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 )

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

On the language-learning front, it wasn't a great deal of help, mainly because I just haven't learnt enough yet to be able to pick up new words or constructions from context, but perhaps also partly because the sound-quality on the Youtube video is pretty poor, making everything sound a bit distant and unclear. I'd say I was able to recognise something like about one word in a hundred, which obviously wouldn't get me very far in a real-life situation! But hopefully I will at least have tuned in to the rhythms and structures of Romanian just a little bit while watching it, and maybe if I come back to it shortly before actually going there, I will find by then that I can get more out of it.

On the portrayal-of-Dracula front, though, it was absolutely fascinating. It is, of course, a product of Communist Romania, released right in the middle of CeauČ™escu's time in power, and needs to be understood in that light )

That's not to say it isn't also deadly serious history )

There was one scene which really jarred for me from a political / moral perspective, though, while not needing to be there at all from a historical one. This concerned the story from the pamphlets about Dracula and the beggars )

I also noticed that there wasn't a single woman in a speaking role throughout the entire 2hr15m film )

Despite such reservations, though, I really liked the film as a piece of drama. The story is dramatically plausible, following a satisfying narrative arc from Dracula's noble aims at the start of the film to his tragic downfall at the end. And its star, Stefan Sileanu in the title role, is absolutely excellent. He really inhabits the part, endowing it with all the intensity, self-belief and sense of purpose which really have to be there for Dracula's actions to come across as convincing, but also showing us the moments of vulnerability and despair which also have to be there for him to appear human. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which some of his enemies fled into an Orthodox church for sanctuary, but Dracula ordered them to be dragged out and punished anyway, leading to a crackling set-piece between him and the priest about the rights and wrongs of what he is doing. Furthermore, he has fantastic eyebrows, wears excellent hats throughout (nicely modelled on the historical portraits), and looks good on a throne or a horse:

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

That said, if you weren't super-into the history, I suspect the 2hr15m running time and Romanian-language soundtrack would be off-putting. For me right now, though, it was great!

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I spent yesterday afternoon asleep on the sofa, recovering from a busy week and a busy term. But today I came over all functional and sociable, and spent the afternoon in the balcony of the Hyde Park Picture House instead, watching a stop-motion animated film called Mary and Max with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy.

It's an absolutely lovely film - very sweet and touching, but with lots of humour too. It tells the story of an eight-year-old Australian girl called Mary with an alcoholic mother and a birthmark who gets teased at school, and an American man in his forties who has Asperger's syndrome, likes eating chocolate hot-dogs, and finds the world very confuzzling. They become penfriends after she picks his name at random out of a phone-book, and bond over their shared love of chocolate and lack of other friends. Gradually, albeit with a few twists and turns, they become the most important people in each others' lives - even though they never quite manage to meet.

The humour reminded me quite a lot of Roald Dahl's stories, in that it focuses on the icky, the idiosyncratic and the downright dark. But while Dahl invites us to be quite judgemental about his nasty or dysfunctional characters (think of the Twits, or all the families other than Charlie's in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), this film encouraged us to sympathise with them. The portrayal of Mary and her family reminded me quite a lot of Muriel and her family in the film Muriel's Wedding, too - and not just because the central character in both was played by Toni Collette. I guess there must be quite a strong tradition in Australia of bittersweet humour about empty suburban lifestyles.

I don't know how easy it'll be to get to see this film now, as I'm not sure how wide a release it has had outside of Australia. But I'd definitely recommend it if you get the chance. And if you don't weep uncontrollably at the end, then you are made of sterner stuff than me.

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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.

strange_complex: (Daria star)
IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with [ profile] big_daz and [ profile] gillywoo.

Shot in black and white, and given its macabre subject-matter and Victorian setting, this felt more like a Hammer film from their still-actually-quite-serious era than it did an early 80s David Lynch number. Which I guess was Lynch's intention.

It was moving and powerful, and did lots of very interesting things with the issue of gazes and exploitation. The uncomfortable similarity between Bytes, the freakshow proprietor who exhibits John Merrick to the public for money, and Dr. Frederick Treves, who 'rescues' him but then exhibits him to fellow doctors, is explicitly addressed, while there's also a lot of stuff going on about who is audience and who performers in the theatre, whether windows are for looking out of or looking into, and the general relationship between seeing and being seen. All of which, of course, then neatly poses the same questions to the audience, watching through a fourth wall. Thought-provoking symbolism = yay!

For a David Lynch film, it was a pretty straightforward narrative, but there were some rather bizarre sequences about machines and pollution, which I was somewhat nonplussed by. I didn't think anyone had ever thought John (or properly Joseph) Merrick's condition was caused by either, so I wasn't sure what the point was, really. However, a bit of Googling today reveals that one form of elephantiasis is thought to be caused by 'persistent contact with volcanic ash', so I guess maybe that was Lynch's point after all. In fact, DNA tests on his remains published in 2003 suggest that the problem was a combination of two rare genetic disorders - type 1 neurofibromatosis (NF1) and Proteus syndrome - but Lynch could not have known that in 1980.

[ profile] big_daz also had a book chronicling the true story of Joseph Merrick, which I had a good browse through after we'd seen the film. It showed that quite a lot of things had been changed for the sake of the story - for example, massively exaggerating the extent to which Merrick was ill-treated by Bytes, and completely inventing an episode in which the latter steals Merrick back from the hospital where Treves is looking after him. It also clarified what Merrick's childhood had been like, and how he came to have been so well-educated - something completely unexplained by the film. In fact, his whole life up to his time as a 'novelty exhibition' in Leicester is very eloquently chronicled in his own words, while good old Wikipedia supplies the rest.

None of which undermines the quality of the film, of course. But the real story is just as interesting in its own right.

strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with [ profile] big_daz and [ profile] gillywoo.

This was part one of a double-bill film evening we had last night, which somehow worked itself out so that it centred around the theme of people with severe physical deformities: Freaks followed by The Elephant Man. I'm not sure how that happened, because we'd collectively decided to watch these two films together ages ago, and I can't remember our reasoning now - but I suppose we decided on one and were reminded by it of the other. It made for quite a harrowing evening - but well worth it.

Freaks is mainly famous for being banned in the UK for 30 years after its release. I expected it to be pretty morally repugnant for that reason, but actually it's not. The story in fact has a quite straightforward and uncontroversial moral line, which I think ought to have gone down palatably enough in 1930s Britain. Prejudice against the 'freaks' is portrayed as unenlightened, they themselves are shown as having both very human feelings and a strong moral code, and the true villains of the piece turn out to be a trapeze artist and strongman, who have no physical deformities, but are morally corrupt. I presume that the reason for the ban, then, was less that the film was considered actually unethical and more that it simply turned over too many stones, and brought audiences face to face with things (the censors thought) they preferred not to know about.

Meanwhile, for the modern viewer, there are definitely some uncomfortable aspects. Despite the "good looks != good morals" message, the deformed characters are still very much portrayed as Others, and with an associated underlying malevolence. Their being called 'freaks' is obviously part of that - but they're also shown as having their own very close-knit and generally exclusive community, and as being very ready to take violent vengeance on anyone who hurts a member of that community. It's the sort of tale that's been told a thousand times about gypsies, Jews, slaves, aborigines, immigrants, barbarians, etc. etc., ever since human beings learnt to write - but something we're more consciously aware of as unhelpful today.

It does have to be added, too, that the acting throughout is abysmal. Obviously, for most of the deformed characters, this was their first and often only film, so some haltingly-delivered lines can be forgiven. But the four lead able-bodied characters (two nice, two nasty) don't have that excuse. They just suck. So it's always going to be a film that's watched for its historical interest and the issues it touches upon - not because it's actually a cinematic masterpiece (despite claims to the contrary on the back of the video box).

Finally, I was really struck by how much the heroine, Venus, and / or the young lady who played her, Leila Hyams reminded me of the character of Tallulah in Daleks in Manhattan. I mean, I'm not saying Tallulah was consciously based on her, because I think what's really going on is simply that actresses of that kind were ten-a-penny in this era, being churned out by the dozen from acting academies. (I read a short story to that effect once, although I can't remember who it was by or what it was called). But it's another testament to how right the Doctor Who team got that character, anyway.


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