Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fright with a Dash of Delight

Doctor Who stories about beings that feed on specific emotions seem to be numerous enough that the 2007 Eighth Doctor audio play, Phobos, parses the suitable emotional fodder to being quite a lot of fear, but not too much fear, and always mingled with a certain amount of euphoria. The writer, Eddie Robson, was only 29 at the time but the story's condemnation of thrill seeking tourists by a peace and quiet loving elder generation seems at first like it was written by someone much older. Incidents of the Doctor grandstanding in the story definitely feel like the work of a young man, though. Maybe not one of the best audio plays but not bad, most of its faults resulting from the short length of shows from the Eighth Doctor's series.

The Doctor (Paul McGann) and Lucie (Sheridan Smith) find themselves in a precarious spot halfway up a mountain when they emerge from the TARDIS. A couple adrenaline junkies or "Drenies" turn up to inform them they're on Phobos, the Martian moon, where, in the future, people go to indulge in extreme sports like bungee jumping and "gravity-boarding". But a greater danger lurks in the shadows, according to old man Kai Tobias (Timothy West) whose dislike of the noisy young interlopers coincides with his repeated warnings about a deadly indigenous lifeform no-one's ever seen. But then people start winding up dead. Without getting into too many spoilers, this story does feature a direct Scooby Doo reference (". . . if it weren't for you meddling kids!").

But the story really does have a creature that feeds off psychic energy, whose appetite for slightly pleasurable fear causes it to stir up suspicions in an alien tourist (Tim Sutton) that the human tourists have been making racist comments behind his back so the large furry fellow can sucker punch one of them. I guess the idea is first there's the fear of being the target of discriminatory insults and then there's the pleasure in getting revenge.

The climax of the story is one of the instances where a psychic vampire gets more than it bargained for trying to feed on the Doctor who has an ominous speech about how he's seen and experienced terrible depths of fear, much more than the creature can bite off let alone chew. Paul McGann sells it really well.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Murder Somewhere in the Shuffle

The powerful owner of a shipping company is murdered and only the legendary Mr. Wong can solve the mystery in 1940's Doomed to Die. Part of a series of B movies in which Boris Karloff played the famous Chinese detective, it's a cheap production and a peculiar--and amusing--mixture of hard nosed dialogue and almost childlike flippancy.

I wonder if Karloff accepted the role because he jumped at the chance to play a hero for once. He thankfully uses his own accent--in fact there's not much to establish him as Chinese except his eyes are taped back. The sixth film in the series which directly followed this one that same year featured an actually Asian actor in the role, Keye Luke, but, according to Wikipedia, film exhibitors lost interest in further pictures without Boris Karloff. Karloff is good in the role though it mainly consists of him being calm and insightful.

Most of what's delightful about the film is the banter between a doofus police captain named Bill Street (Grand Withers) and a reporter named Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). Bobbie's friends with the daughter of the murder victim who's also the fiancee of the prime suspect. In one of the many examples of the film's tone deafness regarding the emotional toll of human mortality, Bobbie ecstatically tells the other woman, when Mr. Wong takes the case, she has "nothing to worry about!"

That prime suspect I mentioned, by the way, played by someone named William Stelling, does have a bit of an accent--a weird one I can't place. He pronounces the "Chin" in "Chinatown" like the chin at the bottom of the human face.

Anyway, the dialogue often builds momentum to a kind of rapid fire, highly suggestive callousness. In one slightly bizarre scene when Bobbie and Bill are exploring a dark and empty house, Wong suddenly emerges from a trap door, accidentally knocking Bobbie over and knocking her unconscious--Wong and Bill glance at her and then just move along as Bill tells Wong about the corpse he and Bobbie found. When the two men are examining the body more closely, Bobbie catches up with them:

BOBBIE: What do you mean, leaving me downstairs unconscious?!

BILL: That's nothing new!

BOBBIE: Noticing the corpse Well, that's Lim Hao, the missing Wentworth servant!

BILL: How do you know?

BOBBIE: Oh, I've seen him lots of times. He killed Wentworth and then committed suicide!

BILL: Sure, stabbed himself in the back. You're still unconscious!

It all feels like a group of 14 year olds playing Cops and Robbers. Doomed to Die is available under the title Mystery at Wentworth Castle on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1220

The wooden surface spoke of forest seas.
Interpret grass bespoke a nothing much.
But then a morsel yet of truth was seized.
As paper crammed behind the captain's hutch.
A crew of pins arrested steals the breath.
In measured ticks the watch at six concludes.
Between the masts and yards prepared a death.
But sails and wind the end at length precludes.
As eyes were placed in shapes befitting screws.
The wobbly box creates a noisy cart.
In painted notes the vessel's wake was blues.
The damp and darkened goal is like the start.
In turbulence the stack of blocks persists.
Or something thinks the world of parts exists.

Friday, March 29, 2019

All You Need is the Ground Edge of the Time Loop Day

Farscape indulges in a Groundhog Day style time loop plot which may remind viewers of Edge of To-morrow/All You Need is Kill in that it involves the protagonist repeatedly glimpsing his own demise (the episode predates the Japanese novel but came six years after the Harold Ramis movie). An episode with a few plot points that feel only halfway thought through, it's still pretty good.

Season 1, Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future

The danger of attempting to conform to a specific cultural identity again manifests as D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) abruptly switches from wanting to ignore the survivors of an exploding spacecraft to wanting to help them entirely because the survivors belong to a species traditionally allied with the Luxans, D'Argo's species. D'Argo, whose crime we learn in this episode was even more shameful than the killing of a superior officer, jumps at the opportunity to prove he's a good and true Luxan through and through. It's motive enough to make him ignore every piece of evidence that the survivors might be dangerous.

An older man named Verell (John Clayton) and young woman named Matala (Lisa Hensley) are the only survivors. In inspecting the vessel, Crichton (Ben Browder) is hit by a strange green energy discharge and afterwards finds himself randomly, temporarily transported to moments in the near future. At first, several of these involve Matala, whose overtly seductive manner comes off a bit like Rue McClanahan, sexually assaulting Crichton. The episode's explanation for these scenes is a little vague though not as inexplicable as a bit of information D'Argo imparts in Crichton's absence that Crichton nonetheless seems aware of when trying to convince D'Argo of his time jumping. But maybe the pleasure viewers and writer Babs Greyhosky took in Crichton's ravishment made up for any inconsistencies.

For those attracted to women who are looking for some fan service, Aeryn (Claudia Black) has a temporarily bare midriff in this episode thanks to a kind of unflattering crop top that doesn't last very long. But she also has my favourite line in the episode--in a meeting between her, Zhaan (Virginia Hey), and Crichton, Crichton, beset by another future assault vision from Matala, is compelled to leave the room, muttering, "I'm just gonna get some air." Aeryn, indignant and confused, says, "We have air in here! What is the matter with him?"

. . .

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here:

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Thin Walls and Torment in Denmark

There is an interior, psychological quality to Hamlet that often inspires minimalist productions such as Tony Richardson's 1969 film adaptation. Like Laurence Olivier's adaptation, Richardson's features darkly lit backgrounds and minimalist sets, though Richardson employs more detailed period decor and some really pretty, effectively used tapestries. But a sense of minimalism is emphasised by the incredible number of close-up shots on actors' faces; it feels like the whole movie is close-ups. It is sometimes dizzying but the performances by Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, Roger Livesey, and Marianne Faithfull happily justify the visual scrutiny.

Actually Marianne Faithfull isn't a terribly good Ophelia--I found myself wondering if her eyebrows were paralysed. They never, ever move. But she's really sexy; for some reason she delivers all her lines like a seductress, even in her final scene when she's becoming unglued. The Wikipedia entry says Richardson focuses on the sexual aspects of the play, "to the point of strongly implying an incestuous relationship between Laertes and Ophelia," an impression I didn't get at all but Richardson does introduce Ophelia in her scene with Laertes with a wonderfully sexual low angle shot of her reclining while he leans over her.

But one of the things I really liked about this version is that the bedroom scene between Hamlet (Williamson) and Gertrude doesn't come across as sexual at all despite the fact that the actress who plays Gertrude, Judy Parfitt, was only two years older than Williamson. The idea that Hamlet wants to have sex with his mother is about as tediously commonplace as productions of Shakespeare where everyone dresses as Nazis. I really liked Williamson in this scene; he becomes plaintive and childlike and you get the sense of how much his pain is informed by the loss of his family not only through the death of his father but through treachery of his mother.

It's hard to say if I would appreciate Nicol Williamson quite so much if I hadn't grown up watching him over and over again in Excalibur but I love all his peculiar intonations and surprising emotional shifts. Anthony Hopkins was an interesting choice for Claudius--he was a year younger than Williamson but already capable of an excellently naturalistic delivery. I especially loved how he delivered the line telling Gertrude not to drink from the cup at the end--he says it just as he's turning from looking at something else and spots her putting the cup to her lips. So you hear the surprise in his voice that prompts him to show his hand abruptly but there's enough cunning in it, Hopkins' tone drawing back, that it doesn't come to more than the ambiguous, "Gertrude, do not drink," Richardson omitting the aside, "It is the poison'd cup: it is too late."

I was very pleasantly surprised to see Roger Livesey in two roles as the lead player and the grave digger. Like Charleton Heston in the Kenneth Branagh film, it seems like there's a tradition of casting the lead player with an established star from a previous generation and Livesey's refined bombast made him perfect. And it was just cool seeing Merlin doing a scene with Clive Candy from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. This version of Hamlet is available on Amazon Prime, a really nice HD edition.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Assumptions and Faith on the Run

A man is assumed guilty of murder by two young women and then is assumed innocent by another young woman, all without solid reasoning by any party. The title of Alfred Hitchcock's 1937 film Young and Innocent may have seemed redundant to audiences at the time, when youth was more often presumed to entail innocence than it does now, but then again the young man, who of course is a wrong man, constantly meets with presumptions that he's guilty. It's a neat and engaging example of many of Hitchcock's most familiar plot features--the wrong man on the run and the intelligent blonde woman who helps him, sometimes against her better judgement.

In Francois Truffaut's book-length interview with Hitchcock, the British director complained that a scene was cut from the American release of the film. The couple, Erica (Nova Pilbeam) and Robert (Derrick De Marney) find themselves at a child's birthday party where Erica's aunt Margaret is wandering the room blindfolded for a game of Blind Man's Buff.

The playful tension in the game happens to coincide with the more serious tension of the fugitive and his companion, trying to leave the room before they're detected. Hitchcock told Truffaut this scene was "the essence of the film." Otherwise, most of the movie is set in the countryside as Erica helps Robert to flee almost automatically.

She's the daughter of the Chief Constable and we see she's well known around the police station, her practical knowledge and sensibility, which she attributes to having acquired via the Girl Scouts, prompt her to step in to make up for the detectives' deficiencies, as when Robert faints after being told the murder victim had left him money. She immediately starts slapping his face on both sides.

Thought processes follow very little sense of reason as most people just seem to assume Robert is guilty. Who would doubt the words of the two girls who really did see Robert running away from the woman's body on the beach? Though it's possible Robert was running for help as he said he was, one doubtful interpretation after another accumulates so that by the time he's meeting with his Solicitor (J.H. Roberts) even he can't help peppering his language with indications he believes Robert is guilty.

The way Robert first escapes the police is absurd yet just plausible enough to be credible, something Hitchcock excelled at. When he's brought into the courtroom, someone sits him in the wrong seat, someone else assumes he's absent, everyone panics, and in the confusion he simply strolls out, hastily putting on some spectacles for a disguise. A policeman even assigns him to a search party.

There is an innocence in Robert's behaviour that must actually give the opposite impression. When Erica takes him to an old mill to hide, just automatically in her instinct to help the handsome young man, he jokes that he feels like "Bonnie Prince Charlie", grandson of the deposed James II who led a fugitive existence, still trying to assert his right to the throne. When she's shocked at his flirtatious and jocular manner, he replies with some sudden insight, "I can laugh because I'm innocent." However difficult his situation is, the tension created by the uncertainty of his guilt or innocence is an entirely external matter.

Of course, he becomes more desperate has the film reaches its climax, but it seems primarily out of his concern for Erica. There's a really nicely understated scene where they try driving into a disused mine and the car suddenly falls as the floor gives way. This is unaccompanied by any score and just quietly happens, like a dream. He and the other man in the car, an amusing hobo who starts to help them, escape almost immediately but she starts to sink with the car, desperately holding out her hand for him without screaming--it's all so intriguingly quiet.

Not one of Hitchcock's best or best remembered films, it's nonetheless great. It's available on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1219

In Martian shops the candy tastes of war.
The lane is dusted red for summer thoughts.
But spring was counted late inside the bar.
A round of drinks dispatched the job to lots.
The pictures here are all of pointing gloves.
No finger touched the land in faded years.
A hopeful settler brought a dozen doves.
They now with coos collect on empty piers.
At dawn, some figures stirred 'neath icy crags.
The heat increased as beams of sun advanced.
At eight, a soldier's shadow slumps and sags.
As red horizon haze remotely danced.
A dozen men encamped between the hills.
On whom some silent things imposed their wills.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Typical Shenanigans in Atypical Environs

The house detective sees her wearing only a tiny towel, fleeing the hotel room of an influential millionaire who turns out to be dead but who would suspect plucky little Shirley MacLaine of blackmail? But that is the misunderstanding that fuels the comedy in 1961's All in a Night's Work. Not a particularly funny movie--every joke lands with a thud--or an interesting story but MacLaine and Dean Martin have terrific chemistry and the sets, costumes, and cinematography are just divine.

It's all sets, too, for some reason this crew never wanted to go outside. Hitchcock hated shooting outdoors because of how little control it afforded him but even he would step outside now and then when a shot required. Not even for a brief shot on the street or a beach do we leave sound stages here. This is not a Hitchcock movie but you might be forgiven for thinking it is from screenshots because director Joseph Anthony brought on board Hitchcock's costume designer, Edith Head, his art director, Hal Pereira, and two of his set decorators, Sam Comer and Arthur Krams.

The boardroom sets where Martin's Tony Ryder presides over the company he recently inherited from that influential millionaire have this lovely textured, burnished look, the art direction brought to life by the great cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (Laura, River of No Return, The Apartment).

Dino's face also has a textured, burnished quality and together with the fact that he was clearly slightly buzzed for the whole film I couldn't resist having a bourbon while I watched. MacLaine gives a much better performance--the visible layers of emotion in her reactions are credible as the transparent reactions of an innocent young woman. Martin's performance isn't bad exactly but it's mainly charming in how relaxed he is. It reminded me of how Tyrone Power made George Sanders look like he could use a sword in their sword fights through his own skill on his end--MacLaine's performance enhances Martin's.

She also sells the dialogue in three ways--she makes me believe that she honestly doesn't realise anyone suspects her of sleeping with the dead boss for his money but she delivers her lines in a way that we credibly believe other people think that. And she builds her rapport with Martin all at the same time.

I can't recommend the direction, the plot, or the dialogue but this is a damn fine thing to rest your eyeballs on.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Of Kings and Chemicals

Being a Dominar isn't all it's cracked up to be and two very different prison experiences are contrasted in the fourth episode of Farscape. It's a thoughtful, exciting episode with mud, chemical addiction, incidental spooning, and more mud.

Season 1, Episode 4: Throne for a Loss

Again, the original broadcast order is different from the proper episode order. If you're watching on Amazon Prime, which has the episodes in broadcast order, you can find the proper order on Wikipedia here. "Throne for a Loss" makes more sense as a follow-up to "Exodus from Genesis" because this way we see Rygel (Jonathan Hardy) go from a victory and personal assertion of his identity as a ruler to being captured and held for ransom because of that identity.

Thinking they're meeting some traders, the crew of Moya are instead met with an attack by the Tavlecs, a group of pirates who specialise in kidnapping intergalactic royalty. Rygel finds himself buried up to his armpits in mud in a cell next to another ruler, someone who looks a bit like Cthulhu.

Meanwhile, one of the Tavlecs is held prisoner aboard Moya where Zhaan (Virginia Hey) takes charge of him and shows him a very different experience. This is where we get to see Zhaan as a priest and we get to see how her maturity distinguishes her from the other characters. While Crichton (Ben Browder), Aeryn (Claudia Black), and D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) spend the episode bickering about how to save Rygel--or whether they should even bother--Zhaan conducts a carefully coordinated rehabilitation of the Tavlec boy who's chemically addicted to a device mounted on the forearm which functions as gun, shield, and stimulant.

The boy writes her off as "soft and weak" to which she somewhat amusingly replies that she is soft but by no means weak--in fact, she displays greater than average physical strength, something that allows her to take control of the situation at any moment.This strength allows her to pick and choose when to administer her soft side. When he tries to shock her by showing his naked body, she replies by showing him hers, divesting the situation of the tension of repressed sexuality and also bringing another dimension to the show's blurred boundaries between psychological and biological.

Zhaan also uses moments of calculated trust, allowing the prisoner moments of freedom, to provide an environment that might allow a personality free from chemical addiction to emerge. Her methods have mixed results but this thread in the plot keeps you with her perspective and I find myself invested in her success or failure.

In the more action oriented parts of the episode, chemistry between Crichton and Aeryn is starting to become more obvious. I was amused to see how many times the two hide from gun shots in ways that just happen to look like cuddling.

. . .

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here:

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Give Me Corridors and Give Me Minotaurs

"The God Complex" is one of my favourite Eleventh Doctor Doctor Who episodes, mainly because I love stories where characters are trapped in houses or hotels. Watching it again last night, I found I still liked the mise en scene as well as the guest stars and the alien minotaur. I'm a little unsure what writer Toby Whithouse was trying to say, though, and the climax is a bit insubstantial.

There is something intriguing about the concept; a monster who uses hallucinations to inspire fear in order to provoke people to turn to their various sources of faith. He is then able to convert that faith into an adulation for himself that he can then feed on. There is something intriguing about this connexion between fear and faith, whether it be the political blogger (Dimitri Leonidas) and his faith in conspiracy theories or the Muslim nurse (Amara Karan) and her faith in God.

The implicit idea, though, that faith in itself is somehow inherently destructive doesn't quite make sense, particularly when Amy (Karen Gillen) is perfectly right in thinking her faith in the Doctor (Matt Smith) is justified. Though, is it really faith when he really does save her time and time again?

Wikipedia points out that the concept is very similar to one of the ideas in the Seventh Doctor story Curse of Fenric in which the Doctor much more convincingly breaks Ace's faith in him. However, I like how the concept works in "The God Complex" before its exact nature is revealed. When it's a group of isolated survivors and suddenly one of them starts spouting, "Praise him!" for no apparent reason; I like that sense of horror that anyone of any belief system can be radicalised to some arbitrary nonsense at any moment.

I also really like the scene where the Doctor first confronts the minotaur by setting up a room full of mirrors. It's a really cool effect; you're never sure where he is in relation to the monster but there's tension that the creature's sense of smell or something else will lead him to the Doctor at any moment. With the minotaur and the human imagination turned against itself, the story also strongly resembles the Second Doctor story The Mind Robber and more distantly I'm reminded of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. Of course, a minotaur in a labyrinth goes back to the original minotaur myth, a story I always liked when I was a kid. Maybe that's one of the reasons I grew up to like haunted house stories.

This episode featured one of Amy Pond's better outfits, a denim miniskirt with a bomber jacket.

Twitter Sonnet #1218

The poles beside the glass have blurred to grey.
A motion carried burned the static toast.
Removed from heated grills the bread's a clay.
A neutral word became a risky boast.
The sound of closing mouths adorn the ear.
The open teeth reveal a plane of plaque.
The ice became a frosty can of beer.
The yonder bag became a very sack.
Without direction cars became a wheel.
The flattened die was little like a coin.
The numbers squeezed along the ridge to deal.
The longest legs extend beyond the groin.
A quiet cloud of cotton worlds absorbs.
Within the plastic moon we stowed the orbs.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Insect Swarm of Copies

The crew of Moya have their first of many encounters with duplicates or alternate versions of themselves and Rygel is the first to find a little validation in the fun and slightly gross third episode of Farscape.

Season 1, Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis

By the way, some of you might remember this as the second episode, not the third, and in fact Amazon Prime is now streaming it as the second episode. This is because "I, E.T.", though originally meant to be the second episode, was shuffled to the seventh episode slot in the first broadcast. I'm not sure why though "Exodus from Genesis" may be better representative of the series as a whole.

Crichton (Ben Browder) discovers a bit more about the intricate layers of symbiosis involved in the biological technology of this distant part of the galaxy he's found himself in. One of the opening scenes of the episode finds D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) trying to convince him to brush his teeth with some kind of slug.

The overall plot of the episode involves a less common form of symbiosis as Moya, a living ship, is infested with insects who need the large craft's warmth to incubate their eggs. These insects also happen to be shapeshifters and soon the crew find themselves encountering dozens of mute, zombie-like versions of themselves roaming the corridors and tampering with the environmental controls.

It eventually falls to Rygel (Jonathan Hardy) to negotiate with them, to act as the brilliant politician he considers himself to be. He's assisted in this by Zhaan (Virginia Hey) who spontaneously decides to paint a portrait of him which reminds him of a distinguished ancestor.

Which says something about the symbiotic relationship of art with our conception of reality and our roles in it. Incidentally, actress Virginia Hey happens to be an artist and when I met her at Comic Con in 2009 she was selling some of her art based on Farscape.

Later, Zhaan and Crichton have a chat about his difficulty in adjusting to this place after he has trouble operating a simple lever to adjust the environmental settings. As the incident with the dental slug demonstrated earlier, it's not just big things that are different, it's all kinds of little things. He mentions Animal House casually in talking to Zhaan, one of the many pop culture references Crichton will compulsively make throughout the series. They're funny for the viewer to hear these unexpected invocations of the familiar amid the alien but they're not fourth wall breaking, post modern Deadpool-ish asides. Crichton is so disoriented, so fundamentally exiled from his cultural reality that he compulsively invokes his culture in his language whenever he can.

Aeryn (Claudia Black) also finds herself having trouble adjusting to this new environment. The heat caused by the insects' sabotage turns out to be anathema to her biology--her species, Sebaceans, experience a debilitating "heat delirium" that eventually results in a "living death". This leads to a sweet, curious moment when Pilot (Lani Tupu) finds himself having to assist Aeryn, even catching her when she starts to fall. These strange circumstances have compelled him to exhibit mercy for one of his former enslavers, a plot thread that will become more significant in future episodes.

. . .

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here:

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.