Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Pack

“Why can’t Xander be possessed by a puppy or…. Or… some ducks!”

Another good episode, this. For all the bad reputation this season has, the hit rate has been pretty good so far with only one real stinker. I suppose this means most of the rest of the season will be terrible. We’ll see.

Anyway, this is obviously an allegory about bullying- the most horrifying part of it in this respect is the pathetically useless way that Principal Flutie fails to deal with a spot of obvious bullying early on. This doesn’t necessarily mean he deserves to be eaten, but it’s a nice little indictment of how bullying is often not taken seriously enough. It is, in fact, a very big deal indeed. So the hyenas are an allegory for this, but also, I think, for the inherent nastiness of mobs, groupthink, and conformity.

Of course, this is made all the more shocking by the inclusion of Xander as part of the pack, with devastating consequences for Willow. Importantly, he doesn’t play any part in Flutie’s death, but he does quite blatantly try to rape Buffy. And he remembers this. Blimey. “Embarrassing” is not exactly the word.

Oh, and there are some interesting things in this episode about the American High School, an institution which is quite alien to this foreigner. It seems there’s an emphasis on “school spirit” which we don’t get in the UK- yes, schools have sports teams for those that like that sort of thing, but that’s all. I suppose it’s an interesting inversion of American vs. European stereotypes- UK schools are all about rugged individualism and getting good grades for yourself, while American schools do community and “school spirit” and cheerleading and so on? Also, this dodgeball thing- what’s all that about, then?

Digressions aside, this is good character stuff. Taking “our” Xander away is actually good for fleshing out Willow a bit more, and establishing that she and Buffy have become close friends by now. I also love Giles’ reaction (“It’s devastating. He’s turned into a sixteen-year-old boy. Of course, you’ll have to kill him.”), which is only really possible at this early stage, while he doesn’t know Xander very well. Even cooler, though, is Buffy’s reaction to his reaction (“I cannot believe that you of all people are trying to Scully me!”). I’m still wondering how exactly a librarian is supposed to be teaching Buffy how to fight, though.

The ending is pleasingly neat; the whole thing is quite well-structured with a satisfying conclusion, a twist in that the zookeeper turns out to be some kind of bizarre evil cultist chap, and Xander redeeming himself by immediately risking his own life to save Willow’s. I love the hug at the end, too. This is a rather promising debut from newcomers Matt Kleine and Joe Reinkemeyer.

Angel doesn’t appear in this episode, but the episode rather pointedly includes a scene in which Willow hints at Buffy rather obviously fancying him a bit. What could possibly happen next?

Monday, 28 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Never Kill a Boy on a First Date

“Wow! I never knew being a teenager was so full of possibilities!”

…And the first bad episode is succeeded by a good one. That’s a relief. It’s still somewhat lacking in that extra Whedon polish, but this is a solid episode which develops the characters and themes while also moving on the season arc another notch. Although I must protest that being bookish as a teenage boy doesn’t actually work quite as well in attracting girls as this episode seems to imply…!

We begin with Buffy, in that graveyard, fighting a vampire; only four episodes in and this type of scene has already become iconic. But then we get the rather odd sight of Giles training her. Is it just me who wonders why this rather bookish chap should be considered at all suited to teaching Buffy how to fight? He certainly seems to have difficulty in handing himself later in the episode.

Still, Buffy, Giles and the Master’s plan to bring about the “Anointed One” are the B plot of the episode. This is there to contrast thematically with the teenage allegorical stuff of the A plot, to accomplish a bit of stuff for the season arc (we end with the discovery that the Master has succeeded, and the “Anointed One” is the little boy we saw in the bus earlier), and, I suppose, to provide this episode with its quota of vampire-slaying.

But this episode is basically about Owen and the normal life he represents. Buffy can never date a “civilian” without putting him in danger; her status as the Slayer means she can’t quite be normal. Admittedly, the insistence that Willow and Xander aren’t imperilled in the same way because they “know the score” and are “careful” is a bit shaky, but I’ll let that slide as I really like them both.

The way we gradually learn more about Owen is really quite clever in an impressive debut script from Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batadi. At first he seems a nice, shy, bookish, deep, brooding(!), very handsome boy who is ogled at by all the girls, and Buffy is amazed and delighted to have caught him in her net. He seems to be intellectual, reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson, although the first alarm bells start ringing quite early in the date as he explains that he likes Dickinson because she’s “morbid”. Still, he seems mature, and Buffy is obviously overjoyed to see him giving Cordelia the brush-off.

There are massive tensions between Buffy’s normal life and her Slayer life, though. Both of her attempts at dating Owen clash with Slayer stuff she has to do, and Giles is insistent, however much Buffy may protest that “Clark Kent has a job”. But this is more that the clichéd old superhero / secret identity stuff; there’s a feminist subtext. Buffy, here, is the woman who Does It All, just as many women have to balance a full time career with all the childcare and domestic chores as lots of men, and I say this as a fully qualified possessor of a “y” chromosome, are useless arses.

In a surprising twist, it’s Buffy who dumps Owen; the earlier hints pay off with the revelation that he’s a danger junkie, far less mature than he appears (hey, he’s a teenage boy!) and far too much trouble. Perhaps this is a little convenient as an excuse to dump him from the show (which had to happen) without killing him (which obviously couldn’t happen as the title implies it too heavily), but it’s a nice pay-off of all the hints we’ve been getting.

In other news, I believe we get our first “Bite me”.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Teacher’s Pet

“It’s certainly not something I’ll ever bring up again.”

Well, it had to happen; the first bad episode. I seem to recall David Greenwalt as a fairly prolific writer, so presumably his future scripts will be much better, but this is pretty awful. In fact, it’s pretty pointless, too; nothing seems to happen here which advances the season arc in any way, and there’s very little to say about it. This is going to be one of my shortest reviews ever, but there’s just so little to say.

There are a few funny moments, admittedly, and this is clearly meant to be a comedy episode- presumably this means that something serious is about to happen. But the funniest moments all belong to Cordelia, who gets all the best lines (I love her instinctive “Excuse you” when she clumsily bumps into Buffy!). Charisma Carpenter is perfect at doing comedy, and she's the best thing about this episode. Most of the other light-hearted stuff falls flat.

There isn’t much of a subtext, either, beyond the sexual insecurities of teenage boys. Yes, teenage boys are pretty much all virgins and pretty much none of them will admit it- is that it? Coupled with a rather poor-looking mantis monster and a silly fork-handed vampire, this makes for a rather pointless and forgettable episode. Still, at least the characters and the performances are strong enough to survive a stinker like this, and all of the main cast prove themselves to be quite brilliant bat performing comedy. It’s just a shame that the scenes themselves are not funny enough.

We get another appearance from Angel, after an episode of absence, and this time Willow and Xander get to see him too. He’s as cryptic and as annoyingly good-looking as ever, and seems to be quite the gentleman. But these scenes in the Bronze are mainly noticeable for the sheer awfulness of everyone’s clothes- the late ‘90s were not exactly the coolest of times.

There’s also a moment which really emphasises how long ago 1997 was, as Buffy plays the wrong side of Giles’ tape. This is the technology of the Dark Ages.

To the sheer horror of the viewers, the episode ends with eggs hatching, threatening the unspeakable prospect of a sequel. We can count ourselves extremely lucky that this never happens.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

“Perhaps there isn’t anyone?”

“Then life is a meaningless horror!”

I must admit I’ve been taking refuge in more light-hearted films, usually Hammer or Universal horror, or sci-fi, etc, up to now. I’ve been a little afraid to tackle the many films in my DVD collection which tend to be more gushed over by critics; would my reviews pass muster? Would I fail to mention something which is generally considered to belong to the category of the bleeding obvious? Well, I’ve finally bitten the bullet with this film and, if anything, it’s actually easier to write about as the themes are handed to you on a plate.

This is essentially a fairly straightforward and transparent meditation on existentialism, pretty much wearing its themes on its metaphorical sleeves and covering much the same ground as loads of stuff by people like Sartre and Camus. God is dead, life is therefore meaningless, it’s up to us to assign meaning, we are therefore terrifyingly free to make all sorts of stupid decisions, yadda yadda yadda. This sort of thing was everywhere in the ‘50s.

It’s the squire, Jöns, who is the voice for this philosophy, and he spends much of the film trying to push it on to the other characters. I’m not sure we’re quite supposed to approve of him, however; he’s quite pointedly amoral. There’s a particularly unpleasant moment where he casually declines to rape the mute girl, having just forcibly kissed her, because it’s “dry in the long run.” This is a rather nasty pun, and hints that he has done otherwise in the past. His misogyny pops up everywhere, too.

The knight, Antonius Block, is a thoroughly decent chap, played superbly by Max Von Sydow, but paralysed by existential angst in its purest form. He spends the entire film with the certain knowledge of imminent death and wrestling with his lack of faith versus his desire to believe in a God. He soliloquises a lot. But he finds a brief moment of happiness in a simple picnic with Jof, Mia and their baby son. They are simple, poor, but happy people who love each other without complications and, of course, they end up being the only survivors. The ending would have been a bit of a downer otherwise. But then, they are the only characters who truly represent Life, as we shall discuss.

Block and Jöns have wasted the last ten years in a pointless crusade and are now returning home, like Odysseus, although I’m not sure that comparisons to the Odyssey would really hold up. But death, in the form of plague, stalks the land. And the Black Death, in Scandinavia and the British Isles in particular, was truly genocidal, killing perhaps 50% of the population, although perhaps we should be wary of taking the historical setting too literally. Existentialist thought was not widespread in the 1350s.

The film contrasts death with life throughout. Death predominates; the early scene in the tavern makes it clear that people do not expect to live and that many believe they are living in the End Times, hence the prominence of quotes from the Book of Revelation. This morbidity reaches a disgusting peak with the arrival of the flagellants, with their gloatingly sadistic leader, who are met with reverence by the kneeling townsfolk. This contrasts sharply with the sneering attitude towards the actors, and their lovely, witty, bawdy song. The contrast makes it clear that Jof and Mia, fertile and happy in spite of life’s travails, represent Life, which for some reason I am writing in capitals They’re lovely, aren’t they? But it’s because of Block, if indirectly, that they are saved. He does in fact achieve something with the extra time he’s given.

The most upsetting part of the film is the treatment of the “witch”, so very young, who is burned to death, and what seems even worse is the fact that her final hours are spent in the stocks, surrounded by people who hate her. Block is able to ease her suffering at the end, which has definite echoes of Christ being offered a drink at the Crucifixion.

Oh yes, and I suppose I’d better mention the chess game between Block and Death, one of the most iconic things in the history of ever. Obviously, it’s pretty much compulsory to mention Wayne’s World 2 here, but I’m sure I’ve seen some stuff from popular culture which references Death chopping down that tree. Anybody know where it might have been from? And the ending, with Death interrupting breakfast just minutes after Block has been reunited with his lovely wife, has got to be an inspiration for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

That was fairly painless. I’ll be a bit less afraid to tackle such critically adored films in future.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Witch

“Why would someone want to harm Cordelia?”

“Maybe because… they met her?”

So, we have the first episode to take place with the status quo (the proto-Scooby Gang) established, even though there’s an interesting moment early on where Buffy questions whether Willow and Xander should be involved in something so dangerous. It seems the status quo is still a bit provisional.

It’s interesting to speculate how long it’ll be before I stop commenting on how the show is gradually establishing its little tropes and memes and just come to accept them. I predict that’ll happen by Angel, or thereabouts. Of course, by definition I won’t remember to point that out at the time, which will be annoying, probably.

This is the first of many non-vampire episodes, establishing that the Hellmouth has an equal opportunities approach to supernatural skulduggery. In this case we get witchcraft, complete with cauldron and bubbling green liquid.

Anyway… yes, as I was saying in my review to Welcome to the Hellmouth, the American High School and all of its tropes and traditions are a completely alien culture to me, and this episode is stuffed full of this sort of thing. We have references to a “Homecoming King and Queen”, whatever they are, and something called Driver’s Ed. Interesting. I never knew that. Do kids in America all learn to drive at school, or is it just a California thing?

Oh, and there’s cheerleading. Most people who didn’t grow up with it (i.e. foreigners like myself) basically have the same automatic reaction that Giles does: it looks awfully like a cult to the outsider’s eyes! Also, isn’t it, er, a bit sexist? We have boys doing manly sporty stuff while the girls are on the sidelines being decorative and supporting the boys. I'm not sure about that, and I say that as someone with a y chromosome.

Still, all that is more to do with my unfamiliarity with American educational institutions than anything that’s actually in the show, which is basically a meditation on parental abuse. The twist- Amy’s mother swapping bodies with her put-upon daughter- is the ultimate metaphor for parents’ failure to understand that their offspring are not just extensions of themselves but individuals in their own right. And her harsh words to Amy are pretty much the ultimate in parental verbal abuse.

There’s a real contrast of Amy’s mother with Joyce, too. While Amy’s authoritarian mother insists on her daughter repeating her own high achievements in youth as a cheerleader, Buffy’s mum is endearingly realistic, however much she may sometimes be inattentive or distracted by her own life, and crucially she comes to realise in the final scene, quite explicitly, that her daughter is a different person and basically inscrutable, as all other people are. Joyce would never, ever, want to be sixteen again: like all sane adults, she remembers all to well just how horrible it is to be a teenager.

Another said to this, of course, is that Joyce is staring to develop as a character, as opposed to a mere instrument of the plot. I think we also get our first sign of Giles as father figure here; he takes a very caring attitude to Buffy while she’s vulnerable.

There’s also some interesting love triangle stuff; Xander wants to ask Buffy out, and asks Willow for advice as she’s “one of the guys”, not realising that she has feelings for him. This is a perfect contrast with the “drunken” Buffy saying that she loves Xander because he’s “one of the girls”. It’ll be interesting to watch this dynamic, but already the characters are developing their relationships very nicely.

Another good episode, by Dana Reston, although notably lacking in the wit of the previous two Whedon-scripted episodes. Three episodes in and the show has a really, really promising set-up.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Harvest

“Oh, I need to sit down.”

“You are sitting down.”

“Oh, good for me.”

Let’s just gloss over the fact that this is excellent, first class television, with a flawless main cast (well, the bloke who plays Jesse isn’t as stellar as the others but… you know), a script of, well, Joss Whedon levels of wit and nice little metatextual moments, yadda yadda yadda. You knew that and I’ll have plenty of time to gush later. Instead, let’s talk about how the building blocks of the show are starting to assemble themselves, and also point out some other fun stuff.

So… we begin, after a rather perfunctory cliffhanger resolution, with our first real scene of Buffy walking across a graveyard. I suspect this is going to develop into a full-blown trope. And, once the rescues are out of the way, the proto-Scoobies immediately end up in Giles’ library together for the first of many times. Already it’s clear that Willow and Xander are going to be a crucial part of what Buffy does; her reliance on her friends is going to develop into one of the key themes, however much she may insist that “There’s no we, ok? I’m the Slayer and you’re not.”

Oh, and we get our first few burst of Giles exposition, here. It’s always an awkward thing to ask of an actor, but Anthony Head manages to get the right balance between making it sound interesting and keeping it all in character- not an easy thing at all. Meanwhile, Alyson Hannigan and Nicholas Brendon are just extraordinary- both of them have amazing comic timing but also manage to be hugely sympathetic and real. Sarah Michelle Gellar is all these things too, but also manages to fill the role of the star while making it seem light and easy- again, not an easy thing at all. Still, I said I wouldn’t gush.

We get a bit of basic continuity, anyway; in the beginning there were demons, or Old Ones (how very Lovecraftian!), until one day us humans came along and replaced them for some reason. Then the last demon to bugger off bit a human, who became a vampire. Since then, vampires have been trying to replace us with their demon selves until one day there are just Old Ones again. Brr. Also, we learn that vampires are often quite old; Luke last received a good kicking in “Madrid, 1843”. Oh, and there are more signs of continuity being different from the film- the Master has been dormant for sixty years, and doesn’t seem to have been involved with Buffy in Los Angeles. Also, I don’t remember that beheading scene…

There’s an amusing recurring theme of adult rules not being a real obstacle to Buffy. Principal Flutie locks the door and forbids her from leaving school grounds so she…. jumps over the fence. She’s grounded by her mother, but fortunately bedrooms have windows. For the moment this is a nice undercutting of what could be an annoying and frustrating area, but I hope this doesn’t descend into actual annoying scenes of Buffy being frustratingly thwarted by authority figures.

I love Cordelia. She gets all the best lines (“Excuse me, who gave you permission to exist?”), but there are actually signs of a deeper character, too. She’s clearly a lot more intelligent than any of her acolytes (Harmony is so endearingly thick!), and this gives her power and a place within the hierarchy, but she’s also playing a part. And this implies an inner insecurity; she desperately craves popularity and status to feel validated. And yes, that’s something I vaguely remember from much later in the series. But I don’t think I’m retconning at all; it’s clearly implied here.

We end with our big set piece fight, echoing the ending of the movie but, importantly, all of the proto-Scoobies have a role to play. Also, the mysterious Angel (who now has a name) is secretly but seriously impressed. Importantly, it’s also established that Sunnydale has a collective attitude of denial in the face of blatant facts. Still, we end with the gang all together, and Giles gets the last line. It’s perfect: “The Earth is doomed!”

So, yeah, about as good as television gets, really. It’s just a shame they missed a trick and didn’t put Jesse in the opening credits!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Welcome to the Hellmouth

“Oh I would kill to live in LA. That close to so many shoes…!”

Three years ago today, on 22nd November 2008, myself and a bunch of other people on the Doctor Who Forum (as it was at the time) set out on the Gap Year Marathon, in which we would watch all of Doctor Who, from the unbroadcast pilot from 1963 to the very end of David Tennant’s tenure, in time to start Season Thirty-One in April 2010. Not all of us kept up with the schedule (some of us overshot by a year!) but it was an amazing communal experience.

For me, it was also addictive. I started this blog (and the Word documents that act as back-up!), six months into the Marathon because Internet forums can be ephemeral and I didn’t want to lose the many hundreds of pages of reviews that I was writing. But when the Marathon ended I still had a craving to continue, and I still do. I kept on reviewing Doctor Who and spinoffs as they aired (and I always will!), but also fed my cravings with Blake’s 7, Sherlock, The Nightmare Man and movies.

One of those movies was the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And one of those TV shows was Joss Whedon’s very own Firefly. This is a natural moment to start on another massive Marathon of Buffy and Angel, and I admit I’ve put it off for a couple of days just so I can start it three years after the last one! I’ll still be reviewing movies, generally on Saturdays, and I might punctuate things with a short TV show that’s non-Buffy related between seasons, but it starts here…

So, Welcome to the Hellmouth. I watched this on a DVD I bought back in 2004 and thereabouts, and the price tag tells me I paid an eye-watering £34.99 for twelve episodes. I was robbed! I have, of course, seen the whole thing before, but only once for most episodes. So I know in broad terms what’s going to happen plot-wise, but it was all a long time ago.

There are a couple of things I have to get out of the way at this point. Number One (as alluded to in my review of the movie) concerns the American High School. To many, it’s a rite of passage and the focal point of one’s adolescence, but to this foreigner it’s a genre of popular culture. All the tropes of the American High School- those yellow buses, Homecoming Queens (whatever they are), Senior Prom, etc… I know very little about such things and I hope some of my American readers might enlighten me on these things as they come up.

Thing Two is… didn’t the late ‘90s look awful? I may be showing my age here (I was born in 1977 and I was into Grunge as a teenager) but I seem to recall that music, fashion, aesthetics in general all took a distinct turn for the worse around 1996-ish and stayed generally rubbish until the Strokes came along and saved us all. You can see the change in the music videos- in the mid-90s they were all brightly coloured, with lots of sunshine and light blue jeans, but then they suddenly became dark, drab and awful, with people wearing dull clothes in dark, dull colours. And Buffy begins in the middle of this Dark Age. Just sayin’.

Anyway… Welcome to the Hellmouth. What’s it like, then? Well, it’s outstandingly good; you can instantly tell that the characters are all going to be great, the cast is universally superb, and the dialogue is as witty as you might expect. The pre-titles sequence is a brilliant statement of intent, reversing gender roles and our expectations as it’s the girl who turns out to be the vampire.

It’s fun to see Buffy trying to figure out these characters she and we will come to know so well. Xander is the klutz with a heart of gold, Willow is much nerdier at this early stage than we might expect although, of course, Alyson Hannigan is suspiciously gorgeous and adorable to be playing a character like that, brilliant actress though she is, and Jesse… well, there’s no need to say a lot about him, is there? Cordelia, though; the character is comedy gold. Her dialogue is priceless- the coolness interview, the Valley Girl talk, everything!

Giles and Angel (whose name we don’t know yet) share the exposition between them. At this stage their only known character traits are worried and furrowed-browed (Giles) and “dark, gorgeous in an annoying sort of way (Angel), although we’re told about the Harvest and made privy to the apparent return of the apparently resurrected Master. It is of course unclear to what extent, if any, things have been retconned since Buffy was Kristy Swanson, but I’m guessing the Master being alive is one indication that reality has shifted a bit. Still, Sarah Michelle Gellar is a much better Buffy, and Anthony Head, in a subdued performance, really shows us just how much Donald Sutherland was phoning in his performance.

Of course, it’s obligatory when doing this sort of thing to mention as a fairly early stage how vampires and monsters are of course all a metaphor for how horrible it is to be a teenager. And being a teenager is horrible; you have responsibilities that seem to cripple you but with no rights and no money, forever at the mercy of authority figures and told that your future depends on everything you do. You’re a raging mass of hormones, you’re afraid to talk to the opposite (or same) sex, emotional pain hurts so much more, and you just don’t have the experience to feel confident about anything. It’s only years later that it dawn on you just how horrible it was. And yes, there are plenty of obvious metaphors here. Buffy has to choose between her responsibilities and any hope of social popularity. I suppose in a way her stake really is a type of pepper spray. And Willow finally finds the courage to talk to a boy and he turns out to be a monster- a metaphor if ever there was one.

At the end the whole thing switches gear from witty teen comedy to non-stop action; the genre has changed, and so have the rules. Buffy, at this early stage, doesn’t look anything like as confident in fighting bog standard vampires as we’d expect, although her coolness is all there. Combat mixed with witty quips- it’s all very Spider-Man.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Invisible Man (1933)

“He meddled in things men should leave alone…”

What a brilliant film that was. I mean, I should have expected it to be good after seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein, but this just knocks the earlier film into a cocked hat. Great camerawork, incredible special effects, a magnetic and charismatic star who mesmerises with his voice alone, many amusing comic characters and an assured and pacey plot… what’s not to like? This whole film is a gleeful and glorious spectacle, breezily confident in how good it is but innocently eager to share the fun with the rest of us. It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it’s one of the easiest to love.

Claude Rains is such fun. He gets to be rude, to laugh hysterically, to be gentle with Flora, to twirl his moustache, to deliver hilarious lines such as “We’ll begin with a reign of terror; a few murders here and there!”, yet to hold the character together with sheer charisma and joie de vivre. His performance is as much a spectacle as the joyful and amazing scene where he first reveals his invisibility to the dumbfounded villagers. Even today the effects are genuinely amazing. And the character of Griffin suits his invisibility perfectly; without being seen, he’s able to get naked (symbolic in itself!) and gleefully break all of society’s rules, and get away with it. We’d all do the same, up to a point, if we could.

The film has such fun with his invisibility; hew plays so many practical jokes that it’s necessary for the murders to keep piling up more and more to stop us liking him. In the end he has to destroy a whole train in order to deserve his punishment. But that’s not the only side to the fun- I love the scene where he admits that rain, fog, smog, food visibly digesting, and even dirt between his fingernails(!) could be his undoing. Rather cleverly this prefigures the ending; snow, of course, is rather suspiciously not mentioned.

None of the other characters matter much, really, although the comedy police constable and the comedy pub landlady and landlord are fun. Cranley and Kemp are stock characters (although the slow unravelling of how Griffin manages to kill Kemp, as he says he will, is huge fun, and the car crash is great, too!), and Flora is the wettest female lead ever. In fact, aside from being wet, she has no other character traits whatsoever. Hardly a rewarding part to play, I’d imagine. As for Cranley, he seems to exist purely as a contrast with Griffin; a “responsible” scientist, concerning himself with the practical affair of food preservation, as opposed to “mad” scientist Griffin, with his self-centred and wild meddling into Things Which Should Not Be Disturbed. But no character here can compete with Rains.

The ending- with its mob and its burning building- is so similar to Whale’s earlier Frankenstein that it seems to be almost a deliberate tribute. But the ending is satisfying; it seems to follow on from lots of characters throughout the film, serious and silly, speculating on the various ways in which Griffin might come unstuck.  And it’s fitting that Rains, whose performance has been an utter triumph, finally gets his face on screen for the closing moments.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Wolf Man (1941)

“All astronomers are amateurs. When it comes to the heavens, there's only one professional.”

It’s very obvious that this was made about ten years after the Universal horrors I’ve seen so far- it’s so much slicker and pacier, and of course the cars and the fashions are very different, especially Evelyn Ankers’ very 1940s hairdo. One thing is very odd, though; this story is set in Britain, and appears to be in the present day (1941). So why is there no indication of there being a war on?

The whole thing looks great, with plenty of misty, stylised forest scenes, and it runs along at a decent pace, but I’m not sure about the wolf make-up- it looks a bit generic and half-arsed to me. It certainly doesn’t make Lon Chaney Jr look anything like a wolf, just like a hairy bloke with sharp teeth. I have to admit, though, that the set-piece transformation scene, with its foot fetish, is very well-shot, as is the whole movie. Visually, the whole movie is strong enough to survive a bit of lacklustre make-up.

Chaney is superb as the nice-but-dim Larry Talbot, but to put the focus on a character like that- simple, honest and straightforward- seems a little odd in the context of what the film seems to be about. We’re told, blatantly enough and often enough for the word “subtext” to be thoroughly inappropriate, that lycanthropy here is a metaphor for the “duality” of human nature between good, evil, and the shades of grey that lie in-between. Except that none of this applies to Larry, a simple soul who appears to be carrying no mental baggage and whose only character flaw is to unwittingly flirt with a woman who’s engaged.

Claude Rains is also great as Sir John, a superficially jovial and caring father whose great flaw lies in his snobbery, and his obsession with his family name. Larry, to him, is important not as a beloved son but as someone who will ensure another generation of Talbots. He’s not as nice as he seems, and in the end it’s appropriate that it should be him who kills his son. The fact that Larry calls his father “Sir” should probably tell us that this isn’t really as cosy a father / son relationship as it appears.

And then there are the gypsies. They are presented with all the casual racism that might be expected, with a dig at their allegedly “pagan” religious practices, and generally treated as an exotic “other”. Bela Lugosi gets an arse-clenchingly embarrassing cameo as the imaginatively named “Bela the Gypsy” because, of course, it’s perfectly normal for a British gypsy to have a Hungarian name.

The plot’s a bit par for the course and rather blah blah, but there are a couple of rather interesting scenes early on, after Larry uses the telescope to spy on the villagers and things start to go all Rear Window. Not only does he use the telescope to perv on Gwen through her bedroom window, but he later admits that to her! And I can’t understand how she can not be freaked out by this weird stalker chatting her up in the shop and pretty much forcing her to go on a date with him. I can’t understand how Larry is not immediately arrested for the murder of Bela the Gypsy, either, but I’m beginning to notice that the police not suspecting the hero of an obvious crime is something of a trope when it comes to old horror films.

The film has style, I suppose, and noticeably so when compared to some earlier Universal horrors, but ultimately it’s style over substance.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Serenity (2005)

“If anything happens to her, anything at all… I swear to you, I will get very choked up. Honestly, there could be tears.”

The world of Firefly has always been potentially very dark, but this darkness has been somewhat leavened by that Joss Whedon wit and the fact that the regulars have to survive the episode. Now, all bets are off. This film doesn’t have to worry about the next episode and the fact that cinema needs to be “bigger” pretty much guarantees that things are going to get very, very dark. And they do. And yet it’s all still leavened by that same old Joss Whedon wit.

Whedon has really pulled it out of the bag with this film. Yes, it’s a crying shame that the series was cut short and so many plot threads would not be allowed to develop, but this is a perfect end to the story against all odds. Whedon gives us a brilliant scripts and directs it with a real; sense of cinematic style- early on we get a long tracking shot through Serenity, showing us those familiar sets from a new and more cinematic perspective. We also get to see the ship do some cool stuff it’s never done before. I love the scene where the ship gracefully lands on its legs!

It’s hard to judge how accessible this would have been to people who hadn’t just watched Firefly, but the backstory seems to have been conveyed very well indeed, with the early scenes giving us much more detail on the history of Earth-That-Was and the settlement of this star system than we’ve seen before. “Dozens” of planets and “hundreds” of moons, it seems, were terraformed. Does the fact that Earth is spoken of as part of an inaccessible past imply that faster-than-light travel is not possible, and the journey was made over millennia?

The early scenes also introduce the whole River / Simon story for new viewers, and show us very clearly that the Alliance is not very nice. We’re introduced to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Nameless Baddie, too, who is coolness incarnate, by means of a nicely metatextual 3-D recording of the necessary flashback. It seems that River was intended to become a kind of psychic weapon, but that the reason she’s being so relentlessly hunted is because of things she knows.

Everyone gets put through the wringer here, but no more than Mal, whose burden of responsibility has never seemed heavier. Nathan Fillion is extraordinary in showing us the sheer stress he’s under. Time has passed; Inara left the ship long ago, while Shepherd Book seems to have been living on a planet called Haven for a long, long time. Times are not good, and Mal is desperate for any job he can get, having to put up with clients who unilaterally change the terms of the deal after he and his friends have just risked their lives. As Zoe points out early on, his desperation is causing him to cut ethical corners that he wouldn’t have before: neither she nor we are pleased to see Mal abandon a local boy to the Reavers. Things are starting to fall apart, and the main symptom of this is the final falling-out between Mal and Simon.

The film is the classic mix of sparkling dialogue, great characterisation and non-stop action, from the initial bank robbery to the final battle. The pace is extraordinarily fast, but we get times for the characterisation to breathe and some very nice world-building stuff. But at the heart of all this is River, and the secret of Miranda. What they find on that world is horrible, a world of thirty million people who were subjected to a gas intended to pacify them (shades of Blake’s 7 series four?) which overshot and made them so apathetic that they let themselves die. Worse, 10% were affected the opposite way, and became Reavers. This is proof, if any, that the universe is a chaotic and unpredictable place and totalitarian acts never have the intended effects. Things fall apart, entropy increases, and the future is more Mad Max than 1984.

Our heroes, after much adversity and a cool fight between Mal and Nameless Baddie, finally succeed in broadcasting the truth, but at a cost: Book and Wash are both killed, and everyone is brought to a point where death seems inevitable until River’s superpowers save the day. Gina Torres is incredible in portraying Zoe’s anguish while she’s also keeping everyone alive through her military skill. The brief exchange between her and Mal towards the end (“Think she’ll hold together?”) is one of those little moments of Joss Whedon genius that I love so much. There’s also a happy ending, as Kaylee and Simon finally get to do something about all that sexual tension they’ve built up. I bet it was a bit of an anti-climax.

A fitting ending to the whole Firefly story, then, in spite of everything. Joss Whedon is God. The Buffy and Angel marathon starts, I think, on Tuesday…

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Nightmare Man: Parts Three and Four

Part Three

“I blame television. Some people see The Sound of Music once too often, and something snaps.”

It’s a bit odd watching episodes two at a time and reviewing them two at a time, especially when it comes to reviewing Part Three while trying to pretend you haven’t also just watched Part Four. So I find myself being quite unable to write up the parts of my notes theorising about the Colonel and secret military cover-ups of aliens. It’s a nice part of the developing plot, though. We’re also constantly reminded of a mysterious soldier with a parachute.

And the plot’s coming on nicely. Things have taken on a regular pattern by now: each episode is a new day; the police are nice, normal people; Tom gets the best lines; the characters are getting to like and trust one another more and more. It’s nice that we have none of that tiresome nonsense where characters suspect each other of nefarious deeds for no good reason. But the undercurrent of horror starts to move into the foreground, and we get actual glimpses of the creature. Fiona’s impressive multimedia set-up lays the groundwork most effectively for the inevitable deaths of the coastguards. After all, for characters like this, living in an isolated place that might as well be a lighthouse, to get killed is pretty much a trope in itself. It raises the stakes, though…

Part Four

“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”

So, it wasn’t an alien, it was a Russian cyborg thingy. Well, of course. And the colonel and his mates, who’ve put the island under martial law, are also all Russians. I wasn’t expecting that. The Cold War: how very quaint.

I love the characters’ reactions, though. Inskip suspects something’s up with the colonel, and has his suspicions confirmed. Tom is as witty as ever. Fiona is deeply upset that all this horror has come to her beloved island. And Mike, with his military background, is the one who finally draws out the truth, and, I suppose, gets to be the hero.

I don’t know the original novel at all, but the twist fell a little flat to me. The plot, and especially the warmly drawn characters, are beautifully handled by Holmes, but this is a fairly standard thriller plot until the final twenty minutes, and the big revelation is not sufficiently related to anything we’ve seen earlier to have any real resonance or power.

Still, it’s possible that this fault may lie in the source material. Certainly, Holmes handles the nuts and bolts of the plot, and the characterisation, with consummate ease. But it’s a shame that this should be his only “original” drama. RTD once compared him to Dennis Potter; this script is good, but doesn’t back that claim up.

Incidentally, it's an instructive experience watching a BBC drama from 1981 just after a Joss Whedon series from 2001. Everything seems so much... slower. And I'm sure  it probably means I've failed to properly appreciate Camfield's direction here.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Nightmare Man: Parts One and Two

Part One

“There’s been a murder.”

I’ve never seen this before but, as a rather full-on Doctor Who fan of twenty-four years standing, I can’t resist a thriller, from 1981, scripted by Robert Holmes and directed by Douglas Camfield. These two are pretty much the dream team.

Camfield directed Terror of the Zygons, of course, and it’s not just the Scottish setting that echoes this. The shots from the POV of the killer, or creature, or whatever it is, deeply echo the similar shots of the Skarasen. But here they are very effective, with their whole blood-red look contrasting with the realism we see elsewhere.

Otherwise, we spend the thirty minutes until the murder of Symonds exploring the frenzied murder of a Mars Anderson, and being rather effectively introduced to our cast of characters. It’s a rather unstarry cast; Celia Imrie and Maurice Roeves are the only two I’ve ever heard of. But then, this being a thriller, that’s probably a good idea. I can’t rely on relative levels of fame to predict who’s going to get killed.

I assume this was filmed on location on a proper island up in the Highlands; it certainly looks like it. And this closed little community, where Inspector Inskip has just four police officers at his disposal, feels simultaneously large and claustrophobic in the fog. The characters are interesting, and it’s interesting to speculate what will happen to them. Mike proposes to Fiona, so I assume at least one of them (him?) is not going to survive. The policemen are all likeable but realistic and human, as they should be from the pen of an ex-copper. It’s a nice touch to see Tom swearing in Gaelic! Roeves is excellent as Inskip- reassuringly normal and believable for a TV cop.

Part Two

“No creature on this Earth has a bite like that.”

This episode does something very refreshing; it slowly and plausibly gets our main characters to accept that they’re dealing with an alien without resorting to the tired and frustrating spectacle of characters refusing to believe anything which seems far fetched. With the cliffhanger, the final piece slots into place as even Inskip accepts that “Nothing human did that.”

We’re given various pieces of the puzzle one by one; the creature’s teeth, the fact that it seems to be radioactive, and finally what appears to be its spacecraft. But there’s one other mystery here: Colonel Howard. At first I assumed he was just a red herring- he clearly isn’t the killer- but could he be more than he seems? Do the military have some connection with what’s going on? Is the military parachute a clue? Or is he a double red herring?

I really like Inskip; he may be a newcomer and a Glaswegian, but he’s part of this community and he cares for it (“Ah, Jamie’s a good loony, Tom. He’s not a killer.”). He’s clever, too; he sees that the killer’s moving in a straight line and follows it. We’ve also established that Mike, Fiona and Dr. Goudry are all decent sorts. They can’t all survive…

Monday, 14 November 2011

Firefly: Objects in Space

“Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.”

“You live on a spaceship, dear.”

So that’s it. The end. It’s a very good episode, written and directed by Joss Whedon himself and taking a final look at all these characters we’ve grown to love but, as we expected, there just isn’t enough time to resolve anything, so it isn’t worth trying. This is no place to end but, given that Fox had dictated that it had to be, it was right to end on a slow, contemplative episode like this one.

We begin with a few last pleasing vignettes of the characters relaxing, seen through the eyes of River. At last, Simon and Kaylee are having fun together, their body language indicating that there may be hope for them as a couple. Jayne and Shepherd Book continue their surprisingly successful double act in the gym. Wash and Zoe are at it, and Inara is still leaving, something which will now not be resolved. Suddenly, though, we have a dream sequence; it’s Autumn, appropriately enough. And River is holding a gun.

Suddenly she appears dangerous. And once Kaylee mentions River’s past doings with a gun, we seem to have another witch-hunt, one which remains unresolved. We’re not told what Mal would have decided had fate not intervened, but I suspect River would have stayed.

And then, from nearby in the deep, deep space, by the poetic dance of spacewalking, comes Jubal Early, the latest in a long line of sadistic, misogynistic wankers. He’s an effective villain: intelligent, self-referential almost to the point of doing damage to the fourth wall, and in some ways the representative of the author. It’s an interesting glimpse into how Whedon sees himself in that role.

Early’s behaviour towards Kaylee- using the threat of rape and torture to frighten her- is utterly sickening and leaves us in no doubt as to the kind of man he is. In the circumstances, Simon’s calm, collected and dignified reaction to this monster probably shows him in the best light that we’ve yet seen.

We get one interesting comment from Early, though, concerning Book: “That ain’t a Shepherd.”

Early is brilliantly wrong-footed by River herself, who uses her psychological understanding of him to push his buttons and manipulate him. Pretending to have become one with Serenity itself, she enlists Kaylee and Mal in her plan. She has his measure, and genuinely creeps him out; the alternating shots of Early being outwardly calm and, at the same time, inwardly frightened, are superbly done.

The reveal- that she’s in his ship, and laughing with real, innocent joy that contrasts so much with his sadistic cruelty- is perfect. And her gambit- offering to go with him anyway as she isn’t wanted on board Serenity- is all too believable. Things are fine, though. After a brief hiccup, in which Simon gets himself shot (foreshadowed, of course, by Early’s comment about surgeons having to be shot before they can perform surgery!), the trap is sprung, and early is thrown into space. It’s River’s turn to graciously dance the spacewalk.

It’s a beautiful episode, and the series as a whole is just as beautiful, an unfinished symphony that never gave us a bad episode and reached such heights. I’ll miss these characters so much.

So, that’s it. I’ll be back on Saturday to wrap things up with Serenity, but before then I hope to do The Nightmare Man, a four part BBC sci-fi thriller from 1981, scripted by Robert Holmes and directed by Douglas Camfield. After that, it’s more Whedon as I plough through the entire Buffyverse, with regular film reviews for variety. That should take me at least eighteen months, although I’ll probably punctuate things with other short series every now and then.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Firefly: Heart of Gold

“So I trucked out to the border, learned to say ‘ain’t’, came to find work.”

Yes, this is another great episode, but we’ve come to expect that. But this is where it really hit me just how little time there is left; one episode and a movie in place of seasons worth of stuff. None of the character arcs or plot threads are going to play out properly, and this episode ends in a way to make this so very frustrating. Damn you, Fox.

The opening couldn’t be more Western, with a ranch being overrun with a bunch of guys in metaphorical black hats. I keep making tongue-in-cheek references to the fact that at these alien planets look just like Southern California, but the great thing is that it couldn’t be more appropriate.

This episode is basically a brothel under siege, plot-wise, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s about lawlessness in frontier communities and the ethics surrounding prostitution, and it’s great to see that the “whores” in this episode are presented as strong, admirable and hard-working. It’s appropriate that the first woman we see Mal get intimate with should be Nandy, the brothel owner, who’s just as strong, witty, and caring about those under her protection. In fact, she’s more or less a female version of Mal. She’s built this brothel from the ground up, and it’s her family. She’s not leaving.

In opposition to the prostitutes (I’m trying to think of a nicer word, but I can’t think of one!) is the extremely unpleasant Rans Burgess, whose cruel and sadistic misogyny is made all the worse by his hypocrisy; his revolting words to his underlings about “decency” and “family” are utterly contemptible. This episode seems to exhibit a healthy contempt for social conservatism, in fact; there’s a very nice mixture of feminist attitudes and a total rejection of Puritanism. Burgess places himself utterly beyond the pale as he speaks of women “knowing their place” and demands of his spy from the brothel that she “Get on your knees.” The sexual assault here is not so much subtext as just text.

It’s interesting that even Inara describes Nandy and her friends as “whores”, albeit without any judgement implied. This is the frontier, and they are not members of the guild. She and Nandy are friends, which makes it much harder for her to discover that Mal has slept with her. It’s shocking to see her crying her eyes out afterwards, especially as she has never, ever appeared other than elegant and dignified before. It’s clear that Mal means a lot to her, but she comes to a realisation here. Because the parallel between Mal and Nandy goes both ways, and Mal is as attached to his “family” as Nandy is to hers.

This episode isn’t all Mal and Inara, though. I love Kaylee’s cheerful declaration that “They’ve got boy whores. How thoughtful!” Shepherd Book once more turns out to have some suspiciously martial talents for a preacher. Plus, of course, Zoe wants to have a baby. Wash seems unpersuaded at this point. It would have been interesting to see this play out, but I suspect we won’t. The series is nearly out of time.

It’s the same with the ending; Inara, finally realising that her feeling for Mal cannot possibly go anywhere, decides to leave. What a shame that we probably won’t see how this was supposed to develop.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Flash Gordon (1980)

“And use your fingers too, this time. Careful, darling! It’s very sensitive.”

I can’t believe I managed to get to the age of 34 without seeing this film. It’s… unique. The whole look and style is basically the 1960’s TV Batman ethos as applied to pulp magazine / 1930’s movie serial sci-fi (Lorenzo Semple Jr even does the scripting duties!), but this is a film which definitely feels as though it was made just post-Star Wars.

I don’t know much about Flash Gordon, really, aside from a half-remembered cartoon I saw as a very young kid and, of course Defenders of the Earth. But I understand this is a very faithful adaptation of the original comic strip, in all but tone. Certainly, it has a very 1930’s serial feel, with constant peril and non-stop action. I suspect the heavy erotic element may be new, though; about half the cast list at the end of the film is for scantily clad concubines of one kind or another, and there’s quite a lot of scenes in the movie which are pretty much soft porn. These are generally the scenes featuring Aura, who is constantly kissing, carousing, being whipped (and enjoying it, according to Klytus!) and coming out with some delightful double entendres. I’m not good with heights myself, but she can teach me to fly any time.

Sam J. Jones is perfect as Flash, in an Adam West sort of way. There’s a touch of plywood to his performance, of course, but this is deliberate and appropriate. The whole thing looks and feels very garish, glittery, camp and over the top, and the excellent soundtrack from Queen, the campest band in all of rock n’ roll, is just the icing on the cake. The alien landscapes and spacescapes are very stylised, and in no way realistic, but the sense of scale is definitely cinematic.

There’s one thing that makes me feel just a little uncomfortable, though. There’s some rather dodgy orientalism going on; the baddies are effeminate, sensuous and despotic, thus embodying all the tropes of the East as seen by the West. I suspect this may not have been Edward Said’s favourite film. And as for Ming the Merciless himself- well, he’s a great moustache-twirling villain, and delightfully played by Max Von Sydow, but, well, he’s a rather arse-clenchingly embarrassing Chinese stereotype, isn’t he? The clothes, the moustache, even the make-up imply a sort of Fu Manchu in space. And all of this stuff is too prominent and foregrounded to be dismissed. It’s a genuine problem. I mean, the very name “Mongo” has certain ethnic connotations.

Still, Max Von Sydow is fantastic, as are many in the cast. Although (yes, I know where this was filmed), I couldn’t help noticing how many of them are British. I say this as a Brit, but do Americans not mind when so many films based on characters from their popular culture are stuffed to the gunwales with British actors? The recent Batman films by Christopher Nolan show the very same syndrome.

Oh, and there’s one of these British actors who most definitely deserves a paragraph to himself: Brian Blessed, of course. I recall reviewing his appearance in Blake’s 7, which seemed to be a sort of transitional phase from Brian Blessed, the versatile actor to BRIAN BLESSED THE BARBARIAN KING, WHO GOES “RAAAAARGH!!!” Although I was surprised that “Gordon’s alive?” doesn’t even make it into his top twenty shoutiest lines in the film. It’s a good performance, which is a very good thing as he’ll be using it non-stop for the next thirty years…

The plot is pretty relentless, and works on the same two levels as the 1960’s Batman TV series. Personally, I found it hilarious that weddings on Mongo use the same Wedding March as we do on Earth. Perhaps Richard Wagner was from Mongo?

The last scene, though, with a gloved hand taking Ming’s ring from his charred finger… Russell T. Davies has seen this film, hasn’t he?

Friday, 11 November 2011

Firefly: The Message

“You are such a boob.”

Another good one, this, although not one to particularly stand out in such exalted company. There’s a nice twist, yet again, and once again it’s made clear what a fantastic cast and group of characters we have.

It seems there are still travelling shows in the far future, exhibiting “freakish” stuff. Also, there’s still awkwardness between Simon and Kaylee. Er, isn’t this going on a bit too long? I mean, I can be as awkward around girls I like as the next boy, but surely it can’t be that hard for Simon just to tell Kaylee that she’s lovely or pretty or cute or something when he’s pretty much invited to do so? I have no sympathy for him at all, and Kaylee is quite right, and also most amusing, to spend the rest of the episode hating him.

Anyway, the post has come. Jayne has got a rather fetching hat from Mummy, which is nice. I love the bit where he reads her letter aloud, stumbling over the words! Adam Baldwin is great, as ever.

But Mal and Zoe have a parcel which is far more McGuffin-y: the corpse of their old war buddy, Tracey. What is it with Firefly and blokes with girls’ names?

Another war flashback- oh goody; I love these. The whole vibe is very First World War, with trenches, shell shock and period helmets. Appropriate, then, on this day of the year. I seem to have been noticing the excellence of Gina Torres a lot lately, but she’s excellent here. She plays Zoe very differently, as a hard, gritty soldier, and we see how much she’s been changed by (relative) peace and married bliss. This scene, introducing Tracey as a bit of a useless but likeable twonk, is very funny indeed. Mal, of course, is the same as ever.

It’s rather touching how every one instantly drops everything to abide by Tracey’s recorded last wishes: Mal and Zoe out of loyalty and everyone else, even Jayne, by simple decency. And Inara is clearly putting herself to great inconvenience.

We get a quick scene to establish that a bunch of badass cops are coming after the ship and its corpse, and it’s clearly underlined just how sadistic and unpleasant they are. Still, anyone who wears a black leather trenchcoat must be up to no good, right?

There are some very nice scenes showing us everyone’s different reactions to death- Jayne likes to make himself feel alive, River is just weird, and Mal and Zoe get bladdered and share old war stories with Inara. Then, bang.

Tracey has clearly bitten off more than he can chew, and his story makes it clear that he’s in deep trouble, trouble from which perhaps he has no chance of recovering. He may not be dead, but even if he evades his pursuers he’s smuggling someone else’s organs, and is likely to be hunted forever. He’s a little boy in a man’s world, and he can’t possibly survive the episode.

Kaylee, on the rebound, takes a liking to him, which instantly tells us that he’ll betray her in a moment of weakness before he dies. And so he does. There are some exciting moments during the pursuit during the cops, but it’s ok; Shepherd Book has a brilliant plan which works perfectly. Tracey gets himself killed out of pure stupidity.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Firefly: Trash

“I shaved off my beard for you, devil woman!”

Bloody Hell, another great episode. They just keep on coming, don’t they? This had everything: wit, excitement, great little character scenes- I’m seriously in danger of taking all this superlative excellence for granted.

The opening shot is, in hindsight, very clever indeed, as the situation is not at all as we think it is, and this one little scene rather cleverly shapes our expectations as to how the story is going to develop and makers us believe that Mal is in more trouble than, in fact, he is. It’s a great pre-titles sequence as a whole, though, and it’s fantastic to see Saffron again. Both Christina Hendricks and the character as written are cool, charismatic, hugely entertaining and, er, hot. I for one would stand absolutely no chance against her.

It’s a bit of an eye-opener that six whole months have passed since Our Mrs. Reynolds, but Saffron and Mal have great chemistry; I love the bit where she sticks her tongue out! Pretty much all of their scenes together are a joy.

Saffron is clever, too, though, and she has a plan. Normally, Mal wouldn’t touch this sort of thing with a bargepole but, as Inara rather forcefully points out (and there’s another case of great chemistry), it’s about time they had another big payday. So, exciting heist story it is.

Saffron’s plan is to steal an ancient artifact from “Earth-that-was”- a fascinating phrase. It’s clear that Earth is somehow forever in the past and out of reach. The artifact is owned by some rich bloke who lives on a floating island, which as a concept is such a frivolous use of energy as to be decadence itself! We get a nice bit of ok CGI as we see loads of islands floating above the sea of whatever planet this is, but it’s not all glamour; the very, very clever Kaylee has come up with a plan to “chuck it in the garbage.” (I didn’t know they used “chuck”, meaning to throw, in North America?) Everyone agrees to the plan- they really, really need the money- but with doubts. Gina Torres is absolutely superb in her facial acting during this scene, showing us the nuances in what Zoe is thinking and feeling without saying a word. But if that’s not enough, the punch makes her feelings very clear indeed…

We get the excitement of the heist, but the presence of Saffron guarantees constant comedy gold. The dialogue between Saffron and Hamer, and Mal’s reaction towards it, is hilarious; so far, 100% of non-regular male characters have been husbands of her’s!

The plan seems to be on the verge of success, though, and Mal seems to have Saffron sussed; she thought of Hamer with genuine affection, she only pulled this trick as a desperate last resort, and she feels terrible for betraying him. But, as Mal says, she’ll shake this off and carry on as she was. Starting now, as she immediately double crosses him. We’re back at the start, with a naked Mal sitting in the middle of an alien desert that looks uncannily like Southern California.

Except… there’s a twist. This was always expected, and Inara is waiting at the pick-up point with a gun. Interesting; this is the first time we’ve seen her taking part in any crime.

There’s a nice little scene near the end where Simon makes clear to Jayne that he knows exactly what happened a couple of episodes ago, but he chooses to ignore it. I like River’s reaction better, though; “Also, I can kill you with my brain.” What sort of super-powers will she eventually end up with?”

But we end as we began, with naked Mal. How could we not…?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Firefly: War Stories

“Preacher, don’t the Bible have some specific things to say about killing?”

“Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzy about kneecaps.”

Here’s another arc episode, of sorts, although its centrepiece is a wonderful character piece looking at the triangle of Zoe, Wash, and Mal. It’s another good ‘un, with bags of wit, some cool action scenes and lots of Shepherd Book being mysterious.

We’re following directly on from last episode; Jayne is being uncharacteristically generous with his cut of the takings, and no one can understand why. The early minutes are great, with lots of little character moments- Kaylee and River running around like kids, Book being mysterious with Simon, and of course Jayne’s reaction to Inara’s female client (“I’ll be in my bunk!”).

But it all kicks off properly with a bit of an argument between Zoe and Wash over why she always agrees with the Captain. This is essentially because she and Mal have all those shared war stories, of course, and Wash as the husband feels emasculated by this. The upshot is that Wash insists on going with Mal to sell the medicines they stole last episode, instead of Zoe, and Zoe feels she has to go along with it. This is fascinating; I believe it’s the first time we’ve seen Mal not getting his way with a member of his crew, and we’ve seen him get his way in some pretty extreme situations. And yet it’s Zoe, his oldest friend and war comrade, and the one who calls him “Sir”, who is calling the shots here, and Mal just lets her.

This isn’t as good news for Wash as he initially thinks, though; he and Mal are quickly caught by Niska, and it’s not long before the torturing starts. Mal is brave and defiant, of course, but so is Wash, in spite of being completely unused to this sort of thing. The arguments between them about Zoe are hilarious, but of course Mal is just trying to take his friend’s mind off the horrible circumstances.

The crew, led by Zoe, soon discover what happened, and Zoe is soon off to Niska’s place to negotiate the release of her husband and her captain. Zoe is bloody competent all the way through this. It’s really thrown into sharp relief here how essential she is to the crew as the solid, shred, intelligent, no-nonsense first mate. Mal may be a genius, and a gentleman, but he’s a little erratic. Zoe is anything but.

Niska, being a right sadist, tells Zoe that the money is only enough for the return of one prisoner. Of course, she chooses her husband. Niska then shows how utterly horrible he is by cutting Mal’s ear off and giving it to her. What could possibly happen now other than the entire crew picking up some very big guns and rushing to the rescue?

And it really is the entire crew. Jayne clearly has no ill-feelings for Mal after the last episode. Shepherd Book is mysteriously good with guns for a preacher- and, in spite of that quote up at the top there, clearly shoots to kill. Fittingly, though, it’s Mal who gives Niska a good kicking , as Niska’s few underlings still standing are distracted by all the flying bullets.

Kaylee is very scared, and panics: a realistic reaction. Interestingly, it’s River who saves her, a crack shot with her eyes closed. This girl is developing an impressive array of powers. I suspect this is the reason for the government doing what they did top River- is she supposed to be some sort of super-soldier, like a telepathic, precognitive Captain America?

When the fighting’s over, things get funny again. I love Book’s comment on Simon’s shooting (“I was there, son. I’m fairly sure you haven’t shot anyone yet.”). And, of course, we end with “Take me, Sir. Take me hard.” I love this show.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Firefly: Ariel

“Next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face.”

At last we get a proper, full-on arc episode. Great. I mean, the series obviously isn’t going to be hanging around long enough for anything to be developed properly (damn you, Fox!), but it’s nice to have something.

Shepherd Book isn’t in this one (was Ron Glass on holiday or summat?) and Inara barely features, but the smaller cast rather adds to the tension in what is basically an old fashioned heist. Simon makes a fantastic criminal mastermind, and I love his patient rote teaching of some stock medical phrases which, of course, turn out not to be needed at all. But this is, of course, about River, and his need to find out what’s wrong with her so he can help.

The eponymous planet of Ariel is one of the “inner planets”, and a much posher place than we usually get to see in Firefly. Mal makes it quite clear early on that he doesn’t feel particularly at home here, and not only because it’s crawling with Alliance authorities. The likes of Mal just don’t seem to fit into a place like this.

I wonder what the significance of the name might be? Judaeo-Christian / occult lore has Ariel as an archangel associated with healing, alchemy, Paradise Lost, John Dee and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Beyond the obvious healing motif I’m not really clever or knowledgeable to get the references, but I’m certain they must be there. The episode is called Ariel, after all.

Anyway, the big shock comes when we find out that Jayne has arranged to sell out Simon and River to the Feds in return for a lot of money. We’re reminded that this amusing figure of fun is, actually, exactly as amoral and self-centred as he and everyone else keeps saying he is.

It’s interesting to see that Simon and Mal are actually getting on quite well these days, and seem to like and trust each other, however much they will never quite be able to shake off a certain awkwardness. Mal’s demands that River be confined to quarters after her unprovoked attack on Jayne are not unreasonable, and Simon doesn’t argue. He also shows what a fundamentally decent bloke he is by pausing to save a stranger’s life at a potentially dangerous moment. The crew of the Serenity have got themselves a bloody good doctor. We’re used to seeing Simon as a socially awkward, useless, fish out of water. Not here.

We learn something about River; her brain has been cut into, several times, as though to lobotomise her. Her amygdala (whatever that is) has been removed. But there’s no time for any more info as Jayne has to keep to his schedule and sell them out to the Alliance. Of course, he’s double-crossed, to the schadenfreude of the entire audience, I’m sure. Simon suspects nothing, to the very end, and is even grateful to him for his contribution to the escape. River knows, though, and in hindsight it becomes clear that’s why she attacked Jayne earlier. She’s becoming more than telepathic, showing random incidences of precognition as well.

At last we get a proper look at those strange besuited men, “two by two”, with “hands of blue”. It’s clear that, whatever was done to River, it’s top secret. All the Alliance soldiers are subjected to a horrifying Death By Nosebleed because they know too much.

The ending is very interesting indeed. Mal is well aware of what Jayne did, and he’s furious; this really, really offend his sense of honour; Simon is a member of his crew, and so under his protection. But Mal’s sense of honour and ethics certainly allows for killing, as we’ve seen many times. I suspect the only reason he allows Jayne to live is because he inadvertently lets Mal know he’s genuinely ashamed by asking him not to tell the others what happened. How will things develop between the two of them after this?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Firefly: Out of Gas

“Mal, you don’t have to die alone.”

“Everybody dies alone.”

This sort of episode is pretty much obligatory for any genre series; we’re a few episodes in, so it’s time to flesh out the characters’ backgrounds by means of some amusing flashbacks. And it’s fun, so fun that it’s not until the end that you realise you’ve been watching a “bottle” episode.

It’s an impressive bit of structuring from Tim Minear, too; we have two parallel “presents”-Mal alone in Serenity, having been shot, with little oxygen left, and a few hours earlier as the crisis hits- interspersed with the flashbacks. It’s complex, but never difficult for the viewer to follow, and it’s nice that the disaster A-plot is sufficiently simple to allow for this complex structure. It’s very much a Mal episode, really, showing him to be an old-fashioned heroic type, likeable in spite of everything, who insists on going down with his ship while allowing the rest of his crew a better chance of survival. It’s notable that he’s ultimately able to impose his authority even in these circumstances, even getting Wash to get back to the bridge while his wife might be dying.

It’s Wash (with a very ‘70s porn moustache!) who gets the first brief flashback, in which we also see the ship’s previous engineer, Bester, who has hair rather like mine but is considerably better looking than me (grr!), and is of course named after Alfred. Next we move on to Kaylee, who probably gets the best flashback. This scene is hilarious. Plus, if Kaylee noticed all that technical stuff while she was lying on her back then this Bester chap probably doesn’t have the, er, skills to back up his good looks, which is a rather comforting thought to us more ordinary-looking blokes.

Inara’s flashback is interesting; she drives a hard bargain, and has the measure of Mal from the start. Interesting that her politics are at odds with his. It’s also interesting that she’s the one who tries to persuade Mal not to stay with the ship. A lot of things are obviously left unsaid at their parting.

Jayne’s flashback is comedy gold, of course, and in hindsight the whole “How much are they paying you?” thing is the only way you can imagine him joining the crew. None of these flashbacks really tell us much about the characters that’s likely to affect how we see them or anything that’s likely to happen from now on, of course, but they’re certainly entertaining, and that’s how to do this sort of thing; play up the comedy. It certainly makes a nice contrast with the uber-serious A-plot, and gives us a chance to get a deeper, more serious look at Mal by putting him under severe pressure while we have fun with everyone else.

There’s one overwhelming thought that always strikes me whenever I come across stories of spaceships breaking down, though. Life on a spaceship is incredibly dependent on life support, and things break. Surely, in reality, life aboard a spaceship, with the constant real risk of life support failure and death, would be far too dangerous for non-specialists to attempt? Sadly, much though I enjoy good space-set science fiction, I suspect that, in reality, space travel will never progress much beyond the space programmes of today (or should that be yesterday?).

Saturday, 5 November 2011

V for Vendetta (2006)

“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

Well, it’s the Fifth of November. What other film was I going to review, eh?

It’s a bit of a surprise to realise that it’s taken me until my seventeenth movie review to get to a film from the present century. And, well, it’s not all that good, which I suppose is to be expected. With older films, by definition, the ones which have remained prominent are going to be the better ones, while the same weeding-out process hasn’t happened for newer films. And this one is no classic.

It’s just far too long and badly paced, for a start, and full of pointless, meaningless visual flourishes- why do we have to see V playing Domino Rally, for example, or those embarrassing scenes of V in the fires of Larkhill contrasted with Evie in the rain? Natalie Portman is incredibly wooden, too, and completely lacks the charisma needed to carry the film. The dialogue is not exactly naturalistic, and unnecessarily Americanised- I rather suspect that 99.9% of Americans are smart enough to guess what a “lift” is, and don’t need the word changing to “elevator”. Yes, there are lots of great speeches from V, and moving evocations of the human yearning for freedom, but most of this (possibly all) is lifted from the original, superlative graphic novel. (Well, strip in Warrior and then limited series by DC, strictly speaking. And yes, the fact that I used the term “limited series” does indeed mark me out as a Marvel kid!)

In fact, I’m somewhat surprised that watching this today has made me rather more sympathetic to Alan Moore for famously and dramatically taking his name off the film, and not only because we long-haired men from the East Midlands must stick together. The original graphic novel, barring the obvious references to Section 28, was about the abstract themes of fascism v. anarchy, not current events. Yet the film dilutes this message with lots of blatant and inappropriate contemporary references which have already dated horribly. The tipping point for Dietrich, which causes him to be executed rather than imprisoned, is his illegal possession of an antique Koran. There’s discussion of sinister contemporary euphemisms such as “rendition” and “collateral”. V wears a suicide bomb vest. Worst of all, the St Mary's virus being revealed as a government plot evokes all of those contemptible conspiracy theories about September 11th, 2001.

Hugo Weaving is fantastic, but he’s not so much playing a character as an actor playing an actor. Although V is brilliant, he’s a spectacle, or more appropriately an idea, not a person. He can’t be the “star” of the film and the audience can’t identify with him. None of this is to imply the character lacks depth, but he lacks a psychology as such, and is far too distanced from the audience for us to identify with him. He isn’t an unambiguous hero, either- whatever his reasons, he tortures Evie, and this torture includes waterboarding, a fairly blatant and unfortunate comparison with the fatuously named “War on Terror”. There’s a clear moral equivalence here, but it’s a shame that such a broad and interesting point should be diluted with an already-dated contemporary reference.

There’s a lot of good world-building here, which only fails to come off because of the Wachowski Brothers’ insistence on such a slow pace. Like many recent films, the film could have done with a lot more editing. And yet, the 1984-style Britain works well. John Hurt (who once played Winston Smith, of course!) is great as “Chancellor” Adam Sutler, and Tim-Pigott Smith is superb as Creedy, head of the new Gestapo. I’m not sure the title “Chancellor” is realistic, mind: it’s far too propaganda-defeatingly close to Hitler, and the title in Britain refers to the Finance Minister and would be an unlikely title for a head of government.

Still, the many sequences where Sutler’s face looms large on a big screen as he berates his underlings work well in reminding us that we’re looking at a totalitarian state. This is a man who casually bans the 1812 Overture and speaks of old buildings with contempt, in contrast to the highly cultured V. Naturally, he started out as a Tory. The Fox News sequences with Prothero are also fun.

The structure of the film- sequences of V, from Evie’s perspective, intercut with the investigation of the murders and the Larkhill backstory, from Inspector Finch’s perspective, would work very well indeed if the pace wasn’t so damn slow. It’s fun to note that Rupert Graves, here playing Finch’s Detective Sergeant, has recently been promoted to Inspector in the BBC’s recent Sherlock.

There’s one particularly chilling moment surrounding V’s murder of the paedophile bishop; the bishop is under surveillance, but his disgusting proclivities are tolerated to the extent that there are jokes about “children’s hour at the abbey”. This demonstrates another horrifying fact about totalitarianism; it asks people to trade their freedom for security yet fails to provide that security. Someone like the bishop would never be tolerated in an open society. Interesting, by the way, that the paedophile should be a Catholic priest (he talks of “mass”). That’s one bit that hasn’t dated.

Stephen Fry is quite sweet as Dietrich, even though he’s pretty much playing Stephen Fry. It’s completely unrealistic, of course, that his little satirical skit would be allowed to reach the screen, but it’s fun, and the brutal reaction by the State is suitably horrifying. I’m not sure we need this character, though; he certainly wasn’t in the original and he’s basically V without the coolness. Yes, he illustrates the horrors of state homophobia, but the story of Valerie does that far more eloquently and effectively (I cried. And I usually have a heart of stone when watching films.), but that, of course, is lifted entirely from Moore’s original.

The whole thing is wrapped up quite nicely, I suppose, with V accepting he has to die for his moral failings but not before he kills both Sutler and Creedy in a fit of coolness. It’s also nice that part of Moore’s anarchist message is retained; V intends to destroy the old order but has no intention of dictating what should come next. I’m no anarchist, but this is a nice moment. Also satisfying is that Finch does in fact find Evie and the explosives, but allows the bombing to go ahead. But V’s dying confession of love for Evie falls fairly flat, given Portman’s wooden performance and the fact that V isn’t really a character at all. And it’s unfortunate that crowds of people dressed in V masks now makes me think of the Anonymous movement.