Monday, December 29, 2014

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

“Last Christmas” is the tenth Doctor Who Christmas special in as many Christmases — a decade of Russell T. Davies’s and Steven Moffat’s annual systematic warping of holiday traditions and iconography. The ongoing Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” aside, holiday TV has surely never seen anything quite like it. A single Who holiday outing might be something for a fan to pull out and view every year, but ten of them!? To the newbie binge-watching the entire run in the middle of the summer, the fixation must seem absurd (for instance, there are only five regular episodes between 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and 2012’s “The Snowmen”).

But for the diehards, they’ve become more and more a big part of our yearly celebrations, and under Steven Moffat’s guidance, the Christmas specials are increasingly integral to the continuing story line. This latest outing is a proper dramatic coda to season eight, which back in November left us emotionally hanging (not to mention drained) as to the fate of the intense, complex friendship between the Doctor and Clara — a pairing that seemed in jeopardy of dissolving due to rumors that Jenna Coleman was leaving the show. Well, now we know the score: Not only is Clara sticking around, but she’ll be traveling alongside the Time Lord for the duration of season nine. Anyone who read my recaps for season eight undoubtedly knows that I am giddily delirious at the prospect of another full season of Clara Oswald, which itself is a pretty special Christmas present … but boy, did Moffat make me work for it.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Time Bandits: The Criterion Blu-ray review

The movie portion of this review was previously published at Bullz-EyeStills are not screengrabs from the Criterion Blu-ray.

If you were a certain kind of boy or young teenager in the ‘80s, then there’s a good chance Time Bandits was a very important film for you. Sure, you loved Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies, but Time Bandits was special in a different way because not everyone else was in on it; it was seemingly dismissed even by most adults (well, the ones I grew up around anyway). For many young people, it was our first introduction to the whacked out joys of Monty Python, even if we didn’t realize it at the time, as Time Bandits is not a proper Python film. But half of the six-man comedy troupe is involved in the picture, and so when we finally got around to discovering Python, we recognized John Cleese and Michael Palin from this film. Little did we know, though, that all of Python’s strange animations were the handiwork of the guy that directed this piece. Wasn’t it refreshing to not have every fact and figure at your immediate disposal way back then? You picked up information over the years while actively seeking it out. Perhaps, as Time Bandits hints, computers really are the playthings of Evil.

David Rappaport and Craig Warnock
However, it’s also possible you were not a certain kind of boy in the ‘80s, or that you’ve never even seen Time Bandits. If so, let’s lay it out there. One night, 11-year old Kevin (Craig Warnock) lies in his bed. Out of his wardrobe tumble six dwarfs on the run from God (who here is referred to as the Supreme Being). He’s their employer and they build trees for him. But they’ve stolen a powerful map from God, and now travel around through history, attempting to loot the past for riches. Kevin follows, and finds himself in all manner of incredulous situations, such as bantering with Robin Hood (John Cleese) or conning Napoleon (Ian Holm) out of his wealth. At the same time, Evil (David Warner, in one of his very best roles) watches over, secretly plotting his takeover of the world via the map, and eventually, an understanding of computers. Exactly what is “The Most Fabulous Object in the World,” and can the inept group of thieves procure it? 

Sean Connery as Agamemnon
As is probably to be expected, Time Bandits works on two different levels. There’s the fantasy/adventure angle for younger viewers, and a sharp, comical script loaded with observations and commentary for the adults. Much of the film’s satire revolves around consumerism and greed, and the lengths to which people will go in order to satiate such desires. Although John Cleese and Sean Connery get top billing (albeit alphabetical), the film’s stars are Warnock and the dwarf actors. David Rappaport plays the leader, Randall, and the emotional backbone of the film is really the relationship between him and Kevin, which is not even remotely a feel-good sort of thing. In fact, the dwarfs aren’t even particularly nice people, and in one segment, when Kevin is separated from them in Ancient Greece, he meets King Agamemnon (Connery), who is more of a father to him than his real father ever was. The dwarfs kidnap Kevin away from his new, perfect life, because they realize he’s actually smarter than they are, and they need him to further their schemes.

David Warner as Evil
Time Bandits didn’t seem a particularly dark movie to me as a kid, but in rewatching it today, I find myself somewhat aghast at how cynical it really is (although even when I was young I realized how fucked up and bleak the final moments of the film are). This really should come as no surprise when you consider that Terry Gilliam unveiled Brazil, the ultimate dark, fantastical social commentary of the 80s, a few years later. (Gilliam was even trying to get Brazil made before Bandits.) While this was Gilliam’s third film (he’d previously co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail and helmed Jabberwocky solo), it was the first in which he indulged himself seemingly every whim and idea. Each frame of the movie is crammed with detail, from the important to the trivial, and perhaps what’s most striking about it today is that all the effects are handmade (also the name of the production company – Handmade Films). This is a CGI-free picture, from back when there was no CGI, and it’s all the better for it. It’s a tangible universe; one that you can feel and believe in.

John Cleese as Robin Hood
None of this is to imply it’s a perfect film - just that it’s an ambitious and fun one. While the movie spares little time getting going, it takes forever to end, and much of the big finish, in which Kevin and the dwarfs battle Evil, goes on for far too long, and undercuts some of the intelligence the film is rooted in. When the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) shows up, the movie somewhat recovers, but even by then it feels as though the joke has perhaps gone on for a little too long. Yet these are nitpicks from someone who’s seen it countless times, and is possibly taking it all a bit too seriously. Time Bandits remains Fantasy 101, and a must see for people who enjoy this kind of fare. While you’re at it, why not share it with an impressionable 10-year old?

Blu-ray Review & Extras: The previous Image Entertainment Blu-ray release was a visual letdown, and barely deserving of the format, so thankfully Criterion has finally stepped up to the plate and delivered their shining goods via this new 2K digital restoration supervised by Gilliam. Time Bandits soars once again! Ported over from their own previous DVD release is a commentary track featuring contributions from Gilliam, Craig Warnock, Michael Palin, John Cleese, and David Warner (though not all together in one room). A new 23-minute piece traces the design aspects of the film through interviews with costume designer James Acheson and production designer Milly Burns.

Running at a whopping 81 minutes is a revealing conversation between Gilliam and film scholar Peter van Bagh. From the Midnight Sun Film Festival in 1998, the interview was recorded not long after Gilliam finished Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though that particular film is only briefly discussed at the close. The rest of the conversation traces his growing up in Minnesota, his joining of Monty Python, and talk of each his classic films made until that point. If it’s not the definitive Gilliam interview, it’s certainly up there, and it is always a delight to listen to Gilliam talk life and shop, and here he’s given plenty of time to pontificate.

A short, vintage 8-minute piece from Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow is an interview with Shelley Duvall tied to the film’s release, which more than anything else is a great reminder of how obnoxious Tom Snyder was. There’s a short gallery of photos from the set, and a very funny three-minute trailer that wreaks havoc with the concept of trailer voiceovers - also ported over from the Criterion DVD. (The “Time Bandits Scrapbook,” which ran for 3:13 is absent.) Instead of a booklet, this disc’s essay, entitled “Guerrilla Fantasy” by critic David Sterritt, is printed on a large fold out piece of paper, which flips over to reveal a recreation of the iconic map. It’s not as large as the one in the film, yet would look very nice framed, though I suspect David Sterritt would rather me not recommend doing that. Finally, the disc features a snazzy lenticular slipcover, which may or may not be available on future pressings of the disc.

Photo of fold-out map included in the Criterion disc

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ben Watt!

There’s always time and space to write a little bit more about Ben Watt and/or Tracey Thorn, but today the focus must be on Ben, for two reasons: It’s his birthday (happiest of birthdays, Ben!), and because after nearly 25 years of being a devotee of all things Everything but the Girl, I finally got to see half of the band perform live on Thursday, the fourth of December, 2014. Ben brought his one-man show to the extremely intimate venue of the Cactus CafĂ© in Austin, Texas, and it was easily one of the most rewarding “concerts” I’ve ever been to. It was a perfect show - certainly as perfect as a solo Ben Watt, touring his solo album Hendra, could possibly have been, anyway. He played the bulk of the new album, three EBTG tunes, and a pair from his first and only other solo record, North Marine Drive, which dates all the way back to 1983.

But the night wasn’t just about music, it was equally about Watt recounting memories and telling the stories of how all these songs came to be. As a musician who’s also written two books, Ben’s storytelling prowess may be on its way to equaling his musicianship, as he took time out between each and every tune to weave tales of days gone by – some happy, some painful, all poignant. The latter assertion should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his music over the years. Ben’s music, Tracey’s music, and the music they’ve created together has always been there for me when I needed it, and though it doesn’t have all of life’s answers, it has more often than not seemed to be asking the same questions as I, at whatever point in my life I was listening. It has always felt as though we were on the same page, and there really isn’t any other body of musical work that I can say that about.

Hendra is an insightful and heartfelt work, and one that, while I enjoyed a great deal prior to hearing him play it live, has now moved up to transcendent. There was just something about seeing and hearing Ben play, for instance, the tune “Forget,” mere feet away from me, that made its messages about regret and loss all the more important. Ben, at one point during the show, copped to the fact that the songs that make up Hendra are perhaps not exactly life affirming, happy-go-lucky tunes. But he insisted that what the album was really about is resilience, and how important it was for listeners to feel that within its ten songs. As I get older, and life’s disappointments stack up, I can think of no other message I’d rather hear.

The idea of releasing a solo album 30 years after the previous one must have been a daunting one for Watt, especially with the immense popularity of EBTG in between. Would people show up? Would anybody care? We did and we do. Watt was generous enough to stick around and chat with the diehards after the show, which made me a bit nervous. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been disappointed by meeting a hero (there are countless talented assholes out there), and the last thing I wanted was to in any way be let down by a guy who’s been half responsible for some of my favorite music ever recorded. But I wasn’t. Ben was as genuine and warm in person as anyone could possibly hope for. 

One of the lyrics on Hendra, from the tune “Young Man’s Game,” is “I’m not as good as I used to be.” I beg to differ, Mr. Watt. You may, in fact, actually be better. I all but begged you on Thursday night to keep doing this, and I want to reiterate that here: Please continue on with this second (third?) act of your career. We need you to give us comfort in the late night hours when everyone else has gone to sleep, or when we’re in the kitchen doing the dishes and everything seems so very ordinary. We need you to keep telling your melancholy stories and weaving your extraordinary truths. Simply, life is made a little bit easier with Ben Watt music playing over its soundtrack.