Friday, December 12, 2014

THOUGHTS: Puppy Love (BBC Four; 2014)

In November, the BBC aired the first episode of a new comedy series from two of the minds behind the brilliant Getting On, called Puppy Love. Starring Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, the story is of constant conflicts between the stubborn and self-important Naomi Singh (Pepperdine) and the brash and crude Nana V (Scanlan), with Naomi's prim-and-proper business manner contrasting heavily with the perpetually dodgy dealings of Nana V. Including guest stars including Phil Cornwell (Dead Ringers), Alvin Hall and Tobias Menzies (Rome, Game of Thrones), it's clear it's not been a chuck-on-TV affair and fits perfectly into the typical types of comedy currently shown on BBC Four (such as Detectorists, which finished just before this show broadcast). I think there's a lot to be said for Puppy Love and after watching the fifth episode (of six) today, I felt I had to talk about it.

Joanna Scanlan as Nana V and Vicki Pepperdine as Naomi Singh in 'Puppy Love'
The most striking thing you'll likely first notice about Puppy Love is its racial diversity. It does a reasonable job of showing the growing racial diversity of the UK, with many roles being played by non-white actors. This also goes alongside a fairly bluntly open attitude towards sexual matters, with many jokes about sex, a variety of sexual partners, and even Naomi's straight-forward yet over-descriptive talk about sex with her daughter Jasmine, and I found this refreshing. It's not often that a show basically says it's okay for teenagers to have sex, let alone containing scenes of them being encouraged. Both of these are positive things and it's good the BBC is showing a comedy that contains these aspects.

I'm not sure it is all fun and games, though. Pepperdine is both playing to her strengths but also her own self-typecast role, with Naomi Singh being almost identical to her role in Getting On (they share a writing team, with the addition of Jo Brand), and it has to be said that whilst initially charming, Scanlan's Nana V all too quickly becomes almost unbearable, with the same behaviours repeated again and again - and I can't help but feel she is all too willing to use her own body as the near-literal butt of the jokes. What may work once or twice as a parody quickly becomes tiresome.

There's one aspect I just can't get on board with, and that's the situation of Nana V. Something about it has never sat right with me, even from the start. Nana V is shown as a dodgy and somewhat tone-deaf character (as epitomised by her 'company' motto - "For All Your Dogging Needs", which also works as a double-entendre), but it goes beyond this. She lives in what can only be described as a modified pair of caravans, her ex-husband is housebound due to his weight (and vaguely complicit in the dodgy dealings), she's the adoptive mother of a young man (about 16-17) whose mother is in prison (not to mention his being caught taking drugs), her dog No Name is openly thought to be an illegal breed and not one of her business transactions is legitimate. Her fees are shown to change depending on her appraisal of that person and her dog training class often is paired with a small stall selling goods. It strikes me as being much too close to a number of negative perceptions of non-white groups within the UK, many of which in particular are applied to the various groups of traveller communities in this country.

I don't think that is something the show intends to do, but intent is not always the issue. Nana V is painted as a somewhat tragic figure, one desperate for attention and respect yet stuck in a seemingly never-ending cycle of making things worse for herself. She tries to solve issues through sex, asks for inappropriate favours (e.g. asking a vet to give her a breast examination), and it seems like she is incapable or wholly unwilling to do things by the book. When this is contrasted with her way of life, and the current perceptions of travelling communities, poorer people and those on "benefits" (by that I mean the public perception of someone on benefits, not the reality), I feel like if it isn't adding fuel to the fire, then it is at least dangerously close to leaving the full canisters near the flame.

I will put my hands up and say I'm not talking from a personal investment in this. I could be wrong in my deductions about this character and what she represents. It's just to me it feels like she embodies many stereotypes about marginalised and wrongly-distrusted groups in society, and that the show does little to nothing to change them except try to show her as doing "The Right Thing". The positivity of the show goes hand in hand with the negativity, and it's important to recognise both.

THOUGHTS: The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I wasn't really going to blog about this - well, I tell a mistruth. I have been conflicted about doing so, but after a dozen dozen tweets sent at Adam of The Wertzone and upon reading his review, I think I have to. The film, the sixth and final of Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth adaptations, released today in the UK, and it's been on my mind most of the day.

Of course, there will be spoilers ahead.

On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Battle of the Five Armies, perhaps even moreso than The Desolation of Smaug (in its theatrical form!). If Adam's comments about it being the shortest are true, well... I have to say it doesn't feel like it! This may have been in part to the ignorant-as-heck couple in the row in front of me who couldn't stop muttering for longer than five sodding minutes - ahem, apologies - but on the whole I think the longer scenes did tend to drag out a little much. In particular, there's a scene with Thorin walking across the Implausibly Implausible Solid Floor Of Gold from the second film as his mind rallies against the 'dragon sickness' he has contracted from all of the gold, and it just went on too long. There's only so much of Thorin staring into the camera you can stand before getting bored (though your milage may vary on this).

I would like to tackle Adam's points about the battle sequences, if I may. I honestly found The Battle of the Five Armies itself to be as striking and as exhilerating as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from Return of the King, though sadly it lacks the I AM NO BRO moment that I love so much. I felt this is where WETA were at their best, with a glorious amount of relatively gore-free fighting going on. The Elves of Mirkwood jumping over the backs of the Ironfeet soldiers of Dáin, Thranduil beheading six orcs with one swing of his sword, the almost machine-like movement into formations by the Ironfeet, the sleek and efficient movements of the Elven warriors - even the Obligatory Comedy Cave Troll whose sole purpose is to take the phrase "use your head" too literally. All of these drew me in, irrespective of how implausible it would be, because that is what action sequences are meant to do. They're meant to get your attention, hold it, sustain it and make you gasp. And I did all of that. I would be lying if I said I didn't love it.

I do agree with Adam on the sections revolving around the assault on Dale, however. This is where I get my most critical about the film. I think there was a lot - maybe too much - of Bard running around for his family. It seemed oddly selfish for such a selfless man, but then again defense and love of one's family seems to be a very strong theme in Tolkien's world, and it lead to some fairly interesting sections, though it seemed like this is where even the implausible was overlooked for the entertaining, and even then it wasn't particularly entertaining. But there was a bigger issue running around Dale...


You remember the weasel from the second film, lackey to Stephen Fry's utterly abominable performance as The Master of Lake-Town? Yeah, well, he gets promoted to Comedy Vehicle in this, and does an awful job at it. Alfrid's main role in the last half of the film is to get in the way, sneer at people and think he's better than he is. He bosses people around, he lies, he looks out for himself and he generally disobeys orders. And this isn't the worst of it! A short while after being told to help Bard's son get all the women and children to safety, he does these things:
1. Pushes some disabled characters over and shouts something like "Abandon the cripples!"
2. Disguises himself as an old lady
3. Discovers and tries to steal loads of gold
4. Drops his gold as he's about to be attacked, and then picks it up and carries it in the ONLY WAY POSSIBLE if you are a male character in disguise as a woman - yes, he stuffs it into his chest. This is completed with a "plumping up" and exaggeration/cupping of the pseudo-breasts in a jovial manner.
As point four is over, Alfrid runs away, only to be collared by Bard, who shouts "Alfrid? Your slip is showing!". I thought these whole sequences were utterly appalling and added nothing to the film, nor did they do anything except reinforce the lack of women in The Hobbit (it says it all that the third most prominent character in women's clothing was Alfrid) and to further perpetuate the Man + Women's Clothes = FUNNY. What makes this even more striking was the fact that just before point 2 happened, some of the women picked up improvised weaponry and prepared to help fight against the invading orcs.

The last big point I'd like to pick up on is Adam's discussion of the number of armies involved. I've made a case on Twitter that there are four by Tolkien's counting, and Adam reckons six or more. I think I can easily make five, and my blog allows for a more eloquent argument. Absent from the book is a fifth army - the wolves (who ally with the goblins) - and that leaves us at four. So how do we make five again? Adam suggested counting the orcs and goblins as two separate armies (which makes sense), though one could easily argue that they're still one as their commander is shared - Azog - and they are fighting under overall leadership from the Necromancer (i.e. Sauron). His other point was that the bats were presented as another, but I disagree with this. The bats cannot be as they have very little input in the combat (less than the various types of troll/ogre and perhaps less than the Great Eagles), so I would put them to one side. Simply, the best way to make five is this. The 'Heroic' side is Thranduil's Elves, Thorin Oakenshield's Company and Dáin's Ironfeet Dwarves (considered as one), and finally the Men of Lake-Town, lead by Bard the Bowman. The 'Evil' side would be the Goblins and the Orcs, both fighting under Azog (and Bolg). The Eagles, the Trolls and the 'Bats' do not count as armies for this reckoning, simply as if you count every species and small faction, you end up with something like The Battle of the Five Armies and Their Friends and Two Wizards and a Hobbit and the Sandworms from Dune and Some Other Stuff I Guess.

I did really enjoy The Battle of the Five Armies, but it would be a lie to say it was perfect or only had a few flaws. It continues the utterly awful CGI people, the scenes where your eyes can't focus properly because of the frame rate or the resolution or both, and many many scenes are simply talking heads. The Master and Alfrid's presence continued to drag the film down - yes, Stephen Fry is barely in it and he shat all over it - almost literally, as one of his lines is something like "I'm trying to evacuate myself!" and his character's death is a fist-pump moment until you realise there'll probably be more of him in next year's Extended Edition. But it still manages to be an exciting and fun film when it gets momentum, and for all of its flaws, I have enjoyed this trilogy - but will it be as important, as loved and as long-lasting as The Lord of the Rings has been?

No, it won't.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

REVIEW: Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

*Warning - Minor Spoilers!*

Since the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010, Pixar have continued with the franchise in the forms of short films, with three sub-ten minute shorts (Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry and Partysaurus Rex) and two twenty-odd minute shorts. The first of these, Toy Story of Terror, released October 2013 and saw near-universal praise, especially for how it handled Jessie and her fear of being put in a box. I never got around to reviewing it, but it is one of my favourite animated releases and is Pixar truly at the top of their game. The second short film is Toy Story That Time Forgot, and it released on the 2nd of December in the US, and the 6th in the UK.

Mike Mignola's teaser poster for the special
With Trixie (Kristen Schaal) taking the lead role this time, we go on a short adventure along with Woody, Buzz, Rex and another newcomer, Angel Kitty, as they encounter a new line of souped-up dinosaur toys, The Battlesaurs, led by both Reptillus Maximus (Kevin McKidd) and The Cleric (Steve Purcell; who also wrote and directed). Trixie and Rex are instantly enamoured with this new line of toys, especially as they are treated as equals rather than as side-characters (although it has to be said Rex, again, is a side-character), and even get to share in the accessories that the Battlesaurs have. What follows is a story of love, awakening and of confronting change, and of opening one's eyes.

It has to be said from the start that Time Forgot isn't as strong as Toy Story of Terror, nor as emotional as Toy Story 3. It even references the similarity of its own plot to that of Toy Story 1 (and Toy Story 2 to a smaller degree). I can't help but feel that there's something well-trodden here, and whilst it's not necessarily a weakness in this short, nor is it a strength. If Toy Story was a story of conflict between 'traditional' toys and newer, flashier ones (i.e. the contrast between Woody and Buzz), then Time Forgot is a story of conflict between flashier toys and contemporary video games, as evidenced by the initial unplayed nature of the Battlesaurs and Mason's later 'rediscovery' of imaginative play. The sad thing is that it doesn't really work, especially with every Pixar film getting its own video game and Purcell's own history of working in gaming, because whilst it can be seen to be a lament for children playing with toys, it arguably contributes to the opposite. A quick eBay search brought up some toys from this short as being in production (some of which don't exist within the film), but Pixar films rarely seem to have a substantial toy line behind them.

Six of the main characters (L-R; Trixie, Angel Kitty, Woody, Buzz, Rex and Reptillus)
There are many good things, however. Schaal is very much at her best in this, her voice work perhaps strengthened by two years of working on Disney's Gravity Falls as its co-lead Mabel Pines (in which she is utterly brilliant), and Kevin McKidd's performance is also incredibly strong. In about 20 minutes of film, Purcell managed to get across a lot of character development and the way he shaped Reptillus' conflict worked really well and it was thankfully different enough from Buzz's to feel like something new. Pixar's animators and designers were also firing on all cylinders for this, with some of the best and cleanest animation I've ever seen from them, again putting them near - if not at - the top once again. There were a couple of things that didn't quite work (I have no idea why Jessie was pulling such bizarre poses), but on the whole this was pretty much the best bit of animation I've seen.

I don't think Toy Story That Time Forgot will go down as Pixar's best moment. Whilst on a technical level it has some of the best design and animation they've ever produced, and the voice work from start-to-finish is well-polished, the story leaves a lot to be desired. Trixie and Reptillus are both excellent characters and work well in this, but it feels like it's quite a forgettable story with no massive impact on the direction of the franchise. I think it could have been much stronger if it was of a longer length to allow Pixar's designs to shine and to allow the new characters more time to settle in the imagination of Toy Story fans - child and adult alike - perhaps even so much as needing a film with them. I hope in fact that Toy Story 4 sees a return of the Battlesaurs, as they could help refresh the cast again.

Pixar should be proud of what they've done here. I fell in love with Toy Story again, and I thoroughly enjoyed a return to this franchise. I just don't think this is their strongest nor most impacting release, and instead falls back on safe narrative choices that the franchise has already covered, and has covered more than once.