Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Borgen: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

"I consider you a dead man in my government now."

In the Grauniad's G2 supplement this week there was a guest column from someone connected with The Thick of It, in which he described Borgen as "The Thick of It without the laughs". I'd say it was closer to Yes, Minister without the laughs but the comparison stands. There's a very similar feel, and perhaps the format which is common to all three shows is a little more problematic when it comes to a straight drama like Borgen.

There are continuing plot threads, yes, but these are heavily focused on character- little things like the fact that Hoxenhaven is a member of a political dynasty, desperate to attain the political success that his family background expects in spite of the fact he's a rather weak man. But the "story of the week" format is a bit of a problem for a series that defines itself by realism. Last week the only political issue that existed was the state visit. This time there seem to be no other political issues around to distract us from the illicit bugging of the Solidarity party. A satirical comedy can get away with this sort of thing as we expect a degree of caricature. Here, it's a little awkward.

On the other hand, it's also probably necessary that things are this way for the individual episodes to have any coherence. No drama based on the world of politics could avoid doing things this way, and Borgen is bloody brilliant. Still, there's a certain awkwardness.

Anyway… this week we have a meditation on the conflict between friendship and power in which Birgitte is forced, through political expediency, to side with a weak, lacklustre and petulant Justice Minister (Hox) against her estranged left-wing friend (Anne-Marie Lindenkrone). Hox may be weak and, when he begs to keep his job, pathetic, but as an insider he knows how to play the game and the value of a well-timed leak. Such are the perks of an upbringing within a family used to power. Lindenkrone has none of these advantages, and pays a harsh price.

There's a nice political balancing act in how the two sides are presented, too. Hox is heard to use a lot of disturbingly authoritarian "War on Terror" style incoherent rhetoric, while Lindenkrone's years-old plan to kidnap the then PM's children is really quite far beyond the pale, whatever the circumstances.

Politics and relationships are awkward, er, bedfellows elsewhere, too. Katrine's idyllic relationship with Benjamin, which has until now been defined pretty much entirely by physical attraction and extremely frequent great sex, suddenly starts to flounder when he admits he doesn't know who the defence minister is. The two of them have nothing in common. This is a fling, nothing more. My money's still on her and Kasper getting back together.

As for Birgitte and Philip, the disintegration of their relationship is becoming ever more painful to watch. The fact that she can even think of accusing him of having an affair means that a line has been crossed. On the other hand… is he? If not, will he?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Throne of Blood (1957)

"Without ambition, a man is not a man."

I've been wanting to do a Kurosawa for ages. The only reason I haven't done one yet is because the DVDs are at a hard-to-get-at part of the cupboard. I'm going to make a concerted effort to start watching some of those back-of-the cupboard DVDs in the next few weeks, instead of just plonking them straight from the front pile. Honestly, the things I do for you, my readers…

This is a fairly straight remake of Macbeth with the obvious cultural adjustments, although of course we should remember that a film is a fully completed work, whereas a play script is just a script, so it's not a like-for-like comparison. This would have been just as extraordinarily, and would have had Akira Kurosawa's imprint stamped all over it, even if it had been a straight version of Shakespeare's script. But it isn't. It's very different. The characters are absolutely the same psychologically, but the means by which this is expressed is fascinatingly different.

Shakespeare's work is fundamentally about language, about expressing philosophicasl musings, psychological depths, humour and pretty much the whole world through the medium of words. What's fascinating about what Kurosawa has done here is that we have the opposite situation entirely; this film is to a large extent about the absence of language. There are many, many scenes which consist of long silences, characters communicating only (but very effectively) by facial expression. Characters are generally terse and inarticulate, and struggle to communicate with each other. The scene in which Washizu and Miki struggle to speak coherently about the prophecy they have just heard is highly revealing. The film even begins with a garbled series of reports by messengers, which is highly appropriate.

The scene where Miki welcomes Washizu into Cobweb Castle after his murder of Lord Tsuzuki  is fascinating: the two of them walk in silence, with Miki speaking only to briefly say that he will support Washizu because he will be able to defend the castle. It's left ambiguous whether he realises what Washizu has done but is supporting him for pragmatic reasons. The point is what's not said, the absence of language.

The exception to all this, of course, is the highly articulate, scheming Asaji, the only major female character. Making the Lady Macbeth figure the only articulate figure in the entire film (except, perhaps, for several examples of Kurosawa's signature use of peasants as a kind of Greek chorus) makes articulacy appear to be devious and feminine, whilst inarticulacy is made to look weak and masculine.

Asaji induces a sense of paranoia in Washizu, constantly persuading to act by insisting that others are conspiring against him, which is something of a change of emphasis from the source material. This is further entrenched by the many, many instances of bad omens, which intensify the sense of foreboding. There's a constant sense that something is going bto happen and this is deepened, I think, by Kuropsawa's decisions to keep the dramatic events- the battles and murders- firmly off-screen. For Shakespeare, keeping these scenes off-stage was a rather prosaic, practical necessity but for Kurosawea, I think, it's a way of delaying the pay-off until the end.  And Washizu's death scene, with the hail of arrows and some incredible facial acting from the legendary Toshiro Mifune, is the best thing ever.

As we'd expect, everything looks great, with lots of murky fog, a suitably labyrinthine forest and gnarled trees, and Kurasawa's trademark wipes that George Lucas loves so much. I enjoyed that a lot.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

No quote, unless "wtf?!" counts.

Got me a movie, I want you to know. Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know. Don't know about you, but this is beautiful. Also weird. But good weird.

It's rather hard to say much about the surrealism, or indeed to get any kind of grip on a film that isn't really a narrative at all. When you're looking at a movement based on Freudianism and free association it's rather hard to find anything much beyond "a bit random, innit?" to say about the various weird scenes. The captions denoting that it's "eight years later" or "sixteen years earlier" are presumably supposed to indicate the random way time passes in dreams, much like cutting between scenes in a film, so I suppose that's a bit metatextual. The man's unexpected assault on the woman's boobs is probably supposed to be some sort of illustration of how the id is let loose within dreams- Freud and all that- but I'm otherwise wary to use phrases like "supposed to be" at all. I have pretty much the same attitude about Salvador Dali's paintings. What do you say about them beyond "Ooh, a bit Freudian, dreamlike and therefore random"?

What matters for the surrealism to work is that the film should look gorgeous and be creatively shot. Thanks to extraordinary work from Luis Buñuel, it does and it is. The use of light, camera angles and dissolves makes the whole thing look gorgeous and appropriately weird. It helps, from a 2012 perspective, that it all now looks so charmingly period, with the look of the cars, the relative lack of them and, yes, the clothes. The flapper looks gorgeous. The hats look cool. The beachwear is, er, less so. Tanktops, on the beach? Really?

I'm glad I've seen this film though- it really is beautiful and, although I'm sure the makers wouldn't thank me for saying so, a charming document of intellectual thought between the wars. You should see it too; it's on YouTube, and it's only sixteen minutes. Go on.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Again, no quote, for reasons which should be obvious.

I'll confess I'm not feeling too well disposed towards Thomas Edison after reading about what he did to poor old Georges Méliès, but in the context of the other early silents I've recently seen this is extraordinary. Extraordinary enough, in fact, to make up for my dismay at the fact that there aren't quite as many very early short silents worth reviewing as I'd assumed. There may be fewer reviews tonight than expected.

The plot is quite straightforward and dramatic, depicting a train robbery, getaway, and the eventual deaths of the robberies in a shootout. It seems to take place in the present day, which in 1903 was a perfectly sensible thing to do. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are both, after all, alive and well. The many deaths by shooting seem all the more horrifying through being shown in silence; the film doesn't flinch from realistic violence. Crime doesn't pay, we're told in no uncertain terms. The robbers aren't very sympathetic (they murder a lot of people) but it's a bit worrying to note that no one thinks to arrest them or get them to surrender- they're just shot.

This is so, so different from the other silents I've seen. It isn't a stage with a camera pointed at it, in spite of the static cameras; it takes place mostly on location, with a real sense of physical space. There's an extraordinary scene shot from a camera mounted on the tender of a moving train. And we finish on a close-up in which a man shoots at the camera. This made me jump, now in 2012; I'm sure that it was all the more effective in a time when the camera was not expected to do such things.

It's interesting that the gunsmoke should be coloured orange, although I was rather puzzled by the apparently random use of colour during the brief dancing scene. Perhaps they just did it because they could.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

I can’t just keep putting “….” For silent films; quotes are strictly for talkies from now on!

This might be the first of a few entries, too. I’ve recently discovered the excellent Cane Toad Warrior blog, and had one of those “duh” moments. Last week I paid the princely sum of £1.35 each, plus postage, for two silent films (Frankenstein (1910) and The Man Who Laughs, which will be reviewed soon). It didn’t occur to me that loads of silent films are in the public domain and therefore easily accessible on YouTube. Yep. That’s how much of a dunderhead I am.

So tonight, on my cheapo night in and having little else to do, I plan to watch a few short early silent films and review them on here. I’ll stop once I’ve had too much beer, but hopefully I’ll get a few in and pad out the number of films I’ve reviewed with short silents. I’ll probably keep doing this at odd moments, too- it’s rather easier to make time for a fifteen minute short than for a full two hour movie.

So, somewhat inevitably, tonight’s first film, and possibly the first ever science fiction film, is the most well-known of these early silents from the splendid Georges Méliès, and it’s so, so wonderful. I’ll just pause for a moment to make the obligatory reference to the video for the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight, and we can actually start to talk about the film.

Back when I reviewed Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, the first silent I covered for this blog, I commented on how the static camera and the fact that everything is in mid-shot give the effect of watching a stage with a camera pointed at it. A film, at this early point, is therefore different from theatre not in any fundamental sense but only in that the level of spectacle is much greater. Any attempt at “realism“ therefore makes as little sense as it would on the stage.

And that’s why what we probably shouldn’t call “special effects works so beautifully in this film. The use of matte paintings to denote anything either fantastical or in the background is so frequent that the film comes across as a cross between live action and a rather basic kind of cartoon. The roofs of houses, the telescope at the back of a lecture hall, even a very turn-of-the-century industrial scene with gloriously belching chimneys- all of these are made possible by the delightfully cheeky use of blatant matte paintings. This gives the film a real sense of whimsy and playfulness.

All this gets ratcheted up even further once we get to the moon. The rocket (fired out of a cannon, a la Jules Verne) lands in the eye of the Man in the Moon, and there’s a wonderful scene with dancers playing the stars and planets. The aliens can just be zapped with umbrellas(!) and the rocket takes off to return to Earth by, er, falling off a cliff. It’s all such fun.

There are a few interesting things to note, too. The Tricolour at the lauch scene makes it clear that the first nation to reach the Moon is, naturally, France. The clothes worn be everyone, and the obsession with headgear, looks far more “period to modern eyes than anything from after the First World War.  And the film does at least manage to be “scientific in the small detail of having the rocket eventually land in the sea.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Borgen: State Visit

“That was before you got all pragmatic.”

This episode gives me the distinct impression that a standard format for Borgen is beginning to emerge: Birgitte spends the episode dealing with an ethical dilemma before finally untying the Gordian knot after much agonising. Her relationship with Philip and her children continues to deteriorate. Meanwhile, we see both Katrine and Kaspar doing their jobs (very well) and living their personal lives (not so well), with a general will-they-won’t they thing lurking in the background. That isn’t what happens every episode, but it seems to be the basic template. Or not. The rest of the series will probably prove me wrong.

The opening quote is from Mao, which hints that we will shortly be meeting a rather nasty dictator- President Grobin of the fictional ex-Soviet republic of Turgistan. Grobin is to announce a €1 billion contract for, er, wind turbines, a massive triumph for the government. Trouble is, there also happens to be a rather  prominent, and eloquent, dissident (and poet to boot) in Copenhagen at the same time- Vladimir Bayanov, and Grobin wants him deported before he’ll agree to the deal. It’s a simple yet gripping premise and the resolution, although obvious in hindsight, is satisfying enough, especially as it’s left ambiguous whether Birgitte has really won at all. It reminds me of Vladimir Putin being rather pissed off at us Brits for being home to so many prominent dissidents, apparently unable to get his little KGB brain around such concepts as due process, fair trials and an independent judiciary.

This side of the episode isn’t really the point, though, hence its relative simplicity. The main theme is Birgitte’s deteriorating relationship with Philip, who is feeling increasingly stressed, overworked, neglected and (being essentially a mother and housewife) neglected. For all that this is horribly unfair on Birgitte because of prevailing cultural assumptions about gender roles, that isn’t Philip’s fault. These are two nice, decent people whose marriage seems to be slowly and painfully falling apart. The last scene between them may be rather sweet, but there’s still something stilted about it. The body language between them makes it obvious that they’re becoming less intimate, and that’s bloody good acting.

Oh, and Birgitte’s dad appears, too. He’s mainly there to annoy and further emasculate Philip by usurping his role, but his confession to Birgitte, that he’s been lying about the divorce and it’s made him very unhappy, is ominous. Birgitte may be Prime Minister, but does this mean she has to sacrifice her happiness? Her relationship with her children is obvious, too, especially with her son. There’s an awkwardly large amount of screen time where she’s in shot with her children but ignoring them. Things do not bode well.

One thing that amazed me was how much of this episode takes place in English- all conversations with Grobin, Katrine’s televised interview with Bayanov (which appears not to be subtitled) and even the press conference. Birgitte even speaks English in cut-glass RP and could easily pass for a native speaker, and everyone appears to be fluent. Do all Danes really have such a gift for languages?

Kaspar continues to be very good at his job and spectacularly bad in his relationships with women. Not only does he make yet another horribly misjudged attempt to kiss someone, seemingly a habit of his, but it’s Katrine. And he’s just finished having a drunken brawl with her new boyfriend. It’s no surprise that she makes it clear she doesn’t want to be alone with him again. Still, one has to wonder where this thread could be leading if not to Kaspar’s redemption and eventually to the two of them getting back together. Or is that far too obvious?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Borgen: Men Who Love Women

“Go through my ministers and list who you’ve slept with.”

The title’s a bit clever; it’s simultaneously an indirect reference to the political theme of the episode and a direct reference to the relationships of Katrine and Hanne, and the relationship failures of Kaspar. This is an episode far more focussed on character.

The Machiavelli quotes are back, and this time old Niccolo is talking about the relevant success rates of unarmed versus armed prophets, only for the very first word spoken after the caption appears- “Jesus!”- to nicely deconstruct the very distinction. Subtle and clever.

A simple idea- Birgitte’s determination to force all members of company boards to be 50% female and the varied reactions to it- leads to all sorts of fascinating revelations about attitudes to gender roles. Kaspar has little time for feminists, but is very happy to work, effectively, at implementing feminist policies- it’s all about the game of politics. The minister in question, Henriette Kiltgaard, is subjected to all sorts of vague misogyny in the newsroom, being nicknamed “the clit” and defined only as a former model, by her youth, and by her role as a mother. Torben even agrees to the suggestion that she be interviewed by a man for “balance”. And yet Ulrik is gentle with her and pulls his punches, while Hanne makes it clear that she would have been much tougher. There may be misogyny, even in progressive Denmark, but it’s more complicated than just boys against girls.

Improper corporate influence rears its head, too, as Joachim Crohne, the biggest tycoon in Denmark, blackmails Brigitte by threaten to take his business abroad. Fortunately, this is Denmark, and he proves to be far too patriotic and ultimately decent to carry out his threat. How very unlike certain voices from the British banking sector.

Philip is, of course, part of the solution here in his role as dispenser of sage advice, insisting to Birgitte that it’s all more or less a game of poker. And Philip continues to be a rock for her, looking after their children and everything at home. But there are cracks: a couple of scenes demonstrate how Birgitte is slowly losing touch with her husband, and a tired Philip rejects her advances at the end, taking All the bedclothes, and almost starts to show a little resentment at her bringing her laptop to bed. Even this happy family is beginning to look troubled because the wife and mother is absent. Of course, this is horribly unfair, as we all know perfectly well that the same expectations are not placed on husbands and fathers. This is every bit as relevant to the episode’s political themes.

It’s interesting, too, that this episode sees Kaspar as horribly clueless about all the women in his life. His flirting at Kiltgaard, and his terribly misjudged attempt to make a pass at her, only leads to arse-clenching awkwardness. And he seems to be losing Katrine to a fitness instructor who may be rude but is at least open and honest- the very qualities which Kaspar lacks.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Borgen: 100 Days

“I’m having scheduled sex with the Prime Minister?”

I’ve compared Borgen to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before; this time I really mean it. We have an episode about security and murky cover-ups of CIA renditions, with all the suspense, drama, and threat of off-the-record police harassment of journalists that implies. But this is just a backdrop: the episode is really about colonialism, in layers. What Greenland is to Denmark, Denmark is to the USA. Neither nation is truly independent, and both feel a little emasculated. Yet both finish the episode by asserting a little independence and a little dignity. I’m reminded of the excellent Michael Frayn play Copenhagen, in which Niels Bohr speaks of the proud independence of a small country.

Even the opening quote is from a Greenlander. It’s fascinating to see a light being shone into a place of which I, being British, am hardly aware. But the relationship between coloniser and colonised, however postmodern, is familiar to anyone in the awkward situation of being a citizen of a former colonial power which has done bad things. There’s glorious wit in the ritualised relationship between Birgitte as Danish Prime Minister and the Greenland premier, Jens Enok, where the Permanent Secretary (Denmark has its Sir Humphreys too!) casually remarks that he is, symbolically, “used to” waiting outside.

What’s wonderful is that Enok immediately undercuts the premise of his meeting with Birgitte by deconstructing the entire situation. He knows that, although he is under the control of Denmark, the use of the base at Thule to transport illegally rendited prisoners is at the behest of America. There’s a three-way pecking order. I’m reminded of a certain old sketch about class: the Americans are John Cleese, Birgitte is Ronnie Barker and Enok is Ronnie Corbett. And I sure you that wasn’t a sentence I was expecting to write at the beginning of this paragraph.

Journalism gets looked at here, too as we see the pressures put upon Katrine to drop her story. There’s a great deal of ambiguity; her boss is alternately brave and cowardly when it comes to running this inflammatory material. She’s put under a great deal of threat by “special branch” harassment and mysterious burglaries, and one interview is suspiciously incompetent and Peter O’Hanra-Hanrahanlike. Nevertheless, dark conspiracy theory-friendly behaviour by the state only goes so far in Denmark, and threats to arrest and charge much of the newsroom never come to much.

The ending, suicide aside, is uplifting, as Birgitte shows that she genuinely cares about Greenland and makes a token gesture of defiance to US power. But there’s a clearly intended parallel between the people of Greenland and Katrine’s mole- both are prone to suicide, excessive drinking and sexual misconduct and it’s implied (perhaps too simplistically) that all this is a symptom of national humiliation.

This was a very different episode. Borgen continues to expand the things it can do. Birgitte seems to pass her ethical test this time, but the cracks in her family relationships are becoming more and more visible…

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Excalibur (1981)

“The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent.”

There’s just so much to talk about with this film. Just so much juicy subtext. I love it when that happens.

The whole Arthurian legend is a bit of an odd one, isn’t it? Everybody tends to think of it as the quintessentially English body of myths, yet it isn’t really English at all. The earliest texts tend to indicate that Arthur, if he existed at all, was a native Briton who fought the invading Anglo-Saxons whose culture would become English culture. And once those rather unpleasant Norman chaps invade England then we get Normans like Geoffrey of Monmouth (part-Welsh, part-Norman) using the Arthurian legends as a sort of propaganda vehicle, to remind the English that they’re invaders too. Personally, I’m just Cornish enough to be on the fence when it comes to all that stuff.

But come the 12th century we get the Troubadours, Chrétien de Troyes and all that stuff, including a rather large amount of new stuff (the Grail, Lancelot, etc) and removing the rather awkward Celt vs. Saxon ethnic conflict, to the point that the stories which form this film belong more to French literature than to English or Welsh.

This film is loosely based on the Morte d’Arthur, a selection of certain Arthurian myths by Sir Thomas Mallory in the 1470’s. How loosely I can’t say; I’ve not read the book since uni and that was a good while ago. But it’s interesting that the armour and general look of the thing seems to reflect the time of the book rather than the actual 5th or 6th century setting of the original legends. Then again, the historical basis of Arthurian myth is so vague that there’s no point in attempting anything like historical accuracy. It’s also interesting to note that Mallory was a highly dodgy sort and a convicted rapist. It’s interesting to bear this in mind when we consider how the film deals with sex, which we’ll come to in a bit.  

This movie is so postmodern and metatextual that I had a massive grin on my face through most of it. The characters aren’t one-dimensional by any means (the whole Guinevere / Lancelot adultery subplot proves that) but they’re very much characters from myth, larger-than-life people who belong in epics, and necessarily so. Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to have such a fast pace and cram so much in. There’s a bit of fun to be had within this, though. Uther, for example, is as thick as two planks in exactly the way that many characters from myths would be if fleshed out. He makes a great contrast with Merlin, who is the only character with a modern sensibility and clearly an audience identification figure, right up to the point that he's conspiring with the audience in seeing these mediseval  personalities as a little absurd. Nicol Williamson portrays his wit, cynicism and delicious irony perfectly. He’s a slippery, postmodern individual who seems completely out of place in this genre and this, of course, makes him perfect as a wizard.

The nature of his “magic” is interesting, too, quite aside from the fact that he’s shown to be a druid-like figure, one of the last of an older, pagan age. All this talk of “The Dragon” seems very similar to the Force, and that strange dream sequence with Arthur and Merlin in the forest glade seems suspiciously like a slight mickey take of the similar scene with Luke and Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, the whole take on mythology here seems to owe quite a lot to Star Wars, although always with a slight hint of the tongue-in-cheek.

Everything looks great, with lots of fog, stone circles, Cornish landscapes, and an interesting mix between Mediaeval grottiness and a more romantic take, with the knights all having very shiny armour indeed until it symbolically all seems to dull after the funny business starts between Lancelot and Guinevere. There are some nice scene juxtapositions, too. Uther rapes Ygraine at the exact moment that her husband dies (by being impaled by a massive phallic symbol!), and we constantly switch between scenes. Both events are extremely violent, and the Duke dies at the exact moment that Uther orgasms, and Arthur is conceived.

Different Arthurian tales almost trip over each other in this bizarre portmanteau of a film, so fast is the pace, but things take a turn for the dark once Lancelot and Guinevere get naked and Merlin is trapped by Morgana (Helen Mirren looks disturbingly young). Without Merlin, things start getting very, very surreal, and the Holy Grail stuff is extraordinarily weird. Percival’s being asked questions about the grail, and his temptation in the castle, have got to be a deliberate nod to the then-recent Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while the sight of a knight surrounded by peasants with plague can only be a nod to The Seventh Seal. This film may play it straight on the surface, but you don’t have to probe deep to find lots of metatextual fun.

Of course, the main point of all the subtext at this point is to demonstrate that Mordred is a right little shit.

Oh, and we were talking about sex earlier. Well, it’s rather interesting to look at the character of Morgana from a feminist perspective. We first encounter her as a little girl, watching her own mother being raped. Merlin is clearly an accomplice to the rape- in fact, arranging it seems to be the biggest and most draining act of magic he’s ever performed! Oh, and Uther (with Merlin’s help) has arranged a civil war in which loads of people die purely so that this can happen. All in all, it’s rather difficult not to see Morgana’s character as the revenge of the feminine against all this male violence. She entraps Merlin by asserting her feminine sexuality. She shuns the male world of fighting and turns to magic. She symbolically deceives Arthur and has sex with him to produce Mordred a rather symbolic act of revenge of Arthur who, as king, is the ultimate symbol of patriarchy. Oh, and if magic is feminine, what does this say about Merlin? He certainly seems to show no interest in women! I’d better stop there. I do have a y chromosome, after all. I wonder how much of this, if any, is intended as a commentary on Mallory’s own history as a rapist?

Oh, and all this stuff with the lady of the lake is fascinating. It seems to hark back to old Iron Age habits of leaving bits of treasure in lakes and rivers as offerings to the gods, something which possibly continues in Britain today with coins and fountains. Is this “lady” a goddess, part of Merlin’s world, and soon to vanish, just as Arthur vanishes, across the sea to the west just like the end of Lord of the Rings?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Frankenstein (1910)


Oh my. I’ve no idea how I’m supposed to judge this film, more than a hundred years after it was made. It’s completely alien to my entire conception of what a film actually is, far more so than the several 1920s silent films I’ve seen. At least they can be watched from a modern perspective of what cinema is supposed to do, minus sound. This can’t, but it’s utterly fascinating to see.

For a start, it’s just twelve and a half minutes long, which is why I’ve been able to knock out two movie reviews in one day. That’s only long enough for half a dozen set-piece scenes which is what we get. Such plot as there is gets relegated to the intertitles.

The picture is so blurred that it’s impossible to make out the actor’s facial features, which isn’t helped by the fact that everything takes place in mid-shot. The camera is completely static- it’s more like watching a play than a film, even one from as little as ten days later. One scene is quite clever, though, using an on-screen mirror to give us two different perspectives on the screen.

Given how blurred and indistinct the actors are, the acting styles are not exactly understated. There are lots of big, big gestures from actors who are presumably based mainly in the theatre. It’s often not so much like narrative but something closer to dancing. Everything is about spectacle rather than plot.

It’s fascinating to see the different tints for different scenes, which works particularly well in the scene where the monster is slowly coming to life from skeletal beginnings in a large cauldron. The orange tint gives a real sense of being in a furnace. The whole scene is extremely effective, and is actually a superb example of special effects. It’s just a pity that the picture is so blurred that we never really get a proper glimpse of the monster.

One historical oddity is that the first thing we see is a credit to Thomas Edison, whose company was responsible for this film. That’s how long ago this was.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

“She’ll breed. You’ll die.”

I was worried about this film after the disappointment that was its predecessor, but I shouldn’t have been. This isn’t quite as good as the first two, but a film scripted by Joss Whedon can never fall below a certain standard.

For a start, it makes you jump. A lot. It seems to me that’s the one thing an Alien film should definitely do, and something which the last film conspicuously failed at. The scene with the alien suddenly striking out at Wren only to hit glass which we only now realise is there is probably the bit that made me jump the highest, but there’s a lot of this sort of thing, a lot of suspense, and a real sense of threat, which again Alien³ conspicuously lacked.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet isn’t a Ridley Scott or a David Cameron- the film is very well shot, with some creative use of the camera, but there’s none of that indefinable sense of style that separates a great director from a very good one. Still, the film looks very good and ticks all the boxes, although this time with CGI.

This is also a very witty script, with every character feeling well-rounded and individual. It’s unmistakeably a Joss Whedon script, and there’s a definite proto-Firefly feel to the crew of the Betty. Whedon also takes the opportunity to do something which the previous film again failed to do- have some fun with the tropes. The body horror element is made much more horrific by the simple expedient of making everyone aware that Purvis is “pregnant” and an alien is bound to burst out of his ribcage at an inconvenient moment. The hybrid creatures in jars are horrible. And it’s a nice twist that this film’s token android (or “Auton”, a word to raise the eyebrows of any Doctor Who fan) should be Winona Ryder’s uber-emotional Call. There are little things, too: the whole clichéd situation of the powers that be foolishly believing that they can use the aliens for their own purposes, and not all die horribly, as Ripley attempts to persuade them otherwise, is just quickly glossed over near the start of the film. After all, we know the drill by now.

These aliens are cleverer, and more dangerous. There’s a nice scene with Vriess (nice to see a disabled character who doesn’t die!) which really emphasises how nasty the acidic blood is, too. And the whole underwater scene, with its shark-like swimming aliens and the horrible, horrible trap is just amazing. This film is very, very strong on set-pieces. The death of Ripley’s “child” is just….eurgh!

Interestingly, the two characters with, more or less, superpowers are both women: Ripley and call. Indeed, our cloned, part-Alien Ripley is looking a little similar to the eponymous star of Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I shall be returning to after I finish Borgen), which commenced in the same year. And the only characters to be successfully “impregnated” are all men. This is a return to the sexual-political subtext of the first film.

The ending is a little abrupt, perhaps, and while the whole thing looks good it lacks the touch of genius it would have needed to compete with the first two films, but this is a much better effort.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Borgen: The Art of the Possible

“Did she curtsey?!”

It looks as though not all of the opening quotes are going to be from Machiavelli, patron saint of spin doctors. This time we get to redress the balance as Churchill puts a word in for the politicians- and, significantly, this is much more directly about the politicians, and their part in the “game”.

If I have one criticism of this episode it’s the few moments early on where Hanne (now a tabloid commentator) is used to explain how vital the upcoming finance bill is to the government’s survival; it comes across as a rather crude piece of exposition. But that’s my only criticism of the episode, and it’s really just a nitpick. Basically, the excellence continues. If it stays like this, I think we’re going to have to take the gushing as read from now on. There are only so many ways you can praise something.

Anyway, two months have passed, and there are subtle changes. But it’s noticeable that Birgitte has been far too busy to choose the paintings for her office and, wonderfully, she’s stuck with a rubbish secretary because no Department with have her! Naturally, she’s dumped on the Prime Minister. This is pure Yes, Minister. I love it.

It’s already obvious that Birgitte has little or no time for her family, and her relationship with her husband is already suffering. This can only get worse. And the days when she refused to profit from dirt on her political opponents are far behind her- she agrees to fight dirty against one of the two independents very early on. She’s much more ruthless, too, instantly rejecting Hesselboe’s attempts at a deal, and finally drawing a wedge between the Liberals and the New Right. (Why are there two centre-right parties? I get the impression that the Liberals are economic liberals while the New Right are more socially conservative, but it's a bit murky.)

Laugesen has now become a tabloid editor, baying for Birgitte’s blood. I think we can assume he’s the villain of the series, and he’s eventually going to do something very bad indeed. What’s wonderful is that he’s simultaneously such a cartoon villain and entirely realistic in this environment. Kaspar’s future becomes clear, too; Birgitte well and truly learns her lesson in this episode and learns that she needs not a handsome Professor of Rhetoric but a master of the dark arts. He’s certainly very, very competent, whether as a TV commentator or quickly diagnosing the problem on the day he’s re-hired. But he’s so, so cold, worst of all with his lies to Katrine. Even so, the sight of him in a pool hall on Christmas Day made me feel a twinge of sympathy. And it’s established that his past is mysterious- presumably there’ll be a pay-off?

Katrine’s story is less clear, though. The pregnancy subplot comes to a very abrupt end but her life seems to get no less complicated. She and Kaspar seem to be destined to come together in a way, either as a couple or for another reason. There must be a reason for the flashbacks of their earlier relationship, after all.

So, there are some obvious things to expect (Birgitte’s deteriorating family life and increasing ruthlessness), but I have no idea about everything else. The tone is pretty much set though, I think, and I love it. The humour (I love the art!) leavens the ruthlessness perfectly. I haven’t been so excited about watching the next episode of a series since Spiral, which says some worrying things about English language TV!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Borgen: Count to 90

“I'd been so looking forward to the Prime Minister giving me a blow job...”

I thought the first episode was good, but this is a real step change. We’ve introduced the show, the way it works, and the major characters, so it’s time for the programme to start doing the cool stuff. There’s just so much cleverness in this episode, and it’s now a lot clearer how the show is going to work.

The Machiavellian quote is this time clearly applicable to Birgitte, and the qualities she’s going to need if she’s going to negotiate a coalition with herself, and not the Labour leader, as Prime Minister. There’s one thing that puzzles me, though: if Labour has more MP’s, why is Birgitte asked to be Royal Investigator instead of Laugesen?

The scenes in the palace, waiting for the Queen to get her act together, are wonderful. I love the giggles between Birgitte and Bent (I love Bent, even if he does look disturbingly like Jim Royle) as they acknowledge the absurdities of monarchy and tradition. Like myself, they’re left of centre and therefore semi-republican in that they see the silliness and fundamentally reactionary nature of the institution (I’ve just Googled what happened in 1849), but don’t actually want to get rid of it because of the big, scary question of what happens next. Both of them are very irreverent (“Can’t the bitch count?”) but there’s not going to be a revolution. Queen Margrethe can’t appear, of course, but there’s a nice little dig at her trademark smoking habit.

The use of Svend Åge Saltum, leader of the far-right Freedom party, is interesting and provocative. I’m sure I personally would find all his views to be beyond the pale, but he’s clearly being used as the voice of common sense. He clearly understands the game of politics intimately- he knows he’s “evil incarnate” in Birgitte’s “intellectual little world” and therefore that she’s showing signs of weakness in even talking to him. This episode is about Birgitte’s overcoming these signs of weakness to become Prime Minister, and the moral sacrifices she has to make to do so. She may be outmanoeuvred by Laugesen’s ambush, but she gets rid of him by doing a dodgy deal to leak some damaging emails from a senior Labour politician who wants his job- as bent says, Caesar was murdered by his friends, too”.

But this is a direct parallel to last episode, where she refused to profit by such dirty tricks. Already she’s starting to compromise her principles for the sake of power. Such is politics.

Fortunately, there’s the balance provided by her family. Her husband continues to be wonderful, a rock, and gives her some great advice. And there’s a wonderful scene where she takes his advice, pins him down in bed and prepares to go on top, at the “head of the table”.

The funeral is fantastic too, and not only because the inside of a Danish Lutheran church and the clothing of the minister look like something out of a painting by Rembrandt. The mobiles bleeping in the congregation is a wonderful touch, and the line delivered by the bereaved wife about politics being her husband’s “mistress” is a nice touch, especially with Katrine in the congregation, struggling to hold it together. Interestingly, we get even more references to politics as a game.

Birgitte may need a bit of a pep talk from the wonderful Bent to make the final step, but her power bluffing is wonderful, especially her blatant theft of Hesselboe’s idea of a Department of International Development.

There are also subplots bubbling away in the background. Is Katrine going to hold it together? Is she pregnant? What’s going to happen between her and Hanne after their surprising rapprochement? And what’s going to happen with the increasingly self-centred and duplicitous Kaspar, without a role but clearly destined for something?

This is gripping, addictive stuff. I’m hooked.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Alien³ (1992)

“You’re gonna die too…”

Well, I suppose they can’t all be good. The first two films in this franchise are both superb, but this one… isn’t. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. For one thing, the other two films were both shot by A-list directors, but I’d never heard of David Fincher until I Googled him just now. I certainly should have done, I grant you, but he's no Ridley Scott or James Cameron.

Having said that, though, the film is serviceable. It isn’t awful. It’s just that it’s totally lacking in suspense and moments which make you jump, and has absolutely no sense of the unity of style and content which made the first two films so slickly gorgeous in their very different ways.

There isn’t the same sense of threat, either. After a film with hordes of the buggers we’re now back to just one Alien, which just doesn’t seem as nasty as the one in the first film. Without the constant emphasis on its toughness and its acid blood it’s suddenly a lot closer to being just another monster, albeit a rather cool looking one. And killing Newt and Hicks before the start of the film, while showing us how nasty the alien is, gives us a rather alienating sense of discontinuity. And why do we have to be told that it’s “Ellen” Ripley? First names have no place in this franchise! It might be nitpicky, but I don’t like the fact that Bishop is referred to as a “droid”, either.

It’s a bit jolting, and inconsistent with what’s gone before, that such a large proportion of the supporting cast should be British (complete with phrases like “rubbish tip” and even the pronunciation of “lieutenant”, which really surprised me!). It’s always a joy to see the great Brian Glover, possibly the world’s greatest Yorkshireman, but even Charles Dance can’t hide the fact that Clemens is such a deeply dull character who really drags the film down by taking up so much screen time. Even the revelation of his supposedly great secret is such a massive anti-climax that you’re quite relieved to see him being immediately impaled and killed by the alien.

Charles S. Dutton is magnificent, mind- such charisma. It’s just that he looks out-of-place among such a bunch of wide boys. And the whole concept- a bunch of scum-of-the-Earth criminals who have found fundamentalist religion- is a bit random, to say the least. Nothing much is done with this concept, so why have it at all?

Even the foreshadowing of Ripley’s death is not handled well. There’s a certain neatness in Bishop asking to be killed early on, just as Ripley will later, and the scene of the Alien next to Ripley is nicely iconic. But the inevitability of Ripley’s dying soon, one way or another, actually takes away tension rather than adding to it, and there’s precious little of it to start with.

Lack of tension aside, the general look of the film is certainly competent. But there’s no flair or sense of ownership of the film’s aesthetic. Everything just looks like generic, contemporary science fiction. The aesthetics of the first two films were so much more than that.

Just one Alien film to go, then. I hope it’s better than this one.

Aliens (1986)

“They’re coming out of the walls! They’re coming out of the Goddamn walls! ”

Never has it been more predictable which film I’m going to review next. The next two will be equally predictable. Incidentally, this is the original theatrical version that I’m reviewing.

Much to my surprise, I didn’t remember anything about this film, and I suspect that I may not have seen it in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as I assumed I had. I’m sure I would have remembered such an excellent film which, it’s immediately obvious, has burrowed its way deep into popular culture.

This is how you do sequels. Yes, it takes elements from the previous films, not least the physical qualities of the aliens. Yes, the suspense is what drives the film, just as is does for Alien. But James Cameron is a very different director from Ridley Scott; he’s much less arty. He doesn’t shoot things to look beautiful. It’s all about the suspense.

Cameron is also the scriptwriter, which gives us a pleasing unity of vision. His script is a little different in that there’s less emphasis on world building (although this is an interstellar future of cigarettes and 1980s style clothes) and an awful lot of emphasis on the US Marine characters. US Marines seem to have been very much in the Hollywood zeitgeist in 1986, the year of Platoon and a year before Full Metal Jacket, and the macho military high jinks of their interactions are so delightfully 1980’s. All the tropes are present and correct: the highly quotable sarge, the inexperienced and panicky lieutenant, the woman who’s more mach than the men, and the annoying one who keeps loudly opining that they’re all going to die.

There’s one minor plot niggle at the start; Ripley’s ship is found, purely by chance, after fifty-seven years. But the chances of this must be infinitesimal! Space is not the sea. It’s unimaginably huge. Also, what’s powering the ship to keep Ripley alive and frozen for all those decades?

Still, let’s handwave these things away. This is a superb, tense thriller, crammed with little moments that make you jump. There’s misdirection; the robot, Bishop, turns out to be a rather heroic chap who’s clearly read his Isaac Asimov (there’s even a semi-direct allusion to the Laws of Robotics), while Carter Burke, the apparently sympathetic company chap, turns out to be this film’s equivalent of Ash. There are plenty of scenes with motion detectors where the aliens turn out to be above the ceiling or below the floor.

But the film is basically about the women. The best soldier is Vasquez, and the most clear-headed and courageous characters are Ripley and her surrogate daughter, Newt. Ripley gets to look much, much cooler in this film. She even gets to wear a badass forklift suit (which looks so, so ‘80s) and fight an alien which is, like, the coolest thing ever. And yet… the first film symbolically had a man get orally raped and impregnated by an alien, where in this film it’s only women who are seen to be threatened by this fate. It seems that perhaps this is the price they have to pay for being so strong.

The aliens are nicely developed, though. It’s Ripley who asks the question that, if the aliens reproduce parasitically, who lays the eggs? Of course, we (and Ripley) see the answer, an end of level boss that is presumably the “queen” of the hive, and it’s gloriously disgusting. Ripley is fantastic; in going back to save Newt she proves herself to be both utterly badass and the perfect mother.

The ending, with its countdown and airlocks, bears certain similarities to the earlier film, but I suspect this is intentional. The ending is surprisingly abrupt, but this is a brilliant film.

Oh, and fellow Doctor Who fans; Tip Tipping is an extra and Stuart Fell is a stuntman!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Borgen: Decency in the Middle

“Kaspar, if I asked you to write a speech about capital punishment, you’d say ‘For or against?’

“I wasn’t hired for my convictions.”

This is not the sort of thing I’ve been reviewing up till now, to put it mildly. There are no aliens, monsters or vampires in it. But it’s not all sci-fi and fantasy with me although, yes, I certainly swing that way. I also enjoy classy dramas and stuff, I’m a bit of a politics junkie, and I thought it would be fun, as I’m going to be doing short runs of short series in between series of Buffy, to take a look at Borgen. It helps that I’m slightly deaf, always use subtitles when I can, and therefore have no issues whatsoever with subtitled dramas in other languages. Also, I’ve recorded it, it’s taking up space, and it has to be watched pretty urgently. It’ll be interesting to see if this means a massive nosedive in pageviews, though. I’ve never reviewed anything like this before and most people likely to be interested have already seen it!

I’ve read so much orgasmic enthusiasm for this in the broadsheet culture sections over the last couple of months, which led me to expect something much more cerebral and, let’s say, challenging than the first episode I’ve just watched. Instead, I’ve found a programme which, while intelligent and full of lovely multi-layered subtext, is a damned exciting watch, a thriller, except with political skulduggery except for guns and killing. It’s all so beautifully shot, and acted, too.

It’s also, of course, full of the kind of metatextual fun that I love so much, with a heavy focus on the media. There’s a great deal

It probably helps that Denmark’s political system is pretty much analogous to Britain’s, of course, and we’ve even become used to the concept of coalitions of late. It’s odd to see so much coalition-related plotting before the election, though. But, in spite of the differences, it all feels pleasantly accessible. Oddly enough, if there’s a programme it reminds me of then it’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is only the first episode, though, setting up the events that leave Birgitte Nyborg, leader of the centrist Moderate party, to become prime minister, with her party having unexpectedly become the largest in Parliament following a somewhat chaotic final televised debate.

Still, this episode is mostly set-up and establishing the style and the characters. It’s difficult to draw many conclusions thus far. So let’s have a look at the main characters.

Birgitte is charismatic (her final speech is magnificent if not, of course, entirely typical), but also highly moral, as shown by her refusal to blackmail Lars Hesselboe when Kaspar presents her with some juicy incriminating info. This being the first episode, of course, I suspect that the fact we’re being shown this points to all sorts of morally murky decisions that she’s going to have to make as PM.

She’s also a woman who “has it all”- a loving husband and two kids- and is therefore under enormous pressure, as career women often are, usually doing far more than their fair share of the childcare and domestic chores. This is another marker that’s been put down in the first episode, no doubt to be developed. We can already see that work / life balance is a potentially huge issue.

The most fascinating character is Kaspar. For one thing, he’s uncannily similar to the loathsome Andy Coulson in both appearance and (from what I’ve seen) mannerisms. He practises the dark arts of spin, er, medicine, and is clearly addicted to politics for the power, the fun and the skulduggery rather than the principles. I rather suspect that the opening quote from Machiavelli is referring in large part to him. The fact that he gets fired means I have no idea what he’s going to do next; he’s certainly in demand, not least from Michael Laugesen, the Labour leader. But he’s far too prominent not to be a regular character. I’m sure there are big plans for him. I wonder if there’ll be any comebacks from his tampering with the scene of the Liberal spin doctor’s death.

Lars Hesselboe, in spite of being a right-wing sort and therefore not likely to endear himself to me, is presented as a fundamentally decent chap whose “borrowing” of public funds to finance his wife’s enormous purchases in Oxford Street is presented sympathetically- he’s simply overwhelmed by events. Still, it’s confusing, and disturbing, to see a conservative party calling itself the “Liberals” when the party I vote for is currently in a coalition with the Evil Ones. Oh, and why are the Liberals in London talking to some “experts” three days before the election? Do we Brits have some kind of Europe-wide reputation in the dark arts of spin?

Michael Laugesen is a slimy little creep, the sort of principle-free selfish twat, in charge of an ostensibly left-wing party, which I find so very familiar, having been ruled for ten years by the similarly odious Tony Blair. Laugesen has an interesting line about how Danish politics is basically an oligarchy, delivered shortly after he quite literally pisses over Parliament.

Finally, there’s Katrine, our identification character from the media. Her life is already quite horribly complicated, and as far as she’s concerned the morally dodgy and very clever Kaspar knows where the bodies are buried. I suspect there will be complications.

So, the election is over… what happens next?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Quick Post on Future Plans...

So, there's the second season of Buffy finished. I'm going to continue with Buffy (and Angel, when I get there) until the end, except for films on Saturdays, if I'm in- although none of that's set in stone, it depends on my work and social life, and new episodes of Doctor Who in the Autumn will temporarily replace the films.

Still... I should have the Buffyverse finished in not much more than a year. I'm going to learn the learn the lessons from marathoning Doctor Who, though, and slightly vary my diet. So at the end of every 22-episode series of Buffy (and especially after every 44-episode double season of Buffy and Angel), I'm going to watch one or two very short series of something else for variety. So, Borgen starts imminently. I also have The Singing Detective and Rubicon in the pipeline, probably after the next season of Buffy. I'm willing to consider any requests, too!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Becoming, Part Two

“Mom… I’m a vampire slayer.”

That was…. intense. That Joss Whedon certainly knows how to emotionally torture us, but this finale is deeply satisfying in so many ways. There are so, so many beautiful little character moments- I love the fact that Willow revives from her coma when Xander tells her that he loves her, but her first word is “Oz”. There’s very little of Whedon’s trademark wit here. This is bleak, and beautiful.

As Buffy mentions to Snyder, the police (“In case you haven’t noticed, the police of Sunnydale are deeply stupid”, he says to her, pretty much revealing he knows more than he lets on) will eventually realise she isn’t the killer; in  itself her arrest and fugitive status is just a temporary annoyance. But the consequences, as Snyder expels her (taking great pleasure in doing so and, interestingly, reporting to the mysterious Mayor) and she’s forced to, er, come out as a Slayer to Joyce, are devastating.

Joyce’s reaction is perfect, especially as this scene by its very nature had the potential to be deeply annoying. She’s realistically bewildered, and never loses the audience’s sympathies, but she’s forced to accept that her daughter is the Slayer as she turns a vampire to dust before her eyes. The heartbreak is leavened by the comedy of her awkward polite chit-chat with Spike (who reminds me here of Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious with Nancy Spungeon’s very respectable family in Sid and Nancy), but the conversation doesn’t go well. Joyce is quite right to demand an explanation, but her acceptance of the facts doesn’t translate into an acceptance that her daughter should be the Slayer. Buffy doesn’t eventually decide to leave Sunnydale because of her mother’s parting words (“You walk out if this house, don’t even think about coming back.”), but, horribly, Joyce is bound to think so. These are heart-rending scenes.

And then there’s Spike, who unexpectedly, but for perfectly logical reasons, teams up with Buffy against Angel. He’s still evil- he abandons Buffy to her fate as he leaves the climactic scene with the unconscious Drusilla- but he has his reasons, and they’re perfect. Back in his first appearance, we learned that he much preferred having fun to boring old rituals, and this is taken to its logical conclusion. He doesn’t want the word to end: it has “dog racing, Manchester United, and you’ve got people, billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs”. I should have known he’d support Man U. Typical bloody southerner.

There are other character moments- Giles resists torture bravely but is tricked, Willow does some powerful magic and speaks in tongues (watch this space)- but it’s all about Buffy, who has a horrible, horrible time. As she says outright to Whistler, this is no time for her usual wisecracks. Sarah Michelle Gellar puts in an extraordinary performance.

Whistler tells Buffy that she’s by herself, and that she has to be alone, which is a direct challenge to what has been the series’ central message- that Buffy’s friends and family make her stronger. But alone is how she ends up, forced to send Angel to Hell moments after his soul has returned and while he’s still confused, disoriented and innocent-seeming. The kiss seems to make it worse. The season ends with Buffy utterly alone, heartbroken and with no home, no school and an uncertain future.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Becoming, Part One

“My friends, we’re about to make history…end.”

Oooh, I so want to watch part two now. This was a whole episode of set-up, yes, but that means it could afford to be slow, ruminative and full of fan-pleasing flashbacky goodness. Also, it’s just so damn clever.

We begin with Angel narrating, in a deliberate parallel with Passion. From the start, he assumes control of the narrative with an omnipotence that echoes that of the writer, who this time is none other than Joss Whedon himself. The difference is, of course, that Angel does the closing narration too, reflecting the fact that he’s in total; control of events. There’s a nice little reunion with Kendra (I’d forgotten she reappears), and Mr Pointy, but it isn’t long until she’s shockingly killed, Giles is taken, and the whole world is poised to be thrust into the torments of, literally, Hell. Er, as soon as someone can be found who’s worthy to pull the sword from a petrified demon. And that ain’t Angel. Perhaps he isn’t quite in total control.

I think this is our first of many flashbacks to Galway in 1753, and David Boreanaz’s, er, interesting sustained attempt at an Irish accent. I’m sure they all talk like that in Galway. We get to see Darla again, of course, something which you really need a second marathon viewing to notice: first time round, I just wasn’t keeping track of who she was in the early seasons of Buffy, so rarely did she appear. But it’s interesting to see Angel being, er, “sired”, if the word is appropriate for girl-on-boy action.

We also get a flashback of Drusilla, in a convent in 1860, being mocked by Angel (it seems she had visions even when alive), a rather functional flashback to the “Rumanian” gypsy curse, and a more recent flashback to New York in 1996, where an apparently homeless Angel is accosted by the mysterious Whistler, who may well be the first “good” demon we’ve seen. Also, I love his Bugs Bunny accent. Please tell me they really do talk like that in New York.

Better still, we get to see, in Los Angeles, what is essentially a summed-up recon of the events of the movie, but with Sarah Michelle Gellar as a very Cordelia-esque, top of the social hierarchy, confident Buffy and some bloke with a moustache instead of Donald Sutherland. We also get to see Buffy’s parents, pre-divorce, arguing over her behaviour, a nice touch.

Oooh, and they find Jenny’s disk with the spell for re-souling Angel and, in spite of some dissent from Xander which causes a bit of a kerfuffle, they’re pretty much good to go. Giles even has an Orb of Thesulah conveniently handy. Willow has been looking up lots of magic type stuff, and she volunteers to do the spell. Giles warns her that “It may open up a door you may not be able to close” but it’s not as though she’ll ever become power-mad and addicted with magic, right?

Still, all this is set-up. The pieces are in place. And that’s quite a cliffhanger, smashing to bits the assumed convention that the police conveniently refrain from turning up when things could get awkward…

Monday, 6 February 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Go Fish

“I’ll do whatever I can to make your life better- whether little bath toys or whatever.”

OK, this isn’t exactly the best episode ever. In fact, it’s the worst episode we’ve had a while. But a relatively lacklustre episode of Buffy is better than the best episodes of lesser shows, and this episode has a surprising amount to say about misogyny, rape, and corruption in the world of sport.

Oh, and the monsters look just like the thing from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I don’t think this is any more than a visual reference, in spite of the more overt homages to Universal movies we’ve seen in the past, but it’s a nice touch. It, er, doesn’t mean the costumes look any less embarrassing, though.

We see a lot of evidence of corruption in Sunnydale High School, as Willow (a student of seventeen taking a class, especially for all this time, is rather dodgy- is she getting paid?) is heavily leant on by Principal Snyder to allow a failing student to pass simply because he’s a successful member of a sports team. Worse, another member of the swimming team attempts to rape Buffy, implying that successful performers in competitive sport have privileged status and are allowed to get away with some extreme stuff, all in the name of “school spirit”. Is this really what happens in American high school, to some degree? To this foreigner it looks a little far fetched, and I say that as someone with very little interest in spectator sports and zero interest in macho culture. This seems to go a lot further than the “jock” trope.

And all that talk about Buffy “leading on” her potential rapist, and the way she dresses… it’s rather clear what’s being said here. I doubt this is the first time this bloke has tried it on, and most girls are not as physically strong as Buffy. It’s not a pleasant thought. And neither is the almost-rape of Buffy by the fish boys near the end.

Oh, and it’s rather alarming to see Jonathan being waterboarded by said jocks. Frankly, I’m glad he peed in the pool. It’s interesting that he’s starting to become an actual character. I’m also enjoying the rather, er, arousing sight of Willow as interrogator, complete with lamp to be shone in eyes.

The other subtext, of course, is steroids, and the need to succeed in sport at all costs. This seems absurd to people like me who don’t follow sports- after all, it’s only a game, an artificial contest with no meaning outside of itself. But the status it confers is real, especially in a hierarchical society such as that of a high school. We rather cleverly get shown these pressures at work in the funny dialogue between Cordelia and Xander.

Still… the whole thing is more than a little clichéd, and the comeuppance of the coach as he gets eaten (just like a principal) is so very uber-predictable. And isn't the premise more B-movie sci-fi than horror? It doesn't quite seem to fit the aesthetic of the show. There’s not much going on arc-wise, either, aside from one of those contractually mandated cameos from Angel. That’s a rather awkward thing about the length of these seasons: Angel has spent rather too many episodes just sitting on his arse for someone who’s supposed to be the big bad. Still, two-part series finale, here we come…

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I Only Have Eyes for You

“Whose idea was that?”

“Obviously some hairy-legged feminist…”

Wow. This is an extraordinary episode. There’s so much going on, both thematically and relating to the characters, and it’s very scary indeed. This is our first episode dealing with the paranormal- in this case a poltergeist- and we get to see all sorts of tropes of scariness that remind us of films like The Exorcist, The Omen and, er, Poltergeist.

Again, one of the main themes is the possessiveness which men feel over women, and its horrible consequences. Sadly, and I say this as someone who is burdened with a “y” chromosome, it does rather tend to be men who kill women because of sexual jealousy instead of the other way around. Perhaps this has a lot to do with the patriarchal assumptions within our culture- the man is the “head” of the family, a wife takes her husband’s surname- it’s easy how this sort of thing can cause some men to feel almost a sense of ownership over their partners, which can have terrible consequences when they find themselves rejected.

And yet… another theme of this episode is forgiveness. Buffy- the very person whose forgiveness the ghost wants and needs- is not very forgiving indeed. She doesn’t advocate capital punishment, thankfully, but she espouses some very unpleasant and tabloidy opinions on crime and punishment. There’s an interesting contrast with Giles, here: he has far more reason to be angry and punitive, given the way in which he’s recently lost the woman he loves (and we see this in the way he needs to believe that the poltergeist is Jenny), but he isn’t. And what he says to Buffy is right- forgiveness is the answer. James is just a kid- he’s not the embodiment of patriarchy or misogyny, but in some ways a victim of it too.

All this is echoed variously in a lot of character stuff that’s going on, too. Obviously, there’s Giles’ continuing reaction to Jenny’s death, but there’s also Buffy, who finally forgives James. Perhaps now she can start to forgive herself and realise that Angel’s actions are not her fault. It’s fascinating that the re-enactment of the murder, between her and Angel, happens with the genders reversed. Suddenly, forgiveness and understanding are possible.

There’s also a lot of sexual jealousy with the Angel / Dru / Spike triangle. Spike is pretty much being openly cuckolded and mocked by this point, and there’s another gender reversal as Drusilla addresses him as “pet”. And suddenly we find out that he doesn’t need that wheelchair. There’s a season finale on the way; I foresee conflict.

Oh, and Snyder is very, very interesting here. We haven’t seen him for a while, but his semi-comic desire to persecute Buffy seems to have intensified. There’s another scene in which he discusses a cover-up of an obviously supernatural event, but this time he utters the blatant line “We’re on a Hellmouth.” This made my jaw hit the floor on my first viewing; there is a conspiracy, and Snyder is in on it. And we get our first mention of the Mayor, clearly a figure to inspire fear…

Oh, and apparently, according to my good friend Google, the Sadie Hawkins Dance is an American High School Tradition, not just something invented for the episode. I never knew that. There seem to be an awful lot of formal dances in American high schools!

Alien (1979)

“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you?”

I should have reviewed this film ages ago. It’s certainly influenced so many other things that I’ve reviewed, not least Doctor Who during the 1980s. But at last I now have all four films, thanks to my friend Nick. That’ll be the next few films for the blog sorted, then!

I watched the director’s cut, which I originally saw at the cinema back in 1983. There’s a very stark contrast between the aesthetic of the Nostromo- functional, lived-in, run-down, unglamorous- and the gorgeous direction. The pace is extraordinarily slow. This is often, of course, because this is a tense thriller, but in the early scenes it simply seems to be for the sake of beauty. And beautiful it is, oddly enough. The ship may be a dull corporate blob, designed for function alone, but there is beauty. Also, there’s blueness. Lots of blueness. This is probably one of the bluest films I’ve ever seen.

Like Ridley Scott’s later Blade Runner, this is an interestingly contemporary take on the future. Again, everyone smokes. But this is a corporate ship, with lots of mentions of “The Company” but no mention of any governmental authority. How very 1979 and New Right. Also, everyone (even the cat!) is known by their surname alone, which gives a sense of coldness and alienation. It’s interesting that, while the characters are all distinct and well-drawn, none of them are particularly likeable. We identify with them because we identify with their circumstances as corporate wage-slaves in recognisable situations with sci-fi trappings and added peril, not because they’re people we’d particularly like to know.

This is an almost contemporary version of space travel, with a lot of screen time being given to the putting on of spacesuits and the opening and closing of airlocks. Space flight is not shown as safe or easy. Being a pioneer means danger and discomfort as it always has and always will.

Oh, and the computer interface has dated awfully, hasn’t it? And “Mother” seems awfully primitive in 2012. But still… this is superb. Hardly anything happens, but the tension is extraordinary. The scene with the cat in the locker, and the long, drawn-out scenes of Brett looking for the cat before he’s killed, and Dallas’ attempts to escape as Lambert panics, are justly legendary.

But what’s truly extraordinary about this film, and elevates it above the status of a superior thriller, is the gender and sexual subtext. I’m hardly the first to point out that it’s a man, Kane, who is brutally, orally raped and murdered, even giving birth to the creature. Interestingly, the white men all die first. And the final survivor (and probably the character who deserves to live the most) is Ripley. It’s an interesting subversion of the gender roles, and perhaps to an extent the racial roles, that we would expect.

Simple though the plot is, there are a couple of very nice twists. I’d forgotten that Ash was a robot; this is a superb performance from Ian Holm, who produces a character that makes sense whether or not you know he’s a robot or just a cold fish. And the alien being aboard Ripley’s escape pod is a huge shock. It’s a joy to see this film again, and I’m looking forward to the next three…