faithful to them, and – most importantly – allows the audience to ignore them completely. Fortunately, as the Spoony One pointed out (getting us interested enough to rent it), Pontypool has another showy concept up its sleeve: it’s practically a radio play, relying on audience imagination for the first two acts.

This leads to the film’s most common criticism, that it cheaps out on showing the horror that a viewer presumably expects to see based on the cover art. Unsurprisingly, I disagree. I love zombie flicks, but they’re samey in their special effects and “shocking” gore notes. They’re almost comforting that way, like a bedtime story you’ve heard read a hundred times…assuming your father was Jeffrey Dahmer. If a character on a crackly phone line describes an undead mob converging on a victim, I’ve got the mental image in place by the fourth word. If that mob is dog-piling on a family’s car while imitating windshield-wiper blades…I’ve got to work a little harder for it, and when the visual finally clicks…hoo boy. There’s no filmed scene that could ever match up.

Another benefit of this limitation is that it puts us inside the media body that in a typical horror flick would conveniently contextualise the mayhem with an explanation of the source, and provide an arrow toward the survivors’ solution if not the solution itself. Here, they desperately try to put together disparate reports into a coherent story to tell (because it has to be a story to be news, not just isolated facts), while debating whether they should be repeating any of it on air. Is it true, is it a prank, is it in fact life-and-death real and could get them fined for accidentally broadcasting the inappropriate reality of madness and death?

The virus, and the film, move on understanding. Currently unknown English words (although ones pertaining to love and hate, most beloved hot-buttons of infotainment, are early favorites) carry a new sort of virus, one that takes hold in the ephemeral moment when someone not just hears the word but understands it. (It’s reasonable to suspect that this will not be one of evolution’s fortunate mutations, as a successful word virus would be more like William S. Burrow’s conception of the written word as a symbiotic virus that made speech possible, not one that invariably led to its host eating all other potential hosts and then exploding.) What then? If Burroughs is right, we can’t halt our internal vocalisation, and that inevitably spills out verbally, possibly carrying the fatal virus and delivering that letter to anyone near you, or listening at home.

The film plays with the fuzzy dividing line between signal and noise. They broadcast a clear signal, but the words on it are difficult. The small town listening thrives on gossip and speculation, and fuelling this will only lead to the station’s censure, right or wrong. Give them only the boring but comprehensible signal, none of the primal and artistic noise. But the new dj, like all in his profession, thrives on attention, negative as much or more than positive. Words are not only his livelihood, they are his joy, leaping straight from his fluidly rhizoid brain to his lips, layering grains of exact truth with rhythm and melodrama. Facts and speculations fling themselves into the de-sanctified studio too quickly to be comprehended, let alone judge. As the dj states in the film’s opening monologue about a lost cat named “Honey”:

Well, Norman Mailer, he had an interesting theory that he used to explain the strange coincidences in the aftermath of the JFK assasination. In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details, they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other.

These details seemed related because the JFK assassination and its aftermath happened live on television. It was a seemingly direct experience, just filtered through media’s commercial imperatives. It became a story, and in a story, everything should connect, but where was the author?

A foreign doctor seemingly at the centre of the disturbances appears right on cue. They want him to explain what’s going on, he wants to explain what’s going on, they give him a microphone, and…they keep getting distracted. The speed of incoming fragments makes them feel urgent, even though they only give information we already know (something contagious is making people behave incomprehensibly), while the doctor is offering solid intel on how the affected act, and how to hide from them. But noise is news; noise gets priority.

The story of the happening has to be plucked from noise. Here’s where the writing and acting are particularly strong, with characters speaking in elliptical, semi-conscious prestidigitation, trying to verbally camouflage their own fears and secrets. Early on, the show’s producer defends specific townspeople who are precariously recovering alcoholics just trying to hold onto their jobs; later, she seeks refuge in the dj’s bottle of Glenfiddich and refers to being continually drunk at the end of her marriage. Ah…so her earlier words were partly about herself, and partly a feint away from “I’m an alcoholic and your jokes about drunks are painful.”

That, or anyone would hit the bottle during a painful divorce or “conversationalist” zombie siege, and it has nothing to do with her comment before. Is Honey the lost cat, and the dj’s broadcast about her, at the epicentre of the outbreak, or is it just a coincidence that the animal’s name is in the “love” circle of seemingly infected words? It appears to line up, strung together by adequate coincidences, to produce meaning, but are you convinced? What’s your criteria for being convinced; do you even know? Meanwhile, doom is close…so they tell you.

My impression: the dj and producer are carriers, Typhoid Marys, able to fight off the disease themselves but also infecting every poor soul who hears them. They are both depressed, both regularly self-medicating, and unable to meaningfully connect with others. They both want to – the dj’s handmade Valentine’s Day cards for his coworkers, the producer’s fatal phone calls to her distant children – but are only hearing others through a thick filter of helpless gloom, distorting their meaning. Their well-meaning attempts to warn listeners – not-so-incidentally skyrocketing their own profile in the process – are spreading the disease to everyone who tunes in from as far away as the UK via a BBC simulcast. Their dissociated thinking can save them, but trying to pass the trick on to others is impossible as even they don’t truly know

Where did the virus come from; did the mysterious doctor create it or just study its rapid development? It’s inconceivable in any case, right? Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who wants to put Grandpa in front of a death panel, and Dick Cheney personally orchestrated September 11 2001 to justify his imperialist war machine. Desecrating a holy text is a Christian act; that potential desecration justifies violent demonstrations against uninvolved parties. How have sections of societies been infected with these illogical ideas?

Frankly, the world would be better off with the conversationalist zombies.

Also: I have no idea what to make of the dadaist stinger after the credits, but if it were a movie I would buy the dvd and every scrap of related merchandise.

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

Futurama, the return

Futurama: Rebirth

Futurama returned from a long hiatus and a series of gleefully canon-burning dvd-movies with the soothing burr of Hypno-toad, Bender’s voiceover assuring viewers there had been no gap:  “On the count of three, you will awaken feeling refreshed, as if Futurama  had never been canceled by idiots, then brought back by bigger idiots.”

I don’t usually review pure comedies (unless they’re offensively terrible), because I love them, and I can’t bear to dissect and thus kill what I love. Futurama has a special place in my pantheon of favorites, up there with The Simpsons, Wonderfalls, Firefly, and many other mandatory beloveds of rapidly aging pseudo-intellectual hispter douchebags. It beat them all, though, by intelligently lampooning hard scifi and actual science and philosophy amidst the sitcom buffoonery and many, many dick jokes. If I’m a sucker for anything, its geek in-jokes and any phrase that ends in “…shiny metal ass!”

The inner critical snob wonders if it isn’t better to leave the original seasons of Futurama as a perfectly imperfect whole, the AV nerd bullied out of the picture as often as possible by the big jock network but infinitely rewarding when taken on its own, socially malformed, D&D-loving, terms. Mainstream culture has moved on since the show premiered in 1999 (aie…has it ever…), and the ticklish postmodern combination of rarified booklearning with joyfully stupid pop-culture has been declared passé. By stupid people, I say, who want nothing more than laughs there’s no chance they’ll need explained to them. Snark is still on the menu, jah, and subculture elitism, in spades, but giddy intellectualism motivated purely by free-ranging interest? That’s just suspect. I re-watched Waking Life a couple of weeks ago for the first time since seeing it in Baltimore’s Charles Theatre as a recent grad, and was struck by terrorist gestures being referenced in positive liberal terms. I remember being dead bored in art classes, some paunchy 40ish professor exhorting us to get out there and be “cultural bombs,” that anti-consumerist revolutionary thought and art was nothing without the sincere efforts of Shiva-style destruction.

Now, when the cultural dialogue has been dominated by a nearly decade-old act of actual terrorism – can you imagine? While studying for a later degree, professors advised young artists to keep our heads down, politically, and focus on inoffensive commercial impact.

But I digress, per usual. The question in mind – can Futurama be Futurama in a era that doesn’t tolerate the tipping of genuine sacred cows?

Who am I kidding? I’m elated we’re getting more. I watched the hell out of the movies, despite their variable quality, and the nagging feeling I was seeing creator-produced fanfic. They were fun because they grabbed the chance to rip apart the world built up over four years, deconstructing deconstructions – with dick jokes. And I’ll love each new episode that comes out like minutes in a stay of execution.

The new episodes are promising, and chock full of memorable quotes. And, particularly in the pilot, they do their best without resorting to Patrick Duffy dreaming away an entire season. Futurama has had two definitive endings. Both identically tied up the Sam-and-Diane relationship of Leela and Fry, and the latter left the entire crew as hotly pursued fugitives diving into a mysterious wormhole. There’s no possibility of returning from that burned bridge to anything like the previous status quo without a ridiculous asspull.

And they did, but at least they hung a lampshade on it. It’s hard to hate an episode that morphs from Philip K Dick to Terminator in less than a minute. And the status, it’s somewhat quo. Fry and Leela seemed poised to venture into a relationship, potentially mining a new ore of scifi parody (how hard is it to maintain a LTR in a genre dominated by green alien babes?), but Leela’s shotgun fornication with her first-season one-night-stand appears to have derailed that. Maybe.

The lower budget shows at times, mostly in the background quality. There’s a lot of generic color swoops representing greenery on exotic planets. It’s not as visually fancy as the later seasons and movies.

The biggest change is the tonal dominance of good old-fashioned raunchy humor, from the repeated Leela and Amy partial nudity (…not that I’m complaining, mind you), to a two-headed goat vomiting from both ends, to a singing boil referencing an already stale pop-cultural phenomenon. Part of this is the move to cable, requiring less deft censor-dodging, and part is a mass cultural shift epitomised by the success of Sacha Baron Cohen, pure adolescent envelope-pushing. I’m a big fan of dick jokes and mind-bending sexual entendres (seriously, how did Bender and Amy even…nevermind), but they’re funnier when set off by humor that doesn’t depend solely on infantile shock. If I wanted a half hour of nothing but half-rate dada-esque offense, I’d watch Family Guy.

Which I do, actually. But Family Guy is never going to have a Heidegger joke, or reference Stephen Hawking, unless it’s to make fun of the man’s super-sweet wheelchair and speaking software.

So, to sum up: yay, more Futurama!  …please don’t let it suck, because I will love it regardless, and would like to have some respect for my critical faculties.

Volver: for the love of Woman

Agustina, alone

Pedro Almodóvar is best known among international film fans as a director and writer who loves women, making films with prominent roles for mothers, lovers, and prostitutes. I would agree with this, to the degree that he loves looking at women’s bodies, the potential for fucking those bodies, and most importantly the roles they play in building men’s lives and sparking the fantasies of men’s inner worlds.

I’ll be honest: I’ve held a grudge since 2002’s Hable con ella, which first turned out to not be about the fascinating, fierce bullfighter (who is gored and silenced early in the first act), and then literally made two women into the voiceless objects that allow their creepy male paramours to bond with each other. The only woman who can truly listen and be loved is one in a coma, unable to interfere in a man’s fantasy of his relationship. Thanks, Pedro!

I am being unfair to that film’s characters and rich plot – after all, one of these men does save his beloved, by raping her comatose body and impregnating her with the stillborn infant whose birth will “wake her up.” What a hero!

Volver is less infuriating, but also less interesting in general.  Almodóvar wrote and directed a film about close relationships between women and their lives in the oppressive shadow of death-focused superstitions in Almodóvar’s native La Mancha. The men in their lives are almost incidental – almost.

There are many, many female characters – two sisters, their mother and aunt, a teenage daughter, assorted friends (one of whom is, of course, a prostitute) – but not much characterisation spread thinly between them. They have scandalous secrets, and the slow revelation of these secrets is what passes for a plot – when all has been revealed to the audience, the film ends, leaving all other threads still undeveloped. For instance, the daughter demands to know who her biological father is, and her mother promises to tell her, but the film ends without that revelation. The audience has learned the shocking truth – she is the product of incestuous rape, both her mother’s daughter and half-sister – but she does not. Her arc is a flat line that peters out, like those of every other character.

There are a few keenly observed scenes, particularly in the emptiness and omnipresence of female socialising. Women meet, all kiss each other several times, polite words are shared but not engaged with, and they move on to the next visit, all busy-ness without purpose. At a funeral, the women squish together into a small room and the background conversation is like the buzz of a hive, oppressive and breathless. The buzz is silenced while one women tells a dramatic ghost story, and immediately starts up again at the story’s end. Moments of lives tick away in this, as wasted and ritualistic as the intense cleaning of graves that opens the film.

But none of these women are individual people. They are fractions of Woman, coming together seamlessly when needed, much like Voltron. This claustrophobic, demanding scene is their natural environment. When one demands they hand over their groceries, shelter a murderer, or help bury their husband’s body, they do so immediately. Conflicts are brief and aborted, immediately forgiven in the next scene with a hug and sloppy kisses, never to be mentioned again.

Males don’t fare very well in this film, either. Of the two men who have any driving force on the so-called plot, one is entirely off-screen, and both molested their biological or adopted daughters. The mere presence of pubescent pussy, even attached to someone whose diapers they changed, transforms them into heartless monsters of lust who deserve to die in a fire/leap on a kitchen knife.

Agustina, pictured above, is the best representation of the film. She is a woman who is alone, no family, no children, no job, who nonetheless takes care of an elderly neighbor, checking in on her daily and buying her food. She is tormented by the unknown fate of her mother, who disappeared the night her friends’ parents died together in a mysterious fire. Then, she’s diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer, and when her friends refuse to help her discover only whether her mother is dead or alive, goes on a talk show (in return for money that will allow her to seek life-saving medical attention) to air her story. But, she is too noble to air everyone’s dirty linen, and walks off the set. After all, on some level she knows what everyone else already seems to – her mother was having an affair with her friend’s horrible, daughter-raping father, whose wife set the fire that killed them both and allowed everyone to believe it was her who had died.

Her resolution? The cowardly murderer returns as a “ghost” to take care of Agustina as she dies, rather than confessing and giving the gentle and selfless Agustina some peace, or even providing her with money to receive treatment and potentially live. Er, yay?

This film is much like listening to some blowhard dinosaur expounding on the wonders of women and why he loves them so much: “They share my bed, raise my children, feed me and clean my house, support my community, absorb my abuse, philandering and abandonment, and die overworked and exhausted – such a wonderful mystery Woman is; I, as a mere Man, can never be expected to understand!”

Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

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?