How the Lego movie should have ended

YouTube is naturally awash with film parodies. Some of the better ones come from  ‘How it should have ended…” and in particular their running gag about Batman and Superman meeting up in a cafe.  If you’d not seen them before I’d particularly recommend their versions of the Dark Knight Rises and Iron Man 3. However, I think I have a new favourite:

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My top 10 Joss Whedon characters

Hey, we can dream!

Warning spoilers ahead for just about every Joss Whedon show and film

I wrote a post a while back about Agents of SHIELD and among other things lamented its lack of exciting characters. To redress the balance I’ve decided to look back at some of its co-creator Joss Whedon’s past triumphs on the character front.

Before we start, I should add the caveat that I have not seen the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, Alien 4, In Your Eyes nor his X-Men comics. Hence no matter how great characters from these are they won’t appear. Well not unless they become the central character of their own TV series of course!

10. Caleb

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Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Actor: Nathan Fillion

Caleb is the only plain villain on this list (though not the only character played by Nathan Fillion.) He’s a preacher turned serial killer turned henchman of the First. While the series he features in is far from the show’s best, he’s almost the perfect Buffy villain. His murderous misogyny is an ideal foil for the show’s feminism. He’s also a paradox: believing himself to be some kind of righteous purifying angel while revelling in murdering and maiming. And while he’s morally repulsive he also compelling: his vileness comes draped in a folksy Southern charm.

9. Captain Hammer

Show: Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog

Actor: Nathan Fillion

Yep another case of Nathan Fillion playing a monster: only this one is theoretically a hero!

There is a conceit of superhero stories that people who get superpowers demonstrate a certain nobility. With Captain Hammer, Whedon posits a more plausible scenario that having justifiable grounds for believing you are better than everyone else would turn you into an arsehole. And that Hammer is magnificently so: a preening jerk who poses for camera while dishing out violence and who brags about the size of his penis. Oh and he winds up killing Penny which is definitely not cool!

But being played by Fillion he’s still a riot to watch.

8. Adelle DeWitt

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Show: Dollhouse

Actor: Olivia Williams

DeWitt is Whedon’s most morally ambiguous character. She’s head of the Los Angeles Dollhouse which arguably makes her a pimp who preys on desperate young people. However, her actions are often heroic, she’s deeply protective of her charges and seems to honestly believe she is using the technology she controls to help people.

A line of DeWitt’s gave it name to a TV Trope: “you have to admit, I am very British.” And Williams’ portrayal most certainly is. She imbues DeWitt with a cut glass accent, an icy demeanour and an effortless sense of superiority. This makes it all the more striking when her principle moral failing turns out to be naivety about the destructive potential of what she is dealing with.

7. Rex

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Film: Toy Story I-III

Actor: Wallace Shaw

When Andy plays with Rex his role is as a fearsome Godzillaesque monster. However, when his real character comes through he is a walking  mass of anxiety. From this contradiction, Whedon and the writers on subsequent films created a character whose humour and likability stands out even amongst a cast of funny and likable characters.

6. Buffy Summers

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Show: you can work this one out for yourself :p

Actor: Sarah Michelle Gellar

The titular character of the series which established Whedon as a cultural force seems like an obligatory inclusion. Even was that not the case she’d still merit a spot.

What makes her so compelling is her balance of strength and fragility. She might have superstrength and the ability to wisecrack her way through potential apocalypses but the demons haunting her are not all literal. She starts off longing for a normal life and guilty about possibly having caused the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and things go downhill from there. By the time she winds up in a frankly rather twisted relationship with Spike it becomes clear that she’s a very damaged individual.

Not of course that that stops her being an ass kicking heroine, feminist symbol and cultural icon. In fact it was hard to imagine Whedon coming up with a more widely recognisable character than her but with our next entry that’s just what he did.

5. Natasha Romanoff (AKA Black Widow)

Film: the Avengers

Actor: Scarlett Johansson

Ok so she’s a character who existed in comics long before Whedon came along. But I’d argue that while he didn’t create her, he certainly recreated her. Objecting to the lack of female characters amongst the core roster of the Avengers, Whedon turned a middle tier character into a central figure in the Avengers.

And you know what it worked. I’ll let Whedon himself explain why: “Her story is among my favorites (sic), because she’s not a hero. She doesn’t live in a hero’s world; she lives in a very noir/duplicitous world of being a spy, and there’s a darkness to her and her past.”

Oh and the role turned Johansson into the highest paid actress in history.

4. Willow Rosenberg

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Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Actor: Alyson Hannigan

Scene stealing is a common trait but Willow steals a whole 7 season show. Her gradual evolution from mouse like teacher’s pet to world threatening Big Bad defines the program as much as Buffy’s story does. She also stands out as one of the first flattering depictions of an LGBT character in a network TV series. And throughout Hannigan plays her with overwhelming levels of adorkability!

3. Rupert Giles

Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Actor: Anthony Head

Giles is one of the few characters who can match Adele DeWitte in the Britishness stakes. He performs the dual role of being Sunnydale High’s school librarian and Buffy’s watcher. This makes him the father figure of the show. This could make him seem like a rather dull character especially given that he is intentionally written to be fusty.

This is averted in two principal ways. Firstly, Giles is given just about the driest wit imaginable and Head delivers his asides and put downs with great aplomb. Secondly, as the show progresses we progressively discover quite how much darkness is hiding behind his bookish exterior. We come to see that his desire to protect Buffy often pushes him beyond the moral limits she would countenance.

2. Malcolm Reynolds

Show and Film: Firefly and Serenity

Actor: Nathan Fillion

Serenity’s captain would earn a place on the list just for the line: “My days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.” Fittingly for a space western, Mal is essentially what you’d get if you threw Yul Brynner and Steve McQueens characters from the Magnificent Seven into a blender and is as brilliant as that sounds.

He’s the final character on this list to be played by Nathan Fillion, whose charisma is indispensable not only to his part but also to the show as a whole. Like just about everything Whedon does Firefly is an ensemble piece but itabsolutely needed an engaging lead. The show’s drama derives in large part from how unlikely the massively contrasting personalities of Serenity’s crew seem as a group. But for them to seem plausible as a team there needs to be something holding them together. The huge personality of their captain is that bonding agent.

1. Topher Brink

Show: Dollhouse

Actor: Fran Kranz

Topher is an innovative take on the mad scientist trope. He also goes on probably the most interesting journey of any of Whedon’s creations. But what makes him particularly remarkable is that he improves on a classic literary character: Dr Frankenstein.

When we first encounter him he is essentially an overgrown boy genius defined by his manic energy and inability to take anything seriously. And from this immaturity comes amorality and arrogance: he treats the residents of the Dollhouse as if they really were dolls and seems to have no sense that his scientific brilliance doesn’t make him limitless.

By the show’s finale he’s traumatised and driven to insanity by the knowledge that the calamity that has befallen humanity is a direct result of his inventions. His earlier endless enthusiasm has thus been replaced by desolation and he can only assuage his guilt through an act of suicidal self-sacrifice.

In a strange way Topher’s evolution is quite similar to Angel’s. They both start out untroubled by a conscience and experience the freedom that comes with that. But then they start to appreciate the horror of what they’ve done and find that freedom replaced by the compulsion to redeem themselves. And yet the strange thing is neither of them would choose to go back.

I am in general rather sceptical of those who try to attribute too much work to Whedon’s work and do things like write dissertations on the depiction of the soul in Buffy. I think he’s first and foremost an extraordinarily talented entertainer. However, he does occasionally do something more profound. Topher with all he has to say about human frailty, science and remorse is perhaps the character who best embodies this.

Observations

  • Yes, 40% of the list coming from Buffy is probably excessive
  • Angel is pretty hard done by to be excluded altogether. I did consider putting Lorne, Lilah, Wesley, Cordelia and Faith on the list.
  • There is no one from Much Ado for obvious reasons.
  • The absence of any character from Cabin in the Woods and Agents of SHIELD seems entirely fair to me!
  • I also think Firefly accounts for more than 10% of Whedon’s best characters
  • It probably says something about my inherent sexism that despite this list being chosen from among the work of an artist noted for creating strong female characters, 6 out of ten of my choices are male!
  • I don’t know who would be in my list of 10 least favourite Whedon characters would be. However, I know that Connor would top it.

A Giant Returns: Godzilla (Review)

Hollywood finally does justice to the King of the Monsters

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Guess who’s back!!!

It’s been 16 years since the release of the last English language Godzilla film. I can still remember my Dad taking me aged 10 and my younger brother aged 7 to see Roland Emmerich’s ill-fated take on the Japanese cinema legend – my brother by contrast can’t remember it all, it was that good! It seemed childish even to children. The film ends with what turned out to be an unnecessary attempt to leave room for a sequel in which he end on the supposed cliffhanger of yet another Godzilla egg hatching. This impressed my brother even less than the rest of the film and he loudly exclaimed: “oh no, not more of it!” That this didn’t seem to bother the rest of the audience did indicate that they shared his low estimation of the film.

The relationship between Emmerich’s film and the reboot currently in cinemas directed by British director Gareth Edwards is much like that between a pedal bin and Godzilla’s foot. It has the kind of gravitas and power that its predecessor so conspicuously lacked.

Edwards deftly nods towards the Japanese films and their obsession with the nuclear age, while simultaneously constructing his own mythology and delivering a new message about Man’s relation to Nature. There are also some solid performances from Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston and others. Though not it must be said the rather wooden lead actor Aaron Taylor Johnson. And above all else there are the monsters.

Not only Godzilla but his stomach churning foes the MUTOs are magnificently realised. Seeing (and crucially hearing) them on the big screen, I was as awed in the way you would be if you were actually seeing prehistoric monsters weighing hundreds of tonnes. But crucially not only does Edwards deliver spectacle but he knows how to deploy it. He is impressively restrained in the amount of screen time he gives over to monster vs monster combat,which prevents their impact being dissipated by overuse  and ensures that we the audience feel properly invested in them when they do come around.

Despite these impressive (and I would have thought evident) strengths the film seems to have attracted quite a few detractors. These seem to fall into two camps.

Firstly, there are those who take issue with its message. For example, the New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody lamented ‘the gray (sic) credo’ of the film. Brody worries that by making it a theme that humans are impotent in the face of nature, it turns the human characters into ‘spectators.’ I think this is unfair as Edward’s makes Godzilla himself a defined character able to carry the story himself. More generally, this might be a smarter than average action packed summer blockbuster but I still think trying to parse its ideas as if they were an essay is too much.

The other more common critique is that we have to wait too long to see Godzilla and that there should have been more of him fighting the MUTOs. I can only assume the people saying must also complain that we need to see more of the shark in the Jaws! While Edwards does indeed keep his powder dry for stretches of the film, as I’ve already discussed this is one of its strengths. Nor is the implication of this criticism that the film drags fair. It is remarkably well paced especially given how baggy summer blockbusters have become. And it includes well done action sequences at regular intervals. These include a nuclear meltdown in the first ten minutes and the spectacular entrance of the MUTOs half an hour in. If that is not enough for you then the problem is not with the film but your attention span!

If you want to see how bad the film would have been had Edwards gone down the road of relentless monster battle sequences, may I draw your attention to Pacific Rim. The effect all that film’s constant supersized clashes had on me was the numbing feeling that I was actually watching somebody else play a computer game.

While it’s by no means perfect, Edwards’ Godzilla is a welcome departure from that kind of thing. His style is more Spielberg than Bay (or indeed Emmerich) and for that reason I’m excited that he will be making a sequel and a Star Wars Spin-Off.

 

Verdict: if you are not wowed the first time Godzilla rises to his full height and roars, you never will be (8/10)

How do the Liberal Democrats become a national party again?

Concentrating our vote in ever fewer seats is not a sustainable strategy. Could a Gladstonian pitch to younger voters provide an alternative?

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Does the party need to go back to the future?

The Liberal Democrats faced two ‘difficult’ sets of elections last week: local elections in many parts of the country and elections to the European Parliament. Both elections produced results that were clearly bad for the party. However, the extent of our losses differed greatly.

Even though this round of local elections were mainly contested in the kind of Labour leaning urban authorities where the party is most vulnerable. At the end of the night hundreds of Liberal Democrat councillors were left standing. And what is more the places where the party did best also happened to be the seats we need to hold onto. Stephen Tall summed it up nicely when he tweeted:

When the results of the Euros were announced we saw a much simpler and bleaker pattern: we lost everywhere! Our share of the vote tumbled and only a single solitary Lib Dem MEP was returned.

While the party has always struggled in European Elections, the divergence in the two sets of elections conducted on the same day is large enough to be striking. What explains it?

The most likely answer is the differing electoral systems. Council elections use first-past-the-post which, ironically given how much Liberal Democrats hate it, has been serving our interests pretty well of late. Faced with national unpopularity we’ve focused our resources into the seats we have the best chance of retaining and promoted ourselves to the electorate on the basis of the popularity of our local representatives. For all the ridicule Malcolm Bruce received for saying so in its own limited terms this strategy has indeed worked.

In a European election this approach just isn’t an option. There is no meaningful way to target resources in a constituency with millions of electors nor is it possible for MEPS to build up a rapport with that many people. [Warning GoT spoiler in the next sentence] The result thus wound up looking something like the Red Wedding, only with Lib Dem MEPs rather than members of the Stark Family.

It was not always like this. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal alliance scored a quarter of the national vote but it was spread so evenly that it netted victories in just 23 individual seats. Even as the party began to concentrate its vote it still retained significant latent support in the areas it didn’t win. As recently, as 2005 the party produced adverts based on polling showing that the party would have comfortable majority in the House of Commons but for the fact that most voters thought the party couldn’t win in their constituency. Now there seems to be no floor through which we cannot fall outside our core areas and we only keep our vote up in them through the most massive amounts of campaigning.

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Note the pretty limited correlation!

This is not only a problem for European Elections but also General Elections. It is tempting to think that it only matters how we perform in seats we are not fighting to win. This is probably true in the short term but is ultimately misguided.

For example, the fact that our council groups in Islington and Camden have been devastated will doubtless reduce their capacity to help Lynne Featherstone hold her seat in neighbouring Haringey.* It will also make it harder if we ever try to target parliamentary seats in those two boroughs again. And of course for as long as they are depending on the party’s present strategy Haringey would be in trouble if Lynne Featherstone fell under a bus or say a split in their local party undermined their ability to campaign.

For these reasons and others, I would be happier if we were in a position closer to Labour and the Tories (and perhaps now UKIP) where a significant minority of the electorate feels a sufficient affinity with us to go out and support us without needing prompting by intensive campaigning. The obvious manifestations of this would be that our vote wouldn’t crater outside our target areas and that we could hold many of our seats with fairly modest campaigning effort.

I am not entirely clear how we would go about carving out such a vote and imagine that there might be multiple ways of doing it. However, it seems that one of the most straightforward routes might be to target younger voters. As a recent Economist article noted: “Young Britons are classical liberals: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility.” This suggests that despite their present antipathy to us as a bunch of tuition fee raising promise breakers, the post-Organ book Lib Dems might actually be the most natural fit for these young voters. Were we to go down this road we would be advised to tweak our policy platform to better appeal to them, by for example, coming down decisively on the side of home buyers rather than aging and monied NYMBYs. We might also want to focus our campaigning on areas that have younger populations such as University towns and in particular London.

This is of course not an alternative to ramping up our campaigning or to having a targeting strategy. Rather it is about not making these do all the work of electing Liberal Democrat MPs. The function of campaigning should be to push us over the top in marginal seats not build our vote from the ground up. That is to expect too much of it and is only likely to be sustainable in a handful of seats.

 

P.S. I do appreciate the irony of calling for Clegg to resign and in effect saying that Cleggism is the future!

 

*Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge of these local parties. I think they were the examples that dropped into my head because I am staying with a friend in Highgate and on my way here walked past a road sign with ‘London Borough of Haringey’ on it.

How will Dr Who explain multiple Peter Capaldis

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You don’t have to have been paying much attention to Dr Who to know that Peter Capaldi has been cast as the next Doctor. If you follow it more closely you’ll know that he’s appeared in Doctor Who before as well as in its spinoff Torchwood.

Now a superfluity of Capaldis is clearly a good problem to have. Nonetheless, it does raise a continuity issue. I’d assumed the writers would deal with this problem by ignoring it. After all, if you watch something like Law and Order you will routinely see the same actor playing different roles.

But according to IO9 they may actually try to explain the same person recurring multiple times:

Here’s another rumor about the filming that was going on in Lanzarote. At the time, the announcement that the Doctor would be returning to the scene of an “old adventure,” people assumed that the “old adventure” in question was “Planet of Fire,” which filmed at the same location.

Now, the theory is that the return might actually be to the “Fires of Pompeii,” which guest-starred Peter Capaldi as Caecilius. This could be true, as Steven Moffat has said that they won’t ignore the fact that Capaldi has been in Doctor Who before. The explanation could go even further, and incorporate Capaldi’s role in Torchwood: Children of Earth as John Frobisher, as Moffat has also said:

I remember Russell told me he had a big old plan as to why there were two Peter Capaldis in the Who universe, one in Pompeii and one in Torchwood.

When I cast Peter, [Russell] got in touch to say how pleased he was, I said ‘Okay, what was your theory and does it still work?’ and he said ‘Yes it does, here it is’…

It’s actually quite neat.

Let’s see if we get to see Peter Capaldi act against himself. Fingers crossed they add in Malcolm Tucker just for funsies. [Unreality TV]

I can only assume the latter idea would go something like this:

The Most Interesting Stats from the 2014 Elections

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Photo of 3ft long Euro ballot HT: Iain Dale

37: the number of MPs Sky News is projecting the Lib Dems will win at the next General Election

With all the talk of disasters and wipe-outs it is easy to overlook the fact that despite the rise of UKIP and the purported rise of the Greens, these new parties will almost certainly remain dwarfed by the its oldest party. One has to be of a pretty pessimistic bent to think that the next General Election will not leave the Lib Dems with a sizeable chunk of MPs.

The result of the General Election will almost certainly more closely resemble the heavy beating of the Local Elections than the near total wipe-out of the Euros.

-3%: the drop in the Liberal Democrat share of the projected national vote since 2011

Contrary to the claims of some Clegg boosters that the party has somehow turned a corner, the Lib Dem share of the vote yesterday was as low as it has been for any set of local elections this parliament.

 -0.75%: change in the Green Vote since the 2009

While the Greens did indeed get more votes than the Lib Dems, to say they “pushed us into 4th” is misleading. More accurately, we tripped and hurtled to a position just behind them.

 7.5%: swing from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ in YouGov polling on Britain’s EU membership since January

UKIP has won this battle but looks increasingly likely to lose the war. Its rise has coincided with a loss of support in polls for its central objective of taking Britain out of the EU.

2.2%: D66’s lead over Party for Freedom in the Dutch Euro vote

While the Far Right has in general done well in this round of European elections, it has not done so everywhere. Most strikingly the party of the obnoxious Geert Wilders has lost votes and seats.

Even more striking is the fact that the Dutch polls were topped by the social liberal D66. A party which has in the past suffered travails of the kind that would seem familiar to Lib Dems.

There is thus no iron rule saying that populism must trump liberalism.

Don’t dismiss Piketty just yet

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The big news of the last 24 hours from the world of policy wonks is that parts of the French economist Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital‘ have been called into question. The FT’s economic editor Chris Giles claims to have identified problems with the data sets underlying Piketty’s conclusions about escalating wealth inequality. This rather good analysis by The Economist (a paper not necessarily wholly sympathetic to Piketty’s conclusions) urges caution especially on the key question of:

whether the book’s conclusions are called into question by Mr Giles’s analysis. If the work that has been presented by Mr Giles represents the full extent of the problems, then the answer is a definitive no, for three reasons. First, the book rests on much more than wealth-inequality figures. Second, the differences in the wealth-inequality figures are, with the exception of Britain, too minor to alter the picture. And third, as Mr Piketty notes in his response, Chapter 10 is not the only analysis of wealth inequality out there, and forthcoming work by other economists (some conclusions of which can be seen here) suggests that Mr Piketty’s figures actually understate the true extent of growth in the concentration of wealth.

However, given the questions that have been raised it would be inappropriate to say anything definitive. One hopes there will be an additional response from Mr Piketty. There will no doubt be efforts by other scholars to dig into Mr Piketty’s figures; Scott Winship, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute who disputes Mr Piketty’s overarching narrative about inequality wrote on Twitter last night:

I’ve spent time with Piketty U.S. wealth ineq[uality] spreadsheet and LOTS of time with his income data. He’s not up to funny business.

And of course, it will take future research to show whether the broad strokes of Mr Piketty’s book are correct or not. But that was true before the FT analysis was published as well.

Now, the academic debate is a different thing from the judgment reached in the court of public opinion. There was an outbreak of gloating across the wires the moment the Financial Times story went live. The book has plenty of critics (many of which never spent much time wrestling with the book’s arguments in the first place), and many of which reached gleefully for word that Mr Piketty’s work might not be perfect. One suspects that in a public back-and-forth that has often failed to hew particularly closely to the substance of the book, this will become an excuse for many to write the book off, and for others a piece of ammo to fire at ideological opponents.