Saturday, 11 November 2017

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII- Ep 6) SKIPPER

SPOILERS for the finale, folks!




Number Thirteen gets her togs



I have to say, this isn't at all what I was expecting. There were two options for the creative team, one of which was to just put her in a traditionally Doctorish gent's outfit to hammer home that it was the same character, and the other was to give her a more feminine costume that no previous Doctor would have worn. I'm glad they've gone with the latter, but even so, I kind of expected something that was more like one of the old Doctor's costumes, in a feminine cut.

This, though, I like very much. It's feminine, quirky, and fairly practical. There's a certain Doctorishness to it, but quite unlike any of the outfits before, which is just how it should be. There are bits of old Doctor influence in there, though. Most obviously, the braces call back to Matt Smith, but moreso to Patrick Troughton. (I was a bit intrigued when someone said the new Doctor would be wearing suspenders, but that was just a bit of Americanism/Britishism confusion.) The long coat calls back to David Tennant. The stripes across the top might be a nod to Tom Baker's scarf, and the boots could recall Smith or Eccleston. I'm not sure what's going on with the top of that coat - is that a hood swung back? - but it does have a somewhat Time Lordly quality to it.

Some people don't like it, which is fair enough, although attacking it by saying it's too silly or doesn't have enough gravitas seems to ignore how ridiculous some of the earlier Doctor's outfits were. I've seen it said that it looks like something out of Rainbow, which isn't totally unfair, but compared to the sixth Doctor's costume, it's very sedate. Someone else has said it makes her look like a circus performer, and a friend pointed out that Sylvester McCoy not only acted like a circus performer in some of his episodes, he basically was one before he started acting. Again, fair enough if that's not something you like in your Doctors, but it's hardly without precedent.

Various commentators have been pointing out similarities with other characters' costumes. Mork is the most common comparison:




but I'm seeing more than a hint of Wesley Crusher:




Either way, there's a definite eighties style to the costume, which actually fits quite well with the out-of-time vibe we get from various Doctors. Capaldi wore a costume which hinted at styles from both the 50s and 70s, while Hartnell's turn-of-the-century style was similarly 50-60 years out of date. Something that has a suggestion of 1987 is forty years out, the same sort of dislocation. In any case, I like it. It's different but still says "Doctor" to me.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

By rights, marvel should be slowing down and flagging a bit by now. Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the MCU, which has been going for a good nine years. No one would be surprised if things were becoming stale by now. Yet somehow, this year has seen a run of films that have just gotten better and better. After the excellence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Taika Waititi has created what may be my comicbook movie of the year.

Waititi is a real left-wing choice to direct a Marvel movie. Only Edgar Wright seemed more of an odd fit, and we saw how well that partnership ended. Nothing in Waititi's previous work, least of all his celebrated What We Do in the Shadows, makes you think “this guy needs to do a superhero movie.” In a weird way, though, he's a perfect choice, and what he does here with Norse mythology and operatic superheroics is much like his deconstruction of vampire lore and gothic romantic literature in Shadows. Hats off, too, to the writing trio of Yost, Kyle and Pearson, who put together a script that, for the most part, manages a fine balance of the grandly dramatic and the overtly comedic.

It's obvious that Marvel wanted to grab some of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy in restyling the Thor movies, which haven't generally been the most popular of the ongoing MCU series (although I've loved both previous instalments). Ragnarok explores the cosmic side of the Thor comics, something that the previous films have largely overlooked, as well as accepting just how ridiculous a character he is. Thor is at his best when simultaneously an amazing hero and a figure of fun, as he is in the best moments of 2011's Thor and in Avengers Assemble, and it seems film-makers have finally realised what excellent comic instincts Chris Hemsworth has. (Say what you like about Ghostbusters, Hemsworth made a one-joke character work far better than he should have there.) Ragnarok combines Thor's mythical side with the galactic comedy of Guardians, and also jumps on the same retro bandwagon to great effect. After all, the eighties are the decade right now, and the Masters of the Universe, synth-rock, Led Zeppelin mix just work perfectly. The other obvious comparison is the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and Waititi has said that really Queen should have provided the songs for this film, were it not impossible for obvious reasons.

As with all the best superhero films, Ragnarok benefits from an exceptional cast who give their all in playing these absurdly over-the-top characters. Tom Hiddleston grins that grin to maximum effect throughout, although his usurping of the Asgardian throne is dealt with far more quickly than we might have expected, and he's so perfect as Loki that he can nail the character both as out-and-out villain and shifty ally. After a fair few ineffective and underwhelming villains (in spite of some excellent actors) Marvel has come out on top this year with its baddies, and Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death is the best of the lot. Not only does Blanchett look incredible in the costume (damn, now my goth thing is back), she drips with menace and contempt. As secondary villain the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum basically plays Jeff Goldblum, but frankly, would you want it any other way? Then there's Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, somehow looking exactly like the comics character, clearly having a whale of a time as the scurvy thug.

On the heroic side of things, we have Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, who is just stunningly good as the tough, beautiful, drunken warrior woman. She's a perfect foil for Hemsworth's Thor, a far better match as a potential love interest than either Jane or Sif (both of whom hero worship him too much), and I'm so glad we'll be seeing more of her in Infinity War. A fun cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange makes the brief terrestrial scenes feel as wonderfully odd as the scenes in other realms, while Anthony Hopkins makes his surprisingly brief appearance as Odin his best in the role yet.

And then there's the Hulk. The idea of a Planet Hulk film never really appealed to me, no matter how much fans clamoured for it. I mean, I love monsters, I really do, but the idea of two hours of green CGI musclemen pummelling each other seems tiresome in the extreme. Making it part of a larger storyline, though, is a brilliant move, and dumping Thor in the middle of it is a stroke of minor genius. Cutting him and his pomposity down to size by leaving him reduced and defeated is, of course, part of the reason that initial Thor storyline worked so well, and he needed a dose of that again. Thor is at his best when he doesn't have his hammer. His weirdly tender interplay with the Hulk is a winning factor for the film, and Mark Ruffalo is as perfectly cast as ever as the uncomfortable Banner, having to rediscover his balance all over again after two years in Hulk mode. The Hulk's chattier than we're used to on film, but his intelligence has always fluctuated in the comics, and it's reasonable that he would have developed somewhat given longer to learn and explore his existence.

Sakaar is an incredible location, a cesspit of a planet in an unstable region of space/time, where the passage of time is unreliable and wormholes dump miscreants without hope or warning. It's exactly the sort of place you'd expect the Guardians to turn up, and they probably will at some point when they want to link the series together. (In fact, the time dilation on Sakaar would be a good way of syncing up Star-Lord's timeline to the Avengers movies, if need be.) The planet features a colurful bunch of monsters, although the standout is, of course, is the rock-man Korg, played by the director himself (although at first we thought it might be Rhys “Murray” Darby, such is the intense Kiwi-ness).


Bookending the cosmic hijinks is Ragnarok itself, the end and rebirth of Asgard and the ultimate battle of Norse mythology. As a huge mythology buff I adore this aspect of the film, and the storyline, via the comics, sticks surprisingly closely to the legendary sources. Naturally, there are some differences even before you chuck all the spaceships in – Hela is Loki's daughter, rather than Odin's, an aspect that might stem more from the character Angela than Hela herself – but the bulk of the material is linked quite strongly to Norse mythology. And in any case, any movie that not only brings Surtur and Fenris to the big screen, but has the Hulk punch them both in the face, is a winner in my book.

REVIEW: RED DWARF XII - Ep 5) M-CORP

This episode was a particularly interesting one for me, as I attended its filming at Pinewood back in February of last year. Not only is it fascinating to see how the episode finally turned out, it's been long enough since the recording that much of it felt fresh again, although not without a certain sense of deja vu. (Well, it probably is deja vu, it sounds like it.) One observation I must make is that most of the scenes recorded in front of us were done with at least two takes, which means that the audience response is a little false in the finished episode. You know you need to laugh at the funny bits, but the laugh is never as big, or as genuine, as it was on the first time round. Equally, the funniest scenes aren't necessarily the ones that stick in your mind from the recording; it's the ones that the cast enjoy performing the most, that involve the most ad-libbing and retaking, that you remember. If you're interested, the biggest laugh was for the Windows sound effect that twanged when the ship was rebooted.




The finished product is a fine episode, although nowhere near a classic. Like a lot of episodes, it starts off about one thing and ends up being about quite another. In this case, it begins as a rumination on ageing, with Lister hitting his fiftieth birthday (thus a little younger than Craig Charles), and then moves onto a dissection on corporatism and monetisation, and the ever-desperate need for the newest upgrade or app. Still, it comes back to the original theme as Lister is aged to decrepitude after his money runs out and he's forced to pay in time.

It's a nicely paced and structured episode, but again, there's the sense that there are too many ideas fighting for attention here. Lister's declining health, the talking medical probe Chippy, and the idea of predicting the time of someone's death with accuracy are all strong elements. Then it veers onto the plotline of M-Corp, their takeover of Earth in the 26th century, and their rapacious need to monetise everything from water to air to thought. Again, I'm reminded of the future history that Grant and Haylor described in the Red Dwarf novels, and I'd love to see this material expanded on the page.

M-Corp's buying out of the JMC has some brilliantly visual consequences any product or person not provided or employed by the company rendered invisible to Lister, M-Corp's sole employee and customer on the ship. The Cat spraying Lister with lager from an invisible can, before he too becomes invisible and steals his beans on toast, are great visual gags and really feel like classic Red Dwarf moments. Lister's teleporting to M-Corp's own little world, with downloadable "friends" and water that costs four hundred dollarpounds, works well too, all clinical white and corporatised. Helen George has a strong turn as the main guest star, the creepy M-Corp avatar Aniter. (Incidentally, she was not present at the filming. All the M-Corp universe material was prerecorded and played back to us.)

The resolution is clever, with M-Corp's desperate need to sell and sell some more proving its undoing. Lister's old age make-up is very impressive considering the TV budget, but it's great to have him reverted to his correct self. The final joke, having to reboot Lister to his original 23-year-old self self is a winner, but again, there's a ton of material that could be mined from the idea of backing up people's identities. Plus, the idea that Kryten could recreate the 50-year-old Lister's knowledge and personality from CCTV records is ludicrous, although admittedly Star Trek did something similar but even more idiotic back with "The Changeling" in the sixties (in which Uhura had her mind wiped, and was apparently able to be completely reeducated to Starfleet standard with her personality unaffected in a mere two weeks).

That final scene though, recreating the very first scene from "The End" back in 1988, is wonderful. Still, I wonder why this episode wasn't chosen to close out the season. With any final episode of a recording block potentially standing as the last episode of Red Dwarf ever, rounding it out with a recreation of the very first moments would have been lovely.

Good Psycho Guide: Three-and-a-half chainsaws

Best line: "Sir, you've got nothing. No life, no future, no partner - you're so easy to buy for!"

Sunday, 29 October 2017

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is justly famed for his political satires. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, and latterly the US-set Veep, he has pilloried the absurdity, pettiness and power-hungry games of UK and US politics. Turning to historic Soviet politics, however, involves not just the absurdity of this, but utter horror and brutality. And so The Death of Stalin, while hitting the comedic level of his best material, is also the bleakest and most serious of his political comedies. The tagline, "A Comedy of Terrors," is apt indeed.

It's not that the film isn't funny, simply that the comedy is violently undercut by the oppressive grimness of the story. Still, how could it be otherwise? This is Stalinist Russia, one of the true nightmares of twentieth century totalitarianism, and the power struggle that played out in the aftermath of Stalin's death is living memory for a lot of people who could watch the film today. Kruschchev's rise to power, both brutal and forward-thinking at once, shaped the geopolitics of the latter half of the century. From cruel Chief of Intelligence Beria to the violent Zhukov, these were monstrous people.

But the best way to undercut these people is to mock them, and while Stalin has been the focus of such mockery many times before (although not nearly as much as his ally/nemesis Hitler) it's not often the Soviet cabinet as a whole gets this treatment. Iannucci's approach is to treat them as the squabbling old men that they were, already past their prime by the time Steely Joe died, desperately clinging onto the power they held at his whim. Casting Brits and Americans indiscriminately, the Soviets come across as a ragtag bunch of ageing gangsters.

What a cast, though. The cream of comedic and dramatic actors here. Jeffrey Tambor, who's never anything less than hilarious, is the hangdog-faced deputy Malenkov, who's propelled to supreme power in the wake of Stalin's brain bursting. The exceptional Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the vicious, gleefully cruel spymaster who murdered and raped his way through god knows how many victims, yet with Beale's performance is somehow both terrifying and likeable. The great Michael Palin as devout Stalinist Molotov, the most sympathetic of the characters, and even he denounced his wife as a traitor to maintain political leverage (of course, Palin has always excelled at playing nice bastards). Most brilliant of all, Steve Buscemi as Khruschev himself, the backstabbing party leader who, eventually, even after the close of the film, comes out on top. Until Brezhnev, of course.

Probably the funniest performance, though, is that of Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, head of the Red Army, which he elects to play with a broad Yorkshire accent and a manic gleam in his eye. Other significant roles include the wonderful Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Joseph Friend as her hilariously drunken paranoiac brother Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as the subversive pianist Maria Yudina. Perhaps the greatest turn actually comes from Paddy Considine, who opens the film as a desperate theatre owner under impossible pressure to record and already completed concert for the Premier. His performance sells the utter fear and desperate self-preservation of everyone living in the Soviet state at the time, while being hilarious to boot (with some superb straight-manning from the still-underappreciated Tom Brooke). Not forgetting, of course, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin himself, portrayed a small, withered man, pathetic even as he commands life and death over all those around him.

Predictably, Russia hates this film, seeing it as a Western attempt to undermine their great history. After all, many Russians still view Stalin as a great social architect and war hero, instead of a power-crazed murderer. At least, they say they do - after all, disagreement likely goes down very poorly. There are films that gain notoriety on the back of this kind of controversy, but The Death of Stalin deserves to be seen on its own merits as a funny, powerful historical satire, with character moments that are equal parts cringe-inducing embarrassment, crushing wit and genuine fear for life and liberty.

I get the feeling The Death of Stalin will be watched for many years to come as a look back at a pivotal moment in history. This is exactly the sort of film that should be made, and if it pisses off the Kremlin, all the better. Just imagine the movies we'll get about Putin, Trump and Kim in sixty or seventy years, assuming we're not living in some irradiated wasteland by then.