Monday, 30 November 2015

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 November 2015

Doctor Who: Face the Raven

"I guarantee the safety of Clara Oswald."

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Angel: Dad

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Cosmopolis (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The World's End (2013)

"What the fuck does WTF mean?"

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

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

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


Saturday, 14 November 2015

Doctor Who: Sleep No More

"Don't watch it!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Daredevil: Condemned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

"Perhaps we're the savages!"

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 6- Master of Phantoms

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

"I entirely agree..."

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 November 2015

Witchfinder General (1968)

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Quatermass Experiment (live TV play, 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion

"Why do you have a Union Jack parachute?"

"Camouflage."

"Camouflage?"

"Yeah. We're in Britain."

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 6 November 2015

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Terminator (1984)

"I'll be back."

Ahem. Sorry about the obvious quote.

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

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

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

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

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