onsdag 13 februari 2019

Doctor Who series eleven: the Doc's not dead yet

Well, that could have been a lot worse. I recently finished watching series eleven of Doctor Who (except the new year special which isn't out on DVD yet) and found myself, surprisingly, not hating it. I had grave misgivings about this series: I didn't like the idea of a female Doctor, I wasn't a fan of the new show runner Chris Chibnall, and I found the way the series was marketed grating. In the end, though, although I'm not bowled over by it, it exceeded my expectations.

The quality of the episodes, though uneven, is by no means uniformly bad. The two first episodes were fine - not spectacular, but good entertainment. I especially liked "The Ghost Monument", with its satisfyingly alien world and Art Malik's enjoyable guest turn as the high-handed runner of a space race. Then the series hit something of a rough patch. The premise of the third episode ”Rosa”, where the Doctor and her team has to protect a small but important historical event from outward interference, isn’t bad in itself. What you could call the Sliding Doors theory of history, where small changes in the past can knock history seriously off course, usually provides entertaining time-travel plots. Not this time, though, as the sci-fi part of the story takes a back seat (no pun intended). It’s hard to quarrel with the episode’s message – segregation laws bad, Rosa Parks’s protest good – but it’s conveyed rather heavy-handedly. Every white person the Doctor and Co. meet is an eye-rolling, overacting racist, and every point is hammered home.  Vinette Robinson is a good Rosa Parks, though: her weariness, stemming from having to watch her step and keep her head down every blessed day of the week, feels very convincing.

At least “Rosa” is well-intentioned. There's no excuse for “Arachnids in the UK” whatsoever. The threat is dumb – spiders grown unnaturally large by “toxic waste”? Is this a children’s cartoon from the Seventies? The Doctor’s squeamishness about killing said spiders outright is inexplicable – would she object to squashing a normal-sized spider in a bath, then? The solution she and her friends come up with instead is basically an “out of sight, out of mind” one which will end with the spiders dead anyway, only it will be slower. And then there’s Robertson, an American hotel magnate and presidential candidate who barks “you’re fired!” at a new employee… Yeah, they went there. Even if the Trump caricature had been done with Yes Minister-like finesse, it would have been out of place in a Doctor Who adventure. As it is, the episode takes a cheap shot at a goodish-sized target and manages to miss it completely. Robertson may be a one-dimensional bastard, but unlike the Donald, he is crushingly predictable, which would make him a pretty safe incumbent of the White House. Plus he has the right idea about those spiders.

After the just about OK "The Tsuranga Conundrum" the series picked up with two strong installments - "The Demons of Punjab" and "Kerblam!" - which where not at all what I'd expected them to be. "The Demons of Punjab" is set during the Partition of India, but the focus is an intimate family drama. Context is provided by conflicts within the Indian population rather than moaning about the awful Brits, and there's not a tropical-helmeted Colonel in sight. "Kerblam!" takes place at what's basically Amazon in space, and I braced myself for a lecture about the evils of commercialism. That's not what the adventure's about, however: instead, it's a fun caper full of surprising twists and turns.

"The Witchfinders" was another dip for me, though as it took itself less seriously than "Rosa" I somehow minded it less. I’ve had a soft spot for Alan Cumming since he played Boris, one of my all-time favourite Bond villains, in Goldeneye. So I was disappointed at first when Cumming camped it up as King James I – just because a king has male lovers doesn’t mean he’s a pantomime dame. All the same, Cumming’s campiness may have saved King James from having even a harder time. If the part had been played with Iain Glen-like grimness, the two character moments which the king is allowed would have had more impact, but at the same time all the “burn the witches” stuff would have seemed more sinister, and the companions would probably not have ended up amiably chewing the fat with him in the end scene. Not exactly a fair portrayal of the king who smoothly succeeded Elizabeth I, brokered a peace with Spain and commissioned an ace Bible translation – whatever James I was, I suspect he was no fool – but it could have been worse. Oh, and Siobhan Finneran (alias Miss O’Brien) as a paranoid estate owner acts everyone else off set. Could we have her in the Downton movie, please?

Then came "It Takes You Away" – which was amazing! Mirror portals, parallel worlds, characters having to face loved ones seemingly back from the dead and having to figure out whether they're real or fake... my geeky heart soared. This had the true Who feel, and even though the series finale was tepid, I found myself cautiously looking forward to series twelve. On the subject of the finale, though, it does contain one of my least favourite plot clichés: the one where a good character is tempted to kill a bad character out of revenge, then is persuaded that he's "better than that", then subjects the bad character to an even worse punishment than death would have been. But it's OK, as the goodie didn't get blood on his hands. For pity's sake (literally), just kill the guy, you wuss!

I'm still far from convinced by Chris Chibnall as show runner, but he did pick some good guest writers, and the main acting cast works well. Jodie Whittaker convinces as the Doctor – I don't think she will ever be my favourite, but she is suitably Doctorish as well as warm and engaging. The companions are likeable, too. Bradley Walsh nails it as retired bus driver Graham, the best-developed companion and a real sweetheart. His step-grandson Ryan, played by Tosin Cole, is disarmingly laid-back, and his and Graham's tentative bonding following the death of Graham's wife and Ryan's nan Grace suitably touching. Mandip Gill's apprentice policeman Yaz is, as has been commented on, under-developed, but she has potential. I really enjoyed the friendly dynamic between the companions – Ryan and Graham backing up Yaz when she tried to persuade a sceptical Doctor to go back in time so she could see her grandmother as a young woman was a sweet moment.

Having said all that, I do feel like some of the magic of the series is gone. Above all, it's not as clever as it used to be under brainbox Steven Moffat. With less brilliant banter and brain-twisting sci-fi concepts to distract one, the flaws of the series, which have always been there – a clunky political comment here, a certain sense of over-worthiness there – become more apparent. But it's still watchable, and as Chibnall settles in, I'm hoping he'll deign to use more familiar Doctor Who tropes, including some of its old villains (especially as he hasn't really managed to create impressive new ones this far). Perhaps the Master could come back, regenerated as a man again, thus flipping the Gomez-Capaldi dynamic? It would be nice if he still had that Scottish accent...   

onsdag 6 februari 2019

There's something about Alice

So, here are a couple of things you may not know about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass if you've never actually read them but have seen various adaptations of them:

1) The Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland never actually beheads anyone. She does shout "Off with his/her/their head/s!", but the King pardons anyone singled out in this way, and the Gryphon confirms that "they never executes nobody".

2) The Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen are not the same person. The Red Queen appears in Through the Looking Glass and is a typically dotty character who's completely unthreatening.

3) The Red Queen and the White Queen (also dotty) are not enemies.

4) Alice never slays, or indeed meets, a Jabberwock. She reads about it in a poem she finds in Through the Looking Glass.

5) Jabberwock is the monster, Jabberwocky the poem.

6) We never see Alice as a grown-up, and though a bright girl who takes things in her stride, she is no action heroine. She is not romantically linked to the Mad Hatter nor anyone else.

7) The two Alice books are supposed to describe her dreams and both end with Alice waking up.

In short, various works that have been inspired by or even claim to be adaptations of the Alice books take considerable liberties with their source material. The worst offender in my view in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland which has nothing whatsoever to do with the work on which it's based: it's more of a scrappy sort of sequel, but doesn't even work as that. A generic fantasy concept is forced onto Carroll's characters which doesn't fit at all. (I've not seen Alice Through The Looking Glass but I gather that has as little to do with the second Alice book as the first film had with the first.)

Others are more open with their Alice adventures being flights of fancy. In Once Upon A Time we ended up with two different versions of Wonderland - neither very faithful to the original, but enjoyable all the same. Second Wonderland's Alice, whose acquaintance we made in season seven, had an endearing quirkiness about her which in some way reminded one of the original, and there were several references to the books in her conversation which convinced at least me that the writers know them pretty well (I was particularly impressed with their picking up on Alice's penchant for orange marmalade). As for the first version of Wonderland, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts (Cora, also the Evil Queen's mum and the Miller's Daughter) were especially memorable, if a far cry from their "real" Wonderland counterparts.

In all these variations Alice is a grown-up, and in each case her adventures aren't dreams at all but real. The same is true of the heroine of Alice, a novel by Christina Henry who also uses Carroll's books as a starting point for her own fantastic tale.

For a while, I was in two minds about whether I liked this novel or not, and in some ways I still am. It starts in deep gloom, and I nearly gave up there and then, thinking "be so good as not to involve Carroll's poor Alice in your fantasy dystopias". The quality of the writing made me persevere, though, and once Henry's Alice and her fellow asylum inmate Hatcher (it took me an embarrassingly long time to make the connection to the Mad Hatter) have escaped from their prison and have started on their quest to defeat the Jabberwock/Jabberwocky, I enjoyed the story. At the same time the references to Carroll's books continued to rile me, as the dark fantasy setting bears abslutely no resemblance to Wonderland or the Looking-Glass World whatsoever. The characters with names/nicknames relating to the Alice books are usually crime bosses with an extra keen interest in exploiting girls. Even Burton's take on Alice seemed sweetly whimsical and faithful in comparison.

And yet - I can't quite claim that Henry uses the Alice books simply as a way to superficially dress up her own grim world. Alice herself reacts to events and characters with something of the same clear-eyed naïvety as the original, and the various shady people she comes across have something to tie them to their Wonderland counterparts, though it's not much. The Caterpillar is still patronising. The Walrus still has an appetite. And Cheshire smiles. I acknowledge that Henry would have had difficulty in telling the same story while removing all the Wonderland references. It's still a bit of an imposition, though.

The ending of the book was, to my mind, problematic. I disliked the way that Alice and Hatcher went from fantasy questers to avengers, cutting a bloody swathe through the Old City's Underworld. Moral indignation is, for me, one of the least relatable murder motives there is - give me good old lust, greed or personal revenge any time. In the end, there are only so many people that need to die for someone's personal gain: if on the other hand your mission is to rid the world of anyone you deem morally unfit, you can go on forever. It puzzled me how, when it comes to the final showdown between Alice and the Jabberwock, she clearly still thinks of herself as unsullied: "She would never comprehend the need to hurt those who never hurt her, the need to hate for the sake of hating." Er, remember that time you cut a man's throat and watched him slowly bleed to death? That's called hating, girl.

Also, said showdown with the Jabberwock and Alice's confrontation with the Rabbit, the man/beast who once took her prisoner (a not altogether convincing Big Bad - I'd have said the March Hare would have been a better fit), are a bit of an anticlimax after the way these two characters have been built up throughout the novel. The defeat of the Jabberwock isn't particularly clever and in no way more merciful than some straightforward snicker-snacking with a vorpal blade would have been. Yet, with all its faults, the novel has a strong redeeming feature: it's a good read. Plus, Cheshire is great. I've already ordered the sequel.

So, why is it so common for writers, filmmakers etc. to seek inspiration from the Alice books, when to a large extent they are going to do their own thing anyway? The answer is simple, really: the books are just that good. As anyone who has tried to retell an amazing dream which then only seems boring and disjointed knows, pulling off a truly intriguing dream narrative is no mean thing. And although Carroll's Alice never comes across a real antagonist, there is something unsettling about some of the adventures she goes through and the people she encounters (or hears about - like the Walrus and the Carpenter) which does lend itself to "dark" interpretations. For my part, I'm happy to go down a few more Alice-inspired rabbit holes - though I'd be grateful if people could tell their Red Queens from their Queens of Hearts.

onsdag 23 januari 2019

The latest BBC Woman in White and the Fosco challenge

So, I finally made my way through the BBC's latest The Woman in White adaptation. I wasn't blown away by it, but it did have some virtues. Above all, it stays faithful to the original story, or nearly (I'll come back to that), which sets it apart from the adaptation from the Nineties, not to mention the musical. Sir Percival Glyde's "Secret" is finally the same as in the book - hooray! - and Sir Percival dies dramatically in a church trying to destroy the evidence of it. The events leading up to this climax play out the same way as in the novel, too. The two heroines - the resourceful Marian Halcombe and her put-upon half-sister Laura Fairlie who is married off to the dastardly Glyde - are well-cast. Jessie Buckley has strong, somewhat masculine features which we might consider handsome today but would not have gone down well in the 19th century (hence Walter's reaction in the book: "this woman is ugly"), Olivia Vinall as Laura is pretty as a picture, and the acting of both is top-notch. Vinall plays Anne Catherick too, which makes every sort of sense, though she has to sport a somewhat off-putting set of dentures as Anne just to show that while similar, the two women are not identical. Marian is not, mercifully, made out to have a thing for Laura's true love Walter Hartright (for a moment, the narrative seems to be heading that way, but it backs away just in time). Instead, she is shown to be the true and loving sister she is in the book, and a good friend to Walter, too. As for Walter, he never resents Marian's early insistence that his and Laura's love isn't meant to be - as Laura is engaged, and Walter is her tutor, he can see for himself that things look hopeless. Another thing I thought worked well was the framing device of having a scrivener, Erasmus Nash, question various witnesses in the case which then leads to flashbacks of what happened. It gives a taste of the novel's clever structure of several narrators. I don't remember there being a Nash in the novel, and I suspect he may have been created as an excuse to shove Art Malik into the story, but I like Art Malik, so I can see why this is something one would want to do.   

As to elements that were more mixed: Charles Dance has and is fun as Frederick Fairlie, but beneath all that old-man make-up he is too much the picture of health to convince as an invalid. It is true that Mr Fairlie is a hypochondriac, with nothing much actually wrong with him, but he should at least be able to put up a show of being frail and infirm - Ian Richardson, with his wavering tones, was more convincing than Dance, whose voice still rings out with Tywin-like toughness. Dougray Scott is the right type for Sir Percival Glyde, and overall I'd say he earns a pass not without distinction: it's a tricky part, as the charismatic villain of the piece is so obviously meant to be Fosco, and Sir Percival is more of a second-league scoundrel. All the same, a little more plausible amiability in the early  stages of the story wouldn't have gone amiss. One reason why Sir Percival's marriage to Laura isn't halted is that no-one is able to find fault with him or pin something on him: it's only after the marriage that his true nature reveals itself. While Limmeridge House and Blackwater Park are both convincingly "house-cast" - the one looks imposingly affluent, the other gothic - other locations, like what passes for 19th-century London, isn't quite as persuasive: you get the impression that the budget wasn't exactly abundant.

When I looked up reviews of this adaptation, more than one of them spoke of it being a version of the tale "for the #metoo generation". Though they meant it as praise, I'm sure this labelling of the series didn't do it any favours. No need to fear a preach-fest, though. It's true the first scene features Marian railing against men who are allowed to "crush" women and go unpunished, but this and other outbursts of the same vein only occur when she is deeply upset on Laura's behalf. I didn't find them against character, and wouldn't be surprised if some of them were actually in the book (I haven't checked). Maybe the focus gets a little skewed as we never see Marian being scathing about her own sex, which I believe she was in the novel, but all the same I'd say the levels of modern right-on-ness are well below alarming. In fact, the most jarring scene for me wasn't Marian being a proto-feminist but Mr Fairlie's footman, Louis, rising up against him and demanding that he should apologise to his niece Laura at the end. Fond of Louis as Mr Fairlie seems to be - he is mentioned surprisingly often in Fairlie's narrative in the book - a servant would never be allowed to behave like that without being dismissed without a character. After all, there are other handsome footmen out here.

There are more serious problems with this adaptation than excessive pandering to modern sensibilities. For one thing, it feels way too long at four hours and a bit: the tense atmosphere of the novel doesn't quite translate, and I found myself yawning, especially in the beginning. Walter is little more than a pretty boy, whereas he should be a man of parts although he's the standard hero type. Above all, there's the presentation of the novel's main villain Count Fosco.

Yes, now it's finally time to address what I hinted at in the title. Riccardo Scamarcio is charismatic, but not in the Fosco way: he is far too Byronically dashing, and only a size-zero supermodel would call him fat. I could see Scamarcio working well as a world-weary seducer who's been at his game a while but is still very good at it. The novel's Fosco, though, is quite another sort of bad guy. He doesn't charm the domestic staff or Marian with smarmy hand-kisses but with bonhomie: he is the steely, amoral mastermind disguised as a jovial, humorous, sociable fat foreign gentleman. Although Fosco is a little too easy to like and "high-prestige" for me to be completely smitten with him as a villain, I appreciate him, and I've always assumed that the part in all its showiness would be an absolute gift for an actor. It seems, though, as if it's harder to bring Fosco into other media than the novel than one would have thought. The musical played him too much for laughs. In the Nineties adaptation, he was strangely muted - even though he was played by Simon Callow. Here, he is suddenly a Latin charmer, probably in order to make Marian's attraction to him more plausible to the viewers. This really isn't necessary. Fosco is no more conventionally handsome than Marian is conventionally pretty, but this doesn't stop them from coming across as attractive, exciting people in the novel. The challenge to rise to would surely have been to make this work in the TV format, too.

torsdag 10 januari 2019

My my, I actually really enjoyed the Mamma Mia sequel

It might be a good idea to start the year on a positive note. A couple of months back, I watched Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again in the cinema and found myself enjoying it a lot more than I expected. So why were my expectations so low to start with, seeing as I'm a massive ABBA fan? Well, people seem to assume that if you love ABBA, you'll love the Mamma Mia films and if you don't you'll hate them. However, it's not quite as simple as that.

I've loved ABBA since I first heard "The Winner Takes It All" as a girl and thought: "Wow, what a power ballad! And all about betrayed love *swoon*". And so, although ABBA the band hadn't been playing for ages, ABBA songs became part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. It follows, then, that I don't like ABBA songs "ironically"; I happen to think they are darned good songs, both melody- and lyrics-wise. When Mamma Mia the musical started playing in London, I went to see it and thought it was great entertainment. Although the plot was paper thin, professional musical artists and a witty script ("I'm old enough to be your mother! Well, you can call me Oidipus") made sure the soufflé didn't sag.

Then Mamma Mia! the movie came out, and was frankly a disappointment. The script felt dumbed down, and it was soon very clear that the line-up of famous actors who played in the film did not become famous for their singing talent. The only one whose singing really impressed me was Amanda Seyfried who plays Sophie, the daughter of Donna, who doesn't know which of her mother's three old admirers is her dad. Also, there was a lot of mugging all round. Everyone seemed to be in it just for the larks, and the message came across as "look, we know these songs are campy and cheesy, but c'mon, let's all have some fun!" As a true ABBA fan, I took exception to this. The film didn't seem to have any idea of what made the songs good or the musical entertaining in the first place. As mentioned, funny lines were cut and replaced by heavy-handed slapstick. "Our Last Summer", which in the musical was a touching reminiscence piece sung by Donna and one of her old beaux, became a fairly pointless number with Sophie and the three (possible) dads. One song the film didn't manage to ruin, though, was "Slipping Through My Fingers", which remained, as in the musical, an affecting moment between mother and daughter.

So when the first clip I saw from the sequel was in the same forced larky vein, I groaned. "When I Kissed The Teacher" is the only pop song I've ever heard about a teacher crush, and pretty much nails its subject matter. Though it is light-hearted - the original music video, with Magnus Härenstam as the hapless teacher, is hilarious - there is no doubt that the girl singing the song is well and truly smitten. In the film, a young Donna sings the number in lieu of a speech at her graduation from college and only kisses the teacher (a female don) for fun. Then she and her fellow graduate students run out and dance and sing, throwing their graduation hats in the air etc. Honestly, how do you manage to miss the point of a song so completely? I wasn't looking forward to the rest of it.

It turns out, though, that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again shows more appreciation of its musical source material than the original film, and above all sounds a lot better. Most of the songs are given to Amanda Seyfried and to Lily James as young Donna, who also, mercifully, turns out to be sweet-voiced. The film takes the trouble to listen to what the songs actually say and fit the action to it rather than hamming it up at every turn. "One of Us" is allowed to be about a sticky point in Sophie's relationship with her boyfriend. "Knowing Me, Knowing You" is really used to illustrate a sad break-up - although, as Donna and Sam had only been together for a week or so, the melancholy lyrics more fitted for the break-up of a long marriage don't really feel earned. "The Name Of The Game", where young Donna comes down with a bump from cloud nine at the end, works well, as does "Mamma Mia", which she now sings after she's had her heart broken but is trying to get herself together as the lead singer in a band. Donna's two old friends may still camp it up in "Angel Eyes", but at least their antics are nicely undercut by Sophie's real anguish over her boyfriend situation. I also liked how less well-known ABBA songs were smuggled in here and there: the melody of "I Let The Music Speak" is played as accordion accompaniment in a Paris scene; the amateurish Greek band Donna joins are performing "Kisses Of Fire" when she first hears them; at Sophie's party, people are dancing to "Hasta Mañana". A highlight worth mentioning is when Cher - who plays Sophie's glamorous grandmother - delivers an outstanding "Fernando" (though it's never made clear how she and her old love were separated, nor how they can get together again so smoothly without any recriminations).

The film does cheat occasionally. It almost completely changes the lyrics of "I've Been Waiting For You" and "My Love, My Life". The first song is originally about a girl with implied heartbreak in her past who falls head over heels in love again. Her jubilant optimism drowns out any misgivings one might have, considering that the object of her affections may not yet know about her feeling or feel the same way ("I feel you belong to me/Someday you will agree/Please believe me"). The situation in "My Love, My Life" is similar to the one in Céline Dion's "Think Twice" (you've gathered by now that my music taste is not in any way cool). The woman who sings the song knows that her relationship is coming to and end, and that her significant other - whom she still loves - is working up the courage to break it off. Unlike the singer of "Think Twice", though, she's not going to plead: she accepts that it's over ("But I know I don't possess you/So go away, God bless you/You are still my love and my life/Still my one and only"). In the film, these two songs are all about the mother-daughter relationship between Donna (who has died when the film starts) and Sophie, and very touching it is, too, especially when Meryl Streep shows up as Donna's ghost at an important family event. But the original songs have a special place in my heart. All the same, they do work this way, and at least they're not delivered "ironically".

Yes, the film has its fair share of somewhat clumsy comedy, but it didn't really bother me this time around. I left the cinema in the right sunny mood, feeling that some justice had been done to one of my favourite bands. If you need something to temporarily drive away the January blues, by all means take a chance on this.

måndag 31 december 2018

Things to look forward to in 2019

It’s time either for a retrospect of or speculations and thoughts about the years to come. Last year at around this time, I promised myself to get more into book reading again. The resolution was, overall, a success, although my Jane Austen Rereading Project stalled when only Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey (my least favourite Austen novel) remained. It’s not that long ago I read Mansfield Park… Anyway, I will get around to them next year. I did try out some fantasy as well and enjoyed Caraval and Legendary hugely, so I will keep experimenting cautiously.

Maybe 2019 will be the year I rediscover my love of costume dramas? What with Once Upon A Time ending and no more Rumple (sob) to gladden my heart, I will need something to console me. Luckily, the year ahead looks like it’s going to be the year when Julian Fellowes delivers on two counts. Here, then, are some of the possible cultural-consumption highlights (from my perspective) of 2019:

Downton Abbey the film/movie: They’re finally doing it! Better late than never, I suppose, though having moved on on the villain-loving front, I’m not as mad with anticipation as I would once have been. The lateness of the project does worry me, as I’m afraid the Downton audience has had too much time to get over their obsession/healthy interest in the Crawley family saga. On the other hand, internet reactions seem enthusiastic enough, and perhaps many other Downton fans are, like me, using the time before September to rewatch the entire series, the better to be able to speculate on what plot lines may be picked up again and finally reach a conclusion. I mean, though they kept us waiting for the film, it’s not as if we’re going to refrain from watching it, are we? Watch this space for the usual hit-and-miss predictions…

The Gilded Age: For supposedly being a project close to Fellowes’s heart, he has taken his own sweet time about this TV series, which will air on American telly this year and is set in the USA in the late 19th century. The heroine of the drama is described  as a “wide-eyed scion of a conservative family” who will infiltrate a family of noveaux riches (or more correctly, even more nouveaux riches) which includes a “ruthless railway tycoon” and his “rakish and available son”. The son will probably be a zero, but I have some hopes of the tycoon. I wonder who will play him?

Les Misérables: In his usual undiplomatic way, Andrew Davies has been scathing about the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic, which happens to be my favourite musical and what got me interested in the novel in the first place. Nevertheless, Davies will be Davies, and I will not let his bad boy antics cloud my judgement of his own Les Mis project based squarely on the book. Davies is just the guy to trim off all Hugo’s endless diversions and get to the story, and the first trailer seems promising. I’m glad we get to see Fantine’s back story this time around. Also, I’m certain Olivia Colman will be a great Madame Thénardier. Which leads me almost seamlessly to:

The Crown season three: I’ve not been as devoted a fan of this show as many other period drama lovers, but I will admit that it’s an ambitious, high-quality series with superb acting. It certainly knocks spots off, say, Poldark or Victoria. The bad news is that Claire Foy, who was such a spectacular Queen in the first two seasons, won’t be around in this one. The good news is that her replacement is the above-mentioned Olivia Colman, who’s been reliably excellent in every part I’ve seen her in (even as the crusading agent in The Night Manager, who should have been unbearable but somehow wasn’t). Also appearing is Tobias Menzies – whom I rather like, maybe because he’s a little shifty-looking – as Prince Philip and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret. This could be fun, in a high-brow kind of way.

Finally getting to see Doctor Who series 11: Right… Not sure I’ll be wild about this. Doctor Who doesn’t air in Sweden, so I have to wait for the DVDs. I did see one episode of the newest series of Doctor Who in Australia – “Arachnids in the UK” – and hated it. Judging from reviews, though, this was the absolute low point of  the series, and one thing I did not hate was Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor; she put in a likeable performance in the Matt Smith era-Doctor vein. I am looking forward to being able to form my own opinion of what’s happening in Wholand. If I don’t like it, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of being right to have doubts about Chris Chibnall.

Frozen 2, I guess? It’s another sequel instead of an original idea, but at least it’s animated and not a pointless live-action remake, and it is Disney. I will be hoping that there’ll be one or two references to the Frozen arc in Once Upon A Time for us fans to detect. (I didn’t much like the Frozen arc – not surprisingly considering how it ended – but Once is Once.) There won’t be, mind.

torsdag 13 december 2018

More films I'm glad I saw in-flight

It's December, and Christmas will be here soon: surely a good enough excuse to follow the road of least resistance blogging-wise? Anyway, here are my thoughts on two further films I saw in-flight on my trip Down Under (and back), which were both suited for this kind of watching for different reasons: one because it was complicated, one because it was simple.

Inception All right, not one to watch at the end of a long-haul flight when your brain is fried. At the beginning of a trip lasting hours on end it's a good choice though, because it's pretty long. If you were watching it at home sitting on the sofa, you'd probably be tempted to fidget, wander off to make a cup of tea etc. On a plane, there are few distractions, and as the hours go by you can concentrate on getting your head around the plot.

Briefly, its troubled anti-hero Cobb, played by a glum Leonardo di Caprio, and his small team of helpers make their living by gate-crashing people's dreams and extracting secret information from them. One hard-headed businessman is on to them, though, and makes them an interesting offer: if they manage to plant an idea in the head of a business rival, a young sprig who has just taken over his father's huge empire, they will be amply rewarded. They accept the challenge, but planting an idea (the inception of the title) is a tricky business, and Cobb and co. end up struggling to get free from the young sprig's dream world.

Clearly, you have to be geek to enjoy this film. Happily, I am. I have a great fondness for "dream or reality?" plots; I'm fascinated by things like how you can tell if what you're experiencing is real, all the details that are off in dreams compared to real life and which mechanisms are at play when we're still convinced that what we're experiencing in dreams is really happening. I vaguely remember a reviewer commenting that Inception isn't half as clever as it thinks it is, but for my part I thought it had some nifty concepts. One trick to check if you're dreaming, Cobb claims, is to try to remember how you came to be in a certain situation, because dreams always start in the middle of an event (though the exception appears to be the dream-within-a-dream which does have a clear beginning: when you think you wake up). Dream time moves differently than real time, which would explain those epic dreams you have where you seem to live a whole parallel life before waking up after only a few hours. I also liked the idea of the people in the dream, the dreamer's "projections", attacking intruders like antibodies once they realise there's something amiss. If, like me, you were truly interested in the "Am I mad, in a coma or back in time?" set-up of the TV series Life on Mars and didn't view it as simply a faux-profound excuse to team a policeman with modern-day sensibilities with a tough Seventies-style copper, then this could be the film for you. The ending really isn't very clever, though.

Sing Your opinion of Illumination Studios, and the likely quality of their animated films, tends to depend on what you think of the minions, the comic sidekicks first introduced in Despicable Me. I am not a fan. It bugs me that the word "minions", such a lovely appellation for a villain's devoted followers, is now connected with small, yellow, annoyingly babbling creatures that look like the useless rubber tips of pencils. However, a lot of people find them funny, and they even got their own film, which must have done pretty well considering that Illuminations had the funds to buy up Disney's angriest rival DreamWorks. As a Disney fan I have mixed feelings about DreamWorks, but they have produced some high-quality stuff. Whereas Illumination, if Sing is any indication, isn't really in the same league, and certainly not in the same league as Disney.

To be fair, I've only watched two of Illumination's animated films, and Sing is a lot more slick and effective than the uneven Despicable Me. The plot is fairly straightforward. Buster Moon, the koala owner of a failing theatre, tries to save it by arranging a singing competition. Because of a printing error, though, the prize announced for the winner is huge and way beyond his budget. Meanwhile, hopeful contenders queue up to take part, and Buster has to find a way to come up with the prize money and make sure his nervy contestants - who all face different problems which could come between them and stardom - perform on the day.

Cue a number of contestants who are sweet and likeable, one who is a bastard (but a first-class crooner) and the hustler Buster himself who is scheduled to be taken down a peg or two while his love of the theatre is validated. It's a predictable film when it comes to the main thrust of the story, though the plot takes one or two surprising detours along the way. The contestants are stereotypes, if enjoyable ones, and there are too many of them to give them much personality beyond about one characteristic each. The animation is pretty good, as is the singing, but this feels much more like a kids' film than, say, Disney's Moana/Vaiana (which isn't even one of my favourite Disney flicks). In other words, it works well for the fried-brain part of a long flight.

With Illumination in charge of DreamWorks, it's unlikely to produce a new Prince of Egypt any time soon. On the other hand, it's a long time since DreamWorks itself produced something in the Prince of Egypt vein. Maybe Illumination is the logical owner of the company who released The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants, films whose very titles repel grown-up animation lovers. And now the creators of the minions are getting their mitts on the Shrek franchise. Not to gloat or anything, but... that's what you get for blowing up people's pet geese, ogre scum.     

torsdag 29 november 2018

Game of Thrones seasons four and five: The Great Games

Things are looking well on the belated watching of Game of Thrones front. I got through seasons four and five at quite a pace, compared to season three which was really hard to get through. Though season four was more satisfying than season five, they both proved ideal TV entertainment for ordinary workdays when you don't crave anything too emotionally engaging. At this rate, I have a fair chance of catching up on the whole series before season eight starts airing (and it will probably be some time before it's accessible to Swedes, anyway).

Not emotionally engaging, I hear you say? But what about those dramatic set pieces from both seasons, where characters we have reason to root for are betrayed, raped, killed or put through the wringer in other ways? I know, but though the characterisation has improved a lot since season one - where I was almost gleeful about how clumsy it was - and there are now several characters I would describe as likeable, interesting and/or funny, I'm still wary of getting too attached. I wonder if this is just me, keeping my distance because of the character-murdering nature of the show, or if there actually is an estrangement effect built into it. Either way, watching Game of Thrones makes me feel like a spectator at the gladiator games so abhorred by Daenerys Targaryen: I'm absorbed by the drama  played out in front of me and mostly pick a side, but if the combattant I favour loses I shrug and move on to the next fight.

And like a gladiator game spectator, I sometimes feel a little dirty for watching the thing. The show's creators could, I suppose, explain the reason behind most of the individual gasp-inducing scenes we see by way of the dramatic payoffs they lead to. The accumulative impression you get, however, is that the show has a tendency to go for shock value just because it can, because it's the gritty Game of Thrones, isn't it? This impression is strengthened by the number of times a meal is made of some particular character's plight. I felt queasy twice while watching season five and was close to pushing the forward button (which hitherto I've only done once - during the castration scene and the prelude to it in season three). One time was when we see a nasty bit character hitting under-age girls in particularly questionable circumstances (he then gets his eyes gouged out and his throat cut, and no, that wasn't nice to watch either), the other when Cersei, admittedly a bitch of the first order, goes through a humiliation scene which goes on forever, and just so happens to be in the buff the whole time. We didn't have to witness either of these happenings in quite such excruciating detail. The tragic death in the penultimate episode was pretty drawn-out as well, but I sat through it, in my desensitised Game of Thrones state, mainly wondering whether the show's writers were referencing Greek mythology or were just complete bastards.

And yes, I know that the TV series is based on a series of novels by George RR Martin, and that the reason bad things happen in the series may well be because they happen in the books. Nevertheless, I suspect the TV series has a flavour of its own which isn't always pleasant. And it's not as if the payoffs we get really need all that build-up. It's a powerful image to see Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy prepared to leap off a steep wall because they realise that yes, there is such a thing as a fate worse than death. But did we really have to follow them every painful step of the way there?         

I should stop whingeing now, because I really enjoyed these seasons of Game of Thrones, and there was nothing in them that disgusted me as much as the Theon plot in season three. The wallowing-in-violence factor probably wouldn't bother me so much if I didn't feel that the show has been hyped for its flaws rather than its strengths. It's a good show despite all the slicing and dicing, not because of it, and it's largely due to the superlative acting throughout. In season five, we got such delights as Jonathan Pryce as the most charming and avuncular implacable fanatic you are ever likely to meet. I'm also pleased to see Anton Lesser as a disgraced scientist and friend of Cersei's, who as soon as he has the opportunity covers her up after her ordeal. It's moments like that which make me think that somewhere buried beneath all its self-imposed edginess this series has a heart after all.