Sunday, 23 June 2013

And I Find It Kinda Funny, I Find It Kinda Sad...

These days, it's not often that non-Shakespearean Jacobean plays get performed. When they do, it's almost always Marlowe or Jonson, and it's rarer still that said performances will be good. It's incredibly exciting, then, that Sean Foley's and Phil Porter's adaptation of Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, currently showing at The Swan, turned out to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable productions I have ever seen.

A Mad World, My Masters revels gleefully in its sexuality, in it's casual, almost careless breaking of laws, reversing of morals and shattering of taboos. It delights in its gratification of desires - not only sexual, but financial, social and even vengeful: one of Middleton's greatest strokes of genius in Mad World is the play within his play, which sees a grumpy policeman/guard symbolically tied up and forced to be part of the fun. Elsewhere, Mr Shortrod Harebrain (here renamed Mr Littledick) unwittingly colludes in his wife's adultery, speaking a language laden with unintended innuendo. This is a laugh-out loud hilarious show, brimming with the same kind of subversive energy that made The Rocky Horror Show an instant cult classic. By developing its own perverse kind of logic, it seems to insist that anything is possible by taking us in directions at once both unexpected and yet strangely fitting. 

Following a similar pattern to Shakespeare's Much Ado, it's the unlikeliest couple who seem, by the end of the play, to be the most well-suited: though duped and coerced into their relationship, nobleman Dick Follywit and common prostitute Frank Gullman (Truly Kidman here) spend most of the play proving themselves to be more than a match for each other - they're the only characters who can effectively and independently navigate their way through the intricate and slippery structure of the world they inhabit. This they do by acting, sliding smoothly from role to role, moving between different social classes and circles, and even, in one instance, swapping genders. It's rather appropriate, then, that we begin to see where things are headed when Dick dresses up as Frank/Truly. Despite never having met her, he does a good enough job of "playing her" to hoodwink her clients: since she herself is an actress of sorts, it's the very stageyness and blatant artifice of his performance that makes it a convincing one. It's also apt that Frank/Truly, who spends most of the play gratifying the desires of others, should first realise and express her own longings and feelings when watching Dick perform in "The Slip".

In bringing the play to a contemporary audience, Foley and Porter could hardly have chosen a better setting than 1950s Soho: seedy, satirical and glamorous in equal measures, full of acting, sex and people from all walks of life, this is a place and point in time which has acquired an almost mythic status. The location was brilliantly realised through Alice Power's incredible designs, from Truly's luxuriant four-poster bed and Sir Bounteous' elaborate mansion with its apparently bottomless safe, to Penitent Brothel's dingy bachelor pad and the shabby, street-corner café where everyone seems to meet. The music, too, was convincingly of its time, and in terms of quality was probably the best in any RSC production I've yet seen. In particular, singer Linda John-Pierre was phenomenal - I'd honestly have gone along purely to see her. I was even pretty impressed by how well the cast coped with their singing parts.

The acting was practically faultless all round. Ian Redford made a brilliant Sir Bounteous, his greed and lechery matched by Ishia Bennison as Mrs Kidman, Truly's mother and pimp. Richard Durden and Steffan Rhodri were magnificent as aged butler, Spunky, and the hapless Mr Littledick, both with immaculate comic timing. However, the show was ultimately and quite rightly stolen by Sarah Ridgeway, starring as a truly ingenious Truly, every bit as shifty, sly and shocking as the Soho setting itself.

I may well have to see this one again.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Titus and Tarantino - The RSC's Titus Andronicus

I won't lie: Titus Andronicus will never rank amongst my favourite plays. My first encounter with the text came during my final year of university, when I was simultaneously studying two different modules on Shakespeare. The first week of term saw me reading Titus alongside The Taming of the Shrew. At this point, I very nearly decided that I didn't like Shakespeare any more.

That said, I did end up actually writing on Titus in my final essay (alongside the infinitely more entertaining Richard III). As such, I'm as aware as anyone that there are a lot of interesting things going on in this play. Unfortunately, it is one of a very tiny number of theatrical works that I'd probably prefer to read than to see, and not because, like certain other critics, I think that it's a shocking abomination of a play. Quite the contrary: performed on stage, it's mostly rather dull.

This is the combined result of boring Marcus's long, boring speeches (which you can skim over much more quickly on the page), and the barrage of devices used to distance us from its universally appalling characters and excessive violence. After all this, there's very little left to actually engage us in the action of the play. There's the humour, for sure, and where this play is funny it's hilarious. But the tone is inconsistent, and there isn't enough comedy to fully justify even the comparisons made in the programme between this youthful Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino (who I personally think is over-rated anyway - at least Shakespeare made some other things as well). In sum, I don't think that this is a bad piece of work and I wouldn't be silly enough to dismiss it as stupid juvenilia. I recognise that everything that annoys me about it is wholly deliberate, and I understand what it is trying to achieve.

I still don't like it.

So much for Titus in general. All my prejudices aside, the quality of this particular performance was difficult to fault.

The RSC's current production of Titus Andronicus is virtually every bit as good as it could possibly be, with well-thought out design and a generally fantastic cast. I loved the styling of the Goths especially, and Stephen Boxer made an excellent Titus (funnily enough, the last thing I saw him in was a rather depressing production of The Taming of the Shrew...). The play's young cast were exceptional, particularly Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon as Chiron and Demetrius, chilling in their complete credibility (I'm sure I've seen those characters for real somewhere before). All of Titus' offspring did a great job of bringing their characters to life, especially Rose Reynolds as Lavinia and Matthew Needham as Lucius, and even those in non-named parts showed flashes of brilliance, with Ellie Beaven shifting impressively from her chavtastic concubine part to her much more proper and respectable handmaid role.

If there was an obvious weak link, it was Kevin Harvey as Aaron, who mostly failed "seethe" with what Andrew Dickson describes in the programme as his "volatile energy". Aaron should be as gleeful in his crimes as Richard Gloucester; and as seductive in his wooing of the Queen as Richard is with Anne. Harvey's emotional responses, on the other hand, all seemed rather half-hearted. I wasn't fully convinced, either, by Katy Stephens' Tamora: it wasn't a terrible attempt, but she was certainly no match for Stephen Boxer and his Titus. A little more stage presence and commanding of attention would have gone a long way.

Overall though, this was a very strong production - tight, coherent, and funny. Most of all I loved the final, full-on, Hammer Horror-style bloodbath. More things should end with everyone dying hilariously and utterly outrageously. It was so well done, it was almost very nearly enough to make me dislike the play a bit less. And I promise you that's high praise.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Sex and Race: The Final Frontiers - Star Trek: Into Darkness

J. J. Abrams' latest Star Trek flick has elicited a mixed bag of responses from critics, with many enthusiastically taking to his pacy, action-packed additions to the franchise, while others have accused him of “dumbing it down”. The divide seems to fall largely between loyal Trekkies and the rest of us approaching these films with fresher eyes. Personally, I feel that Abrams' version does something fantastic in dispensing with the Star Trek series' dull, drawn-out debates and long, static, conversational scenes, without getting rid of its characteristic intellectualism and moral complexity. Instead, he follows that classic film adage - “show, don't tell”, to present the same moral dilemmas and thought processes through exciting action sequences. To compare specific examples, the opening sequence of Into Darkness sees Kirk and Spock arguing over Starfleet rules and regulations – while Spock stands in the middle of an erupting volcano. On the other hand, the opening of The Wrath of Khan sees an ageing Kirk wandering around a surprisingly quiet Starfleet HQ having moody, sulky conversations about how he's getting too old for adventuring.

Far from “dumbed down”, I felt that the political aspects of this film were strong, clear and engaging. The moral dilemmas it threw up were complicated, often remaining unresolved as it played off personal and family responsibilities against duty to society as a whole. The story's inciting incident is a man agreeing to do something terrible in order to save his dying daughter's life. It's extremely difficult to condemn a desperate father, particularly one that informs on himself in advance of the crime he feels compelled to commit. This theme continues as Kirk and Spock are repeatedly thrown into situations that force them to balance the needs of the many against the needs of the few. As both of these characters have lost all blood relatives, their crew is now the only “family” they have left. Sacrifices must be made, and between them they must decide whether or not their duty as Starfleet officers to humanity as a whole outweighs their duty as leaders to their crew.

Connections are repeatedly drawn between the events of the film and real-world terrorist activity. There are several striking visual sequences, including a bomb attack on London, and the deliberate crashing of a spaceship into a major American city, with terrified citizens running about as skyscrapers collapse around them. These present-day parallels fit in well with the film's musings on the nature of time and change. The past/future contrast first emerges in the aforementioned volcano sequence, where the Enterprise, with all its advanced technology, is juxtaposed against a much more primitive civilization. Later on, we see an extremely old character attempting to grapple with modern scientific and cultural developments, and at one point, Spock calls on his alternate future self to ask for help. This interplay even extends to the costume design: Uhura's very 2010s civvies on Kronos contrast sharply with the classic 60s style of the Starfleet uniforms, reminding us of how the story takes the form of a kind of alternate history to the pre-existing Star Trek films and series.

The other main criticisms that have been levelled at the film concern representation. The first of these is race-related, and unfortunately it's difficult to talk about this very much without giving away a major plot point, but essentially the issue is that a white actor has been cast as a non-white character. Given Star Trek's reputation for political correctness (which at times has verged on the ridiculous), this is genuinely problematic, though to be fair to the filmmakers, I doubt that their casting decision was racially motivated: I suspect it was more a question of deciding which star they wanted to include. It's not at all difficult to see why the actor in question was chosen – his performance is undeniably spellbinding. Still, thoughtlessness should never be a valid excuse.

The second concern is a gender-related, and perhaps even less excusable one. Whilst I can appreciate the 60s throwback element of the film, and recognise that the representation of women in Into Darkness is considerably better than it is in older films like The Wrath of Khan (even before they do anything stupid, you only need to look at the way the women are dressed to get an idea), it is incredibly frustrating that Abrams and his writers were unable to resist an unnecessary stripping-off scene for one of its female characters, Dr Carol Marcus. Those who know a little about the franchise and the characters already will of course recognise that this particular scene is actually designed to set up something big between Kirk and Marcus (Kirk being with her when she starts taking her clothes off), but it's still an incredibly lazy, sloppy way of going about this: their relationship would have been much more satisfactorily set up through better development of Marcus' character, and the establishment of proper, believable chemistry between the two of them, rather than just seeing Alice Eve in her knickers.

All that said, one of the best characters in the film overall is Lieutenant Uhura, for whom neither race nor sex seem to be a problem. Although arguably the new addition of Spock and Uhura's romantic involvement in 2009's Star Trek film has seen her relegated to a slightly more sterotypical “love interest” role, Zoe Saldana plays the part with great integrity. Not only is she more than a match for her male colleagues in terms of intellect and courage, but along with Spock, she is the emotional centre of the film, taking the audience with her in her shifts from fear to relief, and from frustration to joy.

Great performances are given by most of the major cast members. There aren't all that many films that can boast multiple actors capable of convincingly playing thoughtful, introverted, intellectual characters, but Into Darkness is definitely one of them. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Quinto (quite possibly the two best names in Hollywood), are not only brilliant at conveying their characters' complex interior lives, but also manage wholly to persuade us of their alienness, and this without alienating viewers. Zach Quinto presents a Spock divided equally between Vulcan logic and human emotion, whose feelings are all the more powerful because of his attempts to conceal and out-think them. Cumberbatch similarly wavers between putting up a cold and unfeeling exterior, and offering insights into the deeply troubled and damaged man beneath. Unfortunately, these actors' subtlety rather shows up the lesser abilities of poor Chris Pine, of whom many more demands are made in this film than in the last. Though pretty good at all the Shatner-esque comedy, Pine is undeniably let down by his rather hollow, melodramatic responses to deaths and crises.

Overall, this movie gives you everything you could want from a summer blockbuster, as well as a great deal more. It's great to see successful film franchises like Star Trek and Iron Man refusing to talk down to their audiences, challenging them even as they entertain. Still, it has a few flaws that could easily have been ironed out with a little more care and attention. There are a couple more issues left to get over - a couple more frontiers yet to cross over.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Being Brave

"Be brave and learn things. That's what Doctor Who is about. Not be pretty and the Doctor will fancy you."
Those are words of wisdom from my mum, spoken as we shared our feelings about Saturday's episode of Doctor Who, "Nightmare in Silver".

There are many things that have bothered me about this series so far, not least its inconsistency. Out of a total of six episodes, two have been forgettable, two have been pretty well incoherent, and two have been fantastic. The problem with this is that the really good episodes are so good that they leave me reluctant to give up watching altogether, however terrible the bad bits are.

Brave: The Queen of Years
After a slow, rather oomph-less start this year with "The Bells of Saint John", which was high on concept but low on narrative tension and character development (not to mention its featuring an embarrassingly high volume of advertisements for a BBC programme - off the top of my head, logos were clearly displayed for Twitter, Google and Facebook, amongst others), we moved on to the first episode that simply didn't make any sense. "The Rings of Akhaten" started out well. I'm always pleased on those odd occasions when they actually decide to set something on another planet, since it makes no sense to me that that the Doctor would be constantly hanging around 21st-century Earth with all of time and space at his disposal. In this episode, he finds himself at a festival marketplace that is something like a cross between the Mos Eisley Cantina and the observation deck in "The End of the World" (New Who Series 1). On top of this, the story centres on a little girl, who also happens to be the Queen of this alien planet. So far, so good. Unfortunately, it all ended rather anticlimactically, with some magic business to do with stories and souls. I understand that there was some metaphorical point being made here, but I don't really understand why, if Clara's potential stories were enough to over-feed and blow up the baddie god, the Queen of Years' potential stories wouldn't have done the same, particularly bearing in mind that she's a child with, presumably, considerably more life left to live than Clara or her parents. But I've spoken about this lazy resort to magical solutions before.

Professor Grisenko: Loves Ultravox and
Duran Duran
Just as I'd pretty much lost hope of seeing any halfway decent episodes this year, however, we were hit with two brilliant ones in a row. First came the wonderful and thoughtful "Cold War", which featured the most intelligently drawn antagonist I've seen in Who since "A Town Called Mercy". This episode was a cleverly conceived piece about war, power and desperation which - as should really always be the case - strove to tell us more about humanity than it did about any alien threat. It also included some fabulous characters, particularly Professor Grisenko, a Russian military scientist with a passion for 80s British pop. Most importantly of all, it never took sides. Unlike any of the rather cringe-worthy episodes featuring Winston Churchill, "Cold War" emphasized both the self-perpetuating nature of militarism, and the fact that in war, there are no real winners. Even when Grand Master Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, found himself without comrades and with nothing left to fight for, he decided to take his revenge on whoever was closest, because his culture and world-view required him to have an enemy. In much the same way, Cold War Russia and America made villains of each other, even when there was nothing real to fight about.

Braver: Emma Grayling
"Hide", the 1970s follow-up to this, saw writer Neil Cross pull himself back on form after the mess that was "The Rings of Akhaten". This episode featured more exciting characters, with fantastic performances from Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine, and some interesting musings on the nature of love and empathy. Like "The Rings of Akhaten", this episode had a strong and brave female character at the heart of its story: it was down to empath Emma Grayling to save the day. Furthermore, contrary to the expectations that the story built up, the most important personal connection turned out to be that between a woman and her [insert multiple greats here] granddaughter, rather than the romantic one between Emma and Professor Alec Palmer.

Weird Pointless Zombie Things
It was back to incoherence with "Journey to the Centre of the Tardis", whose characters fell utterly flat, and which seemed not to have bothered with anything vaguely resembling a plot at all. There's not much positive I can say about this epsiode, other than that it was interesting to see the expanses of the Tardis being explored.

"The Crimson Horror" saw the always-welcome return of fan favourites Madame Vastra and her assistants Jenny and Strax, as well as by far the series' best gags. Unfortunately, though, the story just didn't hold water, or wasn't fully explained. Why was Mr. Sweet so picky about only preserving the fittest humans? Surely a leech would be largely indifferent about its food source - there aren't many conditions that a human can pass on to an
"Turn around where possible. Then, at the end of the road,
turn right." - Thomas Thomas
invertebrate, and blindness and scarring certainly aren't amongst them. Also, what on earth was the Doctor supposed to have done to cure himself and Clara of the paralysis? More irritating jiggery pokery.

Then came the icing on the cake. "Nightmare in Silver" was far and above the most eagerly anticipated episode this series, as well as the most whole-heartedly disappointing one. Once again, the New Who team proved that they have absolutely no comprehension of what a Cyberman is supposed to be, and what it is that makes them so terrifyingly believable. True, this story moved away from the style of Cybermen that they've been using so far, which are so inhuman as to be virtually indistinct from Daleks, other than being vaguely man-shaped. Unfortunately, the re-styled ones it offered were even worse and more redundant: here we were presented with yet another alien threat designed to bring out the deep, dark secrets of a romanticised (in both senses) Doctor (see, amongst others "Amy's Choice"). The episode essentially takes the form of an excursion inside the Doctor's head. Thinking about The Sandman comics series, I guess in some sense this is very Gaiman. On the other hand, one might have expected a gothic fantasy writer not only to have leapt at the chance to restore the Cybermen to all their original chilling glory, but also to have made a better use of the dilapidated fairground set which was promised but never actually delivered. This failure to deliver extends to many other things across this episode. We were promised interesting child characters à la Sarah Jane Adventures; these then went on to spend most of the story staring vacantly into space. We were also promised Warwick Davis and Jason Watkins; both were largely wasted. And then, worst of all, were the constant nudge-nudge, wink-wink hints that the Doctor secretly fancies Clara. Clara, who goes around the whole of this episode acting important but not really doing anything or having any power because the Emperor is there in disguise all along. Clara, who, throughout the entire series, has displayed no personal qualities or characteristics whatsoever, other than, I suppose, a taste for soufflé. Clara, who somehow manages to win over the Emperor as well as the Doctor without apparently doing anything or being anyone. This was maddening. Clara is doubly objectified here, even if she does turn the Emperor down. And as if all that wasn't bad enough, the story finishes with the blowing up of a planet - the outcome that, up until this point, everyone has been striving to avoid. Apparently, the Doctor is okay with genocide now. Let's pretend "Genesis of the Daleks" never happened. As a big Neil Gaiman fan, all I can say is that I hope most of the worse decisions here were out of his hands.

Pretty Vacant: Clara Oswin Oswald
Clara, predictably, has been the biggest problem across the entire series. Kissogram Amy Pond and her annoying daughter (and of course, all the inappropriate gags that came with them) were worse than bad enough, but next to a non-character like Clara, both look positively engaging and progressive. At least they were actually people. They did things and felt things. Clara, on the other hand, remains the same empty shell of a plot device that she started out as. A quick Google image search will throw up dozens of photos, all with pretty much identical expressions to the one above. No disrespect to Jenna Louise Coleman. I don't really know what she'd be capable of given a stab at a better role, but I now truly believe that her character is the worst thing that Steven Moffat has done to Doctor Who so far. She is pure fantasy, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as Anita Sarkeesian would have it. Clara is, in the Doctor's own words,
"the impossible girl: a mystery wrapped in an enigma, squeezed into a skirt that's just a little bit too tight."

There's no significant context for this quotation that I'm missing out - we can fairly well consider these words truthful as the Doctor speaks them in a confessional moment, alone inside the Tardis at the end of an episode.

It is a disgrace.

I have no other way of putting it: if that quotation isn't self-explanatory, then you may as well not bother reading on. I suggest you go read some books and talk to some women instead.

The weekend before last, I went to a talk by some Doctor Who comic and novel writers, followed by a screening of the 1965 film, Doctor Who and the Daleks, as part of the Sci-Fi London Festival. In this film, the Doctor's main companion is his clever, bolshy young granddaughter - a child who uses her brain and even risks her own life to save the day. She outsmarts Daleks, shows up her sister's silly boyfriend, and proves even to be smarter and better-natured than "Doctor Who" himself. Although this film is considered non-canonical by those who make up the (rather arbitrary, if you ask me) rules about these things, for me, it really does epitomize everything that Doctor Who is supposed to be about. Okay, so its script is a little clunky, particularly in the Dalek-to-Dalek expositional exchanges, and perhaps the monsters are a bit too easily beaten, but at its heart, this is a very moral film, in which learning and discovery are valued, teamwork and intellect are the best tools for problem-solving, and the fact that it is essentially written for children is never lost sight of. It's also exciting: unlike most of New Who, this film shows us a truly alien world, with a set that in 1965 would have looked incredibly bizarre and futuristic. It's about the horror of war, and the devastation and divisions it leads to. It's about how technology can have both positive and negative effects. It's about having adventures, meeting new people, and learning not to be prejudiced or make assumptions about them. The Doctor and his companions assume that the aliens in the woods will be scary and bad, while those in the city will be civilized and helpful, while in fact, the opposite turns out to be true. In this way, its characters are dynamic and complex. In some way, all the characters change between the beginning and the end of the film. They are brave, and they learn things. And no one is romantically involved with the Doctor, who is what he should always be - a funny old man who likes having adventures.

Awesome Role Model Susan Bravely Faces the Daleks on Skaro
Unfortunately, all of the things that make this film good are increasingly absent from the Doctor Who television series. Individual stories and the all-important sense of excitement and adventure have been dispensed with in favour of drawn-out series arcs centred on ideas, themes or mysterious "characters" like River, Clara and The Master. Characters are static, failing to grow, learn and develop. "Monsters" and aliens are generally bland and indistinct (there are significant exceptions to this). Plots go nowhere, trailing off anticlimactically, and are bankrupt of any kind of morality - nowadays, the Doctor is happy to blow up planets and kill people. The series is no longer really appropriate for children: anyone who has watched with kids will surely know what its like to flinch at the perpetual barrage of innuendo and sexual subtext. Worst of all though, is that no female character over the age of eighteen is safe from Steven Moffat's lascivious pen. [insert relevant Clyde Langer quip here] It's quite shocking when the gender politics of a 1960s genre film clearly outstrip those of its related 21st century BBC TV series. I don't think anyone could have anticipated that.

From Brave To Sexy
Interestingly, all this is happening alongside a massive media buzz about a petition to Disney started by anti-gender-stereotyping organization, A Mighty Girl. The petition, which criticizes the sexualization of Brave heroine Merida, has recently received backing from Merida's creator, Brenda Chapman. Chapman not only conceived the initial idea for the film, but was originally employed as its director, before leaving the project due to "creative differences". In the light of Disney's current attempts to sabotage her vision of a young, active heroine who is not yet ready for romantic attachment, there are fairly strong grounds for guessing at what these "differences" might have been.

This emphasis on the appearance and desirability of just about every female character going is an extremely troubling one, which effectively renders all women (and even, in Merida's case, teenage girls) passive objects of the male gaze, stripping them of any agency, or at least distracting attention away from it, making their actions and decisions subordinate to their looks - that is to say that what they think and do is less important than what men think about them and do about that.

One might well question the relative importance of how fictional characters are portrayed, when real women face real problems every day as a result of sexism - "there are bigger things to complain about" is a common response to feminist criticism of this kind. But the impact of these character portrayals should not be underestimated. Fiction and fantasy have traditionally been arenas in which other possibilities can be explored, providing people - and especially children - with alternative perspectives and ways of looking at the world. If our children are absorbing the same misogynistic messages from both real-world gender inequalities and from the fictional stories they grow up with, what room is there left for them to question the social and cultural norms that persistently disempower women? Essentially, it all comes down to this: what kind of values do we want our children to grow up with?

For me, it's summed up nicely by that quote I started out with. If you could tell all children (and girls particularly) just one thing, you could do a lot worse than that. Be brave and learn things. Everything else will follow.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Reaching Out and Moving On - Lessons from Sundance London

Since I've already reviewed the films I saw at Sundance UK last Saturday for Momentum Publishing (here and here), I thought I'd use this post to give more of a general overview of both and my experience of the day as a whole, including the screenwriting flashlab that started it off.

Both Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes and The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete are essentially films about loss and longing, dealing with the commonly marginalised theme of motherhood (or lack thereof). The main characters in Emanuel and Mister and Pete show great determination and resilience in the face of seemingly unbearable hardships, developing their own coping mechanisms to help them survive the situations in which they find themselves. Both Mister and Emanuel are teenagers who feel keenly the absence of a supportive and reliable maternal figure in their lives. As a result, they try to grow up too fast, creating hardened, self-sufficient personas to cover up the reality of their loneliness and fragility. This leads them to isolate themselves, rejecting the support that is available to them in their attempts to steel themselves against further suffering and disappointment.

These two key characters, however, are not the only ones who lie, pretend and keep secrets to protect themselves from a painful reality. In Emanuel, the mysterious Linda moves away from her home in an attempt to sever past connections, refusing to face up to the truth about her past, while in Mister and Pete, even little Peter withholds information, concealing the extent of what he has endured because he belives that Mister will disapprove of him "squealing".

Inevitably, though, all attempts to live independently and to deceive those around them are doomed to failure. Redemption for all of these characters ultimately comes in the form of honesty, openness, and better communication: though both Mister and Emanuel are intially resistant to fostering connections with others, the friendships they form with Pete and Linda eventually help them to reach out to other people and to realise that they are not alone in the world.

Another crucial lesson in both films is that change is not always a bad thing. Both Emanuel and Linda spend much of their story reliving the past, while Mister and Pete live alone in Mister's house for a whole month, holding on to the hope that Mister's mother will eventually return and things will go back to normal. As such, they fail to allow themselves to develop or move forwards, instead clinging to things that are already over or broken, and were probably never right in the first place. In opening up to new people and outside influences, these characters are finally able to let go of the weights that drag them down and to move on towards a better future.

What is interesting is that the lessons learned in both of these films were also a major focus of the screenwriting flashlab I attended earlier in the day. This panel discussion, which took failure as its theme, explained how failure is not only inevitable, but also a useful part of any creative process - or in fact any journey worth taking - provided we can learn from the things that go wrong. Everything worthwhile involves taking risks and sometimes failing, yet not doing anything risky or innovative is in itself a failure and a worse one, whether it's a failure of imagination, of confidence or of will-power. In the end, we will always feel worse about the things that we haven't done than about those that we've done and done wrong.

Scriptwriters find themselves in a position very different from other kinds of writers in that their creative process is always a collaborative one. Panelists Tony Grisoni, Peter Straughan and Lyn Barber discussed the importance for screenwriters of working with directors and producers that they trust and understand. Communication is an absolutely crucual part of film-making, and all of those involved in this process must learn to seek advice and to know when to take it. Unlike, for example, novelists or poets, scriptwriters cannot isolate themselves, and their finished work will never really be their own, since so many other people are involved in bringing it to life.

Connected to this is the need to know when to let go of something. As a scriptwriter - or indeed anyone involved in the filmmaking process - you cannot be precious about any of your work. Even if something you've done is great, and has been a useful part of the process or helped to explain your vision to other people, if it's no longer necessary or serving the film of which it is a part, you must be prepared to get rid of it. Much like people, films take journeys which enable them to grow and develop, and along the way, they will be influenced by many different things, over which their parents or creators have very little control. Sometimes, this process sees a film transform completely from the initial idea that brought it into being, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The more we learn to seek help, trust others and allow things to change, the better our work will generally become.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

"Everyone knows amnesia is bollocks": Danny Boyle's Trance

With echoes of Inception, Memento and Vanilla Sky, Danny Boyle's Trance is the latest in a line of what I've decided to call the "What the hell is going on here?" genre of films. Much like Inception, it shows the dangers of mind control and the unforeseeable outcomes of planting ideas in people's heads. Like Vanilla Sky, it features a protagonist with an altered memory, trying to rediscover what he has lost.

One area in which the film clearly differs from other thrillers of its ilk is its interest in genre film. On some level, Trance is a sort of film noir, with its gangster mob and its mysterious femme fatale. Rather than following the genre formula through, however, Boyle manipulates conventions to confound our expectations. Elizabeth is much more than just her sex appeal: in an underworld of gambling, drugs, theft, coercion, manipulation, torture and murder, she's turns out to be the best and the worst of all of them, repeatedly refusing to be victimised.

Not one character comes out of this film well, and their shallowness can at times make it difficult for us to care much about them. Yet each is still a more interesting personality than any of those in, for example, Inception, where ideas take precedence over people. Unfortunately, the characters behaved just a little too inconsistently to be completely compelling. This is particularly true of hypnotherapist and love interest Elizabeth: I frequently found myself wondering why on earth someone like this, who has worked so hard to achieve her ends, would decide to risk everything for the sake of a silly fling with a criminal. Still more frustrating is that her real aims and motives remain unclear even at the end of the film.

It's unfortunate that, despite Elizabeth being the film's most interesting character, I suspect that it's her full frontal nudity scene which will be many people's main reason for watching and remembering the film. The sexual politics here are murky. On the one hand, we're presented with a deliberately objectified and self-objectifying woman, remaking herself to satisfy a man's fetish. It's not quite as straightforward as just being pornography, however: the film makes it clear that Elizabeth's objectification is intellectual and artistic as much, if not more, than it is sexual, through Simon's obsession with the hairless nudes of Classical art. And of course, it's possible to argue that, because of Simon's obsessive, possessive and abusive nature, we may be being asked to condemn or at least to question this objectifying element. Unfortunately, assuming this to be the case, it feels rather too much like Danny Boyle has tried to have his cake and eat it: the same point could have been made much more subtly without the complete nudity or lingering close-ups, which in the end were gratuitous and far from essential to the plot. Furthermore, what the film attempts to present as an unusual fetish, specific to someone with Simon's interests, is actually so mainstream now as a result of a pornography industry which has ballooned to monstrous proportions, that his amazement that she "knew what he liked" ultimately rang false.

Trance is undoubtedly more problematic than any of the other films mentioned here. There were a fair few plot holes, and many things which just didn't seem to make sense. This may be partly because there's just too much going on - too many twists and turns to keep track of. It's ultimately neither as tight as Vanilla Sky nor as clever as Inception or Memento. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms, it's an enjoyable film, tense, fast-paced, slick and nicely straddling the middle ground between popular and intellectual.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

"Lenten entertainment": the RSC's Hamlet

It's been a while since Greg Hicks' last RSC production - clearly he's been busy Hollywooding around lately in the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman. This Spring, however, saw him resurrected as the ghost of Old Hamlet and his murderous brother, Claudius. It was a very welcome return - however short a time, it's definitely been long enough for me to miss his talents.

As Hicks' "cousin and son", Jonathan Slinger took up the play's title role with great energy and vivacity. At times, his madness did verge on being a little too extreme for my liking - this was an exceptionally loud rendition of both Hamlet (the character) and Hamlet (the play), featuring all manner of bangs and explosions (which, I fear, very nearly induced a heart attack in the poor woman sat beside me). The tone of Slinger's performance was made to match this, and sometimes risked disregarding his character's own advice:
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Overall, however, these heightened mood swings and exaggerated instability actually made for a highly accessible Hamlet, whose every emotional and intellectual turnaround was laid brutally bare to the audience.

Perhaps my favourite performance in this play came from Alex Waldmann as Horatio: a magnificently subtle performance from a highly skilled young actor. Last year, I saw Waldmann in a new play at the RSC, A Soldier in Every Son. Though that play's pedestrian dialogue completely failed to do justice to the abilities of any of its actors, Waldmann's talent even then couldn't pass unnoticed. Seeing him now in a much more interesting role served to confirm my initial feeling, that we can expect great things of him. I'll be very surprised indeed if we don't see see him crop up in some glossy TV drama very soon.

Unfortunately less impressive was Pippa Nixon as the long-suffering Ophelia. I did feel this role was for her a vast improvement on that of Lady Anne in Richard III, which saw her rather awkwardly upstaged by the fantastic Jonjo O'Neill in all of their scenes together. Here, at least, she displayed a little more passion. But ultimately, she still seemed unable to meet the demands made of her in a production determined to bring her character into centre stage and much closer to the audience - sometimes literally. I must be fair and take my hat off to Nixon that she was able to sustain her deathly stillness, mere inches from the faces of front-row audience members, for the entirety of the play's final act - though quite why this was required of her at all remained largely unclear. Overall, though, one couldn't help but wonder why she'd been chosen for the part over the considerably more compelling and charismatic Natalie Klamar, who was sadly wasted on the few bit parts she was given.

There were some interesting, if not all entirely successful, things done with Ophelia in this production. The first unusual choice was dressing her up like a student. Along with the play's setting - in what looked like a school gymnasium, with its wooden chairs and balance benches, and Horatio's similar garb, this helped to make Ophelia blend in better with Hamlet and his friends, seeming to elevate her to their status by making her, too, a scholar. This was also the first production of Hamlet I've seen where the "Get thee to a nunnery" bit seemed to be genuinely about her and their relationship - he did seem angry that she'd blown him off with no explanation, rather than just making her the victim of his frustration with her father and his uncle. Yet, for some reason this didn't hold out. Later, as Hamlet watches Ophelia being laid in her grave - typically a fairly emotional moment, in which Hamlet seems genuinely aggreived and remorseful about his earlier behaviour - he instead came across as cold and distant, jumping into the grave only out of a desire to compete with Laertes. I can't be sure if either or both were deliberate choices or just the impressions that I happened to come away with, but if it's the former, then it was certainly an odd way round of doing things, portraying a wholly erratic Hamlet, rather lacking in the supposed method behind his madness. Perhaps more problematic than this, however, was Ophelia's (lack of) relationship with her father. Undeniably, Robin Soans made a great Polonius, but Ophelia neither seemed to be bitter, over-controlled and abused by him in the usual way, nor, if you were looking for a more unusual interpretation, to have much in the way of loving or amicable feelings towards him. This had the effect of making her eventual madness seem bizarrely inexplicable, unless you assume that she's more upset about the fact that Hamlet killed someone than that her father has been killed.

For all its problems though, this was an extremely well-directed Hamlet, with a lightning-fast pace that never once flagged, despite the show's going on for over three and a half hours. Actors entered for the next scene before the current one was ended, shifting us along and, like the ghost, constantly driving us onwards and reminding us that there must be further action. This was a very kinetic Hamlet - people were always moving and doing, except during monologues, where everything seemed to sharply and suddenly stop, including the audience. I had a young girl sitting behind me who was quite chattery-whispery for much of the show, but even she seemed to feel the weight of these extended mental excursions, falling utterly silent whenever the characters spoke alone. Time flew past us at the same time as it slipped through the ever procrastinating Hamlet's hands - a fact we were reminded of right from the start by the skulls around the edges of the stage. Later, the gymnasium's floorboards would be lifted and carried away by soldiers, revealing the graves that had been all along concealed beneath the actors' feet, ready and waiting to swallow them up. "If it be not now, yet it will come..."

Much of the set was brilliantly designed in this way. The flourescent tubes that framed the stage, eerily lighting up whenever the ghost appeared, were amazing, as were the strange sound effects that accompanied their ethereal glow. However, as interesting and convincing as it all looked, the school sports hall appearance - used, presumably to emphasise the director's interest in fencing and swordfighting in Hamlet - added very little, in the end, to our understanding of the play. I didn't really understand the deal with all the fencing gear constantly shoved in our faces, and I know that this is a feeling that other reviewers have shared. Sure, duelling was a significant thing in Shakespeare's time, and there's nothing inherently wrong with either the essay in the programme describing it, nor the take on the play itself. But it did feel rather like a molehill had been made into a mountain, and the whole thing was somewhat distracting from more important and exciting elements of the play.

Nevertheless, this was overall a thoroughly enjoyable Hamlet - clear, bold, full of spectacle, and perfect for RSC newcomers. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

We've Been To See The Wizard... [SPOILER ALERT - THERE ARE LOTS]

Rather like Dorothy, I'd been looking forward to seeing Oz the Great and Powerful for so long that I suppose it was almost inevitable that the actual event would bring some disappointments. Some of these were predictable - I'd had my doubts all along about James Franco's ability to lead a film, and these proved far from unfounded - but what ended up bothering me most wasn't something I'd anticipated at all.

Worse than the film's failure to meet my too-high expectations, was the feeling, even as I was watching, of how great it ought to have been - how great it could easily have been. To start with, it opened with a breathtaking title sequence, which is probably still my favourite thing about the film. The dark, carnivalesque animation, accompanied by a creepy Danny Elfman score, made this look like it was really meant to be the latest Tim Burton flick. In many ways, this Burtonish quality continued throughout, with a setting and characters akin to what we find in his Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That said, I couldn't help but think that Burton would have made a much better job of it: once the story actually got going, there was something very shallow and lacking about the whole thing which a director like Burton wouldn't have allowed to happen. It was a bit like Sam Raimi had picked up a Tim Burton style guide, robbed it of most of its charm, humour and essential morality, and in their place injected a dangerously large dose of his own outdated sexual politics.

One of the first things that Wizard of Oz fans will notice is that Raimi has allowed himself a very liberal licence with the characters from that film, who are completely different personalities in his own. Oz in particular is startlingly far-removed from the fast-talking, funny, charming, pseudo-intellectual old man we know as the Wizard, having been transformed into a lying, cheating, greedy, sleazy scumbag that you wouldn't trust as far as you could throw him. Although the film's supporting characters continually put their faith in him and constantly insist on his "goodness", we as an audience see very little reason or evidence for this. Even right at the end of the film, he seems barely to have changed: his priorities are all the same, and he actually has the cheek to "reward" Glinda with a snog from him during the gift-giving scene.

Of course, none of this would have been quite so problematic if the film had fairly portrayed him for what he was, and made some attempt to show his actions having negative consequences, but instead, he seems to be offered to us, along with the simple people of Oz, as our unchallenged hero, and is given everything that his heart desires, including the one woman who can supposedly see through him. The women in this film are consistently portrayed as naive and easily conquerable - Oz may not get his wicked way with Evanora, but she's still a little too easy to beat. The essential passivity of all of the female characters, coupled with the camera's lascivious gaze, betrayed an inherent misogyny in this film that seemed to exist independently of Oz himself.

This is most apparent in the treatment of Theodora, who first appears in a pair of ridiculous skin-tight trousers and makes it instantly clear that she is not just a bit naive, but actually stupid beyond belief. Not only does she accept everything that Oz says without question, but we subsequently learn that she's been doing the same thing with her sister for years. Later, Theodora is tempted, Eve-like, by her wicked, serpentine sister, accepting the apple of knowledge and enlightenment that serves to make her evil and "ugly" in one fell swoop. Yet, even here, Raimi manages to have his cake and eat it, because in spite of her green skin and theoretical ugliness, the camera continues to subject her to its gaze, in her tight corset and black PVC. Not to suggest that there's anything wrong with sexy clothing per se, but you can't insist upon someone's ugliness whilst presenting them as attractive, and what's more, this is just one small part of the persistent and pervasive objectification of a character that actually does - well, nothing. Her naivety and her appearance are basically all we know about this character, and are presumably all the director thinks we need to know. Much like the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, this witch never actually harms anyone, in spite of her threats, and so is punished disproportionately. Now, I know that, in fairness, she actually gets killed in The Wizard of Oz, but in in that film, at least, we're only eavesdropping on a child's fantasies about getting rid of the woman who has tried to kill her dog. It's quite another thing when a grown man wants to punish a girl for falling for him after he's seduced her. No serious attempt is made on Oz's part to make Theodora amends. He is every bit as culpable for her transformation as Evanora, yet the closest our "hero" comes to showing any kind of remorse is an unbearably patronising and inadequate concession to her banishment, called after her like an afterthought as she flies away. Oz tells her that if she can find it in her heart to be good again, then she will be allowed to return.

Ranting aside, there were loads of really good things about this film, enough to make me actually like it in spite of its ethical dodginess. As suggested above, it was visually spectacular, with some of the best special effects I've seen. The design of the world of Oz was beautiful, and the CGI on the water, flowers, and especially the little china girl were just jaw-dropping. It may not quite have compared with the incredible make-up and costumes in The Wizard of Oz, but I did think costume was a strong-point (aside from my quibbles about Theodora). I loved the styling of Oz himself, and the folks back in Kansas, and both Glinda and Evanora had some brilliant dresses. I also really liked Theodora's red coat, and her big pre-wicked hat was a very clever touch. I liked the score - but then you can always rely on Danny Elfman to deliver - and I do think that, despite the limitations on their characters, both Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams gave excellent performances. Finally, I enjoyed all the sciencey stuff, and the sense it gave of real technology as something wonderful and magical.

Unfortunately, overall, it just didn't quite hang together, with its unsatisfactory character arcs and its failure to keep consistency with the film to which it was supposedly acting as a prequel (Why, for example, wouldn't Oz have shown any kind of emotion upon learning of Theodora's death in The Wizard of Oz if they'd had this kind of history?). Whilst it might have captured some of the magic of the original film, in the end it was all charm and no substance (though better than its protagonist, who was lacking in both). Worst of all, it's sexism was irredeemable, and felt to me like an insult to the legacy of great female heroines like Alice and Dorothy.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

"Out of this wood do not desire to go": A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Shakespeare Institute

Prior to Friday night, my last visit to the Shakespeare Institute had been about a month ago, catching up with an Institute friend after an interview elsewhere in Stratford. At that point, the set for this week's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was just being put together. Consequently, I found myself sitting in on the construction of a huge and bizarre object out of odds and ends of wood. As interesting as things looked, however, I could never have anticipated how well the finished set would come together.

The Shakespeare Institute Players' production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which finished yesterday evening, was a complete design triumph. Though the company's previous performance of Edward II in November featured some impressive acting, it was the additional attention to detail in this production – the time and care taken over the look and feel of the show - that lent it a more professional edge. Even before I'd seen the play, the very pretty poster design had already promised much, and the show itself did not disappoint. The wooden skeleton I had watched grow from the roots up had now been transformed into a beautiful tree, hung about with shimmery ribbons for an extra fairy-like, magical look. The woodland set indoors seemed almost to merge organically with the Institute's gardens - the back doors, through which players made many of their exits and their entrances, opening straight onto these. As the audience came into the room, frogs croaked and crickets chirped behind us, transforming the room into a forest alive with activity. And perhaps most impressive of all were the beautiful make-up and costumes designed, respectively, by Laura Nicklin and Red Smucker, the Fairy Queen.

Hair and Make-Up: Laura Nicklin
and Red Smucker

Midsummer Night's Dream is definitely one of Shakespeare's most straightforwardly entertaining plays, a comic fairy tale with an almost Disneyesque quality. This production got fully into that light-hearted spirit, excelling in the timing and execution of its comedy. The mechanicals were, quite rightly, laugh-out-loud funny, the actors' tireless energy betraying their genuine enjoyment of their roles. José A. Pérez Díez in particular was hilarious as the hapless, hopeless Bottom, and matching his enthusiasm was Laura Young as Snug the Joiner, who took to her lion's part with an almost child-like pleasure. Louis Osborne also made a very pretty Thisbe, hamming it up with lots of girly shrieking and swishing of his long, flowing locks. On the less flamboyant side of the party, I really enjoyed John Curtis' attempts to flatter and conciliate as Quince, the Prologue, and Thea Buckley's wonderfully dry “Wall”.

Laura Young as Snug
the Joiner
Almost as funny were the four lovers, especially Kat Twigg as the miserable, spurned Helena. Michael James' fight choreography was fantastic, playing up the slapstick as both he (as Demetrius) and Tudor Reece (as Lysander) ran around in and out of the room, crashing into doors and giggling gleefully at each others' mishaps, before dropping like flies as they were put to sleep by Puck.

Despite all the comedy elsewhere, a more unusual directorial decision had been made with regards to the fairies, and Puck in particular. Cecilia Kendall White presented us with a much darker and more sinister version of this character than we're perhaps accustomed to seeing – less happy-go-lucky trickster and more powerful, moody and malevolent force. I was reminded a little of the take on the character of Loki in the recent Thor and Avengers Assemble films, a similar kind of mischievous figure turned into something more serious and threatening. I'm told that one of the directors (the programme insists there were many), has a particular interest in mortality and magic, and it's from this that the production's darker interpretation of fairyland stems. It was an interesting take, though one I'm not sure entirely fitted in with the lighter tone of the rest of the production. Nevertheless, the fairies' performances were consistently strong. As Oberon, Peter M. Smith was the play's most commanding stage presence, really convincing us of his power to control and manipulate mortal lives.

Taken as a whole, the quality of this production exceeds anything I've yet seen at the Shakespeare Institute, seeming to fly by in a matter of minutes, the pace slowing only slightly right at the very end, as the monologues became longer. The show has really set a standard that won't be easy for future productions to follow, and both cast and crew should be very proud of themselves. I look forward to seeing what the SIP do next! 

Titania and Bottom: Red Smucker and José A. Peréz Díez

Special thanks to Louis Osborne for help with the photographs.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse: Dominic Mitchell and Jonny Campbell In The Flesh

First, there was AMC's TV adaptation of the recent US comic book series, The Walking Dead. Next came Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies, a teen zombie romance novel, quickly snapped up by Mandeville Films for a big screen adaptation. The latest in this line of rejigged zombie horror is Dominic Mitchell's new BBC drama, In The Flesh, coming on Sunday to a television near you.

Just as Warm Bodies has lurched in to pick the bones of Twilight fandom, so In The Flesh is set to take over the Sunday night drama slot on BBC Three, relinquished yesterday by another vampire/werewolf fantasy/horror series, Being Human. So zombies, it seems, are the new vampires.

Not that Mitchell could reasonably have been influenced by any of these other zombie stories: In The Flesh, he explained in the Q&A I attended on Thursday, has now been in development for five years. That's three years before The Waking Dead was first broadcast in the States, and three years before Atria Books acquired the publishing rights to the Warm Bodies novel. It's really interesting how these things seem to run in cycles almost completely coincidentally - though of course, what's already selling will naturally influence what gets commissioned. But then, neither is In The Flesh in any way unoriginal or faddy: far from it, in fact. Mitchell approaches this fantasy/horror genre from a completely novel angle, describing his work as a kind of kitchen-sink-zombie-apocalypse story, inspired as much by the likes of Ken Loach and Shane Meadows as by gory horror B-movies. Having been treated to a special preview showing of the first episode I can tell you that all of these influences definitely show.

At its heart, In the Flesh is a domestic drama, telling the tale of a teenage boy returning to his family after an extremely traumatic experience. In the Q&A session, Mitchell explained that the idea for a zombie series had come to him whilst working on another script about a boy's experience of returning home after a psychotic episode. During this episode, terrible things were done, so naturally, not everyone in the local community is altogether enthusiastic about his homecoming. Thus, in In The Flesh, this theme of mental illness is conveyed through the metaphor of zombie-ism (or Partially Deceased Syndrome) and surfaces repeatedly in a variety of ways. Before his reintegration into society, Kieren must first go through a period of extensive counselling and observation in a heavily guarded medical institution. For the rest of his life thereafter, he must take strong medication through painful injection every single day. Intermittently wracked with guilt about what he has done, filled with fear about how his family and community will react to his return, and cut-up with resentment about what he must now endure on a daily basis, Kieren is briefly tempted by a friend to seek escape through the use of powerful, mind-altering drugs, only effective on PDS sufferers. PDS is not, however, the only form of mental illness that features in the show: pay close attention to hints at the initial cause of Kieren's death.

In spite of this central focus on family experience, however, Kieren's return - and the reintegration of PDS sufferers into society more broadly - has much wider repercussions for his local community. Kieren's home town of Roarton is an isolated, rural working class society, highly conservative and fearful of change and otherness. It's also a stronghold of the Human Volunteer Force, an anti-"rotter" organisation, set up to "protect" the human community from the partially deceased, clearly mirroring anti-immigration organisations such as the National Front or EDL. The series resonates powerfully with gritty realist dramas like This Is England, not only in subject matter, but also visually, having been filmed on-location in similarly desolate, run-down areas. In comparison to its otherwise most kindred drama, Being Human, In The Flesh tackles socio-political and religious issues with much greater sophistication, integrity and maturity. Where Being Human's second series showed a disappointing a lack of real interest in or sensitivity towards the Catholic elements it incorporated largely for effect, In The Flesh's right-wing, evangelical Christian community is central to the story and entirely convincing, showing the damage caused by bigotry and prejudice, yet still managing to remain, to some degree, sympathetic and just to all of its characters.

Aside from zombie apocalypse movies and kitchen-sink dramas, I did notice some other unacknowledged influences, most obviously Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and various film adaptations thereof. Like In The Flesh, Shelley's novel details the quest of a reanimated corpse to become accepted into human society, and the difficulties he encounters in his ultimately fruitless attempts. Particularly striking for me was the similarity between the zombie make-up in this series and that used on Christopher Lee in the 1957 Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein, with characteristic pasty faces and glassy, inhuman eyes, though of course a greater degree of subtlety in make-up is achievable today. It's brilliantly done, even down to the make-up actually used within the story by PDS sufferers: Kieren returns home a little orange, having apparently gone slightly overboard with his foundation, prescribed to allow him to blend in better with other people, in much the same way as wigs are currently provided for cancer sufferers. 

Not only is In The Flesh penned by an exciting, innovative new screenwriter, who has just made the transition from theatre to television, but it also features a whole host of brilliant young actors like Luke Newberry (Kieren Walker) and Harriet Cains (Kieren's sister, Jem). Even the series' more established and better known cast members are not, as Mitchell and Campbell themselves pointed out, the sort of people that "you see in everything". It's always good to see fresh talent being actively sourced in this way, and really encouraging to anyone just starting out themselves. One great piece of advice for aspiring scriptwriters that I gleaned from Mitchell's talk is to create a series bible: even if this includes lots of information you don't actually use in the show itself, it helps you to know your characters thoroughly, and to judge how they might react in different situations, as well as setting clear parameters for the world that you're creating. This is particularly important in a fantasy series: one must set firm rules and be aware of what is and isn't possible in order to maintain an internal logic and keep up the audience's suspension of disbelief.

In The Flesh airs Sunday 17th March at 10pm, and from what I've seen so far, it's gonna be fantastic! Don't miss it!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Further Thoughts on Dancing on the Edge

Because second thoughts are never a bad thing.

I'll be honest - I was pretty wrong about Dancing on the Edge. Not only did the series get considerably darker as it progressed, but the writing quality also got considerably worse, with the exception of the final episode. In the interests of fairness, I'll start with the good and concentrate on that last and best episode first.

It is true to say that the plot got stronger and more gripping towards the end of the series, with the final part being properly edge-of-your-seat exciting. It was much more plot driven, dispensing with all the standing around saying inane and pointless things that had got in the way of the story earlier on. It also saw some of the series' best acting (though that was a consistent strong point throughout): there were fantastic performances from Anthony Head as the cold and dangerous Donaldson, and from Tom Hughes as the increasingly disturbed and disturbing Julian.

More than any other, this seemed like Julian's episode. For much of the story, he is pretty far gone, dancing on the edge of madness. He carries a gun around with him, and in one fantastically creepy moment, we're afraid that he's about to murder two little girls in cold blood. Yet, there are several moments of clarity, and it is in these that we really get an insight into Julian's world, and start to understand what has made him the way he is. Alone and miserable in his loveless family home, he discovers a gun inside a huge chest (a chest that could almost be an old-fashioned toybox) prompting comments on how the house is "full of guns" and perhaps hinting at the threat of violence with which he grew up. Later, he expresses his disgust at his inability to effect a change in his life. He sees that his actions, along with those of the rich men with whom he socialises, are not allowed to have consequences - at least not consequences that directly affect them. Appearances must be kept up, and these people have the power to weather any storm, even when they are the cause of it. For Julian, this means not a carefree life but a powerless one, plagued by feelings of guilt, disgust, and a strong sense of how little he deserves the life he has.

Despite a brillaint and poignant finale, however, the rest of the series mostly got worse as things went on. The quality of the acting and strength of the plot were the two things that kept this series afloat and watchable in a sea of bad writing and mediocre direction. Stephen Poliakoff has shown he can tell a good story, but I suspect that what he really needs to help him make a great TV series is a good editor. The most striking indication of this was the clumsy dialogue. Some things were said far too often, becoming repetitive and irritating ("since my sons died", "my son would have loved this", "it can't have been Julian" "it's weird doing this being watched by photgraphs"), some things were said in unconvincingly direct ways ("I need to do something to really impress her", "this is part of my grieving process"), and others just didn't really need to be said at all ("they had sex on the train, you know").

In addition to this, there was also an issue with "staging". Though perhaps not so obvious a problem as what was spoken, the way certain scenes were set gave the impression that Poliakoff doesn't fully understand television as a medium. Occasionally, there were some great little bits of TV direction, such as the cut from the car carrying the fugitive Louis to the one arriving to collect Julian - it's often this focus on striking visual images and editing that really makes a film or TV show stand out. Unfortunately, there were far more scenes which felt as though they had been written for the stage. For example, the scene in which Rosie and Mr Masterson are shouting across a room at each other, and earlier the scene in which everyone is dancing outside in the hailstorm together both seemed to require more space than a television screen could possibly afford them. Further, not one of the sex scenes was remotely convincing. As such, they seemed unnecessary.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure that this means that they were terrible pieces of writing. As a theatre-goer, I could easily visualise how certain moments might look performed live, and how effective they might be under different circumstances, with a different kind of connection to their audience. In theatre, we naturally accept a more heightened tone and a greater degree of artificiality. On stage, certain kinds of artifice can actually help us to become more involved, because they allow actors to reach out to an audience that is present with them. But in forcing things into a television serial format that didn't really belong there, Poliakoff squeezed out much of their impact. The subtlety and naturalism of television as a medium simply leaves very little room for self-conscious theatricality.

As a final thought, it would have been nice to have had some closure with regards to Wesley's deportation, which was left annoyingly open-ended. It seemed strange that in the last episode, they should think to remind us of Wesley with a shot of him in Louis's flashback, but still not think to conclude his story properly.

All told though, I still enjoyed it, even if it was mostly the actors that made it. It still beats a lot of other TV drama I've seen lately. I'm also really looking forward to seeing the chameleon-like Matthew Goode go on to star in Stoker, alongside the wonderful Mia Wasikowska. If that film's not amazing, I'll eat my hat:

Mmmm...hat cake.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Got that glitch a villain. Glitches love villains.

Even before I'd seen Wreck-It Ralph, I knew that this film was going to appeal to me on several levels. Not only is this a total nerdfest for retro gamers (I love Sonic, Pacman, and old arcade-style games, even though I'm pretty awful at the vast majority of them), but it also manages to satisfy the fantasies of the weird kids like me by following the one story that has so far been missing from the Disney oeuvre: the story of the villain. I've always loved the bad guys - partly because no one else does, and I like to be perverse, partly because I'm a freaky loner goth who will always sympathise with the social misfits, and partly because they're generally just much more interesting characters (just watch Sleeping Beauty again and you'll see it's really no wonder they've now decided to give the only good character her own film, or watch a few old episodes of Pokémon and tell me Team Rocket aren't the best thing in it). In short, Wreck-It Ralph sounded like it was going to be exactly the sort of brilliant mixture I wish I had been clever enough to concoct myself. And it was. In fact, it managed to be even cooler than expected. The whole thing was just one big explosion of amazingness!

First off, the film has two super kick-ass ladies in it, both of whom are player characters in their own games (see here, for more information about why this matters). One is the main protagonist of her game, Hero's Duty, the hardened, no-nonsense military commander, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun. The other is a gutsy little kid (voiced, incidentally, by Sarah Silverman!) who, like Ralph himself, is something of an outsider, determined to earn back a place in the races from which she has been ostracised. What endeared this second character (and the film as a whole) to me still more, was the fact that little Vanellope was also a glitch.

Similar to bad guys, glitches appeal to me a lot. I'm not going to go into all the arguments I've had with people about why Missingno. is the best Pokémon ever, but at the risk of sounding too much like the internet (sorry), a film about a friendship between a baddie and a glitch would have struggled to be more relevant to my interests.

There's been some interesting discussion online about whether or not Wreck-It Ralph is actually a Pixar film in disguise. Though it's not Disney's first non-Pixar-helmed foray into 3D CGI animation, it is without a doubt their best. The story and characters were wonderful, the visuals beautiful and, like all great Pixar films, it achieved that classic blend of the hilarious and the heartwarming that no one else manages so well. While I disagree with Nathaniel Darnell that there's a big difference between the style of humour, emotion and storytelling between these two production companies, I do think he's got a very good point about the choice of subject matter, as well as about the people involved. Still, it's not the first time John Lasseter's switched camps - or "gone Turbo" as Darnell more appropriately puts it: most recently, for example, he was involved in The Princess and the Frog, which is definitely classic Disney fare by all of his (and my own) criteria. So I think I'd argue that it isn't that simple: the two companies are, after all, inextricably tied together, and there has always been plenty of crossover between the two.

That said, the trailers certainly had me fooled. Even though I hadn't actually read it anywhere, upon seeing all the publicity material for Wreck-It Ralph, I simply assumed that this was Pixar's latest. One thing I will say, however, is that this film's prominent placing of female characters is something that, outside of Brave, has been largely and culpably absent from Pixar films (ok there's Dory, there's Jessie and there's Boo, but they're all essentially supporting cast in films which are ultimately about male friendship or father/son relationships). So however little appreciation Darnell seems to have for "princess movies", both Brave and the array of moody Disney princesses do still serve an important function in the world of children's films: girls remain under-represented in most films, most of the time.

A final note about Paperman, the animated short that preceded Wreck-It Ralph: utterly beautiful, and an instant classic. I wish I could post a link - it did briefly make it onto Youtube, but Disney took it down pretty sharpish. Not that you can blame them. I think I'd be protective, too. Any company that can still make a black and white silent film exciting, fresh, innovative, and appealing to children is certainly well worth its weight in cinema popcorn, at multiplex prices. Just think about that for a while: it's A LOT. I should know - I used to sell the stuff.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Let's Dance: First Impressions

After watching A Royal Affair in Saturday night, I apparently still hadn't had my fill of period drama, since I then turned over to watch the first episode of Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge. I hadn't heard particularly positive reviews from other people about it: the general consensus seemed to be that it was a bit dull, but despite it taking it's time, I have to say I personally really enjoyed it.

I'll be honest - it's mostly quite a happy, pleasant sort of story, which I guess could be considered a little dishonest, given its subject matter. Still, maybe it was the fact that I'd just watched something extremely dark and depressing, but I felt like it was nice to see something a bit cheerful on the telly for once. These days, even most of the comedy I watch is basically about how awful everything is.

The series follows the story of a band of jazz musicians in the 30s, and the journalist who helps bring about their rise to fame. Whilst I wouldn't exactly agree with the BBC's own description of the drama as "explosive", there was enough peril for this not to be uninteresting, and to be completely fair, I have only seen one episode so far. Essentially, Dancing on the Edge seems optimistic in tone, promising a bright future for these rising stars and ultimately an end to the acceptability of racial discrimination, the first episode closing with the young English princes dancing with the band's black singers.

There is turmoil: as well as comments about the general racism faced by members of the band in everyday life, the band's manager, Wesley, is under constant threat of deportation back to the US, despite his supposedly being a British citizen, because his birth certificate has gone missing. Worse, if he is returned to the States, he faces trial and possible execution, having got himself into trouble by sleeping with a white woman, leading to accusations of rape. There's also the cloud of suspicion that looms over Sarah and her family, who as émigrés from Russia, are regarded as potential Soviet spies.

Dancing on the Edge doesn't just concern itself with race, however. It's also interested in class and, to a lesser extent, gender politics. The first episode features appearances from members of the royal family and demonstrates how they can do as they please, and everything must always be tailored to suit them: this is an era before royalty were subject to the same kind of press criticism as any other "celebrity" might face. Journalist Stanley is apparently taken in by the airs and graces of the upper class. A working man who's made his own way in the world, Stanley clearly has ambitions to make a place for himself and his protégé, Louis, in the magical world of status and riches of which he is currently "dancing on the edge". Then there's Sarah, who's mistaken for an aristocrat by members of the band, but turns out to be merely Pamela's assistant, choosing her clothes and getting her shopping done for her. Though it's not so clear to the less well-off in this world, Sarah herself seems to insist that its obvious that she doesn't fit in with her wealthy and powerful friends - at least to those in the know. In this way, the series explores the complexities of the British class system, as well as heralding its end through infiltration by American capitalism, coming in the form of businessmen like Mr Masterson. Though things remain hazy and unclear, we're left suspecting a very dark side to the powerful Masterson, when Julian asks Louis for help in tidying up Masterson's hotel room, a task which includes getting rid of a drunk and very battered and bruised looking young girl, about 10 times smaller than Masterson himself. And then there's the fact that Stanley begins ignoring Rosie, who also works on the magazine, as soon as he wins the attention of the rather more seductive and glamorous Pamela.

There's definitely a lot going on in this apparently sleepy world, and it is wonderfully well-acted, which is more than can be said for a great many pretty period dramas. Matthew Goode's talent in particular is phenomenal - I knew I recognised him immediately, but my brain just could not place him. And it's no wonder: this is Watchmen's Ozymandias. Wow! Currently Chiwetel Ejiofor is proving a great front man for the series. It'll be great to see if the show makes some more demands of him as it progresses. It was also quite exciting to spot Sam Troughton as the Prince of Wales, since up until now, I've only ever seen him perform on stage. Finally, John Goodman makes an appearance as the shady Masterson, though as of yet his presence has been limited, whilst at the other end of the "fame spectrum", there are a handful of rising stars to watch out for: Joanna Vanderham, Janet Montgomery, Tom Hughes and Ariyon Bakare all seem promising so far.

All in all then, a lot better than anticipated. More to follow.