I read and watched a LOT of stuff this month, which is apparently what happens when you complete your studies and get your diploma. So much free time. It's a bit scary. I clocked in four books, six movies and seven TV shows, plus a show at the Isaac Theatre Royal. Spies, archaeologists, robots, detectives, artists, superheroes – there was no real theme to the content, but it certainly made for an eclectic month.
God knows we're going to need top-notch escapism in the coming years, so hopefully you'll find something here that piques your interest.
Tickets to this Australian production was my father's present for me after completing my Polytech studies. I'm not entirely sure what inspired him to go for Irish dancing, since I've never professed any specific interest in it (or at least not more so than any other type of dance) but hey – never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Irish dancing and magic tricks may not sound like a particularly logical combination, but when you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Both are theatrical and glitzy and extravagant, and this production featured twenty acts that blended the two, as well as stints of solo singing, tap dancing, and violin/flute playing. It was basically a Riverdance variety show, complete with the dramatic shirtless posturing that Michael Flatley coined at the same moment he made it inherently ridiculous.
But it was a fun night out, and there's no sound on earth like the sound of stomping heels on a hard wood floor.
Citadel by Kate Mosse
I have a love/hate relationship with Kate Mosse's novels – actually "hate" is too strong a word. Let's call it a love/mildly frustrated relationship. You see, Mosse writes beautifully: in her hands the south of France is brought vividly to life; she's comparable to Joanne Harris when it comes to capturing sensory delights.
But her plots...let's just say extraordinarily little happens in such thick volumes. So many pages are filled with irrelevant minutia that adds nothing but atmosphere to the story. Now, how much you appreciate that atmosphere depends on how much of it you're willing to put up with in lieu of a fast-paced plot, so suffice to say that Citadel (and its predecessors Labyrinth and Sepulchre, which make up the trilogy of Languedoc) are more setting and style than story.
Ages ago I reviewedLabyrinth and its television adaptation, and much of what I said there also applies to Citadel. However, this is the best of the trilogy; still meandering but at least more focused on its heroine, a young woman called Sandrine who joins an underground resistance movement to fight the German Occupation. Having started reading it pre-election, it's a timely reminder of just how brave this generation was when it came to fighting injustice.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
I started this on Wednesday and had it finished by Friday night. To be fair, this was as much to do with its surprisingly short length as its content, but it definitely made for quite a ride. I watched the film years back, and reading the book made me realize just how well the two complement each other. It's rare to find such synergy between novel and adaptation, to the point that you can't picture one without the other, but Silence of the Lambs is one such partnership (the only other example that springs to mind is The Princess Bride).
And as it happens, the film can do so much more than the novel when it comes to striking imagery. Harris can write about how Clarice is undermined by her boss at a crime scene when he tells the male sheriff that he wants to discuss things "between men", but only the film can depict her looking tiny and awkward in a waiting room filled with much larger deputies directly afterwards.
One other things that caught my attention is that both book and film (especially in regards to Hannibal) are often referred to as terrifying, soul-crushing, nihilistic, gruesome – heck, my copy even has "the most frightening book you'll ever read" on the cover. But it's none of these things, because it has Clarice Starling – brave, committed, intelligent, compassionate, self-aware; a light in the darkness. I was reminded all over again of this fantastic essay (please read it!) especially this part:
The novel is a proof of goodness not as default, but as something at stake...Clarice Starling’s goodness isn’t a default in a character description, an absence of anything better. It’s a weapon, a flaming sword that cuts through everything in her life and drives her forward, sparing neither herself nor Hannibal Lecter (who ends up more deeply rattled by her than the reverse).
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Small and not particularly interesting anecdote: most of my Agatha Christie novels are three-in-one editions, which sporadically trickle through the second-hand bookstore where I work. I've been gradually accumulating the entire collection, and then one day the motherload arrived. Dozens and dozens of them – yet after perusing all of them, I discovered only one was not already in my collection. Then as I was stacking them, a volume that had been sitting on the shelf for ages caught my eye – and yup, it included The Secret Adversary, which I didn't own. It had been right in front of me for over a year.
As it happens, I read this after watching the recent miniseries Partners in Crime (discussed below) and was reminded that Christie's espionage novels are utterly ridiculous, with an uncomfortably large dose of British imperialism at work. Also, expect a lot of "gee whizz!" and "jolly good!"
But I have a soft spot for Tommy and Tuppence; they're the only protagonists that aged along with Christie, from twenty-somethings in The Secret Adversary (published 1922) to an elderly couple in Postern of Fate (published 1973). It's a little poignant reading their first adventure and knowing that they aged in "real time" across the course of Christie's career.
The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
Since Tanith Lee's passing last year, I've had a little voice in the back of my head nagging me to read more of her work, especially since Castle of Dark and East of Midnight were two big favourites during my adolescence. And lo and behold, what should appear in the library but a brand new paperback copy of The Silver Metal Lover – with cover art by K.Y. Craft, no less.
It's a pretty straightforward premise, and not one that hasn't been done hundreds of times before: a human falls in love with an AI. There are some differences though: in this case it's a young woman who loves a male AI, which changes the power dynamic a little – in fact, it's Jane's relationship with her toxic friends that make up the most intriguing part of the book. On the one hand, she needs them (and their wealth) to acquire Silver in the first place; on the other, they're all the spoiled children of the uber-rich, and in Jane's predicament they find a valuable tool that can be used against her.
Crooked Earth (2001)
I was on a roll after watching The Hunt for the Wilderpeople – I was gonna be a proper patriot and watch more NZ made films! Crooked Earth is very much a Shakespearean story set in rural New Zealand, centred around two warring brothers: one who relies on drug-dealing to fund his war against colonial oppression, and the other a soldier just returned from East Timor to take over his deceased father's role as tribal leader.
Of course, every Shakespearean story needs a Juliet, and here it's Will's daughter Ripeka, who soon gets caught up romantically with one of her uncle's drug growers.
Will (Temuera Morrison) and Kahu (Lawrence Makoare) begin feuding almost instantly, but the plot delves into all sorts of sticky NZ issues, such as the tension between Maori/police, the ongoing Treaty of Waitangi disputes, and the selling of heritage land to foreign buyers.
There are some clever bits of nuance here and there (the uncomfortable presence of a single Maori cop, a Christian burial for a Maori leader, the contrast of stunning NZ landscapes against abject urban poverty) but also some heavy-handed nonsense (the white chief of police is a walking cliché: a surly, racist, foul-mouthed idiot) and even a little Wild West thrown in, what with all the gang-style horse-riding that goes on.
It's hard to say what a non-New Zealander would make of it, filled as it is with Maori language, culture and history, but it's a striking depiction of Maori land issues in this country – even over a decade after its release.
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011)
I caught up again with that friend who hadn't seen either of the Sherlock films in order to continue with Game of Shadows. I think it's a lot better than people give it credit for: it's got the distinctive Guy Richie style, the chemistry between Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law, and a villainous plot that makes a lot more sense than that in the last movie.
Jared Harris is a pretty good Moriarty – not flamboyant or even particularly menacing; just calm, quiet and soft-spoken. Stephen Fry as Mycroft is on-point, and after an eye-rolling-inducing scene in which Kelly Reilly's Mary is thrown off a train, the film does an about-turn and treats her with complete respect from that point on, even giving her a crucial role in Sherlock's plan to thwart Moriarty. Johnlock fans will try in vain to justify their hate.
On the other hand, Irene Adler is dealt a tiresome hand: a classic fridging to provide the male lead with angst, even though he never even mentions her again after being informed of her demise. Urgh. Can I take this moment to remind everyone that the canonical Irene Adler a) was never a stooge for Moriarty, b) was never a love interest for Sherlock, and c) lives happily ever after with her hot lawyer husband.
Oh, and then there's Simza, a gypsy woman who participates throughout the investigation/adventure. I mention her last because she's utterly nondescript. I can't complain that she's a Distressed Damsel or an unnecessary Love Interest, but at the same time she has barely any characterization at all.
In all, it's a fun movie, delivering exactly what it promises: no more or less. I've heard some whispers lately of a third instalment as soon as Guy Richie finishes his other projects – who knows, perhaps they'll end up retconning Irene's death; it would have been easy enough to fake.
Closer to the Moon (2014)
Although this film is based on true events involving the robbery of an armoured car from the National Bank of Communist Romania in 1959, a quick perusal of the Wikipedia page reveals that the real circumstances are in fact so murky that some family members of those involved believed there was never any robbery at all, and that the whole thing was fabricated for any number of sinister political reasons.
The promotional material is equally misleading – I started watching under the assumption it was about a gang of professional thieves who disguised their heists as movie shoots; turns out that was how they managed their first and only theft. The greater part of the story is concerned with the propaganda film that the government forces them to participate in: half-documentary, half-fiction, designed to extol the virtues of the state and the evils of the anti-Communist criminals.
So it's up to the director/screenwriter Nae Caranfil to not only come up with reasonable motivation as to why these individuals decided to rob a bank car (assuming they ever did in the first place) but to keep you in suspense as to this motivation for much of the film's run-time. For the most part he succeeds, though the non-chronological narrative means the pacing is a bit odd.
The cast is solid, particularly Mark Strong (playing that charismatic/manipulative combination), Vera Farmiga (love her!) and Anton Lesser (one of those white male British thespians that shows up everywhere). However, the reason I knew about this film in the first place was due to the presence of Harry Lloyd and Joe Armstrong, two Robin Hood alumni. Ironically enough, they never interact here, but even more ironically, Joe's character is given a much more Allan-esque death scene in this than the Robin Hood writers deigned to bother with.
Dragon Blade (2015)
What drew me to this movie was a GIF set on Tumblr of a Parthian Queen, looking particularly regal and mysterious and powerful. Naturally, she only gets two scenes in the movie itself.
Based on a true story (yeah right) Dragon Blade is essentially a B-movie with a bigger budget than usual, in which the Silk Road Protection Squad (seriously, that's what they're called) led by Badass Pacifist Jackie Chan teams up with a disgraced Roman legion led by a bored-looking John Cusack to fight evil Adrian Brody, who is taking this movie way too seriously. Add a really bad child actor, a weird mix of incredibly gory/totally saccharine fight scenes, weird slo-mos and camera angles, and a Strong Female Character™ minus a personality, and you've got ... a reasonably entertaining waste of time.
I give them credit for letting the Asian actors speak in subtitled English, though – as mentioned – it completely fails the female characters. Jackie Chan's wife is given a smidgeon of agency as a school teacher before falling to the inevitable fridging, while nomadic Cold Moon is a typical "barbarian princess" who offers sex once she's been defeated in single combat. *eye roll*
It's not terrible, but you're better off watching John Woo's Red Cliff. Damn I love that movie.
Monkey King: The Hero (2015)
I'm familiar with the mythological figure of the Monkey King only through a fairly awful Hallmark miniseries that came out over a decade ago, and I have to confess it was mostly the cover of this film's DVD box that caught my attention. At first glance, it looked reminiscent of Kubo and the Two Strings, but – no. The animation has that chunky, shiny, weightless quality that low-budget CGI has, and the story is not only virtually incoherent (Monkey is a dickhead; must learn to be nicer by fighting demons) but filled with fart, poop and booger jokes.
Yet (oddly enough) better than the quality of animation is its colour – the film is saturated in it, and movies with bigger budgets have been less vibrant than this one. It makes the dragon look incredible, even when it technically doesn't.
Batman vs Superman Extended Edition (2016)
Screw it, I enjoyed this movie. Yes I realize there are massive flaws in the depiction of its two main characters: Superman is a sad sack and Batman kills people, which amounts to blasphemy in most if not all comic book circles. I get it. But at the same time, I'm not a hard-core fangirl when it comes to the DC/Marvel universes. I can just switch my brain off, watch the movie, and then carry on with my life.
I was interested in what the extended edition had to offer; and it's safe to say that if you disliked the cinematic cut, there's nothing here that will win you over. All it really does is flesh out some of the details of Lex's plot: that Wallace Keefe's wheelchair was made of lead (preventing Superman from seeing the bomb), that Kahina Ziri's eyewitness account was fabricated (leading to her assassination) and that the weapons used in the desert were supplied by LexCorp (Jena Malone's deleted role is to inform Lois of this). Oh, and the photographer that got shot in the opening sequence? Really was Jimmy Olsen.
Sailor Moon: Season 1 (1992)
A while ago I was recommended this website: a place that archives nearly every cartoon – no matter how obscure – and makes them freely available to watch on-line. Like a kid in a candy store, I didn't know where to start. There's just so much stuff. I can't even remember the thought process that led me to pick Sailor Moon, though I do recall watching it when I was eleven/twelve, and how popular it was at the time (other students performed the opening song in class for some school project or other).
So I was looking forward to taking a stroll down memory lane, whilst reminding myself that the things we watch as kids seldom live up to our rosy memories of them. With the hindsight of an adult, I can attest that Sailor Moon is two-parts entertaining, three-parts rather terrible, and five-parts absolutely batshit insane.
There's nothing wrong with the overarching premise: eons ago there was a peaceful kingdom on the moon that was eventually attacked by something called the Negaverse. The Moon Princess and her court were reincarnated on Earth, and eventually awakened to their true identities by two guardian cats after the Negaverse once more becomes a threat.
Here's where it gets a little strange: turns out that the Moon Princess and her closest companions transform into alter-egos known as Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury, Sailor Venus, Sailor Mars and Sailor Jupiter, each with their own unique abilities (energy beams, lightening, fire, and ...er... bubbles). Along with assuming the collective moniker of Sailor Scouts, they're actually dressed in sailor suits when they fight evil monsters.
But why sailors? This confused me as a kid, and I'm no closer to understanding it now. Why not cowboys? Or samurai? Or nuns? Or any other random occupation with a universally recognizable outfit? Do sailors have some obscure cultural significance in Japan that I have no inkling of?
Though it's fun watching five girls with strong personalities and a variety of group dynamics use their semi-magical powers to defeat monsters, the weak link is Sailor Moon herself. Usagi/Serena is initially characterized as a lazy, gluttonous crybaby, and though there's nothing wrong with starting a character that way, there's little in the way of actual development for her across the course of the episodes. Even worse is her relationship with Darien (hoo boy) an older college student who mercilessly picks on her whenever they cross paths, but who moonlights as (brace yourself) a masked vigilante who dresses in a tuxedo, throws roses as weapons and calls himself Tuxedo Mask (for real). I nearly choked with laughter every time he turned up, as there's no way you can take him even remotely seriously.
As it happens, he and Serena were lovers in their past lives on the moon, and as soon as they realize this on Earth... they kinda, sorta hook up but not really? I've never been a huge fan of Reincarnation Romance, as most of the time it's just a lazy way of playing the soulmate card between two people who don't have much in common, and here it's even worse since Serena and Darien actively hate each other for the duration of the entire show. It would have been quite interesting to play around with the idea that lovers in a former life now find themselves to be utterly incompatible – but that's giving this show waaaaaaay too much credit.
Admittedly I watched the English dub, which might well have steamrolled over any nuance that the original contained. God knows they never settled on a name for the Negaverse (which was just as often called the Negaforce) or the Imperium Silver Crystal (which could be referred to by any configuration of those three words).
But it's fun, dammit. The ridiculous elements are an intrinsic part of the show's enjoyment factor. The transformation/summoning power scenes never get old, despite the stock footage getting played every episode. And I was always chuffed by the fact that whenever Serena met a new Sailor Scout, her immediate reaction was akin to falling in love at first sight. And much like The Wizard of Oz (bear with me) it's fun to watch a story in which not only the protagonist is female, but the Big Good and the Big Bad as well – though this does even better by making all the sidekicks girls as well!
Foyles War: Season 3 (2004)
I'm still chugging along with this series, though there's something to be said for watching shows on a weekly basis instead of once per night – marathons can get pretty exhausting, especially when each episode is over an hour long. Also, some of the actors' quirks get aggravating (Michael Kitchen's lip-chewing and Honeysuckle Weeks' excessive chirpiness) when you're exposed to them in lengthy succession.
But I still really love the premise of the show, in which Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle keeps the home fires burning by solving crimes that take place around Hastings during WWII. Writer/creator Anthony Horowitz starts to flag a little when it comes to the construction of his mysteries, usually creating two completely separate investigations rather than a more complex singular one, but it's clear he's fascinated by this period and goes to great lengths to link each episode to a particular date on the War's timeline.
He does however start to turn Foyle into a bit of a Gary Stu, with each episode having him go up against an obstructive superior officer and emerge the intellectual/moral victor; not to mention the fact that his deductive powers now border on the supernatural.
Desperate Romantics (2009)
I'm pretty sure this miniseries was pitched as "a 19th century Entourage", which might well have put me off watching if I'd known that beforehand. Though it focuses on the great Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, it's their tangled love-lives that are of most interest to the unfolding story. To be fair, it's not like this subject is uninteresting: you probably already know about how Effie Grey escaped her sexless marriage to John Ruskin in order to marry Millais and the tempestuous love affair between Rossetti and Lizzie Siddle that ended in her suspected suicide.
But in the midst of all the drama and sex and comedy, there's very little about the actual art. If you knew absolutely nothing about the Pre-Raphaelite and their work, watching this won't leave you any more enlightened. Instead, those that are already familiar with their portfolios/biographies will derive the most enjoyment out of seeing them play out through the lens of a hedonistic comedy.
Though in saying that, the show is a little confused at times whether it wants to celebrate or criticize the lead characters. It's all told through the point-of-view of newcomer Fred Walters (like many characters designed solely to be the audience surrogate, he's completely boring) who is pretty much used up and spat out by the likes of Rossetti. His arc takes him from fervent fanboy to disillusionment, culminating in the infamous exhumation of Lizze's grave so that Rossetti can retrieve his poetry – though here it takes place almost directly after her funeral just to drive home how amoral he is. (It actually happened seven years later, and Rossetti wasn't present).
Whatever poignancy or tragedy this scene might have portrayed is off-set by the jaunty "comedy" soundtrack, a jarring contrast which pretty much sums up the tone of the show in its entirety.
Partners in Crime (2015)
Have you ever watched something so utterly bland and uninspiring that you have no idea why it exists at all? It does nothing to either offend or excite – it just exists. This take on Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime, a six-part miniseries that adapts The Secret Adversary and M or N? is one such thing.
Some books just aren't ripe for adaptation, and Christie's espionage novels (with their outlandish plots) are difficult nuts to crack. Furthermore, there are some rather bizarre creative decisions made here, such as turning Tommy and Tuppence from sharp and intelligent young agents into blundering middle-aged amateurs; a married couple that come across as fusty and sexless (literally – they sleep in separate beds).
Generally speaking, actors David Williams and Jessica Raine are great, but in these roles they're very off-putting somehow. Tommy is supposed to be a seasoned WWII veteran, but here he's a buffoon that never saw any action due to an accident with a catering truck; and though Tuppence does a little better than in that Marple episode which portrayed her as an alcoholic for no explainable reason, she comes across as more shrewish than spirited.
I will say this though: the show is good at ensuring that 1950s London is not simply a sea of white faces. It's sure to set the teeth of a certain demographic on edge, but that's their problem. I was pleasantly surprised to see the whitewashing of the past get quietly and casually dismantled.
Poldark: Season 2 (2016)
My recollections of Poldark's first season were a little fuzzy, to the point where I'd forgotten why Ross was even on trial or whether we'd met that Scottish officer before, and I find there's not much to say about season two. A lot of it is just a rehash of season one: the simmering Love Triangle between Ross, Demelza and Elizabeth, the bitter rivalry between the Poldarks and the Warleggans, and plenty of smuggling by night.
Typically enough, my favourite character was Francis: an otherwise good man who gets eaten up by jealousy, hits rock bottom, and then reclaims his integrity – right before they Drop a Bridge on him (but I suppose I have to blame Winston Grahame for that one). Though I like Dwight and Caroline individually, their love affair isn't particularly interesting to me, and I definitely don't have the energy to tackle the question of whether or not Ross raped Elizabeth.
Oh Elizabeth. Like a lot of female characters that fandom despises, I made an effort to sympathise with her predicament, and Ross really did leave her in the lurch (that's not even going into her mother's stroke or George's successful attempts at gas-lighting her). It's no question that Ross behaved despicably; betraying both the women he claimed to love and refusing to take responsibility for either of them. Hell, the closest thing to an apology he ever gives Demelza is justification of his affair with Elizabeth by insisting that it made him appreciate that his love for Demelza was imperfect and therefore "more real" by comparison!
And as usual, fandom left me with that familiar disappointed-but-not-surprised feeling when their response to the finale was simply: "yay, he loves Demelza, not Elizabeth!" Never mind that he had to break each one's heart in order to realize it.
But in all other respects (scenery, costumes, melodrama) Poldark is the perfect Spiritual Successor to Downton Abbey, even though when it comes to Adrian Turner as Ross, the best comparison that comes to mind is Richard Armitage as Thornton in North and South.
And hey, it's John Nettles! Always nice to see him.
The Fall: Season 3 (2016)
I loved this show, I really did – but the end of season two left me with serious reservations as to how it would ultimately end. As I said at the time, none of the options seemed good: either serial killer Paul Spector would miraculously escape custody, or become a criminal consultant on another serial killer case, or just simply die. Season three gets off to an iffy start when writer/creator Allan Cubitt finds a fourth option: Easy Amnesia.
Yet it was probably the only course of action Cubitt could take, and suspense is raised when one inevitably questions whether it's real. I was fully on board for where I thought the show was going: the difficulties of taking Spector to court when he was feigning amnesia, and Stella's newfound need to make her case against him watertight. There were some good obstacles put in her path, namely the slippery lawyer who immediately ascribes to the "mutual obsession" line of defence, in which Stella is accused of becoming entangled in a quasi-love affair with the man she's hunting – a claim as misogynistic as it is infuriating.
And yet instead of taking the show to the courtroom, Cubitt spins his wheels with Spector undergoing psychiatric assessment and Stella investigating yet another of his murders. Characters like Sally Anne and Katie and Reed (whose fates I cared about) fall by the wayside. Heck, Reed doesn't appear at all. There are some good little mini-arcs, such as the young dark-haired defence lawyer who is exactly Spector's "type"; a woman who grows increasingly unnerved by the fact she has to represent him, eventually ending up in tears after witnessing his attack on Stella – much to the disgust of her male colleague.
But after an entire season of Stella fighting to keep Spector alive because otherwise he would escape justice and rob the victims of closure, the show ends with Spector committing suicide ... thereby escaping justice and robbing his victims of closure.
Whether or not you can stick the ending makes or breaks a story. Look atLOST: I was captivated for six whole seasons, but on reaching its conclusion and realizing it had no intention of explaining any of its myriad of mysteries, I have no desire whatsoever to watch it again. I'm not angry, just apathetic. Judging from how little it's discussed these days, so is everyone else.
And sadly, I have to consign The Fall to the same pile. All I wanted was this: for a cell door to slam shut behind Paul Spector, and for the realization to set in on his face that he would be spending the rest of his life behind bars. It would have been a fitting, cathartic and deeply satisfying end.
Instead, he gets to go out on his own terms. That's unbearable.
Hooten and the Lady: Season 1 (2016)
Remember watching Relic Hunter back in the late Nighties/early Noughts? Because this is totally that show, only with the roles of the main characters reversed: this time it's the male who's the cocky American and the woman who's the uptight British lady. Perhaps a better comparison would be the Jurassic World couple (don't expect me to remember their names) as they've got the same obnoxious Belligerent Sexual Tension going on, which basically just involves him making sleazy/sexist comments and her getting outraged/flustered over it.
Much like Relic Hunter, each episode involves a quest for some archaeological artefact in a far-flung part of the world. Forty-five minutes isn't long enough for a full-blown adventure, so plenty of corners are taken when it comes to plotting (particularly in travelling time) and there's a really odd tone throughout. A lot of the silliness seems aimed at kids, and yet the jokes, language and nudity suggests otherwise.
People these days are always complaining that shows are too "politically correct"; well here's a timely reminder of what shows that aren't politically correct look like: this one involves a man getting threatened with gay rape by an elderly bisexual tribal leader in the Amazon jungle. And that's just the first episode.
So why'd I stick it out? Well, there were plenty of spectacular locations and an impressive list of guest stars, including Jane Seymour, Enzo Cilenti, Angel Coulby, Blake Ritson and Jessica Hynes. Angel's role in particular is a gift, as this post points out.