Talking Movies

August 21, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXVI

As the title suggests, so forth.

Catch-22: it’s not the best one Hulu have

It was all Friedrich Bagel’s fault. It was he who sent a link to a Guardian piece raving that George Clooney had broken the curse of the unfilmable novel. But why talk about filming an unfilmable novel when it’s a TV series? You might as well call Brideshead Revisited a triumphant 13 hour movie adaptation. Only in early 1970s France or the increasingly addled BAM would that make pretend sense. And why give the imaginary credit to Clooney? He directs as many episodes as Ellen Kuras and he’s barely in it as an actor, while every episode is written by the series developers Davies and Michod. And they sort of write the same episode again and again. A little comedy gets thru each week, but what a slog to get to it. And then the same ‘shock’ ending, week after week. Things got distinctly SJ Perelman:

The murders follow an exact, rigid pattern almost like the ritual of a bullfight or a classic Chinese play. Take ‘Veiled Lady’ in the October, 1937, number of Spicy Detective – Dan is flinging some woo at a Mrs Brantham in her apartment at the exclusive Gayboy Arms, which apparently excludes everybody but assassins:

“From behind me a roscoe belched “Chow-chow!” A pair of slugs buzzed past my left ear, almost nicked my cranium. Mrs Brantham sagged back against the pillow of the lounge… She was as dead as an iced catfish”.

Round up the most young actors you can find who look alike and then dress them all alike and don’t flesh any of them out and leave the audience baffled, until they realise that if someone finally gets individuated a bit as we head into the last 20 minutes of an episode that means they’re about to die and it will probably be Yo-Yo’s fault. As The Engineer said after it was all over: “You don’t have to watch it if you ask not to watch it because it wasn’t very good, but if you ask not to watch it because it wasn’t very good, you’ve already watched it.  Catch-22. It’s the best one they have.”

The Avengers begins with Honor Blackman

It has been a disconcerting experience watching True Movies’ extremely scrambled late night re-runs of The Avengers. I had only ever seen a handful of Cathy Gale episodes late at night on RTE 1 over 20 years ago. As True Movies jumped between episodes and seasons of the first three years of the show it became evident that it was something of a miracle this ever became the classic show it did. It is only when Honor Blackman shows up for season 2 episode 1 ‘Mr Teddy Bear’ that things really start to click, and then she keeps disappearing in favour of Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith and her wretched musical numbers, or the second iteration of Dr King who is no more interesting than the first. And let’s not forget that the show was supposed to be about Dr King! A nigh unwatchable first iteration Dr King episode didn’t even feature Steed. It is unfathomable using IMDb to straighten out the running order to see that the writers apparently didn’t realise they’d lucked into gold with Steed and Gale. I’ve rarely seen such huge swings in quality between episodes; from touches like a man at an auction being shot on “Going… Going… GONE!” to overwrought gibberish about a mole hunt with Steed being accused while everyone ignores the world’s most obvious mole spending money like water beside him. All the while the chemistry between Steed and Gale defines the show as The Avengers.

April 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXVIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-eighth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Doesn’t suit you, sir

I’m not sure exactly what happened at the end of the 1960s to cause it, but it seems to me that suits suddenly became considerably less sharp. The final post-Mrs Peel seasons of The Avengers see Steed’s suits bend more and more towards the hippy Carnaby Street style pilloried by excess in Austin Powers, but also just become less distinguished somehow. It’s tempting to attribute this to mere ego, that Patrick MacNee was designing his own outfits more and more and displacing Pierre Cardin’s wares. But that doesn’t explain what happened to that less suave spy of the era more or less simultaneously. Watching Diamonds Are Forever with the awareness it is by the director of Goldfinger is a major jolt on several levels, as it lacks the sophistication that comes through so naturally in nearly every aspect of the former. Sean Connery wasn’t attempting to tailor his own look though, so it really does say something about the fashions of the era that the suits in his final Eon outing look very shabby next to his mid-60s outfits.

March 12, 2018

Run now, to ITV 4, and watch The Avengers in colour!

In Colour! Sorry. They do like to point it out though. And also change colourful clothes every other scene to showcase the full spectrum of 1967’s new colour broadcasting technology. The real reason you should watch is because season 5 is so damn good. Tune in tomorrow evening and you will see a superlative episode starring alongside Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg the following greats in their youth: Brian Blessed, Charlotte Rampling, and Donald Sutherland.

But don’t just stop watching with ‘The Superlative Seven’.

Season 5 is the season where every cold open featuring the usually bizarre murder is followed by Steed alerting Mrs Peel to the fact that they’re needed in some absurd fashion. Indeed one imagines they stopped opening the show in that fashion because even with the fertile imagination of their writers they’d simply run out of improbable/insane things for Steed to do. Things like – putting the message “Mrs Peel – We’re Needed” in the traffic lights as they change in front of Mrs Peel’s car, putting it as a headline in a newspaper she buys, putting it behind the wallpaper she’s stripping off her apartment wall, putting it on a carousel, etching it into her painting, shooting it on an arrow into her apartment, appearing on her TV set in colour to say it while she’s watching an old black and white episode of … The Avengers.

January 31, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

Dangerous, Handle With Care.

Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All.

Watching re-runs of The Avengers (in colour!) on ITV 4 over a few months before Christmas it was hard not to be struck by two things. It was better than most current TV shows, and it made the soapbox posturing of the CW’s Berlantiverse look utterly inane. The ludicrous blackmail episode, ‘You Have Just Been Murdered’, is so hilarious, as the blackmailers repeatedly mock-murder their wealthy victims and leave a calling card just to prove how easy it would be to do it for real, so pay up, was one of the best episodes I saw on TV in 2017. The sustained ninja attacks on Steed’s friend; a car almost runs him over, he is attacked with a fake katanna, and finally shot with an arrow that imprints ‘You Have Just Been Murdered… Again!” on his shirt; floored me. And there were many other episodes almost at the same level in Diana Rigg’s 25 colour episodes, and some equally wonderful in the subsequent 32 episodes with Linda Thorson. The Rigg episodes were very telling in their writing of Renaissance woman Mrs Peel: painter, sculptor, chemist, journalist, mathematician published on the subject probability as applied to Bridge, and amateur secret agent. Nobody makes any deal out of Steed’s partner being a woman, apart from a doddery Colonel back from the tropics in ‘The Hidden Tiger’; “Highly unusual to have a woman on a hunt, Steed” “Highly unusual woman, Colonel”. And Mrs Peel, expert in judo, wins most of the fights she gets into, hence her amusement in ‘The Correct Way To Kill’ when she finds two photos with handwritten annotations in the local KGB HQ. Steed is described as ‘Dangerous, Handle With Care’. She then discovers that ‘Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All’ refers to her. This is a fictional universe where many of the villains have women as their most ruthless lieutenants, and any daffy woman is very possibly a ruthless lieutenant hiding in plain sight by playing up to bimbo stereotypes. In ‘The Living Dead’ the village hospital is run by a woman doctor, and nobody mentions her gender; she’s just the doctor who runs the village hospital. Steed and Mrs Peel almost co-opt her as a third agent in their investigations, but Mrs Peel doesn’t make a big deal of it. It would be literally impossible for a woman to run a small-town hospital in a Berlanti show without a plethora of dialogue about it, and if she were to aid Supergirl we would get girl power dialogue about the sisterhood working together in a man’s world. It is disconcerting when a 1967 show assumes equality, entertains, and provides an indomitable heroine with a delightfully light touch, while 2017 shows talk endlessly, needlessly about equality, as if trying to convince themselves.

The Berlantiverse was once highly praised on this blog but as time has gone on it has become more and more obviously flawed. So let’s try and isolate the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Berlantiverse: The Good

Tony Zhou amusingly gutted the MCU a while ago for its complete, deliberate absence of memorable music. Their copy of a copy of a copy elevator muzak approach seems to be a determined attempt to free cinema from the Wagnerian leitmotifs that composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had in the 1930s made the convention for scoring the fates of characters and the progress of action. As a result of Marvel’s decision no matter how many Avengers assemble there will never be any music that can announce the arrival of a single one of them. What is lost by that? Well, look at what Blake Neely was able to pull off in the Supergirl/Flash/Arrow/Legends crossover extravaganza for the final fight against the alien Dominators. When Green Arrow is shooting the Dominator the jagged Arrow theme is heard, when he is thrown off the roof the music hangs in the air with him with a sustained note on strings, only for a roar of brass to announce the arrival of Supergirl to catch him from plummeting to his death. That is what leitmotifs are for. Why Marvel would want to pass on that sort of emotional punch is a mystery.

Berlantiverse: The Bad

There are elements; such as 24’s lack of humour; that you forgive so long as the show is good. But once you stop enjoying a show you remember those flaws, and notice new ones. I never made 10 episodes of Arrow, but I was surprised the same creators brought forth the fun that was The Flash. I also watched Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl until the recent crossover. Then I ditched all three shows. My problems with Arrow I’ve outlined. The Flash became idiotically repetitive; “My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive!” – apart from Reverse Flash, and Zoom, and Savitar…; emotionally manipulative; Barry watches his mother die again, watches his father die, gets them back sort of only to give them up, gives up Iris, how much damn angst does one character need; and eventually unwatchable despite maintaining a comic edge. Supergirl from the get-go had problems, which started to converge with the problems of Legends. Legends degenerated from a fun show in which time-travellers screwed up their mission, to a less fun show in which they took George Lucas in Love as their ur-text and applied it to Lucas, Tolkien, and Arthurian legend, to the E.T. episode where they re-did E.T. in 40 minutes with their characters, like House or CSI: NY saw writers take off a movie they saw, just with less self-awareness. Supergirl’s characters kept getting on soapboxes; Jimmy Olsen on black men not being allowed show anger, Cat Grant on being a woman leader, Kara on being a woman and a superhero; rather than having comic-book adventures. Moving network for season 2 Berlanti decided that Alex should be gay now, an abrupt character reboot handled with the grace of an Austin Powers skit. But then he doubled down by beginning season 3 with Alex and Maggie engaged. Wow, that was quick! They break up because they never had a discussion about having children before getting engaged. Berlanti’s political imperatives were trumping his aesthetic imperatives with a vengeance. Legends’s characters arrive in the 1950s with an injunction not to attract attention; so they set up Ray and Kendra as a married couple, with Sara as a nurse. Berlanti castigates Jim Crow racism and has Sara liberate a repressed nurse. This makes nonsense of the injunction not to attract attention. The way to do that would have been to have Ray and Sara play house, with Kendra as a nurse. But internal logic was starting to be damned if it got in the political way.

Berlantiverse: The Ugly

Can you tell who Don Siegel voted for in 1956 and 1972 from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry? Adlai Stevenson? Maybe? Richard Nixon? Maybe?? It’s not easy. Can you tell who Greg Berlanti voted for in 2016? … It seems Berlanti was traumatised by the failure of America to be with her. Now, art and politics don’t need a Jeffersonian wall of separation, but there ought be some artistic guile cast over political intent, like Arthur Miller addressing Senator McCarthy at three centuries’ remove. Berlanti has a beef with Trump. He could silently showcase heroic, adorable, and honourable minority characters like The Blacklist. [Navabi, Aram, Dembe] He does not. Instead, to stick it to Trump, he introduces to Legends the rather insufferable Zari, and reminds us repeatedly that she’s a Muslim American. He probably needs to remind us because she doesn’t wear a hijab, or have a prayer mat, nor use it 5 times a day, worry about keeping halal, or attending a mosque. Given previous complaints about American artists’ inability to take faith seriously this shouldn’t surprise, but ironically it makes Zari the kind of Muslim Trump might endorse – invisible. Berlanti could espouse meritocratic ideals like Bernie Sanders’ support for basic income. He does not. Instead Berlanti has gone down the rabbit-hole with Hillary. Her failure was due to misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Ignore that she was as historically awful a candidate as if the Republicans had nominated Robert A Taft in 1948, and that she called ¼ of the eligible voters “a basket of deplorables”. Pushing Hillary’s apologia is killing the Berlantiverse. It would be clumsy and obvious to try and push basic income. But it couldn’t be worse than the gender studies harangue when Helen of Troy appeared in Legends, or when The Flash had a stripper lecture her clients on her critique of the male gaze. That same episode a female supervillain was taken down by the female characters working together and Iris said “Hashtag Feminism”. This, along with insisting “We are The Flash”, is Iris’ new thing. The abandoning of all pretence of artistic guile over political intent in attacking Trump came in the recent crossover, with this interchange: “Make America White Again” “Which it never was” “Hashtag Melting Pot”. But the nadir was Nazi Arrow proudly announcing “We’ve created a meritocracy”. … … … One should not have to point out that Nazis did not believe in meritocracy, but in its exact opposite, aristocracy. It is self-evident.

If you’re looking for the brightest and the best, you get Einstein, and then, if you’re a Nazi, mutter, damn, a Jew, and issue another call for the brightest and the best, but Aryans only please. Whereas if you’re not a Nazi you say, Welcome, Mr Einstein, I hear you are a very brilliant genius. Meritocracy advances people on the basis of ability. Aristocracy advances people on the basis of bloodlines, rather than their ability.

Berlanti wasn’t being ironic, none of the superheroes protested about this calumny of meritocracy. That degradation of meritocracy, the one true guarantor of equality, shows Berlanti pursuing a political agenda that while thinking itself liberal is not. The Berlantiverse no longer entertains because so many artistic decisions are clearly suborned to a political agenda, and it troubles because that political agenda is clearly Hillary not Bernie. Meritocracy doesn’t see colour, gender, or religion. It sees ability. And it only sees ability. Attempt to attach secondary considerations to it and it is gone. You can’t grade a test on correct answers and ensuring a diversity quota.

November 16, 2011

Justice

Nicolas Cage gets involved in vigilantism masterminded by an increasingly sinister Guy Pearce but director Roger Donaldson doesn’t tighten the Hitchcockian screws.

Nicolas Cage plays ye typically inspirational English teacher at ye typically deprived inner city high school in New Orleans. He’s married to January Jones’ cellist and plays chess with his principal and good friend Harold Perrineau. And then a rapist brutally attacks Jones, and at the hospital a shaven-headed Guy Pearce approaches Cage with an offer of true justice – in return for owing a small favour at an unspecified date in the future to Pearce’s shadowy organisation. Cage of course soon discovers such favours include not just surveillance or logistics but a murder in return, and, as the net tightens, finds himself running from the police over a murder he didn’t commit, estranged from his wife who’s convinced he’s keeping something from her, and subject to wonderfully justified paranoia as Pearce’s organisation seems to pervade every strata of New Orleans.

Pearce’s introduction recalls Steed offering a hospital surgeon help in avenging his wife’s murder in The Avengers pilot, and Mr Chapel in Vengeance Unlimited offering victims a chance to get even at the cost of a million dollars or a favour, while there’s also a touch of the Twilight Zone in that the person you just killed may not actually have been guilty of anything – but now you sure are. Cage reins in his craziness for the most part but effectively channels his eccentricities into portraying the increasing nerviness of a peaceful man forced into violent confrontation after violent confrontation. This time the bad lieutenant is the always great Xander Berkeley who may be utterly corrupt or perversely honourable somehow. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter is criminally underused as Jones’ best friend, but Harold Perrineau fares better in another studiedly ambiguous turn.

Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, 13 Days) is a good director experienced in paranoia, but raw material that Hitchcock would have relished exploiting for suspense and black comedy is perfunctorily rushed through. The escalation of Pearce’s machinations invokes Strangers on a Train’s trading of murders to elude detection, and the fact that no one can be trusted, that whistle-blowing journalists, trustworthy cops, anyone at all could suddenly mutter the Edmund Burke derived shibboleth “The hungry rabbit jumps” and reveal themselves to be part of the organisation is prime Hitch. The best wasted set-up is Cage breaking into a newspaper office, and then having to walk through the distribution bay where his face is on every front page… Donaldson instead prioritises shoot-outs, chases and unlikely action-man heroics.

This is solidly entertaining, but feels far longer than its running time. The great high concept so obviously buried in here but failed by the execution honestly just frustrates me too much to give it the 3 stars it probably deserves for about scraping being good.

2/5

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