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: 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...

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Chinatown (1974)

"Middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns..."

SPOILERS

Best film about utilities and nonces ever. Ironic, seeing as it was directed by a man who urgently needs to get on a plane to the very city that this film is about to face the charge of being a nonce himself. But let's not get distracted by a certain heinous event in 1977 for which the perpetrator has yet to face justice...

Annoyingly, even nonces can direct films which are exquisite works of art. It's a film noir, it's a whodunit, it's an early '70s auteur film in the same vein as Scorsese and Coppola's stuff. The 1930s as a setting is glorious, the whole fictionalised history of the Los Angeles Water Wars manages to completely avoid being, ahem, dry, and Jack Nicholson is the best Philip Marlowe ever as he plays Jake Gittes. Faye Dunaway also impresses as the femme fatale who turns out not to be that at all, and John Huston(!) is suitably evil as the rich old corrupt nonce who causes so much misery.

One thing, though: why does Katherine pretend to be her mum/sis and hire Jake to expose the rather nice Hollis as an adulterer? If it's a hint at getting him to find out about the conspiracy then it's a rather odd one. But the film is a triumph, and reminds us of just how much Los Angeles is a desert city, unnaturally watered. Ironic that the Los Angeles Aqueduct was designed by William Mulholland, and that I would have watched Mulholland Drive tonight if Amazon Prime had been civilised and had subtitles...

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA Top Shelf Perverts

"We both know you don't own a vacuum cleaner...”

Wow. Jessica has really hit rock bottom after last week; Luke’s stinging rejection has really affected her. We know that, narratively speaking, there’s no way she’s going to get locked up in Superman for the rest of her life for a trumped up crime of her own devising in the middle episode of the season is dark, dark, dark. Jessica is a very damaged person.

And the reason for that damage is as foregrounded as ever as we finally get a personal confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave in which both Ritter and Tennant are magnificent. Kilgrave is the textbook abuser her, entitled to have Jessica just because he thinks he loves her. She’s the object of his “aff futons” and thus an object, to be allowed no agency at all. He’s refusing to use his powers directly on her but that doesn’t mean this is about anything other than a disturbing need to control. All this is every bit as disturbing as his murder of Ruben.

We also see Trish’s mother, and apparently Jessica’s adoptive stepmother, as we begin to get some backstory regarding Jessica’s childhood. And Will is going off the rails, tracking Kilgrave without being honest to Trish about what he’s doing. Here’s my prediction; he’s going to get himself killed.

Hogarth’s ex blackmails her for 75% of her assets; this means war, and brings this plot thread from
The background to the fore. I’m sure something will snap soon. It’s a decisively eventful middle episode, ending with Jessica seemingly helpless in Kilgrave’s orbit.  This is brutally good telly.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

White Zombie (1932)

"I'm too old to go all the way with you!"

Oh dear. I was all set to watch Brighton Rock with Richard Attenborough but, due to a disappointing lack of subtitles on behalf of Amazon Prime, I thought I'd watch this instead. Not my best decision; it's a plodding, dull, poorly shot melodrama that may only last 70 minutes but feels much, much longer. Not very good, to put it mildly, and you can sort of see the slide in Bela Lugosi's career starting here, in a performance that is just repeating Dracula.

Still, bad film though this is, it remains an interesting cultural artifact and not only because it was the name of Rob Zombie's band for a few years before he found himself having far more success with his solo career and sacked the band. It's set, like the later I Walked with a Zombie, in Haiti and sees the zombie entirely through the prism of Haitian voodoo legend. Even the title of the film suggests it was widely seen as a Haitian or, at most, West African thing. The zombie at this point owes very little to the post-Night of the Living Dead concept; here it is implied to be the result of a drug that mimics death, allowing the voodoo baddie to "resurrect" the body as his docile servant. No biting or brain munching here. Indeed, zombies are said to be worked for long hours in plantations and sugar factories, and it's impossible not to see this, in the Caribbean of all places, in the context of slavery. This isn't the apocalypse; it's abuse of workers' rights.

None of that makes this film worth seeing, though. You have been warned!

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

"You're my favourite person. But every so often you can be a real c***."

And so we come to the second part, with Elle unexpectedly killing Budd with a hidden black mamba while the Bride plucks out Elle's remaining eye, leaving her blind and thrashing around.

Only Bill is left. But the story is fleshed out, with a monochrome flashback to the wedding and an extended heart to heat between our two protagonists at the end, with Bill's monologue about Superman finally giving us some proper Tarantino dialogue but also allowing the film to end with fully explored characterisation. There's plenty of aestheticised violence in this second part but this time around we get the characterisation and backstory. We also have a name: er, Beatrix Kiddo.

We also get a proper visual tribute to Chinese martial arts and, it seems, to Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the very silly character of "Gordon" Liu's Pai Mei, the bushy eyebrowed and delightfully rude ancient martial arts master with a beard to marvel at. All scenes featuring him are comedy gold. He's rude, sadistic, bigoted and easily the most likeable character in the film. Oh, and on the subject of cameos we also get Sid Haig as a barman and Samuel L. Jackson as... could it be an older, wiser Jules?

It's a satisfying ending, perhaps more so than expected, and the two parts together make a more balanced and fleshed-out film than the pure fetishised violence of the first half. And the direction, of course, is equally magnificent. I'm so glad I've finally seen this. More Tarantino before too long, methinks.

Anastasia (1997)

"That's what I hate about this government. Everything's in red."

 Ok, let's forget historical accuracy. Rasputin died in December 1916, a full two months before the revolution, yes. And Anastasia was killed with the rest of her family in Yekaterinburg in July 1918 along with the rest of the former imperial family. But let us forget such things, much as we forget how silly it is to travel from Germany to France (by map, naturally) by sailing round Denmark. Why? Because artistic licence, because this was Mrs Llamastrangler's favourite film when she was younger, and because it's an entertaining and kid-friendly piece of superior ersatz Disney.

The plot is predictable; Anastasia survives in defiance of the historical record and heads to Paris to find her grandmother and validation, all the while falling gradually in love, screwball comedy style, and ending up happy if no longer royal- who needs those useless Romanovs anyway?

It's a superb cast, with Christopher Lloyd superb in a rare villainous role as the surely too scary for kids ghostly Rasputin, but Meg Ryan and John Cusack (the most '90s stars ever) steal the show. The animation, still hand-drawn, is gorgeous, and I appreciate the various nods to contemporary art and especially the Toulouse Lautrec version of the Moulin Rouge. Yes, it's for kids; yes, narrative rides roughshod over historical accuracy; but there are far worse ways to spend ninety minutes.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

"Well... the television said that's the right thing to do!

Yes, I know, you were expecting Kill Bill, Vol. 2. Over the weekend, I promise! In the meantime, this: the first modern zombie film, establishing all the tropes of the genre as we know it today. From this point onwards zombies are no longer portrayed in terms of their Haitian origins- no voodoo dolls here: compare this to Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies from Just two years prior. Fitting, then, the film should have a black lead in Duane Jones, although his eventual fate is so depressingly 1968 America.

The film is superb, in spite of its cast of unknown; brilliantly shot in glorious monochrome with fantastic camera angles and magnificent use of shadows. The musical score is highly effective, too. This is a proper horror film that does that old-fashioned thing of making you jump. The whole thing reminds me of the base under siege stories that were being done in Doctor Who at the time, complete with the small cast of flawed characters.

But this film, of course, establishes the tropes of the newish genre it’s creating. Everybody dies, of course, although it isn’t made explicit that civilisation is doomed, with some semblance of state authority remaining at the end. I suspect it is indeed doomed, though, in a world where anyone who dies for any reason will be almost instantly reanimated. Interesting, though, that the plague is said to be caused by mysterious radiation from a returning probe to Venus; it’s all very atomic age.

I can understand why this film is seen as such a horror classic. It really is that good. I only regret that it took the unfortunate death of the great George A. Romero to drive me to watch it

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

"Your instrument is quite impressive..."

I saw this film at the pictures back in 2003, when I was still in my twenties. I enjoyed myself, but never somehow got round to seeing part 2, something which will, I assure you, be remedied within the week. I liked the film then; I like it just as much now, having seen it for a second time.

It's often said of Quentin Tarantino that his main distinguishing feature is the aestheticisation of violence. This film could be said to be the purest expression of that, jettisoning Tarantino's trademark dialogue for an entire film's worth of beautifully shot ultraviolence. The film takes its time in showing us what is really a very simple plot: the Bride, in revenge for the deaths of her new husband, the baby in her belly and everyone present, sets out to kill the first two of five people responsible for her wedding day massacre.But this film is all about form- aesthetics- over content in the best possible way.

Forget realism. This film takes place in a universe where, even post-9/11, planes carry holders for passengers' samurai swords and there exists no pesky law enforcement institutions to rudely interfere with one's mission of revenge, Thgis is Tarantino's tribute to both Japan and to the Hong Kongmartial arts films from the '70s, beginning the film with an explicit tribute to Shaw Brothers and casting Chia-Hui "Gordon" Liu. Most of the film consists of the Bride's meticulous yet fantastical assassination of O-Ren Ishii, a delightfully entertaining baddie who, in a film chock full of superb female roles, assumes the role of main baddie with aplomb, vying well with the Bride in who can generate the biggest jets of CGI blood via the severing of various major body parts.

The direction is superb, with cam era angles to dies for and flashbacks marked out both by use of monochrome and animation. The multinational cast hints heavily at the film's Eastern origins and, while the lack of flashy dialogue or, indeed, of flashy narrative, makes this no Pulp Fiction, I look forward to the second part...

Friday, 15 September 2017

The BFG (1989 TV Film)

"I think, on the whole, I prefer the bagpipes."

This magnificently quirky (and somewhat druggy feeling) animation from Cosgrove Hall of Dangermouse and Count Duckula fame is obviously a superb and enormously fun rendering of Roald Dahl's wonderful novel, well cast with the BFG being rather predictably played by a rather good David Jason, although I have no idea what accent that is supposed to be. Still, it's wonderful, superb, excellent. Watch it now; it was a British TV movie in 1989 so relatively few people worldwide will have done so.

It would be churlish, therefore, to sit here and poke holes is the plot of a film (and novel) which is truly wonderful and has brought joy to millions. Unfortunately, I'm a bit of a churl.

So, firstly, how on Earth did the BFG get started with all this psychedelic dream stuff? Why is he the only giant to have a job, for which he seemingly isn't paid? Why do the other giants not know about the dreamland and how is he managing to keep the secret? Why are there only nine of them? How do they reproduce, as they all seem to be male? How does their economy function to keep them in nicely furnished houses?

And then there's the constitutional scandals. Queen Elizabeth II is seen directing military activities without Parliamentary oversight! The head of Sophie's orphanage is subjected to cruel extra-judicial punishment by the monarch in direct contravention of both Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights! And Sophie is released into the custody of some strange tall bloke who had made no provision for either her education or health needs. Have social services been informed?

This may be a charming if somewhat druggy film that is justifiably remembers with much fondness, yes. But wait until Charter 88 hears about this...

Monday, 11 September 2017

Jessica Jones: AKA You're a Winner

"Of course they're ok. I don't hurt dogs."

Narratively in the context of the season, of course (SPOILERS!) this is The Episode Where Luke Finds Out. It's halfway through the season so naturally it's time to build a big wedge between the two of them. But the way it's done is devastating, a massive blow that someone decent like Luke, whom she cares about, should be so disgusted with her. Yet this, like everything, is the consequence of that abusive relationship with Killgrave, who spends the episode carefully, and legally, with minimal use of powers, acquiring ownership of Jessica's childhood home. It doesn't get much creepier than that.

What gives the ending its punch, of course, is that Jessica and Luke end up working together and, after Luke hears the gist about what happened with Killgrave from Malcolm, he thinks he knows why they split up, and it doesn't take long before they sleep together. It's clear from these brief scenes just how much she likes him, and how much his rejection of her must hurt.

Elsewhere, Hope gets herself an illicit abortion as there's no way she can stomach giving birth to Killgrave's child, a foetus conceived by rape. We get the eye-opening revelation that Pam won't sleep with Hogarth before marriage because "I'm Catholic"- people who refuse to make sure they're sexually compatible with you before getting married are not taking the marriage seriously, and I'm not sure what Pam's agenda is here.

One other weird thing- Hogarth wants Hope's dead foetus. Why? A solid episode, though, in a series that continues to impress.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Apocalypse Now (1979)

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning..."

 I may have waited until I was forty but at last I can claim to have seen this troubled yet magnificent and iconic film, and now at last I know where the phrase "Charlie don't surf" comes from. But there#s so much more, and not just the well-known set pieces with eccentric warfare, surfing chat and Ride of the Valkyries.  No; this modern take on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which I read long ago, in Florida, when I was nineteen) doesn't just transplant the events from the Belgian Congo to Vietnam but imparts added meaning. There's far more going on in this film than a single viewing can pick up, but there's the barbarity and ethics of warfare, misogyny, mortality and so much more, and it all feels so much more profound for the extraordinary skilled direction from Francis Ford Coppola.

It doesn't feel over-long; yes, Kurtz (a magnificent Marlon Brando, always filmed in some degree of shadow as metaphor for the character's ambiguity) is held back to the end, being built up slowly until his final, iconic appearance, but the film is equally about the events that happen to Willard (an extraordinary and very young Martin Sheen) along the way, alongside such characters as Chef, Clean (a teenage Laurence Fishburne) Dennis Hopper's nameless fawning photojournalist and the unforgettable Colonel Bill Kilgore. There's more than a hint of Aguirre: Wrath of God in how the journey along the river is shot, but the characters feel real and human; this isn't some aloof art flick.

There's a surprisingly small part for Harrison Ford but the cast as a whole is magnificent and entirely worthy of what must surely be one of the finest films ever made, however difficult it's creation.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978)

"The tomatoes are coming!"

Oh my. That's... quite a cultural experience. What have I just watched?

So very low budget; totally devoid of stars (the most "famous" person in the film seems to be Gregg Berger, who would provide the voice for Grimlock in the Transformers cartoon the following decade), and many of the big roles are played by people with no other screen credits. And yet... this is absolutely wonderful.

There isn't so much a plot here, or at least no more so than there is in the first two Monty Python films; instead we get a series of linked sketches, all showing us some very Pythonesqye humour; indeed, the whole thing reminds me of the tennis-playing blancmange sketch. The film is chick full of brilliant sketches, including an interesting precursor of the Two Ronnies' famous "crossed lines" sketch. And it's all so splendidly '70s, with a superb skewering of the advertising agency, although with a very jarring bit of anti-Japanese racism near the start. And the tomatoes themselves... words fail me.

The conclusion is, of course, both random and inspired, imparting the important moral message that chart pop is evil, and the final scene with the carrot promises, or threatens, a sequel. I'm, well, defeated by this film...


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

"It's a bit like one of those old houses in horror films."

"I see what you mean. It's like Boris Karloff's going to pop up any minute..."

Wow. A late '60s horror film with a very genre cast (what a cast though!) that manages to be not at all kitsch as its Hammer and Amicus cousins usually are but, in spite of being very much full of the usual cliched tropes, is actually a film of genuine quality. Then again, it's scripted by the two men behind The Web of Fear.

Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff both excel in roles that suit their perspective brands of silky, sinister charisma, although sadly Barbara Steele's role is too small to be worth much comment. Mark Eden does well as the hero, although it's a shame that Robert gets such a tiresomely and predictably rapey scene with Virginia Wetherell's Eve, something that dates the film every bit as much as the '60s fire engine at the end.

The true star is the script, though- this tale of a witch burned unjustly at the stake under Cromwell and seeking bloody revenge over the centuries involving violence, fear and, er, a fair bit of BDSM from the very start, and centred around an old house with a hidden past may be typically gothic fare with a huge number of horror film cliches all present and correct right down to the petrol pump attendant warning us off the house in question, but the execution is undeniably superb. Don't mistake it for one of the many films of a similar type with a similar cast at a similar time; this one is well worth watching.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Terror (1963)

"Mark you, you are getting yourself into things beyond your understanding!"

Roger Corman, O Roger Corman, you have your tropes. I mean, this film isn't even based on a Poe story but it might as well be. It's all typically gothic, set in "the remains of a noble house" and full of the sinister suggestion that the sins of the past may come to find us. Oh, and we have Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson in the same film, a witch, a bloke getting his eyes pecked out by a bird, and Nicholson being delightfully excessive throughout in really trying to find motivation in the cipher of a character he's playing; he actually manages to imbue his shitty lines with some depth. Wow.

But let's not be too harsh; this is a fun film and exactly what you'd expect from Corman. It's a precious artifact from those last few years of Boris Karloff's life in which he was again fashionable, and both he and Nicholson are excellent in a competent film, if a cheap one and formulaic in the best possible way. This is pure distilled Corman, with two excellent performances from its leads, so much so that we can avoid the unfortunate continuity error about when Ilsa is supposed to have died, and the frankly implausible twist about the Baron that comes at the end. What counts is atmosphere, and Karloff, and Nicholson. Typical Corman in the best possible way.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

"Polite persons do not take their supper in the nude!"

 Well, there's a surprise. Oddly enough this is quite a departure from Tim Burton's usual directorial style, even if the subject matter is very him, but it works. The very English early twentieth century fantasy feel- never mind it's based on a series of American novels whose author is younger than I am- is a perfect fit for him and is done well, even if it doesn't necessarily feel very Tim Burton. And it's most odd to see neither head nor hair of either Helena Bonham Carter or Johnny Depp.

The cast is superb, though. Eva Green is the obvious highlight but Samuel L. Jackson deserves particular praise for portraying a fantasy villain very much out of his normal kinds of parts, and doing it with aplomb. Even the many child actors are at least ok, but Ella Purnell is a revelation.

Mostly, though- and I haven't read the novel and so cannot comment on how it's been adapted- the film succeeds because of the superbly imaginative and original fantasy world it presents to us from the pen of Kick-Ass' Jane Goldman, a kind of wartime X-Men with magnificently imaginative powers, extra timey-wimeyness ( I love the loops) and some particularly fearsome monsters and fantasy creatures that are superbly recognised, in some cases by mock stop motion. Very much an enjoyable film and one much better than its puzzlingly mixed reputation.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Godfather (1972)

"He made him an offer he couldn't refuse..."

There's a school of thought, one I'm sympathetic too, that says this is the greatest film ever made, and that's a heavy burden to bear. Can any film survive such expectations? Best to ignore the whole question, I think, and just say that the film is superb.

Few films are as well directed as this, with every shot framed beautifully, and incredible cinematography. Marlon Brando and Al Pacino are both, of course, sublime. And the script is the perfect take of both the Mafia and of the Italian (or Sicilian) immigrant experience in America.

There are so many iconic scenes, from the infamous horse's head to the moment when the murders of all Michael Corleone's enemies are juxtaposed with him affirming his Catholic faith at his nephew' christening. But the scenes hang together perfectly in a tale of how war hero Michael, at first intended to be kept away from the business of the family, is slowly drawn in and takes over from his imposing yet declining father and his fatally hot-headed brother Sonny. The change is convincingly and carefully shown, with a brilliantly inscrutable performance from Pacino. The film pretty much centres on the tension-filled scene with Michael slowly retrieving the gun from the restaurant toilet, ready to Kill for the first time out of family revenge. A film right up there with the very best.

So, yes- this is quite the contrast from Barbarella!

Friday, 25 August 2017

Barbarella (1968)

"Decrucify the angel!"

"What?"

"Decrucify him. Or I'll melt your face!"

What the Hell have I just watched?

This is quite possibly the weirdest film I've ever seen, pleasant though Jane Fonda is to look at; a bizarrely kids' TV looking futuristic sci-fi sexual fantasy that features an angel, a villain called Duran Duran, a character called Professor Ping portrayed by Marcel Marceau, a pink girly spaceship, and a ship computer that says "confirmed" a lot and is a blatant influence on Zen from Blake's 7. That's a lot to take in. There's a sort of main plot but it's all very picaresque, moving from one set piece to another with our heroine managing increasingly random escapes from increasingly bizarre perils. Highlights include being pecked to death by budgies, death by orgasm and being bitten all over by creepy kids' dolls with sharp metal teeth. Ouch.

It's all exploitative stuff for the lads, of course, with Jane Fonda being somewhat comely, and you can hardly deny the blatant sexism that's everywhere, but it's hard to mind; it's all so good-natured, stoned and innocent.

There's little point in critiquing the acting, effects or decor and, not being stoned, I'm not sure I'm entirely qualified to give an opinion or, indeed, to know what to think. The music, the sparkliness, the clash of kids' TV and free love- wow. But what can you expect of a film featuring a major character called Duran Duran? I am bamboozled by Barbarella.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

"You always were a cunning linguist, James."

I know, it's been a while since GoldenEye. But it took a while before I could face another Bond after that, and it was with all due trepidation that I sat down to watch this. It's a relief to say, then, that Brosnan is better, if still hardly my favourite Bond, and that this is a good if not great Bond film- it says a little in the middle, perhaps, and the whole thing is an extremely formulaic Bond-by-numbers but done well enough, and I think that's what's required at this stage. This is only the second film after a large gap, and there's a need to re-establish all the many tropes.

So we get a notable return to tradition after GoldenEye's sometime iconoclasm, with a notably less spiky relationship between Bond and Judy Dench's M. But we get a decent pre-titles- the Russians are goodies; it must be the '90s- and a mildly disappointing theme tune from Sheryl Crow, and off we go.

This film's Bond villain is the media mogul Eliot Carver, played with splendidly scenery-chewing relish by Jonathan Pryce as he arranges conflict between the UK and China purely to make money. He gets lots of zeitgeisty speeches about the power of the media that date the film enormously; it won't be long until the Internet starts to topple the likes of him off their perches. And I notice that Bond has his first mobile phone, although from the dependably sarky and now octogenarian Q, who has been there since From Russia with Love.

We get a splendid cast as usual, even with the likes of Jason Watkins, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Gerard Butler and Hugh Bonneville with small parts as naval officers. This is hardly one of the greats, but Bond is back on track.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Punisher (1989)

"Who sent you?"

"Batman!"

I was pleasantly surprised by this film, I have to say. Not that it's any good, of course; it's a trashy '80s action film starring Dolph Lundgren and is neither big nor clever. What it is, though, is highly entertaining in all it's glorious trashiness throughout. A melodrama may be all it is, but it works.

The film starts with a crude but efficient combination of set piece and exposition which introduces us to Frank Castle, what he does and his backstory. The character isn't very deep, so an actor like Lundgren is all that's required and, moreover, the opening set piece features a doomed baddie who is portrayed with enormous quantities of ham. But the film soon settles down into it's entertaining Mafia vs Yakuza plot, with a bit of buddy buddy cop stuff thrown in there too. The film is well enough shot in its Australian locations and Jeroen Krabbe is also good enough as the mob boss forced to work with Castle. Even the child actors are mostly adequate.

It's all very late '80s, of course, from the music to the hardline attitude to crime, and one thing that really dates it is the subtext (probably not intentional; the film isn't that clever) of Japan gradually overtaking the USA economically, as everyone seemed to think was happening at the time. There's lots of martial arts action, with even the opening titles looking a bit like a martial arts film.

I like Snake too, a much needed comedy character and someone there to remind us of the extremely dodgy ethics of vigilante murder and how it's victims are not only the guilty; the film is hardly philosophical but it avoids presenting the Punisher as a hero, and I like that. The film is what it is, but for me it was both enjoyable and, ignoring small details, a more or less faithful rendering of the comic book character. This is more worth watching than you probably thought.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Update

It's my brother's wedding at the weekend and I'm currently writing a best man's speech, so don't expect much (if anything) in the way of blogging until Monday onwards. Then the usual pace will resume...

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

"How did you know whose telephone to tap?"

"I didn't. So I tapped all of them."

 I read the novel in my teens, and very quickly. It's not just that it's a somewhat unputdownable thrilller with no pretensions to literary ambition, but the prose was extraordinary basic: bare, functional, impossible to praise or criticise. Indeed, probably the best adjective for Frederick Forsyth's prose is "absent" but it does its job for what is probably Forsyth's best novel in a series of ever-diminishing returns.

I mention this because the film is an extraordinary faithful adaptation. Fred Zinnemann shows admirable restraint in following the style of the book and allowing the narrative to do its natural job with no unnecessary directorial flourishes to take us out of the style. He's unafraid to have long periods of silence if that's how best to tell the story and ends up producing a film that is slow, unhurried yet pacy. That's as much of a talent as any directorial trick.

Edward Fox is superb, of course, playing his rather flat cipher of a character, and the same is true of the impressive cast of largely British character actors. But what makes this film is the story- a slow, methodical look at how a high profile assassination is carried out in a pre-digital, pre-surveillance age that is little more than a decade before my time; I can still remember those French bank vans from trips to France as a young child in the early '80s. This is an age where it is relatively easy to fake documents yet the French state still practises both torture and judicial killing. Social attitudes may have improved since 1963 but it's easy to be jealous of the privacy that could be enjoyed back then.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

"I hope you're not a sore loser."

"That depends on how hard you spank me..."

I've already gone into detail about my misgivings about the abusive relationship at the heart of this trilogy- and again, it isn't the BDSM part that's dodgy- and nothing has changed on that front. But this film, admittedly, is less dull to watch and somewhat more entertaining, not that it's particularly good.

On the positive side it doesn't feel so much like a sequel as the middle portion of the story, and one which doesn't have to introduce any of  the characters and can just get on with it, avoiding the common fate of sequels. The directorial style, too, is different; James Foley hasn't quite given us the stylishness of Sam Taylor-Wood but the colours are not so washed out, which is definitely a good thing.

It's still a bit problematic to have a rich man as a wish-fulfilment figure, though, even if the BDSM takes a bit of a back seat in favour of a mild kinkiness- but it's disturbing to hear Grey state that he's not so much a dominant as a "sadist" who had a dodgy childhood and gets off on hurting women who remind him of his mother. In fact I'm not sure that this kind of background is at all conducive to being a suitable dominant. In real life I'd have a hard time seeing a relationship with any such figure as anything other than decidedly dodgy, however much money was sloshing around.

The film is well-acted. especially by the extra star wattage of Kim Basinger as Elena, however shocking her plastic surgery may look. This is not exactly a film with a great deal of intrinsic merit, but at least it's made well and is a marked improvement on its predecessor.