Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Big Swallow (1901)

Yet another quick lunch break blogging of a very early silent short, then, and this time we have a very early but of metatextualism, and you know how much I adore all things meta. 

This film is less than a minute long, but it manages to be playful and fun; the camera closes in on a bloke with a startlingly enormous collar (and the close-up, in 1901, was not in itself something to be taken for granted), until suddenly he swallows the camera and cameraman. We then see the camera and cameraman inside said bloke's mouth (!!!!) and then we see Big Collar Man again, laughing evilly. But, we're made to ask, who is filming these last two scenes...?

The grammar of film-making has never been so much fun. Have a look; it's on YouTube.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

"Welcome to the Caribbean, love!"

I saw this film at the cinema, and enjoyed it then as much as I enjoyed it again now. Mark Kermode may not like it much, but it's a rollickingly enjoyable adventure film with a superbly charismatic turn from Johnny Depp, although I must admit it's bloody long. Keira Knightly is quite good too, and even the fact that the uber-wooden Orlando Bloom plays our Jim Hawkins figure doesn't ruin things. Not bad for a film based on a theme park ride.

Obviously the introductory scene with Jack Sparrow- from the moment he casually steps from the mast of his sinking ship on to dry land until his capture and inprisonment under sentence of hanging- is the best thing in the film, but things don't flag in spite of the fact that there's ages to go. There's lots of nice usage of the tropes of the pirate genre and a bit of the supernatural mixed in there too. The plot may show a few signs of having been written by committee, but the film is all about the set pieces. And they deliver. 

What really lifts this film, though, is the utterly magnificent performance of Johnny Depp; this is a premier example of a potentially average film being elevated by his star into something greater. Case in point: the scene where Jack and Elizabeth, marooned, get pissed together on an island works entirely because of his performance. We're all rooting for him, and it's fitting that he's allowed to flee at the end.

Thing is, though. How will the sequels stand up? After all, Mark Kermode has certainly slated them most entertainingly...

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

"There is even talk... Of an election!!!"

It's hard to say much about this middle part of the trilogy without rehashing things I've already said about the previous film, well-made and good though the film is. Again, it's overlong but gets away with it. And again it's good in the same way as the Lord of the Rings films were good, but less likely to attract the attention of the academy due to lack of novelty.

Not that I mean this as any kind of negative criticism, but this film is more of the same, a splendid turn from Stephen Fry aside. Again, we have the parallel stories of Smaug's gold and the "Mecromancer" actually being Sauron. The latter of these two plot threads is essentially what pads out the film, along with a greater emphasis on dwarves culture and history (they aren't just after gold, as they essentially were in the novel) and fleshing out the nature of the city of Dale. And then there's the Elven stuff, and Legolas. There's even a bit of political allegory, given the isolationist and Neville Chamberlain-like policies of the Elven king in the face of an obvious Hitler analogue

(Legolas, is, of course, a Wood Elf. Fitting, as there's always a touch of plywood to Orlando Bloom's performance. Boom boom.)

Probably the highlight of the film is Bilbo's awakening of Sauron. Which not only looks amazing but is absolutely made by the excellent voice work of Benedict Cumberbatch. It's odd, of course, to see him paired in this context with Martin Freeman, his erstwhile Baker Street chum, but these scenes are superb. 

It's a superb film, really, and the ending has you on the edge of your seat. At least, it does until Ed bloody Sheeran opens his stupid mouth...

Monday, 4 August 2014

The One-Man Band (1900)

More trickery in front of a static camera from Georges Melies here, less than two minutes long and presented as a novelty rather than a narrative. Like The Haunted Castle, it feels like a piece of music hall-style light entertainment with a camera pointed at it. We are still at the stage where cinema is a novelty and the basics of film grammar are not taken for granted.

It's fun amusing to watch, though, and it's nice to imagine that it has something of Melies' personality to it.

The film is, naturally, in the public domain, and easy to find on YouTube or the online channel of your choice.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The War of the Worlds (2005)

"Trees are funny!"

I have a rule. Never do I blog a sequel before it's predecessor and never do I blog a remake- if I blog remakes at all; I have a big prejudice against them- before the original. Never mind the obvious stylistic nods to the 1953 George Pal film; this is at heart another version of the original novel. Indeed, we open and with Morgan Freeman speaking H.G. Wells' words, and the ending, from a time when Natural Selection was a relatively new thing, is retained in this updated film, set in modern America.

Steven Spielberg and War of the Worlds was always going to be a neat fit, and the film certainly looks great. Sadly, it stars Tom Cruise, but it's nice to see a suitably weird performance from a young Dakota  Fanning, one of my wife's favourite performers. 

The opening section, introducing Sal, his kids Robbie (studying French colonialism in Algeria, appropriately as the original novel was based on the idea of the British Empire feeling what it was like to be colonised) and young Rachel, goes on too long with the stuff about custody of the kids, something which could have been established much more economically; we want Martians!

The spectacle never ceases to amazed but, sadly, there's a reason why Tom Cruise was a has-been by 2005. Everything looks fantastic and there are some nice touches- the Martians ride the lightning to their machines- and the family themes sentiment is even, by Spielberg standards, not overdone. This is a good film, but could have been great with a different star.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

"I don't believe that anybody could be 100% dick..."

I'm an old-fashioned Marvel geek in that I bought a ridiculous number of titles up until around 1994, when most of my favourite runs were winding down, Mark Gruenwald died and I started building up my record collection, which left less budgetary room for comic books. I know an awful lot about Marvel up to that point (I had a lot of back issues going way back) but I'm patchy thereafter. I do, however, remember Jim Valentino's run on Guardians of the Galaxy, a title set a thousand years on the future and with characters called things like Vance Astro and Charlie 27. This film isn't based on any of that, but a load of Marvel's cosmic characters, many of them associated with the great Jim Starlin.

We have fanwanky Marvel goodness aplenty. There is Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon(!), Ronan the Accuser, Thanos(!), a strange cyborg version of Nebula who hears no relation to the character as written by Roger Stern in The Avengers back in the mid-'80s, the Collector, the best Stan Lee cameo yet and even footage of a Celestial!

But this isn't a po-faced epic film; it's  witty, fun action film full of funny and charismatic rogues turned heroes, a cross between Star Wars and Firefly. Chris Pratt stars as Peter, a transplanted human with mysterious parentage and the Han Solo of the film. Karen Gillan disappoints vaguely as Nebula. But the best thing in it is Bradley Cooper's Rocket.

This is a superbly plotted and scripted sci-go action film with wit, action, top tuneage (we get Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" and the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb"!) and an amazingly realised space opera world with some of the best CGI I've ever seen. If you haven't seen it, do so now. It'll be on at cinemas for a good while. 

Oh, and remember, this is a Marvel film. Stay to the end.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Haunted Castle (1896/7)

Early this may be, dating from before the publication of Dracula, but this is generally defined as the first ever horror film by those sensible people who don't consider the sight of a moving train moving towards the audience to be such. It's public domain, obviously, even if your country, like mine, has particularly stupid copyright extension laws, and available on YouTube. Other such sites are available.

The most obviously noticeable things to a modern viewer are the poor condition of the film (surely restoration could improve it?) and the worryingly unsubtle acting. But perhaps "acting" is the wrong word; I may be reading too much into the fact that the film looks like a filmed stage play as, this being 1896, the camera doesn't move, but this looks like a stage magician's act, except all the tricks are done by means of Georges Melies' early experimental use of the camera for special effects. It comes across as light entertainment rather than drama, and is focused on showing off what the new medium can do rather than things such as plot or narrative.

Still, this film is a testament to how much we owe to these early pioneers of cinema. It's shocking to reflect that this. film was considered lost until it's rediscovery in 1988. Many other silents are still lost today.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

New Worlds: Episode 4

"I dream of a vast continent, a republic where millions of men live in liberty."

So, New Worlds is over with a whimper, and I notice that, unlike The Devil's Whore, it caused nary a stir at the time and, mere months later, is pretty much forgotten. So what went wrong? Well, it's dull, for a start, with forgettable characters entirely lacking in charisma. And then there's the didacticism. While there's nothing wrong with looking at the past through the eyes of the present- it only exists in those terms, after all- New Worlds goes too far in putting modern sentiments into Restoration mouths.

The Devil's Whore managed to square this circle, looking at the "Good Old Cause" through the eyes of the contemporary Left examining its own heritage. Yet the characters were all of their time. Here we have Whigs expressing modern values, unhistorical attitudes to the Native American genocide, and crude use of dramatic irony in the many hints that the USA is set to exist in ninety years time. Most notably, the concluding bit of text doesn't even mention the Glorious Revolution of 1688, an elephant in the room that demonstrates a crude attempt to avoid a Whig interpretation of history which values the post-1689 constitutional settlement and trying to put a modern Leftist slant on, well, Whigs.

Charles II continues to be an I characteristically miserable bastard, and then dies right on schedule. Abe Gough is tortured, but escapes execution and buggers off to Boston to embark on a career as the authorial voice. Chris Finch from The Office is still around. There is much examination of the fact that Massachusetts is founded on the genocide of local tribes, and conflict with the King's representative that crudely foreshadows the 1770s ("I am here to remind Massachusetts that it is a colony and not a republic"). Hope is a bit racist. Sidney is horribly executed. Beth's mixed race baby is shunned, and reclaimed by it's fatger's moribund tribe. The Monmouth Rebellion happens. Etc. Etc.

This is actually the best of the four episodes, and moderately involving to watch. But by now it's far too late. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

Yep, it's the first horror film. Cringe with terror as the train seems about to run you over as you sit there is now of the first cinemas somewhere in France...

This is yet another curiosity of early cinema, on which it would be pointless to pass any value judgement. It goes to show, though, that this sort of elementary footage had such power in those early days. It would be some years into the following century before elementary film grammar was established.

It's well worth forty-nine seconds of your time to watch it on YouTube...

The Cheese Mites (1903)

Have a look for this on YouTube; it's a partly lost film but 49 seconds exist, of some cheese mites through a microscope. It was originally a short film, bookended by scenes of a bloke being put off his meal.

It's rather pointless expressing any opinion, really, but the context is interesting; one of a series of scientific documentary short films being shown at a time during which film was still something of a novelty.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Secret Window (2004)

"I did those things so you didn't have to."

It's increasingly unusual to see Johnny Depp in a film where he's neither playing Captain Jack Sparrow nor being directed by Tim Burton. Here he is, though, on one of those Stephen King-penned thrillers that are, by sheer coincidence, making up an increasingly large proportion of the films I'm blogging.

It's a typical Stephen King thriller, right down to having a writer native to Maine as the hero, and it makes an excellent film with a superb twist. The interplay between Depp's dishevelled Morton Rainey and John Turturro's menacing hick, John Shooter, is disturbingly effective, as it has to be for the film to work.

I won't say anything about the twist, except to praise it in vague yet fulsome terms. But every storytelling beat is perfectly placed for this thriller to have maximum effect, as we should expect for a film based on King's work. There are nice touches; Depp's performance in general, of course, and the use of cigarettes (he's supposed to be giving up) to denote Morton's mood.

The twist is especially neat, especially as life increasingly mirrors the short story under dispute. This is a well executed, deeply satisfying and underappreciated film.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011)

"Is this the perverted film you've been talking about?"

Oh, you just knew I had to blog the sequel.

This is much more splendidly disgusting than it's predecessor, which inevitably failed to live up to its stomach-turning reputation while being a perfectly decent standard issue horror. This is much more genuinely horrific, and not just in terms if the obvious body horror.

We now find ourselves, in a nicely metatextual move, in a world in which the pervious film was just that- a film. The scene shifts to England, a bleak and monochrome England of run-down multi-storey car parks and barely inhabitable flats, areas redolent with poverty and the scent of violence and sexual abuse. Within this dark world we meet the weird, tragic Martin, a tragic and virginal loner who lives with his mum, endures a dead end job and is at the bottom of society. He is obsessed with The Human Centipede. He's also at the bottom of society and a very damaged and creepy young man, who punishes his own sexual urges by sand papering his own genitals; repression and arousal in a single act.

It's made clear, though, that it's not the film that made him this way; unsurprisingly, this horror film is not pushing a tabloidy, reactionary message about violent films be getting violence. It is Martin's environment that has made him what he is, and that environment is very dark indeed. 

Martin's mum is a horrible bully who bleakly and pointedly makes sure her son knows how she longs for death, and his dream hints clearly at his abusive childhood. Both he and his mum live in fear of their thuggish neighbour. His pet centipede seems to symbolise his late abusive father. This is a dark, dark world before we mention any of the human centipede stuff, a world in which the camera never looks at things straight on, as though to emphasise how alien this life is to the presumed middle class audience of this film, which is shot just like the art house flick that it isn't.

Martin uses his job as the car park security guard to murder and kidnap, and has gone to great lengths to lure Ashlynne, actress from the earlier film. It is clear from his drawings that he plans a much bigger centipede. Soon, indeed, he has eight people including a pregnant woman, soon joined by Ashlynne.

The human centipede is just the body horror, though; the most horrific thing about the film is the dynamic between mother and son. It is when he kills her, and then eats a meal with her corpse, that the film's darkest moment arrives. In shirt succession he then proceeds to violently kidnap the thuggish neighbour and kill his psychiatrist, whom he observes doing sexual things that he, a virgin, unable to attract girls and therefore fearful of and disgusted by sex, could never do.

He has his twelve "segments", and we slowly see the build-up to the horiffic surgery to come. The surgery is amateurish, involving a staple gun and very little hygiene. The pregnant woman soon dies, her baby still alive. 

The surgery is over, and Martin is ecstatic, feeding his "centipede" with dog food and tinned soup. He delightedly encourages defecation into the mouth of the person behind, right down the line. Urrrgh. He masturbates, and rapes the woman at the back. It's all very disgusting.

Suddenly, the "dead" pregnant woman awakens. She's about to give birth; fleeing, she locks herself in the car with a crazed Martin trying to get in. As Martin leaves the scene the "centipede" splits, the thug bleeding from his mouth. Martin returns to see several smaller centipedes. Enraged, he shoots them until he runs out of bullets, and then starts to behead them with a knife. By now this is pure Grand Guignol. His death, with a centipede up his arse, seems entirely appropriate. 

This film is quite, quite disgusting and is everything that it's predecessor wasn't. It's also a rather good little character study with a message behind the gore; create a marginalised underclass and this is what you get.

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

"Good day, Mr Sheepsbutt."


This is a bloody good film and well funny although, of course, it's now impossible for Gru to be a proper super villain again. Instead he works for a group of comedy special agents while having a love interest, looking after his daughters and losing Dr Nefarious to a proper supervillain. It's a predictable set-up, but who cares; it's funny.

Seeing Gru playing the part of dad to his three cute little girls will never stop being funny, and the birthday party at the start is hilarious. Not quite so comedic, but heartwarming nonetheless, is his developing relationship with Lucy Wilde. Her introduction, though, having a gadget for everything, is highly amusing.

Also amusing is the idea of Gru now using all his supervillain stuff to, er, make jam. The minions are funny and cute, obviously. My favourite scenes are probably the ones during Gru's date with that horrible conformist woman. And, when it seems that plot convenience is to separate them, there's a hilariously tense scene with Gru trying to pluck up the courage to pick up the phone and ask her out. Inevitably, the girls end up with a new mum.

All of that sounds excessively soppy for a comedy, and it is, but again who cares as there are laughs aplenty. This is just as good as it's predecessor.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

New Worlds: Episode 3

"Our lives will never change until the kings are torn from their thrones."

This episode, we get Native Americans being all noble savages and that in ways that, while trying hard not to be racist in their depiction, may cross the line into patronising as all depictions of tribal societies inevitably do. We also get interesting political discussion which shows us how the die-hard republicans of the Good Old Cause morph slowly into Whigs, keeping an outward show of monarchy but sidelining it to the extent that one Ancien Regime French ambassador once famously refused to accept that England was a monarchy at all after 1688. This is not a Whig script, of course; it is still interested in the history of the Left and not that of Liberals such as myself who are, while way to the left of Clegg and those dangerous Orange Book entryists, are not from that tradition.


Beth survives transportation and meets a sort of proto-Squanto, proceeding to go predictably native and to act as the hand-wringing, post-colonial mouthpiece of our authorial voice. The King proceeds to be a right bastard, and Angelica's house goes to one of a Judge Jeffries' mates who isn't very nice to the staff, allowing us to see a bit of proto-Chartist class conflict. There's a lot of proto-this and proto-that in this somewhat Marxist script. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but I wish the script had put equal attention to giving the characters a little depth. None of them come across as anything more than ideological mouthpieces.

Beth and her new Native Ametican mates soon run up against John Hawkins, Henry Cresswell and their equally genocidal Puritan mates in Massachusetts which, once again, it is instructive to see depicted as the frontier. Abe, meanwhile, gets involved with the Rye House Plot. Ted, now back in Massachusetts, finds his beloved Beth now married to the dastardly Henry Cresswell. And the whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts gets a bit of a bollocking on behalf of the King, who is on the Indians' side, sort of. One of the Massachusetts Bastards, incidentally, is Chris Finch from The Office.

Beth's presence in the tribe is discovered, and our RP accented Yankees Hope and Beth resume sleeping together, now a much naughtier thing than it was before. Ned soon becomes outraged at the fact that not only his love rival but also his father are, as William Goffe had put it, "land pirates". Soon enough the tribe is wiped out in a nasty bit of germ warfare. Such is the original sin of America, and it is a very English sin.

The political subtext is entertaining, I suppose, but in the absence of characters in whom one can take an interest it's all there is to grab hold of, and it's not exactly subtle. New Worlds continues to disappoint.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hannibal Rising (2007)

"What is left in you to love?"

Why does this film fail? Well, firstly, it isn't very good, being slow and boring with an uncharismatic lead actor. But I think it's partly the European setting; my British sensibilities rather like the exotic American settings we've come to expect from Hannibal films. Darkly lit Black Forest locations don't really cut it.

It's disappointing to see Hannibal given an origin in Second World War Lithuania; a banal, Middle American upbringing would have been much more interesting. Just because he's a serial killer doesn't mean he should get a tragic background. And I may detect a smidgeon of that tired old American trope that Europe, the continent I live in, is full of Godless moral deviants and it's best to get away from all that for a new start in America. The character of Lecter is lessened by his dramatic European origin as presented here.

Anyway, the tragic scenes from Hannibal's childhood play out; I assume, from his name, his Lithuanian origins and his family's posh living arrangements before the Soviets arrive that he's a Baltic German by origin. I suppose it's interesting that the castle used as an orphanage is in fact posh boy Hannibal's family home; that must stick in his craw as much as the constant bullying.

Eventually he travels to France and a strange Japanese lady friend of the family, travelling by map (a Muppets in-joke there...), from whom he learns martial arts. He feels affection for her, of sorts; his first murder (in broad daylight!) is inflicted on a man  who sexually harasses her.

There are elements here that will continue throughout his life; the murder was committed because of the victim's discourtesy, and Hannibal has the first of many long cat and mouse games with a suspicious detective, in this case Dominic West's French inspector.

Then it's back to Kaunas to avenge his family's deaths, but the film still hasn't really caught fire in any way. The deaths are boring, even with the added feature of Hannibal's first bit of cannibalism. 

His pursuit of his family's killers continues throughout the film, with Hannibal risking the guillotine as the inspector is on to him; they have a discussion about vigilantism vs. the law which is almost interesting.

The film is desperately, desperately slow, but mercifully it ultimately nears its vague and unsatisfactory climax as Hannibal rescues his Japanese surrogate mother and is rejected by her as she realises what he is. The end is not really satisfying, but it's so good to find that the film is finally over.

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

"Burn the witch."

As per this film's predecessor, I ought to make the point that I know sod all about any of the computer games. Nevertheless, this is even better than Silent Hill, and bloody scary to boot. I understand the critics don't like it, but then they know the game (Silent Hill 3, my wife tells me); I suspect that's why. My wife, incidentally, is playing the game as I type. I've promised to protect her from the monsters.

Yes, there's a plot and yes, it works fine, but this film is all about the scary imagery and set pieces and that's what I plan to focus on. If you haven't seen the film, look away now.

It's a very nightmarish film, hence the narrative style, and so of course we begin with a dream sequence in which Heather (as she's now calling herself), the daughter from the previous film, sees images of Pyramid Head and other delights and is ominously warned to stay away from a certain West Virginia town called Silent Hill.

I like Heather's little speech in class; she moves around, won't be around long, and there's little point in the other students getting to know her. We quickly get a sequence of scary kids, reminding me a little of Village of the Damned. But we soon shift to a dream sequence and, after sequences introducing fellow student Vincent, with whom she muses philosophically on dreams vs. reality, reflecting exactly how the film is narratively structured, and a mysterious detective called Douglas Cartland, who promptly dies. Several delightfully unnerving dream sequences later, the action finally shifts to Silent Hill itself. The direction is already superb.

Having learned the backstory- fire burning underground, religious zealots etc- Heather, alongside Vincent, gains a McGuffin, loses both Vincent and her Dad as hostages, and gets some expository guff about how she's the only good part of Alessa's soul. More interestingly, we get a deeply scary scenes with shop window dummies which I very much hope strongly influences any future appearance of the Autons in Doctor Who. The plastic mannequin spider in the middle of its web is amazing. This is by far the highlight of the film.

Of course, we get scenes of Pyramid Head chopping off prisoners' hands, and we get to see the dilapidated amusement park again as the denouement plays out. The film ends very abruptly, it must be said, and I'm not sure a happy ending could ever have satisfied, but I very much enjoyed this film.

New Worlds: Episode 2

"I cannot marry a man I do not love."

Sigh. Things aren't really picking up. Ned is leaving Boston for England, and Beth is seeing Abe again. Plots are laid to expose Angelica as a traitor and expose her rather dull and understandably circumspect Catholic husband, who cannot deny the "Popish Plot" for fear of accusations, just so the King can seize her land. This is a pity, as Angelica's home is a haven of Whiggery and religious tolerance. Meanwhile, Beth and Abe hope to go to the New World to carry on the Good Old Cause. None of this is presented so as to be at all interesting.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Hope Russell is to be married to a man- Henry Cresswell- whom she neither loves nor likes. And yes, it's still weird to hear all of these Massachusetts Puritans speaking in RP accents. She is, of course, presented with all sorts if arguments to make her feel guilty and submit to this patriarchal and misigynistic pressure. The point here is that it's not only the Tories back in England who are somewhat lacking in progressivism.

Angelica's house is invaded by thugs who light bonfires and chant about the "Popish Plot and praise the Duke of Monmouth. Angelica's hubby, sure enough, is trapped into denying Titus Oates' outrageous claims and arrested. He is now at the mercy of the infamous Judge Jeffries, and both Angelica and Beth are in trouble by proxy. It's all very dramatic, yet somehow still fails to engage.

Poor hubby is tortured, while Abe learns of his fatger's death; he is, it seems, Wiiliam Goff's son. He tries to kill Charles II, whom Jeremy Northam is portraying as a not-at-all merry monarch. He is harboured by Beth and Angelica, and both are subsequently arrested and, on Angelica's case, finally have her luck run out as she is sentenced to be burned at the stake while Beth is transported to America.

Angelica finally dies, watched by her daughter, and gives a magnificent speech; being executed is, after all, a per formative act and, in this case, a political one as she calls Charles a tyrant. Abe, mercifully, shoots her dead before she can suffer, and then seemingly plunges to his own death.

All this is juxtaposed with Charles, looking thoroughly miserable, putting on his crown and dissolving Parliament. He seems triumphant.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

New Worlds: Episode 1

"Young Americans like you must seize true liberty."

The Devil's Whore was superlative television. This... isn't, and it's obvious from the start. The cast doesn't sparkle anywhere near as much, there's a lack of unity between the scenes in England and Massachusetts, and the continuing political themes are handled a little more clunky; yes, pre-Glorious Revolution England was no beacon of liberty, but Charles II was not his father, and certainly not the miserable bastard we see here. There a reason why he's known as the Merry Monarch.

We begin in Massachusetts in 1680, a place of Puritan dogma, ethnic cleansing and republican sympathies which extend to harbouring Colonel William Goff, one of the few surviving regicides. Most jarring of all, though, to modern eyes, is the sight of Native Ametican tribes in that long-settled part of New England; the Eastern Seaboard is the frontier. Here we meet Hope and Ned, two strangely RP-accented Americans about whom we are supposed to care, but don't. Indeed, even watching, as I did, with subtitles, it was well into the second episode before I got a clear idea of who the characters were. Characterisation is not this series' strong point.

Our first sight of England is bodies hanging from the Tower of London; lovely. Here we meet an older and much less charismatic Angelica Fanshawe, her grown-up daughter Beth, and her Roman Catholic husband who has been having rather a rough time of it since the so-called Popish Plot two years ago. Beth becomes curious about her father, Edward Sexby, now a conveniently dead legend for republicans and Whigs. Angelica is under pressure to sell her land to the King. This is all set-up and plot but mainly exposition,  with very little spectacle, character or thematic cleverness. The historical characters- James, Duke of York, the Earl of Shaftesbury and the "Protestant Duke"- are made to seem very dull.

William Goff, meanwhile, is on the run from the King's men. He symbolises the transfer of republican ideas from England to America, something dripping with dramatic irony as we know, as he does not, that the English Civil War will have an  American sequel a century hence in which a new republic will be born. Goff is not an unproblematic proto-American, though; shortly before his death he bemoans the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, the original sin of the United States. Anyway, he is killed, but not before rather predictably inspiring Ned.

Back in  England, Beth is kidnapped on her birthday by Abe, about whom we are also supposed to care. He awakens both her sexuality and her political conscience somewhat, but nothing really happens. The episode ends with nothing but set-up having happened and no real sense of where the series is going.

The Devil's Whore: Episode 4

"I took a husband from you."

"You took two."

Suddenly, from a series which has been exploring the heritage of the British Left from the Civil War origins of the Tory/Whig divide, we get what seems to be contemporary political comnentary. Lilburne's final days in his Jerseyan Guantanamo may be straight out of the history books, but they have deep contemporary relevance for a drama made in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Cromwell, in choosing rendition over what were, even in 1654, the proper constitutional procedures, begins to look very much like a Blair figure, perhaps even a Bush the Younger, the type who would support ninety day detention and identity cards. His later debate with Angelica over security versus liberty makes this clear, and Lilburne's tragic last few years make it clear that power does not lie with us civil libertarians.

Interesting, then, that all this should be juxtaposed with Cromwell's dismissing of the Rump Parliament, with the prospect of his declaring himself King, and with an angry Sexby, fresh from shooting Percy through the head, confronting him over the circumstances of Rainsborough's death. If Cromwell is Blair here then the comparison is not a flattering one. But then, everyone on the British left considers Blair to be a cuckoo in the Labour nest. Indeed, even we on the non-Orange Booker, Guardian-reading, Coalition-opposing wing of the Lib Dems think of him as a true small "c" conservative, although no Tory. This is also an apt description of the historical Cromwell.

It's nice that, the night before Sexby meets his doom in failing to assassinate Cromwell, he and Angelica should have what the director makes very clear is good, meaningful, loving sex, sex which ultimately results in the birth of a daughter. 

History takes it's course, and a caption informs us of Cromwell's death and the Restoration. There is a happy ending, of sorts, as Angelica's young daughter sees no devil in the tree.

This is a brilliant, brilliant, unappreciated series, and you must go and watch it immediately. Please. It's really rather good.

The Devil's Whore: Episode 3

"We begin again..."

It's very neat, the parallel between the trials of Angelica and the king, both sentenced to die on the same day. Angelica languishes in a miserable cell, giving birth there, jeered at and humiliated over her last few days, with only the Lilburnes for friends, and dies painfully, with the cruel jeers of Percy ringing in her ears. Except she doesn't, because Sexby has replaced the hangman and her death is faked, if still bloody painful.

Charles actually dies. His humiliations are of a lesser type, though significant for a king; he has to pick up the ball from the top of his cane himself when it falls to the floor. Capaldi is amazing here, showing us both the King's arrogance and his vulnerability. His trial is equally unfair, but he, too, has the ironic support of John Lilburne, who will not compromise in matters of justice and gets himself arrested yet again.

Also unjust is Cromwell's behaviour in Ireland, which is more reminiscent of the Thirty Years War than the comparatively civilised conflict in England. Sexby receives advancement, being made a colonel, but the moral compromises he has to make are appalling. He betrays the soldiers under his command, who are hanged by Cromwell although he had assured then they would not be, and in Ireland he is certainly guilty of war crimes.  The plebeian philosopher at last dips his hands in the blood. (Although, of course,he has fought as a mercenary in the Thirty Years War himself; his hands can hardly have been clean in the first place.)

He's not good enough for Angelica, though, as she refuses his proposal of marriage. She may be increasingly radical, but Sexby would still be a match well below her station. Her eventual reluctant acceptance is a defeat for her.

As Sexby bloodied his hands further across the Irish Sea, Angelica continues her journey into radicalism by joinng the radical, stoic and bonkers Diggers sect. She is attracted to their lifestyle but alienated by their creepily conformist religiosity, adhering to a vague, hippyish spiritualism. She is finally cast out of this egalitarian paradise, but not before asking why, if all are equal, do women toil in the fields all day and then cook for their children at night?

The most fun part of the episode is, of course, Lilburne's trial and speech, and his triumphant acquittal. But the last few minutes are far from fun; a damaged Sexby arrives back from Ireland and all but rapes his new wife, and then abandons her. And, worse, the ex-Digger with whom Angelica has now shackled up turns out to be an underling of Percy's...

This continues to be superb. It works as melodrama, with dramatic reversals of fortune, but this also serves to parallel with the experiences of the great and good, and to illustrate history, or rather a particular slant of history that seeks to explore the heritage of the British Left and present things, quite deliberately and fairly, a little anachronistically. All history, after all, exists only in relation to the present.

The Devil's Whore: Episode 2

"How did your husband die?"

"Because I was not tamed."

"The world would have you tamed?"

"I know."

"Then the world is full of fools."

It's puzzling, watching The Devil's Whore again, that it was apparently intended to be twelve parts but was cut down to four. It's hard, not having seen the unedited version, to judge the wisdom of this decision; certainly the version we have does not seem unduly rushed, and is superb to boot. But perhaps this reflects how TV execs generally find the Civil War an unsexy period, with its suspicious lack of Tudors or Nazis.

Who cares. This is still top stuff. We're two years on, the programme is still lit to look like the paintings of the Dutch masters, and Angelica incurs the ire of a strangely nasty Percy from Blackadder after killing a man who tries to tape her, something for which she is unlikely to garner much sympathy in the less than enlightened times in which she lives. She grows close to Sexby, though. Both are philosophical and both are excluded from power, one by sex and one by class. Sexby may be rough trade for a lady of her background, but the two of them seem to have much in common.

John Lilburne continues to be in trouble, his ideas being far too radical for even the Parliamentarian establishment (for which read the mainstream, triangulating left), let alone the Royalists. Angelica and Sexby are on his side, though, even though his ideas extend even as far as putting the King on trial. 

Also radical, and sympathetic, is Thomas Rainsborough, an astute politician and military strategist yet, we feel, a little too radical for Cromwell and his ilk. He is immediately and passionately drawn to Angelica, preferring a "free spirit" to a woman who submits to privilege and patriarchy. Sexby, meanwhile, is in gaol and hence unable to seethe with jealousy when she sleeps with him.

Things then get complicated. It is only Rainsborough among the senior Parliamentarians who has the guts to have the King arrested, and it is only Rainsborough who is able to protect Angelica from Percy's nasty, sadistic, misogynistic urge to see her humiliated and hanged.

Lilburne is magnificent, and I'm not just saying this because I so hugely admire the historical Lilburne. Here, he insists to Cromwell that there must be no purge of Parliament without an election. The people will vote for the King's men, as Cromwell point out, but they must have their say, and Lilburne will not budge on that point of principle.

Ironically, Angelica is saved by the freed Sexby threatening Percy and not by any deed of Rainsborough, but she agrees to marry the glamorous general anyway. The lady and the republican have their marriage blessed by a stoic Sexby, and Cromwell agrees to free Lilburne as a wedding gift. The couple are happy ever after.

Except they aren't. Cromwell, embodying all the cynicism of Middle England, has Rainsborough murdered as he furiously prays. Angelica is widowed for a second time and, just to kick her when she's down, Percy arrests her yet again...

This just keeps getting better and better.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Devil's Whore: Episode 1

"Both armies gave thanks to the same God for the same victory."

I loved this when it was first broadcast in 2007 and I loved it when rewatching it for the blog. It's a neglected gem; a magnificent cast and a script by the people behind Our Friends in the North. The English Civil War is a sadly neglected period in our history, which us a shame; it's a pivotal moment in English and British history and the tribal origins of both right and left in this country; this series is particularly interested in that aspect, and particularly in the heritage of the English left, whether Whig, Liberal or Labour, which has always reminisced about the "Good Old Cause".

The whole thing hangs on Andrea Riseborough's extraordinary performance  as Angelica Fanshawe at a time when she seemed to be all over the telly; remember her turn as the Evil One in BBC4's Long Walk to Finchley? She is exactly what this series needs; quirky yet likeable, with the charisma to be the necessary female need in a series unavoidably crammed with men.

Angelica begins as an aristocratic lady, unthinkingly in the midst of what we can anachronistically call the ancien regime. Angelica knows King Charles I vaguely, but her cousin, best friend and soon to be husband (this is, after all, the aristocracy), is a good mate of the very bizarre Prince Rupert.

Angelica's cousin and husband soon proves that his sexual politics are quite as reactionary as his class politics; in insisting that Angelica be silent in bed he not only shows himself to be crap in bed but gives us a pretty neat metaphor for the patriarchal repression of women.

Angelica has a kind of childlike innocence and a weirdness that makes her a fascinating character, although her vaguely non-Christian spiritualism is arguably a bit anachronistic. Our other audience identification character is the much more grounded and plebeian Edward Sexby, splendidly portrayed by the great John Simm. Sexby is a true everyman, if a somewhat violent and blood-soaked one, an uneducated but thinking centrist whose allegiances shift with his conscience. Any resemblance to the historical Edward Sexby is purely coincidental.

Yet to come into his own at this point is possibly the greatest ever Englishman, John Lilburne, played with an accurately Mackem accent (I'm married to a Geordie) by Tom Goodman-Hill. Dominic West, similarly, uses a very correct East Anglian accent as Oliver Cromwell, who is portrayed very accurately; religiously independent and politically conservative without being (to use a very slight archaism) remotely Tory. There have always been plenty of Cromwells in the Labour Party, of course. West's delivery of his speech defending Lilburne is, however, probably the best thing in what is a superb episode.

The slow descent into civil war is nicely done, with the camera at Edge Hill showing an almost abrasively sunny environment. We see the likes of Cronwell and the side-switching Sexby in the chaotic environment of battle and we get a good look at Michael Fassbender's Thomas Rainsborough who is, unlike Cromwell, a true radical.

The climax features Angelica, I'm the face of Roundhead beseigers, showing considerably more cojones than her foppish husband, only to be castigated by an arrogant Charles for her disobedience to male authority just before she watches her husband.'a execution pour encourager les autres. It is, appropriately, the end of the first chapter and a truly excellent forty-give minutes of television.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Intervention

"The ancient shamans were next called upon to do the hokey pokey and turn themselves around."

Buffy has has a tough time lately. So much, in fact, that she's thinking about packing it all in, as hinted at rather a lot lately. This wouldn't be good for the longevity of the show, so here we have an episode which mainly consists of Giles convincing her not to do it. And while we're at it we get a bit of Stone Age Slayer history, a bit of character development of Buffy herself, who feels she's losing her humanity as the Slayer, and a lot of stuff about the series theme of Buffy needing friends around her. There's also a bit of inevitable foreshadowing for the end of this season with the line "Death is your gift".

Anyway, Giles thinks the solution for Buffy's angst is to take her seep in to the desert for a magical and surreal lesson in prehistory. And while Buffy is gone much farce ensues as Spike is introduced to the Buffybot (remember the Buffybot?) by Warren, with whom he is soon having kinky sex. The Buffybot, not Warren. And, naturally, much hilarity with mistaken identity ensures, and it's funnier than it sounds. Jane Espenson is good at writing this sort of thing.

 In season arc news, Glory has finally worked out that the key is a person, but she thinks it's Spike. And he bravely refuses to talk under torture to protect Buffy's sister. That's love, or something. And Buffy, in spite of the Buffybot, is truly grateful. But the season is clearly drawing to a close...

Crossroads (1986)

"You're just one more white boy ripping off our music."

I had to blog this film. For one thing, it has Ralph Macchio in it. For another, it's obviously about the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Johnson laying down those first tracks back in 1936; if you haven't heard any Robert Johnson then go and listen to "Come On in My Kitchen" right NOW!!!

It's a fairly standard light-hearted Hollywood film from 1986, really, but it's entertaining enough and has some interesting things to say about the Blues and it's expropriation by those with no links to its cultural origins in the formerly enslaved West African diaspora in the American South, a musical form with its roots in Bantu culture and unimaginable hardship. It's also an interesting snapshot of the American South some twenty years after the Civil Rights era. It also has some very '80s guitar widdling by Steve Vai.

We begin by evoking the Blues with the sound of a mouth organ, and Robert Johnson in monochrome. The film then shifts to colour and the picaresque adventures of the young, white, Blues-loving Eugene Martone and the cynical yet big-hearted old bluesman, Willie Brown. On the way some lessons are learned and it's all a bit Huckleberry Finn, although it's a nice touch that Willie, like Robert Johnson himself, has a hellhound on his trail and a debt to discharge to Satan. Cue a road trip down to Mississippi, some racism and police corruption and some partying while young Eugene gets himself a girl and old Willie gets to relive his youth.

It's a film that's not as well remembered as it should be; by no means a must-see but a nice little curiosity piece.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

"I have found it is the small things, the simple deeds of everyday folk, that keep the darkness at bay."

I have a sort of rule with this blog; no remakes before I've blogged the original, and no sequels or prequels before I've blogged the original. So technically I shouldn't be blogging this before blogging the excellent Lord of the Rings films but... ah well, just this once.

It's an odd beast, this trilogy. The Lord of the Rings were big, long and epic because the source material was big, long and epic. But here we have the first of three big, long and epic films based on, er, a children's book. And The Hobbit is very much a children's book on terms of both tone and content, with none of the political or religious content (strenuously denied, of course, by Tolkien) of The Lord of the Rings, although the tropes of Old English literature are present and correct, with a treasure-loving dragon straight out of Beowulf.

So we hit upon an important point; these films are only superficially an adaptation of The Hobbit. The story of Bilbo Baggins co-exists with extensive material dramatising and expanding the Middle Earth backstory as seen in the interminable appendices to The Return of the King to show us the tale of how Sauron slowly rebuilds his strength.

The Lord of the Rings films are superb, and justly are often present in lists of the best ever films. This trilogy will never be able to earn such praise, simply because it is more of the same. It is, nevertheless, good. Peter Jackson seems incapable of escape from the epic mode, so we were never likely to get the small, charming, intimate film that a straightforward 
adaptation of the novel might perhaps have given us. But I much enjoyed this first film. It's a massive exercise in fanwank which may perhaps alienate the children whom one might expect to be its audience, but I can't deny it's exciting to watch. I suspect the trilogy will end up being rather good, if not so Oscar-winningly acclaimed as the previous trilogy.

Right. That's the commentary out of the way. Let's spend the rest of the blog post on some (mainly) fanwanky bullet points.

* Martin Freeman is good in this, and The   
  Office, and Sherlock, but his acting 
  seems very dependent on some 
  idiosyncratic mannerisms, doesn't it? 
  Still, I suppose you can say the same of 
  the likes of Robert Downey Jr.

* Two hours and forty-three minutes!!! 
  This may be co-scripted by Guillermo 
  Del Toro but at that length it's definitely 
  a Peter Jackson film. Two more to go, 

* Apparently this film has a huge rate of 
  frame per second which is supposed to 
  be really jarring. I didn't notice.

* I saw this film while chomping on my 
  wife's magnificent Italian meatballs, the 
  best food in the word aside from her 
  coq au vin. Just saying.

* The dwarves, obviously, come from 
  wider Germanic myth but, in their exile 
  from Erebor at the hands of Smaug, I 
  wonder if there may be something of 
  the Wandering Jew to them. Probably 
  reading too much into it, although I note 
  the original novel was published in 
  1937, not a good time to be both 
  German and Jewish.

* There's a long framing sequence; Ian 
  Holm starts out narrating as the older 
  Bilbo on the day of his eleventy-first  
  birthday, and there's even a pointless 
  cameo appearance by Elijah Wood as 
  Frodo. All this sort of stuff elevates the 
  bombast levels and tells us clearly that 
  we're getting something Big and Epic 
  and Not For Kids.

* Ian McKellen and the nonagenarian 
  Christopher Lee are playing younger 
  versions of their characters while being 
  ten years older, and just about getting    
  away with it. McKellen's performance, 
  naturally, is extraordinary.

* Gandalf is an increasingly rare case in 
  today's Hollywood of a character who 
  smokes and isn't a baddie. 

* On the other hand, for a character who 
  pretty much defined the modern fantasy 
  wizard archetype as seen in D&D, etc, 
  Gandalf never does any bloody magic. 

* The best thing about the whole film is 
  the song about "What Bilbo Baggins 
  Hates". That is all.

* The Old English roots of all this are 
  obvious, which should not surprise us 
  as Tolkien was a great Old English 
  scholar. The dwarves, with their feasting 
  and drinking in halls, are Anglo-Saxons 
  via a bit of Wagner. The riddles between 
  Bilbo and Gollum are very Anglo-Saxon 
  too. And I've already mentioned Smaug  
  and Beowulf.

* Sylvester McCoy is fantastic and very 
  Doctorish as Radagast, but then that's 
  probably exactly how fanboy Peter 
  Jackson wanted him to pitch his 
  performance. Radagast is an interesting 
  character; in D&D terms he'd be a druid 
  and definitely not a wizard. I note, too, 
  that Radagast is mentioned but never 
  actually appears in any of Tolkien's 
  works. Fanboy Peter Jackson is 
  expanding the mythos.

* The film looks magnificent. New 
  Zealand looks magnificent. The CGI 
  looks extraordinary. This is a brilliantly 
  made film.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Red Dragon (2002)

"Any rational society would either kill me or put me to some use."

I ought to confess, before anything else, that I haven't seen Manhunter. But this is a different adaptation of the novel, not a remake, so it doesn't break my "no remakes before I've done the original" rule. Besides, the film is deeply entwined with the two predecessors to which it is a sequel, dovetailing very nicely into The Silence of the Lambs.

It's also bloody good, and even manages to pull of the trick of Anthony Hopkins, eleven years older than we first saw him, playing the intellectual, civilised Hannibal Lecter of 1980. Well, aside from the small point that he's feeding his guests human flesh, but it's fascinating to watch a Lecter whose proclivities are as yet unknown. Even more interestingly he's a psychiatric expert in psychopathic killers, and regularly consulted by FBI agent Will Graham, but we quickly move, over the opening titles, to Graham catching him, his trial, and his nine consecutive life sentences, followed by Graham's retirement, although we just know that the cliche of his coming out of retirement is upcoming. 

Interestingly, Lecter is again not the main villain here. The Buffalo Bill this time, the Tooth Fairy, is left mysterious for a bit, and eventually Graham is forced to consult the esteemed Mr Lecter, the approach to the cell echoing The Silence of the Lambs. The twist is, rather nicely, that the Tooth Fairy is a big fan of Hannibal's. The plot is, perhaps, predictable, but it is sufficiently well-realised and well-acted to get away with it. 

The killer's final tragic end eventually comes after a few twists and turns, revelations of a life of abuse and a twist in which we find that he is not, as we had thought, dead. There are lots of jolts and moments of excitement amongst the violence and yet the film still seems to maintain a certain sense of quality, of being more than just a violent thriller. This is yet another sequel which is in fact more than decent.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Hannibal (2001)

"You can look at my face, but you shied when I said the name of God."

It's an interesting prospect; get Ridley Scott to direct the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. The result is a very different style of film (co-scripted by David Mamet, no less) which, while not equalling it's predecessor, is nevertheless an excellent film. The same health warning applies here as applied before, however; I haven't read the original Thomas Harris novel.

This sequel further develops the ghoulishly fascinating relationship between Hannibal Lecter and a recast Clarice Starling, portrayed by Julianne Moore as a much tougher and less nuanced figure. She is again alone in a man's world which belittles her on grounds of both class and gender, put on to the Lecter case by an all-male disciplinary committee. 

The third lead character here is the wealthy, disfigured and thoroughly disturbed Mason Verger, whose face was peeled off and fed to dogs by the delightful Mr Lecter. It's immediately obvious that he wants revenge but Lecter is safe, for the moment, posing as an academic in Italy whom is not, for the moment, suspected of anything by his police inspector friend. This soon changes, however, and the inspector's growing suspicions are an early source of tension in a section of the film that, while entertaining, takes up a surprisingly high percentage of the film. It's structurally odd, but somehow it works.

Eventually we get to an equally gripping game of cat and mouse between Clarice and Lecter, in an inevitable prelude to their showdown with Verger. It is interesting that this third act, like The Silence of the Lambs, doesnot feature Lecter as the main antagonist; this is not the most interesting use for the character. Clarice, as usual, must battle against both male authority andale violence with her only supporter a violent, canniballistic psychopath. Creepily, he's only nice to her because she's polite and her distress excites him.

It's a slow-paced film that goes quickly and ends suddenly when it seems there's much more to come, and there's a particularly gruesome brain-eating scene towards the end. This film is very oddly structured but is also that rate phenomenon of a worthy sequel.

S. Darko (2009)

"...Then came the drugs. And anus sex."

This is possibly the most disappointing sequel of all time, far worse than the actually-almost-average Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Partly it's because of the superlative excellence of Donnie Darko, but this yawn-inducing and starless film is a crushing disappointment.

It's 1995. Donnie's little sister Samantha has run away from home and, scarily, is about the same age as I was in that year. She is, of course, alienated, but the visuals are different; the desert vistas of Utah rather than '80s Virginia weirdness, a vibe that reminds me very much of the video to the Smashing Pumpkins' "Today".

We have two girls on a road trip, evoking both On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, two novels that I read when I was about Samantha's age. Samantha and Corey proceed to involve themselves in a terminally dull plot with which I will not bore you; suffice to say that there are various inferior parallels to stuff that happened in the first film, and the ending is the same but with too much explanation, killing the beauty of it as the Force was ruined by Midichlorians, and with nowhere near the impact.

The soundtrack isn't as good either, although it's pleasant to be suddenly reminded that Whale's "Hobo Humping Slobo Babe" existed. Everything about the film compares unfaithfully to Donnie Darko, although at least there's some contemporary relevance to the character of Iraq Jack with all the damaged war veterans walking around these days.

Do yourself a favour; give this film a miss.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Donnie Darko (2001)

"Every living creature on Planet Earth dies  alone."

This is the greatest film of the twenty-first century so far. I thought so the first time round, when I saw this film back when it first came out in my uni days, and I think so now. It's beautifully and meaningfully shot, it has definite yet undefined themes, and it oozes a profundity that can't be nailed down to anything so banal as a specific meaning. And in retrospect it comes from a turn-of-the-millennium golden age of films like this. It's only been thirteen years, but I couldn't imagine Donnie Darko being made now.

From the start we establish that it's going rive beautifully shot. We establish that the soundtrack is going to be awesome, too; it doesn't get much better than Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon". From the beginning there's a visual emphasis on the contrast between the banal suburban existence from 1988 (fittingly, the year of Morrisey's "Everyday Is Like Sunday") and the slow motion acid trip of the camerawork, establishing a stranger and more beautiful world than dinner tables, 1980s interior decor and put downs of Michael Dukakis.

The debate over politics (and it's sobering, from a modern perspective, that a relative centrist like Bush the Elder could never run for the presidency over politics today) establishes the family dynamic; Elizabeth, the eldest, is the political rebel, Donnie is a very strange boy, and the family is a pretty normal kind of dysfunctional.

Donnie Darko is a fairly standard Holden Caulfield type- adolescent, rebellious, bookish- but things get a little stranger once he's woken up by a giant talking a rabbit- introduced, naturally, by an eerie soundscape. He's not at all displeased, being an angst-ridden teen, that the world will end in "28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds". 

Our slow introduction to the school environment  is helped along by a slow montage and a splendid "alternative 80s" soundtrack. It's weird to me, as a Brit, to see the superb and sexy Drew Barrymore, teaching Graham Greene, saying "barrow boy" in an American accent(!), but she's a parallel to Donnie; older, more mature yet also alienated. Also alienated is Cherita, with Donnie, who is certainly alienated, the only one who is nice to her.

Not at all alienated, on the surface at least, is the slimy, authoritarian snake oil salesman Cunningham, alongside his stupid teacher accomplice. But Gretchen Ross is pleasingly alienated, which is why  we want her and Donnie to get together. Donnie doesn't get in trouble for flooding the school but he gets in trouble for challenging Cunningham's vacuous bullshit, which is a very valid commentary on the prevalence of such bullshit and, worse, that it is so widely believed. 

Donnie doesn't want to die alone, but he can't bring himself to believe in a God, much like myself. I don't understand the significance of the wormholes or the time travel stuff, but perhaps the point is partly that, on four dimensional space-time, death is not the end but just a point in our four-dimensional lives. It's the nearest we atheists can get to eternal life.

It's narratively satisfying to see Cunningham revealed as a paedophile, and appropriate that it should be Donnie burning his house down that reveals this. But the world is ending. So we must have a party, a type of party where people dance to Joy Division the mystery of who Frank is gets revealed, but the ending, while deeply satisfying, is mysterious; time reverses so that Donnie dies in the plane crash; he sacrifices all this extra time he had so that the world will not end for others. His life therefore has meaning. Death is absurd but, for this existentialist film, God is dead so it is our choices that matter.

Paul (2011)

"Sorry you got killed by my Dad."

"That's fine."

This film obviously plays on the whole '90s "aliens and men in black" trope that was so big back then, mainly due to The X-Files. The X-Files didn't create the "men in black" trope, or that specific type of alien, but it brought it into the mainstream so that films like this could use it. This whole type of science fiction may be nearly twenty years old, but the characters are no spring chickens so it's sort of appropriate. Still, it's odd to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in such a very American setting and the film very much plays on that.

We start with our two British comics geeks, appropriately for Pegg's and Frost's first Hollywood film, at the San Diego Comic Con. The soundtrack, appropriately, is "Another Girl, Another Planet" by the Only Ones. They follow this, of course, with a more-eventful-than-planned road trip to Area 51, during which alien-related hi-jinks ensue and they make the acquaintance of a nice Christian fundamentalist girl. Oh, and there's a resurrection. And much riffing on E.T. 

Pegg and Frost are playing the same characters as ever, this time called Graeme and Clive, except that they play ever more middle aged versions with every passing film. This means that their characters become increasingly childlike, and this film only narrowly avoids a real bête noir of mine- an interest in sci-if, fantasy, comics and the like being used as a signifier of immaturity. Just you wait until I get to Buffy season six...

Paul himself is fantastic, and the early scenes between him, Graeme and Clive are a joy. Wonderfully, Paul smokes weed ("the stuff that killed Dylan"), has seen Predator and knows popular culture, so he should know how awkwardly close he is as a character to Roger from American Dad.

This is a superbly funny film with some very witty riffs on various tropes and a sublimely high standard of swearing. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Beginning of the End

"Reminds me of the old days."

"You were never on top!"

That`s it, then. The first season is over and, in the end, the season as a whole has overcome a poor start to become a genuinely exciting show with compelling characters and a gripping arc plot that leads compellingly to this episode`s finale. The charismatic presence of Bill Paxton has helped too, although the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson here shows us that he is possibly the most charismatic actor out there. His scenes with Clark Gregg are an absolute highlight of the episode, and the ending is perfect: Nick Fury charging the new Director Coulson with rebuilding SHIELD from the ground up, complete with a brand spanking new base and a new and Agent Koenig.

There are loads of cool and showoffy action sequences, but the heart of the episode is the interaction between an apparently doomed Fitz and Simmons. First they are philosophical, with Jemma getting a lovely speech about how, in death, their atoms will re-form into new life, new structures, new supernovae. Then, once our ever-resourceful scientist pair realise that they ain't necessarily doomed, there`s an added complication; only one of them can survive. And it has to be Simmons, because Fitz is in love with her. This is where he implicitly declares his love to the woman who sees him only as a "best friend", and its all very moving. So much so that Elizabeth Hestridge lets slip some decidedly non-RP vowels which seem to originate from well north of the Watford Gap. (Non-Brits, feel free to ignore that last bit.) Ultimately, they both live, although Fitz`s ultimate fate is left uncertain. Still, it`s Simmons who first gets to meet a decidedly not-dead Nick Fury...

It is the tracker provided by Fitz and Simmons that enables the team to go after the baddies, led by a superhuman and increasingly unhinged Garrett, who seems extremely obsssed and confident about his place in the evolutionary process. It`s entertaining to watch him being rude to various military top brass, but he`s clearly a liability to HYDRA at this point.

The dialogue sparkles in this episode, which should come as no surprise as Joss Whedon himself has co-written the script. But the whole thing is fundamentally about heart, character and pathos; scenes like Mike Peterson, his own man again, being ashamed to let his son see what he has become as he goes off to be a tragic hero. Still, there are nicely Whedonesque pieces of wit; Garrett's demise evokes Buffy, while it's appropriate that it should be May who duffs up Ward after his flangeing about with her earlier in the season.

It's a satisfying ending, although not for Ward, and hopefully the excellent Trip can now be considered a regular. Just when it all looks to be wrapped up, though, we get a shadowy glimpse of Skye's father...

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 10

"You won't die. I forbid it!"

This is it, then. The end. It's a heavy weight to bear, but we get a worthy finale in the end. Of course, the fact that we end with Henry VIII's death gives rise to the question of why the series is called The Tudors, a title that seems to promise us Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess. But no matter. This is good stuff.

Henry is dying. The series is ending with him, so how best to end than with a warrant with the arrest for heresy of yet another Queen? Catherine Parr is intelligent, circumspect, and knows how to play the game, but she is in real danger here. There are signs of the next reign- Prince Edward is now old enough to speak some Latin, and Edward Seymour is a powerful man indeed- but Bishop Gardiner, for obvious reasons, prefers Mary. Whichever camp you look at, though, the vultures are circling the King.

The King is (finally!) much fatter. He`s quixotic, too, this time siding with the French against the Emperor, and proposing that mass be abolished (!) in both realms. He`s too late, though; Francis I is dying of syphilis. He still has power within his own houehold, though, and there is a sense of real danger as Henry tells Catherine that he knows nothing of any warrant for her arrest; is he playing his old games?

The Queen is, rightfully, scared, and determined to hide her thoughts. There is a power struggle at court between Gardiner and Edward Seymour and she, unlike the old, happily weary and sick of politics Duke of Suffolk, cannot simply remain neutral, confident of the King`s affection.

There is move and counter-move. Gardiner sets up an Inquisition; the Seymours use Gardiner`s embezzling ways to blackmail him. The Queen, questioned by Henry, gives a fiery defence of herself, and we know that the King wants to believe her. He hasn`t exactly gone soft in his old age, but even if you didn`t know the famous rhyme I think you`d know, by the rules of drama, that Catherine was utimately safe.
There is great uncertainty. Prince Edward`s education, a matter of vital importance to the kingdom`s future, finally comes under scrutiny as Gardiner begins to notice the religious inclinations of his tutors. The struggle between Gardiner and Edward Seymour soon leads to fisticuffs, and an extraordinary tour de force of acting from the great Simon Ward. His fall is brutally sudden; in the end, Henry sides with his Queen and the uncle of his son. Family trumps religious fanaticism in the end, ironically. But then, for this King, both of those things were always just playthings in his power games.

The dying Henry, like Canute, is not omnipotent and is powerless aainst the ravages of time and natue; he commands Charles Brandon not to die, but must nevertheless mourn his old friend, the only honest man at court. In scenes which must surely be meant to evoke I, Clavdivs he sees visions of his past wives making cameo appearances to rebuke him. Catherine of Aragon is furious at him for failing to marry off Mary, Anne Boleyn reminds him of Elizabeth`s cleverness and her own innocence ("Poor Catherine Howard!"), and Jane Seymour tells him sternly that he has killed Edward with his mollycoddling. There will be but one generation more of Tudors; the future of Henry`s realm lies not with the fruit of his loins.

Henry, at his own insistence, dies alone. Death creeps up slowly, and when he`s young again we know he`s dead. We end with an emotional montage, that Hans Holbein portrait, and some text to give us a potted history of the next three reigns. It's a fitting end to a magnificent series, the I, Clavdivs of our age.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 9

"The law is whatever his Majesty says it is!"

It's late 1545. Henry is getting close to death, but he remains deadly. At last we see the Earl of Surrey paying the ultimate price, and even Catherine Parr sails close to the wind. There is an increasing conflict over the King's legacy; Bishop Gardiner, and Henry himself, forcibly insist on Catholic doctrine under royal supremacy, with celibate priests and a people expected by their King to read the Bible in a English, yes, but not, Heaven forbid, to hold opinions about it. Yet the next generation, aside from the increasingly fanatical Mary, is in the grip of Catherine and Protestantism. Meanwhile Surrey, the last symbol of the England that was, predeceases the king who decimated the old noble families such as his.

Gardiner is pleased  at his protege Wriothesley (pronounced "Risley"!!!) appointment as Lord Chancellor, but on the other hand Catherine has managed to publish an openly Protestant tract by the clever means of dedicating it to Henry. Not everyone is so fortunate; Gardiner has a heretic by the name of Anne Askew arrested, "examined" and illegally tortured (Henry expresses impatience with due process as he orders this to be done), being horrifically torn asunder on the rack. She looks horribly mutilated when we next see her, shortly prior to her graphically depicted burning at the stake, leaving us in no doubt as to the unspeakable pain she endures. Henry's tyranny is not abating in these final months.

Surrey has buggered up in France due to an old-fashioned reliance on honour over tactics, having to flee the field in disgrace and stripped of his Order of the Garter. Henry, meanwhile, diplomatically arranges for Boulogne to be returned to France in right years' time, thereby rendering pointless the whole campaign with all it's costs on blood and treasure, and no one calls it treason.

Surrey, ever arrogant, plots to seize Prince Edward so he can control the heir to the throne, but is caught and questioned. He defies his questioners, proud of his ancestry, and goes as far as almost to escape his cell. His defiance at his trial is a pivotal moment as he gives voice to an old England of law and aristocratic checks on royal power, to roars of approval from the people. It is a shame that David O'Hara's acting is not up to the purpose here; this episode gives the character a real chance to shine but, through no one's fault, but O'Hara's, it falls flat. The guilty verdict, against the court's wishes, is no surprise, but it is still a shock to hear that he will be hung, drawn and quartered as a commoner.

All of this gives a context to the real danger that the Queen is in. Gardiner orders three of her ladies to be "examined", including Catherine's own sister. This eventually leads to nothing, but more damaging is her falling out with Mary, who has heard the rumours as to her religious beliefs. When she finds herself speaking too frankly to the King she realises she has gone too far, and Gardiner asks the King to put her on trial. But he won't. When it comes to wives, at least, he's mellowed a bit.

The Tudors continued to wind down superbly, with a nuanced script superbly realised. One more to go...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 8

"I will burn as many heretics as I have to..."

It's now 1544. Henry continues to get no younger, and the war (a theatre of the deeply unpleasant 1542-46 Italian War) goes on while, at home, a gentle religious conflict erupts between Bishop Stephen Ward, hammer of the heretics, and the a Queen, who slyly arranged for both Elizabeth and Edward to receive a Protestant education, Elizabeth with Roger Ascham, no less.

The Queen is putting herself in real danger by doing this, but she manages the risks sensibly, with circumspection and ensuring that she is well liked, even by the increasingly fanatical Mary, whose heart is broken by the departure of her elderly father figure Chapuys.

Lord Surrey, meanwhile, scion of an ancient house that he is, dreams of being Sir Lancelot, but such things do not happen in this age of muskets and disease. Indeed, the death toll from dysentery is horrendous, yet Henry's grip on reality is slight enough for him to cruelly insist that the sick soldiers fight. On a much nicer note, Brandon falls touchingly in love with his young French belle. But this is a rare note of beauty in a very ugly war.

Henry ultimately takes Boulogne, but his disease-stricken army means he will be unable to March on Paris, as he promised to the Emperor that he would. We see, through following the war from the point of view of ordinary soldiers, that the human cost is incalculable for a war that is for little more than the glory of kings and popes and emperors. Ordinary life is indeed cheap.

Henry returns home, seeming older than ever. He isn't much longer for this world, however much the otherwise superb Jonathan Rhys Meyers may be appallingly lacking in the required level of obesity for this point of Henry's life. What is more, his exchequer is empty, he has earned the enmity of the Pope and he had betrayed the Emperor in failing to march on Paris, or would have done; Charles V has in fact abandoned him first. Such is sixteenth century diplomacy.

We end with Henry, alone, collapsing to the ground. He isn't well, and there is a profound sense of entropy and decline wherever we look...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 7

"This is a different war; a war of guns."

We see the King marry his sixth wife, and Catherine Parr continues to endear herself to both of her daughters, but soon we're off to war, a modern war of cannon and muskets that makes all the jousting of Henry's youth seem so old-fashioned. Moreover, wars with guns are egalitarian, leaving less space for nobility to seize glory by prancing about on their horses. A new age is dawning, sort of; the death of cavalry will be a long, drawn-out affair of centuries.

Henry looks old. There's certainly no question of his leading the fight; it is Brandon who leads the attack on Boulogne, Edward Seymour who is Admiral of the Fleet and the insufferable Earl of Surrey who is appointed Field Marshal. An impatient Henry neglects the preparations, naturally. Still, at least he's still quite good at all the Henry V speechifying. Throughout the preparations, though, it is Catherine who nurses him as his leg continues to plague him. This is not a passionate love affair but something much more pragmatic, and this Cathetine already seems much, much safer than her predecessor.

Bishop Gardiner is, by now, gearing up for a full-on purge against the Protestants, with even Elizabeth coming under suspicion. His suspicions extend also to the Queen but is unable to act, as she is Regent while Henry remains at his CGI siege of Boulogne across the Channel. She is able to appoint future martyr Hugh Latimer as her chaplain, but must be discreet. 

Meanwhile Brandon finds himself a yong French lover who calls Henry the "English Nero", and Lord Surrey is downed, but not killed, by friendly fire. Things are not going well for the English as an outbreak of dysentery threatens to make the expedition all for naught...

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 6

"It was not a happy marriage, your Majesty."

"Do you believe that such a thing exists?"

"Yes! I believe that with all my heart and soul."

On to Henry's sixth and final marriage, then, in an episode themed around nuptials. Elizabeth declares that she will never marry, Charles Brandon's unhappy marriage collapses into it's own little entropic heat death, and Henry begins to pursue a soon-to-be-widow for his next and final wife. This relationship will not be defined by sex, though; the dirty old man is getting old.

It's 1542. Both Mary and Elizabeth have been restored to the succession in a sign that their generation's time is fast in coming. European politics continues it's merry dance between the French, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. There is a sense of decline and nostalgia. The King admits he has missed Brandon, a rare friend from his youth. 

Catherine Parr, wife of a dying associate of Robert Aske who is tainted with the hint of treason, is carefully selected by Edward Seymour as a suitable bride for our 51 year old Henry with his greying beard, gammy leg and suspicious lack of visible obesity. 

The awkward and arrogant Earl of Surrey, meanwhile, is sent to campaign in Scotland, capturing three of their nobles as James V dies his untimely death, leaving his newborn daughter Mary to be Queen of Scots. The sense of decline, and of an uncertain transfer to a new generation, persists. It is suddenly unmistakeable that these are the final episodes. Little wonder that the king, remembering the glories of Spurs on his younger days, should do something as old-fashioned as declare war on France.

Bishop Gardiner assumes a greater prominence, and his accelerating purges of Lutherans and Evangelicals is a definite sign that all religious reform had ceased; for Catholics, there is seemingly hope. For the King's musicians, forced to suffer "examination", there is none. This is still the court of Henry VIII, and it is still a dangerous place.

Catherine Parr is mature, nice and liked by everyone, but she is afraid to marry Henry, and with good reason. She values her head. But the episode ends with a proposal of marriage. The poor woman must make the best of things and tread carefully...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 5

"Catherine Howard, I have to tell you that you are going to die."

It all happens so quickly. The episode begins with Henry finding out about Catherine Howard`s colourful past from an anonymous letter and ends, after the most nightmarish judicial machinations possible and several tortuous executions, with the poor silly girl`s beheading. She was eighteen.

The interrogator is, of course, Richard Rich, and the likes of Francis Dereham and the disgusting Thomas Culpeper well and truly get their comeuppance, with Lady Rochford also doomed. Dereham has his fingers pulled out under torture, but is lucky to have his sentence commuted to beheading. The slimy Culpeper has no such luck, being hung, drawn and quartered in graphic detail, with much blood. Lady Rochford loses her sanity, but there is no escape from a vengeful king; horribly, Henry changes the law and has her executed anyway. The amount of gore is such that my then-fiancée made comparisons to the Saw films.

For poor, young, none-too-bright Catherine, the whole nightmare is simply beyond her limited comprehension. She is far too young for all this. She is told that she is no longer Queen and, in a bathetic yet pathetic scene, her desperate rush to speak to Henry and make things right is refused; this is the real, adult world, and it`s a cruel, cruel world.

The day before her death, Cathetine refuses all religious rites and chooses to die unshriven, admitting that she knows little of such matters. With a horrifying childlike innocence, she asks to spend her last night with the block so she can practice. Her last moments are less dignified but, perhaps, more tragic than those of Anne Boleyn, a much more adult, intelligent and worldly figure. Her last words are simply that "Life is very beautiful". She makes no reference to religion, caresses the block like a child, and dies. It all happened so quickly, much like her life.

With a hypocrisy and double standard that is by now hardly worth mentioning, Henry spends Catherine's final minutes cavorting with various girls. He likes them young, the dirty old man. By now we can hardly but regard him with utter contempt.

Old Doctor Who New Adventures novels reviewed on Outpost Gallifrey

For thoe who remember the New Adventures, here are a few reviews I wrote about some of them circa 2003, aged 26ish, long before this blog was even conceived. I`m going to have to out myself: I`m Simon Bedford...

Timewyrm: Genesys
Timewyrm: Exodus
Timewyrm: Apocalypse
Cat`s Cradle: Time`s Crucible

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Marvel`s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Ragtag

"What are you feeling?"

''The universe...''

If you`ll indulge me for a sentence, we`ve just (finally!) got our Sky viewing card today (after switching way back on 28th April...), and for the first time we saw M.A.S. in glorious HD. Wow.

Throughout this episode are flashbacks relating to the relationship between Ward and his father figure, Garrett, which nicely inform the scenes between them in the present. We begin fifteen years ago, as Garrett springs the teenage Ward from juvie, slowly toughening him up and brainwashing him to become the perfect Hydra tool. Ward's relationship with his own family, it is hinted, is unspeakably horrible; he is easy prey for the cynical and charismatic Garrett. There is a slight indication that Ward may not be entirely beyond redemption- he doesn't shoot the dog- but the episode still ends with him dropping Fitz and Simmons, locked in a box, into the waters of the Caribbean. We have to wait a week to see whether they survive.

At the other end of the episode, Coulson annd his team, now permanently augmented by Howling Commmando descendant Trip, face the fact that they are now just a bunch of vigilantes with no status and no support. They are resourceful, however; Coulson has worked out that Cybertek is behind everything and, armed with some of Tripp`s family heirloom James Bond gadgets and the hilarious sight of Couson and May trying to be scientists, they set out to investigate its HQ.

This whole sequence is hilarious, from Coulson and May channelling Fitz and Simmons via their earpieces (complete with Coulson`s accidental lapse into Caledonian vowels!) to Skye and Trip, hacking equipment at the ready, being told to "Get ready for a large file transfer", only for a file cabinet to crash out of  window, followed by our two infiltrators.

It seems that Garrett was the first Deathlok, back in 1990, and he remains a bionic man. There`a a twist, though; he`s dying, and stands to die within a month or two unless the GH-25 serum works and, after an attack by an outraged Fitz, Raina is forced to use all of her synthesised forum to save his life. What has he become...?

If that wasn`t enough cliffhangers already, we get another; Raina has discovered something big about Skye`s past, something that involves her parents being monsters...! I can hardly wait for the finale.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Grimm: La Llorana

"It's always the good ones who are taken."

At last we get an episode based on a non-European myth, namely the La Llorona myth from Mexico City. In fact, it's interesting that the Halloween episode should be so Mexican themed and effective because of it; this is both the scariest and best episode so far. I know, vaguely, about the Mexican day of the dead, but I'm -reminded of how little we Europeans know about faraway Latin Americans. We tend, I think, to just see Latin Americans as colonial Spaniards and sit bemused at the American habit of referring to Latin Americans as a non-white ethnicity, "Hispanic", which certainly doesn't exist in Europe. All of which is to say that I probably didn't get all of the cultural references this episode but I definitely enjoyed it. It is also notable how superbly shot this episode is.

There is so much creepy imagery here, from the lady in white calmly walking into the water to our first glimpse of her horrifying face; for once this is not CGI, and is absolutely terrifying. Add the fact that the mysterious lady seeks to catch and sacrifice children and you have dark, fairytale horror that may not be German but is nevertheless reminiscent of the dark, pre-Disney Grimm tales. I note, too, that the weeping woman lives to strike again; this is but a temporary victory.

As well as this we have a lighthearted B plot with Monroe (who really does Halloween) and some trick-or-treating kids. Juliette`s plotline is intriguing, however; she is acting as translator, being part Spanish, and has some interesting chats with the missing boy`s grandmother. She sees Juliette`s scratch and comments, correctly, "You were very sick. You don`t remember it." This will have consequences.

The adversary, for once, is not a Wesen, but this Halloween episode of Grimm is possibly the finest so far.

Grimm: The Other Side

"He's gonna have a tough time in prison!"

Something's happened to Grimm. Up until now it's been a fairly good but not outstanding show, in US terms definitely network rather than cable. But I'm noticing an upturn in quality, mainly because of the increased emphasis on the arc. Episodes are no longer self-contained to the extent that they were, and this has worked wonders with the characterisation.

There is a story of the week, of course; a bunch of gifted kids are being picked off one by one (and yes, the black kid dies first), and there`s a rather neat twist about which of them did it; he is two types of Wesen simultaneously, what with genetic engineering and that, but is in denial about his Lowen half.

So let`s get back to the arc stuff, shall we? Juliette and Nick are flirting a little, possibly a positive step after Juliette`s amnesia. But Captain Renard, under the influece of Adalind`s magic, is obsessively staking her, at one point lurking outside as she showers, in a scene deliberately evoking Psycho. There`s a new intern at the precinct, seemingly a huge fanboy of Nick and Hank.

But the biggest thing here is the introduction of Sean Renard`s deliciously villainous royal brother Eric, played by James Frain from The Tudors but having absolutely nothing in common with Thomas Cromwell as a character. Things are seeded for later episodes as he chats to Adalind(!) in a CGI castle in Vienna. It seems Sean and Eric are half-brothers, not exactly close, and that Sean`s brother absconded with a Hexenbeist. Nick is discussed...

Our good Captain is preoccupied with his growing obsession over Juliette for the moment, though, and elicits help from Monroe. But it seems there is no hope, and the symptoms can only get worse...

Monday, 19 May 2014

Forrest Gump (1994)

"Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."

I didn't want to like this film. I assumed it had a passively conservative agenda in that the homespun wisdom of the Deep South is a much better guide for life than those pesky liberal intellectuals. And yes, there is a bit of that. And it's not necessarily a good thing to imply that success comes to those who morally deserve it as it does to Forrest- it doesn't. But I liked it anyway. I may be a Guardian reading type and Lib Dem voter (though definitely not on Clegg's wing of the party), but I hail from the reactionary, UKIP voting rural East Midlands and, while most of my fellow denizens of this region may average some decidedly right wing views, I'm definitely proud of where I come from. Eh up, me duck.

All of which is to say that I rather enjoyed this film and I think it would be churlish to knock it for it's fairly passive conservative slant. In any case, I'm wary that I haven't read the novel on which the film is based. So let's actually talk about the film, shall we?

Firstly, Tom Hanks is superb, evoking both humour and pathos in a way that reminds one of the great Charlie Chaplin.
His choice of scripts may often leave something to be desired, but as an actor he's one of the best that Hollywood has to offer. And the film is fun, riffing enjoyably on its Zelig concept to insert Forrest into footage of the likes of John Lennon and any number of American presidents. It is, perhaps, an example of a post-Cold War America, in the middle of the "End of History" era, looking back fondly over its most recent tumultuous decades of counterculture and Vietnam. 

Forrest's homespun philosophies are, of course, silly, and the film could be accused of naïveté in having it's mentally subnormal star end up rich and successful because he's nice. But one can also, if one tries hard enough, see there an existential acknowledgement of the absurdities of life and fortune, and I tried very hard indeed. The film is worth a look and great fun, even for those of us wary of possible conservative overtones.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 4

"For God`s sake don`t spoil it. Not for us and not for her."

 The King is proceeding north for a wee chat with King James V, king of a smaller nation yet also head of a dynasty which is destined to replace his in but two generations` time. This means that once again we see Pontefract and Sir Ralph Whatsit, an Archbishop of York played by a former Master from Doctor Who, and the Duke of Suffolk feeling intense remorse about what he did. In a nicely Shakespearean touch he is even haunted by the ghost of Lord Darcy. Of course, Hamlet lies some sixty years in the future and represents future generations, not men of the past like Henry and Charles Brandon.

Henry enjoys his popularity; Cromwell is dead and the future of religious reform is uncertain. Yet it is clear that Mary is more popular than her father. War between France and the Habsurgs also beckons, as usual. All of this is above Catherine Howard`s pretty little head, but this doesn`t stop Henry from seizing her for some vigorous sex. There`s life in the old dog yet.

 The Earl of Surrey continues to be an interesting character, badly acted- he`s arrogant, well-read, philosophical, Martial-quoting mysterious, laddish and snobbish as only someone posher than the King can be. Disdaining the "new men" with whom the King has surrounded himself, he skirts with treason in stating, to Suffolk, that Richard II (a deposed king!) died from trusting "lesser men". This has parallels with the later comparisons of Elizabeth I to Richard II by the Earl of Essex during his ill-fated rebellion of 1601.

Catherine is sailing ever closer to the wind; she oversleeps because she slept wth Thomas Culpeper, and the tendency of old acquaintances to blackmail her for favours reaches new deaths with Francis Dereham- lecherous, a former lover, and indiscreet. Catherine has no relationship to speak of with any of Henry`s children (it is Elizabeth, his older sister, whom we see being close to little Edward), and she even starts to alienate Culpeper with dangerous talk of "a store of other lovers".

All this is in the context of things not going well for Henry; James V fails to turn up and has his armies raid the marches, and Edward is dangerously ill. Edward soon recovers, but a letter is waiting for the King. This is gripping stuff.