Monday, 31 October 2011

The Mummy (1932)

“Maybe he got too gay with the virgins in the temple?”

More Firefly tomorrow, but tonight is Hallowe'en. I couldn't resist a classic horror film!

Wow. This is so much better than the later Hammer version. The story’s a lot more coherent, for a start, even if the plot is borrowed straight from Universal’s Dracula from the previous year, with Ardath Bey as the Count (he even pays a social call on our heroes!), Helen as Mina, and Muller and Van Helsing. It even contains some lavish location scenes. I’m sure I recognised the Tomb of Hatshepsut (I’ve been there, you know!) and I was amazed to read that it was all filmed in Southern California.

Boris Karloff is great as the sinister Ardath Bey (that’s an oddly Ottoman title for 1932, surely?), an intelligent and eloquent villain so different from Frankenstein’s Monster and so much more interesting than a lumbering mummy with arms outstretched. Also interesting is that Imhotep’s background should hinge so strongly on the idea of being alive- very evocative of Poe. Mercifully, unlike the later Hammer film, there are no horrible scenes of tongues being removed.

Excellent as Karloff is, though, and good though it is to see him being so brilliant in a speaking role, there’s something more than a little uncomfortable about seeing Karloff, with his Anglo-Indian heritage, playing the part of the ethnic “other”. Yes, it’s a mummy film, and made in 1932 to boot; it’s hardly surprising to see sinister foreign characters in a film like this, but it’s a little awkward to watch in this day and age. Also raising an inevitable eyebrow is the moment where Helen, the only woman in the film, is simply told to go to bed by all the men!

Still, 1930’s social attitudes aside, this is a well-paced thriller with a real sense of threat, and none of the campness of James Whale’s stuff. The plot is far less convoluted, and makes far more sense, than in the later Hammer film (even if it owes an awful lot to Bram Stoker). Setting the whole thing in Egypt makes the whole thing much more evocative, although of course such a thing would be far easier for a film made at the height of the British Empire than for one made during Nasser’s rule!

There are a few moments which particularly stand out; the young man’s laughter, as he is driven mad by the sight of Imhotep coming to life, is hard to drive from the mind. So is the hilariously blatant “as you know, Bob” exposition, as two random blokes whom we never see again see fit to introduce Helen to us at the party! But for the most part the film is taut and tense. There’s a powerful sense of the Gothic, with an ancient magical power from the past threatening to return to the present, and set against the modern world of science and reason. Ardath Bey even has a rather fab scrying pool, which he uses to cause heart attacks in people who get up his nose. Brr.

The ending is quite hilarious in how closely it follows Dracula, with the film’s very own Van Helsing using the film’s very own Mina as bait in a trap for the film’s very own Count Dracula. But there’s a rather pleasing departure from this at the climax, as Helen (well, Ankhenesamun), rejects Imhotep and destroys him by magic. His centuries of suffering out of “love” for her are all for nothing!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Firefly: Safe

“Dear Diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy. Then I got kidnapped by hill folks, never to be seen again. It was the best day ever.”

We begin in flashback, with a brief exterior shot of a big posh house. It seems that that Simon and River are so posh that they grew up on the “Tam Estate”. The visual style of the house, inside and out, and including their father’s costume, is essentially late nineteenth century, with just a few nods to the future. It’s such a contrast to the way scMi-fi television used to depict the future, with bland corridors and “futuristic” clothes. Alien and Blade Runner introduced the idea that future styles can be retro, and the result is a fab-looking sci-fi Western aesthetic like this.

There’s a lot of Mandarin this episode, more so than usual. Then again, there’s a lot of swearing, and I’d imagine that Fox are rather more relaxed about swearing in Mandarin than swearing in English.

There’s an interesting scene in a bric-a-brac shop, with Inara and Kaylee revealing that swans are considered rare, and perhaps not found at all on any world that’s within reach. I’d imagine that a bunch of faraway worlds would be restricted to only certain animals from Earth- domesticated animals, pets, parasites and not much else. No swans.

Kaylee’s falling out with Simon is interesting, too. These two characters are pretty much the ones who symbolise their respective social classes, and everything which happens between them can be understood in those terms. Interestingly, it’s the working class character, Kaylee, who is romantic and imaginative, while Simon is neither.

It’s interesting to see shots of River doing an Irish dance juxtaposed with shots of the gunfight. Both sequences have a sort of beauty, but neither ends well, as Shepherd Book is shot and badly injured while Simon and River are kidnapped by nearby villagers.

Mal is eventually forced to seek medical help from a nearby Alliance facility in order to get medical help for the Shepherd, and here the mystery surrounding him depends even more. Why does the sight of Book’s “ident card” immediately cause the Alliance soldiers to immediately agree to Mal’s request with no questions asked? It’s becoming very velar that there’s a lot to be revealed about the Shepherd’s past.

At first, it seems as though Simon and River have reached a safe and friendly community, and even River feels safe, becoming more and more lucid. Unfortunately, and shockingly, her display of telepathy leads the villagers to denounce her as a witch. This is evidently not a future dominated by reason, as the villagers’ seventeenth century clothing might perhaps have told us.

Fortunately, she and her brother are rescued at the last moment as Mal returns. There’s an interesting exchange in the final moments as Simon asks Mal why he came back to save someone he doesn’t even like. Mal’s reply is typical: “You’re on my crew. Why are we even still talking about this?”. It’s this sort of straight-up decency that means you can’t help liking the character, for all his flaws.

Firefly: Shindig

“You think you’re better than other people.”

“Just the ones I’m better than.”

Our first episode written by Jane Espenson begins in a way that’s already starting to become familiar; a moving camera shows Mal and co in a dimly lit bar which is offset by some bright colours, and it all very quickly kicks off. Is this going to become a Firefly trope? Still, we get a bit more backstory as it’s established that a slave trade exists in this society. Naturally, Mal has no compunction about robbing such people…

The gang are making a lot of enemies on Persephone, and could really do with leaving. Their next destination (whose name I didn’t catch) seems a much classier place, superficially at least. Inara arranges to meet a regular client, a posh bloke called Atherton Wing, while Kaylee gets all excited about a posh frock that she sees in a window. There’s more than a bit of Eliza Doolittle about Kaylee- she’s a bit common, yes, but so are many of us, and she’s a lot lovelier than a lot of her “betters”. Mal’s nasty comments here don’t go down well at all.

Time for some plot, then. Badger is back, and wants Mal to work as his agent in doing a bit of smuggling for another posh bloke called Warwick Harrow. Nathan Fillion is great here, as is Mark Sheppard. Of course, now that we’ve met the deeply sinister Niska, Badger is suddenly a lot less scary and has become more of a fun character.

All this means finding Harrow at some posh do. That means Mal needs a lady to go with him, and Kaylee gets to wear her posh frock after all. And, who’d have thunk it, it’s the same party as Inara and her post client. I don’t like this Atherton much; he wants Inara to be his “personal companion” and she’s mulling it over. This feels uncomfortably close to The Crimson Petal and the White, which I read quite recently, and makes me like this rather arrogant Atherton fellow even less.

I love the cut straight from Jayne’s “So, we gonna play cards or screw around?” to a rather lovely scene of Zoe and Wash being all post-coital!

It’s not nice to see Kaylee being bullied by a load of posh girls (who, it’s implied, own slaves), but she’s soon rescued by a nice man who can’t stand “useless people”. Yay! Soon she’s in her element, talking machinery with a bunch of friendly men. It’s an interesting example of set and costume design, this ball; it’s all very Regency, like something out of a Jane Austen adaptation. There’s a certain Chinese aesthetic, too, but then that was true of the Regency itself.

But things don’t stay nice forever. Mal runs into Inara and her wanker client, one thing leads to another and Mal, showing his usual diplomatic skills, hits Atherton in the face for the way he speaks about Inara. Unfortunately, this is a place where the social mores of Regency aristocracy apply. Mal has just accidentally challenged Atherton to a duel. With swords. About which he knows nothing. Oh dear.

This leads to an interesting conversation between Mal and Inara during the night, as she desperately tries to teach him some rudimentary swordfighting. He’s a man of honour; he faces seemingly certain death, but he won’t run. We’re only four episodes in, but I really, really like Mal.

Meanwhile, aboard Serenity, Summer Glau gives us her cockney accent. It’s, er, a nice try, and only lapses into something approaching Australian about 50% of the time…! We get a bit of background here, too. It seems that Badger, and presumably at the other cockney geezers, hail from somewhere called “Dayton Colony”. It’s a nice touch, this.

It’s morning, and time for the duel. This sequence is even more Regency than the rest of the episode, if such a thing is possible. Mal’s improbable victory is a little contrived, perhaps, but it’s great that he gets to humiliate Atherton by not killing him. Plus, Inara’s blacklisted him, so he’ll have to rely on his charms to get any sex in future!

Even better, Harrow is impressed and agrees s to the deal. Serenity is duly loaded with cargo, and it’s cows. What else? That’s the great thing about this sci-fi Western, a spacefaring future with horses and cows!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Firefly: Bushwhacked

“Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilised.”

We hear the word “civilised” a lot here, in different contexts- it’s certainly a theme. We also get some incremental development of the Simon / River arc, and continued bigging up of the still-unseen Reavers into the most fearsome ever. Mainly, though, we get a damned good script. It’s not quite up there with the last couple of episodes- Tim Minear is not Joss Whedon, good though he is- but it’s still up there somewhere.

The characters continue to be wonderful, with Jayne playing a delightful prank on Simon and Mal having an interesting debate with Jayne and Shepherd Book on whether to look for survivors on the derelict transport that Serenity is passing. This sort of demonstrates that, while Mal’s manner may be closer to Jayne, his sense of right and wrong is much closer to Book’s, in spite of their philosophical disagreement. A good conscience is a good conscience, whether religion is involved or not. Kaylee has Mal pretty much right when she praises his speech later on.

I’m not sure how realistic it is for Serenity to just bump into another ship (this ain’t the ocean; space is much, much bigger even if we’re only talking the space between a limited number of planets and moons), but I’ll not single out this episode to criticise for a common sci-fi failing, especially as I failed to mention this during fifty-two episodes of Blake’s 7.

We have a proper Mary Celeste-style mystery, soon solved by the realisation that Reavers have been here. The script and the performances really pull out the stops in underlining just how bad-ass they are: even Jayne is terrified. I suspect once we finally get to see them they won’t be anywhere near as scary.

There’s also a sad story here, of poor colonists looking for a new life at the frontier having their hopes cruelly snatched away. It’s clear that the worlds under the Alliance are home to an awful lot of poverty, inequality and state indifference to the have-nots.

Kaylee gets a moment to shine, as she calmly defuses the Reavers’ booby trap, and there’s a quick but interesting shot of Inara with her calligraphy. This seems to symbolise grace, serenity and other such predictable things, but also perhaps, at a moment like this, it signifies feelings underneath that she’s trying to cover up.

Just when they’re about to leave, though, they’re boarded by a load of Alliance troops looking for River. Mal is smart at not falling for any verbal traps (“No children on board.”), but soon clashes with the leader of the Feds. Politics rears its head here; we learn that the ship is named after the Battle of Serenity Valley, where the Browncoats lost the war.

The hiding place for River and Simon- outside the hull in their spacesuits- is clever, and it’s wonderful to see River, so very innocent, gaping at the stars with childlike wonder. I love the interviews with the crew, too. Especially Kaylee’s. I think I’m getting a crush on her. Perhaps I’m in luck. She seems to like Simons.

It’s a bit of a stretch, perhaps, that the Reavers’ traumatised victim should start to become a Reaver himself, but we end the episode with a nice bit of tension before, for the second episode in a row, the authority figure lets Mal go with just a slap on the wrist for being a fundamentally decent sort.

The backstory has now been set up in quite some detail. We have a deeper understanding of the Reavers, the Alliance and the world in which Mal and co all operate. We can expect Reavers at a later date, and of course Niska. And what’s going on with River…?

Monday, 24 October 2011

Firefly: The Train Job

“Take us out of the World, Wash. We got us some crime to be done.”

I have a vague idea of the story behind this episode: of how Fox insisted in being utter wankers, on how they refused to show the pilot and, indeed, proceeded to screen the whole series in an eccentric order, and of how we foreigners and latecomers with our DVD box sets are indeed fortunate to be experiencing the show this way. All of which is to say that I’m well aware that this episode was unfortunately pressed into the job of introducing everyone and everything once more.

It’s obvious, knowing this, that all the characters are being subtly introduced once more, and that the entire backstory is pretty much related to us again. Yet it’s never intrusive, or too obvious, and the fact that this script also happens to be completely bloody brilliant is a huge credit to Joss Whedon, he who can do no wrong, and Tim Minear. I’m vaguely aware that this episode hasn’t got too good a reputation. If that’s the case, I’m looking forward to seeing a popular one.

Whedon also directs here, and rather brilliantly. The opening shots in the bar, with the constantly moving camera, set things up really, really well, and the fight with the clientele of the Alliance-supporting bar is a great set-piece. We also get a bit of a backstory; the civil war between the Alliance and the Browncoats took place six years ago.

We get a few nice character scenes- Inara and Mal are fantastic together, while Shepherd Book once again shows himself to be an incisive judge of human character. It’s becoming clear, already, what a fantastic cast this is. It’s great to see a bunch of actors who are clearly very, very into their characters, enjoying themselves hugely, and relishing the superb dialogue that Whedon is giving them.

The actual plot is a fairly perfunctory backdrop for all this, really, although Niska is a delightfully evil character whom we can hardly fail to see again. His deliciously nasty threats to our heroes as they accept the job pretty much tell us that they’re going to somehow fail and earn his enmity.

A train robbery is a traditional Western trope, of course. But I’m glad to see an interplanetary future which still has them around- I suspect that’s what would happen. Plus, we get some rather fun set pieces such as Jayne jumping out of Serenity on to a moving train. You’ve always got to love that. I also love the silly euphemism “gorram”. Still not sure about all the Mandarin, though. There doesn’t really seem to be enough Chinese cultural influence to justify it so far.

Interesting that Inara should rescue Mal by claiming that he’s her “indentured man”. This future society is no utopia.

The episode hinges, of course, on Mal being a decent man, and insisting on returning the stolen goods once he realises that the crates contain much-needed medicine. Mal’s great; rough, gruff, incredibly witty, but with a conscience underneath it all.

It’s a great twist, but typically Whedon, that the Sheriff immediately sees what Mal is doing, understands, and lets them off. We’re shown that Mal’s no saint, though; he’s honourable enough to return Niska’s money but quite prepared to kill his thuggish underling.

We end with a bit of juicy arc stuff. River is starting to become a bit more lucid, and is now going on about “two by two, hands of blue”. We end with the sight of some official types on River’s trail, and either their gloves or their hands are bright blue…

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

“Dust, Mrs Hudson, is an essential part of my filing system.”

Wow. That was amazing. Fanwank this film may be, and somewhat light on star wattage, but the script just sparkles with wit and metatextual knowingness. This is certainly the finest Sherlock Holmes film I’ve seen to date. It’s the only Billy Wilder film I’ve seen to date, but it certainly not the last.

I know little about Robert Stephens (Holmes) and less about Colin Blakeley (Watson), and both of them reminded me, rather oddly, of Leonard Rossiter in their styles of performance. Stephens gives us an arch, knowing Holmes, who always seems to be aware of his nature as a character in a film; we know when the film’s final act is dawning because Holmes tells us so! Blakely plays Watson more-or-less as the buffoon of legend, although he’s shown to be an intelligent and competent physician, and as something of a ladies’ man.

The first scene proper (after a short modern-day framing device)  starts the metatextual fun straightaway, as Holmes compares the “reality” with Watson’s published stories, complaining that the public now expect him to wear the ridiculous clothes from the illustrations in The Strand! We then move on to a rather interesting bit of speculation as to Holmes’ sexuality. This is a rather obvious thing to do, perhaps, but 1970 is probably about as early as it could be done in a Hollywood film. A rather haughtily attractive Russian ballerina with seemingly supernatural menopause-dodging powers (“I must say that she doesn’t look 38.” “That is because she is 49…”) wants to spend a week shagging Holmes so she can have a child by him as an exercise in eugenics. Nice work if you can get it.

Holmes isn’t keen, though. So much so, that he resorts to claiming that he’s, er, like Tchaikovsky, a previous choice (“You couldn’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky.” “We could, and we did.”, and claims to be shagging Watson. This has unfortunate consequences for the good doctor, who has up to this point been having rather a lot of fun with some attractive young ladies. He’s not in the best of moods, unsurprisingly, once he gets back to Baker Street and, this being 1887, starts to fret about scandal, leading to some wonderfully arch retorts from Holmes. The whole sequence ends with Holmes refusing to discuss his sexuality, which remains a great big question mark.

This sequence takes up the first thirty minutes, after which the main plot begins. The whole thing is rather more coherent than might at first be expected, though. The sequence sets up the theme of the film- Holmes’ relationship with women, and the question which it poses is more or less answered.

The arrival of a mysterious, amnesiac Belgian lady, Gabrielle Valladon, starts off the larger part of the film, and this leads to some rather sexually charged scenes between her and Holmes. The case doesn’t get very far, however, before Holmes receives a summons from his brother Mycroft (the justly ubiquitous Christopher Lee). There’s a delicious little retcon here, as we’re told that the outwardly eccentric “Diogenes Club” is in fact a front for British Intelligence. Mycroft warns Holmes off the case which, of course, only encourages him.

Holmes seems to make a real connection with Mme Valladon, and they have a rather interesting discussion about his experiences with women. Most interestingly, he claims, in an interestingly light-hearted tone, that his mistrust of women ultimately stems from his fiancée (!) inconveniently dying just twenty-four hours before their wedding. Are we to believe this, or do we have a case of unreliable narrator syndrome here? We should probably remember Holmes’ fourth wall-breaking tendencies at this point.

To Inverness, then, and some rather gorgeous location filming in the Highlands. It soon becomes clear that things are mixed up with the legend of the Loch Ness Monster- oops! This is a bit of a clanger, as the legend of the Loch Ness Monster is not anywhere near as old as you’d expect, dating back only back to 1933. The whole thing really kicked off with a famous photograph which appeared in 1934. April 1st 1934, to be precise…

The monster, it turns out is mechanical. It seems that Holmes is close to solving the mystery, when he receives a summons from Mycroft. It’s revealed that the “monster” is an experimental submersible, and that Mime Valladon’s husband died accidentally while testing the device. In a nice twist, it’s revealed that “Mme Valladon” is in fact an agent of the Kaiser, Fraulein Von Hofmannsthal, and that she has rather cleverly enlisted Holmes to do all the work for her. He’s fallen hook, line and sinker for her charms.

The best bit’s near the end, though. Queen Victoria- a Holmes fangirl, naturally- is such a delight. Wonderfully, she refuses to allow the submersible project to continue, because it’s “unsportsmanlike” and “un-English”!!! She dismisses Mycroft’s protests by insisting that she will write to her nephew Willie (who won’t succeed his grandfather and his unfortunate father as Kaiser until next year, but never mind!) and get him to abandon any similar plans by Germany.

We end, sixteen months later, on a sad note, as Holmes reads of Fraulein Von Hofmannsthal’s death at the hands of the Japanese, having been caught spying. He’s clearly deeply affected. It seems that Holmes is, after all, susceptible to certain women (although he may still be asexual). She did, after all, defeat him.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Man Who Never Was

Part One

“But I’m an old hand at hypnotism.”

On the day that Muammar Gaddafi has been killed, I watch the last ever episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures following the untimely death of Elizabeth Sladen who dies earlier this year, and the concept seems to be clearly inspired by Steve Jobs, who also died recently.

So, Steve Jobs is introducing the iPad… er, Joseph Serf is introducing the completely dissimilar Serfboard. Incidentally, the Serfboard is firmly established to be rubbish. Could this be Gareth Roberts making comments on the iPad, perchance…?

It’s wonderful that Elisabeth Sladen gets to shine so much in her last story; her journalistic activities are such fun here, and I loved the fact she’s been hypnotised so many times it no longer works! Her little digs about “Serf” being a hologram are fantastic, and Harrison’s obvious annoyance makes it so much more fun.

The big character theme here is, of course, that Luke’s coming home at the end of term, and he has a new sister. This is an obvious theme for the target audience: the disruptions of a new sibling, especially an adopted one, and the realisation that one is slowly leaving home. It’s a very poignant moment when Luke finds out that his old room is now Sky’s.

There’s an interesting moment between Rani and Clyde, too. It’s clear they haven’t been together for a while, and Ellie is mentioned. There are hints at a recent frostiness: “Just like the old days- you and me, having a laugh.” I expect this was supposed to have been developed during the two intervening stories which will never now be made, but the series hangs together surprisingly well as a whole with just the first two stories and this finale.

It’s such a great kids’ show concept that “Serf” should be controlled by a load of cowled cyclopean little cute aliens pulling levers! Just as with the last season of Doctor Who, I’m reminded of the Numbskulls from The Beezer.

Part Two

“It’s bobbins!”

It’s a fantastic cliffhanger- the aliens are actually nice, and tell Luke and Sky to run. The idea behind this is very dark for a kids show, though: the Skullions crash-landed in Central Asia, and Harrison bought them on the slave market. It’s human trafficking, more or less. Just as with last episode, real world issues are at the forefront. And just as with the last story, a lovely blow is stuck against our tabloid culture: a Romanian immigrant, no less, and a cleaner too, is not only portrayed as heroic but is rewarded at the end with a cool job at UNIT.

Less heavy is the idea that Harrison plans to use alien tech to sell a load of useless crap via hypnosis- a dig at advertising, perchance? Good old BBC!

The whole gang gets cool stuff to do. Rani and Clyde, posing as a married couple(!) bond as they gatecrash the press conference, while Luke and Sky have to pull the levers. The bits with cute aliens getting tortured are nasty, but there’s a lot of fun, bonkers stuff here. And Harrison certainly gets the ending he deserves.

There’s an interesting bit at the end, where Rani and Clyde get very couply and start talking about a “family thing”- ooh! Was there a bit more to this scene, or a “to be continued”…?

The final montage is wonderful, and best of all is the final caption: “And the story goes on… forever.”

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Curse of Clyde Langer

Part One

“Where were you on the day of the storm?”

This story is wonderful. We live in a tabloid culture where it’s becoming more and more fashionable to just dismiss as “scroungers” those people we don’t want to look at: asylum seekers, the homeless, and these days even the disabled. It’s so fantastic that The Sarah Jane Adventures is showing kids how wrong this is, that the homeless are just people like us. And it’s something which could happen to any of us, especially in times like these.

After an interesting flash forward to Clyde we’re quickly introduced to the gang’s new adventure; fish from the skies and a mysterious totem pole. In an apparently casual scene Clyde gives some money to a homeless people, incoherently telling Sky both that she’s a “scrounger” and that it “isn’t her fault”. His incoherence here is shared by most of us, I suspect.

The scenes where everyone turns against Clyde, while carefully blunted so as not to upset children too much, can hardly not be upsetting. Only Sky, an alien, seems unaffected by the curse. Speaking of which… how on Earth does Sarah explain where Sky has come from so she can start school? She has no past, no previous schooling, presumably she can’t read… we probably shouldn’t ask, just as we didn’t with Luke.

The most interesting scenes of Clyde being rejected are with those people we don’t see every week. Clyde’s mother accuses him of keeping secrets which, of course, he is. There’s a genuine subconscious feeling there, I think. And the terrifying and powerful scenes where Clyde’s mates turn on him is so very tinged with class resentment; Clyde is in the sixth form, and has a future. His friends left school at sixteen, and seem to have a bleak future in times like these.

The episode ends unusually. There’s no cliffhanger, just Clyde realising he’s alone and homeless, breaking down and crying. And then the homeless girl from earlier comes and takes his hand…

Part Two

“People don’t look.”

Clyde wakes up to find that he’s still living his nightmare, and has slept under a bridge. The homeless people he’d previously been able to ignore are now all around him, and he depends on his new homeless friend, Ellie, to guide him around this new and traumatic existence. The message is very clear that any of us could fall this far if we’re unlucky enough. Homeless people are people just like us.  “One day it all falls apart, then you’re here.” It’s a powerful message, and great that it’s being given to kids.

Ellie really likes Clyde, and she’s an innocent much like him. There’s a lot of darkness left unspoken in her story of how she came to live on the streets two years ago (“My Dad died. My Mum remarried…”. We see enough of her to realise that she’s nice, and vulnerable. This adds weight to what comes later.

It’s Sky who gets to be the hero, working out how to free Sarah Jane and Rani from the curse. Yes, it’s a little convenient that she should be quite this clever, but I’ll forgive this story a couple of plot shortcuts for its powerful message.

Our second plot shortcut is Clyde being able to easily defeat the mysterious baddie by just saying his name, but the ending packs a punch. It’s becoming obvious that Ellie really, really likes and trusts Clyde (well, the kiss is a bit of a hint…), and it’s shocking when he abandons her, however understandable his reasons. Of course, Clyde searches high and low for her, but she’s gone, and she can’t be traced. This is harsh, and will be upsetting for the children watching. But Phil Ford has made the right decision; to solve the problem of homelessness with an easy sci-fi ending would be a horrible misjudgement.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Sky

Part One

“If I start asking my Mum questions about how to look after a baby then she’s going to totally freak.”

I never seem to pick up much enthusiasm for starting a new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, and this time is no exception. I’m always very much aware that this is very much a kids’ show, I’m a 34-year-old man, and I’m only reviewing this series because of my completist urge to review all of televised Doctor Who. I’m conscious that I don’t find much to say about it, which isn’t surprising: it’s for kids, and not necessarily always brimming with subtext. And yet, I usually end up enjoying it, and this time is no exception.

It’s certainly… different to see Elisabeth Sladen in new episodes so soon after her sad demise. But it’s also exhilarating to see the brand-new pre-titles sequence, and to hear Sladen’s voice delivering that wonderful monologue. It’s becoming very noticeable that the actors playing Clyde and Rani are getting older, but it’s good to see the gang again.

And this time we get a new addition, although obviously not for long; a baby whom Sarah Jane names Sky is mysteriously abandoned on her doorstep, and we get lots of fun scenes with Clyde showing how great he is with babies. Aaah. It’s also great to see some comedy with Haresh and the lovely Gita. I know I’m supposed to like the regulars more, but I think they’re my favourite characters…!

We get a lot of scenes in a nuclear power station; it’s almost as though this is a 1970s Doctor Who story. We get a few scenes with the wonderful Floella Benjamin as Professor Rivers again, including a great scene in which she plays with some lipstick and pretends she’s Sarah Jane. Plus there’s a great villain in the mysterious “Miss Myers”.

And then, as a cliffhanger we discover that Sky is suddenly much older. And a bomb.

Part Two

“And Clyde thought he had it tough with Luke!”

Er, excuse me, but surely if Sky is twelve years old then she isn’t actually a teenager? And surely there will be narrative difficulties with her being five years younger than Rani and Clyde, and therefore in a different school year? Still, it’s probably a good idea to have regular who’s closer to the age of the target audience, and also sensible of Phil Ford to give her a background which is more or less the same as Luke’s.

Still, it’s rather eyebrow-raising to have our new regular be, essentially, a suicide bomber. And I’m really, really not sure about that scene of Sarah Jane breaking into an area full of electricity pylons in a children’s programme!

Still, we get a nice ending, even if Sky surviving and being “defused” is awfully convenient. But then, in a genuine surprise, we see the shopkeeper and his parrot from Lost in Time. Are we going to find out who they are, or what they want…?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Firefly: Serenity

“We are just too pretty for God to let us die.”

I must admit, I wouldn’t have decided to watch this on a weekday if I’d remembered how long it was, but the Firefly reviews start here. I’m going to fit in the remaining three Sarah Jane Adventures two-parters over the next few days too, but basically it’s Firefly now until it finishes, except with films on most Saturdays. More Whedon to come, though. Appropriately, my iTunes library has just been playing me Johnny Cash and Neil Young’s “From Hank to Hendrix”.

We begin with a flashback to the recent war, in which Mal and Zoe (Gina Torres) fought on the losing sides. They’re essentially Space Confederates, although Zoe’s ethnicity tells us that in this case there’s none of that slavery nastiness. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is charismatic, brave, rugged on the surface but deeply caring underneath. Zoe would follow him anywhere in spite of his flaws, but the fact that Zoe is a supremely capable and intelligent woman shows us that he’s earned that respect. Joss Whedon really gets us to invest in the characters during these first few vital minutes. We see people die nobly, and then the war is suddenly over. They’ve lost. It was all for nothing, perhaps.

The present day, and now Mal is captain of a ship, Serenity, and he and his crew make their money through not-entirely-legal means, in this case salvage. Wisely, Whedon is not telling us what year it is. Our heroes are criminals, and they have a relationship with the powers-that-be, the Alliance, which is hardly friendly. There are obvious parallels with Blake’s 7 here, even if it’s clear that planets are going to look like Southern California rather than Southern England. But we should be careful not to overstate this; Mal and his crew are far more concerned about where their meal is coming from, and are not political idealists. And the Administration, while obviously not nice, are not quite so obviously totalitarian. Also, it’s 2002, a generation later. Still, it shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve chosen to follow up Blake’s 7 (give or take the odd Sherlock) with this.

The aesthetic is also very different, and very American. The Western tropes and touches are obvious, from the costumes to the incidental music, and this underlines the frontier feel. There are more settled planets, such as the home planet of Dr. Simon Tams (Sean Maher), which stand for “back East”, but this is a rugged, frontier existence with many planets, such as the one ruled by Patience, seemingly to some extent outside the law. And when Mal states that “It’s what governments are for- to get in a man’s way”, he’s expressing the sentiments of rugged individualism which owe a lot more to the American West than to anywhere remotely close to me, here in Leicestershire. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s an obvious spinning wheel on the Serenity that evokes the feel of a steamboat.

This is a Western in space, all right, and quite rightly this dominates the aesthetic, the message and, I think, the sort of stories we’ll get. But that isn’t all that’s going on. For a start, everyone keeps occasionally speaking, I think, Mandarin, and we’re not given any subtitles. Badger (Mark Sheppard, recently in Doctor Who) is a cockney geezer crime boss who reminds me of Ronnie Kray or, indeed, Dinsdale Piranha. And then there are the Reavers, about whom we know little as yet.

We get a good, proper introduction to all of the people we shall be getting to know, so I’d better introduce them too. It makes a slightly awkward structure for this review but, in spite of Whedon’s assured script and direction, the same is true of this episode. Such is the way of first episodes.

Gina is married to Wash (Adam Tudyk), a rather witty and rather brilliant pilot whose scene with the dinosaurs is the most Joss Whedon thing ever. So far, though, there’s not a lot to him beyond that. Rather more interesting is Adam Baldwin’s violent and self-centred Jayne, a sort of working-class Avon who heavily implies he would betray Mal for the right price. Yet he clearly cares a great deal about Kaylee; Whedon rather interestingly chooses to have him at the front of the shot looking worried as it appears she might die. Even he has a softer side. He’s a great comedy character, too. Whedon manages to make the scene in which he threatens the government agent into a comedy highlight.

Inara (Morena Baccarin) is, of course, gorgeous, and has a rather interestingly ambiguous relationship with Mal. She’s a high-class “companion”, and her profession clearly enjoys a much higher degree of respectability and status than in does in the present day. There are initial clashes with Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), but I rather suspect that they’re going to be friends. The Shepherd is a mysterious one; he says he’s freshly out of the “abbey”, but he hints at a mysterious past and is a shrewd judge of character. His initial scene with Kaylee (Jewel Staite), as she entices him on to the ship is wonderful.

Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic (of course I adore her- she’s lovely!), is irrepressibly cheerful, innocent, a refreshing break from all the angst-ridden characters one sees everywhere, and interestingly perceptive about people. She knows that most of her crewmates (even Jayne) are basically nice and realises that Mal cares very deeply beneath the gruff exterior. Interestingly, we get a rather lingering shot of her eating a strawberry, which seems to be telling us that she’s a rather sensual person. I love the door to her room.

She has a bit of a thing for with Simon Tam (Sean Maher) who is, alas, from a different social class, and both literally and figuratively from a different world. Maher plays his awkwardness very well; he’s got the good looks, but sadly not the easy-going charm, of certain other Simons. Ahem. He also has a sister, River (Summer Glau) who is at this point more of a mysterious McGuffin than an actual character.

There are a lot of characters to introduce and develop, then, as well as an entire world, aesthetic and set of narrative rules. That Whedon manages to tick all these boxes while also delivering an exciting and intriguing piece of strong, character-led drama bodes very well indeed for future episodes, which will hopefully have much more space in which to breathe.

I couldn’t help but smile at the “grrr! arggh!” of Mutant Enemy. I’ll be seeing a lot of that over the next eighteen months or so.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Return of the Jedi (1983)

“He’s more machine now than man- twisted and evil.”

I saw this at the pictures when it was originally on, you know. I was six. I went for a pee during the scenes in Jabba’s palace. Anyway…

A new, bigger Death Star is… les than entirely original. But at least it provides us with a suitable sense of threat. And the first few minutes gives as a real sense of the pomp and might of the Empire. We’re also made to anticipate meeting the mysterious Emperor himself.

Anyway… it’s nostalgic, but at the same time worrying, to see C-3PO and R2 D2 once again traipsing the hills of Tunisia… er, Tattoooine. Still, it’s not long before we get to the glorious monster mash that is Jabba’s palace. And Threepio’s reactions are perfect in honing our reactions to it. It’s clear that so much more effort has been put into this than the comparable scenes at Mos Eisley. The proof is in the vastly greater number of Kenner action figures that arose from this.

The tension is increased by the revelation that both Lando and Chewbacca have not been heard of since they disappeared within the environs of Jabba’s palace, although of course the impact of this is bathetically diminished by the fact that it comes from the highly-strung Threepio. Anthony Daniels’ performance at the point where the door opens is fantastic. In fact, I have to take this opportunity to praise his wonderfully camp yet perfectly pitched performance throughout the three films.

Incidentally, Bib Fortuna was the first action figure I owned. In 1983, he cost me £1.50. I never owned the Gammorean Guards, alas.

Threepio delivers a message from Luke Skywalker,  which is conciliatory while at the same time exuding a sense of threat which foreshadows the magnificent action sequences which await us. And yet… continuing my theme of droids=slavery, isn’t the sight of Luke (And yes, I’m aware it’s all part of the plan, but…) offering to swell these two droids, in whose personalities we, the audience, have invested so much, well, incredibly disturbing? I mean, there are pretty graphic scenes of droids being tortured here which would never be accepted if they were done to flesh-and-blood beings. I’m sot sure what sort of ‘ism that is, but it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The hero of the trilogy, more than anywhere else, is complicit in the worst excesses of slavery.

Anyway… a plucky bounty hunter, who delivers Jabba’s respect by delivering Chewbacca and earning his, er, respect, turns out to be Leia, and sneaks into Han Solo’s room to rescue him. This is rather tear-inducing, as she tells the blind and vulnerable Han that she loves him. I would do anything for a woman like that. There would be tongues.

There’s also a trap door, beneath which is a monster, the Rancor. So far, so Bond villain, although Jabba seems to be this galaxy’s Dinsdale Piranha.  Leia rescues Han, introducing herself as “someone who loves you”. Oh, if I was Han, my tongue would slowly flick for hours…

Luke’s attempted bargain, through his message from R2, is respectful yet essentially threatening. Actually, shall we just skip to the sail barge stuff? Except, we should point out that there’s implied sexual abuse of Leia (Threepio “can’t bear to watch”), by Jabba, who is of course a slug, both slimy and an absurdly massive phallic symbol. I suspect we can assume the worst here, and it’s clearly implied. Rather strong for a family film. I’m glad she strangles the bastard to death.

Anyway… Leia, appropriately, strangles Jabba .Luke survives the Rancor (which looks fantastic). He, Han, Leia and Chewbacca are sentenced to an agonising death by Sarlacc. Lots of Jabba’s pawns, and Boba Fett, suffer this horrible fate. All our heroes survive, under less-than-plausible circumstances- how, for instance, did Luke know that R2 , randomly appointed a waiter, would be in position to throw him his lightsabre? Signs of George Lucas scripting again …

Anyway, they all get away, and Luke makes a side trip to Dagobah. Yoda is dying, but Luke conveniently arrives just in time for Yoda to make an inspiring deathbed speech. It must be the Force. In spite of what we’ve been told, Luke will be a fully-fledged Jedi Knight as soon as he faces Vader. Hmm.

We have an interesting contrast, in alternated scenes, between the dying Yoda and the vigorous and powerful Emperor, played magnificently by Ian McDiarmid, who is clearly strong in the Dark Side of magic- er, the Force. Luke must face Vader, apparently, even though it was such a no-no last time and bugger all has happened since.

The rebels make some rather dull speeches. Apparently, Han hasn’t finalised his command crew for Endor (a “forest” moon, and again a world characterised by just one kind of terrain), purely for dramatic effect, again instructing us that George Lucas (oh dear) is co-scripting this. Oh dear. It’s all rather forced. Luke arrives at the most convenient moment possible. Plus, Luke and Vader sense each other on the hijacked shuttle’s approach. Yes, it’s a trap, of course, but these scenes have a very uncomfortable sense of character being sublimated to plot convenience.

Isn’t it odd that there are also many kinds of Imperial stormtroopers, for example forest scouts? It’s almost… heaven forbid… merchandise orientated. Still, it’s visually stimulating set piece, and oddly foreshadows a million computer games.

There’s an interesting cameo from Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, trying to circumlocute himself around certain claims he made in Star Wars. But it’s now explicit that, not only is Vader Luke’s dad, but Leia is his sister. This means she’s fostered. Presumably, then, she’s not actually a princess.

The fast, exciting speeder bike stuff looks great: very well shot, and very movie serial. In fact, it foreshadows a million computer games. But… this is the point where we meet Wicket, our first Ewoks. They’re cute teddy bears, with even cuter babies. And yet, right, excuse me, for being pretentious and interpolating a postcolonial reading, but aren’t the Ewoks, Stone Age civilisation that they are, ripe for exploitation by the Rebel Alliance?

I think the plot wants us to forget this sort of stuff, though; Threepio is a god, they’re impressed by magic, and therefore they wish to help their new mates-cum-eventual-conquerors with a bit of asymmetrical warfare. Er, ok.

Oh, and aren’t these speeder bikes a bit blatantly dangerous for a place with lots of trees? Health and safety, that’s all I’m saying.

Anyway, it’s all a trap by the Emperor. A rather reckless one as he’s buggered in the end but, still, there is much tension between him and the Emperor.

C-3PO may be a god, but he has a “really bad feeling about this.” I think this is the point where the phrase becomes a dully-fledged Star Wars cliché. Still, his stories are well amusing.

The main focus is on the Death Star, where Luke has surrendered to confront his father. These scenes do rather drag somewhat; after McDiarmid and Jones, Hamill is the third best actor here, and actually, he’s not bad. His disfigurement really has buggered his career. Don’t drink and drive, kids.

So, Luke gets tempted, but ultimately convinces Darth to throw the Emperor down a conveniently placed shaft. Honestly, health and safety in the Empire is absolutely dreadful. We see Darth’s face as he dies,. It’s nice, but is one of those inevitable anti-climaxes.

We get a happy ending. The Emperor is dead. Er, what happens now? Are remnants of the  Empire still around? Even if that’s not so, who will fill the power vacuum, as the galaxy is no longer under a single, authoritarian, ruler? Luke? Might there be a bloody civil war, or several? It could get rather complicated, and I bet the Ewoks get colonially exploited whatewver happens. Nice to see the the ghosts, though…

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

I am your father.”

The opening titles are identical to this film’s predecessor until we get to the texty bit (And, yes, here we do indeed get an “Episode V”. I’m still not treating it as part of the film’s actual name, so nyaaah.). So much so, in fact, that the original cinemagoers much have wondered if the same film was being shown by mistake.

Said texty bit confirms that not much has happened during what must be only months since the end of Star Wars. The rebels are still in retreat, at this point on the “ice world” of Hoth. This is our first blatant example of the tendency of the Star Wars universe for worlds to be characterised by just one type of terrain. It isn’t possible, it seems, for, say, tundra and rainforest to exist on the same planet.

We begin with an exciting set-piece concerning Luke Skywalker being attacked by a monster, escaping, and being rescued from exposure by Han Solo, saving his life for the second tome. This is good, fun, movie serial style entertainment, of course, but it’s also a crucial moment for Han. After all, the previous film established him as something of an ambiguous figure, a semi-criminal, self-interested type, albeit one with charm and a conscience, but he only really earned our trust at the very end. Here, we get an early emphasis on his loyalty and heroism, which earns the character our trust. Also, it sets up the tempestuous proto-romance between him and Leia. How appropriate that she should be quite the ice maiden at this point. She has great hair, by the way. Again.

But the main point of this sequence sequence (apart from explaining away Mark Hamill’s disfigurement) is, of course, Luke’s vision. Here we see Obi-Wan as a ghost for the first time, and he’s telling Luke to go to Dagobah, wherever that is, and to get himself taught by Yoda, whoever that is. And yes, you’re right; it is a little absurd of me to have phrased that as though I hadn’t seen this film a million times.

The rebels know they’ve been found, and we get a long, exciting sequence as they all try and evacuate while Darth Vader and his underlings relentlessly pursue them. Vader is even cooler here, from the first shot of him, in which we see the back of his heads from behind as he gazers out at the stars. Later on we get a glimpse of the back of his head for real, underneath his helmet. He gets to kill two senior underlings for failure in amusing ways, and one of them is Mr Bronson himself, Michael Sheard. Darth just can’t get any cooler.

The whole sequence with the AT-ATs kicks arse, except for the fact that it reminds me I never one as a kid, although I did have the Millennium Falcon. But the ultimate result is Luke and Artoo heading for Dagobah, while Han, Leia and Threepio are just trying to get away from their Imperial pursuers without a working hyperdrive. At this point, they’re completely on the back foot, with the Empire seemingly just mopping up the remaining bits of resistance. Only Luke’s mission offers anything aside from this bleak narrative, and this stage Dagobah offers little obvious hope.

Luke is amazingly lucky, though: with a whole planet to choose from, he manages to crash land right next to Yoda’s house. What are the chances of that, eh? Presumably we can ascribe it to the Force, or to the great script god Irvin Kirchner, who is producing a notably witter script than Lucas did last time. Yoda’s fantastic. He may look like a Muppet, but that’s because he is. And I’d take this Yoda over some CGI crap anytime.

Things are hotting up between Han and Leia, as they have a bit of a snog until Threepio comes along and ruins it all. Speaking of Threepio and sexual stuff, I seem to recall Simon Pegg casually remarking in an interview that Threepio was gay. And he blatantly is, isn’t he? Although what the significance of this may be I have no idea. And what does this imply about his “relationship”, if we can use the word, with Artoo?

Meanwhile, Yoda is taking some persuading to take on Luke as a pupil. Luke is a dreamer, with his head in the clouds, apparently. Well, yes; that’s sort of his entire personality. The subtext here is that he’s going to have to give that up. The lessons begin, and Luke really doesn’t seem to learn very much.

The bit with the Millennium Falcon being inside the creature’s mouth is great, but they’re in trouble. Especially as Vader is sending bounty hunters after them. With the exception of Boba Fett they’re onscreen for no more than a few seconds but, naturally, this didn’t stop Kenner from making toys of them all. Bossk, Zuckuss and IG-88 are the ones I remember. Incidentally, what’s a droid doing as a bounty hunter? Are there “free” droids?

Han, Leia, Chewie and Threepio are off to a mining colony on Bespin to find an old acquaintance of his called Lando Calrissian. I think Bespin is supposed to be a gas giant, so keeping “Cloud City” going must be an incredible drain on apparently limited resources, as this is not exactly a habitable place. Still, best not to think about it too much.

We meet Lando, and he’s a con man, albeit a charming one. Come to think of it, he’s basically Han from the beginning of Star Wars, except that he’s successful. Success has given him responsibility, and responsibilities have given him dependants. This has consequences, as we’ll see. It looks ominous. It certainly does to Luke, who foresees bad things and rushes off against the advice of both Yoda and Obi-Wan. Yoda gets an interesting line, though: “There is another”.

Lando sells them out, of course. And it’s all a trap for Luke, of course. Vader has it all planned; indeed, we see him discussing this with no less a figure than the Emperor himself. He’s very much in control and throwing his weight around, changing the details of his agreement with Lando wherever he sees fit. Han is to be tortured, purely so as to bring Luke running after him, and then Fett is to take him onward to Jabba the Hutt.

There’s a massive set-piece swordfight between Luke and Vader, of course, in which Luke loses both the fight and his right hand, and gets a certain devastating revelation. And Lando helps Leia, Chewie and the droids to escape. But this is no happy ending, and the stirring musical coda leaves us in no doubt that this is to be continued…

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Star Wars (1977)

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

I’ve seen this film so, so many times, but not since 1997, when I saw the restored version at the cinema. And that event is a bit of a watershed, isn’t it? Before then, George Lucas was widely regarded as a genius whereas nowadays he… isn’t. A case in point: I saw this on Disc Two of the DVD, as an extra. It hadn’t been cleaned up and the sound was awful. There’s no denying it, though- it really is as good as we all remember.

The thing about Star Wars (or, to give its full and official title, Star Wars) is that, for all that it famously revolutionised what would be expected of sci-fi special effects, it doesn’t actually look very flashy, Kurosawa-style directorial touches aside. It looks thoroughly convincing, yes, but the parade of monsters in Mos Eisley, for example, isn’t anything like as much of a spectacle as the scenes in Jabba’s palace from Return of the Jedi. None of this does any harm, though; the effects are all the stronger for trying to convince rather than to amaze.

It’s also notable that, much as Alien gets the credit for creating the trope of the dirty, lived-in, space opera environment, there’s an element of that here, too. But none of that takes away from the real, deliberate, fairytale quality, or to the clearly intended nods to the movie serials of many decades earlier. The opening text is an example of both, I think.

For the first time, we open on a bit of spaceship porn, as per all of these movies. The opening blurb handily allows us to start halfway through the story, as Princess Leia’s shop is attacked by Imperial troops desperate to retrieve the McGuffin she has in her possession. Interestingly, though, we see most of this through the, er, eyes of two “’droids”, C-3PO and R2-D2. Being low status characters, these two can instantly play a role in the narrative familiar from, again, Kurosawa, but also stretching way back through the history of the “comedy peasant” trope. It helps that they’re both so endearing, and Artoo is so cute. Their rapport is wonderful, which is critical, as they are more-or-less the heart of the first half-hour of the film.

So, our two droids are dispatched to Tattooine on a secret mission, pursued by the troops of the fantastic Darth Vader. Darth must be the most brilliant looking baddie ever, and James Earl Jones has the perfect voice for him. Here they’re both captured by Jawas, and this leads to something about the Star Wars films that has always troubled me. Because Threepio and Artoo are portrayed as sentient beings with personalities and feelings, yet they are the “property” of others, slaves in fact. Indeed, we see Luke Skywalker, the hero of the trilogy, buying them both from these slave traders along with his Uncle Owen. If the hero is allowed to do this, does this mean the film is ok with slavery?  There’s certainly no indication of any characters having any ethical qualms.

Luke is established as young, in his teens, suffering a rather humdrum home life on a farm, and being denied his rather more glamorous destiny by his boring old uncle. It’s not hard to see why a large portion of the audience would identify with this. Sure enough, Luke is soon introduced to a bigger and more exciting world by hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi, one for which he was destined. Much of the film’s audience must have been hoping for a similar fate. It’s no accident that fairytales are full of narratives like this.

Obi-Wan tells us that he’s a Jedi Knight, he fought in the “Clone Wars”, and that he’s a friend of Luke’s late father, also a Jedi Knight. The Jedi Knights were, apparently, great heroes in the “Old Republic”, before the coming of the empire, after which they were hunted down by Darth Vader, a Jedi turned bad. We’re told explicitly that Vader killed Luke’s father. This is fairytale stuff and, interestingly, in its political elements is clearly inspired by the Roman Republic and its slide into empire.

The Jedi are basically good wizards, like Gandalf and his mates, and the Force is simply magic. For all its sci-fi trappings, this is unmistakably a work of fairytale fantasy.

Luke’s uncle and aunt are conveniently killed by Imperial Stormtroopers, which handily allows him to accompany Obi-Wan on his mission to Alderaan. But first they need a pilot, and this brings them to Mos Eisley. Here we meet smuggler Han Solo (who definitely shoots Greedo first), who agrees to take four passengers to Alderaan for oodles of cash, mainly because he owes several more oodles of cash to someone called Jabba the Hutt.

I have to pause here to praise Alec Guinness. George Lucas doesn’t, as Harrison Ford has famously said, write the best dialogue, and Obi-Wan gets some of the worst lines, many of which look cringe-inducingly bad on paper: see the quote up there at the top. And yet Guinness makes even these lines seem acceptable. That’s bloody good acting.

Incidentally, I adore the interaction between Han and Obi-wan when Luke is being trained in the ways of the Force, blinded. Obi-Wan is a character who belongs in a fantasy film, as shown most blatantly in his comments about a lightsabre being better than a blaster. Han, on the other hand, is a character who belongs in a sci-fi film, and so of course he is sceptical about magic and can see that a sword, even a fancy one made of light, is obviously no good against a blaster! This is fantastic metatextual fin, winking at the audience and alerting us to the clash of genres through their respective spokesmen.

Interesting, is it not, that the Millennium Falcon has a navigation computer which takes ages to make the calculations needed before they can “jump to lightspeed”? This may be a world of magic powers and casual interstellar travel, but their state-of-the-art computers are well behind my iPhone.

I seem to be reviewing a lot of films with Peter Cushing in, and here he is again as the Grand Moff Tarkin, and deliciously evil he is too. It’s he who informs us that the Imperial Senate has been dissolved by the emperor, and that the Empire is now to become a fully-fledged totalitarian state. It’s also he who sentences Leia to death, and who cruelly vaporises her home planet of Alderaan even after she’s told him the location of the rebel base. The dastardly swine. Good job she lied.

Our heroes are drawn to the Death Star by its tractor beam, like flies to a web, and we now get to the most fun bit of the film, as our heroes set out to disable the tractor beam and rescue Leia. Carrie Fisher is great as the princess, subverting all the stereotype of the passive damsel in distress by kicking whatever ass she ever happens to come across. These sequences are also crucial in that we get to know and like Han Solo, who is established as cynical, but also funny, brave and with a heart of gold underneath. This is still very movie serial, of course; the bit in the garbage compactor is the most movie serial thing ever. That is, until we get to Luke, Leia and the missing bridge…

Our heroes escape, but not without an exciting dogfight, and not before Obi-Wan, mysteriously and calmly, simply stops fighting and allows himself to be slain by Vader. But their ship has a tracer hidden aboard, and the crew of the Death Star now know the location of the rebel base. Fortunately, though, the plans to the Death Star just happen to rather conveniently reveal a massive and rather implausible weakness. Can the rebels destroy the Death Star before it destroys them?

Luke volunteers to take part in the assault, and seems to be given a rather senior role for someone who’s only been in the Rebel Alliance for five minutes. We know the goodies are going to win, of course; Tarkin tempts fate by refusing an evacuation, and Vader, who we know isn’t going to die, leaves the Death Star to fight Luke in a ship of his own. But the rebels have an uphill struggle, and can’t count on any help from Han, who has buggered off with his money.

Of course, it’s all right in the end, as Han makes a heroic return and Luke uses the force to destroy the Death Star. Our fairytale has a fairytale ending, but the story has only just begun…

Sherlock: The Great Game

“Any ideas?”

“Seven, so far.”

Blimey. This is not so much a story as a television equivalent of one of Conan Doyle’s collections of short stories from the Strand magazine, with a connecting twist. And yet, it fits together, and it fits together so well. This is a superb piece of television, and proof that, although his work on Doctor Who may not always have shown it until recently, Mark Gatiss is a bloody fantastic writer. And, by the way, after last episode’s stint by Euros Lyn, a bit meh in comparison, Paul McGuigan is helming this one.

The opening, in Minsk, is deft and witty although, following a line in the first episode where Holmes mentions sending Mrs Hudson’s husband to the gallows or some such barbarity, it continues a rather worrying pro-capital punishment trend. Less of this, please.

Gatiss is obviously rather more of a Holmes fanboy than Moffat, or at least shows it more. This is no bad thing. Sherlock shooting at the wall, Sherlock not realising that the Earth goes round the Sun (which will be important later, and also introduces a theme, about which more later on), Sherlock’s criticisms of John’s blog- these things are a joy. Not only is the latter the sort of metatextual fun I always love, it’s doubly so, as the text is referring not only to itself but to the text that inspired it, which is also referring to itself. I love this sort of thing. And yes, when Lestrade mentioned that everyone at Scotland Yard was also following John’s blog, I did indeed have an orgasm.

Gatiss, as is his privilege as showrunner, inserts himself into the narrative as Mycroft, and gives a wonderfully knowing performance, both in his acting and in the lines he gives himself. The character of Mycroft is, of course, fundamentally metatextual: he has all the observational powers of Sherlock, yet he exists purely as comic effect and plot convenience, and the wonderful thing is that the character himself is intelligent enough to realise this, and to tip a knowing wink to the audience. Anyway, he’s here to introduce The Bruce-Partington Plans just as Lestrade who, admittedly with a somewhat meatier role, is referencing The Five Orange Pips.

Pip one is a pair of trainers. Is that not a glorious sentence? The villain- and, let’s be clear, there’s no mystery that it’s Moriarty- is a right bastard, putting a collar bomb on the first of three victims. This one, at least, lives, unlike the third. It must be a horrible way to die.

Moving swiftly on past Molly and her new boyfriend Jim (“gay!”), whom she presumably parades in front of Sherlock out of spite, we solve this first puzzle and have John in an amusing scene with Mycroft. We do, of course, know that this will dovetail with the main plot(s), for such is television drama, but the comedy is well fun.

Pip two is the Ian Monkford stuff, where Sherlock, by pretending to be an old friend of Ian’s, hugely offends his wife. Yes, this may illustrate his “sociopathic” side, but it’s retrospectively clear that he suspects her of profiting from Ian’s disappearing act. Anyway, this one’s solved too. Incidentally, Sherlock seems to have an iPhone GPS, as I do. Yay consumerism.

Anyway, pip three concerns a star of daytime telly, and Sherlock dully immerses himself in the online forum of said show. This links quite strongly to the earlier-mentioned solar system stuff; something which might normally be dismissed has having suddenly become relevant. And the idea of Moriarty as a consulting criminal (this is not in Conan Doyle, and is in fact an inspired innovation) is developed here.

We’re introduced to Sherlock’s “homeless network” which, however heartless a concept it may seem, is just a modernisation of the “Baker Street Irregulars”. And pips four and five, neither of which get much action via Sherlock’s new pink phone, involve a dead security guard and a fake Vermeer painting, and said memory stick.

Oh, and the Czech assassin is “The Golem”, and he turns out to be Nosferatu (which I will, at some point, review along with, yes, Shadow of the Vampire), showing that Gatiss has at least a passing acquaintance with my beloved German silent films.

It turns out that pip number four revolves around a supernova in 1858. Clever, as is our security guard. Dead, as is our professor, to the sound of Holst’s The Planets. I love this plot. We get, of course, a resolution to the Bruce-Partington stuff before we move to the big confrontation with Moriarty (on this viewing, Andrew Scott is an inspired choice) at the pool.

The bit where we suspect, just for a moment, that John may be Moriarty (!) is inspired, but instead we get a Mexican stand-off, and a cliffhanger…

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Sherlock: The Blind Banker

“I thought bankers were all supposed to be heartless bastards…”

Firstly, I should point you to this, which I discovered by means of this excellent blog, which I heartily recommend to you. These two links deal with this episode’s dodgy ethnic stereotyping far more eloquently than I could, so I’ll be adding little more than the odd comment on the topic. Interesting, though, that while there are some ethnic groups for whom this sort of blatant racial stereotyping would, quite rightly, never be allowed to reach the screen, there seems to be something of a blind spot concerning Chinese people. I certainly don't recall any media comment at the time.

Plus, this is, notoriously, the not-as-good-as-the-other-two episode of Sherlock, written by Steve Thompson. I’m aware of his stuff for the theatre, but I’ve only encountered him before via his Doctor Who script, which was a bit meh. Actually, though, there’s lots of good stuff in the script here; the plot is clever and well-structured, the dialogue and characterisation are generally good, and Thompson does one thing particularly well. I remember watching an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe in which he interviewed several of his favourite television writers, and hearing Russell T. Davies explaining that scripts often fail to take into account that people never really listen to each other in real life, with a given dialogue actually being two monologues which only sometimes intersect- all very Pinteresque. Anyway, Thompson is rather good at this here, especially in scenes between Sherlock and John. It’s just a shame that these genuine good points are outweighed by the ridiculous and camp stereotypes, which pretty much spoil the episode.

Anyway…the early scenes with Sherlock (inexplicably fighting a bloke with a sword in Baker Street) and John (getting on with those self-service thingies about as well as most of us do) which nicely remind us of the character traits of these people who we have, after all, known for only an episode. We’re reminded that Sherlock is, well, Sherlock Holmes. But John, with his addiction to excitement, is a far more interesting and deep character than the Watson of screen tradition.

We’re soon involved in the mystery, interestingly via an old mate of Sherlock’s. We’re also introduced to Detective Inspector Not-Lestrade, played by the bloke who played Eugene in Torchwood: Random Shoes. Not-Lestrade is young, recently promoted, and rather amusingly made to follow a character arc from scepticism to finally becoming Sherlock’s bitch. Sherlock gets some wonderfully arrogant lines to aim at him: “This investigation might move a bit quicker if you were to take my word as gospel.”

The whole investigation, and the pace of revelations, is rather clever, and nicely interspersed with character moments. John gets a job and an asbo. Unfortunately, though, we soon find ourselves at a rather clichéd shop full of Chinese ethnic stuff, and we eventually get to meet Soo Lin (wasn’t she in Blake’s 7?) at the museum. Her exposition is basically a load of Fu Manchu silliness, including old-fashioned references to “tongs”. Still, her fate is awfully tragic. She’s worked hard to escape from her awful past yet here it is, catching up with her, in the form of her own brother.

We get a brief glimpse of the girl who fancies Sherlock from last episode, and this time Sherlock quite deliberately flirts with her just so he can get into the morgue with Inspector Not-Lestrade. Interesting.

Oh, and what’s Sherlock up to with this searching for the book upon which the code is based? Surely he ought to have made a list of each victim’s books first, found which ones they both owned, and narrowed things down considerably? He may be a genius but you wouldn’t want him doing the filing.

There’s some nice comedy arising from Sherlock inserting himself as the gooseberry between John and Sarah (will we ever see her again, or has nearly getting killed led her to dump John?), but essentially the last third of the episode is largely taken up with awkward ethnic stereotyping.

There’s no getting away from that, really. And it’s a shame, because otherwise this episode is much better than I remembered, with lots of clever touches.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Sherlock: A Study in Pink

“Why can’t people just think?”

We begin with Watson’s… no, John’s flashback to the war in Afghanistan, so beginning with a very neat parallel to Conan Doyle’s original stories, of which we’ll be seeing many. Martin Freeman is perfect casting; he may be more or less typecast as an “everyman” character, but there are worse kinds of typecasting, and he’s a very, very good everyman.

The direction from Paul McGuigan, more usually encountered in films, is superb from the outset. I particularly love the way the screen briefly divides in two as we shift scenes, the use of focus, and of course the creative use of text. Together with Steven Moffat’s first class script and the first-rate cast, this makes for a breathtakingly good but of telly, marred only by a few of Moffat’s old tricks turning up again- the public phone ringing, the line about arch enemies, Sherlock’s jibe about “telly”- but that’s a very minor criticism.

Interesting that the title sequence should focus on speed and the modern icons of London; that’s a statement of intent about the kind of series we’re getting- modern, stylish and fast-paced. Interesting, too (SPOILERS- this is a Whodunnit, remember!) that the first line is “Get a cab.” Cheeky, Moffat, cheeky…

Pacey this certainly is; we get the basic shape of the mystery in the first few minutes and it isn’t much longer that Sherlock and John, whom we’ve only just met, have become flatmates and firmly established themselves as great characters. That’s the excellent script but also, of course, great performances from Freeman and the magnetic Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s Wanda Ventham’s son, you know!

I love Sherlock’s deductions about John, but especially his mistake about Harry. It’s a nice character moment, but also foreshadows his similar deductions regarding the crime. We also meet Una Stubbs as Mrs “Not a Housekeeper” Hudson, whose main purpose is clearly to make the inevitable comments about Sherlock’s and John’s (it’s hard not to type Holmes’ and Watson’s!) sexuality.

There’s such a wit to the script. I love the treatment of Lestrade- resigned to needing Sherlock and honest about it in spite of everything. And, of course, Sherlock is overjoyed to see him, as this means a juicy little murder and a postponement of boredom. It’s played for laughs, but this is recognisably the character we know from Conan Doyle.

Again, the first thing Sherlock and John do upon leaving 221B Baker Street is to hail a cab!!! Their conversation in the cab is great, though, as is John’s meeting with Sergeant Sally Donovan, who’s convinced Sherlock is a dangerous psychopath. The ultimate subtext of all this is, of course, that John himself is a danger junkie, with psychosomatic injuries which reflect the fact that he misses war. If Sherlock is a disturbed individual, then John is no better.

The scene where Sherlock examines Jennifer Wilson’s body is amazing, and so it should be: it’s the most important scene in the episode. McGuigan’s pioneering device of superimposing bits of text over the screen, as earlier with the phones, is genius. As, of course, is Sherlock.

I love the fun Moffat has with “Rache”; this rather undercuts the confidence of those of us who assume we know what’s going on because we’ve read A Study in Scarlet. As will become very clear, we don’t.

Sherlock buggers off, leaving John to meet (SPOILERS!) Mycroft. Mark Gatiss puts on the archest performance I’ve ever seen, even from him. And that’s saying something.

The final indication that knowledge of the novel won’t help us is when the American in the cab turns out to be a red herring. So, after the drugs bust (ha!), and a bit more coolness from Sherlock, we reach the endgame. It’s a satisfying one, using Sherlock’s genius and personality against him; not only is it an exciting climax but it tells us a lot about our eponymous protagonist. It’s fitting that he never chooses a pill; it would damage the character for us to see him as either definitively fallible (and dead!) or definitively infallible.

We get a great ending, with John saving the day, Mycroft revealing himself in a hilarious scene, and “Moriarty”…

The Next Couple of Months....

I know I mentioned last month, after I'd finished Blake's 7, that the next programme I'd do would be sci-fi, American, and a logical follow-up. Well' it's Firefly. And I plan to start it on Monday 17th October, although that may slip a day or two. That should take me through to early Nov. The reason I'm waiting a week and a half to watch Firefly is simply because I'm going to have lots more time, and I might as well use that to watch and review films and longer stuff! So the three episodes of Sherlock start tonight, and there will be a film most non-pub and non-Sherlock nights. I'm looking forwartd to it!

After Blake's 7, it'll be films and short series (Edge of Darkness? I, Clavdivs? Jekyll? The Second Coming? Dark Season?) untiul I start my massive Buffy / Angel marathon in the New Year...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920)


Well, that was interesting. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this, and not the only silent film I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t seen all that many, and it’s many years since I last saw this. I found it very, er, visual (duh!) and hard to follow the plot at times; all these young grey besuited men look the same!

Still, I love the overall look. The tint is very noticeable, and so is the over-the-top acting style, much as this seems effective and even necessary, given the lack of dialogue and the practical restrictions on how many captions you can have. And aren’t the captions on screen for just aaages? Some of us can read perfectly well, you know.

It’s fascinating to think this was made in 1919 and 1920, in the early days of the Weimar Republic and just after Germany (and indeed all of Europe and much of the world) had experienced a rather traumatic four years. It’s tempting, but possibly unwise, to read all sorts of things into the style and themes of the film because of this. I shall tread carefully, as I’ve deliberately not researched much about the film’s background so as to come to it fresh.

We start with a framing sequence as our narrator, Francis (why not Franz?) relates the bulk of the film to us. I know I’m always banging on about unrealistic narrators, but the expressionist style of the film is in hindsight a bit of a clue that all may not be as it seems. I like the spotlight technique that often opens and closes scenes, drawing our eye to things that the director wishes to highlight. And the expressionist style is fantastic. All of the buildings in the film are grotesquely distorted, and remind me very much of the sort of paintings Picasso was doing at the time. This is nicely alienating, and gives us what turns out to be a highly appropriate dreamlike quality. There are lots of nice stylistic touches; it’s noticeable that the town clerk, the police, and officialdom generally, are seated on massive tables that completely dwarf the mere mortals who are our protagonists.

More interestingly, though, this is a total rejection of realism. I know this is another thing I keep banging on about, but in the best possible way everything looks more like a theatre set than reality, and the effect of this is heightened by the fact that the camera never, ever pans; the effect really is that of looking at a dressed theatre stage. And, interestingly, to compensate for the lack of any movement by the camera, we get a great sense of depth on screen, with corridors, roads and crowds stretching in front of us.

The whole set-up with Caligari and Cesare is an historical curiosity these days- this sort of travelling freak show is very much a thing of the past, and it’s strange to imagine people queuing up for something as random as a somnambulist! Unfortunately, the plot is agonisingly slow, slower than I remember from other silent films I’ve seen- is this because it’s an early film? Does the storytelling get pacier throughout the ‘20s? It’ll be interesting to find out.

I was particularly struck by the scene where Cesare fails to stab Jane; he looks so Goth it’s unbelievable. It’s like a member of the Misfits nearly sixty years early. In fact, is it just me who’s reminded of a particular chap in the background to the video for Marilyn Manson’s version of Tainted Love? Jane is unbelievably sexy, by the way. Then again, all women in silent films are unbelievably desirable.

The bit where Caligari is “revealed” to be the director of the madhouse is agonisingly slow; exposition scenes are not pleasant to sit through when it means reading a series of captions which are on screen for what seems like minutes! I love the twist ending, though; it rather cleverly puts the dreamlike quality of the film in quite a different light.