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. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

"Whatever you need to do, you do it. There is no wrong. If someone needs to be killed, you kill 'em. That's the way."

Wow. Who says rock musicians can't direct? This film is awesome: a twist on the Texas Chain Saw Massacre genre with a load of awesome directorial flourishes to keep things not only visually interesting. Not only that, but there's a cult cast led by the extraordinary Sid Haig in a great part as Captain Spaulding. But you know what? It's easy to be cynical about a director casting their spouse but, well, the best and creepiest performance here is from Sheri Moon Zombie and her deeply disturbing giggle.

It's a stroke of genius to have a character like Captain Spaulding, too- funny, charismatic but essentially there as both Greek chorus and light relief. But the film succeeds because of the twisted family of grotesque serial killers at the end of it, anchored by Bill Moseley's terrifying Oris. 

It's a tribute to the film to reflect that the pace is quite slow and there isn't much incident, yet you're too busy admiring the twisted set pieces and directorial flourishes to notice. A short but delightfully disturbing film. I'll most certainly be searching out more stuff from the esteemed Mr Zombie.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died

"I'm not in the mood for Vikings!"

I already liked this episode a lot when it still seemed to be a fairly low-key tale about a small CGI Viking village against metal aliens with a bit of Doctorish cleverness thrown in. The small stories are often much better than the big epics: give me The Rescue over The Dalek Invasion of Earth any day.

But then there's the twist: the Doctor has saved the day, but poor Ashildr has been killed. She would have died anyway, the whole village would. But the Doctor is consumed with guilt and a sickness of losing too many people, the curse of near-immortality. So he breaks the rules of time travel, just as he did last episode. And Ashildr is immortal which, as The Five Doctors taught us, is a curse. The Doctor instantly regrets what he has done to her; he knows what it's like to bury your loved ones again and again. Has he gone and made a big, terrible mistake?

And so we have an interesting twist on the two-parter: this episode is self-contained, but next week we will be meeting Ashildr again, a thousand years older.

It's a masterfully constructed script, with Jamie Mathieson again excelling; this is possibly the best of the season so far. Maisie Williams (I don't know her; as yet I've only seen one episode of Game of Thrones) is also superb. I can't wait until next week.

So what else? Well, the Doctor's sonic shades are unceremoniously smashed before the pre-titles sequence has even ended. Is this permanent? Clara is again magnificent, almost persuading the baddies to aid off and giving the Doctor a much-needed pep talk. And we actually get a "reversing the polarity of the neutron flow" as Jon Pertwee, er, didn't particularly used to say.

Most interestingly, though, we get an explanation as to why the Doctor now looks like Caecilius from The Fires of Pompeii, and it's actually a satisfying one: the Doctor's subconscious wanted to remind him that, fixed points on time or not, you can still go back and save one person. Nothing bad will happen. Right?

Next week will be interesting. It's starting to be clear what Steven Moffat meant when he said that this season will see a little playing around with what a two-parter is supposed to be.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

"The gods of Greece are cruel! In time, all men shall learn to live without them."

This film looks great with its location filming, is a rollicking adventure story, and has a mostly good cast with Honor Blackman as Hera and an outstanding Patrick Troughton as Phineas, although the casting of a middle-aged and weedy-looking Nigel Green as Hercules is somewhat odd. Still, not many films have a special effects person as executive producer: this film is all about the one and only Ray Harryhausen and his stop motion animation, awesome here as always. Everything else is just window dressing, and rightly so.

So we get, at the climax, both a hydra and a phalanx of skeletons. We get a huge statue coming to life and picking up the Argo. We get two winged harpies. These are what the film is about, and they look amazing, far better than modern CGI. And if the myth is amended a little to accommodate all this, then so be it. This is why the film is worth watching.

I'm also pleased to see the inclusion of the gods at Mount Olympus, though: too many films based on Greek myths omit them. This isn't a film that claims to be more than a simple adventure, but it's a pleasingly accurate portrayal of the spirit of the Greek myths and a highly entertaining way to spend an hour or two.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 3- Anna Regina

"This is Master Cromwell. He used to be a moneylender. Now he writes all the laws."

It's 1531. The Pope still says no. The King has therefore made himself the head of the Church of England, and Cromwell is front and centre. He's a powerful man, but his religious policies and, especially, his humble origins, have made him enemies. His response is to stick close to Anne, but will she stick close to him?

It's interesting to see Cromwell rejecting superstition; to show this makes him seem modern to the contemporary viewer and reveals how sympathetic we're intended to find the character. And we largely do, mainly because of Mark Rylance's extraordinary acting. We really feel for him when he gets dumped by his lover, especially as said lover is his late wife's sister, and thus a heavy hint that he's still haunted and defined by that awful tragedy.

Less sympathetic is More, happy to torture people in order to "save their souls". I'm happy to see this historically accurate portrayal of him as a dangerous fanatic, sadist and murderer, but I'm still unconvinced by the way Anton Lesser has chosen to play him, as something close to a thug. This sits wrongly, especially in the episode where Anne and Cromwell look down as he resigns as Lord Chancellor. Still, this scene is a nice depiction of how More is moving away from the centres of power as Cromwell moves ever closer, now being a confidant of the King's lover and future Queen. Even a drunken King now seems fond of Cromwell, a man who does his bidding, who came from nothing, who owes all to Henry.

We have a bit of comic relief with Mary Boleyn, whose attraction turns out not to be for Cromwell alone, but the episode ends on an ominous note as Cromwell sees a friend burned at the stake. He is living very, very dangerously.

Once again an excellent piece of telly, and I'm halfway through already.




Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 2- Entirely Beloved

"The Pope will learn his place"

It's December 1529. Cromwrll is stubbornly loyal to the doomed Wolsey in spite of the total lack of hope. Wolsey is a tragic, declining figure, and his metaphorical death inevitably translates into a real death before the end of the episode. It's interesting to see how Cromwell re-aligns his allegiances- to his co-religionist Anne Boleyn- without betraying his principles. This is also a sign, of course, of the growing impact of the Reformation in England. More may still be burning heretics, but the King's desire for a divorce that the Pope will never give is a huge opportunity for the Protestant cause, and they know it.

Rylance continues to give us a masterclass in acting, with every gesture and every expression suggesting a depth and inferiority. Thomas Cromwell is a fascinating and multi-layered character. Awkward but loving with his son, bold (but not too bold) with his admiring King, this is a man who is humble in his personal life and yet bold, if not foolhardy, when it comes to his beliefs. 

Mark Gatiss' Gardiner is deliciously slimy, although I'm not sure that Anton Lesser gives us a sufficiently principled More. This is the episode where he resigns as Lord Chancellor out of deep principle; I'm not sure that Lesser's playing the part as a blustering hard man quite works.

The episode climaxes with Cromwell's being summoned into the Royal presence in the dead of life. This is the court of Henry VIII, and such a summons can mean death, but no: this is opportunity. Cromwell's interpretation of the King's dream to mean that he,not the Pope, should be head of the Church manages to further both Cromwell's own interests and those of this cause.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Superman (1978)

"I have sent them you, my only son."

This is, perhaps, the first of the current era of superhero films. The 1966 Batman film was a TV tie-in, while all the others were either movie serials or of that world. This film sets a precedent, and at first it looks like being a good one; Superman is, after all, bloody good.

It isn't a good precedent, though, for the simple reason that the film is an origin story. It happens to work here, yes, but it doesn't in general. Origin stories just mean that you spend most of the film without the title character being able to do any of their usual cool stuff. It works here because Superman's origin story is epic and cool, but generally speaking origin stories are to be avoided.

Still, it works here, and the film is superb. Oh, there are flaws- Gene Hackman is miscast, playing Lex Luthor for broad humour rather than the more camp performance the character needed. Luthor six written like a villain from the Batman TV series; he should have been played as such. Also, there's a glaring continuity error. Jor-El tells Kal-El in the Fortress of Solitude that he's been dead for thousands of years. Yet Kal-El took twelve years to reach Earth and he crashed into Kansas, we're told, in 1948. (So Superman is thirty years old.)  Oops. Also, I'm not sure there's any real logic to the way Luthor infers the existence of Kryptonite. Still, it's necessary to the X plot. Oh, and why is Superman so stupid as to tell Lois one of his weaknesses, namely that he can't see through lead, knowing full well that she's going to write a full page article about it?

All that said, though, the film is epic, huge, looks awesome and Christopher Reeve is perfect casting. It's a triumph, and here are some particular nice touches. The film commemorates thirty years of Superman, so the tribute to Action Comics #1 at the start is an extremely nice touch. Also a nice touch is that all the Elders of Krypton have  different symbol on their chests, and Jor-El's just happens to look like an "S" in the Roman alphabet. Also, well, Marlon Brando. Sadly, though, I must confess to my fellow Doctor Who fans that I failed to spot William Russell in these scenes.

Also s nice touch is the young Clark Kent running faster, literally, than a speeding train. These little touches keep us entertained as the film whisks is through Superman's origins and, this being pre- Crisis on Infinite Earths and the film being moderately faithful to the comics, his takes a good long while. 

Interestingly, though, Jor-El says the line "I have sent them you, my only son". This is a blindingly obvious Christ allegory and I'm not sure that's appropriate; Superman was created in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht, by a couple of Jewish nebbishes. The character is, in spirit, Jewish. He's also essentially a liberal wish fulfilment figure: Superman in his early years would go after wife beaters or put Hitler and Stalin on trial. Here, though, he's a resolutely conservative and all-American figure, his liberal, Jewish origins forgotten.

Nothing dates the film so much as the scenes at the Daily Planet, with typewriters everywhere and not a single PC. Metropolis is very obviously New York here: there are trains to Buffalo and Syracuse.

Sadly, the climax to the film is a bit of a letdown; if Superman can just turn back time so that Lois doesn't die then all future dramatic tension is gone. But this is a film that rises above its flaws by dint of simply being awesome. 

There. After loads of Marvel stuff I've finally blogged something by DC!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

8½ (1963)

"A writer's block? What if it's not just temporary, my friend? What if it's the final downfall of a liar who has run out of talent."

A single viewing probably isn't enough for me to properly discuss Federico Fellini's magnum opus. Suffice to say it's a beautifully shot and profoundly eloquent film, every shot pregnant with far more meaning than I can adequately discuss here. It's magnificent but, while it is everything I just said, it is by no means a "difficult" film to watch. There is a straightforward narrative in spite of everything.

Guido is a forty-three year old film director, like Fellini himself, and the assumption must be that the character is a self-portrait. This is interesting, as the character suffers from a profound writers block which he cannot overcome, ultimately leading, after much angst, to an expensive, abandoned failure. This is, of course, the underlying anxiety of all artists. But there is, I think, more, an ennui and existential angst, mixed with mid-life crisis, that seems very appropriate to the early '60s.

I wonder if Fellini has a similar difficult relationship with his wife? And, of so, if her reaction to the film on seeing it was the same as the fictional Luisa?

There are many dream sequences (one of which involves a harem of showgirls, and a whip!), all of which are deliberately shot so as not to be straightforwardly separated from the main narrative. Delightfully metatextual games are also played: I love the character of the critic. Not only does Fellini get to use the character to anticipate any and all criticism but he skewers the worst sort of critic quite delightfully.

Not exactly light viewing, this, but extremely rewarding. I recommend it hugely.


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Doctor Who: Before the Flood

"My first proper alien, and he's an idiot!"

So perhaps this second episode doesn't quite maintain the superlative quality of its excellent predecessor. Ah well. No criticism implied, really: they don't, as a whole, for narrative reasons. Second parts are functional. Plot, plot, plot. There's less time for atmosphere, set pieces, witty lines, coolness. And this episode suffers from that, as second episodes always do. But it still rounds out a superb two parter. Well done, Toby Whithouse. This is by some distance the best Who you've ever done. It's also the one where you've played the most with structure and timey-wimeyness. These two facts are connected.

The pre-titles, in which the Doctor does a bit of violence to the fourth wall, is a nice example of the latter. There are slight grounds for criticism here, perhaps, in that the Bootstrap Paradox ("Google it") isn't much of a big deal to anyone who's sci-fi literate, and doesn't justify such a big build-up. Also, isn't it all a bit Back to the Future II? But we should remember that this is a popular BBC drama aimed at a general audience.

No; if we are to criticise, we should start by conceding the point that this is a superb forty-five minutes of television, but then ask ourselves at whom it is aimed. The plot is complex, and asks a lot of its audience. Is it, perhaps, too complex for kids? I note that it was broadcast at 8.25pm: scheduling like this is clearly not done with children's bedtimes in mind. I, for one, am loving this season, and loved the last. They are probably the best seasons, for me, since 2005. But should people like me really be the target audience.

Whatever. I've said these things before and the final ratings and AI figures have always proved me wrong. If it can ultimately be shown that this season's apparent drop in viewers reflects something more than changes in how television is watched these days then it'll be time to worry. And "worry" is relative. Doctor Who is and remains a BBC flagship. Don't worry about ratings. Perhaps you should worry about John Whittingdale, but that's for another day.

So, what else? It's a surprisingly small part for Paul Kaye, although amusing. I noticed Corey Taylor's roar, at last a little something for us metalhead fans. It looks like the guitar is here as a recurring prop, Peter Capaldi's version of Troughton's recorder. Oh, and McDonnell's mention of the "Minister of War" is clearly seeding something for later in the season.

Bottom line: another excellent episode. Doctor Who is still in the midst of its current golden age. And next week looks good. Is it me, though, but isn't there an awful lot of talk of certain death between the Doctor and Clara? We know Clara is leaving: is her death being foreshadowed?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 1- Three Card Trick

"Never mind who that is. It's nobody."

So, how many different TV series am I blogging at the moment? Anyway, here's another one.

It's somewhat odd watching this so relatively soon after I blogged The Tudors, covering roughly the same historical period and therefore consisting of much the same event and the same characters portrayed by a different cast. There are significant differences, though. This is no melodrama but a serious adaptation of two works of literary fiction, and there's a more realistic attitude to sets and costume, and a. much artier directorial style. The use of candlelight for the indoor scenes is particularly superb.

This episode, centred on the beginning of Wolsey's fall but using extensively non-linear storytelling to make heavy use of flashbacks, introduces us to both Thomas Cronwell the fascinatingly nuanced character and to Mark Rylance, an actor of the very first rank who rarely deigns to appear on screen. He's every bit as good here as his theatrical reputation. Other stand-outs are a world-weary Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey and a delightfully sinister Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner.

There's a lot of emphasis on class, Cromwell's humble beginnings and his lack of nobility- we even meet his abusive and very working class father. Indeed, it is Wolsey's earlier snobbery towards the Boleyn family that ultimately causes his downfall, or so it is strongly implied, although on the other hand we also get a rather handy bit of exposition from Gardiner about Charles V's Habsburg hordes marching on Rome to make the Pope their bitch, ensuring Henry VIII has sod all chance of divorcing Charles' aunt.

 I'm sure this theme will continue to develop, as well as the obvious theme of the upcoming English Reformation. Cromwell's Protestant leanings are hidden for now; the irony of his being so loyal to the Cardinal is, I'm sure, not lost on a single viewer.

The main "event" of the episode is, of course, the sudden and horrible death of More's wife and two daughters from the sweating sickness. This is shot and acted in order to give us maximum sympathy for Cromwell. I hope none of us ever have to imagine such suffering. It's a superb sequence of scenes.

Things end on an uncertain note. Wolsey us, of course, finished, but has Cromwrll somehow saved his career by impressing the King by some intelligent cheekines? We shall see how it happens. But what is certain is that this promises to be a very impressive little series.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Madness of King George (1994)

"We consider ourselves blessed in our constitution. We tell ourselves our Parliament is the envy of the world. But we live in the health and well-being of the sovereign as much as any vizier does the Sultan."

This is scripted by the great Alan Bennett and stars the great Nigel Hawthorne (who, sadly, only graduated from the excellent Yes, Minister to a glorious film career at the end of his life), so obviously it's superb. It's as historically accurate as it's sensible for a play-cum-film to be (Alan Bennett did this period when he read History at Oxford, you know), full of heart, and funny. Cyril Shaps' poo-obsessed doctor is a particular delight.

We begin with a few scenes establishing where we are. Greville, the King's new equerry, is our POV as an audience, and we establish what the King is like as a person- pretty damn eccentric, what what? This is essential: before he goes mad, we need to see what he's like when he's sane. We also see his loving (but probably sexless) relationship with the Queen, his traditional Hanoverian hostility to the profligate and indolent Prince of Wales, and the political context of all this. Cold fish and budding alcoholic Pitt the Younger relies on the King's survival and sanity for his career and that of his faction of Whigs. If the King is replaced by Prince George as Prince Regent, then Charles James Fox is waiting in the wings with a somewhat more radical bunch of Whigs, which could mean a load of extremist nonsense like the abolition of slavery. Heavens above.

(The Tories are, incidentally, in no position to form a government: it was they who lost America and they will be out of contention for a generation.)

It is, of course, as popular culture always shows us, extremely dull at the court of George III. Versailles this is not. Nor, thank heavens, is it the awful Brighton Pavilion. But things soon become interesting as the King's behaviour takes a turn for the bizarre.

The film concerns the progress of his madness- mercifully brief, this being his first lapse in 1788: he would not recover, alas, from another attack in 1810, long after the film ends. The film seems to adopt the prevailing theory that the King's malady was, in fact, porphyria. A caption at the end reminds us that this is hereditary. Ha!

The meat of the film consists of the battle of wills between the King and Dr Willis, a man who is now able to exercise his authority over no less than a King ("No, Sir! You are the patient!"), if only for a little while. The Prince Regent will not have his way. Yet.

These scenes are fantastic, but the whole film is so damn watchable. It's brilliant. I mean, it's Alan Bennett. Just go and watch it now.


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

"And now the woman's of Er-Heb will cut his bollocks off. Ha ha!"

Let's deal with the elephant in the room first: is this film racist?

First, let's consider that this is an adaptation of a story written in 1888 by Rudyard Kipling, and we can therefore expect a bit of raving imperialism which can't fail to be transferred to any adaptation.

Secondly, let's consider that there are two stupid answers to the question: "yes" and "no". These answers betray the mindset that thinks there are only two types of people in the world- outright Nazis and people "without a racist bone on their bodies". That's what's implied by any question that asks us to rule on whether something is either racist or "not racist" whereas, in fact, 99.99% of us fall between these poles. Personally, I'm a Guardian-reading liberal type who abhors racism, but I wouldn't dream of claiming that I "haven't got a racist none in my body". How could I possibly know that? There could be all sorts of unexamined racist assumptions hidden somewhere in my subconscious. They're unexamined. That's the point.

So let's just briefly note that the original source text, given the author, the subject matter and the setting, can hardly fail to display both racist attitudes and a voyeuristic othering of people from other cultures. Let's also briefly note that, being integral to the plot, these things are inevitably transferred to this film adaptation. Also, 1975 is an age ago in terms of attitudes to race- a film like this would never be made today- and both India and Kafiristan are presented as an exotic "other", not on their own terms. But let us also remember the context. Past attitudes are what they are. This film was less racist in the context of 1975 than it would be if made today.

So let's talk about things that are more interesting. Such a show unusual it is for John Ford to direct a film like this, how amazing the location filming looks, or how Sean Connery's Scottish accent jars somewhat with dialogue clearly written with a voice from south of the border in mind.

Also interesting is that Kafiristan was a real place, called this by its Muslim neighbours as it was the only pagan part of Afghanistan, and thus mysterious and unique, at the time Kipling wrote his original story. Sadly, though, it was converted en masse during the 1890s and is now called Nuristan. Isn't the onward march of conformity a depressing thing?

But what of the film? Well, it's superb: gripping, great to look at and full of incident and deeply charismatic performances, not least from its stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine but also from Saeed Jaffrey, whose superb comic timing helps to partly hide the vaguely racist undertones of the character he's playing.

The emphasis on freemasonry is... odd, and doesn't give us an entirely sympathetic portrayal of Kipling. Interesting. But this is ultimately a classic tragedy, where Danny is brought down utterly by his hubris and Peachy brought down low by his own relative hubris. As a tale, and as a film, it is superb. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

if... (1968)

"Paradise is for the blessed. Not the sex-obsessed."

I wasn't privileged/unfortunate enough to go to a public school myself, being far too common: not for me the delights of fagging, chapel, cadets and assorted bizarre traditions. Most of what I know of the big public schools comes from Stephen Fry's Moab Is My Washpot, a certain episode of Ripping Yarns and, yes, this film. No doubt this gives me an entirely realistic impression.

The film is a triumph of direction, of the riveting central performance of Malcolm McDowell, and of the dreamlike, searing anger of the film. And yes, that's an unusual combination. 

We begin with introductions to the school, its arcane traditions, its loathsome "whips", corporal punishment, hypocritical staff, and the fact that new boys are called "scummy". It's a harsh introduction to a harsh life for kids who are already having to cope with the brutal separation from their families. What sort of parent can do that to s child? Worse, what sort of parents can do that to a child on full knowledge of what it must feel like? One can understand why ex-public schoolboys are often so repressed, cold and weird. Privilege comes at the cost of devastating psychological trauma. That's how we do things on this country. Lovely.

Of course, this being a closed environment with little in the way of oestrogen, the inevitable homoeroticism is simply accepted. Boys are accused by other boys of "tarting". Teachers are either soulless authoritarians or deeply eccentric. It's all profoundly weird.

Into all this comes Mick Travis, a decidedly not-very-'60s rebel, obsessed with war. We see a number of his brushes with authority and two big dream sequences. The first of these sees him and his mate nick a motorbike (without consequences) after which he proceeds to get his end away. The second consists of his shooting  loads of people.

At least, I assume this last bit is a dream sequence. It's certainly shocking to see, especially given recent events in Oregon, Connecticut, and other places which fetishise the "right" to bear arms.

All the boys we see are damaged, profoundly weird and entirely unable to interact with other human beings in a natural way. Travis is no worse than many, especially not the tyrannical "whips".

This is a brilliant, brilliant film which skewers public school culture superbly while also benefiting from some delightfully arty direction. One of the best films of the '60s and a film that simply could not have been made in any other year.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Doctor Who: Under the Lake

"Two weeks of "Mysterious Girl" by Peter Andre- I was begging for the brush of Death's merciful hand."

The obvious point to make about this two-parter, from what we've seen so far, is that it seems to be playing interesting structural games with the two parter format- the first episode is set in the later time period and the second in an earlier period, meaning that the first episode sets up a puzzle to be solved by the second. In other words, the two halves of the story are in different time zones: sort of The Ark in reverse.

The less obvious point, though, is how resolutely traditional this episode feels: a base under siege with all the narrative short cuts that implies and, brilliantly, the first time since the series came back in 2005 that we've had a proper, old-fashioned, first episode which has time to breathe, explore the environment the TARDIS lands in and set up the mystery. I suspect that this, as much as the structural playing, may have been the original aim of Toby Whithouse in writing this. This may be a deeply and exaggeratedly traditional episode of Who, but it also manages to lovingly deconstruct traditional Who in doing so. The Doctor can hardly help pointing out all the tropes of the base-under-siege story he finds himself in. I love this sort of metatextual fun.

Oh, and it's also the scariest episode in yonks.

Other positives: not only do we have a deaf character, whose first language is BSL, but she's in charge. The script is delightfully witty, and the chemistry between the Doctor and Clara is perfect; I love the bit with the cue cards! The ghosts look brilliant- oh, and one of them is a Tivoli, one of whom was played by David Walliams in The God Complex. And the cliffhanger is brilliant.

I'll refrain from praising this too highly until I've seen the second episode- this feels like half of a puzzle- but so far I'm very, very impressed.


Friday, 2 October 2015

Class

So: new Doctor Who spinoff on BBC 3. Personally I'm excited to see what happens. We know little at this stage, but one thing is for sure: it's a huge sign of the confidence the BBC has in the programme that a spin-off should happen in the current climate.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/doctorwho/entries/953c5b1f-3cc8-4db9-8184-f1b6567260f1

What do we all reckon?

The Latest Doctor Who Pubcast

This month we have some of our interviews with guests at the splendid Whooverville event last month...

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Countess Dracula (1971)

"Countess Dracula! Countess Dracula!"

Meh. I like me a good Hammer, but this is the most forgettable sort of early '70s stuff. Doing a film based on the notorious Elizabeth Bathory is not a bad idea in theory but the plot is perfunctory, the script tired and Ingrid Pitt, wonderful though she is, doesn't have the charisma to carry a film otherwise full of nonentities, excepting the ever-fab Peter Jeffrey in a minor role and some delightful scenery chewing from Maurice Denham. Overall, it's a Hammer worth skipping. Even the title is crowbarred in.

Any interesting points? Well, the costumes look good, and no doubt are accurate for early 17th century Hungary. The history is a bit off: Elizabeth Bathory was active as a serial killer between 1590 and 1610 (a much longer period!!!) but the film, with Turks encroaching on Vienna, seems to be set in the 1680s. And, of course, whereas the real Bathory may not have committed the murders to stay young at all, in the film she is actually rejuvenated. But beyond that and an incongruous bit of bawdiness with boobies in the tavern (the real world has pubs; cinematic Central Europe has "taverns") there's not much to say about it.

Next!