Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hannibal Rising (2007)

"What is left in you to love?"

Why does this film fail? Well, firstly, it isn't very good, being slow and boring with an uncharismatic lead actor. But I think it's partly the European setting; my British sensibilities rather like the exotic American settings we've come to expect from Hannibal films. Darkly lit Black Forest locations don't really cut it.

It's disappointing to see Hannibal given an origin in Second World War Lithuania; a banal, Middle American upbringing would have been much more interesting. Just because he's a serial killer doesn't mean he should get a tragic background. And I may detect a smidgeon of that tired old American trope that Europe, the continent I live in, is full of Godless moral deviants and it's best to get away from all that for a new start in America. The character of Lecter is lessened by his dramatic European origin as presented here.

Anyway, the tragic scenes from Hannibal's childhood play out; I assume, from his name, his Lithuanian origins and his family's posh living arrangements before the Soviets arrive that he's a Baltic German by origin. I suppose it's interesting that the castle used as an orphanage is in fact posh boy Hannibal's family home; that must stick in his craw as much as the constant bullying.

Eventually he travels to France and a strange Japanese lady friend of the family, travelling by map (a Muppets in-joke there...), from whom he learns martial arts. He feels affection for her, of sorts; his first murder (in broad daylight!) is inflicted on a man  who sexually harasses her.

There are elements here that will continue throughout his life; the murder was committed because of the victim's discourtesy, and Hannibal has the first of many long cat and mouse games with a suspicious detective, in this case Dominic West's French inspector.

Then it's back to Kaunas to avenge his family's deaths, but the film still hasn't really caught fire in any way. The deaths are boring, even with the added feature of Hannibal's first bit of cannibalism. 

His pursuit of his family's killers continues throughout the film, with Hannibal risking the guillotine as the inspector is on to him; they have a discussion about vigilantism vs. the law which is almost interesting.

The film is desperately, desperately slow, but mercifully it ultimately nears its vague and unsatisfactory climax as Hannibal rescues his Japanese surrogate mother and is rejected by her as she realises what he is. The end is not really satisfying, but it's so good to find that the film is finally over.

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

"Burn the witch."

As per this film's predecessor, I ought to make the point that I know sod all about any of the computer games. Nevertheless, this is even better than Silent Hill, and bloody scary to boot. I understand the critics don't like it, but then they know the game (Silent Hill 3, my wife tells me); I suspect that's why. My wife, incidentally, is playing the game as I type. I've promised to protect her from the monsters.

Yes, there's a plot and yes, it works fine, but this film is all about the scary imagery and set pieces and that's what I plan to focus on. If you haven't seen the film, look away now.

It's a very nightmarish film, hence the narrative style, and so of course we begin with a dream sequence in which Heather (as she's now calling herself), the daughter from the previous film, sees images of Pyramid Head and other delights and is ominously warned to stay away from a certain West Virginia town called Silent Hill.

I like Heather's little speech in class; she moves around, won't be around long, and there's little point in the other students getting to know her. We quickly get a sequence of scary kids, reminding me a little of Village of the Damned. But we soon shift to a dream sequence and, after sequences introducing fellow student Vincent, with whom she muses philosophically on dreams vs. reality, reflecting exactly how the film is narratively structured, and a mysterious detective called Douglas Cartland, who promptly dies. Several delightfully unnerving dream sequences later, the action finally shifts to Silent Hill itself. The direction is already superb.

Having learned the backstory- fire burning underground, religious zealots etc- Heather, alongside Vincent, gains a McGuffin, loses both Vincent and her Dad as hostages, and gets some expository guff about how she's the only good part of Alessa's soul. More interestingly, we get a deeply scary scenes with shop window dummies which I very much hope strongly influences any future appearance of the Autons in Doctor Who. The plastic mannequin spider in the middle of its web is amazing. This is by far the highlight of the film.

Of course, we get scenes of Pyramid Head chopping off prisoners' hands, and we get to see the dilapidated amusement park again as the denouement plays out. The film ends very abruptly, it must be said, and I'm not sure a happy ending could ever have satisfied, but I very much enjoyed this film.

New Worlds: Episode 2

"I cannot marry a man I do not love."

Sigh. Things aren't really picking up. Ned is leaving Boston for England, and Beth is seeing Abe again. Plots are laid to expose Angelica as a traitor and expose her rather dull and understandably circumspect Catholic husband, who cannot deny the "Popish Plot" for fear of accusations, just so the King can seize her land. This is a pity, as Angelica's home is a haven of Whiggery and religious tolerance. Meanwhile, Beth and Abe hope to go to the New World to carry on the Good Old Cause. None of this is presented so as to be at all interesting.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Hope Russell is to be married to a man- Henry Cresswell- whom she neither loves nor likes. And yes, it's still weird to hear all of these Massachusetts Puritans speaking in RP accents. She is, of course, presented with all sorts if arguments to make her feel guilty and submit to this patriarchal and misigynistic pressure. The point here is that it's not only the Tories back in England who are somewhat lacking in progressivism.

Angelica's house is invaded by thugs who light bonfires and chant about the "Popish Plot and praise the Duke of Monmouth. Angelica's hubby, sure enough, is trapped into denying Titus Oates' outrageous claims and arrested. He is now at the mercy of the infamous Judge Jeffries, and both Angelica and Beth are in trouble by proxy. It's all very dramatic, yet somehow still fails to engage.

Poor hubby is tortured, while Abe learns of his fatger's death; he is, it seems, Wiiliam Goff's son. He tries to kill Charles II, whom Jeremy Northam is portraying as a not-at-all merry monarch. He is harboured by Beth and Angelica, and both are subsequently arrested and, on Angelica's case, finally have her luck run out as she is sentenced to be burned at the stake while Beth is transported to America.

Angelica finally dies, watched by her daughter, and gives a magnificent speech; being executed is, after all, a per formative act and, in this case, a political one as she calls Charles a tyrant. Abe, mercifully, shoots her dead before she can suffer, and then seemingly plunges to his own death.

All this is juxtaposed with Charles, looking thoroughly miserable, putting on his crown and dissolving Parliament. He seems triumphant.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

New Worlds: Episode 1

"Young Americans like you must seize true liberty."

The Devil's Whore was superlative television. This... isn't, and it's obvious from the start. The cast doesn't sparkle anywhere near as much, there's a lack of unity between the scenes in England and Massachusetts, and the continuing political themes are handled a little more clunky; yes, pre-Glorious Revolution England was no beacon of liberty, but Charles II was not his father, and certainly not the miserable bastard we see here. There a reason why he's known as the Merry Monarch.

We begin in Massachusetts in 1680, a place of Puritan dogma, ethnic cleansing and republican sympathies which extend to harbouring Colonel William Goff, one of the few surviving regicides. Most jarring of all, though, to modern eyes, is the sight of Native American tribes in that long-settled part of New England; the Eastern Seaboard is the frontier. Here we meet Hope and Ned, two strangely RP-accented Americans about whom we are supposed to care, but don't. Indeed, even watching, as I did, with subtitles, it was well into the second episode before I got a clear idea of who the characters were. Characterisation is not this series' strong point.

Our first sight of England is bodies hanging from the Tower of London; lovely. Here we meet an older and much less charismatic Angelica Fanshawe, her grown-up daughter Beth, and her Roman Catholic husband who has been having rather a rough time of it since the so-called Popish Plot two years ago. Beth becomes curious about her father, Edward Sexby, now a conveniently dead legend for republicans and Whigs. Angelica is under pressure to sell her land to the King. This is all set-up and plot but mainly exposition,  with very little spectacle, character or thematic cleverness. The historical characters- James, Duke of York, the Earl of Shaftesbury and the "Protestant Duke"- are made to seem very dull.

William Goff, meanwhile, is on the run from the King's men. He symbolises the transfer of republican ideas from England to America, something dripping with dramatic irony as we know, as he does not, that the English Civil War will have an  American sequel a century hence in which a new republic will be born. Goff is not an unproblematic proto-American, though; shortly before his death he bemoans the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, the original sin of the United States. Anyway, he is killed, but not before rather predictably inspiring Ned.

Back in  England, Beth is kidnapped on her birthday by Abe, about whom we are also supposed to care. He awakens both her sexuality and her political conscience somewhat, but nothing really happens. The episode ends with nothing but set-up having happened and no real sense of where the series is going.

The Devil's Whore: Episode 4

"I took a husband from you."

"You took two."

Suddenly, from a series which has been exploring the heritage of the British Left from the Civil War origins of the Tory/Whig divide, we get what seems to be contemporary political commentary. Lilburne's final days in his Jerseyan Guantanamo may be straight out of the history books, but they have deep contemporary relevance for a drama made in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Cromwell, in choosing rendition over what were, even in 1654, the proper constitutional procedures, begins to look very much like a Blair figure, perhaps even a Bush the Younger, the type who would support ninety day detention and identity cards. His later debate with Angelica over security versus liberty makes this clear, and Lilburne's tragic last few years make it clear that power does not lie with us civil libertarians.

Interesting, then, that all this should be juxtaposed with Cromwell's dismissing of the Rump Parliament, with the prospect of his declaring himself King, and with an angry Sexby, fresh from shooting Percy through the head, confronting him over the circumstances of Rainsborough's death. If Cromwell is Blair here then the comparison is not a flattering one. But then, everyone on the British left considers Blair to be a cuckoo in the Labour nest. Indeed, even we on the non-Orange Booker, Guardian-reading, Coalition-opposing wing of the Lib Dems think of him as a true small "c" conservative, although no Tory. This is also an apt description of the historical Cromwell.

It's nice that, the night before Sexby meets his doom in failing to assassinate Cromwell, he and Angelica should have what the director makes very clear is good, meaningful, loving sex, sex which ultimately results in the birth of a daughter. 

History takes it's course, and a caption informs us of Cromwell's death and the Restoration. There is a happy ending, of sorts, as Angelica's young daughter sees no devil in the tree.

This is a brilliant, brilliant, unappreciated series, and you must go and watch it immediately. Please. It's really rather good.

The Devil's Whore: Episode 3

"We begin again..."

It's very neat, the parallel between the trials of Angelica and the king, both sentenced to die on the same day. Angelica languishes in a miserable cell, giving birth there, jeered at and humiliated over her last few days, with only the Lilburnes for friends, and dies painfully, with the cruel jeers of Percy ringing in her ears. Except she doesn't, because Sexby has replaced the hangman and her death is faked, if still bloody painful.

Charles actually dies. His humiliations are of a lesser type, though significant for a king; he has to pick up the ball from the top of his cane himself when it falls to the floor. Capaldi is amazing here, showing us both the King's arrogance and his vulnerability. His trial is equally unfair, but he, too, has the ironic support of John Lilburne, who will not compromise in matters of justice and gets himself arrested yet again.

Also unjust is Cromwell's behaviour in Ireland, which is more reminiscent of the Thirty Years War than the comparatively civilised conflict in England. Sexby receives advancement, being made a colonel, but the moral compromises he has to make are appalling. He betrays the soldiers under his command, who are hanged by Cromwell although he had assured then they would not be, and in Ireland he is certainly guilty of war crimes.  The plebeian philosopher at last dips his hands in the blood. (Although, of course,he has fought as a mercenary in the Thirty Years War himself; his hands can hardly have been clean in the first place.)

He's not good enough for Angelica, though, as she refuses his proposal of marriage. She may be increasingly radical, but Sexby would still be a match well below her station. Her eventual reluctant acceptance is a defeat for her.

As Sexby bloodied his hands further across the Irish Sea, Angelica continues her journey into radicalism by joining the radical, stoic and bonkers Diggers sect. She is attracted to their lifestyle but alienated by their creepily conformist religiosity, adhering to a vague, hippyish spiritualism. She is finally cast out of this egalitarian paradise, but not before asking why, if all are equal, do women toil in the fields all day and then cook for their children at night?

The most fun part of the episode is, of course, Lilburne's trial and speech, and his triumphant acquittal. But the last few minutes are far from fun; a damaged Sexby arrives back from Ireland and all but rapes his new wife, and then abandons her. And, worse, the ex-Digger with whom Angelica has now shackled up turns out to be an underling of Percy's...

This continues to be superb. It works as melodrama, with dramatic reversals of fortune, but this also serves to parallel with the experiences of the great and good, and to illustrate history, or rather a particular slant of history that seeks to explore the heritage of the British Left and present things, quite deliberately and fairly, a little anachronistically. All history, after all, exists only in relation to the present.

The Devil's Whore: Episode 2

"How did your husband die?"

"Because I was not tamed."

"The world would have you tamed?"

"I know."

"Then the world is full of fools."

It's puzzling, watching The Devil's Whore again, that it was apparently intended to be twelve parts but was cut down to four. It's hard, not having seen the unedited version, to judge the wisdom of this decision; certainly the version we have does not seem unduly rushed, and is superb to boot. But perhaps this reflects how TV execs generally find the Civil War an unsexy period, with its suspicious lack of Tudors or Nazis.

Who cares. This is still top stuff. We're two years on, the programme is still lit to look like the paintings of the Dutch masters, and Angelica incurs the ire of a strangely nasty Percy from Blackadder after killing a man who tries to tape her, something for which she is unlikely to garner much sympathy in the less than enlightened times in which she lives. She grows close to Sexby, though. Both are philosophical and both are excluded from power, one by sex and one by class. Sexby may be rough trade for a lady of her background, but the two of them seem to have much in common.

John Lilburne continues to be in trouble, his ideas being far too radical for even the Parliamentarian establishment (for which read the mainstream, triangulating left), let alone the Royalists. Angelica and Sexby are on his side, though, even though his ideas extend even as far as putting the King on trial. 

Also radical, and sympathetic, is Thomas Rainsborough, an astute politician and military strategist yet, we feel, a little too radical for Cromwell and his ilk. He is immediately and passionately drawn to Angelica, preferring a "free spirit" to a woman who submits to privilege and patriarchy. Sexby, meanwhile, is in gaol and hence unable to seethe with jealousy when she sleeps with him.

Things then get complicated. It is only Rainsborough among the senior Parliamentarians who has the guts to have the King arrested, and it is only Rainsborough who is able to protect Angelica from Percy's nasty, sadistic, misogynistic urge to see her humiliated and hanged.

Lilburne is magnificent, and I'm not just saying this because I so hugely admire the historical Lilburne. Here, he insists to Cromwell that there must be no purge of Parliament without an election. The people will vote for the King's men, as Cromwell point out, but they must have their say, and Lilburne will not budge on that point of principle.

Ironically, Angelica is saved by the freed Sexby threatening Percy and not by any deed of Rainsborough, but she agrees to marry the glamorous general anyway. The lady and the republican have their marriage blessed by a stoic Sexby, and Cromwell agrees to free Lilburne as a wedding gift. The couple are happy ever after.

Except they aren't. Cromwell, embodying all the cynicism of Middle England, has Rainsborough murdered as he furiously prays. Angelica is widowed for a second time and, just to kick her when she's down, Percy arrests her yet again...

This just keeps getting better and better.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Devil's Whore: Episode 1

"Both armies gave thanks to the same God for the same victory."

I loved this when it was first broadcast in 2007 and I loved it when rewatching it for the blog. It's a neglected gem; a magnificent cast and a script by the people behind Our Friends in the North. The English Civil War is a sadly neglected period in our history, which us a shame; it's a pivotal moment in English and British history and the tribal origins of both right and left in this country; this series is particularly interested in that aspect, and particularly in the heritage of the English left, whether Whig, Liberal or Labour, which has always reminisced about the "Good Old Cause".

The whole thing hangs on Andrea Riseborough's extraordinary performance  as Angelica Fanshawe at a time when she seemed to be all over the telly; remember her turn as the Evil One in BBC4's Long Walk to Finchley? She is exactly what this series needs; quirky yet likeable, with the charisma to be the necessary female need in a series unavoidably crammed with men.

Angelica begins as an aristocratic lady, unthinkingly in the midst of what we can anachronistically call the ancien regime. Angelica knows King Charles I vaguely, but her cousin, best friend and soon to be husband (this is, after all, the aristocracy), is a good mate of the very bizarre Prince Rupert.

Angelica's cousin and husband soon proves that his sexual politics are quite as reactionary as his class politics; in insisting that Angelica be silent in bed he not only shows himself to be crap in bed but gives us a pretty neat metaphor for the patriarchal repression of women.

Angelica has a kind of childlike innocence and a weirdness that makes her a fascinating character, although her vaguely non-Christian spiritualism is arguably a bit anachronistic. Our other audience identification character is the much more grounded and plebeian Edward Sexby, splendidly portrayed by the great John Simm. Sexby is a true everyman, if a somewhat violent and blood-soaked one, an uneducated but thinking centrist whose allegiances shift with his conscience. Any resemblance to the historical Edward Sexby is purely coincidental.

Yet to come into his own at this point is possibly the greatest ever Englishman, John Lilburne, played with an accurately Mackem accent (I'm married to a Geordie) by Tom Goodman-Hill. Dominic West, similarly, uses a very correct East Anglian accent as Oliver Cromwell, who is portrayed very accurately; religiously independent and politically conservative without being (to use a very slight archaism) remotely Tory. There have always been plenty of Cromwells in the Labour Party, of course. West's delivery of his speech defending Lilburne is, however, probably the best thing in what is a superb episode.

The slow descent into civil war is nicely done, with the camera at Edge Hill showing an almost abrasively sunny environment. We see the likes of Cronwell and the side-switching Sexby in the chaotic environment of battle and we get a good look at Michael Fassbender's Thomas Rainsborough who is, unlike Cromwell, a true radical.

The climax features Angelica, I'm the face of Roundhead beseigers, showing considerably more cojones than her foppish husband, only to be castigated by an arrogant Charles for her disobedience to male authority just before she watches her husband.'a execution pour encourager les autres. It is, appropriately, the end of the first chapter and a truly excellent forty-give minutes of television.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Intervention

"The ancient shamans were next called upon to do the hokey pokey and turn themselves around."

Buffy has has a tough time lately. So much, in fact, that she's thinking about packing it all in, as hinted at rather a lot lately. This wouldn't be good for the longevity of the show, so here we have an episode which mainly consists of Giles convincing her not to do it. And while we're at it we get a bit of Stone Age Slayer history, a bit of character development of Buffy herself, who feels she's losing her humanity as the Slayer, and a lot of stuff about the series theme of Buffy needing friends around her. There's also a bit of inevitable foreshadowing for the end of this season with the line "Death is your gift".

Anyway, Giles thinks the solution for Buffy's angst is to take her seep in to the desert for a magical and surreal lesson in prehistory. And while Buffy is gone much farce ensues as Spike is introduced to the Buffybot (remember the Buffybot?) by Warren, with whom he is soon having kinky sex. The Buffybot, not Warren. And, naturally, much hilarity with mistaken identity ensures, and it's funnier than it sounds. Jane Espenson is good at writing this sort of thing.

 In season arc news, Glory has finally worked out that the key is a person, but she thinks it's Spike. And he bravely refuses to talk under torture to protect Buffy's sister. That's love, or something. And Buffy, in spite of the Buffybot, is truly grateful. But the season is clearly drawing to a close...

Crossroads (1986)

"You're just one more white boy ripping off our music."

I had to blog this film. For one thing, it has Ralph Macchio in it. For another, it's obviously about the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Johnson laying down those first tracks back in 1936; if you haven't heard any Robert Johnson then go and listen to "Come On in My Kitchen" right NOW!!!

It's a fairly standard light-hearted Hollywood film from 1986, really, but it's entertaining enough and has some interesting things to say about the Blues and it's expropriation by those with no links to its cultural origins in the formerly enslaved West African diaspora in the American South, a musical form with its roots in Bantu culture and unimaginable hardship. It's also an interesting snapshot of the American South some twenty years after the Civil Rights era. It also has some very '80s guitar widdling by Steve Vai.

We begin by evoking the Blues with the sound of a mouth organ, and Robert Johnson in monochrome. The film then shifts to colour and the picaresque adventures of the young, white, Blues-loving Eugene Martone and the cynical yet big-hearted old bluesman, Willie Brown. On the way some lessons are learned and it's all a bit Huckleberry Finn, although it's a nice touch that Willie, like Robert Johnson himself, has a hellhound on his trail and a debt to discharge to Satan. Cue a road trip down to Mississippi, some racism and police corruption and some partying while young Eugene gets himself a girl and old Willie gets to relive his youth.

It's a film that's not as well remembered as it should be; by no means a must-see but a nice little curiosity piece.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

"I have found it is the small things, the simple deeds of everyday folk, that keep the darkness at bay."

I have a sort of rule with this blog; no remakes before I've blogged the original, and no sequels or prequels before I've blogged the original. So technically I shouldn't be blogging this before blogging the excellent Lord of the Rings films but... ah well, just this once.

It's an odd beast, this trilogy. The Lord of the Rings were big, long and epic because the source material was big, long and epic. But here we have the first of three big, long and epic films based on, er, a children's book. And The Hobbit is very much a children's book on terms of both tone and content, with none of the political or religious content (strenuously denied, of course, by Tolkien) of The Lord of the Rings, although the tropes of Old English literature are present and correct, with a treasure-loving dragon straight out of Beowulf.

So we hit upon an important point; these films are only superficially an adaptation of The Hobbit. The story of Bilbo Baggins co-exists with extensive material dramatising and expanding the Middle Earth backstory as seen in the interminable appendices to The Return of the King to show us the tale of how Sauron slowly rebuilds his strength.

The Lord of the Rings films are superb, and justly are often present in lists of the best ever films. This trilogy will never be able to earn such praise, simply because it is more of the same. It is, nevertheless, good. Peter Jackson seems incapable of escape from the epic mode, so we were never likely to get the small, charming, intimate film that a straightforward 
adaptation of the novel might perhaps have given us. But I much enjoyed this first film. It's a massive exercise in fanwank which may perhaps alienate the children whom one might expect to be its audience, but I can't deny it's exciting to watch. I suspect the trilogy will end up being rather good, if not so Oscar-winningly acclaimed as the previous trilogy.

Right. That's the commentary out of the way. Let's spend the rest of the blog post on some (mainly) fanwanky bullet points.

* Martin Freeman is good in this, and The Office, and Sherlock, but his acting seems very dependent on some idiosyncratic mannerisms, doesn't it? Still, I suppose you can say the same of the likes of Robert Downey Jr.

* Two hours and forty-three minutes!!! This may be co-scripted by Guillermo Del Toro but at that length it's definitely a Peter Jackson film. Two more to go, too...

* Apparently this film has a huge rate of frame per second which is supposed to be really jarring. didn't notice.

* I saw this film while chomping on my wife's magnificent Italian meatballs, the best food in the word aside from her coq au vin. Just saying.

* The dwarves, obviously, come from wider Germanic myth but, in their exile from Erebor at the hands of Smaug, I wonder if there may be something of  the Wandering Jew to them. Probably reading too much into it, although I note the original novel was published in 1937, not a good time to be both German and Jewish.

* There's a long framing sequence; Ian Holm starts out narrating as the older Bilbo on the day of his eleventy-first birthday, and there's even a pointless cameo appearance by Elijah Wood as Frodo. All this sort of stuff elevates the bombast levels and tells us clearly that we're getting something Big and Epic and Not For Kids.

* Ian McKellen and the nonagenarian Christopher Lee are playing younger versions of their characters while being ten years older, and just about getting away with it. McKellen's performance, naturally, is extraordinary.

* Gandalf is an increasingly rare case in today's Hollywood of a character who smokes and isn't a baddie. 

* On the other hand, for a character who pretty much defined the modern fantasy wizard archetype as seen in D&D etc, Gandalf never does any bloody magic. 

* The best thing about the whole film is the song about "What Bilbo Baggins Hates". That is all.

* The Old English roots of all this are obvious, which should not surprise us as Tolkien was a great Old English scholar. The dwarves, with their feasting and drinking in halls, are Anglo-Saxons via a bit of Wagner. The riddles between Bilbo and Gollum are very Anglo-Saxon too. And I've already mentioned Smaug and Beowulf.

* Sylvester McCoy is fantastic and very Doctorish as Radagast, but then that's probably exactly how fanboy Peter Jackson wanted him to pitch his performance. Radagast is an interesting character; in D&D terms he'd be a druid and definitely not a wizard. I note, too, that Radagast is mentioned but never actually appears in any of Tolkien's works. Fanboy Peter Jackson is expanding the mythos.

* The film looks magnificent. New Zealand looks magnificent. The CGI looks extraordinary. This is a brilliantly made film.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Red Dragon (2002)

"Any rational society would either kill me or put me to some use."

I ought to confess, before anything else, that I haven't seen Manhunter. But this is a different adaptation of the novel, not a remake, so it doesn't break my "no remakes before I've done the original" rule. Besides, the film is deeply entwined with the two predecessors to which it is a sequel, dovetailing very nicely into The Silence of the Lambs.

It's also bloody good, and even manages to pull of the trick of Anthony Hopkins, eleven years older than we first saw him, playing the intellectual, civilised Hannibal Lecter of 1980. Well, aside from the small point that he's feeding his guests human flesh, but it's fascinating to watch a Lecter whose proclivities are as yet unknown. Even more interestingly he's a psychiatric expert in psychopathic killers, and regularly consulted by FBI agent Will Graham, but we quickly move, over the opening titles, to Graham catching him, his trial, and his nine consecutive life sentences, followed by Graham's retirement, although we just know that the cliche of his coming out of retirement is upcoming. 

Interestingly, Lecter is again not the main villain here. The Buffalo Bill this time, the Tooth Fairy, is left mysterious for a bit, and eventually Graham is forced to consult the esteemed Mr Lecter, the approach to the cell echoing The Silence of the Lambs. The twist is, rather nicely, that the Tooth Fairy is a big fan of Hannibal's. The plot is, perhaps, predictable, but it is sufficiently well-realised and well-acted to get away with it. 

The killer's final tragic end eventually comes after a few twists and turns, revelations of a life of abuse and a twist in which we find that he is not, as we had thought, dead. There are lots of jolts and moments of excitement amongst the violence and yet the film still seems to maintain a certain sense of quality, of being more than just a violent thriller. This is yet another sequel which is in fact more than decent.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Hannibal (2001)

"You can look at my face, but you shied when I said the name of God."

It's an interesting prospect; get Ridley Scott to direct the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. The result is a very different style of film (co-scripted by David Mamet, no less) which, while not equalling it's predecessor, is nevertheless an excellent film. The same health warning applies here as applied before, however; I haven't read the original Thomas Harris novel.

This sequel further develops the ghoulishly fascinating relationship between Hannibal Lecter and a recast Clarice Starling, portrayed by Julianne Moore as a much tougher and less nuanced figure. She is again alone in a man's world which belittles her on grounds of both class and gender, put on to the Lecter case by an all-male disciplinary committee. 

The third lead character here is the wealthy, disfigured and thoroughly disturbed Mason Verger, whose face was peeled off and fed to dogs by the delightful Mr Lecter. It's immediately obvious that he wants revenge but Lecter is safe, for the moment, posing as an academic in Italy whom is not, for the moment, suspected of anything by his police inspector friend. This soon changes, however, and the inspector's growing suspicions are an early source of tension in a section of the film that, while entertaining, takes up a surprisingly high percentage of the film. It's structurally odd, but somehow it works.

Eventually we get to an equally gripping game of cat and mouse between Clarice and Lecter, in an inevitable prelude to their showdown with Verger. It is interesting that this third act, like The Silence of the Lambs, does not feature Lecter as the main antagonist; this is not the most interesting use for the character. Clarice, as usual, must battle against both male authority and male violence with her only supporter a violent, canniballistic psychopath. Creepily, he's only nice to her because she's polite and her distress excites him.

It's a slow-paced film that goes quickly and ends suddenly when it seems there's much more to come, and there's a particularly gruesome brain-eating scene towards the end. This film is very oddly structured but is also that rate phenomenon of a worthy sequel.

S. Darko (2009)

"...Then came the drugs. And anus sex."

This is possibly the most disappointing sequel of all time, far worse than the actually-almost-average Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Partly it's because of the superlative excellence of Donnie Darko, but this yawn-inducing and starless film is a crushing disappointment.

It's 1995. Donnie's little sister Samantha has run away from home and, scarily, is about the same age as I was in that year. She is, of course, alienated, but the visuals are different; the desert vistas of Utah rather than '80s Virginia weirdness, a vibe that reminds me very much of the video to the Smashing Pumpkins' "Today".

We have two girls on a road trip, evoking both On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, two novels that I read when I was about Samantha's age. Samantha and Corey proceed to involve themselves in a terminally dull plot with which I will not bore you; suffice to say that there are various inferior parallels to stuff that happened in the first film, and the ending is the same but with too much explanation, killing the beauty of it as the Force was ruined by Midichlorians, and with nowhere near the impact.

The soundtrack isn't as good either, although it's pleasant to be suddenly reminded that Whale's "Hobo Humping Slobo Babe" existed. Everything about the film compares unfaithfully to Donnie Darko, although at least there's some contemporary relevance to the character of Iraq Jack with all the damaged war veterans walking around these days.

Do yourself a favour; give this film a miss.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Donnie Darko (2001)

"Every living creature on Planet Earth dies  alone."

This is the greatest film of the twenty-first century so far. I thought so the first time round, when I saw this film back when it first came out in my uni days, and I think so now. It's beautifully and meaningfully shot, it has definite yet undefined themes, and it oozes a profundity that can't be nailed down to anything so banal as a specific meaning. And in retrospect it comes from a turn-of-the-millennium golden age of films like this. It's only been thirteen years, but I couldn't imagine Donnie Darko being made now.

From the start we establish that it's going rive beautifully shot. We establish that the soundtrack is going to be awesome, too; it doesn't get much better than Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon". From the beginning there's a visual emphasis on the contrast between the banal suburban existence from 1988 (fittingly, the year of Morrisey's "Everyday Is Like Sunday") and the slow motion acid trip of the camerawork, establishing a stranger and more beautiful world than dinner tables, 1980s interior decor and put downs of Michael Dukakis.

The debate over politics (and it's sobering, from a modern perspective, that a relative centrist like Bush the Elder could never run for the presidency over politics today) establishes the family dynamic; Elizabeth, the eldest, is the political rebel, Donnie is a very strange boy, and the family is a pretty normal kind of dysfunctional.

Donnie Darko is a fairly standard Holden Caulfield type- adolescent, rebellious, bookish- but things get a little stranger once he's woken up by a giant talking a rabbit- introduced, naturally, by an eerie soundscape. He's not at all displeased, being an angst-ridden teen, that the world will end in "28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds". 

Our slow introduction to the school environment  is helped along by a slow montage and a splendid "alternative 80s" soundtrack. It's weird to me, as a Brit, to see the superb and sexy Drew Barrymore, teaching Graham Greene, saying "barrow boy" in an American accent(!), but she's a parallel to Donnie; older, more mature yet also alienated. Also alienated is Cherita, with Donnie, who is certainly alienated, the only one who is nice to her.

Not at all alienated, on the surface at least, is the slimy, authoritarian snake oil salesman Cunningham, alongside his stupid teacher accomplice. But Gretchen Ross is pleasingly alienated, which is why  we want her and Donnie to get together. Donnie doesn't get in trouble for flooding the school but he gets in trouble for challenging Cunningham's vacuous bullshit, which is a very valid commentary on the prevalence of such bullshit and, worse, that it is so widely believed. 

Donnie doesn't want to die alone, but he can't bring himself to believe in a God, much like myself. I don't understand the significance of the wormholes or the time travel stuff, but perhaps the point is partly that, on four dimensional space-time, death is not the end but just a point in our four-dimensional lives. It's the nearest we atheists can get to eternal life.

It's narratively satisfying to see Cunningham revealed as a paedophile, and appropriate that it should be Donnie burning his house down that reveals this. But the world is ending. So we must have a party, a type of party where people dance to Joy Division the mystery of who Frank is gets revealed, but the ending, while deeply satisfying, is mysterious; time reverses so that Donnie dies in the plane crash; he sacrifices all this extra time he had so that the world will not end for others. His life therefore has meaning. Death is absurd but, for this existentialist film, God is dead so it is our choices that matter.

Paul (2011)

"Sorry you got killed by my Dad."

"That's fine."

This film obviously plays on the whole '90s "aliens and men in black" trope that was so big back then, mainly due to The X-Files. The X-Files didn't create the "men in black" trope, or that specific type of alien, but it brought it into the mainstream so that films like this could use it. This whole type of science fiction may be nearly twenty years old, but the characters are no spring chickens so it's sort of appropriate. Still, it's odd to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in such a very American setting and the film very much plays on that.

We start with our two British comics geeks, appropriately for Pegg's and Frost's first Hollywood film, at the San Diego Comic Con. The soundtrack, appropriately, is "Another Girl, Another Planet" by the Only Ones. They follow this, of course, with a more-eventful-than-planned road trip to Area 51, during which alien-related hi-jinks ensue and they make the acquaintance of a nice Christian fundamentalist girl. Oh, and there's a resurrection. And much riffing on E.T. 

Pegg and Frost are playing the same characters as ever, this time called Graeme and Clive, except that they play ever more middle aged versions with every passing film. This means that their characters become increasingly childlike, and this film only narrowly avoids a real bĂȘte noir of mine- an interest in sci-if, fantasy, comics and the like being used as a signifier of immaturity. Just you wait until I get to Buffy season six...

Paul himself is fantastic, and the early scenes between him, Graeme and Clive are a joy. Wonderfully, Paul smokes weed ("the stuff that killed Dylan"), has seen Predator and knows popular culture, so he should know how awkwardly close he is as a character to Roger from American Dad.

This is a superbly funny film with some very witty riffs on various tropes and a sublimely high standard of swearing. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Beginning of the End

"Reminds me of the old days."

"You were never on top!"

That`s it, then. The first season is over and, in the end, the season as a whole has overcome a poor start to become a genuinely exciting show with compelling characters and a gripping arc plot that leads compellingly to this episode`s finale. The charismatic presence of Bill Paxton has helped too, although the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson here shows us that he is possibly the most charismatic actor out there. His scenes with Clark Gregg are an absolute highlight of the episode, and the ending is perfect: Nick Fury charging the new Director Coulson with rebuilding SHIELD from the ground up, complete with a brand spanking new base and a new and Agent Koenig.

There are loads of cool and showoffy action sequences, but the heart of the episode is the interaction between an apparently doomed Fitz and Simmons. First they are philosophical, with Jemma getting a lovely speech about how, in death, their atoms will re-form into new life, new structures, new supernovae. Then, once our ever-resourceful scientist pair realise that they ain't necessarily doomed, there`s an added complication; only one of them can survive. And it has to be Simmons, because Fitz is in love with her. This is where he implicitly declares his love to the woman who sees him only as a "best friend", and its all very moving. So much so that Elizabeth Hestridge lets slip some decidedly non-RP vowels which seem to originate from well north of the Watford Gap. (Non-Brits, feel free to ignore that last bit.) Ultimately, they both live, although Fitz`s ultimate fate is left uncertain. Still, it`s Simmons who first gets to meet a decidedly not-dead Nick Fury...

It is the tracker provided by Fitz and Simmons that enables the team to go after the baddies, led by a superhuman and increasingly unhinged Garrett, who seems extremely obsssed and confident about his place in the evolutionary process. It`s entertaining to watch him being rude to various military top brass, but he`s clearly a liability to HYDRA at this point.

The dialogue sparkles in this episode, which should come as no surprise as Joss Whedon himself has co-written the script. But the whole thing is fundamentally about heart, character and pathos; scenes like Mike Peterson, his own man again, being ashamed to let his son see what he has become as he goes off to be a tragic hero. Still, there are nicely Whedonesque pieces of wit; Garrett's demise evokes Buffy, while it's appropriate that it should be May who duffs up Ward after his flangeing about with her earlier in the season.

It's a satisfying ending, although not for Ward, and hopefully the excellent Trip can now be considered a regular. Just when it all looks to be wrapped up, though, we get a shadowy glimpse of Skye's father...