Friday, 29 June 2012

Julius Caesar (Gregory Doran, 2012)

"How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?"

There's a lot of Shakespeare on BBC4 at the moment, and it's all piling up, unwatched, rebuking me. I did a degree in English, many years ago, and yet it's possible that I haven't read or seen any Shakespeare since. I've only read around twelve of the forty-and-counting plays, which is sort of pathetic. My degree certificate is staring sternly at me as I write this: something must be done, and so it shall.

So here's the first of many of these reviews. Generally they'll be looking at the BBC4 productions, which are essentially filmed versions of recent stage productions but with some concessions to the medium of television, although that won't always be so, as in the case of the forthcoming history plays. There'll also be films and whatnot.

This particular production is very topical indeed, being that it's currently running in Stratford upon Avon. There's a contemporary African aesthetic, with everything about the play's look and directorial style strongly suggesting the slow slide from liberty to authoritarianism, driven by one charismatic figure, that seems to be happening in places like Uganda and Ethiopia. There's also, of course, a hint of the Arab Spring. The cast is led by the outstanding Patterson Joseph as Brutus, a slightly subdued Cyril Nri as Cassius and Ray Fearon as Mark Antony.

Lots of people don't like the idea of Shakespeare in modern or non-contemporary dress. I do. For one thing, certain plays (including this one) are very common, and it's nice to have a little variation in the visuals. For another, the anachronisms are already there. These are Romans who hear clocks chiming and allude often, and eloquently, to the effects of the four humours. Realism has its place, but to be shackled to it would be dull indeed. And the setting serves to emphasise certain of the plays themes, and remind us of their universalism. There's nothing exclusively Roman about the power relationships we see here. The only unfortunate side to modern dress is that it renders awkward those features of Shakespeare that reflect the style or technical limitations of the time, with battles always taking place out of shot and wives dying off-screen
It's hard to judge the full effect of the setting, though; it's devised for the stage and, although the crowd scenes (including Mark Antony's speech) are essentially just a camera pointed at the stage, the rest of the play was filmed on location, hence the plotting between Cassius, Brutus and Casca takes place in a urinal, complete with mimed peeing(!), while the "ambitious" Caesar is killed, symbolically, on a broken escalator. I'm almost tempted to go hunting for symbolism in the peeing, too…

The only version I'd previously seen was the 1953 film version, in which the most prominent and foregrounded performers were Marlon Brando as Mark Antony and John Gielgud as Cassius. So I was a little surprised, at first, to see the superb Patterson Joseph cast as a surprisingly wily Brutus, whereas Cassius might have been a more natural part for him. But I came to appreciate this more intelligent Brutus, calculating but never cynical. Nri's Cassius, meanwhile, was far more fallible, and less Machiavellian, than I'd expected. Fearon's performance was strong, but there were too similarities to Brando's iconic portrayal to fully escape from its shadow.

I love this play, and there are always new things to be seen. I love Shakespeare's cynical yet true depictions of the fickleness and murderousness of the mob, who are easy prey to demagoguery and mistake Cinna the poet for Cinna the conspirator as easily as they mistake paediatricians for paedophiles. There's a universal human truth right there. And Mark Antony's speeches, cynical and practical deployments of rhetoric though they are, are things of such beauty.

It would be wrong, I think, to judge the production too much by its camerawork, as it has only one foot in the televisual medium, at best. But the scene in which Antony and Octavian (a Laurent Kabila-like Ivanno Jeremiah) casually discuss their proscriptions is nicely punctuated by short, sharp cuts to hooded figures being shot in the back of the head, which I found very powerful.

Perhaps the production is let down slightly by the sometimes overly restrained performance of Cyril Nri, but the use of the African setting works well, and Patterson Joseph is outstanding.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Initiative

"And 'they' are? The government? Nazis? A major cosmetics company?"

The season arc has taken a long, long time to really show itself this time round, but this is the episode where it arrives with a bang, and after lots of appearance my mysterious military types we meet the Initiative. We also, of course, get a proper look at Riley, and lots of significant stuff happens.

We begin by meeting Riley's two good mates, Forrest and Graham. These two instantly tell us that Riley's an important character. After all, not everybody gets their own personal Greek chorus. It's revealed that he really likes Buffy, hence loads of comical failed seduction scenes. But the big, big, reveal- that all of them work for the Initiative and that Riley is the top field operations dude- is so well executed, with a conversation about Riley's pursuit of Buffy continuing as they casually head "downstairs". It's a hugely effective moment. And then we realise that the big boss of them all is none other than Professor Walsh. So that's why we've been focusing on only one of Buffy's lecturers.

Obviously this is all hugely influenced by the then-recent film version of Men in Black, and it's interesting, in hindsight, to see it as a kind of forerunner of a similar establishment in Joss Whedon's own The Cabin in the Woods. I suppose, though, that this is exactly the sort of Area 51 type thing that the US government would have to be running in a town with a Hellmouth in any self-respecting fictional universe. We still don't know what they're for, of course. But what's wonderful is just how funny this arc-centric episode manages to be. The revelation that Riley is just as much the secret identity boy as Buffy is the secret identity girl is exploited for all its glorious farcical potential.

Also fantastic is Willow conspiring with Riley to attract Buffy's interest, not least because it shows that, for all the talk of a "black hole of despair", she hasn't given up on the idea of romance. She's still completely broken-hearted, but Willow is a very sensible girl, and she isn't going to react in quite the extreme way that Buffy did. It'll take a while, but she'll be ok.

The Xander / Giles double act is a thing of beauty and genius, too. The two of them are united in their mutual uselessness, as Giles drives home by admitting that "Once again I'd say you and I will not be needed to help Buffy." Not only is Giles an unemployed ex-Watcher in the early stages of a mid-life crisis, Xander is slowly using his military superpowers, the only thing that made him in any way special. And he's also unemployed, and divided from his friends by his non-studentiness.

But the biggest change, of course, happens to Spike. The chip in his brain now means he can no longer do Bad Guy Things without suffering immense pain. This is probably necessary, of course, if he is to become a regular and he and Buffy are plausibly to both remain alive, but it's an interesting and irreversible character moment. Spike is promoted from charismatic villain status to a character capable of development.

Also, that scene between him and Willow with the extended impotence metaphor is the funniest thing in the history of ever. The season has really stepped up a gear. I'm excited.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Angel: Sense and Sensitivity

"Oh, she thinks you're insensitive and, not to bring up the irony but, heh, consider the source…"

It's becoming a bit of a pattern with Angel; a good episode, which I like, which nevertheless highlights a couple of problems with the series so far. The episodes are far too "story of the week" and lacking in continuity from episode to episode. There's nothing wrong with having episodes being essentially standalone, but there have to be some elements, however subtle, that carry on from episode to episode, or you just end up with a big fat reset button and not a lot of character development. Also, I don't like the increasing focus on the "police procedural" style, partly because it encourages this very tendency. Much as I can see the attraction of the character of Kate, having her as a semi-regular is pushing the show more into this sort of format. Yes, I get that the show uses the supernatural as metaphors for life in the big city, in much the same way as Buffy does with the experience of growing up, but the show needs a bigger cast and more continuing elements. Fortunately, with the increased foregrounding of Wolfram and Hart, we seem to be getting the beginnings of that. And now they're very much aware of Angel's presence in LA.

All that said, though, this episode is very good indeed. It deals very cleverly with its very Southern Californian theme of therapy, psychobabble, obsession with "issues" and the absurdity thereof. There's a nice parallel between the early scenes, where Cordelia criticises Angel for being repressed and insensitive, and the rather hilarious later scenes, where she wishes he would be rather more repressed and insensitive. The second half of the episode, which shows us the consequences of a police department getting too far in touch with its feelings, is enormous fun. The episode takes a clear stance against this sort of thing, and I, being British, naturally approve. A certain amount of repression is needed so that people can function, and too much unnecessary obsessing over personal "issues" makes people retreat from the world into the self, with chaotic consequences for society.

One of the more illustrative scenes, perhaps, is the policeman refusing to help Doyle and insisting that the station is closed. It's tempting to see a political subtext here, that there's a link between all these hippyish notions of "letting it all hang out" that arose in the '60s and the right-wing individualism that has so dominated politics in the decades since. People in the 1950s may have been more buttoned-up, but they were solidly behind the welfare state and paid their high taxes without much blubbing. There's a political price to be paid for people getting too much in touch with their feelings.

Having said all that, though, there is such a thing as being too repressed, and Kate's father is there to remind us of that. We need to be wary of an overreliance on quacks and trendy psychobabble, but there's still a balance to be struck.

Krull (1983)

"Death and power are close cousins."

"I don't think I like your relatives, old man."

I know I'm not coming up with a startlingly new insight here, but Star Wars was a rather influential film. Yes, it gave space opera a bit of a shot in the arm, but all the science fiction surface stuff took place within a framework based on quest narrative and myth. It had good wizards, bad wizards and magic in the form of the Force, fantasy element dressed up in sci-fi clothes, and skimpy ones at that. Star Wars may not be the only reason there was such an explosion of fantasy movies in the early '80s, but it's an important one.

Krull is more blatant an example than most, though, and not just because it has a princess in it and a rather Luke Skywalker-ish hero. Ynyr (interesting name from Norse mythology there) is a sort of cross between Obi-Wan and Yoda. Torquil is a slightly dodgy Han Solo figure. Ergo is C-3PO. It's using the same structure as Star Wars, but not bothering to disguise the mythical origins. This isn't sci-fi, give or take the odd ray gun and talk of the protagonists' son ruling "the Galaxy", it's outright fantasy.

Not that I'm accusing the film of being a simple rip-off, mind.  There's something honest about how it acknowledges its mythical sources. The film is a quest based around a series of more-or-less contained set pieces, and feels very similar to The Odyssey. Rell the Cyclops seems to be in the film partly to acknowledge this, but with a new and tragic addition: Cyclops are doomed with the melancholy knowledge of the time of their own deaths. This isn't just ripping off old myths, it's treating them creatively. Similarly, the large party of adventurers traversing huge distances and different environments evokes The Lord of the Rings and, again, the film acknowledges this debt with the character of the Widow, a sort of less nasty Shelob. The scene between her and Ynyr owes just as much to Merlin's demise in the Arthurian myths, though.

That's an awful lot of mythological allusions, but that's one of the reasons why this film is so much fun. It's creative. Even the characters aren't the usual fantasy archetypes that would fit neatly into D&D character classes. Instead we get a diminutive comedy wizard and a wise old man who is refreshingly un-wizardy.

There are a couple of eyebrow-raising things around the plot, certainly. Lyssa and Colwyn have barely met and hardly know each other, yet they seem to be head over heels in love. Theirs is a political marriage, so the script has to carefully emphasise that the bride is very willing. But we can overlook this sort of thing; it's what happens in myth. These characters are larger than life, and we shouldn't expect too much in the way of character motivation. Similarly, a glaive is actually a polearm with a sharp pointy blade (yes, I've played D&D), but I reckon we can overlook that too.

This is a fantastically entertaining film, with some brilliant and gloriously imaginative set pieces, and some pleasingly unexpected actors in minor roles. No less a figure than Todd Carty is in it, and there are early roles for the likes of Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane. It's not quite up there with the best, but this is a solid piece of fantasy cinema.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Wild at Heart

" Giles, I've never seen her like this. It's like it hurts too much to form words."

This episode was utterly heart-wrenching to watch. There is nothing on this earth, nothing at all, which is more upsetting than seeing Willow crying and utterly, utterly wretched. Alyson Hannigan in so very good in this episode, perhaps too good. I cried, and I'm a flint-hearted bastard.

It's a testament to the script that you don't end up hating Oz, because there's no way around it: he's unfaithful to Willow, and then abandons her. There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever to the unfaithfulness; his evasiveness makes it very clear that he's hiding things from Willow deliberately and, anyway, the whole werewolf thing is pretty much a metaphor for wild sexual urges. Oz may well be "not himself" when he has sex with Verruca (or so it's heavily implied), but so is any person who cheats on their partner and then instantly regrets it. The only reason we don't end up hating his guts is that he obviously realises what he's done, and seeks to make amends, and penance. But that only means we fall short of hating him, not that we forgive him. And his decision, in which Willow quite blatantly gets no say, is simultaneously abandonment. The character absolutely has to cease being a regular at this point; he's burned his bridges with the audience. Personally, I could never like him again. No one does that to my Willow. And that's twice that she's had her heart broken by a man. Buffy alludes to how long it took to recover when she felt the same about Angel, and the extreme reactions she took. We get a hint at the potential for some truly awful consequences as she almost uses a spell to curse Oz, but can't quite bring herself to do it. This does not bode well. What happens to poor Willow now?

At least Buffy shows herself to be a wonderful friend. And, it seems, she's beginning to do well academically, much to her own surprise. This reminds me so much of my own University experiences; I was twenty-three and worried about failure, having dropped out of another Uni after one term at eighteen. Would the disorganised habits of my younger self show themselves again? It was such a joy to gradually realise that I was, in fact, perfectly able to keep on top of the work, and I was over the Moon when one of my essays was awarded a First for the first time. Here's hoping that Buffy gets as much out of Higher Education as I eventually did.

Giles' mid-life crisis arc gathers pace, as he turns up at the Bronze to show that he's down wiv da kids, and is reduced to filling his hours with daytime television. He's overjoyed when Buffy turns up with a problem, bless him. One of these problems is a story arc problem, though; who are these mysterious soldier types who keep showing up on campus? Buffy is beginning to notice them.

Spike will certainly have noticed them. That pre-credits sequence was such gloriously metatextual fun. I rather suspect that the season's arc is about to start revealing itself…

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)

"How's your head?"

"I haven't had any complaints yet…"

I love goth girls. I have a bit of a thing for them. Also, I love witty women. I have a thing for them, too. Elvira is, in fact, my dream woman, although perhaps one might venture to criticise her cooking skills. That's a plus before we even start. The fact that the film is extremely funny is an added bonus. Not bad for a film I'd barely heard of just a couple of weeks ago.

Just as a bit of a primer for my fellow non-Americans, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was a sort of Vampira for the 1980s, but with added irony and witticisms, a sort of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but with bigger boobs and, judging by the evidence of this film, a lot more wit. She's sexy, sassy, and looks fantastic with a really big gun.

We first see her in an LA television studio, commenting on a 1950s sci-fi B movie of exactly the type I've come to know a fair bit more in the recent weeks of this blog. It isn't long, though, before she loses the job and has to somehow raise $50,000 so that she can perform at Vegas. It's all rather unfortunate for her, but let's be fair; a film's gotta have a plot. And said plot soon throws up a rather well-timed inheritance over in less-liberal-than-expected Massachusetts, right on the opposite coast, meaning we get a brief but rather cool montage of Elvira travelling through America in the coolest car known to humanity.

When she arrives, though, she discovers a town full of the most horrible people imaginable, proper old-fashioned New England Puritans who are- in the phrase cheerfully stolen from H.L. Mencken by Elvira's bit on the side, Bob- terrified that someone, somewhere, might be having fun. So terrified, in fact, that the whole town is quite happy to burn Elvira as a witch without a trial or anything, in deference to good old Massachusetts tradition. It's all good fun, so I think perhaps we ought to gloss over the fact that it isn't 1692 any more, and the USA has a Constitution and everything now. It's an old-fashioned town.

Edie McClurg gives great ham as the delightfully boo-worthy Chastity Pariah, who is responsible for perhaps the most unlikely act of face-sitting in cinematic history. But we also get some pleasingly nefarious moustache twirling from the suitably evil W. Morgan Sheppard as Uncle Vinnie.

On top of this there are loads of naughty double-entendres and some fantastic, subtle sight gags, one of which involves the unfortunate placing of a letter "E", but my favourite was the group of kids toasting marshmallows at Elvira's witch-burning. There's even an issue of Amazing Spider-Man on screen with the cover, I believe, by the one and only Todd MacFarlane. We might not know a lot about Elvira on this side of the pond, but the film is well worth seeing and very, very funny.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Angel: RM W/A VU

"I'm from Sunnydale. You're not scaring me, you know!"

This episode is funny, smart, and generally bloody brilliant. It's also written by Jane Espenson. These two facts may be connected.

It's good to have a more light-hearted episode, not just for its own sake but for the way it really highlights the strengths of the three main characters and their inter-relationships. Also, it's nice to have a proper poltergeist episode, with lots of juicy tropes to explore- and also a nice evocation of Edgar Allan Poe with a flashback scene of a bloke being walled up by his mother. Er, lovely. She's not a very nice lady, and certainly not the best of mothers, but let's look on the bright side: she seems to be a fairly decent brickie.

The plotty stuff's all very nice and creepy and all, but what makes this episode such fun is the characters. The scenes of Cordelia inviting herself over to Angel's pad, and becoming increasingly annoying, are top entertainment. And I love her refusal to give up the perfect apartment even after the word "die" appears on the wall. In blood. It takes a lot to faze this Sunnydale girl. There are hints of character development, too. Although not until a conversation between Angel and Doyle provides the exposition on her riches-to-rags backstory. It seems Cordelia feels that, ever since her dad got done for diddling his taxes, she's been punished for her past bitchiness. She, like Angel, seeks redemption. On the other hand, the very suggestion of this is then immediately undercut and left nicely ambiguous.

Doyle's past is obviously not detailed at all beyond establishing that he owes a lot of money to a lot of people. His backstory remains mysterious, but gets pointed at a lot, and he even gets a speech towards the end saying "Oh yes, one day I shall reveal all." The tease.

The conclusion is highly satisfying, both because of Cordelia's inner bitchiness being what ultimately kills the poltergeist and also because of the twist with Dennis, who ends the episode as Cordelia's friendly live-in ghost. Who, er, regularly gets to see her naked, a fact which the episode shies away from, probably quite wisely. No wonder he seems quite happy. He probably expected a much worse afterlife than this.

I enjoyed that: a bloody good story, oodles of funny and some nice character stuff. It's just a little unfortunate, watching this in 2012, that we get the line "How come Patrick Swayze's never dead when you need him?"

Monday, 18 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Beer Bad

"Nothing can defeat the penis!"

Oh dear. Things have been going so well. It feels like a long, long time since I've had to give a good, hard lambasting to an episode of Buffy, but it's that time again. Stand by to witness a spanking.

It's not that this episode, written by Tracey Forbes, a name I don't recognise, is all bad. It might be a rather so-so plot, and the dialogue, for Buffy, is rather lacking in sparkle. And there's some rather interesting character development stuff, which we'll come to in a bit. It's just that the subtext is deeply, deeply wrong, and dangerous. There's nothing big or clever about mindless Puritanism. Beer good. Excess bad.  And excess is bad in a much wider context than beer. Sending out the message that we should avoid things, rather than learn to use them responsibly, is appalling. Also, you know, I like beer. I drank rather a lot of it on Friday night. I had fun. And yet none of us turned into cavemen, we had quite a civilised if merry conversation, and a good time was had by all. That's sort of what usually tends to happen.

The episode plays a little trick which is clever, I suppose, but entirely missing the point. Xander, the working class person behind to bar, is the target of cruel, snobbish mockery from some upper middle class students, only for the tables to be turned as the beer slowly takes away their intelligence. And everything in the episode is telling us, rather heavy handedly, that it's the beer that's the problem here. And it isn't; it's social class, Bullingdon Club type snobbery and social inequality. In my own university days I had to put up with ex-public school rugby types who thought it was big and clever to sing loud drinking songs and thus ruin anyone else's conversations. But the problem was their arrogance and sense of entitlement, not the beer. After all, the other people in the bar were drinking beer, too, and we were just having perfectly civilised conversations, as the vast majority of beer drinkers tend to do.

Admittedly, there might be cultural differences here for me, an English country boy, dealing with American attitudes towards beer, which are certainly different. After all, in most of the US the legal drinking age is twenty-one. To me that's hard to imagine. My University life revolved around pubs, clubs and bars. Heck, there was a bar in every Hall. Oh, and we know Giles went to a British university. He really wouldn't give Xander such a hard time about serving beer to the eighteen-year-old Buffy. Yes, he should have stopped serving when she was clearly the worse for wear, but I don't think that's supposed to be the point.

Ahem. Elsewhere, it's nice to see Buffy quite clearly getting closure vis-à-vis the Parker situations. Whacking him with a pointy stick was rather an elegant solution, I thought. But  most concerning is the situation between Willow and Oz; who's this girl who seems to be obsessing him so, right in front of Willow, and causing him to neglect his studies? And then there's Willow's brilliant confrontation with Parker. It's almost as though she's starting to go off men entirely. Hmmm…

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Angel: I Fall to Pieces

"What is stalking now? Like, the third most popular sport among men?"

"Fourth, after luge."

Is it just me, or does this episode's title mean that the song by Velvet Revolver is going through your head too?

It's interesting how much more coherent Angel feels when not crossing over with the parent show. There's a different directorial style, of sunsets, cityscapes and jump cuts. And the format of the show is different, with a much smaller ensemble of regular characters and a greater focus on the client of the week. This show pushes the private investigator angle much further; when Melissa visits the office it begins to feel more like Sherlock than Buffy. Angel's attitude to charging clients seems rather similar to Sherlock Holmes', too. Sherlock could probably do with a Cordelia.

This episode is very evocative of the late '90s, not only in the horrible office fashions but in the focus on stalking, an issue which had only recently started attracting media attention at the time. Here in the UK, certainly, it was only defined as a a specific criminal offence shortly before the 1997 election; I assume the concept was also quite zeitgeisty in the US. And this is a proper exploration of the subject; both Kate and Angel are given powerful and effective dialogue explaining the psychology of the stalker and the effect on the victim.

The main supernatural concept is gloriously creepy; a "psychic surgeon" who can detach and reattach parts of his body including, most disgustingly, his eyeball, which for some reason is also able to levitate. And then there are the disembodied hands under Melissa's bedcovers!!!  Most of all, I'm sure the idea of being watched all the time by a disembodied eyeball must be exactly what stalking feels like, and that's the point. It's just a slight pity that the in-universe explanation for this relies on a load of new agey bollocks, including that tired old false belief that 80% of our brains go unused.

Angel's handling of the case is clever and impressive, and its interesting how much psychological insight he seems to have, not only in his understanding of the stalker's thinking but also in his rather clever little deception. I'm not sure how well this squares with him not being much of a "people person", but perhaps this is an example of how "helping the helpless" is affecting him for the better. Then again, it might be inconsistent characterisation.

It's a good episode, well paced, and it deals with the issue of the week rather well. But I'd like to see a larger cast and more of an arc; one-off episodes are fine in themselves but characters need development. I find myself in the paradoxical position of liking the episode itself but disliking the concept of a series made up of one-off episodes like this one. Yes, there's a slight mention of Wolfram and Hart. But I'd like a bit more story arc.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)

" Peter, I was just jotting down a few reasons why you might want to leave IOP and come over to us at the Fairburn Organisation."

"Oh yes, that's very well put. I particularly like the noughts."

This is one of the greatest films ever made, a work of true genius. Yet so few people have seen it, or even heard of it, in spite of its stellar cast: it stars Peter Cook, and features the likes of John Cleese, Leicestershire lad Graham Chapman, Arthur Lowe, Harold Pinter (a Nobel Prize winner, no less!), Denholm Elliott, Julian Glover, Dennis Price, Ronnie Corbett and many, many more, and was scripted by Cleese and Chapman. It seems to have flopped, and pretty much vanished off the radar. That's a tragedy; it's one of the greatest works of satire ever, in any medium. Watch it now. Please.

Michael Rimmer (Cook) is a man with no past or hinterland but limitless ambition, who suddenly appears from nowhere. He seems to have no desires beyond the pursuit of power, and his entire personality is constructed so as to achieve his goals, even choosing his wife by focus group. We begin with him inveigling his way into a hopelessly inefficient advertising business managed by the hopeless Ferret (Lowe). This is a far cry from Mad Men, in spite of the sexy secretaries, and probably something of a commentary on the state of British industry circa 1970.

Rimmer gradually gets himself into a position of real power via mastery of opinion polls, and gradually ends up as a spin doctor to the political world, and eventually an MP, Chancellor, Prime Minister and ultimately absolute dictator. Rimmer ends up with the Tories, but it all seems very New Labour. And this is 1970. This film is quite scarily prophetic.

In 1970, political differences meant something. The political left was actually socialist. Unions had real power. Sensible, Keynesian economics was the orthodoxy. It all seemed to be a far cry from our modern era of managerial politics and interchangeable political parties, run by what Peter Oborne describes in his thought-provoking book as "the political class". Today (as Adam Curtis has rather eloquently discussed, especially in such series as The Trap and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace), this sense of politics as merely being about efficient ways of running a market economy with an ever-shrinking state. It seems such a clear contrast between then and now. Why, then, is this film so eerily prophetic?

The cynicism of the political class, and the meaninglessness of ideology, is plain to see. The unnamed Labour prime minister (suspiciously northern, pipe-smoking and, well, Wilsonesque, and played by the caretaker from Grange Hill!) unsuccessfully tries to lure Rimmer into joining the party, insisting that his lack of left-wing views need not be a problem, as Labour is "not bound to dogma". Worse still, once Rimmer is comfortably ensconced in senior Tory circles, a member of the cabinet makes a speech which is obviously meant to evoke Enoch Powell's racist "Rivers of Blood" speech. Yet Rimmer suggests that the Tory leader should do nothing to prevent the speech, but sack the minister afterwards. That way he can have his cake and eat it by looking like a man of principle by publicly opposing racism, while still giving the impression that the Conservatives are tough on immigration. It's deeply, deeply cynical.

The film isn't laugh out loud funny in the way that people might perhaps expect from this cast; it's very much in the style of Yes Minister or The Thick of It. But it's easily as good, as funny and as truthful as both of these, and I personally believe that it's a little more philosophically profound, even if there is a bit of nihilism underneath. Also, there's a pretty naked woman in it. Just saying.

There's another. less political, subtext too, I think. Peter Cook seems to be giving Rimmer the mannerisms of David Frost, and Cook once famously commented that his biggest ever regret was saving Frost from drowning. This entire film may well be one long character assassination, which would be rather ironic. Frost is executive producer...!

There's one thing that's puzzling me a little, though. There's a scene supposedly set in Nuneaton, although there's a suspicious lack of local accents, and I'd love to know whether or not it was filmed there. I know Nuneaton well, being a Hinckley lad, but I wasn't born until 1977, and I know the town centre was extensively redeveloped in the early '80s. So, can anyone put me out of my misery and tell me if it was filmed there or not? I can't say I recognise any of the locations, but things may have changed a lot.

Street Fighter (1994)

"I hoped to meet Guile face-to-face on the battlefield, where we could engage each other in unarmed combat. Then I would snap his spine. But why? Why do they still call me a warlord? And mad? All I want to do is to create the perfect genetic soldier. Not for power, not for evil, but for good. Carlos Blanka shall be the first of many who shall march out of my laboratory and crush every adversary, every creed, every nation, until the world is in the loving grip of the Pax Bisonica. And peace will reign and all humanity shall bow to me in humble gratitude."

Once upon a time there was a game called Street Fighter. It was rubbish, and sank without trace. But then it begat a sequel called Street Fighter 2, which became very popular. And this in turn begat a rather rubbish film, which is about to receive something of a critical spanking. Thing is, though, the film couldn't be called Street Fighter 2, after the game, as it would look as though it was a sequel to a non-existent film. Instead, it had to be named after the original, rather rubbish game. Awkward, eh?

I used to play the arcade version of Street Fighter 2 quite a lot as a teenager, in Upper Castle Street in Hinckley town centre circa 1992. I was rubbish. I always played Dhalsim, as the character requiring the least skill to play, and got whupped on a regular basis. So this film has a bit of a nostalgic pull for me, especially as all the characters from the game appear in the film. Initial impressions were that the film seemed likely to be rubbish, but then I was reassured by the presence of noted thespian Jean-Claude Van Damme, a performer of subtlety and grace, so cruelly overlooked by the Academy for so many years.

And yet, in spite of the peerless performance of this all-time great of the acting profession, the film is, not to put too fine a point on it, a pile of steaming cack. And, as such, I recommend it hugely. Don't make the mistake I made, though: this is not a film to watch sober, or alone. Alcohol is essential.

The glorious awfulness of this film just can't be exaggerated. It's a melodrama in the purest sense, with Raul Julia putting in a superb scenery-chewing performance as the wonderfully villainous M. Bison. Basically, he's Dr. Evil, and possibly the most fun character to play in all of cinema history. Most of the rest of the cast are quite obscure actors, although it's fun to spot all the characters from the game as they appear. No less a figure than Simon Callow appears as an officious type, causing a hilariously over-the-top from Van Damme as Colonel William F. Guile, a US marine with a suspiciously Belgian accent. Kylie Minogue is…. good to look at.

The plot is pure hokum involving a ransom demand and much twirling of moustaches, pointless violence and all the things you'd expect, but it's nice to see so many gladiatorial style one-on-one combats, reflecting the game, and all of the characters get a little glory except Dhalsim, my favourite, who doesn't even seem to have his cool Mr. Fantastic-style powers.

The most eye-goggling thing about the whole film is the series of bad jokes recited over the closing credits, and the post-credits scene basically reveals that M. Bison has Windows '95. But the thing as a whole is a very silly and hugely entertaining pile of crap. Much recommended.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Fear Itself

"Creatures of the night shy away from Halloween. They tend to find it all too crass."

So here we arrive at the now-traditional Halloween episode. On the one level, predictably enough, it's a comedy episode to contrast with the heaviness of Buffy having her heart broken by that bastard Parker. But there's something else going on, a sort of taking stock. This is an episode that analyses all the regular characters and where they are at this exact moment, using their greatest fears to underline a point about each of them. The fact that the show stops to do this sort of thing is, of course, a blatant sign that things are going to change.

Oh, and at last we get a haunted house episode. Cool. Is it just me, though, or does this haunted house, supposedly just set up by students for a party, look a little too good to be realistic?

Buffy's still depressed, obviously, and there are some equally obvious parallels with her reaction to being rejected by Angel back in Season Two. That time she pushed people away, including her friends; this time she begins to do the same. Yet again she has trouble trusting people, and retreats into herself. She's very detached right until the end, and looking for excuses to avoid social activity, but she doesn't have any. Everyone, even Giles(!) has embraced the Halloween spirit, and the bad things, annoyingly, are refusing to come out to play.

Still, she isn't really reacting as badly as she did last time, and her friends are more aware of what they need to do. She gets some good advice, too, both from the rather nice Riley, who has "rebound" written all over him, and from Joyce, who is wonderful. It's so nice to see these two together these days, and the connection that they have without any secrets to act as a barrier. It's great that they can have these chats about the divorce, and men, and the importance of friendship. Of course, I love Joyce's line about her last boyfriend turning out to be a homicidal robot!

Buffy's fear as induced by the haunted house is a little unclear, but I think it's the fear of her friends getting hurt. Willow's is a little more obvious: a spell, more powerful than any she's ever casted before, going out of control. She's at a crossroads; she's done the run-of-the mill hedge magic, and is rather nervous about what the next step, into actual conjuration, might involve, and whether she can handle it. Still, as she says, "I'll know when I've reached my limits". Definitely no dramatic irony there.

It's rather touching that Oz is so worried for her. Being a werewolf, his own fear is being out of control, and he'd hate to see that happen to Willow. Of course, in the haunted house, losing control is exactly what happens to him, and he struggles to control his inner wolf. It's interesting, I think, that there's such a contrast between the laconic, inexpressive Oz and the raw animal fury of the wolf. It's almost as though he's repressing a powerful id very, very tightly. Again, definitely no dramatic irony there.

Finally, Xander is invisible and inaudible to his friends, an obvious reflection on his worries that not being at college has driven a wedge between him and his friends, as Anya rather helpfully points out. Still, he's a lucky man. Anya might not be the epitome of tact but she must really, really love him. This is the woman who ran away from danger at the end of last season, but here she runs unthinkingly into danger, unable to bear the thought that he might be hurt. While dressed as a bunny, naturally. Bless.

The ending is well funny, though. I let out a huge belly-laugh at Buffy summoning the demon and Anthony Stewart Head's perfect delivery of "… not one of them, and will in fact immediately bring forth the fear demon itself." And Willow's right; the ickle demon is cute. And also, as hinted in the title, a nice metaphor. Our fears often are just blown out of their real proportion.

Oh, and who were those commando types again? Never mind. They were just Halloween costumes, right?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Angel: In the Dark

"This is not a needle in a haystack. This is a needle in Kansas."

Yes, I know, this is a nice follow-up to the preceding episode of Buffy both literally and thematically, with even the episode's title being a nice link. But is it really all that healthy for a spin-off which is still trying to establish itself to be crossing over with the original series in only its third episode?

For one thing, it feels a little strange to see Oz, of all people. He doesn't seem to belong in this show, as even the dialogue seems to concede with the comical awkwardness of him and Cordelia "catching up". Spike is a much more natural fit, and his first scene is well funny but, again, he's a recurring villain from the parent show. Is this healthy?

Such worries aside, though, on its own terms it's a brilliant episode, and a superb examination of Angel's character, and how profoundly shaped he is by the desire for atonement, forgiveness and brooding opportunities. The physical tortures he suffers are more or less a metaphor for the mental tortures he forces upon himself every day through his self-flagellating instincts. He can't allow himself to have the Ring Amarra, in spite of all the good it would do, because he feels he doesn't deserve it. This isn't the reason he was sent back from Hell. Better to brood, in the dark. A lot.

Oh, and to help people. We get a nice example in this episode, where he helps a battered woman escape from her abusive lover, and from her own irrational but all-too-common urge to go back to him.

Spike is fun, and gets all the best lines, but what I love about him here is that he's such a people person, even getting to briefly exchange small talk with Cordelia, something which Angel has manifestly failed to do. We have to remember he's evil, though, although not as evil as the horrible, horrible torturer, with his Heinrich Himmler looks, his hints of paedophilia and, oh yes, the torturing. From the minute we see him we know he has to die before the episode ends; he's just too evil to be allowed to survive, however impressed we might be by his quoting from Hamlet.

As for Cordelia and Doyle… well, they've developed a rapport, but it looks as though Cordelia has Doyle firmly in the friend zone, which is bad new for him. The two of them are great together, although it's looking as though their cultural differences regarding alcohol may be a problem: Cordelia, being American, is rather more abstemious than northern Europeans such as Doyle and, well, myself…! Oh yes… and there's the demon thing. Of course we, the viewers, rather suspect that Cordelia probably won't bat an eyelid when she finds out. But Doyle doesn't know her as well as we do. Oh, and bless her for being so excited about the invoice.

But still, all this reliance on the parent show doesn't bode well. There are some promising signs of independence, most notably in a visibly different directorial style, with jump cuts and all, but the show needs to try and avoid these sorts of crossovers for a bit, until it learns to stand on its own two feet.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Harsh Light of Day

"You love that tunnel more than me!"

"I love syphilis more than you!"

Very clever, that title, when you consider what the Gem of Amara does for Spike and what happens to Buffy in the post-coital morning. But this is a very clever, funny and downright brilliant script from Jane Espenson. I always look forward to the rest of the episode as soon as her name comes up at the start. Other than Joss Whedon himself she's the only writer who does that.

A few random things before we get started. If Oz gives the seal of approval to Giles' record collection then that's good enough for me. I rather suspect he and I would have pretty similar opinions. Also, nice cliffhanger at the end of the teaser.

The structure of the episode is rather clever; three wronged women, in parallel. Actually, it's more about one wronged woman, Buffy: Harmony is the comic relief and Anya isn't really all that wronged, but it's a nice framing device.

Harmony… don't you just love her? And are her and Spike not just the perfect couple? I mean, it's great to see Spike again. In fact, it's really great to see Spike again. But Harmony as a vampire is much more fun. Their relationship is highly amusing, too, which is rather fortunate, given the heavy shit going on elsewhere. Somewhat dysfunctional, perhaps, but they are both evil. Speaking of which… why is it that the evil characters (well, the vampires) always seem to have the best sex lives in the Buffyverse? 'Snot fair.

Wronged woman number two (or "wronged" woman number two- Xander is no Parker here) is Anya, who's come back for Xander after running away in Graduation Day, Part One. She's not quite as funny as Harmony, but she's not far behind, and hogs an awful lot of the best lines ("Oh, I have condoms. Some are black."). In fact, we're rather fortunate that this is a Jane Espenson episode, as otherwise there probably wouldn't be enough great lines for the other characters.

Her plan is to have sex with Xander, and therefore get over him, a plan which has one or two obvious flaws. It clearly brings both of them together, unsurprisingly, but Xander reluctantly tells her what he thinks she wants to hear, only to upset her. It's interesting how in some ways this parallels Buffy and Parker, only with the genders reversed and Anya acting out of genuine innocence, not being a scumbag like Parker.

Ah yes, Parker's scumbagginess. He really hurts Buffy, the bastard. Oh, there's certainly nothing wrong with one night stands or casual sex. I'm no puritan. But there damn well is something wrong with getting casual sex by falsely getting the other person to expect something more than just "fun", and getting them to develop feelings for you. That's callous, and horrible, and downright ungentlemanly. Buffy is utterly devastated, and it's heartbreaking to watch, especially as this is the second time that a man has gone evil on her after sex. The worst and most upsetting part is her thinking she must have done something wrong, and telling that smarmy bastard Abrams that she's sorry. Grrr. Still, at least Willow and Oz are ok, right?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Angel: Lonely Hearts

"The socialising thing is brutal."

Well, after a great first episode… I'm not really feeling this one, people. It felt rather so-so and by the numbers. I don't thing the theme was developed particularly well; yes, it's hard being in a big scary city amongst strangers, even harder to meet someone to be with, but we need to be shown this in relation to characters we care about. That didn't happen and for me, well, the episode sort of failed to make a connection.

It doesn't help that I just don't like the character of Kate Lockley. It's nothing to do with Elisabeth Rohm, but the character as written comes across as chippy, brittle and profoundly unlikeable. There's nothing wrong with having characters like this, but it's an odd choice of characterisation for someone who's intended to be a series regular, and one of the good guys. It doesn't help that I really, really hate to see dramas resorting to that tired old cliché of the hero being misunderstood by authority figures such as the police; it's frustrating to watch, and it's pretty much always little more than a crude way of padding out the running time for a bit; the plot can hardly advance when this sort of thing is happening. If dramas are going to resort to this then they damn well need to think it through and use it to develop the characters. That didn't happen here; the plot just got pointlessly held up. Plus, even worse, the episode ended with Kate having no idea that there was a supernatural element to the murders or that Angel was a vampire. It's all going to happen again isn't it?

The central idea- a parasite serial killer which seduces people and takes their bodies- is actually a pretty good one, but the fact that there was never any threat to a character we know diluted the idea considerably. The ending is a little awkward, too, with a conveniently placed fire. What was done well was the depiction of how horrible and desperate these places are; everyone hates these places, but it's the only way to meet someone in the big city. What makes it worse is that these people have the misfortune to be in the late '90s. I mean, what do people think they're wearing?

It's interesting, I suppose, that the burrower demon only kills people after sex. I'm not sure there's a metaphor here beyond the literal making a connection, but you have to feel sorry for the poor bloke whose last embarrassed moments are spent apologising for his bad sexual performance.

There's a bit more amusing development of Angel's awkwardness with people and his reluctance to socialise, and David Boreanaz is great with all this. Also, it's interesting to watch Doyle gradually and nervously inch towards asking Cordelia out. But there's not much here regarding characters or the series arc, and the episode is, well, a bit rubbish, and it's worryingly early for this sort of thing. I hope the next episode is better.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Avengers (2012)

"Dr. Banner, your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster."

Yes, I know. I'm currently in the midst of reviewing two telly series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of which are the brainchild of Joss Whedon. Less than a fortnight ago I watched and reviewed The Cabin in the Woods, another brainchild of Joss Whedon. And now I'm reviewing The Avengers, which is so Joss Whedon that it's officially branded as "A Joss Whedon Film" in the credit. It would be easy for the casual bystander (and that would be you, my dear reader) to accuse me of overdoing the Whedon thing.

On the other hand, I've only reviewed one Marvel superhero film previously for this blog, and that was Howard the Duck. I reckon that trumps any accusation of over-Whedonning the pudding. Be warned, though: this review will probably be rubbish. The Avengers is brilliant, but its brilliance lies mainly in bang and spectacle and really cool dialogue. Let's not pretend there's reams of subtext to say clever things about, cos there ain't.

What there is, though, is a triumph of screenwriting. I can't think of a script that had so many boxes to tick as this one, frankly. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk all need to be given prominent roles, they need to interact, fight each other, fight alongside each other, and individually look cool. Oh, and Nick Fury needs to look really cool as well, because he's being played by Samuel L. Jackson, for whom coolness is compulsory. The film makes this look easy, which is no mean feat, although it doesn't quite manage to hide the awkward fact that Cap, Black Widow and Hawkeye (or just plain Clint Barton as he is here) are significantly less powerful than the others. Also, there's a subtle but noticeable pecking order, with Iron Man getting a slightly bigger role, as befitting the greater success of the character's film and the greater star wattage of Robert Downey Jr. But, such things being accepted, the balance is right. Also, Downey Jr. is brilliant, funny, and supremely charismatic as always. He's easily the best leading man in Hollywood today.

Mark Ruffalo, incidentally, is probably the best Bruce Banner ever, and it's so very cool that CGI (of which I'm generally lukewarm) also allows him to play the Hulk.

That's about all that can be said. Not that there are any problems with the plot, but it's all about the set-pieces here, and the set-pieces rock. The film is long, much longer than I can usually take without whingeing, but the whole thing is so much fun that you never want it to end. If you haven't done so already, go and see it. Now.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Living Conditions

"You want to kill her? Don't you think you could just switch rooms or something?"

This suddenly feels weird, going back to Buffy after an episode of Angel. Still, I'll be doing this for a long, long time. I'm sure I'll get used to it.

I don't know about you but, looking back from this age of horrible, cynical, talent show dirges where Autotune is ubiquitous, I've become rather fond of Cher's Believe. She's not using Autotune to cheat, but to sound deliberately weird, and to draw attention to the weirdness. It's exactly the sort of playfully creative sort of thing that you never see in chart pop these days.

So, er, I'm actually with Kathy on the Cher issue. Although not playing the same song all the time. Also, "Lite FM! Love songs! Nothing but love songs!" definitely sounds like my personal Hell. Or possibly Heart FM, which has caused more human suffering than anything I can think of. "Love songs" are just full of generic platitudes. They have all the passion of a crappy poem in a greetings card and are the least romantic thing ever. I hate them. Just thought I'd get that off my chest.

This is a bit of a comedy episode, obviously (expect imminent heartbreak), and the metaphor here is nice and light: Kathy stands for those really annoying people we all know who are all the more annoying for being nice with it, so you can't even tell them to piss of without guilt tripping yourself. I'm sure we've all come across a Kathy. Probably the worst thing is the lack of understanding of personal privacy: you don't have to be "secret identity girl" to find the line "I figure we're almost like sisters now, living together and everything" the scariest thing that's been in Buffy for a good while. People like that absolutely have to be demons.

This episode is well funny, and a lot of that is down to a combination of Sarah Michelle Gellar's facial acting and some nice little directorial touches. In fact, the funniest scene (toenails vs. pencil drumming!) is just an extended riff of camera cuts and sound effects. And I also love the brief glimpses we also get of the wild parties going on in Willow's room! Also, the misdirection early on is well done: it really works as a twist that the hooded demons, who speak to each other in Jabba about "the one", are after Kathy, not Buffy. It's a nice touch that Kathy finds Buffy's slaying kit- and doesn't bat an eyelid! And it seems that conversations between fathers and errant daughters are the same in every dimension.

It all ends for the best, though, with Willow as Buffy's new roommate. That certainly gives the writers an easier job, what with Buffy being "secret identity girl" again.

As for the rest of the Scooby Gang (Xander actually uses the phrase here for, I think, the first time ever! Anyone know if this is indeed the first time?), stuff is brewing. Who's that girl briefly noticed by Oz? Giles is beginning to look increasingly as though he's entering a bit of a mid-life crisis, like many middle-aged men who find themselves suddenly unemployed. And will anything happen between Buffy and "random adorableness" Parker Abrams?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Angel: City Of

"Look, high school's over, bud."

Spin-offs are always a bit awkward, and this has the potential to be more than most. Unlike Buffy, who's witty and cool, Angel is brooding, fairly humourless and definitely not a people person. Worse, Buffy has established itself as an ensemble show, whereas the theme music to Angel (which rocks, by the way, and so does the tune) features only three regulars. Still, one of them is Cordelia (yay!) and she's outgoing, self-centred, funny and definitely a people person. And, going by the first episode, this really, really works. Even the fact that we begin in a bar, with the title character drinking alcohol, is something that has never so far happened in Buffy.

I love the title, although I must admit I've always had a penchant for terrible puns. It highlights the fact that there's a fourth regular character for this show: Los Angeles. Whereas Buffy has just started to explore the experience of moving from high school to university and the adjustment to a much bigger and more uncaring world, Angel expands these themes to an older demographic and the biggest possible scale: a city notorious for attracting people with hope and dreams and then cruelly disillusioning them.

Everything in the episode is about this. The fact that Russell, the baddie here, is a vampire acts as a rather neat metaphor for the way that this city, with its mirages of stardom and its uncaring harshness, sucks all the hope and life out of people. These themes are brought home all the more by the fact that they're happening to Cordelia, whom we all know and love, or bloody well ought to. We saw her lose all her money in the last season of Buffy, and so here she is, in the big city, desperate for some very unlikely success, living in a dump and wasting her time with some very Californian self-help twaddle. This is a great use of the character. Frankly, the new season of Buffy, being all about a new and unfamiliar environment, has no need of a secondary character originally designed as a queen bee type. But putting her in different circumstances, in a different show, as a primary character seems a great and promising move. It helps that Charisma Carpenter is amazing.

Then again, it may be great that Cordelia's an old friend of ours, and that she knows right away that Russell's a vampire and is blasé about it because, hey, she's from Sunnydale, but we know that no real harm or tragedy is going to befall her, at least not in the first episode. So enter Tina, who isn't so lucky, and who is so, so tragic. Unlike the slightly heightened character of Cordelia she feels like a real, brave, frightened person and we see enough of her to be devastated at her death.

She's also the catalyst for Angel, of course. He's withdrawn into himself, and just wants to help the occasional person and be left alone to mope in his mysteriously acquired Batcave. But the Powers That Be (mentioned in the very first episode, and it's already tempting to see them as the fictionalised alter ego of the writers, or basically Joss Whedon, which is fun and metatextual) have other ideas. So up pops Doyle who, aside from the facts that he's half-demon, has painful visions and is played by someone with a genuine Irish accent (the late Glenn Quinn), which has a real potential to embarrass the otherwise excellent David Boreanaz in flashback sequences, is still a complete mystery at this point. Suffice to say he's been called forth by the Powers That Be, and his first task is to recite Angel's backstory for the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen Buffy. I believe that over on TV tropes they refer to this sort of thing as "As You Know, Bob". Still, at least the script has the grace to give Angel a line that admits this. And it's all good ammunition for my "Powers That Be=Joss Whedon" theory.

Angel has to get out there and mix with people, is the message.  He needs to start caring about people, so that he can do good for its own sake rather than for the sake of his own tortured conscience. The Powers That Be / Joss Whedon definitely have a plan for him. And it gives him a character arc.

Angel is a little off-guard in the big city, interestingly. At first he doesn't manage to defeat Russell, but retreats. He simply isn't the big shot in LA that he is in Sunnydale. He's still a somebody, though, a "new player in town", and he wins out in the end, in a rather cool manner.

It's only the first episode, but already we're introduced to evil and mysterious law firm Wolfram and Hart, and also to Christian Kane, whose character is as yet unnamed. Even the "Senior Partners" get a mention, which surprises me. Already the format is taking shape, and we end with the formation of Angel Investigations and Cordelia, naturally, employing herself.

This first episode is much better than I remembered. I'll be honest and admit that I didn't really get into Angel until Season Three, but this is certainly a great start.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Freshman

"Uh, are we gonna fight? Or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?"

Time to take a deep breath; I'm about to embark on forty-four consecutive episodes of Buffyverse (including the first season of Angel) with nothing else except a film on Saturdays, if I happen to be blogging on that particular Saturday. Otherwise there'll be no interruptions (real life aside).

So…. Buffy is back. And in some ways it's back to the beginning, with Buffy having to adjust to a new environment, just as she did in Season One, except that everything's that much bigger in scale and more grown-up.  With no Angel, of course. Oh, and no Cordelia. Wonder where she's gone, he asked rhetorically?

We're back to the examination of teenage life, both through metaphor (well, ish) and through straight-up depiction. The first few days of University are always overwhelming and stressful, and this episode depicts this really well with its many shots of huge, huge rooms- lecture halls, libraries and the like- crammed with loads and loads of people. You really get a sense of how huge and overwhelming is the world of the campus. And so is the work, which I can certainly remember being overwhelmed by in my first semester until I finally realised that I was doing ok, and I could do it. There's a real contrast between Willow, who's excited about no longer being somewhere knowledge is "frowned upon", and is enthusiastic and organised, and Buffy, who's stressed, intimidated and humiliated by it all. She's singled out, shouted at and thrown out of one lecture hall, intimidated by the scary Professor Walsh in another, and embarrassed by her own clumsiness in the library while meeting Riley, who for the moment is still just a big question mark.

And the vampires are part of this, being a rather neat metaphor for those students who bail out in the early days, unable to cope. They prey on the vulnerable, the uncool. And their leader, Sunday, is forever critiquing peoples' fashion choices and even their posters. She and her gang all seem to be metalheads; speaking as a member of the metalhead community I'm not sure what to make of that!

These vampires are part of a bigger, more adult world in which Buffy isn't sure she can cope. She gets her ass kicked. Worse, she's alone. Willow and Oz are busy with their own introduction to University life, and she's pretty much abandoned by both of her parent figures. Joyce has shoved some stuff in her room for storage while Giles, now a "gentleman of leisure", is now living with Olivia, who seems to be an old flame, and without the resources of a library there's not much he can do to help. His message is clear; as her "father" he'll be there for her, but only if he's needed. Buffy has to stand on her own too feet now. She's an adult. He's probably right, but this isn't a good time. Buffy's forced to go to the Bronze and mope, alone.

(Are we going to keep seeing the Bronze this season? It feels odd that they would keep going to the same place. Still, I suppose it makes sense to use existing sets when you can.)

All this changes when Buffy meets Xander, and she really is glad to see him. By his own admission, he hasn't been a particularly good friend in the past. But this time he really comes through with some much-needed perspective; for all the typical Xander humour, his life, and his prospects, seem pretty grim at the moment, whereas Buffy has real opportunities to seize.

Ok, the plot was a bit blah and perfunctory, but this script had a lot of stuff to introduce and a lot of donkey work to do. There are some intriguing things set up, too. How's Buffy going to get on with her roommate Kathy, she of the (gulp!) Celine Dion poster? Who made that phone call, and why didn't Buffy just 1471 it, or whatever the equivalent is in America? Was that course on American popular culture a metatextual joke on Buffy itself being taught at Universities? And who were those mysterious black ops ninjas…?

Oh, and why is everyone being referred to as "freshmen", even if they happen to be female?

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

"There's just one thing, Mark. Going into unexplored territory… with a woman?"

It's a bit of an oddity, this film. It tends to get lumped under the "Universal Horror" label (by The Monster Squad, for one), although it's much, much later than the others; it doesn't have a literary basis; and it feels as though it has at least one foot in the '50s sci-fi pool. This certainly isn't a B movie; though; the Amazon location is effective and atmospheric, the script and performances are both excellent, and the monster itself looks extraordinary.

The plot is fairly standard, really, almost clichéd in its themes of science going too far and a monster with a King Kong complex. But that isn't the point; the film works because of its successful building up of tension and the effects of that tension on the well-rounded characters who make up the expedition.

The tension is almost unbearable in the early scenes with Kay swimming in the lagoon while the creature, filmed underwater, swims just underneath and just below her, and looks as though it could grab her at any moment while she swims on, oblivious. The character of Kay is interesting, too. Although she's a rational and level-headed scientist, and clearly shown to be a very good one, she's nevertheless the token woman, and therefore treated pretty much like a child, to be kept out of danger at all times. And her desire to go for a swim is presented as a typically feminine act of intuitive silliness but, hey, that's what these ladies are like!

She's also a bit of a catalyst for the fight going on for the position of the expedition's alpha male between her not-quite-fiancé, David, and their boss, Mark. It's Mark's obsessive pursuit of the creature that leads to several deaths including, of course, his own. But it's interesting how the film goes to quite some lengths not to blame science for his harmful obsession; David gets a line explicitly comparing Mark to a big game hunter, clearly stating that it isn't science that leads to his hubristic obsession. It's the 1950s, and scientists must always be shown as heroes. The film is at pains to show that Mark, because of his position as antagonist, isn't a "real" scientist. Even his reasons for going on the expedition (money for the institute which will keep it afloat!) demonstrate that his motives are worldly as much as scientific, however unfair this may be.

The film looks superb, and the visuals are really the reason to see it. The direction is superb, although it would have been nice to have seen the film in 3-D, as originally intended. And the location filming really evokes the Amazon, and gives the film a genuine sense of glamour and exoticism. The boat, too, gives a real sense of claustrophobia, and the conflict aboard the boat really feels earned by the characterisation and the situation. It's a film that makes you jump in several places, and certainly a cut above any Universal Horror movie not to have been directed by James Whale.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

"You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!""

Oh my. I watched in goggle-eyed amazement as Teenagers from Outer Space unfolded before me, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is a completely different order of magnitude in its badness. Teenagers from Outer Space had terrible acting and special effects and was generally rubbish, and the plot may have been awful but, well, it had a plot. And it seemed to manage the task of basic storytelling quite well. This film, though… it's hard to find the words. But I'm going to have to because, well, that's sort of the point of these reviews.

Let's start with Bela Lugosi. As everybody knows, the footage of him was shot several years previously before he rather conveniently dies, and had to be padded out with scenes of Ed Wood's wife's chiropodist, who was much, much taller, pretending to be him, rather obviously covering his face. It's worse than it sounds, though. The footage of Lugosi that we get it just the same few scenes repeated, and obviously not shot with this film in mind. The other two zombies (the Inspector and Vampira) walk and act like zombies, with arms outstretched, while Lugosi walks like, well, Dracula. It just looks awful. Especially as the film is padded out with so many scenes of Lugosi walking around looking vaguely menacing.

And then there's the plot, such as it is. The aliens' plans make no sense whatsoever. They're supposed to be incredibly powerful, and far more advanced than ourselves, but they worry about a handful of zombies being spotted, and one of them almost suffers death by zombie because their ray gun thingy fails to work. Also, they foolishly invite a bunch of Earthlings on to their flying saucer for a bit of a chinwag. Duuuuh! And the whole point of their scheme is to somehow stop humanity from developing to the point where they will be able to harness the power of sunlight to make a bomb which with destroy the universe. Or possibly just the Solar System. The script is rather unclear on this point. The alien plan appears to mainly involve shouting insults at these armed and warlike Earthlings and, er, telling them about this weapon they don't want them to develop. Er, good plan.

Yes, that really is it, although there are a lot of shockingly bad scenes of stupid humans talking stupidly to one another while the narrator spouts vaguely melodramatic exposition at us. The narration goes beyond cheesiness into a whole other dimension, but we expect that. Much less expected are Vampira, a sort of proto-Goth in 1959, and the alien "ruler" (and why do all alien planets in 1950s sci-fi B-movies just call their leaders "the ruler?"), played by John Breckinridge, scion of one of America's most aristocratic families and with a deeply Brahmin accent to prove it. He's as camp as a row of tents and, according to Wikipedia, went around being openly as gay as a window in the early decades of the twentieth century, which must have taken guts; he seems to have been quite a character. And aside from Vampira he's the only person in the film with any charisma whatsoever.

The special effects are not bad, considering, although I had to raise an eyebrow at the line which described one as being shaped "like a cigar". Er, no it isn't. And if it was, it wouldn't be a flying saucer, would it? And the Hollywood locations look quite good. But otherwise, well… this is car crash cinema. You feel dirty, voyeuristic and twisted, but you can't take your eyes off the screen.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Monster Squad (1987)

"She's boring. And has an odd-shaped head."

I've never seen this film before today, but it's so similar to so many other films that I may as well have done. There's more than a hint of BMX Bandits in its kids versus baddies shtick. In fact, the bikes look a bit suspiciously Eighties. Also, there are plenty of old-style Pepsi cans on display. Ah, nostalgia…

Another thing this reminds me of is Good Omens, a splendid comedy novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which also uses the whole kids versus supernatural baddies thing to hilarious effect, but I suppose it's a fairly common trope. It works well here, anyway. The child actors are, well, child actors, but they're pretty much ok as child actors go, and the whole thing is amusing enough to work without requiring more than competent performances. The kids are such great characters, though, especially Phoebe. I love their dialogue.

I'm not sure how realistic it is for a bunch of (mostly) twelve year old kids to be so interested in Universal horror movies, of course, but I think we can gloss over that. It's such a joy to see Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein's monster and, yes, even the Creature from the Black Lagoon, all together at last. There are some nice little subtle bits of homage, too, from the armadillo in the opening titles (evoking the original Dracula), to Frankenstein's monster ("Frank") befriending Phoebe, the little girl. And I'm sure there are plenty more that I've overlooked.

Probably the funniest bit of the film is where we cut to Scary German Guy brandishing a knife, ominously, and then using it to cut a tart for the kiddies because, as we all know, obviously you'd need a really sharp knife for that. Our impression of the character changes completely at the end of the scene, though, when we see those numbers tattooed on his arm. That's probably the only serious moment in the film.

It's all a bit light, perhaps, and it's a very short film, but it's definitely worth a look if you're fond of the many films like this being made at the time. There's even a montage scene with a soundtrack that's way beyond cheesy. It's not a particularly metatextual film, but there are lots of nice little subversions of tropes here. Where else could you see the Wolf Man being kicked in the bollocks?