Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 2


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 Ashley Pearce. Originally broadcast: 25 September 2011, ITV.

Footman William is called up, while Lord Grantham is jealous of the men who can go to war. Also, Mrs Patmore gets an upsetting letter, O’Brien engineers a job for Thomas at the hospital, Edith wants to work as a driver on a local farm, and Mary’s new suitor comes to visit…

When is it set? A caption at the start says April 1917. The episode takes place over a couple of weeks.

Where is it set? The house. The Western Front. The cottage hospital. The Drakes’ farm. The Dowager House. Downton train station.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* There’s a new valet, Henry Lang (Cal Macninch), who’s recently been invalided out of the army and is suffering from shell-shock. (Robert, however, is clearly missing Mr Bates.)
* Mr and Mrs Drake, last seen in episode two of the first series, return to the show. They run a local farm but all their farmhands have been called up. Edith helps them out as a kind of proto-landgirl.
* Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) appears for the first time. He’s a self-made newspaper baron who likes to read his own publications. He also has some kind of history with Matthew’s fiancée, Lavinia, who doesn’t like him.
* Thomas and Sybil are caring for a blind patient called Lieutenant Edward Courtenay (Lachlan Nieboer). However, desperately unhappy at having to leave the hospital, Courtenay then kills himself.

Best bits:
* Poor Mr Molesley, a man suffering from eternal bad luck. He clearly wishes he’d been considered for the post of valet when Bates left a few months previously. “I never got the chance,” he replies pointedly when O’Brien says he didn’t apply for the job. Not only that, but he’s also making a romantic play for Anna, which obviously will go nowhere… It’s a really endearing performance from Kevin Doyle.
* Anna explains why food is not served to ladies first at the dining table: “That’s how it’s done on the continent. And we don’t like foreign ways here.”
* An under-pressure Carson keels over while serving dinner. All the family immediately leap up to help him… except the Dowager, who simply sits and watches. Sweetly, Mary later goes to visit Carson while he’s recuperating.

Worst bits:
* Because there are so many characters to be serviced in each 50-minute episode, some scenes have to be incredibly brief. Matthew in the trenches, telling a colleague that he’s going back to England for a few weeks as aide-de-camp to General Sir Herbert Strutt, is rushed through in 23 seconds. It’s the episode’s only scene at the Front.

Real history:
* Dr Clarkson says that all his hospital beds are needed for the injured and dying from Arras – ie, the Battle of Arras, a British offensive against the German lines that took place between 9 April and 16 May 1917.

Upstairs, Downton: Lang, the servant with shell-shock, is reminiscent of Upstairs, Downstairs footman Edward Barnes, who returns from the First World War suffering from the same condition.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is aghast at Edith’s plan to drive a tractor. “You are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall.”

Mary’s men: She invites Sir Richard Carlisle to stay for the weekend, and seems pleased to see him. But she then visibly quivers with happiness when Matthew arrives too. At the end of Sir Richard’s stay he asks Mary to marry him. She promises to think about it, but is still pining after Matthew.

Review: The war means we can see characters really changing – especially the younger ones. Sybil, Edith, Matthew, William and Thomas are all evolving into different people because of their experiences. Even the house is set to change: much to Violet’s chagrin, plans are afoot to turn it into a convalescence home. Another good episode.

Next episode…

Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thor must defeat a foe who wants to plunge the universe into eternal darkness. His quest leads him back to Earth and old flame Jane Foster, and also means an uneasy alliance with brother Loki…

Ask a fanboy to name some all-time great bad guys in superhero films and he wouldn’t need to stop playing with himself: one hand is enough to count off Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Terence Stamp’s General Zod, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. But ask him to list mediocre examples and he’d need dozens of tweets’ worth of space.

For example, the antagonist in Thor: The Dark World is the spectacularly forgettable Malekith, a Dark Elf who wants revenge for a long-ago defeat and plans to take his anger out on the whole universe. He’s played by Christopher Eccleston, though from under so much prosthetic make-up and with such non-descript alien dialogue that they could have cast anyone. And he’s such a drab, lifeless villain that you wonder why Thor bothers leaving the gym to give him the time of day.

As the story gets underway, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is preparing to take over as king of the magical realm of Asgard, but is still pining after Jane Foster, the human woman he met in his first solo film. The current king is still Thor’s dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins); the queen is still Frigga (Rene Russo, given much more to do this time round); and the all-seeing Helmdall (Idris Elba) is still standing guard at that fancy teleport-booth place. Meanwhile, Jane (Natalie Portman, bright and likeable) is in London. She’s on an awkward date with Roy from The IT Crowd – but when her colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings, the comic relief) interrupts, Jane has to leave to investigate a weird time/space portal in a warehouse. Before you know it, she’s been transported to an alien world and infected with a strange space gas called the Aether (ie, yet another meaningless Marvel plot device). It’s bad news for her health, but it does attract Thor’s attention.

So he journeys to Earth to see how she is. She responds by slapping him and saying, “Where were you? I was right here where you left me. I was waiting and then I was crying and then I went out looking for you. You said you were coming back.” He replies that the Bifrost bridge was destroyed, the Nine Realms erupted into chaos, wars were raging, marauders were pillaging, and he had to put an end to the slaughter. “As excuses go,” she concedes, “it’s not terrible.” They then travel to Asgard, leaving Darcy and her intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) to break old friend Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) out of a psychiatric facility. Traumatised by the events of Avengers Assemble, you see, he was committed after running around Stonehenge in his birthday suit…

As with the first Thor film, there’s a clash of tones going on here: ever-so-earnest scenes on an Asgard full of ceremony and glean and people in capes… versus comedic scenes in the London of the Shard and the Jubilee Line and high-viz-jacketed Metropolitan Police officers. The contradiction is heightened by Thor himself, who switches his attitude depending on which world he’s in. He’s clearly aware of irony on Earth, yet at home talks like he’s in an am-dram Shakespeare.

The film’s not a disaster, by any means, and is very watchable at times. But sadly the cross-cutting between worlds doesn’t flow at all, the pace sags in the middle, and because the plot needs so much explaining – it’s something to do with the convergence of planets, which only happens once every five thousand years – everything feels very stodgy. Some action scenes have little meaning because we’re not experiencing them through a character’s point of view, while drama scenes are shot like television, with flat coverage and some epileptic editing. (Darcy’s first appearance, for example, lasts for 66 seconds and contains *35* separate shots. It’s just a scene of three people talking and not moving.)

Thank the Nordic gods for Loki, the bad guy from both Thor’s first movie and Avengers Assemble. We see him briefly at the beginning of the story, then the film comes alive at the hour mark when he takes centre stage. Tom Hiddleston’s performance fizzes and pops as trickster Loki has to team up with his brother. In fact, thinking about it, we’re going to need that extra hand – let’s call Loki the sixth great bad guy in a superhero film. It’s just a shame that he’s not *this film’s* bad guy. It could do with him being more than just a subplot.

Six men who’d like their shoes back out of 10


A self-indulgent appendix: The big action climax of Thor: The Dark World is both set and filmed in Greenwich, south-east London, which is about three miles from where I live. For the Dark Elves’ battle with Thor and his pals, the production team used the beautiful site of the Old Royal Naval College. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712; originally a hospital for seaman, from 1873 it became a Royal Navy training college. The Navy left in 1998, since when the buildings have been both a tourist attraction and a university campus. Over the years, many films and TV shows have shot there: once you clock its architecture and layout, you never stop spotting it. For example, I first visited the site in 2010 specifically to see a filming location from the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games (1992). The scene of Jack Ryan foiling an IRA assassination attempt was filmed at the ORNC, which was standing in for central London. Having been there in person, I then noticed the buildings being used in dozens of other films: Octopussy (1983), Four Weddings and Funeral (1994), The Madness of King George (1994), The Avengers (1998), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Starter for 10 (2006), The Queen (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), The Duchess (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Wolf Man (2010), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Skyfall (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Les Miserables (2012), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), even a spoof Doctor Who episode in 1993. I mention all of this because over the last seven years I’ve been back to the ORNC hundreds of times. I go most weeks for one reason or another: to attend a free music concert in its Chapel, to see a new art exhibition in the visitors’ centre, to show it off to friends, to see the Painted Hall (perhaps the most beautiful room in Britain), for a walk round its grounds, for a pint in its pub. It’s become a very special place to me, as has Greenwich in general. So, when it came to blogging about Thor: The Dark World, I took my laptop there to write the review.

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 1


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 Ashley Pearce. Originally broadcast: 18 September 2011, ITV.

In the midst of the First World War, Matthew is away at the Front but returns to Downton on leave… with a new fiancée. Also, Sybil decides to train to be a nurse, William wants to join up, and Mr Bates proposes to Anna… But then his estranged wife arrives to blackmail him.

When is it set? The Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916) is underway. So around two years have passed since the end of series one. Mr Carson says it’s getting dark earlier each evening, so presumably it’s the autumn.

Where is it set? The British trenches at the Somme. Downton Abbey. The village. Isobel’s house. A hospital in York. We also see, for the first time, Downton’s local railway station. The filming location for the latter was Horsted Keynes, a preserved station in Sussex that closed in 1963. It’s also been used in episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, as well as films such as Wind in the Willows (1997), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) and The Woman in Black (2012).

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is the new housemaid. She’s been hired to replace Gwen, who left at the end of series one. Having been a head housemaid in her previous job – “You were the senior maid out of two!” chides Mrs Hughes – she resents being told what to do and is quite grumpy. So the other servants take against her.
* Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) is Matthew’s new fiancée, who he brings to Downton to meet everyone. “Well,” says the Dowager when she first sees her, “I suppose looks aren’t everything.”
* Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) shows up at Downton unannounced – not long after her estranged husband, Mr Bates, has proposed to Anna. She used to work for Robert’s cousin, and while there heard the gossip about Mary and Mr Pamuk. She uses this information to blackmail her husband into quitting his job and returning to London with her.
* William’s father is mentioned for the first time; we learn than Mr Bates’s mother has recently died; and newspaper owner Sir Richard Carlisle is also discussed.

Best bits:
* A distraught Sybil, stuck at Downton while her friends go off to war, has a line that quietly sums up her character’s inner turmoil: “Sometimes it feels like every man I’ve danced with is dead.”
* When offered a white feather by some protesters, Branson simply smirks and says, “I am in uniform,” meaning his chauffeur’s outfit.
* Just to wind her up, Mrs O’Brien cons Ethel into bursting into the drawing room and embarrassing herself. She also tricks her into checking the electric plug sockets for vapours.
* Knowing the only way to get sent home from the war is via an injury, Thomas sticks his hand up above the trench and a German shoots at it.

Worst bits:
* After four years of flirting and actual declarations of love, Mr Bates asks Anna to marry him. (He’ll soon be a free man, he thinks, because his wife will grant him a divorce.) It’s all very sweet, but the dialogue draws attention to the fact that Anna hasn’t started calling her beloved by his first name yet!

Real history:
* The opening sequence sees Matthew at the Battle of the Somme.
* Robert has been recommended for a colonelcy with the North Riding Volunteers by General Douglas Haig (1861-1928), commander of the British Expeditionary Forces from late 1915 until the end of the war. When Cora says Robert can’t go back into active service, he says, “Churchill went back to the Front after the Galliopi business. If he can do it why shouldn’t I?” Winston Churchill (1874-1965) had been First Lord of the Admiralty until losing his job after the Gallipoli Campaign, which was a disaster for the British and their allies. He then became the commander of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers before returning to the Government.
* During a fundraising concert at Downton, gatecrashing women hand out white feathers to the men, calling them cowards – a practice common in the era. Robert reacts angrily and kicks them out.
* Ethel reads an issue of Photoplay, an American film magazine founded in 1911, specifically an article about movie star Mabel Normand (1892-1930).
* Violet says “great aunt Roberta… loaded the guns at Lucknow” – ie, the siege of the city of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Upstairs, Downton: The fourth – and best – series of Upstairs, Downstairs was set during the First World War. A number of its stories are being echoed here: the heir going off to the Front (and refusing to talk about it when he comes home for a visit), a young female family member mourning the deaths of her friends (and then choosing to become a nurse), an older man frustrated that he can’t serve abroad, a footman who thinks he should join up…

Maggie Smithism of the week: The Dowager is happy to hear she’ll be present when Mary and Matthew see each other for the first time in ages. “That’s a relief. I hate Greek drama. You know, when everything happens off-stage.”

Mary’s men: When Lady Mary returns from some time in London, her sister Edith takes great delight in telling her that Matthew has a new fiancée. Mary affects not to be bothered and says she’s met her own new man: a media baron called Richard Carlisle. (Once out of sight of her family, however, she bursts into tears.) She later puts a brave face on when Matthew introduces her to Lavinia.

Doggie! Robert’s Labrador is seen in the kitchen at one point – Mrs Patmore gives it some leftover pancakes, moments after telling Edith that there were none left.

Review: A big pre-titles action scene kicks off series two: we’re deep in the mire of the Somme, surrounded by death and hardship and Saving Private Ryan-style camerawork. It’s very different from the domesticity of the first series and is a great attention-grabbing jolt. In fact, this episode is all about change and new directions. A couple of years have passed since we last saw the characters and many of them are in new situations. Matthew and Thomas are at war, of course, while Edith is learning to drive, Sybil wants to be a nurse, and Anna and Bates are planning marriage.

Next episode…

Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This film picks up directly from the end of Dracula (1931), so we start in Whitby. The bulk of the story is then set in London, with a diversion to the Scottish countryside and a climax set in Transylvania. From people’s outfits and the presence of both airline travel and automobiles, it seems to be the 1930s, which is more modern than the first film.

Faithful to the novel? This direct sequel to Dracula is nominally an adaptation of the Bram Stoker short story Dracula’s Guest, though the similarities are vanishingly few. (Published posthumously, Dracula’s Guest was actually a chapter cut from the original book before its release.) As the story starts, we see the corpse of Count Dracula (played by a wax model of Bela Lugosi), and Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has been arrested for murder. Yes, that’s right: *Von* Helsing. They’ve changed his name for some reason. He admits to killing Dracula but is determined to tell the truth about vampirism at his trial, so hires an old psychologist friend to defend him in court. Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is soon on the case with the help of his American assistant, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). Meanwhile, a strange, mysterious, dark-haired woman (Gloria Holden) hypnotises the police guarding Dracula’s remains. You see, she’s the count’s daughter and thinks that by burning his corpse she will finally be free of the vampire curse. It doesn’t work, though, so she must continue to feed in London while posing as a Hungarian artist called Countess Marya Zaleska. With the help of manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she drains the blood of both men and women. She then meets Garth at a soirée (hosted by a lady played by infamous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and sees her chance for redemption. Without spilling that she’s a vamp, she asks Garth to help her through her psychological issues. Later, however, Garth attends to one of Marya’s victims and recognises the signs of vampirism, so asks Von Helsing for his opinion. When Marya then recoils at the sight of a hypnosis machine (because it uses a mirror), Garth’s suspicions are sealed and he knows she’s the vampire they’re looking for. So Marya kidnaps Janet and flees home to Transylvania. Garth, Von Helsing and the very laissez-faire boss of Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), give chase. Marya is at Castle Dracula and says she’ll release Janet if Garth agrees to stay, but then Sandor kills his mistress because he’s grown jealous of her wandering loyalties…

Best performance: Marguerite Churchill is fun, flirty, cute and sarcastic as Janet, who’s kinda in love with Garth and he’s kinda in love with her but they act like they’re not.

Best bit: As has been noted by many people – and indeed, as was hinted at in some of the film’s release publicity – there’s a definite lesbian vibe about Marya. She wants to rid herself of her vampire impulses, and has heard that alcoholics are sometimes told to sit with a bottle and simply use freewill to stop taking a drink. So she gets Sandor to procure a beautiful – I mean, really quite remarkably beautiful – young woman to act as an artist’s model. The subtext of the scene where Marya asks Lili (Nan Grey) to undress, all the while trying to resist biting her, is not so sub.

Review: Helpfully, an early scene has a quick verbal recap of the first film and an explanation of what vampires are. Well, it had been five years since the Bela Lugosi classic. And you know what? Whisper it quietly, but this sequel is the better movie. Free of the shackles of the original’s stageplay plot, Dracula’s Daughter is able to tell a fun and very watchable story. It has more life and energy to it than the first film, still has plenty of spooky fog-bound scenes and Universal Monsters lighting, but also adds some likeable humour (bumbling coppers, a running gag about a bowtie). It’s quick too – just 68 minutes. And in Marya, it has cinema’s first great female vampire. Holden reportedly didn’t think much of the project and only did it because she was under contract. If anything this seems to have helped, because her frustration drove a detached and dangerous performance. There’s a great sense of Marya being a victim too. She’s trapped by her vampiric curse and longs to be ‘normal’. You can’t help but feel for her during the scene where she happily plays a piano and recites flowery poetry – only for the more cynical Sandor to chip in with comments about darkness and death.

Eight vacillating women out of 10

Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While suffering from anxiety attacks, Tony Stark must defeat a terrorist who’s severely injured an old friend…

One of the most interesting things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has been its choice of directors. Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, king of the geeks Joss Whedon – these are people with form, hired to make flashy, popcorn-cinema superhero movies. There’s maybe been a change of emphasis in recent years, with Marvel now preferring directors who have either less clout or more experience of working in producer-led television. (A cynical blogger might assume the switch came after visionary director Edgar Wright quit 2015’s Ant-Man at the 11th hour due to  creative differences.)

But for Iron Man 3, the series put all its chips on Shane Black, a writer/director with both a real authorial voice and a proven record of success. Since bursting onto the Hollywood scene as the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), his career has been notable for both his smart scripts and huge salaries: $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout (1991), $1 million for rewriting Last Action Hero (1993), $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994). He then started directing his own scripts with 2005 caper movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Black’s style is idiosyncratic, postmodern and full of dark humour. His films are crime stories with vivid characters, deliberately surprising plot developments, sharply comedic dialogue, self-aware voiceovers, and sequences that build up to an archly cool moment…. only for that moment to then be undercut. He also has an obsession with setting stories at Christmas. Well, all those traits appear in Iron Man 3 (which, as well as directing, Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce).

After the events of Avengers Assemble, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is in a mess. He’s dogged by panic attacks, sleep-deprived, and suffering from flashback nightmares. He’s got PTSD, basically. It’s an instantly interesting place for a movie to position its hero. It gives an extra shading to everything that goes on and, of course, means his journey is all the more textured. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still by Tony’s side and even gets to put on the Iron Man suit in an action scene. She then becomes a damsel-in-distress and you think she’s been killed off. But Shane Black revels in subverting clichés: just as you’re wondering why the character’s been treated so shabbily, Pepper shows up alive, kicks some serious ass in a sports bra, and actually *kills the bad guy*. Go, girl power.

That bad guy is businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, good), though it’s a while into the film before we’re certain he’s behind it all. Initially, the big threat seems to be the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist with an indeterminate accent, a psycho stare and a penchant for broadcasting violent propaganda videos. When one of his attacks puts Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films and is now having a ball with his comic-relief sidekick character) in hospital (where he recuperates while watching episodes of Downton Abbey), Tony vows revenge…

As mentioned, when you’re watching a Shane Black film and a cliché is being set up, it’s so the film can then subvert it. This keeps things surprising, refreshing and unpredictable, and lifts his movies above the crowd. Black knows the rules of filmmaking, of movie logic, of genre conventions – and he knows how and when to break them. Iron Man 3 is full of examples of this kind of switcheroo storytelling, from a henchman who immediately surrenders when challenged to the Iron Man suit being destroyed at the worst possible time. The biggest, and best, is the *audacious* plot twist we get at the 72-minute mark. To reveal that the Mandarin is a stooge created by Killian as a decoy and is actually a meek, drug-addled English actor called Trevor Slattery is a bravo moment of the highest order. The gag works so well because we’re used to the theatricality of self-important superhero-movie villains. (And, let’s be honest, because of Ben Kingsley’s reputation as an actor who takes himself too seriously.) It’s pure Shane Black: introducing something you think you’ve seen before and then pulling the rug from underneath you.

If there’s one element of the movie that doesn’t fit that format it’s Rebecca Hall’s character, Maya Hansen, a scientist who gets lost in the mix and feels very functional. The actress has said that the part ended up being very different from what she’d signed on to play, which is a shame as in the finished film she makes very little impression. But overall, this is a superb piece of work. Like all great sequels, it’s more of the same… but different. It’s routinely funny; there’s an engaging story; and the action, such as the free-falling ‘barrel monkey’ sequence, is often spectacular. We also get precisely the right amount of character depth for one of these big superhero tentpoles.

As was the case in Iron Man 2, the middle act here sees Tony at rock bottom. But rather than that earlier film’s maudlin tone, Iron Man 3 has richer and more dynamic storytelling. Some critics and fans have complained about this segment of the movie, saying it’s Iron Man minus Iron Man because it sees Tony with no working suit, no fancy workshop and no huge mansion. But it’s very interesting character development. The world thinks Tony’s been killed, and on a metaphorical level he has been. He’s lost his swagger, he’s lost his support network, and he even refers to the lifeless Iron Man suit as ‘him’, as if detached from his old life. It takes a friendship with a young boy he meets to get him back on track – but again this subplot takes a surprising turn. Tony doesn’t talk down to Harley (Ty Simpkins). He treats him like an equal, which involves being rude and arrogant towards him, and Harley gives as good as he gets. Their friendship is therefore likeable and fun and interesting and entertaining and unpredictable. Just like the film as a whole. The old Tony is back.

Nine beauty-pageant judges out of 10


Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 7


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 Percival. Originally broadcast: 7 November 2010, ITV.

The family return to Downton after the season in London… Mary considers whether to marry Matthew or not, Bates’s job hangs in the balance, Mrs Patmore’s eyesight needs drastic action, and Cora discovers she’s four months pregnant.

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us the episode starts in July 1914. It ends with a garden party on Tuesday 4 August, at which Robert announces that Britain is at war with Germany.

Where is it set? The house. The dowager’s cottage. Crawley House. For the first time, the show visits London: there are scenes set in St James Park, Rosamund’s house in Belgrave Square, Moorfield Eye Hospital, and an army barracks.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) appears for the first time, having been mentioned in previous episodes. She’s Robert’s sister and lives in London.
* Mrs Bird (Christine Lohr) is Isobel’s cook. She’s seconded to the big house when Mrs Patmore has to go away for an eye operation. She’s an unlikeable battleaxe, but there’s a nice twist when Mrs P returns from London and the two women bond over the perils of being a cook.
* Mr Bromidge (Sean McKenzie) comes to the house to install the telephones. He moans that he can’t find a secretary, so Sybil persuades him to interview Gwen for the job.
* When the household learn that Mr Bates was imprisoned for theft, he won’t explain what happened. So Anna sets off to investigate. She visits Bates’s former army barracks and talks to an unnamed NCO (Richard Hawley), then goes to see Mr Bates’s mother (Jane Wenham), who tells her that her son was covering for his wife, Vera.
* Cora’s mother is mentioned for the first time – she lives in America, and Cora dreads the idea of her coming to visit.

Best bits:
* Cora praises Sybil on her success during the ‘season’ in London. Edith is jealous: “You never say that to me.” “Don’t I?” her mum patronises. “You were very helpful.”
* Robert’s stunned reaction to Cora being up the duff. “I don’t understand what we’ve done differently.” She suggests he go and offer the doctor a whisky.
* The lighthearted subplot about Sybil getting Gwen a secretarial job. Composer John Lunn gamely trots out his plinky-plonky comedy music.
* Carson practicing using a telephone. He accidentally calls the operator.
* Cora loses her unborn baby. “It was a boy,” says Robert, his voice cracking.

Worst bits:
* Upon returning home from weeks in London, Robert asks if there’s any local gossip. Mrs Hughes, aware of the need to shoehorn historical references into the dialogue, replies that everyone’s concerned with the murder of the Austrian archduke. “I’m afraid we haven’t heard the last of that,” says Robert.

Real history:
* The episode is set around the start of the First World War. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) was assassinated in Sarajevo on Sunday 28 June. Thomas reads in the Daily Mirror that the killer, Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), has been arrested. The end-of-series cliffhanger is Britain declaring war after Germany failed to recognise the neutrality of Belgium.
* Violet mentions writer and political activist HG Wells (1866-1946), a pioneer of science fiction amongst much else.

Upstairs, Downton: The First World War broke out in season three of Upstairs, Downstairs. In The Sudden Storm (1974), the servants are on a day out by the seaside there they hear of the declaration.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is not happy with the idea of progress. “First electricity, now telephones,” she says. “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an HG Wells novel.”

Mary’s men: Mary is staying with her aunt in London as the episode begins. She’s not getting many romantic offers because, as Rosamund points out, she’s now seen as a survivor rather than a society debutant. Old pal Evelyn Napier pops round and assures her that he’s not responsible for the gossip about Pamuk’s seedy death. He reckons the leak came from Edith, so Mary later scuttles her sister’s romance with Sir Anthony. At the end of the episode – which is also the end of the first series, of course – Matthew breaks her heart by deciding to leave Downton. She left it too long to answer his proposal.

Doggie! Spotted sat by Robert’s feet when Mrs Patmore is called up to the library to discuss her eyesight.

Review: The outbreak of the First World War hangs over the whole thing, and a number of pointers to how series two will play out are apparent. But domestically the biggest thing that happens here is Cora’s short-lived pregnancy. It’s slightly odd that this subplot is confined to just one episode – she reveals she’s expecting and then loses the child in just 42 minutes of screen time. But it gives the entail storyline a kick up the arse: if she has a boy, Matthew will no longer inherit Downton and Mary therefore might not be so keen to marry him. Then the way Cora suffers her tragedy is also rather shocking. Lady’s maid O’Brien thinks (incorrectly) that she’s about to lose her job, so cruelly engineers an ‘accident’… Downton Abbey is largely a safe, cosy, Sunday-night drama but it’s often very effective when it steps outside that framework and does something genuinely nasty. Elsewhere, lots of other plots are bubbling away – Mrs Patmore gets her eyes fixed, Anna digs into Bates’s secret past, Thomas tries to secure a cushy job for the coming war, and Mary wrecks Edith’s hopes for romance. The cliffhanger – “We are now at war with Germany…” – points to changes coming in the second series.

Next episode…

Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon)


Note: In most of the world, the film is called The Avengers (or, to be pedantic, Marvel’s The Avengers). In the UK and Ireland, however, it was renamed Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with John Steed, Emma Peel and the rest.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Asgardian god Loki comes to Earth and prepares for an alien invasion, a group of superheroes is assembled to fight him…

There’d been character-crossover events like this before, but they tended to be monster mash-ups: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, 2003’s Freddy vs Jason, 2004’s Alien vs Predator and so on. Here, however, it’s multiple superheroes in the same story. It feels huge and it’s very often a lot of fun.

We’re firstly reintroduced to the agents from covert organisation SHIELD – series regulars Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) plus newbie Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) – who are dealing with an incident at their headquarters. Living god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived on earth to steal the Tesseract, a cube of almost unlimited energy. He also hypnotises Barton into being his lackey, which is a shame. The character has barely had any screen time in the series yet so it’s difficult to care about his plight.

Then we cut to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who’s recalled from a mission so she can go and recruit Bruce Banner to SHIELD’s cause. Since we last checked in with Banner (in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) he’s learnt how to control his urge to turn into a giant, green monster… and he’s also changed his face. Edward Norton’s contract negotiations hit a rut so he’s been replaced in the role by Mark Ruffalo, who’s a very interesting and soulful presence in the film. Then Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and eventually Thor aka Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sign up to the squad. There are also a few other subsidiary characters in the mix: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) from the Iron Man films, and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) from Thor’s solo movie (2011).

So that’s our cast. The size of it doesn’t seem that large now, given the enormous roster of characters in later Avengers films, but it’s still a lot of people to keep busy and alive. The script does an impressive job of spinning all the plates, though at times it can feel like you’re watching an extended trailer rather than a fully dramatised story. Whedon uses a lot of short scenes and terse, comic-book-style dialogue. This can often be witty and clever – check out how the last line of one scene often foreshadows the next – but it can also feel very ‘written’. The pithy replies (Rogers: “We need a plan of attack.”/Stark: “I have a plan: attack.”) are fun and always tell us about character, but can mean everything feels a little superficial. When scenes of intimate drama do play out – such as Natasha conning Loki into blabbing some information, or the subplots concerning tensions within the team – it’s engaging stuff. There just aren’t that many examples.

This film is more interested in scope and scale and size and spectacle. It’s 136 minutes for a start, the longest MCU film yet. It begins in deep space with a Skeletor-type alien pontificating about invading the earth. There are huge sets, vast locations, massive action scenes, and many special-effects shots. Avengers Assemble is also clearly set in an even-more-comic-book-y world than its predecessors. Previous films in this series had impressively found real-world justifications for the superhero whimsy. For example, Captain America’s outlandish outfit was explained away as a theatrical costume.

However, here we have an enormous aircraft carrier that (somehow) hovers in the sky, a shadowy cabal who run a global security agency (seemingly with no recourse to any governments), and a secret agent who uses a bow and arrow…. just because. If the film weren’t so pacey and fun, this silliness might be more of a problem. But it *is* funny, as you’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Among the standout gags are Coulson phoning Natasha while she’s tied up by some bad guys; Coulson having a man-crush on Captain America; Tony Stark calling Thor ‘Point Break’; and the Hulk thrashing Loki around like a doll. (Note the mentions of Agent Phil Coulson. He was such a success in this series that he was spun-off into a TV show. The up-and-down Agents of SHIELD is, at time of writing, on its fourth season.)

The humour’s important, because the climax of the film is the most tiresome of modern superhero-movie clichés: the mass destruction of a city. Watch as thousands of people are killed and billions of dollars’ worth of damage is dished out! But try to avoid noticing how our heroes don’t seem that bothered! It’s by no means the only recent superhero film to suffer from this problem. Modern visual-effects designers have shot their loads over collapsing skyscrapers and urban carnage in numerous X-Men, Dark Knight, DC and Marvel films. Of course, an action climax needs *action*. But Avengers Assemble’s final half-hour is MacGuffin-driven nonsense and the big threat is a sensationally dull CG-army plot device. It’s a shame.

Seven men playing chess out of 10


Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 6


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

Written by Julian Fellowes and Tina Pepler. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 31 October 2010, ITV.

Rumours about Mary cause a stir, but she’s realising that she’s in love with Matthew… Elsewhere, Sybil attends political rallies with Branson, but is injured in a fight, while Bates and Barrow’s rivalry leads to Bates offering his resignation…

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us it’s May 1914. The episode takes place over a few days.

Where is it set? Rippon, country lanes, the house, the dowager house, and Crawley House.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord and Lady Flintshire are mentioned for the first time. Susan is Robert’s cousin, so therefore also Violet’s niece. Hugh is a minister at the Foreign Office.
* Sir Anthony Strallan appears for a second time, intending to woo Mary but ending up making a connection with Edith. He talks about his late wife, Maud.

Best bits:
* While they get ready for bed, Robert apologies to Cora for losing his temper over dinner. “Next time you want to treat me like a naughty schoolgirl,” she says, “you might do it in private.” So, *that’s* how it is in their marriage!
* Edith having a bit of happiness with Sir Anthony is very sweet.
* Mary and Matthew’s flirting. She says she likes a good argument. He replies that if that’s the case “we should see more of each other.”
* Sir Anthony arrives to say he has two tickets to a concert in York. Mary starts to make some excuse… but then he says he talking to Edith.

Worst bits:
* Robert is annoyed that his daughter Sybil went to a boisterous political event without his permission. “I confess I was amused at the idea of an Irish radical for a chauffeur, but I see now I have been naïve,” he quips, naturalistically.

Real history:
* A man in a street is giving an impassioned speech about Emily Davison, who “last June” was crushed to death under the hooves of the king’s horse during the Epsom Derby. May 1914, meanwhile, saw a spate of suffragette protests: in separate incidents, three portraits at the Royal Academy were defaced, while a planned march on Buckingham House was stopped by the police.
* A by-election is due, and Robert assumes the Tory will be returned. (The Liberals had been in government since December 1905, but presumably Downton is in a safe Conservative seat.)
* Sybil is due to be ‘presented’ to King George V (1865-1936), who’d been on the throne for four years by this point, and Queen Mary (1867-1953) the following month.
* Sir Anthony Strallan has recently been to Austria and Germany. Mary says that’s interesting. “Interesting and worrying,” he says. He tells Edith that Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) is “such a mercurial figure: one minute a warlord, the next a lovelorn poet.”

Upstairs, Downton: The subplot of outsiders knowing about Mary’s indiscretion with Mr Pamuk reminds us of a pair of episodes of Upstairs Downstairs from 1972 – Magic Casements, where Lady Marjory has her head turned by a younger man, and The Property of a Lady, where someone tries to blackmail her about it.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When the Dowager is aghast that Sybil has been canvassing for a potential MP, Mary sticks up for her sister, saying she’s entitled to her own opinions. “No, she isn’t,” snaps Violet, “until she is married, then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.” Also worth mentioning is the scene where a shocked Violet learns that Cora helped Mary move a dead body.

Mary’s men: Rumours about Lady Mary and Mr Pamuk are now doing the rounds in London. (In the previous episode, we saw Edith write to the Turkish Ambassador, presumably telling him about what happened.) Cora even has to admit to mother-in-law Violet that the stories are true. Mary is unaware of all this, though, and her face lights up when Matthew comes for dinner. He later proposes – incredibly oddly, he pops the question off-screen. She tells her mother she’s thinking about it…

Doggie! Robert’s pet is spotted sitting by his feet as he writes at his desk.

Review: Adding Branson to the mix (it’s odd that he wasn’t already there in episode one) brings Downton Abbey’s attitude to revolutionary politics into the light. He and Sybil are both radicals who want to challenge the status quo, and the Edwardian/pre-War era of these stories was a time of upheaval and change. But Downton is nothing if not cosy. It’s a Sunday-night period drama on ITV, so the script is constantly checking the bolshiness. Branson might be for an Irish uprising and votes for women, but he still has to admit that Lord Grantham is a decent man and good employer. Also questionable from a political point of view is the scene where the announcement of the by-election result descends into a punch-up – because, you know, working class people can’t be trusted to act reasonably. Elsewhere, the show’s idiosyncratic attitude to the passage of time continues. Nine months have passed since the last episode yet characters behave like it’s only been a few days. But because it’s spring, the women often wear very pretty dresses.

Next episode…

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston)

Captain America: The First Avenger

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Steve Rogers wants to sign up for the army during the Second World War, but repeatedly fails the medical. Then a scientist encourages him to take part in an experiment that will transform him into a super-soldier…

The director of this fifth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has very good genre credentials. In his early career, Joe Johnston worked on the special effects for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was the art director of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That’s some CV. It’s not surprising, then, that the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg strongly influences this film. In many ways, Captain America: The First Avenger is pleasingly, reassuringly and unashamedly old-fashioned.

The central storyline of good guys fighting Nazis who are obsessed with supernatural powers echoes the Indiana Jones series, of course, while a motorcycle chase through a forest recalls both Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The lighting schemes, framings and camera moves are often reminiscent of 1980s cinema, and the terrific score by Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Predator, The Abyss) is stirring and exciting in the John Williams tradition; it even has deep, dark motifs for the bad guys.

The story, characters and settings also pulse with an arch, movie-serial 1940s-ness: sepia cinematography, dieselpunk stylings, retro sci-fi, dashing derring-do and swashbuckling adventure. It’s therefore jarring when it sometimes steps outside that tone and does something, you know, modern. An early scene at a New York Expo is one of the most green-screen-iest bits of cinema you’ll ever see, with actors floating against CG backgrounds.

Much more successful, thankfully, is the special effects used to make six-foot-tall and muscle-bound actor Chris Evans seem short, skinny and wiry. It’s very impressive stuff, which is vital set-up for when Steve Rogers is artificially strengthened by science. (Anecdotally, I know of people who were fooled and thought Evans had done a Robert De Niro and lost weight for the early scenes.) Steve is an all-American character, a man who’s brave and “doesn’t like bullies”. He’s the heart of the film, and this is a film with a lot of heart. But after he’s been turned into a super-soldier, rather than go off to fight Nazis he’s forced to tour US theatres selling war bonds. It’s embarrassing and frustrating for him, and he has to wear a cheesy costume as he takes on the comical role of ‘Captain America’. Of course, on a storytelling level, this segment is the trough from which our hero has to climb out. It’s dramatised via a fun musical montage as we cut from show to show: the longer it goes on, the more Steve grows in confidence and the more the dance routines grow in complexity. His persona becomes popular, and even appears in comic books. (There are also cute foreshadows of scenes we’ll see later in the film.)

The theatre shows also reflect what the movie’s doing generally. It’s showbiz, it’s entertainment. It’s age-old storytelling and genre conventions. This is a film where the villains have an enormous lair in the Alps (full of Stormtroopers marching up and down corridors, and the longest runway ever constructed), while the good guys’ HQ is an underground base with a secret entrance in a Brooklyn book store. (The red-brick Brooklyn was actually shot in Manchester, by the way.) The supporting characters, meanwhile, are a great mix. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a British officer who works on the project that transforms Steve’s body. She looks like a posh-totty pin-up, but is probably the smartest and most able person in the whole film. She has Princess Leia levels of confidence and charisma, and is an unapologetically brilliant female character. (Her appearance here was so successful that she returned for cameos in later films and even got her own spin-off TV show: Agent Carter, which lasted for 18 excellent and stylish episodes before being axed.)

Howard Stark – Iron Man’s dad, of course – is played by Dominic Cooper and is a Howard Hughes-style showman and industrial genius. He’s the film’s equivalent of Q from the Bond movies. The villain, meanwhile, is played by a fun Hugo Weaving. Schmidt is the Nazis’ head of advanced weaponry and also the leader of the militant Hydra group, terrorists who will recur throughout this series and its spin-offs. We also get a succession of interesting actors in secondary roles: Stanley Tucci as the scientist who invents the super-soldier process, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s toady, Tommy Lee Jones as a typically gruff, grouchy army colonel, Richard Armitage as a spy, Natalie Dormer as a flirty private, and even Jenna Coleman as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her girlfriend.

Then series regular Samuel L Jackson shows up in a coda scene after Steve wakes up in 2011, having been frozen in ice for nearly 70 years. He ends up trapped in that ice because he sacrifices his life to save New York City from a deadly attack. His final conversation with Peggy over a two-way radio reminds you of similar scene in 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death, and while maybe not as instantly tear-jerking as David Niven and Kim Hunter, it comes pretty close. A triumph of popcorn cinema.

Nine army generals who thought he’d be taller out of 10