Sunday, 2 August 2020

Laura (1944)

“Murder is my favourite crime.”

As one would expect of a famous film noir from the heyday of the genre, this film is magnificent, indeed close to perfection. The atmosphere, the direction, the cast, the witty script and the delightfully clever unfolding plot... this is not so much a film upon which one passes judgement, as a film to gaze upon in awed amazement. It’s that good.

Ultimately, this is because of the clever, witty, melancholy script and Preminger’s superb direction, but the film is full of extremely real-seeming characters. Gene Tierney is mesmerising as the eponymous murder victim herself, and Dana Andrews strokes the right notes as Detective McPherson. Yet it is Clifton Webb, as the witty, arrogant yet somehow likeable Waldo Lydecker, who truly astounds in what must have been a deeply satisfying role. Then there’s Vincent Price, impossibly young, playing a part totally unlike what he would later be known for.

The film is seventy-six years old as I write. And yet it has a world-weary and deeply intelligent level of psychological perceptiveness that feels somehow more “modern” than most contemporary cinema. Each character feels like a thinking, feeling, self-justifying human being, with real motives. And yet the film also functions perfectly as a clever and gripping whodunit. Everyone must see this film.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Sex Education: Season 2, Episode 1

“You have discovered the wonders of your own penis, my friend...”

A new season dawns, so we have a first episode with a lot of exposition, that necessarily feels as though it exists to move the pieces into place. So yes, we have a sex advice client who is falsely accused of spreading chlamydia, and a hysterical STD scare with everyone running around in masks and worried about a plague- in a programme released in January 2020, which is creepy. We also have the usual wit, humour and character, not least with a hilarious opening sequence with Otis having learned to masturbate successfully and now doing it all the time like, well, a teenage boy. And there’s a hilarious conversation with Jean.

But there’s a lot of change to the status quo. Jean and Jakob are now an item- a fact accidentally revealed to their respective children. Ola is now at the school. Adam is not. Maeve isn’t, then she is, due to her cleverness and her favourite English teacher, Shabnam from EastEnders. There’s a new, handsome boy who is probably gay. And we meet the new Chair of the Board of Governors, a familiar face if you saw the excellent Years and Years.

Most tragically, it’s clear that Jackson is only working his arse off at swimming to stop his parents arguing. His self-inflicted injury is a cry for help, and should be seen for what it is: self harm.

Oh, and Jean is going to be teaching sex education at the school. I’m sure Otis will love that. And Ola has just found out about the sex clinic. Then there’s the love triangle with Maeve..

It’s all looking promising. It’s fair to say this first episode still managed to be fun even with all that exposition to do, but I’m glad the pieces are in lace.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

“She’s a Scientologist.”

“I was thinking of converting. Kind of a career move.”

I know I've blogged a lot of Cronenberg fils lately, but he fascinates me. He's known for his body horror, but his work (especially in recent decades) is so much more than that- philosophical, dreamlike, with clear themes but a very adult ambiguity of meaning. So here's another.

This film is, of course, a blatant denunciation, from far to the north, of Hollywood and it's vacuous culture where everyone is an aspiring actor/writer/second gaffer. And Hollywood royalty is as horrible and exploitative as anything in the Ancien Regime- arrogant, entitled, obsessed with new age mumbo jumbo, and full of nasty casual prejudices beneath the surface liberalism. They are empty leeches who both feed off and discard ordinary people, from whose lives they are so very far removed. Havana (an excellent Julianne Moore) is as much a monster as anyone in the creepily incstuous and cursed Weiss family, and the relationship between her and Agatha is, I suppose, the fairly straightforward thematic core of the film.

But we also have the weird, incestuous and similarly loathsome Weiss family, seen being generally empty and horrible until prodgal daughter Agatha returns to "make amends". The plot unfolds at the perfect pace as the full, repetitive, abusive horror of the family's curse slowly unwinds. This is, I think, a film that will reward repetitive viewings. While critics are, I know, divided on ths, still Cronenberg's latest, I personally find it utterly compelling.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Haunting of Hill House: Steven Sees a Ghost

"Nellie's in the red room!"

It’s hard to judge first episodes, with all the exposition they have to do on top of hooking you. This one manages rather well, I think.

I’m not so done who watches horror to be scared: to me it’s a splendidly artificial genre where the point is precisely that I’m very much aware of how the camera, music and script create a mood. Of course, horror works best- as here- where there’s also good drama and solid character work, but I suppose I love the genre precisely because I find it intrinsically cheesy. That said, the last minute twist- where Steven finally sees his first ever ghost at the end- made me jump. And is an enormously clever narrative gambit. Especially as we have an extended early scene establishing his relative scepticism, and that he closed his eyes during a certain childhood episode.

The episode is very Stephen King, existing in two time zones- the children’s childhoods and the adult present. There’s a very gothic and nebulous ghostly evil from the past, in this case a creepy old house (a hundred years is old over there; I’ve owned somewhere older, though much less grand) and, just to double down on the Stephen King-ness, the central character is a horror writer called Steven.

The siblings are well drawn though, from serious Shirley and commitment-phobic Theo(dora) to the damaged Nell (she who sees the “bent necked lady” and Luke, of the creepy childhood drawings. There’s a lot here to make me want to see more. A good start.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Batman: Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club

“This is torture... at its most bizarre and terrible.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. One must always be careful not to treat television programmes from fifty years ago in the same way as something made today; social mores have changed, and one must make allowances. But, having made said allowances... this is (mostly) unfunny sexist claptrap that is simply jaw-dropping to watch. Batman does second wave feminism. In 1968. And it’s every bit as squirmingly awful as you might fear.

Feminism can be the subject of humour, of course, like anything can. But here we have a feminist activist (later shown to have purely venal motives) who seems to fire all male police officers for no other reason but one-up(wo)manship. And their female replacements turn out to be rubbsh at their jobs because they're too busy doing lipstick, discussing recipes and shopping. Yes, really. And all this only happens because Mayor Linseed's wife forces his hand by refusing to cook or wash his clothes, which all of us real men routinely do for ourselves (and our wives). This is bad, cringeworthy and frankly alienating stuff. And it's a nasty, very lazy, knee jerk stye of "humour", weaponising the patriarchy to mock those who point at its existence.

It's a pity, as there are a couple of gloriously silly moments with the "Siamese human knot" and the slendidly absurd Pied Piper ending. But this doesn't wash away the nasty, punching down, sexism of the episode. Given how few episodes there are left of Batman, I suspect this will end up as my least favourite of the lot.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Edgar Allan Poe (1909)

I haven't much time for watching and blogging tonight, so I’ve watched a (very) short early silent film of a kind I haven’t blogged for while. This film, a somewhat melodramatic but technically interesting biopic of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work I adore, is particularly fascinating, for two reasons.

Firstly, this is 1909, exactly sixty years since Poe’s untimely death. This film is no further away from that event than we are from the deaths of, say, Eddie Cochran, or Buddy Holly. One of the actresses in the film (Clara T Bracy) was born in 1848, when Poe was very much alive. The past, though superficially unfamiliar, is not so far away as we may think.

Secondly, of course, this is D.W. Griffith. I’ve blogged a fair number of silent films by now but, yes, I’ve been avoiding him. The thing is, I realise he’s famous for being an innovator in film techniques. But he’s also well known for being incredibly racist in ways which caused real harm. And we’re not discussing his work being racist in the way we’d criticise something like, say, the brownface in Short Circuit. No: Birth of a Nation isn’t merely a racist film but actually caused the revival of the then-defunct Ku Klux Klan, causing decades of unspeakable terrorist violence. Arguably no film ever made has done more damage to the world and it’s unlikely I will ever choose to blog it. Even Triumph of the Will can at least claim not to be the direct cause of the evils it was documenting.

So Griffith is a problem, and a figure I regard with some wariness. I’m conscious I’ve chosen to watch a film of his with “safe” subject matter, meaning it doesn’t feature or mention anyone who doesn’t happen to be white. So I can say that, yes, the acting style is big, stages and melodramatic and yes, it’s just cameras pointed at a theatrical set. But the story is told with admirable clarity and there are some nice touches- the bored writer in the foreground at the publisher while Poe is rejected in the background is a delightful way of showing us how unappreciated he was.

This is, yes, a superior example of cinema for its time. But, I’m afraid, the name of its director carries a stench that infects all it touches.

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 8

"My vagina has betrayed me!"

Wow. After last episode seemed to raise the bar we have an extraordinarily accomplished finale, which brings a satisfactory closure of sorts to a lot of threads while using the characters in a satisfying way. And, as ever, the way it’s all structured is a marvel and a complex plot is made easy to follow- this is a show with very good writing.

So we have Lily’s fury sexual experience ruined by her sex slamming shut, making her an unofficial client of the week, but her fear of losing control and enjoying sexual pleasure is a direct parallel of Otis’ own issues, and ultimately they help each other to get over them- and it’s all rather cute. Lit is a wonderful character, wonderfully portrayed.

But we also have Goff getting a stupidly wrong end of the stick and accusing Maeve of dealing illegal drugs, leading her to take the fall for her brother and to be at serious risk of expulsion- something which, despite Jackson’s protestations, is very much up in the air, and not looking good, as the episode ends.

More positively, Eric and Adam end up in detention- and, after a little of the usual bullying, Adam throws himself on Eric and they have sex. Wow. The thing is, Mrs Llamastrangler predicted this, and I pooh poohed her. She always thought Adam’s bullying looked suspiciously as though he fancied Eric- and he does. But he goes straight into denial mode, and the closet, afterwards. That last sight of them sitting awkwardly together in the science lesson, not holding hands, is so very sad. And Adam, it seems, is off to some horrible military school. I hope Goff gets his comeuppance: he’s a baddie you love to hate, and Alistair Petrie has been consistently superb.

We end with apologies to Otis, and a kind of wisdom, from Jean, who has admitted to Jakob that she wants more than sex. And, in another elegant parallel, he makes up with Ola and they kiss... which leads to a splendidly and necessarily figurative final shot of Otis’ first ever masturbatory orgasm.... to the sounds of Sigurd Sigue Sputnik.

This finale, and in hindsight the whole season, has been superb.

Sex Education: Season 1: Episode 7

"Sometimes the people we like don't like us back, and it's painful, but there's nothing we can do about it."

This penultimate episode is extraordinary- full of depth in terms of both theme and character. It seems to have shifted gear into something more serious and philosophical. The comedy hasn't gone, but by this point it's just a natural part of the drama.

And the drama is about very deep feelings and passionate longing, beginning with Liam, client of the week, who is being a bit creepy about unrequited love- and quite rightly gets the "no means no, so back off" talk from Otis. Interestingly, though, we get a lot of ironic banter about the innate stupidity and sexism of the upcoming school prom- very much an American import and not so big a thing in this country: I never went to mine in '95 and nor did many of my friends. But a reluctant Maeve is persuaded by Jackson, and a similarly reluctant Otis is persuaded by Ola, in both cases rather sweetly.

Also sweet is how Jean and Jakob are falling for each other, with Jean teaching for ever more transparent excuses to see him... but, when they stop shagging and start talking, the sex therapist proves to be utterly like insight. She tells him she thinks of him as divorced and bored of monogamy. But she is describing herself; Jakob is a widower, Jean is the first person he’s slept with since the bereavement, and he wants more than just the physical.

But the ball is awkward; Maeve isn’t fully happy with Jackson, and there are in resolved and mutual feelings between her and Otis that are very much lampshaded by the case of the week- Otis’s speech to a suicidal Liam at the end is very much heard by Maeve. It seems our two leads may get together.

But, of course, it is not to be, as Maeve is disgusted when a drunken Jackson reveals the confidential advice Otis gave him. And Jackson himself is far from a bad bloke, with one of his parents living her dreams of sporting glory through him. It's a terrible burden for one far too young. And, to complete our triptych of things going wrong, Oris stupidly upsets Ola, seeming to lose her. This is nicely structured storytelling. And throughout the episode we have Sean, Maeve's very human but dodgy drug dealing brother, as a worryingly damaging catalyst.

Eric has a better time this episode, however, starting to reconcile his very Christian, African family background (let's hope it doesn't remain just generically African, which would be dodgy) with his sexuality- and there's a lovely conversation with his concerned but caring dad. He arrives at the party looking fabulous, and gets cheered (yay!), finally accepting Otis' frank apology. But we can't have a happy ending to a penultimate episode; Otis sees the book his mother has been writing is... about him.

This is superb; it's extraordinary that a short series in its first season should develop it's characters so well by this point.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Batgirl: 1967 Pilot

"You are no longer alone, Caped Crusaders!"

I should really have blogged this before I started Season Three of Batman, but it’s only since I started that I became aware of the existence of this interesting little seven minute pilot. It seems the second season of Batman had been shedding viewers and that Batgirl was the proffered solution to its ills- and this was made to highlight the undoubtable awesomeness of Yvonne Craig.

It’s only a quick little vignette, really, and made for a very specific purpose; I’m not going to review it as such. The plot is simply to introduce us to Barbara Gordon and have her assist the Caped Crusaders in dealing with a crime taking place in the library which doesn’t overly stretch the budget.

Yvonne Craig’s performance is fully-formed, as is the character. The secret costume changing room is in the library, though, rather than in Barbara’s apartment, and her mask looks different, and rather less comfortable.

The only thing worth mentioning, of course, is the fairly rubbish villain: Killer Moth. The format doesn’t exactly allow this briefly seen baddie to shine, but there’s one more baddie from the comics to have appeared on television, sort of, although we don’t get to see his modus operandi as a kind of Batman for criminals.

This is a very interesting little novelty if you can hunt it down, and takes only seven and a bit minutes to watch.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 6

“I’ll bring the condoms. You bring the lube...”

A lot happens in this episode, and it happens to a lot of characters. And yet, by this point in the season, we know the characters and are invested. It’s complicated, but it doesn’t feel it. That’s good writing.

We start with a flashback as a very young Otis sees his father have sex with someone else- and it was him, as a little boy, who innocently told his mother and caused so many arguments and so much drama. It’s not hard to see him blaming himself. Especially when, desperate to lose his virginity, he agrees to shag Lily (Tanya Reynolds is both brilliant and perfectly cast)... and a flashback to that moment prevents him doing it. There are issues there, which are without a doubt going to be explored. This is all paralleled, of course, with his mother’s curiously cute and old fashioned courtship of the handyman.

Eric is in a dark place, alienated not just from Otis but from everyone. It’s a superb bit of acting from Ncuti Gatwa here as a very different and suddenly much angrier Eric- culminating in a pinch at Anwar. And he and Otis are absolutely no closer to reconciling. Yet Eric’s relationship with his traditionally African yet well-meaning father is interesting. I like the nuance here; the father may not be from a background where being gay is easily accepted, but he’s nevertheless trying to do right by his son, and obviously cares.

Maeve, meanwhile, has issues of her own as her unreliable and mercurial brother is back, no doubt up to something, while Jackson is feeling real conflict between the demands of swim training and the demands of having a girlfriend. You feel for her as a young swimming widow, but you feel for the lad too. And, of course, Maeve’s essay written for Adam wins a prize, leading to undeserved praise for someone who blatantly didn’t write it. And yet, interestingly, Mr Goff seems determined to ignore all signs of this and pretend his son wrote the thing. There are seeds of real conflict here, and corruption. I suspect this will develop.

This week’s sex therapy case is interesting- Aimee, in a nice little microcosm for how she always lets herself be walked on, has never orgasmed and is struggling to accept the idea that sex should be about her pleasure, as her nice new boyfriend exists. And after discovering the pleasures of wanking she’s a a very satisfied customer.

But we end, interestingly, with the intriguing Ola asking Otis out on a date, but he continues to show real chemistry with Maeve, and we end with her smelling his jumper, showing she does have feelings...

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Batman: Louie’s Lethal Lilac Time

“Tell me something, Batgirl. How did you get out of that cat?”

“With my Batgirl vat-opener.”

Louie the Lilac gets a second appearance, which is surprising- I assume both episodes were filmed back to back? He’s an odd one; a relatively ho-hum character that is elevated by a nicely menacing little turn from Milton Berle.

They may be running out of ideas already- after trying to corner the flower market, he’s now doing the same with perfume. But the episode nevertheless manages to be funny and entertaining- I love how Louie needs a whole menagerie of animals kidnapped from the zoo, all of which are just off camera whenever they are nearby. We also get parallel pieces of farcical fun as Barbara Gordon nearly seems the Batphone flashing, while her own secret passage in her flat is nearly found by a random workman sent by neighbours complaining about the noise of the revolving wall.

The episode revolves around the conceit if Bruce and Dick being captured and the Caped Crusaders therefore being unavailable, until of course they get to use their special pills which contain full Bat costumes. This is wonderfully bonkers. Much like the episode itself. This third season, I think I can say by now, is looking a little tired. But it’s still got it a surprising amount of the time.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Batman: The Joke’s on Catwoman

“That’s the first time I ever

It’s our first episode of 1968- a less idealistic and more cynical year than ‘67, with rioting and body bags from Vietnam starting to edge out peace and love. And, right on cue, we have a cynical episode on corrupt justice as our heroes capture Catwoman and Joker halfway through and we spend the rest of the episode with a trial in front of a corrupt jury.

It is, of course, absurd to see Batman- not a lawyer- handling the prosecution, but this is Batman. The courtroom antics of Lucky Pierre are delightfully entertaining, and Batman even states at the end that he would have done well in politics. And, of course, on Pierre’s desk in his first scene is a prominent photo of Richard Nixon. A newer, more cynical and conservative age is coming. And perhaps that age will have no place for high camp fun.

And high camp fun aplenty there is here, much as the Joker is again playing second fiddle to Catwoman. There’s more fun flirting between Batgirl and the Caped Crusaders, and a hilariously quick usage of a French dictionary- although a genuine 18th century treasure map certainly wouldn’t be in metres...

Again we get some delightfully eccentric characters, from a pair of lighthouse keepers to a judge who joins in the final fight. This episode, and this two parter, is utterly bonkers. And wonderful.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Deadwood: Season 1, Episode 7- Suffer the Little Children

"You might, Dan, want to learn how to indicate interest in a girl other than murdering another person."

Another dense, complex yet warchable, well-shot and well-acted episode doesn't surprise me at this point. It's 200's HBO, its a literary novel in the medium of television, it's bloody good. You're expecting me to say this.

Even so, I can't help but admire the structuring of the storyteling here. The main plotline here is probably young sublings Flora and Miles, who turn out to be cleverly manipulative thieves, and are both caught and killed, after much roughing up, by Cy. It's a hard word. And that Anna from Frozen has quite the potty mouth.

And yet there's so much more. Al's relationship with Trixie (attempting suicide, much to the gult of Alma after last episode) is shown at full force complexity here, very much mirrored by Joanie and Cy, whose own relationship clearly has many layers. More generally, the smallpox vaccine finally reaches camp, as well as rumours of a possible treaty with the Sioux. Could law and civilisation be coming?

Yet the mot fascnating thread is that of Alma, persuaded by Bullock to stay after he discovers her claim has promise. And above it all is the fascinating Al Swearengen, forever playing a prticularly potty-mouthed type of three dimensional chess, leaving E.B. struggling to keep up. He's an utterly fascinating character.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)

“Who are you?”

“Commander first conquest of Earth, from the third planet of the black hole, outer space.”

This is most certainly one of the best films the franchise has given us. I don't care how Mechagodzilla is disguised as Godzilla only in the early scenes so we get to see some old-fashioned distruction by our old friend but appears only as a robot (described as a "cyborg") thereafter. Nor do I care about the Ptofessor's suspiciously accurate guesses early on, nor that his pipe is the most obvious example of Chekhov's Gun in cinematic history.

No; this is B movie heaven, with lots of action, interesting locations and a fast-moving plot- set partly, interestingly, in Okinawa, which is culturally and linguistically not quite Japanese, and certainly gets othered here. Mechagodzilla looks awesome and, while one sinister bloke indeed turns out to be the alien leader, others turn out to be cool and friendly Interpol agents in a nice bit of misdirection. Even the true form of the aliens looks quite impressive.

As for the corny sci-fi dialogue and hilariously 70s alien spacecraft, well, those are the reasons we watch these sorts of films. We even get an appearance from Angilas, and a cool new monster in the form of King Seesar. 70s Godzilla is really on form by now. And what’s pleasing is that each film is interestingly different.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Being John Malkovich (1999)

“I’m sorry, I have no time for piddling suggestions from mumbling job applicants.”

This is the weirdest, and perhaps the best, film I've ever seen. David Lynch: that there thing on the floor looks like a gauntlet.

This is magnificently, yet confidently weird. It’s not only surreal: it’s philosophical, cultured, Pythonesque, a morality tale and more. The very concept is delightfully mad, and the way things play out is inspired in how staid narrative conventions are adroitly avoided, yet by the end of the film, miraculously, it all actually makes narrative sense on its own terms, even if one’s mind has been screwed with splendidly. This is a dense, layered film, full of clever literary allusions, yet never anything other than lightly playful.

The cast are, without exception, superb- Cusack especially, and of course Malkovich, but Catherine Keener is a revelation as the cooly amoral Maxine, while Orson Bean gives the perfect comic performance.

You can, of course, expect to see many more Charlie Kaufman films in this blog within a very short space of time. Why oh why did I not see this film until I was forty-three?

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Batman: The Funny Feline Felonies

"Karate isn't effective unless accompanied by yelling...!"

Now this is a good one and no mistake. And yes, it’s another Catwoman script from Stanley Ralph Ross, invariably a sign of quality. Without impugning Julie’s definitive status Earths Kitt is again superb, and while the Joker is very much playing second fiddle here he gets loads of great set pieces to balance it all out.

The show’s traditional fourth wall baiting humour is very much in evidence, with the first scene being Warden Crichton and Bruce confidently pronouncing the Joker a reformed man and fit for (very) early release. This goes as well as can be expected, with a hilarious “kidnapping” and a winning double act of villainy- Romero and Kitt have superb chemistry.

The plot- an old Seven Years War riddle leaving clues to a load of gunpowder to use for robbing a bank- is silly, of course. So is Batgirl’s rivalry with the Dynamic Duo, just to “outsmart men”. And our two victims here- a twentysomething music cartoon and a fashion designer from “Londinium”- are delightful grotesques. You can’t not love a script in which the Jokeg critiques an old riddle for its iambic pentameter. And, of course, Batgirl is late to the rescue because she’s obeyed the speed limits.

This is wonderful. More please.

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 5

“It’s my vagina!”

Another interesting and multi-layered episode here, about friendships and reputations.

It’s a mid-season eventful episode as Otis is forced by the plot to choose between Eric’s birthday tradition and a sex therapy linked to Maeve who, a month later, he still fancies. But is he choosing her needs for the right reasons? Complicating the choice is the fact the therapy job consists of working out who send round a naked pic of school bitch Ruby (young Cindy off of EastEnders) and that this echoes for Maeve, whose own reputation was stained years ago by similar childishness. She l owe this sort of thing sticks, and it’s personal. And yes, for the parent of a daughter, this is terrifying.

A nice twist I’d that the culprit is Ruby’s friend Olivia, and that she sort of redeems herself at the end in a heartwarming scene of genital “I’m Spartacus”. But less heartwarming is the position of Eric- robbed and beaten up by homophobes as a result of Otis’ negligence. Interestingly, though, his old-fashioned dad is portrayed as uncomfortable with his son’s sexuality but nevertheless caring and not an outright bigot. That’s nicely nuanced. Also nuanced is Aimee’s continued exploitation by her friends, although she seems to have a handsome, clean cut love interest.

Maeve has a bit of a disaster meeting Jackson’s two very middle class mothers, but all is not as it seems: when she later invited him back to her caravan, though, he’s nice- and reveals that he takes medication for anxiety, and is not as perfect as he seems. It’s an interesting writing choice here: Jackson is nice, vulnerable and likeable, but he’s the love rival to the protagonist. It’ll be interesting to see where this plot line goes.

There is, perhaps, a bit of uncalled-for mocking of nerds (the wargamer kid is called Tom Baker, incidentally!), and the character arcs are perhaps a little obviously subject to the plot, but this is very good stuff.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 4

“Why don’t you start by telling me your earliest memory of your scrotum.”

Another fascinatingly well-structured episode here, which hints at the likelihood that this series won’t be taking a “case of the week” format but with have much more of an emphasis on season arcs, but also seems to be still setting up the pieces. We meet two new characters here- an unnamed Swedish builder who seems to be set up as a possible love interest for Jean and his daughter, who will have some connection (romantic?) with Otis.

The A plot is very well done, of course- Otis really likes Maeve, but I adverts it ends up giving advice to Jackson which ends up with her agreeing, against her general principles, to be her boyfriend. But Jackson isn’t a bad guy, and is genuinely in love. And it’s not much consolation to Otis to get a random proposal of mutual cherry- popping from the quirkily likeable Lily.

Incidentally, these teenagers are young enough to be my kids. So why do they all like the same bands as me? We get Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Joy Division and others all name checked- even Bikini Kill. It’s interesting that there seems to be no clear cut generation gap.

Meanwhile Adam gets even more desperate because of his authoritarian wanker of a father. And Eric seems to have similar problems, if both less clear and apparently less intense. There’s a lot going on, but it feels natural and easy. This may not be top drawer, but it’s very, very good.

The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre, 2016)

"When you're between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea sometimes looks very inviting."

I haven't managed to keep up with these wonderful lockdown gifts from the National Theatre, what with life being so very hectic these days, but they really are so kind to us, and really do need all the support they can get right now. Culture matters.

I’ve never seen this play before and nor, I’m afraid to say, have I seen any Terence Rattigan before. It may be terribly upper middle class, but this play is wonderful in how it deals with such deep, overwhelming emotion through the medium of deliberately awkward, very British dialogue. Perhaps our distance from the play helps us to see it more clearly; certainly 1952 is made to seem a long time ago. Restrictive divorce laws; suicide being a crime for which one can be imprisoned; the same for homosexuality, particularly resonant for the author and (it’s implied) for poor Dr Miller, who may perhaps be seen as the authorial voice. We are fortunate to live in the wake of the 1960s when these wrongs where righted.

Helen McRory is simply outrageously good here in the meatiest of female roles. As much of a revelation to me, though, is the play itself. The style may be old-fashioned, and the treatment of the themes may jar with our mores of today, although it’s fascinating to see how subtly subversive the play is. Rattigan is a writer I shall have to explore.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 3

“It’s better not being a mum at all than being a bad one.”

Interestingly, this episode doesn’t take the formulaic, “case of the week” approach that might be expected: perhaps that’s not the sort of series this is. Instead we get a focus on the fascinating Maeve, whose life is tinged with sadness and deprivation that belie her intelligence, her cut-glass vowels and (as we see here from a very ITV television quiz) that she is well read and cultured.

Bravely, the episode focuses on Maeve having an abortion following the events of the previous episode. The whole process is shown with realism, including the horrible nutters shouting inhuman abuse outside at women who really don’t need it. We get to know her, and Otis even tries to dispense some sex advice, but they’re not nice people and they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

Emma Mackey is superb at showing us both Maeve’s tough exterior and the vulnerability that lies beneath. And there’s a brief moment of joy when she realises that Otis actually came through and waited for her. She seems to trust him, and even shows him the caravan park where she lives- and that her absent mother is an addict. We last see her staring at childhood photos. This is all wonderful character stuff.

We also meet Otis’s father for the first time, and and get to laugh at his guilt that his first wet dream should be about Maeve and that he’s “objectifying” her. I think it’s clear that the two of them are going to get together.

But there’s more, too: we see Jackson swimming, and how his pushy mum is urging him to train further. Meanwhile we see how the headmaster is seemingly more fond of this successful substitute son than he is of his own. And we see Eric’s large family, with real homophobic undercurrents, as he makes a rather touching friendship with the delightfully eccentric Lily.

This is all quite gripping.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 2

“Is it weird that I always think about the Queen when I cum?”

Perhaps this episode, a little more obviously than the first, blatantly exists to fulfil a plot function- to create the demand for Otis as an informal sex therapist for the school as he helps a couple with their problems at a party he attends in the very hope of doing so. This plot function is fulfilled rather neatly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t another fifty-odd minutes of good characterisation and laugh-out-loud lines.

I like the way that the gloriously eccentric Jean and Otis are realistically made to clash without either of them seeming unreasonable or unlikeable: they’re both shown as nice, if flawed, characters. The contrast with Adam and his authoritarian dick of a dad is clear. Aimee, too, is interesting: a superficially popular girl who is paddling rather frantically, and being exploited somewhat by her friends, in order to remain so.

More urgently, the mysterious and fascinating Maeve appears to be pregnant by Jackson- whom she hadn’t told but is continuing to shag. And she appears, despite her cut glass vowels, to live in desperate trailer park poverty. No wonder she’s keen to make money. And poor Eric may be the comic relief character, but the humiliation he is constantly made to suffer by bullies is dark indeed.

This is excellent. But hopefully by now the set-up is over and we can actually see the format in action.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Sex Education: Season 1, Episode 1

“Ejaculation. Jizz. Spunk. Man milk.”

Mrs Llamastrangler and I have settled on this as our new Netflix series to binge after a glimpse of the promising trailer. We’re rather glad we did.

A good first episode is always an impressive thing, as it has to do double duty in being a good piece of telly AND introducing the premise, characters and tone. This episode does both very well indeed.

So we have Otis, a teenage boy who is having trouble masturbating- and his highly amusing and extremely cool sex therapist mother Jean, a superb and unrecognisable Gillian Anderson in a truly amazing and charismatic performance. Otis’ best friend Eric is witty, gay and unpopular- and played by an impressive young actor with superb comic timing.

Eric is being bullied by Adam, who is in turn being tyrannised by his total bastard of a father, who happens to be the headmaster and should know better. He in turn is having trouble climaxing with his girlfriend Aimee, who is herself being more subtly bullied. Meanwhile we have outcast Maeve, ostracised as women and girls seen to enjoy sex do often are. All these characters are clearly established and interesting and it is plausible how, at the end, Otis sets up an unofficial sex therapy business with the rather interesting Maeve, who is clearly far more intelligent and interesting than her stereotype.

This is, indeed, a wonderful bit of telly. It’s gloriously quotable (“Marjorie, how are you getting on with your penis?”) and fun. It’s also refreshing to see a TV drama that treats sex as a real, nuanced part of our lives rather than just titillation- and it’s particularly refreshing to see women and girls who are shown as actively sexual in individual ways, as in real life, instead of all that whore/virgin dichotomy bollocks.

This is very promising indeed. Here goes the binge...

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Batman: The Ogg Couple

"But this isn't exactly woman's work."

This episode is a very odd beast here, at this point of the season. I suspect it was made at the same time as the earlier two parter; it’s certainly odd to see Egghead with Olga but, by this point, the two of them have outworn their welcome.

It doesn’t help that Egghead, the more established of the two and played by no less a figure than Vincent Price, is so emasculated. He’s reduced to riding a donkey as the Cossacks ride horses, always one step behind, and always playing second fiddle. Worse, it’s one thing playing the coward to ensnare Batgirl into a trap, but the episode ends with him showing real cowardice. And he does nothing cool, has no agency and is nothing but a sidekick for the whole episode. As for Olga, Anne Baxter plays her well, but the character is just a tiresome cipher. I’m glad she won’t be back. It’s just a shame the once cool character of Egghead has been utterly ruined. Such a sad exit.

As for the episode itself, it’s a fairly standard third season single episode. Attempts at high camp are perfunctory and the whole thing feels superfluous after the earlier two parter.

An eminently skippable episode. Was it originally supposed to be a three parter with the other two?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Batman: Catwoman’s Dressed to Kill

“You better leave the crime fighting to the men!”

There is, of course, no doubt that the much-missed Julie Newmar is the definitive Catwoman. Bt that isn't to say I can't admire other portrayals, and Eartha Kitt's more aggressive version of the character here is excellent. If we can't have Julie, it's good to have an actress who has put her own stamp on the role. Sadly, though, I suspect the dropping of the sexual tension between Catwoman and batman is due to the pthetic racial politics of the time. Black lives, in 1967, were seen to matter very little.

Once again, though, a Catwoman episode is written by a Stanley Ralph Ross, and this is a good 'un. The programme's splendid high camp flavour is much in evidence, with much gentle skewering of sexist attitudes both within the fashion industry and beyond- the above quote is joined by many other over-the-top lines, and we have a delightful scene in which the Dynamic Duo refuse to enter a ladies' dressing room after Catwoman and her henchmen flee inside, and when forced to enter because Batgirl is in peril they close their eyes- all played dead straight by West and Ward. This is delightful.

We even have the main threat of the episode being Catwoman's plot to steal the priceless relic of a tiny European kingdom which could lead to war, and America therefore having to support said microstate for years; I rather suspect our scribe has seen The Mouse That Roared.

All this, and we get hippie Alfred. One of the finer recent episodes.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

“What happened to them?"

"They became too civilised and destroyed each other."

I suppose I should start by noting the recycling of plot elements from previous Sinbad films produced by Charles H. Schneer and with effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen- the malevolent spell cast on a Caliph (let us not pry as the historical accuracy of the use of that title) whose kinswomen is a love interest for Sinbad; the two stop motion monsters at the end; pretty much the entire plot. But I don't care. This film is wonderful.

Nor do I insist on po-faced criticism of Muslims drinking wine (the history of that religion is not so uniformly Puritan as commonly supposed; I'm happy to raise a glass with any Muslim, as did the Ottomnn Sultans to Hajj pilgrims), or on the historical absurditu of Melanthius, a Greek pagan who was supposedly friendly with Archimedes interacting with Muslims from several centuries afterwards.

No; what matters is the sheer fun of the film. It may run to a time-honoured formula, but it works. One would have thought that, in that Star Wars watershed year of 1977, this kind of stop motion film would be thought old fashioned. Yet this is still the age of Doug McClure, and not yet the age of computer effects... much.

Most effusively, beyond the wonderful Harryhausen himself, the cast is superb.John Wayne's lad is perfectly fine but he is, I'm afraid, utterly blown away and usurped by the wily alchemist played by the great Patrick Troughton, patron saint of character actors. Troughton, in Doctor Who, is compelling whole being deliberately restrained, playing an intelligent but modest hero who allows others to shine. Here, Troughton utterly owns his every scene, showing that this was an acting choice.

This is, quite blatantly, the best of these three Sinbad films.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Deadwood: Season 1, Episode 7- Bullock Returns to the Camp

"We understand each other..."

This episode introduces a teenage brother and sister arriving in camp (interesting that word is used instead of "town", given the settlement's ambiguous and provisional status), both forlornly looking for a missing father and, of course, for work. The girl, courtesy of Cy and under Joanie's tutelage, is starting out as a prostitute. And she's played by the actress who would later go on to voice Anna in Frozen, Little Miss Llamastrangler's favourite Disney film...

Anyway, more splendid character and world building is in evidence here. Bullock and Utter have bonded, and together they take a drunken Jack McCall- to face justice, interestingly, and not revenge. Deadwood may be lawless, but I think this is a harbinger of the inevitable; law and order is coming. Revenge must be tempered by justice, a viewpoint as old as Aeschylus.

There is much drama surrounding Alma's claim- E.B., brave enough to confront Al Swearengen here, is still working for him, and pressing Alma hard. But the honourable Bullock has her interests at heart, and clashes with Al- the struggle between these two will, I expect, form the spine of the series.

Just as interesting is Al's complex relationship with Trixie, veering between mistrust and a curious trust born of a long hstory. Alma suddenly offends Trixie enormously when she clumsily asserts her class background. And the Reverend's seizures continue.Could his religious visions have a medical cause? Jane, too, continues to be compelling.

All this is masterfully woven, with such subtlety of character, such clear themes and with a real historical sense. I can't believe the season is more than halfway through. This is top telly.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Batman: The Bloody Tower

“And don’t forget to drive on the left!”

I liked the previous two episodes- fun, silly and utterly bonkers. But this final part is the most wonderful yet- although we should perhaps first pause to mark the final (brief) appearance by Madge Blake, by now very ill indeed, as Aunt Harriet.

The episode is as laugh-out-loud as any of its predecessors. I love the emphasis on "Londinium"'s supposed fog- in reality dealt with by the Clean Air Act of 1952 but as late as 1967 the old reputation persists. We also have a whiff of suspicion from Batman as he notes that both Alfred and Robin seem to know a lot more about Batgirl than he does- although later, when coming into possession of Batgirl's briefcase, he declines to open it and discover her identity. Honour among crimefighters and that.

This is enormous fun, from Lord Ffogg divulging the plot to steal the Crown Jewels to Batgirl while she’s in a death trap as is traditional to the silly unconvincing bee with an obviously visible thread. It’s also hilarious how Robin survives the deadly sting courtesy of his utility belt, only to face even direr peril- randy teenage girls. And that’s before we even get to Batman escaping the dungeon by means of the Indian rope trick. Better still, the Dynamic Duo surprise the baddies at the Tower by... dressing as Beefeaters. This final episode is the crowning jewel in a fun three parter which really catches fire at the end.

But this is Season Three, and after a phone call from President Johnson (what’s all that about his grandson?) it’s on to the next threat... a new Catwoman!

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)

“Jet Jaguar grew up."

This film is utterly, hopelessly, delightfully bonkers. Let's briefly examine the plot: an underwater civilisation that was submerged three million years is somewhat irked by a nuclear test (usual subtext then) and sends a monster called Megalon to destroy Tokyo in revenge, and totally not, say, New York or Vladivostok. Oh, and there are some human characters (not a single female in the whole film!) who have invented a frienly and very Japanese robot which, randomly, can change size to fight monsters. Oh, and the sea people call upon their alien mate to send Gigan from the last film, because the studio spent money on the prop and they're bloody well going to use this.

We can conclude two things from this. One: Japan was clearly reading Erich Von Daniken as much as everybody else in 1973. Two: this is B movie gold.

What's not to love here? I mean, Godzilla and the robot even shake hands after defeating the body. Oh, and the sea people have some vague connection to Easter Island- those megaliths are three million years old, apparently. And some of the sea people, who live under the Pacific, are Caucasian. But we probably ought to worry less about this and more about how these humans, who diverged three million years ago, seem to be anatomically modern. But let's not, and nor should we think too hard about how pe-modern hominids could have had such a hi-tech civilisation.

This is enormously entertaining, delihtfully dated and superbly un-selfconscious fun. More please.

Reefer Madness (1936)

"Bring me some reefers!!!"

Oh dear. This is, obviously, a film well known to be Plan 9 from Outer Space levels of bad, the ultimate in low camp. This is of course entirely because of its absurd claims about "marijuana" which the very silly opening text describes as a "deadly narcotic" that is apparently addictive and leads to violence. The first scene, rather clumsily, is a lecture on the supposed dangers of the drug before we move on to the cautionary tale that forms the basis of the film. This is, apparently, "based on actual research", but the film appears to have been made by people without any knowledge of how weed is smoked. No one coughs, no one gets the munchies, no one passes on a joint. This is, I suppose, funny at first but doesn't make the whole film worth watching. A pity; while I personally do not endorse prohibition there is a real discussion to be had on such matters as cannabis psychosis.

The acting is appalling, but the dialogue and functional characterisation deserves no better. The narrative is clumsy and, beyond the hysterical depictions of cannabis, the only thing worthy of note is the rather disturbing depiction of how the justice system works, with the jury being quite shockingly tabloid- minded and a miscarriage of justice narrowly averted by suspiciously convenient means. If this film succeeds in putting across any message at all, it is on the evils of capital punishment.

This isn't Plan 9 from Outer Space. It isn't amusingly bad. It's just bad, as bad as it gets.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

“So this is how liberty dies- with thunderous applause.”

The Star Wars prequels have, to put it mildly, a mixed reputation. And yet, having now rewatched them all, I have to concur with the emerging critical consensus that they are, in hindsight, admittedly flawed but perhaps also much better than their reputation.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the first film of the trilogy should be the most problematic. The Phantom Menace has a solid concept hiding behind a flawed structure and a less than charismatic cast. Yet these teething troubles are left far behind by this concluding instalment.

To a degree the whole concept is the film is, I suppose, pure fan service. It exists, by definition, to follow a gap in backstory between the prequels and the original trilogy. And this it does neatly, with loose ends cleared up in the final scenes, perhaps too neatly. It’s all very smoothly done, albeit with the odd necessary retcon: didn’t Leia reminisce to Luke about their mother in Return of the Jedi?

But the film is more than this. It’s an extended study of a person, Anakin Skywalker, who is played rather well by Hayden Christensen, a far better actor than his reputation. But Ian McDuarmid owns the film utterly as the seductive Palpatine, dripping poison in Anakin’s ear and ultimately corrupting him. And there are depths here. Palpatine is Augustus- not a military man but nevertheless destroying his Republic, institution by institution, until he is suddenly being referred to as emperor. There are rich themes here, echoing late Republican Rome but dealing with questions of security versus liberty- you can tell the War on Terror was a live issue- of constitutional liberalism versus convenient tyranny, and of the philosophy of the Jedi, shielding themselves from attachment because that way lies “jealousy” and therefore “greed”. But does this emotional equanimity not itself lead to callousness, itself a weakness?

This is a surprisingly deep film. Plus there are so many coolest pieces including Count Dooku fighting Anakin and Obi Wan with lightsabers (Christopher Lee is eighty-three here); General Grievous and his four lightsabers; Yoda versus the Emperor; and many more. But what will stay in my mind will be Padme’s horrified rejection of what Anakin has become. A brilliant, entertaining and surprisingly deep film.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Batman: The Foggiest Notion

"You ogress! You vixen!"

We get more of the same this week, with everything now established. Again, the plot progresses nary an inch, but we get loads of fun set pieces and fun with stereotypes. Lord Ffog is under suspicion throughout, and Lady Peasoup known to be running a school for lady pilferers, but no one seems to be in much of a hurry to deal with them directly, instead heading of to the pub (I like how young Robin isn't allowed in) to prevent a robbery of miniskirts aimed at "the dominions". Britain here- sorry, Londinium- is a hilarious cross of Olde Worlde stereotypes and the Swinging Sixties.
Groovy, m'lord.

We get a pub brawl. We get Tower Bridge used as a deathrap although, sadly, this season doesn't end episodes with cliffhangers. We get a brief contractual appearance from Chief O'Hara. Rather more interestingly, Batman begins to suspect that Alfred knows things about Batgirl in this episode. Most hilariously of all, Lord Ffog has a device to wipe Batman's memory- but the Londinium Batcave naturally has a "Recollection Cycle Bat Restorer".

The next episode promises to be fun, too. I suspect, being the final episode of the story, it may also actually contain some plot. But frankly, who cares. This may not be clever, it may not be the best story ever, but it's fresh and fun.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Batman: The Londinium Larcenies

“Is Batman up against a sticky wicket?”

Well, this is completely unlike any previous episode. It's utterly, utterly mad, and very silly> No, it's not going to be competing for the title of best ever, but it's a charming bit of fun.

This is, of course, both Batman coming to England and also nothing of the sort. Batman is best when having fun with the fourth wall, and so naturally he visits not London, a real city of mortgages, car insurance and other such mundanities, but Londinium, a city of fog, bobbies and aristocratic baddies in deerstalkers. This is not a representation of England, but of its tropes and stereotypes, and setting the episode in "Londinium" allows that remove from dull reality.

Hence we have "Chuckingham Palace" and "Ireland Yard". We have Superintendent Watson, named afer you-know-who, with the script delightfully nodding to the fact that his office is the same set as Commissioner Gordon's with a couple of stereotypical additions. We have larger than life baddies in the dodgily accented Lord Marmaduke Ffog and the wonderful Lady Penelope Peasoup, who run a finishing school for lady thieves and plot to steal the Crown Jewels. We have a dodgy Cockney butler, and an ersatz ex-dungeon Batcave.

It's all delightful, and I don't care if the plot advances not a jot or, this being Season Three, there's no real cliffhanger: this is fun. I love ho Batman's deductions in the Superintendent's office makes no sense, how one of the three thugs who attack the Dynamic Duo has an accent echoing Dick Van Dyke, and Lord Ffog's monocle. More please.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Deadwood: Season 1, Episode 6- Plague

"Swearingen's a cue and Farnum merely is a billiard ball."

There's a lot happening in this episode besides the title. Alma continues to pretend to be a junkie still while undergoing cold turkey, fooling E.B., playing for time until seth returns. Seth, meanwhile, is attacked by an opportunistic Sioux, succeeds in killing him with a rock, and is ultimately rescued by Charlie Utter, who now learns of Bill's death. It now seems they are after Bill's killer, but it looks as though this plot thread is to simmer for a bit. Good strategic writing.

Jane is a fascinating character- very much not conforming to the archetype of a lady, acting in many ways like a man, portrayed here (and potentially in reality) as of possible LGBT nature, to use an anachronism; her sexuality and, indeed gender identity, is as ambiguous as one might expect in 1876.
 But she is a fully rounded person- drunk to blot out the memory of her best friend's death, but having cared for what she knows full well was a amallpox sufferer at the end of last episode. She's uneducated, uncouth, unladylike, deeply racist as per her upbringing, but not unkind beneath it all.

Then there's Joanie, who seems a bit down- but could the harsh, cynical Cy Tolliver have a thing for her? This promises to be a subtle little character thread that could run and run. Again, good writing. And the Doc, a decent man, taking centre stage while Merrick, a stereotypical newspaperman, is upstaged by Al in reporting the arrival of smallpox.

The arrival of this pestilence in the settlement dominates the episode, which makes it resonate somewhat now in June of 2020. It leads to stage managed fear and, fascinatingly, a meeting of the great and the good in which both Al and Cy relish the role of community leader and both reconcile somewhat. And we see the Reverend Smith collapse- very publicly- with his second fit. This is superbly written drama. I'm loving Deadwood, and we are nearly halfway through this first season.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Batman: Surfs up! Joker's Under!


This extraordinarily inconsistent season has shown us the full range of high to low and, indeed, high camp to low camp. This episode is strangely in the midde- a ridiculous tale of the Joker plotting to win a surfing championship by using a skill-draining machine which will, er, apparently somehow lead to him having power over Gotham and then the world. The script, perhaps wisely, does not elaborate on how.

There's certainly a lot of fun to be had- I love how the Commissioner and O'Hara parade around the beach in "disguise" as surfers, deriving comedy from being fish out of water ("Most true surfers are known as Duke, Skip, Rabbit or Buzzy", apparently), but the episode seems to exactly skirt the line between playful mocking of its own tropes and just plain Saturday morning cartoon logic. We end with a surfing contest between Batman and the Joker, both of them wearing their "baggies" over their costumes.And Barbara Gordon doesn't even become Batgirl until there are literally two minutes left.

I have gunuinely no idea whether this episode is being clever and ironic or not. Given the writer, I suspect the latter. But I can't say it wasn't fun.

Brexit: The Uncivil War

“Referendums are quite simply the worst way to decide anything. They’re divisive. They pretend complex choices are simple binaries- red or blue, black or white.”

It’s interesting watching this so soon after the National Theatre production of another James Graham play, This House; the parallels are striking, from the focus on back room operators rather than big political names to the introduction of each character as either "Remain" or "Leave", paralleling the uses of constituencies in This House. And, of course, the script is superb- human, philosophical, witty and awfully clever in how it presents the Brexit referendum as a coherent narrative.

Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Dominic Cummings, unconvincing Mackem accent notwithstanding; this Leicestershire lad is married to a Geordie and knows these things. Cummings is, of course, much more well known today as Boris' puppet master and devotee of the driving-based eye test. This is a fascinating character study of a highly intelligent and capable man and a campaigning genius- I like how his clear campaigning methods are juxtaposed with those of the useless Remain campaign- whose sheer talent in this area should not be mistaken for a coherent or clever political philosophy. We are already seeing how his campaigning talents do not transfer to governing. Yet there's no denying his talents in the campaigning arena, especially against the uselessness of his opponents, unthinkingly rolling out the Clinton '92 "economy, stupid" campaign after a quarter of a century and not for once presenting Brexit as the massive surrender of sovereignty that it is, or speaking to those who have been forgotten by such campaigners.

We see both Cummings' arrogance and his unlikely charisma as well as, interestingly, as much of a clash between the two Leave campaigns as between the two opposing sides. And the script does not let Cummings off the hook for his "dead cat" methods of lying, nor for either the cynicism of letting Farage and his rabble of not-racist-buts talk about immigration, nor for his own mendacity about seventy million Turks. And yet the use of Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin as foils allow even a Remainer like me to enjoy Cumming's effortless batting off of an attempted coup. One would think I would find this depressing, given the awfulness of its subject matter. It's a real credit to the script and to Cumberbatch that I don't.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Godzilla vs Gigan (1972)

“Only Godzilla has a chance..."

Time for another Godzilla film, and it's not as though this one isn't pretty much the greatest hits. Again, aliens that look like humans and act secretly (these ones are cockroaches from a world environmentally despoiled and, in a nice touch, we see their shadows). Again, we spend the first half of the film un layering a mystery while the second half is all monster set pieces.

But there's no getting away from how much fun this is, especially with the nicely metatextual theme of comic books (the hero is a comic book artist) and heroic Godzilla and Angilas talking via speech bubble(!) as they swim from Monster Island to save the world. Just let's not dwell on how they're suddenly able to escape its waters.

The baddies are a suspiciously depowered King Ghidorah and a new partly metal monster, who has a cool chainsaw but, surprisingly, isn't really all that prominent for much of the film. The set pieces are awesome, but go on a little too long, and I love the blatant use not only of models but of toy dolls.

Yes, it's derivative and no, it's not the best film in the franchise, but there's no denying how much fun it is. It's also nice to see an environmentalist message, although I suspect we shouldn't look too hard to find a subtext in the people behind a fashionable '70s kids' adventure playground being evil aliens. This is, well, another Godzilla film. But we know what we're getting, stock footage and all, and it doesn't disappoint.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

“Congratulations, cap. You're a criminal."

I saw this film at the cinema in 2016, at the Silverlink up near Newcastle, with Mrs Llamastrangler. It was years ago, yes, but I hadn't blogged the prequels and wanted to do them all in order, so it hasn't been until this rewatching of the film that I've blogged it. Technicaliies and that.

Anyway, this is a film that is awesome in all the usual Marvel ways. We have top notch exciting action scenes. We somehow have a large cast where every character is well characterised and the dialogue is awesome. We have loads of nods to the fans, hence Crossbones and Zeno, even if the character is a little wasted here.

But at the heart of the film is a massive ideological fault line that divides all the heroes- and it’s easy for me, as a liberal and a Liberal, to emphasise with both sides. My civil libertarian instincts make me want to side with Cap, especially as the argument that heroes are to be castigated for those sad in innocent deaths that occur while they are saving many more lives, as in Sokovia. This is a silly argument. And yet... should not those with power be held to account, as we should do for those we allow to wield political power? Is it not important that potential tyrants not be allowed free rein? Even here, where the Sokovia Accords have the appearance of a bad compromise, I’d hesitate to disagree with Tony Stark here, even if many of his actual arguments are bad ones.

This film has depth. It has comedy- and not all of it with Ant-Man. It has drama. It has tragedy. It has the introduction of both a charismatic Black Panther and a new, young Spider-Man with a hot Aunt May. Marvel films are generally awesome, but this is one of the very finest.

Monday, 15 June 2020

The Madness of King George III (National Theatre, 2018)

"May I congratulate Your Majesty on another splendid stool?"

Circumstances, not necessarily good ones, make it possible for me to watch and blog this triumphant production from the National Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse- both of which will need support in the coming months, as theatres traditionally do in times of plague.

Alan Bennett's wonderful 1991 play (look in the films index for my blog of the excellent 1994 film starring the late, lamented Nigel Hawthorne) is, perhaps, dated by the depiction of blue urine and the then-fashionable diagnosis of porphyria. But who cares. Literary art needs not a diagnosis. It deals in human nature. And Mark Gatiss- not, perhaps, a traditionally classical actor, gives us a performance which may well surpass that of the sainted Sir Humphrey.

The play is, of course, a masterpiece. We first see the king as he is- erudite, sexually repressed, an extrovert forced inwards by a role which forbids introspection. He is a force of personality when sane, as the early scenes effortlessly depict. The reason for his lapse of reason may not be porphyria- Gatiss has suggested a nervous breakdown- but it matters not. What matters is the star, and Gatiss more than delivers. The script sings of human nature, of the 1780s, of the British constitution, of the human psyche. Of all the kings of England, Charles II is the one you'd want a pint with, but you’d want George III on the psychiatrist’s chair. He may have weathered the crisis of 1788. but his end would not be a happy one. The gilded cage, inevitably, has its casualties.

It is, perhaps, questionable that the quacks should all be played by women, but one of them is the wonderful Louise Jameson. But the production gets no further criticism, from me. Again, we see an erudite and human script triumphant. And Gatiss is a revelation. Please... see this production before Thursday.

Friday, 12 June 2020

The Dead Zone (1983)

"The missiles are flying!"

Two David Cronenberg films in one year? This film is probably a little less well known than Videodrome, which I liked a lot. But it's probably the better film.

I suppose it must be admitted that the film relies heavily on Stephen King's original novel, of which it's an adaptation and which I haven't seen. But the film is superbly shot and paced, Christopher Walken is superb as a decidedly non-heroic lead, and the cruelty of the various tragedies are all the more effective for their unsentimental depiction. Spielberg this ain't.

This is an unnerving depiction of a normal, decent but fallible person who develops psychic powers after an accident, but at the huge cost of losing five years of his life and, worse, the love of his life. His bitterness is very human, and I like how it takes him time to reluctantly use his "powers" to help people- although his conscience tends to prevail.

This is not a film about a superhero, but a realistic depiction of how frightening it must be to have "powers" which one can neither control or understand, which are unnerving and uncomfortable, and which bring pain, possible eventual death, unwanted fame and, ultimately, impossible moral dilemmas.

This is at once a tragic love story, a story about ethics and one of the most intelligent and thought provoking examination of the implications of psychic powers. Not a great film, perhaps, but a highly impressive one.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Batman: How to Hatch a Dinosaur

"Think they can crack it, Commissioner?"

This second episode begins with a threat to undermine Egghead as much as the previous episode did, as we first see him riding that silly donkey all poised to play second fiddle to the increasingly annoying Olga.

Fortunately, this time those fears prove unfounded and Vincent Price gets the chance for a proper outing as the arch-criminal, with Egghead this time taking the lead. And his plan is gloriously bonkers: steal some radium, steal a dinosaur egg, and get the egg to hatch into a live dinosaur which will, for some reason not quite clear, fall under the control of Egghead and Olga and in no way turn agaist them. That it seems to do so is the most predictable and obvious trope ever. This is all very silly.

Except this is the right kind of silly. This is high camp, not low camp and, unlike the previous episode, this instalment has plenty of fun at the expense of its own tropes. So yes, the dinosaur is an unconvincing man in the suit- but this is completely diegetic, and the man in the suit is Batman.

We also have O'Hara noting that poisoning the water supply is a "favourite trick of Gotham City's arch criminals". Meanwhile we have Alfred. holding two phones, giving the same information to Batman and Batgirl in a splendidly silly bit of slapstick. And Robin even gives the fourth wall a knock ("Why didn't we think of this before, Batman?") when the Dynamic Duo find a way of using technobabble to track down the baddies at a moment convenient to the plot.

This is much, much better, and enormous fun- and Barbara is a surfer? I didn't expect that!

Plugging Mrs Llamastrangler's YouTube channel

Any coin collectors among you, or just curious to hear the oft-mentioned Mrs Llamastrangler's dulcet Northumbrian tones? Here's my beloved's latest YouTube video:

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Batman: The Ogg and I

"Yes, the aroma is unmistakeable."

Oh dear. Another episode wth far too much going on to have enough fun, I'm afraid; it's all plot, plot, plot, and although said plot is at times promisingly silly (Egghead wants a "tax" on all eggs eaten in Gotham City, while it's not clear what Olga wants aside from marrying both Egghead and Batman), there's nowhere near enough fun with the fourth wall. And this time we can't, this being the start of a two parter, blame the new format.

No; the problem is that we have two villains struggling for air time. Anne Baxter is superb, having previously played Zelda the Great early in the first season, but the character of Olga is a bit ill-defined. So she's a Cossack queen from some fictional Slavic country, she has an outrageous and broadly Russian accent and... that's it, and while Baxter is superb with the accent and her charisma, the character is far too vague. Worse, the return of the splendid Vincent Price as Egghead is diluted.

There are some good moments- I smiled as Egghead implored Olga to forget any eleborate trap and just kill the Caped Crusaders- but not enough to prevent this overly packed episode feeling like a slowly deflating balloon. And, yet again, there isn't even a cliffhanger.

I hope there's more of Egghead next time.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Deadwood: Season 1, Episode 5- The Trial of Jack McCall

"Hickock breaks my balls from the afterlife..."

This is another multifaceted, complex gem of an episode as the people of the town walk past Wild Bill's body to pay their respects while a man stands around loudly trying to sell the severed head of a "heathen" Inevitably, this lawless community moves to try the killer, but the issues surrounding this are fascinating and fundamental. Meanwhile, so many characters get meaningful development.

Bullock is grumpy all episode, particularly with the ingratiating evangelism of the Reverend Smith- it seems that, like many quietly irreligious people in societes where outright atheism is frowned upon, this makes him very uncomfortable. Yet Smith himself is behaving strangely, and ends the episode with some kind of seizure. This is a man we know to have been traumatised by war- there are clearly depths to him.

E.B. shows signs of deep resentment towards Swearengen, and signs of an independent agenda. He's a man needing security for his declining years. Meanwhile Al is getting Trixie to manipulate the newly widowed Alma by replacing her addiction to laudanum with another substance as part of Al's getting her caim back. But she's leaving her agency in the literal hands of a man (not much feminism in 1876)- and, if the first meeting between her and Seth is anything to go by, a man she rather likes the look of. Future lovers, I wonder?

Meanwhile the relationship between Tolliver and mistress Joanie is shown to be complex- how loose is her leash? And she clearly has desires of a Sapphic nature. Tolliver, callously, has his sick old friend Andy dumped in the wilderness where he finds himself looked after by a drunk but nevertheless crudely kindly Calamity Jane, upset at the loss of her "best friend" who never judged her. This is all masterful character development.

But the trial is fascinating- and so is Al's word with the judge. Does this lawless community, wishing for eventual annexation by the United States, really want to look like a society with pretensions of its own legal system, a part of the infrastructure of a functioning state? Would this not be a provocation? And yet, what else can they do?

The killer is ultimately acquitted, and genly reminded to leave town pretty sharpish. But it seems, from coughng at Bill's funeral, that getting rid of Andy (not quite dead) may have brought a plague. How very topical.

This is superlative television.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Batman; Louie, the Lilac

"The flower children think we're cool, man. Like we turn them on, you know?"

Double oh. I criticise the new fomat of mostly single episodes as making each episode too short and rushed to be any fun, and I get a second superb standalone episode in a row. This episode is utterly wonderful. Oh, the perennially unfunny Milton Berle is rubbish as the utterly pedestrian Louie the Lilac, but who cares a script as delightful and fun as this- and, yet again, a cast full of splendid actors of deadpan comedy, with newcomer Yvonne Craig defnitely among them? I don't even care that the way the episode plays out makes a nonsense of last episode's teaser.

Even better, of course, is that 1967 gets its much-needed proper hippie episode of Batman, something which could never have been done properly in any other year. So perhaps Louie's plan to corner the flower market, control the flower children and therefore control the leaders of the future while dispatching his enemies with incredibly slow acting carnivorous lilacs(!) makes absolutely zero sense, but that's intentional: this is Batman. Anyway, the real point is to look at the hippies, the way they look and the way they talk. Interestingly, this is still the Summer (well, Autumn) of Love, and everyone sees the hippies as well-meaning and harmless- desexualised, depoliticised and certainly, well, de-potified.

We're well past the point of pointing out diversions from a set episode structure at this point- the welcome addition of Batgirl has put paid to that. And seven episodes in I'm loving the character, her theme tune (we get a good blast of it towards the end, which is wonderful) and Yvonne Craig's perfecly pitched performance.

Egghead next. Good. Is this season going to continue to make its underwhelming first few episodes look like an aberration?

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Batman: The Unkindest Tut of All

"Luckily for us, she's an Egyptian bibliophile...

Oh. There I was, merrily criticising this season's poor start and diagnosing the single episodes as the cause, being far too rushed to demonstrate and of the high camp and winks at its own tropes that have always made Batman such a joy. So, naturally, the very next episode comes along and proves that it is indeed possible to squeeze lots and lots of high camp fun into twenty-four minutes.

It helps, of course, that Victor Buono is back as King Tut, this time posing as a soothsayer of crime as a successful plot to discover the location of the Batcave, and that Yvonne Craig, whether as Batgirl or Barbara Gordon, is showing herself to be every bit as good at deadpan, square humour as Adam West. But, essentially, the episode is a triumph because Stanley Ralph Ross' script simply sings.

Tut is back because he was "hit by a brick at a love in". There's a delightfully crowbarred-in reference to Alfie. Batman tries to ask Batgirl out on a date after she utters the sweet words "I was only doing my duty as a citizen". And many, many more, at last giving the whole regular cast some great material to work with so we can see yet again how well they deal with this kind of material.

So, yes- the new format can work. Let's have more episodes like this please.

Coriolanus (National Theatre Live, 2014)

“I am known to be a humorous patrician, and one that loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying water in it. One that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning."

I'm a Shakespeare geek, I suppose, but of his thirty-nine plays I have certainly neither read nor seen them all. So, having neither seen nor read Coriolanus, I'm caught between a first experience of the play- one extraordinary both in itself and in what it has to say in our sadly populist times, where militaristic demagoguery continues to plague us.

I can see why the play is not so popular and well-known as the Warwickshire lad's other late tragedies. It is austere, has a proud and abrasive protagonist who is not inclined to self-aware soliloquys, and assumes a knowledge of semi-mythical early republican Rome, in the 490s BC, where the last king has barely been deposed and where, with the first secession of the plebs, issus of class and war intertwine as the young city state conquers its neighbours.

One must surely imagine this play, with its emphasis on the people, the tribunes, the conflict between arrogant privilege and the popular will, would be much less resonant in early Jacobean times than it is today, where Coriolanus as a proud warrior and would-be tyrant evokes not so much the sadly delusional Trump as the much younger, leaner and more sanely arrogant Cummings. Tom Hiddleston is superb, succeeding in seeming authoritative and believable as a proud and reactionary soldier undone by hubris, his performance full of nice little touches, at limes leavening the tragic gloom with bitter humour. Mark Gatis is similrly superb as Menenius, the humour of his performance concealing dark depths. The sparse production, too, is a triumph, allowing the play itself to succeed by its words and performances. It's just a shame Birgitte Hjort Sorensen of Borgen has such a relatively small part.

Magnificent, both as a play and a performance. Not all tragedies have to be Hamlet, and there's a real power in letting the interior thoughts of the protagonist remain opaque. From Hiddleston I've never seen a finer performance.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)

"Come on, blow your mind!"

It's a new decade, a new creative team and, for the first time an entirely new cast- and it's a triumph, a film which has something to see and manages to be groovy while doing it.

The film doesn't so much have subtext as text, as Hedorah is the most blatant (and well-realised) metaphor for pollution imaginable. But that's no criticism; as the last half-century has shown, you can't be too blatant with the urgent message that we should please try and not bugger up our planet as a place to live on.

This film tells that story, based around the engaging supporting cast of a professor and his family with a groovy young couple whom we see at an awesome gig with visuals that remind me of early Hawkwind, never a bad thing. Not just that, but we get awesome animated segments, along with an opening sequence that comes across like a James Bond song. More of this please. It's about time these films acknowledged the counterculture.

There is, perhaps, a moment that's a little close to the bone in 2020, as Hedorah's air pollution forces the people of Tokyo and Osaka to wear masks in public. And perhaps the MacGuffin that helps Godzilla (unambiguously a goodie- and Monster Island seems forgotten) is a little obvious. But this is a promising new start and a fine film.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Batman: A Horse of Another Colour

"I did a little extra-curricular crime detecting while Dick Grayson was doing his homework."

Well, that, if you forgive the lamentable lack of a cliffhanger, was rather splendid. In fact, suspiciously so. I'm now convinced that the problems we've seen this season can be laid entirely at the door of the decision to move largely to standalone single episodes. Not only, at a time when the budget has been cut, does it needlessly increase costs by demanding new costumes and sets each episode, but it takes away the main attraction of the show. Batman is awesome because of its high camp silliness, its deadpan riffs on the absurdities of its own tropes. There's not much time for all than in twenty-four minutes, but in two episodes there's penty. Because this two parter, while perhaps not quite being the best ever, has brought all the fun back again, made possible by having time to breathe.

Hence we get to enjoy Barbara Gordon being the ridiculously sensible and goody-goody librarian, and Penguin looking for a buyer for his stolen folio of parasols in the "Saturday Review of Parasols"- and failing yet again to notice "A.L. Fredd".We get some more priceless dialogue between Penguin and Lola. And we get the silliest horse race imaginable.It's all enormous fun.

But we end with a massive hint that the next (single) episode will feature the splendid King Tut- but will we have enough time in one episode to enjoy this fun character...?

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Deadwood: Season 1, Episode 4- Here Was a Man

“Can you let me go to Hell the way I want to?"

Wow. That was sudden, shocking and out of nowhere- but then so are most shots in the back. I know the real life Wild Bill Hickock was shot in this way soon after moving to Deadwood, but the season has consistently kept up the anticipation- wringing lots of pathos from Bill knowing this would happen but passively awiting his fate- while keeping us guessing as to when exactly the moment would arrive. Death, as ever, is unprdedictable. None of us know when our time will come, which are resonant words to be writing in the midst of a plague.

Obviously, Keith Carradine really shines here, but there's so much pathos in how sympathetic Bill is. He's kind to the (thankfully recovered) little girl, who clearly feels comfortable in his presence, always a sign of a nice character. He continues to develop a human connection with Seth, and behaves with integrity (I think) when Alma asks him to help, yet to almost everyone he's a gunslinging celebrity, not a human being- and his death has parallels to that of John Lennon. Most poignantly, as the whole town rounds on the killer, only Jane and Seth run to the body, genuinely sorrowful.

Other plot threads develop, too, as Al continues to show us what a superbly menacing yet nuanced character he is, a villain but a three dimensional one. There's a newcomer, an old friend of Cy Torrance, who is not at all well. Alma confesses to Jane that her marriage to Brom was an ordeal, with hints of aristocratic arranged marriages. Things continue to unfold. But the episode is about Wild Bill, and the fatalistic end to the melancholic life of a seemingly decent man. Superb telly.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Batman: The Sport of Penguins

"I pray for the day when Gotham City is safe from that mocking mountebank."

Phew. This episode is much better, and holds out some hope for this third season after its wobby start- and it manages to do this while being centred around the theme of horse racing, the most boring subject imaginable.

I still have doubts about the new format, but the fact that this is a two parter (although the fact the show is now weekly sadly seems to mean no cliffhanger, which is silly and disappointing as they still try to tease us without one) makes the whole thing less rushed and allows some of the high camp silliness which is the whole point of this series- hence we get the Caped Crusaders' surreal and ridiculously random reasoning ("holy non-sequitors!) which lead them to the glue factory, and Penguin gets lines like "If it's that priceless, I can get a good price for it on the black market", and his haggling at the glue factory is hilarious.

It's also nice that he remembers Barbara jilting him at the altar (actual continuity!), and leaves a ticking trap for her- and I love Barbara's po-faced outrage at his attempted theft in the library. We also get the amusing Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagne, a fairly small time villain with a small time scheme, but an amusing one.

On a personal note, I'm glad these two parters are more loosely connected than before; from this week onwards my weekdays are even more insanely busy than before and a short episode of Batman is something I can hopefully blog where time is absurdly short, so I'll stick to one episode at a time unless things change- on other days, I'll continue to blog Deadwood with films, as usual, at the weekend. I want to keep this blog up; it's strangely relaxing for me after these long days.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Deadwood: Season 1, Episode 3- Reconnoitering the Rims

"I don't think he took your point, quite."

"I think he quite missed it."

Only the third episode, and it's already very clear indeed that a single viewing is hardly adequate to do justice the density of the script, visuals and performances. I shall plead that there's some value in a first impression, and do my best.

On the surface this episode is about a few prominent plotlines- the opening of the rival saloon over the road and Al's preparation for war; the sort-of agreement between Swearengen and the Seth and Sol duo; and of course the tragic end of swanky New York dude Brom.who seeks "satisfaction" for being swindled by Al and ends up lured to his death in spite of many, many warnings, not only from Charlie but his junkie wife Alma. This is nicely paralleled with Al's decision to spare the slightly treasonous E.B.- after all, he has the poor hotel owner by the balls.

Elsewhere there's casual racism directed towards the "heathens", and equally casual bile (sexism and possible homophobia?) directed at Jane, whose disinclination to perform the rituals of femininity do not go unnoticed. But the most tragic character is the tactiurn Bill, whose reputation precedes him so that he's constantly being abused and challenged by wankers. No one ever treats him as a person, just as the legendary gunslinger he has become, and his life is shorn of any human interaction- no wonder he's drawn to the decent Seth, and that he spends his days drinking and gambling until the day he is inevitably shot by some twat. And yet beneath the gunslinger is a gentleman who will sleep in a corridor so a traumatised little girl can remain undisturbed.

At the core of this is a superb cast of actors- Ian McShane is a revelation; Lovejoy this ain't- but also, again, a peerless script. I'm loving this.

A History of Violence (2005)

“In this family we do not solve our problems by hitting people.

David Cronenberg is known for a certain type of film. This is very different from that type. Yet it's a very different type of film- an action film that's based around nuanced character and acting, and rather intelligent and thoughtful among all the violence, anyone?

It's hard, indeed impossible to discuss this film without spoilers. But it's about more than the twist; it's about how we can all construct our identities, about interiority, about the hope of redemption, about the violence that lurks within us, about what may lie beneath respectable and upstanding lives, about the alien nature of other people and the impossibility of truly knowing them, even if you're married to them, in love and still have good (and fetishistic) sex. But then, of course, in a very deep sense Edie does know who Tom is now. The past is a foreign country.

There's enough graphic violence here to qualify this as an action film, yet it's clever enough to simultaneously appeal to the arty film crowd. Viggo Mortensen gives a towering and dualistic performance that is truly extraordinary, although credit is also very much due to Maria Bello and to William Hurt, who shows his extraordinary versatility in a part very different from usual.

This is an extraordinary film, and one of the finest I've seen for a good many months.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

This House (National Theatre Live, 2013)

"A Conservative Government eventually falls because they believe themselves entitled to power. And Labour Governments always fall because they don't."

The National Theatre are streaming one free recording of a play on YouTube, and for one week only, until Thursday I believe, the chosen play is James Graham's funny, tragic, human and wonderful tale of politics and desperation charting the Parliamentary struggles of the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979 and that fatal confidence vote.

It's an interesting experience to watch a stage play via a recording, and a reminder of the way the medium uses clever staging instead of boring realism- hence the dances as Commons votes and, most wonderfully, the use of a big blue cloth and David Bowie's "Rock and Roll Suicide" to evoke the moment where John Stonehouse (look him up) does his Reggie Perrin thing. In fact there's a superb use of contemporary rock throughout, much of it Bowie- particularly clever is the use of "Five Years" to evoke the various MPs who die during the 1974-79 Parliament.

We see few Government or Opposition ministes, at least no more than cameo's; this is the story of the two teams of whips, all of whom we come to know. It's a splendid ensemble performance, although I fear the two standout performances- Phil Daniels as Bob Mellish and Vincent Franklin as Michael Cocks- are on the Labour side. But there's plenty of politics- we have hints at the Tory shift to the right under Thatcher and the end of the Butskellite consensus; Labour's future in terms both of Militant sabotage and the slow replacement of all those working class men with young professionals, represented here by future Chief Whip Ann Taylor.

This is dramatic, funny, thoughtful; an examination of the game of politics, the stakes and the moral compromises involved, and of course the often enormous human cost. It's a wonderfu production of a wonderful play