Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Puppetry for the People

Again courtesy of YouTube, this is another example of what I was talking about with regard to when The Muppet Show decided to break the formula and get creative. The puppets here are structured so that they have human hands, like the Swedish Chef, allowing them to hold cards, books, cigarettes etc. realistically, and the faces are done as actual soft-sculpture caricatures, making them much more evocative as characters than usual.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Turn the World Around

While I'm on the retro kick: YouTube turns up trumps with one of my very favouritest Muppet Show song numbers ever-- Harry Belafonte, singing what was then a new number for him, "Turn the World Around," in company with some very beautiful African-mask muppets.

I've always liked the Muppets best when they broke away from the standard Kermit-and-Piggy mode and started pushing the envelope on what they could do with puppetry: "The Dark Crystal" was one of my favourite films as a kid, partly for that reason. I'll see if I can find some more later on.

Plus: I embedded a video! Go me!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Carrying a Torch

So, Torchwood then. I'd been hoping to be able to do an unmitigated rave, but unfortunately all I can do is a vaguely optimistic it's-far-too-early-to-tell. It came across to me really as a cross between Angel and UFO-- full of very pretty people but a bit lacking in the gripping, intelligent plot department. Mind you, UFO is a series which improved greatly in the plot regard as it went on, so maybe this will too.

Other thoughts:

-I have a vague worry, which I hope won't be proved correct, that all of this is the result of the production team spreading themselves too thin. Rather than doing one excellent series, they're now doing two which show promise but don't quite deliver. Which means that Sarah Jane Investigates should wind up being really, really bad.

-Los Angeles, with its gangs and neo-gothicism, worked OK as a backdrop for Angel, but I'm having real trouble accepting Cardiff as a sinister, brooding location for supernatural goings-on. I mean, Cardiff. It's just too... nice. London? Yes. Edinburgh? Absolutely. Belfast? Perhaps not as ghostly, but still has a feeling of genuine menace. Going down a rung, Oxford has gothic architecture, Birmingham has a sense of agonised misery, Penzance and, hell, even Plymouth have got a West Country we-doesn't-talk-to-strangerrrrs feel about them after dark, but Davies just had to pick the major city in the UK least associated with violence, ghosts and gangs.

"The Streets of Cardiff." "The Cardiff Boy." "Gangs of Cardiff." Nope, it's no good. I just can't get creeped out about it.

-Naoko Mori's character will, I suspect, prove to have no personality whatsoever. White Britons can write convincing Black and Asian characters; why can't they ever do convincing Japanese?

-Also, she's nicked my coat. No, really. I had to go check the rack to make sure my own purple leather trenchcoat was still there. I don't know what it says about me that my fashion sense is shared with someone whose idea of a daring illicit use of alien technology is getting it to scan the text of A Tale of Two Cities.

-Without giving too much away, the plot twist at the end of Episode 1 is only a plot twist if you haven't read/heard any of the pre-publicity.

-While I hate judging a series on its special effects, I have to say this one really did give me the feeling that they were trying to save money. Over the first two episodes, we got a couple of understated bits of original CGI (mostly involving the lift), plus a vague-shiny-cloud-monster and a pterodactyl left over from Walking With Dinosaurs. Which doesn't bode well, since it's supposed to be the first episodes on which you spend the most money, so as to hook the nerd crowd. Mind you, the trailer seemed to show something vaguely Cybermanlike later, so perhaps they did wind up spending most of the money on subsequent episodes. We'll see.

-Finally, if Eve Myles is going to do lesbian scenes with the guest star, I'd like it to involve something other than flicking each other's hair about. So many lesbians I know are involved in film or television; surely there must have been someone behind the camera who could give them a few tips?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Time for a Change

Alan managed to acquire both the 1960 and 2002 film adaptions of The Time Machine last weekend, so we sat down to have a good old compare-and-contrast evening. Given the lukewarm reviews the 2002 version received, we weren't totally surprised that we both preferred the 1960s version; what did surprise us was exactly how much we disliked the 2002 version. Our biggest problems with it were:

1) Ripping off First Men in the Moon as well (seemingly for no good reason other than to give Jeremy Irons a speaking part) and giving the Morlocks a culture which is a version of the Selenite one from the other book, which actually made them seem much more interesting than the flaky Eloi, who are just a pack of generic noble savages (see below).

2) Completely contradicting its own message halfway through. "You can't change time, it's all fixed, if your girlfriend hadn't died you wouldn't have invented the time machine so you just have to come to terms with it and accept it... oh wait, it turns out you can change time after all, so go ahead and save the Eloi" (and just when I thought he was going to do something actually authentically from the book, and leave Weena [called, boringly, "Mara" in the film] to her dreadful fate).

3) "We Morlocks regard the Eloi as another species, so we kill and eat them-- except for Mara/Weena here, who we're going to use as a sex slave!" Now, really.

4) Most annoyingly, being an unimaginative pastiche of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Between this and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it's seeming like the default setting for adaptations of classic British fantasy novels these days is becoming "set it in New Zealand and chuck in a bunch of people who look like Maori and add a soundtrack of Polynesian chanting." Which irks me even more, since, while I know it's fashionable to bash Jackson these days (any time anyone has any success, it happens...) I think he's a pretty intelligent filmmaker, and, when Kiwi elements appeared in LOTR (and King Kong), I could rather see what he was getting at in terms of symbolism, message, etc. Whereas this didn't actually contribute anything to the story or say anything remotely new, other than, perhaps, implying that the Maori are a combination of totally thickheaded but beautiful primitives, and hideously ugly murderers, which one hopes wasn't intentional.

Alan summed it up nicely by saying "The 1960 film made you feel like you'd really travelled in time; the 2002 film just made you feel like you'd travelled to New Zealand."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Golden Oldies

Desperate for some new sci-fi, I hit the local library the other day and came back with a few. One is Banner of Souls by Liz Williams, which is restoring my faith that there really is good, interesting, speculative sci-fi still being written out there. The other was A Plague of Angels by Sheri S. Tepper, and, while I enjoyed it immensely, it unfortunately confirmed my feeling that since the early nineties she's mostly been writing self-pastiche. In fact, I started to play a game with myself as I read it, called Identify-The-Early-Tepper-Source-Novel (spoilers follow):

The Marianne Trilogy: Dark-haired and innocent/knowing girl protagonist, pursued by adoring but clumsy boyfriend who turns out to be a distant relative of hers and by a grotesque female antagonist; character with hair "like a dark cloud" (c.f. Marianne's "Cloud-Haired Mama"); talking dog (OK, in this book it's a coyote) companion; magical creatures turning up and being taken for granted; girl protagonist turns out to have mystical powers the likes of which none of her friends and acquaintaces had remotely guessed.

The Gate to Women's Country: Post-nuclear society obsessed with eugenics, in which the men and women live separate lives and only come together to have sex (in fact, if it weren't for the fact that the cultural reference point is Native American rather than Ancient Greek, and that this book appears to be set in California rather than Washington, I'd have suspected it was the same society, just a few centuries down the road). Whole society is built on a fiction, which a few of the top people know about but nobody else does. Female character who runs away from home in search of adventures, is kidnapped and forced into concubinage, is traumatised about this for the rest of her life, and has a son who can't or won't take a valuable object lesson from his mother's experiences. Girl protagonist's boyfriend doesn't really understand about women's feelings, but gradually figures it out after a few harsh lessons from various female authority figures.

Gibbon's Decline and Fall: Evil rulers of society secretly have a plan to oppress everyone, which is thwarted by a coalition of clever humans and nonhumans; future society in which STDs are rampant (which again turns out to be someone's cunning population-control plan); exploration of alternative ways of sexual/social partnership; Native American spirituality; one character even paraphrases the whole "humans don't mate monogamously like gibbons do" speech from the earlier book.

Grass: Amusing but poignant peasant couple who help out protagonist; diseases; female protagonist finds a resolution at the end of the story that makes her happy but leaves everyone else totally baffled.

The Song of Maven Manyshaped: Girl protagonist, magical powers, adoring but clumsy male companion who needs to be taught a few lessons about gender politics and the oppression of women but he's not a bad sort really, yadda yadda.

There's probably more, but that was all that I identified on a brief readthrough. The idea of a post-catastrophic California in which people live in "archetypical villages", living out Disneyfied fairy-tale scenarios, was intriguing, but it wasn't really explored in enough depth to satisfy me. So: it was worth reading as a kind of greatest-hits album, but I'm glad I didn't actually pay money for it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Riding through the Glen

Well, the first episode of Robin Hood failed to disappoint. Which is, alas, not a good thing, as I was basing my expectations on my theory that Robin Hoods always seem to be relentlessly contemporary. The 1930s Robin Hood was a New Deal socialist who advised political solutions to the aristocrat problem; the 1980s one was a New Age Traveller who thought we should all get back in touch with pagan spirituality; the Kevin Costner one was a multiculturalist, feminist sort who had apparently been acting as a UN peacekeeper in the Holy Land prior to coming back and getting King John to respect Marion's rights as a woman. So it's no surprise that now we get a bunch of Asbo-lads in the forest, basically doing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Arrows.

The thing that amused me most was how terribly similar to the 1980s ITV version it was. I mean, really. Unrealistic, wobbly-looking peasant villages, populated by people who apparently haven't heard that in the Middle Ages everybody went in for really colourful clothing (honestly; look at the margin of any manuscript. Even the peasants look like they're auditioning for Dick Tracy), bunch of cute unshaved fellows wandering the forest; a Guy of Guisborne who looks vaguely like Robin and who seems to have some undiscussed backstory with him; a Marion who is far, far too modern-looking and -acting to be remotely credible; everyone taking everything as seriously as only people in their early twenties can; and a Sheriff of Nottingham who's quite clearly a better actor than three-quarters of the cast and desperately thinking of his pension fund throughout. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the main assets of the ITV version: the retrospective kitsch factor which allows one to laugh at how big the mullets are; the Clannad soundtrack (for which I have a nostalgic fondness); the occasional forays into Hammer Horror territory; and the fact that just about every week some star from the Golden Age of British Televsion would turn up in an unlikely role (my favourite still is the sight of Anthony Valentine sporting a Bettie Page wig and managing not to laugh).

What actually offended me about the series, though, was Robin Hood's sudden conversion to Thatcherism. I mean, not only is he the bloody Earl of Huntingdon again (look, guys, that bit was the invention of Victorians who couldn't stand the idea that their kids were reading stories about a working-class hero) but his advice to the Sheriff is to eliminate all taxes, and let the trickle-down economy do its work. Which, frankly, is an economic policy that even the Americans haven't managed to make feasible, and to see a strategy which only benefits the rich in practice espoused by Robin bloody Hood just suggests that something is very, very wrong with the world.

So, in other words, I think I'll give the rest of the series a miss, and then catch it again in twenty years, when I can at least laugh at the ridiculous old-fashioned designer stubble and hoodies.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Out of the mouths of babes and tabloid editors

Headline in The Sun earlier this week:


As Alan said, "what, again?"