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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Riki Lindhomme, Spencer Treat Clark, and Ashley Johnson.

Directed by Joss Whedon

Adapted for the screen by Joss Whedon, from the play by William Shakespeare

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To start with, I apologize for the unannounced absence last week. I wish I could say there were reasons beyond general mental health stuff, but, you know, sometimes, this life…aw, hell.

I’ve never seen Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, so I won’t be comparing the two. I’ve also never read the play, so I had no idea what to expect, other than Shakespearean comedy. In addition, all of my understanding of Joss Whedon involves spaceships, superheroes, and slayers, so I didn’t really know what to think about him adapting Shakespeare in a modern setting. I’ve gotten pretty cynical about Whedon fans, who seem to always evaluate his work somewhere on the level of “OMG BEST EVAR”, so I go into each new Whedon project with an eyebrow pre-arched. These are all the expectations and lack thereof with which I sat down to watch this film.

But I’m just going to have to accept the fact that Joss Whedon is really good at what he does, and what he does is create witty, engaging, and emotionally affecting entertainment while still taking risks and making choices that somehow pay off against my expectations. Much Ado About Nothing is terrific fun and laugh-out-loud funny, and sincerely sweet. Sincerity, in fact, is probably the defining characteristic of this film, and it’s one of Whedon’s choices that pays off the best in the long run.

The overall plot, if you’re unfamiliar with the play, involves the visit of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, to the house of Leonato, governor of Messina. The Prince is accompanied by Benedick, who disdains love; Claudio, who is immediately and obsessively in love with Leonato’s daughter; and Pedro’s brother John, who is a villain. Hilarity ensues as various players, chiefly Don Pedro and Leonato, set out to pair Claudio with Hero, the governor’s daughter, and more importantly Benedick, the confirmed bachelor, with Beatrice, with whom he shares a mutual loathing. Meanwhile, John (played pitch perfectly by Sean Maher of Firefly) conspires with his minions to derail all plans of marriage and alliance, humiliating his brother in the process. Why does he do this, you ask? Didn’t I say he was a villain?

Benedick and Beatrice are the first people we see, although in the opening scene neither of them speaks a word. They make up for it later, of course, but this quiet moment establishes them as our central couple. It is a moment of silence and nakedness before everyone puts on their suits, their masks, their swords and their wit. There’s a moment of adjustment once the dialogue starts, while the audience is unsure whether to laugh at the unfamiliar words coming out of Clark Gregg’s wryly smiling mouth as he looks at this Blackberry and says “I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina.” Amy Acker, as Beatrice, soon gets us into the rhythm of things, delivering her lines comically disparaging Benedick’s character in such a way that you can’t possibly miss her meaning. And once Benedick himself arrives, played by Alexis Denisof, the comedy kicks off for real. They have perfect comic chemistry as they trade barbs and insults that mask their romantic history – and, if Don Pedro has any say in the matter, romantic future – only to leave each other’s company and continue talking about their disdain for each other and for love and marriage at hilarious length.

Everyone is great in this, but Denisof deserves special praise for basically taking over any scene he’s a part of. His scenes with Acker are the standout scenes of the whole film, but his physical humor, his command of tone, everything about him shows that he is having a ball with this role, and he throws his entire self into making sure the audience comes along to the party with him. This is definitely one of those movies in which it is clear that everyone had a lot of fun just being a part of it. It probably helps that the plot involves what amounts to a week-long party, and everyone – everyone – is drinking, pouring a drink, or drunk, in just about every scene. Clark Gregg is entirely convincing as the delighted host, and he does a lot to set the tone of the film just by smiling and exchanging knowing looks with Hero or Beatrice. Even relatively minor characters get in on it, from Nathan Fillion as pompous, inept chief inspector Dogberry, to Leonato’s nameless aide, played by Joshua Zar, who is such a funny background presence in the film that I was surprised to realize that he didn’t even have a name. What all of this means is that even though the dialogue doesn’t always immediately translate into contemporary English, and some of the references are a little lost, the comedy is always apparent, and each scene is packed with touches that I can tell will reward future viewing.

Adapting Shakespeare for film is all about choices – what to cut, how to set the scene, the relative levels of sincerity and irony in each character – and Whedon’s choices make for an interesting film, including gender-flipping Conrade, resulting in a surprisingly sexy scene between Riki Lindhomme (of Garfunkel and Oates) and Sean Maher, and filming in black and white, which lends itself well to the film’s dramatic turn at Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Fran Kranz plays Claudio with almost too much obsessive intensity, and my sympathy for him is damaged badly when things go abruptly tragic. The way Whedon shoots the scene, with lots of motion and quick cuts, left me anxious and unsettled, and gave me a bit of mood whiplash after all the pratfalling of the scenes just previous with Benedick and Beatrice. This scene, and those after it, are played as straight drama, even tragedy, and while I suppose it helps us earn our happy ending, it feels very strange after laughing so hard in the first half. In a plot that hinges upon several layers of deception, perhaps it was necessary to take the dramatic scenes especially seriously, and have everyone’s emotions be utterly genuine, even if what motivated them was decidedly not.

Fortunately, this genuine feeling pays off in the end. The happy ending – it’s a Shakespearean comedy, I’m not ruining anything for you – is a relief, and the feelings that develop between Benedick and Beatrice wind up feeling more believable after tragedy forces them to lower their defenses and their masks. The scenes they share following the wedding are actually quite touching and sweet, and while I shouldn’t have been surprised that Shakespeare could write beautiful lines about love, I was surprised to find here, in this story, some of the loveliest romantic lines I’ve ever heard in a movie. Denisof’s Benedick expresses such genuine wonder at being in love that it is almost heartbreaking. Their next scene, in which Beatrice rages against the helplessness that she feels, as a woman in a patriarchal culture, to do anything about the wrong done to her cousin, is likewise a powerful bit of acting, the kind of acting and directing that takes an old thing – I had heard of this speech before, in other contexts – and makes it instantly and deeply understood in a way that I didn’t understand it before. I can’t say enough in praise of Acker and Denisof in this film, and the pleasant surprise of their romantic chemistry being as good as their comedic chemistry makes this film for me.

It’s not a perfect film, but it is a good one, and good enough that I owe Whedon an apology for approaching his films with so much cynicism lately. He is clearly on top of his game and very good at what he does, and has more than answered my doubts of how he could possibly update Shakespeare. His actors are terrific fun to watch, and even if the finer details of the story are a little hard to grasp at times, just letting Whedon and his players carry you on in a rush of drinking and witticisms and hijinx is a rewarding experience. Much Ado About Nothing is fun, funny, and a beautiful film, and a worthy adaptation.

Game of Thrones (Seasons 1 – 3)

Starring Sean Bean, Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Alfie Allen, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage, Sibel Kekilli, Charles Dance, Jack Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Conleth Hill, Stephen Dillane, Natalie Dormer, Emilia Clarke, Iain Glen, Rose Leslie, Liam Cunningham, and more.

Based on the novels by George R. R. Martin

Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

I’ve written this without much in the way of spoilers, I think, but some of the links contain spoilers for one or more seasons, and I won’t guarantee that comments, if there are any, won’t discuss plot details you may not wish to know. Proceed with caution.

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Season 3 clinched it. I’m in love with Game of Thrones. I know, it’s a big shock, falling in love with the show that has been HBO’s biggest success since The Sopranos, and can boast of being the most pirated television property of all time. Still, I can’t stop thinking about it – its tragedies, its intrigues, its characters – and I can’t stop whistling the theme song, so Game of Thrones is what we’re talking about this week. Besides, as always, it’s not enough for me to love a thing (or loathe a thing, for that matter); I have to think about why. So why do I love a show full of death, betrayal, misery, torture, sexual slavery, misogynist language, gratuitous nudity, and wartime atrocities?

I was all set to say that it all boils down to character, but that would be selling the complex plot far too short. George R.R. Martin and the show’s writers have woven together a complex, rich narrative, full of convergences and divergences, cunning revelations and dramatic irony, potent foreshadowing and truly shocking twists of fate. Into this web they’ve suspended so many characters that it is helpful to have a chart (and several fans have, in fact, made them, sometimes with hilarious results). The number of characters doesn’t seem to detract much from their depth, however. Each scene is like a portrait, in which we can see the tragic nobility of Robb Stark, the hard-won strength of Daenerys Targaryen, the unexpected humanity of Cersei Lannister revealed. Each scene shows us the human beings at the core of this world, and how precarious their positions are, no matter what their name or rank. At any moment, with or without help, they could lose their balance and fall.

Game of Thrones is based on A Song of Ice and Fire, an ongoing series of fantasy books by George R.R. Martin, infamous for its bleak setting and unexpected character deaths. The world has had a long summer, but winter is coming, and with it a struggle for the crown of the Seven Kingdoms. Families Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and others plot, intrigue, and war against each other, while across the Narrow Sea, the last scion of the ruling Targaryens gathers an army to reclaim her kingdom. Meanwhile, far to the north, beyond the great ice wall manned by the Night’s Watch, something ancient and evil is stirring. Winter is coming, and magic is returning to the world. But this isn’t standard fantasy, where heroes never die in vain and magic and faith can save the world. The focus is more on intrigue than mass combat, and more about the monstrous things that human beings are capable of than legendary monsters and black magic. Westeros is a dark, unsettling place, and Game of Thrones is a show that shocks and thrills, and reaches inside to wring the feelings from your heart. It is, in sum, amazing.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that I’ve never read any of the books, despite getting my entire family to read them and receiving multiple recommendations that I do so from friends. With all respect to Mr. Martin, I’m kind of glad I’ve never picked them up. I have nothing to compare the show to except itself, and although I’ve gotten some fascinating insights from people comparing and contrasting the show versus the books, I’m very happy to have Peter Dinklage always and forever be my Tyrion Lannister, and Maisie Williams always be my Arya Stark. Although certain things have been spoiled for me through reading internet commentary or enthusing to knowing friends about characters or events on the show, I’m content coming into Game of Thrones with no expectations, other than, obviously, DEATH.

That expectation has been drilled into me by everyone who has ever recommended the series to me. My brother says he always tells people “Don’t get attached to anyone.” It’s hard to do. Everyone has a favorite, whether it is honorable Jon Snow, roguish Tyrion Lannister, regal Daenerys Targaryen, or dutybound Stannis Baratheon. GRRM himself has said that one of his goals is to make readers (and viewers) genuinely afraid for the lives and well-being of their favorite characters. The story of Game of Thrones is such that no one’s life is sacred. So deeply ingrained in the fabric of the story is this Anyone Can Die premise that even when I knew a favorite character would live (due to spoilers), I watched her approach an impending massacre thinking “No. No, oh no no no.” This is the grimdark fantasy setting of Game of Thrones, where rape is appallingly common, children are murdered because of their family name, and the long dark winter is coming. It’s not a hopeful, happy place. As one character puts it “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

The story feels awash in blood, and most of it, I feel, comes from assassination, execution, and murder. Violence in Game of Thrones isn’t cartoonish like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, or sensational like Braveheart. Instead it is visceral and uncomfortable, providing life and death thrills while also making you cringe, much like another excellent HBO property, Rome. The assassination of Caesar is awful to watch, while Pullo’s battle with his gladiator executioners makes me cheer. Game of Thrones is similar, in that we fear death in this show, but we also cheer to see our favorite characters come out on top and live to fight again, and we hope to see the show’s many monsters and villains receive their just desserts. For instance, I’m pretty sure every viewer eagerly awaits a violent end for Joffrey Baratheon, but I have a feeling that if and when we get it, it will be a mix of satisfying and queasy-causing, not necessarily by the means, but because this show doesn’t differentiate between the deaths of heroes and villains. As the saying goes, there are no good deaths. Only bad deaths and worse deaths.

One of the first acts we see is the apparent hero of the story conducting an execution, illustrating the setting’s grim perspective from the outset. What all this gloom and blood establishes, though, is a way for our characters to defy those expectations. The reason the Starks appear to be our central heroes is because their nobility and sense of honor set them apart from the world in which they live. Raised miles away from the bloody intrigues of King’s Landing, the Stark children are largely innocent to the cruelty of the world, although Arya Stark bucks hard against the idea of being ladylike, and Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy both have their burdens to bear as outsiders within the Stark family. Still, they are as good as people get on Westeros, and establishing them this way sets the characters up to lose that innocence when the “real” world comes knocking, no matter how many times their father warns them that Winter is Coming. However, it also allows them to provide some of the only moments of brilliance, compassion, and nobility in the series, a shining contrast against a bleak and brutal world.

The show finds that compassion and nobility in unexpected places sometimes, too, which is part of its brilliance. Characters who initially appear irredeemable and despicable often shine in unexpected ways, most obviously in Tyrion Lannister, the show’s designated noble rogue, but more impressively in his brother and sister. Cersei Lannister, in addition to being Joffrey’s mother, which is The Worst of All Crimes, wields her power as Queen with deliberate and monstrous cruelty, but she also has these amazing moments of humanity, even in the first season, that keep her from being a complete monster. Her brother, Jaime, is all ridiculous, amoral, gold-plated arrogance when he first struts onscreen, but his sociopathic charm masks unexpected depth. Even Sandor Clegane, called the Hound, while remaining pretty much a self-loathing psychopath from the start, gets his moments of vulnerability and redemption, mostly through his association with the Stark girls. I think this contrast of the horror of Westeros with the human capacity for nobility and grace, all within a single character, is why GRRM writes in such a grim setting. By hurling people against the unyielding darkness of an evil world, he can show us the sparkling stars of humanity against the relentless Westerosi night.

As Tansy Rayner Roberts says, “if your political system is inherently and essentially misogynist and that is essential to your worldbuilding, then throwing a few women into that system to see what cracks first is actually the most interesting thing you could do.” The Seven Kingdoms are that misogynist political system, where a woman’s value is primarily in the alliances she can secure by marriage, and the security of the dynasty through producing heirs. A woman’s children are, almost literally, everything she is, which is demonstrated and explicitly stated by both Catelynn Stark and Cersei Lannister. They are each strong, intelligent women, the pinnacle of what women are allowed to achieve in this culture, and yet their destinies are strictly controlled by the patriarchs of their respective families. On one side of them, we have Olenna Tyrell, the elderly grandmother, so on top of the game she is the defacto head of her family and the only person we hear openly complaining about the sexist state of affairs in Westeros, for which she is sternly rebuked by Cersei. And on the other side we have Sansa Stark, plucked from Winterfell and dropped in the middle of a complex social game, playing without allies, a fourteen year old girl circled by spiders and mockingbirds, lions and wolves. Anyone who feels indifference or hatred toward Sansa rather than pity or admiration must, in my opinion, be watching an entirely different show. Sansa is learning as she goes, and from the most unforgiving of teachers.

I haven’t even touched on some of my favorite characters, women who directly reject their prescribed fates and choose to make their own: Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and the magnificent Daenerys Targaryen. Bucking the system and yet still subject to it, they are some of the most rewarding characters to watch. All three have loved ones stolen from them. All three are threatened with sexual violence to some degree or another. All three walk a knife’s edge, relying on their cunning, strength of arms, or innate, dragonborn strength to navigate a world that is altogether hostile to them. I get a real sense that GRRM and the writers for the show love these characters – which, for reasons described above, makes me nervous – and are really pulling for them, as they struggle upward against a landslide of shitty dudes, broken promises, and charred bodies. I’m losing my train of thought in my admiration for these characters, so let’s all agree: Danaerys sitting on the Iron Throne with Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark as her right and left hand. Best possible ending? Somebody draw this for me.

I love Game of Thrones because I can’t stop thinking about it; its character live in my imagination, and its stories fuel speculation and deep thought. It isn’t without its problems, some of which are disappointing enough that I don’t necessarily blame anyone for choosing not to watch. It is brutally violent, female characters are routinely threatened with rape, or the plot finds ways to get women naked while the camera follows them. The world is full of brothels, and nonwhite people who all seem to be treacherous pirates or barbarians. But, in spite of these things, I love the show. The characters are rich, well-rounded, and excellently performed, and the story rewards close attention and consideration with unforeseen parallels and literary depth. I don’t want to say that you are missing out, if you choose not to watch for whatever reason, but…I do feel like you are missing out on one of the best dramas on television.

The third season having just ended, so you have almost an entire year to catch up, if you are behind. HBO would prefer you watch it here. You can also buy Seasons One and Two on DVD.

Spaced (Seasons 1 and 2)

Starring Jessica Stevenson, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Mark Heap, Katy Carmichael, Julia Deakin

Directed by Edgar Wright

Written by Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg

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Spaced is an antidote for bad days. I always assumed it must be some kind of science fiction comedy, based on the title and what I’d seen of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, but actually it’s about mates, in the British sense. It’s about people who are just a mess and trying to climb up through the landslide of their lives, full of geeky references, humor so rapidfire it’s doing pratfalls over itself, and the good feelings that come from watching miserable people become friends and try to figure their stupid lives out. I can relate to that.

Co-writers and creators Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson star as Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner, two near-strangers who wind up posing as a couple in order to rent a flat after circumstances render them both homeless at the same time. Hijinks ensue, including trying to keep their lies straight when the alcoholic landlady comes down to visit, befriending their strange downstairs neighbor Brian (he’s an artist), trying to get jobs, or keep jobs, while drinking and playing video games and hanging out with their weirdo friends, and slowly embracing the closeness that grows between them. It all sounds a bit standard sitcom-y, I suppose, but it’s mixed in with an oddball sense of whimsy and casual drug use to create something that is entirely other and turns all the usual tropes on end.

The dialogue is quick and sharp, sort of like if Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were British twenty-somethings who smoked pot and talked about Star Wars and swore a lote. Geeky pop culture references are a part of the humor, which you could probably have guessed if you’ve seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but don’t let that scare you away. Unlike, say, Seth McFarlane humor, in which the reference is, in fact, the entire joke, the references in Spaced complement the humor rather than enabling it. It’s probably funnier if you are familiar with the material (I was one of two people in the theater who laughed aloud at the Chinatown reference in Hot Fuzz), but it’s funny, anyway, because the joke isn’t HEY GUYS REMEMBER STAR WARS or TEKKEN, YOU PLAYED THAT, it’s the “terminal intensity” of Tim’s obsession with Star Wars, or framing bickering between Tim and Daisy with a button-mashing Tekken match. The jokes are clever, fun, and fast, but they never lose you. They grab you and take you on a frantic, endorphin-rush of a ride.

I’ve heard Spaced described as surreal, and while I’m not sure that’s the word I’d use, it is casually strange in a way few other shows are, and the strangeness can’t always be justified as a result of drugs. Sometimes this is mocking stock tropes, like Tim and Mike’s repeated, abortive flashbacks to some unnamed childhood trauma, but other times it’s just something bizarre that’s allowed to pass without much comment, like the fact that Mike got kicked out of the territorial forces because he tried to invade Paris with a tank, the fact that Daisy’s agent at the temp office is clearly a child or the way Colin always seems to be sitting on tables. What’s really weird is that this strangeness makes everything feel more true. Like the best weird things, the unreality of it helps it to get at a beautiful, hilarious truth, and also to pack in a staggering amount of jokes into about twenty minutes.

I think the reason this show works, and the reason it makes me so happy, is that I love these characters. They start off so low, out of work, dumped, and depressed, and it’s mostly their own fault, because Tim would rather play video games and rewatch Star Wars than work at getting an art gig, and Daisy would rather talk about writing than actually write. But I’m always in sympathy with them, and there’s a sort of sweetness to the way Stevenson and Pegg write about Tim and Daisy and all their self-inflicted misery, about loony Mike and nervous Brian, lonely Martha and dizzy Twist. Spaced isn’t afraid to be sweet, which sets it apart from comedies that tend to feature terrible things happening to terrible people, like Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Eastbound & Down. Instead, Spaced is about terrible things happening to people you really like, but it’s like when a friend does something stupid and you can’t help but laugh and wince at the same time, because they are ALWAYS doing that, and next time it’s just as likely it will be you lying flat on your back after pulling some stupid stunt. We want Tim and Daisy and the rest to succeed, and Wright, Pegg, and Stevenson want them to succeed too. They know where the comedy is in that, and they squeeze it out of every minute.

Spaced is like a late night car ride with good wild friends who you know are going to get you into some trouble, but you wouldn’t miss it for anything. It is quick shots of surreality and cleverness and sweetness that can jump you up like a shot of espresso when your day, or your life, is feeling rundown and tired. Spaced tells you it’s all going to be all right, and blows right through you and takes your mind with it. Unfortunately they only made two seasons, but Spaced is one of my favorite things, and we should all thank Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, and Edgar Wright that it even exists. Just remember that Jessica Stevenson is now Jessica Hynes, if you’re looking her up on Twitter or something, and don’t leave her out of your thanking. Simon and Edgar don’t like it.

Watch Spaced on Netflix or buy the complete series at Amazon.

Feminist Perspectives on Culture and Media

So yesterday was a travel day, and today is a wedding (not mine), so there’s no regular review for today. Instead, have some links to various feminist perspectives on popular culture that I’ve found helpful.

To start with, here’s how to be a fan of problematic things.

Feminist Frequency is a project by Anita Sarkeesian in which she analyzes the portrayal of women in movies and popular culture, which often employs sexist tropes and stereotypes, such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or The Mystical Pregnancy. Recently, she’s also embarked on an analysis of similar tropes in video games, which you might have heard about because the virulent wave of sexist attacks against her before the first video even went up.

Maureen Johnson challenged her Twitter followers to flip the gender of various books to illustrate how differently books are marketed based on the gender of their authors. Related: John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines have a pose off. See also: Escher Girls for the way women are portrayed in comics and illustration.

Miri at Freethought Blogs doesn’t focus on pop culture, but she does have a good article on the role of feminist criticism, and how to write a better love story.

N.K. Jemisin writes about how there’s no such thing as a good stereotype, with particular emphasis on Strong Female Characters.

Speaking of which, the Mary Sue has a great review of the new Tomb Raider game, and how it manages to portray a strong female character without her being a Strong Female Character.

Lastly, as a writer, I loved this article by Kameron Hurley about the pervasiveness of sexist portrayals of women, how they are based on false historical narratives that erase the stories of women who didn’t conform to patriarchal notions of what women could do or be, and how, as writers, we need to change that.