Collateral (2018)

CollateralCollateral is a BBC four-part crime thriller which has a fine cast and solid production values, but for me it was ruined by the preposterous plot and a political agenda, intended or otherwise, that left me with the same bad taste it did in The Last Jedi. You might well be wondering what Star Wars and a BBC drama set in modern-day London have in common.

I’m all for inclusiveness and giving female actors major roles etc, but sometimes dear old Auntie Beeb tries too hard (it was an element in its recent series Requiem, too, but to a much lesser extent). Collateral throws the following at us: a female priest, who is a lesbian, and in love with an illegal immigrant- that ticks several boxes just by itself. The lead detective is a woman, six-months pregnant, which is immaterial to the plot but just hangs there (career girl, high-flyer, and an imminently brilliant mother too, obviously), she does very little wrong, is famous for having been in a past Olympics, and outwits all her male junior officers, who are generally portrayed as subservient and dumb. Two of the bad guys are men who are foreigners who are very stupid and mess up a murder, leaving traces and get caught by our lead detective. They are in league with an MI5 intelligence operative who is, yes, a man, and yes, a complete utter arsehole.  The ‘clever’ assassin who very nearly gets away with carrying a flawless murder is a woman from the military who is suffering sexual harassment from a superior officer and is actually raped by him. She later reveals this to the superiors wife who throws the bastard out of her home. A male politician running amok in interviews is frustrated and pulled into line by the leader of the Labour party who is (you guessed it) female. I think this message was carried in The Last Jedi– women are smart and intelligent and right, and men are dumb and wrong most of the time.

Throw in some fairly heavy-handed anti-Brexit sentiments/comments/political posturing and I think this drama has covered every liberal agenda we could possibly want and more besides. Funny, I thought it was so supposed to be crime drama. Guess I was wrong.

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Outlander Season Three

out3One of the odd things about watching Outlander is that it’s one of those shows which no-one else in my social circle is watching. Which is weird, considering how ‘big’ a cultural event the series is worldwide and how popular the books are. No doubt much of the cause of this is the fragmented state of television distribution these days, and this being on Amazon Prime over here. I can only imagine what it would be like in the old days when something like this might have aired on a major terrestrial broadcaster like the BBC. Its surely what they call ‘watercooler television’, but I have to wonder how much of a thing that even is these days, with some shows isolated by their distribution in certain territories

So it often feels like I watch Outlander in a total vacuum. Imagine watching Game of Thrones and knowing no-else who was watching it. No rumours to discuss, revelations to marvel at, no spoilers to avoid from those who have already seen episodes or read the source books. Even just the experience of being outside the fanbase. I’m well aware that Outlander is very popular, but all of that seems to be outside of my cultural ‘bubble’. I feel so feel remote from it, a benefit is that avoiding spoilers is the easiest thing in the world, but a negative is that I suspect I’m missing out on some of the fun. And who doesn’t like sharing their favourite shows?

So here we have season three of Outlander, and yes, it is very good and well worth watching, in some ways a contender to Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and other popular juggernauts of the tv landscape. It is extremely well made, with a great cast and very good scripts. I gather it follows the books rather closely, and each season, while following an overall arc, does seem pleasantly self-contained with satisfying conclusions to the interior minor arcs of each season. Also there is a fairly distinct difference between seasons which makes the show fresh and interesting- Season 2 went to France and Season three goes on the high seas with nautical episodes, eventually winding up in the West Indies. Again, this is no doubt from following the books and the books themselves taking the lead in moving plot and setting forward (twenty years have occured between the start of season one and the end of season three- compare that to the lack of progression that hurts The Walking Dead over, what, eight seasons now?).

It also is blessed with a musical score by Bear McCreary that clearly demonstrates how much Game of Thrones is sorely lacking musically. Its big. lyrical, emotional, and perhaps while not as astounding as his BSG work remains one of the highlights of his career and for television scoring in general. Many movies (particularly the Marvel ones) could benefit from scoring like this. Outlander has a musical identity that is unique to itself and the soundtrack releases are well worth checking out.

I Am Providence by S.T. Joshi

prov1I’m currently reading S.T.Joshi’s mammoth biography of H.P.Lovecraft, I Am Providence. ‘Mammoth’ indeed- I’m just 130 pages into volume one;  a two-volume work, the whole thing totals over a thousand pages across the two books. Its a sizeable undertaking just reading the thing, the amount of work writing it must have been formidable. While I read all of Lovecraft’s fiction in the mid-eighties (having at that point read most of Robert E Howard’s fiction) I have never really read much about the author himself or ever really been inclined to do so, hearing things from my friend Andy who was more obsessed by HPL than I that ‘filled the blanks’ as it were.

It has always been clear to me that Lovecraft was a decidedly odd fellow. Is that even a surprise, considering some of the stories that he wrote? My fascination  with Lovecraft is that his stories have haunted me for years and you see so much of his work in modern-day films and fiction- even if not in ‘straight’ adaptations, so much in the media has ‘Lovecraftian’ undertones (my first brush with such was Alien from 1979, clearly a Lovecraftian horror and indeed one of the very best). It is as if, after his death, he has gradually and increasingly infected the cultural zeitgeist in a similar way to how Philip K Dick did post-Blade Runner. Alan Moore recently wrote a brilliant horror comic-book/graphic novel, Providence, which had this ‘Lovecraftian infestation’ as its main theme and was particularly horrific for it.

Yet while I rather adore his best stories, Lovecraft has never struck me as someone I would actually like, were I to somehow meet him. Genius begats strangeness sometimes and like fellow Weird Tales writer Robert E Howard, Lovecraft was surely a little peculiar and outside of ‘normal’ society. Although I freely admit I’m likely fooling myself,  I always feel like I could have had a beer with Bob Howard and would have liked him, and would love to jump into a time machine and meet him (I once had an incredibly vivid dream in which I did just that, and stopped him from his suicide). As far as Lovecraft is concerned though, I doubt any meeting between us would have gone very well, but hopefully this book will allow me to understand him and his worldviews and his writing more.

Initially the book was rather a struggle, to be honest, with a dry, rather academic summary of the history of Lovecraft’s paternal and maternal family backgrounds up to his birth and the place where he lived. Joshi spares no detail in his account. Indeed, at the point I am at now some 130 pages in,  Lovecraft is still just 14 or so, some years away from any of his weird writing that I am familiar with. Instead the book has been concerned with his spoiled, insular childhood- the precocious, albeit over-sensitive, very intelligent young boy and the depressed recluse he became following his fourth and most traumatic ‘breakdown’ (which is what I am up to).

It has been fascinating, considering my knowledge of Lovecraft’s genuine strangeness and his racist views, to see where it possibly all arose. His racism, abhorrent as it is, is a tricky subject. I would never, to be honest, wholly condemn Lovecraft  for his racism as it was as much a product of the times he lived in, and the place he lived in, and while yes, he should have known better it can be perhaps understood if not forgiven. People are simply of their time and it’s wrong I think to view him wholly negatively from the enlightened perspective of today. The fact that his childhood was rather dysfunctional explains a great deal the man he would become. His maternal grandfather becoming his father figure after his actual father wound up in a mental asylum, and his mother, with her own increasingly fragile mental state, describing her teenage son as ‘hideous’ indicating she treated him with love and hate in equal measure (and I thought Bob Howard has mother issues, go figure). A solitary child, Lovecraft’s best freinds were his family’s library of books  that he simply devoured, enjoying intellectual interests rather than the usual childish playful ones of his peers. Not that any of this excuses his worldviews, but they do perhaps allow us to understand them

Perhaps I shall write more about these two books and any revelations in the weeks to come. I’m definitely enjoying it and looking forward to the later sections dealing with all those weird horror stories I am so familiar with.

 

Return of the Black Swan

blackswNo, it’s not a sequel where Natalie Portman’s Nina inexplicably returns from the grave for one last Ballet. Although that would make for a bizarre movie and you might feel guilty for wishing someone would make it. No, this is a return visit to the film Black Swan after watching it on a Lovefilm rental way back when, enjoying it and buying the blu-ray only to leave that blu-ray unwatched for years. Yes, it’s that pile of unwatched discs rearing its formidable weight again.

So, after so long (hard to believe this film dates back to 2010) how does the film measure up? Pretty damn well. Portman’s performance is as remarkable and screen-melting as ever. Its career-best material, really, her descent into madness as fascinating and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen her do elsewhere. Funnily enough, my main observation about this film this time around is that it was really more of a horror film than the psycho-drama that I had considered it to be. This film is like a female version of Cronenberg’s classic sci-fi/body-horror Videodrome. In both films the human body is twisted and betrays the protagonist and in both films the very nature of reality, or our observation of it, is warped and subverted and questioned. Black Swan poses as a drama about ballet and stress and someone suffering a nervous breakdown, but its just as much a traditional horror movie. Or rather, its a horror movie dressed up as something more sophisticated.

At any rate, its a pretty damn fine movie. Maybe I should be brave and finally give Aronofsky’s mother! a try.

 

Experiment in Terror (1962)

expAlas, perhaps I simply wasn’t in the mood. To paraphrase a movie line somewhere, “moods aren’t for movies, boy!” but sometimes you sit down with a movie and it just doesn’t click the way you know it should. Its like a first date that goes awry or a job interview that starts badly. I should know better after so many years watching movies- I’d likely have been better calling a halt to it and putting something else on, leaving Experiment in Terror for some other night.

Perhaps its was simply from watching this bank heist caper too soon after the simply brilliant Cash on Demand a few weeks before. The two films could not be more wildly different, albeit the criminal subject matter notwithstanding. Cash on Demand was an intimate psychological drama whereas this was more a film-noir police procedural, and somehow it just felt a little bland. Wrong film, wrong time.

Beautiful, young bank-teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick, great as ever) arrives home and is threatened by a man whose face she cannot see. The man wants her to rob the bank she works at of $100,000, and if she fails to accede to his demand he promises he will harm both her and her 16-year-old sister Toby (Stephanie Powers). This tense and rather claustrophobic scene (mostly a close-up of Kelly’s terrified face, her assailant behind her with a hand around her neck) promises much, and after the man disappears into the night telling her that she is being watched at all times and not to get in touch with the law, we seem to be in for a promising cat and mouse thriller.

Unfortunately she goes straight to the law, ringing the FBI and setting up the police procedural thriller that the film really is as Glenn Ford’s agent Ripley sets about uncovering who the mystery villain is and apprehending him before either Kelly is forced to rob the bank or she or her sister are hurt. Its a fine enough thriller but not the one I was expecting- again, maybe it was just the wrong film on the wrong night. Getting the FBI involved just seemed to emasculate Lee Remick’s character too much; it left her a victim and less of a protagonist, but perhaps I’m just too used to female empowerment in modern movies.  This film was made in 1962, after all, and women needed saving by men back then.

Requiem (2018)

requiemWith Requiem, the BBC (in a co-production with Netflix) jumps into the horror genre with some gusto, a six-part series about possession, ghosts, suicides, child abduction and murder, religious cultists and more, in a leafy town in Wales, of all places. Actually that setting is probably the series strongest point- its out of the familiar city and more into the remote Twin Peaks-vibe, with a cast of characters conveniently strange and complete with a ghostly mansion where bad things have been going on for centuries. And creepy caves in the woods. And dead sheep (did someone say there’s a werewolf in this?). And perfect hair, and perfect clothes that don’t seem to get dirty despite much traipsing through woods etc (or perhaps they get spookily dry cleaned overnight).

Subtlety is not this shows finest asset. Something I’ve criticised modern television of before, and to which I attribute Game of Thrones as the chief blame. In a need to grab viewers attention modern television feels that it has to shock and throw everything but the kitchen sink into shows now. Its not that Requiem is bad, its quite enjoyable really, but why so much has to be hurled into its six episodes is hard to fathom. We’re hardly ten minutes into it before somebody throws himself off the roof of the mansion. There’s little creepy atmosphere or slow horror- this is all in the Hammer Horror vein of yelling boo! at the viewer as often as possible with the central mystery (is lead character Matilda, platinum-blonde professional cellist from London correct in suspecting she is in fact Cerys, a child who went missing from the Welsh village of Penllynith twenty years ago) almost redundant. In just the same way as the Beeb’s Hard Sun a few months ago did, the central premise almost seems incidental and the makers too intent on throwing all sorts of ideas and complications into it, the characters having all sorts of sub-plots that stretch credulity.

Had it eased up a little bit and spread its revelations and twists and horrors over ten episodes rather than its rather rushed six, then perhaps it would have been a much better show with better characters and motivations. It must be noted that Game of Thrones itself was better over ten episodes than the rather rushed shorter seasons we are getting now, and imagining shows like Westworld being truncated to six is just as telling a consideration. As it is, Requiem squeezing all its arcs into six episodes comes across as all a little hysterical, with Matilda being incredibly irritating rather than sympathetic as she pretty much wreaks the Welsh locale with her obsession for ‘the truth,’ and when that truth finally arrives it lacks real impact. I’m quite possibly alone in this view, modern attention-spans likely prefer shorter series just as they approve of shorter movies.

And yet, even after that mad race across six episodes, just like with so many movies now, Requiem really just seems intent on teasing another series with an ending that feels rather hollow, and without the grounding that ten episodes might have enabled, it found me rather unable to care. Its all very lightweight and lacking in any emotional depth or impact that perhaps a similar show from the BBC in the ‘seventies might have had.  Frustrating really.

Bonfire of the Digital Vanities

Regular readers may have noticed that more and more of my reviews are of tv shows and movies watched via streaming rather than on disc. Its something I’m becoming very aware of. Ever since the start of 2017 I have tried to limit my spending on discs, if only to try get control of space issues and to stop buying discs that sit on the shelf unwatched. To some degree I’ve succeeded in that (and yes, failed too, as so many anime series boxsets will testify to) and the fact that so many posts are about streamed films etc must be a mark of some kind of success. Certainly 2018 has seen a big change and me subscribing to Netflix now as well as Amazon Prime can only mean its a trend that will continue.

This year I have bought the following on disc- BR2049, Thor Ragnarok, Indicator’s Hammer Vol.Two box, Charley Varrick and Experiment in Terror. That’s all, and we are fast approaching April now.

But I would hate to see the physical disc format fading away and I do much prefer owning my favourite films on disc. I think the inevitable future of ‘streaming only’ is a pretty dark one for some of us- I read recently of rumours that Apple are intending to discontinue music downloads and go completely the monthly subscription route. Don’t know how true it is, but it does have a ring of truth and inevitability to it. Where music goes, film and tv are sure to follow. Imagine having to pay a monthly subscription in order to watch your movies- I suppose we are already halfway there- instead of watching them on disc whenever you want. Some may argue there is no difference but I’d contend that there is one, certainly regards extras (although even on-disc that’s something studios are bothering less and less with), picture quality, and even just the ownership and ease of access issue- what happens when the Internet goes down? I’ve had a few experiences in the past where the digital copies of films that came with discs seem to have disappeared from my digital collections, so it would seem that digital license doesn’t necessarily last forever (drok it, even my Blade Runner: Final Cut, which for some reason shows in my collection but will not play).  Now, these digital copies are just bonuses really that I never watch but the fact that they can disappear is just more wood for the bonfire of the digital vanities, surely.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my films and tv shows on disc in just the same way as I still buy music on CD. But it’s getting harder all the time. If you want to watch The Man in the HIgh Castle without prime, forget it- there’s no disc option so no way, even if you watched it on prime, that you can add it to your cherished tv box-set physical collection no matter how much you may love it. Even the old habit of buying your favourite sitcoms/comedy shows on dvd (Frasier etc) is getting impossible with more recent stuff- I love The MIddle but there’s no disc release of that show anywhere. Increasingly the only way to access stuff is via subscription.

We’ve been so spoiled by VHS sell-through, DVD and Blu-ray it’s hard to fathom going back to the bad old days, but it all may well come back. Will the time one day come when you will never be able to buy a Star Wars movie?  Man, thats so 1970s.