Saturday, 27 February 2016

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Badger

Remember when I said that the cliff-hanger ending to Series1, episode 5 did little for me as a child because, even then, I knew full well that truly major characters like Badger and Fox were never going to be killed off?  Well, guess what?  They actually did kill off Badger in Series 2.  In fairness, he wasn’t really so much of a major character by this point.  He’d had an important arc in the winter portion of Series 2, when he was injured and taken in by the Warden, but once the thaw arrived Badger became much more of a side character – the focus switched mainly to Fox’s quarrel with the blue foxes and the adventures of Fox’s son Bold upon leaving White Deer Park, and the writers were clearly struggling to keep Badger relevant in all of this.  So a complete and utter exit was the way to go.

Actually, Badger’s death is quite a curious one in that, unlike Mole’s death, it had no precedent in original novels (where, if I recall correctly, Badger made it to the very last page).  The series had absolutely no obligation to kill him off, and yet they did so anyway.  As noted, I suspect that Badger’s declining relevance in the post-winter narrative was a significant factor, but I’d also speculate that Badger’s death was intended to tie in with one of the dominant themes of Series 2, concerning youth, aging and the gap between the older generations and the young.  One of the key narrative questions deals with whether or not the respective offspring of Fox and Scarface will choose to continue the wars of their fathers, or if the new generation represents an opportunity for peace and renewal.  While Friendly (who really wasn’t) sides very firmly with his father, Fox runs into conflict with Bold and Charmer, who each have their differing perspectives upon the feud with Scarface and how best to approach it.  The altercations between Fox and Bold get so nasty that Bold chooses to disown his father altogether and live outside of White Deer Park.  Fox later accuses Charmer of treachery when he learns that she and Scarface's son Ranger are secretly on friendly terms, and observes that “the young don’t seem to honour the Oath as we did.”  Badger’s death, however, prompts Fox to reflect upon his own waning youth and his need to learn how to grow old gracefully.  In that sense, it’s a much more meditative death than was typical for the series (I’ve acknowledged that, in Series 1 in particular, death was simply a nasty fact of life for the Farthing Wood animals, and they generally didn’t have time to dwell upon it any more deeply than that) and it did enable a nice moment of contemplation between Fox and Vixen.

All the same, I get the impression that the production team rather regretted their decision to kill off Badger come Series 3, because they introduced a new badger character, Hurkel, who was clearly designed to be his replacement (or, at the very least, to enable the series to keep alive its iconic imagery of a badger carrying a mole on its back, as Mossy was seldom far from him).  Shadow, a female badger introduced in Series 2 during Bold’s arc, was likewise solidified as part of the main cast in Series 3 in order to fill a few of the roles that were Badger’s in the last couple of novels (such as getting sick after drinking poisoned water).  I’ve mentioned earlier that I didn’t much care for Series 3 and I don’t want to labour that point too much, but I found Hurkel to be one of the most thoroughly unappealing characters that the show had to offer and the decision to have Shadow return as a main character reeked of the kind of “they were popular, let’s have lots more of them” mentality that made the third series feel like the product of extensive focus group-led retooling (though Rollo was an even more disastrous example).  When Badger died, he left a void in the series that could truly never be filled.

Oh, and as I’ve alluded elsewhere, I suspect that Mole’s death was shifted forward from where it occurs in the books in anticipation of Badger’s death.  If Badger had been the first to go then there would have been no way to have included the whole aspect of him mistaking Mossy for his father.  Mole’s exit and Mossy’s entrance also fit in nicely with the series' wider themes of birth, death, aging and renewal.

Shortly before Badger’s death, Fox had managed to alienate him by verbally attacking him when Badger had suggested that the two of them were getting past being able to deal with Scarface (the result of misinterpreting a statement made by Vixen).  As a result, Badger hasn’t been spending a lot of time with Fox lately.  Mossy goes to visit to him in his sett, to find Badger in a somewhat listless state, although he does respond to Mossy and greet him as “Mole”.  Mossy seems quite prepared to drop the deception at this point and tries to tell Badger that he’s not really Mole, only to realise that Badger isn’t completely with it.  Disturbingly, he’s rambling about being back in Farthing Wood with his long-departed family, which can't be a good sign.  As he continues, he seems to forget about Mole altogether and speaks only of his badger ancestors.

Horrified, Mossy hurries to Fox, Vixen and Friendly and informs them that Badger may not have much time left.  The four animals head back to Badger who, still recognising Fox, assumes that he’s there to persuade him to leave his home and his family in Farthing Wood, which he refuses to do.  Fox attempts to make his peace with Badger before it’s too late and apologies for his recent unkindness.  This prompts Badger to deliver some fairly haunting last words: “A fox worried about kindness?  I must be in Heaven.”  With that, Badger chuckles to himself and finally passes away.

HORROR FACTOR: 5. This death certainly came as a shock to those viewers who had read the books in advance and assumed that Badger would forever be safe, though as Farthing Wood deaths go it was easily one of the most peaceful.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 10. Badger’s time had simply come.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 10. Apologies to all you Bold fans out there, but for my money this is easily the most heart-breaking death of the entire series.  They went all-out in assaulting the heartstrings with this one and by jove, they succeeded.  I sob my eyes out every time.


Friday, 19 February 2016

The Doomsday Clock (1987)

Commissioned by the United Nations and directed and animated by Royal College of Arts graduates Susan Young and Jonathan Hodgson, The Doomsday Clock (1987) is a plea for multilateral nuclear disarmament which, much like David Hopkins' Sweet Disaster series, offers up a chilling vision of a world hovering upon the very brink of nuclear chaos.  Unlike Sweet Disaster, which was unflinchingly bleak in its outlook, The Doomsday Clock bows out upon a highly optimistic note (making it something of a rarity in its field), suggesting that even in the darkest hour, peace and understanding are still reachable - which is not to say that it doesn't take us to some seriously grisly territory along the way.

The title and central metaphor of the film are a reference to the symbolic "Doomsday Clock" conceived by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which made its first appearance in 1947 and has been maintained ever since as an indicator for how close the world currently stands to all-out global catastrophe (for much of its history, the Doomsday Clock primarily reflected the threat of nuclear war, but in more recent years the issue of climate change has also been a major influence).  The closer the clock reads to midnight, the more dire the outlook for humankind.  As of January 2016, the Doomsday Clock stands at three minutes to midnight (having been moved from five minutes in 2015), which also happens to be the same position it stood at in 1987 when The Doomsday Clock debuted.

The opening sequence of Hodgson and Young's film depicts a world that is vibrant with production, industry and activity, as an assortment of labourers, from farm workers to coal miners to home computer manufacturers, are seen going about their business to the rhythms of a pulsating percussion-based soundtrack.  The initial images show a vast golden field with a flock of birds flying through blue sky overhead - a fleeting glimpse of warmth, colour and natural splendour that is largely absent from the rest of the film, although the entire opening sequence has a tremendous sense of beauty and efficiency, with even the darkness and confinement of the underground coal mines being richly detailed and bursting with life.  The great irony of this sequence is that this intricate network of energy and life is threatened by the very forces that its combined toiling is so skillfully supporting, for things take a distinctly sinister turn when it is revealed that the final product of all this back-breaking labour is a warehouse stocked with nuclear missiles.

Despite the vibrancy of its opening sequence, much of the film takes place against a drab, washed-out urban backdrop that is largely devoid of vitality and colour, as two leaders from opposing nations meet in an effort to negotiate an agreement that could potentially avert a nuclear war, and the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.  Like Dreamless SleepThe Doomsday Clock contains no dialogue and, past the opening sequence, very little background music, creating instead an ambiance of minimal noise against an uneasy and deadening silence - the various footsteps shuffling, doors creaking and jump ropes brushing against pavements convey the stiffness of a world that is not oblivious to the impending threat (manifested here in the form of large spectral skeletons which linger above their every movement) but feels powerless to do anything other than continue feebly on.  Children are seen convening at a playground, and yet there is little sense of any playful activity - if anything, they seem to be locked together in fearful anticipation of the omnipresent horrors lurking above them.  Comfort and reassurance have little resonance here - during the channel-surfing sequence the words of the newsreader are muted and comprehensible, so that the voice of authority becomes distant, alien and meaningless, lost amid a succession of violent and chaotic images in which soldiers open fire upon enemy troops and cartoon characters beat one another senselessly to blandly upbeat music.

It is during the sequence depicting the televised discussion between the two opposing political figures that we hear the echoes of the percussion in the film's opening sequence, as the throbbing rhythms and energies of life are transformed into the beats of terror and urgency, with the ticks of the titular clock counting their way toward total annihilation, further indicated by the ominous red button that each of the two leaders wields at his fingertips.  As the conflict between these leaders intensifies, the two of them don masks and their faces morph into increasingly monstrous and grotesque contortions, their various bestial grunts, squawks and growls signifying their detachment from humanity and their descent into the raw, primal aggression that keeps them at odds.  This calls to mind the terrifying central figure of Babylon, whose monstrous snarls and looming presence personified the perils of the nuclear threat - here, that same sense of monstrosity is shown to grow directly out of human intolerance, discordance and misunderstanding, although The Doomsday Clock urges the viewer not to lose sight of the basic humanity that lurks behind it.   Like Babylon, The Doomsday Clock also uses darkness to indicate a world that is deeply entrenched within the threat of Armageddon, which corresponds with the clock ticking ever closer to its metaphorical midnight.  As the dueling world leaders reach the peak of their conflict, to the extent that they are literally spitting fireballs at one another, and each of them slams a hand down upon their respective red button, we see a shot of the entire Earth plunging into total darkness.  Light disappears from the world, threatening to take all hope and life along with it.

The film could very easily have faded out here, upon its stark images of an apocalyptic wasteland comprised of skeletons, dust and rubble, but The Doomsday Clock has one final message about the power and importance of human unity, and it is through this that it is able to reach its surprisingly optimistic and, in many respects, all the more robust and emotionally resonant conclusion.  In the literal and figurative darkest hour, it is the ordinary citizens, still plagued by the horrifying spectral skeletons hovering above them, who refuse to resign themselves to a world of death and darkness, and who rally together in an effort to convince their leaders to turn back the clock.  Likewise, it is ultimately through their mutual fear of the clock striking midnight that the two leaders are able to shed their monstrous guises and reconnect as human beings, resulting in one of the film's most powerful images, in which they huddle together beneath the doomsday clock, not as enemies on opposing sides but simply two vulnerable and frightened individuals threatened by the same impending catastrophe.  From this recognition of their shared humanity, not only are the hands of the clock turned back, but the foundations are formed for understanding, agreement and ultimately peace.

The sun rises on a new day and there is light and colour in the world again, signified by our return to the vast golden fields that opened the film, and the two world leaders are seen in a classroom, educating the younger generation upon the values that ensure a prosperous, harmonious and united Earth.  A happy and hopeful ending, although one that does not entirely offset the sense of horror that arises from the knowledge of just how closely the world skirted toward complete and utter destruction.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

A Day or a Lifetime - Barton Bonds with Charlie (Deleted Scene)

It's February 14th, and what better way to mark the occasion than with an entry devoted to one of the all-time great screen couples, Charlie Meadows and Barton Fink?

Anyone who's read the script for Barton Fink or trawled through the deleted scenes included in home media releases will know that the initial meeting between Barton and Charlie originally ran on a little longer than in the theatrical cut of the film.  Once Barton has delivered his spiel about his ambitions to create a theatre about and for the Common Man, Charlie has a little more to say about his own preoccupations, and he and Barton enjoy a moment of shared amusement.   Bolding indicates what was missing from the theatrical cut.

Barton: put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phony as a three dollar bill.

Charlie: Well, I guess there's a tragedy right there.

Barton: Frequently played, seldom remarked.

Charlie: Whatever that means. [Laughs]

Barton: [Laughs] You're alright Charlie.  I'm glad you stopped by.  I'm sorry if I...well, I know I sometimes run on.

Charlie: Hell no, Jesus!  I'm the kind of guy I'll let you know if I'm bored.  I find it all pretty damned interesting.  I'm the kind of schmoe that's generally interested in the other guy's point of view.

Barton: Well, we've got something in common then.

Much of what was cut here serves mainly to reinforce details and information that have already been established elsewhere, namely that Barton is a hypocrite (his obvious lie when he professes to share Charlie's interest in what anybody else has to say) and that Charlie's language, while ostensibly lively, indicates preoccupations with hellishness and suffering (yet another "Hell", "Damned" and "Jesus" work their way quite starkly into his speech).  The most interesting point to be excised from this scene concerns Charlie's assurances that he would let Barton know if he were tiring of him - another ostensibly genial remark that seems implicitly threatening when viewed with hindsight.  And while the viewer recognises Barton's claim that he shares Charlie's interest in other people's perspectives to be false, it is nevertheless an early hint that Barton, self-appointed pilgrim of the life of the mind, may have found both a kindred spirit and his match in Charlie, someone who already knows more about the life of the mind than Barton can possibly wrap his head around.

All in all, it's not as baffling or unfortunate a cut as the scene in which Barton uncovers Charlie's wad of cotton wool from his sink, although if I regret anything being removed here it's the moment in which Barton and Charlie share a spontaneous outburst of laughter (some of Barton's laughter does make it into the theatrical version but it's not clear that this is in unison with Charlie).  It's here that the initial animosity shown by Barton toward Charlie completely dissolves and we get a sense of the two of them making a genuine human connection.  In the theatrical cut, Barton appears to warm up to Charlie solely on account of his willingness to act as an audience to his own pretensions, but this moment of laughter suggests that there may have been deeper human feelings involved right from the start.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Bounder

After Dreamer and Mrs. Hare’s deaths, Fox resolves to play Scarface at his own game and bump him off using stealth tactics, so he brings in a hired assassin in the form of Adder.  Weasel and Measly (Weasel's new mate) are tasked with delivering to her the message that, “whoever rids me of the blue fox will be doing me a favour”.  Unfortunately, the weasels’ delivery of the message is a little slipshod, and Adder ends up thinking that she’s being asked to kill off any random member of Scarface’s clan.  So she lies low and delivers a fatal bite to the very first blue fox who happens to pass her by – and that unlucky fox happens to be Bounder, one of Scarface’s sons.

We don't see first-hand how Scarface receives the news (beyond a very brief reaction shot to the sounds of Bounder screaming) but it's probably safe to assume that the loss of yet another son comes as a massive blow to him (from this point onward Ranger appears to be the only son that he has left, or at least the only one who's ever brought up in relation to the plot).  When word of the bungled assassination reaches the Farthing clan, they are properly horrified, fearing that reprisals from Scarface will be coming very shortly.  Charmer, Fox and Vixen’s surviving daughter, is also horrified, albeit coming from a different angle to the others – she’s more concerned about the identity of the blue fox that Adder did kill (only Vixen is able to pick up on the significance of this).

Side note: given that Weasel and Measly had saved Fox and Friendly’s lives in episode 7, I was frankly always disappointed at how quick the Farthing animals were to assume, a mere episode later, that they had given Adder the wrong message maliciously.  I mean, Weasel had repeatedly demonstrated her loyalty to the Farthing animals during the first half of the series - she'd refused to spy on Fox during the winter, despite being severely threatened by Scarface, AND she'd tried to warn Vixen and the red fox cubs about Scarface lurking nearby in the bushes - so her allegiance really shouldn't have been open to question at this point.  There's no denying that Weasel has a particularly rough time of it in Series 2, and the fact that her so-called friends are always so eager to accuse her of treachery doesn't help in that regard.

HORROR FACTOR: 9.  Dear god, that is one unpleasant noise that Bounder makes when Adder delivers her fatal strike.  It's not a particularly graphic death, but the brief glimpse we get of Bounder staggering feebly away, struggling just to lift his body off the ground, leaves no doubt as to the horror of his situation.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 5. Purely unintentional, but he bought his father extra time by dying in his place.  Which wasn’t a good thing from the Farthing Wood menagerie’s perspective, mind.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 1. Who was Bounder?  We never find out.  All that matters is that he wasn’t Scarface (unfortunately for the Farthing animals) or Ranger (fortunately for Charmer).


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Mrs. Hare

Mrs. Hare’s death had been set-up from the very first episode of Series 2, when the hares, having already settled in a spot that was to their liking, declined to go with the others to live upon Farthing Land.  Surely this had to backfire in some way?

In fairness, Scarface was always quite happy to break the rules of Farthing Land when no one was looking, so maybe it wouldn’t have worked out for the hares either way.  Nevertheless, it did make it difficult for Fox to take any kind of overt action against Scarface for Mrs. Hare’s death – while there was no doubt in Fox’s mind that Scarface had done it purely to spite him, the fact remained that, technically, Scarface was within his rights on this one.

HORROR FACTOR: 10.  The animation in this particular scene is really bad for some reason, although that actually ends up working both ways.  On the one hand, the face that Mr. Hare pulls when he sees his wife struggling in Scarface's jaws is downright goofy, but the off-model rendering of Mrs. Hare does make her terror and desperation seem all the more convincing.  Although somewhat similar in execution to Mrs. Vole's death, this one always struck me as being a heck of a lot nastier for the fact that, unlike Mrs. Vole, we never actually see Mrs. Hare die onscreen - she's still alive at the moment that Scarface runs off with her.  Horrifying.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 3. Scarface technically did nothing out of bounds on this particular occasion, so you could argue that this was really no more than business as usual within the natural predator-prey cycle of White Deer Park.  Still, one is inclined to agree with Fox's suspicions that Scarface's primary motivation was simply to send another round of acid his way.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 5. The sight of Hare holding his two leverets close, utterly powerless to do anything to save their mother, is certainly an affecting one.  Although I do have admit that it’s somewhat mitigated by the ghost of a long-dead Mr. Pheasant lurking nearby and crying “Karma!” for the manner in which Hare mocked and belittled him after the loss of his own mate.


Saturday, 6 February 2016

The life of the mind - Riley's First Date?

Things are currently up in the air as to whether or not an Inside Out sequel is on the cards at Pixar. When questioned on the subject, director Pete Docter gave the predictable response - it wasn't on his radar right now, but who knows what the future will bring? All credit to Docter for wanting to focus upon more original ideas, but at the rate that Pixar are presently going (their current slate consists of four sequels, with Coco being their only original upcoming feature) I daresay that it will only be a matter of time. Like it or lump it, franchise-expansion is fast becoming Pixar's number one priority, with original pictures now an occasional treat instead of the norm. (How the misfortunes of The Good Dinosaur, Pixar's first box office turkey, will affect that trend remains to be seen - its failure could well solidify Pixar's current outlook that stories with familiar, established characters are a far safer bet, although at the same time it's certainly an encouraging sign that, when it came to the two Pixar releases of 2015, the cinema-going public emphatically chose the quirkier, riskier and more mature picture over the generic, unadventurous and more obviously toy-friendly one).  So yes, for now I lean more toward the prediction that there WILL be an Inside Out 2 at some point in the future, although I personally am rather conflicted as to whether or not I actually welcome the idea. On the one hand, the original offered up a world so intriguing and characters so rich that a part of me would positively leap at the opportunity to spend more time with them. On the other hand, the original's ideas and messages were communicated so beautifully and so succinctly that I'm left wondering what more a sequel could add that could expand upon that world in a positive and constructive way. I also have this uneasy sneaking suspicion that, if a sequel does come, it will be helmed by a director other than Pete Docter (a la Monsters University), although I suspect that it might be a number of years yet before I have to worry about such things.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the short film Riley's First Date? (directed by Josh Cooley), which appears as a bonus feature on the DVD/Blu Ray release of Inside Out.  I certainly didn't want to rush in and devour the short the instant that I had the disc in my possession, knowing as I did that it could well be the last new material with the Inside Out characters that we'll receive for quite some time (if ever), and I wanted to ensure that that anticipation was properly savoured before I let it go.

Riley's First Date? doesn't have a particularly strong or tightly-structured story, and I can't see it offering a great deal of stand-alone appeal to viewers not familiar with the original movie. It's very much a supplement short, purposely designed to be packaged in with the main feature as a frivolous little extra you can watch on the side, but lacking the substance it would need to hold up beyond that context. The short takes place some time after the events of Inside Out, with Riley having successfully adjusted to life in San Francisco. Jordan, the curly-haired boy she encountered in the final scene of the movie, has shown up on the Anderson's doorstep to go ice skating with Riley, sending her mother and her father and their respective squads of emotions into a frenzy as to whether or not their twelve-year-old daughter is setting out on her very first date. Neither parent (or any of their emotions) much approves of the idea, but neither wants to inquire directly, so Mr and Mrs Anderson opt instead to play a few mind games with Riley and Jordan. The short then splits into two very basic narrative strands, with Mrs Anderson attempting to "probe" a definitive answer out Riley using language that she believes to be fashionable with the current young generation, while Mr Anderson stays downstairs and squares off against a largely oblivious Jordan. The short wisely chooses to devote more time to the latter strand, as Mrs Anderson's attempts at teenspeak are not, in themselves, particularly funny and amount to something of an old sitcom standard, although the reaction of Riley's emotions is what really sells it.

On that note, one of the most surprising (and in my view disappointing) aspects of Riley's First Date? is just how little presence Riley's own emotions (and, indeed, Riley herself) have throughout the short.  The particular Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust we spent most of our time with in the movie proper appear only in two very brief scenes here and have exactly ONE line of dialogue each.  In fact, the emotions who get by far the most focus here are those belonging to Mr Anderson, distinguishable by their moustaches and their military control room-styled headquarters.  As with the scene in which they appear most prominently in Inside Out itself (the dinner table sequence, which also functioned as the film's teaser trailer), the humour comes from the manner in which they hyperbolise the most basic and banal of human interactions as potentially deadly military operations, and the sequence between Jordan and Mr Anderson is easily the high point of the short (climaxing in an uproarious moment in which Mr Anderson discovers, to his surprise, that he does have some common ground with Jordan - this was apparently based upon a personal experience of Cooley's, so it's not surprising that it winds up being the most resonant and heartfelt aspect of the short).  Jordan's emotions appear here as well - a welcome component, as we didn't get a particularly good glimpse of them in the movie itself, although they're allocated even less screen time than Riley's emotions, and only Jordan's Joy and Fear get any actual dialogue.  Constantly switching back and forth between four different sets of emotions over such a short space of time ultimately does prove quite cumbersome and, in terms of their overall contribution to the story, Riley's emotions wind up feeling like the most dispensable aspect of the short.  Inside Out's dinner table sequence was a triumph, but Docter was definitely wise to use that kind of inter-emotion interaction sparingly across the feature.

In the end, the central issue as to whether or not Riley and Jordan are intending to go out on a date is not an especially compelling one, and the short feigns very little interest in the subject (the question is eventually answered during the course of the short, but is treated squarely as an aside).  It's really more of an excuse to get the human characters and their emotions interacting (mainly Mr Anderson and Jordan), and nothing of any real significance happens, at least on the human side of things.   Once the main issue with Riley and Jordan has been resolved (not there was ever a whole lot there to be resolved in the first place) there's some additional interaction between Mr and Mrs Anderson, which has the distinct feeling of being tacked on in order to pad out the running time a little further (and to disguise the fact that the story with Riley and Jordan basically fizzled).  It is perfectly charming, however, and makes me wonder how a short featuring just the parents and their emotions might play out, without those pesky kids there to clutter things up.

Ultimately, Riley's First Date? is something of a fluff piece - it's much too frivolous and uneventful a dip into the world of Inside Out to truly satisfy fans desperate for another fix, nor does it measure up to the very best of Pixar's shorts.  It is, however, an entirely likeable, charming and often hilarious bit of bells and whistles to go alongside the main feature, and Inside Out fans should still find plenty in there to enjoy.