Sunday, 27 May 2018

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

"They called me a vampire!"

This film is rather cheeky to bill itself as a vampire film. One has certain expectations from a Jimmy Sangster script; the title certainly implies vampires, and the film starts with some on-screen text strongly implying vampires. Instead we end up with a film about a man framed for murder and sent to a sadistic prison so he can help the mad scientist governor with his blood experiments.So, while not a bad film on its own terms, Blood of the Vampire was very cheekily titled and marketed. Blame the studio, I suppose.

Anyway, this is an interesting little obscure film, featuring a young Barbara Shelley in a prominent role, from about the time when Hammer were resurrecting the horror genre. Yet it doesn't really commit to being a horror film, entertaining though it is as a melodrama. It has its charms, though: Carl, the Igor with the unconvincing rubber eye hanging from its rubber socket; John Le Mesurier in a serious cameo as a judge; an opening bit of text saying it's 1874 yet where dialogue establishes it's 1880 and a tombstone for a recently deceased character proclaims it to be 1892. Is this a record? Also, a major organ in a jar and the look of the Igor character- an influence for the Doctor Who story The Brain of Morbius?

In spite of everything, though, this is not a bad film if you enjoy a good old-fashioned melodrama.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Elephant Man (1980)

"I’ve tried so hard to be good...”

This is a film that does something amazing: it’s unabashedly sentimental and gets away with it. This is entirely down to David Lynch, whose interesting local style allows him to be sentimental without over-sugaring the palate in ways that a less, well, weird director could not.

The performances, of course, are superlative, as the cast list pretty much guarantees they would be. John Hurt is superb and justly acclaimed as Merrick himself, although a Leicester native would realistically have been a lot more ay up me duck than this performance. The character is quite superficial, I suppose- his only character trait is “virtuous”, although there’s ambiguity about his death at the end by lying down to sleep instead of sitting and crushing his neck; is it suicide? There’s no denying, though, that Hurt portrays the pathos of the character superbly. A young Anthony Hopkins too, as a Frederick Treves wondering if in the end he is any less of an exploiter than the loathsome Bytes. The monochrome cinematography and occasional piece of weird direction just about stop all this from being too saccharine. And, of course, the presence of John Gielgud is always a dignified of intended seriousness.

It’s an odd success in that it’s not very David Lynch at all in many ways, and there is no real message behind the pathos, but nevertheless the way Lynch creates said pathos is true artistry. This film feels the same kind of sentimental that Steven Spielberg films often are but, of course, David Lynch does it better.

A Very English Scandal: Episode 1

"You've infected me, Jeremy, with the virus of homosexuality."

There's something about Jeremy Thorpe that fascinates more than any politician. Perhaps I, as a fairly core Liberal Democrat voter, find him more interesting than those who forget the party exists, but he's the dark heart of liberalism, much as his views and political principles were admirable. Superficial, showy, and worst of all covering up the evils committed by the loathsome Cyril Smith, he is hard to like for one so charismatic.

His story is also an interesting choice for Russell T. Davies. Oh, I know there's the obvious gay theme, but nevertheless RTD isn't usually one for politics dramas directed by Stephen Frears. It can't be denied, though; this first part looks as though he's been writing this stuff for years.This is, let's be clear, a bloody good piece of telly.

It's unusual for RTD in, perhaps, another sense; while the characters are naturally sketched superbly, there's more of an emphasis on plot and theme than would be expected. equally unexpected, though, is a stellar performance from Hugh Grant, full of nuance and far from the romantic comedies for which he is mainly known.

The tale is told through flashback, great dialogue as we would expect, and masterful characterisation. Ben Whishaw is superb as Norman Scott, and the ubiquitous Alex Jennings is well cast as Peter Bessell. Thorpe is an ambiguous character, no hypocrite in supporting the legalisation of homosexuality, but ambitious enough to seek a beard for a wife. And yet, should we condemn him when, this being the '60s, shocking levels of homophobia make it a necessary step to succeed in politics, unless you're a Tory yachtsman from Kent?

The inclusion of Leo Abse and the scenes around the legalisation of homosexuality are rightfully included as necessary context. The attitudes displayed even by those in support beggar belief, and show just how far the Overton window has shifted.

We've missed RTD ever since Cucumber; I'm glad his husband is in better health and am glad he's back. Roll on next episode.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Humans: Season 3, Episode 2

"Life cannot simply be preserved. It must be lived."

A less intense episode this time; slower paced, more focused on progressing the plot than world building, and not quite as interested in emphasising the sheer awfulness of the poor synths' oppression. This is probably a good thing for the viewer's blood pressure, but makes for quite a contrast to the opening episode.

The twin are resolved in ho-hum fashion, but Max is forced to be somewhat aggressive in making some of his group yield to human authority, something which will have consequences. But there is an underlying horror to the entire sequence, not least the utterly dehumanising sexual molestation of a dead synth.

Laura's participation in the Dryden Commission leads to a depressingly prejudiced meeting in which her comments are mostly ignored- but does introduce her to a potential scientist ally, Neil, who clearly has secrets. It also means she is forced to have a creepy orange eyed synth, Stanley, which she resents- although Sophie certainly seems happy having an ersatz Mia back. But Laura is getting more and more hate from racist thugs as a synth lover, hence an incident at a pub and, even worse, her children being bullied.

Mia is deeply unhappy, even in relation to the circumstances; she resents Max risking Leo's life, even though he is miraculously brought back to health. She quarrels with Max and has an interesting exchange with Niska, contrasting her romantic betrayal last season with Niska's ongoing happiness with Astrid. Niska, the harder edged of the siblings, is the one who ironically believes in inter-species love. Mia has other reasons to be down, though; no orange synths have become conscious and "green eyes" cannot reproduce and are mortal. Will they all be extinct within fifty years?

Other synths have more poetry in their souls; one, Anatole, even has religious faith. Karen is still trying to raise her boy in a synth-free environment, but now has to keep Joe onside as he has found her out. But their is also trouble brewing; Max's leadership is under threat from synth hardliners, and Mattie and Leo must be sent away for their own safety.

There's a lot going on. This episode is perhaps a little less compelling than last week's, but gripping nonetheless.


Thursday, 24 May 2018

IZombie: You’ve Got to Hide Your Liv Away

“Enjoy handcuffs, Whitey!”

Is it the penultimate episode already?

I think it’s been enough superb episodes in a row now to come out and say this season has recovered amazingly from a very poor start; possibly the biggest comeback in television history, as it really was a very poor start.

The whole thing hinges on a simply evil ultimatum by Chase Graves- Curtis is to be judicially killed unless "Renegade" hands herself in. Naturally, it's obvious that Liv is going to do this so, equally naturally, Major (having finally retrieved his head from Graves' smelly arse) kidnaps her, relocates them both to a house in Oregon and feeds them both a dose of 1950s domestic bliss brain. As you do. Still, at least Liv got a last night with Levon, claiming to have flown to Majorca via Barcelona, as apparently Palma doesn't have an airport. Hmm.

So this week's murder- a self-centred, narcissistic valley girl- must be investigated by Clive with Ravi (it's that time of the month) on narcissist brain, hence scenes reminding us yet again how bloody good Rahul Kohli is.

Meanwhile, we discover that the comedy French bloke at Fillmore Graves has sympathies with Brother love, and Blaine convinces his father that God wants him to send zombies out beyond Seattle by means of, er, brain rain. I suspect that the spread of zombieism beyond Seattle is for next season, as there are only so many minutes of this one.

It's a dramatic last few scenes for this incident-fuelled and rather superb episode; we end with both Liv and Levon in the hands of Graves, who plans to murder them next episode. Oh, and Isobel's brain may have given Ravi an actual cure for zombieism. Has any iZombie season finale been more hotly awaited...?

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Angel: Ground State

"Damn. This is so much harder than it looks on Batman."

This is, I suppose, an example of a functional, non-stand-out episode of Angel; the nearest it comes to a "meh" episode, to treading water. So it's saying a lot about the high quality of the show at this point that it's nevertheless bloody good.

We begin, unusually, with an introduction to a one-off character: Gwen. She gets a lot of prominence, and the pre-titles sequence also shows us a semi-origin; was she supposed to return? (I assume she doesn't; I have in fact watched the entire Buffyverse before and don't remember her returning, but it was a long time ago.) Or was this partly intended as some sort of pilot? I don't know, and don't want to look it up because spoilers. But she's a cool character- a cat burglar with deadly electrical powers and lots of it. But is she some kind of Marvel-style mutant or something? How do her powers fit into Buffyverse mythology?

Anyway, the plot is both her and Angel, Gunn and Fred competing on a heist for a valuable Macguffin called the Axis of Pythia (lots of Greek mythology this episode; we get hints that the Eleusinian Mysteries are more than just ritual, so do Pagan pantheons actually exist in the Buffyverse, and what are they?), all as a means for Angel and co to learn and accept where Cordelia has gone- which eventually they do, much to Cordy's annoyance.

We also get to see Angel trying to reach out to a cold Wesley, perspective having given him the will to forgive. We also see a bemused Angel find out that Wes is sleeping with Lilah in a fascinatingly and sexily twisted relationship, if we can call it that. And, of course, we see Fred begin to crack under all the pressure of holding everything together for the last three months.

That's an awful lot going on for an episode which, I suspect, is no one's season highlight.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Dead Ringers (1988)

"She's heard that it makes sex come on like Nagasaki..."

This is the fourth David Cronenberg film I've seen (and blogged) and I've yet to see any with his famous body horror. Even here, beyond a weird dream sequence and the bloody ending, body horror is quite moderate and I've yet to see anything that would be described on Rick and Morty as "a Cronenberg".

That aside, the film is superbly shot, choreographed, scored, and contains a sublime and extraordinary performance by Jeremy Irons as the twins which is so outstanding that you forget he isn't even bothering to sound Canadian. On the surface it's all brilliant. And yet...

It's a weird film; Elliott and Beverly are twin gynaecologists and Elliott, being the more confident, seduces women and lets his brother have the sloppy seconds while letting them think it's the same person, which is a bit rapey, and they both live happily under this arrangement until Bev goes and falls in love with a movie star called Claire who, as a very Cronenberg detail, has a weird mutant vagina. This leads to a slow unravelling of first one twin and then the other, neither being quite an individual.

So, yeah, weird. But it doesn't really play with any of the ideas it brings up, and for me the bloody climax doesn'y quite feel either earned or weird enough. A well-made but oddly empty film.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Incredibles (2004)

"And machine washable, darling. That's a new feature."

I'd say that, of the Fantastic Four films I've seen, this is my favourite.

I'm being facetious, of course, but we have a team who are super strong, stretchy, invisible AND with invisible force fields, and the baby's first superpower display is to flame on. Although I don't believe the Whizzer ever graced the pages of the World's Greatest Comics Magazine. But come on, we even have a thinly veiled Mole Man at the end...

Cheeky tributes aside, though, this is wonderful; a realistic attempt at doing the superhero genre in a real-ish world, but as a Pixar cartoon; Watchmen for kids. It has fun with the tropes and may indeed be influenced by a funny book called How to be a Superhero by Mike Leigh and Mike Lepine, which I recommend most heartily to all.

And isn't Bob an everyman? Aren't we all superheroes who heroically keep at the day job, day after day? I suppose, on that front, the film is a bit conservative on the gender roles front, with Elastigirl a stay-at-home mum, but there's very little bad to say about this entertaining little family film.

iZombie: Insane in the Germ Brain

"I love you guys..."

SPOILERS ABOUND. BIG ONES. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Ouch. That his Mrs Llamastranger and myself hard, you evil writers you. We both suspected that Isobel being so extremely likeable and cool was because she was going to die, and crush our hearts in the process. Damn you, Rob Thomas and co. This is the most evil thing since Joss Whedon killed Tara in Buffy. It's that bad..

Other interesting things involve Ravi meeting Peyton's parents, and seemingly earning her Dad's respect by telling him not to be a dick. On that note, though, both her parents and Ravi don't want her to return from Washington DC after her visit, as there are plans afoot in said city to perhaps nuke Seattle, which would be bad. But the parting scene where Peyton says goodbye to Ravi and Liv is suspiciously scripted; she's going to die there, isn't she?

Oh, and there's a murder, which is pretty ho-hum, including the germaphobe brain that Liv eats. But it's interesting that the killer proves to be a zombie accomplice of Blaine and Don E- who, incidentally, is great on director brain while directing a sermon of Angus'. And Dale accidentally overhears Clive's chat to Liv last episode about how he can have kids with Michelle, but not her. So she dumps him, and is kind enough to lie about seeing someone else. But he's still heartbroken. Michelle likes him a lot, but is he really happy with her?

We also have Major's mission coming to a successful conclusion, and a celebration- but one of Major's two proteges ends up shot by Chase Graves, leading to a mini-shootout in which both proteges are shot dead and Graves injured. Surely now he has to get what's coming to him?

But the episode is all about Isobel, her awesomeness, and how much it hurts that she's gone. Damn you, writers, and thank you Izabela Vidovic for making us love your character so much. Outstanding episode, obviously.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Mad Max (1979)

"They say people don't believe in heroes any more!"

I'd never seen Mad Max until now. It's been a film I'd been meaning to see for years, having such an effect in popular culture (referenced in a Rick and Morty episode I saw a couple of weeks ago, for example) and being pretty much the poster kid for post-apocalyptic futures. What I found was a fairly straightforward but rather good revenge action movie, but also very different from what I expected.

The film is quite simple; Max is a cop who tussles with a  motorcycle gang and its charismatic leader, leading ultimately to his wife and son (called "Sproggo", wonderfully!) being murdered (Does Jess survive, though? We aren't told.) and his spending the last twenty minutes exacting his revenge. It's a simple formula, one found in so many action films, but what makes this film stand out is simply that it's well scripted, directed and acted. It gets the basics right.

But the setting- it's clearly set in a future (for 1979) in which civilisation is fragmenting a little, fuel is scarce and technology is a valuable resource, but only up to a point. It's a Wild West type society; justice is a little rough and ready but hardly arbitrary, there are motorbikes instead of horses and the glorious Outback location adds so much. But there is a society, law and order, a functioning economy, private property etc. I'd hardly call it post-apocalyptic.

One more thing; it's been bugging me but really needs an Aussie to pronounce definitively on this, but... Mel Gibson sort of sounds as though he doesn't naturally speak with an Australian accent and is putting one on?

Humans: Season 3, Episode 1

“In time, the humans will accept us.”

We’ve waited a long, long time for this third series. It's already worth it, though, although it looks as though this season stands to be somewhat harrowing.

A year has passed, the exposition of which is cleverly left to news reports with the opportunity for various real newsreader cameos. 110,000 humans died immediately after the singularity, which cannot but weigh on Mattie's conscience, and the conscious "green-eyed"synths are all kept in ghettos where, with power cuts  and lack of parts,  they are essentially starved. It's hard not so see refugee camps here or even Nazi ghettos. New "orange eyed" synths without consciousness have been brought on to the market, while racism directer against "defective" green-eyed synths is both rife and horrifying, with very few seeing them as truly sentient and Laura getting hate phone calls for acting as a synth rights lawyer. Most appalling in depicting this racism is seeing what Sophie's class are taught, a highly effective scene.

Joe is now working as a greengrocer in a synth-free town, hiding from the world, and of the three children only Toby seems to have much to do with him; Mattie certainly doesn't. Things are falling apart, both for the family and society, especially after a terrorist bomb as a human/synth bar- narrowly escaped by Niska and Astrid- for which a group of extremist synths claim responsibility. Naturally this increases levels of racist violence to intolerable levels and highlights what looks to be a major theme, redolent of X-Men; under extreme oppression, do you take the path of a Malcolm X or a Martin Luther King?

Christ-like Max is truly struggling to reconcile his responsibilities as ghetto leader with his utopian views, and harbours another secret; the comatose body of Leo. It's a highly charged mix, an unstable situation, a toxic division between human and synth within which even Mia falls out with Laura over whether she is doing enough.

Into this comes a fraught cliffhanger, as a raid by highly racist police officers on the ghetto is juxtaposed with Max's risky decision to wake Leo being effected by Mattie. Even this is a philosophical point; if synths and humans are truly equal, then it is possibly right to risk Leo's possible death to prevent a synth's certain demise- although Kant may disagree.

This is superb telly, although not easy viewing. Intelligent,philosophical, honest, merciless and deeply political.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

"What good is a sword against sorcery?"

About six years ago I watched, and blogged, Conan the Barbarian. A kindly commenter to that blog pointed out that my previous Conan experience in print had been heavily influenced by L. Sprague De Camp, and that the original and unembellished Robert E. Howard short stories were now available. I have since read them (they are a good length for my daily commute), and much enjoyed, although I fear some years have passed; I am hazy about what passed for continuity. This film, though, is based on a story by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway; I assume it is an adaptation from the licensed Marvel comic. Regardless, the film is very good, and a rare sequel that improves on its predecessor.

Mostly this is down to the solid quest plot, with just enough characterisation and enough twists while maintaining a gritty fairytale vibe. Partly it's the superb incidental music and visuals. Partly it's that Arnold Schwarzenegger actually gets lines, turns out to be capable of acting, and indeed proves unexpectedly great at comedy. Yet the core of the film is the same as that which separates "sword and sorcery" from high fantasy. Life may be nasty, brutish and short, but that only increased the value of companionship, honour, the pleasures of alcohol (I love drunk Conan!) and an uninhibited and even innocent attitude to sexual desire. It is a world without much comfort, but also without puritanism.

I loved seeing geek favourites Sarah Douglas and Grace Jones, of course, but the narrative genuinely grabbed me in this well-made film. I can't find much bad to say about this underrated gem and will even forgive the early appearance of pylons in the distance...


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Thursday, 17 May 2018

Ninja Terminator (1985)

"The ninja empire is evil!"

When I was 11 or 12 I was obsessed with ninja moves, and it's high time that was reflected in this blog. My critical discernment at that age was not great and so, I fear, I must discuss what is not even a particularly well-remembered example of the many ninja movies directed by Mr Godfrey Ho of Hong Kong.

Ninjas in real life are, or were, Japanese assassins and spies who did the dirty work that honourable samurai considered beneath them. Naturally, they cultivated the myth of magical powers, and were more commonly known ax "Shinobi", as we '80s Sega Mega Drive fans naturally know.

Sadly they do not seem to have survived into the modern era properly, despite what many "ninja schools" will tell you. Their modern popularity in the West owes a lot to You Only Live Twice, but really took off with hordes upon hordes of Eighties Ninja film, beginning with the alarmingly titled Enter the Ninja (1981). This is a not-particularly-distinguished example. It's awful, of course; terrible script, terrible acting, formulaic as they come. But when I say awful I don't mean awful. I mean gloriously awful. Plan 9 from Outer Space awful.

Where to begin? That contant silly "crunch" sound during the many martial arts scenes? The unironic evil laughter? The fact that Harry, the ninja hero, spends most of his time conversing with his badass underling Jaguar on his '80s Garfield phone and only gets off his arse in the last five minutes? Even the fact that a very '80s car chase involving, yes, a Ford Cortina, turns out to be Jaguar harassing his ex so he can sleep with her in highly dodgy scenes? Yes, that actually happens. So do death threats via little toy robots, and silly teleporting ninjas.

It's a terrible, terrible film, and I'm so glad to have seen it again.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Beneath You

"Is there anyone here who hasn't slept together?"

Joss Whedon may have stepped back to let underlings write and direct- we mortals are lucky to have his occasional work at which to marvel, but a Whedon episode is, alas, an increasingly rare best. It's encouraging, though, that this second episode maintains the standard both in terms of episode quality and what looks like an intriguing arc plot. And the characterisation and dialogue, while sub-Whedon, are nevertheless bloody good.

The basic plot is, of course, simple- Anya turns the ex of a wronged woman, Nancy, into a bloody great scary worm monster that is stalking her, and this is eventually resolved by a row between Anya and Xander which persuades her to reverse the spell, although we get some very strong hints that she's going to be in trouble at work. D'Hoffryn may be about to give her a bad appraisal, no doubt.

All beneath everything, though, is the clear implication that something is coming: something big, bad and subterranean. Echoing last episode's opening, with a young woman in Istanbul being chased and caught by some dodgy monks, we now have a similar opening in Frankfurt, this time to the background of the sort of hardcore techno that we metalheads tend to sometimes like: personally, I'm partial to Evil Activities, although I do gigs, not raves.

Anyway, this is now a pattern. And Buffy is seeing things in her dreams. Willow, too, knows what's coming, and her contractual cameo with Giles- in picturesque England with  a peaceful musical background- establishes both this and how nervous she is about facing her friends again. She and Giles have a lovely bond, though.

Other threads include Buffy's little sinecure as school counsellor, courtesy of the mysterious yet cool new Principal. We're teased with the obvious fact that there's an agenda here to which we're not yet privy. Xander gets what may or may not be a future love interest. And Buffy finally learns that Spike now has a soul- and why: so that he could be "the kind of man who could nev...". This is quite intense territory, coming soon after Buffy flat out says to him what he tried to do. I hope this is treated with sensitivity and the fantasy elements don’t diminish the way the rape storyline is handled. Still, an awesome episode.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

iZombie: Yipee Ki Brain, Motherscratcher!

"The show ran out of money, so everything cool happens off-screen and the characters just talk about it afterwards."

This season as been pants-to-average most of the way through. So how come this is the second sublime episode in a row? We really seem to have hit a hot spot.

We start by establishing that Isobel is staying, in desperate hope for a cure, but she's so cool and adorable that I fear we have to die. Dale is investigating Baracus' murder and has a fair idea where to look, and Liv is on don't-play-by-the-rules cop brain and, for once, doesn't feel like cooking..

But life goes on between the coyotes, who are expanding and bonding; there's even a montage to replace the usual culinary one. There are some cool action movie puns. And an awful lot of stuff happens as it becomes clear that the end of the season is not too far away. Angus declares himself just "the Baptist John" and is really pushing for Blaine to be the zombie Jesus, silly though that sounds. Clive wants kid and is brooding over dumping Dale for Michelle and her fully functioning womb.

Te big moment is the cliffhanger, though, with Major finally clicking what Liv is up to. What happens now? It's very notable, though, that this episode is all arc, arc, arc and nevertheless manages to excel. I hope the rest of the season is as good.

Poltergeist III (1988)

“We're baaaack!"

 You know that pattern with sequels? You know, excellent first film, less profound but still good sequel, and then they do one sequel too many which is just awkward, clumsy and not very good? Well,  this film is the latter. And, if that wasn't enough to damn it, it also stands accused of wasting the last months of poor Heather O'Rourke's life and may have hastened her tragic and obscenely young death. This film gets extra low marks.

The film is set in a bizarrely upmarket and modern (for 1988) tower block, where Carol Anne is staying with her Aunt Trish and Uncle Bruce for a reason and duration that isn't really explained. Tangina and Carol Anne are the only returning actors; Henry Kane is played by some ersatz shouter, the amazing Julian Beck having died three years earlier. And, while Zelda Rubinstein is not only extraordinary but gets a satisfyingly expanded part, Heather O'Rourke just looks ill, and should not have been there.

On paper it's a better cast, with big names like Tom Skerrit and an immediately post-RoboCop Nancy Allen, but Allen is shockingly bad and no performance can save this script. What could have been a large scale horror spectacular involving the whole tower block instead ends up smelling of budget cuts, with no big set pieces and, in spite of some clever use of mirrors, no real scares. Instead we waste time with characters discussing whether or not the whole thing is Carol Anne doing hypnotic suggestion. Dull, dull, dull.You can skip this one.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

“They're baaaack!"

 And so we have the inevitable sequel, in a decade full of popular and now iconic horror film franchises.We don't have Tobe Hooper, so we don't have the atmosphere or the depth, but we do have some rather good shocks and rather effective set pieces. It's a pretty good film, as long as you don't expect it to be as good as its predecessor.

The first film ended with the revelation that the house had been built atop a Native American cemetery, and thus a trope was born. It's now a year later and, in a nice touch, the family has become penniless as a result of being unable to tell their house insurers exactly what happened. But further graves have been found under the old house, and the evil from the other side continues to haunt the family, although I'm not sure much of it is necessarily poltergeist activity. Still, no matter; it's an exciting watch.

It's interesting to see a pointedly positive (although inevitably inaccurate and probably patronising) portrayal of Native American cultural practices. This gives a sense of responding to criticism for the previous film perhaps, but it's always good to see Will Sampson in this sort of part. Also exceptional is Julian Beck as the sinister Henry Kane, an excellent principal baddie. Most exceptional of all, of course, is the tragic Heather O'Rourke.

This is a far more conventional film than its predecessor, far less ambitious in scope, but in terms of script, effects and performances it is nevertheless a commendable sequel. It probably won't be very long at all until I blog the next one...

Hellraiser (1987)

"Come to Daddy!”

I've never, aside from the Motorhead song, had any previous experience of the Hellraiser franchise. I haven’t read the novels, nothing. I’ve been missing out; this is right up there with the best horror films of the decade.

One big surprise is how good the camerawork is, the film being not only written but also directed- very well indeed- by Clive Barker himself. And the S&M torture demon aesthetic is very visual, translating well to film and effectively realised. It reminds me of a cross between Nurgle and Slaanesh in Warhammer, a contemporary phenomenon. What was in the zeitgeist on 1987?

And the very Eightiesness of not only the hair and clothes but also the choice of shots has aged in a good way; this is a horror film shot like a Siouxie and the Banshees video.

The performances are generally very good, as they needed to be, but I’d single out Andrew Robinson in particular (later Garak in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) for a subtle and nuanced performance. The characterisation is both unusually strong and unusually central for a horror film. It’s a film, I think, about sex, pain and the terrors of temptation. Our two adulterers both face bad ends, although Frank’s is as hellish as his initial stop motion awakening. And all because of a kind of Rubik’s Cube. Why did it take me so long to discover this film?

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Angel: Deep Down

“That didn’t suck. Well, maybe a little bit. Maybe that’s something we can expand on next time.”

I often write as though I’m seeing these episodes of Buffy and Angel for the first time, and it genuinely often feels that way- I’ve only seen all of this once before and finished in, I think, 2005. I was 28, single, childless, just learned to drive. It was a very long time ago.

But I do remember this season of Angel in particular, and liking it very much indeed. And what’s interesting is that I’ve since become aware of it’s less than stellar reputation. With both shows having to share space briefly with Firefly, Joss Whedon’s relationship issues (let’s not pry), and other behind-the-scenes issues, the prevailing view is that this isn’t a season you’re supposed to regard that highly. I had no idea. So we shall see how this goes.

There’s certainly not much wrong with this first episodes. It’s three months on, and quite a place to pick up from- the “previously on” segment is a masterpiece of cramming in as much as possible. There follows a subtle and gripping episode of exquisite characterisation,  nice development of theme (to a point) and, while the dialogue doesn’t entirely match the Joss Whedon scripted episode that opens the parallel series of Buffy, it nevertheless sparkles.

I like the early dream sequences; they may be very noughties but they show us the family theme very well before we zoom into the episode property where, three episodes in, relationships are never very healthy. Connor being so very annoying is making Gunn and Fred bicker; Wesley is still having the most meaningless sex possible with Lilah; and his treatment of Justine is at once very kinky indeed (justifying her name) and entirely sexless. It’s as though the absence of Angel is leading to relationships being tinged with wrongness.

And then Wesley finds Angel. Connor is in a lot of trouble from all directions, and Angel gives a bloody masterclass in fatherly tough love to give us a kick ass ending. He’s back, and Connor is so very annoying. All this, and Lilah does the most badass boardroom coup I’ve ever seen. Not a lot has gone wrong here so far...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Lessons

"And stay away from hyena people. And any lizardy-type athletes..."

And so we're back to Buffy, and at last we're starting the final season. It's fantastic to find that this episode is written by Joss Whedon himself. Whatever happens later on, this season gets a fantastic start with a script so quotable it made choosing the quote a real problem. I mean, I could have gone for "Synchronised swimming. Complete mystery to me", which is a comment I have much sympathy with me.

We start, though, with a mysterious sequence in Istanbul where some cliche baddie monks catch a girl and brandish what looks awfully like a sacrificial knife. It looks potentially both nasty and arc-related; we will see.

We then move, following how last season ended, to Buffy teaching Dawn how to fight vampires, which is nice to see. And of course a contractual scene with Willow and Giles in the inevitably picturesque English countryside, where Willow is being taught to control her powers by an apparently cool yet unseen coven led by a suspiciously Marvelesque "Miss Harkness". Willow seems pretty together now, getting used to living with the guilt, the fear and Giles going "all Dumbledore" on her. Interesting that Giles mentions in passing that Willow's magic is not an addiction; an acknowledgement that it was always a clumsy metaphor?

But the big thing is the re-opening of Sunnydale High and the baddie of the week- some zombie-ghosts of people Buffy failed to save. Dawn's first day at school seems to parallel Buffy's, to the extent of her acquiring friends to parallel Willow and Xander, although fortunately there's no Jesse figure. The new Principal seems mysterious and interesting; he seems rather quick to offer Buffy a job as counsellor. I'm sure we will learn more.

Oh, and we find a confused Spike, or rather William, very vulnerable and completely losing his cool. But something is coming, something which Willow feels through the Earth and which Spike sees as brief cameos by Warren, Glory, Adam, Mayor Wilkins, Drusilla and the Master. Something which sets up the season to come with some elegant breaking of the fourth wall. There promises to be, indeed, quite a ride...

Quatermass and the Pit: Episode 6- Hob

" We are the Martians."

Hmm. Quatermass and the Pit used to be my favourite of the three serials but, while still seminal and extraordinary, on this reviewing I felt it was less good that Quatermass 2 in spite of having more interesting ideas. And that's largely because of how it ends.

This final episode is one of human chaos, caused indirectly by Martian meddling in the past. This meddling causes people to be riotous and, in particular, racist as per last episode's "wild hunt" (although I still don't see how anyone could draw such specific conclusions from that footage!). It's literally gothic; an evil from  the dawn of time. It's tense. It's fast paced. It manages to avoid excusing human evil on the grounds of "the devil made me do it" by being an obvious metaphor. And yet...

Well, there's no physical threat, no baddie, just the legacy of some barely seen aliens from five million years ago. The evil has no face, not even a possessed but intelligent human, to give some immediate sense of a physical enemy. That, I think, is what's lacking. And yet what we have is nevertheless yet another televisual triumph. Although one has to raise an eyebrow at poor Miss Judd having no personality traits other than "hysterical female" and being patronised yet again. Roney's death has meaning and Quatermass' speech is sadly relevant today.

I can't just leave this there without talking about this serial's huge influence over the following two decades at least of British sci-fi, though, especially as a Doctor Who fan. Obviously both The Daemons and Image of the Fendahl are pretty blatant tributes, but there are elements too within the human perfidy of The Ambassadors of Death and the whole '70s trope of intractable military stupidity. And that's before we even get to Erich Von Daniken, Graham Hancock and assorted other idiots...

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Quatermass and the Pit: Episode 5- The Wild Hunt

"We're the Martians now."

It is both a complement and an observation on how television pacing has changed over the decades that this penultimate episode is both mostly exposition and gripping. The atmosphere means that the centrepiece- the footage of the Martian “Wild Hunt”, which consists of violent ethnic cleansing- consists of charmingly dated special effects. We don’t care.

Nor do we care that this episode moves beyond the “ancient aliens” property into matters of se one sight and telekinesis, supposed by Bernard to be a Martian legacy. Likewise, we care not that Roney’s ma bone for seeing impressions of the mind’s eye is an impossibility now, let alone in 1959, and is an odd thing for a palaeontologist to have constructed. Indeed, we raise a momentary eyebrow on his Miss Judd, being female, is naturally hysterical and in need of a tot of brandy. We overlook all this, because this is bloody good telly.

I haven’t praised Andre Morell enough; he is charismatic, likeable and easily the best Quatermass so far in any medium. But I must also praise Anthony Bushell, whose continuously brilliant portrayal of the thick and arrogant Breen, the ultimate figure of official idiocy, reaches a crescendo here as thousands are put in danger by official intransigence. I can’t wait until the finale...

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Constantine (2005)

"God's a kid with an ant farm, lady. He’s not planning anything.”

I know very little about John Constantine  eyond Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. I’ve never read a single issue of Hellraiser. I’m therefore not much attached to the original material, prepared to judge this film on its own merits, and willing to overlook the fact that Constantine should be a blond Englishman.

Except... they cast Keanu Reeves. Keanu Reeves. On what planet is that appropriate casting? Reeves is, by all accounts, a nice bloke but it is a fact universally acknowledged that he can’t act. I’m afraid he just can’t carry a film, no matter how much spectacle or CGI we get.

And there’s another issue- sometimes a music video director turns out to be brilliant when let loose on a cinematic canvas. Here we have a music video director who has given us a two hour music video. It gets annoying after a bit.

Still, the script is quite good, and presumably very much the D.C. version of Christian mythology. It’s an arresting idea- suicide is cruelly punished in Hell, and Constantine is desperately trying to atone for a youthful suicide attempt- although certainly not one that makes God seem a nice bloke. I’m not sure which of the concepts are from the film and which not, but I like the idea of Hell having an extended version of the Bible. I love Midnite and the neutral bar, too. It’s all very Manichean.

It’s a pity, really; with a better star the film would have been pretty decent, and perhaps even spawned a sequel. But Keanu Reeves...?

Friday, 4 May 2018

Quatermass and the Pit: Episode 4- The Enchanted

“You realise what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition to the intervention of insects?”

And here we have it; the ideas episode. This is where Quatermass expounds on the possibility that these alien arthropods, perhaps from a more habitable Mars of five million years ago, prefigured The War of the Worlds by attempting to somehow terraform their blue neighbour. I’m not sure what advantage they would gain by boosting the intelligence of early hominids, but it’s an arresting thought and one that has had a profound effect ever since both on science fiction and silly flying saucer conspiracy theories- I note this was more than a decade before Erich Von Daniken.

The drama is still at the forefront though as Roney rushes to preserve the remains and Quatermass grapples with the enormity of what is occurring. Further research establishes that such figures have Haunted mankind since prehistory- it is here that Bernard expounds upon the chilling idea of “race memory”. But it’s when we see the utter blind stupidity of Colonel Breen, which reaches new heights here, and how the powers that be accept his explantation above that of Bernard- evidently Michael Gove wasn’t the first person to have had enough of experts- that we return to Kneale’s ever-disapproving view of humanity. As an aside, it’s fascinating, as a Doctor Who fan, to see the obvious influence here on the work of Malcolm Hulke.

Perhaps I could venture a mild criticism in that Miss Judd, the only female character at this point, is a merely functional character, but this is brilliant telly. And it’s only at the very end, as the alien vessel does something to poor Sladdern that seems to make him a focus of poltergeist activity, that any physical danger arises- but it’s here now....

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Quatermass and the Pit: Episode 3- Imps and Demons

"It's a good thing to be insured. At least it cheers you up."

After last episode’s slight wobble we’re back to the gripping and gradual unveiling of what is going on, concluding with the reveal of the insect-like alien bodies inside the capsule which have been there for “a long time”. Meanwhile we discover that the ghost stories go back many centuries and coincide with the disturbing of the ground, while “Hobbs Lane” itself is a probable reference to the Devil.

Elsewhere, James Fullalove is back and still the same stereotypical reporter. He recognises Quatermass from a photo in spite of the fact he looks nothing like he did in Quatermass 2, but then again the same could be said for Fullalove himself. Looks as though he will be hanging around for a while.

I also wonder about those strange marks on the.Captain’s and Sergeant’s hands- first inkling of a present day threat from the artifact? This is fantastic stuff, and I can think of at least two Doctor Who stories that owe an awful lot to this.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

IZombie: Mac-Liv-Moore

“Maybe you should just lie back in your chair and do the Mr Burns thing with your hands."

Brilliant. This is a very arc episode, with very little happening with the rapper-themed murder of the week and Liv's rapper brain turning out to be less amusing than usual. It's all the things I've been criticising this season for. And yet, through excellent wit and character development from a sparking script of the kind that used to be typical iZombie but has been as rare as rocking horse dung this season, we have an episode that's a real joy. This knocks every other episode of the season so far into a cocked hat.

The young girl who has the unfortunate combination of being young, dying and immune to zombie scratches is called Isobel, and she's brave and awesome. We end the episode with her being caught by Ravi, Peyton finally admitting to him what she and Liv have been up to, and we're left to wonder, like Ravi himself, why he wasn't told earlier. It's wonderful to see how eager Isobel is to be used as a guinea pig for a zombie cure so her brief life will have meaning.

Meanwhile, Zombie Killer Cain is on the loose and manages to get at Chase Graves, shooting and nearly killing him until Chase's increasingly dependable right hand man Major (who else?) saves him. And then Chase shows what a hypocrite he is by ordering Major to scratch the zombie-hating Cain. The sooner Chase faces justice the better, and Major isn't making himself very likeable these days; he and Liv have another row here. A thought occurs to me, though; could Major have a secret agenda?

In other news, I still love the French bloke with the outrageous accent. And Blaine is devilishly clever here, plotting to turn all of America into zombies purely so he can make a lot of money from property. It's all good fun as he makes Don E. eat computer genius brain in order to make sure they can't be traced as they upload on YouTube some footage of Mayor Baracus being turned back into a human... and then shot by the unseen hand of Blaine. We end with this murder being investigated and, bizarrely, Peyton is now Deputy Mayor.

That's not the coolest thing, though. The coolest thing is the D&D game with Ravi and the geeks at the police station, DM'd by Clive, seguing neatly into a kiss between Clive and that girl he fancies. Where is this going...? So many plot threads now and I'm beginning to enjoy it.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Quatermass and the Pit: Episode 2- The Ghosts

"It was a kind of figure!"

Once again Nigel Knee shows us, in an unusually slow episode that for once feels a little padded, that he takes a rather dim view of human behaviour. Yet there are interesting contradictions. Colonel Breen, while undoubtedly a fool for insisting on rushing the archaeology in order to dig up the artifact, is portrayed as a fool for neglecting to see its extra-terrestrial origins. Yes the credulousness of the tealeaves-reading types who insist on having seen ghosts thirty years earlier runs is also criticised. What is Kneale saying here? It looks as though he’s trying to have it both ways.

That isn’t the only bad tempered moment, either; even the normally likeable Quatermass snaps at Miss Judd when she tries to help. But, nevertheless, this is part of a gripping tale, of a rather slow one by itself. Not enough really happens in terms of plot, character or mood to justify the running time. Still, we are introduced to Roney’s optical encephalograph; I suspect the law of Chelhov’s gun will kick in later.

Still, the tension continues to build as more and more signs emerge that this is a five million year old spacecraft- although the skulls are indeed of terrestrial origin. This episode may be unusually slow, but the underlying plot continues to grip.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)

"Able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie..."

Mrs Llamastrangler and I were curious to see this recent DreamWorks effort after seeing the trailer last year and, well, it's on Sky Movies, we have a three year old, and we gave it a go. Our verdict is that yes, perhaps there are funnier films and, yes, there are many better efforts from the same studio. Still, we enjoyed it.

This film may not exactly have a star-studded cast, and it may be very, very silly, but... well, it's very, very silly. At its heart are two kids called George and Harold, who seem to be in the American equivalent of junior school and whose principal is delightfully villainous. Professor Poopypants, too, is the perfect supervillain and the conceit- said nasty principal is hypnotised into being Captain Underpants from the duo's personally created comic books- manages to get a film's worth of laughs. And of course Melvin is the perfect teacher's pet stereotype.

It's not the best film ever made, no. And I think our three year old girl was just that little bit too young to enjoy it. I also very much noticed how very, very male the cast was- the four significant characters are all blokes. But this is a very funny and somewhat charming film which I thoroughly enjoyed.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

"I've been at the mercy of men just following orders all my life. Never again!"

Wow. Best X-Men film ever, or at least so far. Thank you, Matthew Vaughn.

Of course, this is the Fox continuity, in spite of only a cameo appearance by Wolverine linking it to its predecessors, and rather divergent from the comics; Banshee seems like he's going to die, for example, and doesn't. And there's the silly fact that Chares Xavier has a British accent and has done since childhood, in spite of having grown up in that mansion in Westchester County. And why is Moira MacTaggart now an American CIA agent, having previously been shown as English and never Scottish?

But we'll ignore all that because this is a brilliant and exciting tale of a deep friendship unable to withstand ideological differences; you really believe in the friendship between Charles and Erik. James McAvoy is good, but Michael Fassbender is exceptional.

It's interesting that Mystique is Charles' step-sister, and to see her gradually being drawn towards Magneto. Her connection to Hank McCoy is well-handled, too, as is the question of whether mutants ho look unusual should visually conform or not. The Beast's fate is cruel but poetically appropriate, especially given the allusions to Jekyll and Hyde.

The Hellfire Club gives us two impressive villains in January Jones as Emma Frost and the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon as the mercurial Sebastian Shaw- perhaps he's Joseph Dashwood in this continuity? But there are striking similarities between Shaw and what Magneto becomes although, of course, he killed Magneto's mother and must die.

The plot is superb- using the Cuban Missile Crisis is inspired- but ultimately the film works because of its successful focus on Erik and Charles as characters. Superb,

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Quatermass and the Pit: Episode 1- The Halfmen

"They'll stick me alongside the Piltdown forgeries as a horrid warning!"

It's good to get back to Quatermass, that slow-building tension and that great storytelling team of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier. There are so many superb touches here, from the neat little piece of exposition by newspaper headlines to the use of vox pops. Yet these vox pops don't give a very flattering impression of people, ignorant and self-centred as they (we) are, and it doesn't take long before Kneale's bleak view of human nature shows itself.

In fact, even in one episode, Quatermass and the Pit paints a far bleaker picture of humanity than either of its predecessors. The builders who find the skull are ignorant and venal; the archaeological work of Dr Roney is at risk because of others' greed and, worse, Quatermass' beloved British Rocket Group faces a military takeover, enforced by arrogant civil servants and personified by the arrogant and very soldier-like Colonel Breen.

Quatermass is alone in a room full of Civil servants (gasp, how awful!) who are happy to rubber stamp the military takeover of plans to build bases on the Moon and Mars within seven years, which are to see the militarisation of space a generation before Reagan: a horrible "dead man's deterrent" which will avenge a nuked Britain from beyond the brain. It's a horrible perversion of science and the spirit of exploration but, in Kneale's world, that's humanity for you.

Andre Morell, following the now well-established tradition of replacing a dead predecessor as Quatermass, is superb, rather eclipsing both other actors. Cec Linder, though, is also engaging and charismatic as Dr Roney, a brash and courageous Canadian palaeontologist.

Seemingly, the bones of four previously unknown early hominids have been found, but also a strange metal object, and we're left with the thought that this sat below remains which are up to five million years old...

This is gripping telly. It's the first time I've seen it in well over a decade and I'm already excited about the next five episodes.

IZombie: Chivalry Is Dead

“What the Hell is a TARDIS?”

iZombie has done tabletop role-playing; now it’s time for LARP. It’s all very fun, and Rose McIver is as awesome as ever. Mind you, I may be a latent tabletop guy myself but I suspect that LARPers in real life probably speak in a less annoying way.

It’s all good fun, though, and another good episode that harks back to seasons of yore. I love RVi’s indulging of Peyton’s knight in armour fetish, and the dialogue just sings. Interesting, too, that we find the killer (nice whodunit, incidentally) but not a confession, and a conviction seems unlikely. Where’s Columbo when we need him?

It’s onteresting to see Blaine and his duped dad working for Stacey Boss (him again!) in attacking a prison bus to find a large widget of money- money which has in fact been found by Peyton and given to Liv for railroad purposes. Peyton is now involved, and taking one hell of a risk.

The big twist comes at the end though- Liv scratches the latest terminally ill arrival only to find that, cruelly, it doesn’t work. Does this mean some people are immune to zombies in? And why does it have to be that poor girl? It’s quite the twist and a rather good episode.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Angel: Tomorrow

"Mind if I join you?"

"On many levels, and with great intensity..."

Some season finales are dramatic. This one is just cruel, evil and, I admit through gritted teeth, perfect.

There's tension from the start as we, but not Angel or any of the gang, know that Connor has been tricked into believing Angel killed Holtz. The whole episode is one big trap as a very cold Connor gets his revenge with some splendidly ambiguous acting by Vincent Kartheiser.

But we feel sympathy for the young, innocent, manipulated Connor, even Justine seems to feel a twinge of guilt as Connor, believing Holtz to have been killed by a vampire, beheads the corpse and burns the body on a pyre; a warrior funeral, yes, but hardly what a loving son would prefer. Even Angel, at the end, refuses to blame Connor and declares his fatherly love. There is a poignancy here beyond the betrayal itself.

There's a lovely juxtaposition of scenes as Groo gently tells Cordy that Angel, not he, is the one she loves, as a departing Lorne tells Angel that Cordy's feelings for him are the same as his for her. They finally arrange to meet in a romantic location. Happy ever after, right? Hah! This is a Joss Whedon show. There is no such concept.

Less romantic is Wesley (oh, Wesley!) sleeping with Lilah. It was clearly hate sex, though, and when she tells him not to be thinking about her when she's gone, he delivers the most withering riposte ever in the form of "I wasn't even thinking about you when you were here." Ouch.

Naturally in Angel, as for the Manic Street Preachers, there is no true love. Cordy has to ascent to become one of the Powers That Be just as she's about to get together with Angel, and he will never know why he never turned up. And we end with Connor, assisted by an equally cold Justine, sealing Angel in a coffin which he deposts to the bottom of the ocean. Even more ouch.

This is the season finale most perfectly crafted to break as many hearts as possible. It's evil. It's brilliant. And so was this season. Angel has truly come of age.

So, time for me to briefly turn to a short season of nothing else, then I'll be back with the final season of Buffy and the fourth season of Angel.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

El Topo (1970)

"Who are you to judge me?"

"I am God."

I don't usually recite the plots of films for this blog- it's a pretty redundant thing to do- but I'll briefly do so for El Topo so as to underline the surreality: a mysterious gunfighter in black is riding around aimlessly with his mostly naked seven year old son for some reason, when he comes across a village which has been violently massacred with blood everywhere, and discovers that this is the work of the bizarre Colonel, whose reign of debauchery over a nearby monastery is both incredibly surreal and full of Catholic symbolism; this is the most Bunuelesque bit, I suppose, but there's an awful lot of vague counterculture Eastern philosophical symbolism too.

So suddenly there's a girl, and a kind of fairytale martial arts vibe as she pledges to love him only if he fights and bests four eccentric gunfighting masters. Then the two girls with whom he's having a relationship turn on him and shoot him. Then suddenly he's finding a way to release a large group of incestuous underground prisoners, only for them to be massacred in turn by the denizens of the not-very-nice local town. But long before the end even of the first act we reach a point where the very concept of narrative plot is very, very tenuous. There's lots of sex, violence and blood though.

What does all this mean? Buggered if I know. There's loads of symbolism, both Catholic and Eastern but, the 20th century having begotten Dada, surrealism, modernism, postmodernism and, indeed, the Sixties, I have no idea. But this is without a doubt the weirdest of the 455 films I've blogged.

IZombie: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Brain

“You’re printing fake news...”

Another good episode, this, reminiscent of earlier seasons in its humour and fun, but also showing us how very, very wrong things are in New Seattle under Chase Graves’ tyranny. And tyranny it is; that's made clear by his shutting down, with violence, of a local newspaper for criticising his "judicial" murder of the good Mama. So far, so appalling but expected, and we duly hope for justice and for Graves to get his comeuppance.

However, what's truly disturbing is just how complicit Major is becoming; he seems to enjoy his violent exercising of authority and ends the episode as Graves' right hand man. This is how tyranny happens,of course- a genuine problem, in this case a shortage of brains exacerbated by the black market, leads to universal rights and liberties seeming inconvenient to those in power. Suddenly they are no longer universal, and therefore no longer exist. But it's doubly shocking to see a character we know and like dipping his hands in the blood. It it bitterness, his break-up with Liv, having to put up with all those accusations of being the Chaos Killer, as the dialogue implies? Either way, he seems to be an analogue, for this liberal American  show, of those friends and families of the crew and viewers who have voted for Trump and for the apparent normalisation of behaviour that used to be shocking so very recently.

In other, less tangential plot threads, Liv is throwing herself into her role as the new Mama with gusto and acquiring a new, more ethical boyfriend into the bargain. Clive is having difficulty adjusting to an open relationship, unable to hide his situation from any prospective date. Eventually he resorts to visiting an escort (illegal use of a prostitute in America, I believe; Clive is potentially open to kompromat). Only after this do we get the cruel twist that Dale has never gone as far as sleeping with anyone and it is he who has fully made the relationship an open one. Ouch, but clever writing. At least Ravi and Peyton continue to be a sweet couple.

Anyway, the plot; this week's murder victim is one of those loathsome pick-up artists, Rose McIver is brilliant as ever as Liv with douchebag brain, and a poisoned condom is an inspired murder weapon. All this combines to make an episode sufficiently fine that it could even have graced an earlier season. Finally!

Friday, 20 April 2018

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Grave

“Is this the master plan? You’re gonna stop me by telling me by telling me that you love me?”

The above quote hints at the flimsiness of the plot here; Giles comes back to Sunnydale, having borrowed a fair bit of magic from some old biddies in the West Country, but while trying to stop Willow he “accidentally” lets her borrow that power. Oops. Willow is this overwhelmed and decides to destroy the world and end its suffering, aided by an ancient pagan temple that conveniently appears. Except that, as Giles has apparently planned, Xander gets to save the day as per the quote; having spent the best parrot two episodes bemoaning his own uselessness, he saves the world.

And that’s it. Summarised like that it looks a bit pants and, if this were a series based on plot, plot, plot, it would be. Except the episode happens to be a bit awesome. That’s because the cheerfully rubbish plot is just something around which to hang the characters, who have always been the focus. That makes this an appropriate season finale.

We shall see how Willow heals next season, but so much else happens. The connection between Buffy and the prodigal Giles is wonderful, and joyous from the moment Giles starts laughing. They have a lovely father/daughter relationship, and father/daughter relationships are the best thing ever. It’s also lovely to see Buffy and a surprisingly capable Dawn fight zombies in a crypt, whereupon Buffy finally realised that her sister doesn’t need protecting; Dawn kicks ass. It’s also nice to see the season ending as it began, with Buffy crawling up out of a grave.

We end with loads of juxtaposed hugs- the Scooboies are battered, wounded, but together. And then, finally, we see Spike passing his trials- and having his soul returned..

A satisfying end to a season which, while not up there with the best, is on the whole rather good.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Wonder Woman (2017)

“They came to the conclusion that men are essential for procreation. But for pleasure? They are unnecessary.”

I thought DC Universe films are supposed to be rubbish? First Suicide Squad turns out not to be the turkey of popular opinion, then Wonder Woman turns out to be really rather good. I really ought to get round to the others.

I know very little about the Wonder Woman of the comics and am, I fear, reliant on popular culture for my knowledge of the character, although I’m vaguely aware of William Marston, his unconventional sex Life and his eccentric proto-feminist views. Both of those strands seem to be reflected here, with Diana originating from an island of Amazon warriors who seem to be ageless and are, of course, entirely female. And, while the film perhaps wisely steers clear of any overtly political style of feminism- that sort of thing tends to lead to preaching to the converted, and that would make this popular blockbuster a wasted opportunity; best to simply use humour and optimism to show a female hero kicking arse in a time (1918) when women were still a few weeks away even from having the vote. Yes, society has an awful lot of structural misogyny within it and, I have no doubt, my own consciousness of my male privilege doesn’t have much effect on stopping me from inadvertently contributing to it. After all, we live in a very misogynistic society in spite of some advances, and unconscious bias is a thing. It could hardly be otherwise. But sexual politics, like all politics, is the art of the possible and this is the age we live in. And a kick ass scene where Diana runs over the top and runs to the other side of the trenches to save an entire village is far better and more effective than preaching.

This film is fast-paced, exciting, full of witty lines and cool, likeable characters played superbly by an excellent cast, with a splendid villain to boot. But Gal Gadot is a true revelation, with exactly the right balance between innocence, heroism and wisdom. Hugely enjoyable.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

iZombie: My Really Fair Lady

"Mama was the railroad."

Thankfully it's a less intense and funnier episode this week as Liv, on luvvie brain, uses her acting skills, including an... interesting stab at a Kiwi accent- to pretty much take over from Mama as boss of the benevolent people smugglers, right up to the point of getting filmed committing a capital crime. There's no turning back now, and the stakes for her could not be higher.

Other stuff happens, mind; Ravi, it being that time of the month, survives a few days of junkie brain to reunite a kid with a dog and impress Peyton- and is rewarded with a snog. Is this them back together for good? Clive asks out the rookie cop girl without Liv's influence, only to have to explain to her his situation. Johnny Frost is back, and is hilarious. And Blaine finally finds out, dramatically, that this new zombie cult he's hearing more and more about is led by his own estranged dad, with whom he still has so many unresolved issues.

This is a fairly "meh" episode, I suppose; not as worryingly bad as the earlier episodes of the season, and no more than quite good. This season continues to be far poorer than any of its predecessors. But at least the recent upswing in quality is just about continuing. Let's hope we get an episode soon that's more than just adequate and perhaps a good run that can save this underwhelming season. We can only hope.

Pet (2016)

"Your life ends too..."

This may be n obscure little thriller with no real stars except for Dominic Monaghan, himself hardly an A lister, but it's nicely shot and very well acted by all concerns and, vitally, for a film that relies heavily on a pretty big plot twist, said twist is effective and leads to a gloriously twisted and highly satisfying ending.

At first the film seems to be about Monaghan's creepy Seth, a performance that reminded me at first very much of Robin Williams in One Hour Photo as Seth takes a life to Ksenia Solo's understandably freaked out Holly, kidnapping her and keeping her prisoner in a cage at his depressing little workplace.

And then, suddenly, things get more complicated as Holly turns out to be a serial killer, and the besotted Seth turns out to genuinely want to "save" her out of a twisted kind of  "love". He's still a creep, but it turns out she's a monster, and the balance of power gradually shifts and shifts until the delightfully perverted and appropriate conclusion. A deeply twisted film about the dark side of life, love, creepiness and turning the tables that is executed extremely well. Carles Torrens is a name I'll be looking out for in future. Worth a watch.

Jigsaw (2017)

“The game- it's started!"

 SPOILERS. You have been warned.

Well, that was unexpected. Seven years after this long-running and very gory franchise of clever whodunit/vigilante tale/squirm fest comes to an ignominious end with Saw 3-D it gets another sequel- this time, against all odds, a fitting, satisfying and genuinely clever finale.

I don't use the word "unexpected" lightly. After all, John Kramer has been dead for so many films now that it really is just stretching credulity to have his pre-planned "games" still playing out ten years after his death. It also isn't remotely credible to have him somehow not have died, although the film teases us with this possibility. No; instead, the film riffs on this very dilemma and finds a solution which is, yes, cheating a bit- this new set of murders exactly mirrors an earlier bunch of murders, and we aren't told until near the end that the scenes featuring Kramer happen years earlier- but it's genuinely clever. I like the inclusion of Jigsaw superfan Eleanor, whose gory collection makes her a splendid red herring, while our two police detective anti-heroes soon focus into our two main suspects for Jigsaw's heir. We also get some gloriously fiendish "games" and as clever and intricate a plot as ever.

So the franchise is right back on form at the last moment. But please: no more.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Emoji Movie (2017)

"Nobody leaves the phone! Delete them!"

Ok, let me make one thing clear from the outset; this film is pants. Oh, there are some films, such as Sausage Party, which seem at first as though they're going to be puerile and stupid but in fact turn out to be witty and clever. So I gave this film a chance. Don't make the same mistake; this film is half-arsed, boring and just plain bad.

It's hard to see whether the fundamental flaw is the concept or the execution. It's all set inside the phone of a kid called Alex, with emojis competing to be flavour of the month and the hero Gene, a "meh" emoji, gets into trouble for failing to always display a "meh" expression, only to save the day, predictably, for being in touch with the full range of his emotions and all that. Oh, and there's a token love story which, to be fair, has a genuine feminist subtext, and James Bloody Corden as the most annoying sidekick ever. We even get a deeply irritating dance scene purely for the purpose of letting Christina Aguilera do something.

The film is stupid, boring, feels over-long, and will inevitably look incredibly dated in not many years from now. And it gives rise yet again to that age-old question: why does America find James Corden funny?

Angel: Benediction

“Well, aren’t you just sneaky with the subtext?”

Such a tragic episode, this; we can very much see how, behind the endearingly awkward scenes of Angel slowly connecting with Connor/Steven, things are about to go horribly wrong in all sorts of ways. Connor is confused, bewildered, hostile to Lorne as a visible demon, torn between his two fathers. He may fight by his father, but growing up in a hell dimension (“Who hasn’t?” asks Fred) is in many ways a very sheltered upbringing.

I think we shall be charitable and ignore the deeply unconvincing appearance of Prosthetic Holtz, as he does die, after all. But he’s devious, later upon layer, every word and every action crafted for maximum revenge on Angel, and he just doesn’t care about the collateral damage to the boy he supposedly loves and whom he has raised for the best part of two decades.

Things get more and more arse-clenchingly awkward between Corey and Groo, with Groo very much aware of his status as pet more than lover. I give them about, well, an episode. lol ah so to use her highly entertaining  plot to corrupt the lonely, unloved Wesley. Ironically, though, it would probably be best for all concerned if Justine had indeed died, and it’s doubly ironic, given the ending, that it should be Angel and Connor who save her.

The ending is ominous indeed; Connor believes Angel has killed Holtz and is now under Justine’s baleful influence. This superb episode is both intricately crafted and full of deep foreboding for the finale...

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Two to Go

"She's like Dark Phoenix in there."

The fact that the episode begins with a recap of the entire season thus far alerts us to the fact that, structurally, this is the first episode of a two part finale. Hence, yes, plot-wise the episode is pretty much just treading water via some big set pieces, but there's a lot of valuable character stuff along the way and we get to see both how powerful Willow is and how nasty she can be- deliberately evoking the "bored now" Evil Willow.

The title, of course, is a rather nice pun; the penultimate episode consists almost entirely of Buffy, Anya and Xander trying desperately to stop Willow from killing Jonathan and Andrew before the cliffhanger and Giles’ surprise return. But along the way we have so many little moments. Yes, there’s the contractual Spike scene where he survives the first of his trials, yawn, but more interestingly there is also the clear sense that, while Andrew remains immature and unrepentant, Jonathan has come to terms with his responsibility for the terrible things that hVe happened and his need to atone. Willow mills that nasty magic/drug dealer after he tries to sexually assault her and, andway, its implied that he’s a paedo. Although that’s a nice Circle Jerks t-shirt on one of his junkie customers.

What happens next isn’t nice, though, as Willow says horrible things to Dawn. When all this is over that will cause her paroxysms of guilt. Buffy’s big talk with Willow fails, and a still understandably bitter Anya has another row with a notably useless-feeling Xander.

It’s all about this last chance to have these little character moments, really, and it works well. Next episode I’m sure we will have plenty of plot...

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Punisher (2004)

“Frank Castle is dead. Call me... the Punisher.”

Come back, Dolph Lundgren; all is forgiven.

The previous, straight-to-video outing for the Punisher may have been a bit silly, but it had charm and unwitting silliness beneath its po-faced veneer. This film isn’t and while, to those who are themselves po-faced, it may appear to be the better action film, it’s far more forgettable.

Oh, the set pieces are good; the big fight with the Russian, the opera scene, Howard Saint’s “Revenge” against his best friend and his wife; his fiery comeuppance. There’s lots of spectacular violence here. Trouble is, the film has three glaring faults.

The first is the casting. It’s harsh to say, but while Thomas Jane certainly has the acting chops he simply doesn’t have the charisma to be a leading man. Compare him to John Travolta, who does nothing but chew scenery all the way through but does so with real charisma- and in a role that sort of works when played as a cartoon baddie. There’s a charisma vacuum in the heart of the film.

Then there’s the fact that this is yet another bloody origin film, with far too much time spent on the deaths of Castle’s family including an interminable car chase. And that leads us to the third and most serious fault; by making this a film about Castle avenging his family, we lose everything about the Punisher as a character and his troubled morality as a bloodthirsty vigilante. The element of personal revenge takes this away and only at the end does he announce his “mission”. The film comes across as a generic revenge-themed action film and, when you play on this territory, there are better films around. A much more interesting film would have skipped the origin and addressed the issues around law and order vs. crude vigilantism that go right back to the Oresteia; this film fails to address that obvious theme at all.

A fairly decent action film, then. But a wasted opportunity.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Angel: A New World

"Tell me we don't live in a soap opera..."

Last episode ended with a massive twist, and this one certainly begins energetically, with lots of weird slow motion and bad CGI wooden crossbow quarrels. But we soon settle down into a surprisingly contemplative episode about LA, betrayal, fathers and sons.

Wesley gets a visit from Lilah, offering him the inevitable job and handing him a gift that twists the knife; an early edition of Dante's Inferno with it's ninth circle of Hell being reserved for those who betray. He turns her down this time but, of course, these scenes would not be there if that were the end of it.

Cordy and Groo's relationship continues to be awkward, with Groo being jealous of Angel and Cordy continuing to have no deep feelings for him.But the episode is mostly about Connor's discovery of LA through its lowest underbelly, seeming to have exchanged one hell for another. The one friendly person this innocent boy finds soon dies of an overdose in squalid surroundings, and violence is everywhere. Angel finds his suspicious son and slowly seems to win him round- has he? We don't know by the end of the episode, but it doesn't look promising that Connor is with a prosthetically aged Holtz, one presumably mighty enough to zap both Cordy and Groo.

An interesting change of pace which makes one wonder: where are the last two episodes going? Good stuff as ever.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Villains

"If I were you I'd worry about the witch..."

At last, in the twentieth episode, we get the real season Big Bad. She’s immensely powerful, she’s truly terrifying, and she’s Willow.

After last episode’s emotional power- the “previously on” reminds us not only of Tara’s devastating death but Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy- this episode is one of numbed shock.

Of course, no one initially knows about Tara as a scarily cold and vengeful Willow turns to the dark arts and goes single-mindey after Warren, saving Buffy’s life almost as an afterthought and using both her and Xander as pawns.

We see Willow, a character we know and love, utterly changed to become cold, ruthless, single-minded; she’s been this powerful all the time but that’s been ok because she’s lovely. Now she terrifies us, and it’s the emotional coldness that is the most chilling. But the slow torture and killing of Warren is what really does it- her “Bored now” obviously evokes the evil (and sexy...) Willow from the other reality, but worse; she actually flays Warren alive before burning him to death. It couldn’t have happened to a worse person but, as Buffy sort of explains to Dawn and Xander, Revenge is not justice. And her parting words are “One down”. What will happen to Jonathan and Andrew...?

Oh, and Spike gets a brief contractual scene where he has to undergo some trials to remove his chip or something. But right now I and most viewers side with Xander in being quite badly disposed to this attempted rapist.

Obviously a powerful and superb episode, notably with very little humour, unusually for Buffy. Outstanding.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Grudge (2002)

"They're coming for me!"

This isn't the Hollywood remake with Sarah Michelle Gellar- it's the Japanese original, the one Sam Raimi raved about. So is it any good? Well, yes, but it's a good film, not a great one, where some fantastic horror set pieces and very good direction save what is an over-convoluted narrative with too many characters.

Films in multiple acts based on different characters can work, and work well; see the entire career of Quentin Tarantino, the master of making a non-linear narrative comprehensible to the average person. But a narrative horror film, based on the ramping up of tension and ever-increasing shocks, in which the supernatural horror is held back but shown in terrifying glimpses? Here, where such a narrative is technically done very well indeed, the chosen narrative style serves to destroy the overall effect of what are truly superb individual horror set pieces.

That doesn't take away from the effectiveness of those set pieces, though, and it's the direction that truly makes this film shine. A very modern horror, eschewing all sense of the Gothic for modern white interiors and brutalist exteriors has a very different and very effective look. Worth a go but perhaps, in spite of some technical excellence, not quite as good as its reputation.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Paddington (2014)

“Um, you're not using those ear brushes to clean your mouth are you, Mr Brown?"

Ok, this isn't my usual type of film, but I happened to watch this on the telly with my wife and daughter. Any you know what? It's bloody brilliant, far better than, frankly, it needed to be, genuinely clever and witty, Little Miss Llamastrangler was glued to the telly, and I can't say enough nice things about it.

I have only vague memories of the books and 1970s BBC series, so I can't compare the film to Paddington's previous outings in other media. But this is a perfectly plotted film where all the characters, even the stuffy Mr Brown, are ether fundamentally likeable or splendidly comical grotesques or both, unless they happen to be the delightfully dastardly Miss Clyde. The film knowingly plays up all the London visual cliches for an international audience and, most heartwarming for these days of Brexit, tabloid stupidity and a worrying insularity, is fundamentally a positive story about an immigrant, an asylum seeker, who may look different from everybody else but is just as easy to love.

All this, and a cockney Peter Capaldi. The film is quirky, uplifting, gripping and frequently laugh out loud funny. It's a film that has to be seen, and not jut for those of us who can use our young children as an excuse. Brilliant stuff.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Angel: The Price

" Hi, Dad..."

Quite a very late season twist at the end of the episode here, but I suppose Angel has form for this sort of thing.

Before we get to the last few game-changing seconds, though, the episode concerns some horrible, moisture-devouring creepy-crawlies from another dimension that are the "price" (and yes, I'm sure the episode title also references Wesley) for the black magic used last episode by a desperate Angel. Most of the episode concerns an ever-deepening body horror threat posed by said beasties. But this is also a good excuse for some character stuff. So Fred lacks confidence in "hitting the books" and acknowledges that she lacks Wesley's skills. Cordy lacks any deep feelings for Groo, seeing him as a faithful "puppy" and faithful friend with benefits, caring far more about Angel. And Wesley is bitter, very bitter, and only agrees to Gunn's request to help because it happens to be Fred who is infected.

We also get some highly entertaining rivalry from Lilah and Gavin, and a subtle admission from Lorne that his nightclub days are over and he's on the team. And we also get a surprising resolution as Cordy's unexplained demon powers save the day.

It's a good episode. But what lingers in the mind s that last few seconds, with what looks like a terrifying stop motion monster, immediately followed through the portal by a young man who utters the above quote. That's quite the upending of the status quo...

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Supergirl (1984)

"I'm considering nothing less than world domination!"

I know that this film, well, isn't exactly good, but, I mean, come on- this is a delightfully quirky bit of '80s silliness which combines the style of the Superman films, generic '80s action films tropes, some delightful silliness and a completely random jolly hockey sticks, Mallory Towers side. It's gloriously bonkers. This is a film which has Peter Cook utter the line "Holy Cow!"- what's not to love?

Then again, so is the character, and I can't help reflecting that the film was made, in glorious Pinewood Studios, the very year before DC killed Supergirl off in Crisis of Infinite Earth, sentencing her to death for the crime of having an overly convoluted backstory. And, well, we see that here- Argo City is a bit of Krypton that survived the planet's destruction for vaguely unconvincing reasons, and all this is because of the new character of Zaltar- played with an acting ability far above the level that the character deserves by the great Peter O'Toole, who accidentally destroys the city (except, naturally, Kara) with the film's main MacGuffin only to die a predictable death and end up as Kara's very own Obi-Wan style British morale-boosting ghost. It was clearly in the zeitgeist.

Helen Slater is more than good enough as the goody two-shoes character she's playing, but is upstaged in the billing by the splendid Faye Dunaway, who is having much more fun chewing the scenery with delightful gusto with wicked witch and baddie Selena. Yes, there's a certain creepiness in the love narrative between the very adult Ethan and the very innocent schoolgirl Kara, which is definitely eeeurgh, but the film is far more fun than its reputation suggests,

Cult of Chucky (2017)

“You thought I was the only one?”

 I think it's well-established by now that this is possibly the most consistently excellent long-running horror movie franchise, given the high average quality of the seven films. And this film, by the same team as the superb and splendidly back-to-basics Curse of Chucky, is very good indeed, if perhaps slightly eclipsed by its predecessor. What a shame that both films were straight to DVD.

The film, unlike most modern Hollywood horror, looks superb, with the grainy picture quality avoiding the inappropriate glossiness that we so often see these days. The setting, too- a mental institution- is milked for maximum levels of disturbing horror. Mixed to the inherent and very deep darkness of the Catch-22 nature of having to prove your sanity in a world of straitjackets, sedation, electric shock treatment and absolute lack of freedom is the fact that the perverted Dr Foley hypnotises and rapes his horribly vulnerable victims. Even Chucky is not sure which of the two is the more evil, and that's saying something.

The conceit of the film is, of course, that the incanted spell can bring to life any Good Guy doll as Chucky, and on top of this he can now possess people, leading to a gloriously developing and fun slasher which ends up with three Chuckies, a possessed Nica, Andy in considerable trouble and a deliciously warped, silly, sequel-hunting final scene. This franchise is on fire, and is worth seeing for the skylight scene alone.

I have to single out Fiona Dourif for another outstanding performance, but the film as a whole is superb and deserves to be seen by far more people than, sadly, it will be.