Friday, 20 February 2015

Fatherhood

I have a daughter, and she's perfect!

Mrs Llamastrangler gave birth to our little angel at 3.15pm on Wednesday 18th February, 2015 after four days (!) of labour. Mother and baby came home from hospital today. 

I can't believe what a good little girl she is so far. She hardly cries and she didn't wake her mother up at all the last two nights. Surely this can't last...?

She's so beautiful. And it's frightening, in the best possible way, how I can't stop thinking of my little girl and wouldn't have it any other way.

Oh, and the blogging goes on. The frequency will go down a bit, or a lot, depending!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Marvel's Agent Carter: Time and Tide

"If you wish to clear Mr. Stark's name, you must do so from the shadows!"

The third episode, then, and things are moving into place for some serious alteration of the status quo. It's suddenly clear that Peggy can't keep getting away with her supposedly treasonous activities for much longer. I predict an upcoming episode will consist of her getting caught, swiftly to be followed by a massive reversal of fortune. After all, we know she founds SHIELD, and this series looks suspiciously like a "Secret Origin".

Oops. Sorry. Wrong comics company.

Anyway, we get more espionage, more sexism, more awful '40s clothes and cool '40s cars, and the overall movie serial feel continues. Jarvis acquires a bit more depth, with the unearthing of a minor scandal from his past, but I hope he doesn't acquire too much depth; it doesn't suit him. And I hope we never actually meet his wife; that would ruin a running joke.

We end with a significant death (which Peggy, once more, blames on herself) and a redoubling effort against Stark. Big things are going to happen now...

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Cucumber: Episode 4

"You're actually patting my vagina..."

Wow. What a masterful piece of television. Such a triumph of structure and characterisation from Russell T Davies and such an extraordinary revelation of a performance from Vincent Franklin. Where to begin?

The episode is framed around a number of dates, all of them different, leading to sex, or not, and using these things to examine the human condition. Some are quite straightforward: Lance doesn't end up having sex, firstly because he's with a bottom and secondly because he's with a rather I likeable, laddish closet dweller. Freddie is pursued by a girl with a fetish for men who sleep with other men, something not uncommon. And Dean, being Dean, has a very kinky time, thereby wrecking someone else's relationship.

Most movingly, though, this is about Cleo and, of course, Henry. Cleo is tentatively trying to explore sex with an old friend for the first time since having her vagina reconstructed. She gets a moving monologue about how the births of two children have made her vagina fall apart, and how for years the medical profession has not cared; there's a quietly and rightly angry point here about how little society cares about women's sexual pleasure. Henry, meanwhile, has a nice date with a top but pulls all sorts of tricks to avoid sex. Finally, following a chance meeting with Leigh (AJ from EastEnders) in a fast food place in the small hours, he finally gets to confess his neuroses about sex; it's implied here that his fear of sex is bound up, him being the age he is, with the fear of AIDS which must have so affected his youth. There's a real gap here between Henry's generation and the young people with whom he lives. Rather sweetly, though, it looks as though he's got himself a new boyfriend.

This is an extraordinary episode which really pays off the groundwork leading up to this. I hope the four remaining episodes can somehow match this.


Grimm: The Last Fight

 "It's cheating, right, if he's Wesen?"

"There are probably Wesen in all sports."

Boxing usually bores me, but this is a fantastic concept for Grimm; a bull Wesen as a boxer who is made to fight and win by showing him the metaphorical red rag by beating him with sticks before a fight. There's a vague bullfighting metaphor in here, although I suspect Clay is supposed to stand for all boxers and Sam for all boxing promoters. The script is not big on approval of boxing promoters; I rather suspect Hank's views are those of the author.

It's brilliant, even before the big reveal about Clay's mother, and that's just the story of the week bit. The arc stuff is really fizzing this season, and so far it knocks all previous seasons into a cocked hat.

It looks as though Nick and Adalind did indeed swap places between Portland and that cell in Vienna, but only for the duration of their strange mutual collapse. Oh, and FBI lady only kidnapped Trubel in order to confirm she's a Grimm and offer her a job on behalf of her mysterious employers. This one will run. And it looks as though Sean's mum will find a cure for Nick's "disability". And interestingly there a dilemma about Trubel- Nick needs someone to do the Grimming, but can he keep putting a teenage girl in danger?

Oh, and Adalind has escaped with the aid of her mysterious neighbour. There are a proper number of arc threads going on, and yet all this is nicely intertwined with a solid story of the week. Grimm is just so much better written these days. Can they keep it up?

Black Mirror: Be Right Back

"Are you sitting down? This might sound a bit creepy.."

It's been a while since I did the first season of Black Mirror, but now I can gradually catch up through the wonder that is Netflix.

This is a typically well-executed piece of Twilight Zone weirdness from the great Cjarlie Brooker, as usually extrapolating from current trends to give us a disturbing yet plausible near-future. It's hard science fiction with wit and weirdness.

Here we have Martha, grieving her suddenly gone partner Ash, a social media addict. This being the near future, there's a program to mimic his online persona from his social media footprint, expanding in believable increments to a simulacrum of even his body. Yet this can never be enough, culminating in the sex; the simulated Ash has no record of his sexual response, just a "set routine, based on pornographic videos". It all plays out naturally, believably and very weirdly. I can understand why the critics loved this.

Hayley Atwell is superb in a part very different from Agent Carter, but Domhnall Hleeson is extraordinary as the still, awkward android Ash. Also worthy of praise is the stark, Scandinavian use of light throughout. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

I have some time to kill but don't want to wake up the lovely Mrs Llamastrangler, who is now several days past her due date and fast asleep. So I watched a short Charlie Chaplin film to fill in some of my time during the interminable wait for fatherhood. I was hoping that it would cheer me up a bit as today has been spent digesting some very sad news.

Anyway... this is the first ever film to feature Chaplin's "Tramp" character. I'm vaguely familiar with Chaplin, but mainly because of Paul Merton's splendid television evangelising. I'm well aware of how the humour hasn't dated, but the racing cars certainly have- they look so flimsy, like old-fashioned prams. And the whole set-up looks incredibly dangerous for both participants and spectators. It's Health and Safety gone mad. 

What really surprised was, well, is that it? I've enjoyed Charlie Chaplin films in the past, but this one consists of not a lot more than the Tramp annoying people by getting in the way. That's it. I'd expected a lot more. I know it's a short, but I've seen plenty of funny ones. I suspect the problem lies in the fact that this is an early short from the Keystone Cops crowd.

Still, there are plenty of other silent comedies out there...


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Angel: Billy

"No woman should ever have to go through that."

About a week ago there was a lot of talk amongst the commentariat concerning a "manifesto" by a group of burqa-clad female recruits to the so-called Islamic State. Amongst stupidities too numerous to account was the insistence, shared by misogynists and social conservatives of all faiths and none, that women should dress "modestly" (in this case very "modestly") because, well, men helps themselves. The burqa is, in effect, slut-shaming to the nth degree.

If I could be a bit more feminist for a moment (which wouldn't be difficult), there's the risk of something like this with fictional portrayals of domestic violence; if all men are just misoginistic, violent monsters who will inevitably be that way, with no agency or free will to do otherwise, you are half way to endorsing the burqa. Not to mention gender essentialism. The older I get, the more sceptical I get about "innate" gender characteristics. I've been a feminist with a Y chromosome for some times, and the fact that I'm going to be father to a daughter very, very soon only concentrates my thoughts. My daughter is not growing up to think that doctors are men and nurses are women, to pick an obvious stereotype. She can be whatever she wants to be.

Anyway, this episode of Angel. Let's talk about it, shall we? Because this episode is not only excellent, its most definitely about something.

Well, we see Fred established as a proper part of the gang for the first time, and she's a fantastic addition to the team. And she really shows her character when comforting a devastated Wesley at the end. That's about it for the main season arc. 

The eponymous Billy, of course, is the bloke whom Angel rescued from Hell, at Lilah's bidding. He's untouchable, from one of America's senatorial aristocratic families, and has the demonic superpower to awaken the latent misogynistic violence in other men, including Gavin, Gunn and (terrifyingly, shockingly, and with an extraordinary performance from Alexis Denisof) Wesley. Ironically, Lilah is the first to be horribly beaten up and, fittingly, it is the chat between her and Cordy that is the thematic heart of the episode. Equally appropriate is that Wes is defeated by a resourceful Fred, while it is Lilah who finally kils Billy. Women are the ones, ultimately, with agency here.

And yet... I love the fact that Billy's powers don't work on Angel. And this isn't because he has any superpowers, but because he has a choice. Like all other men, Angel can choose not to be a misogynistic prick. 


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: All the Way

"I'm gonna marry that girl."

I really can't put my finger on why this episode underwhelmed me. The misdirection with the old man was clever, and it's nice to have a low stakes episode with nothing more than two ordinary vampires as the main adversary. And it's especially nice to have the old "monsters as metaphors for teenage stuff" back in Buffy; here the vampires stand for that terrifying thing that is the sexuality of teenage boys. And yet... the episode failed to sparkle. As you probably noticed, I couldn't find a particularly good quote.

This is where Xander and Anya finally announce their engagement, and Xander is, again, terrified and really not ready, as Nicholas Brendon's superb performance shows. Talk about buying houses, babies and a full-on grown-up life terrifies him... but then he's only 20, and only proposed because the world was about to end.  I may be excited about fatherhood now (my wife is 40 weeks and four days and I can't stand waiting!!!), but then I'm 37. At 20 I wasn't particularly mature. Few young men are. 

Maturity and the responsibilities of young adulthood are, of course, the themes of the season, also popping up in how Buffy (also 20) is trying to be guardian to Dawn, and not managing very well. Most obviously, she leaves the disciplining to Giles.

Dawn, too, is getting older, and the "a" plot of the episode concerns her cliched first kiss and burgeoning sexuality, but fortunately she learns her lesson: boys are monsters.

Most importantly though, arc-wise, is that Willow is increasingly using magic for trivial things, and that she and Tara fall out about it. Badly. So Willow crosses a line, casting a spell to make Tara forget the quarrel. That puts her beyond the pale. We know there will be consequences, which I await with bated breath...

(We see the Bronze! How long has it been?)


Monday, 9 February 2015

Angel: Fredless

"You haven't run far enough!"

There's nothing like a good bit of misdirection. This episode pretty much consists of spending a lot of time making Fred's parents look like sinister, intolerant, nasty and authoritarian hicks with the twist being that they're actually quite nice. It's an old trick, but it's very well done here. Sometimes the old tricks work well; this episode is both a triumph of structure and the most enjoyable of the season so far.

We also see a significant retooling of Fred; having accepted her past, she is now able to start assuming an active role as part of Angel Investigations, what with the plot setting her up to save the day. Even better, her parents turn out to be rather good fun once we're no longer supposed to be suspicious of them.

All that, and we get Cordy and Wes doing an impression of Buffy and Angel. This is the most fun episode for a while, which probably means a little darkness will be along soon...

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Life Serial

"Stop touching my magic bone!"

Last night we were introduced to our three, er, suoervillains; this time we get to know a bit better and discover which one of them has the righteous opinion on the best James Bond- no love for George Lazenby?

We learn absolutely nothing about how Buffy and Angel's reunion went, and this vagueness is turned into a joke; not a bad way of handling the fact that Buffy is now airing on the WB while Angel is still on Fox, presumably necessitating a bit of the old arm's length treatment. 

A big theme of this episode is what, besides slaying, Buffy is going to do with her life. She tries returning to uni, working on a construction site and working in the Magic Box, but none of these quite works, and not entirely because of the machinations of our dastardly trio. All three situations are, however, hugely amusing. Jane Espenson can do that to a script.

This script sparkles, and I'm not just saying that because of the kittens, or Buffy's description of Spike as a "neutered vampire that cheats at kitten poker". I'm enjoying this season, despite my reservations about the way geeks are presented. I can even forgive Giles suddenly solving Buffy's money worries with a deus ex machina cheque. 


Sunday, 8 February 2015

Angel: Carpe Noctem

"I'm not a eunuch!!!"

This episode may be a story-of-the-week, but the central conceit is fantastically dark; a feeble, dying old man using magic to swap bodies with fit young men and shagging his way through their bodies until the body collapses and returns him to his old body. The most horrible part of this is that these men all live out their last few hours in an old man's body, patronised and tyrannised by the staff of the retirement home in what looks awfully like a bit of actual social commentary. Although, I suppose, there's also a certain amount of "aren't old people scary?"

There's not much to say about this episode, really; I think it's a case of a brilliant concept being strong enough to survive a flawed execution. But the ending is, perhaps, a little rushed, and the climactic scene in which the bodies are switched back is both shot and acted so as to indicate that the spell failed. Still, I enjoyed the episode, even if it will never be a favourite.

Arc-wise, rivalry compels Lilah to help Angel thwart Gavin Park's somewhat dull legalistic plotting, and it's interesting how she responds to "Angel's" advances. Oh, and Fred's crush on Angel seems to be nipped in the bud. Poor Fred.

We end in a similar way to the last episode of Buffy; the eponymous slayer is alive, and Angel has to see her...

Marvel's Agent Carter: Bridge and Tunnel

"What's your first name?"

"Agent."

"That has a ring to it..."

Two episodes in and I'm rather enjoying this. Hayley Atwell is great, and I'm loving the mockery of 1940s social attitudes, objects and fashions, although 1940s suits looked awful. Really awful. '70s awful. Still, the fetishisation of 1940s is a delight, as are the constant reminders that this is the Atomic Age. And the framing device of the Captain America radio drama is the icing on the cake. The constant juxtaposition of the simpering Peggy from the radio show to the kick-ass reality is a delight. Plus it reminds me of going to see that Round the Horne thing in Leicester Square several years ago. And I bet very few of my readers will get that reference.

It's a delicious contrast; Peggy is so very kickass yet again, going undercover with aplomb and fighting a baddie on the top of a van, yet at work she's expected to do the filing and answer the phone, and if she gets caught working for Stark she's in deep doo doo. 

There are lots of other nice touches; I loved the literal carrot and stick. And the '40s fashions and radiation aspect- in fact, the plot itself and the heroine put in frequent peril- make this feel very much like a '40s movie serial. I suspect that's intended.

Only at the end do we find a chink in Carter's stiff upper lip armour; Jarvis, who admires her and sees her for who she is, sees that she's afraid of letting people get too close to her unless they get killed- like her last flatmate. So we end (after a jaw-dropping interview with the landlady) with Peggy agreeing to live next door to her friend Angie. Let's hope Angie lives...

Loving this. Can't believe there are just six episodes to go.


Friday, 6 February 2015

Cucumber: Episode 3

"You're a prostitute!"

"Yes. How much money do you make?"

Three episodes in, and the clever little tropes and writerly tricks are coming more and more into focus. There's the repeated use of Henry perving at blokes in the supermarket as a framing device, for one. And there's the way Freddie gets written here; up until now, and even early in this episode, he's this beautiful, arrogant, unattainable Wildean aesthete without any of the money, but we get the truth here; he was abused regularly as a schoolboy by his teacher, Gregory, now a father of two. There are scenes dancing around blackmail, and at the centre is a pop art style wall decoration relating this abuse as an erotic comic strip so that, literally as well as metaphorically, the past of abuse hangs over the narrative.

It is Henry who urges Freddie to expose Gregory, disgusted at the abuse of a schoolboy the age of his fifteen year old nephew. Yet Henry is directing this very same nephew in pornographic "vlogs" in a clear parallel. It's complicated.

Elsewhere, Lance continues in his chase of semi-closeted gay homophobe Daniel, an interesting character, and the swimming pool scene is superbly written. Lance is an interesting character: in control when it comes to Henry but definitely not in the driving seat when it comes to Daniel.

I still think he and Henry will get back together. But there's a long way to go...


Thursday, 5 February 2015

Grimm: Octopus Head

"I just saw Burkhart. He's not the Grimm."

The first season of Grimm was, in hindsight, a bit blah, all story of the week episodes. The second series was better, with more continuing season arc stuff, but after a brilliant opening triptych it settled down into a largely story-of-the-week format. Here's hoping this third season, as with Buffy, breaks that habit and ends up a classic.

This episode is awesome, mainly because it's packed with status quo changing events; no reset button here. Good. I'm not going to list all of the big things that happen, partly because a blog like this shouldn't be a synopsis but mainly because it would be rather tiresome to do.

Instead I shall just opine at random things.

I love the Captain's resurrection at the hands of his mother (Louise Lombard from The House of Elliot...!) and a giant CGI dissolving snake. It's clear she's to be an important character; Sean goes to the trouble of summarising the first two seasons for her. And any passing casual viewers. See what they did there?

Viktor has never been quite as much as a bastard as he is to Adalind here. That partly makes up for the moustache and beard, I suppose. But it makes my wife fancy him all the more, the bastard.

Interesting that Juliette is in no hurry for Nick to become a Grimm again for the sake of their relationship; I think this is genuinely going to be at least a medium term thing. Trubel is clearly Portland's Grimm-in-training, with this two parter being both a baptism of fire for her and a dry run for the new format of her as a Grimm helping detectives Nick and Hank with Wesen-related crime. Good. She's a much more interesting character than Nick. And she gets quite the cliffhanger, being kidnapped by that mysterious Wesen FBI woman. What's she up to?

Woo at last seems about to discover the truth. About time. We've reached the point, at the start of the third season, beyond which the character can no longer be credible if he doesn't find out soon. And yet... the whole thing is delayed again at the end with that weirdness between Nick and Adalind. Have they swapped bodies? Is Nick in a female body in a rat-filled cell in Vienna? Who was that bloke in the next cell with the Frank Gorshin laugh? We must be told!

The big question, though, is why does the "Octopus Head" have only six tentacles?


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Flooded

"So... You guys wanna team up and take over Sunnydale?"

Never has a flooded basement been more redolent with obvious metaphor; Buffy has returned to the Hell of life and adult responsibilities from a stress-free afterlife, and all the pressures of adulthood- especially her overwhelming money troubles- are drowning her. Meanwhile, our three baddies for the season, introduced here, are intended as a contrast. 

I have a bone to pick with the use of Jonathan, Andrew and Warren; they are geeks, and this is clearly intended to symbolise that they are unable to put away childish things. I'm a bit offended by that. I'm a geek (I mean, I do this blog), and I have responsible job, a mortgage and a wife. Oh, and any day now I'm due to become a father, something which is rather tending to dominate my every waking moment. I'm a fully functioning adult who happens to like geeky things. I'm a bit offended by the implied insult here and so, I would imagine, are many of the viewers. Buffy fans, after all, tend to be geeks.

Anyway...

There are a lot of things to note here. I note that Buffy is partly broke because her mother's medical bills are up her inheritance, for example. Thank Bevan we have the NHS in this country. We also have an interesting argument between Xander and Anya about whether they should announce their engagement, and he clearly has cold feet, nervous about the adult responsibilities it symbolises. Once again the theme rears its head.

Most dramatically Giles is back, and giving Willow a real bollocking for what she's done, which takes her aback somewhat. Worse, she implicitly threatens him for doing this before realising what she's done. We're getting plenty of hints that Willow is heading to a very dark place this season.

It's lovely to see Giles with Buffy, though; there's no doubt that he's her real dad, blood relative or not. Still, Buffy is not quite able to confide in him as she can with Spike. And she's still very emotionally dulled, although that could just be Sarah Michelle Gellar's acting.

We get quite a cliffhanger, though; Angel wants to see Buffy in an intra-network crossover...

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Angel: That Old Gang of Mine

"Don't go reading me!"

"I wouldn't, but, sweetie, you're a billboard!"

Interesting, this one. It's a Gunn episode, of course, finally resolving the dangling thread of his divided loyalties between Angel Investigations and his old gang, and a chance for J. August Richards to shine. And yet, arc-wise, I think the moments to remember are Wesley's steely warning to Gunn at the end, even after showing he emphasises- he's getting gradually more badass- and Fred's not only venturing outside but actually being rather brave. She is, I think, in a quiet way the character who develops the most in these 43 minutes. 

Still, Gunn... we get lots of flashbacks to his late sister Alonna and a lot of references to her; it's obvious that this episode sees Gunn's past being firmly put to bed so that the character can move forward. His alienation from Wesley and co is out of character, and supposed to be; the character gets done good development here. 

This is the first time we're invited to disapprove of Gunn's old gang, who are now indiscriminately hunting down all demons, harmful or not, out of sheer racism. They have, as Gunn says, "lost the mission". And, while the new thug from Miami, Dio, is the obvious psycho, it can't all be blamed on him. The behaviour of the gang in Caritas puts them beyond the pale and gives Gunn a chance to pick his side.

There's a happy ending, with Angel saving the day and a demon killing Dio with CGI. It's not a great episode, this, but a necessary one, and with an anti-bigotry message.

Except... is it me, or is there a bit of a subtext here that casts suspicion on working class political activity...?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: After Life

"That's the thing about magic. There's always consequences. Always!"

After the opening two parter, the aftermath. Buffy is back; it's now time for everyone to stop, breathe, and digest this. Partly this is about letting Buffy progress from stunned to functioning, if a little Prozac-y, and partly it's about letting people speculate about her possibly having been in some sort of Hell dissension before the final brutal bombshell.

Life has gone on. Willow and Tara have kindly invited themselves to live in the Summers family house, and we are briefly invited to speculate over some dull but important things. Who owns the house? Is there a mortgage to pay? What money is coming in? Such questions have been tacitly raised; they will have to answer them soon. 

Buffy spends the episode in an awkward slight estrangement from everyone who helped to raise her, all of whom are greedy for something from her, an affirmation that they did the right thing. Only Spike connects with her, immediately noticing the blood on her hands from clawing her way out of her coffin. He knows these things. And, as the only person who a) isn't seeking self-affirmation from her and b) isn't her younger sister, he's the only person she can really talk to, which is a good use of the character. He's no fool, either; Spike is the only character at this point who begins to understand the real darkness into which Willow is slipping.

Giles has been told ("I think I actually heard him clean his glasses"), but for now the younger generation aredealing with all this on their own. There is, as ever, a monster in the form of a poltergeist-like spectral being which was created by the resurrection spell. Dawn, being the teenage girl, is inevitably one of those possessed. Still, it's rather less clear than it used to be what the metaphor is supposed to be here. We're moving well away, as has often been said, from the days when Buffy used monsters as clear metaphors for various aspects of teen life. The show must now deal with the challenges and responsibilities of young adulthood.

Buffy slays the monster, but her own demons remain. And it's only at the end, as Buffy confides in Spike- the only person she can confide in- that the true horror of her situation becomes apparent; she has been woken from a state of happiness and peace. She was in Heaven, and is now in Hell. Thanks a bunch, Willow.