Thursday, 30 January 2014

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

"Not to be rude or anything, but this isn't a great time for me to have a house elf in my bedroom!"

Aw, isn't Dobby cute? it's an ominous beginning, though; someone or something is trying to stop Harry going to Hogwarts this year because it's all dangerous and that. And once he gets there he has to deal with notorious Malfoys and racism allegories. This isn't quite as good as the first film, as there are fewer ideas which evoke wonder, but it's also more serious. Perhaps the franchise grows up with its audience. I'm not sure what I think of that.

There's a plot against Harry. But fear not: here are the Weasleys in their flying car to take him to Hogwarts. They're a little odd, Ron's parents. Julie Walters and Mark Williams are firmly working class, Brummie actors and shown to be a little hard up. Yet Arthur seems to be a senior civil servant, and they send their four children to a posh-looking public school. Perhaps it's best not to think on such matters.

Our friends are eventually, after much botheration including a nasty moving tree called a Whomping Willow (!), back at school, and there is, in what will become a tradition, a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, played by Kenneth Branagh, who is something of a smarmy git, and simply must be a baddie, right? Richard Harris, as Dumbledore, looks decidedly ill, as indeed he must have been. Attention is paid to Ginny, Ron's younger sister, which means she's going to be important later. Miriam Margolyes has a delightful part as Professor Sprout, conjuring up a screaming plant creature, as you do.

As with the previous film, once we get past the ominous opening bit, there are some amusing and wondrous scenes showing us the sheer otherness and wonder at Hogwarts before the plot gets properly under way.There's a mysterious and eponymous chamber of secrets under Hogwarts. The Malfoys are obviously baddies. Hermione has (shock horror) Muggle blood.The founder of Slytherin, it seems, was a racist, and it's nice to see that racism and evil are thus shown to be virtually synonymous.

There's another issue dealt with here, in the person of Dobby; slavery. Harry refuses to treat Dobby as a slave, in marked contrast to the Malfoys and their own house elf. This is appropriately simplistic for children, I suppose, but the issue of how House Elf slavery arises in magical society generally is not really addressed.

There's a ghost in the girls' bog, Moaning Myrtle, played by Shirley Henderson, who surely is too old to be playing a schoolgirl. There's also a book in the girls' bog, written, unbeknownst to Harry, by a young Voldemort. But "Mudbloods" in the school are under attack, meaning that it may be closed. Worse, one of the victims is Hermione, who has been turned to stone. Officialdom is, like the law, an ass, and Dumbledore is suspended. Our heroes, recreating Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings, have to go into the forest and brave loads of giant spiders. Things unwind; Kenneth Branagh (Lockhart) is the red herring, Harry faces a basilisk, Ginny is saved from dying, and everything is ok, after much drama. There's a feelgood ending as Dobby is freed.

This is still a good film, but rather less fun than the first. Is this a trend that is to continue?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

"You're a wizard, Harry!"

I am thirty-six years old. It's time to admit, after years of aspiring to do so, that I will never read the Harry Potter novels. I always have a pile of books to read at any given moment, and there will always be a bunch of books I  want to read more than I want to read something I'm probably too old to appreciate properly. One day, perhaps, I will read them to my children. Until then, well, I'm no hardcore Harry Potter fan, but I enjoy fantasy and traditional British horror stories, so I go into the films with high hopes.

First impressions are of how gratuitously star-studded the cast is. It's utterly ridiculous to fin so many acting knights and dames in one place. Nevertheless, we begin in suburbia, in Surrey, no less, a county which is far too expensive for us mere mortals to live in, and a grotesquely horrid family portrayed superbly by Fiona Shaw and the late Richard Griffiths. They're a family right out of a Roald Dahl novel, so naturally their stepson, Harry, is special. Our point of view, though, is that of Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith, playing a character named after a famously bad poet), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane in an unusual role for him), definitely not that of the "Muggles". We are made to see things from the point of view of those who use magic, which makes us feel as though we're part of said privileged group too.

After a few child-friendly scenes of child abuse, again Roald Dahl-style, Harry gets to go to Hogwarts which is, it seems, a public school, although the presence of regional accents among the staff and pupils speaks of a desire to play down the connotations of social class and treat boarding school simply as a trope of British children's literature, which is fair enough.

Harry gets to shop for magical stuff, not least a wand, in a magical, wondrous space in the middle of London that mortals cannot see; this also belongs to a long tradition in children's literature. The railway platform, the train, and even the location of Hogwarts itself are magical spaces where the mundane and everyday have no place.

We get an inkling of the fact that Harry is destined for greatness by dint of the fact that his wand seems to think so (in a ridiculously minor role for no less an actor than John Hurt), and Hagrid fills him in, like Obi Wan to Luke, on how the evil Voldemort turned to the dark side and killed his parents, but in the meantime he's a mere first year, meeting his future friends Hermione and Ron for the first time and also an enemy, the suitably named Draco Malfoy.

Harry doesn't get picked by the talking hat (what else?) for the sinister-sounding Slytherin house, but instead gets put in the rather chivalrous sounding Gryffindor. . Sadly, as with all schools, he has to do sports (boo!), and it actually quite good at this scary-looking Quidditch thing.

Months pass. Christmas happens. We, and Harry, have been introduced to Hogwarts, so it's time for a plot to happen, based on the eponymous MacGuffin. So there's a showdown, and it's cool; chess, with people as the pieces, where you die if you get taken. Wow. We end with house point being awarded to Harry's house for his heroism and that. And then the school year ends, and he has to go home to his Roald Dahl family...

I enjoyed that. A fantastic kids' film chock full of inspired ideas. Here's hoping the sequels are as good.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014


Part One

"A clown brought us down here. We all float."

I hadn't heard of this before, but my uber-coulrophob ic fiancee bought this years ago and, in spite of her phobia, rates it very highly. It's a 1990 two part US TV adaptation of Stephen King's novel of four years earlier, a novel which, arguably, did as much as John Wayne Gacy to make clowns in the modern world figures of fear rather than fun. Also, Tim Curry is superb, John Ritter is in it and we even get a glimpse of a very young Oz from Buffy. What's not to love?

It's a fairly straight, for which read long, adaptation. The first part is the atmospheric one, and thus the better of the two. We begin, though, with a little girl, and a little cultural difference between Yanks and us Limeys; apparently for them it's Itsy-Bitsy Spider, not Incy-Wincy, who falls down the spout. Fancy that. There are also cultural and visual differences between the two time frames within the film- the 1980s present day and the late 1950s, a time when I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a current film. Mike, our central character, is a black man living in the USA,a fact which has somewhat different connotations in our two time zones, either side of the Civil Rights era as they are. The contrast between these two particular time zones make it hard not to think of Back to the Future.

We have a small group of seven kids / adults, including Beverly, our one token girl, and we follow their contrasting fortunes, haunted by the awful Pennywise, up until the present. Mike, the only black character, is our point of view yet also an oddly passive and unambitious character. Bill, a successful writer, is Stephen King, but harbours a deep guilt over his brother's death. Ben is annoying as an adult, yet more vulnerable and likeable as a kid, and demonstrably the same person. He reminds me of Tony Stark. Stan is the intellectual Jewish kid who dies at the end of the episode rather than face Pennywise again. Eddie is the sexless, mother-dominated hypochondriac, a deeply tragic figure. Richie is, if you'll forgive me, the clown. And Beverly is an abused woman whom we desperately want to get together with Ben, her childhood sweetheart. All of them have character traits that, rather too neatly, reflect their future jobs as adults.

Glimpses of Pennywise are, rightly, rationed and put in a child's perspective, but are deeply effective for all that. He has a strong New England accent.I 'm not sure what this is meant to signify: is this a traditional Maine accent or does it paint him as an outsider? He represents, I think, paedophilia, a subject so awful that it is often wise to approach it obliquely. He's not the only villain, of course; there is also the deeply disturbed bully Henry Bowers, seen here only as a youth. He is left the most marked by Pennywise, becoming confined to an institution.

One of the creepier moments is where a photo is made to move; this is like something straight out of Sapphire and Steel and is deeply unsettling.We end with a showdown, some excellent use of stop motion, a pledge, and a suicide.

Part Two

"You're too old to stop me. You're all too old."

This episode is not as good. Having said that, though, it is perhaps inevitable that the atmospheric set-up episode will outshine the part that has to do the donkey work of resolving the plot; the two episodes should not really be considered separately.

Our protagonists, passive until now, are faced with having to go after Pennywise and destroy him, thus achieving catharsis over their childhood demon(s). They have quite a foe; we begin with Pennywise goading them with the above quote and a library soaked in blood. There's rather a lot of blood; even tea becomes blood, proving that nothing is sacred. That's before we even get to the fortune cookies. And a lot of people from our protagonists' pasts are possessed and say awful things. Henry, meanwhile, being weaker than our protagonists, becomes its pawn.

Our protagonist have a good wine-fuelled night, but the time comes to face what they have to do. Eddie is the most reluctant. His back-story is perhaps the most developed; his asthma is non-existent, he's a virgin and, it's implied, he's gay and closeted. The scary events continue apace, including a scene of a typewriter typing with no typist which may well have influenced one Steven Moffat for both Doctor Who and Jekyll.  There's a moment, where Henry stabs Mike, where we assume he's dead because of the "black guy dies first" trope. He doesn't, but there's still a bit of metatextuality there, methinks. Henry, rather predictably, dies next. There's nowhere else for him to go having fulfilled his plot function, besides he's both a baddie and a tragic figure. He has to die.

We approach the climax, and there's a rather good stop motion giant spider. Eddie dies a forty-year-old virgin.The rest all survive the showdown, but there's no conclusion; Pennywise will be back in  thirty years' time. If we're looking for a happy ending then we must make do with Ben and Bev finally getting together.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

"Virtual reality will grow and grow."

Er... no it won't.

it's an odd beast in hindsight, this film. On the on e hand there's more than a smidgen of Flowers for Algernon in it, putting it in the tradition of Twentieth Century science fiction. On the other hand, well, virtual reality is the most 1992 thing ever. Has anything ever dated as much as virtual reality? I'm reminded of Tomorrow's World and a certain episode of Red Dwarf.

Still, it's quite a good film. Adaptations of Stephen King stories usually are.It isn't just the virtual reality that dates the film, though; it'd (just) recent enough to have CGI, but the hero smokes and the phones look charmingly antique from a 2014 perspective. Still, Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan are quite good, and it's nice to see a Hollywood film with a left-of-centre message, in this case opposition to corporate manipulation of science.

The film is seen from the perspective of Dr. Lawrence Angelo, our viewpoint character and also, interestingly, the moral centre of the film, thus putting the audience in that position too. Jobe is a mentally subnormal and much-bullied man, much like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, whose intelligence is artificially boosted. But so is his hubris. It's a solid script, thematically, and it helps that we first see Jobe as such a sympathetic figure and never quite forget those first impressions with his descent into megalomania.

We also have an abusive father and a manipulative and sadistic priest carrying more than a wisp of Opus Dei about him, both of whom get their respective comeuppances: this is not a film likely to gain Papal approval. And it's interesting seeing the portrayal of Jobe's sexuality; like Lenny in the aforementioned novella, he combines a child's mind with an adult's sexual desires, something which seems fated to end badly. His augmented intelligence averts this fate, however, giving him a sexual awakening which really has to be symbolic both of his ceasing, in a sense, to be a child and of the new world that's been opened to him.

Sadly, corporate greed corrupts him, and leads him to insist that the treatments continue far beyond a level that is wise. Eventually he goes all mad and telekinetic and that, and the film builds to an exciting conclusion, the special effects for which would have looked pretty good at the time, I'm sure. It's a good film, small scale and, by the looks of things, not big budget, but with big, big ideas that really work.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Grimm: Quill

"Oh my God. Hank knows!"

Like the last episode, this episode ostensibly has a plot and everything. But essentially it's about a) Monroe coming to terms with the fact that Hank now knows about all the supernatural stuff and b) Monroe saving Rosalie's life and thus winning her heart. Aw! Plus, we get to see Monroe in a pinny.

The plot itself, which I suppose we also have to talk about a bit, concerns a nasty Wesen disease, and is based (somewhat tangentially) on a Grimm fairy tale called Death's Messengers. it's a bit basic, but it's a nice simple backstory for Rosalie's sickness and recovery at the hands of her doting Monroe and, of course, for Hank to experience his first full case where he knows what's happening from the outset, and gets a full introduction to Nick's life as a Grimm.

Juliette, meanwhile, is beginning to recover certain fragmented memories. And Monroe, before the disease stuff puts him on a stronger footing with her, rather awkwardly asks her out for a picnic in the old, fairytale, Oregon forest in  a nicely shot scene, just before it all kicks off. Still, they give every sign of being a sweet couple, and, eventually... they kiss! yay! In fact, they very nearly have a shag until they are interrupted, in classic TV fashion, by a phone call from Nick. Still, later in the episode Rosalie says to Monroe that "You need to tie me down"...

Meanwhile, in more long-term plotting, Captain Renard speaks on the phone, and we know he must be up to no good because he's speaking French. A "Nuckelavee" is to come to Portland from Rome. this is apparently bad news and, as the episode ends, there it is...

But never mind that. I want to see more Monroe and Rosalie!

Grimm: Bad Moon Rising

"Oh, I'm ready!"

This episode, fact fans, is based on a Grimm tale called The Old Woman in the Wood. But, far more importantly, it has a lot of arc stuff happening.

We meet a rather patriarchal family of sort of wolf people (Coyotls), and a young woman within this family who is to be subjected to some sort of ominous-sounding ceremony by her male relatives, which proves to consist of, essentially, torture. There are all sorts of feminist subtexts here. the whole thing soon becomes a meditation on domestic abuse as Nick and Juliet, conveniently holidaying in the cabin next door, become suspicious. Nick and Hank eventually free her. Blah blah blah. All this is just background.

The main thing about this episode, of course, is the fact that Hank finds out about Nick being a Grimm, takes it in his stride, is incredibly cool, and is overjoyed to be involved in such cool stuff. He was already far more charismatic, likeable and better acted a character than Nick; I suspect that now this is going to be even more true.

Juliet still remembers nothing and, just as he is now able to be open and honest with Hank, he is hiding things from Juliet again.They've lived together for eight years. This is both frustrating and tragic; Nick ends the episode by sleeping on the sofa. There are more lies, by omission at least, as Nick and our villainous Captain speak of Adelind, neither of them revealing a thing to each other. But the episode ends with a marked contrast between what is happening in his relationships with, arguably, the two most important people in his life...

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: The Bridge

"Did I beat Captain America's time?"

This one ends on a cliffhanger. Of course it bloody ends on a cliffhanger, as this is the last episode before Christmas and Channel 4 are not going to start showing Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D again for ages. Grr. No doubt loads of people will just watch the torrents and therefore not bother watching it when it's back on telly, causing Channel 4 to drop the programme because of "falling ratings". Such are the absurd anachronisms of television scheduling in 2014. I'm in the slow lane, so the blogging of this show will continue when it's back on Channel 4.

What's doubly frustrating is that not only is Coulson kidnapped, he's kidnapped for the express reason of finding out what happened with his resurrection and "Tahiti", as has been seeded throughout the season for a long time now.

Other things happen, of course. The big bad is a group of super soldiers calling itself Centipede. Mike Peterson is back, this time using his superpowers for the benefit of S.H.I.E.L.D, although not without a conflict of loyalties between his employers and his eminently kidnappable son. J. August Richards is, of course, a far more charismatic actor than any of the regular cast, and by far the best thing in this.

We first see May and Ward fighting each other in what seems to be either training or foreplay. I bet they have rather kinky sex. We also see Simmons, rather endearingly, perving on Mike in the most blatant manner possible. It's a good episode for shippers.

There's also a lot of intrigue about Coulson, which in hindsight acts as foreshadowing for the end of the episode: Coulson has a partner whom he has not been allowed to see since his resurrection, which must hurt. Also intriguing is his conversation with May about Skye; they have agreed to "protect" Skye from the awful truth of what happened with her parents. We also begin to recognise the girl in the flower dress, this being her third appearance. Centipede have been behind an awful lot of things that have happened over this season, and are controlling a number of people in the same way they controlled Akela Amadour. They are nimble, mysterious and either really cool or really annoying. Time will tell.

Nothing can be more annoying, though, than being suspended on a cliffhanger like that.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Repairs

"I don't mean to scare you. I just mean to use you as bait."

This is already categorisable as a particular type of episode; the kind in which our heroes deal with an unregistered and frightened superpowered individual, in this case an apparent telekinetic called Hannah Hitchins. It's all very reminiscent of Mike Peterson in the pilot except that, obviously, there's a twist.

A rather bigger twist than the one in the actual plot, of course, is the revelation that May and Ward are secretly sleeping with one another; this seems to firmly put the kibosh on my fiancee's theory that a budding romance between Ward and Skye is under way, although of course this could just be another stepping stone along that path, right

Let's just ignore the silly prank sub-plot, because it is both the wrong kind of silly and absurdly out of character for Fitz and Simmons. Instead let us focus on Utah native Hannah, whose power seems to be that of jinxing all of her associates to an early grave, complete with all the personal unpopularity and religious angst (this is Utah) that this implies. the twist, of course, is that it's not Hannah who's doing all this, but some bloke trapped in "Hell". Simmons' explanation of what this may be gives us yet another gratuitous link to current Marvel blockbuster Thor: The Dark World. Sigh.

This episode also deals with why May is called "The Cavalry2, which is eventually revealed to be linked to a massive cock-up of hers in which loads of agents dies, hence her reluctance to engage in combat until recently. At last: a bit of backstory. Here's hoping the character will now start to become at least vaguely interesting...

Monday, 27 January 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: The Well

"This guy has lives through all of the scary stuff- the crusades; the Black Death; disco..."

As if I wasn't already feeling unenthused by Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, they go and cynically make an episode that ties in to Thor: The Dark World while it's still showing at the cinema. and this is no more than a dull and disposable tale about yet another MacGuffin, an Asgardian academic and a bunch of baddies who probably listen to Burzum. Yawn.

The only interesting things to say are at the edges, as the plot just plods along pointlessly and a potentially interesting theme of science vs. magic is never developed. I suppose the brief discussion, early on, about Thor helps with the ongoing contrast between our protagonists and the big superheroes; this sort of thing reminds me of an old Marvel limited series called Damage Control. Also, speaking of Marvel Universe stuff, Vibranium gets a mention. that's about it for this rather poor episode.

There's an intriguing postscript, though, as we get a flashback to Coulson waking up in Tahiti. "Did I fall asleep?", he asks. "For a little while" is the reply in what has to be a deliberate reference to Dollhouse. Is this just a metatextual nod, or something more?

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: The Hub

"Not everyone gets sent to Tahiti."

"It's a magical.. place."

this episode may get the most James Bond opening yet, with a bit of skiing to freedom, but we're left feeling somewhat ambivalent about this organisation that our heroes work for. Not only are Ward and Fitz sent on a suicide mission to South Ossetia to zap some MacGuffin called the Overkill with no extraction plan, but it's clear that Skye is just being strung along with the false promise of finding stuff out about her parents. Coulson may be a little conscience-stricken about this (although he himself is not allowed to know, and furthermore there are definite parallels with his apparent resurrection in "Tahiti"- is he a robot or something, as Skye jokingly suggests?), but May doesn't. Still, at least he tells her what he knows: she was dropped off at her orphanage by a S.H.I.E.L.D agent. I bet her parents are people we old Marvel True Believers would have heard of.

At least Coulson is a bit more rebellious in that he leads the mission to rescue Fitz and Ward- although this, of course, could have been part of the organisation's plan. The show seems determined, nevertheless, to get us to like Coulson's little team while remaining suspicious about S.H.I.E.L.D in the wider sense.

There are some interesting character moments. Simmons makes  Fitz his favourite sandwiches to eat on the mission, but Ward soon puts paid to this: the sandwiches have to be disposed of as the smell will attract pursuit. This feels almost like a clash of genres- the sweet will-they-won't-they romance between Fitz and Simmons collides with the harsh, humourless world of espionage that Ward inhabits. On the other hand, when Ward breaks the news to Fitz that the extraction is not happening, Fitz stays. Is this his faith in his friends or something else?

We get to see the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D Hub in West Africa here, yes, but it's an unsettling and morally compromised place. Some uncomfortable questions have been dredged up in this episode as the season's threads continue to develop.

All that said, this isn't the best of episodes and the overall quality seems to be worryingly average. I hope the series takes off soon.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (Revisited)

Many of my lovely readers may be unaware how this blog first started way back in June 2009, a long time ago when I was clean-shaven, single and free of grey hairs. a couple of lovely people on Outpost Gallifrey proposed that, as Doctor Who would be off our screens, barring the odd special, from mid-2008 until Spring 2010, it would be rather a good idea to fill the gap by "marathoning" the whole series from 1963 to 2010. A bunch of us agreed to do it together, writing our reviews of each story, watching them in order, and discussing our impressions. It was a fantastic experience in so many ways, from the new appreciation I gained of the series by watching it chronologically to the fantastic sense of camaraderie with my fellow Marathoneers.

In mid-2009, Outpost Gallifrey closed down, to be replaced by Gallifrey Base. In the event, the Marathon threads were transferred across very smoothly and the forum owner, Steve W. Hill, and his team of moderators were rather lovely about accommodating us. Nevertheless, this period made me worry about preserving my already considerably lengthty writings for posterity. Thus began the blog, in June 2009, firstly to archive all of my Doctor Who reviews going back to November 2008, and then to be updated with my reviews alongside the threads on Gallifrey Base. When the Marathon ended, in June 2010, I carried on with the blog, reviewing anything I fancied, and the blog soon became the beast that it is today.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, a lot of the 1960s Doctor Who stories, sadly, no longer existed in the BBC archive, and so my reviews were based on fan reconstructions which took the original soundtracks (all of which, thankfully, existed), spliced in any existing clips, and reconstructed the rest by means of still photographs, captions to explain what should be happening on screen, and various creative and innovative ways of making the end result more visually arresting. The third, fourth and fifth seasons were comprised mainly of such reconstructed missing stories, and it was hard going at times. The Enemy of the World was one such story.

The Marathon ended. Years passed. And then a man called Philip Morris came along. It seems that, although nothing is likely to happen quickly, it is set to be revealed that he and a few others have discovered many, most or all of these missing episodes by methodically scouring the globe. The only episodes to be announced and released are The Web of Fear (barring episode three, at least for now) and The Enemy of the World. I would suggest, should you wish to look into the background of the missing episodes "omnirumour", the best place to do so is at the Planet Mondas Forum, of which I am, er, a moderator. Small world, eh?

So I have two stories to revisit for now, with a lot more to come. So here is my revisitation of The Enemy of the World for your edification and delight. I have reproduced unedited my original review of the recon from 2008, in italics, and I shall reply after each episode with my 2014 comments on the episodes themselves.

So, without further ado...

Part One

"They're human beings, if that's what you mean. Indulging in their favourite pastime- trying to destroy each other!"

David Whitaker's back. Yay! And this one's directed by some bloke called Barry Letts. I wonder whether we'll ever hear from him again?

In contrast to the previous story we immediately start with the TARDISeers. And for the first time since, I believe, The Keys of Marinus, the TARDIS materialises silently. This is a very unusual setting for Doctor Who- for all that this is supposedly set in the future we're not exactly being bombarded with futuristic things. In fact, hovercrafts and helicopters give us a very contemporary feel, and signify that we're going to see six episodes of Doctor Who's take on the '60s spy craze.

There's a most enjoyable exchange between the Doctor and Astrid after he insists he's a Doctor "not of medical significance". On being asked whether he's a Doctor of law or philosophy he replies "Which law? Whose philosophy?". There's also a running gag becoming established in which the Doctor, asked to explain where he came from, makes an oblique reference to the previous story for the second time in a row. Witty dialogue is pretty much a hallmark of this story's first three parts and, although a very unusual type of story indeed, it's been great fun so far. Better still, we get Bill Kerr of off of of Hancock, and an unusually intriguing cliffhanger.

There's been an awful lot of weather control in Doctor Who lately, mind!

Footage. Actual footage. Oh my God. and footage of Troughton, no less, something which is always priceless. It's a joy to see him splashing about in the water with such abandon. Incidentally, Mrs Llamastrangler, for whom this is her first "classic" story, instantly recognised the similarities in terms of performance between Troughton and Matt Smith.

This episode looks expensive, pacey and exciting. Barry Letts directs this far more dynamically than one would expect from such later attempts as The Android Invasion. I was amused, seeing how Astrid's helicopter licence tells us the date (2018, fifty years in the future from their perspective, and the point at which my fixed rate mortgage ends from mine...) at how fandom used to debate when this story is set. One is left to wonder at how many other fan arguments could be solved by the intervention of actual footage. I was also amused at how very reminiscent of the late 1960s is Astrid's interior decor.

The most electrifying thing of all is, of course, our first glimpse of Troughton as Salamander in a physical performance so different to his portrayal of the Doctor.

Part Two

"Which side is good? Which side is bad? And why should I interfere?"

More amusing references to recent escapades as the Doctor thinks he's being told about a "disused Yeti". But the plot thickens a lot during this episode. There's a lot of plotting and counter-plotting going on but it doesn't seem over-complicated, a testament to the excellence of Whitaker's script. Fariah's instantly an intriguing character who has an interesting job. But as she's characterised too well to be a simple food taster we begin to suspect there are things she's not telling us. And finally we get to see the real Salamander- a superb performance from Troughton. Although the accent... er, yes.

Jamie is once again magnificent, carrying out the dangerous plan to get into Salamander's confidence. Once again he's shown to be far from the simpleton of myth- particularly, it must be said, in David Whitaker stories!

There's something sweetly naive about predictions made in the 1960s into how we would be living around now. A unified world government, no mobile phones, weather control, travel by rocket between Australia and Hungary within two hours, state control of certain industries... it's as though neo-liberalism never happened. Whom would I rather suffer, I ask myself- Salamander or Thatcher?

 Troughton manages to exude an extraordinary amount of menace towards Fedorin as Salamander, showing without a doubt what a wide-ranging and brilliant actor he was. This is another gripping episode, although I was amused to find that even recovered episodes feature stock footage, in this case of volcanoes erupting.

Part Three

"People spend all their time making nice things and then other people come along and break them."

An episode with actual footage and, sadly we can now see that this story just isn't very visually arresting, great though the script may be. We get a confession early on that this story is the season cheapie: "Why is Mr Denes being kept in the corridor here?" "It's easier to guard him here."

Still, the dialogue continues to sparkle. Griff, the chef, gets most of the best lines, of course (I'm going out for a walk. It'll probably rain.") but the standard of wit is good all round.

All the same, whilst all this exciting stuff is going on, and Jamie is showing an impressive understanding of the low arts of political skulduggery, the Doctor, almost Hartnell-like, is doing sod all except watching everything on a television much like the viewers were watching back home. In the first clear bit of foot dragging, this normally uber-interventionist Doctor is refusing to do anything at all before he has absolute proof.

The poisoning of Fedorin is great ("Suicide, of course..."). Oh, and Fariah clearly does have a secret...

This still feels very strange for Doctor Who, but it's actually quite refreshing to have a bit of a breather from the standard formula the show seems to have adopted of late. And this is damn good stuff so far, however visually dull it may occasionally be.

I suppose, up to a point, that we were right to suspect that this episode, back when it was all that existed, was not exactly the most visually arresting of the six, but watching the episodes in context it's far less noticeable that this episode is the cheap one.

Still, Griff remains one of my favourite character. And the Doctor's uncharacteristic refusal to get involves is no less grating; indeed, it is if anything more obvious that this is down to the limited number of costume changes for Troughton per episode.

Part Four

"Proof, proof, proof!"

Fariah seems to get from Hungary to Australia awfully quickly! And from this point on we get quite a lot of this. It's often hard to guess which "zone" a scene is supposed to be happening in, especially as the rooms and corridors (or, to be fair, the photographs of them) tend to look rather similar.

Benik's line "These people are terrorists!" has a rather arrestingly contemporary ring, one of the things which tend to mark the fact that in this episode the mood changes sharply and everything becomes very serious. This is nowhere more apparent than with Fariah's tragic yet noble death, but rather unsatisfyingly we are told nothing of her story beyond the vague fact she was being blackmailed.

The seriousness fades briefly as Salamander makes his very Thunderbirds exit to his secret underground base. This scene is most peculiar with sound only, with the sound effects making me imagine the most bizarre Gerry Anderson style contraption imaginable! There's a big new revelation; Salamander is persuading loads of people to live underground in the belief a radioactive war rages overhead so that they'll help him cause natural disasters. And nobody questions any of this except one bloke called Colin. Er, right. This is, to put it mildly, less than entirely convincing and the story never quite recovers from it.

Oh, and it's just occurred to me that the Doctor's relative inactivity is obviously because Troughton's playing two characters and can't have too big a workload. Duh! And Jamie and Victoria weren't in this episode at all, were they? This is the first blatant cast holiday of the Troughton era, more than a year in.

Fariah's death is much more effective with actual footage, if I may risk a truism. And it is now entirely clear which "zone" the action is happening in, obviously. But the big difference footage makes to this episode is, of course, the long and dialogue-free stretch in  which Salamander gets into Thunderbird 2 and reveals to us his secret lair, replete with some very 1960s computers.

And then there's the cigar. I didn't expect that.

Part Five

"You must be either a complete fool or very clever."

Just a couple of minutes in it's quite clear Bruce is wavering in his support for Salamander, otherwise why is this scene happening at all? This scene doesn't quite work for me, although the part where the Doctor hands over his gun is great. Since last episode the story's tone has become very grim, which sits oddly with the intrinsic jolly japery of the central storyline and plot structure. A bit more lightness of touch, as with the first three episodes, and I'd happily accept scenes like this. But as things are it doesn't quite ring true. The confrontation scene between Swann and Salamander doesn't quite work either.

The scene where the Doctor pretends to be Salamander in front of Jamie and Victoria is very well done but also odd- why does he need to pretend? It's not for Kent's sake- he's (still) trying to convince the Doctor, not the other way around!

I don't know if it's because we now have footage or not, but this time round I felt that the scene in which Bruce is persuaded that Salamander may not in fact be a great benefactor after all was entirely convincing. I had absolutely none of the qualms I had when watching the recon. Perhaps this is because I now have the actors' performances to go on. Perhaps it's for no particular reason.

Far more surprising, even shocking, is to read my original review of this episode and realise that I had entirely misunderstood what was happening at the end of the episode; it is obviously Bruce, and not Kent, whom the Doctor is trying to convince. If I can misunderstand something as obvious as this while experiencing a story as a recon then this gives rise to the question of how much else I may have misunderstood while experiencing a story as a recon. Perhaps I had overestimated how possible it is to experience a story without any footage and I haven't "seen" as much of 1960s Doctor Who as I thought I had.

Part Six

"And so you're going to kill me. How petty."

I admit this story has been dragging for me over the last couple of episodes, but I'm genuinely flabbergasted that Kent turns out to have been a baddie all along. just goes to prove the most effective whodunnits are the ones where you don't realise it's a whodunnit in the first place. And the scene where Salamander shoots him is actually quite violent in a very realistic way- I'm a lot more uncomfortable about the idea of kids watching it than I would be about something much more violent but with more of the fantasy element to it.

This feels a bit uneven- extraordinarily, the Doctor sends Jamie and Victoria off to the TARDIS early on, which highlights just how little they've been in the second half of this story. And the final scene with the Doctor and Salamander in the TARDIS is fundamentally a good idea but it all seems to be over very quickly. And surely Salamander should register at least some surprise that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside?

The plot holes are far more obvious this time around with a visual context. Astrid and Swann meeting as they do is an awfully big coincidence; Astrid forgets that a tunnel exists to the underground lair when the plot necessitates it; and there's no way that the Doctor could have got into Salamander's locked room. Still, in spite of all this, the episode is far more coherent and far more satisfactory to view than it was as a recon. Perhaps it's the simple fact that it is much easier to follow and it looks so good. And Troughton's performance is magnetic, as always.

It's a real shock to see the split screen at the end as we see both the Doctor and Salamander. The ending is still abrupt but, without the frustration of not being able to follow the story easily, this doesn't seem to matter as much.

Overall, a story of two halves- the first three episodes seem to be a fun and witty spoof on the action-packed spy genre that was all over 60s film and television from James Bond to The Avengers. But halfway through the witty dialogue disappears and the tone becomes very serious, which just feels wrong in a story which still seems plotted like a spoof. 3/5.

This time around I didn't notice the change of tone at all although, perhaps, the second half of the story is far more visual and thus easy to follow without frustration when one has the luxury of footage, which makes all the difference. Overall, the sets, the direction and the performances elevate the story, with added footage, to a 4/5. The two stand-out performances, without a doubt, come from Patrick Troughton and Patrick Troughton.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Sherlock: His Last Vow

"I'm a doctor. I know how to sprain people."

After two episodes which play with structure we get something resembling a more traditional plot, although it is not so much a whodunit as a question of precisely how Sherlock will bring down the nefarious Charles Augustus Magnusssen. There's a big twist, certainly, in the revelation that Magnussen's "documents" are stored only in his head, but the structure of this episode is less traditional than it appears.

The unusually prominent political subtext is something new, too. Magnussen is a fairly transparent analogue for Rupert Murdoch, of whom I, as a Guardian reader who has been following the whole phone hacking saga since long before it was fashionable to do so, am most certainly not a fan. I find the description of red top tabloids' activities as blackmail quite apt. It's also nice to see Sherlock shooting the bounder at the end. As he says, "The personal freedom of anyone you've ever met is a fantasy."

But none of this is really the point: this episode is about Mary, whom Magnussen is blackmailing on account of her apparently quite bloodstained past, and the strain which this revelation places on her relationship with John. John's fury, their awkward estrangement over Christmas, and their deeply moving reconciliation are all beautifully written and acted. As per the original Charles Augustus Milverton, however, Sherlock gives not a jot about why she is being blackmailed.

Lars Mikkelsen is splendidly slimy as Magnussen, with a clear undercurrent of sexual molestation in his treatment of both Lady Smallwood and John. But it is, as ever, the small character beats that make this episode shine, from Molly slapping Sherlock for lapsing back into his Class A habit to every scene between John and Mary. Sherlock's explanation to John that he has pretended to be in love with Janine, even to the point of engagement, just to get at her boss, reminds us what a sociopath he is, but it's nice to see she gets her revenge by selling kiss-and-tell stories to the tabloids, which ties in nicely with the episode's themes.

The scenes inside Sherlock's head, after Mary shoots him, are an act of directorial genius, the highlight being Moriarty in his padded shell, doubling as a nice bit of foreshadowing. Appropriately, it is one Louis Moffat who plays the young Sherlock.

Obviously, the highlight of the whole episode is Sherlock and Mycroft being caught smoking by their mother, especially in the light of Magnussen's description of Mycroft as the most powerful man in the country. But the climactic scene highlights the parallels between Sherlock and Magnussen: both are sociopaths, both have "mind palaces", but the parallels end there. 

It looks as though Magnussen has one, but Sherlock manages to cut the Gordian Knot by killing him. It looks as though he faces exile and certain death for this murder, but then we get our cliffhanger: Moriarty is back...

Sherlock: The Sign of Three

"Who leaves a wedding early? So sad."

Series Three continues to play with the format by not only giving us a wedding comedy episode but playing gloriously Moffaty games with structure, basing the bulk of the episode around Sherlock's alternately hilarious and deeply moving best man's speech and it's associated flashbacks, doing brilliant things with the characters, and giving us a splendidly watertight whodunit element to boot, albeit one that I, for once, substantially guessed in advance. I hope my own forthcoming wedding is as exciting as this, although I assure you that our reception will have much better music.

Interestingly, this is credited to Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson, meaning that Stephen Thompson is the only one of the troika not to get an episode of his own this series, and the episode feels very much in the style of Steven Moffat.

There are far too many brilliant things to mention, from the opening with Lestrade (bank robbers in scary clown masks- my coulrophobic fiancĂ©e had to look away!) to the nod to The Sign of Four with the character of Sholto (perhaps too obviously hinted at early on as a potential victim), with an apparently incidental and involved "locked room mystery" proving key to the whole thing. This episode is as elegant as it is fun.

I particularly enjoyed the wedding planning scenes, again showing us the great dynamic between Mary, John and Sherlock. The stag night scenes, while splendidly performed, do not quite work, but the centrepiece of Sherlock's extraordinary speech means this episode has to be considered a triumph. The deduction at the end, and the resolution to the mystery, are pacey and satisfying.

The bittersweet ending is perfect too. Having detected the "signs of three", Sherlock, ever the loner, leaves the wedding early, as foreshadowed...

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

"What did he say?"



I'm so very late in writing up this season of Sherlock (and, yet, much else... I have sooooo many sets of notes to write up!) that it feels so much has been said in the blogosphere already about this first episode already, particularly about its interaction with online fandom, with which this episode often feels like a dialogue, that it's supposedly far too metatextual for its own good, and that this episode doesn't really function as a whodunit.

To all this I shall briefly point out that the episode simply had to address the huge cliffhanger at the end of the last series, indeed it had to devote a whole episode to Sherlock's return and it's consequences. This pretty much removes the possibility of structuring this episode around a traditional whodunit format, and what's wrong with a bit of format-stretching anyway? And while, contradictory to what has been said by many commenters, we do in fact get an "official" explanation of Sherlock's survival (with cheeky caveats!), this was never the real point; what people have really waited two years for is the reaction to Sherlock's resurrection, especially from John. And we are not disappointed.

Far more interesting are the characters, the story beats and the series' traditional wit. And the latter of these has always been somewhat metatextual.

With all that out of the way...

The episode needs a murder plot to chug away in the background while all the character stuff happens, but this time it it (rightly) kept in the background, albeit with the character of Lord Moran harking back nicely to The Empty House. The terrorist plot itself is little more than a superficial retread of V for Vendetta, but that isn't a bad thing; this is a nice little shorthand for the viewer so that this subplot doesn't take up too much time.

The thing that is lingered on, and rightly so, is Sherlock's return, and it's consequences. Because time has not stood still over the last two years: John has got engaged (and Mrs Hudson, hilariously, assumes that it's to a man!), although 221B Baker Street is fortunately untenanted. Molly has a boyfriend who looks suspiciously like Sherlock, and the blogosphere abounds with theories on how Sherlock may have survived.

Sherlock's reveal to John is hilarious, of course, coming as it does in the middle of John's proposal to Mary, who is quite wonderful. Hilariously, Sherlock's explanation is punctuated by various acts of violence on him by John, which lead them to be thrown out of various restaurants and have to continue their conversation in progressively shabbier eateries. Mary, of course, likes him.

Mycroft knew, of course. And he and Sherlock have an insightful chat, over games of chess and Operation, about Sherlock's feelings of isolation without John there to be with him during his cases. But John, adrenaline junkie that he is, is quickly bored without the fix that Sherlock's cases give him, and quickly gets himself kidnapped for reasons which will go unexplained for a couple of episodes. This gives Sherlock a good chance to bond with Mary as they set out to rescue him.

We end with all back to the original status quo, and with a glimpse of a mysterious baddie. This episode is a wild ride, but it is far from self-contained. Sherlock suddenly feels far more like a serial drama than it did. Onwards, then...

Crash (1996)

"The car crash is a fertilising rather than destructive event."

This strange, disturbing yet beautiful film is, unforgivably, the first David Cronenberg film I've done for this blog; there will most definitely be more. This film caused a great deal of fuss at the time because of it's subject matter, but I assume we are all grown up non-Daily Mail readers who accept that sex is part of life and we all have our fetishes. The difference here, of course, is that the fetish in question is dangerous to both the participants and others; one cannot reasonably accuse the authorities of intolerance.

Indeed, the film makes no attempt to get us to sympathise with its protagonists; we are as alienated from them as they are from society. And yet, although the film has been relocated to Canada, the main character is named "James Ballard" as per J.G. Ballard's novel which, I must confess, I have not yet read. This is an interesting decision: why does the author choose to identify himself with such a character?

I suspect the answer lies in what the novel and film have to say about society. Cronenberg shows us an unremittingly urban landscape, a world of buildings and freeways and automobiles in which nature is seldom to be seen. Our characters- Ballard, his wife Catherine, the widowed Helen, the creepy Vaughan, the broken Gabrielle and the nihilistic Seagrave, exist in a very urban world where the individual is not in any way part of a wider community and where it is possible to associate only with people like oneself. All of those characters shown to be sexually active are polyamorous, in open relationships, with heavy hints towards bisexuality. Even sex is removed from any sense of human connection.

Without connections to society or any feelings of love, sex becomes mechanistic and nihilistic, pure instinct. And, while urbanisation is a clear theme, I think the main point here is a link between sec and death, with our characters' sex drives linking to their death drives.

Because that is what our characters have; death as a fetish. Seagrave is the prime example, found dead by Vaughan having re-enacted the death of Jayne Mansfield without him. And the last scene  shows Ballard comforting Catherine after the crash fails to kill her: "Maybe the next one, darling." And then they have sex beside the crashed car.

Probably the highlight of the film is a massive car crash which is treated by the camera as porn, a hugely effective clash of style and content as the camera lingers erotically over buckled bonnets and bloodied faces while even the soundtrack tries to tell us we are watching porn.

I cannot identify with this link between sex and death. Sex is not death; it creates life. Sex is two fingers up at the Reaper. But this is a beautifully developed motif, and this is a beautiful and philosophical work of art that deserves all the praise it gets. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)

"I remember how to undress myself."

"Yeah, but I do it so much better."

It's been a while, but it's time I finished off everyone's favourite vampires-and-fundamentalist-Christian-sexual-morality franchise. Fortunately, this time there's more of the former and less of the latter, as our two main protagonists are now married and all that, but we still have a lack of charisma or sexual chemistry from both of our leads which continues to bedevil these films.

We begin as Bella awakes and gets very maternally protective about her ridiculously named baby daughter, insisting that Jacob, imprinting or no imprinting, stays away. She spends some months acclimatising both to her new family and her new life as a vampire. Oh, and she gets to have sex. Because apparently it's moral, and in no way completely failing to take the relationship seriously, to refrain from sex before marriage. After all, it's not as though the pill has been around for fifty years or anything.

Still, after a few months of undead Mormonism there are stirrings of an actual plot stirring, even if this plot amounts to "the Volturi mistakenly believe that baby Renesmee is one of these nasty immortal children, and want to kill both her and the family without bothering to check first." This is very silly, but admittedly we do get a superficially exciting film to watch.

Bella is now strong, unable to tire, able to have vigorous sex but tempted by human blood, which is probably some sort of metaphor for sin or something. Thing is, though, I lie her even less than before. She and her new family are so haughty and superior, her new husband remains a wanker as always, and unforgivably she plans to cut all ties from Charlie, her father, who gave so much for her. Notably it is Jacob, and not her or one of her in-laws, who  stops this happening. But things are still not explained to Charlie, who does not "need to know" about his own family. This leaves a really bad taste in the mouth. So does the sense of Carlisle's vampire family as being elite and super-rich, part of the 1%. I note that Bella and Edward are just given a house by the family, many of whom do not seem to have to work for a living.

There are good things about his film: Michael Sheen is a great baddie, for example. But is it me who is a little perturbed that the baddies are all decadent Europeans with British accents, while our heroes are all wholesome, Fox News watching, Republican voting New World types, including a veteran of the American War of Independence to hammer home the point? The reads like a defence of Christian American family values against those evil liberal Europeans who threaten those family values. I'm on the Volturi's side. Go Aro.

The end is a nice bit of deception, I suppose, with lots of people dung in what turns out to be a dream sequence shown by Alice to Aro. Everyone agrees to be friends and there's a bit more romantic blah between Bella and Edward. Uuuurgh. I'm glad the Twiglet films are over now.