Saturday, 31 January 2015

Cucumber: Episode 2

"Uncle Lance says you never take it up the bum!"

This episode is perhaps a little shorter on the flashes of brilliance than the last one, but it is again a joy to experience Russell T Davies' writing again. The theme of the week is clear, and stated at the start with the "Henry test" of looking at your partner's last twenty texts- what are the boundaries of faithfulness? At what point does lust for another person, or flirting, make you unfaithful to your partner? Are Henry and Lance still together? This is awkwardly ambiguous. Yet for the younger crowd of Dean and Freddie such ambiguity is happily accepted.

There is a gap between Henry's young hosts in terms of both age and social class- but perhaps we should not separate the two, in our age of austerity which is aimed at the young. It isHenry's  generation which has the property and the good jobs. Perhaps this explains Freddue's more-or-less open contempt.

Oh, and I was wrong about Danny, Lance's friend with the casual homophobia; he's clearly gay and repressed, and Lance clearly likes him.

This episode is just as funny as the last one, and most of the best humour revolves around Henry's sister Cleo,who is fantastic and behaves like a real person. Her reactions to Henry's plight are nuanced and not as one would expect from a character in a drama.

RTD is brilliant at how he shows characterisation- the dialogue, the use of modern social media in TV drama and, of course, people not communicating properly with each other- the main theme of this series. It's all very Marshall McLuhan; the medium is the message.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Grimm: Thanks for the Memories

"Let's give them some Trubel."

First things first. I'm calling it: Sean Renard isn't dead, especially with that ending. There's far too much melodrama over the whole thing. If they really wanted to kill him off they wouldn't have dragged it out like this. My wife said from the start that he wasn't going to die and that became more and more likely as the episode continued.

Second thing: subtitles! Yay!

There's a story of the week involving a squid-headed, memory stealing dementia beast, but let's save that for part two; this a new season, after all, and the episode after the season finale. There's plenty else to talk about.

Trubel is able to talk her way out of trouble for killing the FBI-related assassin, but there's a twist; the FBI woman investigating this is herself a Wesen, in this case a "coyotl". We shall, doubtless, be hearing more of her.

There's a cameo for Prince Victor which shows us the rather alarming fact that Alexis Denisof has a beard. This is rather alarming, especially as the moustache makes the skin between his top lip and his nostril look enormous. If things carry on like this then my wife may stop fancying him. Oh dear. 

Rosalie and Monroe aren't in this very much, but they're both lovely for giving up their honeymoon for their friends. It's unclear, at the moment, how this season is likely to pan out for them.

Nick and Juliette are still a bit awkward following his accidental adultery, but they are both determined not to repeat last season's plotlines, which bodes well forthwith relationship. What is more pressing is the loss of Nick's Grimm abilities; suddenly he's very reliant on Trubel. It suddenly becomes clear why the character was introduced. I've a feeling this may be the new status quo, at least for a while. 

Perhaps this otherwise rather good show will soon get rid of Nick, what with him being by far the least interesting character. We can only hope.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Cucumber: Episode 1

"It's not my fault they went and invented it."

I'm conscious that the only Russell T Davies scripts I've ever blogged have been Doctor Who. So I should say, for the sake of balance, that I've seen (and enjoyed) Casanova and The Second Coming and, indeed, Dark Season. I haven't, however, seen Queer as Folk which, I suspects, puts me at a slight disadvantage in that I cannot discuss Cucumber in relation to it.

Meh. Anyway, this is RTD's much-heralded "More Gay Men" project, a return to a style of drama grounded in relationships and human miscommunication rather than the science fiction he's written in the recent past. And it is, of course, brilliant. I'd forgotten how much I love his style; the lightness of touch as a means to approach heavy themes, and his signature brilliant dialogue. RTD once explained to Charlie Brooker that his characters, like real people, never quite listen to what the other person is saying; dialogue should not get "ping pong". He practises what he preaches to brilliant effect here as Sunil gets a distracted Henry to let him copy that fateful essay.

But let's step back a bit. Henry is 46, comically grumpy and in a more or less sexless relationship with Lance. He represents the older generation of gay men, who have had to struggle with AIDS and a more overt homophobia, and to whom recent advances like equal marriage are somewhat bewildering. In contrast we have the much younger Dean, who has things much easier in terms of both social attitudes and easy sex.

This is the story, more or less, of how Henry's life fall apart so in the space of twenty-four hours. It looks as though he's lost his relationship and his career, in both cases through an awkward failure to communicate clearly. This basic plot plays out with plenty of wit and hilarity to distract us, as always, from the pessimism about the human condition that always lies beneath RTD's work. 

Vincent Franklin deserves praise for making the prickly and waspish Henry likeable enough to work as a protagonist yet believable for us to despair at his attitudes. Perhaps his attitude has been shaped by his life, though; he's clearly not comfortable with the idea that he can now get married, he's only half joking in his ambivalence to other gay men, and he's never gone all out and had full penetrative sex. He still has one foot in the more repressive era of his youth, days of Section 28 and homophobic tabloids.

And yet we also get funny scenes like the neighbour politely asking him not to wank  where her children can see, and the man with yellow spunk. And yet both of these turn out to be tinged with tragedy.

I'm looking forward to next week. I don't pretend to be any more plugged into gay culture than the next Guardian reading heterosexual liberal, but I'm enjoying this as a drama that is both fun and has something to say. I've missed RTD.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Angel: That Vision Thing

"Time to go visit Daddy!"

Interesting cliffhanger, with pregnant Darla and the above quote, but this is, essentially, a story of the week designed as an arc story; we already know that Cordelia's visions are getting worse, so it's a surprise that this is actually the work of Lilah, using a bit of a dodgy and vaguely racist-ish Asian stereotype to manipulate her into having visions in order to manipulate Angel.

Angel really, really loves Cordy. He's a knight in shining armour to the extent that you just know that they're deliberately using that trope. He will save her, no matter what the cost- and we just know that the bloke he freed from Hell is going to do something which will bite him in the arse. The rules of drama so decree.

That, and Darla, and the establishment of the rivalry between Lilah and Gavin, are the major arc threads here, but it's nice to see Fred coming out of her shell. Slowly. And her crush on Angel is cute.

Oh, and we meet Skip. I love Skip.

This is a rather forgettable episode by Angel's standards, but the subplots are simmering nicely. On with the next.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bargaining, Part 2

"Is... this Hell?"

This is the first episode of Buffy not to feature Anthony Stewart Head. It feels weird. But, quite rightly, we're given no time to dwell on that as Sunnydale, bereft  of a slayer, goes all post-apocalyptic.

Willow now realises that she's failed, her suffering was all for nothing, and there is now no way to bring Buffy back- so she begins, finally, to mourn her friend. The gang are desperate, though- the Buffybot is (symbolically) abandoned, Willow is too knackered to cast many spells, and Buffy is apparently dead. With Spike babysitting Dawn the Scoobies are suddenly lacking in superpowers but, as Willow says, they're "it". And the newly vulnerable Sunnydale, pillaged and wrecked by demon bikers, needs them.

Dawn and Spike make a great double act and are, once again, a heartwarming uncle and niece act as they escape to safety together; Spike would do anything for Dawn. It's a nice use of his character, much as it's becoming less and less plausible that he's supposed to be evil.

It's a nice character touch that Anya's main concern is for the Magic Box, which is now hers. And, although there's a large element of comic relief in her trying to get Xander to announce their engagement at the least appropriate moments, there still a sense that Xander may be dragging things somewhat. Cold feet?

A traumatised Buffy, meanwhile, has had to claw her way up from being buried alive. She spends much of the episode being, understandably, existentially traumatised, but inevitably saves the day by kicking her usual arse. We end, appropriately, with her and Dawn on the tower from which she jumped, with Dawn persuading her not to jump again. The resurrected Buffy is clearly very damaged. Appropriately, though, the tower collapses. This seems to signify hope.

This is a very odd beginning to a season. It's still Buffy, but what happened to the fun season openings? Let's see where they're going with this.

Marvel's Agent Carter: Now Is Not the End

"You're an agent. They treat you like a secretary."

First impressions count for a lot, which is fortunate, as first signs are great here. Like Mad Men, this miniseries hangs a lot of its charm on recreating the look and feel of the middle of the last century, and succeeds magnificently with the cars, the (awful) clothes and the social mores. There's also more than a little influence from Raymond Chandler, and many of the action sequences look like a film that could star the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

This isn't, despite the presence of Enver Gjokaj, a Mutant Enemy production, and Joss Whedon's involvement is even less than it is with Agents of SHIELD. The writing, though, is excellent, even if I haven't ever heard of the writers. It's fun seeing the Marvel Universe in 1946, with Howard Stark being just like his son (albeit on the run from a thinly veiled HUAC), and names like Roxxon and Abraham Erksine. We also have, of course, Jarvis, an engagingly Giles-like character.

Hayley Atwell, though, is magnificent as a kind of stiff-upper-lipped River Song for the 1940s, engaging in setting-do with the best of them and, in a nice little scene, giving a sexist, groping bastard in a diner a bit of a shock; this woman has balls. And yet she is, privately at least, devastated at the death of her flatmate, a death that happened because of her.

This is a splendid opener, much more so than the pilot for Agents of SHIELD. This series promises to be good. So let's have a UK screening please!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Dam Busters (1955)

"Every time one of these Lancasters flies over, my chickens lay premature eggs!"

There's something about a British war film of this era, a decade or two after the war. There's the stuff-upper-lip mood; the straightforward, linear storytelling and the slow, steady pace. This is a typical example of the best of such films, I suppose.

It's a shame, of course, that the film has been somewhat overshadowed by the name of Guy Gibson's dog, a name that I have no intention of repeating. It isn't ok now and, with due acceptance of the different context of 1955 and, indeed, 1943, when the concept of racism was rarely thought of, it wasn't exactly ok then. But the past was what it was.

It's a pity, really; this is a bit of a barrier between us and the original context of the film, as the narrative point of the dog is to humanise Gibson, otherwise a rather flat, straightforward hero type, the kind of figure whom it's easy to admire but hard to empathise with. A shockingly young looking Richard Todd nevertheless does a good job playing a square-jawed hero, a man who, in reality, died for his country in 1944 aged 26. No wonder these men get so bladdered so often.

Michael Redgrave portrays Barnes Wallis with rather more depth, but then this is a part which allows him to do so. Wallis is humanised by his like ability, his long-suffering wife, his easy relationship with his children, and his easy categorisation as the traditional British boffin. The British boffin is an iconic figure, the lone, eccentric individual in his shed, fighting the narrow minds of bureaucrats. But that such a figure can, albeit with difficulty, find himself listened to (appropriately by an equally eccentric prime minister) shows that a muddle-through democracy is both superior to and more efficient than a totalitarian, goose-stepping tyranny.

Wallis, incidentally, lived to be 92. He seems to be the only male non-smoker in the film, something implied to be an eccentricity.

The film uses suspension and tension well, particularly in the final scenes as the squadron's sorties are juxtaposed with Wallis and co at Bomber Command, barely able to cope with the tension; the film is long, but doesn't feel so. The climax is satisfying, with some great model work and what I can only assume is stock footage of the damage done to the industry of the Ruhr. One has to raise an eyebrow here at the total indifference shown to any German civilians killed as a result, but that would not have been much of a consideration in 1955. But it's fitting that we end, not with scenes of triumph, but mourning for the fifty-six men who did not return. 

Best film I've seen in 2015 so far; a film that pointedly equates the inventor in his shed (in modern parlance, the geek) with the square-jawed pilot hero. Brilliant.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Nanny McPhee (2005)

"I did knock..."

I wasn't originally going to blog this, hence the fact that I'm wings big it without any notes. It isn't the sort of thing I'd usually blog; just one of many bit of Christmas telly that we're catching up on the Sky Plus, in this case recorded because Mrs Llamastrangler is rather fond of it.

But in hindsight it deserves a blogging, not least because I have nothing else to blog at the moment; it's been a busy few days. Besides, it's rather good, and Emma Thompson would be my ideal choice for the next Doctor Who donuts worth a look at her.

She is, of course, brilliant, both as star and as writer of this adapted screenplay. This may fit into an existing tradition of children's fantasy in a Victorian milieu (cough Mary Poppins cough), but that is no bad thing. Oh,of course you can criticise it for uncomplainingly showing us a socially stratified world, but that's implicit in the setting. To complain would be churlish. And yes, Colin Firth is the same in everything and only ever plays Mr. Darcy, but he fits in nicely here.

The fantasy conceit is brilliant. Emma Thompson is brilliant. Thomas Sangster is brilliant. Angela Lansbury is... interestingly miscast. We even get brief scenes of Derek Jacobi camping it up. As recent kids' films go, this is one of the best.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Biography of Anthony Ainley by Karen Louise Hollis

One of the perks of having a blog is that you can use it to plug books by friends of yours. This is an excellent biography, thoroughly researched with a lot of details not previously known...

Friday, 9 January 2015

Angel: Heartthrob

"Don't say the "B" word."

My wife could go into labour any week now, and becoming a new father is unavoidably going to curtail my blogging time. What better time to start a new season of Angel?

Excellent opening episode, this. Time has passed, the team has bonded in the absence of the brooding, the bereaved Angel is in retreat in Sri Lanka, Fred still won't come out of her room, and Cordy's visions are even more painful. By the time of Angel's return (touchingly, he's missed his friends and they all hug) we have a happy and bonded team. It's all, for the moment, very lovey-dovey.

And that's appropriate, because this whole episode examines the phenomenon of love and grief in the wake of Buffy's, ahem, "death". Flashbacks remind us of Angel's kinky yet easy-going relationship with Darla, but contest them with the much more passionate love between their fellow vampires Elizabeth and James- introducing a certain Holtz while doing so. We will be hearing more of him.

Flash forward, and Elizabeth is at large in present day LA being evil. Her evil is thematically sound, though; she taunts a male student by forcing to choose whether she kills him or the girl he professes to love. He breaks down and begs her to kill her and spare himself... and then Angel saves them. That's one couple who will be having an awkward conversation.

However, after Angel kills Elizabeth, James is not happy about the death of his beloved, and by "not happy" I mean like something out of Romantic poetruunable to live without his beloved, he accepts death as the inevitable price of attempting to avenge her. He dies happy, having failed to kill Angel but done the right thing by his loved one. 

We learn at the end- via, of course, Cordy- that Angel is troubled; does the fact that he is able to live, albeit in mourning, after Buffy's death mean that their love was never real, as James tied believing?

A solid opener, although I bet we never hear of either Elizabeth or James again. Quite the cliffhanger, too, as we learn that Darla is impossibly pregnant...

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bargaining, Part 1

"Did your life pass before your eyes? Cup of tea, cup of tea, almost got shagged, cup of tea?"

Any day now my wife is going into labour and I'm going to become a dad. The blog, inevitably, will become much more of a part-time thing. So let's start a new season of Buffy, shall we? After all, it's not as though Season Five took aaaaages, is it?

Buffy's back, even though Buffy's dead (right?), although there's been a change of network ("channel" to us Limeys) to the WB, sort of the Channel 4 to Fox's ITV. So there are massive changes to the paratext. Still, this is the same old Buffy, and the traditional cracker of an opening episode.

Time has passed. The gang have learned to deal with vampires through use of the Buffybot, with occasional hilarity ensuing, but Willow has a mysterious and secretive plan. It's also clear that, while still being Willow, she is more assertive, adventurous with her magic, and definitely the boss. But when we learn she plans to resurrect Buffy it doesn't feel good. Giles is being kept in the dark, for one thing. And that necromantic spell she casts looks nasty. And she KILLS BAMBI, dammit. "Dark Willow" feels very close.

Oh, and Giles is suddenly off to Blighty, although he doesn't get the quiet send-off he wants, and rightly so. Still, he'lol be back.

The rest of the gang are the same characters we know and love but sub-plots are a-boiling already; Anya is now in charge of the Magic Box, and enjoying the power. Dawn and Spike still have this fantastic and touching uncle-niece relationship. Still, other vampires are starting to notice that Spike is starting to act a bit too much like a goodie for a soulless vampire.

I love the vampire bar; naturally, they're all rockers. Of course, as dramatic convention dictates, said vamps attack during the ceremony, interrupting the resurrection spell for which Willow has suffered so much, and indulged in no little darkness. Except... the last shot happens, and Buffy finds that things have gone a bit Edgar Allan Poe.

Brilliant. A fine start. Let's hope the high quality continues.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Cat in the Hat (2003)

"Can't I have some rules?""

"No chewing tobacco!"

Lots of people don't like this film. This is mainly because they have fond childhood memories of the original work by Dr Seuss and don't like the more adult and naughty tone of this film. I can sort of see their point, and won't necessarily put this film at the top of the pile of films to show my little girl. However, I've never read any Dr Seuss and came to this with no preconceptions, just wanting to see a bit of comedy starring Mike Myers. And you know what? On those terms, this film is pretty good, and the naughty bits are among the best.

Mike Myers is great, naturally, and perfect for this version of the Cat, but the real revelation is the young Dakota Fanning as the strait-laced Sally in a perfectly judged deadpan comic performance for one so young. The direction and look of the film is perfectly stylised and coloured, with absolutely no concession to realism.

There may be no subtext other than the rather obvious one about properly balancing fun and responsibility, but there's nothing didactic in how the message is conveyed, and much naughty and mildly sweary fun is had in the meantime, with songs and all. Why, we even get a bizarre cover of the Beatles' "Getting Better", albeit without Paul McCartney's dodgy lyric about domestic abuse.

Don't be put off by the critics; this is an enjoyable comedy. Just don't necessarily assume it's for very young children!