Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

"What is the password?"

"Iron Man sucks!"

It's New Year's Eve, the little one is in bed, and it's my last night of freedom before a month of intense real life stuff that is likely to preclude pretty much any blog stuff happening between now and 30th/31st January because of some pretty intense real life stuff. Be reassured, though; normal blogging frequency will be resumed. Meanwhile, I'll do this last blog post of 2017 as several pints of Boddingtons go down.

This movie is awesome, the kind of knowing but very silly and very meta film that the Batman mythos was just crying out for. I knew it was going to be fun as soon as the Batman monologue over the opening titles started, and I knew it was going to be awesome as soon as the bloke started singing "Nothing bad ever happens to me".

I love the deliberate usage of all of Batman's rogues gallery from all media, including Egghead, Killer Moth, King Tut, Gentleman Ghost, Crazy Quilt and, er, Condiment King. Even better, there's a Chief O'Hara. This film has a huge amount of knowing fun with the whole mythos, including jokes about how Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham City for 78 years.

Things enter an extra level of awesome, though, once the Joker brings back his mates from the Phantom Zone including Godzilla, King Kong, Sauron, Voldemort, the Wicked Witch of the West and various other big bads that Warner Bros has the right to. And, er, certain nameless pepperpots that it blatantly doesn't. And the running romcom joke about the relationship between Batman and the Joker is genuinely funny. The most fun film of 2017 so far, without a doubt.

As You Like It (1936)

"He that sweetest rose will find / Must find love's prick, and Rosalind."

Well then. This saucy, decidedly queer play, new to me, is not what I expected from Shakespeare, and the fact that this is a post-code film from 1936, subtitles for YouTube provided for cultural reasons by the US Government (I bet Trump has put a stop to that) only serves to show how intrinsic to the play this queerness is.

I know Shakespeare, I flatter myself to say, better than most. I have a mere undergraduate degree, from Nottingham uni, but before tonight I knew 22 Shakespeare plays to varying extents, now 23. And until tonight I have given no more than perfunctory acknowledgement to queer theory in relation to the bard. I am, of course, aware of the trope of women dressing as men in such plays as Twelfth Night, but have accepted this as early modern LGBT (let us not forget the T) only in the generic way that one must accord to all cross-dressing. And yet... here Rosalind calls her male disguise "Ganymede", Jove's eponymous catamite. It's hard not to see deliberate, glorious, authorial queerness here. And that's before considering the wonderful sexual ambiguity of pretty much all of Rosalind's lines once she takes on male guise. It's doubly wonderful that this happily queer character should be played here, with a noticeable accent but a great deal of charm, by Elisabeth Bergner, a Viennese Jew who had fled Hitler's Berlin.

Ok, queerness aside this stuck me as a relatively ho-hum Shakespeare comedy with moments of lyrical genius, not quite up there with his best, but that's a relative statement. But there's much to marvel at with this somewhat ancient artifact. My reason for watching this was the presence of Henry Ainley, father of the actor Anthony Ainley, well-known to us Doctor Who fans and subject of a splendid biography. Ainley, though, turned out to be the exemplar of something truly fascinating; the theatrical delivery of Shakespeare of a certain era, still "traditional" although pretty much beyond living memory, against which the more "naturalistic" delivery of actors such as Lauence Olivier.

Also notable are the presence of John Laurie (Private Fraser in Dad's Army) as a young heartthrob and a young Peter Bull- the Soviet ambassador in many James Bond films- as a young yokel. This film is fascinating, in the public domain, and on YouTube with proper subtitles.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

"If the good Lord had intended us to walk, he wouldn't have invented roller skates...”

It’s an alarming thought that this film was made when Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a recent children’s novel. But 1971 was a long time ago, and inevitable comparisons with Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation (not a remake; merely a different imagining of the same source material, so I haven’t broken my rule by blogging that film first) must reflect that.

This film may not have Burton’s remarkable visual style, striking though it is on its own terms. It cannot quite live up to the vivid and wonderfully surreal chocolatescapes of the novel; instead it has Gene Wilder, not an actor I have always admired, in the role he was born to play. He is extraordinary. His Willy Wonka is wry, highly intelligent, fatalistic about being surrounded by unkind, uncultured, venal fools. This is one of the most charismatic, and quotable, characters in the history of cinema.

There is much else to enjoy, though, such as Tim Brooke-Taylor’s comic cameo and, for us Doctor Who fans, recognising Bill from Day of the Daleks. The Oompa-Lookpa songs, while much truncated, are still entertaining, and most of the songs are not annoying. Most of them. There are lots of nice little comedy scenes surrounding the search for the golden ticket to raise a titter from the adults watching. The film is a triumph, hugely entertaining and, in spite of yielding to reality at times, surprisingly faithful to the book. If only there’d been a sequel with Vernicious Knids...

Friday, 29 December 2017

X-Men 2 (2003)

"Bobby, have you tried not being a mutant?"

It's rare for a sequel to outshine its predecessor; X-Men 2, helmed again by Bryan Singer (whose reputation has suffered post-Weinstein, as have many, and such behavior in this and all other industries cannot be tolerated, but let us not derail ourselves) may well have achieved it with this adaptation of God Loves, Man Kills.

As per the comics, the film gives us a well-rounded and well-written set of characters, all well-acted and many of whom, handily, have already been introduced. Good writing means that the sheer number of characters does not feel excessive, although I wonder if someone less familiar with the source material would say the same.

While Wolverine is still prominent- and hints are dropped about his origins- there is a much more equal treatment of the characters this time around. Nightcrawler is introduced, and in many ways true to form, but it's a pity that the character's sense of humour is so downplayed. Rogue is more peripheral this time, but the love triangle of Scott, Jean and Logan is very much still there.

Magneto is magnificent and, while allied with the goodies for much of the film, gets his chance to be evil for a bit near the end. Xavier is shown as reasonable and charming, and once again we forgot just how bloody terrifying his mind control powers are. Bobby Drake is well-developed, wit the pathos of his brother betraying him just after he outs himself to his parents. Pyro, of course, joins Magneto's lot. And, of course, Jean dies at the end just as she did in the comics a few issues before returning as Phoenix.

Among all the action and set pieces- I love the epic fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike- there are also plenty of character moments, and the film is gripping throughout. This instalment will be hard to top.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

"She offered me free love. At the time it was all I could afford.”

Wow. That was bleak. More so, in fact, than the BBC’s superb version of Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which I am certain to blog at some point. And that Richard Burton is awfully good at this acting lark.

I was twelve when the Wall came down; I remember the Cold War. But the world of half a century ago seems a strange place in many ways. The leading man can sneeringly refer to a “queer”, labour exchanges advertise “jobs for men” and even a bibulous fellow like myself raises an eyebrow at the sheer amount of alcohol consumed. And Nan refers to her Hungarian goulash with Portuguese wine as a “Communist dish with a totalitarian wine”; no one seems to regard the tyrannies of the Eastern Bloc and Salazar’s fascist state as equally vile. It’s all a game and, as Control says, while one side supports freedom and the other does not, the methods used by both sides are equally abhorrent. No wonder it’s so easy to become burnt out and turn to drink.

(“Control”- I now get certain sketches from A Bit of Fry and Laurie more than I did...)

This is a thriller, of sorts, but one uniquely suffused with a profound sense of moral disillusionment and ennui. Leamas is younger than I am now but certainly doesn’t feel it. The final twist is clever but morally bankrupt and the unhappy ending, when it comes, is not unexpected. An excellently downbeat counterweight to the sort of spy film we usually see and a real acting triumph from Richard Burton.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017)

“I have sensitive nipples!”

Yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy are back. Wisely, James Gunn is also back to write and direct, and the soundtrack plays just as part a role. What we have is more of the same, which is no bad thing. This sequel may not be quite as good as the first film but it has the same humour, the same relatable characters in a very cosmic setting, and the same sense of style.

It even has a heart, with the message that men like Yondu who bother to raise children are proper fathers, whereas giant planets like Ego who bugger off to destroy all life in the universe are not. We also have a touching and hilarious romance of sorts between Drax (who gets the best lines, again: “I have famously huge turds”) and the innocent Mantis. The reconciliation between sisters Gamora and Nebula is heartwarming, and we are told the horrible truth that Thanos (Not in the film but ever- present) used to make his daughters fight and Gamora always won, and each time he would replace a part of Nebula’s body with machinery for losing- truly horrific. Baby Groot is cute. And Rocket Raccoon is everybody’s favourite arsehole.

Ego, of course, can’t always be shown as a giant planet on the screen, so Kurt Russell plays his human avatar, although we certainly get to see Ego as we know him, a living planet with a face. Mantis is as we know her from Steve Englehart. And the Stan Lee cameo is intriguing as we briefly catch him reminiscing to Uatu, suggesting that all his cameos may have seen him working undercover for the Watchers. Ego is a Celestial, apparently; they obviously look quite different in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Howard the Duck gets another cameo, played by Seth Green. And the ending seems to hint at the creation of Adam Warlock, no less.

We get a dramatic and very sad ending bringing everything to a splendid confusion, and some properly cosmic post-credit scenes. I’m glad it won’t be another three years until we see these characters again.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time

“You’re the first Dalek that ever got naked for me!”

It’s a brave move to start the Christmas special, where a greater number of viewers than usual are watching, many of them digesting large late lunches and just a little bit on the merry side, with “Previously on Doctor Who...” and a load of monochrome clips from 1966. But Moffat, in perhaps the last script he will ever contribute to the programme, dares to do it. Right after bringing back the Cybermen from The Tenth Planet he shows us bits of the story. Then William Hartnell morphs into an outstanding David Bradkey and, for the next hour, everything is brilliant.

There’s a lot more going on than a multi-Doctor story, of course, but it’s a joy to see one from the man who penned Time Crash. The repartee between the two Doctors is magnificent, and the running joke of the new Doctor’s admonishment of the old Doctor’s casual sexism is both nice social commentary and a nifty bit of foreshadowing. Yes, I raised an eyebrow at how the old Doctor- refusing, like the new Doctor, to renew himself- had a flicker of modern day orange regeneration energy, but some things are inevitable. But there are things to squee about- the old TARDIS, inside and out, “the Ship”. And, after all these years of Doctors with a number as a prefix, it’s great to see the Doctor again.

It’s an indulgence, perhaps, for Moffat’s old mate Mark Gatiss to be cast in his swansong, but appropriate; he excels as a man snatched from the point of death and knowing he must return. And it’s inevitable, appropriate and cleverly done that Bill should return. And the seeming enemy is linked to the Weapon Forgers of Villengard- a lovely little reference to The Doctor Dances and Moffat’s first ever story for Doctor Who. Then again, I’m tempted to see the plot resolution- there’s no real baddie, just a rather nice scheme to duplicate the Matrix on Gallifrey and ensure the memory of everyone who has ever lived is uploaded just before the point of death- as being a call back to the sort of plot Moffat used to write in the early days.

It’s nice to see the Doctors discuss their mutual fears of their impending regenerations, and it’s great to see the truly wonderful chat between Bill and the old Doctor; never mind what he was running from when he stole the TARDIS; where was he running to? The answer is that he wanted to find out why it was that good prevails, and he doesn’t understand that the reason is him, the wandering God, the perfect encapsulation of the outgoing showrunner’s philosophy.

We also get the return of an old friend from Into the Dalek, references to RTD’s old stomping ground of New Earth as a nice little tribute to Moffat’s predecessor, and of course a great big tribute to the Hartnell years to make clear that Moffat is in no doubt as to what he is; a custodian, standing on the shoulders of others, making his own huge contribution, and handing the show on to others. He’s undoubtedly a name to be spoken of on a par with Robert Holmes. If we never see him on the programme again, we shall miss him. And let us not forget the sheer personal sacrifice of dedicating seven very busy years to Doctor Who. Steven Moffat, we salute you.

There’s a nice further twist, of course- the Captain is one Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart. But then it’s on to the regeneration- with touching goodbyes from the uploaded memories of Bill, er, Nardole, and Clara, who manages to restore the Doctor’s memories. It’s a nice little update of the farewells from a Doctor’s companions prior to regeneration that was so fashionable in the ‘80s.

But the Doctor must die alone. And, ancient though he is, and weary of mourning so many friends and loved ones, he convinces himself that the universe sort of needs him and, after a brief farewell speech that owes a fair bit to Terrance Dicks he finally regenerates. The regeneration itself is awesome, but so is Peter Capaldi. Magnificent, and one of the great Doctors. And then... Jodie Whittaker gets to utter just two words and her first thirty-odd seconds are very, very Matt Smith.

Magnificent. Truly magnificent. Although I have no idea what the slightly sozzled not-we made of that...

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Walking Dead- Season 2, Episode 11: Judge Jury, Executioner

"They're gonna kill me, right?

Spoilers. You have been warned.

This is one of the best types of episodes of The Walking Dead: all about a big ethical dilemma now that civilisation has ended. Randall is a threat, as Daryl discovers by, er, torturing him. He has thirty well-armed rapist mates. So should the group kill him for the sake of their own safety?

Dale's view is a principled "no". Everyone else's view consists of multiple variations and degrees of "yes" because the group must be protected from the threat. My own view is, perhaps, more nuanced; in any civilised society, Dale would be right. But civilisation has literally ended; humanity is literally now living in small, palaeolithic-type bands, struggling to survive and struggling, beyond that, to pass on any inkling of modern tech, knowledge and philosophy. The aim is therefore not to behave according to a state of civilisation that no longer exists but to survive, and do what you can to contribute to the hopeful rebuilding of a civilisation where such acts are not done. For now, though, the group probably need to kill him, as quickly and humanely as possible. And feel awful about it, because to feel ok about it would be inhuman.

This is also a huge character episode, of course. Dale dies, courtesy of a lone and foreshadowed zombie, thinking the worst of everyone. There's a touching scene where Herschel shows Glen that he accepts him as his daughter's partner. Daryl hints gruffly to Dale that he doesn't much approve of Shane's psycho tendencies. The female characters are all a bit disappointingly passive in this testosterone-fuelled episode. Carl's behaviour is getting to be a bit of a worry. And the subtle joshing between Rick and Shane for the position of alpha male is getting close to a climax. Shane admits to Andrea that he wants to be boss, and Rick has lost face by not going through with shooting Randall.

A definite uptick in quality, then, although next episode could do with a bit more oestrogen.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA Smile

"You really are an anal crumpet, aren't you?"

So this is it, it’s over, and somehow it all fits into fifty short minutes.

It’s interesting to have the finale be the episode in which Rosario Dawson guest stars as Claire, providing the rather necessary plot function of nursing Luke to health while Jessica has her final confr with Kilgrave. But she also acts as a link to Daredevil and a nice person for Malcolm to chat to about being a “sidekick”- he ends the episode as Jessica’s self-appointed employee, a former social work student finally finding a way to help people.

After a tense set piece with Kilgrave getting everyone in the hospital to want Jessica dead, and an injection into Luke’s optic nerve that we thankfully don’t see, it’s time for the final showdown, and the unhinged Kilgrave has managed to increase his powers even more, even at a 60% risk of death. David Tennant is outstanding for this finale, but Krysten Ritter is extraordinary. Her monologue to the unconscious Luke is quietly devastating. She can’t be with him because, essentially, her self-Loathing means she sees herself as not deserving happiness.

The final showdown- a horribly injured Albert has time to warn Jessica before dying- sees a much more powerful Kilgrave. But a clever bait and switch between Jessica and Trish, and Trish allowing herself to be bait, allows Jessica to trick Kilgrave that he can indeed control her. And it’s when he’s at his very creepiest and his very rapiest that Jessica is able to quickly snap his neck. Visually it feels sudden and even anti-climatic, but thematically it’s satisfying. Kilgrave dies at his most unrepentant.

Hogarth gets a nice little coda to begin her atonement by saving Jessica from being tried for Kilgrave’s murder, but Jessica ends the series still consumed with self-loathing. A magnificent end to a magnificent series, and a character I want to see again.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA Take a Bloody Number

"Please! The chemistry was jumping off the two of you."

Nearly there. The penultimate episode and, while the plot is all about tracking down and killing Kilgrave, this seems to be an episode all about Jessica reconnecting with Luke, at last able to understand and forgive her after himself being controlled by Kilgrave to destroy his likelihood. Perhaps, as Trish urges, Jessica can finally find some happiness with him? No. Of course not. Because this is television drama, and a late twist tells us that this isn't what the episode is about at all.

Kilgrave, meanwhile, is getting his terrified dad to find ways of increasing his powers, in the process giving Jessica (and Luke) the chance to do all that PI stuff and track him down. Trish, with help from her mother and her agenda, may have found clues as to how Jessica got her powers in the first place, but it seems for the moment that it can wait; one big bad at the time. Simpson may or may not be dead.

After a rather distressing scene involving secateurs Malcolm, in a role reversal from early in the season, despairs of Jessica's addictive behaviours and instead rather patiently sets out to help an increasingly disturbed Robyn who, alone, seems unable to function in society. But, after a terrifying scene involving Albert and a blender, Kilgrave's trap snaps shut; Luke has been under his control all along, very unwilling though he is, and Jessica has to shoot him (with his quickly uttered permission) to save herself. It's a devastating ending to a powerful hour of television, and the finale is sure to be more dramatic still...

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Back to the Future (1985)

"You space bastard! You killed my pine!"

Two points before I start, ok? One: 1985 is further ago for us than 1955 was when this film was made. Two: look, this is Back to the Future. I realise that reviews are supposed to express an opinion as to the quality of the film or whatever, yes, but can we just cut the crap, acknowledge that this is a bloody great film, and talk about things that are more interesting?

I've seen this film many, many times but, barring the odd snippet, not for twenty years or so. That makes this reviewing an odd experience, with odd memories unexpectedly returning, and I'm finally getting the pop culture references such as Doc's "Devo suit" and Chuck Berry hearing Marty playing "Johnny B. Goode" over the phone, proving that I . The intricacies of the timey-wimey plot are truly to be admired, although, if I were to be churlish, I'd have to question the treatment of the butterfly effect. Marty has inadvertently changed the circumstances of his parents' meeting, and made his dad much more confident. Surely, then, history has changed in all sorts of chaotic and unpredictable ways so that the same sperm would not have fertilised the same egg at the same time  and Marty would not have been born? Still, I'm no churl.

There are so many clever little things to admire- Marty's straitlaced mum being a rather normal teenager, jailbird Joey in the playpen, the little riffs on '50s sci-fi magazines. And then we have the Libyan terrorists in their, er, camper van. And Doc, just prior to being shot, intending to visit the distant future of, er, 2010. And how the film blatantly compares 1955 favourably to the Reaganite 1985, but not in a reactionary way; the first thing we see when Marty returns to 1985 is a homeless man.

The script is brilliant. Michael J. Fox is brilliant. Christopher Lloyd is brilliant. And James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland) is a cinematic legend. This is an awesome film.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA I’ve Got the Blues

”What about nuns?”

“They still make those?”

It’s the morning after the night before, a symbolic hangover following the dramatic events of the last episode. It’s also a time to breathe before the final two episodes so it’s a more relaxed pace and a secondary villain in the shape of a drugged up Simpson. Jessica even gets hit by a truck due to tiredness, but it’s clear how single minded she is about killing Kilgrave, whatever the cost.

We get some nice flashbacks of Jessica and Trish in their youth, and we are shown Just how a musics “Patsy’s” mother was, forcing her into a showbiz career to the extent of compulsory bulimia. It’s Jessica saving her from this abuse, and Trish’s early accidental knowledge of Jessica’s powers, that forges their deep friendship. It also adds extra meaning to Trish’s druggy heroics later on as she gets to be the hero for once. A Hellcat indeed.

The confrontation between a physically weakened but mentally sharp Jessica is compelling as she reveals she’s worked out that it was him who killed Clemens. The ensuing fight and its consequences define thecepisode, with Trish being lucky to survive.

But we end with a splendid cliffhanger as texts that can only be from Kilgrave lead Jessica to Luke Cage’s bar just before it explodes. Lucky his power is to be invulnerable. What will happen now? How will Luke react to her? Here we go...

Monday, 11 December 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA 1,000 Cuts

"I'm a man of my word. If I feel like it."

Now that changes everything.

The whole series up to now has been based around the central plotline of Jessica having to provide evidence against Kilgrave so that Hope, an innocent young woman, doesn't spend her life locked away for something she didn't do. There are, of course, as a drugged up Simpson points out, a few problems with this, not the least of which is how can Kilgrave ever plausibly be imprisoned? If he can get Hope freed on a whim then the answer is surely "never". But the dramatic final scene removes this imperative. Jessica, both freed of her obligations to Hope and freed of Kilgrave's control, can now set out to kill him.

So much happens, though. A crazed Simpson suddenly murders Detective Clemons. Robin tries to kill Hogarth and is accidentally herself killed by Pam, who ends up disgusted with her (former?) fiancee. We learn that Killgrave has no power over Jessica any more, and that his power is a virus that can potentially be cured. Most horrifyingly, like any abuser, Kilgrave still has no conception of having done wrong, and continues to believe that it is Jessica who has wronged him.

Mostly, though, it's an episode about character, in spite of the sidelining of Simpson's no longer nuanced character, with some first class acting from both Ritter and Tennant as the series disposes of a fair bit of ballast so it can move towards its end. Bloody good telly, yet again.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Ant-Man (2015)

"How's retirement?"

"How's your face?"

This is probably one of the less good Marvel films I've seen; there was a certain lack of polish and there's an unevenness that makes it very noticeable that Edgar Wright was replaced as director. And yet it shows the Marvel benchmark that we nevertheless have a thoroughly enjoyable film that isn't going to garner many negative comments. It helps that Paul Rudd is so excellent.

You can sort of tell, in spite of the different genre (a heist movie within the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and very different setting that the script is from the same source as a certain three films starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, in spite of the lowered humour quotient. But this is very much a Marvel film, complete with Stan Lee cameo and gratuitous reference to Tales to Astonish. It's interesting that Henry Pym was a superhero, as Ant-Man, back in the '80s here, but that Janet Van Dyne, a character I remember so well from Secret Wars, is dead. my Marvel comics knowledge is pretty thorough up to about 1993 and pretty hazy after that; is she dead in the comics?

It's nice to have someone released from prison (admittedly for a pretty Robin Hood crime that doesn't lose our sympathy) as a hero. This film believes in rehabilitation, which is a big reason to like it. The character stuff s good too- Scott being cruelly kept from his daughter (my own little girl is not much younger) and the dynamic between Hank and Hope. The most emotive scenes are all about fathers and daughters. It's a fun film to watch, and even has a giant Thomas the Tank Engine. It's well worth seeing, and don't be put off by the fact that there are better Marvel films. It would be a shame to skip this.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959)


In thought I'd announce the end of that mini-hiatus and the return of normal blogging with a true cinematic classic but, er, something went a bit wrong. Sorry.

Still, this film may be a typically melodramatic Fifties monster movies and oh-so-very-atomic age, played dead straight with dramatic musical stings in the right places, but there's some real quality here. Gene Evans may be a token piece of plywood to draw in American cinemagoers, yes, but Andre Morell, fresh from Quatermass and the Pit, gives a performance that is far more nuanced and charismatic than it needs to be, and the film is well-directed in a way that belies its tiny budget. Best of all, the elderly Willis O'Brien, he of King Kong and The Lost World fame, handles the monster effect and does so with real aplomb.

Mind you, Jack MacGowran's comedy paleontologist is the best thing in it, a welcome piece of comic relief. But, for all its straightforward genre plot, the film allows the tension to build until we have a massive and radioactive dinosaur-cum-plesiosaur in the Thames next to Tower Bridge, and what's not to love about that? I care not that the beast rampaging through London reminds me uncannily of a 1980s Chewits advert; this is a genuinely well-made film and worth seeing if you happen to be fond of this splendid genre.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

A Quick Update...

It’s unlikely that there will be much blogging, if any, between now and the middle of next week as real life is busy at the moment. Fear not, though; normal activity will soon resume...

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA Sin Bin

"Killgrave? Think about obvious! Was 'Murdercorpse' already taken?"

Jessica is playing for high stakes with Hope's freedom, not her own this time. She may have Kilgrave where she wants him, but does she have enough evidence for a conviction? It’s a high tension episode as a desperate Jessica cuts all sorts of corners for Hope, but may just make the situation worse.

I have to say I think the whole concept of plea bargaining is just awful. It isn’t justice, and I hope we never bring it to this country. But it certainly provides a good dramatic device. We also get to see a resilient Kilgrave where he isn’t in control, and he’s quite the match for Jessica. It also seems that Simpson survived the explosion, and has a part still to play.

Most ominously, though, Jessica isn’t the only one who is desperate. Hogarth faces ruin from her vengeful ex, and seems tempted by the prospect of Kilgrave making her problems go away.

Jessica shows us her true skill as a detective by tracking down Kilgrave’s parents, showing us that beneath the alcoholism and PTSD is a brilliant mind. They turn out to be much closer than expected, and it seems that Kilgrave’s side of the story isn’t exactly correct.

The family reunion is as grimly compelling as you might expect, and ends in chaos as an angry Kilgrave makes his mother stab herself to death and nearly does the same to his father, escaping in the confusion. But does Jessica have the evidence she needs? It’s an extraordinary episode, at once fast-paced enough to be exciting and slow enough to give the characters real time to breathe.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

"His head! It was torn off!"

Oh my God. Those special effects are... somewhat vintage. You can see why Mystery Science Theatre:3000 chose this almost-Hammer to start off with.

It feels uncannily like a third Quatermass film, with the plot and the character being played by Forrest Tucker both being very much in that lineage. Yet the original TV series upon which this is based (now sadly lost) was not penned by the mighty Nigel Kneale, and the whole effect is somewhat more light-hearted. And, yes, those monsters are... unique. Not for nothing was the film, under its US title of The Crawling Eye, used by Stephen King for an, er, tribute in It.

It’s fun and entertaining from the unconvincing matte paintings of the first scene to the realisation that the balding scientist with the balding late is being played by Alf Garnett. It’s formulaic, feels exactly like a sort of late Fifties Hammer monochrome sci fi film in spite of not technically being one (although it is from
Jimmy Sangster’s pen) and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. You can sort of tell it’s a truncated version of the lost six part telly series but it isn’t badly paced. And with that monster I think I may actually prefer it to either of its two Quatermass bedfellows.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

“Somebody's shoved a red hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle."

 This is where it all began for Quentin Tarantino, and the first of his films I watched, rented from a video store in Barwell, Leicestershire in about '94ish. I enjoyed it just as much now, but the passing of a couple of decades has added quite a bit of context.

What makes this film stand out from all of Tarantino's other films is the fact that he made it before he had a reputation; it's much cheaper, with an obviously limited number of sets and locations, shorter (definitely a big difference!) and Tarantino himself, while his direction is superb, is not able to show his flashier directorial side with such a low budget film. He excels, much more obviously, with the phenomenal script, filled with all the joyously cool pop culture-related dialogue of his early period, yes, but also masterfully plotted and structured. Famously a heist movie that doesn't show the actual heist, it actually feels an awful lot like a stage play, not something you could often say for a Tarantino film. But there are masterful directorial touches in that we are shown the plot with the minimum of exposition.

The plot is simple, elegant and, while non-linear, has a clarity that belies its complexity- a sign of very good writing. We're left guessing as to the identity of the traitor right up to the unexpected reveal, the violence is cool and stylish, and the cast is perfect. Not even that annoying song from Stealer's Wheel (featuring the late Gerry Rafferty, who would later inflict on us the AOR awfulness of "Baker Street") can spoil it. The first of many Tarantino classics.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

“Well, the first symptom would be flames out of his anus...”

 Ok, I admit it- I'm finding it difficult to watch Eddie Redmayne in anything without thinking of The Theory of Everything, and Mrs Llamastrangler concurs. But that's no reflection on him as an actor, and his standout performance here simultaneously reminds me of Matt Smith in Doctor Who and something entirely new. Not only that, but this is a splendidly entertaining film full of magical beasts, imaginative concepts and fast-paced excitement from the pen of J.K. Rowling.

The Doctor Who connection extends, perhaps, to Newt's wonderful suitcase being bigger on the inside, with one of the funniest scenes being Jacob trying to force his portly frame inside it, but then I'm a Doctor Who fanboy. If I were a Harry Potter fanboy, on the other hand, I'd be squeeing over this look at the world of magic in 1920s New York, where Muggles are "no-maj" and there is a new witch hunt from the "New Salemers", with that song from the little girl being the creepiest thing in the film by far.

But we also see the different ways wizards organise themselves in America, and still have time to namedrop both Hogwarts and Dumbledore, although the mythology is never allowed to overshadow the tumultuous events, where even the baking of a strudel involves some awesome CGI. It's a film that triumphantly mixes the epic, the cool, the funny and the tragic, with budding lovebirds Queenie and Jacob forced to part, with his muggle memories having to be erased. Still, there's a hopefully ambiguous ending and there are many reasons to await the sequel. Good, exciting, fast-paced fun.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Shining (1980)

"Come and play with us, Danny. For ever. And ever. And ever..."
Wow. It seems some things really are as good as their reputation. The Shining is a beautifully shot Stanley Kubrick film, and has a towering, perhaps career-defining performance from Jack Nicholson at its centre, but at its root it's a slasher film with supernatural elements. Yet here we have an auteur director like Kubrick, a serious mainstream Hollywood cast, and we find that a slasher film can be elevated from the genre ghetto to become a mainstream classic.

It is, of course, a Stephen King adaptation, and the cast is ably supplied with excellent performances from Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers, who would go on to become the voice of Jazz in the Transformers cartoon. The plotting is masterful, if not unusual for the genre; the idea of "shining" is interesting but oddly peripheral to the plot. But essentially this is a masterclass in acting from Nicholson and a timely lesson in how the normal tropes of horror- the hotel is even built on the predictable Indian burial ground- can be transmuted into gold by a genius like Kubrick. The only disappointment, I suppose- and I'm clutching at straws here- is that the concept of Tony, the boy who lives in Danny's mouth, is somewhat undeveloped, which I suspect not to be the case with the novel.

Also interesting, to me at least, is how very 1980 the hair, the clothing and everything looks; I'm 40, albeit British, and this is how I remember the world of my earliest memories. But there's no doubting that this is a fine film, possibly Kubrick's finest.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Dune (1984)

"He who controls the spice controls the universe."

Wow. That... was weird.

This is, I’m told, David Lynch’s least loved film. It certainly isn’t well regarded by fans of Frank Herbert, whose work, alas, I have not read. But it’s still cool, flawed though the film is, how David Lynch handles a sci-fi epic which, like Star Wars, has fantasy tropes underneath. I'm glad he got to make one, and that something akin to a David Lynch Star Wars exists. The world would be a worse place otherwise.

It's oddly paced and awkward, of course, Lynch is on record as saying that studio interference moved the film away from his vision, and I'm told that the extended TV version  is even worse. But I find this to be far from a bad film, flawed though it admittedly is. And how can you hate a film that has music by Brian Eno and, er, Toto, together at last?

The cast is superb, with Sian "Livia" Phillips as a kind of futuristic Pythia type, glorious performances by the likes of Paul L. Smith and Patrick Stewart that never tip over to parody but portray their characters with appropriate gusto. The design is superb; two years after Blade Runner establishes that future fashion can be cyclical we have a 110th century aristocracy which dresses like that of the 19th, something which works well and gives us an excellent shorthand for the kind of society this is.

The film doesn't only look good, either (well, some special effects may not have aged well); it's beautifully and druggily shot, as is Lynch's wont,  and there are glimpses of what Lynch intended in moments of excellent, if weird, storytelling.As things stand this is a curiosity rather than a masterpiece, but I'm left fervently hoping for a director's cut.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA WWJD?

"I care if you die. The rest are fungible."

This tour de force of a two hander between Krysten Ritter and David Tennant is easily the most significant episode yet. And the best.

The fifty minutes consists mostly of Jessica and Kilgrave together in Jessica's childhood home, which Kilgrave has rather creepily decorated, right down to the CD's in her bedroom and the Green Day and Nirvana posters (nice!). We learn many things about both their pasts and get to know them both much better. Kilgrave won't control her as he somehow imagines that it's possible for her to fall in love with him of her own free will. Yeah, right. He's not above using others to manipulate her though, reminding us that the character is of course a metaphor for controlling, abusive men.

We learn, through an early flashback, that Jessica's younger brother is long dead. Jessica can put away an awful lot of wine. And there's an early clash as Kilgrave denies responsibility for Reva's death, saying that he only told Jessica to "take care of her". Worse, he denies the fact that he repeatedly raped Jessica while he controlled her because, hey, he bought her dinner.

There's a brief interlude as we see just how ruinously horrible Hogarth's divorce is going to go, and Will Simpson is trying to blow up Kilgrave. But then we hear about Kilgrave's horrid childhood- abused and experimented on by scientist parents, hence his powers and, no doubt, his sociopathy. And it seems he's a Kevin. Well I never. Worse, Jessica lost her parents in a car crash as a teenager because she was being a dick to her little brother in the back.

But it's when Jessica persuades Kilgrave to use his powers for good- defusing a hostage crisis, and not even making the hostage taker kill himself- that the big piece of misdirection occurs. She even goes AWOL to chat with Trish, and we're left convinced that she's considering trying to use Kilgrave for good. But it's all a trap, and we en up with Jessica in possession of a drugged and unconscious Kilgrave- but too late to save Will, who is, er, blown up by his own petard.

Now THAT is a bloody good episode.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Braveheart (1995)

“The trouble with Scotland is it's full of Scots...”

I’ve seen this silk a fair few times but not for many years, and certainly not since, well, Mel Gibson gained a reputation for ultra-conservative religious beliefs and films to match, and somewhat unfortunate comments about Jewish people. So it seems rather pointless for this Englishman to complain about this film being “anti-English”- given the subject matter, which is broadly true even if the chronology is somewhat compressed and William Wallace seems to be both suspiciously older and less upper class than he would have been. But these days it’s far more notable just how pious all the good guys are here.

Still, the film isn’t a bad melodrama and Gibson himself is rather good, and gets some equally good performance out of a cast without a huge amount of star wattage, although I’m kicking myself for not recognising Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I until now. The whole thing looks good and the battle scenes, so often dull and hard to follow, are genuinely dramatic and gripping.

It may play a few tricks with history- Edward I did not die at the same time as William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered, and Robert the Bruce didn’t have much success until years later- but Braveheart is an entertaining and fun, if rather violent, Hollywood treatment of a somewhat neglected historical saga. Still watchable after all these years.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The Great Escape (1963)

"They are the common enemies of anyone who believes in freedom. If the high command didn’t believe in Hitler, why didn’t they throw him out?”

This is, of course, a classic and I trust we’ve all seen it. It’s the gold standard of prisoner of war films,  with a magnificent story, all-star cast and brilliant pacing and direction. It’s a superb action film that keeps you gripped for a full two hours and forty-eight minutes.

But it is, perhaps, more than that. Interestingly, it’s a study in fanaticism, but suggests that in extreme cases- against Nazi Germany- fanaticism is justified. The human cost of the escape is huge, with the slaughter of the fifty. And yet, with the sheer damage to the German war effort, it is worth it. Roger (a superb Dickie Attenborough) is a thoroughgoing fanatic, but he’s right, and is allowed a happy death. And he’s right in the quote above; the Luftwaffe may not be the SS and Gestapo, and the Kommandant may be visibly uncomfortable with Nazism, but he’s still working for Nazi Germany and is the enemy.

The human cost isn’t just shown via numbers in terms of the fifty, though; we get to see Ives crack up after months in the cooler and get himself shot, all after the only day of fun the prisoners have had for months. This film may be entertaining mainly because of the mechanics of the escape, but the human cost is shown and. characterisation is very believable.

Ultimately, though, it’s how the plan is carried out that entertains you as much as quirky characters like Hilts, Colin, Mac, Hendley, Danny and many more. The film takes its time to show us the ups and downs of the escape plan, getting us to know the characters in the meantime. And, at the end, we’re overjoyed to see that at least some of them made it.

Yes, I know: the historical accuracy is a bit pants. But war films don’t get much better than this.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Gifted- Season 1, Episode 2: rX

"Mr Strucker, you were prosecuting this woman three days ago. Now... what, she's a brave freedom fighter?"

Things hot up as Caitlin and Marcos spend much of the episode trying to get a way of treating Clarice, who is unconscious and spouting dangerous portals everywhere. John Proudstar is not dead yet. Lauren learns to use her powers usefully; I suspect that both she and Andy will turn out to be powerful.

Yet what lingers is the truly awful prejudice, which this episode shows us in more detail. The doctor reports Marcos to the police at hospital out of pure stereotyping. The opening flashback makes it clear that even accidental damage caused by mutant powers is brutally punished. Marcos’ parents disowned him at thirteen when his powers manifested themselves. But worst of all is the hardship and naked racism Lorna faces in jail in spite of her bravery, beaten up, her pregnant belly targeted, and when her natural response is to use her powers in spite of the “flea collar”, it is she who is punished by being put into the hole. No wonder the other Mutant prisoner tries not to draw attention.

Another angle is the legal pressure put on Reed- the ridiculous decision to charge him with terrorism for associating with the Mutant Underground, the harassment of his mother, the sheer psychological cruelty. But Reed knows the drill and manages to negotiate freedom for his family. There’s a catch, though; he must betray the Mutant Underground.

This is an extraordinary episode, dramatising both the pressures and the moral difficulties of living under real totalitarian terror. More please.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Gifted- Season 1, Episode 1: eXposed

"Mutie, Andy? Racist much?"

Yeah, I know; starting a new series. But it’s Marvel, and I just have to!

“Things change when it’s your own kids!”

This is theoretically the X-Men “Cinematic Universe”- Bryan Singer is even directing- butvthe X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood are both missing in a world which is getting, at least in the USA, incrementally less comfortable for Mutants. There’s a Mutant Underground, including a bloke called Marcos plus familiar characters Lorna Dane and Thunderbird (going to die soon...?), and Mutants, it seems, have very few civil rights. We are, in a classic trope used in the X-Men film as well as many other places, by a newcomer- Clarice- whom they have come to rescue.

It all goes wrong and Lorna (who is pregnant!) is captured and interrogated by the intimidating Reed Strucker (Baron Wolfgang Von Richards- all sorts of Marvel references there. At first he’s seemingly going to be a baddie but he’s certainly a major character as he’s played by Stephen Moyer. But then we meet the rest of the family- kids Lauren and Andy and mother Kate (Amy Acker, no less). Set-up complete, we can now start the excitement as both kids, whose father has up till now hunted Mutants (what exactly did he do?) are exposed as Mutants in the most public and damaging way possible, forcing the family to go on the run, leaving Reed seemingly captured at the end.

We spend the rest of the episode in suspense as the fleeing family tried to conect with the Mutant Underground, pursued by the interestingly named “Sentinel Services”, who have robot spiders rather than big metal men. It’s too soon to tell where this is going but it’s certtainly exciting and I’ll keep on watching. And I liked the Stan Lee cameo.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Gunpowder: Episode 3

"I mean to die!"

So here we are at the finale, a somewhat tricky episode dramatically as we all know how it ends.The answer to this conundrum is, of course, to make it all about character. So again we get the contrast between Catesby and Cecil, although this time with very contrasting fates. Once again Liv Tyler's Lady Vaux acts as the conscience, perhaps even the chorus, but her role seems disappointingly passive throughout, and she's the nearest we get to a significant female character. But I suppose the nature of things in 1605 makes that difficult.

Much of the episode plays out the asymmetrically contrasting plottings of the doomed Catesby and the puppetmaster Cecil, leading to Catesby's inevitable doom and Cecil's inevitable elevation, and it's gripping enough to entertain despite the fact that we all know full well that Fawkes will be caught red-handed.

More interesting is the inevitable martyrdom of Father Garnett, whose tortuous death has been inevitable ever since he declared himself a coward last episode. Fawkes, though, comes across (deliberately, I'm sure) as an extremely weird individual, and even during his horrible torture it's less easy to feel sympathy. There's a lot of torture in this episode. There's a lot of torture throughout.

It's a decent little series, though; historical drama by numbers but sumptuously done as the BBC always do. It's just that, well, it doesn't really do anything new.

Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)

"I can help you if you can't get it up..."

Well, there may be no Leslie Nielsen this time (although we get an unexpectedly superb comic performance from William Shatner to make up), but the Police Squad have done their stuff and come up with another hilarious film, just as they always do.

It's the near future from the perspective of 1982, so there are shuttle flights to a base on the moon, yet everybody smokes, payphones are still a thing and the fashions look suspiciously, well, 1982. Never mind, though: I love the Rocky XXXVIII in-joke.

The humour and style are exactly as per the first film, with Elaine, Ted and a few minor characters joining guest stars like Shatner and Sonny Bono. There are lots of pop culture references to obvious targets like Star Wars, E.T and 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cameo from none other than Oddjob, and a joke about a vacuum cleaner that's funnier than it really should be. But you know the drill.

The pop culture references may have dated, although in the best possible way, but the film is as fresh as ever and as funny as anything. As much a comedy classic as its predecessor.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

”Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer..."

 I've always thought, before seeing both films again lately, that whilst The Godfather: Part II is utterly sublime,it isn't as good as its genius predecessor. Now I'm not so sure. This epic sequel (there's even an intermission!) just carries on where its predecessor left off, like a Patrick O'Brian novel, giving us another splodge of saga with the same unbelievably awesome directing and acting. Al Pacino is awesome in exactly the same way as before, but Robert de Niro amazes as the younger Vito Corleone in a wonderfully realised 1917, with mannerisms that evoke the earlier performance of Marlon Brando but also branch out into new areas,

It's a non-linear narrative, taking us from Vito's brutal Sicilian origins in 1901, through to the beginnings of his empire in 1917 towards (the bulk of the film) a present day that has moved on to the late 1950s and Michael Corleone is safely ensconced in Nevada, branching out to Cuba and losing touch with the old-fashioned New York world exemplified by the rather interesting character of Frank, too "Italian" and too old-fashioned for this brave new world. And yet, the Corleone family is tested, but it survives even if Michael's hopes of a normal family life cannot.

Again this is a film on the Italian-American experience, showing us the early waves of tired, huddled masses on Ellis Island, the fascinating period details of early twentieth century life in Little Italy with everyone in those early decades still speaking Italian with each other, and to the almost contemporary struggle to escape the Mafia legacy. But theme isn't really the point; the characters, the visuals, the acting- this is just the pinnacle of how to make a film well. Right up there with the greatest.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Frost/Nixon (2008)

”Hello, good evening and welcome!”

“I don’t actually say that...”

For all that Ron Howard is an unflashy director his style certainly works, and his work on bringing this excellent Peter Morgan stage play to cinema is the perfect example. Oh, its stage origins are certainly very obvious, but there’s nothing wrong with that. What matters is the extraordinary performances, with Michael Sheen once again perfectly inhabiting a real figure in the form of David Frost as we know he can, but just as much with the equally sublime Frank Langella, who may not look or sound like Nixon but, for the length of the film, simply is him.

The script is of course superb, bizarre though it is to see everyone’s least favourite BBC director general John Birt as a character in a film. The four interviews are treated and shown as though they were rounds in a boxing match; this film is the Rocky of political interviewing, always reminding us of Frost’s apolitical nature and light entertainment background. It makes for gripping viewing, with high stakes for everyone, and the time just flies by while watching. We see Frost genuinely struggle and Nixon’s confession, when it comes, feels both earned and deeply powerful. The film is a triumph.

Perhaps the true centre of the film, though, is Nixon’s drunken phone call to Frost and the huge chip on his shoulder about his class background that is revealed. Nixon was a fascinating man, a character of Shakespearean depths and an ambiguous legacy, certainly tragic, an introvert in an extroverted profession and, beneath it all, a human being. Sheen may be superb in playing the mannerisms of a talented but uncomplicated man, but Langella deserves real credit for conveying such fathomless depths.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Gunpowder: Episode 2

“Kings are anointed by God!"

And so we come to the middle episode of three, linking the first episode and finale with lots of narrative and exposition and traditionally the weak link. I don't actually think that this is the case here though; after the exposition and shock therapy of the first episode we get to the fun of watching Catesby and Cecil move their chess pieces around, trying to outwit each other.

Much as Cecil is the cleverer and more evil of the two, Catesby's visit to Spain has him witness a poor Jewish lady be burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition who, for all their famed judicial due process, were obviously complete bastards. Catesby, though, is shown to be complicit. It literally sickens him but he doesn't complain, which reminds us that, wronged though he is, he'd be just as intolerant if his lot were in charge, even if he doesn't sit there like Mark Gatiss' delightfully evil Cecil and personally direct the torture. It's 1605 and religious tolerance hasn't been invented; everybody thinks they're right and everyone else is a heretic. people just weren't awfully good at not torturing people of different religions back then. This adds much-needed balance to the first episode, which seems less polemical in retrospect and has risen in my estimation.

But then the script goes to great lengths to emphasis the parallels between Catesby and Gatiss, with both of them given similar-sounding confessions as to how they neglect their sons. But Catesby's plotting has an air of doomed desperation while Cecil always seems assured, even when out-maneouvred by the splendidly-moustacho'd Constable of Castile and temporarily out of favour with a King James who wants to have his cake and eat it in much the same way as our current leader..

Liv Tyler comes to the fore as Lady Vaux reveals herself as the sharp-tongued Catholic moral conscience of the gentry, and we have the interesting little sub-plot on whether or not Father Garnett is a coward for not risking his own life. Knowing how TV dramas work, I fear that martyrdom may beckon for him next week, much as it appesrs to beckon for Father Gerard who is rather nastily tortured before he seems to escape in a somewhat confusing ending. Still, it's all very good this week.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Gunpowder: Episode 1

"Would you rather that I conform?"

Well. That was well-acted, well-directed and... violent. It's entertaining, historical religious persecution was indeed wrong but, well, it feels somewhat jarring for a historical drama to be so... polemical.

We begin with some text intro telling us that it's 1603, Elizabeth I has just copped it and King James VI of Scotland has gained a second throne and a chance to shag his way through the pretty young men of the English aristocracy, although not in many words. There are some nice shots of the Queen looking on in her stoic Scandinavian way while James flirts with his latest boy tart.

Then the story proper starts as a mass is disrupted by agents of an intolerant state and, with practised efficiency, a whole panoply of priest holes and mattress turning springs into action, and there follows a brilliantly tense scene in which the scarily young boy priest is arrested, and the very brave Lady Dorothy takes the flack as a furious, sword-waving Robert Catesby looks on furiously, and we know he's important because we know our history and we've seen Game of Thrones.

So, after being introduced to the sinister Robert Cecil- scion of the Marquesses of Salisbury, don't you know, and archetypal spymaster- we can only conclude that he could be played by absolutely no one other than Mark Gatiss, who has himself a minor bit of typecasting as sinister eminences grises in historical dramas but wears so many hats in the TV world that he can afford to be utterly unbothered. He is, of course, perfect casting. And we see him slowly manipulating the relatively tolerant James into supporting his sinister agenda.

And then comes the really nasty bit; Lady Dorothy has refused to plead- a guilty plea would disinherit her children- so she is stripped naked and publicly pressed to death. This is closely followed by the hanging, drawing and quartering of the boy priest, as graphic as these things get although at least we don't see the castration. This is all, of course, quite realistic, but an artistic choice has been made to dwell on the gory details. I'm not going to go all in and join the chorus of complaint here, but this is quite blatant in its didacticism, and that can be self-defeating in a drama.

More spying, skulduggery and misfortune for the persecuted Catesby brings us towards the end, and Guy Fawkes. Let's see where this goes.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Victoria: The Luxury of Conscience

"You have been a great prime minister!"

And so we reach the rather gripping season finale, full of incident and excitement as we knew it would be, and an impressive piece of writing in drawing all the threads together.

We start with family. Leopold is at court to make amends to a cold reception, but Vicky becoming deathly ill, although at first leading to clashes between Victoria and Albert, brings the whole family together. Except that Victoria finishes up by letting Lezhen go. Not because Albert says so, but because Victoria has outgrown her, It's an emotional parting.

We also have romance between Mrs Skerrett and Mr Francatelli, and a heartbreaking moment where Ernest has to dump Harriet rather than propose to her because his syphilis symptoms have recurred. Never mind that none of this happened in real history; it's damn good telly.

But ultimately the focus is on Sir Robert Peel and his repeal of the Corn Laws, egged on (not always helpfully) by all the characters we like and opposed rather rudely by those we don't. It's a final triumph for Peel and, indeed, for Nigel Lindsay. You'd never guess from his excellent performances on Victoria that he was Barry in Four Lions.

But there's a final shock, the killing of Edward Drummond which somewhat ruins the already doomed relationship between him and Lord Alfred; sadly, this is narratively the only way of concluding a same sex budding romance set in this era without it taking up a lot of narrative time and focus, but I have to say that it isn't very brave writing. Still, it's a lovely touch seeing the Duchess of Buccleuch being so sympathetic to poor Lord Alfred. And at least Drummond gets to live three years longer than he did in real life.

Victoria may be somewhat easy telly and shy away, perhaps, from doing things other than predictably, but I'm glad a series like this exists and I'll bev watching at Christmas.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Victoria: The King Over the Water

"You know, erm, I have some socks for you to darn..."

It's the quiet episode before the season finale, so time for slowness, lots of Highlands scenery and some ordinary life for Victoria and Albert for just one night. It's a chance for them to have fun as the loving, easy couple they are again after the problems of the recent past. Never mind the stress they cause to everyone else but, I suppose, it reminds us that all royalty lives in a goldfish bowl. And those poetry recitals don't look like much fun.

We also finally have Drummond and Lord Alfred realising the feelings they have for one another, while Harriet reconciles with Duke Ernest, who we know now probably has syphilis. It's not the most eventful episodes- that's not the point. Unfortunately it drags a bit but I suppose it's nice to see Victoria and Albert having so much fun. It's all very ominous for the finale though.

Beyond that, there's not much to say. I suppose, for filler, the episode is nicely done.

Victoria: Faith, Hope and Charity

"If I follow my conscience, I will destroy my party."

We knew it was coming; Victoria does the Irish Potato Famine, and it’s as devastating as you’d expect. This is not a normal episode, exactly; an unusual amount of time is devoted to the famine, and the character of Dr. Traill, a good man through whom we see both the unimaginable suffering and the equally unimaginable Malthusian bigotry that blames the “feckless” Irish poor for their own fate. It’s an outstanding piece of television, ending unusually with a caption telling us of Dr. Traill’s unfortunate fate.

Victoria herself cannot, of course,  be seen to be anything other than deeply horrified, and much of the episode consists of her trying to persuade Sir Robert Peel to do something, which she finally seems to do- I suspect there’s a sprinkling of artistic licence here, but in opening the Pandora’s Box that is trade and tariffs, Peel will be scratching at the persistent itch that is the Corn Laws. I suspect they will loom large in the remaining episodes.

Elsewhere, we discover that Ernest has syphilis, and may have aff Fred his sexual partners, including the newly widowed Duchess of Sutherland. And kindly Albert makes a loo for the servants. But Ireland, of course, overshadows everything in what is an extraordinary episode.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Victoria: Entente Cordiale

"It is a place of artifice and deceit!"

So Victoria and her entourage are off to Paris and its predictably more fashionable court under a diplomatic pretext, and we meet the wily and somewhat precarious Louis Philippe, King of the French, a self-made monarch who has actually, heaven forbid, once had to work for a living. He's a fascinating character with a unique background and hidden depths- and, of course, after the 1848 revolution he would end his life once again teaching in the UK. But that's the future.

The narrative point of this is, of course, for the characters to react to the French court. So Victoria feels a little self-conscious of her style, while the Duchess of Buccleuch is the xenophobic comic relief. But Albert, especially with the sight of his brother's cavorting, is still affected by last episode's revelations and has gone quite alarmingly puritanical. This is, of course, the precursor to his telling Victoria everything; he never could keep a secret. And her reaction is, of course, wonderful. Albert is a very lucky man to have a wife like her; this is superb writing of character.

We see the eating of ortalan, something which may please the late President Mitterand but is not exactly ethical treatment of birds. Miss Coke begins to see that Ernest is that into her, and is not exactly monogamous. But we end on a bit of a cliffhanger: Victoria is pregnant again...

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Victoria: The Sins of the Father

"At least Ernst knows who his father is!"

So Victoria gives birth, rather painfully, and his father announces that "we have a Prince of Wales" in a rather excellent episode which is all about fatherhood and paternity. This is made immediately obvious not far in, as Albert's father pops his clogs and he has to be off to Coburg.

But the episode is also, of course, all about what no one in the 1840s would call post-natal depression; Victoria struggles to bond with little Prince Bertie, and is clearly profoundly depressed, something which no one- certainly not the men- seems to even acknowledge as a thing. It's only towards the end that formidable old battleaxe the Duchess of Buccleuch finally reveals that she also suffered from it in her past, unexpectedly bonding a little with Victoria.

But the big bombshell is when Albert learns that Leopold slept with his mother, meaning he may be Albert's father, something which disgusts him. This terrible secret sends him into despair to the point that he even gets drunk for the first time. His entire identity, it seems, and the very legitimacy of his children with Victoria, may be a lie. Still, this turns out to be good news for Mrs Skerrit, who in a neat bit of plotting manages to avoid being dismissed because of this. It's another impressively written episode.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Victoria: Warp and Weft

"They don't need balls. They need bread."

A much better and more substantial episode this week. Victoria is back on track. The conceit of Victoria holding an opulent ball in the middle of the Hungry Forties is a superb fulcrum from which we can explore all kinds of historical and character development. And I don't care about such deliberate inaccuracies such as the fact that Lord Melbourne lived fpr a good seven or so years after the birth of Victoria's second child...

Lord M is clearly dying, getting worse as the episode progresses after his apparent stroke, and this leads to an emotional yet restrained parting with Victoria. His death, interestingly, is juxtaposed with that of Dash; indeed, we deliberately hear Victoria give a funeral speech which seems to be for Lord M until we learn otherwise.. Victoria's old intimates are dying; she has only Albert now.

We learn of the Corn Laws; tariffs to protect the interests of the aristocracy as the poor suffer foreign competition. This is clearly going to be a defining issue for the season, as are the Parliamentary sparring matches between John Bright and Sir Robert Peel. I think the defining issues of the season may have been set. I look forward to it all.

The Italian Job (1969)

"Tell Bridger this is a foreign job to help with this country's balance of payments..."

I'm beginning to be wary of going into a film with high expectations; it doesn't exactly enhance the experience. Take The Italian Job, a 1960s British classic, beloved of all the lads, but a film which I had somehow contrived, until last night, never to have properly seen all the way through- and I'm forty. I must have been blown away, right?

Only I wasn't, not really, Oh, it's good; the script by Troy Kennedy Martin, all those famous lines and iconic set pieces, national treasure Michael Caine's legendary performance, Noel Coward and, indeed the whole character of Bridger- an upper class Harry Grout who lords it over John Le Mesurier's prison governor; all these things are a joy to watch. Yet the film also seems to drag in places, and generally doesn't turn out to be as good as I was expecting. I wonder if I'd still feel that way, though, if not for those high expectations? I must confess that, Benny Hill's silly mugging aside, there's not much that's actually wrong with this film. Perhaps I just don't like heist movies all that much?

All the same, it's brilliantly shot on location in Turin, and the ambiguous ending is pure genius. If only the whole film was as good as its most famous scenes, but I really don't mean to imply that The Italian Job is any less than very, very good.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

"I'm French. We respect directors in our country."

Meh. Quentin Tarantino doesn't exactly make bad films- this is still well shot, and remains fun to watch in spite of everything- but I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds significantly less than any other Tarantino film I've seen, and I've seen most. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this film is merely good rather than great, and for a filmmaker like Tarantino that is criticism indeed.

So what doesn't quite work? Structurally and aesthetically it's as clever as ever, with a non-linear yet easy to follow chapter structure and loads of fun set pieces. I love the chutzpah in the cheerful deliberate ignoring of history by having Hitler and all the senior Nazis die in June 1944. The long dialogue scenes are there, too. But this time they fail to sing without the pop culture references. Christoph Waltz puts in an outstanding performance as the main SS baddie, but he's much better in a less cliched role in Django Unchained.

I think, perhaps, it's an unevenness of tone; little touches like Mike Myers' exaggerated plummy accent and, yes, Brad Pitt's entire misjudged performance take you out of the events.Tarantino has shown a mastery of humour and fourth wall-breaking in the past, but always with an assuredness that is missing here. Perhaps it's simply that Quentin Tarantino, master of so many genres, simply doesn't have quite the same sureness of touch when it comes to the Second World War film. Still, I'd like to see him try again someday.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Victoria: The Green-Eyed Monster

"Am I just an ignoramus who has to have things summarised by my husband?"

A somewhat awkward and directionless episode this time, it must be said, despite the clever use of Othello to examine the idea of jealousy between the royal couple. It doesn't really go anywhere or develop Vicky and Albert's relationship notably more than we saw last time.

Vicky suspects Albert of a somewhat unconvincing infatuation with Ada Lovelace, daughter of the notorious Lord Byron, when it’s clear that the nerdy prince is only interested in her and Charles Babbage’s difference engine. This contrived jealousy subplot isn’t really adding anything, and nor is the rehashing of the old debates about the impropriety of Vicky’s friendship with Lord M. Still, Melbourne doesn’t seem to be as well as he lets on.

Elsewhere we get hints of an upcoming affair between Ernest and Miss Cook, and the Coburgs continue to be annoying snobs. Sir Robert Peel continues to impress with his progressive attitude, a contrast to Lord M, while Vicky is pregnant with a second child so soon after the first.

Much though the A plot may be a damp squib, then, the long-term characterisation and plotting continues to impress, as do the performances and direction. I’m sure things will be back to the usual quality next week.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

"She'll be back!"

Sometimes low expectations can be a very good thing.

Oh, I remember quite enjoying this film when I saw it at the pictures, but I’m well aware that it’s somewhat unloved and, indeed, James Cameron is proposing to de-canonise it with his new Terminator film. How rude.

Thing is though... yes, the film may not be directed by an auteur, unlike its two predecessors, and it shows, but this is still a well made film with some superb Terminator action and a truly superb epic car chase scene. Arnie may be noticeably older, Claire Danes may be the only other cast member you’ve ever heard of, but this is an entertaining action movie that doesn’t outstay its welcome, always a virtue. Even the characterisation, while taking the back seat required for an action film, is subtle and effective. And Arnie gets his killer line while in the van with John and Kate, the line which I now remember had me collapsing with laughter when I first heard it.

But I was genuinely impressed by the script, with its downbeat ending leavened by hope and its thoughtful timey-wimeyness. The lack of Linda Hamilton is unfortunate, and the need to kill Sarah Connor of screen even more so, but there isn’t much else they could have done. This film is rather good and somewhat unfairly ignored. Who cares what James Cameron thinks? This is not fan fiction, it’s a proper Terminator film, and it deserves respect.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Victoria: A Soldier's Daughter

"It may be your regiment, Albert. But it is my army."

Victoria is back on ITV. I'm afraid I'm late to the party; I assure you I'll catch up quickly.

We pick up as we left off, with Vicky having just given birth to the future mother of Kaiser Bill. And the subject of patriarchy, always foregrounded when it comes to the hereditary principle, is uppermost not only in the incredibly sexist assumptions by the mean surrounding Vicky that she should retire to the nursery and leave affairs of state to the manly hands of Albert- and, indeed, that the scarcely born princess should one day marry the King of Prussia!

There's slow-burning stuff; Vicky struggles to connect with her daughter, both her relationship with Sir Robert peel and his premiership is soon to develop, and the imperious Duchess of Buccleuch arrives in the formidable form of Diana Rigg playing an old battleaxe, for Mrs Peel, incredibly, is now 79. Below stairs, the newly minted Mrs Skerrit is promoted, and Mr Francatelli is eventually persuaded to return.

But the episode, set as London awaits the awful news from Kabul of 4,000 troops being massacred, is about how Victoria always has to fight the patriarchal attitudes of the men who surround her, including her husband. It'll be interesting to see how all this develops, but for now this is a splendidly written, performed and shot bit of telly.

Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa

"What's the point? what's the bloody point?"

These BBC 4 dramas always were excellent telly but this 2006 masterpiece... well. You don't get much better telly than this. Michael Sheen is the king of truly inhabiting a real life figure, Tony Blair or not. And Kenneth Williams... he is one of the most fascinating personalities who ever lived. If only he'd, you know, gone forth and had sex with the men who would willingly have had him. this is a quietly effective damnation of the effect of mid-twentieth century homophobia, even on those who had the brains to know that the pre-1967 law was "barbaric". And the need for approval of a socially conservative public didn't help. Neither did what happened to Leiester's very own Joe Orton.

But the angst over his sexuality, his dying a horrifically repressed virgin at 62, is only the half of it. This working class intellectual always struggled with the conflict between his origins and his intellectual yearnings, a classic case of culture clash between two alien English cultures. Even his multiple voices and accents, so sublimely done by the outstanding Sheen, are as much about the codes and anxieties of class as they are about performance.

The real quotes from his diaries give us a true feel of the man’s inner life, so different from the well-known performer on the surface. And there is real tragedy, from the murder of Orton to the heavily hinted-at suicide of Williams’ father, shortly after a very casual rejection. Something like that would traumatise, however awkward the father-son relationship. All this is done with restrained writing; this is not script that draws attention to its own tricks and cleverness, but in its structure, choices and the voice it gives to Williams itself it is as much a triumph as Sheen’s magnificent performance itself.

A televisual triumph, then, and the finest hour of the late, lamented BBC 4 drama.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

"No pain, no gain..."

 You know those "bad" films that are actually fun to watch and sort of entertain you in spite of everything? Well...

I mean, I can see why this was the last Superman film of its series. The special effects are endearingly crap. The script is cartoonish. The whole thing is very silly. And yet the whole thing remains eminently watchable.

It helps that the characters are well-established, and that Reeve,
Kidder and Hackman are as excellent as always; this film isn’t big, it isn’t clever, it isn’t particularly well made. But it’s fun. So let’s ignore the silliness and the plot holes, including the one where the superpowers don’t seem to resent Superman for throwing billions worth of expensive nukes into the Sun in a scene which harms back to the left-wing wish fulfilment scenes of the early comic books. Let’s not study the political message of the film too closely, though; this is not exactly a detailed philosophical examination of nuclear disarmament.

So, yes. The film is silly, shoddily made and killed the franchise. But it’s also perfect light viewing after a two hundred mile round trip.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

It (2017)

“Wait, can only virgins see this stuff? Is that why I'm not seeing this shit?”

Well, that was unusual. A modern day horror film that eschews all the usual glossy music video tiresomeness in favour of being genuinely excellent. I’ve never heard of anyone involved with this film but they done good.

It’s instructive to compare this, perhaps, to the 1990 two part telly adaptation; we get the same rough plot, except that the film is only the first half, during the principal characters’ childhoods- updated from the early ‘60s to the late ‘80s, with lots of pop culture goodness including both the Cure and Anthrax in the soundtrack. Like the original, and the novel, we get a bunch of white boys with a token girl (Beverly) and black kid (Mike). Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis are particularly excellent as the main characters- author substitute Bill who is mourning his little brother and poor Beverly, whose father is a nonce and gets a pleasing comeuppance. This, along with Henry Bowers’ tragic cycle of abuse, means that this film plays up the child abuse theme somewhat, something which is probably wrapped up thematically in the idea of Pennywise as the sum of all childhood fears.

The film excels as drama, with well-developed characters and good acting from some superb child actors. That is the basis of any film reliant on traditional narrative, regardless of genre, but this film
managed to scare me, and horror films don’t, as a rule; I’m far too conscious of that fourth wall. But here, unlike almost all modern horror films, we get a lot of genuine suspense at the centre of done superbly conceived and executed set pieces, and it helps that the direction is excellent. All that, and a solid script, makes for an excellent film.

Even the famously hard-to-please Mrs Llamastrangler is extremely impressed. Highly recommended. Coulrophobes beware, though!

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Django Unchained (2012)

"Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?"

This is, to date, the only film by Quentin Tarantino that I've seen since Kill Bill. It is, like all his films since then, removed from his particular strong point of witty, pop culture-peppered dialogue by being set in the past. It's as though Tarantino likes to challenge himself, but then that's what he does. He's doing a Western this time- well, a Southern- complete with classic style opening and Ennio Morricone opening tune.

He may deny himself the indulgence of cool dialogue here, but he delivers a hugely entertaining, gory and beautifully shot film as he always does, giving us the full graphic detail of slavery in the antebellum south. This is a refreshing antidote, brutal though it can be to watch, to the whitewashed Gone with the Wind version of the south. Before 1865 the place was backwards, feudal, pre-capitalist, savage. And it wasn't even that long ago.

Jamie Foxx is great as Django, a freed slave with a mission to save his wife who grows throughout the film from enslaved beginnings to the assertive badass hero he was destined to be. Leonardo Di Caprio is superb as the slaveowning baddie, the kind of part he should play more often. Samuel L. Jackson is deeply disturbing as the collaborator, Stephen. But it is Christoph Waltz, as Dr Schultz, the educated, witty German bounty hunter and the only civilised white person in the film, who steals the show, oozing coolness at all times.

Tarantino seems incapable of anything short of brilliance. This film is so good we can even forgive his brave attempt at an Aussie accent...

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Fists of Fury (1972)

“We are not sick men!”

This is my first ever Bruce Lee film, and only my second martial arts film not directed by Quentin Tarantino, unless you count all those straight-to-video ninja films I saw as a kid in the ‘80s, so go easy on me!

I enjoyed the film, although it will never be one of my favourites; it’s a mildly entertaining revenge melodrama/tragedy with a token romantic subplot, but Hamlet this ain’t. The fight scenes are first class, but I’m not hugely engaged by fight scenes, much though I appreciate Bruce Lee’s skills, and he can act too.

What struck me was the surprising tone of Chinese nationalism; the film is set in, I think, 1910, during the Century of Humiliation with the Japanese as antagonists and constant emphasis of how the international city of Shanghai is no longer truly Chinese territory, although the brief shots of westerners with their very contemporary cars and clothes destroy the eff t somewhat. But this is nicely handled, the grievances of a “small” country, and does not come across as overly aggressive.

I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll try another film in this genre. But at least it’s light, easy viewing, just the thing for a knackering week like this.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The Walking Dead- Season 2, Episode 10: 18 Miles Out

“This is so pointless!"

This may be a quiet episode focusing on character- albeit with lots of exciting zombie action, and may have an unusually limited cast of characters, but that is a strength here, allowing us to focus on the relationships between the characters.

Firstly we have the macho alpha male contest between Rick, giving up perhaps too much ground under pressure on being repeatedly told by the psychopathic Shane that his conscience is a liability. As well as lots of arguing, fighting against zombies and themselves, and of course clearing the air over Lori, they have the dilemma over whether they should kill the kid they caught last episode who, it turns out, knows where Herschel's house is. Rick, arguably, ends up ceding the argument to Shane but he will at least have the decency to sleep on it before killing the boy.

Meanwhile, back at the house, a row between Lori and  Andrea pretty much centres on how Andrea, in standing guard against zombies, is getting out of the drudgery of the more traditional woman's work, a feminist subtext if ever there was one. But the main focus is on the hereto background character of Beth, who seems to be set on suicide, seeing no point in living post-zombie apocalypse, and the ethics of suicide and what to do with her are explored well and at length, with the pragmatic Andrea perhaps alienating herself from Maggie permanently. Beth lives, though.

This episode is well-written, compelling, and makes me certain that the main arc of this season is the conflict between Rick and Shane, and will end in Shane's death. We shall see...