Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 10

"You won't die. I forbid it!"

This is it, then. The end. It's a heavy weight to bear, but we get a worthy finale in the end. Of course, the fact that we end with Henry VIII's death gives rise to the question of why the series is called The Tudors, a title that seems to promise us Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess. But no matter. This is good stuff.

Henry is dying. The series is ending with him, so how best to end than with a warrant with the arrest for heresy of yet another Queen? Catherine Parr is intelligent, circumspect, and knows how to play the game, but she is in real danger here. There are signs of the next reign- Prince Edward is now old enough to speak some Latin, and Edward Seymour is a powerful man indeed- but Bishop Gardiner, for obvious reasons, prefers Mary. Whichever camp you look at, though, the vultures are circling the King.

The King is (finally!) much fatter. He`s quixotic, too, this time siding with the French against the Emperor, and proposing that mass be abolished (!) in both realms. He`s too late, though; Francis I is dying of syphilis. He still has power within his own houehold, though, and there is a sense of real danger as Henry tells Catherine that he knows nothing of any warrant for her arrest; is he playing his old games?

The Queen is, rightfully, scared, and determined to hide her thoughts. There is a power struggle at court between Gardiner and Edward Seymour and she, unlike the old, happily weary and sick of politics Duke of Suffolk, cannot simply remain neutral, confident of the King`s affection.

There is move and counter-move. Gardiner sets up an Inquisition; the Seymours use Gardiner`s embezzling ways to blackmail him. The Queen, questioned by Henry, gives a fiery defence of herself, and we know that the King wants to believe her. He hasn`t exactly gone soft in his old age, but even if you didn`t know the famous rhyme I think you`d know, by the rules of drama, that Catherine was utimately safe.
There is great uncertainty. Prince Edward`s education, a matter of vital importance to the kingdom`s future, finally comes under scrutiny as Gardiner begins to notice the religious inclinations of his tutors. The struggle between Gardiner and Edward Seymour soon leads to fisticuffs, and an extraordinary tour de force of acting from the great Simon Ward. His fall is brutally sudden; in the end, Henry sides with his Queen and the uncle of his son. Family trumps religious fanaticism in the end, ironically. But then, for this King, both of those things were always just playthings in his power games.

The dying Henry, like Canute, is not omnipotent and is powerless aainst the ravages of time and natue; he commands Charles Brandon not to die, but must nevertheless mourn his old friend, the only honest man at court. In scenes which must surely be meant to evoke I, Clavdivs he sees visions of his past wives making cameo appearances to rebuke him. Catherine of Aragon is furious at him for failing to marry off Mary, Anne Boleyn reminds him of Elizabeth`s cleverness and her own innocence ("Poor Catherine Howard!"), and Jane Seymour tells him sternly that he has killed Edward with his mollycoddling. There will be but one generation more of Tudors; the future of Henry`s realm lies not with the fruit of his loins.

Henry, at his own insistence, dies alone. Death creeps up slowly, and when he`s young again we know he`s dead. We end with an emotional montage, that Hans Holbein portrait, and some text to give us a potted history of the next three reigns. It's a fitting end to a magnificent series, the I, Clavdivs of our age.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 9

"The law is whatever his Majesty says it is!"

It's late 1545. Henry is getting close to death, but he remains deadly. At last we see the Earl of Surrey paying the ultimate price, and even Catherine Parr sails close to the wind. There is an increasing conflict over the King's legacy; Bishop Gardiner, and Henry himself, forcibly insist on Catholic doctrine under royal supremacy, with celibate priests and a people expected by their King to read the Bible in a English, yes, but not, Heaven forbid, to hold opinions about it. Yet the next generation, aside from the increasingly fanatical Mary, is in the grip of Catherine and Protestantism. Meanwhile Surrey, the last symbol of the England that was, predeceases the king who decimated the old noble families such as his.

Gardiner is pleased  at his protege Wriothesley (pronounced "Risley"!!!) appointment as Lord Chancellor, but on the other hand Catherine has managed to publish an openly Protestant tract by the clever means of dedicating it to Henry. Not everyone is so fortunate; Gardiner has a heretic by the name of Anne Askew arrested, "examined" and illegally tortured (Henry expresses impatience with due process as he orders this to be done), being horrifically torn asunder on the rack. She looks horribly mutilated when we next see her, shortly prior to her graphically depicted burning at the stake, leaving us in no doubt as to the unspeakable pain she endures. Henry's tyranny is not abating in these final months.

Surrey has buggered up in France due to an old-fashioned reliance on honour over tactics, having to flee the field in disgrace and stripped of his Order of the Garter. Henry, meanwhile, diplomatically arranges for Boulogne to be returned to France in right years' time, thereby rendering pointless the whole campaign with all it's costs on blood and treasure, and no one calls it treason.

Surrey, ever arrogant, plots to seize Prince Edward so he can control the heir to the throne, but is caught and questioned. He defies his questioners, proud of his ancestry, and goes as far as almost to escape his cell. His defiance at his trial is a pivotal moment as he gives voice to an old England of law and aristocratic checks on royal power, to roars of approval from the people. It is a shame that David O'Hara's acting is not up to the purpose here; this episode gives the character a real chance to shine but, through no one's fault, but O'Hara's, it falls flat. The guilty verdict, against the court's wishes, is no surprise, but it is still a shock to hear that he will be hung, drawn and quartered as a commoner.

All of this gives a context to the real danger that the Queen is in. Gardiner orders three of her ladies to be "examined", including Catherine's own sister. This eventually leads to nothing, but more damaging is her falling out with Mary, who has heard the rumours as to her religious beliefs. When she finds herself speaking too frankly to the King she realises she has gone too far, and Gardiner asks the King to put her on trial. But he won't. When it comes to wives, at least, he's mellowed a bit.

The Tudors continued to wind down superbly, with a nuanced script superbly realised. One more to go...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 8

"I will burn as many heretics as I have to..."

It's now 1544. Henry continues to get no younger, and the war (a theatre of the deeply unpleasant 1542-46 Italian War) goes on while, at home, a gentle religious conflict erupts between Bishop Stephen Ward, hammer of the heretics, and the a Queen, who slyly arranged for both Elizabeth and Edward to receive a Protestant education, Elizabeth with Roger Ascham, no less.

The Queen is putting herself in real danger by doing this, but she manages the risks sensibly, with circumspection and ensuring that she is well liked, even by the increasingly fanatical Mary, whose heart is broken by the departure of her elderly father figure Chapuys.

Lord Surrey, meanwhile, scion of an ancient house that he is, dreams of being Sir Lancelot, but such things do not happen in this age of muskets and disease. Indeed, the death toll from dysentery is horrendous, yet Henry's grip on reality is slight enough for him to cruelly insist that the sick soldiers fight. On a much nicer note, Brandon falls touchingly in love with his young French belle. But this is a rare note of beauty in a very ugly war.

Henry ultimately takes Boulogne, but his disease-stricken army means he will be unable to March on Paris, as he promised to the Emperor that he would. We see, through following the war from the point of view of ordinary soldiers, that the human cost is incalculable for a war that is for little more than the glory of kings and popes and emperors. Ordinary life is indeed cheap.

Henry returns home, seeming older than ever. He isn't much longer for this world, however much the otherwise superb Jonathan Rhys Meyers may be appallingly lacking in the required level of obesity for this point of Henry's life. What is more, his exchequer is empty, he has earned the enmity of the Pope and he had betrayed the Emperor in failing to march on Paris, or would have done; Charles V has in fact abandoned him first. Such is sixteenth century diplomacy.

We end with Henry, alone, collapsing to the ground. He isn't well, and there is a profound sense of entropy and decline wherever we look...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 7

"This is a different war; a war of guns."

We see the King marry his sixth wife, and Catherine Parr continues to endear herself to both of her daughters, but soon we're off to war, a modern war of cannon and muskets that makes all the jousting of Henry's youth seem so old-fashioned. Moreover, wars with guns are egalitarian, leaving less space for nobility to seize glory by prancing about on their horses. A new age is dawning, sort of; the death of cavalry will be a long, drawn-out affair of centuries.

Henry looks old. There's certainly no question of his leading the fight; it is Brandon who leads the attack on Boulogne, Edward Seymour who is Admiral of the Fleet and the insufferable Earl of Surrey who is appointed Field Marshal. An impatient Henry neglects the preparations, naturally. Still, at least he's still quite good at all the Henry V speechifying. Throughout the preparations, though, it is Catherine who nurses him as his leg continues to plague him. This is not a passionate love affair but something much more pragmatic, and this Cathetine already seems much, much safer than her predecessor.

Bishop Gardiner is, by now, gearing up for a full-on purge against the Protestants, with even Elizabeth coming under suspicion. His suspicions extend also to the Queen but is unable to act, as she is Regent while Henry remains at his CGI siege of Boulogne across the Channel. She is able to appoint future martyr Hugh Latimer as her chaplain, but must be discreet. 

Meanwhile Brandon finds himself a yong French lover who calls Henry the "English Nero", and Lord Surrey is downed, but not killed, by friendly fire. Things are not going well for the English as an outbreak of dysentery threatens to make the expedition all for naught...

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 6

"It was not a happy marriage, your Majesty."

"Do you believe that such a thing exists?"

"Yes! I believe that with all my heart and soul."

On to Henry's sixth and final marriage, then, in an episode themed around nuptials. Elizabeth declares that she will never marry, Charles Brandon's unhappy marriage collapses into it's own little entropic heat death, and Henry begins to pursue a soon-to-be-widow for his next and final wife. This relationship will not be defined by sex, though; the dirty old man is getting old.

It's 1542. Both Mary and Elizabeth have been restored to the succession in a sign that their generation's time is fast in coming. European politics continues it's merry dance between the French, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. There is a sense of decline and nostalgia. The King admits he has missed Brandon, a rare friend from his youth. 

Catherine Parr, wife of a dying associate of Robert Aske who is tainted with the hint of treason, is carefully selected by Edward Seymour as a suitable bride for our 51 year old Henry with his greying beard, gammy leg and suspicious lack of visible obesity. 

The awkward and arrogant Earl of Surrey, meanwhile, is sent to campaign in Scotland, capturing three of their nobles as James V dies his untimely death, leaving his newborn daughter Mary to be Queen of Scots. The sense of decline, and of an uncertain transfer to a new generation, persists. It is suddenly unmistakeable that these are the final episodes. Little wonder that the king, remembering the glories of Spurs on his younger days, should do something as old-fashioned as declare war on France.

Bishop Gardiner assumes a greater prominence, and his accelerating purges of Lutherans and Evangelicals is a definite sign that all religious reform had ceased; for Catholics, there is seemingly hope. For the King's musicians, forced to suffer "examination", there is none. This is still the court of Henry VIII, and it is still a dangerous place.

Catherine Parr is mature, nice and liked by everyone, but she is afraid to marry Henry, and with good reason. She values her head. But the episode ends with a proposal of marriage. The poor woman must make the best of things and tread carefully...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 5

"Catherine Howard, I have to tell you that you are going to die."

It all happens so quickly. The episode begins with Henry finding out about Catherine Howard`s colourful past from an anonymous letter and ends, after the most nightmarish judicial machinations possible and several tortuous executions, with the poor silly girl`s beheading. She was eighteen.

The interrogator is, of course, Richard Rich, and the likes of Francis Dereham and the disgusting Thomas Culpeper well and truly get their comeuppance, with Lady Rochford also doomed. Dereham has his fingers pulled out under torture, but is lucky to have his sentence commuted to beheading. The slimy Culpeper has no such luck, being hung, drawn and quartered in graphic detail, with much blood. Lady Rochford loses her sanity, but there is no escape from a vengeful king; horribly, Henry changes the law and has her executed anyway. The amount of gore is such that my then-fiancée made comparisons to the Saw films.

For poor, young, none-too-bright Catherine, the whole nightmare is simply beyond her limited comprehension. She is far too young for all this. She is told that she is no longer Queen and, in a bathetic yet pathetic scene, her desperate rush to speak to Henry and make things right is refused; this is the real, adult world, and it`s a cruel, cruel world.

The day before her death, Cathetine refuses all religious rites and chooses to die unshriven, admitting that she knows little of such matters. With a horrifying childlike innocence, she asks to spend her last night with the block so she can practice. Her last moments are less dignified but, perhaps, more tragic than those of Anne Boleyn, a much more adult, intelligent and worldly figure. Her last words are simply that "Life is very beautiful". She makes no reference to religion, caresses the block like a child, and dies. It all happened so quickly, much like her life.

With a hypocrisy and double standard that is by now hardly worth mentioning, Henry spends Catherine's final minutes cavorting with various girls. He likes them young, the dirty old man. By now we can hardly but regard him with utter contempt.

Old Doctor Who New Adventures novels reviewed on Outpost Gallifrey

For thoe who remember the New Adventures, here are a few reviews I wrote about some of them circa 2003, aged 26ish, long before this blog was even conceived. I`m going to have to out myself: I`m Simon Bedford...

Timewyrm: Genesys
Timewyrm: Exodus
Timewyrm: Apocalypse
Cat`s Cradle: Time`s Crucible

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Marvel`s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Ragtag

"What are you feeling?"

''The universe...''

If you`ll indulge me for a sentence, we`ve just (finally!) got our Sky viewing card today (after switching way back on 28th April...), and for the first time we saw M.A.S. in glorious HD. Wow.

Throughout this episode are flashbacks relating to the relationship between Ward and his father figure, Garrett, which nicely inform the scenes between them in the present. We begin fifteen years ago, as Garrett springs the teenage Ward from juvie, slowly toughening him up and brainwashing him to become the perfect Hydra tool. Ward's relationship with his own family, it is hinted, is unspeakably horrible; he is easy prey for the cynical and charismatic Garrett. There is a slight indication that Ward may not be entirely beyond redemption- he doesn't shoot the dog- but the episode still ends with him dropping Fitz and Simmons, locked in a box, into the waters of the Caribbean. We have to wait a week to see whether they survive.

At the other end of the episode, Coulson annd his team, now permanently augmented by Howling Commmando descendant Trip, face the fact that they are now just a bunch of vigilantes with no status and no support. They are resourceful, however; Coulson has worked out that Cybertek is behind everything and, armed with some of Tripp`s family heirloom James Bond gadgets and the hilarious sight of Couson and May trying to be scientists, they set out to investigate its HQ.

This whole sequence is hilarious, from Coulson and May channelling Fitz and Simmons via their earpieces (complete with Coulson`s accidental lapse into Caledonian vowels!) to Skye and Trip, hacking equipment at the ready, being told to "Get ready for a large file transfer", only for a file cabinet to crash out of  window, followed by our two infiltrators.

It seems that Garrett was the first Deathlok, back in 1990, and he remains a bionic man. There`a a twist, though; he`s dying, and stands to die within a month or two unless the GH-25 serum works and, after an attack by an outraged Fitz, Raina is forced to use all of her synthesised forum to save his life. What has he become...?

If that wasn`t enough cliffhangers already, we get another; Raina has discovered something big about Skye`s past, something that involves her parents being monsters...! I can hardly wait for the finale.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Grimm: La Llorana

"It's always the good ones who are taken."

At last we get an episode based on a non-European myth, namely the La Llorona myth from Mexico City. In fact, it's interesting that the Halloween episode should be so Mexican themed and effective because of it; this is both the scariest and best episode so far. I know, vaguely, about the Mexican day of the dead, but I'm -reminded of how little we Europeans know about faraway Latin Americans. We tend, I think, to just see Latin Americans as colonial Spaniards and sit bemused at the American habit of referring to Latin Americans as a non-white ethnicity, "Hispanic", which certainly doesn't exist in Europe. All of which is to say that I probably didn't get all of the cultural references this episode but I definitely enjoyed it. It is also notable how superbly shot this episode is.

There is so much creepy imagery here, from the lady in white calmly walking into the water to our first glimpse of her horrifying face; for once this is not CGI, and is absolutely terrifying. Add the fact that the mysterious lady seeks to catch and sacrifice children and you have dark, fairytale horror that may not be German but is nevertheless reminiscent of the dark, pre-Disney Grimm tales. I note, too, that the weeping woman lives to strike again; this is but a temporary victory.

As well as this we have a lighthearted B plot with Monroe (who really does Halloween) and some trick-or-treating kids. Juliette`s plotline is intriguing, however; she is acting as translator, being part Spanish, and has some interesting chats with the missing boy`s grandmother. She sees Juliette`s scratch and comments, correctly, "You were very sick. You don`t remember it." This will have consequences.

The adversary, for once, is not a Wesen, but this Halloween episode of Grimm is possibly the finest so far.

Grimm: The Other Side

"He's gonna have a tough time in prison!"

Something's happened to Grimm. Up until now it's been a fairly good but not outstanding show, in US terms definitely network rather than cable. But I'm noticing an upturn in quality, mainly because of the increased emphasis on the arc. Episodes are no longer self-contained to the extent that they were, and this has worked wonders with the characterisation.

There is a story of the week, of course; a bunch of gifted kids are being picked off one by one (and yes, the black kid dies first), and there`s a rather neat twist about which of them did it; he is two types of Wesen simultaneously, what with genetic engineering and that, but is in denial about his Lowen half.

So let`s get back to the arc stuff, shall we? Juliette and Nick are flirting a little, possibly a positive step after Juliette`s amnesia. But Captain Renard, under the influece of Adalind`s magic, is obsessively staking her, at one point lurking outside as she showers, in a scene deliberately evoking Psycho. There`s a new intern at the precinct, seemingly a huge fanboy of Nick and Hank.

But the biggest thing here is the introduction of Sean Renard`s deliciously villainous royal brother Eric, played by James Frain from The Tudors but having absolutely nothing in common with Thomas Cromwell as a character. Things are seeded for later episodes as he chats to Adalind(!) in a CGI castle in Vienna. It seems Sean and Eric are half-brothers, not exactly close, and that Sean`s brother absconded with a Hexenbeist. Nick is discussed...

Our good Captain is preoccupied with his growing obsession over Juliette for the moment, though, and elicits help from Monroe. But it seems there is no hope, and the symptoms can only get worse...

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 4

"For God`s sake don`t spoil it. Not for us and not for her."

 The King is proceeding north for a wee chat with King James V, king of a smaller nation yet also head of a dynasty which is destined to replace his in but two generations` time. This means that once again we see Pontefract and Sir Ralph Whatsit, an Archbishop of York played by a former Master from Doctor Who, and the Duke of Suffolk feeling intense remorse about what he did. In a nicely Shakespearean touch he is even haunted by the ghost of Lord Darcy. Of course, Hamlet lies some sixty years in the future and represents future generations, not men of the past like Henry and Charles Brandon.

Henry enjoys his popularity; Cromwell is dead and the future of religious reform is uncertain. Yet it is clear that Mary is more popular than her father. War between France and the Habsurgs also beckons, as usual. All of this is above Catherine Howard`s pretty little head, but this doesn`t stop Henry from seizing her for some vigorous sex. There`s life in the old dog yet.

 The Earl of Surrey continues to be an interesting character, badly acted- he`s arrogant, well-read, philosophical, Martial-quoting mysterious, laddish and snobbish as only someone posher than the King can be. Disdaining the "new men" with whom the King has surrounded himself, he skirts with treason in stating, to Suffolk, that Richard II (a deposed king!) died from trusting "lesser men". This has parallels with the later comparisons of Elizabeth I to Richard II by the Earl of Essex during his ill-fated rebellion of 1601.

Catherine is sailing ever closer to the wind; she oversleeps because she slept wth Thomas Culpeper, and the tendency of old acquaintances to blackmail her for favours reaches new deaths with Francis Dereham- lecherous, a former lover, and indiscreet. Catherine has no relationship to speak of with any of Henry`s children (it is Elizabeth, his older sister, whom we see being close to little Edward), and she even starts to alienate Culpeper with dangerous talk of "a store of other lovers".

All this is in the context of things not going well for Henry; James V fails to turn up and has his armies raid the marches, and Edward is dangerously ill. Edward soon recovers, but a letter is waiting for the King. This is gripping stuff.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Nothing Personal

"Who or what is a Man-Thing?"

Episode 20 of 22; not far from the finishing line now and, while it`s all very exciting what with Ward and HYDRA and no SHIELD, I have no idea what things are going to look like when the music stops.

We start with Maria Hill on the phone to Pepper Potts; there is no SHIELD any more so she intends to work in the private sector for Tony Stark, an initial hint that this episode may feature her selling out. She just has time for a quick chat with the recently AWOL Agent May before she is arrested as part of a crackdown against those associated with SHIELD. This does not bode well for Coulson and Co.

 Still, Coulson and his team are no fools, soon realising that Ward is a baddie, Skye is with him, Garrett must still be at large and Hand must be dead. Fitz`s reaction is one of absolute denial, and his later insistence on Simmons telling him outright that she isn`t HYDRA. He loves her, and yet he`s such a big kid that one can`t help but think of this as just a crush. Things seem to get very pear-shaped as sellout Hill arrives with a load of US soldiers, but Coulson ultimtely persuades her to see sense.

 Skye, doing the decoding for Ward and knowing he`s HYDRA, has a plan to get him arrested.  It`s a good plan and nearly succeds but for Deathlok. Mike Peterson is a truly tragic character, a good man forced against his will to do bad things, although it`s fun to see him stop Ward`s heart for a bit. Nothing personal. The highlight of this whol sub-plot, though, is the conversation between Skye and Ward; he still likes her; she despises him as a Nazi and a traitor. What he did was "nothing personal", apparently. And yet... my wife has a theory. Could Ward in fact be a double agent?

We end with an exciting sequence with a flying Lola and some crap CGI. As Hill says to Coulson, there is no back-up, no SHIELD. They are alone and homeless.

And then, just when we think it`s over, May returns with a bombshell; the person ultimately running the TAHITI project was none other than Coulson himself...

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Angel: Disharmony

"Man... atonement`s a bitch!"

Things have been a little heavy lately, so it`s time for a light-hearted episode before the run-up to the season finale. Enter Harmony who, in a little foretaste of Season 5, has a go at pretending not to be evil.

 Of course, the episode also has a function in the ongoing season arc, namely in establishing that Angel may have rejoined Angel Investigations, but not as its leader; he is now Wesley`s underling and at the bottom of the pecking order, making the coffee. Things are more than a little awkward; Cordelia, direct as ever, tells him that "You and I- we`re not friends."

Into this awkward situation comes a delightfully self-obsessed Harmony who, this being a crossover episode, describes her experience in the last episode of Buffy as "Just got out of a really smothering relationship." Bless. She`s so delightfuly self-centred and, well, Californian. She omits, of course, to actually tell anybody that she is now of the undead persuasion, but she and Cordelia are soon enjoying their little school reunion.

 Cordy, being Cordy, knows that something is up but simply assumes that Harmony has a bit of a lesbian thing for her going on. Hilariously, Cordy hears the vampiric truth via a phone call from Willow, also (of course) managing to put her foot in it regarding Willow`s own Sapphic orientation. How can anyone not love Cordelia, the Lucille Ball of the Buffyverse?

There is, of course, also a fairly generic bunch of vampire baddies who exist, plot-wise, only so that we, the audience, can try and guess which side Harmony will take. They too, in a rather witty twist, are very contemporary and Californian; I love the concept of a vampire pyramid scheme.

Which side does Harmony take? Well, er, she`s evil. Of course she betrays her friends who, rather decently (unless you`re one of her near-future victims), do no more than kick her out of LA. Still, at least Angel and Cordy are beginning to bond again...

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 3

"Without knowledge, life will not be worth living."

It`s about time it was said; Henry is getting fatter, yes, but not fat enough for verismilitude. Television needs a Henry with sex appeal and brooding good looks. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is superb, but he`s not natural casting for a dirty old man. And he is old, by the standards of 1541; in a nicely judged scene we see him looking rather satisfied at having "cured" some peasants of the "King`s Evil", and the next moment being disgusted at the reminder of his own mortality.

Catherine has slept with Culpeper and is irreversibly on the path to her doom, but the episode is no more pregnant with foreboding than Catherine is pregnant with Henry`s child, and she s too simple to see it. She and the King have little in common besides sex anyway; Henry discusses Tactus with little Elizabeth, but he certainly can`t do that with Catherine. In fact, he comes increasingly to rely on Anne of Cleves, of all people, for companionship, the only person who will not let him win at cards and a good de facto mother to his two intelligent daughters. He respects her. And it`s implied he sleeps with her. I suspect the sex would have been less wild but rather more fulfilling. This is not good for Catherine, but then she and Henry could never have been soulmates.

The increasingly unlikeable and badly acted Earl of Surrey gets made a Knight of the Garter, and then proceeds to get rat-arsed in a tavern, making bawdy jokes and giving away an expensive ring to a peasant barmaid. The Garter means nothing to one so posh as him, both an intellectual and social snob to whom such honours are an expected family possession.

The King heads through the recently harrowed north on his way north to parley with James V, King of Scots. We get to see what an awesome sight a travelling king is to passing peasants, while Seymour, in charge at London, investigates Surrey. Meanwhile, the affair between Catherine and Culpeper gets increasingly reckless...

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 2

"I have formed a sinister opinion that most of you are liars and flatterers...!"

And the King was in such a good mood last episode...

Anne of Cleves may be divorced from Henry but she still dines regularly with the King's two daughters and, oddly, gets on well with Mary in spite of their religious differences. She is innocent, nice, discreet and possesses all the qualities needed to help her to keep her head. This is a good thing; Henry is in a foul mood. Cromwell's execution means that there is no longer a chief minister and he has to actually do some work for a change. 

The Scots are getting restive as James V, who hasn't yet stepped in front of that cannon, plans to invade. Henry has problems, so it's good for the kingdom, I suppose, that he gets to release tension in some very hard sex with Catherine. Unfortunately for Catherine, her past sexual escapades are slowly coming back to bite her, and she isn't anywhere near bright enough to know how to handle this. Meanwhile, there are hints that the Duke of Surrey may be a secret Protestant. All this intrigue reminds me of the first season.

It's New Year 1541 and Anne of Cleves, incredibly, is invited to court and even embraced by the King, much to the dislike of his spoiled and hubristic new wife. Everyone else likes her, however. It's clear that Catherine is not actually liked by anyone but the King, and is largely seen, in rather misogynistic terms, as a whore.

The King, though, is not well; his old would from five years ago has turned gangrenous. This doesn't help his moods as Catherine and Mary clash, with Mary furiously leaving court without permission.

At least the campaign against the Scots has been successful. But storm clouds are gathering. Plots arise for the horrible Culpeper to bed Catherine, while Henry's would gets worse and worse, leading to questions over his survival that infuriate him and lead to a furious outburst before his ministers. He is beginning to regret to executions of competent ministers such as Wolsey, More and Cromwell.

Culpeper's ludt for Cathetrine is cruelly manipulated by Lady Rochford, surely plotting the death of this poor, thick young girl. This is an episode of plot threads being put into position before storm clouds furiously break. The air is charged with tension...

The Tudors: Season Four, Episode 1

"Sex... great medicine!"

It's a new season; the previous chief minister is dead and we have various new characters, plus Sarah Bolger's promotion to the opening titles. It's August 1540, and a voiceover narration from a much older looking Chapuys (why isn't he in the opening titles?) brings up to speed; a load of "heretics", meaning Lutherans and Roman Catholics, are being executed.

One of the new characters is a fairly lowly soldier, Thomas. Another is the Earl of Surrey, who is extremely blue-blooded, intelligent, arrogant, Stoic in a true sense and rather badly acted by David O'Hara. Charles Brandon is looking old. Thomas Boleyn (remember him?) has died off-screen. There is a new French ambassador.

Henry is now married to Catherine; Surrey is at court because he's her uncle.  She doesn't get on well with Mary, to put it mildly, and complains about get to her royal husband, and she's beginning to be slightly blackmailed by her dodgy old friend Joan Bulmer, who knows a thing or two about her not-exactly-virginal past.
She is immature, silly, naive and will probably get herself beheaded within months. Poor girl.

Catherine's young cousin, Lord Dacres, has been arrested for killing himself while drunk; a rare case of an apolitical arrest in The Tudors. He faces being hanged at Tyburn. But Henry is more interested in the upcoming war with France; he wants one. Wars with France make him feel young and vigorous and remind him of Spurs all those years ago. He's getting nostalgic in his middle age and it's been too long since the last war.

All may not be well, however. We receive hints that the 17 year old Catherine may have larger sexual appetites than the 49 year old Henry. It's just a matter of when she cheats on him. Let's hope it's not with Culpeper, a rapist, murderer and thoroughly unpleasant individual.

Still, Henry is in a good mood so all will be well, I'm sure...

Freaks (1932)

"One of us. One of us..."

I can see why this film has been so controversial for so long. It may be a straightforward morality tale about the exploitation of those who look different, but in its very existence in parading its "freaks" as performers it exploits them itself. This is a film that could never be made today, a relic of the "freak shows" of the early twentieth century. Still, morally dodgy though it may be, it`s hard to look behind Freaks the historical curiosity and see Freaks the film.

 There`s nothing particularly exciting about the script or the way it`s shot and made by Tod Browning, a rather uninspired director here as he was with Dracula. The subject matter, and the freaks on screen, are the movie`s only selling point. And the straightfowrard plot means that a film of only sixty minutes feels over-long. I dread to think how it would have dragged with the thirty minutes of excised footage, now lost.

We are introduced to thevarious freaks one by one, all of them real and most using their "real" names. The film revolves around Cleopatra, the trapeze artist, and her cruelly cynical seduction of the dwarf Hans, mockingly marrying him for his money and then trying to kill him. Her comeuppance is suitably horrific, and I smiled at the clever way the meaning of the first scene is revealed at the end, after what the "freaks" have done to Cleopatra. The pursuit scenes, and especialy the "one of us" chants are genuinely scary, but is it right to portray the "freaks" as something to fear?

This isn`t a particularly good film, and it is somewhat troubling to watch, but as an historical document it is ghoulishly fascinating.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 8

"I think she looks fit for a king..."

Poor Cromwell. He`s a bastard, but nobody deservs that.

This is a dramatic episode, in which Cromwell suffers his gruesome death, Anne of Cleves gets both promoted to the opening credits and divorced, and the King meets the young Catherine Howard. It`s quite a finale.

We start with the King desperate to get out of his marriage; Cromwell is under a lot of pressure. We also have the bizarre prospect of a budding romance between the uber-Catholic Princess Mary and Anne`s equally Lutheran cousin, Philip of Bavaria. She begins to fall in love with him, and then the King sends him away; his association with his cousin makes him persona non grata. It`s begining to look as though poor Mary will die a frustrated spinster.

Sexual frustration is not something a king has to put up with, and so he duly gets Sir Francis Bryan to scour his mother`s aristocratic orphanage for a bit of posh totty. They come up with the pretty, rather dim and disturbingly young Catherine Howard who is "a little wild". Lucky girl. The King is, unmistakeably,  a dirty old man. Scenes of their "courtship" are juxtaposed with the rather more meaningful courtship between Mary and Philip. Inevitably, naked bodies intertwine. How, er, romantic.

 We first realise that Cromwell is doomed when the King gives him a vote of confidence. Shortly thereafter the King is told by Brandon (with whom he is close these days) that the French want him removed. At the following council meeting the friendless Cromwell is arrested for treason, and there follows nothing but horror. Even the slimy Richard Rich turns against him.

His lack of popularity comes back to bite him as Brandon and Edward Seymour conspire to get his executioner drunk the night before. His execution takes place before a braying crowd, in humiliating scenes which are juxtaposed with scenes of Anne of Cleves being told her marriage is annulled. We then see Cromwell`s botched and tortuous execution as the dissolute Henry emptily shags his teenage lover in a huge folly of a palace...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 7

"My country is not a brothel, and my sister is not a whore."

We are once again reminded of England`s, and Henry`s, low status on the European stage, as invasion is feared from both France and the Habsburg lands. Preparations are made for the kingdom`s defence; even Scotland seems set to join in. However, a bloke with a spyglass (many decades before Galileo...) reports that the armada in the channel seems to be heading for Spain. Phew.

The crisis is over. Chapuys is back at court. Francis still hates Charles V, to the point of allying with the Ottomans against him. England is a second rate power, a piggy in the middle. Its diplomatic ambitions, handled by an increasingly desperate Cromwell, are limited to finding a pretty wife for the king from mighty Cleves, a tiny little speck on a map of the Holy Roman Empire. Maps of the Holy Roman Empire are terrifying things. Cleves is not, and its Duke William is portrayed as a comedy character, indeed the only real comic relief in an ominous episode.

 Sir Francis Bryan is continuing his counter-espionage against Cardinal Pole, whie Charles Brandon and Edward Seymour (now Earl of Hertford) attempt a rapprochement; can their mutual loathing for Cromwell draw them together? Both are keen for the marriage to go wrong,

Anne of Cleves reaches Calais, and has a perceptive comment: "I do not know what to make of the King. He burns one Lutheran, and then marries another?" She is, for the moment, veiled, to maximise suspense. Brandon is teaching her how to play piquet as we once again get a look at those sixteenth century playing cards. The King, meanwhile, is feeling the sexual excitement of being about to possess utterly a complete stranger.

And then we see Anne`s face, and she`s Joss Stone. As with many singers turned actors she does a good job with the part, although it must have been insulting to be asked to play the ugly one. Especially as the King`s first words after her unveiling are "I like her not". He goes on to say that she looks like "a horse, a Flanders mare". For the record, I think Joss Stone is quite pretty.

Henry is disappointed, and soon rounds on Cromwell. It`s going to get worse, too; he isn`t getting any sex. The final scene is of Henry masturbatingn bed while his humiliated wife lies silently beside him.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Marvel`s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: The Only Light in the Darkness

"I`m not a good man, Skye."

This is a tense moment in the season, partly because we`re in spitting distance of the finale and partly because we now know that the team has a killer within. But first let`s do something we haven`t done for a while; geek out at all the Marvel (mainly) references. We have an appearance (uncostumed, of course) by the supervillain Blackout. We have a mention of the fact that Trip is a descendent of one of the Howling Commandos. The big supervillain breakout from the Fridge reminds me, an old Marvel reader of a certain age, of Acts of Vengeance. And Jemma Simmons mentions the TARDIS.

 More pertinently, though, stuff happens. Most pertinent, probably, is Blackout`s intended victim, Audrey; we know that anyone played by Amy Acker, an actress much favoured, justly, by Joss Whedon, must be important. She ends the episode alive and well and still thinking that her hil is dead, but the whole team (well, minus Skye and Evil Ward) now know that she`s Coulson`s, er, widow. She`ll be back.

Relations between the team are in flux; Coulson is stil far from his old laid-back swlf and the team, while loyal, are questioning his decisions. And relations betwen him and May have completely broken down. This is significant; they are the two senior members of the team. Coulson eventualy leans, perhaps a little too neatly, that if ever Audrey can forgive him for making her think him dead (even though he was), he can at least forgive May. ut it may be too late: May has buggered off with her mysterious mother to make cryptic comments about Maria Hill.

The lie detector scenes are nice; we learn that Skye`s "real" name is Mary Poot, and it`s a ncely subtle way to deepen everyone`s characterisations ad backstory a little. Ward is obviously bricking himself, but just abut manages to sneak through. This later turns out to be a very poor decision by the unfortunate Eric Koenig.

No one has a clue about Ward, in spite of the obvious differences in the excellent Brett Dalton`s performance. Fitz even confides in him over the intense jealousy he feels for Trip over Jemma. But at the end, with Koenig seemingly dead, Skye is forced to petend she still has feelings for him to make sure he doesn`t clock that she now knows he`s HYDRA. The scene where the penny drops comes either side of two romantic scenes between the two of them involving kisses, the second of which is much more awkward...

Not long to go know. I`m sure there are some big reveals to come. Or not.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 6

"We have both lost our youth, and there is nothing in the world that can return it to us."

 No predominant plot thread this week, just lots of pieces being moved, all over the board, so that they`re in place for the season finale in a couple of episodes` time. That probably isn`t good news for Cromwell.

We begin with Henry appointing Brandon as chief minister in preference to Cromwell, a signnot only of Cromwell`s slow fall but an indication that the king, now in his late forties, is putting his trust in old friends of his own generation. He isn`t getting any younger and that leg of his bleeding well hurts. He is forced to have a painful operation to remove the ulcer, but there is only so much that can be done; Henry is shown parading the young Edward before adoring crowds, but his limp is as pronounced as ever.

 It`s not a good episode to be a close family member of Cardinal Reginald Pole, all of whom are arrested for treason by Sir Francis Bryan. Including the small boy. Such is justice for those who threaten the king by having the effrontery to have a stronger claim to the throne than he does. Pole`s brother, Lord Montague, is interrogated by Edward Seymour, and things don`t look good; he is, after all,described as "the last of the Plantagenets, the last of the White Rose". Most disturbingly, Henry, not in the best of moods because of his leg, fulminates against little boy Pole. That`s the thing with aritrary, authoritarian rule; coming to the attention of the ruler while said ruler is in a bad mood can be fatal. We end with Lady Salisbury`s cruelly sudden execution ("Have you not been praying, Lady? Your head is going to be cut off now"). She dies scared, pleading. Her little grandson`s fate is unertain.

In what should in theory be happier news, the King is looking for bride number four, and Cromwellis anxious that it should be to someone from the Protestant League, which consists of a million German microstates only theoretical allegiance to their Catholic, Habsburg Emperor. The only serious Catholic candidate, the Duchess of Milan, comes subject to Charles V`s veto, which can only end on way. The Catholic route is closed, so Cromwell suggests one of the Cleves sisters...

Cromwell, following last episode`s epiphany that the rather high church Henry is not exactly his kindred spirit in matters of religion, is in a spot of bother; his friend John Lambert is refusing to sign the Six Articles of which we heard last week,and faces being burnt as a heretic. We see him being burnt at the stake ina typically graphic execution scene.

Cromwell now faces, by association, scrutiny of his own beliefs. He even finds himself interrogated by the King; his position is looking increasingly precarious.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 5

"I miss her, Will."

This episode features a game of chess involving Max Von Sydow. Metatextual or what?

It`s 1538. The King is depressed, distracted, and for much of the episode will only speak to someone later revealed to be his fool, Will Somers. It's hard not to see a King Lear reference here, which tells us something about how we're supposed to see Henry's state of mind.

Politics is turbulent, with factions and even assassinations, and the central figure is an increasingly disliked Cromwell. There is a veritable whodunit underway, and court becomes an increasingly violent place while the King remains indisposed. Cromwell, controversially, summons the King's Counsel, which could be (and is) seen as an usurpation of royal authority. If so, it is a failed attempt; all the members storm out, led by the Duke of Suffolk, leaving only Cromwell's creature Richard Rich. Power is slipping away.

The king, still distracted, casually agrees with Cromwell that he should seek a new wife. But he's in mourning, getting fat. 

This doesn't last, though, and when the King returns to action it's a harsh realisation for Cromwell as Henry demands that the church adopt six acts of faith, some of which are a bit Catholic; confession, no married priests, etc. It suddenly dawns on Cromwell that the King only supported reform so he could get his divorce and his heir; he never was a Protestant true believer. And now that the King has what he wanted from reform  there will be no more; Lutherans and "heretics" are to face a traitor's death. The articles are read out over the King, symbolically renewed, shagging Ursula Missenden. Cromwell is distraught.

In other news, Prince Edward is the most cosseted child in history; Sir Francis Bryan continues to pursue Pole; Brandon is still awkward with his pregnant wife after his part in the massacre; and Edward Seymour is plotting against Bryan. But all eyes are on Cromwell, whose fall we know is coming.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 4

"I have a son?"

It`s fast-moving, this season. It`s quickly becoming apparent that the "one wife per season" limit is going to be breached, and things seem to be speeding up.

The rebellion plotline comes to an end in a predictably bloody manner; Sir Ralph Ellerker sells out his mates and gets to live. Aske, having integrity, is executed and dies bewildered. He begs Cromwell's pardon before he dies so his family will not be hurt- at this point the entire viewership is waiting for Cromwell to get his comeuppance. Aske's death is shown graphically and in slow motion.

Even worse than this, though, is the massacre of the legions of humbler rebels. Brandon observes the slaughter of women and children, slaughter that he himself has ordered on Henry's behalf, and is utterly shattered by it. It's hard not to sympathise; he has a wife and son. He had no choice but to obey the tyrant. Yet his pregnant wife is disgusted with him.

Still, they really are out to get Henry. Reginald Pole is trying to convince Francis I to go on a crusade against England, which is a crime in anyone's book. Sir Francis Bryan, returning to his old spying ways; tend to think of spying as more of an Elizabethan thing, with Walsingham and Marlowe and that, but it must of course be amongst the oldest of professions.

Henry may have no time for the Pope, and he may have swung towards Protestantism when it suited him, but kings are fickle creatures and he now wishes to stamp out "evangelical excesses". To this end he is demanding articles of faith. The very Protestant Cromwell is on thinner ice than ever before: Henry tells Edward Seymour that "It was the rebels who demanded Mr Cromwell's head. And, by doing so, they saved it."

We are therefore introduced to the decidedly non-Protestant Bishop Stephen Gardiner, hammer of the heretics, played by no less a figure than Simon Ward. The pendulum appears to be swinging back.

Jane Seymour, pregnant with (at last!) a son for the king, is realistic enough to urge Ursula Missenden to "be a comfort" to the king. She wants Mary, with whom she is close, to be with her during what will be a difficult birth. A caesarean is required, and in those days such interventions were invariably fatal for the mother. Jane's death, so early in the season, is as shocking for us as it as it is for Henry. Henry is devastated; he genuinely loved Jane, although a cynic would say he just hadn't had enough time to get bored of her.

Still, Henry has his son now...

Sunday, 4 May 2014

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

"You don't seem like her type."

"I'm everyone's type."

This should be a great episode: evil Ward, more Bill Paxton goodness.. sorry, evilness, and Coulson going off the rails a bit. Yet it never quite catches fire. The arc stuff is good, but as an episode it feels a bit like a link in a chain.

We begin with the team on the run, with all traces of their existence erased. Suddenly, there is no SHIELD any more, something which hits Coulson hard in particular. Suddenly there's just the team, plus Trip, and he's only there at Jemma Simmons' insistence. The wife, incidentally, is predicting some Simmons-Trip action in the fullness of time, and she was right about Skye and Ward.

Meanwhile, Ward's mannerisms look suddenly evil as he hobnobs with the delightfully dastardly Garrett, springing Rayna and equipping her both with a new flower dress and a new Centipede project, complete with the "Jesus juice" that revived Coulson. Not only that, but at the end they unveil Ian Quinn and Gravitonium. The countdown to the season finale starts here.

The gang, meanwhile, are being led on what may be a wild goose chase to a piece of Canadian tundra by Coulson, who insists that the coordinates he's been sent are from Nick Fury. Everyone has some level of doubt, especially May, and they only tag along out of loyalty. There's a touching interaction here between Fitz and Simmons: he's besotted with her, but to her he's just a friend. Unlike Trip...

When they reach the spot there seems to be nothing, and it's quite a powerful moment to see Coulson desperately come close to breaking down: "We are not agents of nothing. We are agents of SHIELD!" But fortunately there is a base there. And Coulson (but only Coulson) is told that Fury is alive...

 We end with Wards return to the base, and only we know he's a baddie. This is a charges situation, especially given the sparks between him and Skye which can now develop into actual dating. Skye was obviously a little besotted by their phone call earlier in the episode. Her heart is going to get broken...

The Exorcist (1973)

"You`re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?'

I can`t quite believe that I`m nearly thirty-seven and I hadn`t seen this superlative film until now. I suppose we all have a list of seminal cinematic masterpieces that we`ve never quite got round to seeing, but I really had no excuses; I like my horror, and this is one of that select group of auteur-led films made in the early Seventies that pretty much constitute a Hollywood golden age. It`s interesting to watch in the light of its influence on popular culture; this is where we establish the trope of words recorded backwards being Satanic, hence that stupid court case for Judas Priest the following decade. And it`s weird, in the light of The Omen being three years later, that the flawed, doubting priest should be called Damien.

The film is gorgeously shot throughout, as we would expect, and we spend some time establishing that Regan is a nice, normal girl before anything happened,the daughter of a film star, rich, living in a large house with staff. We also establish Father Damien as a troubled man, losing his faith ad having to make difficult decisions about his mother. It`s also fascinating to get some footage of northern Iraq, six years before Saddam Hussein.

I`ve no idea how this relates to the original novel, but the storytelling is elegantly done and the characters, even minor ones such as William Kindeman, the detective, are multi-dimensional. The ending, quick though it is, is nicely foreshadowed; Merrin arrogantly refuses to hear about the history of the case from Damien, and this hubris leads to the old man`s nemesis. Damien is established early on as losing his faith, feels guilt about his treatment of his elderly mother and (as the demon later mentions) fails to stop and help a beggar. His death is ambiguous; is it martyrdom or suicide? Does he die unshriven.

A quick note; this film, while controversial with many, is famously approved of by the Vatican, for obvious reasons; its portrayal of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is extremely positive. But it never, for me, crosses the line into proselytising. The purpose of the film is to entertain and frighten, nothing more.

The film`s justified selling point is the depiction of the possessed Regan; the voice, make-up and special effects are indeed extraordinary, but it is the direction that truly elevates these scenes. The very quick glimpse of the demon early on, just a few frames, is enormously powerful. These scenes are rationed until the end of the film; each individual glimpse of the superlative make-up, the head turning 360 degrees, and the moving bed are allowed to have maximum impact.

I can`t praise this film enough. There are many imitations but this is the real deal, through sheer film-making ability. Undoubtedly one of the greatest horror films ever.

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 3

"For some very good reasons, I am determined to save you."

1537 begins, and it promises to be a bloody year. Programmes like The Tudors, of necessity, tack to a "Great Man" philosophy of history; we see little of ordinary people beyond the world of the court. Here, with the rebellion in Yorkshire, we get a rare glimpse of life for ordinary people, and it's not nice at all. People have their welfare safety net ripped away, and all the old familiar things, and when they protest they are tortuously executed by the hordes. This reminds us that, fun though psychopathic tyrants may be, there is a human cost to them.

We begin with Henry's more amusing little quirks; he forgives Hans Holbein his trespasses as he is a genius, much as Pope Clement VII did with Michelangelo last season. The rebels do not receive such leniency, being less exalted. And even Mary's old governess, the Countess of Salisbury, faces an uncertain future as the mother of the traitor Reginald Pole.

Sir Francis Bryan, interestingly, is sleeping with Edward Seymour's wife, cowgirl style ("That was entertaining!"). Seymour deserves his cuckoldry, not bothering to inform his royal sister of their father's death for a whole week. More innocently, Mary is beloved of the people and especially of Robert Aske and the rebels. She, for the moment, is in favour and cannot be accused of treason. Few others can claim this luxury.

Henry, with Jane`s full knowledge, is having an affair with Ursula Missenden that woud be treason if it were she doing it and not he. This has the side-effect of the priapic Bryan not being able to have his wicked way with her. Henry is less stable than he was, dismising Cromwell because of his "low birth". This won`t last.

Another rising takes plac in the north, and it is obvious from the start that the only possible end to it is bloodshed and heads on pikes. It is the Duke of Suffolk who is made to dip his hands into the blood, as the underlings of tyrants must, ordering death and torture, breaking earlier promises to the rebels and deeply traumatising himself by doing so. A red hot poker is shoved up an arse. 74 summary hangings are judged "too lenient". Cromwell clashes with his prisoner Lord Darcy, who predicts the former`s imminent beheading. Oddly, though, Cromwell wants to save Aske, for reasons of his own.

Ashe may be spared, but otherwise there is nothing but death and suffering. And yet Henry sees only what he wants to see, as only a tyrant can.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 2

"Do you remember what happened to the late Queen?"

The rebellion proceeds apace, and we get a broader look at what it`s about. The people of Yorkshire want their old religious ways, yes, but it`s wider than that; this is a conflict between the old mediaeval world, with its heirarchies, rights and liberties, and old noble families with Henry`s new, proto-absolutist world of centralised power, "new men" and brutal capitaism buttressed by the authoritan state. No more monastical NHS and no more links to a past that does not make money.

 Henry is not in any mood for compromise, much as he pretends to when he must. He is the king, anointed by God, and his word is law. That`s it. Parliament is supine, and all officers of State must work with the King`s wishes. Perhaps this new, even-more-intractable Henry is the result of his wound, still being poked and prodded by "quacks and charlatans." It has long been speculated that his behaviour after 1536 was much affected by it, and this episode provides much to fuel this theory. Henry, on a whim, decides to be nice to Mary, much to the annoyance of the many Protestants at Court. He arrogantly rebukes the petitioners in a way which comes close to Richard II during the Peasants` Revolt, insisting that they are commoners who "are ignorant, and should know their duty". Worst of all, when Jane Seymour pleads for them, he menacingly warns her to stay out of politics if she wishes to avoid the fate of the last Queen.

 More than this, on a personal level, he`s having an affair with Ursula Missenden, and displaying worrying symptoms of megalomania, using the New World, with which  is fascinated, as a metaphor for his new religion.

Henry is not a stable king, and England is not a stable kingdom. Not only is there rebllion in the north but also plotting in Castel Gandolfo, with Reginald Pole accepting a cardinal`s hat and off to chat to Francis I and Charles V. Sir Francis Bryan, although rebuffed by Ursula, is having it off with Edward Seymour`s wife. Henry has made a tactical compromise with the rebes for now, but we all know the bloodbath is coming...

Friday, 2 May 2014

Titanic (1997)

"I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star."

This is, well, the biggest, most epic film I've yet blogged. It's long, expensive and big in every sense of the world. Is it any good? Well, yes. It has deep flaws in its pacing but it is a technical triumph of cinema, and the interminable first half eventually gives way to a second half (in real time from the moment the iceberg is hit until the final sinking in a significant chunk of the film that does not feel to long) which can stand among the finest disaster movies ever made.

That first half, though... yes, it looks amazing in its recreation of Belle Époque opulence, but it is bloated and unwieldy. Yes, the modern day sequences are nice and, yes, Gloria Stuart is a legend of cinema, but given the sheer amount of footage these sequences are disposable. And the long setting up of the relationship between Rose and Jack takes up a normal length film by itself- and, if that were the whole film, this would be fine.

Yes, it's nice to see the the amusing Hollywood romantic comedy trope whereby a woman starts out by being intensely annoyed by the man she will ultimately fall in love with. Yes, Rose and Jack are star cross'd lovers, divided by the gulf of social class. Yes, it's funny to see Cal's unthinking snobbery ("That's amazing. You could almost pass for a gentleman."). But the effect of all this is somewhat undermined for the audience by the fact that the characters are all on the Titanic and, bloodthirsty as we are, we're all impatiently waiting for that iceberg.

And the constant use of that bloody Celine Dion tune doesn't improve matters either.

There are some nice touches; we get to see such Titanic perennials as the unsinkable Molly Brown and J. Bruce Ismay. The Captain is played by Bernard "Yosser Hughes" Hill. There's a very nice sweeping camera movement from the Bridge to the hot, stifling environment with the machinery below. The class gulf between first and third class, and between old money and new, is made very clear. Jack seems to be a fan of Picasso's Cubist period. Rose gets naked and there ensues what can only be described as a sketching montage.

It's still a relief, though, when we're saved by the iceberg. It's an instant change of tone, and urgency; levels of panic will slowly rise and rise throughout the second half of the film. Jack finds himself handcuffed to a pillar as the ship starts sinking, and this leads to a magnificent sequence whereby Rose rescues him; this is truly superb, perhaps the highlight of the film.

Order soon collapses into chaos, with the brave, the selfish, the rich and the lucky finding themselves on lifeboats more often than not. The film becomes more and more gripping as desperation takes hold, with scene after scene providing top entertainment. Perhaps my favourites are the band- truly noble- the Captain going down with his ship and the gentlemen in first class who remain behind to die "But we would like a brandy."

The final moments of the ship are superb,  and we get to see the tragic deaths of people bobbing in the water while people watch in lifeboats which are nowhere near full, and (spoiler alert!) Jack's death is such a powerful moment. 

Titanic is a mixed bag of a movie: overlong, and a mix of bad melodrama and great disaster movie. But the latter, and it's awesome technical accomplishments which won it all those Oscars, makes it a film that has to be seen.

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear (Revisited)

 So, here we are; I revisited Enemy of the World after Philip Morris unveiled its fiver previously missing episodes last October; now it's time for the obvious next step. Should Episode Three turn up soon then this blog could get very confusing...

Part One

"Is it safe?"

"Oh, I shouldn't think so for a moment..."

A direct continuation from The Enemy of the World, so we do get to see the aftermath after all. The Doctor and Victoria clearly aren't hanging on, and some of the roundels are clearly cardboard cutouts, but never mind!

I'm glad at least this episode survives so we can see Camfield's direction in all its glory- the scene with the Yeti transforming is great. And it's fun to see an older Travers with a beard and great, cantankerous dialogue- Jack Watling seems to be having a lot more fun this time around! I'm not sure about the character Silverstein here though- we seem to be getting a little too close for comfort to some rather dodgy stereotypes.

Actually watching the stories in order brings home just how soon it is for a sequel to The Abominable Snowmen to turn up. And it's rather odd that, if the Yeti are considered good enough to bring back, they then have to be completely redesigned!

This is great stuff, in large part a typical "exploring" part one, but also structured rather cleverly. We get the scene with Travers in the museum to establish the Yeti threat, but the next time we see him some time has passed, the army is involved and the threat is already underway with the minimum of exposition. In between these scenes, the web around the TARDIS in space adds tension and reminds us of the larger threat of the Great Intelligence- although why it lets go isn't made quite clear. All this, and the most postmodern line since a prisoner was kept in a corridor in the last story: "Funny, isn't it? How we keep landing on your Earth?"

We have a deserted London and lots of soldiers... this all feels very Quatermass.

Yes, we've seen Part One before, but this is the copy recovered by Philip Morris, and it's a notably superior copy. It's still obvious, sadly, that Silverstein is portrayed as the grasping Jew, but the episode is as gripping and as addictive as ever. The prospect of five more episodes of Douglas Camfield's direction is utterly gripping.

It must be said, though: the better copy makes it even more obvious that the TARDIS roundels are just blown-up photographs.

Part Two

"A right old Fred Karno's army".

Back to the recons, Joint Venture this time. It's fun to see, or rather hear, Travers' reaction to seeing Jamie and Victoria looking just as they did forty years ago- and The Abominable Snowmen is retrospectively dated back to 1935. Interesting, as I don't recall anything particularly in the story to suggest it wasn't contemporary. Well, aside from occupying Chinese people, obviously...

The Doctor's not in this much, is he? this is the first obvious time Troughton gets a holiday. Still, he had an awful lot to do in the last story.

We get a very odd line from one of the soldiers: "He reckons they're abominable snowmen." So how come everyone is calling them Yeti?

Our first "new" footage, then. It's fantastic to see footage of the soldiers vs. the Yeti and their web guns. The characters are all distinct individuals and the performances make them seem very real in this high stress situation, the web looks fantastic too in all its foamy-bubblewrappiness. It's quite arresting how quickly it moves through the ground. The cliffhanger is interesting: oh, look, foam!

The Doctor's absence is really felt, so it is left to the other characters to carry the story. It is amusing to see the 1960's attempt at depicting a professional woman; Anne may be a brilliant scientist, but it is she who makes the tea.

Part Three

"Good to see you don't take things at face value."

A small glass pyramid! There's a blast from the past. As is the Doctor, who it seems we haven't seen for ages. he seems to be accompanied by some mysterious, moustachioed soldier type called Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. we don't know where he came from, so he's probably a baddie.

Our heroes are by now entirely surrounded by fungus. at this point it becomes clear that we are indeed watching another base under siege.

Crikey, one of our heroes is a traitor, using the model Yeti- I bet it's that sinister Lethbridge-Stewart. But really, aside from the Doctor, Anne Travers and Victoria, it could be anyone. This is feeling even more Quatermass by the minute, and Pat Troughton makes a splendid Bernard. Good stuff.

This episode is not only still a recon, but a considerably worse recon than the version I watched above. It was clearly made in a hurry; there are NO captions- except one right at the very end! Things are very hard to follow,which is generally not the case for recons made my amateurs. Professionals, eh? Most revealingly, the reprises at both ends are not included, a sign of rushing.

It is of course frustrating that we are introduced to Lethbridge- Stewart in recon form. The character shines from the beginning, and is, from the start, a little more vulnerable than he would later become.

Part Four

"I have a craft that travels in time and space."

The Doctor's description of the great Intelligence to the Colonel (and us) is creepy, well-delivered stuff. Even more chilling is the realisation that the Yeti just came, took what it wanted (Travers) and went- it just doesn't see the army as a threat.

We get an extraordinary scene here in which the Doctor tells the Colonel about the TARDIS- and Lethbridge-Stewart believes him, showing not only an extraordinary amount of faith in the Doctor but also good judgement. But conversely, having sent a squad of troops to look for the Doctor's police box (!), he's entirely deflated and defeated once the others are all killed. This is a well-rounded and well played character, but not quite the one he would become.

I'm sure the long battle scene between the soldiers and the Yeti looked great, but I couldn't see it! but it was very long. And used the Cybermens' signature tune for some reason...

The cliffhanger is fantastic here. Unlike in The Abominable Snowmen, in this story the Yeti most certainly do pose a threat.

 At last we get to see Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, complete with his Scottish regimental headgear. It's great to see him, and moving pictures. Everything looks amazing, from the bits of web on the camera (Camfield was a genius) to the sheer awesomeness of the Battle of Covent Garden. Best of all, though, is Troughton's performance; his little monologue about the Great Intelligence is truly awesome.

The Colonel is awesome too, open-minded and pragmatic, although yet again the signs of stress are visible in this story in ways which later stories will not show. This is certainly a better story than The Enemy of the World, in spite of its inferior script, and that is entirely down to Camfield. This episode simply looks amazing.

Part Five

"You'd better stay here. Evans. And don't go taking any chances."

I haven't mentioned Evans yet, but he's a nice character: at the same time comic relief and fulfilling a serious function. He reminds us how scary the situation is, shows us how brave everyone else is in contrast, and is himself quite tragic.

The Intelligence, issuing his ultimatum to the Doctor, is a very powerful adversary indeed, and the situation is about as hopeless as I can ever recall it being. This story is superb.

I'm liking the Colonel more and more. He and Jamie make a particularly good team. Incidentally, in a story broadcast while Syd Barrett was still in Pink Floyd, we get two characters called Arnold and Lane...

This may be black and white, but by Jove it's psychedelic, not something one would have guessed from the recon. It is arresting, too, to see the Intelligence speaking through Jack Watling having recently seen Richard E. Grant in the same role. The Web of Fear is a slightly different experience with Steven Moffat having used the Great Intelligence as the Big Bad for Season 33.

Nick Courtney is truly fabulous here; even my semi-fan wife singled him out for high praise. It's still a pity, though, that we know he's going to become a regular and can't be the mole, as is often pointed out. It's interesting to see Lethbridge-Stewart and Jamie getting on as well here as they will in The Invasion

Part Six

"Prepare for a great darkness to cloud your mind."

So Arnold is the traitor? I'd forgotten about him- I'd genuinely though there were no plausible suspects and so there must not have been a traitor after all. Although I'm sure it would have helped if I was genuinely able to suspect the Colonel, as the original viewers must have done!

There seems to be no hope as the Intelligence starts to drain the Doctor's mind. But we get a great ending as Jamie heroically saves the day only for it to be revealed that the Doctor would have drained the Intelligence's mind into his simply by switching the wires.

More visual treats, then, in the middle of the tension as we are treated to rare footage of the Doctor playing his recorder. More to the point, the presence of actual visuals makes this episode much, much easier to follow. Once again I'm left with the strong impressions that watching recons doesn't help you to follow what is actually going on as it seems to at the time.

The final showdown is tense and awesome, and it's equally awesome to see Troughton's facial expressions during his extraordinary performance.

Overall, simply magnificent, full of twists and turns as a six-parter should be, action-packed and generally very Quatermass and the Pit. An easy 5/5.

No arguing with my past self there. A triumph from beginning to end. Douglas Camfield is without a doubt the finest director ever to work on twentieth century Doctor Who. 

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

"When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married."

This may be one of the most low budget films I will ever review for this blog, yet it is quietly wonderful; filmed entirely in the grounds of Joss Whedon's house in classy monochrome, a cast of Whedon's usual suspects combine with the enforced creativity of filming caused by the restricted locations to create some real magic.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof have always been actors worthy of the greatest roles, and they both shine as Beatrice and Benedick. Clark Gregg, a natural at benevolent authority figures, is an excellent Leonato, while Sean Maher is suitably sinister as Don John. Fran Kranz (against type) and newcomer Jillian Morgese are also highlights as Claudio and Hero. The cast is rounded out by Reed Diamond as Don Pedro and, intriguingly, Nathan Fillion in a comic role as the delightfully soft man of malapropism a Dogberry.

The different rooms of the house are nicely used to separate the characters during the masked ball, but the best framed scenes are those whereby first Benedick and then Beatrice are made to "overhear" talk that the other loves them. Denisof's comic acting is superb here, but both he and Acker are also naturals at delivering the ensuing soliloquys.

This is one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable comedies, with much wise philosophising on the ways of love and relationships, although even those, such as myself, who are burdened with a "y" chromosome find it hard, looking across the centuries, not to notice the appalling gender double standards at play here. Leonato, in particular, is not a sympathetic character to modern eyes in his denunciation of Hero at her aborted wedding, but Clark Gregg deals with this as well as can be done.

I urge you to see this wonderful film. What can be better than both Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare?

The Tudors: Season Three, Episode 1

"With God's help we'll all be happy now.

A new season, then, and a largely new cast to join Henry, Brandon and Cromwell; even Jane Seymour has been recast. The nationality of the new actors reminds us once again that this is an Irish/Canadian co-production, giving us a good look at some actors from those two countries. And Max Von Sydow.

It's still 1536, that interminable year, and Anne Boleyn's ghost still lingers, but the show must go on. The King has since wedded Jane in a genuinely happy occasion, and there is the feeling of a new start. We are introduced to new characters at court, such as Lady Ursula Missenden, the new lady in waiting, and eyepatch sporting old spy and seafog Sir Francis Bryan. But all is not well; discontent festers in Yorkshire, captioned "Yorkshire, Northern England" in an egregious bit of dumbing down. It seems most ordinary people like monasteries, the proto-welfare state they provided, and the colour and spectacle of the old faith. Cromwell, to put it mildly, is not popular. Yes indeed; first there was Wolsey, then Anne Boleyn: this season it is for Cronwell to get his comeuppance.

The King is pleased; not only is he happily married, but his income has doubled following his raid on the monasteries. And he is in with Charles V again. Sir Edward Seymour is also pleased with his new titles and influence. Less pleased is Mary, exiled from court unless she disowns her mother, but she has not only Chapuys but also Jane on her side. But Sir Francis, chillingly, explains to her that, unless she disowns both her mother and her faith, "Mr Cromwell cannot guarantee your safety."

Jane continues to be kind and gracious, appointing Lady Rochford, former beard to Sir George Boleyn, as her principal lady in waiting. In the run up to her coronation she tries to plead Mary's case to the King, but Henry warns her flatly not to worry her pretty little head about such things. 

Chapuys urges Mary to sign to preserve her life, with Papal dispensation. In this new world, Catholicism and dissembling must go hand in hand. But the Pope is up to other things; Cardinal Van Waldenburg, who looks uncannily like Ming the Merciless, is speaking at Castle Gandolfo with one Reginald Pole, a devout Catholic who is of considerably bluer blood than any Tudor.

Jane, now queen, is kind to both Mary and Elizabeth, looking after the sisterhood through genuine kindness. Meanwhile Cromwell, he if humble birth, is now a peer of the realm, and the most unpopular man in England, not least Yorkshire.the rebellion grows, and Henry is reminded of the rebellion of the Cornish against his skinflint father back in 1497; the awful power of the mob is a true fear of his. Brandon is sent to dip his hands in blood, brutally suppressing the rebellion. Cromwell, meanwhile, finds his star waning a little with the sign that his policies are not exactly popular. He has risen high, and has far to fall...

Matilda (1996)

"Are you being smart with me?"

I devoured all of Roald Dahl's children's books as a little boy but I must confess, dear reader, that I'm a little too old to have read this one. Still, it's Dahl to a tee: books and imagination are good, TV (see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Gradgrindian adulthood are bad and there's plenty of kid-friendly grotesques of the kind all good Roald Dahl tales demand.

The film is directed, interestingly, by your actual Danny DeVito, who also plays Matilda's wilfully ignorant and ethically deficient father. Her alienated home life is eventually replaced by school, a British school, as apparently British schools are strict, one of those odd American stereotypes.

The biggest grotesque of the lot is headmistress Miss Trunchbull, who looks very kinky with her strict sexy uniform and riding crop, and who is rumoured to use several gloriously outré punishments which no parent would believe.

She is counterbalanced by the rather nice Miss Honey. I'm reminded at this point of an old sketch by The Mary Whitehouse Experience (remember them?) who pointed out that Charles Dickens called all his good characters names like "Mrs Lovely" and all his villains  names like "Mr Complete Bastard". Roald  Dahl is very Dickensian in that sense, gloriously and unapologetically so.

The film (and, I assume the book) is an impassioned cry for reading and learning and a furious cry against the sort of inverted snobbery against learning and culture that keeps the poor ignorant and powerless. The message is perfectly pitched to children in this furiously moral film. Matilda is a heroine for speaking out against the Trunchbull's cruelty, and soon sets out to investigate the truth behind her headmistress, typical Dahl protagonist that she is.

There's a happy ending, of course, with our telepathic heroine being adopted by that nice Miss Honey. I suspect the book has more life to it than the film, but this is a fun little adaptation.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Tudors: Season Two, Episode 10

"I have only a little neck."

What a perfect little piece of television this is; beautifully written and shot. If every other episode of The Tudors were a pile of pants, the whole series would be worth it but for this episode.

There is little in the way of plot here, just Anne Boleyn waiting to die. Oh, a few other things happen, but they are all linked to or contrasted with Anne's upcoming death. Hence Elizabeth is declared a bastard following the nullification of Anne's and Henry's marriage, and cruelly made to bear the costs of her mother's incarceration, but she is made safe by coming under the kindly wing of Jane Seymour (albeit via arguments involving the virgin/whore dichotomy, perhaps irresistible with a future Virgin Queen) who is, we learn, a staunch Catholic.

Chapuys has taken a liking to the vengeful Mary ("Is the harlot dead?", which is not much of a surprise: she is, after all, a first cousin of Charles V and a granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. 

Scenes of Anne dressing up to look good for her execution (which is, as we will see, a performance) are nicely juxtaposed with Jane dressing herself to look nice for the King. Charles Brandon's little son asks, with an innocence of sorts, if he can see the execution because "I would really like to see someone die." The central, heavy fact of Anne's judicial killing is riffed on in all sorts of ways.

Thomas Boleyn is released. His children are dead or dying, but his first reaction, to Brandon's disgust, is of pleasure that he gets to keep his earldom. Such warped priorities define aristocracy. The King, in defiance of the death in which he bathes, walks into a random fountain and declares it a fountain of youth and, if the King says so, that's what it is. Better to escapee from reality than to face one's conscience, perhaps. Indeed, the last scene, even after Anne's achingly beautiful final moments, is of the King greedily stuffing himself with swan pie.

But all this is window dressing; Anne dies today. It has been decided. The last rites come early on, with the naïf Cranmer presiding over a curiously Catholic-lookng confession; the tents of Protestantism are, as yet, fluid. Then the performance begins; this is Anne's last morning, and she must put on make-up and her best finery for the public performance that is her death, and will define her life for posterity.

All this is cruelly and randomly interrupted by the executioner's lateness; the King postpones the execution by one day, utterly destroying Anne's carefully rehearsed composure. The facade collapses, and she collapses into hope, denial, bargaining, acceptance. Her last full day is spent pleasantly and calmly, reminiscing with friends, and putting away the mask of performance for a while.

Anne's last morning is signified as such by a caption telling us the date, and from this point the direction becomes increasingly arthouse and beautiful. Her last moments are, of course, the ultimate performative act. Alongside the jeers are sympathisers, and those in primitive awe of the royal aura she still carries. Cromwell prays (guilt?) while Brandon, his son, and Wyatt all watch. She looks so beautiful in her dignity. Time slows as she sees a flock of birds. The screen goes black and nothing happens ever again.