Mongrels

This week I discovered Mongrels, BBC3’s new puppet show for adults, and it’s quickly become my very favourite thing. It’s hard to describe without sounding all Guardian reviewer, so here goes: basically there are a bunch of animals living behind a pub, and they do bad things. Did that help? I’m not very good at summing things up. The puppet work is brilliant, though, and the voice acting is inspired – it’s also dirty as hell. I’ve laughed enough that I now shut the window beforehand.

And there’s a truly glorious pigeon. Said pigeon at one point declared her intention to “make like a clairvoyant…and rob an old lady”, causing me to have an altercation with some spaghetti. There are also regular musical numbers – here’s Kali having a atheistic crisis:

The whole series is currently on iPlayer, if you fancy it.

LOST finale

Spoilers!

The finale of LOST was shown a few weeks ago, and it’s been bouncing around my head ever since. I can’t decide what I think. I rarely read reviews any more as I value my mental health, but I made an exception for LOST as there was enough going on in the show that it was possible I’d missed something. It turned out I hadn’t, but I also found people were surprisingly polarised: some thought it was excellent, others that it was utterly terrible – almost always one or the other. I personally find it hard to disagree with either side.

Matthew Baldwin expressed it nicely: it was satisfying emotionally, but not intellectually. The characters all had decent, unpredictable endings – there was really no telling who would live, die or escape. The story was very well told. It ended a little more spiritual than sci-fi1, but it wasn’t actually specifically religious – the church window had symbols from all the major faiths – and the world-between-life-and-death had a nice message: nobody has to do it alone. This neatly summed up the entire series, which was revealed to a great character story of people working together. The producers have explained that the ‘LOST’ of the title refers to the characters, not the predicament, and this makes sense. And the finale ticked all the boxes in this regard.

But. But. The island was left unexplained. Ok, there was the hint of the golden light – but that was it. And for me the question of the island was too big, too important in the show to be left hanging. Sure, the characters were as important – but everything the characters did on the island provided some more information as to its nature, and we were clearly meant to assume these were clues building to something larger. To claim they weren’t is disingenuous at best. Lots of people seemed to know what the island was – Widmore, Faraday’s mother, Richard – but this information was never divulged. It might have been acceptable if the show had concluded with the island being unexplained within its own universe, but it wasn’t – we were just never given the facts. LOST unambiguously portrayed itself as a mystery that would be solved, but didn’t follow through.

To an extent, the resolution didn’t matter. It was a spaceship, purgatory, the prison of some banished gods – whatever. I didn’t want every little thing explained, every little detail to be consistent, and I certainly wasn’t expecting some incredible surprise – that’s too much to ask in the internet age. But no intellectual resolution at all was a big disappointment. There was just too much back story: the numbers; the Others; the illness; the Dharma Initiative; the not being able to have babies; “I’ve made it so you can’t hurt each other”; the frozen wheel thing; the time difference between the boat and the island. All of these things were given a lot of screen time, but turned out to be meaningless other than vehicles for characterisation. For me this was all a bit too specific, too detailed and intentionally meaningful to cast aside as if it doesn’t matter. I’ve heard an admittedly poetic interpretation that the role of the Others, the statue, the hieroglyphics, and Dharma were all as the relics of people who’d been there before. That they add to the metaphor for life – humanity has always encountered things it can’t explain, but we work together to get through them. I’ll admit this has a certain appeal. But it’s a bit retrofitty, and I can’t help but feel a little duped.

However. Unlike some, I don’t think this renders the entire series null and void. That’s silly. LOST has produced, in my opinion, some of the finest storytelling on television. The life and death of John Locke was beautifully told, and continually surprising. The endings of series 2, 3 and 5 were remarkably exciting – the moment in the S3 finale when you realise we’re flashing forward, not back, was amazing (especially when all the hints were there – in the soundtrack and editing too). The writers built up many mysteries, and solved many of them in satisfying ways – particularly pleasing was needing to press the button to discharge the electromagnetism, which turned out to have caused the plane crash in the first place. And the characterisation was remarkable – by the end you knew and felt very close to all these people. Sawyer’s up-and-down journey from complete dick to decent human being was great (in S3 when he punched the Other so he could kiss Kate in the field? – that was awesome), and anyone who didn’t desperately want Desmond to find Penny must have had a heart of stone.

All of these things LOST did very very well, and it was completely compelling up to the last minute. The show was about more than the mystery of the island, and it gave me six years and 116hrs of solid entertainment. It built to a proper finale that was great television, and I don’t think the lack of an intellectual resolution negates all that. I was left a little deflated, but it was still a great show.

  1. I really liked the idea that the nuke had split the timeline, and I assumed magic Faraday-mother lady would find some way for No-Crash Group to save Crash-Group – was a bit disappointed it didn’t pan out that way []

30 Rock Series 4

Comedy Central emailed last week to offer me a free DVD of 30 Rock series four, which is apparently starting tonight1. They sent over the first four episodes, though only the first three worked – hopefully they were enough for me to form an accurate impression of the series as a whole.

I saw the first series 18 months ago, but the subsequent series weren’t on DVD at the time. Skipping straight to season four wasn’t a problem, though, as it hasn’t changed much – why alter something that works? It’s still the same cast of characters working on a Saturday Night Live style TV show, although the show itself is of little importance. It’s quirkily put together, with weirdly swervy storylines that are broadly predictable but surreal in the detail, and it somehow always ends unexpectedly. It’s also quite self-aware, with characters referring to upcoming advert breaks or the current season number etc., although not quite enough to be annoying. The dialogue is fast and witty, and it’s good fun trying to catch the throwaway jokes and references – though this can be tricky as they’re usually heavy on US culture.

As far as I can tell, it’s a pure sitcom played for comedy only. There’s no drama that I’ve noticed, and as a result it’s a fairly gentle show. It seems to lack the character engagement of, say, Scrubs, in favour of a Law and Order style familiarity. You can pick it up at any point without a problem. And you’ll probably do so because of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, who are hard not to like – both seem to be having enormous fun, and it’s infectious. And of course, Alec Baldwin is the single greatest actor of all time. Each episode has a cameo appearance too (I think), but catching these depends on how familiar you are with US TV. Steve Buscemi was an easy spot, but I only figured out Jimmy Fallon from hints in the script. I’m sure I’ll miss a few of the more obscure people.

For me, it’s a relaxing show to watch over lunch (when The Daily Show’s on a break, naturally). Worth a look.

  1. no freebies or discounts in 6.5yrs of blogging, then two in a month. Hopefully I’m on a list. Canon? []

Clash of the Titans – in 3D?

I just saw Clash of the Titans in 3D. Kinda. I’m almost certain the 3D was added in post-production, as it was seriously weird.

It just didn’t look right. They’d obviously worked hard to create multiple depths in each shot, but the scale was off. Rooms had a non-Euclidean quality, and seemed too big in places and bizarrely two-dimensional in others. There were obvious discrete depth planes, and faces were just strange: everybody in the film was a convex blob with no detail – noses were flat with the rest of the face – except for a second plane at the edges of their heads to connote roundness, but which was too far away. In more complex scenes the depths sometimes coagulated oddly, and everything became a bit concave. It just looked fake, and tacked on.1

But it gets weirder. The obvious comparison is with Avatar, which was actually filmed with 3D cameras. The people and sets were therefore inherently realistic, but they still had to work hard at the CGI – and most of the film was CGI. The result was, I thought, seamless and incredibly impressive – I spent much of Avatar just looking around at stuff.

Clash of the Titans was also heavy on the CGI. Except the CGI wasn’t 3D either. I’d love to know whether this was for visual consistency or because they only decided on 3D after the film was finished, but they really, really missed a trick here. At one point the heroes attack Medusa, who careens out of a pit with a nest of vipers in her hair. These vipers would have looked great in 3D, but instead seemed to use the same blobby two-on-one-plane, three-on-another post-production technique as the rest. Evil Flying Screamy Things, giant crabs and colossal sea monsters were similarly disappointing.

It just looked bad. I’d honestly prefer to have seen it in 2D, as the badness of the 3D was so distracting. I’m sure it was incredibly hard frame-by-frame work, but there’s just no comparison with filming in 3D from the start. I think I’ll stick to 3D films genuinely made in 3D from now on.

Also, here are my two favourite lines:

  1. [gruff, heroic, worthy] I mend nets, not wield swords!
  2. [chasing a lone, injured baddie] Let’s split up and follow the blood trail!
  1. how do you avoid this, anyway? In 3D the two eyes are seeing different images, but 2D conversions must just use a shifted duplicate. Surely that’s always going to look worse? []

Stardust

I haven’t sat in and watched a film on a Sunday evening for ages, so I took some time off to watch Stardust on C4 this evening. And enjoyed it hugely. I was already a fan of Neil Gaiman’s book, but was aware it wasn’t all terribly cinematic – the ending in particular worked fine on the page, but might not do so well on screen. Well, they fixed that. The whole script was tight and faithful to the spirit of the original – though not afraid to take an idea and run with it – and it looked beautiful too, with some lovely visual flourishes. Really great adaptation. The only missing element was four letters of dialogue in Claire Danes’ first scene, but I’ll forgive it that. I haven’t enjoyed a film so much for quite a while.

Eastenders at 25

Dear Eastenders: how did you do that? How did you hide a character in plain sight like that? She had a colossal motive, yet never even crossed my mind. Some excellent misdirection, there. Nicely played.

And your live episode was classy. I assumed there’d be plenty of protracted dialogue between two characters in a room, but instead it was all fast cuts, parties, actors hustling between different places, impressive lighting, tricky emotional scenes – and obviously the huge final stunt. Kudos for challenging yourselves.

I lived and died with it, too. Admittedly Bradley must have had some kind of breakdown in the last five minutes, because I’m not sure jumping from the building made much sense ok, I take it back – watching it again, he fell; I’m not sure why he was up there in the first place, but that makes much more sense than jumping. But despite this and the pre-show announcer dropping unsubtle hints, it was surprisingly affecting. I even felt sorry for Max. Max! Yes, that dick. Well done.

With this and your genuinely upsetting Shakespearean tragedy last year, you’re putting the lie to the clichés about soaps. I think soaps are unfairly derided, as they have a unique storytelling potential – no other media can build characters and storylines on a daily basis, taking their time to make me genuinely care about a group of people. I like sharing these characters’ highs and lows – it’s nice, and something very difficult to pull off in other media. Tonight’s show was the culmination of some very hard work, and a great story resulted. It entertained me greatly. Thank you.

One request, though: please don’t get rid of Stacey. In a show with plenty of great actors she lights up the screen, and has done for years. If this could turn out to be a red herring, and the actual culprit be Dotty, that’d be swell. Ta.

The Mrs.

I just heard about this, but didn’t believe it until YouTube provided proper evidence. It’s best if you go in blind:

Really. It’s exactly what you’re thinking. And yes – the first ten seconds actually happened.

The short-lived show was renamed Captain Janeway Kate Loves A Mystery – I am not making this up – before getting swiftly cancelled. I am now on a mission to find a full-length episode.

(info originally found in the pleasingly positive It Is Just You, Everything’s Not Shit.)

Torchwood: Children of Earth

Spoilers ahoy.

I wanted the scene. I wanted somebody to stand in front of that glass screen and say ‘no’. And it didn’t happen.

See, I have a thing about uncompromising nobility in my science fiction. If there’s an unambiguous moral ‘dilemma’, I’m not interested in seeing the heroes debate it. This isn’t time well spent: we know what they’ll do. I want to see them make the right choice and deal with the consequences. When the defences are down, there are hoofbeats from the horizon, and the only escape is unthinkable, I want Torchwood staffed by Mal Reynolds, Rorschach, and, as it turns out, Gwen Cooper.

Because Torchwood’s primary conundrum was easy. It’s just a shame about the leadership. Humanity’s elected officials were infinitely puny, and Torchwood was in the hands of Captain Capricious. Rescuing him from the concrete turned out to be their biggest mistake. Darwin only knows what Jack’ll do at any given moment, but Gwen – ah, Gwen; she can be relied upon to behave. If it’s a choice between condemning 10% of the world’s children to indefinite suffering, and all of humanity going down fighting, Gwen’ll go John Woo on your ass before you’ve finished the question. Captain Jack might say the right things, but start killing people and he’ll cry and take it all back. Not the point. Gwen would’ve wept a single tear, then shoved a grenade down Ianto’s throat and thrown him through the plate glass, following him up with a hail of throwing stars, hollow-tipped silver bullets, and civil service paperweights. Gwen don’t take no shit from vomit monsters.

Over five nights, Gwen and Lois were the sole Guardians of the Awesome. Ianto spent a lot of time mooning then died. Jack wandered around a bit then died, and cried a bit then died, and wandered some more then died, etc.. Gwen, while pregnant, rescued everyone and damn near saved the world. Lois single-handedly performed a hostile takeover of the British government. Go Lois. Nobody came close to their levels of testicular fortitude – until the last five minutes, and that final choice.

That secondary conundrum was also simple, but the choice free of virtue. We can all see ourselves saying fuck you to the hordes of hell, but what if we can only save the world by sacrificing our own humanity? Impossible decision, yet Captain Jack redeemed himself. In an infanticidal way, admittedly, but properly heroic with it. You might say ‘we will not sacrifice one innocent child for the sake of humanity’. You would say that. But that isn’t the question. Humanity lost. The armageddon is five seconds away. It’s not: “sacrifice one innocent child vs. die fighting”, it’s “one innocent death vs. a million innocent deaths” – it has to be one or the other. Oh, and the innocent death is your grandson. This is the decision that broke Captain Jack. And he knew it would, but did it anyway, without flinching. Properly heroic, that was.

Still. Took him long enough. And he was only there after psycho army lady developed a conscience, and who caused that? Gwen. Gwen, who was spending the end of the world rescuing children from Nazis. I wish she’d had a proper final moment – a shot where she turned, suicidally, to put herself between Ianto’s nephew and the armed soldiers. Gwen would have done that.

Great stuff. Season 4? Easy: Gwen leads, Lois learns, geeks flock, nobody becomes a zombie, Captain Jack returns as a vengeful god who must be contained/tamed, and is eventually assigned the task of finding a good storyline involving weevils. I’d like another thirteen-part series, but five consecutive nights was pretty damn exciting. More please.