Monday, December 28, 2009

Doctor Who Recyclingwatch: The End of Time, part one

This one's kind of work-in-progressy, so check back over the next few days as I'll be putting things in as they occur to me.

Rose: Another zoom-in on Earth/UK/London (see also Smith and Jones, etc. etc. etc.). Dropping a phial of Essence of Whatsit into the menace destroys or disrupts it.

Aliens of London/WW3: A pair of normal human beings are in fact green aliens with a secret agenda, and finding their human disguise uncomfortable.

Dalek: The Dalek is healed by a brief contact with Rose's DNA, just as the Master is brought to life through a brief contact with his wife's.

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: Alien medical device fetches up on Earth, which uses whatever's in it as a template to "repair" the rest of the human race, and so winds up turning everyone around it into a copy of one particular individual.

Bad Wolf (and later "The Stolen Earth"): Army of chanting Daleks rising on hover platforms = army of chanting Time Lords rising on hover platforms.

The Christmas Invasion: Mind-controlling a certain percentage of humans on Christmas Day.

Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel: A menace which preys upon the homeless.

School Reunion, also Doomsday, Journey's End, The Sarah Jane Adventures etc.: Apparently once you've had Gallifreyan, you never go back, as Donna's perfectly functional relationship with an evidently sweet guy is described as "settling," just because he's not the Doctor.

The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit: Ood whose eyes glow red in the presence of evil.

The Idiot's Lantern: Woman who talks to certain people through the television. Oh, and "Hungry!"

Love and Monsters: The Silver Cloak are basically a pensioner version of the find-the-Doctor club in this story, plus the whole "I'm not a Slitheen, I'm a related species" bit is echoed by the two cactus-heads to explain why they're nothing like Bannakaffalata.

Army of Ghosts/Doomsday: the whole setup with the Eternity Gate, down to two technicians who keep finding contrived excuses to run off with each other. Plus figures from the series' past, believed dead, but actually about to burst out of some secret hiding-place and take over again.

The Shakespeare Code: The Doctor and Queen Elizabeth I have a, shall we say, history together.

Last of the Time Lords (if only): Time Lord restoring self to normal through the concentrated belief of people.

Voyage of the Damned: Gratuitous cameo from a Queen Elizabeth II impersonator = Gratuitous cameo from a President Obama impersonator.

Planet of the Ood: They've got a functioning civilization now, apparently, although they're still carrying their brains around in their hands.

The Sontaran Stratagem: A deleted scene has the Master complaining pedantically about the phrase "merry Christmas" and how it should be "happy Christmas," like this episode's running gag about acronym pedantry.

Journey's End: Timelord reincarnated through plot device and comes back naked.

The Waters of Mars: The Doctor turns up at the start in full tourist mode, then rapidly gets more serious.

Torchwood: Rifts/gates in time; corrupt politicians about to take on more than they can handle with aliens; find-the-Doctor clubs.

Old Skool Who: Deep breath. "Logopolis" (the Doctor meets up with a secret order of aliens who tell him the universe is being disrupted); "The Keeper of Traken" and "The Deadly Assassin" (skull-faced Master); "Meglos" (cactus-headed aliens). "The Talons of Weng Chiang" (partly-formed villain who must consume people to survive). "Inferno" (well-intended large-scale scientific experiment goes hideously awry). "Shada" (villain who turns the whole world into him) plus "The Leisure Hive" (similar, only in that case, the whole clone army turns into the Doctor temporarily). "Image of the Fendahl" (ritual in which the thing being summoned makes itself out of the life energy of believers). The True History of Faction Paradox (plot in which the biodata of a deceased alien is reassembled in a ritual, to bring back said alien, but somehow he comes back wrong) and Kaldor City (mystical being informing protagonist that there are no coincidences; conversation with person invisible to everyone else through the television; dead cult figure who made provisions for his "return", plus see Fendahl above; the homeless charity is called Steven's Point). "The Stones of Blood" (a crypto-lesbian named Mrs Trefusis who's into pagan rituals). "Silver Nemesis" (the ritual, plus an unexpected image of the Doctor's companion in a painting/the Doctor's Tardis in a stained-glass window).

Everything Else: Harry Potter (a secret order determined to resurrect a dead baddie, which they do through a magic ritual; use of magic potions and secret books; a hero reluctant to meet his destiny). Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (lightning bolts from hands fighting), The Phantom Menace (the Time Lords apparently live on Coruscant) and Attack of the Clones (erm... pass). Being John Malkovitch (or, in this case, Being John Simm). Right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama (plausible black politician who's secretly doing some rather evil things). For Your Eyes Only (gratuitous insertion of contemporary, recognisable politician into story, played by an impersonator). The Satanic Rites of Dracula (the ritual to bring back the Master, plus the Doctor-Master relationship parallelling the Van Helsing-Dracula one). Jacob's Ladder (the shaking-head bit). Buffy the Vampire Slayer (character returned from the dead comes back wrong). The Matrix (everybody turning into Agent Smith, plus high-flying martial arts in an urban wasteland). "Stargate". "Ghostwatch" (newsreader possessed by external force). Timothy Dalton's spit-laden speech keeps reminding me of the video for Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" for some reason. Prisoner Cell Block H, also House of Whipcord (sado-masochistic lesbian prison wardens). Silence of the Lambs (as has been repeatedly pointed out in the media, though they usually just mention the heavy bondage scene and not the fact that the Master eats people). Life on Mars (people sending messages through the television that only one person can see). Battlestar Galactica (armies of identical people aside, there's also a Head Person who appears to one specific character).

Dirty Shame

Hunger: Feature-length docudrama following Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands as he goes first on dirty protest, then on an ultimately fatal hunger strike. A difficult subject, made compelling and eerie by director Steve McQueen (the Turner prize winner, not the other one); it's an almost wordless story, so when you finally do get a long conversation, it grips you completely. The film plays subtly on the idea of hunger, not just for food but as desire in general, showing the lengths the prisoners will go to not just for political recognition, but also for letters and smuggled-in crystal radios. The prison sequences are, of course, brutal, but you come out of it all full of admiration for the people who withstood it.

Movie count for 2009: 110

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Begin again

Batman Begins: I'd missed this one first time out, but really, really, liked The Dark Knight, so thought I should catch up. It's probably just as well that I saw The Dark Knight first, as this has the power to put one off the franchise forever. The story was simultaneously boring and improbable, and amazingly managed to make even the fight/car chase scenes dull as dishwater. It features the world's hardest bats (capable of punching their way through glass windows), some bloke incapable of blinking (him versus the Weeping Angels; who would win?) and Michael Caine (clearly in Shadow Run mode rather than Get Carter mode). Morgan Freeman appears to be playing a genie, as he apparently develops and constructs prototypes for all this cool experimental gadgetry without any staff whatsoever, as well as having enough knowledge of pharmacology to whip up a quick antidote for a previously-unseen poison. There's also a curious continuity error, or something, when Alfred tells Bruce Wayne that his father had been involved in philanthropy during the Depression, which means either the film is set in the 1940s (in which case what is everyone doing with mobiles, etc.), or (arguably) that this takes place in an alternate universe in which the event in question held off until the 1990s. Still, the public transport system is pretty cool-looking.

Two observations:

1) Ever notice how these reviews are always longer when I don't actually like the movie? and

2) Much as, in London, you are never more than nine feet from a rat, on the BBC this fortnight you are never more than nine minutes away from David Tennant.

Move count for 2009: 109

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My taste in holiday movies and music

Casino: Really long, but compelling, partially-true story of the rise and fall of a Jewish casino manager and his Italian mob-boss friend in 1970s Vegas. Forget the mafia antics and the breathtakingly tacky glitziness of polyester-era Nevada, this is actually about love and betrayal, as DeNiro loves his wife (carnally) and his friend (platonically), but is betrayed on the personal and economic level by both, and walks away from the experience alive (which is more than can be said for most of the film's characters) but diminished as a person. Equivalent on my holiday playlist: "Walking on Broken Glass" and "Fairytale of New York."

Inglorious Bastards: Not the Tarantino one, but the film also known as Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato (which my limited Italian translates as "that damn armoured train"). Arguably a masterpiece of clever irony, mixing Blaxploitation tropes and subverted war-film cliches to create a knowing wink at European images of gung-ho American imperialism. That, or just the Italian sense of humor at work. I can see why Tarantino liked it, and Tarantino's is the cleverer film, but the original has an exuberance which Tarantino's version lacks. Equivalent on my holiday playlist: "Killing in the Name" and "Walking Round in Women's Underwear".

Jacob's Ladder: Hallucinogenic, terrifying and poignant portrayal of what appears at first to be a Vietnam veteran, his life in pieces after the war, stumbling shell-shocked through a bewildering system, then to be a thriller involving a cover-up of the use of experimental drugs in Vietnam, and finally something rather more Dante/Hieronymous Bosch influenced. For all its horrific imagery of war and madness, I defy anyone with a heart to watch the ending without tearing up. Features the only non-annoying use of Macauley Culkin ever. Equivalent on my holiday playlist: "Mad World."

Movie count for 2009: 108. Number of songs on my holiday playlist: 53.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two very different Eighties movies

The Cotton Club: Richard Gere plays a mean trumpet, is a hit wit the ladeeez, and too much of a gentleman to take advantage of either. In other news, black people found it hard to break into the mainstream dance business in the 1930s, and New York had a number of ethnic mafias who carried out hits on each other. You'd think that with Francis Ford Coppola behind the camera and Larry Fishburne and Bob Hoskins in front of it, it would be a damn sight more interesting movie, but as it is, it's outclassed in all departments by Bugsy Malone.

Flight of the Navigator: Cute, if not terribly deep, 1980s sci-fi piece about a preteen boy who wakes up after a fall to find out that eight years have passed for everyone else but not for him; this turns out to have a connection to an alien spacecraft picked up by NASA, for which he, it seems, is the Navigator. The effects are variable (the spacecraft is good, the alien animals kind of puppety-looking), and the 1980s pop culture is either charmingly nostalgic or annoying, depending on how you feel (there's a gratuitous robot, a continual awestruck worship of NASA, a sub-Pet-Shop-Boys electropop tie-in single, and the protagonist's brother, as a teenager, punctuates his conversation with "dude", "rad" and "totally" to the point where one suspects Tourette's) . Keep an eye out for a teenage Sarah Jessica Parker.

Movie count for 2009: 105. Meaning I now average 2 movies a week.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fly Away

Grave of the Fireflies: Tragic story of two orphaned children in wartime Japan, abandoned by their family, the authorities and the system. Really, it's a story that could have been set in any war, any place, any time; however, the delicate charm of the usual Studio Ghibli animation style lends it an extra poignancy and sense of fragile innocence, and arguably the repeated motif of the traditional Japanese houses, of wood and paper, going up in flames adds to the idea that life is transient and easily destroyed. Watch it, absolutely watch it, but be warned: you will cry buckets.

Movie count for 2009: 103

Friday, December 04, 2009

Cassandra wept

The Cassandra Crossing: Really too bad to summarise without going into a lot of detail, but my main problems with it boil down to three areas (warning: spoilers).

1) The plot is solid 1970s disaster movie: a train heading from Geneva to Stockholm turns out to have a man on board infected with some experimental American military virus as well as the World's Greatest Doctor (Richard Harris); cue high-speed shenanigans as the virus spreads while the train hurtles through Europe. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, as that format has lead to some really great movies. But the films which make best use of the genre are those which don't focus on the disaster, so much as on its impact on a variety of little but powerful human dramas: The Towering Inferno, for instance, is less about the fire than about the woman about to make a mistake in marrying Fred Astaire, the woman unhappiliy married to the psychopathic architect, the businessman having an affair with his secretary who gets trapped with her in the burning office... et cetera. There is almost no human drama of this sort in Cassandra, barring two subplots, one about Richard Harris' character getting back together with his ex, and another involving OJ Simpson as an undercover policeman hunting down Martin Sheen (you can read that phrase again if you like). Neither of them are interesting enough to sustain the movie.

2) The scenario is just too unbelievable. The plot twist is that the American military, having discovered the virus is loose on the train, plan to divert the train over a faulty crossing in Poland (yes, in the middle of the Cold War) so that it will crash and they can claim the passengers were all killed in an accident, eradicating the virus and destroying the evidence/witnesses. Um, sorry, but have they thought this one through? Leaving aside the fact that any train crash of this sort would have investigators all over it-- from insurance companies, the train operators, the grieving relatives-- who would immediately expose anything remotely fishy to the press, a whole lot of infected corpses out in the open are a considerably greater risk to public health than a containable train full of sick people (particularly since it's established in the story that the virus is transmissible to animals, so any scavengers would become carriers). Why not just inform the world that the passengers have something rare but plausible-- bubonic plague, swine flu-- and isolate them for three months?

3) Finally, Richard Harris is not a good leading man. He's a good character actor (Harry Potter); he's a good man at playing the leaders of interestingly diverse ensemble casts (The Wild Geese). But he's just not a good leading man (and no, Camelot doesn't count; the whole point of the story is that Arthur is a good leader but just uncharismatic enough that you can understand Guinevere falling in love with Lancelot), and having him as the leading man here is just asking for the camera to go drifting gently off in the direction of OJ Simpson.

Movie count for 2009: 102

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Life on Mars USA: the halftime verdict

Life on Mars USA's run on FX is halfway done now, so perhaps I'm premature in offering a verdict, but it's still worth offering some preliminary comments.

Firstly, it's actually got more to recommend it than I thought. My expectations were pretty low based on the fan grapevine, but I thought, give it a chance. And I have to say that there's some snappy dialogue, some good performances, and some takes on particular episodes which can be better than the original (the episode where Sam meets a younger version of his black colleague came across to me as massively patronising in the British version, but not so here). I also find that, having spent my Seventies childhood in a big North American city, the imagery has more resonance for me than the British version (although interestingly, I find that the imagery of Ashes to Ashes has powerful resonance for me despite the fact that the Eighties portion of my childhood was spent in the same city; perhaps it's a big-city thing, since Ashes to Ashes is set in London, not Manchester). For me, the Seventies was about New York style, big afros and flowing dresses, Three Dog Night, and hot summers with picnics in the park, not about strikes, test pattern girls and football games.

Where I'm finding it falls down is in the relationship between Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt. As Sam, John Simm had a kind of trustworthy, sensitive-man quality, where Philip Glenister played Gene as a bluff, blustery man who was clearly compensating for some kind of inner pain; these, coupled with the heterosexual chemistry between the two, made it perfectly understandable why Gene would be willing to go along with Sam's crazy hunches, and/or why he would sometimes unburden himself to Sam at times of trouble. However, the American Sam is too much the classic strong-jawed, blank-faced hero to seem like the sort who inspires confidences from macho superiors, and Harvey Keitel, while lovely, plays Gene more like a bluff, spunky old man refusing to change in a transforming world than someone with any kind of interior turmoil. As for the heterosexual chemistry, there's more between Gene and Ray than between Gene and Sam.

Poor old Chris is just completely marginalised in all of this, coming across as a non-character rather than as a prototypical sensitive man forced into a macho mould.

Upon a spider's web

The Elephant Man: Another one which is brilliant, but it's hard to find something to say that isn't trite. I suppose what I liked best was, first, the complicated moral problem: the doctors may have been giving Merrick a better life than he had at the freak-show, but it was still exploitation, and yet, was there any situation in Victorian Britain that Merrick could be in which is not exploitative (the real-life Merrick joined the freak-show voluntarily, the reason being that he couldn't get any other kind of work)? Secondly, though, was the triumph of the human spirit: faced with such a no-win situation, Merrick rises above everyone else in the story, finding good even in the people who come to sneer at him. What a hero.

Movie count for 2009: Room 101