strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen's Lost Treasures )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who) )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

Afterwards, I joined [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein )

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
This was the first of Amicus' famous portmanteau horror films, and is also one of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's many joint credits. I've seen it before, but a long time ago now, and it was on the Horror Channel on Friday, so I settled down with a nice glass of whisky.

There are five individual story segments, one for each of five travellers in a railway carriage who successively have gruesome fortunes read for them from Dr. Terror (Peter Cushing)'s tarot pack - or his House of Horrors, as he calls it. Of the five, I had of course vividly remembered Christopher Lee's segment, in which he plays a bombastic and irascible art critic who ends up being pursued by a disembodied hand. It's a decent story, a great role for Lee, and has the bonus of also featuring Michael Gough as a mischievous artist who shows up Lee's character and pays a terrible price for it. I had also remembered fragments of two of the others - one about triffid-like sentient plants and one about voodoo music. But I must confess I had forgotten the first and last (about a werewolf and a vampire respectively) so completely that if I'd seen then in isolation and without the linking narrative in the railway carriage, I would have sworn blind that I'd never seen them before.

I suspect it's probably because they just aren't very good stories. None of them are exactly stellar, to be honest, even Lee's. Their arcs are predictable and their characters do things which don't really make sense as soon as you start thinking about it. But the film as a whole is charming nonetheless. Part of the reason why has to be its utterly unlikely cast, which includes rare film appearances for Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch, as well as a young Donald Sutherland (who had already worked with Lee a year earlier in Il castello dei morti vivi 1964). Not an ensemble you'd readily imagine for a mid-1960s horror film )if, of course, it weren't for the fact that it actually happened), and yet somehow it works. Well, that is, I could do without Roy Castle's goofing around, but even he encapsulates something of the '60s vibe which makes these films so endearing, while I thought Alan Freeman was genuinely good. Meanwhile, the director Freddie Francis (dear to me especially from his work on Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) creates plenty of atmosphere with claustrophobic close-ups and deliberately disorientating action sequences, and Peter Cushing infuses the central narrative with a genuine air of fear and menace - like, of course, the true professional he always was.

The story about the voodoo music probably deserves a bit more comment, too, even if (like the others) it was never going to set the world alight as an example of the story-teller's craft. It involves Roy Castle's character, a jazz musician whose agent gets him a gig in the West Indies, and who hides in the bushes while he is there writing down the tune used in a local voodoo ceremony. Back home in London, he works it into a new jazz composition, but when his band performs it, a terrible wind blows up out of nowhere, and he flees in panic through the streets, only to find himself confronted alone in his apartment by a vengeful voodoo god. At first sight, it looks a bit like a contribution to the kind of debates people have nowadays about cultural appropriation, since several West Indian characters warn Castle's character not to steal the music for himself, or voice dialogue about how what has done is an affront to their god. But it would be quite surprising to find a British film from the mid-'60s genuinely making such a post-colonial case - and especially one which also features Castle putting on a 'comedy' West Indian accent when he first finds out where he is going. In the end, I think the way it is all coded is more like 'white people - don't get mixed up in all that nasty black stuff!', rather than 'white people - show some respect for black culture'. Still, though, it at least shows some awareness of and anxiety about the origins of jazz music, perhaps capturing a small step on the way towards thinking about these things a little more sensitively.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it. )
strange_complex: (Jessica rebel)
Right, I'm ready to write about Doctor Who now. So, basically I liked this episode. I liked all these things ) Fundamentally, I feel we've now had four strong episodes in a row - which hasn't happened for a long time.

But!

But.

There is a trope in SF and horror stories which has annoyed me for a long time, which involves a woman being told to stay somewhere safe by the male characters, her refusing to follow their advice and going off on her own into danger anyway, and then her getting into danger and / or compromising the success of whatever mission they are all involved in as a result. I've complained about it multiple times in reviews of such stories, for example here in relation to Isobel in the Second Doctor story, The Invasion (1968) or here in relation to Jessica Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and it's now occurred to me to check whether or not it has an entry in TV Tropes. Sure enough, it seems to be a sub-type of Stay In The Kitchen, which in its simplest sense just involves men telling women to stay in the (metaphorical) kitchen, but here is extended to 'prove' that such advice should be heeded in the first place by acting out the negative consequences of women ignoring such advice.

The TV Tropes article claims that "Nowadays, when this trope is invoked, this character [i.e. the man telling the woman to Stay In The Kitchen] is unlikely to be treated sympathetically for his opinion." But there seems to be no 'nowadays' about it in Doctor Who. What we saw in this episode was exactly in line with the examples I've mentioned above )

Meanwhile, there were two other crappy discriminatory tropes in play here, despite the obvious current efforts of the production team to acknowledge and represent diversity through their casting ) What's going on, Doctor Who? And when can it stop?

So I feel like this is hardly a 'review' of the story at all, and just a massive rant about diversity and -isms in TV shows instead. Let me go back to the beginning - the story, as a story, was good. I liked it - I really did. Its narrative arc, its characterisation and its ideas were all good. But having tropish fails at work in the same story throws me off what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable experience, and ends up making all the actually-good drama fade away into the background. I'd really like to not have to keep being distracted from a show and character I otherwise love by all this.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I'm woefully behind with both film and book blogging, and it's really weighing on me and stopping me from getting on with other things I want to do. So I'm determined today to get caught up, at least on the films. I'm sure at one point I could have said more on all which follow below, but since we are literally going back to July for these ones, I have inevitably forgotten much of my initial reaction - which for catch-up purposes is probably a good thing. The watch-words here are key points and light touch - not exhaustive detail.


17. Qu'est-ce qu'on a fait au Bon Dieu? (2014), dir. Philippe de Chauveron

I saw this on DVD with my sister and Nicolas while I was in the Midlands for Christophe's first birthday. It's a French comedy about families, religion and racism - quite a cocktail of topics to take on, but it does work really well.

The basic set-up is that a traditional wealthy Catholic family in possession of a moderately-sized château has four daughters, three of whom have already married husbands of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds - specifically, a Muslim, a Jew and a Chinese man. The parents have stoically accepted their choices so far, but have pinned their hopes on their fourth and final daughter choosing a Catholic husband. Great news! She does. The only problem is that he's a black immigrant from the Ivory Coast. Inevitably, the rest of the film from the moment when they find this out follows their journey (and that of the husband-to-be's family too) from initial shock and horror, through a fragile attempt to behave reasonably about it, a dramatic blow-up and finally discovering that they all had more in common than they had ever realised and becoming bosom buddies.

While checking that I had remembered the title of the film correctly, I came across this article in the Telegraph, claiming that it didn't get a release here as distributors judged it was too racist for British viewers. But in my view this entirely misses the point of the film. All of the racism expressed in it is the butt of a joke, and very explicitly coded as a bad and problematic thing which needs to be dealt with so that everyone can be happier - which is exactly what happens at the end of the film. In fact, it seems to me that the judgement made by the distributors here is a sad reflection of a fear culture which we've managed to create around potentially-controversial material. Rather than attempt to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful portrayals of racism, cautious distributors just Won't Go There at all - which of course only leads to silence and erasure and lots of stories which act like racism doesn't exist. It does, and I think it's better to acknowledge that up-front than pretend otherwise. So well done France for that.

There is more of a case for saying that a film which shows, as this one does, that racism can easily be overcome by just getting drunk together and bonding trivialises the structural and pervasive nature of actual racism. But this is a comedy. Its treatment of racism is pretty far-reaching in spite of that, but the genre does ultimately depend on light-hearted simplicity. Besides, any film with a happy ending gives a rather false impression of how easily life's many complexities and problems can be solved. So I'm happy with this one as an enjoyable watch and a very human story, and am only sorry it won't be widely seen outside of France.


18. Scream Blacula, Scream! (1973), dir. Bob Kelljan

Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan in July, this is a sequel to Blacula, which was rushed out the following year to capitalise on its success after it proved so popular. It's very much what you would expect given those circumstances - definitely enjoyable in many of the same ways as the first one, but also feelings like a re-tread of the same ground with a lower budget and generally more limited horizons.

William Marshall returns as Mamuwalde, having been resurrected in a voodoo ritual, but while he puts in a strong performance, there's a sense that his characterisation hasn't entirely been thought through at script level. On the one hand, he wants to be freed of his vampire curse and asks a voodoo practitioner to conduct a ritual which will exorcise him - but on the other, he doesn't actually seem to show any real conflict or anguish about going round biting people the rest of the time. Elsewhere, we have some good characters, including plenty of strong and self-assured women, some excellent funky party scenes and some truly enormous shirt-collars. But the plot never achieves very much sense of momentum, and overall, it feels like a classic case of attempting to replicate a successful movie without quite understanding what it was that made the first one so good.

There's still a bit of conscious social commentary in this one - particularly when Mamuwalde encounters a black prostitute, and upbraids the also-black pimps who are controlling her for making a slave of their sister in that way. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan also very rightly noted a careful coding in the characters' hair-styles - that the good guys (and gals) all had more 'natural' Afros, and could thus be read as at ease with their Afro-Caribbean heritage, whereas the power-hungry or selfish characters (again both male and female) generally had straightened hair or weaves, signalling a greater adherence to western ideals of beauty. So, like the first film, there is plenty in this too which boils down to black producers, writers, directors and actors articulating their own realities of being black in 1970s America, and that makes for interesting viewing. But it was all just embedded in a stronger drama the first time around.


19. The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

Still in July here - I watched this one late in that month with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. Obviously it is a massive classic, and with extremely good reason. I hadn't seen it before, but am glad now to understand at last the many iconic images and quotable lines from it which I have come across before without ever quite 'getting' them. It's well-plotted, beautifully shot, fantastically well-acted, and captures the fragile world of a Europe just starting to rebuild after the war very powerfully. And it is so very Grahame Greene, especially I think in the essentially isolated nature of the characters. Of course Anna Schmidt and Holly Martins don't get together at the end, because there are unsurmountable barriers between them and Greene has spend the whole film showing us that. No unthinking happy endings here.

I particularly appreciated the huge amounts of effort which had obviously been poured into getting the fine details of every scene just right in order to tell the story being conveyed - like the autumn leaves slowly falling in the last scene, which certainly weren't falling from the trees we can see as they are already bare, and must therefore have been dropped by an unseen stage-crew just above the camera's field of vision. Or the fact that Martins and Lime agree to meet in a cafe called the Marc Aurel, which acknowledges that Marcus Aurelius died in Vienna (then the frontier fortress of Vindobona), and I think actively adds to the story by evoking the wars which dogged Europe during his reign too, as well as perhaps a sense of tragedy around the passing of the last of the Five Good Emperors and the accession of Commodus.

It was nice, too, to see it relatively soon after my own trip to Vienna last September, especially since on the final day of that trip I walked up to the Danube from where we were staying, and as it happened my route took me right past the enormous ferris wheel, properly known as the Wiener Riesenrad in which Holly Martins and Harry Lime first confront one another. I had no idea what it was as I walked past it that day , and certainly no idea that it dates right back to 1897. But I do remember feeling (on what was anyway a rather overcast day with few people around) that the ferris wheel itself and the amusement park it stands in had an air of bleak desolation about them which has now transferred very nicely into my experience of this film.


Right - that's three done out of six which needed it. I'm having a break for dinner now, and hopefully will get the remaining three done this evening.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Strange complex)
Well, I think we can safely say that Moffat's decision to go heavy on the two-parters this season was a good one. Oh, mid-story cliff-hangers, how we have missed you! Plus the obvious advantages of being able to develop both characters and complex mysteries over a more generous span of time. Not all two-parters are perfect, of course. Mid-season ones in particular have tended to be a noticeable New Who weakness, in fact. But perhaps that was only ever because they were in the middle of the season, rather than because they happened to be two-parters, all along?

I'm also starting to think I like the pitch of the Doctor's character a little bit better this season. He seems less arrogant / grouchy for the sake of it, more at ease with himself and more natural in his exuberance when he shows it. Maybe it is partly to do with how his relationship with Clara has developed? Now that she is stronger too, and we've got past the whole lying-to-each-other theme from last season, he too seems to have become more enjoyable to have around the screen. The business with the cue-cards, with the Doctor needing to make a thing about even a whole dimension (inside the TARDIS) only having room for one him, and Clara being all 'yeah, whatever' in response, was all just lovely for being obviously a performance on both sides, rather than fragile and tense for being a little to close to the truth as it tended to be last season.

It helps, too that I absolutely love cabin-fever stories like this one - and even better when they acknowledge what they are, as this one did when Cass told the Doctor he could "stay and do the whole cabin-in-the-woods thing" if he wanted. In fact, I think this story was actively nodding at some of Doctor Who's very own cabin-fever stories of the past )

Other strong moments which I haven't had occasion to mention yet include spoilers )

Diversity issues also involve spoilers )

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! A new season of Doctor Who, then! I missed the first episode because I was in Bournemouth for Lib Dem Conference, and although I did catch up with it last Saturday (effectively watching both as a two-parter that evening), I haven't had time to write about them until now because I wanted to get conference written up first, and have then had a busy week.

I really liked these two episodes, though. I went into them with fairly low expectations, after a week of reading various comments around the internet to the effect that The Magician's Apprentice was not that great. So it may be that the low expectations in themselves helped me enjoy both episodes more than I might have done otherwise. But certainly, watched together, they seemed pretty strong to me.

The basic set-up and central drama, revisiting the Genesis of the Daleks dilemma by giving the Doctor the power of life and death over a being whom he knows will kill billions but right now is powerless and innocent, is sound enough and professionally handled. OK, you could argue it's a lazy re-hash of Doctor Who's back catalogue, but I liked the structuring principle which meant that we kept getting new takes on how the Doctor had actually responded to that dilemma right up until the end of the two-parter, even while the consequences (and causes) of his actions played out in another time-line.

The real star of this story for me, though, was Missy. Looking back at my reviews for the last two stories of last season, I didn't have terribly much to say about her beyond the gender-switch thing, but this story really let her blossom into a fully-developed character, so that she has officially become loads of fun. In particular, she is far more interesting here than she ever was in the last series for the ambiguity around whether she is temporarily collaborating with the Doctor and Clara purely out of expedience, or out of some kind of respect for her history with the Doctor. This really broadened her out from a fairly one-dimensional villain into a fully-fledged incarnation of the Master, whose relationship with the Doctor always was shot through with the ongoing reverberations of their childhood friendship / rivalry. As others have said, Michelle Gomez's performance very much rose to meet the new opportunities, replete with echoes of Masters past along the way. So I am now really looking forward to seeing more of her (and her gorgeous purple Victorian outfit!) in the future, and fervently hope that she will displace River Bloody Song as Doctor Who's resident mysterious recurring female character. I'm also looking forward to meeting her daughter (or son by this time, of course) - though in grand Whovian tradition, it could literally be decades before we do.

Missy wouldn't have worked anything like as well as she did, though, without Clara to play up against - and torment a bit. I thought Clara's side of the dynamic worked particularly well during their first encounter, when she was able to pin Missy down to business and stop her from randomly killing people because she could by insisting that Missy 'make [her] believe' that there really was something serious going on relating to the Doctor. That is the same self-assured, experienced Clara that she had grown into by the end of last season, and whom I like very much.

Clara's moments trapped within the Dalek shell, unable to communicate her human emotions and even frighteningly unable to convey her identity to the Doctor were excellent too. They were stronger for recalling the life of Oswin Oswald her fellow-inmates in Asylum of the Daleks, but would have been good anyway for giving us a new level of insight into the horror of what Daleks are - not to mention an explanation for why they shout 'exterminate' all the time! Fine achievements after over fifty years of them.

Then there were the scenes between the Doctor and Davros - also good, and for much the same reasons of ambiguity as those involving Missy. Probably Davros is just Evil, and tricked the Doctor into coming to Skaro so that he could harness his regeneration energy. And probably the Doctor, for all his compassion, knew full well that he could turn Davros' plans against him by activating the gloopy dead sewer-Daleks, so was never really in Davros' emotional grasp. But maybe, just maybe, on some level they do actually also like and respect one another. Certainly, it was compelling to see these two ancient enemies recognising each other for the two sides of the same coin they have always been, even if it was only a temporary and somewhat illusory truce.

In general, then, excellent character-led drama, with just enough new twists on the familiar staples of the format to make the story seem new. On the other hand, though, I could really have done without yet another fake companion death, and particularly one used so overtly as a fridging device to push the Doctor into doing (plot-necessary) crazy things in the Dalek city. And while I appreciate the attempt at representing racial diversity by putting black faces in the crowd in AD 1138, still in this story a black character (young Davros' companion in the hand-mine field) was the first person to die on screen yet again. Doesn't anybody explicitly double-check scripts for this, given how a) common and b) fucking racist it is?

Finally, two things in this episode reminded me strongly of The Fires of Pompeii - 1) the hand-mines with eyes in the palms of their hands, much like the Soothsayers of the Sibylline Sisterhood, and 2) the Doctor and Clara standing on a hill-side, watching the destruction of the Dalek city. This is what I mean on the latter point - the composition of the shots is never quite the same, but the general feeling is very, very similar:

Pompeii watching destruction.jpg

Dalek city destruction.jpg

So Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and the Doctor in The Witch's Familiar have now stood in similar settings, watching cities being destroyed, while wearing the same face. And since the Doctor said himself at the beginning of last season that he must have been trying to tell himself something by choosing it, I feel like we should pay attention to that.

A few smaller, random thoughts to finish us off:
  • Missy's static planes reminded me really strongly of the various examples of planes caught mid-flight by Google mapping satellites.
  • Davros being referred to as a Dark Lord and being served by an intelligent snake all seemed very Harry Potter.
  • But there was also something very Darth Vader-ish about Davros having once been a round-faced little boy on a desert planet, becoming dependent on a life-support system later in his life, and wanting to see the Doctor with his own eyes in his final moments.
  • Davros' supposedly-dying speech rang some strong Augustan bells for me. Compare and contrast: "Did I do right? Tell me, was I right? I need to know before the end - was I a good man?" and "Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?" It is classic Great Man / Strong Leader stuff - the iconic historical agent with power over millions revealing his inner humanity just before the end.
  • There was a strong set-up for a scene in which the Doctor would have to pull the Dalek wires out of Clara's head, causing her significant pain in the cause of restoring her humanity, but in the end we didn't get it, and skipped straight to her being fine and running along a corridor again. Looks like shoddy editing, I would guess because the story as initially planned turned out to over-run.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Vampira)
I've known that this exists, and is a 'blaxploitation' film, for a very long time (not least because it is featured in my Horror Bible), but had never tried to track it down until very recently. Without actually having researched what blaxploitation entails, I had assumed it would be all white-perspective exoticising stereotypes about black Americans - especially stuff to do with funk, afros, tight spandex pants, etc. As it turns out, while there are a few scenes set in a disco bar, and that bar has its fair share of customers with afros and tight clothing, actually both this film and blaxploitation as a genre are very different from what I had expected. The genre term 'blaxploitation' as a whole is less about exploiting stereotypes for economic gain (as I'd assumed), and more about exploiting the economic spending power of black audiences by appealing directly to their interests - including, of course, their interest in being portrayed as three-dimensional human beings with agency of their own on screen. In the context of this particular film, that translates into a black director, a cast full of meaningful, positively-drawn black characters, and a script which engages directly with race issues in its plot and dialogue. As such, it's distinctly better in its handling of race issues than most mainstream screen productions manage to be today, including those produced by companies like the BBC which are honestly trying to be diverse and inclusive (see e.g. the Black Dude Dies First trope being rife in Doctor Who).

This particular story kicks off in 1780, when an African prince named Mamuwalde goes to ask the help of a powerful white European aristocrat in suppressing the slave trade and freeing his people. Unfortunately, the particular European aristocrat he picks is Dracula, who is pretty keen on the slave trade, and furthermore conceives a liking for Mamuwalde's (also black African) wife and starts saying incredibly racist / sexist things when Mamuwalde objects about how he should be flattered that a white man thinks his wife attractive. To punish Mamuwalde for his insubordination and his wife for rejecting his advances, Dracula then turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, locks him in a coffin so that he will be tormented by blood-lust forever but unable to get out to slake it, and locks his wife up in the same room so that she will die hearing his cries of thirst from within the coffin. So we have white European treatment of black Africans literally presented as vampirism, and our sympathies are entirely directed towards the black victims.

Fast forward (almost) two centuries, and the box containing Mamuwalde is transported to 1970s Los Angeles, with predictable results. Here, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was absolutely right to point out that Mamuwalde adapts rather too easily to his vampire nature. The whole point at the beginning was that vampirism was meted out to him as a cruel punishment, but that isn't really followed through in the main story. It's not that he becomes completely evil - he remains a sympathetic character, still basically searching for his long-lost wife. But there could have been a lot more pathos and self-loathing about his actual vampirism in the portrayal - as, for example, was done so well in Dracula's Daughter. After all, he is basically condemned to a life where it's now impossible for him not to enslave people himself - and in the light of the opening sequence he should have a bit more emotional conflict about that.

The long-lost wife story also rather stuck in my craw. Inevitably, he very quickly comes across a 20th-century woman who looks exactly like his 18th-century wife, and tells her all the usual sort of stuff about how she is his long-lost wife's reincarnation, they are destined to be together, etc. This is of course a well-worn trope, and I think I have reached the end of my tether with it. It is almost always the female character who is reincarnated, purely so that an immortal male character can still have their designated love interest, so that it reeks of male privilege and women existing only as objects for male attraction. It also completely robs the female character of all agency, as any independent choices which she might have made crumble in the face of her Manifest Destiny. And so it plays out here - and in the process serves up yet another case of characters allegedly falling in love on screen without us as the audience being given any very compelling evidence for why they might have done so, exactly as happens in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) in the context of the same trope.

In spite of those niggles, though, the film as a whole is ace. Partly that's just because I'm always eager for new takes on vampirism, and partly because I'm a sucker for contemporary-set '70s films full of awesome flares and enormous collars. But on a more universal level, William Marshall in the title role is genuinely compelling, with lots of power and gravitas to his performance, and he is surrounded by loads of really well-developed secondary characters too. Interestingly, these included a gay male couple, and several independently-minded female characters with jobs of their own who were not defined in relation to any man - e.g. a photographer and a taxi cab driver. It would be an exaggeration to claim these characters as paradigms for equality - the gay male couple in particular live up to camp stereotypes in that they are interior designers; their penchant for the aesthetic is to 'blame' for Mamuwalde's resurrection because they buy up his coffin and bring it to LA; and naturally they are punished for this by becoming his first victims. Similarly, both the photographer and the taxi cab driver meet sticky ends. But all four of them are presented as having real agency and meaningful lives of their own in a way that pretty rarely applies to the same sorts of characters in other films of this era - so I think there may be a case for saying that in casting aside mainstream stereotypical treatments of black characters, blaxploitation films also to some extent opened the door to better portrayals of other under-privileged groups at the same time.

In short, I'm glad I watched this, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I have already devoured the sequel as well. Review of that to follow.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Clone Army)
This is a good, solid Hammer production, shot when they were more or less at the height of their commercial success, and about a year before they moved out of Bray Studios. I'd vaguely seen bits of it before (mainly on the Horror Channel, I think), but decided it was worth watching properly - and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was kind enough to lend me the disc.

It has everything you would expect from Hammer in this period1 - ambitious sets, a coherent script, a reliable cast, some heaving bosoms and a few soft shocks. I also remember thinking while watching it that the editing was rather good, with some nice cuts from Scene A featuring one set of characters, to Scene B featuring another set doing something which either cast new light on the actions in Scene A or was thematically linked to it in some way. But that was a couple of weeks ago, I didn't write down any specific examples and I have of course forgotten them now. So we'll have to take that on faith.

Most of the zombie stories I have encountered in my time (some of which are gathered under my 'zombies' tag) have post-dated Night of the Living Dead (1968), and thus presented their zombies as brain-hungry corpses, reanimated by some kind of natural or scientific disaster which lies beyond human control. But this one belongs to an earlier phase in the evolution of zombie mythology, which engages directly with Haitian voodoo tradition. The zombies of this film are reanimated deliberately by a local squire, using voodoo rituals which he learnt during a spell in Haiti, so that he will have mindless slaves to work in his tin-mines.

This set-up actually makes zombies functionally very similar to vampires, and certainly this is how Hammer treats them here. The squire himself is a rather arrogant aristocrat who makes romantic advances towards the heroine, Sylvia, but turns out to have a dangerous and violent dark side. In other words, he is basically Dracula. Even more strikingly, he 'attacks' his victims by engineering situations in which they will cut themselves (e.g. on a piece of broken glass), so that he can steal their blood and use it later on to enslave them via his voodoo rituals. Once this has happened, they become pallid and sick-looking, begin to respond hypnotically to his will, and soon die, only to emerge from their graves again as full-blown, grey-skinned slaves to the squire's command.

Meanwhile, an eminent doctor is summoned to the village where all this is happening by the young male lead, investigates the phenomenon by opening coffins (only to find them empty, of course), and eventually manages to defeat the squire by setting his voodoo dolls on fire, which in turn causes the zombies they control to do the same. The doctor isn't quite the same as the original Van Helsing from the Dracula films, because he doesn't know about zombieism before the film begins, and thus has to find out about it from a book. But he is very definitely a close equivalent to the Van Helsing-type figures of Hammer's later Dracula / vampire films.

So, yes, a tried-and-tested formula is being applied here (Hammer had three Dracula films plus Kiss of the Vampire under their belt by the time they made this, whereas this was their first and only foray into zombieism). In fact, the Cornish setting also functions much like Transylvania - remote, rural and replete with superstitious locals. But at the same time, its tin-mining industrial history also offers the scope for approaching zombieism as an allegory for the aristocratic exploitation of the poor - something which vampirism can also do of course, but which wasn't particularly deeply woven into any of Hammer's Dracula films until The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he appears as a property magnate.

But while the squire's industrial slavery was clearly handled critically, no such critique is apparent in the film's treatment of race relations. This, of course, comes up due to the voodoo themes of the story, but all of the black actors who were cast as a result are either scary Others who bang drums and wear grass skirts, or a servant of the squire's who literally calls him 'masser' and tries to impede the good doctor in his quest to Defeat Evil. I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than having no ethnic minority characters at all, which is what most Hammer films do - probably worse on balance. But while I think it's important for 21st-century viewers to call this stuff, I also think it's pointless and blinkered to dismiss films from the 1960s for reflecting the social attitudes of the age. That, in fact, is part of their value.

Overall, then, a cracking little number which is a good example of Hammer's capabilities and very nearly an entry in their vampire canon, even while actually being an interesting mile-post in the history of zombie films.


1. Close chronological siblings include Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), The Witches (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is one of my little stock of Christopher-Lee-films-taped-off-the-telly, which I watched on Sunday night as a treat after a weekend spent delivering leaflets. It is in fact also one of the 22 films in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing, although Cushing is criminally under-used, appearing for all of about three minutes of screen time, and never on screen at the same time at Christopher Lee. It seems strange in retrospect, now that they are so widely recognised as an iconic pairing, that anyone producing a film after about 1965 could cast the two of them and not put them in lots of scenes where they could bounce off each other to their hearts' content, but this isn't the only film which does this - Scream and Scream Again (1969) is just the same, for example. I guess the truth is that it takes a while for any creative formula to move through being viewed as old hat and acquire iconic status, and by the time that really happened for the formula of Cushing + Lee, Cushing was nearing the end of his working career. As far as I can see, the only films which really self-consciously treat them as an iconic pairing (rather than simply the box-office draws of the moment) are One More Time (1970), Horror Express (1973) and House of the Long Shadows (1983). Then again, though, maybe too much knowing, self-referential usage of them would have become tiresome in itself, casting a pallor over their earlier and more serious encounters which merely failing to make good use of them doesn't do.

Anyway, while we don't get much of Peter Cushing in this film, we certainly get lots of Christopher Lee, who plays an evil Caliph with magical powers ruling over a fantastical Arabian kingdom. The main plot involves a dashing young prince from Baghdad who hopes to marry the Caliph's step-daughter, but is sent to prove himself worthy first by bringing back a Magic MacGuffin known as the Rose of Elil. This is supposed to be a Hopeless Quest At Which Countless Others Have Failed, but TBH I have seen a lot of fantasy films, and the barriers between prince and rose in this film are no great shakes. In fact, I'm pretty sure Dorothy works her way through worse in order to bring the Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West's broom. In any case, obviously the prince succeeds, with help from two sidekicks - one a simple boy with a magical gem and a cute monkey on a lead, and the other one of the Caliph's more incompetent guards who is sent to undermine the mission, but of course ends up helping in spite of himself. And although the Caliph was planning to use the Rose to make himself invincibly powerful while reneging on his promise to the prince, they naturally manage to defeat him, while freeing the city and the people into the bargain. In other words, it could not be more tropish if it tried.

This is great news for Christopher Lee, who gets to ham it up to the nines in a fantasy villain role complete with a floor-length black robed costume with red accents (but obviously he'd moved well beyond Dracula by this time, you understand). Perhaps not such great news for the film as a whole, though, which looks more or less indistinguishable from a load of other fantasy films of the late '70s and early '80s as a result. It reminded me in particular of a number of Ray Harryhausen films, to the extent that it almost seems like a missing link between his two mid-'70s Sinbad films and 1981's Clash of the Titans. Certainly, I'd be astonished if Arabian Adventure wasn't designed as a conscious attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the Sinbad films. Apart from the obvious matter of the setting, it shares with them motifs such as quests for magical items, princes seeking the hands of princesses, cities under curfews, evil magicians, people being turned into animals, battles with giant creatures, genies in bottles and so forth. Of course all of these are standard tropes in a story-telling tradition ultimately rooted in the One Thousand and One Nights, and here encompassing especially The Thief of Bagdad (1940), but it was very definitely Harryhausen's Sinbad films that were bearing the popular torch for them when this film was made. The cycle of influence seemed to me to travel in two directions rather than just one, though, as there are motifs from this film which appear in turn in Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans - for example, in the resemblance between the dank and terrible swamp where the Rose of Elil grows and Calibos' very similar lair in Clash.

Speaking of the One Thousand and One Nights, I am never quite sure where I stand when faced with a film like this on the issue of whether westerners re-telling and re-working its stories are inevitably engaging in Orientalising cultural appropriation, or simply drawing on a rich and interesting story tradition in the same way as we have (for example) drawn on those of the ancient world. Those examples obviously aren't equivalent, since western European culture views itself as the inheritor of ancient stories, and tends to express both a right to use them and an admiration for them in its retellings, whereas the relation between western and Islamic culture has centuries of hostility, othering and aggressive imperialism behind it. But the difficulty is that we can't separate out our engagement with its stories from that context - i.e. we can't tell what sort of reception the One Thousand and One Nights would have had in the west if the culture they came from was viewed differently in relation to ours. Would people in Britain still have lapped them up anyway, in the same way as we have the Germanic stories collected by the Brothers Grimm or the Danish ones of Hans Christian Andersen? Or has their appeal traditionally stemmed from their perceived status as the product of an exoticised Other? We can't tell (and it's a false dichotomy anyway).

What we can do, though, is look at culture dynamics of individual takes on the stories. This one scores pretty badly in its casting, which fills most of its the main roles with western people made to look a bit swarthy, while putting actual middle eastern actors (of whom there are a few) in minor secondary roles. In fairness, the innocent boy with the monkey, who is the film's main point-of-view character, is played by an actor of Indian descent (though even he was actually born in London), but I don't think that actually helps. It pretty much seems to amount to saying "Oh, brown people - they're all the same, aren't they?" All of this is of course still a problem in 2014, but that doesn't make it any less of one in 1979. On the other hand, where the story could have stuck at portraying middle eastern society as inherently characterised by autocratic tyrannies (as personified in Christopher Lee's character), there is actually a sub-plot in which a heroic band of local freedom fighters are working to overthrow him and reinstate Peter Cushing's character, a political prisoner of the Caliph who was once the enlightened and democratically-elected leader of their city. That said, even that may well just be an attempt to reproduce the role of the rebel alliance seeking to overthrow the Empire in Star Wars (released two years earlier), rather than to than reflect the political complexities of the Islamic world.

In short, tropish, unoriginal and politically unreconstructed, but it does have a minor role to play in the history of cinematic fantasy stories, and Christopher Lee is definitely good value in it.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
After last week's big scares, deep exploration of the Doctor / companion dynamic, and epic rewriting of the Doctor's personal history, this episode was bound to seem rather work-a-day and ordinary by comparison. It did, and that's OK. You do actually need some of those each season to fill the gaps between the OMGWTF? episodes. But it was a very polished and nicely thought-out work-a-day episode, all the same. Just as they should be when Who is running properly.

This one gave us a nice mystery, some clever time-travel shenanigans, and indeed some further development of the season's big themes to boot )

Also ongoing is the importance of Clara and her relationship to the Doctor )

Meanwhile, it seems like the people responsible for both the casting and the wardrobe for this episode worked quite hard to make it inclusive and diverse )

A few smaller things )

Finally, I am now going to have to talk not only about water, but also about breathing )

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
I've run out of Hammer Dracula films to re-watch, so am now exploring a category of films which can best be described as 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price.' There are actually a quite considerable number of films which meet these criteria, even including the 'which I haven't seen' clause, and now is a good time in human history to be watching them.

See, last time I had a really big 'thing' on Christopher Lee, which was about ten years ago now, Lovefilm and Netflix did not exist, my local video shop had a limited range, I had a limited income so that although Amazon existed I could not simply buy anything I felt like from it, and many of the films I wanted to see were not available to purchase in any format anyway. Now, the range of availability is greater (though still nothing like comprehensive), and so are both my disposable income and the channels available to buy or hire through. So films which I have long read about in books but been unable to watch are actually available at long last via the click of a few buttons. Hooray for exponential steps forward in technology and communications!

Actually, I probably could have got hold of this particular film ten years ago - it would have been more a case of limited income stopping me than limited availability. But there are other films lined up on my Lovefilm list, or already in my possession, which I know I couldn't have done, because I tried at the time and was frustrated. More of those in later reviews.

For now, this one is an AIP film which borrows the title of an Edgar Allan Poe story, but discards the story itself in favour of a new one drawing on some of his classic tropes (e.g. burial alive, insanity, unavenged crimes from the past), and mashing them together with others such as body-snatching and deformed horrors in the attic. For AIP, it was a continuation of the Poe / Price films which Roger Corman did in the early '60s, but by this stage other directors were being used. In fact, this one was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves (of The Sorcerors and Witchfinder General fame), but he was unable to start it - not, as is often reported, due to his death, as filming had already been completed before that, but more due to the depression and substance abuse problems which shortly afterwards caused his death.

It features the coveted Price / Lee combination (actually it was the first time they worked together and the beginning of their friendship), and involves Christopher Lee playing Dr. Neuhartt, a rather sour Victorian medic who is keeping the local body-snatchers in business. Price, meanwhile, plays Lord Markham, a troubled colonialist aristocrat with plantations in Africa, a trusting and innocent fiancée, and a dread family secret in the attic. Alas, they barely interact on screen, appearing together only very briefly in a scene where Christopher Lee's character is already lying half-dead on the floor, having had his throat cut. But that is only one of many alases which affect this film.

Other flaws include:
  • The dialogue, much of which is banal or lacklustre.
  • The performances, most of which lack any real spark.
  • Vincent Price's performance in particular, which (I'm sorry Vincent) really does feel dialled in. I know his USP as an actor was to play characters who are troubled to the point of being largely divorced from humanity, but here he just seems kind of wooden, and there are scenes in which his character definitely should show more emotion than he does - as for example, when he discovers that his brother (the dread family secret in the attic) is (apparently) dead.
  • The conveyance of characters' motivations, which is often left completely obscure or revealed too late (with no particular advantage arising from the delay). The best example here is the lawyer, Trench, who takes extensive personal risks in order to help the brother in the attic, in spite of the fact that the only time he visits him there, the brother tries to strangle him. We learn some stuff about how he has been embezzling money from the family estate by forging documents, and he's also quite willing to accept 1000 guineas from Lord Markham to furnish a corpse to lie in state in the place of the brother. But this isn't an adequate explanation for why he takes the trouble to help the brother himself in the first place, especially because everything else he does gives the impression of an entirely selfish and cold-hearted man.
  • The fact that every character is either unlikeable or under-developed, so that there is no-one we can really cheer for or hope will escape all the blood-shed. Lord Markham's fiancée / wife (from part-way through the film) is the closest we get, but she is a pretty bland character, and never in any serious danger, so it doesn't really work.
  • The effects used to represent throat-cutting. I can forgive a lot where special effects are concerned for the sake of a good story, but this isn't a terribly good story anyway, and the cut throats are basically represented by a painted line of extremely unconvincing blood across the victim's neck. Since this happens several times during the story, they really could have done with putting more effort into making it look like an actual injury.

Meanwhile, on the plus side:
  • The sets are superb, from the inherited Markham family home to the London streets where some of the shadier events of the film take place.
  • So are the costumes - though sadly for Christopher Lee, not the wigs.
  • Some of the camerawork is brilliant, especially during the opening scenes of an African ritual punishment.
  • Lee's character, and his performance of it, are actually both pretty solid. Dr. Neuhartt's involvement in the body-snatching business makes him extremely vulnerable to blackmail, and he ends up embroiled in things he's clearly unhappy with as a result, so there is scope for a kind of suppressed frustration to the character, and Lee makes good use of it. This, of course, one of the reasons why he's worth 'following' as an actor - he's in a lot of great movies, but even in the second-rate ones you can rely on him to be one of the redeeming features.
  • Quite apart from Lee and Price, it furnishes plenty of material for a good game of Spot Your Favourite British Character Actors. I was particularly pleased to see Rupert Davies (best-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but to others more likely as Maigret) and Colin Jeavons, whom I have loved dearly ever since his stint as Max Quordlepleen in the BBC's TV adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But those aren't really enough pluses to significantly outweigh the minuses, especially while the handling of the female and black characters is distinctly of its time (shall we say?). The women, as usual, are all there to be sexual objects and / or victims for the men, and there is one extended tavern / brothel scene about half-way through in which several of the extras are getting up to some pretty rapey things, but it is treated primarily as titillation. As for race, there is an extent to which the film is attempting to offer a ham-fisted critique of British colonial involvement in Africa. Lord Markham himself recognises that the family estate there is exploitative; this is personalised when we learn that one of the Markham brothers knocked down and killed a local child on his horse; and what appeared to be a tropishly barbaric African religious ritual at the start of the film is later revealed to be an enactment of justice for the child's death. This was apparently enough to get the film banned in Texas for appearing to be 'pro-black'. But to 21st-century eyes, the portrayal is less than entirely radical. African local justice is still shown as both brutal and flawed (since they exact vengeance on the first Markham brother they can find without checking whether or not he was actually guilty), while the only black character who gets any serious screen-time or dialogue is an Ethnic Magician, who tells the white characters that he is versed in matters which they do not understand.

So, anyway. That's another film which I can tick off in both my personal filmic and televisual Horror bible and my list of every film Christopher Lee has ever made. But I won't be going out of my way to watch it again.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
I saw this about a month ago with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, [livejournal.com profile] nigelmouse and his chum called Andy (I think), and hugely enjoyed rediscovering what a classic it is. It isn't just that it has all the standard elements of a good film (plotting, direction, acting, character, dialogue, setting and that little bit of magic which makes them all work together). It has an energy and freshness which has stood the test of time really well, and packs huge riches of detail and ideas into its two short hours.

I think it has gained something with the passage of time, too. Watching it in 2013 inevitably means approaching the film itself as a form of 'time travel' back to the 1980s )

Lots could be said about all sorts of elements within the story, but I am sure they have already been written about on the internet somewhere, so I will focus on just two particular things which occurred to me on this viewing, but which I had never really thought about before.

One is the portrayal of the black character, Goldie Wilson )

My other line of thought was to wonder more generally what we should make of a story in which the 1980s try to fix their problems by going back in time to rewrite the 1950s )

Anyway, like many an SF or fantasy classic, I think there are good reasons why this film has become something of an icon over the years. It's fun, yes, but has some surprisingly good thinky mileage in it to boot. Here's looking forward to its thirtieth anniversary in another two years' time, when we really will stand in exactly the same relation to 1985 as the film did to 1955.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Now that the Great Work of painting my lounge is complete, I have the time to catch up on a few reviews. I saw this film a month ago at the Cottage Road cinema with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, and was very impressed. Although I'm aware that it is a reworking of The Seven Samurai, I haven't seen that, so can't comment on the relationship between them. But this film certainly works in its own right. It has some cracking dialogue, a really strong cast, and a level of characterisation which goes well beyond what you would normally expect from a shoot 'em up Western. Three things in particular struck me about it as I was watching.

Firstly, the unusual prominence of issues of imperialism, interventionism and race. Obviously all Westerns are about the colonisation of wild landscapes, but this film seemed more interested than most in complicating the picture. This starts with the opening scene, in which Yul Brynner's character and a friend ensure that a native American Indian is able to be given a proper burial, as the local townsfolk wish him to, in spite of an armed gang trying to stop the undertaker from doing his job. This is still an essentially racist narrative of Good White Guys vs. Bad White Guys to which non-white people are largely incidental (in this case, literally dead), but at least it acknowledges race as a contested issue which has victims.

The theme is then continued by the fact that the village which the seven gunmen go to defend against bandits is in Mexico (rather than Texas or Arizona). This means that they don't have any social ties to anyone in the village when they agree to go and help, as it is explicitly positioned outside their culture, and huge play is also made of the fact that the villagers have almost nothing at all to offer in payment. The gunmen go partly because they enjoy fighting, but also because they want to protect the honest efforts of the villagers to build a life for themselves by cultivating the land against the dishonest attacks of the bandit Calvera and his gang.

The resulting story of brave, noble, technologically advanced Americans intervening to protect timid, primitive Mexicans is quite racist and / or culturally imperialistic, too, but again it is deliberately complicated. Four of the seven gunmen die in the ensuing battle, leaving Yul Brynner's character to observe that in the end it is only ever the farmers who win, while men like him always lose. So interventionism looks pretty unattractive and futile by the end of it all, and good honest productive labour a rather better prospect.

The second, smaller thing to strike me was how similar the scenes of the seven gunmen training up the villagers to use weapons and defend themselves were to the scenes of experienced gladiators training up runaway slaves in Spartacus (1960). Indeed, the whole stories of the two films are quite comparable, revolving as they do around the efforts of good but powerless people to free themselves from the burdens imposed by malicious powerful ones - though the attempt is more successful in The Magnificent Seven than it is in Spartacus. When I looked up the release dates of the two films to help understand the relationship between them, I found that Spartacus came out just a few weeks after The Magnificent Seven, so I suppose that both the training scenes and the overall narratives of each must reflect shared audience demands and shared production processes in the film industry as a whole at the time. It is yet more support for [livejournal.com profile] swisstone's argument that what Classicists think of as 'Classical' films are not really viewed as a distinct genre by the people who make or watch them.

Finally, as tends to happen more or less every time I see a Western (which isn't actually very often), I found myself coming out of the cinema fascinated once again by how it is that this genre could have almost entirely dominated the film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s, but then dropped so thoroughly out of favour. I can understand why it was popular in the first place, as the central theme of building new civilisations in the wilderness is clearly pretty close to American hearts. Westerns of course they also offer plenty of opportunities for chases and gunfights, which always seem to be popular. I also understand how, with the advent of exciting special effects in particular, audiences switched their allegiance to things like SF and horror films, and indeed that in some ways the Western never really went away at all but was subsumed into those genres (see e.g. Firefly / Serenity for a particularly clear example).

But there must be more to explain their total reversal of fortunes, mustn't there? Changing gender roles eroding the appeal of the macho cowboy? Increased discomfort with the ideology of colonialism and imperialism at the heart of the stories? Shaken confidence in the American dream after the combined experiences of the Korean and Vietnam wars? The rise of the cold war making gun-fights on horseback look rather old-fashioned? Or, of course, a fatal combination of all of those, and more.

Let me know if you have any theories of your own.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I am horribly behind with Doctor Who reviews, partly because I was in New York when this (half-)season started, and partly because I didn't find the first few episodes very inspirational anyway. This is an attempt to catch up.

7.7 The Bells of Saint John )

7.8 The Rings of Akhaten )

7.9 Cold War )

7.10 Hide )

7.11 Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS )

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I watched this last night with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, and felt so-soish about it. It had a few neat ideas and surprises - which are themselves spoilery ) - but didn't really wow me. There wasn't much in the way of punchy character moments or intriguing puzzles. I guess in a way that shows how the bar has been raised over the course of New Who, by both Rusty and the Moff. This was a decent enough episode really, but I was somehow expecting more. I've watched it again this morning to see how knowing about Oswin's real situation from the start changes it, and spotted some things which made me slightly more impressed than I was last night. But then again I've also confirmed that some of the things which didn't appear to make sense last night genuinely don't, and also been made angry by a line which I missed the first time round, but which the internet did not. So in the end I feel much the same as after the first viewing - so-soish, but with an extra hint of *growl*.

My obviously very spoilerific thoughts after re-watching are gathered below under a series of headings.

Things which didn't make sense )

Careful structuring and symbolism )

Oswin )

Amy and Rory )

Racist, sexist and biphobic clap-trap )

Things that were fun / cool / scary )

Past continuity )

Future implications )

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I should have posted this review nearly two weeks ago now, but was feeling very sluggish at the time, thanks to what [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan calls 'the ladygrims', and just didn't have the surplus brain-power while also greeting new students and finishing articles. I seem to be back to normal now, but still had to prioritise my article until I knew I had managed to meet the deadline for it. Still, any time before the season finale counts, right?

Anyway, this story was pretty damned good for me, and certainly one of the stronger episodes of the season, but I felt it lacked the appropriate emotional weight )

Setting and symbolism )

Rita )

Meh, there's probably other stuff I would have said about this episode if I'd got round to writing it up earlier. It was clever and gripping, made good use of its characters, and dropped in plenty of interesting symbolism and continuity references for geeky types like me to chew over. But I think that will do for now. Here's looking forward to the season finale, and hopefully a few resolutions, tomorrow evening. :-)

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
On the whole, this was a great episode. Funny, nicely-plotted, and leading neatly and sometimes quite poignantly towards the heavily-signposted events of the season finale. I should have loved it. But what a pity about the racefail )

And the other predictable and cringeworthy tropes as well )

OK, so let's try to get back to the goodness. Continuity refs and other cool stuff )

As for next week's episode, whacking great signposts and smaller pointers )

Anyway, all to be revealed - along with some alt-universe Romans - next week!

[And I will finish and post my review of last week's episode shortly, I swear. I've just been rather overloaded with work and short of available spare brain-juice in the last week. It's half-written, but needs smoothing out from some random notes into something tolerably fluent before I can post it. I hope to get that done before heading for bed tonight.]

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I saw this at the weekend with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy. It's an Amicus werewolf film complete with Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, a youthful Michael Gambon, an alsatian wrapped in a rug, some extremely spangly shirts and a soundtrack full of wacka-wacka guitar music. In other words, lots of silly '70s fun. And just to make the atmosphere complete, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had used some brand new skull-shaped silicon cake cases which she got for Christmas to bake spongy pink brain-cakes with a delicious layer of boiled eye-balls (aka cherries) to eat while we watched.

The USP of this particular film is that it is (meant to be) as much a detective film as a horror film, with the viewer invited to work out the identity of the werewolf amongst a party of guests at a millionaire's isolated high-security mansion. We were instructed by a voice-over to be on the look-out for clues from the start of the film, and towards the end the narrative stopped for a 'werewolf break', during which we were shown pictures of the surviving guests, and then given thirty seconds to figure out which was the werewolf.

We did managed to narrow it down correctly to two possible suspects out of six, but most of the clues were pretty ham-fisted, and I'm still not convinced we'd actually been given enough information to identify the correct individual. And, disappointingly, there was no Sherlock or Poirot figure within the narrative to explain in detail how we should have been able to work out which character was the werewolf. The identity was revealed, but not the reasoning. Also, the narrative which we had been given up to that point didn't exactly match up with the parameters we were being asked to subscribe to anyway. The millionaire who had assembled the guests kept stating very confidently that he knew ONE of his guests was a werewolf - and indeed this turned out to have been true. But he also gave reasons for suspecting each and every one of them of being a werewolf, and it was never clear why he felt so sure that only one of them actually was, but still couldn't tell which.

Also interesting was the fact that the main character - the millionaire who had invited everyone to his mansion, and who got by far the most screen-time in the film - was black. In fact, so was his wife, which meant that the film passed the ethnic minority version of the Bechdel test - there were several scenes in which the two of them discussed their own goals and motivations with each other, without any particular reference to any of their white guests. That's extremely rare for a '70s British horror flick - but you still couldn't exactly call it a positive portrayal. This character is stereotyped into something of a Blaxploitation role, running about the place a lot in shiny PVC shirts and wielding enormous guns. He also plays right into the age-old trope of the nouveau riche social climber with more money than sense - he's shown as a slightly unhinged play-boy, spending thousands on his obsessive hunt to find a werewolf, and getting several people killed in the process. So, yeah.

And, for a film with such a stellar cast, it doesn't half waste them. Michael Gambon is all right, although he doesn't have terribly much to do except sit around looking a bit sulky. But Peter Cushing gets precious little screen-time; most of his dialogue is incredibly hokey and utterly boring faux-science; and he's obviously been asked to lay aside his trademark crisp English enunciation in favour of an annoying and completely unconvincing foreign accent. As for Charles Gray - to be honest, he was basically phoning it in.

So, not exactly what you'd call a masterpiece, but fun for an afternoon's entertainment. And it's hugely whetted our appetites for more of the same at this year's Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend, too. :-)

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
The plot of this story has to be one of the most non-sensical Who has ever served up )

The Cybermen )

Earth in the near future )

The First Doctor's last story )

Ben, Polly and brewing up coffee )

General Cutler and Agamemnon )

The handling of black characters )

Not perfect, then, but overall a pretty good story. And with that in the bag, I have now seen all of the First Doctor's televised stories - at least as far as that's possible today. That makes him the third Doctor for whom I've reached that position, the previous ones being the Fourth and the Sixth. I've really enjoyed this era of Doctor Who - the historical stories, the character of Barbara and Hartnell's Doctor himself have been particular draws, but really it has been consistently good on almost every important level. I think it deserves a proper overview eulogy post, just as I did for the Fourth Doctor. But this has been quite enough for one entry!

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

Profile

strange_complex: (Default)
strange_complex

August 2017

M T W T F S S
 123456
78 9 10111213
14151617181920
21 222324252627
28293031   

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Tags

Active Entries

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Wednesday, 23 August 2017 00:22
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios