Sunday, 23 April 2017

Grimm: Blood Magic

“I suppose if any place is gonna have a giant assassin bug, it’d be Portland.” 

I suspect (and hope) that this is Grimm's last ever story-of-the-week, what with three episodes left, but it's a good one, and addresses both the real life issue of euthanasia and the in-world question of what happens to Wesen if they get dementia which would mean, of course, uncontrolled and violent wogeing. It's a difficult one, and Nick and Hank end the episode with no alternative but to let the Gevather Tod do his thing. It's a truly heart wrenching episode, although Mrs. Llamastrangler would like it to be known that she definitely didn't cry. Heaven forbid.

We also get Sean, who's been strangely detached and sulky lately, demanding answers about the tunnel from Nick, but at least the only way forward, plot-wise, is surely for the two of them to latch up their differences and collaborate. But what makes it certain, I think, at the very end, is where Eve, alone, practised some "blood magic" and strides determinedly into the mirror to the plane of those nasty demon things. I suspect there won't be time for stories of the week from now on...

Bring on what must surely be the concluding three-parter...

Black Mirror: The Waldo Moment

"You could roll this out worldwide..."

There hasn't been a bad episode of Black Mirror so far but, well, this is the closest we've come. While a collaboration between Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker may seem attractive it's nevertheless true that this is a script from (the excellent) Nathan Barley that didn't make the cut. So alarm bells are ringing already. And yet... the roots may be showing, and the message may be verging on mere "all politicians are corrupt, duh" fatuous nihilism, but this isn't a bad bedrock standard for a relatively poor episode.

The conceit- perhaps influenced by Ali G, H'Angus the Monkey being elected Mayor of Hartlepool and, less blatantly, by all that UKIP silliness that, in a rare positive consequence of Brexit, seems no longer to be a thing- is a rude cartoon bear (think the teddy bear Ronnie Corbett character from Bo Selecta) running in a by-election. There's a smarmy Tory, a sympathetic but careerist New Labour lady, and a lot of the cheap gags at the Lib Dems' expense that were fashionable in 2013. It's all very scattershot and isn't saying anything very deep, but it's watchable.

What elevates it, I think, is the eventual message (signposted by a sinister American from "the Agency") that political cynicism can be harnessed for authoritarian purposes and that things can get very, very dystopian. But such a thing could never happen in real life. Right?

Doctor Who: Smile

"Who needs loos? There's probably an app for that.

After the somewhat cheaply made In The Forest of the Night we get another script from the well-respected Frank Cottrell-Boyce and it's an excellent one, as well as the sort of intelligent and lightly satirical (Black Mirror satirical) script that feels as though it's written by someone who doesn't often get to write science fiction and is jumping at the chance. Wee also get more very good banter between the Doctor and Bill with a fantastic dynamic already evident between them. And it seems that Moffat is wisely following the RTD template of showing a new companion an example of both the future and the past as their travels begin.

Yes, the conceit- be happy or die- recalls The Happiness Patrol, but this time it's just machines gone wrong who, in the big reveal, are just AI that are learning and trying to be helpful. They want you to be happy, grief makes you unhappy, so why not put the grieving out of their misery? It is, as the Doctor says, grief as plague, and it's both a splendid concept and a nice little riff on both our over-dependence on technology (very much described in contemporary terms) and the forthcoming Singularity. I love the emojis.

Actually, this whole concept of what is called the "early days" of human space exploration reminds me of the Spacers on Isaac Asimov's robot novels. Except... I think this is supposed to be the same time period as The Ark in Space, which is set in the much further future?

We begin though, with more exposition about the mysterious "Vault" on present day Earth that the Doctor is supposed to be guarding- clearly a big season arc thing. Nardole seems to be mainly concerned with that- he doesn't come along traveling with the Doctor and Bill. And it's nice to see a Hartnell-style cliffhanger before the next episode. This is splendid stuff,

Great to see Ralf Little in Doctor Who, but Mina Anwar gets an oddly small role...

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Black Mirror: White Bear

"I think this is my daughter."

Wow. It's hard to discuss this without revealing the twist so, if you don't want to know, look away. SPOILERS. Lets just say that this seems a fairly anodyne episode until the point where the revelation of the huge twist alters everything. Charlie Brooker has done it again.

The episode is, in retrospect, extremely well-constructed but also hugely evocative of the dark, fearful power of the mob, from the writer of Daily Mail Island. Lenora Critchlow plays, in effect, Myra Hindley and her punishment is to have her memory wiped and relive the same day for the rest of her life, as we eventually discover- the moment where everything collapses into a clapping crowd is deeply surreal, and the ride of shame in front of a baying crowd is truly horrific. But Victoria isn't going to her execution but to something worse, from the deepest tabloid id of the British population.

It's clever. So clever. It's eve signposted early on with Victoria's "Mystic Meg" predictions, but I defy anybody not to be surprised.

I've missed this.


Friday, 21 April 2017

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

"Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap."

This isn't the first time I've seen Dr. Strangelove, which is probably a good thing: this time I was able to look past the hilarious script and superb comic performances from, yes, Peter Sellers but the whole cast to Kubrick's superb direction and, perhaps, a slightly deeper context.

Still, it's worth emphasising that not only is this one of the funniest films ever but Sellers is utterly, utterly outstanding in all three of the parts he plays. Sterling Hayden deserves a mention, though, as does the utterly hilarious George C. Scott. And yet.... the Cuban Missile Crisis is less than two years ago and the film was made at what must have been the absolute peak of absolute nuclear annihilation. Strip away the comedy and this is a bleak and terrifying film (the concept of the Soviet doomsday device alone is existentially fearsome) which ends in absolute nuclear holocaust to the strains of Vera Lynn. And yet I think that both the humour and the underlying bleakness owe much to Catch-22 (the extraordinary novel: I haven't seen the film), another example of absolutely dark and horrible subject matter being leavened by a very mid-twentieth century absurdist style of humour which brings us back, again, to the existentialism which underpins this film, one of the greatest ever made.

Oh, and it's great, if weird, to hear the imperial tones of James Earl Jones in a film thirteen years before his signature role!

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Crown: Gloriana

"You have more freedom than any consort in history. And you repay it by scowling and sulking like an adolescent."

As ever, the title of the episode is clever. It's interesting to consider it alongside the final scene, with Elizabeth dressed up all regal and told to be Elizabeth Regina, most definitely not Elizabeth Windsor. This is both the theme and the tragedy of both the episode and the series.

Elizabeth Windsor has her interests- keeping her husband happy with the man she loves and maintaining a happy marriage with her increasingly petulant husband (Phil ends the series being increasingly unlikeable, beastly to both Elizabeth and Charles without sufficient motivation). But it's in the interests of Elizabeth Regina to ruin all this in the name of a glorious yet powerless monarchy and an uncaring Church which seems to exist only to cruelly police people's sex lives. What happens to Margaret and Peter is unspeakably cruel and I can see how Margaret sees the chance to renounce her titles as a liberation- the chains may be made of gold but to be royal is to be enslaved, with no agency, privacy, dignity or power.

And it stays with you. In a powerful scene a desperate Elizabeth asks for advice from her uncle David, the only person alive who knows how she feels- and for once he drops the cynical mask and speaks honestly; there is no escape from these conflicts between person and monarch, not even abdication. These are complex, abstract themes, handled well in a strong finale.

There's another strand to the episode, though. The new PM, Sir Anthony Eden, at first seems much younger and more vigorous than his predecessor, but we gradually see the pills he's taking, the pain he's in and, in the final scene, the recreational drugs he's injecting; is he any more fit for the job than his predecessor was? The trippy final scene makes it clear that Suez is coming.  This veteran foreign secretary has been reduced to a drug-addicted shadow of a man just when it's all about to kick off.


Sunday, 16 April 2017

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

"I'll use your law."

This film is also known as Monster but there was no way I wasn't going with Humanoids from the Deep. I set about watching this Roger Corman-produced monster flick starring a rather old-looking Doug McClure expecting a bit of silly lightweight fluff and ended up getting exactly that; it's not a good film, exactly, but it's watchable enough in its highly predictable way. Except... it's more than a little uncomfortably rapey. You can sort of tell that just from the poster.

The first part of the film wisely keeps the monsters hidden, but even early on it's obvious that we're just looking at men in rubber suits. There's a nice subtext about corporate greed and racism against the token Native American in the early scenes but, after enough people (and dogs) have been picked off by the beasts it's time for our hero Jim (McClure, naturally) and his gang to go a-monster hunting.

The scientific explanation for the monsters- products of scientific experiments to speed up evolution getting accidentally applied to coelacanths- is cobblers, of course; evolution is  not a movement towards becoming intelligent, bipedal humanoids but natural selection of whatever characteristics are likely to increase survival. Plus coelacanths are not native to the coastlines of the USA. Oh, and apparently they all want to rape women because they are like humans and want to mate with us. Er, right. Are there no female monsters or something? Essentially we have the rather silly monster movie you might expect from the title but with a not-very-subtle misogynistic subtext. Only for hardcore Doug McClure fans, if such people exist.

iZombie: Zombie Knows Best

"Well, you look like a black Tony Stark..."

We're back to the usual format here, with a murder mystery and some brain eating to be done, except this time it's done with Clive's full knowledge and with both Liv and Major partaking of the victims' (conveniently there are two, a father and a teenage daughter) brains. What makes this iteration particularly hilarious is that it's Liv who gets to be Embarrassing Dad while Major gets to spend the whole episode as a teenage girl, wherein there is much merriment. Both Rose McIver and Robert Buckley show, once again, how they are both excellent comic actors.

But there's another strand to this episode, a much more tragic one told in flashback, as Clive slowly reveals his connection with the murdered little Wally and his family- and, as a light little bonus, exactly how he got into Game of Thrones. So, while the murder mystery is a good one, with an unexpected twist, Clive's parallel investigation of the family's murder ends up unearthing something truly horrible; conspiracy theorists (already not my favourite people, to put it mildly; they can all bog off and take their alternative facts with them) have message boards and, indeed, an entire online infrastructure for the "outing" of zombies; almost one tenth as evil as Breitbart and 4chan, or whatever the neo-Nazi yoof are logging on to these days.

This is all clearly foreshadowing of "D-Day" and, I'm sure, this season will see the secret slowly seeping out. I suspect it's rather clear which side Clive will be on. Excellent episode.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Pilot

"Why do you run like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like a penguin with its arse on fire."

Well, that was an unexpectedly fun, and genuinely scary, season opener from Steven Moffat. You'd be forgiven for expecting his last season of Who to be somewhat tired, but there's life in the old Doc yet. This is a genuinely creepy episode, with the central idea- a sentient puddle that doesn't show your mirror image but your real image- being so very Moffat in the best possible way. The episode is shot like a horror film, with plenty of shocks and scares. And Bill is a superb character- likeable, superbly portrayed by Pearl Mackie and, in a nice meta touch, as sci-fi literate as we are.

Despite the Daleks and, indeed, the Movellans (these aren't Destiny of the Daleks models, but who's to say it's the same Movellan War?), the season opener wisely eschews continuity, rather heavy of late, in favour of a new start. Some time has passed for the Doctor, who has spent the last five or seven decades doing a Professor Chronotis at a fictional university in Bristol. The introduction to this is wonderful; Bill enters an office, complete with sonic screwdrivers in a cup like pens, and photos of Susan and River Song. The Doctor then proceeds to handwave this young person with a dead end job into a place at the university and a possible future; social mobility in action at a time when we need it most.

I love the way Bill's sexual orientation is handled- mundane, normal, some people are gay, move along. This kind of subtle kick against heteronormativity can be just as radical as anything that seems to shout more loudly. Bill's home life, with her mum Moira's various lovers, is nicely sketched with a similar subtlety.

The way the adventure follows Bill's POV obviously calls to mind Rose, but then this sort of companion introduction story has become almost a trope in itself. Certainly Bill's introduction to the TARDIS's dimensions is the most fun iteration yet, but this is something that will never get stale. It's a nicely balanced episode with pace, wit, scares, action and, well, Bill gets a Dalek on her first go. And heartbreak. And the only exciting time she's ever had. And, eventually, the promise of more. I can't wait.

Friday, 14 April 2017

IZombie: Heaven Just Got a Little Bit Smoother

"You really should tan and dye. We're trying to keep a secret here."

Season three at last; it's been sooooo long. It's good to have the old gang and the old narrative tropes back. But we have a slight change of format after last season's dramatic finale: I'm sure we'll still get lots of murders (and brains) of the week, but the season subplot seems to be the gradual realisation by the people of Seattle that zombies walk among them, and how to manage that. There's an obvious civil rights subtext here, the same one that is used to such powerful metaphorical extent in the X-Men of various media; can humans co-exist among undead brain-munching fellow citizens?

I'm sure it'll all be fine. It's not as though humans have a long history of discrimination and violence based on race and/or sexual orientation, right? Besides, there's an awkwardness in arranging for them to legally eat brains without technically violating the dead. As it is, the episode sort of fudges this issue by dodging it completely when Clive sees Liv and Major munch on cerebellum for the first time.

Things follow directly on from last season's finale, and we learn just a little bit more about the mysterious Vivian Stoll and her league of military zombies, but just what is this "zombie homeland" to which she refers? It all sounds a bit Marcus Garvey, but there's no Zombie Africa. But she has a good point about the likely human reaction to "D-Day". I'm not convinced that her "Zombie Island" in the Puget Sound is a very good solution, but we'll see.

On a more personal note, there are worrying signs that Peyton may have feelings for bad boy Blaine rather than the lovable Ravi because, hey, that's what women in TV dramas do. We're reminded that Major may be dying, and Ravi needs to find a cure pretty sharpish.  Oh, and Don E is casually resurrecting Blaine's dad.

By the end of the episode, though, the secret is slowly circulating, and even Clive has a personal reason to be emotionally invested. Most of all, though, it's so good to have iZombie back.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Grimm: Tree People

"Please tell me we're not going Deliverance on this..."

Oh dear. This is an episode where a blood-eating magic tree and an Ent (only token efforts are made to link any of this stuff to Wesen lore) kill anyone who tries to dump rubbish and/or poach in a forest. It really is as silly as it sounds; the season is clearly treading water now until we can properly start the concluding arc. This is the most awful story-of-the-week for ages. It reminds me of the Buffy episode Go Fish for similar reasons. It's not unusual, I suppose, to find an episode like this in a position like this.

Moving swiftly on, then; after last week it's a relief at least to see a full cast of regulars, with Adalind and Diana both back, although Sean plays only a token role as he continues to talk meaninglessly dramatic crap about Diana with his Russian friend, who unaccountably switches to English halfway through the conversation. Even the arc stuff is badly written this episode.

We get a bit of investigation into the beast from the mirror, but even that is inconclusive. Definitely one to skip and almost certainly written in a hurry.

The Crown: Season 1, Episode 9- Assassins

"I'm not sure I could trust a Modernist with an English name..."

There's a lot bubbling away in that troublesome marriage between Elizabeth and Phil- not least that, as he gets sloshed with his ra-ra mates, she's hanging around with her friend (and old flame), Porchy, who shares her interest in horses, an interest which Phil does not share. Things are clearly building towards a head next episode, But this episode is all about Winston.

It's November 1954, and Winston's 80th birthday is coming up, an age that suggests retirement may not be far off; Gladstone may have become Prime Minister for the fourth and final time at 83, but that's not how things are done in the twentieth century. No; we get modernist artists to do a portrait, and so the episode hangs mainly around Churchill and Graham Sutherland's conversations as Winston sits for his portrait.It's a very character-based episode, filmed largely on location at Chartwell, which gets inside the head of this gruff, eloquent, stubborn and deeply emotional man, suffused with greatness, grief and the black dog.

Churchill's pride is greatly wounded by what must feel like a personal betrayal from his protege, the ambitious and frustrated Sir Anthony Eden, as he delivers an obviously pre-prepared and deeply tactless speech urging Churchill to step down, almost openly accusing him of staying on through nothing but personal pride. The effect is precisely as you would expect.

The unveiling of the painting is the disaster we all know, but the painting has "truth" and is the ultimate catalyst of the wounded Winston at last deciding to step down. We end with scenes of the Queen speaking at a dinner for him juxtaposed with scenes of the painting being burned. The episode is a fine farewell to Churchill whom, I suspect, we shall not see again. But these scenes are also juxtaposed with scenes of Elizabeth and Phil rowing, and I suspect the finale will show a lot more of this...

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Crown: Season 1, Episode 8- Pride & Joy

"The banger is falling apart!"

This episode was, perhaps, inevitable given the way this series is structured; a long and demanding Commonwealth tour between Liz and Phil serves as a nice contrast with her less dutiful sister Margaret, who duly makes a hash of standing in for Elizabeth during her absence. Just as interesting, though, are the deepening cracks appearing between Elizabeth and a husband who sees the farcical side of using pomp and circumstance to hide the fact that the once-mighty British Empire is slowly dying with a whimper.

We also get a nice bit of character development for the Queen Mother, too, as she disappears away to the Highlands to get away from it all, be anonymous and endear herself to us viewers in a way she hasn't so far.

This is, I think, presented as a pivotal moment for Elizabeth as Queen as she literally follows Churchill's advice to "never let the cameras see the real Elizabeth Windsor". Just as symbolic, I think, is how she charmingly intimidates a group of photographers into destroying the evidence of her row with a somewhat mardy Phil. The tour is deeply punishing, as shown by some nice directorial tricks, but Elizabeth endures it all for duty.

The ending, where the Queen bollocks Margaret and they proceed to get philosophical, is perhaps a microcosm of the whole show; it's well-made, well-acted and watchable, but it is lacking in the profundity that would make it truly great, and I suspect that is in no small part down to the subject matter.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Grimm: The Son Also Rises

"I have this feeling that something is starting..."

So Grimm does Frankenstein, to the point of the monster being created by a "Victor Shelley" (see what they did there?) in the process of reviving his dead son. At its heart, in what is a very rare event, this episode isn't technically Wesen-related. But there is, of course, a nice little Wesen-related touch in that the various body parts were all Wesen, with inevitable results.

This is, of course, yet another story-of-the-week, although its nice to get an episode where, with Nick somewhat sidelined, the case is handled by the pairing of Hank and Wu, both witty in their own way, who turn out to be the double act from hell as two actors with great timing devour a sizzling script. It's such a shame that we've seen so little of these two solving cases together.

There is arc stuff, too, of course, in spite of the absence of both Adalind and Diana and the sidelining of Sean (discovering potential but vague ominousness about Diana- told you). The looming catastrophic event is still a thing, and there's a hint at a possible extra-terrestrial origin for Wesen which, along with the Frankenstein stuff, gives this episode an oddly science fiction tinge. We also get a rather obvious dream for Monroe as he imagines an early birth and no fewer than six babies and counting before waking; a sign of nerves?

Meanwhile, Eve is recovering from another attack by that skull thing which attacked her through the mirror and is clearly going to connect in some way to Diana as Big Bad. Nick, weirdly, sits out the episode by her bedside.

Why do I get the impression, after a surprisingly enjoyable story-of-the-week showcasing Hank and Wu where most other regulars get a bit of a rest, that the next episode  is going to be big, arc-wise? Perhaps because there are only four episodes to go...

Friday, 7 April 2017

Clue (1985)

"Husbands should be like Kleenex; soft, strong and disposable."

"You lure men to their deaths like a spider with flies."

"Flies are where men are most vulnerable..."

Clue: a film so good that even the episode of Family Guy based on the film is one of the finest ones. I remember seeing and liking this film since before I was truly old enough to understand the style of humour but, frankly, as soon as I realised that this was a film by Jonathan Lynn of Yes, Minister fame I knew I was in for a good time.

Is it the first class comedy performances from the likes of Tim Curry (he may be even better here than in Rocky Horror) and Christopher Lloyd? Is it the abundant wit of the film, one of the wittiest ever? No; I think it's the plot, a gloriously meta exploration of how silly the whole country house murder mystery is. The fact that there are three different, equally plausible endings is a perfect deconstruction of the genre; after all, who cares about the arbitrary identity of the killer when we're having this much fun? It's true to say that the structure of this film is as witty as the dialogue.

But as good as the film is Tim Curry, whose performance in the final minutes of the film is exhilarating and extraordinary. One of the great comedy films of all time.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Crown: Season 1, Episode 7- Scientia Potentia Est

"No one wants a bluestocking or a college lecturer as Sovereign!"

One of the better episodes, this, making the point that not even all the privilege in the world can save one from 1950s misogyny and stereotyping- and, make no mistake, today is much the same but with the rough edges taken off. Women's rights may have advanced from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic but they are nevertheless in the Stone Age.

Back in little Lillibet's childhood, for example, even after she became heir presumptive, her education consisted solely of the Constitution, Bagehot (So that's how you pronounce the name! I had a similar epiphany with "Lascelles".) and all that. Nothing else. No history, literature, science, philosophy; and yet, her brief expert discourse to the professor hired to tutor her on the finer points of horse racing is clearly meant to imply that Elizabeth, so self-consciously uneducated and intimidated by all these successful and educated men (yes, men) who surround her, is not so much unintelligent as untested.

The other main strand to the episode is, of course, the astounding fact that Churchill had a couple of minor strokes during 1953 and that not only the Press but also the Queen was kept in the dark; no wonder that we Brits have since preferred our leaders to be rather less gerontocratic ever since. Worse, Churchill is only buggering on so that his preferred successor, Eden, can recover from crippling gallstone surgery. And the poor heath of both the prime minister and the foreign secretary is seen, especially by the Eisenhower era Americans, as a metaphor for national decline. Awkward.

We also get a disturbing clash over the choice of his replacement as royal secretary between Elizabeth and the forces of ossified conservatism in the shape of Lascelles; he seems to see anything other than bland, passive conformity as a slippery slope on the way to Abdication. But Elizabeth is clearly no Edward VIII.

We end with Elizabeth giving Churchill a delightful bollocking and Phil, hitherto unseen all episode, turning up as pissed as a fart having spent even more time away from his wife. All is not perfect in that marriage...

Good stuff.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Legend of the Werewolf (1975)

"We do not cater for unusual tastes in here!"

This looks and feels like a Hammer horror film, is directed by Freddie Francis and stars Peter Cushing, but technically it isn't- it's made by Tyburn Films, a company specifically set up to continue the Hammer tradition after the Hammer horrors sadly came to an end (well, if you ignore To the Devil... a Daughter). Sadly, Tyburn only made three further films before giving up the ghost in 1975, and this is the last of those; very much the end of an era.

This is, essentially, a bog standard average Hammer horror in both style and quality. It's hard to gauge how dated this would have felt, if at all, in 1975, but the quality is certainly good enough, if not great. The script is ok, Cushing carries the film with his usual charisma and there's a delightful performance by Hugh Griffith early on. And the rather poor werewolf make-up is more than compensated for by some extremely clever effects and direction.

The setting is mid-nineteenth century France, a time of brothels (Ron Moody plays the very dirtiest of dirty old men), daguerreotypes and Napoleon III; a little later in time and a little to the west of the usual setting for these films but suitably atmospheric as far as Hammer goes. The script may be predictable, David Rintoul may be an average actor but, as ever, the film is carried by the splendid Peter Cushing as a pathologist who constantly solves cases for the inspector.

Not a bad film, then, and perhaps quite fitting that (and yes, I know this technically isn't a Hammer horror film, and that there would be one more such film to go, but...) it's a suitable closure for an era of which I am very fond.