Sunday, 23 November 2014

Monsters Inc (2001)

"Kids these days... They just don't get scared like they used to!"

I'm somewhat winging it with this one; I wasn't going to blog this film and so I didn't make any notes. But here I am, a week later, deciding to blog it after all. I haven't done that since Drop Dead Fred. So here's hoping for some semblance of structure.

This film is, let us lay it out at the start, amazing. The animation, the voice acting and the witty script raise this up to something special, but best of all is the concept; a city of great looking monsters who get all their powers from the screams of frightened children. Sully is the most celebrated of the scarers, who enter inter dimensional doors (a fantastic image) to scare kids. But all this comes crashing down once a little baby girl and a dastardly plot enter proceedings.

One has to raise an eyebrow, I suppose, at a fairly contemporary looking society with an energy crisis which is able to use doors as interdimensional portals, but the whole concept is so cool that I simply don't care. The dynamic between Sully and Mike is fantastic, as it has to be for the film to work, and Boo is so very, very cute.

There's not much more to say; I'm not going to dig too deep for subtext although there are probably things that could be said about corporate greed. Just go and watchful. It's great.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: A Hen in the Wolf House

"I prefer you blonde!"

Right. You know how last week I gushed about how brilliant last episode was? Well, this episode knocks it into a cocked hat. Awesome stuff keeps happening. We find out stuff about Skye's father. And Mockingbird!!! And she is Hunter's much discussed ex-wife is a well-earned reveal that had me laughing out loud.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This is a big arc episode full of bombshells. We get a closer look at Skye's dad, an unstable, self-loathing "monster" with superhuman strength and a medical degree who ends up giving the Obelisk to HYDRA at the end, which is not good news. We get an end to the secrecy between Skye and Coulson and, interestingly, we get it confirmed that out of the three who were injected with the GH formula, only Skye has not been doing the weird writing. Could she be a bit alien to start with? The alien was blue-Kree? I seem to recall from my comics reading days that it was the Kree who genetically engineered the Inhumans...

It's startling to see Raina so desperate; who is she? It seems she was pretty much raised by Skye's father. It's cool to see the previously intimidating Bobbi Morse kicking arse while rescuing Simmons, and I can't wait to see the dynamic between her and ex-husband Hunter.

The heart of the episode, though, is Simmons' awkward reunion with Fitz, which made my lovely wife cry a bit with the understated and very British emotion. Bring on next week. I'm loving this series. It's a proper Joss Whedon show and no mistake.

I'm Going to Be a Dad!!!

I think it's about time I announced to all my adoring fans that my wife is 29 weeks into her pregnancy and our first baby, a little girl, is due in early Feb! We are very excited and wondering whether there's anything we still need to add to the pile of baby stuff we've been steadily acquiring. I can't wait to be a Daddy.

So what does this mean for the blog? Well, it's here to stay for as long as blogs are a thing. But I'd be surprised if I managed to keep up anything like the same level of output. Don't be surprised if large breaks between blog posts start appearing from Jan or Feb, but the blog goes on and on.

And yes, you can expect an excited post about the birth!!! :D

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Friend to Die For (1994 TV Film)

"I never really liked her..."

This is one of those things I would never have seen if not for my wife who, bizarrely, has fond childhood memories of this rather serious and weighty drama! It's a quality work, though- well scripted, shot and acted, and a serious treatment of some weighty themes without sensationalism. It's just s pity that the only available DVD lacks subtitles.

The names are changed, but this is based on a real murder from 1984 in which a popular and bitchy cheerleader- essentially Cordelia from early Buffy and a familiar trope of American high school drama- is murdered by a jealous classmate. The film questions the hierarchies in such places, where the popular ones always seem to come from money and popularity always has to involve bullying those who don't fit in.

I'm a foreigner, but I've always found cheerleading creepy, a disturbing cult and blatantly sexist. And don't get me started on sororities, fraternities and those stupid, awful-looking jackets that the popular boys wear. But here we have a principal who, true to Reaganomics, exhorts his teenage students to "be the best" and praises survival of the fittest and to Hell with the weak. The priest may may question the role of capitalist 1080s values in this murder, but he flat out refuses to consider it. This is a mitder that arises out of a complex interplay of class, gender and hierarchy. 

The whole thing is brilliantly structured, starting with the murder itself from an outsider's perspective, then turning to the perspective of Angie, the killer, up to and beyond the murder itself, and then towards the community itself and an unnecessary show trial which echoes The Scarlet Letter. It may be obscure, but this is worth seeing.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Face My Enemy

"It didn't work out because interspecies relationships are hard. I was a human, whereas she was a demonic hell beast."

Wow. What an episode. Agents of SHIELD is on fire this season. I hope they can keep this up.

Agents Coulson and May are on an undercover mission at a posh do in order to recover this week's MacGuffin, a 16th century painting with some of that alien writing on the back. Having those particular agents on the mission accomplishes several things. Firstly, the fact that Coulson is on a mission at all emphasises SHIELD's reduced circumstances; he's supposed to be Director. Secondly, we get to see the amazing chemistry between Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg which suggests, perhaps more so than the dialogue, that they may have been a couple in the past. This isn't something I'd ever assumed before, but I certainly assume it as a possibility now because of the acting choices made.

Thirdly, of course, there's the fact that Coulson tries to spend the whole episode trying to get May to agree to kill him if his episodes of alien writing lead him to go full-on Garret. She's reluctant, and has a contingency plan to avoid this; beneath the hard exterior she cares for him deeply. There's a lot still to come out about their history together.

On a funnier note, though, I love the team's reaction to May's attempt at laughter. And I love how she just walks through the laser grid.

In other news, Hunter seems to be slowly bonding with the team, although Skye seems impervious to his charms (they're definitely going to get together), while Fitz proves his usefulness by, well, saving the whole damn team. He's still far from recovered, though, and still very much the outsider.

Arc-wise... well, HYDRA have suddenly become masters of disguise. Coulson's interestingly nuanced relationship with General Talbot continues. And we end with Raina in deep trouble; she has 48 hours to recover the big bad MacGuffin fircthev disturbingly sadistic Dr Whitehall or he will torture her quite horribly...

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

My Girl (1991)

"Feel my aura!"

"I don't think I'm allowed to..."

Just to make it very clear; the wife cried. I didn't. Heart of stone. I deny everything.

This is a nice little coming-of-age story starring a very young and brilliant Anna Chlumsky (who I only know, much older, from In the Loop), a typically charismatic Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd playing against type as man whose approaching middle age seems set to be defined by his underlying sadness and mild neglect of his delightfully full-of-life daughter, and Macauley Culkin, that walking advertisement that being a child star doesn't always end well.

The whole thing hangs on Vada's unique personality- a hypochondriac, terrified of the dead bodies she sees all the time, what with being an undertaker's daughter, and bring rather brighter than her peers- and that in turn hangs on the young Anna Chlumsky, who really makes this film. As does, yes, the sad twist, which hits like a sledgehammer.

This is also a nice little glimpse into the middle America of 1972, with hippies at the creative writing class using phrases like "right on" without irony and phrases like "women's lib" being hurled around. This isn't a big film, but it's a pleasant way to spend ninety minutes.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Doctor Who- Death in Heaven

"Typical officer. Got to keep those hands clean."

Wow. That was quite possibly the best season finale ever. Looking over the season, in fact, it's possibly the best treatment of season-long plot threads in Doctor Who, in terms of both plot and themes. And yes, I'm calling it: this is the best season since Philip Hinchcliffe left, a time when Jim Callaghan was prime minister, I was just about to be born and Elvis was alive. Basically, expect a positive review. 

We begin with a clever feint- Clara trying to convince the Cybermen that "Clara Oswald" never existed and she's really the Doctor. This is clever; we've been primed, by a female Master, for a female Doctor, and there's been a season-long theme of Clara being Doctorish; think Flatline. Still... the Doctor is four times married, and has multiple children and grandchildren, all presumed dead. Interesting.

Still, back to the actual plot, UNIT appears, in the form of Kate Stewart, Osgood ("Bow ties are cool!") and a nice reference, via a version of Handles from the late '60s, to The Invasion, later to be echoed with the plane as HQ. It's good to see the Doctor, like Sulla, being appointed dictator of Earth; this is such a great bit of plot economy and is a great way of avoiding so much tiresomeness.

The scene with Clara in a graveyard about to erupt with zombie Cybermen is terrifying, but this is immediately eclipsed with an awesomely scripted and heartbreaking scene between Clara and a Cybernised Danny that brings home the true body horror of Cyber conversion in a way which, for me, eclipses all previous attempts. Wow. Again, wow.

I like the revelations- as expected, it was Missy who rang Clara in The Bells of Saint John and brought her and the Doctor together in Deep Breath. But Michelle Gomez is a brilliantly insane Master, and gets a fantastic showcase scene in which she, sob, kills Osgood! Moffat, YOU BASTARD! Yes, Kate lives, and yes, it's a touching scene with the Brig, but let's be honest, who really likes Kate, and Jemma Redgrave's utter lack of charisma? It's Ingrid Oliver's Osgood who makes UNIT cool, and she's dead!!!

Just as good is the debate between the Doctor and Danny, which pays off another theme of this season- is the Doctor like a military officer, getting others to kill and die for him? Here, he fails to see the humanity present in Danny, seeing him again as a pawn.

Then Missy arrives, all Mary Poppins with her flying umbrella, and reveals a plan which underlines the same theme; the Cyber army is to be put at the Doctor's disposal for him to put to universe-saving purposes. This is for him to realise that the two of them are not so different. And here we get the expected flashbacks to "Am I a good man?" and "You are a good Dalek!" And the Doctor's epiphany; he is not a good man, a bad man, a hero, a president or an officer- just a traveller who helps people out. And, with that, he steps back and let's Danny save the world like the hero he is. And then seems to actually kill Missy. Hmm. Not sure I like that. It's awfully close to endorsing capital punishment.

The story ends with the Doctor and Clara parting, each misunderstanding and lying to each other; she thinks he's found Gallifrey, but he hasn't, and he's devastated, while he thinks that she's found Danny when, in fact, he gave up his one shot at resurrection to the child he killed in Afghanistan, like a true hero. Wow.

And then, tragically, it ends there. The end credits start... and are interrupted. By Father Christmas. Played by Nick Frost.

What? What? WHAT???!!!

Friday, 7 November 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Making Friends and Influencing People

"How is everyone?"

"Fitz is ok. He's hanging in there."

Three episodes in and we have loads of exciting season plot threads simmering nicely; it's going so much better than this time last season. It feels like a proper Joss Whedon show.

The plot is essentially that both SHIELD and HYDRA are after Donnie Gill (Blizzard) from last season, but so much is woven around this. The first big reveal is that Simmons is working for HYDRA; the second (rather less surprising) revelation is that she's a double agent, reporting directly to Coulson. But this is rather cleverly handled, having Simmons be HYDRA's negotiator with the proud Blizzard, in competition with SHIELD. Her cover is blown with her old mates, but not her supposed new ones; in fact, she ends up promoted. She's far from safe, though. As Skye says, she's a terrible liar.

We learn more about HYDRA's brainwashing techniques- the episode is bookended with a certain Agent 33 (a character we know from the comics?) starting her brainwashing and having completed it. HYDRA are certainly terrifying, and once again it's emphasised that the stand for fascism and oppose liberty.

Fitz is making progress; he shows self-awareness, realising that Simmons is just a figment of his imagination and that things are being hidden from him. His confrontation with Ward is both cathartic and a means for him to help the team. Coulson seems to show him greater respect afterwards.

No one trusts Hunter, unsurprisingly, although he seems to show early signs of incipient bonding with Skye, who still has no time for Ward. We end with a bombshell, though; Skye's father is alive, and Ward knows where he is. 

This was brilliant, and Agents of SHIELD is on fire with a first rate script and a superb cast. Long may this continue.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Beetlejuice (1988)

"You know what they say about people who commit suicide- in the afterlife, they become civil servants!"

Heaven forbid. What an awful fate.

I can't believe I've never seen this strange yet brilliant film before, a Tim Burton film from before he had quite settled on a particular style. It's delightfully quirky, and has the best stop motion effects I've ever seen in a film not involving Ray Harryhausen. Who needs CGI? Not the young Tim Burton.

It's also arresting to see Michael Keaton being brilliant in a comic role, and a very young Winona Ryder showing that she was the Dakota Fanning of her day. Best of all is the premise; a silly look at the haunted house genre from the perspective of those doing the haunting.

The whole things screams "late '80s", from the weird landscapes outside the house that look just like a contemporary music video to the fact that Lydia is an actual Goth who listens to Bauhaus rather than Evanescence. Along with the opera, that is.

There are some nice touches (I noticed the nod to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to both the premise and the design, but probably the best thing is the bureaucracy after death. I'd better get used to it- I'm already a civil servant...

But the one thing I'll remember above all is the stop motion. It's glorious, and cartoonish, and, well, ripped off somewhat by Drop Dead Fred three years later. This movie rules!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Penny Dreadful: Season One, Episode 8 (Grand Guignol)

"Why do you think I want to be saved?"

Well, that was eventful. Quite the season finale, with many threads coming to an end, but it's pleasing to see that the episode opens as many doors as it closes. We end with the prospect of Frankenstein using Brona's body to make a bride for Caliban (that'll go well), with Ethan shown to be some sort of werewolf, able to rip his pursuers to shreds (is this why he left America, leaving tears and "a whole mess of blood"?), and with Vanessa contemplating the long, hard road of exorcism. There's plenty to fuel a second series.

In the meantime, though, there's a first season to wrap up. Obviously, there's the climactic hunt for Mina, ending in the revelation that Mina is loyal towards "the master" and the shock of Sir Malcolm shooting his daughter. Still, the hints continue that he sees Vanessa as his daughter.

It's fun to see Vanessa dumping Dorian in the same arbour where he first properly seduced her. And yet, symbolically, the flower is no longer in bloom. We, like Vanessa, are amused Dorian Gray is made to feel rejection for the first time.

Brona's death is heartbreaking, although Frankenstein's smothering her is somewhat unexpected. He's complex; on the side of the goodies yet capable of being so callous. And yet this callousness is done out of a paternal affection for Caliban.

Calibans tale is the most tragic; once menacing, he is reduced to a pathetic figure. He misinterprets Maud's kindness in making up his face and visiting her room, and is stunned by her rejection, forcibly kissing her and burning his bridges with the theatre. Maud may have sympathised with him, but she also looked down on him. He can never be attractive to a woman... except perhaps one like himself?

This is a superb finale, but it's fantastic to see how much time is spent setting up the next season.

Penny Dreadful: Season One, Episode 7 (Possession)

"Do you value cleanliness?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"That's why you're a virgin!"

This is a very claustrophobic episode, set entirely in Sir Malcolm's house as he, Victor and Ethan debate what to do with Vanessa's increasingly horrible possession. Above all, though, it's a tour de force of acting from Eva Green, who out-Exorcists The Exorcist. It seem that the Earth did indeed move for her after last episode.

This causes friction amongst the gang; Vanessa wants to die, but should they let her live? For Sir Malcolm there is but one answer; he needs her alive to find Mina, and that is all that matters. This claustrophobic episode is talky yet gripping, depending entirely on its subtle and brilliantly crafted characterisation.

Ethan is himself briefly possessed but, in being the one who quietly cures Vanesda in the end, he hints at yet more hidden depths. There's quite a cliffhanger too, pointing towards the imminent finale, from the cured Vanessa: "I know where Mina is..."

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Doctor Who: Dark Water

"My heart is maintained by the Doctor!"

Wow. Just wow. This episode has two jaw-dropping moments. One of them (spoiler alert!) is the revelation that Missy is the Master, but my wife worked that out years ago. No, the big reveal is what the Cybermen are up to- the idea of the dark water showing only organic material and so hiding the Cybermen is clever. I only knew for certain when Murray Gold gave us that snippet of the Cyber theme and those doors closed, showing those Cybermen teardrop eyes. It's all cleverly done, and the episode ends on a cliffhanger as The Tomb of the Cybermen becomes The Invasion.

Moffat has a lot of fun with the afterlife as bureaucracy, and the casting of Chris Addison was a masterstroke. I enjoyed the Thick of It in-joke, too, with the line about all the swearing on the Doctor's psychic paper. But the ultimate revelation of the afterlife just being a bit of the Mayrix from Gallifrey is awfully, ingeniously clever. As is the idea of all Earth's dead being turned into Cybermen.

Just as important, though, is Clara's emotional devastation at Danny's death, enough to make her threaten the Doctor into helping her. He helps her, clearly, out of love, although he would never admit that. And the last conversation between Clara and Danny is both devastating and masterfully written.

At the back of my mind is the slight criticism that the Doctor would never have been present for any of this if not for the coincidence of Danny's death, but this is superb. And the parallel cliffhanger, with Danny about to sign away his emotions, is the perfect end to an extraordinary episode.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Heavy is the Head

"HYDRA has one thing on their minds; world domination, which is so 1945."

Hartley and Idaho are both dead, but this episode introduces us properly to Hunter as a full member of the team, a man with depths which are hinted at, mainly during a chat with Skye, and whose de facto initiation consists of actually betraying the whole te to General Talbot. This isn't exactly going to endear this wide boy to the team, and he has a lot to do, but this soldier-turned-mercenary seems to be an interesting character. 

There's also Coulson, whose responsibilities in building a fugitive SHIELD and leading the fight against HDDRA are leading him to become stressed, secretive, and not quite his usual affable self. On top of this, every fortnight or so he has "episodes", known only to May, in which he draws those bizarre diagrams that we have seen before, not least from the changed Garrett towards the end.

The revived SHIELD is slowly growing, with two Quinjets and those cool virtual screens as seen in all Marvel films featuring Tony Stark, but it is wounded by the absence of Simmons and the slow recovery of the tragic Fitz, who is still sidelined but, perhaps, a little less so. May and Skye are their usual selves, and Trip once again shows himself to be superbly confident, the consummate SHIELD agent.

Interestingly, Crusher Creel (the Absorbing Man!) may have a HYDRA handler, but it turns out that Raina, our old friend the girl in the flower dress, while interested in what's going on, is not working for HYDRA but has an unknown agenda, and not necessarily a hostile one. Interesting.

This is looking to be a very strong start to the new season which seems set, like many Whedon shows, to transcend it's somewhat rubbish first season.