Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Old Faves in New Films

The just-announced Academy Award nominations include two of my "sentimental favorites" that tell worthwhile stories in a very simple, linear style. They don't leap layers of dreams as the intriguingly written and visually manipulative Inception or show some horrors of human relationships, a la Black Swan. They aren't currently hot topics like The Social Network. And that's why I liked them.

They move a bit slowly at times (a whole film about the King's speech?!), but they build layers of emotions so that I cared. The films that warmed me this year, whether I hid in a theatre from sun or snow, tell old-fashioned stories of love, determination, and life-changing decisions. They're uplifting without being pompous, memorable without being terrifying, sentimental without being trendy.

In particular, I'm pleased that Helena Bonham Carter received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The King's Speech. Her role is subtly played and adds so much--strength, love, faith, empathy, humor, self-awareness--to what could be a fade-in-the-background role. Of course, I adore Colin Firth in just about anything--especially so for his last-nominated role in A Single Man. His controlled (until it bursts forth) anger made the performance so much more interesting for me to watch and gave me greater insight into what had been a historic figure trapped within a history book. The 12 nominations for The King's Speech might not surprise anyone following the many other awards ceremonies this season, but I'm still gratified that a period drama gets so much press. It may be a matter of critics' choice rather audience-chosen blockbuster, but I hope more people who would've turned up their nose at history will give this film a chance.

Toy Story 3 probably will be relegated to the "animated" wins--which isn't bad at all. Nevertheless, now that the Academy nominates 10 films as the year's best, I'm pleased that an animated feature is among the nominees. Perhaps the longer list will always include science fiction or animation--or the combo pack--as a nod to the diversity that should be considered worthy of being named "best."

I've read where the off-to-uni crowd felt particularly attracted to the last installment of the Toy Story franchise because they grew up with the story and, just like Andy, now were leaving home as young adults. I'm well past that time in my life--and was when the story started--but I fondly remember the toys and early online interactive games with which we entertained my baby niece. Now she's independently enjoying her last weeks as a teenager. Computerized animation has grown up with her and proven that technology can indeed have a heart. Despite human and technological generational differences, Toy Story connects audiences because it's a human story of love and loyalty. I hope I never outgrow it.

I like many films nominated and appreciate them in different ways: stories that demand to be told but sometimes make me want to avert my eyes, performances that outshine the script, scripts that defy what the Academy traditionally rewards. Perhaps because of the state of the world, my response to its chaos is to look for comfort films--and The King's Speech and Toy Story 3 fill me up emotionally.

The choice facing Academy voters is interesting, especially in the best film category. Should they vote primarily for story or technology, or the successful blend of both to showcase edgier cinema? Should they vote for characterization and plain old emotional punch, even if the story seems simple? Should the year's best movie reflect modern social issues or the eternal human spirit? If their choice indicates the state of American filmmaking and, years from now, will pinpoint what makes film significant in 2011, this year's results will be well worth watching on February 27.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day

I rather liked Torchwood’s subtitle “The New World,” which clearly separated series four from the previous sequences of stories. So…the new title is “Miracle Day,” and the premise is immortality for everyone. That’s actually a much more intriguing concept than the earlier hints suggesting “only” a dark international story involving a celebrity pedophile, even one no doubt brilliantly played by Bill Pullman.

Immortality fascinates me, and I’ve written about its primetime development from The Immortal in the ‘60s through Highlander to LOST and Torchwood. In class, my students and I analyze characters and fiction, including Torchwood, to debate what makes us (and these characters) human. Death, the great equalizer, is often a humanizing element that we discuss—along with what we might become if we were denied death. (And no, my classes aren’t grim, even if they are a bit Grim Reapery at times.)

The association of Jack with death has been pivotal to his character development ever since “The Parting of the Ways,” and the most illuminating moments have been his dramatic reaction to his own and others’ deaths. Although I was saddened to see Owen depart, I applauded his two heroic deaths—the one that led to Jack’s frantic determination to bring him back as well as the one that turned out to be permanent. One of my favorite scenes in “A Day in the Death” is Owen resolutely cleaning out his fridge because he won’t need to eat ever again. Torchwood has covered the “what if I can come back” premise quite a few times.

Jack’s reactions to the deaths of his team as well as his refusal to kill his brother, despite all he’s done, make him human and a much more intriguing character. I don’t believe for a moment that Jack desperately tries to keep his loved ones from death only because there’s nothing after—only darkness or, worse yet, something moving in that darkness. After all, everyone dies, and if Jack were really that keen on keeping his team alive, he would've fired them or done all the field work himself. I also don’t believe he’s that selfish to think only of himself and his desire not to be left behind. After all, Jack has illustrated his pragmatism dozens of times through harsh decisions in which some people are (or one person is) sacrificed so that others may be saved. Jack’s intimate relationship with death has alternately made him a savior and a Grim Reaper, a victim and a survivor.

What will Jack become if he is no longer universally special? We've seen him kill or be killed, save those he loves or lose those dearest. How will he react to the great irony that no one he loves in future can die?

If, in “Miracle Day,” everyone has the ability to thwart death, certainly that poses new problems for a planet currently sucking up the last of its resources and raises different “quality of life” issues than humanity has faced before. I agree with the latest commentaries about the just-released premise of Torchwood: Miracle Day—this story line could be intriguing.

But who or what changes the meaning of life? Do only humans escape death—or does the “no death” premise apply to everything living on Earth? Is this change the result of yet another alien invasion/threat/demand? The latest press release doesn’t suggest that aliens are part of the science fiction—but it does seem like more science (never Russell T. Davies’ strong suit) is being added to the fiction. Is that evidence of Jane Espenson’s influence in the writers’ room? Even though Caprica turned out to be extremely mortal in the ratings, it told a wonderfully dark story about radical changes in the way humans think of themselves—one I liked very much and would have liked to see continue. (Digression—I’m glad the “here’s what would've happened in upcoming episodes that we have to smush into five minutes of Caprica's finale” was allowed to be shown, but I would have enjoyed seeing how those developments, well, developed.)

Although Torchwood’s immortality thread seems more promising than other plot developments released to the media so far, I now worry about Jack even more. With the rise of Rex (please, somebody, while you’re switching titles, also change his name before filming starts next week), I worried that a shiny new American “Jack” might be primed to replace Captain Jack, no matter than John Barrowman (and his fanbase) are anticipating a seven-year renewal. Now I worry that Jack may no longer be immortal—or unique. If everyone is immortal in this series, chances are something will happen to return everyone on Earth to mortality—I doubt that the “miracle” will last more than 10 episodes. If that “something” returns the population to their mortality, will Jack also become mortal once again? Be careful what you wish for, Jack. You just may get it.

I like the idea established in much earlier Doctor Who mythology that Jack is what remains—that fixed point in time, the ultimate expression of the best and worst humans can be, and the possibility that Jack may one day be responsible for determining humanity’s fate. With the behind-the-scenes changes resulting in new directions for Doctor Who mythology in the past year, fans have learned that time can be rewritten and Rifts closed. Is everything transitory and ephemeral, or are some things, some people (or at least one) truly immortal? I guess we'll have to hold out hope for a Miracle.