Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In the Days Before Television

Rocket Ship XM: Oddly-paced B-movie about a mission to the moon which goes wrong and hits Mars instead. Suffers from a distinct lack of both characterisation and tension; even when the crew are being chased by Martian mutants or trying to make it back to Earth on too little fuel, it's hard to care. It also can't seem to make up its mind if it's a B-picture or not; it has cliched characterisation, space adventure and Martian mutants, but it also has no antagonists (bar the abovementioned mutants), and a rather surprising ending, giving the whole thing the feel of one of the nerdier episodes of The Outer Limits. The sets are pretty nice, though.

The Star Packer: Unfortunately-named early John Wayne film, with no incidental music and minimal editing. Features Wayne as a sheriff out to save a girl from evil outlaws with the aid of his ethnic stereotype of an Indian sidekick. There's a couple of nice stunts during the climactic wagon-chase and shootout, but one can't help but suspect that it's where the budget went. It can be entertaining to think of a better film for the name (a Brando-esque drama about an excellent factory worker, pitted against a corrupt union? A sports picture about the meteoric rise and fall of Green Bay's best quarterback?) but it's still not worth it.

Movie count for 2013: 18 (SF London Film Festival coming up in a couple of weeks, hooray!)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

What's Wrong With "The Musketeers" (BBC1 Version)

1. The characterisation. Seriously, one of the reasons The Three Musketeers has been so frequently adapted is because of the simple, easy-to-understand characterisation of the main characters: there's the Romantic One, the Angry One, and the One of Prodigious Appetites, plus the Naive and Innocent One. The fact that the series itself regularly became confused over which one was Romantic, Be-Appetited or Angry, with all three Musketeers being all three at all times, is a real problem.

2. Race. I was really happy when I saw that Porthos was played by a black actor-- it's a nice nod to the fact that Alexandre Dumas was himself black, as well as acknowledging that not everyone in pre-industrial Europe was white. However, because the series was filmed in Croatia, all of the extras were white-- and so was 99% of the guest cast, meaning that for 9 out of 10 episodes, Porthos appears to be the only black person in France, and no one appears to notice. And the 10th? That's the horribly patronising one about the slave trade. Which brings me on to...

3) Historical accuracy (lack of). Yes, I know it's a drama, and that dramas take liberties with historical facts. But this one's connection to history is so tenuous it might as well be set in Ruritania as in France. The abovementioned slave-trade episode is particularly egregious (17th-century France has no major colonies? That's news to any Canadian raised on stories of the coureurs de bois and the Jesuit missions), but it's far from the only offender.

4) Familiarity. 17th-century France is a pretty strange place by modern standards, a society with very different ideas about legitimate governance, the value of life, the place of religion, marital fidelity, and science. This is a popular drama so I'm not expecting Hawksmoor, but it can't be impossible to nonetheless give an idea of the foreignness of the past-- hell, even the likes of Poldark managed it better. Just to give an example: at one point a character exclaims, "I'm a citizen of France! I have rights!" to which someone ought to have responded "No, on both counts, for at least another 150 years."

5) Repetition. Someone is accused of a crime they didn't commit. But it's actually all a ruse to entrap someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat. The series is only 10 episodes long, for heaven's sake!

Good points: Peter Capaldi, of course; the characterisation of Louis XIII was a lot subtler than I was expecting, and yes, they did find some pretty palaces to film in (even if those shots of the painted ceilings did get old rather fast). For the first few episodes it was fun to do a counterfactual reading of the series in which the Cardinal is actually the hero and the Musketeers the villains, though that did get boring eventually.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

What's Been On My Skybox Lately

Robocop 3: You know the series has completely hit bottom when a character calls Lewis a "dumb broad", and then it takes a pickaxe and continues digging. Torchwood-like resistance, annoying child hacker, xenophobia, sexism, this film has it all. The Japanese robot is sort of cool, though.

The Invention of Lying: Satire about a world in which no one can lie, except Ricky Gervais. Starts to get really good around about the point where it flat out says religion is a lie, but then realises where it's going and cranks the plot around to turn it into a fairly conventional romcom (complete with the usual annoying woman-as-prize trope)

American Werewolf in London: Groundbreaking, and uncompromising, horror-comedy, and quite probably the only film about Americans in the UK which manages to patronise neither Americans nor Brits. Watch for an uncredited appearance by Rik Mayall.

Little Voice: A story about how sometimes it takes a world-shattering tragedy to break free of your constraints and start really living your life.

From Here to Eternity: Drama about an infantry base in Hawaii on the eve of WWII; brilliantly characterised, even if I did wind up hating one of the nominal protagonists (he was well-drawn and believable, but a completely selfish jerk). It only has one real problem, namely, that it's implied that once the incompetent chief officer is removed from the base, it will stop being a hotbed of bullying and corruption and instead run smoothly; other military dramas have taken that ball and run with it down a rather more pessimistic direction.

Movie Count for 2014: 16

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Oscar Night Roundup

Behind the Candelabra: Liberace biopic, about his relationship with his much-younger lover Scott Thorson. If it took place now, it would just be a simple story of celebrity marriage and divorce, but the homophobic backdrop of the 1970s adds drama. Plus you can play Spot Scott Bacula with the supporting cast.

Gravity: Technically impressive adventure story about an astronaut isolated in space after a Russian missile hits an obsolete satellite and sends debris rocketing through orbit; verges on the cliched in places (woman emotionally destroyed by the loss of a child finds The Strength To Carry On, sigh), but it really is genuinely tense and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic.

Nebraska: Dementia-suffering pensioner becomes convinced he's won a million dollars, and insists on taking a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect, visiting his old hometown on the way. A brilliantly credible performance from Bruce Dern, and scarily accurate portrayals of the sort of micropolitics that emerge in small communities.

American Hustle: Clever heist drama, working as both an homage to the mafia/crime films of the 1970s and as an intelligent, complicated story in its own right. A good film to play Spot the Boardwalk Empire Alumnus, and/or Spot Anthony Zerbe, plus Robert de Niro's only good role this decade.

Movie count for 2014: 11


Robocop: Biting, classic satire on privatisation and corporate control, which seriously didn't need a remake, as it's pretty much all still true today. Although it's not often mentioned in reviews of this film, I'd like to flag up Lewis as another of those believably-strong heroines of 1980s fantastic film, and praise it for showing a man and woman having a professional relationship characterised by mutual respect, without degenerating into cliched romance or annoying patronisation.

Robocop 2: Starts promisingly, with the police out on strike and Roboscab, being corporate property, nonetheless carrying on with the crime-fighting. However, the film rapidly forgets about this and degenerates into a bit of a mess; it's not without good ideas and entertaining satire (particularly when it's revealed that the evil corporation is deliberately running the city of Detroit into the ground to buy it out and operate it privately), but the villains are annoyingly cartoony, and there's a bit of a naive-libertarian plotline going (Robocop is given a bunch of ludicrous politically-correct directives which slow him down, but which he remedies by erasing all directives from his databank, but nonetheless carries on doing the right thing because, as we all know, rules and laws just get in the way of The Good Guys). At least Lewis is still in it.

Movie count for 2014: 7

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Bill and Coo: Utterly bizarre; a small-town drama performed entirely by trained birds, and the result is sort of like Tales of the Riverbank crossed with Jour de Fete. Some strange period details as well, such as the "townsfolk" all crowding into a birdie air-raid shelter to escape the baddie, and some predictably godawful puns (a theatrical revue featuring "chorus gulls" is one of the least groanworthy examples). Apparently it won an Oscar, probably in the category of "we have no idea why, but this thing deserves some sort of award". Available in full on Youtube:

Movie count for 2014: 5

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Rain and Snow

Elysium: Allegorical tale set in a future where The 99% live in slums on Earth, and The 1% in a sort of astral gated community on a space station overhead. The whole thing is nicely realised, but some of the performances are surprisingly bad (Jodie Foster plays the film's I-can't-believe-she's-not-Servalan character as if she's reading form an autocue), and likewise some of the characterisation (e.g. the badass South African mercenary who carries on fighting on behalf of Elysium even after they've screwed him over and he really should, if consistently characterised, go over to the rebels' side; the main reason he doesn't seems only to be to provide the film with a dramatic climax). Not bad, but I'd expected more from the writer/producer of District 9.

The Abominable Snowman: Beautifully crisp and austere 1950s horror, which rings a nice twist on the well-worn idea that the Yeti are some kind of evolutionary blind alley, while condemning romanticised attitudes to Tibet and unscrupulous exploitation of science. Script by Nigel Kneale, and I want a pair of those cool dieselpunk snow goggles that Peter Cushing wears.

The Masque of the Red Death: Roger Corman is the sort of guy who can produce Sharktopus one minute and something this beautiful the next. A lovely, postmodern and pop-art take on Gothic horror, with a theological debate woven into the subtext; it loses a couple of Cool Points for some Coarse Swordfighting, but gains them for having Nic Roeg as a cinematographer.

Animal Farm: CIA-funded (no, really) 1950s take on the Orwell novel. Mostly a pretty good rendition with an appropriately Soviet animation style, and the fact that it cut out some of the novel's subplots wasn't a problem, as it made the film more streamlined. However, the ending is where it really goes into Cold War propaganda overdrive; where Orwell ended on the downbeat note of having the animals looking from the pigs to the humans, and not being able to tell which was which, the film has the animals, led by Benjamin the donkey, staging a second revolution and driving out the pigs. OK, but what then? A donkey-led dictatorship? A nominal animal democracy under the secret control of the human farmers? Answers, please, CIA.

Movie count for 2014: 4

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Repeated Meme: Bubbly Personality Masking Bossy Control Freak

Central Premise Recycled From: "The Pandorica Opens" via "A Town Called Mercy" and "The Parting of The Ways".

Moffat Auto-Recycling: Moppets, doggerel rhymes, character aging while other characters stay young, the Doctor having a fling with a sexually rapacious older woman, a future crypto-Catholic church that's a lot more sexually liberal, the Doctor as Wild West sheriff of a town with a daft name, Scottishness when Capaldi turns up, the Greatest Hits Reel featuring the Crack in the Universe, the Weeping Angels, the Silent, the Dalek dickheads, Amy. A bunch of the Doctor's enemies ganging up on him.

Not Stolen from RTD, Honest: Pretentious narration track opening the episode. Companion inviting Doctor for Christmas dinner with the family. The companion's mum is an interfering bitch, but her surviving grandparent is rather nice. Clara lives on the Powell Estate these days, apparently. The Doctor in old-guy makeup. As in "The Parting of the Ways", the Doctor tricks the companion into going back to Earth to keep her out of danger while he faces the Daleks, though Clara's rather more passive about this than Rose was. Companion travelling by hanging on the outside of the Tardis. Daft sobriquet for the Doctor ("The Man Who Stayed for Christmas"). Naked people (somehow linked with regeneration-- Captain Jack in "The Parting of the Ways", and the Doctor in "Journey's End"). The Doctor not regenerating into another form straight away, but taking the time for a protracted goodbye. The Doctor in love with his first companion (since he cares enough about Amy that it's her he sees as he regenerates). Post-regeneration Doctor talking about his new organs.

Evil Household Objects: None, but there's a slightly undercooked turkey.

Doctor Who! It's the question the Crack in the Universe is asking.

Hats! The wig's a good variation. One of the Christmas Townies wears a smoking-cap, a garment whose design originally derived from the fez.

Moppets! Too many of them around Christmas Town.

Clara's Job This Week: Christmas dinner chef and needy crushed-out girlfriend.

Murray Gold's Christmas Number One: He doesn't get one. Has there been a budget reduction?

Gratuitous Continuity Frakups: Clara sees a Silent, and doesn't immediately lunge for it and kill it. The Angel that trapped River in "The Angels Take Manhattan" gripped her wrist but didn't send her back in time because the Angel was too weak to do otherwise, but that's apparently been forgotten in Clara's similar encounter. Once again the designers seem not to have noticed that those semi-circular things in the Tombs of the Cybermen were climbing aids, not design elements. In "Asylum of the Daleks", the Dalek dickheads were created through exposure to nanogenes, and yet here, though the Doctor and Clara are undoubtedly exposed to same aboard the Papal Mainframe, they show no signs of changing. Regeneration energy is now powerful enough to take out a fleet of Daleks. Although it's established in "The Day of the Doctor" that the earlier Doctors in multi-Doctor stories don't remember their events, somehow the Matt Smith Doctor knows that the Jon Pertwee Doctor stole the Seal of the High Council from the Master in the Death Zone. If the events of Trenzalore have changed so the Doctor didn't die there, then the Intelligence can't have gone to the Doctor's tomb in "The Name of the Doctor" and Clara can't have done her trick of splitting along the Doctor's timeline, and thus goes from being The Impossible Girl to being The Irrelevant Girl.

Things That Aren't Actually Continuity Frakups: Really, people, there's no problem with the Doctor leading the Silent into battle-- so long as *they* remember what they're supposed to be doing, it doesn't matter if *he* does. Although it's not stated in the story that Clara's "mum" is actually her stepmum, it's not impossible, which explains how Clara suddenly has a mother despite her mother's death being a plot point last season. Likewise complaints about Clara's middle-class family living on a council estate overlook the scenario that it's Clara's flat and, like many budget-conscious young professionals, she's renting an ex-council property.

Continuity Resolutions: We learn what it actually was that the Doctor saw in Room 11 in "The God Complex" (the Crack in the Wall), and an explanation of why the Doctor is the thirteenth Doctor despite only 12 appearing in "Name of the Doctor" (Tennant managed to regenerate back into himself).
Other Frakups: The Doctor spends 300 years in Christmas Town, and yet somehow the culture, economy and political system of the place fail to change? Apply that to England in 2013, and we'd be living in a country with a politically active monarch, voting rights restricted to property-holding men, slavery legal, no steam engines or electric grid, and periwigs and frock-coats the height of fashion. Why does the Punch and Judy show feature a Monoid as a villain-- they weren't actually monsters, just an enslaved species, so it's a bit like featuring an Ood as a baddie. The lighting filters on the estate sequences mean that Clara's supposedly cooked turkey looks half-raw. Out of the several possible scenarios through which the Doctor might gain extra regenerations, they have to pick the most banal.

Nostalgia UK: The usual gratuitous Doctor Who continuity references, e.g. mentioning Terileptils. Also gratuitous cross-programme intersectionality as Clara's family watch "Strictly Come Dancing". Don't know if it's deliberate or not, but it's really funny to watch the sequences with little Amelia in her red wellies and hat running through the Tardis, while thinking of Don't Look Now.

Item Most Likely to Become a Toy: On the basis of past Chrismasses, I'd say "nothing". However, the wooden Cyberman is exactly the sort of variation CO seem to like (q.v. the rusty Cybermen and transparent Angels of earlier years), so it might actually make it. Also they usually do a post-regeneration Doctor figure, so we're likely to get a Capaldi in Matt Smith's clothes.