Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

Parade’s End, part two

It took me a while to finish all 4 of the Parade’s End novels by Ford Madox Ford.  I will say, though, that each one is shorter than the last.  It’s a bit like Michelangelo, who made the first frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling too big, and had to make them smaller and smaller as he went, to fit all of them on.

Parades End. Call Sheet # 39,40 and second unit on morning of th

Unfortunately, these books are not the perfect works of art that Michelangelo’s frescoes are.  The first two were complicated, often lacking in emotion, and frequently difficult to read.  Following the plot was a bit like being pulled along by the hand too fast to look around and see what’s going on.  If I hadn’t seen the miniseries before reading the book, I would have been even more confused.  Ford is not great at 2 very practical things that make reading easier–making it obvious 1-who is speaking, and 2-when events are taking place.  Two very easy things for writers to make clear, but when got wrong, the whole flow of narrative and the magical telepathy that reading is…just doesn’t work.  You are constantly jumping back wondering–did she say that aloud or just think it?  And…is this in the past? Did I miss something?

While I enjoyed the first two books, despite these little niggles, the second half of the tetralogy is more difficult to love. For one thing, they barely feature Christopher Tietjens, the crux of the four-novel plot.  He isn’t seen until the last few pages of The Last Post, action revolving instead around those closest to him–his brother, his wife, and his mistress.  And also, for some reason, his brother’s wife.

The third book, A Man Could Stand Up, starts with Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day, learning that the war is over, and learning that Christopher, her star-crossed lover, is still alive. But it shifts back in time for the second half of the book, having the reader join Christopher on the front.

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Here is where Ford puts in some of his grimmest memories from his time in the war. He led a very similar life to Tietjens. He worked for the Propaganda office, drumming up blindly-patriotic enthusiasm for the thought of killing zee Germans. Leaving that office, he enlisted at 41 years old, and was sent to France. When you read Tietjens experiences of the unbearable and uncountable deaths around him, you just know that Ford is writing from his own experience. Here’s a passage that was particularly difficult for me to stomach, and left me with mental images I never wanted to have:

‘It was different from sleep: flatter. No doubt when the applled soul left the weary body, the panting lungs…well, you can’t go on with a sentence like that…but you collapsed inwards.  Painter fellows doing battlefields never got that intimate effect. But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi. Collections of tubular shapes in field-gray or mud-colour. Chucked about by Almighty God? As if He had dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth.’

Time shifts again, and we’re back to Armistice Day, and Christopher and Valentine want to be together. They no longer care for the formalities of propriety and avoidance of scandal that held them back before.  Though many try to talk them out of it, Valentine finally becomes his mistress.

The fourth book, The Last Post spends most of its time in the heads of Christopher’s brother, the brother’s wife, and Christopher’s wife.  We see little of Valentine and even less of Christopher.  We learn everything through hearsay, which I find really annoying.  These two characters pine for each other for nearly a decade, live through hell and find each other again. They finally can be together and…we don’t really see much of it.

Most of the last novel focuses on the future of Groby, the Tietjens’ family estate. This does make sense, as most of this series of novels is about the future of the British ruling class, rather than just being about the Tietjens. Still, it’s easier to deal with a novel when the point of it isn’t thrust in your face at the expense of aspects you’re truly interested in.

Mark Tietjens, the eldest brother, is paralyzed (though it’s unclear how much of his immobility is psychosomatic), and has no children. Therefore Christopher is the next in line to inherit Groby.  And his child the heir after him–if the boy is his child.  That question is never adequately answered, but we’re led to believe he is definitely not. And the house, the symbol of the aristocracy will be further ruined by its passing onto the illegitimate son, brought up a Catholic (a horrible thing in British opinion of the time).

Christopher is married, but not living with his wife.  Instead, he is living with Valentine, pregnant with his illegitimate child. They barely have enough money to support themselves, after Christopher’s business dealings go wrong.  Groby and all that symbolizes the old guard of British land-owning aristocracy have been sacrificed at the altar of Sylvia, Christopher’s horrid wife.  She has rented the ancestral home out to a vulgar American, who had the gall to cut down a very large and beloved tree on the property.  In short, Sylvia continues to torture Christopher however she can, even from afar.

Most of this final book is about how the world has changed, instead of how the characters have changed.  Indeed, the male characters haven’t changed that much at all.  They aren’t adapting well to this new world that has been forced upon them. Mark Tietjens has completely given up on society and refuses to speak to anyone ever again.  Christopher is trying, and largely failing, to support himself and Valentine by selling old furniture.  The women on the other hand…the women can adapt.  Valentine worries about what she’s got herself into, being a pregnant mistress to a disgraced aristocrat.  Understandable.  But she has embraced Christopher and chosen him over respectability and frigid chastity.  Sylvia proves also fairly adaptable. She feels it’s probably time to stop torturing Christopher.  To divorce him (a big change for her, as she is Catholic), and to marry the General that has always admired her and will be an easier target for her endless need to irritate.

If you’re wondering where all of this was in the miniseries–it wasn’t.  Tom Stoppard left most of it out.  The Last Post is a real controversy  among critics of Ford’s works.  Graham Greene omitted it entirely from an edition of Parade’s End that he edited.  It’s a love or hate book, the literary equivalent of cilantro.  I didn’t enjoy it.  We see Mark as a stubborn invalid, we see our bad ass suffragette, Valentine, reduced to a nervous pregnant woman, worried about money, possibly regretting her decisions.  It’s nice to know that Sylvia eventually would have given him the divorce, but nearly every other thing in the 4th novel could be left out and the character arcs would still be complete.  It’s extra stuff, it’s not needed, and it takes the place of what might be a better denouement for Christopher and Valentine.

So that left me quite disappointed.  When I watched the miniseries, I thought the ending too sharp and too quick. He comes back from war, a leader among his inferior soldiers, and shares a dance with his (implied soon-to-be) mistress.

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Now I see why it ended that way.  Everything else that Ford Madox Ford adds afterward  really isn’t about the 2 of them. It’s about England, and it loses some of its potency by focusing on the culture rather than on the people.

 

 

 

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Parade’s End, part I

parade's end bookIt’s been about a year since I watched the Parade’s End miniseries on HBO. I had never heard of Parade’s End before then, though the name Ford Madox Ford sounded familiar. Anyway, it is supposed to be one of the definitive books about World War I, probably right behind All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Of course, that one is written from a German perspective, whereas Parade’s End is so quintessentially, entirely, inescapably British.

Parade’s End is actually a tetralogy–4 novels. To make my life easier, I’m splitting this one into two posts. This one is about the first two books in the series: Some Do Not… and No More Parades, from 1924 and 1925 respectively.

The first book opens with two men in a train-car. A brand new, gleaming, perfect train car, with two men of a class who ‘administered the world’. One of these men is Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch in the miniseries).

The reason Ford opens with this gleaming, punctual, swift train carriage is the same reason I was very interested in this book.  I’m a little obsessed with the Victorian era, which is (technically) 1837-1901, the period that Queen Victoria reigned.  For a while, nearly 15 years, the incredible success of the Victorian era spilled over into the new 20th century. England started the century at its absolute zenith. By the end of WWI, that reflected and lingering glory is mostly gone. Ford sets his novel in those last moments of England’s place as the world superpower. Just before it all falls apart.

The basic points of the story (of all 4 books), revolve around 3 characters. Christopher Tietjens is a brilliant, honorable, slightly belligerent, extremely stubborn Tory from Yorkshire.  His wife, Sylvia, is a conniving, sadistic, painfully beautiful and selfish woman, who married Christopher out of desperation (she was pregnant with another man’s son).  In the miniseries, she was played by Rebecca Hall (who looked so beautiful in it that it makes me want to throw myself out of a window):

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If the books were set in high school, Sylvia would be the Queen Bee, the Regina George. The other woman in Christopher’s life is Valentine Wannop, a bad ass suffragette.

8015647016_03c759c327_zI have already decided that this will be my Halloween costume this year, because suffragettes are my heroes, and how often in life do you get a chance to wear a sash? Valentine is innocent and young, but she’s also very strong, very smart, and incredibly capable.

First of all, I must say that Ford Madox Ford is awesome at writing female characters. He gives them the same amount of agency, of morality, of wrath, and variability, that he gives to male characters. They are not paragons or whores, they are complicated and multi-faceted, and that’s lovely to see. Especially from a book that is set 100 years ago.

But I also have to say that Ford Madox Ford is not great at creating an easy-to-read narrative. He does not hold your hand and walk you through the craggy bits of rock to get to the plot points he has scattered about. He jumps back and forth in time, from soliloquy to dialogue with very little direction for the reader. You have to pay attention and hold your end of the bargain in order to follow where he goes.  But if you can follow, you get a lot of great tidbits and aphorisms.

Remarking on the famous stiff upper lip of English people, he talks about ‘self-suppression in matters of the emotions’, how in small matters, the Englishman ‘will be impeccable and not to be moved’, but in ‘sudden confrontation of anything but physical dangers, he is apt …to go to pieces very badly.’

And Christopher Tietjens is very much the epitome of that sort of English man.  Even in his own thoughts, he is strangely blank about emotions. It is difficult for him to even think some of the horrible thoughts that come upon him, such as the fact that his son and heir is probably not his child, and that he was tricked into marrying a witch of a woman, and now his own sense of duty and honor prevent him from divorcing her.  Sylvia, being a Catholic, will definitely not be divorcing him.

Tietjens is in love with Valentine Wannop very quickly after they meet. But even though his wife has strayed from him, multiple times, he cannot bring himself to do something as dishonorable as cheat on her.  Even though most men think it normal (‘there’s no reason why a man shouldn’t have a girl…’), and the gossip mills already believe Valentine has had his child in secret. He knows Valentine loves him, and ‘his passion for her was a devouring element that covered his whole mind as the atmosphere envelops the earth’. But the two of them are too moral to begin an affair.

The one chink in that resolution is when Christopher is on leave, back from France during the beginning parts of the war. He’s about to leave again, and he does ask her to be his mistress. Ford makes a point to show how this 19th century honor falls apart relative to the awful truth of World War I. The terrible truth of the outrageous body count, the long and pointless fight on the front, and the number of soldiers returning home in pieces. But the two never get their night together.  There are some people who do that sort of thing, but these two are very clearly part of the eponymous ‘Some Do Not’.

Though the action of this tale starts before the war, and much of the action revolves around the two women who are (obviously)  not in combat, the entirety of this story is about the war.  It’s about a type of life that existed before the war–Sylvia’s type of life. Society, money, pretty gowns, shows of imperial might, often a real lack of morality…  After the war, it doesn’t exist anymore. That old way of living in the height of the English Empire has slipped away. Though many don’t realize it, it’s already gone by the time the war begins. Ford talks about this in a lot of different ways.  He has Tietjens reminisce about God, comparing him to an English landlord, ‘Benevolently awful’, and heaven is an English Sunday.

The ‘Parades’ in the title, refer to specific military drills and marches, but also to anything with former pomp and circumstance. The last generation was able to cling to tradition, ceremony, ritual.  All of that gave them an inflated sense of purpose. After World War I begins, all of that illusion is gone. There can be no real sense of importance in elaborate dinners or literary salons or royal occasions, in a world where people were blown to bits by howitzers or burned with mustard gas.  Or making it back to England, but blind or broken. That world just stops existing once it is confronted with the utter destruction of the War.

We see part of Christopher’s experience in the War during these first two novels.  Ford shows a complete chaos, organizationally. First, Tietjens is asked to manipulate statistics to show incorrect numbers of men that England was supplying to the allied front.  He refuses to do so, and resigns his place at the Statistics office. He ends up in France, in charge of sending men out to the front line.  More chaos.  He gets conflicting orders about where and when the men should go. They head out in one direction, and come back 6 hours later, because the French resistance has blown up the bridge they need to cross.  General Campion, a senior officer and Christopher’s godfather, also expounds on the chaos of the English forces. Campion proves he is not as honorable as the English like to believe they are (he ‘was not overpoweringly sentimental over the idea of the abandonment of our allies’). It better suited English interests to protect the Eastern colonies, rather than helping the French on the Western front. But if the English did abandon France and Belgium to their fate, they would run into a serious problem getting the English troops back across the channel. The French would attack them when they attempted to retreat.

Some of the best scenes of this story are the utterly ludicrous things that happen in war.  Tietjens and his fellow officers, educated in Latin and in poetry in elite schools, are ill-prepared for the realities of war.  In a moment of strange desperation, Tietjens and another officer both try to prove their intellectual worth by utilizing those skills, which are of no other use in this time and place. As Tietjens says later, ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth’. Tietjens describes himself as ‘the English public schoolboy’. And look how ill-prepared he is for life in this new world that dawned in the 20th century.

At the end of the second book of the series, Tietjens is about to head to the front lines, after his wife has come to France to embarrass and harass him. Bored with only torturing him, she also makes eyes at several other young men hovering around the army-commandeered hotel.  She comes all the way to war-torn France to see if she can make her husband grimace.  Well, she does.

The thing to understand about Sylvia is why she wants to make her husband grimace. She, not unlike Estella from Great Expectations, measures her power with men in the pain she can cause them. It is difficult to make Tietjens cringe with pain or insult, so she must resort to despicable behavior to do so. For her, it is proof that he still cares for her, if she can cause him pain. It’s not admirable or pleasant, but I think it’s fairly easy to see how a woman, brought up to be a society darling, graced with incredible beauty, might learn to interact with men this way.

So even though he is a brilliant man, with good connections and money, Christopher is off to the front to put his life at risk because of some ludicrous idea of honor. Sylvia, who really does want him to love her (and shows it in the only way she knows how), refuses to loosen her grasp on him. Valentine vows to erase him from her mind, because there is no reason to believe he will come back from the front.  And all the characters are miserable, forced by morality to do things that can only destroy them in future.  I know what happens next, because of the miniseries, but reading the books will hopefully add another layer of depth and comprehension to the story.

Starter for Ten

Starter-For-Ten-1-D25UKS4LJM-1024x768This movie was recommended to me months ago, and I just got around to seeing it.  I could not believe the amount of recognizable British actors that are in this one movie.  James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve, Mark Gatiss, James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Catherine Tate, Guy Henry, the list goes on.  Well, no, that’s about it, but it’s a pretty long list!

The movie is about James McAvoy, a working-class Essex boy obsessed with gaining knowledge, knowing the answers.  I can relate to that. Not the Essex boy part, the knowledge part.  He is accepted to university at Bristol to ‘read’ English literature.

He is leaving behind his 2 non-intellectual friends, played by James Corden and Dominic Cooper.

dominic cooperCooper is doing his best impression of Ralph Macchio in this movie. Or, if Ralph Macchio was a T bird:

Brian (McAvoy) has barely arrived in Bristol before he spots a poster for tryouts for the ‘University Challenge’ team. I think I remember watching a few episodes of University Challenge when I was in London.  I didn’t have a TV, so I was limited to whatever the BBC iplayer was willing to show me.  QI and University Challenge are about the only British TV I managed to see while I lived there.  Ironic.  But I digress…

If you don’t know University Challenge, it’s exactly what you would expect. Teams from a specific college go and compete in a sort of academic decathlon. Apparently it used to be hosted by someone named Bamber Gascoigne.  If that’s not a name from Middle Earth, I don’t know what is. Anyway, this movie takes place in the ’80s, when Bamber was the host. Mark Gatiss, almost unrecognizable, plays Bamber.

Brian immediately wants to audition for the team. He used to watch the show with his (now deceased) dad, who always encouraged his thirst for knowledge.

But Brian wanders off his course really quickly.  As soon as he sees Alice (played by Alice Eve) at the audition, he is smitten to the point of being pathetic.  He helps her cheat, and then she ends up on the team instead of him, because of the 2 answers he gives her.  Why are men so dumb? Luckily, the Pete Best of the team ends up injured or sick or something, and is never seen again. Brian, as first reserve, is now on the team:

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The leader of the team is Patrick Watts (Cumberbatch) and oh my god he is annoying and so unattractive. It doesn’t help that it’s the ’80s and all the men have hideous outfits (except Dominic Cooper, because he looks like he’s in the ’50s).  No one looks good in high-waisted acid wash jordache jeans, okay? It was just a terrible time to be a human being. He wears awful sweaters and awful pants, and slicks his hair off to the side and it’s just all bad.  Worse, he’s got a really intolerable personality!

Brian falls for Alice pretty quickly, but he also meets Rebecca, played by Rebecca Hall–why do all the women in this movie have characters with the same first name? Anyway, Rebecca Hall is clearly doing her best Molly Ringwald impression.

imagesAnd she does look and act a lot like Molly Ringwald…or maybe I am just associating the two because it takes place in the ’80s, but I think if Andie Walsh had gone off to university, she probably would have been protesting nuclear power or nuclear weapons or sexual harassment, etc., etc.  That’s what Rebecca Hall’s character does.  Brian makes a joke that ‘the lady doth protest too much’.  It’s funny if you’re very familiar with Hamlet…

The movie is a bit predictable, and I did find myself relating all of it to a John Hughes movie.  By the way, if anyone reading this is not familiar with the John Hughes oeuvre, go, now.  Watch at least The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Uncle Buck, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You’re an incomplete human person if you don’t know these movies.  Go on, get out.

Starter for 10 falls into that predictable trope of someone falls in love with the wrong person, and finally realizes at the very end that they really belong with the person that was next to them the whole time.  A bit tired, and, quite frankly, not done quite as well as John Hughes could do it.

But it was still an interesting movie, and an excellent place to spot people who are much more famous now than when they made this movie.  So I enjoyed watching it, even if it was a bit overly-simplified. If you’re not sold, you should look at this picture:

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So many questions must be occurring to you…  Is that really Mark Gatiss???  Why has Benedict Cumberbatch been punched in the face? Did James McAvoy have a nosebleed? No, but seriously, what is up with Mark Gatiss and that wig? For all these answers, and more, just watch the movie.

Still not sold?? The movie features an amazing selection of ’80s music, including Kate Bush, the Cure, the Psychedelic Furs, Buzzcocks, Motörhead, The Smiths, Tears for Fears…come on.  What more do you need than early Morrissey?!

Sherlock, series 3

mast-Sherlock-Benedict-Martin-COVE-hiresI have waited almost two years for the next season of this show.  It’s amazing how much you can anticipate something, and then you blink and it’s over.  Just like Christmas.  This season started on January 1st, and was over less than 2 weeks later.  Three episodes, even if they are 90 minutes each, doesn’t seem like it should qualify as a full series.

Past here, there be spoilers!  You have been warned!

In episode one, The Empty Hearse, we see Sherlock return to London, and admit to being alive.  We also see John’s terrible mustache.

imagesThankfully, it’s short-lived.  I’ve never been less attracted to Martin Freeman.

The mini-episode at Christmas gave us a taste of what has been happening to our characters since the last season. Anderson has grown a terrible beard, lost his job, and become a Sherlock conspiracy theorist.  John has moved out and is very sad and makes me feel all the feelings.

In The Empty Hearse, Sherlock comes back and assumes all will be the same, assumes nothing interesting can have happened since he wasn’t around. John’s reaction to seeing him again is pretty intense.  The more Sherlock explains who knew he had faked his death (Molly, his parents), the angrier John gets.  Who can blame him? My reaction would have been far more wrathful, but John has a soft spot for Sherlock, and I think his relief outweighs his anger pretty quickly.  That being said, Sherlock deserved a good punch in the face.

The most brilliant part of this episode were the various theories on how he faked his death.  The first one, the very first scene of the episode, had me going for a split second, and it made me very angry. It made no sense at all! But the second one? with Sherlock and Moriarty on the roof? Hilarious.  And a scenario that has no doubt already appeared in at least one fanfiction in a dark corner of the internet.

In episode 2, we see John and Mary’s wedding, with Sherlock as the best man…

sherlock-wedding-john-mary-sherlockJust looking at this picture makes me feel the need to improve my posture. I liked this episode, but in it, Sherlock seemed too normal. Too able to and willing to be charming.  One could argue that he was putting on his best behavior for John and Mary (who he obviously likes).  But he’s cultivated a personality that is callous and rude, because he truly thinks he is more important than the average riff raff he encounters. I find it hard to believe he could turn on the charm and flirt with the maid of honor and etc.  Of course, when I saw episode 3, his behavior toward her made more sense. And, I suppose he has been able to affect normalcy before–e.g. when he pretended to be a vicar who had been attacked outside Irene Adler’s building.

And episode 3? What the hell was that?!  Before it started, I was complaining to my boyfriend that we’d barely seen this supervillain Magnussen, and it wasn’t a very good way to build up the tension.  Moriarty had been discussed in every episode of the first two seasons, and had been like a shadow hanging over all of them.
And this Magnussen?  What did we know about him going into episode 3? Almost nothing.  Of course, turns out he only took about 3 seconds of screen time to completely repulse me in every conceivable way.  I was so disgusted I think some of my innards turned inside out…

lars-mikkelsen-charles-augustus-magnussen-600x398Gross, gross, gross. Why is he so plastic looking and terrifying? I had nightmares about him!

But was he a supervillain?! no.  He wasn’t even the most villainous person in this episode, despite being the human equivalent of the word ‘moist‘.  I feel like bleaching my skin just thinking about him. But the real shocker in this episode was not him, obviously.

I feel like (and I’m hesitant to criticize Sherlock as a whole, but) Mary seemed to earn her forgiveness extremely quickly.  Our acceptance of her is based on a-Sherlock saying she had ‘saved his life’ by not killing him and by calling the ambulance, and b-John being ‘attracted’ to sociopaths because he is an adrenaline junkie.

a- is hard to stomach.  Couldn’t she have just knocked him out?  Or shot him in the shoulder or something?  And why not just shoot Magnussen, instead of shooting Sherlock?  I just don’t buy it as some great act on her part to show she’s a good person.  Yes, calling the ambulance was good, but not shooting him would have been better. He almost died even though she was trying not to kill him, so not a great plan.

and b?  It’s true.  No matter what iteration of these two characters (Sherlock, Elementary, House, etc) you enjoy, you start out thinking ‘how does this Watson guy/girl put up with it all?  (S)he is so normal comparatively’.  But eventually, you realize that people get into these relationships because they want to. And they stay in the relationships because they get something out of it.  Probably a relief from boredom.  Much like what we get out of watching someone like Sherlock.  On the other hand, I think it’s a little ridiculous for everyone to say ‘Oh, of course you married a killer, John, you’re attracted to psychos’.  This is only the second unbalanced person we’ve seen John with, so it’s not exactly an established pattern.  He was clearly bored with his ‘normal’ girlfriends in the previous series, but this is  bit extreme.  I really liked Mary’s character, and I like the actress (Freeman’s real-life partner). I just find her deception and her actions unforgivable, and I can’t trust her as readily as John and Sherlock seem to.  Of course, it’s easy for Sherlock to trust people, because he usually knows more about them than they do.

And I have one major gripe about this episode.  One thing that makes no sense to me.  Magnussen apparently had no actual proof of anything he used to blackmail people?  So killing him (a pretty serious breach of protocol from our hero that is glazed over very very quickly) destroyed all the ‘evidence’ in his mind?  Even if you accept that he somehow saw/found enough proof to blackmail seriously powerful people, and that blackmail worked on them even though he didn’t keep any records, and that killing him would end his threat..there’s still a problem.  He showed the letters to Sherlock.  Had them in his pocket.  So he obviously had evidence of those in hard copy, not just in his mind palace.  I suppose you could surmise that they were just random scraps of paper bound together, rather than the actual letters.  That’s conceivable, but you have to let your audience know that, otherwise it just seems like a mistake.

My only other complaint about episode 3 is the serious lack of Lestrade! Give that man more to do, even if it is just to be humiliated and called ‘Graham’ or ‘Gavin’ by Sherlock.

But of course, there are only two big important moments in episode 3.  The moment we realize the truth about Mary, and…the bit after the credits.  I hope you watched until the end of the credits?

sherlock-his-last-vow-moriarty-miss-meCan I just say that I am so happy and terrified of this, all at once?  I don’t care why or how he’s back, I just want to see more of him.  Andrew Scott, you are the most terrifying and wonderful villain ever.

Gatiss and Moffat have confirmed that there will be a series 4, to start filming as soon as the actors have room in their schedule.  Some people are speculating a premiere as early as Christmas 2014.  I hope it’s that soon, but I don’t really care when it is.  Even when this show isn’t at its best, I would still wait years and years for the next episode.  Each episode has enough moments that are shocking, affecting, funny, and scary; each one is worth waiting for.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

movies-the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-posterI’ll go see Martin Freeman in just about any movie he cares to make, so, dutifully, I’ve gone to see the second Hobbit movie in the theater.  Before you complain that this is not a British movie…I disagree.  Tolkien was British, and (besides Martin) there are a plethora of Brit actors in the cast–Ian McKellen, ex-Doctor Sylvester McCoy, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage, Stephen Fry (!), and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the eponymous dragon, Smaug).

I was disappointed with the first Hobbit movie last year. Part of this was due to the high frame rate technology they used to make the film.  It was difficult to watch and made some actions seem slow and others preternaturally fast.  I don’t think they used the same technology on this film, because I didn’t notice anything strange about watching it.  I ended up enjoying it, partially because my expectations were a bit lower this time around.

I still dislike that it is spread across 3 movies.  I know there are a lot of extra storylines from the Appendices and maybe the Silmarillion that have been added to flesh out the story, but I think it was better without the extra stuff.  But it’s been so long since I read the book, that I can’t be certain what was in it anymore.  I don’t think Legolas made an appearance in the book, but he is certainly in the movie.  The elves of Mirkwood imprison the dwarves along their journey to the Lonely Mountain.  We see their great forest home with a truly impressive and ridiculous throne, upon which sits their king, Thranduil.  And honey, you should see him in a (ludicrous) crown:

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I must confess that in looking for that picture, I’ve stumbled across some pretty horrifying Thranduil erotic fanart.  Pass me the eye bleach when you get a chance…

We also meet Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly (Lost), a character completely made up by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, showing that he’s gone (literally) off-book.

220px-EvangelineLillyAsTaurielLook, we all know that Tolkien didn’t include many female characters in his stories. Hardly surprising, when you consider how much of his writing was based on his experiences in World War I. I’m glad to have a badass lady in the mix, but I am not a fan of Evangeline Lilly.  I haven’t been since Lost.  So I didn’t feel much attraction to her character, though her skill (with bow and with medicine) did come in handy. On an unrelated note, is it just me, or did they dress her like Robin Hood?

The story of the second movie weaves and wavers through time a bit.  We see Thorin Oakenshield when he first meets Gandalf and we see that this entire quest happened at Gandalf’s urging. In the present, the company of dwarves (plus 1 wizard and 1 hobbit) is running from a band of Orcs, and also from a wolf (actually a skin-changer named Beorn). Shortly after, Gandalf goes off toward Dol Guldur, to investigate reports of a dark power there.  (Spoilers: It’s Sauron.  It’s always Sauron.) Bilbo and the dwarves head through the Mirkwood forest toward the Lonely Mountain.

We see Bilbo use the ring to protect himself, use the ring to save his friends (from giant spiders, imprisonment, etc.), but we also see him kill to keep the ring in his possession.  He kills some sort of underground giant arachnid thing, so it’s not exactly the same as if he killed Gandalf or something.  On the other hand, it’s perfectly clear that he is killing for the ring, to keep it.  IF it weren’t clear, they make it even more clear when (picking up the ring again) Bilbo looks at the dead spider, points at the ring, and says ‘MINE’. It’s a wonder the guy could hold onto it for another 60 years without being a total monster.

After the spiders, they’re imprisoned by the elves.  They escape in empty wine barrels, and what follows is a slightly ludicrous, slapstick action sequence as they whitewater raft barrel down the river away from Mirkwood. Kili (aka the cute one) is hit with a poison arrow, thus making me very upset.  They happen upon a bargeman, Bard, who agrees to take them (secretly) into Laketown, the nearest town to the Lonely Mountain.  During this time, Gandalf gets himself captured by Sauron and his forces, so he’s of no use whatsoever.  He’s always getting himself captured at pivotal moments.  And if he ever claims he’ll meet you at this place or that place, he never shows up.  Properly unreliable.

In addition to a Peter Jackson cameo (still eating a carrot in Bree, even 60 years before the Fellowship?) and a Stephen Colbert cameo, we see Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, doing his best impression of many a corrupt 17th century English monarch.  We have to endure a decent amount of foreshadowing about how it was Bard’s ancestor who failed to kill Smaug during the first attack. We get it, he (like Aragorn), will prove he is better than his ancestor.  There’s also some foreshadowing about Thorin–the Arkenstone corrupted his grandfather the king; will it corrupt him too, etc., etc.  It’s a little heavy-handed, to be honest. Not so much foreshadowing as fore-neon-signing.

Finally, it’s just down to Bilbo in the Lonely Mountain, searching the halls of Erebor for the fabled Arkenstone. He awakens Smaug (of course he does) and all hell breaks loose.

smaug_the_stupendous_by_baptistewsf-d6yo5y2

We get a bit of the dwarves pulling together to help Bilbo, but they cannot defeat Smaug.  We all know why (because of the foreshadowing!).  Smaug, very aggravated, heads off for Lake Town to kill everyone.

Most of the reviews have included lines like ‘better than the first’ or ‘not as bad as the first’.  I agree, it was better than the first one. Partially because there are no ludicrous choreographed dance numbers that make you feel as if you’re in a kid’s movie.  But I still think it’s too long, and there’s something missing with almost all of the characters.  Even though it’s too long, we don’t seem to get to know anyone or to feel empathy for them.  Bilbo is charming and comic, but there’s something about the way they’ve edited the story, or maybe the way Martin acts, that lacks any seriousness.  Very very different from Ian Holm in the same role. Part of the problem is that the Lord of the Rings films were so good. They struck all the right notes, bouncing effortlessly from gross comedy (usually involving orcs, or Merry & Pip) to the love lives of immortal elves, and included believable moments with humanized characters.  That just seems to be lacking here.  The dwarves are too comedic, the elves too aloof.  Gandalf has spent more time off on his own than with the dwarves, so that it’s no wonder they don’t care to wait for him to finish their quest.  I did enjoy this movie more than the first, but I also spent more time (especially in hindsight) wishing it was as good as the LotR trilogy.  And that makes me sad.

Summer British TV

Summer and Winter seem to be when the best of the British channels finally hits our shores. This summer is no exception. Just because Doctor Who is over, and Downton Abbey is months away, don’t despair! There are a lot of premieres in Summer and early fall. Starting in chronological order:

Family Trees

Family TreeChris O’Dowd’s new show on HBO started last month, and I have really enjoyed it so far! It’ll be running every Sunday through early July. Chris plays Tom, a somewhat depressed, slightly pathetic man living in London. His great-aunt dies and leaves him a trunk of family paraphernalia. He gets interested in his history, and goes about tracing his family lineage by finding out more about the objects in the trunk. It’s a very British show, so far, but later Tom does take a trip to the states to find out more about one branch of his family. It’s a hilarious show, very self-effacing and extremely odd. Tom’s sister, uses a monkey puppet to voice all her strangest and most offensive thoughts. She has conversations with this monkey all the time; she goes everywhere with the monkey. Tom also has a best friend, Pete, who is dumb as a post, and his dad is played by the always hilarious Michael McKean (of Clue and Spinal Tap fame). The show relies on awkward and embarrassing moments to make you laugh, which is a theme with British TV I think. Probably because awkward situations are the biggest fear of most English people.

Here’s a trailer (though I must warn you that it plays up the American part of the show far more than has happened in each episode yet):

In the Flesh

In the FleshThis is a miniseries that started June 6th. I’m not a zombie person, okay? I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that’s about it. Okay, I’ve seen Zombieland. And 28 Days Later. And Shaun of the Dead…okay I’ve consumed more zombie books/movies than I thought. Still, it’s not a concept I’m particularly attracted to. On the other hand, this is only a 3-part miniseries, so I might as well give it a try. It aired in the UK and March, to generally positive reviews. These zombies are presented as a socially-marginalized minority, have been diagnosed with PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome), and have been rehabilitated with medication and cosmetics. It sounds vaguely like True Blood‘s approach to vampires. At least In the Flesh won’t be just another scary movie a la Dawn of the Dead. I’m willing to give it a try. My only qualm is that I’m not very good with gore. Even in comedy films like Shaun of the Dead, I’m horrified by the sights and sounds associated with…zombies eating human flesh. Particularly while said human is alive. But it’s on BBC America, so it can’t be too bad. Here’s the trailer:

On June 23rd, the second season of Copper premieres.

Copper trioI was on the fence about this show throughout the first season. The three characters I liked (conveniently pictured above) are all coming back, so I’m going to give it a try (new motto for me?). This show always seems to be on the edge, teetering on the precipice of me not wanting to watch it anymore. I dislike the violence and blatant corruption, but I like the fact that it is set in the 19th century, and I think it always has potential to be a really great show. I’m hoping this year, now that it is a bit more established, it will reach that potential. Here is the trailer:

Also, on June 30th, the twentieth season of Top Gear premieres in the UK. No word yet on BBC America’s air dates, but last season they were only about a week behind, so hopefully more info will be forthcoming.

In early July, PBS will begin airing Endeavour, a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse detective series. I’ve only seen one or two episodes of Inspector Morse, so this wasn’t on the top of my Must-See list. But, I had second thoughts when I saw who they cast as Morse:

EndeavourAdd to the obvious appeal of…whoever this guy is…it’s still set in Oxford. Oxford is so picturesque, and so quintessentially English (it’s what we think of in America when we think of an English village) that I could watch just about anything that takes place there. Plus, I have a certain weakness for incredibly smart, rail-thin detectives, even when they are not played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s only 4 or 5 episodes, so I’m going to go ahead and watch. I hope not much will be lost on me for not having followed the original series closely. Trailer is here:

The same night Endeavour premieres, the biggest thing since sliced bread is set to hit BBC America.

BroadchurchDavid Tennant stars in Broadchurch and uses his Scottish accent, which is my favorite thing in the world. This show was a huge hit in the UK this Spring, and I’ve been waiting anxiously for it since. A second series has already been announced.

It’s a whodunnit murder mystery set on the Dorset coast. In addition to Tennant, Olivia Colman co-starred and co-produced the show, and Arthur Darvill (Rory!) also co-stars. This is at the top of my Must-See List, FYI. Trailer:

Since I will be thoroughly busy watching all of these shows, I’m glad there is a bit of a break before more begin. The next one starts August 18th. It’s called The Lady Vanishes.

The Lady VanishesPBS is airing this remake of a Hitchcock thriller about a woman who goes missing, and another who tries to alert authorities about the incidence, but is not taken seriously. Listen, I tend to think any remake of a Hitchcock film is just a terrible idea. Are they going to improve on his direction? No. Is the addition of color going to add more suspense and creepiness? No. Are there modern actresses/actors who could play these roles better than the likes of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart? Hell no. But, this actually got pretty good reviews, so I’m going to watch and keep an open mind. I’ve never seen the original, so that should help. Trailer:

At the end of August, PBS is also airing Silk, a legal drama. Prepare your powdered wigs, we’re off to the Old Bailey!

SilkI don’t have a lot of info on this one, partially because the title is very hard to Google well. Apparently it deals with two rival barristers. PBS is airing it in 3 two-hour increments from August 25th-September 8th. Bonus-it features Rupert Penry-Jones, of Whitechapel. Less of a bonus–his character looks like a d-bag, judging by the trailer:

Next, starting September 3rd, the all important Idris Elba returns to my life on BBC America.

luther series 3You gorgeous man, you.

There’s not a proper trailer for this one yet (that I could find), but they made an ‘announcement trailer’

Judging by this video, I’m guessing the episodes for the new season will disturb me just as much (if not more) than the last two seasons. Don’t care. Idris Elba calls, and I must answer.

Last, but not least:

The ParadisePBS is airing this one on October 6th, and calling it The Paradise. It’s an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel, and was sort of squared off against Mr. Selfridge when it aired in the UK, because of the similar subject matter. The show revolves around the first department store in NE England. It looks a little more soapy to me, based on the trailer. But I plan to watch and compare. Bonus–Arthur Darvill is also in this one (briefly).

Beyond here, there be trailers:

I’m going to be a busy blogger over the next 3 or 4 months. Yay!

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere on BBC Radio

the cast of neverwhere

I have to confess that this was my first ‘radio play’.  In the US, I think they went out of fashion pretty much as soon as the TV became available.  I’ve heard the stories about Wells War of the Worlds being performed and the audience thinking aliens had actually attacked Earth. But that was 80 years ago. There haven’t been regular radio dramas in the US since the ’60s. In a lot of other countries they are still really popular though (even countries with TVs!), so perhaps I’m missing out. In explaining to people that I was going to listen to a radio play based on Neverwhere, I was met with confusion.  “So, is it filmed or not?” was the reaction–partially because I kept mistakenly saying I was going to watch it rather than listen.  It’s a confusing proposition for a Yankee.

And after watching listening to it, I can’t say I love the format.  It has definite merits.  The voices of the actors become far more meaningful and it is easy to catch small moments and equivocations in a pause or a wavering syllable.  It demands more attention, and I’m always happy to give attention to stories that require it of me.  On the other hand, I did continue to wish I could see what I was witnessing.  With a book, the self-determined pace of reading allows for imagination to flourish and to flesh out the world with your own ideas. With film, the auteur’s version of the story is presented and our imaginations aren’t required.  With a radio play, it was as quick as a film and left little time for my mind to sit and contemplate how the space might look or feel, but also lacked narration or description to fill in gaps.  Occasionally, it was difficult for my imagination to keep up with the changing locales. Because of that, I’m not sure it’s the medium for me.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this play.  It was clear that there was a lot of money and skill going into this production.  The cast is spectacular, the writing impeccable and whoever is in charge of background sound and prop sound did a wonderful job of creating the impression that this existed in the real world and not in the vacuum of a sound stage.  I really enjoyed it, and cannot wait to read Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere on which this is obviously based.

Enough rambling about format, what’s the story?

Richard Mayhew is a young Scot who moves to London to start a business job. He’s voiced (in his fabulous natural Scottish accent) by James McAvoy.

McAvoy

He has a good life there, by any standard.  One day, he meets a woman named Door, who is hurt and needs help.  He takes her in and hides her from two villains out to kill her.

These villains are the impeccably vile and heinous Croup and Vandemar, hired henchmen/assassins of a most sadistic and unfeeling nature. In this play, they are voiced by Anthony (Stewart) Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame and David Schofield,an English character actor who has been in approximately 9000 films and shows.

From that moment when Richard protects Door, he is drawn into her world, London Below.  The real geography and landmarks of London are used brilliantly to color and flesh out this underworld.  The characters navigate through underground tunnels and sewers. There is an actual Earl of Earl’s Court (voiced by Sir Christopher Lee),

Earl of Earl's Court

some friars at Blackfriars, the Shepherd of Shepherd’s Bush, the Angel Islington, Hammersmith, etc. For those who have ever spent time in London, these names are familiar places.  It gives the idea that this world and these people existed long before the city above.

The people who make up London Below are the fringes of society, those that look like homeless people and the destitute to us, but they live in a complex society with magic, beasts, angels, all the things you can imagine when you think about the history of London anyway.  Once Richard crosses into Door’s world, he is invisible or unknown to the other above-world people (including his landlord, his fiance, and his boss). He has no choice but to go along with Door on her quest and to explore the world below.

They meet many characters that inhabit London Below. Some are nefarious, some are kind, some are inscrutable.  Door is trying to get revenge on the persons responsible for the death of her family members, Richard only wants to go back to the above-world.  They are joined by the Marquis de Carabas (voiced by Homeland’s David Harewood) and Hunter, employed as Door’s bodyguard. Together, they go off in search of the Angel Islington believing he may be able to help. It’s a quest story, essentially, and Islington acts as the Wizard of Oz.

A word about the Angel Islington.  He is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and was one of my main reasons for listening to this play. Islington

Obviously, I’m a big fan of his work.  But this is also a great medium for him, because of the tenor of his voice. I have to say, actually, that Christopher Lee’s voice far outstripped Benedict’s in terms of the amount of power and presence that came through, but I can’t think of anyone with a more incredible voice than Christopher Lee.

The Angel Islington is a bit ineffable as a character.  He is an actual angel, an embodiment of an angel that very much goes along with Romantic tradition and their images of Michael or Lucifer. He says he looks after London, is its caregiver. His first city was Atlantis, which obviously didn’t go that well.  So is he on a mission of redemption with this second city?  I don’t want to give anything away, but his character is complex and other-worldly, and I really enjoyed Benedict’s work in this.

Everyone gave wonderful performances and I was shocked at how easily I could pick up on small moments and pivots of emotion just through voice alone.  It denotes serious acting chops, and they must put in a lot of thought about how to convey emotion without the use of the most obvious tools (expressions).

The writing struck an excellent balance between humorous and fantastical. Through all the unbelievable and other-worldly things and people they encounter, Richard acts as a thoroughly average person who is just as clueless as we are in this new place.  It’s very similar to Arthur Dent, guiding us through his adventures in the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy.  And any similarity to Douglas Adams is a huge plus in my book.

I can’t help but wish this was a full movie or TV series.  I wanted them to show more, to take more time with the story occasionally. I wanted to learn more about London Below.  But I think the reason they were able to get such incredible talent to act and write and produce this is because it was a short and cheap endeavor, as radio plays must be when compared to film or TV.  There was in fact, a BBC series, Neverwhere, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t make it very far into the show.  I love the BBC, but their special effects budget is apparently quite paltry, and the production values for the show were just too terrible to be ignored. But I’m glad the show existed because it actually came before the novel. It prompted Neil Gaiman to novelize the story.  And there is a pretty rabid fan base around this story that are very grateful he did.  I imagine one day soon, I will join them, since I fully intend to read the novel.

For those of you who wish to listen, the entire 6-part play is available (free) on iTunes (under podcasts). It may be under BBC Drama of the Week.  I highly recommend it if you like London, or fantasy stories, or anything Neil Gaiman.