Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Banished from the heavenly realm of Asgard, god prince Thor ends up on Earth. But back home his brother has usurped the king…

This film has muscles, in more ways than one. Most noticeable are the beefed-up biceps of its lead actor but there’s also plenty of strength in the talent involved. A comic-book movie directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins will have some heft behind it, not matter what else is going on. Sadly, though, the way Thor’s storyline bounces around between some very different worlds means we get a jarring clash of tones: the fish-out-of-water comedy and Dune-style space opera never quite seem to marry up. We start with a group of scientists in modern-day New Mexico, presumably to reassure casual viewers that the film won’t be too far-out, then we cut to Tønsberg, Norway, in 965 AD. Monsters called Frost Giants are doing battle with humanoid gods on a barren, cold landscape. After three films featuring American scientists dabbling in gamma-ray experiments and ergonomic, biomechanical suits, it’s clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing something different this time. It’s a risk, and it shakes the series up. But as the main storyline gets underway on the heavenly world of Asgard – all golden halls, Shakespearean pomp and CGI set extensions – it’s difficult to take things seriously. Hopkins is king, an underused Rene Russo is his queen, and their two sons are engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, who is the heir apparent but recklessly goes to war with his father’s enemies. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, who aptly does start quite low-key. He slowly sneaks up on the film as its main villain, thanks to a controlled, effective performance. In this section we also meet Thor’s four friends: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), though considering how lightweight they are they may as well be called Asterix, Obelix, Dogmatix and The Token Fit Girl. Idris Elba also pops up as Helmdall, a humourless man who seemingly spends his entire life standing guard at a teleport booth. (Casting a black actor as a Nordic god led to calls for a boycott from a right-wing American pressure group. The things some people choose to care about…) There’s talk of Mjolnir, a mighty hammer that was forged in a star blah blah blah, and a cube-shaped MacGuffin that contains some kind of nebulous power. It’s all rather po-faced and staid. Things aren’t helped by the way the scenes are staged. Although shot conventionally, the film was always going to be converted to 3D for its cinema release – so we get some strange and distracting camera moves and lots of off-kilter angles. It comes as something of a relief, therefore, after half an hour when Thor is banished from his world and we finally return to the scientists from the first scene. The whole timbre of the movie switches now, and the light comedy begins. For example, having arrived on Earth, Thor is tasered while giving a self-important speech, then the same gag is repeated a few minutes later (he’s injected with a sedative this time). The lead scientist – and Thor’s love interest – is Jane Foster, played by a likeable Natalie Portman. She has two sidekicks: the worrisome Erik Selvig (played by the ever-dependable Stellan Skarsgård) and the sarcastic Darcy Lewis (played by the ever-adorable Kat Dennings). Various SHIELD agents turn up too – this is an MCU film, after all. One of them, an archer called Barton, is basically a glorified extra with a few lines: you’d never guess from this perfunctory cameo that one of the franchise’s major characters has just being introduced. But by now the film is generally very entertaining. Hemsworth and Portman are good fun, and there’s a great sequence of Thor and Erik getting drunk together. The big problem is that as we cut between New Mexico and Asgard, the momentum is stunted and the tone disrupted. If this were a 1980s film with a lower budget and no recourse to CGI, we’d be with Jane and co throughout. Thor would be a visiting outsider like the aliens in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Starman (1984), Howard the Duck (1986) and My Stepmother is an Alien (1988). We’d learn about his culture and background through the human characters’ eyes. But in its eagerness to show us everything the film loses something. Less would be so much more.

Seven pick-up trucks out of 10

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Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 5

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 24 October 2010, ITV.

It’s the week of the Downton Village Flower Show, but will the Dowager Countess win the prize again? Elsewhere, Mary and Edith spar over men, Daisy struggles with her huge secret, and an expensive snuff box is stolen….

When is it set? In an early scene, Sybil receives a letter that tells her Gwen has a job interview on Friday 1 August, and Gwen says that’s tomorrow. The episode takes place over a few days. We’re still in 1913.

Where is it set? The house and its grounds. Crawley House. The village and its village hall. The local countryside. The offices of a secretarial company in Malton, a town in North Yorkshire.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Robert’s sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick, is mentioned for the first time.
* Mr Molesley’s father, Bill (Bernard Gallagher) is entering his roses into the local flower show, but is keenly aware that convention dictates the Dowager will win.
* Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) is a boring, middle-aged man who’s been invited to dinner as a potential suitor for Mary. She couldn’t be less interested. Edith, however, strikes up conversation with him, partly as a way of needling Mary. So Mary responds by flirting with him out of spite.

Best bits:
* The one time that Daisy steals a couple of biscuits, which as Anna points out will only get thrown away at the end of the day, and Carson catches her. She nervously claims to just be cleaning the barrel.
* Gwen, having faked an illness so she can have the afternoon off, says that Anna would never betray her because they’re like sisters. “Then she’s not like my sisters,” says Sybil.
* On their way home from Gwen’s job interview, Sybil and Gwen’s horse casts a shoe and they can’t find a blacksmith. Cue scenes of them walking for miles, pushing their carriage through fields and falling in mud.
* A flustered Mrs Patmore drops a cooked chicken on the floor and a cat has a nibble at it. They don’t have anything else to serve for dinner, though, so Anna wipes it clean and says no one will notice. It’s a similar moment to a gag in Fawlty Towers, and in fact Mrs P says, “What the eye can’t see…” which is more or less what Terry the chef says in the sitcom.

Worst bits:
* More oh-it’s-funny-because-we-know-what-will-happen dialogue. Robert moans about every Tom, Dick or Harry owning a car nowadays. “Last time I was [in Malton] there were five cars parked in the market place, and another three drove past while I was waiting!”
* Edith and Mary’s squabbling is entertaining, but after their last bout of bickering Edith actually says to herself, “She who laughs last laughs longest.” If she had a moustache she’d twirl it.

Real history:
* Daisy talks about the Titanic disaster, which was 16 months ago fictionally speaking.

Upstairs, Downton: Rosamund is said to live in Eaton Square in London, which is just around the corner from 165 Eaton Place, where Upstairs Downstairs was set.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet’s rivalry with Isobel is just singing now. At the flower show, everyone praises Mr Molesley’s display. Violet pointedly says that, “Everyone is to be congratulated.”

Mary’s men: Robert has heard that Evelyn Napier – who we met in episode three – has given up any hope of marrying Mary and moved on to someone else. Cora suggests Sir Anthony Strallon, who’s about Robert’s age, but Mary continues to have warm chats with Matthew. However, he’s hurt when she flirts with Sir Anthony…

Review: The curse of this show’s format – lots of plots running over multiple episodes, but episodes being set months apart – is beginning to show. Stories have to stand still while the characters are not on screen. Gwen’s job hunt, the Mr Pamuk controversy, even Edith visiting local churches with Matthew – seemingly nothing has happened in these stories for months, yet these threads all get picked up again now. Admittedly, some are very touching – Anna and Bates share a conversation loaded with meaning without either actually saying they like each other, Sybil helping Gwen is fun, while Mary and Matthew are clearly made for each other.

Next episode…

Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has outed himself as the famous Iron Man – but the US military want his secret technology, while an embittered rival wants revenge…

For most of its running time, Iron Man 2 is just as enjoyable – just as zippy and slick and witty – as the first movie. There are plenty of good gags, the storytelling is often slipping information in while we’re being entertained, and director Jon Favreau is having fun with some cinéma-vérité sequences. There’s an impressive balance of plot, character and comedy, and everything is crisply edited. It’s shame that it doesn’t stack up to a better movie. When the story starts, it’s six months since the events of the first film. Iron Man is now a superstar and we first see him skydiving into a showbiz event surrounded by fireworks and dancing girls. The whole sequence sings with razzmatazz and confidence. But you can also see the hubris: Tony is heading for a fall… We’re soon introduced to characters old and new. Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts and her scenes with Tony Stark are joyful; Paltrow and Downey Jr have terrific chemistry and a total command of overlapping dialogue. Tony’s pal Rhodey returns too (actor Terrence Howard has been replaced by Don Cheadle due to a contract dispute), as do Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). The latter two have bigger roles than in the first Iron Man adventure, because it’s now that the series story arc is powering up. And they’re not the only SHIELD agents we meet. Initially thought to be a PA called Natalie Rushman, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is actually a spy under orders from Fury. She later puts on a skin-tight outfit and beats up bad guys. Wowzers. The film’s main antagonists, meanwhile, are Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko. The former is a Tony Stark wannabe, a flashy and cocky businessman who challenges Tony at a Senate hearing, and he’s played with energy and humour by Sam Rockwell. The latter – played by Mickey Rourke with lank hair, a toothpick in his mouth, lots of tats and a broken Russian drawl – is a former Soviet prisoner who has a grudge to settle. He first encounters Tony at a motor race. (It’s the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique – ABSOLUTELY NOT FORMULA 1, no, siree. Because they couldn’t get the rights.) After Stark and Vanko’s fight, the film takes a darker turn. The frivolity is replaced by Tony’s maudlin mood, brought on by Vanko’s challenge and Rhodey betraying him. And here, sadly, is where the problems begin. The film has a great eye for the absurd and surreal – check out the scene of Tony driving a convertible loaded down with the scale model of the Stark Expo, or the running gag about him not liking people handing him things, or the perpetual-motion gizmo on Pepper’s desk – but is less discretionary when it comes to plain silliness. It’s a lovely moment when Tony watches some old film footage of his late father (Tony Slattery from Mad Men). But the information Howard Stark is recording for his son to watch when grown up just beggars belief. It’s something to do with an unknown chemical element, which Tony is coincidentally looking for in the present, and Howard has built the clue to its discovery into the architecture of the venue for a 1974 trade exhibition. (Couldn’t he just have written it down?) This kind of convoluted plotting affects the shadowy character of Vanko too. He wants revenge on Tony for something Howard did to Vanko Snr, so spends a lot of time and energy building his own mechanical suit in order to go toe-to-toe with Iron Man. You wonder whether just shooting the often-at-public-events Tony Stark might not be easier. His plan also means the spine of this story is the same as the first film (rival builds his own suit to fight Iron Man). To be fair to Vanko, he does at first attempt to simply attack Tony. Tony manages to fight him off, thanks to an Iron Man suit he carries around in a suitcase, but this action sequence is oddly just one of two times the characters interact. After it, Tony thinks Vanko is dead until 88 minutes into the film, then their climactic battle is over in under two minutes. And that sums up the whole film: it promises a lot early on, but vaguely disappoints.

Seven Larry Kings out of 10

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The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run after an experiment gone wrong: if he gets too angry or excited he’ll turn into a giant, green, rampaging monster. Meanwhile, the military are on his trail…

In retrospect, this has become the forgotten film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The lead character has never been given a solo sequel and was recast for later appearances in the series; it took eight years for one of the secondary characters to crop up again, while love interest Betty (Liv Tyler) hasn’t even been mentioned. And it wasn’t the first Incredible Hulk movie to be ignored. There had been one just five years earlier, simply called Hulk, which hadn’t been very successful. (People didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was directed by Ang Lee.) If you squint and ignore the fact all the actors are different, you could pretend that the backstory being told in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credit sequence – Bruce undergoes experiments, gets zapped, turns into monster – is a recap of that earlier film. But this is technically a reboot and it’s quite refreshing that it isn’t yet another origin story. The story begins with Bruce in hiding, his Hulk tendencies plaguing him (he’s on a run of 159 days without ‘incident’). Sadly, the big problem with the concept then rears its head. You only really have one plot with this character: Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce gets angry. Edward Norton – who also worked on the script – is not awful in the role, but does seem to be an actor on autopilot. Coming just a month after Robert Downey Jr’s attention-grabbing performance in Iron Man, it’s just not good enough. Elsewhere, the small cast also fail to excite. Liv Tyler sleepwalks through an underwritten role, William Hurt goes for comic-book-villain thinness as gruff General Ross, and Tim Roth is miscast as Emil Blonsky, a Royal Marine from Russia who talks like an American with a Cockney accent and shoots a dog so we know he’s evil. The film works best when adding lightness to all the shade – Bruce has a good gag when trying out Portuguese: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry!” – but the film is routinely sombre and lifeless. Everything seems like it’s going through the motions. There are flashes of invention, such as a joke about why Bruce shouldn’t use the subway or Tim Blake Nelson as a scientist who feels like he’s visiting from a better movie, but the story is always told in the most straightforward and unsurprising way possible. There are also some ridiculously dull action sequences that are repetitive variations on monster-versus-military. (The climactic battle is CGI monster versus CGI monster and seems to never end.)  At least the film sometimes looks pretty. The early scenes of Bruce hiding in Brazil are quirky and colourful and contrast well with the Michael Bay sheen used for the military characters. The movie then feels like a Jason Bourne spy chase when the two worlds collide. But the movie suffers from a fatal lack of distinction and is often quite boring. The most interesting thing about it is its place in a growing shared universe. There are blink-and-miss sightings of the Stark Industries logo and Nick Fury’s name, then Tony Stark shows up for a fun cameo. It seems like the film itself is already more excited about the rest of the series.

Five bottles of Guarana soda out of 10

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Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 4

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes and Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 17 October 2010, ITV.

In the week of the Downton Fair, the family continue to explore whether Mary can inherit the estate… Meanwhile, Mrs Hughes meets an old friend, Mr Bates surprises Anna, and a new chauffeur causes a stir…

When is it set? A poster in the village tells us that Downton Fair starts on Thursday 29 May and lasts until Sunday. The episode begins the day before, the Wednesday. It’s 1913, so we’re already more than a year on from the first episode.

Where is it set? The village, where a fair is being held (complete with fortune teller, coconut shy, hoopla stall and helter skelter). The house and the estate. Crawley House. The hospital. Matthew’s office.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Tom Branson (Allen Leach) is the new chauffeur; the old one has retired to run a teashop. Branson is an Irishman with an interest in history and politics, and he’s soon questioning whether the aristocracy could do more for the needy than sending them unwanted clothes. Three days into the job he strikes up a conversation with Lady Sybil as he drives her around. (His addition to the cast means, of course, that there are now two regular characters called Thomas.)
* Joe Burns (Bill Fellows) is an old friend of Mrs Hughes who she meets at the fair. They were dating years earlier when she got a job at Downton, but then drifted apart. Now his wife has died, he asks Mrs Hughes to marry him, but she turns him down.

Best bits:
* Violet goes to see Matthew, hoping to talk him into using his legal expertise to break the entail (and therefore do himself out of the inheritance!).
* Just because it’ll rankle William, who fancies her, Thomas asks Daisy to the fair. “You bastard,” says Bates.
* Molesley has a rash on his hands, which Isobel diagnoses it as Erysipelas and prescribes nitrate of silver and tincture of steel. But then Violet smugly deduces that it’s actually a rue allergy, brought on by Molesley gardening without gloves. Violet actually laughs to herself as she walks out of the room.
* Mrs Patmore tries to hint that Thomas is not a good match for Daisy. “He’s not a ladies’ man,” she says. “I don’t know what you mean,” replies Daisy, so Mrs P gives up.
* Sybil – the rebellious member of the family – dresses for dinner in daringly modern pantaloons. Branson watches with approval through the window.

Worst bits:
* Joe asks Mrs Hughes what her plans for the future are. “Suppose if the family sell the estate,” he says. “Suppose there’s a tidal wave,” she scoffs. “Suppose we all die of the plague. Suppose there’s a war!” (Ha ha, a character in 1913 wondering if there’ll be a war.)
* Sybil says her corset is too tight and moans about having to wear one. It’s a metaphor for women’s rights, don’t you know.

Real history:
* Matthew mentions Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a US president and the chief author of the Declaration of Independence.
* Branson and Sybil are both supporters of women’s rights. Emily Davison was killed the month after the events of this episode when she deliberately stepped out in front of a racehorse. Women over 30 weren’t given the franchise in the UK until 1918.

Upstairs, Downton: The subplot of Mrs Hughes being offered a life away from service but turning it down – partly through fear, partly because of loyalty – echoes Rose’s dilemma in a 1971 Upstairs, Downstairs episode called A Perfect Stranger, which coincidentally was also set in 1913.

Maggie Smithism of the week: In her chat with Matthew, Violet suddenly lurches violently in her seat. “Good heavens, what am I sitting on?” Matthew tells her it’s a swivel chair, which was invented by Thomas Jefferson. “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?” she laments.

Mary’s men: She’s now being noticeably kinder towards Matthew. While saying good night, they shake hands and hold on a beat too long… Robert later suggests she could marry Matthew and stay at Downton. She replies that she’d never marry someone she was told to. And she later breaks down in tears when she thinks her parents are happy that Matthew will inherit rather than her. Poor girl.

Doggie! Robert’s Lab follows him down the stairs as he and Mary chat about Matthew, then the two take it for a walk in the grounds. We still don’t know the dog’s name.

Review: After last episode’s Mr Pamuk hijinks, this one’s a bit of a holding episode. The central story is some more treading water about who’ll inherit the estate, but the subplots are more fun: Mrs Hughes and her secret, Anna and Bates’s burgeoning romance, William’s jealousy of Daisy and Barrow, Branson’s introduction and his wooing of Sybil, Matthew’s realisation that he wants a future at Downton, Gwen’s job interview… There’s a lot going on. 

Next episode…

Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire businessman Tony Stark builds an armoured mechanical suit and fights back…

This feels like a mission statement right from the word go. At face value it’s a one-off action-adventure movie, but we now know it’s actually the ‘pilot episode’ for an enormously successful film franchise. Therefore, as well as telling its own story, Iron Man is setting the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the feel of Iron Man is noticeably different from many previous comic-book films. It’s not as matinee as Superman: The Movie, not as Gothic as Tim Burton’s Batman, not as metaphor-driven as X-Men, not as serious as Batman Begins, not as immature as Fantastic Four… Instead, this film is its lead character writ large. Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the movie itself are clever, witty and hugely confident. There’s a pre-crash, noughties swagger on show, while the music is a mix of AC/DC and a rock-heavy score. However, the in-your-face attitude is matched by oodles of comedy: having fun is the order of the day. Throughout the film, dryly funny dialogue and well-timed visual gags keep things entertainingly breezy, even if the story is actually about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is a film where the lead character asks journalists to sit on the floor with him during a press conference; where his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, decent), has to play a real-life game of Operation and reach into his part-mechanised chest; and where his AI computer (Paul Bettany) has the voice of a droll, English butler. Note that all those examples centre on Tony. He dominates the film and Downey Jr – a former loose cannon who’s had issues with drugs, rehab and prison – is supremely smart casting. The actor gives Tony lots of off-putting attributes. He’s an arrogant, selfish womaniser who belittles his closest allies and, you know, gets disgustingly rich from producing and selling things specifically designed to kill and maim people. But he’s also charismatic, self-deprecating, and very likeable. In fact, if anything, Iron Man is too much the Tony Stark show. It’s having so much fun with him that other characters don’t get much of a look-in. Terrence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s both Tony’s best friend and a conduit to the military, has some nice moments and Pepper Potts gets stuff to play. But other than some bland, generic Afghans, the story has no real antagonist until its second half. At least they’ve cast the bad-guy role well: Tony’s business associate Obadiah Stane is played by the reliable Jeff Bridges, and the dude does a lot with a predictable, underling-wants-to-muscle-in-on-the-boss character. It’s actually not a huge problem that it takes 70 minutes to set up Obadiah as the villain. The film has been speeding along very entertainingly, thanks to a script that tells its origin story with no fuss and some crisp, not-getting-in-the-way direction from Jon Favreau (who also plays the minor role of Tony’s bodyguard). There was a lot resting on this movie when it was first released. It’s nearly a decade old already – Tony makes a joke about Myspace – and has been followed by 13 movies set in the same fictional universe with many more on the way. You can see the seeds of that series being sown in Iron Man with the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deliciously deadpan Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), two characters who’ll crop up again in future films. But those dozen-plus films wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had got it wrong. It got it right and an empire of superhero movies has been built on its success.

Eight Hugh Hefners out of 10

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Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 3

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Ben Bolt. Originally broadcast: 10 October 2010, ITV.

A Turkish man called Kemal Pamuk comes to visit but events take a dark turn… Elsewhere, housemaid Gwen has secretly been training to be a secretary, Mr Bates buys a ‘limp corrector’, and Mrs Patmore’s eyesight is giving her trouble…

When is it set? During the hunt season. The presence of Mr Pamuk dates the episode’s events to between September 1912 and July 1913.

Where is it set? The local post office, Downton Abbey and the surrounding countryside, the village, a shop in a nearby town, and Crawley House.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks) was mentioned in the previous episode. He and Mary have been having a light flirtation, though her attentions are soon on…
* Mr Pamuk (Theo James) is a pretty-boy attaché at the Turkish embassy who comes to stay at Downton. Footman Thomas thinks his luck is in when Pamuk flirts with him, but it’s actually a rouse. Having conned Thomas into crossing a line, Pamuk then blackmails him into helping with a quest to bed Mary. The quest ends badly for Mr Pamuk…

Best bits:
* Cora forgetting that Evelyn’s mother has died and then asking others if they knew.
* The servants bashing away at the unfamiliar typewriter. Mr Carson acts like it’s the work of the devil.
* Mary in a corset. Wowzers.
* “Is that one mine?” Thomas asks Mr Carson when he claps eyes on Mr Pamuk.
* The entire Pamuk storyline, which treads a fine line between drama and spoof. The flirtation with Mary, the bedroom scene, and especially the shock twist are all very entertaining. “He’s dead,” a stunned Mary tells Anna. “I think he’s dead. No, I’m sure he’s dead.” (She’s basically shagged a man to death during her first ever sexual encounter.)

Worst bits:
* They’re still banging on about the bloody entail and who gets Downton and its wealth after Robert dies. He doesn’t seem to mind such a morbid topic being discussed.
* Exactly when has Gwen been secretly practicing with her noisy typewriter? She works long hours, hardly has any time off, and shares a bedroom.

Real history:
* Mr Pamuk is in Britain to take part in talks about creating an independent Albania. The London Conference of 1912-1913 saw Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy discuss the issue from September 1912. A decision on borders was reached the following July.

Upstairs, Downton: In an Upstairs, Downstairs episode called Miss Forrest (1973) – which is set in 1912 – characters discuss whether the word ‘typewriter’ refers to the machine or the woman who uses it. No one in Downton Abbey is aware of this ambiguity.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet learns of Pamuk’s death and claims, “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house. Especially someone they didn’t even know!”

Mary’s men: Evelyn Napier, the son of Lord Brankstone, comes to stay. This pleases Mary initially, but he foolishly brings a friend with him. She assumes Mr Pamuk will be a “funny little foreigner with a toothy grin and hair reeking of pomade” – but he’s actually such a looker that she blushes. They’re soon flirting (neither Matthew nor Evelyn like this), then he kisses her passionately when they’re alone. She recoils, but he later brazenly walks into her room while she’s in bed. He seduces her… then dies during the act!

Doggie! The hunt has a posse of dogs running around all over the shop. But no sign of Robert’s lovely Lab.

Review: A dilemma for Downton Abbey viewers is how seriously to take it. The show is a drama, clearly. A strong cast make you believe in and care for the characters. But the storytelling can sometimes be ludicrous – and whether this puts you off or makes you chuckle will determine how much you enjoy the show. This episode has our first big WTF?! plot twist, and it almost becomes a comedy with farce-like scenes of Mary, Anna and Cora carrying a dead body down corridors so the corpse isn’t found in Mary’s bed. It’s outlandish and all the better for it – and like all good soap plots it generates more story for later down the line. Elsewhere, after last week’s know-your-place theme, Gwen’s wish to better herself is a nice change of pace. Sybil, the youngest and therefore most open-minded of the family, even eggs her on and offers to give her a reference. In fact, all three sisters get story this week: Edith makes a point of being friendly to Matthew, but is disappointed when he just asks her about Mary.

Next episode…

Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Due to the existence of powerful ‘meta-humans’, a team of reprobates is assembled to combat them if something goes wrong…

Good guys: Well, there aren’t any, really. The ‘heroes’ of the story are Task Force X, a ragbag team of prisoners who have committed a variety of crimes but are offered shorter sentences if they help the government. (We know they’re bad guys because they keep telling us they are.) Two of the group shine noticeably brighter than anyone else in the film: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The former’s real name is Floyd Lawton and he’s played by Will Smith. An assassin with preternatural marksmanship, he also has an 11-year-old daughter (which manipulatively tells us that he can’t be entirely evil). Smith, as always, knows what he’s doing and the character has a fair amount of sarcasm and swagger. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn – real name Harleen Quinzel – is played by Margot Robbie. She’s a former psychiatrist who was turned loopy after sessions with master criminal The Joker. They fell in love and went on a crime spree, including murdering Batman’s friend Robin. Interestingly, rather than debuting in a comic book, Harley Quinn was created in the early 90s for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series. She’s a punky, crazy, flirtatious, immature, gleeful cheerleader type with peroxide hair, a crop top and a baseball bat. Robbie is ace, bringing bags of energy and danger. It’s no surprise that a solo movie for the character has been rumoured recently. (A more responsible blogger might also discuss the troubling subtext of an ostentatiously sexy character who talks and dresses like a little girl. But let’s ignore that and return to being sniffy about Suicide Squad…) Elsewhere, Task Force X’s other members are all desperately dull. Army Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the leader, though he himself has no super powers or anything. George ‘Digger’ Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a tough, uncouth Australian who – wait for it – uses a boomerang to kill people. Chato Santana aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang member who can generate and withstand fire; he has lots of tats and, admittedly, a bit of a backstory. Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who’s been mutated into a humanoid crocodile. He has no personality. Neither does Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a martial-arts expert who has a big sword, nor Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach), a guy who can climb anything. Both join the team later than everyone else with precious little fanfare or consequence. Slightly more interestingly, Ben Affleck reprises his Batman from the previous film in this series. He appears briefly in flashbacks but chooses not to take part in the potentially world-destroying main story. Does his jurisdiction only extend to the Gotham-and-Metropolis area? The Flash (Ezra Miller) also cameos from the previous film.

Bad guys: The antagonist of the story is the Enchantress, a 6,373-year-old, mystical, evil, extra-dimensional entity who has inhabited the body of archaeologist June Moon. Both characters are played by Cara Delevinge. It’s tempting to assume that her contributions were trimmed down in editing – the characters don’t appear much in the finished film and when they do it feels like we’re cutting around a weak actress (or at least a miscast one). The Enchantress wants revenge for something or other and plans to kill everyone or whatever. (If you think that last sentence was sloppy, it still tops how much thought the filmmakers put into the character.) A more heavily featured villain is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who assembles Task Force X yet has shadowy motives. Additionally, Jared Leto plays The Joker Who Inevitably Disappoints Because He’s The One Who Comes After Heath Ledger. The character has been repurposed as a gold-toothed, tattooed, hip-hop gangster, but he’s not especially interesting or important.

Best bits:
* The first 21 minutes of the movie form a whip-crack-fast opening act that introduces us to all the main characters, uses fun flashbacks, features cameos from Batman and the Flash, sets up the concept of the squad, and contains both humour and decent visual effects. The sequence rocks with energy, and it’s great fun. It’s like watching a hyper version of Hustle or Ocean’s Eleven. We get quickly cut montages, on-screen captions, treated footage, famous songs used as score, dislocating editing and trippy sound effects – there’s a flamboyance and a freedom. The rest of the film simply can’t compete.
* Deadshot pulls a gun on a prison guard. “If this man shoots me,” the guard tells a colleague, “I want you to kill him. And I want you to go clear my browser history.”
* Harley Quinn beating people up to the sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
* The montage of the squad tooling up for a mission is cut dead when Harley realises that every man close by is perving at her.
* A nice twist: the squad has been fighting to get to a room… then discover it contains their boss, Waller, who soon kills her co-workers so they don’t learn her nefarious plan. “I like her,” deadpans Killer Croc in his one moment of individuality in the whole film.
* The ending: the Joker breaking Harley out of prison. Hashtag sequel set-up
* A mid-credits scene that teases the forthcoming Justice League movie: Bruce Wayne getting some information from Waller.

Review: This film is a spin-off from the dreadful Man of Steel (2013) and the even more dreadfuller Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); the series of movies is known as the DC Extended Universe. But as we start, there’s a nice surprise. It seems that Suicide Squad has turned its back on the dreary house style. Instead, the tone is fun and refreshingly dangerous. The opening 20 minutes are full of attitude, spikiness, threat and dark comedy. Even the studio logos that start the film are tinted in neon purples and greens. This pop-art sensibility reminds you of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) or Gotham (2014 onwards), two theatrically styled TV shows also inspired by the same comics as Suicide Squad. Sadly, all that is quickly forgotten and the movie morphs into a drab, lifeless, voice-less franchise film. The longer it goes on, in fact, the worse it gets. Writer/director David Ayer reportedly wrote the script in six weeks and it has the tell-tale signs of being rushed. (Clearly a lot of work has gone into the set-up. The middle act and climax, though, reek of that’ll-do desperation.) The story descends into utter garbage and the second half of the film is really, really appalling. When you can follow what’s happening it’s impossible to care about any of it. Suicide Squad is also another case of the DC Extended Universe mechanically copying something the Marvel series of superhero films did first… yet failing to understand why it worked. This is DC’s equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – both films have an irreverent tone and feature a team of misfits. Guardians, however, also had wit, style and characterisation. This is just a mess. The story is confused, the characters ridiculous, the humour often terrible, the action boring. However, based on the strength of the opening 20 minutes and its general punky attitude, let’s give the film a generous score…

Five workplace romances out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 2

downton-abbey-season-1-episode-2-2-86fc

SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Ben Bolt. Originally broadcast: 3 October 2010, ITV.

Matthew Crawley, now the heir to Downton, moves into the village with his mother, Isobel. While he struggles to adapt to a new way of life, she takes an interest in the local hospital. Elsewhere, Mr Carson has an unwelcome visitor…

When is it set? Mary says that Matthew and Isobel were strangers ‘a month ago’, so it’s no earlier than May 1912. Online sources say it’s September.

Where is it set? The big house, the dowager cottage, the estate and the village (which has a pub called The Dog and Duck). Crawley House is seen for the first time – it’s where Matthew and Isobel now live – as is Downton’s cottage hospital.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* We meet Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) for the first time. He’s Matthew’s butler/valet and is clearly known to the servants at Downton. Distressingly for Molesley, though, Matthew doesn’t want a manservant.
* Dr Clarkson (David Robb) runs the local hospital, of which Lady Violet is the president. He butts heads with Isobel, who thinks she knows better when it comes to a severely ill patient.
* Charles Grigg (Nicky Henson) is an old friend of Mr Carson’s, who turns up unannounced trying to fleece money from him. They used to be in a music-hall double act called the Cheerful Charlies!
* Mr and Mrs Drake (Fergus O’Donnell and Cathy Sara). He’s a patient at the hospital suffering from dropsy; she’s his wife.

Best bits:
* Matthew is moaning about how the family will no doubt push one of the daughters onto him… when Mary swans in, looking very fetching in riding gear, and knocks him for six.
* Later, Robert is aghast that Matthew intends to have a day job.
* A stuffy dinner scene is intercut with the servants larking about downstairs.
* Daisy, who’s smitten with William, says he’s not like (the secretly gay) Thomas. “No, he’s not,” says Mrs Patmore, knowingly.

Worst bits:
* There’s more clunky, “As you know”-type dialogue to explain the entail, a complicated legal mechanism.
* Carson’s storyline is solved rather swiftly by Robert getting his chequebook out.

Real history:
* Robert refers to “Mr Lloyd-George’s new insurance measures”. David Lloyd-George, the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, had overseen the 1911 National Insurance Act, one of the foundations of the UK welfare state.
* Isobel says she studied nursing during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Upstairs, Downton: A storyline showing an uncharacteristically comical side to the uptight butler can also be found in the 1972 Upstairs Downstairs episode Your Obedient Servant (in which Mr Hudson pretends to be a self-made man in order to impress his brother).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Friendly Isobel meets the dowager and asks what they should call each other. Violet replies haughtily: “Well, we could always start with Mrs Crawley and Lady Grantham.”

Mary’s men: She meets Matthew in this episode. It’s a deliberately arch meet-cute in which they clash (see Best Bits). Mary later tries to embarrass Matthew in front of the family, but he copes with it okay. That the two characters take against each other and represent such different worlds can only mean one thing, of course… However, there is the hint of another romance too. Edith finds a letter to her sister from a guy called Evelyn Napier.

Doggie! This is the first episode with a title sequence, the opening image of which is the Downton dog’s arse as he/she walks alongside Robert.

Review: It’s all about class snobbery, this one, both within the family and among the servants. Both sides of the divide have their doubts about Matthew’s credentials, for example. Middle-class Matthew doesn’t want a valet, insists on carrying his own bags, and hangs up his own coat – surely not the makings of a future earl! Here’s where the show’s small-C conservatism rears its head. The moral of this story is ‘everyone knows their place’. Lady’s maid O’Brien is reprimanded like a child in front of her colleagues; Molesley finds his worth in his subservient job; even Matthew learns to adapt to his new position. So if you’re looking for progressive politics, this ain’t the series for you. That aside, however, it continues to be breezy fun. The script contains a lot of short scenes so many characters and storylines are given time and space. This week, we even get a comedy subplot. Also worth mentioning is Kevin Doyle, who makes an immediate impression as the likeable, downtrodden Molesley.

Next episode here…

 

Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)

STAR TREK BEYOND

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The USS Enterprise is destroyed during a rescue mission gone wrong, leaving its crew stranded on a planet with a man intent on revenge…

For the first time in a Star Trek film, the famous mission-statement narration is provided by more than one character. The seven chief crewmembers get a bit each: “Space, the final frontier [Kirk]. These are the voyage of the starship [Spock] Enterprise. Its continuing mission [Scotty]: to explore strange new worlds [McCoy]; to seek out new life [Sulu] and new civilisations [Chekov]; to boldly go where no one has gone before [Uhura].”

Regulars: Three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission of exploration, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling restless. So much so, in fact, that he considers applying for a vice-admiral’s position. But there’s at least one last mission to complete when the Enterprise heads off to rescue people stranded in a nebula. It’s actually a trap, and the ship is destroyed when it crashes on a planet called Altamid. The crew is then split into fractured groups – Kirk, for example, is paired with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and they rumble a traitor in the camp… Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) has been shaken by the news that his older self – the elderly Spock who travelled back in time two films ago – has died. After the crash, Spock and Dr McCoy (Karl Urban) form an odd-couple double act whose bickering hides a deep respect. Spock is injured and tells Bones that he wants to leave the Enterprise crew to continue Old Spock’s work in rebuilding the Vulcan race… Scotty gets a lot of screen time, is the focus of a vital subplot, has plenty of comedy moments, is the only crewmember specifically named in Kirk’s introductory voiceover, and forms a touching relationship with the film’s major non-villain guest star. Completely coincidentally, actor Simon Pegg co-wrote the script… Uhura (Zoe Saldana) splits up with boyfriend Spock, while Sulu (John Cho) is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship – both are captured by bad guy Krall, but manage to send a distress signal and work out the villain’s plan.

Guests: Sofia Boutella plays the spunky Jaylah, an alien scavenger who’s been living on Altamid. She’s a big success – it’s a likeable performance and Jaylah is confident and strong but not boringly flawless. (Her name is a pun on Jennifer Lawrence, the actress used by the writers as a model for the character.) The main bad guy is initially presented as an alien called Krall, then revealed to be a mutated human who was once Starfleet officer Captain Edison – he’s played by Idris Elba with good physical presence and attitude. Lydia Wilson plays Kalara, one of Krall’s agents who pretends to be a victim. All her dialogue has to be translated by a machine so we hear her native language and English at the same time.

Best bits:
* The cold open: a comedic mini-mission showing Kirk negotiating with some aliens. There’s a good gag when we realise they’re only dog-sized.
* The early montage telling us that ennui has gripped Kirk, who’s bored after 966 days in deep space. “Things have started to feel a little episodic,” he says. Geddit? Like a TV show!
* The Escher-like architecture of Yorktown, a planet-sized space station with unusual gravity patterns.
* Spock learns that Ambassador Spock has died: a touching way to acknowledge the death of actor Leonard Nimoy.
* Kirk and Spock both say they have something they need to talk about… but that it’ll wait till later. They know how movie scripts work!
* The Enterprise is attacked by thousands of tiny spacecraft that act like a swarm, causing huge damage. It’s the start of a long, exciting and well-staged action run that’s full of character and plotting. The Enterprise crashes and is practically destroyed (as it was in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: Generations – ie, we lose an Enterprise in roughly a quarter of these films).
* “Abandon ship, Mr Sulu.”
* Scotty’s escape pod comes to rest on the edge of a cliff.
* Krall can speak English!
* Spock and McCoy’s bickering: “Cut the horseshit!” “Doctor, I fail to see how excrement of any kind bears relevance on our situation.” Bones then pulls the old trick of asking a distracting question just before painfully cauterising Spock’s wound.
* Scotty finds a communicator, but the flip bit flops off when he tries to use it.
* Jaylah’s neat trick of generating holograms of herself during a fight with bad guys.
* The revelation that Jaylah’s ‘house’ is an age-old Starfleet ship, the USS Franklin.
* Krall takes… life power or essence or something from Federation prisoners. A process that hurts them. A lot.
* Spock and Bones movingly discuss Old Spock’s death. The conversation ends with Spock laughing; Bones assumes he’s delirious.
* We briefly see a 100-year-old video of the Franklin crew. Wonder if that’ll be important later…
* Spock and Bones are surrounded by bad guys. “Well, at least I won’t die alone,” says Bones – just as, behind him, Spock is being beamed to safety.
* The reveal of where Kirk hid the MacGuffin.
* Kirk on a motorbike, which just happened to be lying around on the Franklin.
* Kirk jumping through the air *whilst being beamed* so he can grab Jaylar’s hand.
* Spock begins a long, detailed explanation of his plan. “Skip to the end,” interrupts Kirk. The joke is a deliberate quotation from Spaced, the superior Channel 4 sitcom Simon Pegg co-wrote and starred in.
* The crew need to jam the swarm’s communications, so decide on a loud, distracting UHF signal. Scotty knows just the thing: Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. (As well as meaning a kickass song is in the movie, it’s also a callback to the 2009 film.)
* Turns out that video is important: Uhura watches the whole thing and realises Krall was once a Federation captain. We then see his century-old logs, where he helpfully fills in backstory and descends into madness.
* Spock goes through Old Spock’s possessions. We see a photograph of the Enterprise crew in middle age: it’s a publicity snap from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, so features the original actors. As well as a bit of meta fun, it’s also a nice reminder that this series is an alternate timeline, not a remake.
* The final shot: a ‘speeded-up’ CGI image of the Enterprise being rebuilt.

TV tie-in: A month before this film’s release, Anton Yechin died at the age of 27. Producer JJ Abrams soon confirmed that the actor’s character won’t be recast, so it seems Star Trek Beyond marks the last appearance of Pavel Chekov. He was first introduced in the original TV series, in a second-season episode called Amok Time, and was played for 27 years by Walter Koenig… In Amok Time, Spock must return to Vulcan – it’s the franchise’s first ever visit there – to take part in a bizarre mating ritual.

Review: It doesn’t exactly start with a bang. The first 64 seconds of this movie consist of a plethora of production-company logos, then there’s no big action beat to kick things off. But once the plot gears up there’s a huge amount to enjoy. Unlike the first two films in this timeline, Star Trek Beyond is a one-off, self-contained story, and the result is confident, polished and very enjoyable. It was a worry when, after those first two reboot movies, director JJ Abrams ducked out in favour of making Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thankfully, replacement Justin Lin hits the ground running. He’d spent the previous few years making crass-but-fun Fast & Furious sequels, and as you’d expect from that CV this film’s stunts, chases and fights are well staged and thrilling. But there’s also plenty of soul and subtext. The regular characters retain their easy chemistry and are fun to hang out with, while the storytelling is very impressive. You can sense the layers of the onion being peeled back at pleasingly paced intervals – the villain ends up being much more interesting than we first assume; Kalara’s story has a couple of fake turns before we find out the truth; and plenty of ideas and plot points are set up then paid off in interesting ways. A good example is Spock giving Uhura a necklace. At first it’s solely a character beat, a way of dramatising that he still cares about her. Later the jewellery’s material allows him to track her down, so has a plot function… then comedy is generated from the other characters’ reaction to Spock’s ability to stalk his ex-girlfriend. That’s smart, economic movie writing, doing a lot in a short time. Maybe only the action climax disappoints a bit. It’s based on some gravity-based exposition that just comes off as nonsense, while the odd decision is made not to have Krall de-evolve back to normal. If you’ve cast Idris Elba, a handsome and charismatic man, wouldn’t you want to free him of all his prosthetics for the final showdown?

Eight incomprehensible cosmic anomalies that could wipe us out in an instant out of 10.