Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

"I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren't we?"

I've seen a fair few Hitchcocks but, shockingly, this is the first film helmed by the great Sir Alfred that I've blogged. It's an early, pre-Hollywood film, but all his gifts for suspense are already on evidence. Engaging characters, a worry script and a solid presence- an old lady mysteriously vanished from a moving train and people start denying that she was ever there- make this a bloody good film. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are superb as leads.

The characterisation, direction, dialogue and acting come across as fresh and mover considering the film's age, and I love the two cricket-obsessed Englishmen. The plot twist is also handled extremely well and successfully as the conspiracy unravels and peril (I love that word) ensues. This isn't perhaps one of the best known Hitchcocks but it's certainly a bloody good film.

Short Circuit (1986)

"Number Five is alive!"

I remember seeing this on video in the '80s and, being nine or ten, quite liked it. I had fond memories of the film so, I thought, why not blog it? It'll be a pleasant jog through memory lane, right?

Er, wrong. Watching it as an adult, the film isn't exactly awful but it's functional, by-the-numbers, slow and, despite the cuteness and coolness of the robot itself, not more than mildly engaging.

But there is, of course, another thing, a film that makes the film quite arse-clenching embarrassing to watch in 2015 and, surely to Hod, in 1986 as well.

Yep, it's all about the character of Ben, a character who is supposed to be of South Asian origins with an Indian accent. I vaguely remembered that the film had an Indian character but it's something to see that the character was played by a white actor, in brownface. Yep. This really happened. Ten years earlier or so you'd just sigh and reflect that this sort of thing used to happen... but this is happen 1986. And it isn't helped by the fact that the character is written and played as a "funny" foreigner with "hilarious" malapropisms. I've just looked around the Interweb and, while there are a few appalled bloggers out there, most people (then and now) seem not to be particularly concerned that all this might be just a little bit incredibly racist.

The early scenes between Number Fove and Stephanie (Ally Sheedy is rather good) are entertaining, as are all the scenes where the robot runs rings around his pursuers, but that isn't anywhere near enough to make up for the character of Ben. This is a film I once remembered fondly, but it's probably best forgotten.

We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story

"Sometimes you need to bow to the talent!"

It's good to know that these types of dramas are still happening even though all new drama has been sadly banished from BBC 4. This particular example is merely quite good rather than great, but long may this sort of thing continue.

The main interest for most of us, of course, is the casting. Shane Ritchie for Bill Pertwee works well, John Sessions as Arthur Lowe works well (although I'm glad they used real footage from Pardon the Expression as watched at home by Jimmy Perry), although the casting of Michael Crichton as Arnold Ridley doesn't work. Crichton is a bloody good actor but he's just, well, nowhere near physically frail enough. It's Keith Allen who really steals the show, however, as sceptical BBC executive Paul Fox.

You're reminded of just how counterculture and creative the BBC was in 1967; Jimmy Perry served in the war, yet he dresses like a hippy, as do an awful lot of people. There's a nice little in joke about Jon Pertwee turning down the part of Mainwaring because of money; shades of how he left Doctor Who there.

This isn't exactly a televisual highlight of 2015, but it's a pleasant way to spend an hour, with plenty of in-jokes for British TV nerds like me.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Dr No (1962)

"Tell me, does the toppling of American missiles really compensate for having no hands?"

Time for my first Bond film, I think. I'll blog them all as and when, but in order. I'm not really a hardcore Bond fan, but I've certainly seen and enjoyed a lot of Bond films and I'm expecting to have a lot of fun along the way.

My first observation is that Sean Connery is superb, and oozes charisma: all the other British characters are very, very public school, yet Connery manages to pull off the character of Bond, comfortable in casinos and colonial gentlemens' clubs, while maintaining his working class Edinburgh accent, and pulls it off. In an age of strict actorly RP he's unique, and he pulls it off brazenly and brilliantly. This film is a triumph in no small part to his charisma.

My second observation is that all the women seem to have been written by fifteen year old boys but, hey, that's Bond. No Bechdel test here.

My third observation is just how long ago this film was made. Yes, everyone dresses as though they're in an episode of Mad Men but, even more evocative of just how long ago it was, this film is set in a Janaica that's still a British colony, with a Governor General and everything.it seems the Winds of Change haven't reached gale force yet. Still, the film deserves credit for not being particularly racist for its time, although I notice that, in the case of Quarrel, the trope of the black guy getting killed is present and correct.

It's a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel- a more cinematic spider is substituted for the centipede, but this is a much more straightforward adaptation than what came later. There are no gadgets: Major Boothroyd (not called Q) only appears in a rather pointless scene where he replaces Bond's gun. One thing is present and correct, though: "Honey Rider" is (titter) the first of many, er, hilariously naughtily named Bond girls. And Dr No is the archetypal Bond villain from the start, with the lair and arch dialogue down pat.

I suppose I have a hard time believing that anyone could have believed that "dragon" was a flesh and blood creature, but other than that very minor pint the film is superb, and it's easy to see why the Bond films continued.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Third Man (1949)

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Yes, it had to be that quote. Predictable but necessary.

This film is, essentially, superb. It tends to suffer somewhat from the overly high expectations one tends to have for films as critically acclaimed as this, but I won't discriminate against it for that. The film didn't choose to be so hyped. In truth, this film may not be quite amongst the best ever made but it is, nonetheless, utterly superb.

I won't recount the intriguing plot with its twists and turns and the gradual reveal of the story of Harry Lime, played with splendid charisma by the great Orson Welles. But the script paints as dark a picture of human nature as one would expect from the typewriter of Graham Greene. Vienna is made to look awesome by Carol Reed in its monochrome splendour, and the cast is superb. This is a Vienna still under occupation by the four powers, where even minor aristocrats resort to the black market to survive. This once-great imperial city has fallen very far indeed, with its grandiose Habsburg architecture seeming to mock it. 

Above all this film has atmosphere, pervaded as it is by a sense of doom and pessimism. And above it all floats that zither tune. This is a film that everyone should see.

Daredevil (2003)

"I want a bloody costume!"

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear.

I remember seeing this at the pictures when it came out. As far as I can recall I didn't hate it. I may not have been overwhelmed but I was, at least, moderately whelmed. This time, though... oh dear. I'm afraid this review is going to be quite the spanking.

Please understand that this film isn't awful merely because it stars Ben Affleck, which is never a good thing, or even that Affleck is in even worse form than usual. Jon Favreau is awful (he should stick to directing), Jennifer Garner phones in her performance, and while Michael Clarke Duncan is a good actor he's miscast as the Kingpin. He has a kind face. You just can't cast him as a baddie, although it doesn't help that the Kingpin's lines are the worst in the film. Only Colin Farrell manages to shine by, wisely, chewing the scenery with gusto as it's the only thing you can do with lines like that.

And that brings us to the script, a steaming pile of dung. It beggars belief that anyone seriously thought this script was ready for production. It's clear from the performances that the cast doesn't exactly believe in it. None of the characters are well-developed. Far too much time is spent on a totally unnecessary recap of Daredevil's origin- why are superhero films always doing this?- and Daredevil doesn't act or feel like Daredevil. He kills. He beats people up and generally behaves like a homicidal Batman. It just feels wrong.

At least we can keep ourselves entertained by counting all the names of comics creators here. I'm not sure how Joe Quesada feels about giving his name to a rapist, but Kevin Smith gets a cameo as "Jack Kirby" (and Frank Miller gets a brief cameo as, naturally, does Stan Lee) and Jack Murdock has recently fought "Miller, Mack, Bendis" and is seen fighting John Romita.

Still, this film is a turd. It's not even entertainingly bad. For the morbidly curious only.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song

"What's that? Are you... thinking? Stop it. You're a man. It looks weird."

The Moff ended the series just gone by subverting the Big Epic Season Finale through rejecting all of the epicness in favour of a more human, character-based episode. Here he uses the Christmas episode to give us a perfect little character piece, albeit with plenty of entertainment along the way. This is almost certainly the swansong for River Song, and an extremely fitting one, and rumour has it that it was almost- but not quite- the Moff's last script for the series. Long may he reign, say I.

The plot is a glorious Christmas caper, but we shall say little about it other than to note the nice little nods to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and The Brain of Morbius. There are some splendid comedy turns from Matt Lucas and (in a part that must have been enormous fun to play) Greg Davies. Oh, and I love the way the Doctor defeats Hydroflax's body by using the fact that the stock market is so utterly incomprehensible. But the episode is essentially both a screwball comedy and entirely about the relationship between River and the Doctor. So let's proceed to talk about nothing else, shall we?

The main conceit, of course, is that River spends the whole episode failing, rather amusingly, to notice that the man she's with is the Doctor. In a lesser script this could have made the character look stupid, but not here; it's nicely counterbalanced by River being portrayed as cool and resourceful. Indeed, the Doctor/companion relationship is essentially reversed to the point where River holds the Doctor's hand and runs and, in the episode's funniest scene, the Doctor pretends to be amazed that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, seizing the chance to do it "properly". Both Kingston and Capaldi are superlative, and so is their chemistry together; the two of them on screen together work wonderfully well as a believable couple. Capaldi's ongoing moments of annoyance at River's other "husbands" are a joy, as is River's casual comment that she's always "borrowing" the TARDIS without the Doctor ever noticing.

And yet.. River is sad. Her diary is running out of pages, and the man who gave it to her would have known how many pages she needed. Silence in the Library beckons, especially as the Doctor here gives her the sonic screwdriver that she uses in that story. A nice touch, although the sonic trowel is cool and perfect for an archaeologist, as my fellow Time Team fans would know.

The scene where the penny finally drops for River ("Hello, sweetie"- more role reversal between them) is wonderful, as is her passionate speech about the Doctor; she loves him with all her heart, but you don't expect a phenomenon as big as the Doctor to love you back as a mere mortal would. And she's fine with that.

Their last ever date before River's death (I love the revelation that River's last night will last 24 years!) is wonderfully written with dialogue that sings like the towers, which are themselves a metaphor for the awesome monolith that is the Doctor. It's the perfect ending to what may well be the finest ever Christmas episode.

But how long will we have to wait for more Doctor Who?


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

"Is there a garbage chute? A trash compactor?"

Well, that was a little bit awesome. First point: this is going to be a very positive review. Second point :SPOILERS. This is going to be one very spoilerific blog post. If you don't want to see the scores, look away now.

We see lots of Han and Chewie, a fair bit of Leia, some of Threepio, less of Artoo and only a final glimpse of Luke. And, unlike the prequels with its forgettable characters, here we have the very likeable and interesting Finn and Rey, and it is the success of these two new characters, above all, that makes J J Abram's sequel such a triumph. He's also realised what good Star Wars should be: not so much science fiction but the feel of myth with the trappings of science fiction.

It's brave to hold off the appearance of any familiar characters for the first part of the film while we get to know Rey and Finn, but it works. Rey is a deliberate parallel of Luke on Tattooine, poor but noble and waiting for a family that will never come- but the Force is strong in her. Finn is a stormtrooper with a conscience, already a rich and powerful background for a character. It helps that both of them are played so well.

And then Han and Chewie appear. It's so good to se them, and Harrison Ford is so amazing you forget how old he is. He gets a huge role and gets to be really heroic- and at the endowed see why, narratively, it had to happen: killed by his own evil son. Whose mother, Leia, now leads the Resistance and is as cool as ever.

The First Order, who have taken over from the Empire, are superb baddies and... well, they're Nazis, aren't they? There were so many punch the air moments with the reveal of various old faces- Admiral Ackbar! Nien Nunb! Yes, lots of the plot beats feel familiar, but so they should. The plot feels completely Star Wars. Everything looks good, with a proper, finely balanced Star Wars aesthetic for all the aliens and all the decor. J J Abrams has done an amazing job.

The Longest Day (1962)

"Cor, stone the crows!"

I'm not a particular fan of war films, but I'm not prejudiced against them either. After The Dam Busters and Battle of Britain it's time for this epic saga of D Day which, shockingly, is the first film I've blogged to feature John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Robert Mitchum. Those are three omissions I'm certainly glad to rectify.

John Wayne doesn't get all that much screen time as Colonel Vandervoort, but he dominates the film. He's sort of the David Bowie of acting (those are two names you don't often hear together!); Bowie has a restricted vocal range but sings well within that and is careful always to stay within his range; he's primarily a songwriter and musician, not Freddie Mercury- as "Under Pressure" demonstrates. John Wayne may not be the most versatile actor, and he has presence and charisma rather than talent, but in the right role he can be truly extraordinary. This is one of those parts.

Films like this don't always quite work (hello, Battle of Britain), feeling disjointed and lacking in spirit, but this film is both masterly structured and full of heart and pathos. Little vignettes like the American shooting a surrendering German and then asking what "Bitte, bitte" meant, or the poetic scene late on with the lost American soldier and the crippled and philosophical British parachutist whose painkillers are wearing off. It's a nice touch that the German and French characters speak in their own language with subtitles and, while the Canadians are insultingly  downplayed, both British and American forces get a lot of screen time, with the slight bias towards the USA being understandable because of Omaha Beach being the bloodiest and most dramatic.

It's a long film, but manages not to drag, balancing the large scale with the human experience well. The ending feels sudden, but I suppose that's realistic. A much recommended film.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Kick-Ass (2010)

"How do I get hold of you?"

"You just contact the mayor's office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky; it's in the shape of a giant cock."

This is a brilliant, quotable, comics-literate film, adapted by Jane Goldman from the graphic novel by Mark Millar and, er, I like to think of myself as comics-literate- I mean, I've read most things by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller when we all thought he was good, Garth Ennis etc, but I haven't read much by Mark Millar. I'm impressed, though.

It's a witty and knowing look at the super hero trope from a writer who knows these tropes. It's also highly metatextual and you know how I love that sort of thing; I particularly adored the bit where Dave points out that we shouldn't assume he survived just because he's the narrator. And Mindy. Mindy is the coolest thing ever, and possibly the finest exponent of extreme swearing in cinematic history. Yes, we could finally have the first genuinely brilliant film since Leaving Las Vegas that Nicolas Cage (brilliantly cast) has appeared in.

The concept is brilliant: what if someone in the real world tried to be a superhero, without powers and where punches do actual damage and stabs mean extensive hospital treatment? This is done with wit and charismatic performances, making a film that whizzes by most enjoyably. And a bloke even explodes in a microwave at one point.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Captain America: The First Avenger (2012)

"I finally got everything I wanted- and I'm wearing tights."

Yes, I'm finally starting to go back to the Marvel films that I've seen but never blogged. Captain America: The First Avenger may not be among the very best of Marvel's recent efforts but it's a damn fine film, with a proper and well-thought through usage of Cap's origin to tell a good story while remaining faithful to the spirit of Simon and Kirby's original. It's usually a bad idea for superhero films to begin with the origin story but this is an exception.

Oh, and there are also a couple of fun cameos from Jenna Coleman and Natalie Dormer.

We begin, after a brief establishing scene of something found in the ice in the present day, in Nazi occupied Norway, with a nice scene involving David Bradley, the Red Skull and some dialogue that firmly ties the Cosmic Cube (as it isn't called here) to Norse mythology as a nod to the recent Thor. We then move on to establishing the personality and, importantly, the heroic character, there already, of the 90 pound weakling version of Steve Rogers, rattling through the origin and the super soldier serum stuff while also establishing the excellent Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, here shown as a sexy ice maiden frustrated by the glass ceiling. She really ought to get her own series.

We also, interestingly, get the origin of HYDRA: a faction of Nazi scientists led by the Red Skull that, in an interesting twist, "declares independence" from Nazi Germany. That's a departure from the source material which shores up HYDRA much better as a long-term antagonist.

It's a nice touch to have Cap initially reduced to a performing monkey selling war bonds, giving a credible reason for the costume and also allowing us to see the actual original costume from Captain America Comics #1, a copy of which is actually seen in-universe!

It's nice that the Red Skull's, er, red skull only gets revealed halfway through, to dramatic effect. And interesting that Cap's shield is pure vibranium here: it seems that adamantium belongs to Fox.

This is a brilliant film: it has the script, the characters, the action sequences and the pathos to be, if anything, a slightly underappreciated gem. Cheeky of them to give Samuel L Jackson such billing for such a tiny cameo, mind.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

Grimm: Maiden Quest

"I think we're grasping at feathers..."

A bit more of a genuine story of the week, this, with a relatively interesting and chivalric "a" plot in which three contenders compete to kill a rather nasty individual for the honour of a lady's hand in marriage and there are, for once, no links with this season's Big Bad. There's even a nice twist in that the test was really intended for the "maiden", not the suitors. It's a good episode as always, if not a standout one.

Main plot thread aside, Reggie Lee continues to be perfect as Wu, here on even more than usually wry form. We also see Nick and Adalind continuing to bond over parenthood, the awkwardness perhaps a little less each time. Sean is invited to support a friend's bid to be Mayor of Portland, which is bound to be significant. 

But the big event comes at the end, as Nick finds a hurt Trubel, presumably escaped...

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Daredevil: Shadows in the Glass

"You're my son! You should be a king, not some fat little pussy."

At last we get an episode about the very interesting figure of Wilson Fisk, played interestingly by Vincent D'Onofrio as a crimelord who believes himself to have noble aims and who is, against type, an introvert. At last we get to see the childhood experiences that made him this way, a take of poverty, debt, extreme '70s-ness, domestic abuse and child cruelty, all on the part of Wilson's father, Bill. Who, incidentally, he kills with a hammer and, in a nice touch where we see his daily morning routine, he always wakes up to memories of that day.

In the present, though, Fisk is slipping a little, as Madame Gao kindly reminds him, and it's only with Vanessa's love and support that he's able to end the episode with a more or less firm grip on his mojo.

Incidentally, Fisk speaks both Mandarin and Japanese, which seems to point to an extended history in Eastern parts of the world of which we do not yet know.

Karen and Foggy end up having to confide in Matt about the whole Union Allied thing and he agrees to help them, directing their researches into areas much less likely to be physically risky for them- rather hypocritical of him.

Importantly, Daredevil finally talks to the magnificent Ben Urich, telling him about Fisk and everything he knows. But Urich's subsequent article is somewhat ruined by Fisk's coup de main in stepping out from the shadows. It's yet another superbly paced and crafted bit of telly throughout. Daredevil just gets better and better the further in you go.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Gone

"There was a voice, before. It made my coffee dance."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a serious and harrowing episode of Buffy must be followed by a silly and light-hearted one. Hence this little romp where Buffy has a lot of fun being invisible and eventually even cheers up to the point where she no longer has a death wish.

Not that the whole episode is silly, though: Willow may be a magnificent sleuth here, but this is where her cold turkey from the crude drug addiction metaphor of recent episodes really begins. Buffy gets a visit from a social worker at the worst possible time, and her custody of Dawn is under threat.. but, fortunately, due to hi-jinks the clock us reset on that one. Phew. 

The sex scene between invisible Buffy and Spike is fun (once again it seems Buffy is rather rough and dominant in bed: wonder if Riley is visiting dominatrixes now?), but what happens afterwards is new: Spike actually kicks Buffy out because she's just using him for sex. Wow.

And we end with the Scoobies finally realising that Andrew, Warren and, of all people, Jonathan seem to be this season's big bad. Enough to make you miss Glory...

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Daredevil: Stick

"In my experience there are no heroes, no villains, just people with different agendas."

I've only read parts of Frank Miller's fabled run on Daredevil, so I'm not too familiar with Stick, the Hand and all that. So I came to Stick pretty much for the first time here. I found the character (and performance) fascinating, and this very different episode (placed just after a turning point) to be one of the finest so far. It's time to give the arc a bit of breathing space- although Karen and Ben Urich make progress in their investigation into Fisk's misdoings, and include Foggy in their plotting- for a bit of a flashback and a bit of a character piece for Matt.

We first meet Stick in the title sequence as he carries out a rather cool assassination, establishing that, unlike Matt, he has no qualms about killing.  Then he and Matt meet up, establishing that Stick once meant a lot to Matt, but that he just upped and left, twenty years ago.

Cue flashback, Matt as a kid, Stick's training of and impression upon the young boy to whom he's given hope, and how Matt's natural affection for this gruff new father figure drives him away,disgusted at the young boy's sentimentality. Our old blind Spartan does not much care for sentimentality, or baggage.

Twenty years on they set out on a mission together, looking for a MacGuffin called Black Sky which is being delivered to Fisk. But this is a background in front of which Daredevil's good liberal conscience clashes with Stick's more cynical ways. This "Black Sky" weapon seems to be a little boy and Stick, to Matt's utter disgust, has no qualms about just killing him. The ends justify the means.

An excellent episode, mostly because of Stick, but it's also firmly convinced me how much I really like and respect Ben Urich as a character.

Grimm: Lost Boys

"Two things I know about kids. One: they're the future and should be cherished. Two: they're lying little bastards."

There seems to be a theme developing: are all this season's episode titles going to be based on films?

Today's story of the week is tragic: a bunch of homeless kids, all different kinds of Wesen, who periodically kidnap women who've been kind to them- in this case Rosalie- to be their "mother". This situation can hardly be allowed to continue: in a very true piece of social commentary, the kids are just swallowed back into the care system, which is crap.

Except... this isn't quite a "story of the week", as the governor of the kids' new children's home is chanting "Occultam Libera". So far every episode is tying in. 

In other news Sean receives news about the Royals: it seems that Viktor has killed the King and seized the throne like the badass he is. So I assume, after whatever behind-the-scenes stuff led to his abrupt departure last season, that Alexis Denisof will be back, and kicking arse.

It's also interesting to see Nick's and Adalind's, er, charming new home, and to see them bond a bit- she was the first woge he ever saw! But there's an awkwardness there. Adalind seems to feel awkwardly indebted to Nick and never expected him to step up as a father like he had- and had to; the character would never have retained our approval otherwise.

And yet, randomly, on the street, Adalind is approached by a former work colleague: she can have her old and rather highly paid job back whenever she wants it. This gives her a hell of a lot of security.

Oh, and that Royal bloke who visited Sean to update him on the gossip? It seems he has Trubel...

Anyway, good stuff.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Grimm: Clear and Wesen Danger

I'm "Not even a Grimm can stop what's coming. Occultam Libera!"

The second episode of the season seems at first to be settling into a story of the week but, of course, those never happen these days. So this episode isn't really about murder and embezzlement: the point is that the particular type of Wesen that did it causes marks with its four claws that are just like those on the symbol found on the wall at the scene of Chavez's death. It's all there to seed the season arc.

There's one little retro nod to the old days of stories-of-the-week, though: Sean assigns Hank a new partner who knows nothing of Wesen and who can't be told everything. Hank is frustrated, essentially taking the role of Nick (still on gardening leave) during the first couple of seasons.

Nick, Adalind and little Kelky move into Nick's home and, yes,it's awkward. Perhaps parenthood will bring them together as a couple now? Or would that be far too obvious? Either way, Monroe drops heavy hints that they should maybe leave that house after all that's happened.

It's an entertaining episode. Still have absolutely no idea what to make of this season, though. It already feels so different...

The Human Centipede 3: The Final Sequence (2015)

"These films risk causing harm! They should be banned!"

Oh yes. Here we are again. There was absolutely no way I could ignore this film. And in glad I didn't. It's gloriously awful, and easily the best bad film I've seen all year.

The acting has more ham than a ham sandwich, with Dieter Laser chewing the scenery with gusto as disturbingly sadistic US prison governor William Boss. Boss is a believer in mediaeval torture for prisoners, and is horrible to his pretty secretary Daisy, whom he bullies terribly and forces to give daily blowjobs, and swallow. Oh, and he abandons her to the mercies of rioting prisoners, and ends up accidentally including her in the human centipede.  He's not a nice man, or stable.

His accountant, Dwight, is a truly awful Laurence R Harvey, horribly miscast. Dwight has a bright idea based on a certain two movies he's seen, and we inevitably end up with a massive human centipede as penal policy.

This is a very silly film that revels in its B movie status, completely different in tone from its two predecessors and especially from the rather serious second film, with its social conscience. I suppose there's a bit of satire there aimed at the American attitude to capital punishment, but if so it doesn't run very deep. But it's a fun way to spend ninety minutes. Well, except for the castration scene. That was gross.


Kidulthood (2006)

"You can put it in my arse as well. It hurts, but I don't mind."

This is an extraordinary debut from Noel Clarke as a writer and, which is sort of the point, a bloody good film. Doesn't half make me feel old, though, and I'm only 38.

Are teenagers really like this in London, with the bullying, the drugs, the incomprehensible slang, the relentlessly hard gang mentality, and the horrifying level of bullying? I'm 38, and I feel old. I don't live in London, fortunately, but I'm still terrified about the bullying my daughter could experience when she starts school.

It's a brilliantly directed film, with some wonderful touches, and a superb script is brought to life by a largely unknown cast, although Cornell John and Alison Newman are both familiar faces from Eastenders. It deals with bullying, gang culture, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, and, in a subtle way, racism, although this seems to be one issue which is actually shown to be less of a problem than one might expect. Most depressing, perhaps, is the universally subservient attitude the girls have towards the boys: it's as if feminism never happened.

All this builds towards a tragic and dramatic ending which leaves us wanting more. This isn't necessarily the sort of film is usually watch, and I only watched it because it was written by Noel Clarke of off of that Doctor Who, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Doctor Who: Hell Bent

I"I insist upon my past!"

This is a brilliant season finale and a brilliant proper farewell to Clara, yes. That would be enough to make it brilliant. But there's more. Much, much more. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I much prefer the littler, more character based stories to the big overblown epics: give me The Rescue over The Dalek Invasion of Earth any day. And Moffat clearly agrees. So much so that he takes the big, epic Gallifrey story we've expected for so long, only to swat it away in favour of a nice little intimate character piece.

And it's blatant. Yes, we have Gallifrey, the Citadel, the Chancellery Guards and the Matrix. We even get Donald Sumptrr, no less, as Rassilon. Except... the first twenty minutes of the story consists of the Doctor emphatically rejecting the epic power of the Time Lords in both the narrative and the wider mythology of Doctor Who: his relationship with his companion is far more important than all this fanwank.

Hence the Doctor assumes charge in Gallifrey through doing did all, by his Time War reputation alone. Hence the fact that Rassilon, that iconic figure of Time Lord mythology, played by Donald Sumpter in a real casting coup... is casually expelled from the narrative at a very early point on the episode. This episode is about Clara's death, the Doctor's hubris at refusing to accept it (very The Waters of Mars), and how this is making shades of the old War Doctor seep through. And it's Clara who saves the day. "Run, you clever boy, and be a Doctor".

Not that there isn't some glorious fanwankery, of course. Most brilliant is our first male-to-female regeneration, which has a nice transsexual subtext. Also, Ohica and the Sisterhood of Karn are back for absolutely no reason other than that they're cool, which is absolutely right. It's 2015, and Doctor Who still shows the unmistakable influence of Terrance Dicks, as it should.

The real emotional and dramatic centre of the episode is its second half, from the point at which Clara is extracted to the Matrix from a point just before her death. She's trapped between moments, with no heartbeat, and will eventually have to be returned to her timeline, and death. From this point, Gallifrey and all its flummery are but a MacGuffin in the service of Clara's relationship with her mortality and the Doctor's hubris in bending the laws of time in forever postponing her return to her death.

Clara is horrified to hear that the Doctor spent 4.5 billion years in the confession dial. For her. She, unlike him, appreciates that she has to die. It's in the nature of things, and she has had an amazing life.

The ending is inspired. The Doctor and Clara run away in a TARDIS just like throne he stole all those years ago, with an uber-retro interior exactly as designed by Peter Brachaki, right down to that thingy off the ceiling that was quietly dropped after An Unearthly Child. The Doctor has no solution to Clara's mortality other than procrastination- but isn't that the case for all of us? None of us know how much time we have, so we need to make the most of what time we have.

The Doctor doesn't understand: he just wants her to live. He intends to wipe her memories of him so she will have a better chance of survival, but that misses the point: our memories are our life. And it is better to die young with strove of amazing memories than to die old after a life unlived. 

And this is the bit where we find out what the framing device with the diner was all about. The climax happens at the very end of history, where the Doctor and Clara meet, inevitably, Ashildr. It is she who points out that this is the prophecy referred to as the Hybrid. Pleasingly, it's left open whether or not the Doctor is actually half-human (shudder!) or whether the "Hybrid" refers to both the Doctor and Clara. 

We end with the Doctor in a retooled TARDIS, with a new Sonic Screwdriver, adventuring again. Meanwhile, Clara and Ashildr have their own retro Type 49, its exterior stuck as an American diner...

Oh, and it's just occurred to me: the diner in The Impossible Astronaut was Clara's TARDIS, parked a few feet away...

I can't even tell you how brilliant a piece of telly this is. I'm utterly floored by it.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Grimm: The Grimm Identity

"Do you have Trubel or not?"

"I can't say."

"You just did."

In a sense, this episode wraps up the end of the previous season, the elephant in the room being that everyone needs to adjust to the fact that Juliette is dead. But there's a real sense of a radical realignment to an entirely new story arc, stopping the Royals entirely as an antagonist for a while. Chavez dies in this episode, but it seems the dramatic purpose of the character was always to seed the story arc for Season Five.

Chavez worked for some kind of mysterious organisation, but she and her colleagues are dead, and Trubel is still missing. Chavez' last words to Nick are to "be prepared" for "what's coming". Apparently "they're rising everywhere" and "it's war". That'll be the focus of Season Five then.

Aside from this, Sean has put Nick on gardening leave as he so obviously needs a test and, oh yes, there's the small matter of Nick becoming a father at the most awkward moment possible. It's a boy, and Adalind wants to call him Kelly, after Nick's mother. It's a sweet gesture, but am I the only one who likes proper, traditional names...?

A very interesting episode and s totally new direction. I've no idea how this season is going to go.


Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Doctor Who Pubcast

Here's a bite size Christmas Pubcast from Nick and myself...

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

"Now, in those days, I had hardly any trouble with the Sixth Commandment..."

This is, I believe, the blog's first Ealing comedy, and it's certainly a fine one to start with. It's a gentle comedy, witty, original and a highly entertaining way to while away a couple of hours. Dennis Price is an excellent star, Alec Guinness plays all his parts with aplomb, but the real star is the script.

This is a very British film about class, as the impoverished yet high-born Louis d'Ascoyne plots to bump off his relatives, all of whom look suspiciously like Alec Guinness, so that he can become the 10th Duke of Chalfont. This is done via some entertaining and delightful murders, a witty script, a clever twist at the end involving a love triangle and Arthur Lowe, and a superbly effective non-linear structure as Louis, to be changed in the morning but nevertheless fawned over as a duke, writes his memoirs from his condemned cell.

There's a startling use of the "n" word towards the end which jars somewhat, but there's little count in criticising a film made in 1949 for racism when all involved are long dead. It's a witty and delightful film which should be seen by all, and has made me keen to see many more Ealing comedies.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

"I've finally run out of corridors..."

Wow. One one level this is a cross between Cube and Blink, but it's a fascinating thing to do with the penultimate episode. Structurally this is just treading water until the finale but the reality is much more interesting than that. This is Moffat, forever doing the big story arc stuff and the donkey work, getting to do a quirky and unusual episode on his fourth year as showrunner: his Midnight or Turn Left. It's also a tour de force of a performance from Capaldi. Whichever way you look at it, it's bloody good.

What elevates it to the sublime, though, is the twist at the end with the teleporter- although what happened to their being called "transmats" in Doctor Who? Proving my theory that, if you're teleported, you die and are replaced with a copy, untold different Doctors have repeated the same day for billions of years, burning themselves at the end of the day so another Doctor can repeat the cycle. It's a kind of Prometheus myth, and it's genius on all sorts of levels.

At the beginning I was wondering if we were looking at the return of the Vashta Nerada, but there is so much cool stuff here, from the Doctor's nightmare to the shifting rooms of the castle- reminded me of both Cube and Castrovalva- to the revelation that the Doctor left Gallifrey not because he was bored but because he was scared. Best of all is the respect shown to the late Clara: the Doctor spends eons mourning, literally, and her presence is everywhere. Her death matters.

At the end, though, we get a revelation: the infamous Hybrid isn't half-Dalek... it's the Doctor!  Is he half-human after all? What's going on? Whatever, we're in for a showdown under Gallifrey's burnt orange skies...

Monday, 23 November 2015

Doctor Who: Face the Raven

"I guarantee the safety of Clara Oswald."

At last Doctor Who does a story in that strange genre of otherworldly streets in our world, of China Mieville and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It's brilliantly atmospheric and really fits into Who although (yes, I'm coming to the elephant in the room, just wait)..) in an episode like this it isn't developed much and is pretty much reduced to some very interesting background colour.

It's also nice, after Flatline, to see a developed, maturer version of Rigsy. I like the character and wouldn't mind seeing him again. Similarly, Ashildr's reappearance is very welcome and she gets more good character development. I love the idea that, being immortal but with a finite memory, she remembers Clara only from reading her own diaries.

But... yeah. Let's spend the rest of this blog post talking about Clara's death, shall we? Because that's where the episode stands or falls. It's certainly a much-telegraphed death throughout the whole season, but this episode in particular goes out of it's way to show Clara having fun during her travels with the Doctor as never before. And this is her downfall, her carefree adventurer's spirit that leads her to do something brave, reckless and foolishly heroic. Arguably, she dies from being Doctorish. It's his influence that kills her. Except that the Doctor is privileged by the narrative to get away with outrageously foolish acts of heroism, whereas Clara, however awesome, is just... human. And it's that heroic hubris that kills her. She behaves like a Time Lady, and a human just can't keep doing that and live.

It's certainly a visually effective companion death, worthy to sit alongside Katarina, Sara Kingdom and that Alzarian boy. And, as an episode, it's a superb way of telling a companion death. Except... I'm not sure it's a sufficiently big and important death, season arc-wise, to honour such a huge and awesome companion like Clara, once a mere "Impossible Girl" plot point under Matt Smith but who blossomed into awesomeness under Peter Capaldi. What we have here is a very good episode by promising newcomer Sarah Dollard on its own terms which doesn't quite succeed at the huge wider job it had to do.

Oh, and the Doctor has been captured, by persons unknown. Let's not assume they're necessarily Time Lords. I mean, they obviously are but let's not...

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Angel: Dad

"You don't have a woman's touch. Whatever your taste in clothing may indicate."

On the surface this is s light episode having some fun with Angel's utter obsession with his baby- and I completely understand, having become a father this year myself! Fun is had with Angel's newbieness, but the threat is serious: so many demons and forces wants the prophecies baby for their own nefarious purposes that the hotel is under siege and our heroes are all, it seems, doomed. Except a bit of clever resourcefulness on the part of Lorne and Angel not only saves the day but puts the baby- Connor- under Wolfram and Hart's reluctant protection.

It's also, of course, the episode where Lorne, what with Caritas having been destroyed again, moves in to live with Angel and co. At last he's a guaranteed cast member every week. The gang is growing.

It's a fairly frothy episode, yes, an episode in which Angel's vampire face calms the baby(!), but behind it all lurks Holtz, revenge served cold, and a plan to make Angel really suffer. It's an enjoyable, frothy episode, but I'm sure that more serious fare is to come.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Cosmopolis (2012)

"Talent is more erotic when it's wasted."

I haven't read the original Don DeLillo novel, or indeed anything by him: bad English graduate! But as a script it's superb, fizzling with ideas of Great American Novel standard. And on top of this we get the inspired, stylised directing style of the truly great David Cronenberg. Not all his fans will agree- this is significantly artier date than his better-known work- but it's among his best.

The ideas are superb. Eric Packer is a twenty-eight year old finance billionaire, and he's profoundly alienated from his world. But this alienation isn't existential angst, not even when he murders his own security guard on a whim in a presumed reference to The Outsider. No, this is something much more modern, alienation caused by the deeply abstract, chaotic randomness of our financial system. None of us understand it, but all of us gamble on it in some way and it has the power to wreck our society with crashes and economic storms. And none of it is real, not any more. Not even money is real: most money in the world is just IOU's written by banks, and if it was all called in then the system would collapse. It's absurd, but not in an old-fashioned existentialist sense. It's post-modern capitalism, heady and dangerous, and Eric employs a "head of theory" to pontificate about it. This is a world where financial markets can be thrust into uncertainty by the interpretation of a pause in the speech of the Chinese finance minister.

Eric, over the course of a day, seems to engineer his own self-destruction- casually ending his marriage by blatant infidelity, gambling his fortune on a Quixotic gesture against the yuan and, finally, seeking death. Only there can be find reality.

The visuals of the film complement the themes superbly: most of it is set in cars, and Cronenberg lingers over their erotic visual power in ways that remind me of Crash. The effect is claustrophobic: Eric is limited in where he can go by the chaos (that theme again) of the New York traffic as the president visits, and we see this with the narrow spaces in which he spends the film.

I'm not a fan of Robert Pattinson but he's superb here. And Paul Giamatti is outstanding. But isn't he always?

This is a brilliant film, one packed with far more meaning than I've been able to tease out, and a thing of true beauty. It is also, incidentally, notable for its positive portrayal of Muslims. A superb film.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The World's End (2013)

"What the fuck does WTF mean?"

I like Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost, I really do. I loved Hot Fuzz and Paul and said so. I loved Shaun of the Dead and must blog that one day. It all amounts to a fine back catalogue. But this film... isn't really all that great. And there's not really all that much to say about it.

I mean, the plot's ok and the acting is as superb as you expect but, well, this is a film about middle age disappointment, with Gary a drunken failure wanting to relive the glories of his youth while his mates all have at least something to show for their lives at the halfway point. And... that's all this film is about. Dull and patronising themes of middle age and growing up. Even the threat- a load of robot invaders who want to enforce conformity, all naturally for our own good- is a bit meh, a kind of intergalactic parent, the man trying to hassle us. It all falls a bit flat for me. Perhaps it's because I'm a couple of years short of forty but don't really identify with any of this. As I approach middle age I've neither gone off the rails, failed to grow up not stopped being the person I've always been, and as such I don't really identify with the film's somewhat cliched message.

Mind you, it has a nice little subtext about the distressing decline of the modern pub. But that's about it.


Saturday, 14 November 2015

Doctor Who: Sleep No More

"Don't watch it!"

Wow. That was brilliant. Genuinely chilling, possibly the scariest episode of Doctor Who ever, and certainly Mark Gatiss' best ever script.

The "found footage" nature of the episode means that it has to be bloody well shot, and it is. The future world is sketched out just enough- a colony on the Neptunian moon of Trition, Indo-Japanese and, in a nice touch, polytheistic. It's the 38th century and, clearly, the capitalist worship of work for its own sake is as bad as our world, with the invention of "Morpheus" to remove the need for more than a few minutes' sleep. So we can work more, of course. Heaven forfend that there would be any other reason.

The plot is fiendishly clever, at one point turning on the delightfully metatextual point that, in this episode of found footage, there are no cameras to be seen. Even more metatextual is the final, terrifying cliffhanger: everything we've seen has just been a charade. The real infections the footage... which we've just seen. Brilliant.

Also worthy of praise are Capaldi, for his extraordinary and gripping delivery of the exposition, and for the superbly effective appearance of the "Sandmen", which add so much to the episode. The idea of the Sandmen- monsters made from sleep dust which arise if we deprive ourselves of sleep for too long- are a decidedly Moffatian idea from Gatiss' pen.

Also worthy of praise, in a very interesting part, is Gatiss' former League of Gentlemen comrade Reece Shearsmith. It's nice to see some consistency in giving the casts northern accents- Nagata's lines are even scripted to be Geordie! 

So, yeah, right up there with the best. A sublime bit of telly. Interestingly, though, it ends with the threat still out there but, apparently, an unrelated episode next week. So what twist on the two-parter format are we getting here...?

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Daredevil: Condemned

You "Letting the police do their jobs; that's what I pay them for, isn't it?"

This is clearly a turning point, the episode in mid-season where Matt and the Kingpin have a sort of confrontation, albeit only by telephone, and where both Fisk and the script attempt to push the apparent similarities between the two. It's a bloody good bit of telly.

The episode, following last week in which Fisk blew up all the Russians' buildings in Hell's Kitchen, is largely a two-hander between Matt and Vladimir in which they slowly come to understand each other before Vladimir, inevitably, is shot by the NYPD who are so hopelessly in Fisk's pockets.

Foggy and Karen, though their relationship continues to deepen, take a bit of a back seat. Ben Urich, meanwhile, gets closer to the truth about Fisk; I suspect that he, once he establishes the relationship with Daredevil that we know from the comics, will be instrumental in Fisk's downfall. But not, alas, before facing much mockery as a representative of the old media in this digital age which is, alas, not so friendly to crusading investigative journalists.

This episode also serves to indicate how completely the police force is compromised by Fisk's money, and how many of them are in his pay. It's truly shocking. Something must be done.

Alas, the episode ends with Fisk blackening the name of this mysterious man in black, manipulating the media with frightening ease. Matt is so affected by this that, effectively, through fear of his potential notoriety, he dumps Claire. And they were such a perfect couple.

Still, Matt now has a name: Leland Owlsley: for us comics fans the Owl...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

"Perhaps we're the savages!"

So, an early Hammer film based on Nigel Kneale's lost TV drama The Creature: bound to be good, right? Well, actually no. It's a shame this film is the only version that exists because there are times you can almost see through to Kneale's original, intelligent vision. Alas, The Creature was never recorded and not even Philip Morris can find it now.

Peter Cushing is good. That hardly needs to be said. But the film is... dull. It can't quite commit to Kneale's pessimism about the human condition (apparently the yeti, with their wise faces, are superior hominids waiting for us to cop it in a nuclear holocaust, which is nice) but it doesn't really have the thrills and scares to cut it as the more lowbrow fare it's being pitched as: the amount of screen time the yeti has is shocking.

It's interesting to see Tibet being portrayed in a film dated before the invasion of communist China in 1959 , however vaguely racist this portrayal may be. It's interesting to see a Hammer horror (although said institution was just evolving in 1957) in monochrome. It's interesting to see a clear influence on a Doctor Who story set in a similar environment but without a Great Intelligence. But this film ain't half full. Eminently missable.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 6- Master of Phantoms

"Those who've been made can be unmade."

"I entirely agree..."

Here we are, then; the lead-up to the execution of Anne Boleyn and so many expendable pawns on the board. Unlike The Tudors, we don't see the gory bits, and not do we really focus on the pity or the pathos. Instead the spotlight is on Cromwell, and how this striver from humble origins, who has suffered so much and earned our sympathy, can nevertheless have people tortured and killed as a part of the deadly chess game that is perpetually played at the court of Henry VIII.

To be successful, here, is to incur the jealousy of other powerful individuals. The very real possibility of downfall and a traitor's death is a possibility for those who know how to play the game: what chance, then, for the likes of Mark Smeaton and Harry Norris?

The episode sees power slowly deep away from Anne Bomeyn as her world Close's in around her and yes, Cromwell survives at her expense. Yet the affair is not quite a victory for him either: the likely advancement of Jane Seymour as the next Queen is explicitly presented as advancing the Catholic faction at Court.

The true horror here is in the attitudes of the King, who is quite willing to believe anything that suits him, however absurd, even that Anne would commit incest with her brother. This may suit Cromwell now, and the series ends with the King embracing him as a friend, but one false move and he will be the next Anne Boleyn...

Monday, 9 November 2015

Witchfinder General (1968)

"They swim! The mark of Satan is upon them! They must hang!"

It's clear why this film by Michael Reeves, who sadly died so very young, has achieved cult status: it's so incredibly violent, even sadistic, with one very memorable scene showing a poor young lady being lowered into the fire and slowly burned. It's an unashamedly sensational take on Matthew Hopkins which deals with the legend, not historical accuracy (the real Hopkins was only about 27 when he died of natural causes) and is anchored by a splendidly evil and charismatic performance by the one and only Vincent Price.

The film, shot largely on location, looks gorgeous and convinces as the Suffolk of the late Civil War. The ubiquitous Ian Ogilvy is splendid as our hero, Richard. The plot is functional but exciting as we gaze somewhat titillatingly on to the cruelties perpetuated by Hopkins and his dimmer yet more evil sidekick, Stearns. There is, I think, something more than a little creepy in the film's voyeuristic glee at the torture and execution of comely young women, that can't be denied. But Price's sheer charisma draws you in as you watch agog at one of the most evil characters in cinema.

A violent and, at times, extremely disturbing and misogynistic film that it is impossible not to be riveted by. Dark, edgy, uncomfortable in its sadistic use of the male gaze, but no one can accuse this of failing to be compelling viewing.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Quatermass Experiment (live TV play, 2005)

"It's good to have you back, Doctor!"

The above quote is rumoured to be an ad lib referring to the casting of David Tennant- playing Gordon Briscoe here- in a certain prominent television part.

Anyway... my regular readers (possibly a concept I've just invented, but there we go) may be aware that I've blogged the two extant episodes of 1953's The Quatermass Experiment. There's still a film based on the series to watch and blog, but in the meantime here's this live, abridged version from 2005 which is probably the closest we will ever get to what was sadly never recorded in 1953.

It's obvious from the start that the production had a budget of about 40p but that doesn't matter; the excitement of the fact it's live and the calibration of the cast just carries it along. Flemyng, for me, is competent but no more as Quatermass but Mark Gatiss is a revelation as Paterson while Adrian Bower is a long way from Teachers as the philosophical Jimmy Fullalove.

It's great to see the story continue and climax as Nigel Kneale intended, albeit at a faster pace. For once the message about humankind is not all that pessimistic; Kneale must have been feeling a bit cheery that day. But even this truncated adaptation puts across very well indeed the sheer quality of the script in terms of themes and character.

It's a nice touch that the climax should be in the Tate Modern rather than Westminster Abbey, although one thing that's hard to accept in 2005 is Quatermass' broadcast to the nature; scientists are not the authority figures they were. But this is nevertheless superb adaptation anchored by excellent performances.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion

"Why do you have a Union Jack parachute?"

"Camouflage."

"Camouflage?"

"Yeah. We're in Britain."

Wow. That's how you do it. A Part Two that outstrips Part One. Genius.

The structure of the whole thing is a marvel. The pre-titles bit, revealing the not-dead Clara in her very self-aware dream state in the pod, seems as though things are going to go a bit Forest of the Dead, but instead we get an episode that's all heart, centred around a superb speech by Peter Capaldi that uses a brave amount of screen time and is an acting tour de force. And if that's not enough we get not one but two extraordinary performances from Jenna Coleman. Oh, and Osgood rules. Oh, and there's a nice little moral about ceasefires, peace processes and not obsessing over past grievances that will hopefully get watched in Israel and Palestine.

Basically, the plot is clever, and the Osgood Box is a great big red herring; it's not objects but ideals that are important. This is a deeply and unusually satisfying plot resolution. Evil Clara, played with delicious malice by Jenna Coleman, even has a convincing change of heart and, in a brilliant stroke, becomes the second Osgood. Oh, and Osgood's first name is Petronella. And the Doctor's is Basil, apparently.

Another nice twist is that Kate (Jemma Redgrave underwhelms again, sadly)  was just pretending to be a Zygon, but at the end she almost threatens to act like her dad in Doctor Who and the Silurians, a nice little bit of character development that is, sadly, wasted on Redgrave's phones-in performance. Can we kill the character and put Osgood in charge soon, please? She's cool. Even the Doctor is a huge fan.

But one duff performance doesn't stop this from being a fine episode, and certainly the finest script amongst some stiff competition this season. Only thing is that all this foreshadowing of Clara's death (I'm unspoiled, but it's bleeding obvious) is getting deafening by now...


Friday, 6 November 2015

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

"The lights are going out all over Europe..."


The cast for this film is ridiculous. Aside from the people I've tagged at the bottom we have the Master himself, Anthony Ainley, as a British staff officer. We also have Thorley Walters, Nanette Newman, Gerald Sim, Edward Fox, Angus Lennie, Dirk Bogarde, Derek Newark, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Susannah York, John Mills and (uncredited) Jane Seymour and John Woodnutt. All in the same film. It's absurd.

This is Dickie Attenborough's epic film version of the famously improvised musical by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop. It's a thing of magnificence but it does, of course, present a very Marxist view of the First World War. You certainly don't have to be a Marxist to subscribe to the view that this was not a "just" war but just a silly dynastic struggle between old empires, the War of the Spanish Succession with trench warfare and mustard gas; I'm not, and I do. But it certainly helps. However, this film is a strong proponent of the old "lions led by donkeys" view, an unpopular view in many quarters these days. From the arrogant xenophobia of the British officers towards their French allies to a doddering and uncomprehending Franz Ferdinand declaring war on Serbia this is not a flattering portrait of those in power.

Thing is, though, it's magnificent. As a musical (all the songs are versions from the trenches) it revels in the freedom from realism while maintaining a clever structure through the use of one family's ground level point of view and of the sinister photographer figure.

There are so many fantastic set pieces, from the British recruitment propaganda to the moving Christmas fraternisation between the British and Germans in 1914 (the top brass cancel their leave!) .But the structure, message and intricacy of the whole thing is quite something to behold. A thing of magnificence.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Terminator (1984)

"I'll be back."

Ahem. Sorry about the obvious quote.

I've seen this film many times, of course, but not within the last twenty years. And is it not brilliant? This is a taut, imaginative thriller focused on one killer, one woman and her lover who, in a wonderful twist, was sent back in time by his own son. The world-building of Skynet and the world of 2029 are not the focus here, just a plot point, and the scenes in 2029 are shot to be deliberately vague and dreamlike- appropriately so, as these scenes are usually being dreamed by Kyle. We aren't even told exactly when everything will go pear-shaped- it's just described as being "a few years from now".

What's especially noticeable now is how very of its time the film is. It has model work! Which is, of course, superb. The hair, on the other hand, isn't. This is the same year that William Gibson published the seminal "Neuromancer" and you can tell. Everything screams Cyberpunk; even the nightclub is called "Tech Noir". And it has to be said that thrillers were much better in the days before mobile phones.

Much of the film's success lies in the fact that the first two thirds are spend establishing just how unstoppable and relentless the Terminator is. It kills the other Sarah Connors, establishing a real sense of fear on behalf of our poor protagonist, and not even an entire station of police officers can stop it. This leads nicely to a bittersweet romantic interlude, a sex scene with truly world-shaping consequences and the tension-filled final confrontation.

I like Sarah. She kicks ass as a female in a very male-dominated genre. Ok, she's still defined primarily as a mother to a male child, and the film fails the Bechdel test spectacularly, but you can't have everything! This is  justifiably acclaimed film and one I've left far too long to watch again.

All this and we get a very young Bill Paxton as a street punk. A real joy to see again after all this time.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion

"Well, you can't have the United Kingdom. There are already people living there. They'll think you want to pinch their benefits."

This is an awfully clever episode. At first it looks as though it's a traditional, RTD-style, alien invasion two parter. But it's also a very timely bit of political commentary about immigration and xenophobia, albeit this doesn't quite work. And the twist at the end, of course, reveals that everything we thought was wrong: Clara has been a Zygon since early in the episode. And... did they actually just kill Clara? Like that? A really low key exit for a massively important companion? I really think they may have done, you know.

For something that looks, on the surface, like the same sort of thing as The Sontaran Strategem and similar stories, this is a text full of, ahem, semiotic thickness. References and clever tricks abound. Yes, the method of bringing Osgood back may be predicable but a) Osgood's back, so yay, and b) there's a line about her being a "hybrid", which reminds us of what Davros said in The Witch's Familiar. This is just a mischievous bit of misdirection, of course, but it's clever. We get a nice bit of metatextual playfulness as Kate states that Terror of the Zygons took place in the "'70s, '80s", and it also turns out that it was none other than Harry Sullivan who invented a kind of Warriors of the Deep style genocide gas for the Zygons. Which the Doctor promptly nicked, no doubt declaring that Harry Sullivan was an imbecile.

What else? The Doctor, as a tribute to the JN-T era, wears question marks on his underpants. Kate summoning the Doctor at the start because of Zygons echoes her father doing the same forty years earlier. And, although UNIT is a much more feminine place these days, it still has Berks like Colonel Walsh who just want to blow stuff up. Walsh is played here by Rebecca Front who, with this and Humans, seems to mainly play hard faced bitches these days.

The cliffhanger is superb: Clara and Kate are both dead and Zygon Clara seems to blow up the Doctor. Get out of that one.

I'm impressed so far but I'll reserve judgement until I've seen the second part. There's a slight worry I have in that, although the scriptures to satirise the hysterical tabloid attitude to immigrants, there's no denying that immigrants are literally shown as the baddies free, much as the script tries to emphasise that both humans and Zygons encompass goodies and baddies. It's all very Malcolm Hulke, very Doctor Who and the Silurians (it's even the young Zygons specifically who are portrayed as the bigots), but... well, let's see what happens. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

"Indiana? We called the dog Indiana!"

And so we come to the last and easily the best of the original trilogy. And, given the high quality of the other two films, that's a bloody big achievement.

So why is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade so bloody good? Well, it's partly because they've clearly thought long and hard about what worked best in the other two films, and they've rightly decided that Raiders of the Lost Ark is worth mining for the good stuff. So Marcus is back. So is Sallah. So, most importantly, are the Nazis. You've got to have Nazis.

There's also an outstanding cast. Ice tagged a few below, but there wasn't room for the likes of Alexei Sayle, Vernon Dobtceff, an uncredited Michael Sheard as Hitler or even River Phoenix as the young Indy. But the real casting coup is, of course, the ever-charismatic Sean Connery as Dr Henry Jones, Senior. Connery is simply excellent here. So good, in fact, that he even condescends to not sound like he's from Edinburgh for once.

Said opening sequence, with young Indy and the train full of circus animals, is superb, and not only because it reminds me of the contemporary 8 bit computer game. It even attempts to explain the origin of Indy's fear of snakes, but it wisely doesn't reveal too much about his mysterious father who, indeed, is held back until just the right moment.

The plot itself is very Raiders of the Lost Ark without being in any way too slavishly similar. And what can outdo the Ark of the Covenant but the Holy Grail? 

As per the previous film we get a series of outstanding set pieces- I love the airship- but the outstanding chemistry between Harrison Ford and Connery adds so much more. Connery is having great fun with a superb character and his presence pushes Ford to ever greater heights: this is one of the most entertaining cinematic double acts ever. 

And then we come to the climax. The "invisible" bridge falls just short of the supernatural, but Donovan's gruesome death at imbibing the false Grail is delightfully gruesome, and the whole climax is deeply satisfying which, er, sounds a bit ruder than intended.

Possibly one of the greatest adventure films ever. Personally I dread to think just how many times I've seen it.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

"I had bugs for lunch..."

I wasn't sure whether or not I'd seen this film before but I must have done; the memories all came flooding back as a watched it. It's a good film, if less so than its predecessor, and exciting as ever. 

I suppose we can't avoid the inevitable questions about an arguably negative portrayal of India- I mean, Thuggee in the twentieth century- and an implicit endorsement of colonialism, showing a semi-independent Princely State to be rather beastly and having Britain's Indian Army act as the cavalry at the end. And yes, those are valid points. But I think we should account for the fact that this is an American film, not a British one. The USA is not India's former colonial ruler, nor does it have anything like the number of people of South Asian extraction who live in the UK. Perhaps we can forgive them for some cultural sensitivities that we would not accept from the British, much as we forgive them for the stereotypical character of Apu in The Simpsons.

Anyway, the film starts in 1935, making it a subtle prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there are no Nazis to be seen anywhere.we begin with a nice little sequence in treaty port Shanghai before the action shifts to India by means of a delightfully entertaining plane crash which is one of the best sequence in the film. Alongside Indy are his stubborn love interest Willie- I bet that have some angry sex- and Short Round. I'm guessing a lot of people must find Short Round annoying, but I like him. He's cool, and by acting as Indy's surrogate son he softens and humanises the character.

Our hero is soon directed to save all the children of his host village from the temple of the title, and that's where the fun really starts. The meal, with the various living bugs, snakes, and the eyeball soup, is great fun. Soon, though, there is exploring,and the booby trap see know and love. We learn that the baddies are Thuggees, that their chief priest can tear out a man's heart with his bare hands(!), and that the rotters are using children as slaves. There's a final awesome chase scene before our heroes face a climax where they all end up trapped on a bridge over a chasm, facing death just like Danny in The Man Who Would Be King.

Still, there's no stopping Indy. The film ends with the village saved and Indy doing kinky shit to Willie with his whip. Oo er.

It's a fun film, packed with incident and crammed with cliffhangers. It's not as good as its predecessor, perhaps, but enormous fun nonetheless. And the location filming in Sri Lanka and then-Portuguese Macau looks gorgeous.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived

"This is banter! I'm against banter. I'm on record on the subject of banter."

Hmm. I have to admit that wasn't bad. Quite good, in fact. A well-written character piece from the excellent Catherine Tregenna, in fact, one of Torchwood's finest writers. So why do I get a slight feeling of "meh"? I suspect because it's about immortality and loneliness, which to us diehard fans are such well-mined seams. It's possible that this episode may appeal to fans less than to the general public, being written by a non-fan. That would be no bad thing in the long run. But I can't shake my slight feeling of "meh". Yes, Ashildr is ageless, and thus a parallel to the Doctor. I get it. And?

Still, the plot works. It's entertaining. Maisie Williams is very good, and Peter Capaldi is amazing, at the top of his form, doing brilliant line deliveries with some quite banal, expository dialogue. But the episode didn't really engage me until the last third.

So, what to say? Well, it's a Clara-lite episode, but full of foreboding about her upcoming death. I'm unspoiled, I hasten to add, but the hints have been blatant. The Doctor refuses to take Asildr as a companion because they both need the "mayflies", who help the likes of them to see the beauty and preciousness of life. So Clara is a mayfly. Oh dear.

Oh, and on top of that Ashildr says if Clara that "She'll die on you, you know. She'll blow away like smoke." And Clara, in her little cameo, finishes up by saying "I'm not going anywhere." She's toast. 

What else? I liked the powerful pathos of the simple scene where the Doctor reads Ashildr's journals. She's had to bury her own children. She's had ample time to spend on mastering any skill she cares to pursue. And she can't possibly keep all her memories in a normal-sized mind. These are nice details. 

I liked the nod to The Visitation. And that reminds me: it looked as though the sonic shades weren't permanently destroyed after all. They're here to stay. And so is Ashildr, a nice touch. We shall certainly be seeing her again, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were this season. She's resolved to help those whom the Doctor leaves behind: this sounds like foreshadowing of something particular that has already been planned.

Also, nice to see Captain Jack get a mention. And nice to have a hint that Ashildr is likely one day to attract the attention of Torchwood.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 5- Crows

"You are not a gentleman born. You should not meddle in the affairs of those set over you."

It's 1535. Charles V is being difficult and no son is forthcoming. Henry is not a happy bunny. And the scavengers are circling: the title says so.

Still, there's Jane Seymour. Henry likes her, and whatever thoughts Cromwell may have had about being in with a chance are well and truly dashed. It's a slow-burn affair, with Jane (with family collusion, of course) being careful to appear chaste during the beginning of the affair. But an affair it is, and Anne knows it.

And so she lashes out against Mary, against the dying Katherine of Aragon, against everyone. She becomes insufferable, and a serious rift develops between her an Cromwell, which becomes of huge dramatic import after Henry's near-death in that famous jousting accident.

On top of this, there is the matter of the small fire caused by an unexpected candle in Anne's chamber. Does this imply a lover? Cromwell is beginning to gather evidence against her in case he needs it.

All this comes to a head with the King's accident. Cromwell is at first concerned about the safety of his son, but when it seems that the King is dead everything seems to fall apart. Cromwell depends utterly on his king. If Anne is now to be regent, he faces ruin and probable death. So does Mary. So do many. The wheel turns and runs many people down with it.

Except it isn't, as Cromwell's rough and ready CPR seems to save the day and the King recovers. But that few minutes exposes the fragility of English society in 1536. Will a woman be accepted as reigning monarch? Mary or Elizabeth? Anne or the Duke of Norfolk as regent? Perhaps, after fifty years of peace, a return to civil war? 

It us now crystal clear: Anne is a danger to Cromwell and to others, constantly turning the King against people in ways which, in Henry's court, mean death. The only course of action is to move against her, and Cromwell has increasing support. A stillborn birth seems to convince Henry, too, that he should never have married her: he was "misled", and God has cursed their coupling so he will have no heir.

All this intrigue is briefly interrupted by Gardiner; it seems a lad he knifed in his unruly youth subsequently died. He didn't know it, but he is literally a common murderer, and this has a profound effect on his sense of self. Is this going to further embolden him to move coldly against Anne in acceptance of his "nature"?" All this is masterfully plotted, and the unity of plot and character is superb.

The episode ends with Henry bollocking Cromwell for overreaching his position with regards to Chapuys and Charles V, and reminding him of his humble origins. Suddenly everyone is quite snarky to this blacksmith's son, until Henry realises he needs Cromwell and frantically backpedals. But this dynamic will inevitably continue to and fro.

We end with Henry and Cromwell as friends again, and Cromwell instructed to discreetly find a way to get rid of Anne...

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 4- The Devil's Spit

"You think I keep you for the charm of your person? I keep you because you are  a serpent!"

The King's dejected response to the birth of his daughter is perfect: "Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the jousts." Anne Boleyn is now Queen but under real pressure to produce a son. Power is slipping away from her with every month's delay, and she reacts by lashing out at enemies perceived and real. The "bastard" Princess Mary must become a servant to her daughter. Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher have disrespected her, and therefore must die. She is becoming increasingly shrill and unpleasant.

Cromwell is circumspect with her, but notably more distant, and here we have the first vague rumours of affairs.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Barton is interrogated, compromising many powerful people, many of whom have offended Cromwell by crowing about his "low birth". Chips on shoulders can be very dangerous things. I'm not sure, four episodes in, that this series is quite as good as its reputation, although I may be a little jaded by popular culture's obsession with the reign of Henry VIII to the exclusion of all other English history. But the economy of storytelling, through pithy dialogue and through meaningful silences, impresses.

Cromwell delights, too, in informing More of the oath he will be made to take, an oath that will prove his downfall. This is, of course, revenge; revenge for those of Cromwell's secret persuasion whom Mire has tortured and killed, including, as we know, a good friend. This is a darker side to Cromwell, much darker, yet Rylance ensures that he still has our sympathies. 

Away from the main plot, we have a disturbing detail: the Duke of Norfolk has a new wife. He "won't leave her alone", and she's a child of fourteen. This is deliberately horrifying, reminding us that much of the world is still like this.

Anton Lesser, whatever I've said in the recent past, is superb here. He cuts a sympathetic person in his willingness to die for his conscience, and Lesser communicates this brilliantly in his delivery of simple, emotive lines like "Will I see my daughter again?" And yet in doing this he abandons his wife and daughters, all of whom have signed the oath, to an uncertain future.

And Cromwell will not let him, or us, forget that this man is a mass tortuter and murderer of "heretics".

More's violent death is not directly shown- we cut from his head on the block to "It's the prayer book he had with him at the end"- but he's gone, now. The spotlight turns on Anne, who has miscarried, and now Cromwell appears to be seriously ill...

This is a well-written, acted and directed drama. And yet... a certain spark of greatness seems so far to be missing.


Monday, 19 October 2015

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

"Snakes! Why does it have to be snakes?"

This film still feels fresh thirty years later: not bad for a movie based on the movie serials of the '30s and '40s. What makes it work is that the action never stops, with set piece piled on to exciting set piece and even the exposition scenes being made dramatic. On top of that you have Harrison Ford being, well, himself, Ronald Lacey as the perfect Gestapo baddie and loads of money obviously spent. This is a superb film.

I'm sure many archaeologists would raise an eyebrow at this somewhat glamorous depiction of what they do for a living, of course. Indy is clearly shown to be an academic. Others would raise eyebrows at the spiders, snakes and booby traps galore. The more churlish of us may well raise an eyebrow at the made up mythology if what's supposed to have happened to the Ark, particularly Ethiopians. Personally my own eyebrow is raised a little at the idea of Nazis being so obsessed with such a very Jewish artifact- that must have been awkward for them.

We have all sorts of Indiana Jones tropes here from the start- travelling by map (copyright The Muppets), the action-packed standalone opening sequence and Indy just shoring that bloke who waves a fancy sword at him. It's a brilliant start to s brilliant series. If you haven't seen this, where have you been?

Except, er, Indy doesn't actually accomplish anything, does he? The Ark would have blown up the Nazis whatever happened. Still, at least he gets a nice little Egyptian holiday with some snake-related activities.