The Second Annual Serene Wombles

Two years! Woo-woo! Thanks for keeping with me. It’s been another hell of a year, and although Life Events have meant that I wasn’t able to review quite as much as I would have liked, you’ve stuck with me, and that’s awesome. In fact, with 28,000 hits this year, three times as many people have shown at least a vague interest in this little blog as last year. So: thanks! 😀

Those of you who were here last October 3rd will remember that to mark the aniversary of this esteemed blog I decided to hand out some meaningless awards: The Serene Wombles!

What exactly are the Serene Wombles? Well, to quote myself last year:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble i[s] conferred by being the subject of a review [on In Search of the Happiness Max] in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the judgement will [usually] have been made on a case-by-case basis at the time of reviewing. Sometimes I use a time machine for my reviews because I want to review something that came out in 1939, sometimes because I want to review something more recent that’s out of print, or because it’s a TV show that’s been cancelled… At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Exciting stuff, eh? Let’s get started!

The Serene Womble for Best Film: Dredd 3D
Dredd 3D posterEligible Films: Dredd 3D, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games

The competition was basically between Dredd 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hunger Games. If this category were about which film I’m most likely to rewatch… well, I’d probably rewatch all of those three, but I’d want to watch The Amazing Spider-Man first and most often. But this isn’t just about which film I found most fun. Each of these was well put together and entertaining, and The Amazing Spider-Man was also visually stunning and thematically well-conceived, but Dredd 3D was just in a league of its own – beautiful and thoughtful in equal amounts. It really felt like Dredd 3D was taking sci-fi back – giving us a real vision of the future, beautiful and provocative as well as dark. Breathtaking, is the word.

I doubt this film will sweep the Real and Proper awards in the way it deserves, but here in Womblevonia I’m doing my bit to recognise originality, inspiration, and artistic genius where I see it. Congratulations, Dredd 3D! Well deserved.

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones Season 2 Promo 'The Clash of Kings has begun'Elligible TV shows: Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Misfits, The Fades, The Hollow Crown: Part I, Richard II

Tough crowd. I mean, we have The Fades, one of the most strikingly original and well-executed British fantasy TV shows in a good many years – a real tragedy that it was not renewed for a second series. Then there’s The Hollow Crown‘s adaptation of Richard II, which contains some of the very best Shakespeare I have ever seen performed, and for one of my least favourite plays, at that, including a truly spectacular performance from Ben Whishaw, as Richard II, and a simply wonderful portrayal of John of Gaunt by Patrick Stewart. And although Doctor Who has been highly questionable over the last year, I can’t deny that ‘A Town Called Mercy’ was excellent. Yet Game of Thrones is still hands down the winner, for me. It feels unfair to some of the competition to give it the Serene Womble for Best TV Show two years in a row, but given that it was even better this year than last year, I don’t feel that I can really deny it. Performances by Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams were stand outs, but everybody was bringing their A-game. The special effects were incredible – I now believe that dragons exist and that they are both very cute and very dangerous. Pretty much every element of music, direction, and writing was outstanding, and it stands out in my memory as the best thing I have seen all year.

As they say on these here Internets: All of The Awards.

The Serene Womble for Best Web Series The Guild
The Guild PromoEligible Web Series: The Guild, Dragon Age: Redmption

Well, maybe not all of the awards. This is a new category introduced to include the burgeoning genre of web series. I was tempted to roll it into the TV shows Womble, but, upon reflection, I must concede that web series are their own medium. They are usually shorter and are often much lower budget. It’s neither fair nor practical to try and compare them to much longer, much higher budget shows. Moreover, they are developing their own tropes and styles and on the whole exhibit a different character to their televisual brethrin.

That said, there wasn’t a lot of competition in this category. Both these shows are Felicia Day creations, and whilst I did watch other web series over the course of the year, I can’t deny that Felicia is the mistress of this genre – she has not only talent but the extra experience of being one of the founders of this artform. It means that she’s been at it for longer, but also that she’s better known. Nevertheless, it is notable that The Guild greatly outstripped Dragon Age: Redemption. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that Felicia will have had much less control in the latter, but I also didn’t find her own performance as convincing. In all honesty, The Guild is just in a league of its own. It has the geek-following to bring in stars for the extensive cameos that were a feature of this series, and it’s starting to get the money that allows it to do more things. It’s also excellently and knowingly written for the audience that powers the Internet: geeks. Not to mention the spot on performances of the other cast members: Vincent Caso, Jeff Lewis, Amy Okuda, Sandeep Parikh, and Robin Thorsen.

It’s a deserved win, but with more and more people finding it natural to watch their visual content online, more TV stars using short videos as a way to get a bit more exposure and make a bit more cash on the side (see, for example, David Mitchell’s Soapbox), there’s a blooming new arm of the media that I’m thinking I need to investigate further in the coming year. I’m interested to see how things develop.

The Serene Womble for Best Actor Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw as Richard IIElligible Actors: This category is open to any actor in any recent production that I’ve reviewed in the past year – film, TV, radio, podcast, whatever. I do not discriminate by gender. It’s a fight to the melodramatic death and the best actor wins, regardless of what’s between their legs or how they identify.

This was a tough one. I feel bad for stinting Peter Dinklage for the second year running after praising him so highly, but it was a strong field, and he did contribute to the overall Game of Thrones win – keep it up, Peter, there’s always next year. Lena Headey was also giving all the players a run for their money with her outstanding performance as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D – a real performance of a lifetime. But I can’t deny the just deserts for Ben. He took a role I’d never especially liked or understood and made me see it from a completely different angle – an angle that was utterly compelling and heart-breaking. In all honesty I was far less impressed with Parts II and III of The Hollow Crown (and I somehow missed Part IV), and I’ll not deny that Tom Hiddleston did a good job, but Richard II blew me away, and Ben Whishaw was the lycnhpin of that production. Incandescent. Any actor that can ellucidate not just the character they are portraying but the themes of the play and have that render their performance more compelling rather than less, and to such a level… sheer genius.

Thank you, Ben, for showing me Richard II the way you see him. Have a Womble.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall
Rome Burning cover art Eligible Novels: A Dance With Dragons, Kraken Romanitas, and Rome Burning

This one was probably the hardest. Kraken is the most imaginative novel I’ve reviewed this year, and it was certainly a gripping as well as intelligent read. However, it did have some minor gender issues, the attempt at rendering London accents was unconvincing, and although I found the exploration of personal identity fun, it was inconsistent.

Rome Burning‘s alternate history setting was imaginative in a different way. For exploration of gender, race, and cultural issues it was outstanding. The characters were interesting and varied. The pace was fast and gripping. The politics, nuanced and intriguing. And, overall, the harder-to-define ‘squee’ quotiant was just higher than for anything (new) I’ve read in a long time.

Romanitas, the first book in the trilogy of which Rome Burning is the second, was also good, gripping, and squee-worthy, but the writing was not quite as strong and the world-building was more developed in the second volume.

A Dance with Dragons is what it is: a novel to which I have mysteriously devoted a surprisingly large chunk of my life in reviewing; part of a long series that has given me both great joy and great frustration. Perhaps it is unfair to put it up for assessment when the review is as yet incomplete, but I’ll give you a sneak preview and say that, for all its good points, A Dance with Dragons was not really competition for any of the above.

The Serene Womble for Best Comic Romatically Apocalyptic
A wallpaper made by Alexius from one panel of Romantically Apocalyptic

Eligible Comics: Real Life Fiction and Romantically Apocalyptic

Another new category, and only two in it, but I couldn’t leave them by the wayside. Both of these are excellent, and I thoroughly recommend them to all of you. Both are surreal, hilariously funny, and gender balanced. Romantically Apocalyptic has an edge for me by being, well, apocalyptic; but then again, Real Life Fiction has Manicorn. The real clincher is the artwork, which, as you can see, is stunning. I have never seen anything like it in a web comic. Or any comic. Or ever. And the creator, Vitaly S Alexius, hands this stuff out for free. There are no two ways about it: this comic wins.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Film The Glass Slipper
The Glass Slipper promo imageEligible Films: Robocop, Soldier’s Girl, The Glass Slipper

That’s right, I’m giving the award to a film it’s virtually impossible to buy anymore. It’s not available on Amazon (there’s a Korean film called Glass Slipper, but it’s a different movie), it’s never been made into a DVD, the only videos I can find are US vids on eBay, the cheapest was going for about £16 (inc. P&P) at time of posting. I don’t know if it’d even play on a non-US machine. My copy was taped off the telly in the 1980s. But if you can get it, I urge you to make the effort. And this is really what reviewing via time machine is all about: drawing attention to classics and forgotten works of art. How can we get great films like this pressed for DVD if nobody speaks up to say that they are wanted?

The Glass Slipper is beautiful, sweet, and knowing. To me, it is the definitive cinderella story, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking. I feared it would be when I went to rewatch for this review, but it’s not. This was a feminist take on Cinderella in 1955, long before anyone even dreamt of Ever After. And it doesn’t sacrifice the romance for its message; it is a heart-breaking, life-affirming, challenging, witty, and beautiful work of art.

This is not to discredit its competition, however; both of the other films were clear contenders, although each is very different to the others, and it was hard to make the comparison. Robocop is a cleverly written and directed critique of capitalism. Its ultra-violence and gritty realism stand at stark odds to The Glass Slipper’s colourful fairytale punctuated with surrealist dance-interludes. Soldier’s Girl is a moving and powerful adaptation of the true story of a soldier who was beaten to death for loving a transgender woman. It perhaps didn’t have the artistry of the other two movies, but I don’t know that you want a lot of whistles and bells for such a movie – its task is to tell someone else’s tale and command the viewer to witness a crime and recognise an injustice. It would be wrong for a director to grandstand and steal the show. So, what do you do, when confronted with three such different films, ones that resist judgement on equal grounds?

I think you have to go with your gut. The Glass Slipper is the one that had the deepest personal influence on me, playing a pivotal role in shaping my psyche and helping me figure out what sort of a woman I wanted to grow up to be. Children’s or ‘family’ movies are often over-looked as less serious art objects than ‘adult’ films*, but they help to form the worldview a child is exposed to when they are trying to figure out what this existence, this life, is all about. Films like The Glass Slipper, which show a child a multiplicity of roles for women, are incredibly important, especially when they do so in the context of a story that is usually cast to define women as romantic creatures whose ‘happily ever after’ lies in marriage, and not in independant thought. Doing that whilst keeping the romantic centre of Cinderella’s tale intact is a masterful stroke. It deserves this award.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Actor Lee Pace

Eligible actors: anyone who has acted in a film I had to time travel to watch.

It may not have garnered the illustrious Time Traveling Womble for Best film, but I can’t deny the Womble to Lee Pace – head and shoulders above the rest – there really wasn’t any competition. Lee Pace plays Calpernia, the transgendered woman that Barry Winchell fell in love with, and was brutally killed for loving. The gentle, understated approach to this sensitive role is spot on. I imagine a lot of reviews of this film will have said something to the effect of what a ‘convincing woman’ Lee Pace made – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s the sort of thing people say when they discuss a man playing a transgendered role. I’ve known a number of transgendered women – they’re as varied as any other random woman would be from another; they’re as varied as people. Which is not the same as saying that they have nothing in common or don’t have shared experiences. I don’t want to make any sweeping characterisations of what it is to be a transgendered woman and then proclaim that I think Lee Pace matched that stereotype. What I’m saying is that he portrayed a well-rounded character – a person with loves and passions and heart-ache, with interests both important and trivial; a person whose story moved me and made me think about an important issue.

The point that moved me most – that stood out – was a moment in the above scene. It spoke to me powerfully even though it was speaking about an experience I’ve never had, and am never likely to have. Because it’s a scene in one sense about a man struggling with figuring out his own sexuality in the high-pressure environment of being a soldier in the context of the US Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy – only revoked just over a month before I reviewed this film; still in force when it was made. To a large extent, that’s what the film is about. But it’s also about a woman, struggling to be acknowledged as a woman, finding it almost impossible to date, even though she is beautiful and charismatic, because straight men won’t acknowledge her as a woman. And here she has found a man, a man she is falling in love with, and she must always be asking herself: is this just an experiement, for him? Am I his way of figuring himself out? And all this time she has been loving and supportive and understanding that this is hard, for him, but here she finaly shows her pain and anxiety. Yet, it’s still within the context of that loving, caring, understanding character. Once he has affirmed his love for her she subsumes her own pain to his need for support. It is done with so much subtlety and nuance. Lee Pace isn’t the one bawling his eyes out in this scene, but the emotion is nonetheless powerful.

That’s acting. Acting and sensitivity; just exactly what the role needed.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Novel The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
Cover art: The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the ThreeEligible Novels: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish and The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King.

I did think about including some of the works of Anne McCaffrey in this category, as I did talk about a number of them in her memorial post, but ultimately I decided that what I was really doing was celebrating a woman’s life’s work, rather than giving a review. Besides, I might want to review some of them properly somewhere down the line.

As for the two remaining novels… well, it was an unfair match. The Drawing of the Three is basically my most favourite book. The Blazing World is an important book that more people should read. It’s historically valuable and truly remarkable for its time. But it’s also the offspring of a genre (novel writing) in its infancy – the very first science fiction novel, in 1666. Don’t believe me? Go read the post.

As for The Dark Tower – ah… I suspect I shall spend my whole life trying to tease apart why it affects me so. My post, ‘Meditations on Death‘ explores just one aspect of my its power – the seductive power of the concept of death-as-release, what makes us resist its allure, and how this is expertly explored in The Drawing of the Three.

And, last of all:

The People’s Choice Award The Guild, Season 5
The Guild cast in the costumes of their avatarsPerhaps the most arbitrary of all the awards, this is the one you voted for with your feet. The selection for this award is based solely on the review post with the single largest number of hits. And this year it was a landslide, with 8,431 hits and counting, this post has had more hits than my home page. It’s had several thousand more hits than the total for all hits of my most popular month (July). The closest runners up are The Amazing Spider-man and The Hollow Crown (both around 1,000).

And it’s not even because it’s been on the blog since October last year – the hits suddenly started raining in in July. I don’t know what it was, but it seems like all of a sudden the Internet woke up to The Guild, and all I can say is that it couldn’t be more well deserved. Congrats, Felicia and friends: they like you, they really, really like you!

And that’s it! The awards have been awarded, and it’s time to start all over again, selecting novels and films and TV shows and comics and web series, and kittens only know what else, to review in a brand new Womblevonian year.

Stay serene and max for happiness, yo.

*Not that kind, dirty minds!

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Poster: The Dark Knight RisesTitle: The Dark Knight Rises
Cinematic release: 2012
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine
Written by: Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer
Directed by: Christopher Nolan

I’d been worried about this movie. Images of Anne Hathaway in a sprayed on catsuit (and yet more of the ridiculous heels that have become such ubiquitous wear for female stars) had me deeply concerned. I am relieved to say that I was pleasantly and thoroughly surprised.

This is the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s renowned trilogy, revitalising Batman for a new generation of cinema goers. Batman has always had dark roots – in his origin story of a child who watched his parents murdered before his eyes, growing up to fight crime in the forbiddingly named ‘Gotham City’ – but for a long time these were largely eclipsed in mainstream consciousness by the famously camp 1960s television show. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns sought to revitalise the franchise in 1986, and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 took this darker vision to the big screen in a way that added new life to a hero that had begun to flag outside of comics. His sequel, Batman Returns, was, for me, the best of this series – visually stunning, clever, and featuring an iconic portrayal of Catwoman by Michelle Pfeiffer, giving a powerful and dark feminist interpretation of a character with a history of hyper-sexualisation that continues today. Yet after Batman Returns the franchise deteriorated into a vision of campness all too familiar. I haven’t even seen Batman and Robin, and it takes a fairly unanimously negative response to put me off seeing a superhero movie.

So, the franchise was again in need of a reboot, and Batman Begins could not have been more welcome or more spectacular. It’s still one of my all time favourite superhero movies, despite having a fairly wet female lead. I was blown away. I lost a stone trying to get fit like a ninja because Batman and Ra’s al Ghul made it look so cool. Nolan’s trilogy draws more strongly on the gritty realism of Miller’s Dark Knight and arguably takes it further. It introduced a whole new way for superheroes to be reimagined on the big screen, ushering in an era where superhero films search for the darker aspects of heroes’ characters, rounding them out to more interesting visions.

Critics were torn on whether The Dark Knight was better or worse than Batman Begins. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was near unanimously praised, but some felt the film was overlong and messily plotted. I was inclined to wonder whether it was really two films, with two villains, which would have been cleaner and neater if separated out. However, on rewatching at home, with the opportunity for a loo break, I did find it a more cohesive piece.

So, there was a lot of expectation on The Dark Knight Rises, which Nolan has said will be the last film in the series. I don’t think I would go so far as to say that it was as good as the previous two, but I still thought it was very good – highly enjoyable and one I will want to own on DVD when it comes out. And, thankfully, there was one aspect in which TDKR left the previous two films in the dust, and that was: its treatment of women.

Anne Hathaway is to be commended for taking on a challenging role that she must have known would always leave her being compared to Pfeiffer. As I myself was doing before the film had even come out. And she delivered. She artfully uses the sweet, vulnerable image she has cultivated in roms-coms and feel-good movies like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada to create a foil for the sexually barbed, completely in control, couldn’t-give-a-fuck-about-anyone-else Catwoman. She sashays from vulnerable flirtation to lightning speed expert violence to utterly convincing screaming-weed to calm and collected woman again in seconds in the scene where she destroys a bar in response to being double-crossed, and leaves unscathed, along with my heart.

Poster: Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer as CatwomanThat said, Pfeiffer still has the top spot, for me. Part of that’s the writing. Whilst this film unquestionably has the best writing for women of any of the Nolan trilogy, Catwoman still has a softer edge that stops her presenting a truly cutting message about women in film, women in superhero films in particular, and women in general. Catwoman’s bitterness is present in Hathaway’s presentation, but it is softened by a vulnerability that was fiery instability in Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Hathaway’s Catwoman has a softer side that can be appealed to, can be won over, can be wooed. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman triumphantly declares ‘four, five, and I’m still alive!’ as her cat’s ‘lives’ are cut down by Max Shrek – she never asks for help and she never runs into the arms of Batman for protection from the cruel world that has driven her to the edge. She is a woman with vulnerabilities, yes – she was used and abused – but she has been forged by them into a force of nature – a cat-force: as dangerous as she is magnetically sexual. The butchered PVC costume that oozes sexuality and brokenness also screams of danger, right down to the wicked claws of her gloved hands. Pfeiffer’s (or perhaps one should say Pfeiffer’s and Burton’s) Catwoman is a statement, an icon, an image in a way that Hathaway’s/Nolan’s cannot hope to be.

But then, I don’t think that was the point. Batman Returns is almost more Catwoman’s film than it is Batman’s – certainly more hers than the Penguin’s. But The Dark Knight Rises is about closing a chapter, about saying goodbye and settling down to something else. We may have always wanted for Catwoman and Batman to get it together, but it would have been deeply inappropriate in Batman Returns in a way that it is not in The Dark Knight Rises. Both Batman and Catwoman start the movie in places where they are tired of this life they have carved for themselves, but don’t really know how to let go of it. It works for them to find a way to do so together; and it must be confessed that Hathaway’s Catwoman is pretty hard in places as well.

I also appreciated that she was not the only prominent female character. Miranda Tate (Cottillard) adds an effective counterweight to Hathaway’s sexuality. She is a beautiful woman, but she dresses sensibly and in a manner that befits a board member of a powerful company. And when everything goes to pot she shows strength and guts in practical ways that are more attainable than Catwoman’s ability to casually break a man’s hands if he looks at her funny. Without spoiling too much, the addition of Miranda Tate added significantly to the balance of this movie, and was greatly appreciated.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake was as wonderful as he always is. That’s a man who deserves his own film, and I feel like this one may have been a way of shifting him on to step up to a leading role. There is a moral complexity and interest to Blake’s character that is very skillfully built up over the course of the film and to which Gordon-Levitt was very well-suited.

Gary Oldman, of course, was immaculately good, and appeared to be having a very good time. His Commissioner Gordon is one of the most truly wonderful features of all three films, and I enjoyed the way the events of the previous films, and his decisions along the way, are all called back to. Gordon is presented to us as a flawed, yet still wonderful, human being. A good man in a bad place who is still capable of making mistakes, but also still worthy of our love for the good he has brought into the world.

But it’s not all glowing praise. There were a number of moments where the script was notably less strong than the previous two films, and both Batman and Catwoman’s costumes had an air of campness that seemed slightly incongruous in the context of the gritty realism that premised this revitalisation of the franchise. And, to be blunt, there were several moments that were just plain silly. Specifically, medically silly. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I choose my example carefully, but if Bruce Wayne really has no cartilage left in his knees he’s going to be having a lot more trouble than a single walking stick will be able to help him out of. And as the film goes on the idea that anything at all is wrong with his legs seems to be jettisoned entirely.

Moreover, the whole episode in the hellish prison that Bane (Hardy) supposedly escaped from is not only implausible, but a little bit dull. Because you know exactly what is going to happen from the moment it enters the plot. The rest of it is just treading water, waiting for the inevitable to happen.

Michael Caine is also decidedly sub-par. There’s a scene where Bale and Caine are required to emote at each other for a protracted period of time, and although the script probably isn’t doing them any favours, it’s clear that this is not the sort of acting that comes easily to either man. It’s just painful, and I was glad when it was over. I’m also not really sure what it added to the plot.

So, it’s not without its flaws, and it’s not the equal to the previous two films, but it’s still a well-made, exciting romp that still deserves to be on your list of superior superhero movies. Moreover, it’s a positive breath of fresh air from a feminist point of view. Hathaway’s Catwoman does everything Black Widow was trying (and, for me, completely failing*) to do in The Avengers, and more. It did a good job of rounding off the series and I left the cinema able to report that I had had a jolly good time.

*I know this is not a popular opinion, and it’s pretty much the primary reason I chose not to review that film – I didn’t want to be dogpiled by the legions of fans – I mention it here merely because it’s relevant to how positively I responded to Catwoman. Please don’t treat this as an invitation to tell me how wrong I am in the comments.