Monday, 31 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

"Can't you just be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man?"

Hmm. Well, let me first emphasise that I liked and enjoyed this. All Marvel Cinematic Universe films are fun, have a real wit and lightness of touch, and give a real sense of the wider universe. All of that was present this time and, for what it's worth, this is now my favourite Spider-Man film. But it doesn't quite reach the heights of Marvel's best.

Still, it's a bloody good film. Tom Holland is already cinema's best Spider-Man- a real and believable teenager, young and enthusiastic. Michael Keaton makes a magnificent villain as the Vulture, drawing out Adrian Tombs' depths as a genuinely nuanced character with some rather superb facial acting. Cinema's best Batman turns out to make a rather good baddie for the competition.

And then there's the plot, the script, and the excellent and highly relieving decision not to spend any time rehashing that bloody origin story again. We get only a brief mention of the spider bite and no mention at all of Peter's bloody Uncle Ben. Good. A Spider-Man film should start with ol' Web-Head up and swinging.

But I thought there were nevertheless a couple of misjudgements, not least that excessively Iron-Man-like suit which just isn't very Spidey. And then there's the use of Tony Stark as a mentor figure which gives the feeling that Spidey is a minor offshoot of a very Avengers-centric universe. This feels wrong, perhaps as a consequence of integral parts of the Marvel Universe having been deplorably and immorally pilfered by Fox; the Marvel Universe should not be Avengers-centric. It has no centre. But here we are constantly defining Spidey in terms of the Avengers, which we shouldn't be. It's nice to have a street level story, but the Avengers connections threaten to overwhelm. That's a shame, because the film is otherwise very good indeed.

A good film, then, although perhaps not without flaws. Still, it can surely boast the best Marvel post-credits sequence yet.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Lifeforce (1985)

"Columbia, they're all dead!"

 Well, this certainly isn't the sort of film you'd expect of Tobe Hooper, he of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame. Oh, it's well-directed and acted, with horror-like touches, but it's an oddly straight piece of very British alien invasion sci-fi, stuffed with British character actors such as Frank Finlay (always the Witchsmeller Pursuivant to me), John Hallam (Forget Light- he'll always be Sir Wilfred Death to me), Patrick Stewart, Aubrey Morris and even John Woodnutt.

The script, to be frank, is British sci-fi by numbers and nothing special, a very well-made film but with an average script. It's like an episode of Doctor Who with a Hollywood budget and more nudity, right down to the suspiciously large influence plot-wise from The Quatermass Experiment, only without any of Nigel Kneale's characteristic pessimism.

Still, the film is acted well and looks good, with some truly magnificent examples of stop-motion animation which seemed to reach a real peak in the immediately pre-CGI era. Steve Railsback and Peter Firth make decent if rather unhinged-looking stars and it's fun to revel in the '80s-ness of the space shuttles, computer screens and obsession with the return of Halley's Comet. It's odd that a contemporary film should feature such suspiciously advanced space tech, but heigh-ho. Arguably beginning to fade into obscurity from its cult status, Lifeforce is definitely worth seeing not only because it's a fun bit of '80s nostalgia but because it's actually quite good, although I wouldn't put it more strongly than that..

Sunday, 16 July 2017

It's Jodie Whittaker!

So the new incarnation of the Doctor under the Chibnall era is to be Jodie Whittaker. I'm not too exercised by her gender- it's a positive step, yes, but "generic female" was never going to be on the audition list; it has to be the right individual, regardless of gender. And on that criterion, well, I've hardly seen anything with Jodie Whittaker in. So I'm afraid that, other than to register my equanimity at the prospect of the Doctor being a woman, I've little much to say other than a vague intention to see her in something soon.

We know little of the Chibnall era of Doctor Who yet. Writer's rooms? Season-long stories? Let's see what emerges.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

"I'm gonna get mediaeval on your ass!"

This is, quite alarmingly, the 384th film I've done for this blog. Just as alarmingly, it's the first of those 384 films to have been directed by Quentin Tarantino. The odds were against this- I'm quite a fan of his, and this is THE film for those of my generation- but here we are; I've finally got around to blogging the finest film of the '90s.

So what makes Pulp Fiction so superlatively good? Well, part of it is just bloody good directing- take the syringe sequence- but there's more to it than this. Tarantino famously appeals both to the Cannes-attending intellectual crowd and to those who just like to be entertained by a couple of hours of violence and cool, two things which Tarantino is very good at. How does he keep both groups happy?

Well, I tend to say that Tarantino is the Jimi Hendrix of cinema- a true virtuoso, but you could never call him pretentious. Clever though he is, he always retains that lightness of touch. There's a line he doesn't touch. So Pulp Fiction may have a non-linear narrative and a complex ensemble plot with multiple perspectives, but at the same time it manages to be easy to follow, an achievement in both scriptwriting and directing which is not easy. Also, the allusions to cinematic history may be many, but they never overshadow the film itself.

But, I think, what Tarantino does with Pulp Fiction in particular is to use dialogue differently. It's not just that the dialogue is cool and quotable, although it's both of those things, but that it is allowed to breathe. Conversations are allowed to meander and reach a natural end, as per real life, from that first conversation between Jules and Vincent about Amsterdam through the entire film. They are not truncated to fit the narrative and rhythm of the plot; rather, the dialogue sets the rhythm and is used to make sudden moments of action more dramatic.

So many performances deserve praise- Uma Thurman as the tantalising Mia, Samuel L. Jackson as the compelling Jules, comeback kid John Travolta actually being quite good (and getting top billing after all those years of obscurity), Harvey Keitel doing the cool character that probably inspired those recent insurance adverts (something I've only just realised). Not only that, but even Bruce Willis manages to be more-or-less acceptable.

This is one of the greatest films ever, end of. It shouldn't be so long until I blog my next Tarantino film...

Saturday, 15 July 2017

My Girl 2 (1994)

"It's not easy being a woman!"

It's sometimes good to see and blog a film not in the usual genre, without all the explosions and CGI I'm used to, and see a nice little 90 minute drama about our old friend Vada and her dad, stepmum and soon-to-be baby sibling. No Thomas J for obvious reasons, so no Macauley Culkin to provide a big name '.this time; we'll have to make do with Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Aykroyd. Still, I'm not sure Macauley Culkin was still a thing in '94 anyway.

It's interesting that this isn't, given the absence of Thomas J, really a direct sequel at all but rather a tale of Vada, a couple of years older, travelling to Los Angeles to research her late mother and to undertake a sort-of romance with the awkward and very teenage Nick. In its quiet way it's a nicely done drama, with Vada's search for answers providing a nice structure to it all.

The script and acting are both superb, and there's just enough wallowing in the fact it's 1974 to be fun without overdoing it. There are some nice cameos with Aubrey Morris as a jaded, elderly poet ("Don't be a poet. Be a TV repairman.") and Keone Young as a nerdy cop. A quietly satisfying sequel that's just as good as its predecessor.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

"The Sun is not coming up!"

I wasn't expecting to like this film. I really wasn't. After all, both The Blair Witch Project and its somewhat unloved sequel are quite good but hardly seminal films and the law of diminishing returns did not seem to bore well. So I was surprised to find myself watching a fairly standard but well-scripted and directed found footage movie which, again, will grace no "Best of" lists but is rather good and, arguably, superior to its two predecessors.

It help that one of the protagonists, James, is the younger brother of Heather from the first film, and that we are restricted to a small cast of two sympathetic couples and another couple who are somewhat dodgy, a dynamic that works. The storytelling beats and plot structure are formulaic but done well, and there is just enough characterisation. No new ground is broken here but it's a solid example of the genre which the first film popularised.

It's nice to get the modern touches such as social media and drones, and to get some more historical backstory for the Witch. Best of all though is the interestingly directed final sequence in the house. An unexpectedly good sequel, then, which doesn't try to be clever but delivers exactly what is wanted.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Circle (2017)

"Secrets are lies!"

It's a surprise to see that Netflix are making films (and this is a film, with a cinematic release) with such stellar casts; here we get Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, the late Bill Paxton and John Boyega, although Emma Watson, playing American, underwhelms a little as Mae. Still, the film, an adaptation by Dave Evers of his own novel, is superb and thought-provoking.

Mae takes a job at "The Circle", an organisation that seems to be inspired by Apple, Google and Facebook in its culture, employment practices and messianic leader Eamon (Hanks), clearly based on Steve Jobs. At first things are great, with a high salary, a friendly culture on "campus" and plenty of fun and ties. Then we get our first sign of the company being something of a cult, with compulsory "optional" recreational activities and an expectation that employees will maintain a heavy presence on "TrueYou", a thinly veiled Facebook analogue. Mae realised things have gone too far with chips being planned to go into children's bones so they can be monitored and connects with reclusive and disillusioned TrueYou inventor Ty Laffitte (Boyega). Yet her ill-advised cry for help has horrific circumstances.

Mae's persuasion by Eamon to go "transparent", to have her entire life broadcast to the online public on the grounds that "secrets are lies", privacy is bad and we need to be watched to stop us doing bad things is deeply, deeply sinister. Things go predictably wrong very quickly but Mae has her revenge on Eamon- yet it isn't a happy ending as the onward march of social media to trample over our right to privacy is unimpeded, with the Circle able to track down any person for any reason and, now compulsory, delivering electoral information and public services in the ultimate corrupt privatisation. Even the Circle's claim to oppose tyrannical regimes is somewhat undercut by the fact that sending "frowns" to a dictatorship is a pretty impotent thing to do, just like all forms of clicktivism.

The film is marred, perhaps, by a strange blandness on the part of Emma Watson, but the ideas played with in this film are superb. It's worth seeing this script being performed in spite of the film's faults.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

An Update...

Let's just say I'll be rather busy in real life until 25th July, hence the reduced frequency of posts lately. Things are hectic, but there's a definite end date; I have a rather big exam coming up, and at 40 I have to actually revise properly. Plus Mrs Llamastrangler isn't well and someone has to look after Little Miss Llamastrangler. Rest assured things will soon be back to normal, and in the meantime there will still be the odd post.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Theory of Everything (2014)

"While there is life, there is hope."

I'm quite familiar with Stephen Hawking's career from reading both his biography and A Brief History of Time, both a considerable number of ears ago and t was inevitable, I suppose, that a major film should be made about his life and relationship with Jane; as we can see from A Theory of Everything, the events of Hawking's life are extremely well suited to being dramatised; it's not surprising that the film is bloody good. But what is surprising is that the performance from then-newcomer Eddie Redmayne is so utterly transcendent. At last I can see what the fuss was about. The Oscar is well-deserved.
Redmayne excels both as the awkward young man and as the older Hawking in his iconic chair.

The film starts with a shot of said iconic wheelchair and then immediately flashes back to the young Hawking riding a bicycle through the colleges of Cambridge in 1963- quite an effective contrast- on the day he meets Jane, and the film shows the development of his relationship with Jane, his meteoric career and the terrible gradual progress of his motor neuron disease. He's given two years to live, and that seems normal for the condition; I'm led to wonder why it is that he's fortunately survived for all these years.

The film shows us Hawking's stubborn, ambitious, attractively humorous and non-self-pitying personality but also the awful pressures on Jane of looking after Stephen with three small children in tow. The pressures on their relationship are shown with sympathy. It's also wonderful to see his colleagues treating him as normally as possible, a real sign of respect.

There are some nice directorial touches, with a cup of coffee symbolising a black hole, but the film rightly stands on its performances and the emotional heart of its story. This is a superb film.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)

"They call me... Swamp Thing!"

I looooved this. Am I allowed to say that? In fact I, er, actually prefer it to the first film.

It's interesting to see a sequel made in 1989, after Alan Moore's acclaimed run on the comic book and even opening with some of Steve Bissette and John Totleben's more famous panels to the splendid and inevitable tones of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Would this film reflect that justly famous run? Well, there's a scene where Swamp Thing feeds Abby a suspiciously phallic seed from a certain part of his body. But, er, no. This film doesn't at all try to be poetic but goes full on B movie and isn't afraid to be silly. Thing is, it works.

I've seen this film described many times as overly silly, which puzzles me; wit and humour are part of life, and are well balanced here. Many potemtially po-faced and dull action films would be improved by this sort of humour. And, er, it's funny. Even the casting of Heather Locklear as a very valley girl Abby works somehow. It isn't just that though- the direction is technically inspired, the casting may be eccentric but we get entertaining performances just the right side of camp, Sarah Douglas is in it, and Swamp Thing gets his own little '80s fanfare. We even get some very '80s porn-loving kids as the chorus. What more do you want?

Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls

"Is it wrong that I..."

"Yes, very!"

Wow. That was an emotional rollercoaster and no mistake, and probably the best Doctor Who season finale since the institution started back in 2005. It's also an episode chick full of fan lore, Moffatisms and, well, stuff. There's a lot to talk about.

We begin with a typically Moffat pre-titles with fields, skies, farmhouses and horse-driven carts all inside the same spaceship (a Moffat trope right from The Time of Angels), and the terrifying spectacle of partly cybernised people being used as scarecrows. The Doctor, Nardole the Master and Missy share a few witticisms before they, and Cyberman Bill, end up together in the farmhouse where the two Masters exchange some glorious dialogue in some truly joyous scenes while Bill (shown as she sees herself) comes to terms with the awful body horror of what she has become. These two sequences showcase two separate types of superlative writing prowess from the Moff.

There's a superb reason why they can't all return to the TARDIS- time dilation; if they travel the full 4,000 miles then the Cybermen will have had millennia to prepare, so there's nothing for it but to sit and wait for the inevitable assault, and for the Doctor to be heroic for the sake of it- "without hope, without witness, without reward." The Doctor gets another one of those magnificent soliloquies that Peter Capaldi first showed himself to be so good at with The Zygon Inversion, and it's interesting to see that the Master doesn't care but Missy is, at least, equivocal.

So the Doctor and Bill, who knows her humanity is slowly being eroded and doesn't want to live without being her (there's a thought, and a horribly modern one- Cybermen as a metaphor for dementia), agree to the suicide mission of staying behind to blow up with the Cybermen while Nardole gets everyone away to survive for a while until the next attack.

The Masters get a delightfully mad ending as Missy fatally stabs the Master with a hug and he shoots her after she reveals she's off to join the Doctor. The Master is off to his TARDIS to regenerate; she is apparently too dead to regenerate, as some ways of being killed, apparently, just arbitrarily do that. This is fooling no one, of course; the Master's been deader than this. (S)he'll be back.

So we come to the Doctor- also fatally wounded, although we saw a flicker of regeneration energy even earlier- and Bill in their last stand against the Cybermen, some of whom, disappointingly, have "evolved" to be more modern like and use the existing costumes. But we get a moment of pure fanwank as the Doctor names "Telos, Voga, Planet 14". There's also an earlier bit of retcon that makes me uncomfortable while we're on the subject of fanwank; the Doctor seems to say that the Cybermen arose independently on "Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14" and, yes, Marinus, in a bizarre and gloriously fanwanky reference to the DWM comic strip The World Shapers, penned by Grant Morrison, no less. Not sure I like this suggestion that not all Cybermen are fundamentally Mondasian, and the idea seems to contradict dialogue in Tomb of the Cybermen anyway.

Still, Cyberman Bill dies and... Bill still exists, because of some clever and retrospectively well-seeded long term plot cleverness from way back in The Pilot meaning Bill gets to be herself again and travel the universe in a puddle with the girl she loves. It's clever, it's superbly written, it made Mrs Llamastrangler and me cry and it's essentially brilliant. But, well, it feels like a cop out. After Clara this is twice in a row that Moffat has stepped back from properly killing off a companion at the last minute and it feels like a lack of bravery. Perhaps I'm being unfair; it's still rather brilliant, and would probably feel different if it wasn't for Clara, not to mention that a companion dying would have overshadowed a busy episode. Nonetheless, there's a slight feeling of cop out.

And so we come to what all the signs are telling us is a regeneration; the Doctor recites his predecessors' last lines, he's lying in the TARDIS as he was at the end of The Tenth Planet, the Cloister Bell is sounding. And yet the Doctor is resisting regeneration through sheer willpower and has, I suspect, been doing so for quite some time. And then Moffat throws a curveball as (in the Doctor's head?) the bloody first Doctor appears, played by David Bradley. This is, to put it mildly, hugely exciting, and may indicate that the Christmas Special may be a leisurely examination of the concept of regeneration, i.e. mortality, casting the Doctor as a kind of Scrooge figure? Whatever, I can't wait.

And yes, I know I have a couple of little criticisms, but they in no way detract from the sheer brilliance and genius of one of Moffat's finest pieces of writing. Yes, like all prolific writers he has his tropes, but that's a strength, not a weakness. Steven Moffat is right up there with Whittaker, Holmes and Davies as one of the finest writers ever to grace this programme.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

iZombie: Looking for Mr. Goodbrain, Part 2

"Well, at least it's not just us with our wangs hanging out..."

Oooh boy. This is quite the eventful finale. Hard to believe this all managed to fit within 41 minutes. Where to start...?

It's a downbeat beginning as Major and Justin briefly (41 minutes!) mourn their dead friends and Liv's confession to Justin about sleeping with Chase Graves leads to him, quite reasonably, being very upset and dumping her, knowing full well that resisting the urges of a particular brain is far from impossible.

But there's scarcely time to breathe before we get straight on to the web of intrigue and revelations that pretty much defines this episode and which I'm certainly not going to summarise; this is not a synopsis.Suffice to say there's been skulduggery within the ranks of Graves' underlings, Baracus was always a red herring and what seemed to be a nefarious genocidal plot turns out in fact to be a plot to seize control of Discovery Day so that humans and zombies can live together in (theoretical) harmony; scenes towards the end indicate that reality is not quite so idyllic.

The role of Johnny Frost in all this is both hilarious and inspired- I love how he uses the fact he's reporting on live television to jump the queue and get vaccinated- and it's heartwarming that Clive is finally able to be fully truthful to Dale, and equally heartbreaking that he's just too late to stop her being infected. But a short, silent scene shows that they're together, and he's staying with her, even though sex is now seemingly out of the question.

But nothing is more moving than the final scene, as Liv sees the final stages of Ravi's truly splendid lab experiment with many vials of bubbling liquid all connected intricately. It seems Ravi has concocted a vaccine and is testing it on himself. Liv is quite moved by this and the two of them have a deeply moving conversation in which they each declare their (platonic) love for each other. And Liv scratches him...

Wow. THAT'S how to do a finale. And tonight it's Doctor Who's turn...