Sunday, April 06, 2008

Flotsam & Jetsam

I watched three major SF-related shows this weekend, and I was hoping to get a blog post out of at least one of them, but instead I find myself with very little to say. So, I'm going to smoosh all three reactions into a single catch-all post, and hope that there's something more substantial for me to write about in the pipeline. (That said, I'm anticipating a bit of quiet around these parts during April.)
  • Battlestar Galactica, "He That Believeth in Me" - That was surprisingly enjoyable. The first act plays to the show's greatest strength--cool and intense space battles--and wraps up in one hell of an interesting way which makes one of my favorite characters even more interesting, and might even get me over my dubiousness about the identities of the Cylons revealed in "Crossroads." The rest of the episode is also strong, as the show finally starts paying attention to an issue that should have started cropping up in discussions and conversations in the second season premiere--the question of what it means to be a Cylon, not physically or biologically (though some answers on that front might be nice), but emotionally and morally. I liked that this issue was being considered from both sides of the divide and from several perspectives, and that discussions of it called back earlier entries in the conversation such as Boomer's attempts to hold onto to her identity and Baltar's Cylon detector. In general, the characters feel more grounded, more like real, semi-rational people rather than the shouty, angsty messes they were last season--in fact, there's almost a sense that season 3 and its histrionics have been swept away, and that season 4 is picking up from season 2 and maybe moving in a direction that might make the show watchable again. Here's hoping.

  • Southland Tales - oh, hell no. I've been very, very dubious about this film, not just because of its by-now infamous brutal reception at Cannes and the two-year delay in its release, but ever since I watched the Donnie Darko director's cut, and discovered that instead of reinstating some great character scenes, which would have fleshed out Donnie's family and Drew Barrimore's character (why doesn't anyone else get Barrimore to play bitchy and sarcastic? She's so great at it) Kelly tried to make his film comprehensible, and to foreground the dodgy SFnal plot device driving it. As if anyone fell in love with Donnie Darko for its plot. That same crucial failure of priorities is what drives Southland Tales into the ground, which is not to say that Kelly strove to make an easily understood movie. Quite the opposite--I doubt I've seen a messier, bittier, more non-linear and nonsensical film in my life.

    To even begin to understand the events of Southland Tales, I'd have to read the graphic novel prequel, trawl through the interactive website, and wait for the six-part mini-series version, of which the film is only the truncated latter half. For some reason, Richard Kelly thinks I'd be interested in doing this--in slowly puzzling out the details of his imaginary future--though he's given me no reason to do so. No interesting or appealing characters or relationships, no clever dialogue, no funny or touching set pieces. At its very best, Southland Tales is beautiful--several sequences towards its end recall the camera's dreamy dance around the characters during "Head Over Heels" or the powerful kinetic quality of the "Notorious" dance in Donnie Darko (it's pretty clear that what Richard Kelly really wants is to direct a musical--there's even a dream sequence in Southland Tales in which Justin Timberlake's characters lip-syncs to The Killers' "All These Things I've Done" while a bevy of chorus girls flit and flounce around him)--but this is hardly enough to sustain the film through 2.5 tedious and ultimately frustrating hours.

  • Doctor Who, "Partners in Crime" - Pleasant, though not much more than that. Plot-wise, there's not much there there, but this is Doctor Who, and surely by now we've learned that unless Stephen Moffat or Paul Cornell's names are on the title page the plot will be something we've seen twelve times before, and an unbaked, unengaging thing at that. What's worth talking about in this episode is Donna, and here I see reason to be optimistic. The impression the episode gives off is that the writers have gotten as tired of the show's romantic subtext (and just plain text) as we have, and Donna is literally introduced as a character whose relationship with the Doctor is not in any way romantic. It remains to be seen whether the show will stick to its guns in this respect (and whether it will resurrect the romantic plotlines with either Martha or Rose--the latter, at least, seems almost certain), but I do like the dynamic that's developed between the Doctor and Donna. I like her acknowledgment that it's one thing to say that you're going to cast off mediocrity and live in an adventure, and quite another thing to make that adventure happen on your own--most especially because that adventurousness is something that Donna needs from the Doctor (as you may recall, my first inkling that something wasn't right about Martha was my realization that she had no need the Doctor could answer, and sure enough, that need soon appeared in the form of an unrequited love) but that is different than what Rose needed from him. I'm still waiting to see what Donna brings to the equation, other than companionship for the Doctor, but at least I have an understanding of the foundation of the relationship. This could turn out alright.

4 comments:

Raz Greenberg said...

I haven't seen "Southland Tales" yet, but in continuation to the previous posts about critics and ethics - perhaps it's time critics would stop giving the title "genius" to a writer/director/whatever after his/her debut work? And perhaps it's time that critics would stop calling a debut work, regardless of how good it is, "a masterpiece"?
As much as I am supporting the notion that a review published in the media is aimed at the audience rather than the artists, I believe that this kind of over-positive review (much more than a negative one), hurts the artists. It makes them think that they can't go wrong, that they can get away with anything, and it doesn't allow them to grow.
Case in point: Richard Kelly. I'm pretty sure at least some of the stuff that went wrong with "Southland Tales" has to do with all the rave reviews he got for "Donnie Darko" going to his head.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't doubt that Donnie Darko's warm critical reception gave Kelly the freedom and courage to make Southland Tales as ridiculous as it is, but the fact remains that Donnie Darko was a very, very good film. Even if reviewers made it a rule to stop short of pronouncing geniuses and masterpieces wherever they go (not a bad idea in itself), a film like Donnie Darko deserves to be praised. Should we be stinting with deserved accolades for fear that artists' heads will get too swollen?

That said, I think it's possible that the fannish reaction to Donnie Darko, and especially fans' willingness to meticulously investigate the film's premise and work out its plot, encouraged Kelly to believe that it was this plot that was the film's greatest achievement. Which is how we got the abysmal director's cut, and now Southland Tales, which as I said demands the same level of investment without paying for it in a pleasurable viewing experience.

Mike Taylor said...

I agree with your optimism about, or at least interest in, Donna. I absolutely loved the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, at least in the first series, precisely because it _wasn't_ romantic: it was something different, a little alien, just as the Doctor himself is (or should be). Following that ambiguous and abivalent yet unquestionably warm relationship with something as routine and pedestrian as Martha's sick-puppy routine was desperately unimaginative. I very much like the idea of beginning this series by simply and clearly stating that we're not going down that route again, and so seeing what else will develop instead. Surely part of the point about having an alien as your lead character is not just that his blue box can go to physical places we've not seen before, but his mind and heart can also go to places we don't see every day.

(Although sometimes I catch myself thinking that that oh-so-alien relationship between Doctor Chris as Rose was nothing other than friendship. Is romance now so ubiquitous that friendship seems strange and exotic and exciting?)

Tragic that Paul Cornell is not writing anything for this series ... and altogether inexplicable. At least Stephen Moffat has another two-parter. But, oh dear, RTD really doesn't seem to love the same things as I do at all. Otherwise he'd restrict himself to the big-vision stuff (which he's excellent at) and contributing powerful, funny and/or moving moments to others' scripts (which he's also excellent at) and lay off the business of conceiving and writing whole episodes (which, not so much).

Oh well. I still love it.

culfy said...

Oh I wished I shared your optimism at the Donna - Doctor relationship. But I have this horrible feeling that this will suddenly again become the cornerstone of the whole series; the exploration of Donna pretending she doesn't fancy the Doctor, becoming jealous when Rose appears, finally being forced to confront her true feelings etc. etc. All set around a few hastily knocked off sci-fi plots.

I get the feeling that when RTD is asked to reboot Sherlock Holmes; he'll set series 1 around Holmes being forced to admit his homosexual feelings for Watson, series 2 about Watson being forced to admit his homosexual feelings for Holmes and Series 3 about Watson feeling jealous about the antagonostic but symbiotic relationship between Holmes and Mycroft.

All set around 39 episodes where the Butler did it.

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