strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm off to the cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan tomorrow, so that's a good incentive to finish off this film review catch-up project first so that I have a clean slate for tomorrow's new entry. The first three of these should always have been reviewed together in the same post anyway, as they were part of a series of Universal Monster Movies which the National Media Museum mounted on Monday nights during October and November.

27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning
I've reviewed this in excessive detail before, while for us this particular screening came fairly hot on the heels of our own viewing of the parallel Spanish version. But this was my first experience of it on the big screen, and it certainly deserves the detail and grandeur which that ensures - especially for the scenes set in Transylvania, in the darkened garden of Seward's asylum where Dracula lurks, and in his lair in Carfax Abbey. Everything is just beautiful, from the Art Deco bat which supplies the background for the opening credits to the gentle toll of the church bells at the end as Mina and Jon(athan) walk up the curving staircase out of Dracula's crypt. I will never quite be able to come to terms with the opossums running around in Dracula's castle, the piece of paper stuck to Lucy's bedside lamp which was obviously meant to improve the lighting for shots from one angle but was left very obviously in place for shots from the other, or the utter cardboard-cutoutness of Jon(athan) Harker, though.

28. Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale
This was the next in Universal's series, and in the National Media Museum's screening schedule. I've seen it before, but a long time ago and never on the big screen. Two main things to say. One, Boris as the creature is amazing. There is a real sensitivity in his performance, successfully conveying a living being with an agency and agenda of its own. His make-up is incredible as well. Forget all the clunky rip-offs and parodies of it you've seen. The original is actually exceptionally detailed and carefully-designed, with the hands and arms to me looking especially convincing as those of a reanimated corpse. Two, the way the human characters treat the creature is downright distressing, and indeed I found the whole moral compass of the film shockingly off-kilter. The biggest problem for me was that the in-story explanation offered for why the creature turns bad is that when Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant) goes to steal a brain for it, he comes back with what is literally labelled on the jar an 'abnormal brain', and which we have heard a medical scientist explaining accounts for the 'brutal and criminal life' which its owner had lived. I know this sort of thinking was rife in the early 20th century, and used to justify a lot of shitty oppression too, but it makes me so angry that I would struggle to overlook it in any circumstances, while in this particular film it anyway utterly destroys the potential moral nuances of the story it is trying to tell. Labelling the creature as an irredeemable criminal before it has even been brought to life quashes all chance of exploring the impact of Frankenstein's thoughtless act on his own creation, and also pre-excuses the appalling behaviour of the humans towards it once it has come to life. In fact, it means there's no real point portraying that behaviour anyway, as the motif of the brain means the creature was always going to 'go bad', however it was treated. So there are half-hearted nods towards exploring the creature's perspective, identifiable in Boris Karloff's performance and the scenes in which the creature is ill-treated, but in the end they have no moral weight because of the pre-destination symbolised by the brain. Meanwhile, the much louder message is the depressingly-simplistic one - "Look, you shouldn't try to play God because your creations will inevitably just be bad and go bad!" At the end, the poor creature dies screaming in agony in a burning mill (again played very affectingly by Boris), and we then just switch straight to the human characters unproblematically celebrating it all with a wedding party. Horrifying, but not in the way intended.

29. The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund
The following week we had The Mummy, which I found much more satisfying. This time, its moral dimension is pretty sound, with some interesting commentary on the ethics of colonial archaeology in particular, and indeed a good understanding of how archaeology works in general (e.g. why simple bits of pottery are often much more important than golden treasures). Just one small complaint on the antiquities front - a priestess of Isis really cannot be described as a Vestal Virgin. 'Vestal' doesn't just mean generically sacred or holy - it means specifically consecrated to Vesta (the clue is in the name). This film boasts an unusually (for the time) autonomous female main character, Helen Grosvenor, who is the daughter of the governor of Sudan but has chosen to live quite independently from her parents in Cairo, expresses disdain for the various men who attempt to court or control her, and indeed ends up destroying the mummy at the end of the film in spite of the fact that she is his reincarnated lover. I've often complained about that particular trope (e.g. here re Blacula 1972), since it consistently strips women of their agency, but here far from it - instead, she actively decides that she doesn't want to be with Imhotep, and uses the resources which are her equivalent to his own magical powers (her connection to Isis, whose priestess she once was) to defeat him. All of this, of course, is pretty easily explained by the fact that story's original author was a woman. Visually, the film keeps up and indeed excels the standards of sets, make-up and costumes from the previous two films, including the wise / clever decision to show Boris in his full mummy make-up only on his first appearance, and after that have him looking more or less like a normal human being, but with a serious skin condition. He gets to speak properly in this film too, using the dialogue to infuse his character with a malevolent charm that I know well from Christopher Lee's roles. His performance is also ably supported by an adorable fluffy white cat - I wonder if he was the first film villain to have one? Finally, I was fascinated to note that in a flash-back sequence where Imhotep shows Helen scenes of their past together in a pool, the images are shot like a silent movie: less crisp than the surrounding footage, no use of close-ups, and the overlay of classic silent-movie style music (in contrast with almost no soundtrack music in main film). Like the white cat, I can't help but feel this must be a cinematic first, as the medium of film was still so new at this time that there can't have been many earlier opportunities to deliberately use the conventions of out-dated film technology to signify 'the past'. Very clever, and very creative.

30. Fear In The Night (1972), dir. Jimmy Sangster
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place. It's a Hammer production with Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins in it, but not one of their horror films - rather, a thriller. That said, it does play heavily on the possibility that there might be something supernatural going on for a long time, which of course Hammer's reputation put them in an excellent position to do. The story is set in the time when it was made, which meant lots of very enjoyable Seventies clothes, cars and street scenes, and revolves around a young woman who is experiencing repeated and very unsettling nocturnal physical attacks. The male characters around her dismiss her experiences as symptomatic of an over-wrought imagination, and for quite a long time it looked like the grain of the story might be leaning in that direction too. I began to get fractious, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had to convince me to stick it out. But then the real truth began to emerge, her experiences were entirely vindicated, and indeed the film proved to be very sympathetic towards those affected by mental health issues - not only the heroine but Peter Cushing's character as well. So a very satisfying watch after all, and I'll definitely want to see it again some time now that I know the 'twist'.

31. Night of the Demon (1957), dir. Jacques Tourneur
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey at the National Media Museum as part of a series of ghostly stories screened in the run-up to Christmas. I've seen it on the big screen before, and reviewed the experience. Indeed, I see that I spent a lot of that review discussing how it sits alongside Hammer's horror films, and I had similar responses this time. The importance of the deceased Professor Harrington's diary account in helping the characters figure out what Karswell is up to reminded me a great deal of how Jonathan Harker's diary functions in Hammer's Dracula (and in neither case comes from the source text), while the way Karswell turns on and mocks his own mother also reminded me of the relationship between the Baron Meinster and his mother in Brides of Dracula. Since both of those films were made after this (though only just in the case of Dracula), the direction of influence would go from here to Hammer, but that's entirely typical of how they worked - soaking up contemporary stories and conventions and building them into their own productions. Meanwhile, Andrew noted that by making John Holden a sceptical outsider literally flying into an island full of superstitious believers in the supernatural, the story also had quite a Wicker Mannish feel. It is, of course, all quite a long way from M.R. James' original, but I am reconciled to that, especially on a second viewing. In and of itself it is a great movie which deserves to be regularly rescreened.

32. Rogue One (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards
And my last film of 2016, which I saw with Mr. and Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero. It was in fact my first experience of seeing a film on an IMAX screen, as well as being a 3D screening, so it was all pretty impressive and mind-blowing both visually and aurally. The story was great, and I've enjoyed all the fantastically detailed articles about its world which have appeared since, like this one about data storage standards and this one about archaeology. Three cheers for stories which inspire that kind of fan-work! It's true that it could have had more women in it, and let's keep demanding the best on that front, but it was certainly epically better for women than any of episodes I-VI, as well as being impressive on ethnicity and disability, so let's also cheer the direction of travel. Much discussion has also been prompted by its use of CGI to recreate characters from the original trilogy, but I'm afraid I found this only technically impressive. Peter Cushing's recreated face was pretty good, but of course CGI cannot capture the unique humanness of a real person's performance - indeed, even a very convincing impression will only ever be a pastiche, missing the unpredictability of the original person. Most strikingly, the voice wasn't his at all, and since that was always such a central part of what Peter Cushing had to offer, its absence was bound to disappoint. Leia I found less problematic, partly because her face was only on-screen for a few seconds, and partly because they had been able to use an old clip of Carrie Fisher's voice from the time - but of course it was also rather heart-breaking to see her at all so soon after Carrie's sad death. Meanwhile, Darth Vader of course did not need CGI to return to our screens, and it was fabulous fun to see him in full-on evil action again. That said though, part of the power and fascination of Darth Vader in the original films is discovering slowly and with increasing horror just what he is willing and capable of doing. (Even if you have seen the films before, the reactions of the characters within the story lead you through the process of discovering this all over again.) Here, he pretty much launched straight into evil machinations and force-choking, leaving no room for the suspenseful frisson of gradual discovery from the earlier films. Still, I guess that reflects the reality of a modern audience's expectations - you simply can't keep redoing the suspense if they're just going to be sitting their with their pop-corn going "Yeah, we know he's evil - cut to the chase!" It's just a pity Darth's character-development won't ever really work now if the films are viewed in story order - but then I guess that was already ruined fifteen years ago by the whole prequel sequence giving away his relationship to Luke.

OK, I am up to date on my film reviews! Now just gotta do the same for books... and Doctor Who... :-(

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strange_complex: (Darth compels you!)
Seen last Thursday evening at the Cottage Road cinema with the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Zeitgeist Zero. As more or less everyone has said, it is great, basically because it is much the same as the original three films, except that the characters now have new names and faces. There's just the right mix of big plot business, epic battles and explosions, cute robots, soaring music, snarky humour and the personal journeys of the main characters - with the emotional emphasis very much on the latter. And everything else I say about this film is bound to be spoilerific.

Let's start with characters )

Then there is plot )

In short, then, jolly good. I'm certainly looking forward to the next one, and may well go back for another big-screen viewing of this before it finishes its cinema-run.

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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.

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strange_complex: (One walking)
I thought this story was better than the circumstances of its production might have suggested. It definitely varies in tone and quality, and wanders quite a long way away from the central plot at times, with the result that I began episode 12 no longer really caring what happened with the taranium core and the Time Destructor. But most of the individual moments in it are enjoyable, albeit often in very different ways. That said, some of the scenes between the Daleks and their allies on Kembel get rather tedious (although I don't doubt they would have been more engaging with the original moving pictures). And I was rather disappointed to find out that the plot-lines set up in Mission to the Unknown got much less of a pay-off than I'd assumed they would. The Doctor has already found out what the Daleks' plan is by the time he discovers and plays back Marc Cory's tape in episode three, so that it is rather pointless by that stage - and this felt like rather a betrayal of the earlier story.

Katarina, Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom )

Mavic Chen and the Monk )

Fun and frolics in 'The Feast of Steven' )

Silent era Hollywood )

Pharaonic Egypt )

Minor points )

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
Right - now that Life is all up to date and I have some free time, I can continue with my Who reviews. I return here to the sequential viewing of Sarah Jane's stories with the Third Doctor which I started last month.

Third Doctor: The Monster of Peladon )

Third Doctor: Planet of the Spiders )

And with that, I have seen all of Sarah Jane's mainstream Doctor Who stories, including The Five Doctors and Dimensions in Time (though in those cases not within the lifespan of this journal, so I shall be revisiting them in these pages at some point). There's a fair number of audio adventures still out there for me, not to mention her K-9 and Company appearance (now on my Lovefilm wishlist), and a bizarre straight-to-video outing I've only just found out about called Downtime from the mid-'90s. But as regards the central core of stories which feature interaction between her and the Doctor, I am fully up to speed now. With her warmth, her sparkle, her independence and yet also her sense of wide-eyed innocence, she remains definitively my favourite Doctor Who companion by a long chalk - though it's been great to see so many of the same qualities re-appearing in Donna more recently. Three cheers, then, for The Sarah Jane Adventures, and the new series of it which is coming in the autumn.

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