Monday, 30 April 2012

The Bridge: Episode Three

"I had sex as well."

"How did you find time for that?"

"It doesn't take long."

"What's his name?"

"I can't remember."

Well, I've certainly crossed Saga off my list of "fictional characters I might conceivably consider sleeping with". It's a funny exchange, though, and while it's the best in the episode it's one of many amusing little "odd couple" between her and Martin. She has no sense of embarrassment whatsoever (and that, if nothing else, makes me jealous) and has no ability to infer what other people want or are implying. Hints mean nothing to her.

There's a big question here, of course: is there something a bit uncomfortable about using the traits of Asperger's for comic purposes? I wouldn't use a stronger word than "uncomfortable", but I do wonder. But it isn't as though I don't find Saga funny. And it's rather touching how her boss, Hans, is quite fond of her. That scene between the two of them is rather sweet, even if it does hammer home rather unsubtly (not that hammering tends to be subtle, but you know what I mean…) that she and the murderer probably have similar personalities. And I bet she will end up withdrawing her report on Martin eventually, probably for a completely random reason.

The police in Copenhagen are rather less of a happy family, and Martin's boss is rather more beleaguered, especially with the whole Monique Brannan debacle. Still, it's interesting how both sets of detectives wear very casual clothes and are always calling each other by their first names. Hans even has rather longish hair although, yes, I know- pot, kettle. You wouldn't see any of those things in a British cop show.

As far as the plot is concerned, this episode is mainly about introducing new plot threads, as the poisoning of the homeless people is not really the focus of the episode, except to establish Sonja as having survived, and to push Stefan back firmly into "red herring" territory. He ends up looking so very guilty to Martin and Sonja; it's a surprise they don't arrest him there and then.

No, the homelessness angle is really about the reality show- style kidnapping of Bjorn, and the way four rich people have to donate £20 million krone or krona within a few hours if he's not to die. One of those people, interestingly, was to be Goran, except he's dead. Things haven't gone to the murderer's plan and he must improvise, which is one of his weaknesses according to the Malmo psychologist (who dresses much like I do, yay!), and make do with Charlotte, who has inherited her husband's money and thus joined up with the main plot. Of course, after the events of episode one she will only speak to Martin, not Saga. This, of course, teaches us one of the rules by which this series operates; events in one episode can have unforeseen consequences a couple of episodes later. Interesting, then, that Martin's son August admires the political agenda of the "truth terrorist" and is speaking to a mysterious online someone.

Definitely unforeseen is the whole angle with Anja. She's a very middle class rebel, but her only communication with her mother is through sudden, awkward violence and her dad is too busy throwing dinner parties in his massive house. So she plays at being homeless and shacks up with a creepy male stranger. I have no idea where this is going, but she's clearly going to play a big part.

This episode feels very much like set-up for the most part. Exactly what's being set up is a mystery to me at this point.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Howard the Duck (1986)

"That's it. No more Mr. Nice Duck!"

It's rather odd that I haven't reviewed any superhero films so far, especially as I'm rather partial to them and there are so many of them around these days. V for Vendetta doesn't really count. It's about time that I reviewed a film starring one of the truly iconic Marvel or DC heroes. What could be a more obvious choice than Howard the Duck? (Thanks to Nick for lending it!)

Admittedly, there are reasons to go in with low expectations. The quotes on the DVD cover, which are naturally going to be the most complimentary ones they could possibly use, are all about the special effects and nothing else. The film is "presented by" George Lucas, and any film which is "presented by" someone more famous is invariably directed by someone quite obscure. Also, back in those distant days before the Star Wars prequels when George Lucas actually had a good reputation, this was generally considered one of the worst things he's put his name to.

Actually, though, I was very pleasantly surprised. It's not a particularly great film, fair enough, but it's a pleasantly nostalgic experience to watch it today. Yes, the plot is a bit plodding, the tone overly sentimental and the jokes forced, but without these things it just wouldn't be a 1980s Hollywood adaptation. And the film lays on the 1980s-ness so heavily that it's hard to accept that it's from the real 1980s and not a modern pastiche of the 1980s that thinks it was all Rubik's cubes, shoulder pads, Mr. T and Boy George. Let's do a list, shall we?

  • Lea Thompson is in it, and she's one of the most 1980s people ever. Plus, her hair is looking particularly 1980s. Oh, and she's lead singer in a band that's just like the Bangles.

  • We have one of those sorts of nightclubs that are only ever seen in movies from the 1980s, complete with an extraordinary array of hairstyles and probably half the world's supply of hairspray.

  • Howard gets shoved all the way along a bar until he falls off the end, and then walks purposefully across it to get his revenge. This only ever happens in 1980s film and TV.

  • There's some outrageous product placement for, of all things, Heinz mustard and tomato ketchup.

  • There's an end of level baddie at the end as the Dark Overlord attains his true form, thus indicating that we've just entered the age of the video game, and yet this monster is a rather splendid, Ray Harryhausen style stop-motion thingy that moves just a little too quickly and awkwardly but is nevertheless the greatest thing ever. This combination could have happened in no other decade.

So, yay for all that. Of course, the duck costume looks rubbish. Of course, you have to raise an eyebrow at how easy it seems to be for a literal illegal alien to get a job. And yes, the film translates very little of Steve Gerber's absurd humour and sharpness to the screen, although Beverley does utter the phrase "trapped in a world you never made". But this is fun, nostalgic to the point where even the rubbish bits are nostalgically rubbish, and features Lea Thompson with not many clothes on. What more do you want? Although it has to be said that the film only has a 12 certificate and yet there are rather broad hints of what is technically bestiality…!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Gingerbread

"Oh man! It's Nazi Germany and I've got Playboys in my locker!"

In a way this, Jane Espenson's second script is a harking back to what already seems an earlier era of the show: the fairly clear cut metaphor at the heart of the story. After all the arc episodes of late it would almost be a relief to have a more dependable type of one-off episode, except that the subject matter is intrinsically rather harrowing. It's a good thing that it's leavened with so much humour.

Moral panics are terrible, terrible things, always. Even when they aren't virtual witch hunts, people always get hurt. The obvious example which occurs to me is the moral panic against paedophiles here in the UK around a decade ago, whipped up by The News of the World, on whose grave there can never be too much dancing. There can hardly be a more genuinely loathsome section of society, but even in these cases innocent people get hurt, as the paediatricians who had been mistaken for paedophiles by a particularly stupid mob would no doubt agree. So much worse, then, when the target is much less deserving. Even without the literal presence of witchcraft the allusions to Salem would be obvious.

The demon (ironically, or rather deliberately, a rather Satan-like one) is closer to being literal than most of the metaphor monsters we've seen so far on Buffy. Even the mental fog which stops people asking basic facts about who the dead children is not much of a stretch; hysteria and groupthink do bad things to rational thought.

One thing which particularly impresses me is the way the theme is only gradually developed, though. The scene of the coven of witches doing seemingly dark deeds is shot especially to look as incriminating as possible, so the fact that we suddenly find Willow amongst them is a shock. The sudden reveal of the same occult symbol from the children's corpses is a truly shocking moment.

The true horror of the whole situation is played out via mother / daughter relationships, though. We've never seen Willow's neglectful mother before; the first time she takes an interest in her daughter, she burns her at the stake. The scenes between the two of them are simultaneously horrifying and very, very, funny. Alyson Hannigan is such a great comic actress.

It's the irrational actions of Joyce that are more shocking, though. Partly this is because of the convincingly gradual build-up, but also because it shows that moral panics can affect even people who are normally quite rational. Her speech ("This isn't our town any more. It belongs to the monsters and the witches and the slayers. I say it's time for the grown-ups to take Sunnydale back.") is another of several moments that hits you (and the Scoobies) like a punch.

It also, of course, hints at Sunnydale's "selective memory thing" that Willow mentions at the end. That means we get to see the glorious confrontation between Giles and Snyder in the library without any big consequences, but this isn't a fully-fledged reset button, not quite. For the first time we're explicitly told that the people of Sunnydale mat repress, but they don't forget, not completely.

The regulars, then? This is Cordelia's best episode since she split with Xander, back to her comedy gold best. Amy (nice to see her again) is stuck as a rat, potentially for a very long time. Also funny is Xander's exaggerated oversensitivity towards the very suggestion that he might know where Willow is. In fact, it's almost as though the Scoobies' interpersonal relationships are being drawn lightly as a contrast from the heavy themes. I'd say it might be a harbinger of some heavy stuff between regular characters next episode, but that can't be, right? It's Buffy's birthday!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Bridge: Episode Two

"Do you want to have sex at my place?"

"Yes, definitely!"

"Good, let's go."

Two episodes in, and I can already tell apart the words for "no" in both Danish and Swedish. Saga certainly says it a lot. It's also becoming clear that this is really good telly. Really, really good telly. Spiral and The Wire good telly. The plot's rather slow burn, and it's easier to spend these reviews talking about themes and characters, but it's unfolding very nicely indeed.

This time the mysterious Stefan has another woman to "save", the strange and homeless Sonja. He also has an office full of underlings who are helping him with Veronika. He also has a scene naked where we see his penis, which seems rather fair, given how much we see of Sonja's boobs. There's a twist, though… Sonja is his sister. And there's another twist at the end, as six homeless people turn up poisoned, apparently by the murderer. Sonja seems ill, too, and Stefan speaks of a mysterious someone who wishes her harm. What does this do to his status as red herring, then?

As I mentioned last episode, I still have no idea whether Stefan and Sonja are Danish or Swedish, and this clearly isn't meant to be unclear- perhaps the subtitles could have pointed it out? The same is true of the murderer's recording, although at least we learn that it was recorded, on behalf of a mysterious client, by an actor speaking "standard Swedish".

The murder seems to have a political agenda, and the first of his five "issues" is the inequality of access to justice. Certainly Monique, the Danish prostitute, has not had the access to justice that Swedish politician Kerstin Ekwall has, er, enjoyed. Martin is appalled and upset to discover that the investigation of the previous year did not even stretch as far as to look at the missing girl's diary, and he's visibly upset by reading it. He's very much a "people person", if you'll excuse the awful phrase, and his empathy and instinct are clearly intended as a neat contrast with Saga. His instinct to go with a hunch and assume that Ferbé has drugs in his flat is such a massive contrast with anything she would do.

The funniest scene is, of course, our look at Saga's very direct pulling technique, the way she post-coitally just turns away from the man she's just shagged without a word and is cluelessly rude to him in the morning. The last thing she says to him is "Thanks!" There are some interesting contrasts here, most obviously with Martin's family life, current sexual inability and habit of confiding with his wife, but also between Saga using a stranger for sex while Martin feels deep empathy with prostitutes. Interesting, too, that each of them is displaying traits more often associated with the opposite gender, whether in relationships or personal traits.

The theme of whether or not to have children, so important last episode, is brought into sharp focus as Charlotte tries to convince the father of a boy on life support to let her husband have the brain-dead son's heart. There are all sorts of ethical agonies inherent in this, but Charlotte is "not interested in hypotheticals". And yet her husband survives only to dump her, and then die. Her selfishness has brought her only pain. Still, it's not yet clear what her role is other than to echo themes.

More of this on Monday: it's back to Buffy next…

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Bridge: Episode One

"Does he know… she's a bit odd?"

"If not, he'll soon find out."

Here we are then. Another Scandinavian TV drama and, on the evidence of this episode, a bloody good one. From the first shot of some driving gloves to the final revelation which leaves us wanting more it had me gripped. There is, I think, a slight comprehension problem for those of us from third countries in that we don't immediately know who's meant to be Swedish and who's meant to be Danish until we're told by the dialogue. I still don't know whether Stefan and Veronika are Danish or Swedish. It doesn't matter at this stage, though.

But let's start by talking about Saga Norén, shall we? Martin Rohde is the co-star, of course, and I suspect he'll turn out to be equally interesting, but Saga makes quite the first impression, to put it mildly. As so many previews have said, she seems to have Asperger's, but this isn't "diagnosed" by the script, and I'm not surprised. Whatever the merits of labelling people in this way, it isn't intrinsically very writer-friendly. Characterisation becomes a little more reductive and less interesting. Nevertheless, that's obviously how we're supposed to see her, initially with a fair bit of dry humour. She's deliciously yet innocently rude to everyone, and has loads of priceless scenes. She refuses to let an ambulance over the bridge, even though it's transporting a heart for transplant. She doesn't exactly show herself as a "people person" when rather brutally informing Kerstin Ekwall's husband of her death. She's calmly matter-of-fact, hilarious, and bizarrely wise in my favourite scene, as she calmly explains to Daniel Ferbé about how he's going to die. But the most revealing scene is where it has to be explained to her that, as she has to spend probably a long time working with Martin, it probably wouldn't be particularly clever to report him for letting the ambulance through!

She's a tall, blonde ice maiden, a very Swedish stereotype. She's cold, lacking in empathy, and a stickler for rules to the point of absurdity. Does this make her a Danish stereotype of a Swede? If so, does this make Martin the Swedish stereotype of a typical Dane? He smokes, which in TV these days is always symbolic: this clearly shows us that he's much looser and more relaxed. He's fathered five children with three different women. His basic social skills are present and correct. Interestingly, he's just had a vasectomy, which means he's symbolically emasculated. I'm not sure what to make of this.

It'll be fascinating to watch this interplay of the two countries, and their mutual stereotypes, over the course of the series. But it's interesting that these two languages are more-or-less mutually intelligible, albeit with a bit of enunciating and hand-waving. As they say, a language is a dialect with an army.

But there are other themes, too; the theme of how rigidly we should stick to rules is seen also in the determination of Charlotte, a wealthy and powerful woman, to bend the rules and secure a heart transplant for her dying husband, an event which ultimately fails because of factors she cannot influence. Also interesting and, at this point, puzzling, are Veronika and her Good Samaritan, Stefan, who seeks to save her from her abusive drug addict husband for reasons which are not yet clear. I suspect, given the contents of the CD in Daniel Ferbe's car, that we're supposed to think he's the murderer. But then it's probably too soon to think of him as the red herring.

Another theme is whether or not to have children. An earlier scene in which Martin and Saga discuss this is echoed by a conversation between Daniel Ferbé, an offensively good-looking hipster and twat, and an older colleague of his. Ferbé, of course, gets his comeuppance.

Oh, and the murder itself, intensely theatrical, is interesting too. There'll be more on that, I'm sure, and many, many more…

Slight Change of Plan...

Before today's proper blog post, a quick word...

Obviously, I'm reviewing Buffy, soon to be joined by Angel. But so far I've been reviewing each season of Buffy straight through, doing a short mini-series between seasons but pretty much sticking to Buffy otherwise, aside from the films. The  problem is, certain television channels (I'm looking at you, BBC4) have been showing lots of short series I want to review over recent months- The Killing, Spiral, Homeland, Rubicon.... so far I've succumbed only with Borgen. So...

I've been having a bit of a think today about being a bit less rigid, which is rather appropriate given the themes of the first episode in question. For the next five weeks I'll be juggling two TV series at the same time. Buffy will be joined by The Bridge. I'll do two episodes a week, to keep me roughly at BBC4 pace. The channel, bizarrely, is showing two episodes at a time, so I'll review both of them during the following week, interspersed with Buffy on other days, still making up most of the posts. Hopefully that'll keep things more zeitgeisty with The Bridge (in the UK, at least) than they were with Borgen, where I was a few weeks behind the curve.

Also, I should be able to post a bit more between now and mid-May. No four days running of no posts, like the last four days! I had a busy weekend, and a not exactly teetotal one. The next couple of weeks should be quieter.

So. I've seen part one of The Bridge: I'm going to start writing it now, and it'll be up in a bit. Yep, two blogs in one day..

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Amends

"Where are you going?"

"No, I'm not going. Just a… dramatic gesture."

If you're from Northern Europe, as I am, there's something oddly unthinkable about spending Christmas in a hot climate. But this, the Christmas episode, forces me to face the fact that in Sunnydale, Southern California, Yuletide is to happen in temperatures of seventy degrees (or about twenty degrees in real money). Fake snow is sprayed on trees, Joyce insists on both a fire and air conditioning(!), and Xander is able to sleep outdoors. Also, it's interesting to learn that, instead of heading down the pub, it's traditional in America to have a big posh dinner on Christmas Eve.

All this is fascinating, but it's a relief to get a flashback to a proper, wintry, Victorian Christmas in early Victorian Dublin, and a scene right out of A Christmas Carol. But this is one of Angel's flashbacks, something we haven't seen for a while, and generally a clue that this is an Angel episode. The later flashback scene in which Angelus metaphorically rapes a maid who, if caught would, in a case of double cruelty, be thrown on to the streets with her child if she was caught. It's not just sexual abuse but class abuse too, and makes me think of The Crimson Petal and the White, a recent-ish read of mine, which deals a lot with this sort of thing.

Still, away from such tangents and, in fact, away from Angel, there are some nice little character moments here. Xander quietly admits that he hasn't been a very good friend to Buffy over the Angel thing. Joyce and Buffy include Faith in their Christmas. And, well, Oz turns out to be such a mature and wonderful person. He still loves Willow ("It's like I lost an arm. Or, worse, a torso.") and they get back together, although there's awkwardness. He also gently declines Willow's offer of sex during her rather hilariously over-the-top romantic preparations, which not only involve Barry White but also a bottle of fizzy pop, in a bucket, on ice. Classy.

He doesn't want her to just give herself to him; it has to be meaningful, and mutual. There's a theme of not having sex, and of making amends, that echoes the main plot with Buffy and Angel. Essentially we have Angel being tempted by the First Evil (pretty much the Devil- the temptation thing is a bit of a giveaway) to shag Buffy again, turn evil, and be free of the guilt. He resists, but can't bear the thought that one day he might be weak and give in to this temptation that will never go away. So he attempts suicide, but is thwarted by a miraculous snowfall. And a miracle is an interesting choice, especially in an episode written and directed by atheist Joss Whedon.

Those are the bare bones, but there's a lot more to it than that, not least the heartbreaking argument between Buffy and Angel near the end. It's about Angel showing deep, deep remorse so that the audience can begin to like him again, something which is deeply necessary, and it's important that it's Giles who stands for the doubting viewers but comes to accept Angel, though not without reservations. Even more important, perhaps, is the welcome return of Robia LaMorte. This episode really, really, had to happen. Also, we get to hear Joyce saying "So, Angel's on top again?" which is, like, the best thing in all television ever.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Wish

"I have to believe in a better world."

Well, we certainly needed a rather less heavy episode at this point and we certainly got one. This episode is pure fun, plus it has Evil Willow in it. Mmm… Evil Willow…

But before we get to the alternate universe stuff (which manages to pack an awful lot into not very much screen time in an impressive piece of structuring), there's a lot of fascinating character stuff. Xander is the more self-indulgent of the two, but both he and Willow spend their time obsessing on their own need to do something about their guilt, without considering that, actually, it's the needs of the people they betrayed that count. Oz rightly calls Willow out on this; her need to feel better about herself is indeed not his problem. Nor should we have much sympathy for them not being able to be as innocently tactile with each other as they once were.

Cordelia doesn't take things anywhere near as well as Oz does, though; not only has she lost her boyfriend, she's lost her place in the school hierarchy. Harmony (how long has it been since we last saw her?) tries to set her up with Jonathan, and the mockery just continues. The worst moment comes when she's knocked into a pile of rubbish as Buffy fights a vampire, just before Harmony walks along with her gang and a cruel quip. Obviously this is all ultimately Buffy's fault and it would be better if she'd never come to Sunnydale.

Unfortunately, Cordelia's new friend Anya (no doubt a one-off character, right?) turns out to be a vengeance demon who acts on behalf of women scorned. As you do. And a Sunnydale without Buffy is a dark, dangerous place, ruled by the Master from Season One, where the classes are half-empty from those who have died and the streets are not safe after dark. Only the desperate "white hats", consisting of Giles, Oz, Larry(!), and Redshirt Girl, stand in the way of the undead, although not very convincingly. It's all very bleak. Buffy, meanwhile, is in Cleveland, which apparently has a huge demon problem. Undead Xander and Evil Willow, interestingly, are two of the Master's most prominent lieutenants, and both of them are clearly, somehow, the same people. Angel is kept chained up as a "puppy" to be regularly tortured by Evil Willow. Er, part of me wishes I was him. Did I really just type that?

This is an alternate reality, so naturally Cordelia dies pretty soon, as Giles watches, horrified. Of course, pretty much everyone dies- why waste a good alternate reality? But we'll come to that; by far the most interesting character in this reality is Buffy, scarred, brusque, cynical, humourless, battle-hardened and played extraordinarily, and so very differently, by Sarah Michelle Gellar. Faith may not be in this episode (interestingly, there's an early line about her going AWOL), but symbolically she isn't needed, as she pretty much symbolised what Buffy would be like without the support network of her family, her friends and her life. Here, we have the real thing, and she's harsh, withdrawn, without hope, and as inwardly dead as any vampire. Without hope, or anything to live for, she embarks on a kamikaze mission, with no plan, and dies.

The one person who refuses, stubbornly, to lose hope, and the true hero of this reality, is Giles. He saves the world with hope. And yet this is juxtaposed with slow-motion shots of all the characters we know and love- Willow, Xander, Angel and, finally, Buffy, dying pointlessly. Hope and despair are side by side. Not a bad metaphor for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Lover's Walk

"I may be love's bitch, but at least I'm man enough to admit it."

Oooh boy. There's so much to say about this episode. My notes are a hell of a lot longer than usual. This is a superb piece of television. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it's beautiful. It's a kind of magic spell, I suppose. Spend several episodes setting everything up, just add Spike, and watch as devastating things happen.

It's pretty much been obvious from what happened between the two of them last episode that the Willow / Xander thing would get out in the open here, but it happens in the most devastating circumstances possible. Both Cordelia and Oz are set up as being wonderful and caring lovers early on: Cordelia had pictures of Xander in her locker, while Oz gives Willow a little witch pez which is, er, really romantic. They're in firm occupation of the moral high ground, all ready to catch their partners in the act. And both Willow and Xander are horrified by what's happening and desperate for it to stop. Unfortunately, this is the time when Spike returns, and he's quite the catalyst.

Spike's arrival, of course, references his first appearance as his car hits the Sunnydale sign. But this is a different Spike- lovelorn, desperate, and drinking spirits from a bottle. Drusilla has dumped him and, yes, this is so played for laughs. We're already seeing the slow change in the character from out-and-out baddie to ambiguous character. He gets scenes in which he tells Buffy and Angel the unpalatable truth that they can never be just friends and (funniest scene ever!) he visits Joyce just so they can have a nice little chat.

And yet… he also kills an innocent person. And the scene in which he threatens Willow with a broken bottle and seems to be about to metaphorically rape her ("I haven't had a woman in ages") is extremely and deliberately disturbing. The character is actually very, very well-written; he's the sort of very dangerous "bad boy" that lots of women somehow find attractive and really, really, shouldn't. Bad boys like that might seem alluring but they offer nothing but darkness. In fact, the implied Sid- Vicious-ness of the character is made explicit in the final scene, as Spike sings along to the post-Rotten Sex Pistols' version of My Way (which is, incidentally, my karaoke specialty…). Sid was the ultimate bad boy and, well, it was probably Rockets Redglare and not Sid that actually killed her, but look what being with him did for Nancy.

Spike's Nancy may have dumped him for now, but the, er, refreshing experience of a spot of violence convinces him that all he needs to do is to get a little kinky. He ends the episode with his love life seemingly looking up.

Buffy, meanwhile, has unexpectedly great SAT scores, and suddenly the world is her oyster. She can go to college everywhere, and with Faith around she doesn't necessarily have to stay in Sunnydale. Even Giles thinks so. But… is it really just Angel who makes her reluctant to leave? The sudden realisation that she actually has a future is disorientating for her and, like all teenagers with a reflective bent, she feels more than a little angst at seemingly being on a carrier belt. God knows I did when I was her age. Teenagers may not actually experience the stress that we adults do, but they're far less confident and experienced at handling stress, and so it's far more overwhelming for them. That (and hormones, and the fear of dying a virgin) is why being a teenager is so existentially horror.

Speaking of existentialism… I notice that Angel is seen reading Sartre's La Nauseé. Books read by TV characters on screen are always, without exception, symbolic, and it's not hard to figure out what we're being told about Angel. He's self-aware and, unsurprisingly after what has happened, deeply conscious of the awful significances of the choices he makes. And yet, he, like Buffy, needs to be told by Spike, of all people, that the two of them can never be just friends. And it's her, not him, who is able to accept this and end their relationship.

When Willow and Xander are seen having a long, slow, rather enjoyable-looking snog by their respective horrified partners, it's actually the one time out of all of their smoochings that you could almost, but not quite, excuse them. After all, they could be about to die. But the result is heartbreaking, especially as the episode plays a cruel trick on us by injuring Cordy immediately after she's seen her boyfriend being unfaithful, and then cuts to a funeral.

Cordelia seems to reject Xander very, very firmly, but everyone and everyone else has been properly shaken into bits. It's anyone's guess where the pieces are going to land.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Revelations

"Interesting lady. Can we kill her?"

Blimey. Do some Americans really think of us Brits as being like that awful Gwendolyn Post? She's a deliciously hissable pantomime villain, perfectly written and performed to be the sort of character you love to hate. But usually in Buffy the British stereotypes are knowing and ironic, and that isn't the case here. A lot of the dialogue here indicates that there's a bit of a stereotype in America of us Brits actually being stuck-up, arrogant, emotionally constipated, puritanical(!) but also intelligent, well-educated and thinking of Americans as culturally inferior. Some of those things may have been true of a certain elite back in the bad old days of Empire, but it's odd to see it in a contemporary context. I tend to see us as more-or-less typical North Europeans: easy-going, fun-loving and partial to beer and raucous laughter, and generally very likely to take the piss out of the Gwendolyn Posts of this world.

That said, she's a delicious baddie and a gloriously fun character. And that's really rather necessary, because this episode not only does a fair bit of heavy lifting in service of the season arc, but it's quite intense at times. Buffy has kept the return of Angel secret for a while now, and this is the episode where the elastic finally snaps. No one reacts well, although it's odd that no one seems to acknowledge any distinction at all between Angel and Angelus. Xander, again, sees red. Everyone gangs up on Buffy in the library, in what looks awfully like an intervention. But it's Giles' reaction, alone with Buffy afterwards and having seemingly defended her, that is the emotional heart of the episode. His quiet yet emotionally devastating words hit so very hard: "You have no respect for me, or the job I perform."

This is, of course, the beginning of a run of episodes that examines and questions the role of the Watcher. With what right do they wield their authority? What is this mysterious "Council", with its decidedly public school membership, and to whom is it accountable? We're beginning to see the start of a distancing between Giles, a sympathetic and likeable character, and the somewhat ambiguous organisation which he represents.

The attraction between Willow and Xander is continuing to fester, and is bound to explode soon. Alyson Hannigan is superb at playing the comic potential of Willow's guilt, but I suspect there won't be much more of this. As for Buffy and Angel, it seems very doubtful if the two of them can be together. There's too much awkwardness. It's still far from clear what Angel's role in this season is going to be, other than as a catalyst for conflict between the Scoobies. Everyone seems to accept his "not evil" credentials, but things between him and everyone else are, for obvious reasons, even more awkward.

Faith's story is also taking a turn into darker areas. She trusted Post, and her betrayal makes Faith even less inclined to trust anyone. The last shot in the episode is her, in a bedsit, alone.

Friday, 13 April 2012

L'Etoile de Mer (1928)

"Nous sommes a jamais perdus dans le désert de léternèbre."

This is an interesting little comparison to Un Chien Andalou, directed a year earlier by Man Ray. The version I saw had a superb soundtrack by Paul Mercer which I recommend hugely.

The other film used conventional film-making tropes and techniques to depict surreal scenes, divorced from any context or sense of cause and effect, and that made it seem rather slippery to me. I found it hard to grab on to anything so I could talk about the film. That isn't the case here, with the use of soft focus. The blurring of the picture throughout the film is as much a part of the narrative as the events depicted, which I suppose can be understood in terms of the modernist foregrounding of form as opposed to content. As a piece of art this is far more a modernist work than a surrealist one. Interestingly, though, the picture often has a kind of Impressionist quality.

While there isn't any obvious plot here, there is a definite theme of beauty, which is interesting precisely because by 1928 it was a very old-fashioned conception of what art was supposed to be or do. We are tantalised with the beauty of the woman, with the first shot of her face which is in focus showing her peeping, face half-hidden, over a newspaper. Only at the end of the film are we male voyeurs finally rewarded.

The scenes of pieces of newspapers blowing across a beach remind me of the scene from American Beauty where a plastic bag, floating in the wind, is said to be beautiful. I couldn't say what their significance was, though. And as for the starfish I have no idea. But this is a fascinating film.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A Trip to Mars (1910)

I think the list of films I've reviewed is still looking a bit short, so it's time for me to do again what I last did a couple of months ago: pad it out a bit with a couple of short, early silent films which are available online. Yes, I know. Shameless. I saw this film to the gloriously anachronistic soundtrack of Rise by Public Image Ltd, which happened to be playing in my iTunes library at the time. The film is shorter than the song.

This little gem is another one from no less a figure than Thomas Edison, a name which instantly shocks you into grasping just how long ago this was made. The film should not be confused with Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune. I've seen Edison being unfairly criticised for this film being a rip-of of the earlier film and it isn't; it's entirely different, just a similar broad concept, which is fair game. Of course, Edison did in fact rip off Méliès by distributing his film without regard to copyright, but that has nothing to do with A Trip to Mars.

The plot is simple, as it would have to be in a film this length, and delightfully bonkers. A mad scientist, with a rather jolly looking skeleton hanging on the wall of his lab, invents a Cavorite-style anti-gravity thingy. Said McGuffin promptly lifts our hero out of the window and (wisely glossing over the inconvenient fact of, you know, thousands of miles of utter vacuum) to Mars. There he encounters a bunch of tree people whose costumes, as ever for these early films, evoke theatre rather than any suggestion of realism. He is then picked up by a giant devil-type creature, who blows freezing air on him so he's in the middle of a snowball, and throws the snowball all the way back to just outside his window on earth. We end on some anti-gravity hi-jinks as the room spins around.

If that didn't already sound fun enough, the effects are great too. It's a wonderful, wonderful film. Put the title into a search engine and watch it now. It's only five minutes of your life.

Jane and the Lost City (1987)

"Do you mean... the Empire should rally to the flag?"

Blimey. This film is… a bit of an oddity. I borrowed the DVD from a mate after being told that it starred both Sam Jones, star of Flash Gordon, and Jasper Carrott. Any film starring that combination just has to be seen. And it is in fact rather amusing. But I'm somewhat bewildered at how a film like this ever came to be made!

The Jane in question is the star of an old comic strip from the Daily Mirror which ran during the Second World War and was exceedingly popular with the average Tommy, mainly because Jane's gimmick was that she kept accidentally losing her clothes. Yes, I know- political correctness gone mad. One wonders what Laura Mulvey would make of this film. So, naturally, there's an element of soft porn.

Except… there's not that much of it. Yes, Jane is reduced to her underwear about half a dozen times, but that's about it. This is essentially an H. Rider Haggard spoof in the style of 'Allo 'Allo, with a bunch of Brits (and Sam Jones) competing with some comedy Nazis to find a lost city in the middle of Africa which has loads of diamonds.

The script is by one Mervyn Haisman, known to us Doctor Who fans as, among other things, the co-scriptwriter of The Web of Fear- that is, the one who isn't well known for espousing silly conspiracy theories about the Holy Grail. That isn't the only Doctor Who connection, either: the programme's current production designer, Michael Pickwoad, was also production designer on this.

The film is essentially a farce, and a rather amusing one, with a few spoofs from other films. I never thought I'd see a version of the shower scene from Psycho involving Jasper Carrott as the baddie, but I just have. And there's a bit of a Casablanca spoof at the end. It also has more mildly racist, colonial era, African clichés and stereotypes than I could even keep track of; the first five minutes alone feature pith helmets, spear-wielding natives, a dying man whose last words are of a lost city, and a vast chasm to be crossed by swinging on a vine. This lost city (which is not named) was not, of course, built by Africans, heaven forbid. Still, at least the city's queen is an African, not a white woman as per She. Even if she did go to Roedean and Oxford.

It's all very Boys' Own, and there's an obvious Indiana Jones influence. There's a bit where they travel by map, which is a bit funny if you happen to have recently seen The Muppets at the cinema. I won't make any great claims, but this very silly film is rather fun if you can get hold of it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Band Candy

"I don't like this. They could have heart attacks!"

I've been looking forward to this: Jane Espenson is here at last! And her first script is comedy gold- witty, full of fun, and getting us to see characters in hilarious yet plausible new ways. It's odd that Faith isn't in this at all, though.

I love the way that the first few minutes focus on Buffy's responsibilities and the pressures being put on her by her adult authority figures, a very stark contrast to what comes later. She has SATs to prepare for, which will determine whether or not she gets into college. She has slaying duties, as ever. There's time with her mother to fit in. Oh, and Angel, who's becoming more lucid, which is starting to lead to awkwardness. It's all go. Oh, and Snyder expects her (any everyone) to sell this "band candy stuff".

Are American high schools really like this? Are kids regularly conscripted into doing stuff for school activities they haven't even signed up for? I'm curious about this. Is "band candy" a traditional phrase that people would know? Oh, and what about driving? We hear that Buffy hasn't even taken her test, but she drives her mother's car! Is this not highly illegal? Also, that car is massive.

It all sounds a lot of pressure, which culminates in her being found out by her mother and Giles when she uses them as alibis against each other. This seems to lead to the two of them ganging up to schedule all her free time into structured activities, tiger mother style. Except all is not as it seems, courtesy of the ever uber-cool Trick, the returning Ethan Rayne and the ever more interesting Mayor, who seems to have achieved his position by making some very dark deals which would traditionally require some very long spoons.

The tables are now turned, as the chocolate bars magically turn all the adults into particularly immature teenagers. The fact that they are considerably less mature than actual teenagers leads me to suspect a bit of a subtext here. Are we perhaps being told that, actually, kids today are more responsible than their parents' generation, perhaps with an added flavour of how the baby boomer generation has not exactly looked after the world all that well on its watch? Probably not, on balance. The differences are mainly portrayed in terms of popular culture and, yes, the younger Giles is just the sort of person who would pause the conversation with a girl he was trying to impress just to hear an Eric Clapton guitar solo.

It's a bit difficult to square this rebellious Ripper with his notably estuarised speech with what we were previously told about his past (actually quite the goody-goody until going off the rails at uni) but it fits. But Joyce is much funnier as a teenage girl although the most hilarious of these sequences have to belong to Snyder. All three actors are great here. Interesting, though, that Snyder has gradually changed from a sinister, threatening figure with comic elements to an outright figure of fun during the early episodes of the season.

Buffy's interaction with the "teenage" Joyce and Giles is hilarious, especially the bit with the handcuffs. And of course the closing moments where we learn that Joyce and Giles did, in fact, do it on the bonnet of a police car, are glorious. Yes, the conclusion may be a bit quick, and the demon rather easily dispatched, but I for one am glad Espenson decided to give more screen time to the funny stuff than the mechanical plotty blah-blah.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Homecoming

"As Willow goes, so goes my nation."

So, we're back to these American high school traditions again, and this foreigner's continuing clumsy attempts to understand what's going on. I can work out that it's a posh ball, and a girl gets voted "queen", but I still have no real idea of what Homecoming is. To my American readers it's probably a traditional rite of passage. To me it's a lyric from the Monkees' "Daydream Believer".

Still, this is a great comedy episode, and also a Cordy episode, which goes some way to redressing the way the character's been neglected in recent episodes. She's still as shallow as ever, but that's the way we love her. And she's the one who scares off Lyle Gorch with that brilliant bluffing speech.

Of course, putting Buffy and Cordelia into conflict has repercussions on the rest of the Scoobies, who are forced to pick sides and feel the inevitable guilt. Most of the guilt, though, has to do with the kiss between Willow and Xander. Worse, it's not just an isolated kiss; there are obvious feelings of attraction that they have for each other which are only deepened by their very close friendship. And this happens at a time when they're both happily attached. This cannot end well. But both actors are superb in these scenes.

There's a direct contrast with Faith, of course, to whom this sort of guilt is alien. Not only does she discuss using and discarding a couple of "studs" with Buffy, but she brazenly goes and takes Scott away from his partner, no doubt to be used once and destroy. A lifestyle based on short-term pleasures, in fiction, is usually shorthand for a lack of investment in any sort of future.

Buffy, meanwhile, is dumped by Scott on the rather undeniable grounds that the life seems to have gone out of her. It's left to Giles to remind Buffy to actually have fun, and even to make a non-ironic joke at one point. Wow.

The conclusion of the episode is funny, but it's still a rejection of Buffy, who isn't even in the yearbook now. We're reminded that this is the final year of High School, and Buffy is finally working hard, investing in her future in stark contrast to both Faith and her slightly younger self. How will it end for her?

Plot arc-wise, there's a nice bit of sleight of hand here. We already have an established tradition of a rather cool baddie being introduced early in a season but turning out to be a red herring, so when Trick gets arrested we assume that's it for him. But it isn't. And we finally get to meet this mysterious mayor, a kind of Howard Hughes with a direct hotline to the socially conservative id and no apparent problem about associating with vampires. He only gets a few lines but he's a memorable and quirky character already. A lot of that is down to Harry Groener's performance.

Oh, and Lyle Gorch doesn't die either. I genuinely don't remember but I take it we'll be seeing him again.

It's a fun little episode, heavy on character development but with a lightness of touch befitting a comedy episode. Don't worry- after yesterday's barrage of political subtext I'll go light on it here…!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Beauty and the Beasts

"All men are beasts, Buffy."

This is an extraordinary, if upsetting piece of television, and so well-judged in the little details. But before I get to the whole subtext of domestic abuse, I should probably say something about sexual politics. If you were to ask me, a man, if I was a feminist, I'd probably respond that there are several different feminisms, and it depends which one you mean. If you were then to tell me to stop being a smartarse and just answer the bleeding question, I'd say yes.

I've deliberately not sought out any other responses to the episode online; I always try to avoid doing that until after I finish my own blog post on the episode in question. But I'm wondering what the reaction might be to the palpable "all men are bad" vibes, which I'm actually going to defend. One of my pet hates is men (and women) who lazily dismiss feminism as man-hating crap. This is something which I find extraordinarily ungracious. It's obvious that women still, even in the West today, are a long way from enjoying equal status, pay and dignity, and that domestic violence is overwhelmingly directed against women by men. A gentleman should not try to deny such things.

That isn't to say that I don't have problems with the depiction of gender roles here, because it's not just about Debbie and Pete. Women are consistently shown to be both stronger and more mature than men. Xander pointedly falls asleep almost immediately into his turn at guarding Oz, something which Willow, who is female, is too responsible to ever do. Both Oz and Scott are shown as emotionally awkward and lacking in strength. And then there's the quote up there at the top, from Faith. All these things are fine on their own, but in combination it's all looking a bit too "all men are the same". This is a problem not because it's derogatory to men; frankly, given the misogynistic depictions of women that appear everywhere and always have, we have nothing to complain about. But there is a problem in that it's a rather passive sort of message, which seems to reject that the gender roles in society can be changed and imply that, hey, men are just like that and there's nothing you can do. The problem here is that men are left with all the agency while women are in a very passive role.

But I think, given the domestic violence subtext, that we can excuse this. The Jekyll and Hyde fantasy elements are just a thin veneer; this is a textbook abusive relationship. Pete turns into a monster and becomes violent, but then suddenly becomes gentle and caring again. He still blames Debbie, though, saying that "You know you shouldn't make me mad". It reminds me very much of Dennis Waterman's recent twattish comments. And what's particularly striking is that it's her who ends up comforting him. It's the abused party, of course the woman, who's the strong one. Frailty, thy name is Man. He's controlling, and she goes out of her way to make excuses for him.

This is such a very, very important episode in terms of the messages it sends to teenage girls watching. They really, really need to know about the dangers of domestic abuse and, if it makes them more cautious around potentially abusive men, then a bit of the old "all men are bastards" message is the right thing to do.

Phew. Moving on… there's a second subtext, I think, centred on Buffy, about wildness versus civilisation. The opening and closing narration from Call of the Wild is a nice touch. Buffy is still struggling with her ongoing issues from the small matter of sending the man she loved to Hell, when suddenly, unbeknownst to all but herself, he's back, and apparently traumatised by centuries of unspeakable torture from a situation which, in hindsight, was rather cleverly foreshadowed in Anne.

Significantly, she doesn't feel she can tell any of her friends about this, not even Giles. The only person she feels the can talk to is the school's rather nice psychiatrist. And he gets killed, leaving her all alone to deal with her demon(s). This is clearly going to fester…

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Faith, Hope and Trick

"Admittedly, it's not a haven for the brothers. Strictly the Caucasian persuasion here today."

That quote is obviously an admission by Whedon & co; there haven't exactly been… well, any significant black characters in Buffy so far, and that's more than a little awkward. So at least it's nice that the attempt to start making amends for this is considered important enough to be worth a little breakage of the old fourth wall.

Trick is very much a character in the mould of Spike: quirky, individual, unusually modern for a vampire, intelligent, and with little respect for boring, traditional vampiric hierarchy. His abandonment of Kakistos is a direct parallel with Spike's abandonment of the Annoying One.

But of course the more significant new character to be introduced here is Faith. She's a fantastic, charismatic yet nuanced character from the very start. Plus, Eliza Dushku is extremely hot, which is, er, a plus. She has all the attractive qualities you'd expect from a "bad girl"- she's very friendly, fun to be with, has great stories, and she gets "hungry and horny" after a bit of slayage. Five by five.

But Buffy feels as though she's been replaced by someone who threatens to be cooler than her. Everyone likes Faith, even her mother, and they even end up competing, sort of, over a boy. This isn't quite Kendra Mark II; Faith is confident, flirty and tattooed.

Except that it soon becomes clear that there's something dark behind the over-the-top cheeriness. Faith is running away from the traumatic sight of seeing her Watcher being killed by Kakistos after he did some unspecified but unspeakable things to her, and she's genuinely terrified; Dushku is superb at showing this. Far from being the confident "bad girl" that we see on the surface, Faith is clearly shell-shocked and running away from her demons, and not just the literal kind. Worryingly, everyone acts as though, with Kakistos dead, she'll be fine. But she clearly isn't.

Still, Faith's newly revealed vulnerable side allows her and Buffy to bond a little, and the conflict between them abates somewhat. It's obvious that the situation isn't permanent, though. It's very noticeable that the Scoobies are portrayed as a tightly knit bunch until Faith arrived. This is obviously intended as contrast for the dissent to be spread by this cuckoo in the nest. There will be more.

Oh, and both Faith and Dushku are from Boston, right? I thought I knew what a Boston accent sounded like, but she pronounces "about" rather Scottishly. I thought that was just a Canadian thing?

Faith faces her demons, and Buffy now feels able to do what she needs to do, too. She finally admits to Willow and Giles that it was Angel, not Angelus, that she sent to Hell. That needed to be said. And at last she feels able to symbolically get rid of the clanagh ring. She has closure, of sorts. So, naturally, Angel chooses now to suddenly return, and he's all naked too.

It's a strong episode, if perhaps a little arc-y to be properly considered in its own right. There are some nice touches to further the season; Snyder briefly shows apprehension at the prospect of speaking to the mysterious Mayor. Giles hints that Willow's dabbling in magic may not be entirely healthy. It's a brilliant episode for Joyce, too, perhaps above all else. She's a wonderful mother. She gets a fab scene of Snyder-mockery ("I think what my daughter is trying to say is… nah nah nah nah nah!"), to show us firmly that the troll has lost his bite. But her tears at the prospect that her daughter might die are heartbreakingly real.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Dead Man's Party

"You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get ya."

So, Buffy's back. There are so many things that need to be said, and there's so much awkwardness. And yet, being people, everyone prefers to hide behind polite fictions and all sorts of procrastination- anything other than create awkward scenes. It just goes to show that even Americans can be so, well, British sometimes.

This may be a serious idea in what is, in many ways, a very serious episode, but it's also a great excuse to have an awful lot of fun at the same time. That quote up there tells us what the zombies are all about, for one thing. But there are so many clever depictions of people failing to communicate. Only Giles can see that an intimate get-together is what's called for, not a loud, overwhelming, alienating party. No one else agrees, and so we get a loud party at which it's hardly possible to talk and everyone is avoiding the potential awkwardness of actually talking to Buffy while telling themselves that they're throwing a great party for her. Personally, I see it as a great vindication of why I so much prefer a quiet pub to a trendy, horrible, city centre bar with no decent beer, but let's not wander off on any tangents.

Probably the single moment which symbolises what the whole episode is trying to say is when Giles rings Buffy, but the phone can't be heard under the loud music, and is eventually picked up by one of many people at the party who don't even know Buffy. There's failure to communicate, in a nutshell. It's also a reminder that this sort of party gatecrashing used to happen well before Facebook, as everyone's second favourite Beastie Boys video clearly demonstrates. I hope Joyce earns a lot of money and / or has great terms on her house insurance.

People only start saying the things that need to be said after Buffy, alone, upset and alienated at her own party, starts packing and gets caught by Willow. She, Joyce and Xander all then proceed to have a go at her. It's awkward, it's emotional, but it clears the air, and it has to happen for Buffy to be able to relate to any of them, again.

It's a great episode for Giles, who is dam right about all of this, all the way through the episode, and also gets to threaten Principal Snyder. It's perhaps a less great episode in its treatment of zombies, though. It's generally best, these days, to avoid the West African origins of the trope, as it's bound up with all sorts of post-colonialist awkwardness. And voodoo is a real West African religion, just as "primitive" art is part of real Bantu tradition, history and cultural context, not just something to be patronised as "primitive" and used as an influence by Cubists or whomever. That doesn't mean that West African cultural tropes should be in any way out of bounds (I wasn't moaning about all this with Inca Mummy Girl), but they should have been a little more tactful, I think. Still, it's only slightly unfortunate, and essentially we have another great episode

There's already a bit of arc stuff, too. Willow's study of magic proceeds apace, which will obviously not go wrong in any way. Buffy has another cryptic dream about Angel which, again, conveniently fulfils David Boreanaz's contractual need to appear in every episode. And Snyder is still on about that mysterious Mayor…