Saturday, 28 July 2012

Henry IV, Part I (Richard Eyre, 2012)

"Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!"

"I do. I will."

I'd never seen or read this play before, this English graduate sheepishly admits. There are rather a lot of them, and those pesky academics are pushing to include more and more to the fortyish plays. For the record, I've seen or red fourteen including this one. That said, it's surprising, as ever, how much of this play, a lot of it concerning Falstaff, was familiar.

That gives me a bit of a challenge. When I reviewed Julius Caesar and Richard II I was discussing the production rather than the play, which I already knew. I'll endeavour to keep this review in that same spirit, but I hope you'll forgive me a small digression on my first impressions of the play.

The play continues the theme of kingship from Richard II, with Henry IV, a usurper, plagued by guilt and incipient rebellion. Fascinatingly, there are two pairs of doubles who dominate the play. The dour, guilt-ridden, dutiful, rebellion-plagued Henry is contrasted with the fun-loving, cheerfully cynical but emotionally vulnerable Falstaff, giving Prince Hal two polar opposites as "fathers". Meanwhile, Hal, a dissolute young man who contains greatness within him, and is much cannier than he looks, is contrasted against the brave, honourable but impulsive and not-too-bright Hotspur. We get a lot of foreshadowing that Hal will put away childish things when he starts, er, kinging, and that he will, indeed, on that day, banish plump Jack and banish all the world. Hotspur, in getting himself and a lot of people pointlessly killed, illustrates, I suppose, that Hal's strategy, if we can call it, of making himself seem to be a bit of a waster so he can surprise everyone, is a good idea. Although robbery is perhaps pushing it a bit far.

Underlying this is a sense that something is rotten in the state of England; Henry's speech about rebels at the climax, given his own actions, rings hollow, and it is the rebels, not him, who speak of honour. The only hope lies in the next generation.

Interesting, then, that this more rotten England gets a far grittier and more lived-in mediaeval look than did Richard II, which seemed much more on the High Middle Ages. We get constant contrasts between earthy taverns and a cold, grey, empty, joyless castle which really emphasises, in the use of setting, how this play cuts between two very different worlds, one joyless and rooted in a terrible sin, the other merry but ultimately without honour or values. For all it's japes, and its sack, and its misguided honour, this is an England that has lost its way. It's notable that the final battle is shot mainly in close shots to give a sense of confusion, chaos and claustrophobia. There's bitter snow, and fog clouding everything. The battle is won, but things are not right. This generation has failed, and the throne itself is still in question.

Jeremy Irons is superb as the recast, older, rather depressed Henry IV, who has gained only misery by seizing the throne. Simon Russell Beale, my first Falstaff, made me fall in love with the character and want to see more interpretations. But I suspect it's Tom Hiddleston, Loki himself, who will make the biggest impression over the three plays. There are broad hints of how his character will develop, and I'm looking forward to what happens with his performance. Perhaps it's the battle scene, more even than the play-acting in the tavern, that points the way. This is not Falstaff's world, but Hal belongs.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Angel: Expecting

"I learned men are evil… no, wait, I knew that."

Boo! Weren't expecting this, were you? Neither was I, to be honest. This blog is still more or less on semi-hiatus until after the first week of August but I find myself with an unexpected free evening. What could be more appropriate than to watch and review an episode of Angel called Expecting?

About ten minutes in, I was all ready to hate this episode. Cordelia has sex with someone she hasn't known for long, and whoosh! She's pregnant the next morning. At first glance, this appears tiresomely puritanical in its message, especially with Cordelia's pre-existing issues (emphasised here) with thinking that she's being punished. But that's not what this is about. For one thing, Cordelia makes it clear that "everything was safe", a line which could only be there to signal that none of this is her fault; she took precautions. What it is about, I think, is arrogant, entitled men who think it's fine to get someone up the duff and then bugger off, leaving her with all the consequences. It's fitting that it should be Cordelia who knocks the errant father, personified as a demon, into a million pieces.

Oh, and if that wasn't enough to prevent this from being the Pope's favourite episode of Angel, the whole plot is essentially about procuring an abortion.

It's well executed, too, much as there were a couple of clichés that made me smile. Wilson is sweet, considerate, self-aware- he must be evil, right? And the sex montage, showing us lots of short scenes of kissing, bedclothes, the Sun rising and essentially chaste stuff fading into one another, is really a bit too much of a cliché to be done without irony.

Great episode, though. I loved the fight early on, seen only through shadows on the wall, and Dennis looking after Cordelia- aaaah! Oh, and the bartender in the club- isn't he the janitor from Scrubs?

I love the continuing subtle developments in Wesley's character. (He's still not an "official" member of the team, although he seems to do an awful lot of unpaid work!) He's still as much of a klutz as ever (love the axe scene- Alexis Denisof is great at physical comedy), but also extremely brave, much braver than he was in Buffy. His rapport with Angel is developing nicely, too; the two of them are beginning to make a highly amusing double act.

But most interesting is how this episode highlights the way Cordelia's character has developed- beneath the surface she's both much, much tougher and much, much wiser. Fittingly, the final scene consists of her running rings around the two boys. But that last line shows how much she appreciates them. Again, aaaah!

There. Don't expect updates all that regularly until a week into August, although I'll make sure I keep up with the BBC's "Hollow Crown" Shakespeare adaptations, at least. There may be a blog entry on Friday, too. Fingers crossed…

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Next Two Weeks....

There won't be much in the way of blog posts over the next two weeks because of pesky real life stuff, but things won't stop completely. I'll try at least to post on Fridays and Saturdays, unless I'm out. Things should get back to a normal schedule from the second week of August.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Richard II (Rupert Goold, 2012)

"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings."

This is the first of four plays to be screened by the BBC under the title of "The Hollow Crown". Coming next will be Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, followed by Henry V, all of them, like this play, filmed as full dramas, with elaborate costumes, sumptuous location filming and the full visual feast of modern, high budget, television drama. And that isn't something that has been done since the 1970s, a very different age of television. This is not one of those occasional BBC 4 dramas, based on current theatre runs, which still have one foot in the theatre, with only limited use of the moving camera. This is the full medium of television being applied to Shakespeare. Modern methods of visual storytelling, unheard of the 1590s, are fully utilised. Realism is the rule; the locations and settings straightforwardly evoke the real world of the late fourteenth century. This is television, not theatre.

And that's very interesting, because there's a constant tension between the theatrical medium of Shakespeare's playscript and the medium of television to which that script is being applied here. Modern television drama, with its fast pace and fast cutting, adheres to a philosophy of "show, don't tell". This fits awkwardly with those scenes, so frequent in Shakespeare, where characters describe battles, gruesome happenings and other things which happen off-stage. This was a necessary device for the Elizabethan stage, of course, where it was best to avoid having to depict such things. But it sits awkwardly with the medium of television, where beheadings by the cliffside and location filming at real beaches, woods and castles are all possible. There are many scenes in which speeches are juxtaposed with a visual depiction of what is being described. On the one hand, all of this is brilliant. On the other hand, it is often made awkwardly obvious that Shakespeare was writing for a very different medium.

That isn't always the case, of course. The television medium can often serve instead to emphasise meaning; Richard's last minute decision to cancel the trial by combat between Mowbray and Bolingbroke is made all the more effective by the visual depiction of the sheer expense of organising the event. Nevertheless, there's a tension between the two mediums.

Ben Whishaw is superb as a fey and effete Richard, famously based on Michael Jackson and a little reminiscent of John Hurt's Caligula from I, Clavdivs.  It's a stand-out performance, showing us a Richard who seems to care little for affairs of state, and robs his nobles for his wars as but a casual afterthought. The pet monkey pretty much symbolises his fickle, pleasure-loving nature. This is a man who ill befits the rather warlike nature of mediaeval kingship. He's a camp king in a very butch world. I recall at University I studied this play in conjunction with Marlowe's Edward II. The parallels are strong in any case, but such a very camp Richard makes them all the more so. This is the first time I've seen Ben Whishaw (I've yet to see The Hour), but he's truly a revelation here. I don't doubt that his Hamlet would probably have been superb.

The rest of the cast is hugely impressive, too, from Rory Kinnear's troubled, more than usually conscientious yet determined Bolingbroke to Patrick Stewart's outstanding John of Gaunt. The "This Sceptred Isle" speech is delivered slowly, with deliciously bitter irony, in one of the standout moments of the production. Yet the highlight is undoubtedly Whishaw's self-pity, as power slips gradually away from Richard. David Morrissey's merciless Northumberland and Tom Goodman-Hill's anxious Sir Stephen Scrope are also worth singling out for praise. The play's awesomely rich themes of the nature of kingship, whether any subject has the right to depose a king anointed by God, and how Richard, in denying Bolingbroke his rights of succession, thereby undermines his own, are brought out anew by the performances. These themes may seem as if they belong to another age, but they don't really. They point forward, of course, to the follies and the death of Charles I. And we see the same power relationships everywhere, whether within the ranks of the Mafia, in the boardroom, or in the dynamics of teenage gangs. Because that's what mediaeval aristocrats and kings always were: gangsters.

This is only the beginning, of course. Henry ends the play in deep penitence, filled with a mixture of regret and paranoia. He's dismayed to hear of Richard's death. This original sin will lead to profound and bloody consequences…

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A New Man

"I'm not even sure I could take you."

"That all depends on your meaning."

So, we get a Giles episode that really focuses on his unemployed, mid-life crisis, spare part existence. It's a good episode, as we'd expect from the pen of Jane Espenson. But Giles' issues, worryingly, are not really resolved. And we're left with the troubling idea that the Initiative may not be entirely a good thing.

This is only emphasised by the fact that, for everyone else, things are going great. Birthday girl Buffy and Riley are rather endearingly besotted in these early days of their actual being an item, with Riley gradually coming to understand what a big deal it is to be the Slayer, just how superhuman Buffy is, and how brilliant a tactician she is on top of that. He's a little awed. Plus, she's his girlfriend. I suspect the seeds may just have been planted for a future conflict of loyalties.

Also rather endearing is the rather gentle courtship between Willow and the very lovely Tara, a person you just want to hug. That spell with the rose is an obvious metaphor for romance, and possibly also for sex. The whole thing certainly ends with a bang.

Oh, and in other news, Spike has been evicted from Xander's basement to find a lair of his own. This presumably means that Xander and Anya will be doing a lot more, er…

Giles, though… it's rather clever how the first half of the episode sees his spare part status constantly highlighted. Everyone says the wrong thing to him at the party and it's made very clear just how directionless his life is. The worst thing is everyone's obvious sympathy for his predicament. And not only had Buffy failed to realise that she'd failed to tell him about the Initiative (even Spike knew!), even I, as a viewer, hadn't noticed his out-of-the-loop status on things Initiative. I suspect I wasn't the only viewer to have been surprised by this either. That's a clever bit of misdirection over the last couple of episodes.

He and Maggie Walsh are a hilarious double act in their mutual loathing, circling around each other with barbed comments as their weapons, and Giles doesn't exactly get the upper hand. "Buffy clearly lacks a strong father figure"- ouch.

Enter Ethan Rayne. Seldom has he been so much fun. He's constantly coming out with comments that nicely undercut the narrative, and you know how I love me a bit of metatextual fun. He's pretty much the writer's mouthpiece here, and the writer is Jane Espenson. That guarantees us a lot of fun. Ethan gets all the funniest lines.

The fact that Giles would let down his guard to far as to get completely rat-arsed with someone as dangerous as Ethan shows us just how far his standards have fallen. Not that there's anything wrong, or un-Giles-like, about getting blotto every now and then, of course (it's the British way!), but Ethan is hardly an appropriate person to get pissed with. He really could have spiked Giles' drink with poison. And it's notable that the scenes of Giles and Ethan, two old has-beens talking about being sorcerers, are juxtaposed with a scene of Willow and Tara practising real sorcery, and being young to boot. No wonder Giles wakes up with a massive metaphorical hangover.

I love Spike's attitude- although his evilness is definitely slipping. I love Giles' scaring Maggie Walsh for the sheer Hell of it. I love "the mucus thing". The second half of the episode is pure enjoyable farce, although the extrajudicial imprisonment of Ethan certainly raises one's eyebrows in these… I was going to say post-Guantanamo and rendition days, but these things are very much still with us. 2000 wasn't that long ago. But in some ways it feels a more innocent age.

Or perhaps we're supposed to wonder a little. Could there be something rotten in the heart of the Initiative? And what's in the dreaded Room 314…?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

"Well, I don't really think that the end can be assessed, as of itself, as being the end, because what does the end feel like? It's like saying when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe, you say 'if the universe is indeed infinite, then how… what does that mean'? How far is all the way, and then if it stops, what's stopping it, and what's behind what's stopping it? So, what's the end, you know, is my question to you…"

Yes, I know. I've reviewed two musicals in a row, sort of. I love this film, though. It isn't so much that it's laugh-out-loud funny; in fact, considering the subject matter, the humour is actually quite gentle and ironic. There are some nicely quirky bits that are funny because they ring true- Nigel's disgruntlement with the small bread on his rider, and the band panicking at being unable to find the stage being two of the funniest.

The songs are superb, hilarious pastiches from throughout the history of rock from grainy monochrome footage of a mid 60s incarnation reminiscent of the Who to a cynical hippy cash-in from a few years later. They're genuinely great rock songs, and the lyrics are the funniest thing in the film, from the arse-clenchingly ignorant pretentiousness of Stonehenge to the jaw-dropping sexism of Big Bottom, probably the greatest ever song about anal sex, God help us.

Most of the time, though, the band is a piss-take of the heavy metal at the time, with the Stonehenge debacle even being taken from a real life experience of the Black Sabbath line-up of the early '80s. This is heavy metal before the LA-dominated "hair rock" began to arrive in the mid-'80s; the vibe is much more NWOBHM, with flying V's and stage moves taken straight out of the repertoire of Kiss.

One thing that dates this film more than anything is the idea that rock stars are past it by the age of forty-five; that sort of attitude would become passé with the advent of Live Aid just a year later. A real life Spinal Tap would have survived the Yoko issues, the declining audiences and the ropey "big in Japan" period to be raking it in today, no matter how many drummers had to die to get there.

The drummer bloodbath is a prime example of how improvisation leads to so many of the best things about the film. Many of the exchanges remind me of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Derek and Clive. It's a real strength of the "mockumentary" format.

This is a brilliantly crafted piece of observational comedy and a compulsory fixture of every self-respecting tour bus, although it probably helps if, like me, you're a total rock 'n' roll anorak. This is a film so good that it inspired not only an album cover but also a considerably less funny pseudo-remake from no less a band than Metallica. Surely there could be no higher compliment.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Angel: Somnambulist

"Great news, sports fans. There's been another killing!"

This is a fascinating mid-season episode. It's almost about the very fact that the show is in the process of changing its format from semi-police procedural with the supernatural as metaphors for aspects of city life to something a bit more directly supernatural. All this seems to be reflected in the central focus of this episode: Kate, a character associated with the earlier format, having to come to terms with Angel's supernatural nature and, by extension, the fact that she's now going to have to find a place to exist as a character in a genre she wasn't made for and, perhaps, may not fit.

Kate's shocked, understandably. But she's focused, together and efficient. She''' be fine. After all, in this episode she says the word "recidivist" out loud, with out fear of tripping over the vowels. That takes real courage.

Kate is the focus of some superb directorial choices, incidentally. Her talk about the profile of the killer, with traits matching Angel, is matched to footage of our hero, brooding. There's a nice little research montage towards the end. And the opening is a nice bit of misdirection. At first we don't see the face of the vampire that's just killed someone, but then we do see: it's Angel. Although, admittedly, it's all a dream.

We don't spend too much time on the idea that Angel may be committing murders in his sleep; it's revealed pretty quickly that it's Penn, a young man sired by Angelus in eighteenth century Ireland, as communicated in those flashbacks that won't really become a fixture of the show until Darla comes back. Interestingly, Penn is a "Puritan". If he knew Liam socially when they were both alive, this might indicate that they were both Protestants, which would explain their apparent wealth in the context of the time, when the Catholic majority in Ireland led less than ideal lives and the Protestant Ascendancy owned most things. Although, come to think of it, Penn as a "Puritan" wouldn't have been part of it, so ignore what I just said.

Still, that was then.  Geeky historical footnote over. This is now, and Penn (Hawkeye himself, Jeremy Renner!) looks curiously like a 19th century David Bowie. He's a serial killer, yes, but I don't think there's anything metaphorical going on here; the future of the show does not lie in such things.

There are other interesting things in this episode, mind. Wesley is not yet an official member of Angel Investigations, although I notice that Alexis Denisof has now been promoted to the credits. His rapport with the other two regulars is already a pleasure to behold. And it seems that a vampire can enter the lair of another vampire without permission. I wonder if this is entirely consistent with what we've seen before?

Mostly, though, this episode has me curious about how this show is going to be developed. It's fairly clear that the format is changing, but into what? It's very possible, interestingly, to read the final exchange between Cordelia and Angel as a possible harbinger for Angelus' return. After all, it's bound to happen at some point, right?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

"Don't tell me you got tied up?"

"No, just handcuffed a little…"

I don't really know a lot about musicals. In fact, my knowledge of the format is pretty much entirely limited to The Rocky Horror Show, a certain episode of Buffy and a certain Doctor Who stage play, starring your actual Jon Pertwee, which I saw at Birmingham in 1989. So you'll have to forgive my total ignorance of whatever the tropes are and how the format is supposed to work. I'm usually a bit wary of the musical format for the usual predictable objection that characters suddenly breaking into song during a narrative can be a bit of a problem for me, and I won't dent there's a bit of that here. It isn't that I have a problem with the lack of realism. Suspension of disbelief and realism can go hang- let's go and do some violence to that fourth wall! But the songs can slow things down, and leave me drumming my fingers until stuff can start happening again.

 I enjoyed the songs here, though. For a start, they're good. There are lots of different styles, and some really great ideas. The Motown-style Greek chorus is a masterstroke, and the decision to make Steve Martin's manic, sadistic dentist into a leather-jacketed rock 'n' roller means he gets his very own '50s rock 'n' roll song- in fact, he reminds me of the similar character from the Rocky Horror Show. The best songs, of course, are from the mean, green mother from outer space itself, voiced by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. The star-studded cast is fantastic, and (obviously, as the film can afford much better performers from the Saturday Night Live stable) much, much better than in the original film. Aside from Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Bill Murray, we get cameos from the likes of John Candy and his Christopher Guest from This is Spinal Tap (who rather surreally happens to be the 5th Baron Haden-Guest). Even the extras include none other than a young Danny John-Jules. The only part which I thought was better portrayed in the original was Wilbur Force (Arthur Denton in the remake). Bill Murray is superb, but Jack Nicholson is better with his more darkly humorous portrayal.

It's also superbly shot by Frank Oz, taking full advantage of the much bigger budget to produce a much more visually exciting experience. The highlight, of course, is Audrey II itself, which simply looks amazing, and moves amazingly, too. There's a very real sense of the poverty of Skid Row which the studio-bound original simply couldn't convey.

One thing which really surprises me, though, are the massive changes which have been made to the plot (spoilers follow). There's a happy ending and there are far fewer murders- in fact, there are only two deaths as opposed to, I think, five in the original. One character survives who originally died, and another prominent character survives who originally died. The whole plot is much, much more streamlined to incorporate the songs. The storytelling is much, much slicker, but there's a more sentimental tone, which loses a lot of both the deeply macabre, dark humour of the original and also the absurdist silliness. I think the remake is on balance the better film, but the original is still the better script. Both films are well worth watching, though, and for someone who doesn't do musicals I enjoyed this hugely.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

"I didn't mean it!"

Ah, I love me a good old low budget piece of retro fun. I only actually watched this as preparation for the musical remake, which is coming next, but there are much worse ways of spending late afternoon on a Friday. It may not be The Godfather, there's no real depth or subtext to it, and it looks as though it cost about $4.40, but it's bloody funny. And filming in black and white can paper over a multitude of budgetary sins, most of the time.

The film is a black comedy, with increasing amounts of farce. The customer who starts munching on carnations in the first few minutes tells us that this is going to be a very silly film indeed. It's gloriously camp; all the characters are grotesques, and all of them have delightfully silly names that the film just revels in. Seymour's hypochondriac mother and the mad, scary dentist (is this the birth of a trope?)  are both personal favourites of mine, but the best of them has to be Jack Nicholson's unforgettable cameo as Wilbur force, a man with a massive, masochistic craving for dental torture. He spends a most enjoyable afternoon, which I suppose makes Seymour some kind of dominatrix. Hmm.

Seymour's accidental murders get increasingly silly, with the last one positively revelling in its silliness; Seymour doesn't have a coin so he flips a rock. And accidentally kills the poor gorgeous lady trying to seduce him by missing the ground and throwing it clumsily at her head. it's funny because you can see it coming. And what's this about all these women throwing themselves at Seymour? I want some of his irresistible sexual magnetism, dammit.

There's a good reason why this film is thought of so fondly. As always, it's the script and the performances. If those two things are bloody good, as they are here, then any faults elsewhere don't matter so much. It's interesting to compare this with, say, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Both are cheap. Both are hilarious viewing. But one of them is actually good and the other one… isn't.

One slight oddity, mind. I know I'm British, but surely the dialogue indicates that the film is set in LA, and a lot of characters seem to have New York accents?

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Doomed

"It's the end of the world."


Oi. I like Slayer. I saw them live back at Ozzfest '98, although there was no way I was going to brave a Slayer moshpit. I'm only little; I didn't fancy my chances of getting out alive. I'm a little annoyed at Forrest this week for describing them as "Thrash band. Anvil-heavy guitar rock with delusions of Black Sabbath." Grrr. Incidentally, I saw Black Sabbath at that Ozzfest, too. The original line-up. Even Bill Ward put in an appearance. Oh yes. But, alas, Buffy isn't too metal-heavy. At least the soundtrack at the party almost makes up for it: we have both the Hellacopters and Echobelly. Result!

Music aside, this is another good 'un. Yes, it can't hold a candle to Hush, but neither can many things. The whole structure is awfully clever, for a start- a deliberately hackneyed ritual-that-will-cause-the-apocalypse plot allows the show to poke fun at its own clichés, but more interestingly the familiar tropes allow us to see the carefully contrasted methods of the Scoobies and the Initiative to solving the same problem. Hence the long section cutting between the two groups planning their reactions to the three nasty demons in their distinctive ways.

Dovetailing nicely into this framework is another contrast, between Buffy and Riley. The episode actually picks off from the very moment the last episode ends, and there is awkwardness. Buffy very nearly dumps Riley, but he persuades her not to, albeit by methods which seem at times to cross the line into creepiness. This all feeds back into that old, familiar dichotomy: would Buffy be better off alone or do her friends make her stronger? You would have thought that The Wish, with its bitter, doomed Buffy, would have answered that for good, at least as far as the audience is concerned, but Buffy still has a worrying habit of cutting off her friends at moments of real desperation.

Riley makes a few telling points- part of this is indeed because of the bad stuff with her former boyfriend- but I'm not convinced he wins the argument. She eventually takes him back, but that isn't why. It's just lust, and he's just a rebound. Buffy will never love him as she loved Angel and he's the one who'll end up getting hurt. That's obvious from the start.

This theme sort of links to Spike's monologue at Willow (speaking of whom, where's Tara?) and Xander (speaking of whom, where's Anya?), trying to convince them that they're no use to her. Thing is though, it's Spike who's useless, to the point of attempting suicide. Only when he realises that he can do bad stuff to evil demons does he cheer up. Spike, against his better nature, is forced to be a hero. It's a nice and amusing character development and, yes, a positive step, but a line has been crossed. Never again can Spike be a full-on murdering baddie.

Oh, and "fag off"? Er, that means "cigarette off". It's gobbledegook.

Also, comments about Slayer aside, I really, really like Forrest. He's witty, cool, and I suspect a bit of a Mary Sue through whom Joss Whedon himself can exist vicariously in his own fiction. Riley is the boss, but Forrest just seems so much more intelligent and together. And I loved his riff on the Slayer being a myth and demons and vampires just being part of the animal kingdom!

Better than anything in the whole world, though, is spike's unconvincing American accent. James Marsters, an American actor, playing a Brit doing an unconvincing version of Marsters' own natural accent; surely the hardest task any actor has ever been called to perform!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Angel: Parting Gifts

"I'm evil.  But hey, I'm not, you know, evil."

In the time-honoured Whedon-verse tradition, we get a nice, light-hearted episode to help us get over the emotional turmoil of last episode and, in that very same tradition, it's bloody good. Plus, you know, Wesley.

Doyle isn't in this episode, what with being dead and all, but it's a fitting wake to him, though with slightly less potent liquid refreshment than the dead man would have preferred. It's lovely that the episode should start with Angel once again visiting the Oracles, imploring them for his friend's life. He departed with few worldly goods to his name, but there's one precious gift he did indeed bequeath to the one person he deemed worthy: Cordelia now gets the visions, which more firmly establishes her role in Angel Investigations.

I loved Cordelia anyway, but this episode has deepened my love for her even further. She's just so delightfully self-centred, taking ages and ages of moaning before she gets around to describing her vision. Even better than that is her outrage at going for such a low price in the auction. And the comic chemistry between Charisma Carpenter and David Boreanaz is just purring by this point. All things about Cordelia are wonderful.

Still, let's not forget Angel himself, After all, this is where we discovered that he's a great cook, and is fluent in Korean, or at least he is when the plot requires it. There's also an interesting line where he refuses to allow Wesley to go with him into danger because he lost Doyle by doing that. He only refuses once, though.

The plot is fun; a nice, harmless little card cheat demon client who's being pursued by a mysterious but clearly badass figure on a motorbike and a sinister black helmet. But the plot, of course, thickens, with much hilarity ensuing, pausing only for a bit of threatened eye-gouging. Urrrgh.

But, well Wesley! I love the way the tension is gradually ramped up until we discover that this fearsome assassin is, in fact, only him. He's a great, fun character, clearly there to provide the pratfalls, but his scholarly knowledge of demons and whatnot will obviously prove useful to the team.

Interestingly, he now has a bit of hinterland; having failed two Slayers, he's been sacked by the Watcher's Council and, notwithstanding his amusing prancing around as a "rogue demon hunter", he sees himself as a failure and a fraud. Just like every single other heroic character in the show so far, he has something to atone for. But that doesn't mean he can't be comic relief most of the time. The final scene is fantastic in particular. It's so, so good to see Wesley back again, and part of the team. It's immediately obvious, too, what great comic chemistry Alexis Denisof has with the other two.

It's a strange episode I suppose. Right in the middle of the season, it's a combination of a tribute to Doyle and a reboot of sorts, not only replacing one of the original cast with someone else but rearranging peoples' roles.

And who's that who "won" the auction? Wolfram and Hart again…

Monday, 9 July 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hush

"Well, it could definitely be one of your prophetic dreams. Or it could just be the eternal mystery that is your brain."

Yes, I know. My habit of opening my reviews with a quote is not exactly appropriate here. But it's my style, dammit. I usually watch with subtitles, but for once I felt a bit silly doing so. At least they were useful for the first thirteen minutes.

Obviously, this is a superlative piece of television, and possibly the best Buffy ever. And yes, it is indeed both written and directed by Joss Whedon himself. It's also a great episode to talk about. Problem is, it already has been much written and talked about. I may be a Buffy fan, but I don’t really think of myself as part of its fandom, mainly because Doctor Who fandom is a big part of my social life these days and I'm very much aware of what actual fandom involves. Still, even a non-fandom fan like me is aware of this episode's inspiration by Marshall McLuhan and its general theme that people start communicating when they stop talking. In fact, it's all there in the episode's first line from Maggie Walsh, and Buffy pretty much underlines this by complaining about everything being "all talk".

Just to zoom through the main examples…

The relationship between Buffy and Riley has now been simmering for so long that it absolutely has to boil over about now. But talk is getting in the way; both of them are hiding a big secret, and the effort of keeping these secrets is stopping them from connecting. Only when they lose the power of speech do they finally kiss, and they discover each others' secrets by means of show, not tell. Once speech finally returns to them, so does the awkwardness.

Xander and Anya are having a bit of a tiff because Xander can't bring himself to admit his feelings for Anya. But, once speech is no longer an, option, a misunderstanding involving Spike and a mug of blood causes him to demonstrate how much he cares. Anya is instantly won over, and shows just how randy she's feeling by making that gesture, which is the best thing ever.

Giles' long distance with Olivia, though (we've met her only once before), may be going in the other direction. Giles' tales of scary things were fine, but the actual experience of Giles' lifestyle has shocked her.

Finally, there's Willow's frustrating experiences at the Wicca group, who are all talk and no broomsticks, except for Tara (I'd forgotten she first turned up so early), the only other true witch, who is nervous, diffident, and gently bullied into silence by the others. Only when silence descends can she and Willow communicate by their shared magical power, moving a massive drinks machine in a nice little metaphor moment. I think the gay, sexual element to their relationship is still subtext at this stage, but it isn't all that sub.

Every character has a big moment happen to them this pivotal episode. The use of the lack of speech to move things forward in such a big way seems pointed.

So, that's they stuff you can read elsewhere. Also interesting, though, are the echoes of silent cinema. The Gentlemen look a bit like Nosferatu, and their movements are very expressive. Interestingly, Nosferatu was a vampire (well, Dracula himself, renamed for legal reasons, and removing peoples' hearts is quite an uber-vampiric thing to do. There's a lot of visual humour, redolent of silent comedies. Giles' slides in the lecture theatre also hint at intertitles, perhaps. Also, I love his drawing.

We're about halfway through the season now. It isn't as good as Season Three (few things in life are) but it's shaping up to be very impressive.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Red Sonja (1985)

"Falkon, may I give you a word of advice? Put him over your knee and beat some manners into him!"

I was expecting to enjoy this film no matter what; I'm rather fond of a bit of sword and sorcery hokum, as regular readers will have noticed. I was expecting something rather similar to Conan the Barbarian, except perhaps with more lines for Arnold Schwarzenegger, this having been made after The Terminator. Instead, I found a film which was really rather brilliant.

I love Conan, but it's a cheesy film. This isn't, deep down. The script (co-written by George MacDonald Fraser of Flashman fame, no less) is much more coherent and clever, and uses the tropes of the genre in ways which are quite witty. Yes, the performances are not exactly the sort of thing you'd see at the RSC, but they're what the film needs. None of the characterisations are particularly deep, but they don't need to be.

I don't know much of the original Red Sonja, but she seems to have been a comic book creation of Roy Thomas and Barry-Windsor Smith, loosely based on a similarly named character in a short story by Robert E. Howard, who is credited here. That's interesting; I'm well aware of Roy Thomas through his many runs on many titles for Marvel, and he's always struck me as a good writer, occasionally a very good one, but essentially a writer of high quality fan fiction who prefers to play with other people's worlds and characters rather than create his own. I have no idea whatsoever if any of that applies here; the few Conan short stories by Howard that I've recently started reading are not really reflected by the 1982 film, but it works, I think, as an example of its genre. I'm going to treat this film the same, as an example of 1980s sword and sorcery cinema, without attempting to judge it in relation to the source material.

There's only one moment during the film that I found unintentionally amusing; the bridge of bones. The impressive matte painting in long shot becomes a rather less impressive model in medium shot. But I'm being picky, really. Yes, you can see the joins a bit, but it works, I think, in the terms of its time. And the visuals are often fantastic- I particularly like Tutte Lemkow's wizard with his colourful potions and psychedelic scrying thing. Magic gets presented as something really quite druggy, which works nicely. The fights are all very well choreographed, too. And I really liked the beheadings.

Brigitte Nielson gives a performance which is really rather functional (in fact, Arnie out-acts her, which is saying something!) but she's as good as she needs to be, playing a character who wants to save the world and seek revenge against the dastardly Queen Gedren, who murdered her entire family after Sonja spurned her Sapphic advances. I suppose one might raise an eyebrow at the fact that the baddie is not only gay but that the whole vendetta essentially starts with a bit of Sapphism, but I think that would be a little harsh. After all, Gedren is as camp as a row of tents.

We first meet Sonja being trained as a warrior so she can seek revenge, an obvious parallel with Conan. It's interesting, and ambiguous, how she rejects the advances of men, and seems rather wary of them, swearing only to love a man if he can vanquish her in combat. There's all sort of stuff going on here, if you happen to be both dirty-minded and pretentious like myself. After all, a sword is a phallic symbol, so Sonja has trained herself to gain total mastery over a symbolic penis. Perhaps this indicates a simple desire to be in control. Perhaps it indicates a fear of the penis, and a desire to control that fear. Perhaps it indicates both. People are complicated.

Similarly, Sonja is a fiercely independent woman, very resistant to receiving any help from men. As she very clearly insists to Kalidor. Yet on the other hand she will yield to a man who defeats her in combat, which could be interpreted as a desire for a strong man. One could argue that this is rather misogynistic- after all, the script is by men, as they so often are, and one of those men is the author of Flashman. I don't think we can necessarily assume that, though. Sonja is clearly presented as a strong woman, who takes charge of her own destiny and is clearly the central character. (The main McGuffin can only be destroyed by a woman, after all.) It's just that people are complicated, and being strong doesn't necessarily mean being alone and sexless.

Anyway, I love the swordfight between Sonja and Kalidor, which continues until they're both really exhausted. At first I thought I was watching a metaphor for foreplay, but then, as it went on and on, I realised that it was a metaphor for really, really good sex. With her on top, naturally.

So, getting back to less dirty-minded matters, I liked the film, basically. The film started off threatening to be very silly; what could possibly be more Monty Python than yellow text in a fancy font rolling up the screen to a backdrop of hills? But in the end it was only moderately silly, with a great little comedy double act in the young, arrogant Prince, with his fondness for occasional bullock-kicking, and the humble chubster Falkon. The film has a good script, looks good, and is as well-acted as it needs to be.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Angel: Hero

"Is this a private catharsis or can anyone watch?"

Before I say anything else, we all know what happens in this episode, right? I can't imagine there'll be anybody reading this who doesn't know about the massive elephant in the middle of this particular room, but if you don't… well, stop reading now.

We don't need to look far for the metaphor here; in fact, both the Scourge and the half-demon refugees have a very 1940s look, which is a nice touch. From the very moment we first meet the demon refugees, hiding as the basement as they often have before, the Anne Frank echoes are obvious; we're looking at Jewish people in Nazi-occupied countries, living in perpetual fear of discovery. We don't get to actually see the Scourge until quite late only, only being told about how terrible they are, which really works to build them up. The moment when they finally appear- and yes, they look like the Nazi demons they are- is all the more effective for that.

It's impressive that such a potent metaphor can be used so well and so effectively, mainly by the focus on the lives of the persecuted, especially as the episode is just forty-two minutes long and the character stuff takes precedence. But the other reason for the Scourge is to give Doyle something to atone for. Many years ago, he refused to give refuge to another of his people who needed shelter from the Scourge. There may be extenuating circumstances, but Doyle has essentially failed to shelter a fellow Jew from the Nazis, and this lead to his death. There have to be consequences.

Watching the episode in hindsight, the build-up to the inexorable moment is handled perfectly. The humour is front-loaded into the first ten minutes, as we begin with Cordelia directing a fantasy television advert for Angel Investigations, in which she critiques a good few tropes from this show's visual style. I love metatextual fun, as you know, and I also love Cordelia. This is a match made in heaven. And the use of the video recorded with Doyle is, of course, a piece of structural beauty.

Angel's feelings over Buffy are properly dealt with, as he tells Doyle everything. But there is deep dramatic irony here, too, as an admiring Doyle admits that he just isn't cut out to be as heroic as Angel. There's so much foreshadowing throughout the episode that it almost hurts to watch.

There's some more arc-related foreshadowing too, of course; it seems that the Soldiers of Darkness and the End of Days, mentioned last episode, are still on the horizon. But most of the foreshadowing is blatantly pointed at Doyle. And it becomes most painful when Cordelia is involved. Doyle's feelings for Cordelia, and his agonising over how she'll react to the fact that he's half-demon, have simmered throughout the whole series. But Cordelia obviously has affection for him. If she insults you, that means she likes you, and she's insulted Doyle an awful lot. It's all been rather sweet.

That last scene between the two of them is so heartbreaking, from the slap right through to the kiss. Cordelia's "Would you ask me out for dinner already?" tortures us with what could have been, and then Doyle goes to his nervous and heroic sacrifice. In the end, he's a better man than anybody thought he was, especially himself.

Beautifully, the rest is silence. A heartbroken Cordelia and a stunned Angel can't find the words, so it's left to Doyle himself. Where now?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Something Blue

"I have to get away from that bad boy thing. There's no good there."

It's good that we have an episode focusing on Willow, and the way she's still hurting from the Oz thing, as she naturally would be. Once again, Alyson Hannigan is amazing. Willow may be a very sensible and level-headed person, and able to hide the pain she's feeling, but she's very brittle- and it's interesting that only Spike can see this. Once again he shows himself to be a shrewd judge of character.

This episode goes in two directions, though. On the one hand it's a comedy, and a very, very good one. On the other, watching it with the benefit of hindsight it seems full of foreshadowing. It's an episode about Willow dangerously abusing her magical powers while in a state of grief. There's even an allusion to lesbianism, which has to be deliberate foreshadowing. (And, yes, I heard Riley say "I think it's not straight" while adjusting the banner. Groan.)

I could make similar comments about what happens to the other characters. Yes, it all works very well indeed as comedy. It's funny to see Buffy and Spike all lovey-dovey and forever switching between fighting and getting it on but…. Well, foreshadowing. As for Xander being a demon magnet and Giles being blind, well… that's biting character commentary for you. Giles is more and more outside the loop this season and Xander…. Well, is an explanation even necessary? This is all very metatextual, and metatextual fun is one of the best things in the world.

The single best moment, though, is the one second of naked, smiling Amy! Funniest thing since, well, the last thing I declared to be the funniest thing since whatever the funniest thing before that was. Or something.

There's just one thing I don't like about the whole Willow side of the episode, though; Buffy, Xander and Anya are downright horrible to her in the Bronze. It's not as though she's an alcoholic, or even someone who normally drinks at all. Using drink to drown you sorrows is not generally a good thing to do very often (the whole point of alcohol is fun with your friends), but Willow's doing it just this once, which strikes me as perfectly healthy, normal and even constructive in that a bit of fun will do her good. She doesn't even seem to be that drunk, and there's a suspicious lack of hangover in the morning. The Scoobies, and Xander especially, are mean and horrible for taking Willow's beer away from her. Although, it must be said, that lager looks horrid. Give me a pint of Beacon any day.

Also, Buffy's hair is permy and bad. This must change, and soon.

Other stuff? The Buffy / Riley stuff continues to tread water (it can't do that much more), but it's good that Buffy seems finally to be over her ex. Spike continues to be fun, and the whole premise of this episode is a clever way of subtly inserting him properly into the Scooby Gang dynamics. Also, I enjoyed the impotence metaphors early on. And the completely reasonably attitude of D'Hoffryn when Willow refuses the offer to become a vengeance demon. He leaves her his talisman, though…

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Angel: I Will Remember You

"They get groiny with one another- the world, as we know it, falls apart."

This is a brilliant episode. Brilliant. Intense, heartbreaking, and brilliantly acted. And yet… I'm not sure it should have been done. Yes, it was brilliant (there will be gushing shortly), but it ends with a great big reset button. It never happened, and is therefore robbed of its meaning. It would have been much better as a one-off piece of fanfic, and I don't mean to denigrate the episode in any way; the distinction between fanfic and "official" stuff, in these days of serialised television drama, has nothing to do with quality or anything like that, just the kind of stories that can be told. And this episode is exactly the sort of story that doesn't work as part of a bigger, serialised narrative. The reset button pretty much admits that.

Right. Now that's been said, let the gushing commence. Both Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz are amazing here, both of them really, really giving us the simmering sexual tension that threatens to boil over for so much of this episode. It's fantastic, if completely unreal, to see them both being so blissfully post-coital with each other, and these scenes are really, really well-shot, too, deliberately going for a dreamlike quality. There's delicious comedy, too; I love the gradual change from tea and awkwardness to shagging on the table. All this is good.

Also good is Angel's reaction to being alive (with reservations, which I'll come to), and the various sensual pleasures it brings, not just sex but food and, um, both sex and food together. This is also good. Cordelia's reaction to this joyous moment for Angel's life is good, too. Naturally, it's all about her and her rapidly diminished future prospects. Doyle is more optimistic; no doubt he has a bright future ahead of him.

Much as I dislike the use of the reset button, I have to admit that this is well-handled, too. It's a typically noble gesture of Angel (although also, and just as typically, a little narcissistic) to give up the prospect of happiness so that the End of Days is averted, mainly because this would also mean the End of Buffy. Aaaah. Even one of the Oracles is impressed.

The Oracles are cool, too- Greek, enigmatic, and a nice development of the infant show's mythology. We haven't heard much about the Powers That Be since City Of, but we're reminded of their importance to Angel's mission. They're also kept mysterious, though; the Oracles are a nice way of keeping the powers at arm's length so they can remain enigmatic. Of course, whether it's the Powers or their Oracle underlings, we're essentially looking at a great big metaphor for the godlike power of the Writer on this fictional world. Metatextuality can be such fun sometimes.

Reset button aside, there are a couple of little plot problems. Why does Angel being human mean the End of Days is coming? I don't think that's explained. And Angel seems rather more self-flagellating about being human than he did back in In the Dark. These things aside, though, I actually love this episode. It was brilliant. It was done well. But it's still an idea that probably shouldn't have been done at all.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Pangs

"It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie."

So, a Thanksgiving episode. I have a vague idea about what thanksgiving is about through stuff I've read in books, but only a shaky grasp of all the cultural stuff. Like Giles and Spike, I'm descended from the little piggies who stayed at home.

It's a brilliant episode, though. It's Jane Espenson, so obviously the dialogue is brilliant. But the structure and the themes are so cleverly intertwined, too, what with all the ethical debate about the legacy of Manifest Destiny and the taking of Native American land being in the context of a plot that's straight out of a western; we end up with Buffy and Giles, alone in the fort under attack by Indians, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. By, er, bicycle. Definitely a Western, though. A revisionist one, in the case of Willow.

I'm a bit uneasy about the term "Native American", to be honest. Being both British and a wishy-washy liberal type (think a male British Willow, only with longer hair), I'm uncomfortable with the word "native"- it sounds a bit colonial and imperialistic, and a word we Brits generally like to avoid. We have the British Empire, and its various atrocities, to feel rather guilty about, after all. So the one criticism I'd have for this episode, I suppose, is Giles' attitude to Willow's feelings about the Chumash. Yes, he's a non-American outsider, but he's from a country with its own share of past atrocities which should easily give him an empathy with Willow's feelings. To this British viewer watching the British character, it just makes him look very right-wing indeed.

Obviously none of this is a problem with Spike, what with him being evil and everything, even if he might need a bit of metaphorical Viagra to actually do anything evil. So he's the one who gets the great lines about genocide just being what tends to happen when you get a more powerful civilisation competing with a less powerful one for land or resources with their guns, germs and steel. (Incidentally, you might want to have a look at Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. It's most interesting, whether you agree with its argument or not.)

On the subject of Spike, this is the episode where James Marsters gets promoted to the opening titles. It looks as though Spike is going to be staying with the Scoobies for a while, making amusing yet annoyingly true comments from the sidelines. We can also probably expect a bit of actual character development, but there's also a bit of a risk that the character might end up emasculated. It'll be interesting to see.

In other news, Xander now has a job as a construction worker- a skilled occupation- and Anya seems officially to be his girlfriend, so things are looking up for him. Plus, I love Anya, and I demand more of her. Also, Riley is from Iowa, "one of the ones in the middle", which means certain stereotypes are in play.

Oh yes… Angel is in this episode. And Buffy is in the next episode of Angel, which I'll be reviewing tomorrow…

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Angel: The Bachelor Party

"Maybe Doyle does have hidden depths. I mean, really, really hidden. But depths."

Wow. Who'd have thunk it? Doyle has a past, and a first name to boot. And he used to be all responsible and stuff- a teacher, of all things. An entire backstory is hinted at- marriage to Harry at nineteen, only for his demon side to manifest itself at twenty-one, wrecking both his marriage and his successful lifestyle. Just a few lines, scattered throughout the episode, give Doyle a hinterland, and depth. The most shocking thing, somehow, is that he was once a charity volunteer.

It seems that Cordelia is beginning to see him differently, too. The episode quite pointedly contrasts Doyle with the rich and rather wet Pierce, Cordelia's usual type. But Pierce is incredibly dull, and not only is he a big scaredy cat when attacked by a vampire- to be fair, most of us would be- but he just leaves Cordelia to fend for herself, which isn't very gentlemanly. Enter Doyle, suddenly revealed as a knight in not-so-shiny armour. Their whole relationship seems to have turned a bit of a corner, although she doesn't quite find out about his demon side. Still, this is going to play out over the rest of the season, right? (Ooh, you can just smell the dramatic irony in that last sentence!).

Richard (played by Whedon favourite Carlos Jacott) is a great character, and I love the fact that his demon family are genuinely nice, in a very suburban sort of way. The casual reveal of the fact that they mean to have Richard eat Doyle's brains(!) is well funny, as is pretty much everything about it. Still, aside from that one minor fault, I think this is the episode where is becomes very firmly established that demons are not necessarily evil. We have a bit of fun with this idea; I love the fact that Angel gets accused of being racist!

There are a couple of minor criticisms, perhaps. It's a bit of a coincidence that Doyle happens to be around to rescue Cordelia. And I can't see a stag night having both a stripper and charades- one or the other, perhaps, but not both. I'm not American, and I could be wrong, but by the evidence of this episode there isn't really much difference between an American bachelor party and a British stag night, except that a bachelor party seems to take place at home, rather than in a pub or club. The hen night (I don't know what they're called in America) seems rather sober and polite, though, pornographic Pictionary or not!

The criticisms are very minor, though. This episode is very good indeed, and the show certainly seems to be on an upswing. The late Glenn Quinn, in particular, is superb here.

Angel takes a back seat in this episode, more so than in any other episode so far, but I suspect that will soon change. Doyle's vision makes it very clear that it's crossover time…