45 Minutes of Disenchantment

Here are some quick thoughts after watching the first 45 minutes (i.e. an episode and a half) of Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new Netflix show. The protagonist is Princess Bean.

  • The action in the bar-brawl scene Bean was introduced in felt stilted and uncomfortable. Was it supposed to be slapstick and funny, was it supposed to show her as headstrong and sharp? It kinda tried both and failed to be either as a result, it was unfunny (because it wasn’t slapstick enough) but showed her as kinda dumb and clumsy (because it was kinda slapstick). However we know her not to be dumb and clumsy because in the set-up to her introduction, which takes place off-camera, she overpowers and outsmarts several guards. The guards go as far as to  request to be sent on crusade instead of having to guard her anymore. An unfunny, conflicted opener to your protagonist seems like a terrible, terrible idea in writing a comedy TV show.

 

  • Bean’s mum and dad are thinly veiled satires of Donald and Melania Trump. Okay funny, but the rest of the show isn’t a satire of modern American politics, so why are they? It kind of throws the otherwise reasonably believable medieval/fantasy world by having it ruled over by a brash New Yorker and a (badly misogynistically  written) disinterested Slavic wife. Also does this mean that Bean is Ivanka? What’s going on here?

 

  • Keeping with misogyny, this feels like a show about a woman written by a team of only men (spoiler alert, it is). In 45 minutes Bean shares the screen with only two women, one is an idiot lady-in-waiting and the other is the aforementioned Melania-squid lady. Bean has deliberately meaningless or pointless conversations with both. She later goes on to explicitly say that she has no female friends — freeing the male writers from having to imagine what two women might talk about without a man being there. A female character who is unable/not shown to be able to speak to 50% of the population is not a fully formed or remotely believable character. If you can’t believe a character, you can’t find anything that happens around them/to them/by them funny. Male jokes coming out of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Character mouths don’t really do it anymore.
  • Hang on I just remember there’s a third female character Bean speaks to, it’s a prostitute.

 

  • The character of Luci(fer) is a mess. He appears and tells Bean that he’s there to encourage her to do bad things. So basically he’s Bender to Bean’s Fry, but instead of being his own character, which makes his actions unpredictable and interesting, we’re explicitly told that the whole purpose of him is to encourage her to do self destructive things, regardless of their merits, and is therefore incredibly boring as uninteresting. We know that he’ll always suggest bad things because that’s what he does, not because he has any higher motive. Dull Dull Dull. He gets a few good lines but they’re wasted because we don’t care about him. Also (being reeeaally picky here) but if your only black actor (out of a cast of 18) is literally a devil: I dunno it doesn’t look good.

 

  • Elfo — what motivates this guy, it changes every 5 seconds. And not in a way that reveals that he’s a complex conflicted character, but in a way that suggests that the writers haven’t decided what they’re doing with him yet, which is a pretty major failing in one of the central 3 characters. Also there’s strains of Incel-being-played-for-laughs to his character which I hope get dropped from the rest of the series. There’s an explicit joke about the Friend Zone, it’s 2018 for crying out loud.

 

  • We can sum up this show by way of reference to Prince Merkimer. He’s the persistent sissy husband-to-be/pursuer, which is a character that has been done so, so often, ESPECIALLY in the medieval context (Shreks 1 & 2, Frozen, Brave and Robin Hood, immediately spring to mind) so for the love of god you’ve got to try a bit with it to make it kinda interesting. As it is, he’s probably one of the better characters in the series so far, but still much less interesting/funny than either baddies from Shrek or the guy from Frozen. To stress my point here: notoriously fluffy films for children have substantially deeper characters than Disenchanted. The problem with Disenchanted is that by being allowed to take a traditional children’s’ setting and use adult jokes and depictions of violence, they spend so much time making jokes about masturbating elves and getting women topless (what the fuck was that scene about anyway) that they don’t’ have any time to make the audience care about the characters.

 

  • Things I liked:
    • Always good to hear Matt Berry’s voice.
    • The Simpsons/Futurama staple of a situational gag that stands alone from the rest of the episode (think: Sideshow bob and the rakes) is there in utter abundance. The trumpet/portcullis/kazoo bit had me laughing out-loud.

Conclusion:

Atrociously poorly written characters undermine great comedy moments. Really sad proof that you can make great jokes but if the characters are flimsy and unbelievable (Bean), Out-of-Context (her parents), unclear (Elfo) or just downright uninteresting (Luci) then they just don’t make you laugh.

Theatre of 2018

Following on from my wildly successful Theatre of 2017 post, here is my Theatre of 2018 review.

Fun Home | Young Vic | Alison Bechdel | Holy shit I cried and cried and cried and cried and cried. Strong contender for best thing I’m going to see in 2018. The way they do the scene where you see Alison’s house from an outsiders perspective was a phenomenal trick of theatre. All the solo pieces were incredible. Am probably going to start crying again if I think too much about it to write the review

Heathers the Musical | The Other Palace | Okay so it gutted the darkness of the film by basically retelling Mean Girls but with camp violence, but the songs were good and The Other Palace is a great theatre

Machinal | Natalie Abrahami | Almedia | This was advertised by the theatre as “if you liked the writer, you’ll like this”. I liked this much less than The Writer. Really incredible staging but their whole “these are timeless issues that women face” metaphor by changing the era of each scene made it hard to get a grip on the characters.

The Book of Mormon | Generic Massive West End Theatre | Silly, quite funny satire on white Saviour narratives. Was humming the songs for days.

The Writer | Blanche McIntyre | Almedia | Simply brilliant.  Some of the experimental stuff was a bit… Experimental but whatever, was amazing. Would watch again and again.

Summer and Smoke | Tennessee Williams | Almeida Theatre | Really, really great. Enjoyed this much more than last year’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Completely minimal staging, entire backdrop consited of 6 opened upright pianos which were also used for great effect audibly. Got year off to a great start.

Julius Ceaser | Shakespeare |The Bridge Theatre | We got standing tickets to this super cool production in-the-round. Really exciting, probably best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen.

I, Tonya & Lady Bird

Last week I saw I, Tonya and Lady Bird at the Walthamstow Empire, which is fast becoming one of my favourite cinemas.

   

Both Oscar nominated (with ITonya deservedly winning”Best Actress in a Supporting Role”) both films build their stories around the relationship between a working class young American woman and her mother, and the young woman struggling to fit into an elite world. One of them also involves a lot of ice skating.

I, Tonya‘s skittish pace and editing meant it felt shorter despite being nearly half an hour longer. Its opening disclaimer – that it was based on a true story, but one we don’t really know the truth about – efficiently set up the mood for the compelling 2 hour journey into Tonya Harding’s career. I felt slightly uncomfortable that perhaps the class snobbery and domestic violence – oppressively strong themes throughout the film – were being played for entertainment however ultimately I felt that I, Tonya is an unashamedly entertaining film that features domestic violence and classism, and trusts the audience enough to let them understand that. After watching the film, I immediately devoured the New York Times interview with Harding and recommended you do too.

Lady Bird was a deeply hilarious and affecting comedy about growing up. The film opens with mother and daughter listening to the closing lines of Grapes of Wrath, foreshadowing the films two major themes: A poor woman giving everything she has to care for other people, and a portrait of California outside the common LA/San Francisco stereotypes. The poignancy of Marion and “Lady Bird”‘s shared moment of emotion at the end of the Steinbeck audio book quickly gives way as a fight over not-a-lot breaks out between the two of them, resulting in a comedically juvenile car bailing that results in Lady Bird wearing a bright pink cast for the rest of act one. Lady Bird derives most of its emotion and almost all of it’s comedy from this excellent distillation of the teenage tendency to break into childish fights at the drop of a hat. Saoirse Ronan performance was physically and emotionally brilliant and practically every joke and emotional trap laid in the script worked perfectly. Timothée Chalamet’s pretentious douchebag teen boy was a particuarly cringe inducing mirror on myself at that age (although I wish I was that cool).

The fact that neither of these films won more/higher prestige Oscars mean I really need to see The Shape of Water and 3 Billboards ASAP.

CEASE AND DESIST

Last year, Alice Glass released a statement on her website detailing the extensive abuse she suffered her from Crystal Castles band mate Ethan Kath over the course of the band’s history, starting when she was 15.

I was a devoted Crystal Castles fan as a teenager, and reading her statement made me feel guiltily complicit in a a horribly detached way. It’s with this background that CEASE AND DESIST, Glass’s first single since going public about Kath, was released.

The performance of Praying by Kesha at the Emmys was used as the night’s unofficial anthem for #metoo. Kesha’s song is similar to Glass’s – imagine saying that in any context in 2009 – in that it’s a musical ode to surviving abuse directed squarely at the abuser (in Kesha’s case, ‘Dr’ Luke Gottwald)  from as public a stage as possible. With just the track’s title, Glass rips into Kath’s response to her blog post, turning the name of the legal letter his lawyers sent her into both a challenge to abusers, and a rallying cry to other victims. The main refrain of the song, ‘promise me, you’re never the victim’ tearing it’s way out of the pounding industrial beat resolutely rejects Kath’s threats.

In her revelations about Kath, Glass highlighted how he used the creative process as a form of abuse and control. She highlights one of their breakout singles Alice Practice, where Kath branded her performances as low quality or imperfect, “intentionally diminishing my role in its creation. It was another way of putting me down and preying on my insecurities.”  While CEASE AND DESIST isn’t Glass’s most novel piece of work, it’s the sound of a freed artist wresting back control of her art and her narrative with a terrifying barrage of drums combined with her piercing signature vocals, and succeeding.

The Last Jedi

Contains Spoilers

One word Review: Lazy

9 Word Review: Lazy reliance on pantomime to cover a weak script

1,978 word Review: Lazy reliance on pantomime to cover a weak script became a staple of the Marvel Universe films since the first Avengers movie, and appears to be spreading through Disney’s other big franchises like syphilis through a nursing home. It is abundantly present in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi’s script is all over the shop: too many characters and too many half-hearted storylines. The cement that holds this mosaic of mediocrity together is panto japes, which is a shame because an economically written script with a few jokes thrown in for relief could’ve been doable with the story they presented, and would’ve been preferable to what we actually got given.

In moderation, playing for laughs works really well, especially when it stops the film from getting too bogged down into cliches of its own creation. Let’s take the example of the caretaker fish/bird/nun critters on the island. The quick, simple establishment of them having a matronly hostility to Rei and the conclusion of their arc as the comedy pin used to safely deflate the over-blown Lightsaber training montage was a great example of comic relief. The look of stoic loathing when Rei sends a boulder crashing into their wheelbarrow was a perfect resolution to the training montage that got carried away with silhouetted aerial shots and sweeping orchestral scores, fast becoming a piece of self parody. It was definitely Panto, but it was well executed and served a purpose. Compare these caretaker critters to the Porgs (pictured above), who were supposed to be set up as a comedy counterfoil to the now devastatingly solo sans-Solo Chewbacca. Instead, they have no clear purpose — not even to deliver a gag like the caretaker fish-nuns– and appear to exist purely to eat up large portions of the scant screentime alotted to Chewie, whilst preventing Chewie from eating one of their own.

Leaving Panto aside for one minute, the interplay between Chewie and the Porgs brings up a second major flaw that the script kept committing: too many characters. I don’t really understand why they bothered bringing Chewbacca into the script to so blatantly under use him. Chewie, logically, is one of the most interesting characters in this whole film: a lovable sidekick whose loyalties have proven unquestioningly true who is now left alone. The only short insight into his grief is when, upon opening Skywalkers’s door with a hairy paw, Luke asks “Where’s Han?” and the Wookie emits a particularly sad cry. Chewie is now reduced to semi-inexplicably playing taxi driver to one of the three protagonists, and the relationship between Chewbacca and Rei, which presumable had plenty of time to develop on their pan-galactic hop to turn up just in the nick-of-time remained largely unexplored in a way that was irritating.

Bringing in characters to then not bother with them has become a somewhat recurring theme in these new brace of Star Warses, and isn’t limited to just Chewie in this film. Rogue One saw the complete waste of Mads Mikkelsen talents as a guy who turns up, sets a few plots half-rolling, and then dies. This film even more insanely wastes the towering talents of Benicio Del Toro, by setting him up to be an interesting enigmatic character who could really take the plot in interesting directions, but instead sells him out as a Lando-lite betrayer, except the script forgot to make us really trust or care about him (unlike Lando in Empire), so the audience don’t really feel his betrayal (unlike Lando in Empire) and ultimately his betrayal doesn’t really result in any major plot changing events (unlike Lando in Empire) so why did we even bother? And also, if we’re bringing back characters why haven’t they bought back Lando? An entire act of Last Jedi took part in a sleazy casino full of unethical millionaire gambling traders: Lando presumably owned and/or was imprisoned in the joint. If this franchise has one eye constantly winking to its past, why didn’t we get him back, perhaps to have a scene with Chewie where we could get some meaningful morning over Han? That way we could’ve avoided having to bring in an underwritten new character, and got some actual leg work out of another bit character.

One character we did get back was Master Yoda, to provide advice to Luke Skywalker. Given the context that Luke was a self-exiled Jedi Master who hates himself and everything he once stood for because he was responsible for the creation of the bad-guy who is now destroying the galaxy, Obi-Wan Kenobi would’ve surely been a more useful character to have turn up, given his extensive experience in the matter, but Alec Guinness died 17 years ago and thankfully they didn’t attempt a rerun of the weird CGI Peter Cushing of Rogue One. Yoda has been one of the most malleable characters in movie history. An Orientalist trope in Empire, an Oracle of doom in Return, and a sort of superhero Hans Moleman in the prequels, he returns in Last Jedi as a combination of all three, to help Luke carry out some casual firey iconoclasm before kicking the mid-life crisis ex-protagonist into action. His frustration at Luke for still not really learning anything that he’s been taught for decades was palpable, and elicited a sympathetic response in me because Luke, and a lot of his plot, are inherently frustrating in this film.

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Inherently Frustrating

The script of this whole film fails at every point where Luke Skywalker is concerned. As I’d alluded to above, the basis of Luke’s plot line in this film is that he’s banished himself to a remote location to avoid Jedi-haters and to reflect on his own failing and responsibility in allowing the Dark Side to rise. This would be interesting, were it not also the exact arc that Old Ben Kenobi goes through in A New Hope, a fact the film even plays up to it wheeling out R2-D2 and the “Help Us Obi Wan” video clip, which even Luke points out is a “cheap trick”. The Last Jedi script blows though because Ben Kenobi actually turns out to be useful for both the audience and the protagonist, wheras Luke takes us on a mute hike up a mountain to milk some some Snorks — using pantomime to hide a poorly written script.

Luke’s choice of refuge seems thoroughly baffling. He refers to his hideaway as the “Hardest to Find place in the Galaxy”, but he’s hiding out at the literal centre point of his 10,000 year old religion. That’d be like the Pope going into hiding in the Basillica of the Nativity in Bethlehem: really obvious and a location that’s surely known to a few scholars here and there, especially as it appears to a) have magic rocks and caves and shit that clearly have strategic powers and b) an entire economy of fish-bird-caretaker nuns that doesn’t appear to be self sufficient (they have wooden tools on a completely deforested island). The script’s choice of hiding place for Luke is poorly thought through, the location too important to have been lost, and thus not really a good hiding space at all. But hey, it’s got Porgs, so we can smooth over these cracks in the script with more panto-plaster.

These are trivial complaints about Skywalker’s plot line though, and do not compare to the completely screwed up revelation that Luke kinda forced Han to hand over his only son to Luke to train into a Jedi, which Luke the royally ballsed up, before deciding to murder a defenseless teenager, deciding against it, ballsing that up too, and then setting into motion the creation of Kylo Ren.

Let’s pause here, we’re supposed to be sympathetic and hopeful about a character who tries to kill his nephew and then lies about it to everyone. His best friend dies not knowing that the reason his son hates him is ENTIRELY JUSTIFIABLE. His own sister appears to be unaware of this completely mental revelation. The effect of this completely mad bit of writing is that it renders Kylo Ren the most sympathetic character in the entire film. His offer to Rei after the death of Snoke of “let’s let both sides go to hell and start this galaxy again” is the most sensible idea anyone comes up with in the whole film, and entirely justified considering everything that’s happened to him. By rejecting his offer, Rei come accross as the brainwashed violent fundamentalist, not Kylo.

We don’t really get any resolution to this either. The now inadvertent good guy, Kylo Ren doesn’t get to kill the tyrannical Luke by his own hand, instead Luke inexplicably wafts off in a billowing gas of hot air after serving as a time-wasting distraction in an otherwise interesting battle, his death serving as a perfect metaphor for how his character was written throughout the shonky script. Luke and Kylo will presumably have some beyond-the-grave reconciliation moment in the next film, with the potential for a problematic scene where an abuse victim has to ask for the forgiveness of his abuser.

I could go on and on, and already have. So here’s a quick bullet list of parts where I thought the film succeeded.

  • The battle on the snow covered red-dust planet allowed for some excellent visuals, allowing the film to echo familiar scenes from the Battle of Hoth but putting a novel twist on them that made the battle genuinely exciting.
  • The ultimate emasculation of the alpha male by a team of experienced, thoughtful  and powerful women, despite the alpha male constantly trying to undermine them to the point of literal mutiny was genuinely satisfying. In a rare show of strength of the script that the idea that Vice-Admiral Holdos was a baddie undercover or wildly incompent was kept close to the chest and perhaps the only bit of the film where they mostly managed to reveal the plot using show, not tell. Of course, the script then did derail because not only did they also choose tell to make sure the people at the back of the theatre understood, they then had to send this carefully developed powerful female character on a suicide mission to save the bloody irritating alpha male. But points for trying, and the scene where she became a hyperspace bullet was genuinely cool.
  • The 37 seconds Benicio Del Torro was on screen he utterly ate up. That man could read a phonebook and the result be edited by a 15 year old Media Studies student and it’d still pack more nuance and powerful than films can manage.
  • I wound up buying into the relationship between Fin and Rose way more than I thought I would. The symmetry of her saving him from betraying himself at the beginning and dragging him on a trolley to the brig compared to him saving her from death by storm troopers and dragging her to the Falcon on a trolley at the end was subtle enough to be enjoyable, and her lesson that battles are best fought for the ones you love, not against the ones you hate, was the only clear uplifting message that came from this otherwise insane scattered patchwork of a script that tried to get us to sympathise with a violent abuser hermetic freak. The resolution of this potential Fin-Rei-Rose love triangle is one of only two thing i’m looking forward in the final part of the trilogy (the other one being more shots of Adam Driver topless in leather trousers)

In conclusion, a terrible script with too much winking and panto to be worthy of being a fully fledged star wars film. As bad as the lowest lows of the reviled prequels. I really hope  John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran’s (and to a lesser extent, Daisy Ridley’s) careers can survive one more assault from this rapidly crumbling franchise.