Saturday, 31 March 2012

24 Hour Party People (2002)

"It's a shame that you didn't sign the Smiths, but you were right about Mick Hucknall. His music's rubbish, and he's a ginger."

I haven't really touched on music that much in this blog which is odd, as I'm rather obsessed by it and have been ever since I first heard Nevermind. I was a late starter; I didn't really bother with music at all until I was sixteen, but Nirvana and the whole Grunge thing meant a whole lot to me as a teenager. That sort of naturally led to Metal bands like Metallica, Pantera and Sepultura, American indie bands such as Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and the Pixies, classic rock, '70s punk, post-punk, and eventually '70s reggae, blues and 20th century composers like Penderecki, Glass and Xenakis. Basically, I likes me music. I'm sort of centred on the point where rock meets indie, and I'm a long-haired man who wears band t-shirts, but I'm more omnivorous than that might imply, although I'm not one for the late '80s baggy scene, and I've never been to a rave although I've dabbled in a bit of hardcore and gabber.

So I find myself identifying more with the first half of this film musically than the second. Joy Division and New Order are right up my street but I never really much bothered with the whole Madchester thing. I own both albums by the Stone Roses, and they're very good, but I don't know the Happy Mondays beyond the singles. But the whole story is such a fantastic ride, as rock n' roll always is. We see the great times, the sex and the drugs, but also the darkness as Ian Curtis quietly hangs himself after watching a Werner Herzog film. And hanging yourself is a painful, lingering, horrible way to die. The film also doesn't flinch from the awkward fact that the Hacienda, being awash with ecstasy, was funding gangs and guns and death, and Tony Wilson's flippant attitude to this (from real life, I assume, as his cameo appearance seems to imply a level of creative approval) doesn't exactly paint him in a good light. That's precisely why I don't take illegal drugs. Prohibition may be bloody stupid, but that doesn't mean that bootlegging is ok.

That aside, though, and noting his confessed neglect of his second family, the man is pure punk rock. The whole ethos of Factory Records- of total creative freedom for the bands- is wonderful, and economic reality can go to Hell. I'm just about old enough to remember when selling out was something that simply wasn't done, and signing to a major label was always something to be sheepishly apologised for although, in hindsight, that world came to an end when Sonic Youth signed to Geffen. Also wonderful is the way that he talks, and his unashamed refusal to downplay his education. As a fellow English graduate (although Nottingham, not Cambridge!) I love the speech about the "free play of signs and signifiers" in response to Rob Brydon's journalist accusing him (not unreasonably) of fascism because of Joy Division's rather dodgy name. The point here, of course, is that actually he does need to point out the irony of the Durutti Column's name, because these cultural references zoom straight over most people's heads. We see this sort of thing throughout the film; Ian Curtis doesn't even get the W.B. Yeats reference. I like this, though. There's too much inverted snobbery about. Why shouldn't we live in a world where tramps and game show hosts can quote Boethius if they want to?

There are so many stand-out performances here (I'll come to Steve Coogan in a bit), but Andy Serkis was particularly great as Martin Hannett. This is more or less a who's who of British comedy and drama performers, though, from Peter Kay to Simon Pegg. And the cameos, from Mark E. Smith (I spotted him!) to Howard Devoto (if you haven't heard Magazine's Real Life, get the album now) are a nice little extra bit of metatextual fun in a film where there's rather a lot of it, courtesy of screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Rob Brydon has only a minor role but this is, I suppose, pretty much one of those Michael Winterbottom films with him and Coogan, all of which are rather good. The style is certainly very much in line with The Trip et al, with a lot of damage being done to the Fourth Wall. It's so very fitting that Coogan as Tony Wilson not only addresses the camera but does so as an unreliable narrator. Coogan has not only the talent but also the charisma to do this superbly. He also plays the moments of real feeling behind the façade; the scene where he's alone with Ian Curtis' laid-out corpse is genuinely moving.

The moment of nemesis is a magnificent conclusion as the Hacienda finally closes and Tony Wilson invites the punters to loot the place. The place certainly had its dark side, very much so, but this film is a joyous celebration of what now seem to be old-fashioned values of independent record labels, creative freedom and vibrant, changing music, unlike the stagnant scene of today with its landfill indie and chart music strangled by the dead hand of svengalis and talent shows. Er, said the old fart. But I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that the bad old days of svengalis and staid musical conservatism, which came to an end when the Beatles came up with the radical practice of writing their own songs, thereby slaying that dragon. But it never really went away. I've always thought that the rock n' roll revolution of the '50s and '60s was a one-off, an injection of African rhythms into the mainstream of Western popular music, which had already been heralded by jazz and blues which now took over completely and gave rise to so much that was new and alive and wonderful. There will always be new music worth listening to, but those days now seem to be more or less over as a dominant part of mainstream culture. Musically, it's 1955 again. This film is a reminder of better times.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Anne

"If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite so many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!"

Well, here I am, the prodigal son returned, and the Fates have dealt me an episode that feels rather appropriate in the circumstances. This blog is now back to normal, so it's time for me to plough through Season Three of Buffy. This happens to be my favourite season, I'm afraid, boring and conventional though that opinion may be.

This episode is, let's just come out and say it, simply sublime. It's also a sort of statement about the following season, breaking new ground in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is the subtext. It's not been unusual for Buffy to use monsters and supernatural phenomena as metaphors for aspects of teenage life and young people's issues, but this episode deals with a social issue which is much more gritty and adult: homelessness.

We begin by seeing Buffy living hand to mouth, in a dead end job, in a crummy apartment in LA. This is our first example of Joss Whedon using the big city as the setting for more adult problems which, in spite of the metaphorical supernatural elements, feels much more gritty and "realistic". This is not the world of adolescence, authority figures and parental support; existence is much more tenuous. The contrast between "Anne", with her tenuous and poverty-stricken life, and the homeless people she passes, is only a matter of degree. It's made very clear that homelessness is something that could happen to anyone. And premature aging and death is an obvious metaphor for what homelessness does to you.

Of course, Buffy isn't "really" poor, as she could return to her mother at any time, but I think the point still stands.

The homeless are, of course, ripe for exploitation. I'm not sure I'm getting all the subtext of who the bad guys represent (this may be a specifically American thing), but a certain piece of blatant symbolism later on gives a definite indication that they're supposed to be capitalists of some kind. Buffy leads the workers against their oppressors armed initially with a hammer, but soon acquires a sickle too. And the camera lingers far too much on Buffy posing with a hammer and sickle (in fact, this is one of the iconic poses) for it to be possible to deny that the intent is to represent revolutionary socialism. And I, much though I'm sometimes tempted to wish for an equal and opposite left-wing counterweight to our excessively conservative political discourse, am no revolutionary socialist. Still, I'm not sure Whedon is either. Buffy does, after all, begin her revolution by asserting her individuality, and ends by returning to her bourgeois lifestyle.

Oh, and it's nice to see Chanterelle again, now calling herself Lily but with no fixed identity. It's already clear that her arc is going to be one of increasing confidence and self-reliance. She's an interesting character.

But what of Sunnydale, after that extraordinarily long summer? Everything seems to revolve around Buffy's absence but, of course, Whedon isn't afraid to have a bit of metatextual fun with this. The fact that Willow doesn't find the quips coming as easily as they do for Buffy is essentially a cheerful admission that Whedon-esque dialogue is hardly realistic; people in real life just aren't as witty as that, especially in times of stress. But the point is, well, who says realism is so great, anyway?

The whole inevitable sequence of Cordy and Xander being nasty to each other and then finally snogging is played for laughs, too; it's become so familiar now that it can be presented almost as slapstick. And Whedon manages to get around the massive plot convenience of Oz having to repeat a year by pretty much just coming out and admitting it.

The scenes with the biggest emotional punch both involve Joyce, though. At first we think that she and Giles have built up a connection but then she turns on him. And, of course, we end perfectly, with a silent hug between mother and daughter.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

One Last Update...

I'm coming to the end of this period of not posting very much because of stuff happening. Season Three of Buffy starts on Friday 30th March, and I'll be back on a full schedule of posting from that point onwards. Saturday and Sunday will both be movies, but after that I'll be back to the usual schedules of movies on Saturdays (if I'm in) and Buffy the rest of the time.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Vampire Circus (1972)

"They play no games. They are death."

I love old Hammer movies, especially vampire ones. The combination of camp humour and genuine creepiness is such fun, and there's such fun to be had with the subtext, too. Take the opening sequence here, for example. It's your typical Hammer setting: somewhere vaguely Mittel-Europa-ish in what looks like Napoleonic times, and everyone has vaguely German or Slavic names. Yet there's a nasty old Count, living in a suitably gothic castle, who's cuckolding the local gentry by stealing their wives, which has mediaeval droit de seigneur overtones, and drinking the blood of their daughters, which has paedophile overtones. Oh, and he's a vampire. Naturally. There are all sorts of sexual and class subtexts here already.

We also have lots more of the usual tropes- mobs with burning torches, sinister forests, even the music. (Incidentally, does anyone know whether the David Whitaker who composed the music here is the same chap who script edited Doctor Who? It's not a common spelling of the surname so I wonder…). Most obviously, of course, there's a very direct equivalence of vampirism with sex; every single scene of necks being bitten in the whole film is so wonderfully erotic. Anna's lust for the Count probably implies that Albert, her husband, is a bit rubbish in the sack. Of course, being a woman who is seen to enjoy sex, she has to be punished by all the men, by being whipped. Which, er, obviously has no sexual overtones whatsoever.

All of this is just the set-up, though, in a pre-titles sequence, something surprisingly rare in films. A lesser film would have this as its main plot, but here it's a mere preamble to establish a curse and get on with the films main purpose; scaring us, titillating us and reminding us that circuses, and not just clowns, are the creepiest things ever. Because they are, aren't they? The mysteriousness, the feeling of a closed world, the highly dodgy treatment of animals and, yes, the clowns. I'm a little worried to see the treatment of a dwarf as "other" and therefore scary, and also the overtones of Gypsies being sinister ("Hey, woman! Gypsy woman!"), but circuses are well creepy. A circus like this would, I suppose, have been recognisable in 1972 but now, thankfully, it isn't.

The plot is wonderful and satisfying, although it's not at all clear why the townsfolk keep going to the circus if they all suspect it of extreme dodginess! There are some nice touches and some nice set pieces. I like the way the strongman (Dave Prowse, no less!) is unaffected by a crucifix as he's not a vampire, and that the quick-thinking (if wet!) Anton is able to use a crossbow as a crucifix. It all looks gorgeous (particularly the large quotient of beautiful young ladies!) and the direction, by Robert Young, is excellent, with lots of particularly brilliant shots. The film is let down by a lack of charismatic actors, however. The cast is mainly competent, or better, but there are no real lead actors to be seen. The exception is John Moulder-Brown, who is eye-poppingly awful and, unfortunately, in a very major role. With a better cast, this would have been a much better film.

Still, there's not a lot wrong with the script or the look of the film. I'm surprised that Robert Young doesn't seem to have done much else. The later Hammers certainly tend to be a lot more erotic, but there's some very good stuff.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Four Lions (2010)

"Waj, why are you doing this?"

"Rubber dinghy rapids!"

I've resisted reviewing any outright comedy for this blog so far, film or TV, for the obvious reasons: trying to analyse humour is about the most po-faced thing I can possibly imagine. I don't really hold to the oft-repeated belief that you ruin a joke by looking at how it works, but it's still hard to do it without appearing to have no sense of humour and, as John Cleese once said, an Englishman would rather be accused of having a really small penis than that.

Still, I've reviewed quite a few films now, and I can't keep ignoring a whole genre. I have to find some way of talking about it. And it isn't that I haven't found humorous things to discuss before (Flash Gordon, for example. Actually, that's a comedy, innit?). So I've deliberately decided to have a go. Originally I was going to review Kind Hearts and Coronets, but I had to give up five minutes in as there are no subtitles on my DVD and the dialogue just isn't clear enough to compensate. I'm a bit pissed off about that, really; a DVD release without subtitles is not acceptable.

So, Four Lions. It's a brilliant film. But the first thing I have to say is: DO NOT BUY THE DVD. Just record it off the telly or something. The DVD forces you to watch about ten minutes' worth of trailers that can't be skipped. Any DVD that does this has to be boycotted, otherwise they'll just keep on doing it.

Crikey. Got out of the bed the wrong side this morning, didn't I? Anyway… I picked Kind Hearts and Coronets so that I'd be able to talk about the class subtext instead of trying to analyse jokes. This was my second choice, obviously, because there's a political subtext to talk about. Thing is, though, there's not an awful lot to say about it, cleverly done though it is. All sorts of taboos are cheerfully ploughed though, as you'd expect from Chris Morris, but it's funny for rather old fashioned reasons. The format is basically that old classic, thick bloke and thicker bloke. The three thicker blokes (the Stan Laurels / Buttheads / Garths / Syd Littles, depending on your cultural reference point) are Waj, Faisal and Hassan, and the two thick blokes (the Hardys / Beavises / Waynes / Eddie Larges) are Omar and Barry. There's a bit of an added level of this between these two, jostling for the spot of alpha male, but it's Omar who's ultimately the least thick, and the leader. Of course, though, the humour lies in the fact that they're all wazzocks. This is co-written by the creators of Peep Show, and feels like it.

It's Omar and Barry who are fleshed out more as characters. Omar has a loving wife and young son, and the family relationships are quite heartwarming. Yet his wife is enthusiastic for Omar's plans to blow himself up, and their son is being brought up to idolise jihad and martyrdom. His brother Ahmed, a far more observant and pious Muslim than Omar, who is forever referring to Western pop culture, is appalled at all this, yet we can't quite side with him as he's such a zealot that he locks his wife up in a "little room"! So many contradictions.

Barry, although charismatic, is a little semi-detached because of his white ethnicity, his convert status and his lack of Urdu. I suspect this, rather than anything else is the real reason why he refuses to attend the mosques (he wants to blow then up!) and prefers only to associate with other Muslims who accept him as one of them, not an outsider, which pushes him towards extremism. He doesn't quite belong anywhere, precisely because of his stubborn adherence to a particularly narrow version of "Islam". So many contradictions.

And it's the contradictions that make this film so funny. Barry accuses Omar at the end of killing his thick brother by dragging him into this, but he did the same himself with Hassan. Waj ends up about to blow himself up inside a kebab shop full of Muslims. Omar and Waj go to train with Al Qaeda and end up blowing up Bin Laden. And Omar blows up a branch of Boots, something which he's mocked earlier.

There's something almost Monty Python about the explosions, too. All of them, from Faisal's crow to Faisal himself to Barry's choking demise are very, very funny. It goes to show that the subject matter, being fundamentally absurd, is ripe for humour. I'm glad that a film like this exists, and that it's good.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Frau im Mond (1929)

"Learned ignoramuses, lacking in fantasy, whose brains work in inverse proportion to their level of calcification…!"

I can't watch Metropolis yet, as I still haven't got around to buying the restored version, including all the recently recovered clips. But I do happen to own this, a very different science fiction film by Fritz Lang, from just a couple of years later and grounded very much in "hard" sci-fi. And it's a fascinating document of film history as well as of space travel in popular culture.

For all that it's very much of its time and very German (the car number plates are recognisably German even in 1929, and I was amazed to see that the credits and intertitles use the long "s", something which I imagined had fallen out of use during the eighteenth century!), this reminds me very much of Bollywood films in one important respect. Bollywood films tend not to specialise, but to be aimed at a very wide audience of all ages and backgrounds, and both genders. Hence films tend to include action, romance, comedy, songs, etc. This film may not have any songs (a silent film hardly could!) but it ticks pretty much all the other boxes.

We have science fiction, obviously. We have romantic drama in the form of the love triangle between Helius, Friede and Windegger. We have an extended comic sequence at the beginning, in the Professor's flat. Most of the first hour is devoted to a bizarre, but entertaining, conspiracy theory thriller. There's even a quick shoot-out. This is several films in one; no wonder it's so bloody long.

It doesn't feel too long, though, strange though it can feel for a silent film, to feature so many sequences of people talking. It's never boring; the acting style sees to that. This is very much a melodrama, with all that entails. This is probably essential, and it works; the characters are all extremely well-rounded. We have the brave, determined but worry-prone Helius, whose name seems to evoke the Icarus myth, rather appropriately. We have the decent but cowardly Windegger. We have Friede, the bravest, most loyal and most collected of the whole of them, and the epitome of the strong woman. She's the heroine of the film. We have the Professor, our requisite comedy character. We have Gustav, the boy in short trousers with his sci-fi pulp magazines.

But perhaps the most interesting character is Walt Turner, he of the superhuman powers of disguise. The hairstyle and mannerisms evoke Hitler very, very strongly, and in the Germany of 1929 this can be no accident. Interestingly, the Hitler character is the only one who isn't German, and he hasn't got a moustache (that would be too blatant!), but it's hard to escape the conclusion that Fritz Lang was not exactly a fan of Hitler's; it's hardly a flattering portrayal. Not only is Turner incredibly sinister and villainous, but he's by far the most cowardly (and dishevelled!) during the g-force section. Hitler is being treated as a contemptible Nick Griffin figure which is, of course, exactly what he was in 1929. The Nazi party didn't exactly come to power by promising to shove people into concentration camps and murder six million Jews; they kept rather quiet about that. That's something which should be borne in mind by anyone who imagines the BNP or the like are remotely less dangerous.

Still, it's weird to see the Hitler figure as the one who's part of the sort of conspiracy which, in Germany between the wars, can hardly not have anti-Semitic overtones. This cabal of four rich men and one cigar-chomping woman is utterly ridiculous and not remotely believable. Then again, there are depressing numbers of people today who believe even more obviously stupid conspiracy theories, so perhaps I shouldn't judge.

It's hard not to be impressed by the prescience with which manned space flight is depicted, with two caveats, both forgiveable. Yes, to have the Moon (or even just an unseen part of it) be breathable and habitable is a bit dodgy. But there are, I think, very good grounds to plead artistic licence here. It's 1929; everyone knows that actual travel to the Moon is decades away, and at least they're acknowledging that the known part of the Moon is airless. Besides, there's a literary tradition of a habitable Moon from Verne and Wells (whose novel is echoed in the strong element of greed here).

The other odd thing is that this is a private expedition, not state sponsored, although surely only a nation, and a major one at that, could possibly be able to fund such an undertaking, especially back then? But, those little things aside, there are so many amazingly correct predictions. An unmanned vessel, equipped with a camera, was sent first. Travel is by rocket, and it has three stages. There's a countdown, the first ever example of what would become a well-worn trope. There's a sort of spacesuit which, rather logically, looks like a deep sea diving suit. There's even weightlessness, with people walking by aid of footstraps in the floor!

There are things to raise eyebrows, of course. The Moon has an atmosphere as strong as the Earth's, which is not only a problem in itself but raises the question of how they can take off again. The different stages of the rocket have to be jettisoned manually during a period of strong g-forces, which seems rather risky. But the film gets so many things right that it seems churlish to complain; I'd be amazed if Werner Von Braun didn't turn out to have seen this film...

The film may have dated a little, it's very long for a silent movie, but it held my interest throughout and is a fascinating little historical document.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

"Conan, what is best in life?"

"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!"

I'm a bit OCD when it comes to consuming popular culture. If I miss an episode of a television drama, I can't watch the next one until I've seen the one I missed. I can never watch a film from part way through; I absolutely have to see the start. I wasn't always such an extreme case, though, which means that in my late teens I actually did read some of Robert E. Howards's Conan stories. I'm not sure I could do that now, for those very OCD reasons. What order are the books supposed to be in? Does it matter? Does the stuff written by L. Sprague De Camp count as "canonical"? Is there some sort of overlap with the stories of H.P. Lovecraft whose stories, I believe, were published by the same pulp magazine? Also, incidentally, why are there so very few films based on Lovecraft's stories?

I remember enjoying what I read, but very little about it because, I suspect, it was extremely disjointed. I liked the book covers, though; that I do remember. And this film faithfully recreates that aesthetic of scantily clad, sexy individuals of both sexes, sorcerers in horned headgear, loads of snakes, and really cool armour with even cooler helmets. It's a shame about all the mullets (not Arnie, fortunately), but I believe they were still legal in the early '80s. Still, the whole look of the film is bloody good. I'm now rather interested in reading about this whole world, and when I've finished this article I'll be off for a spot of Wikipeding.

But… it's really rather easy to pick holes in the whole idea of the Hyborean age, isn't it? This made-up epoch between the fall of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history is pretty much an invitation to look for anachronisms- and here we get concepts such as Valhalla, Vanir and a character called "Thorgrim" with a massive warhammer. The technology level is very much Iron Age or later; the first thing we see is steel being worked, we see corn being ground with a quern early on, and I'm trying to recall if the horses had stirrups. I suppose you can explain some of these things as being lost in some later cataclysm, but it's rather hard to explain the sight of horses being ridden. I believe that horses were fairly light-weight until at least the Iron Age, which is why their use in warfare was pretty much limited to chariots for all but the lightest of uses.

Still, let's not pick holes, fun though it is. A fictional "lost" age is probably the only way you can do this kind of hard-edged, rough and ready sort of sword and sorcery stuff. These characters are neither stupid nor uncultured (they have poetry and philosophy), but there's a roughness to them. Speech is extremely direct. There are absolutely no pleases, thank yous or any other kind of verbal politeness. Characters mean what they say and hat they mean, which doesn't make them in any way shallow, unintelligent or incapable of irony or humour. Their society may be very harsh indeed, but there's an innocent lack of guile to them, and they're perfectly capable of warmth, love and even a kind of articulacy.

Not Arnold Schwarzenegger, though. Of course not. Aside from an ill-advised semi-soliloquy just before the big set-piece fight towards the end he's a man of few words, as befits his command of English at the time. Still, the future Governator was obviously hired for his rippling muscles and required to be more of a presence than an actor, and this is a role he fulfils admirably. And it's quite an achievement to display so much charisma, and to be the undisputed star of the film, while saying so little.

Of course, James Earl Jones is much, much more charismatic, and he does this entirely through actually acting. He has possibly the finest voice in all of cinema; Thulsa Doom is an utterly delicious baddie, but he has pretty much nothing at all in common with Darth Vader in his vocal stylings. He's pretty bad-ass, demanding that his underlings be prepared to face death and "emptiness" on his whim. Presumably this means that they sacrifice themselves for him without question, knowing that their deaths are pointless and they will be utterly forgotten, and in every expectation that there will be no afterlife. Chilling.

The film manages the wonderful feat of playing everything straight while slipping in a bit of metatextual silly subtext on the sly. Conan's crucifixion is such overblown and pretentious Christ symbolism that it can only be intentional. My eyebrow was also raised during the sex scene between Conan and the prophetess. As soon as she reaches orgasm she turns into a horrible screeching demon. Hmm. Perhaps just a slight hint of male fear of female sexuality there then. There are also lots of scenes of semi-naked women chained up and on public display, meaning that I couldn't help thinking about the male gaze and all that. But I think the scene where Conan, as a slave in his cage, is allowed to have sex with (well, rape) a female slave in his cage while others watch pretty much has to be taken as evidence that it's being done knowingly. It's still being done, of course. Doing things ironically doesn't actually stop things being misogynistic.

Oh yes, and then there's the scene with the semi-clad woman jumping into a pit to sacrifice herself to a snake, which one can't help noticing is a somewhat phallic creature. Do you reckon there might be a bit of symbolism there? Of course, the snake turns out to be dead. There might be a bit of symbolism there, too. No wonder Thulsa Doom is so humiliated and angry about this later on. And I can't help noticing that the only characters at whom he aims those snake-arrow things are female. What an amazing coincidence…

It's also rather noticeable that Conan's girlfriend, a rather major character, doesn't even have a name, in marked contrast to Subotai, whom I like a lot. A also like Akiro; he's such a fun character. I love the way he narrates the film and then appears halfway through, too. It's a very well-structured script, co-written, I notice, by none other than Oliver Stone.

I enjoyed this far more than I expected. It may not be very deep but it's solidly written, and a lot more fun than it might appear to be at first glance.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Rest of the Month...

Real life... what a bummer, eh?

I'll still be posting as much as I can, but my blogging schedule is going to be pretty light for most of the rest of the month- I'm just not going to have much free time on weekday evenings. I'll try and knock out at least a movie a week though, and hopefully some telly, too. Next up is Season Three of Buffy, which I'm really quite excited about.

Fear not, though- this is only a temporary thing. April should be back to normal.This blogging thing is bloody addictive, believe me.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Borgen: The First Tuesday in October

"I want a divorce."

So, that's it. No more Borgen on BBC 4 until the Winter, we're told. I suspect it'll be worth the wait, although I certainly hope they don't show it as two consecutive episodes a week next time. That's not a very clever way to show a series where each individual episode requires much, much digesting, and I'm not sure I was the only one put up to just record it until much, much later. I can think of a few things about the last episode which I wish I'd written about last night. I feel like that with every episode. One episode a week, please!

This episode is such a deeply satisfying culmination of the threads, character-based and thematic, which have run right through the season. Birgitte's marriage collapses into selling-out for the cameras, and then into inevitable but cathartic divorce, just as the first anniversary of her premiership looms, alongside a new Parliament and a new year's legislative programme.

It's clear there's no way back from the strain, and the lapses in judgement, suffered by Birgitte. Such is the nature of power. All senior politicians live in a bubble which, in the end, inevitably severs them entirely from reality. And the sheer physical and emotional strain of this most demanding of jobs is so utterly crushing that it seems to approach Stockholm Syndrome at times. Relationships with "civilians" tend not to survive such pressures. Not only Birgitte, but also Bent and the Sir Humphrey figure have given up hope of a functional relationship with their spouse, whatever the "official" situation. All of this feels very, very realistic, and it's interesting to relate it to UK politics.

It's only where both partners exist in this world that there's any hope. It's very notable how, even though Katrine ends the episode disgusted with Kasper, things between them end on a note that's rather on the hopeful side of individual. Neither of them could possibly maintain a relationship with a "civilian"- what choice do they have? I suppose that's a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, too, but it isn't really anywhere near that bleak. They may fight, a lot, but they understand each other perfectly and what they have between them is, for all its faults, real.

The early mention that "Cabinet seats cost popularity" certainly raised at least one eyebrow from me, being an accurate description of what the inevitable compromises of power have done to Lib Dem support here in the UK, and Nick Clegg is nowhere near as pretty as Birgitte Nyborg. The Labour plotting against Bent, Birgitte's father figure and her only true friend in politics, is devastating for her at a time like this but also feels very real.

The episode is framed around Kasper's speech, and his struggle with it, culminating in Birgitte's triumphant delivery which, of course, confirms that she can still be a good Prime Minister in spite of her inevitable problems. Kasper actually shows himself to be a bloody good scriptwriter; his comments on Kennedy's inauguration speech, and the need for pathos and ethos as well as logos (See? I just spontaneously remembered stuff from a module in Rhetoric I took at uni, a disturbingly long time ago…!), show how well he understands the values of the political principles he lacks. Of course, now that we know his history it's fascinating to speculate on why he's like this. Also interesting is how he casually uses the lovely but soon-to-be-sacked Sanne for his own gratification at a time when he seems to be getting on fine with Katrine, dumping her so very casually.

Katrine, on the other hand, is very, very principled, but how much of this is really ambition? I notice that Kasper seems to hint at this when he points out that she's not yet thirty but wants to dictate the news policy of a major channel. I suspect she'll follow Hanne Holm into newspapers.

In one sense things are wrapped up. In another, we're right in the middle of things. Politics is like that.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Borgen: Divide and Rule

"Who'll be Prime Minister while you do all our jobs?"

Well, we might as well start by talking about that moment. But, for the record, this was a bloody brilliant bit of drama, just one slightly dodgy Scottish accent away from perfection, and I think we can forgive that in a programme from Denmark.

Blimey. I know I ended last episode's review by observing that Philip asserting himself by taking the job was ultimately just storing up conflict for the future, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon or so literally. Philip's been a sympathetic character so far in spite of his faults, and someone we can identify with. But in making him hit his wife the writers have decided to place him beyond the pale. Whatever his motives- and they are, of course, genuine and even understandable- there's no possible way that him doing this can ever be defended. The moment hits the viewer like a bomb. It's great drama, especially as it feels "earned" by a long set-up, but even so I'm a bit uneasy by what it says about masculinity.

The episode title is, yet again, really rather clever. This episode sees people divided from each other- Birgitte from Philip and Katrine from her boss, Torsten, both of them partly because of a stubborn refusal to delegate- a rather obvious big theme- but also lots of conflict about power- both of those same examples, again- but also within Cabinet and between government and media.

With all that going on, the political issue this episode- which fighter jet should be bought by the Danish air force- is fairly ho-hum, thus allowing us to focus on these kinds of power relationships. Certainly, it's become very clear that Birgitte's personal life is impinging on her premiership. She's devastated by the total breakdown in her marriage, much as she tries to show it. She's still capable of being magnificent (her response to Katrine's naughty question at the end is a fairly clear parallel to her similar act of off-message genius in the debate before the election), but her inability to delegate is a worrying sign. She's overreacting to the Hox's actions last episode, and given her domestic circumstances she's possibly headed for a nervous breakdown. The way she humiliates herself by barging into Freja's flat is a very worrying sign. Her open government initiative is certainly going to stir up a hornet's nest, too. I certainly wouldn't want her job.

Katrine's problem of being unable to delegate is superficially similar but there's a big difference; she's not the boss. She spends the whole episode defying Torsten and getting away with it because she's successful, but when she finally oversteps the line there are consequences. Her relationship with Kasper is getting interesting too. They're close again, but he still won't discuss his demons with her, except for the one shocking outburst. This is building up to something. Everything's building up to something. And the BBC 4 announcer referred to the last episode as a "season finale" over the closing titles. Should I be excited?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Artist (2011)

"Quiet, please!"

I feel completely naked right now. Every time I've reviewed something up until now I've taken notes while watching (meaning much use of the pause button), and referred to them while tying out my review. But I saw this at the cinema, where making notes is not exactly an option. So I'm naked, without a safety net, swimming without water wings, or whatever metaphor you prefer.

Incidentally, I saw this at the Phoenix Square cinema in Leicester, a rather excellent little place, somewhat arty, and just around the corner from one of my favourite little watering hols, the Ale Wagon. Not only does it have a bar, not only does it do Boddingtons, but you can take your pint of Boddies in with you to see the film. Result.

The film is, let's not wait before saying it, completely bloody brilliant, and entirely deserving of its Oscar, although I would have thought it might be a little light-hearted for the Academy's tastes. The whole thing looks gorgeous: Michel Hazanavicious does rather a lot of very things with the camera. The film just bulges with sumptuous 1920's-ness; the cars, the clothes- everything from the opening titles onwards evokes the period in a way that films made in the actual 1920's, when all this stuff was ordinary and mundane, don't. The cast is superb, too, with Jean Dujardin being another deserving winner, accurately portraying a strangely period kind of matinee idol charm while also evoking the pathos of a proud man humiliated, all while showing a superb sense of comedy. He does all these things, and yet George Valentin (bit of a nod to Rudolph with the name there...) comes across as a coherent and nuanced character. Really, there are people in this world far less fortunate than a washed-up ex-actor whose diminished lifestyle would arguably still be the envy of many, especially during the Great Depression, and Valentin really is a proud, arrogant and self-centrede git. And yet he fully retains our sympathy in spite of all this, and even the attempt at suicide feels both real and horrifying.

Bérénice Bejo (the director's missus) is superb too in a role that demands her to convince as an A-list star while also showing us the real enthusiasm and the big heart that lies underneath. It sort of helps that she happens to be gorgeous.

But the best thing about the film is how damned clever it is. There are few things I enjoy in a film more than a bit of metatextual fun, and that's exactly what this film is about- a "love letter to Hollywood" that wallows in all the glamour of cinema while also showing us the tragedy of what happens to those who have finished their time in the Sun, and how cruelly they are cast off.

The opening scene, a scene within a scene from A Russian Affair, features Valentin being tortured and refusing to talk. This is, obviously, pretty much a metaphor for everything he does in the film. Just before his wife leaves him she's most upset at him for his refusal to talk to her. In every way possible, he refuses to talk, and this underlines just how thoroughly and suddenly he's been sidelined by the arrival of the talkies.

My favourite scene and, I suspect, most people's favourite scene, is the dream sequence where sound (though not dialogue!) suddenly intrudes, with his glass thudding on to the table and a feather falling to the ground with an almighty crash. Sound is what Valentin most fears.

Only at the end are we told why as he utters his only line of dialogue in a pronounced French accent, which is if anything even more meta. And the last few seconds of the film feature a cacophony of voices calling for quiet.

A splendid film, then, marred only by the parking ticket I got from some bastard traffic warden. I strongly recommend you go and see it, but be careful where you park!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Borgen: The Silly Season

"Don't you wash your hands?"

"It doesn't make the smell go away."

This is an extraordinary episode. It makes us completely reinterpret so much of what we've seen in earlier episodes. Suddenly it makes sense that Kasper is the way he is, cold, repressed, horribly damaged and in denial about his past.

After my comments about last episode, thinking I had the format of Borgen sorted as an issue-of-the-week political drama with added character arcs, this episode goes and breaks that template, if there was one, completely. It's the Summer. Parliament isn't sitting and there's no news, only gossip. It is, to use a very British phrase, the Silly Season. (I'd be interested to know whether that was a direct translation- I suspect not.) So that means we can drop the issues of the week (Laugesen's memoirs aren't really that) and really focus on character. Even the opening quote is not from Machiavelli or Lenin but James Joyce, of all people, and is about the past coming back to bite you. Lots of threads come to a head here.

Incidentally, isn't Laugesen odious? He's like a cross between Tony Blair and Kelvin McKenzie. Urrrgh.

Kasper's past might not be all that unexpected- I was expecting child abuse as soon as we got the first flashback- but that doesn't make the actual revelation and less huge. These flashbacks are quietly devastating. And Pilou Asbæk is an extraordinary actor- so many scenes are made by his facial acting. In fact, this gives us a wonderful piece of misdirection as he's apparently nervous just before his interview. Of course, he nails it, but looks no less uncomfortable. It's really been his father, not Laugesen's revelations, that have been bothering him.

The fact that he went so far as to change his first name speaks volumes, and his stilted relationship with his mother (does she know?) is so awkward to watch. His refusal to take any of his father's shirts becomes very understandable once you've seen the flashback, and his insistence on a minimal funeral and an unmarked grave is horribly revealing of his desire to bury these feelings away and forget about them.

Ironically, all this is what brings him and Katrine together. Even her disgust at how he came across the receipts that incriminated Hesselboe is leavened by the fact that for once he's being honest. And she has real feelings for him. ("If you just told me the truth, I'd do anything for you." I knew it was her entering the room at the end, despite the blurred focus, but the scene is so deeply cathartic and, yes, lovely. What happens between them now?

Birgitte and Philip's storyline is less dramatic and, given that it could hardly compete with child abuse, less upsetting, but it's quietly upsetting to see their relationship continue to deteriorate. Philip's a nice guy, but he's emasculated, and doesn't even want sex. Society is fine with a woman being Prime Minister (although of course things are still fine from equal; let's not kid ourselves), but the role of her "consort" is awkward, given the way gender roles work culturally. Philip is adopting a traditionally feminine role, and is therefore emasculated. He's as much a victim of cultural misogyny as his wife. And although he may temporarily solve things at the end by asserting his masculinity, this can only be storing up conflict for the future...