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Opinion - Teodor Reljic • 04 July 2007

Summer by the screen

Teodor Reljic rambles about the far too many ways we can be entertained

There’s plenty of sequels this year. Threequels, actually. Which obviously means that there were plenty of sequels last year as well, or at least the year before that. What I’m trying to ramble out is that franchise films mean comfort. Expensive comfort, no doubt: big, loud, effects-laden, committee-written films don’t come cheap. But nevertheless they keep both the filmmaking people – you know, I’ve always hated how people tend to use the umbrella-term ‘producers’ to describe the entire cast and crew. Maybe I’m just an anal curmudgeon, but it gets me every time – it keeps both the film makers and film financiers (OK, you win) as well as the fans happy and sated, and obviously quality is never part of the equation.
Take Ocean’s Thirteen. I can get over the fact that the whole thing is a shameless indulgence – in fact I rather enjoyed Ocean’s Twelve’s kinda-clever-kinda-postmodern-winking-at-the-camera. But this one was set up as a revenge heist drama/comedy that progressed like a shopping list of heist plans that took too long to execute. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End showed a surprising discipline in tying up the shameless amount of loose ends, twists and general plot entanglements left in the wake of its predecessor, but it still managed to introduce a new development or character more or less every five minutes (bear in mind that this garrulous opus spans over three hours).
But like I said, quality (you can add structure and coherence), really isn’t the point. We like to have something to look forward to at the back of our minds, knowing that there will be another instalment of whatever series we’re enjoying to smoulder into. As we’re going through the motions of everyday life, it is nice to be reminded that familiar characters will be waiting for us, entertaining us, like kind old friends, to their ever-progressing adventures.
It seems that episodic has stopped being a taboo. We’re OK with films becoming large-scale TV shows. Maybe it stared with all the fantasy-novel adaptations, with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. But there’s also the comic-book stuff. Spider-Man 3 is released this summer, as is – more recently – Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer. Fair enough a title, I suppose, Fantastic Four 2 would have been an unfortunate numerical conundrum, too much for snot-nosed, Coke-guzzling (get your mind out of the gutter, etc), hyperactive pre-pubescents to handle. But yes, Fantastic Four is one purely for the kids, or maybe the rare breed of kids nowadays who still believe in so tight an alpha-family unit (barring a big orange rocky guy, perhaps, or maybe not).
Spider-Man has gone all dark, the long-awaited black costume finally making an appearance to unleash some grungy angst into the final instalment. Spider-Man was always angsty, mind, but never grungy-angsty, maybe emo-angsty. The series, however, has rocketed away in a gratuitous crescendo – there’s just too many villains this time around and whereas the Pirates series gleefully stomps forward with a cheerful penchant for excess, Spider-Man is squeezed in and eager, director Sam Raimi can’t seem to break out of its comic-book form.
There’s always so many characters that can give you flashy effects and attract an audience, so studios ruin fan-favourite icons like Venom into being sideshow attractions. Comic-books and films just aren’t compatible. You can’t develop lovable characters in that way. You have to let people grow with them and that can’t be done over a couple of hours, most of which you have to reserve for action set pieces anyway.
Novels are an easier thing to crack: just look at the parallel releases of the Harry Potter books with the films. One-off stories are doable, half-baked series should be a no-no.
Good thing TV is thriving. Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Prison Break…and I just fell in love with Rome. It is a testament to human solidarity that this UK/USA collaboration tackles the rise and fall of Julius Caesar with such abandon and gusto. Sure, staunch history geeks will be irked, but anybody staunch about anything is generally in a state of irkdom.
It’s all gritty and head-on, with that hint of rock ‘n’ roll revisionism keeping things juicy and down-to-earth. The scheming, the back-stabbing, the sex is very much present and there, and it is peppered with contemporary touching-up that’ll help you identify where the characters stand in no time. The plebs are pretty easy to get a hang of, as is the rising, passive-aggressive bourgeoisie. The show toggles from political intrigue to domestic drama and so in its own way elucidates on how decadence and corruption burrows its way into the Republic.
The predominantly British production burns slowly – compared to the hard-and-brash American way of doing TV, anyway – and so allows for the kind of healthy storytelling simmering I was pining for.
But anyway, whatever, watch what you like – we certainly are spoilt for choice with DVDs and the Internet. I wonder…would a live stream of a no-holds-barred gladiatorial contest even register on our radar?

MediaToday Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 02, Malta
Managing Editor - Saviour Balzan