Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mr. Whedon and the Conclusion of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog


So, if you're on top of things at all you will have hopefully seen the third and final episode of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. May I remind you again that this post contains Major Spoilers, although I'll try not to spell it out so if you're skimming it over you won't see it. There are also very vague spoilers for all of Whedon's work, so if you want to experience the full effect, don't read this post.

Joss Whedon is one of my favourite writers. I think he's a pretty special guy, especially in his own genre: television. His characters- villains and heroes both- are vivid and unforgettable, each stealing the show as he or she and very occaisionally 'it' passes through, be it for an extended period or simply for one episode. His dialogue is always witty and funny and I think he makes it easy for other writers to write the same witty, funny dialogue for his characters. His plots are gripping, hilarious, surprisingly deep and moving and- on many occaisions- horribly tragic.

However, that doesn't mean that he does have his foibles. Many of Whedon's most ardent fans are able to peg down his style, knowing when he is likely to kill off a beloved character. Like all writers- like everyone in the world- he has a tendency to walk the same path again and again.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog captures Whedon in all his glory. Including, and here's the spoiler, the tragic ending. I have a love-hate relationship with Whedon's tragic endings. By far, the most moving episodes of television I have watched have been Whedon's. I know the traditional Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode to name in this context is The Body, but I put forth The Wish for equal consideration. And then there's of course the final episode of the Buffy television series, among many others. In the Buffy spinoff, Angel, there are a similar number of tragic episodes. And finally there's the movie Serenity which was the capstone of the short-lived but fabulous tv series Firefly, that I have on good authority makes strong men weep.

So Joss Whedon likes to make us cry. What of it? Why am I writing an entire post about this?

Whedon is very cruel to his audience. He knows what the worst case scenario is. He knows who and what we hold dear. Although many of his fans, as I mentioned before, have learned to expect the tragic conclusion or shocking (also tragic) twist, he still manages to surprise us and break our hearts.

It is what brings us back again and again that interests me. Whedon is very dark, but he's more of a realist than a pessimist. People die; Whedon's 'tragedies' acknowledge this, but he's not pessimistic about it. Whedon's deaths, especially the ones that have no episodes following them in which to heal the wound, often have twists that follow them that allow us to look through the tears and smile about it in the end. Think of the end of Serenity, the ultimate end of Buffy and- here in particular interest- the end of Dr. Horrible. Instead of leaving us down and destroying our faith in all that is good and holy, Whedon turns the end up just a very little, and gives us a little hope.

It has been noted by watchers more astute than I that whereas at the beginning of the 'blog' Dr. Horrible is expressing himself through the blog and the public figure is the mousy Billy, this is reversed at the end of the show. Dr. Horrible is very much the public figure and Billy, shown in the last scene, is expressing himself through the blog.

The final line of the show is, "I won't feel a thing." Whedon and his Dr. Horrible comrades have Dr. Horrible, garbed in red, conscience-free, boldly sing, "I won't feel..." then cut beautifully to a very sad, unconvinced Billy facing the camera in his video-blog position, who finishes the sentence with "... a thing." The sentence is complete, but the musical phrase does not end in a satisfying manner.

Not only does the Billy side of Dr. Horrible, however beaten, get the final word, he gets to say it in a way that makes it very clear that he does feel. He feels it very much so. His conscience is still there, crushed but present and, because of that incomplete musical phrase. And that is the little smile at the end of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, betraying the inner core of optimism that keeps us, Whedon's beleaguered but adoring audience, coming back- able to come back- for more.

Now go watch it all again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review: Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (Act I)

Joss Whedon is changing the world. Well, television. Well, internet television.

In a moment of madness brought on by the writer's strike, Whedon- the writer of such beloved shows as Buffy, Angel and, relatively recently, the tragically murdered Firefly- along with a few friends and relatives, decided to turn their sights on low budget internet media far too silly for real television. The result was Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. That link is to a fan site. Why? Because at the time of this post, the real site is down due to the huge numbers of people attempting to watch Act I which was released early this morning.

Dr. Horrible is a three-act of fifteen-minutes-an-episode musical show that is almost, but not quite, as silly is as it sounds. The main character is a wannabe super villain (Neil Patrick Harris) and the antagonist a superhero (Firefly's Nathan Fillion). It's hugely adorable. Despite being only fifteen minutes long, the first act is so full of stuff that it feels much longer. It's got loads of funny, romance, action, science fiction and yep- songs. It's better than any show like it.

But as Whedon and interviewer C.A. Bridges note in this interview, there isn't really anything like it. Dr. Horrible is something new. It is internet media written and acted at the same calibre (above the same calibre) as anything on the major television networks. It doesn't need to conform to any standard rules, and so it's not only very good, it's fresh in a delightful, hilarious, adorable way.

Although the official site is down, you can get it from iTunes or pirate it directly- with a few audio/video errors- from a torrent site. (What!? How am I going to get into the Evil League of Evil if I don't cultivate my skills?)

Tell your friends.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

On Absent Parents

This entry contains very mild spoilers for the movie Spiderwick.

So, I just watched Spiderwick, which is a well-made, reasonably well written, funny kids’ fantasy movie (I’ve not read the book- shockingly- so I can’t tell you how it measures up). No, it hasn’t got the depth or startling newness that other fantasies have, but it’s certainly worth watching.

However, this is not the focus of this entry. After watching the film I headed over to, which for those of you who do not know (!) collates reviews from various sources and, based on what the reviewers say, gives each movie a rating. It’s a good source of all kinds of reviews.

Because I enjoyed Spiderwick, I was more interested in the negative reviews. Most were along the lines of it being fairly run of the mill as far as plot goes. However, one by Cynthia Fuchs focused on a different problem. She writes:

“As Spiderwick keeps time with the notion that kids’ fantasies must feature bad, absent, or otherwise troubling parents, it also offers precious little in the way of clued-in adults or even adults with a modicum of competence in dealing with their children’s fears or worries.”

She’s right, of course, that children’s fantasy contains many bad or absent parents. Think of the Narnia series, of many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, of A Little Princess, of Roald Dahl and of Harry Potter. Parents are dead, missing, lacking in some way or simply unimportant. Even when parents and family are present and important, such as in Susan Cooper’s Dark series, they are rarely part of the adventure.

But why is this the case in so many of the most beloved series?

Any child knows the answer. Parents, of course, are the barrier between children and the adventures they imagine they would have without them. Parents put their children to bed on time, make them eat their vegetables, make them go to school. Without parents, there are dragons and demons and all kinds of nasties and wonderfuls waiting just around the corner. A child alone is a child on the brink of adventure: they must be brave, and clever, and resourceful, even noble and powerful.

(Not in reality of course, but in fiction and imagination, which is where kids and authors- hopefully- live.)

A child in a fantasy world most often knows things the adults around him or her do not know, or can see things that adults cannot see. This secret knowledge is central to children’s imagination, even if they tell the nearest ear all about it. Even if the knowledge is very mundane, pretty much all children think they know things better than adults. Adults are, in a child’s viewpoint, constantly thinking about the time, and work, and the next thing, and oh-my-god-what-am-I-going-to-cook-for-dinner-tonight. Their minds, in a child’s view, are too busy to perceive the magic going on all around them. Almost every fictional series has the younger members of the group believing- and seeing- first. Think of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door: it is Charles Wallace who sees the ‘dragons’ in the vegetable garden. And the Murray family is hardly a normal family.

Adults not believing kids is part of this, which is why so many of these stories have a scene where the truth is revealed. The child is right. The adult is wrong. No, it’s not a reflection of reality. Only adults want to read books where there isn’t really a drove of dragons in the vegetable garden.

In this age, where kids are never far from adult supervision, it’s not really all that surprising that orphans thickly populate the pages of fantasy fiction.

Is this such a problem as Cynthia Fuchs thinks it is? In my view, no. Decidedly, no.

The only people who might mind about the portrayal of parents are parents themselves. Children aren’t reading these books and watching these movies and thinking “Hm, parents obviously are supposed to be absent and mean. What are my kind, caring parents who visit me in the middle of the night when I think I hear something go bump doing wrong?”

And nor is it teaching children that parents are wrong. Most books don’t contradict the normal things that parents say (eat your vegetables, it’s bedtime). Children know that what is happening in the book is complete fiction. It’s a different child, in a different world, with different parents.

If anything, stories like these give children the opportunity to not only dream about adventure, but also the independence they will some day have to embrace (that is a lot more complicated than even the trickiest story describes). Characters in these books are brave, kind and ingenious; the stories are often about finding your true strength in the absence of the protective shield that exists most of the time in the real world. It’s not a bad thing for a child to mentally practice that kind of independence and moral behaviour in complete safety.

And if by chance there is a child who does experience this kind of trauma, what better chance to escape than to a world where the child is powerful and can escape from evil forces? Most of these children find wise, kind parental surrogates who guide them in their adventures. Even happy children can relate to that kind of outsider validation.

All in all, the absent parent does no harm, except to over-anxious and less-absent parents. It sets up the ideal dream adventure world for the reading child, and maybe even helps them on the all-important road towards growing up themselves.

Review: Wanted (2008)

Summer movies are like Coca Cola. Drink it carbonated, and the bubbles hide the less-than-inspiring flavour and the cloying sweetness. Drink it flat… well, how many people do you know that drink (and like) flat coke?

Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, is a perfect example of a carbonated movie. Drink it bubbly, full of fights, violence, bullets and explosions, pretty people (James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie), hero moments, reasonably good acting, lots of CGI, and a few interesting plot points, and it is a good summer movie.

However, drink it flat, and you’re left with a bit of a mess. In Wanted, the laws of physics are not only absent they are ludicrous, you see the ‘twists’ coming a mile away, the guiding principle of the movie is more ludicrous than the physics and the characters are ambiguous in their motivations.

Wanted marches boldly beyond normal action movie amorality into a kind of blind amoral madness that is only emphasized further by the movie’s premise. This is so stringent at the end of the movie that I was wondering if the movie was more supposed to be a kind of reverse morality like this Berenstain Bears book (“This is what you should NOT do.”) A little research proved this theory correct, in a manner of speaking: the script is an adaptation of a comic book series of the same name (by J.G. Jones and Mark Millar) which boldly embraces the ludicrously amoral main character.

Sadly, this clarity of vision is lost in the screenplay- perhaps by mistake, perhaps by design. Instead, we are left with a character who asserts morality in fits and spurts, apparently following some inner moral compass that is in reality mostly (but not entirely) ignored. In all… a bit of mess that is carried off solely by carbonated bubbles of gunfire.

Needless to say, Wanted (rated 18A, entirely for violence) is pretty bloody. It’s bloody in slow motion! It’s bloody in real time! It’s bloody for extended periods dedicated entirely to blood! Luckily, there’s a plot device to allow large amounts of gore in a short time without having the characters wind up in a hospital bed for a couple of months.

So, if you’re looking for something carbonated, something a little amoral (but not deep or thoughtful about it), something without the laws of physics or logic, and something a lot gory, Wanted is your ideal summer movie.