Monday, 20 June 2016

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones - The Battle of the Bastards


Well, we're a week away from the end of the season and this fact is killing me, but before all that there's a little matter called The Battle of the Bastards, which is one of many things this series has been building up to - the fight between Jon and the Wildlings, and Ramsay and the forces of House Bolton for the seat of Winterfell and control of the North. An incredible episode, it still played out fairly simply to how you'd have thought it would, and most of the episode was focused on the conflict.

However, it did take a little detour to show us what was happening in Mereen, as a somewhat parental Dany arrived to find the city on fire from the masters, with a rather apologetic Tyrion. It was easy for the three dragons to start nailing their ships, and after killing two of the three masters, we got down to finally bringing together the Ironborn and the Dothraki, who sliced through the Sons of the Harpy like Needle through a candle. Theon and Yara faced down Dany and Tyrion and agreed to join up, but the joy of the scene was seeing Dany and Yara flirting like crazy. We already know which side Yara's bread is buttered, so this could be an interesting development. Poor Dario Nahaaris.

Joy was the last thing happening in the North, as the armies faced each other at last. Poor Rickon immediately became another ex-Stark after being part of one of Ramsey's games, one that got Jon to fall into his trap, especially after Sansa warned Jon that Ramsay is a different kind of beast. From then on it was utterly grim, as bodies piled up and became almost ramparts to fight upon. Jon went on a mission to slaughter everyone he could see on the Bolton side, but the enemy army were able to surround them with their superior numbers and shields, and for a second it looked like curtains until Sansa and Littlefinger arrived with the knights of the Vale.

What came across in the battle is just how grim and desperate and claustrophobic this kind of combat could be, and with the sight of the Vale knights seeing Jon get trampled on by his own men. It was a terrifying sequence, with him unable to breath and see, and as he finally came out of the maw and gasped for air, it was almost like a rebirth, with the real Jon coming back to take care of business, which he did after Ramsay scarpered back to the fort. It was a pretty harrowing moment seeing Jon just beating Ramsay again and again and again, all pure anger and vengeance, but he realised at the last second that while this was his battle, someone else had a greater need for making him suffer. Sansa.

Her final scene was glorious and another example of how far she has come from the beginning, standing up to Ramsay and looking him in the eye as his hungry dogs ripped him apart. Her triumphant stride away was wonderful, especially the little smile that she gave at the end. Justice done. Speaking of justice, there was a lovely scene where Davos found Shereen's pyre, and discovered her toy stag in the ashes. It was beautifully shot with a fiery sun full of rage as his figure stood alone in the snow, and that is something that certainly has to be covered in the finale.

There is a fair bit that needs to be tied up really. Cersei's trial for one, whatever the Hound is doing, how to get thousands of Dothraki onto boats, plus where Benjen is taking Bran and Meera and how they're going to prepare for the assault of the Night King. It's been a saying since the first episode - in fact it was the title - but after six seasons of political intrigue and power struggles and relationships, it's finally at a point where we can safely say "Winter is coming."

Westeros had better be prepared.

- Charlie

You can read Charlie's review of previous episode, No One, here.

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Sunday, 19 June 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Many by Wyl Menmuir

Wyl Menmuir's debut novel, The Many, revolves around the story of two men; Ethan is a fisherman and a well-embedded member of a community that's dwindling as a result of the poor fish stocks in the area. The waters are guarded by mysterious ships with the warning of strict penalties should the fleet cross that line. Timothy has just moved into the village, taking on a dilapidated house that holds a huge significance for the other residents. He's an outsider with his own story to tell and soon, he and Ethan find themselves drawn together by their respective experiences.

The decision to imbue the story with several mysteries, rather than just one, aids this enormously. The figure of Perran stands at the heart of it and is Menmuir’s most gothic element, a ghost of sorts that looms over the narrative and haunts the characters throughout. Ethan’s grief for Perran is the most easily-grasped element of the story and that exploration of loss builds out from him. The ever-present ships out in the horizon perform a similar function, commanding attention from afar, but never interfering directly. Answers to these mysteries aren’t readily offered or answered, simply left as symbols to decipher.

Menmuir crafts a kind of fable here, tinged with a folk horror element in the way the villagers close ranks against Timothy and their ways and sometimes ritualistic behaviour is presented as something uncanny and disturbing. The prose is sparse but effective in crafting a village that feels completely isolated from the rest of the world; we're offered no specifics, but none are needed. It is simply a feeling and an unsettling one at that.

It is sometimes difficult to get a handle on Menmuir’s tale, as it spends much of its time shifting like sand underneath your feet, though this is not a negative aspect of the book. Instead, it gives it a challenging quality, constantly asking questions of its reader without ever feeling that it is attempting to alienate. It aids the underlying horror inherent within the narrative, allowing imagination to take over from the skeletal frame that is laid out. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one which Menmuir handles assuredly in his debut work. 

Though it was perhaps not written with this in mind, reading the novel during the nightmarish toxicity of the EU Referendum gives it an interesting prescience in its exploration of a failing, unwelcoming community's reaction to an outsider, the decaying environment that surrounds them both and the looming warnings of a distant bureaucracy. That fishing quotas, ecology and environmental regulations are also part of the ongoing debate feeds into that sense of a discussion in microcosm. The sense of loss that permeates here is not just related to the personal, but to the social and communal as well.

It might be a short novel, but it is a fascinating, searching piece of work. Wyl Menmuir’s The Many is a book for those readers who enjoy being challenged by fiction and left to decipher a meaning that isn't readily available. 

- Becky

The Many is available now from Salt Publishing.

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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Out Of My Mind

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy's somehow acquired a sister. She's also decided to train harder, study better and generally become a more successful Slayer. Spike's chip is still in his head and he still plans on defeating Buffy somehow.

Holy foreshadowing, Batman!

Seriously, there is so much of it in this episode and I'm finding it quite baffling that I barely remember it as a result of this fact. Sure, I remember the major developments like Spike realising he's in love with Buffy and Joyce starting to get sick (oh dear god), but the Riley stuff? Not a jot. Let's talk about the good stuff first though. Do you remember where you were when you first saw that kiss?

I do. It was, as ever, a Thursday night on BBC 2. I'm fairly sure we'd had something like spaghetti bolognese for dinner. I'd converted my family on to the Buffy wagon by this point, so we were all watching it together. No more sneaking around and messing with the VCR for me. Someone, I can't remember who, shouted "NO!" in shock. We stared aghast. Spike kissed Buffy. Buffy kissed Spike. Spike was dreaming! He's in love with Buffy! Ah, it's never going to go anywhere... Or is it?! Well, we all know the answer to that question now, but then? What a shock that was. 

Elsewhere, we have the first arrival of the ongoing season arc outside of Dawn as Ben shows up to treat Joyce for the first time. He's still all Gentle Ben for now, but another jigsaw puzzle is in place. There's another in Tara starting to get a little concerned that Willow is overreaching a little with magic. The other key bit is that Joyce is on the decline, though again, we don't know it yet. Cleverly, the show distracts us with Riley's ongoing plight, yet it's all pretty ominous and, like her death will be, shockingly normal. There's nothing mystical in these bits of the episode, just cold, hard human reality. I'm not ready, you guys.

There was also the joy of seeing Spike and Harmony back together again. Exasperated and useless Spike really is the best Spike and it's amazing how successful the show managed to make him work that change as a character. Credit must go to James Marsters, of course, and to the writers, who'll keep crafting a truly fascinating ongoing and begrudging addition the gang. Plus, we get Mercedes McNab in full bimbo mode. Her scene with the surgeon is classic Harmony, full of little gems, but my favourite has to be her hastily extinguishing her cigarette upon seeing the No Smoking sign. Such a badass.

I supposed I have to return to the Riley stuff now. It's clear that they were running out of ideas for the character of Riley by this point. We've already done the Riley gets sick because of the Initiative's meddling bit, but now we get it with added masculine insecurity. As I've said before, I like that Buffy tackles the idea of men not being able to deal with Buffy's strength and doing it through Riley makes a tonne of sense. I love that Buffy immediately calls him out on it when he points out his differences to Angel. What I don't love about the episode is mostly that it, and the rest of the show, has forgotten to make us care. It also made Graham kinda sucky. The post-Angel relationship was always going to be tough to win people over, but Riley's just so beige. He really is everything that he fears he is, just not to Buffy.

Out Of My Mind is one of those episodes that's more important in the long run than it is in the moment. Buffy getting her life together and doing well is the biggest sign of doom we could possibly have, but there are plenty of other hints towards it in the episode. Oh boy.

Quote of the Week:

Spike: I will know your blood, Slayer. I will make your neck my chalice and drink deep. [Stalks off and immediately falls into an open grave.] OW!

Let's Get Trivial: Spike's watching an episode of Dawson's Creek in his crypt, which Mercedes McNab had previously guest-starred on.

- Becky

You can catch Becky's look at previous episode, The Replacement, here.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

FEATURE: Angel - First Impressions

Previously on Angel: Angel has discovered the useful sanctuary of The Host, where people go to sing in order for him to "read" them. He's also made an ally with Charles Gunn, who had to stake his recently turned sister, and the office has moved into the Hyperion hotel. Elsewhere, Wolfram & Hart have resurrected Darla in order to get to Angel.

Gunn arrives at the hotel for an appointment with Angel to go after a snitch for information on a demon named Deevak, but Angel has been asleep all day, dreaming of a date with Darla. Eventually, they make it to the meet, but are attacked by vampires; they take them out, but Angel struggles in the fight. Later, Cordelia has a vision of Gunn in danger. Unable to reach Angel who is asleep and dreaming again, Cordelia heads out to help Gunn and the pair have to team up, but Deevak is lying in wait for them.

Whereas last week, the focus was very much on Angel himself, First Impressions is a chance for us all to get to know Gunn a little better as well as spending time getting to know the new, improved and more selfless Cordelia. As odd couple pairings go, he of the poverty-stricken minority and she of the white privilege, it's one that's not perhaps mined for as much as its potential would suggest, but it functions enough for the character explorations needed. Gunn's still smarting from losing his sister and his continuing spiral into self-destruction just isn't acceptable now he's part of the team. Cordelia's little pep talk to him at the end of the episode is one of her best moments, a big sign of her willingness to change and put herself out there for other people.

The other great moment of the episode, though not especially important to the plot, is the ongoing development of the friendship between Angel and Wes (which we all know is going to real rocky soon). I don't have much else to say about it, but it's a scene so good that I'm going to print it here:

Wesley: Come on. What are you waiting for?
Angel: [holds up a pink motorcycle helmet] I-I-I really don't think it's gonna fit.
Wesley: Oh, of course it will. Put it on.
Angel: You know, I-I don't need a helmet for protection.
Wesley: Angel. It's the law in California. Do you want us to get pulled over?
Angel: No.
Wesley: Then what's the problem?
Angel: Well, it-it's just, you know... the whole... visibility issue, not to mention the whole hat-head thing and, you know, when you really think about it, how come I have to wear the ladies helmet?

Wesley: Stop being such a wanker and put it on!
[Angel puts the pink helmet on]
Wesley: Looks good. Hop on board gorgeous.
Angel: You'll pay for this.

The other element of the episode and one that plays more into the season's ongoing storyline is the Darla dreams that Angel has been having. Dreams are a funny thing in the Buffyverse, often prophetic, but nearly always dangerous in some way. The episode has some sly fun with Angel's dreams, allowing The Host to crop back up and reference Angel's eclectic music taste as well as showing Angel and Darla moon-bathing, completely with sunglasses and beach loungers. 

I like that Darla's tactic is to tempt Angel away from his path, shortly after his resolve to continue down it and help people for little or no reward. It's especially key after we see his more apathetic state towards humanity in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, demonstrating that Angel is perhaps a little more corruptible than he likes to think if his resentment is high enough. Having Julie Benz back in full devious Darla mode is always a joy because she's one of the few characters to have made a massive impression with just a little runtime. Exploring her relationship with Angel further, as well as allowing Benz to be all sly, offers a good undercurrent for the rest of the episode.

Quote of the Week:

Cordelia: Maybe *we* can help.

Gunn: You two? I find Deevak, I'm gonna need more than C-3PO and Stick-Figure Barbie backing me up, no offense.
Wesley: Very little taken.

Let's Get Trivial: It's a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen reference is a fine thing to get into a fantasy series about vampires. The episode title is a nod to Pride and Prejudice's original title and the plot carries the familiar hallmarks of two very different people coming together after initially not getting along very well. Not much romance between Cordy and Gunn though.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, here.

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TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones - No One


One of the interesting things about Game of Thrones as a show is its ability to laugh at your story expectations like Syrio Forel laughs at death. There were certain elements that were always going to happen like we imagined, for example Arya's victory against the waif, despite the "shock ending" of her being stabbed in the gut. But several things happened this week that are either going to surprise people or/and make them a bit angry.

In terms of the latter, it's doing away with two widely rumoured events in the blink of an eye. Firstly, Lady Stoneheart - while it was always a slim chance, the show played around with her book iconography by showing the hanging men, but immediately brought back Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr, both ready to head north to fight the real battle. Joining them temporarily was the Hound, who managed to get bloody vengeance on the killers of Lovejoy as well as taking our what I assume were four other BWB members. And in King's Landing, Tommen decided to dampen his mother's excitement at the possibility of having Ser Gregor win her freedom by banning trial by combat. I always thought the little king wouldn't survive the season, but it may end up being at the hand of his own mother. So no Stoneheart and no Cleganebowl. Hmph.

While Cersei no longer holds sway on her son, she certainly still casts a spell over Jaime, who spelled out his intentions to a captured Edmure Tully, namely that he just wanted to win so he could go home to her. And he did, thanks to Edmure first coming home to Riverrun and then convincing his men to surrender, despite the Blackfish's protestations that it was all a Lannister plot. Sadly, the Blackfish died off-screen, but not before sending Brienne and Pod off on a boat. Jaime's relationship with Brienne is interesting, he actually comes across something off less of a knob than he is, but unfortunately he is still nowhere near the redemption we thought he might be approaching. Maybe next season?

For once Tyrion's plans went awry, as the masters decided to take back Mereen via a whole fleet of ships, only for Dany to come and rescue them. Strangely this all very downplayed, with her landing on the roof and only a fleeting background shot of Drogon. But with her back there this hopefully sets in action her journey to Westeros with the iron fleet. Arya's arc - and fate - was a bit awkwardly resolved, but it was a nice touch to have her cut out the flame before beating the waif, before proclaiming to Jaqen triumphantly that she is "Arya Stark of Winterfell!". Given the big battle to come next week, maybe they don't want us to get fatigued.

It was a fine episode really, nice and thoughtful and a bit of a breather before next week's giant battle between Jon and Ramsay. The horror nut in me was happy to see a nice bit of gore from both Cleganes, notably the bit where The Mountain just ripped that dude's face clear off, and I imagine we're going to get a bit more with the Wildlings and the Boltons together, two groups that don't know the meaning of the word restraint. With any luck, this episode will be brought to us by the letters N and C and the number 17.

- Charlie

You can read Charlie's look at the previous episode, The Broken Man, here.

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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Replacement

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy now has a little sister that everyone thinks has been around forever. Xander's dissatisfied with his lot in life as a result of still living in his parents' basement.

A big, veiny luminescent demon comes gunning for Buffy, but instead whacks Xander with his very own glowstick of destiny at the city dump. Initially, it seems as if our boy's ok and is taken away by the gang, but then, what we believe to be the actual Xander wakes up still in the dump. He's not particularly good at, well, everything, whilst a considerably suaver lookalike inserts himself into Xander's life. Schlubby Xander turns to his oldest friend Willow as Suave Xander gets the Slayer onside. Eventually they figure out that Suave Xander isn't a demonic replacement, but Xander's other half. 

It's a Buffy classic storytelling device in this one; whenever any character needs to go through some kind of affirmation from the rest of the Scoobs, they have to go through some kind of transformation first. Think Giles turning into a demon in A New Man, Buffy when she turns invisible or Willow transforming everyone else. It's Xander's turn in this one as the two halves of himself battle it out for surpremacy without knowing they're two sides of the same coin rather than two distinct people. It's not quite Kirk in The Enemy Within but it does make for some good, concentrated Xander hijinks (also, they reference Star Trek together, which is just lovely).

It follows on from his desire to no longer be everyone's butt monkey, a rant seen in Buffy vs. Dracula. Xander's often the Buffy damsel-in-distress and frequently feels he is completely useless to the gang's efforts. It's Schlubby Xander's chief fear in this episode, that everyone's much more taken with Suave Xander and that he's of more use to the general scheme of things. Like The Zeppo, The Replacement is quick to demonstrate that, actually, that's really not the same. The promotion given to Suave Xander is earned by regular old Xander before the events of the episode, same with the credit check that lands him the apartment. As Giles says, everything in both Xanders already exists before the split. He is both Schlubby and Suave.

Also, the fact that the Scoobies keep saving Xander has got to count for something. As Primeval illustrated, he functions as the heart of the group and they'd quickly fall apart without him. His final scene with Riley, in which soldier boy admits he knows Buffy doesn't love him, is a clear indication of that; he's the one that people trust and he's the one that "sees" everything. It's something that will be more explored as the series continues, particularly in the seventh season where his sort-of outsider status helps with keeping Dawn on track. The Replacement is nowhere near as good as The Zeppo nor does it really say anything we don't already know, but it works as a solid reminder of Xander's strengths as well as building his confidence back up.

Quote of the Week:

Schlubby Xander: [Anya] entirely wants us to have sex together! Which would be wrong and very confusing...
Giles: We just, um, need to arrange the candles. Also, we should continue to pretend we heard none of the disturbing sex talk now.
Willow: Check. Candles and pretense.

Demonology 101: Jane Espenson revealed that Toth was so named, just so she could include the 'toth' is British slang gag.

Sunnydale Who's Who: Kelly Donovan, Nicholas Brendon's twin, plays the body double for Xander and gets to speak in the scenes where both Xanders have lines. Identical twins sure come in handy.

- Becky

You can check out Becky's look at the previous episode, Real Me, here.

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Monday, 6 June 2016

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones - The Broken Man


Is it really episode seven? This season has absolutely flown by, and has to be one of the most consistently brilliant so far, with The Broken Man, which is another great episode. And it doesn't waste any time in reintroducing a great character from previous seasons who had been theorised to return; The Hound aka Sandor Clegane, who is found being part of a religious commune building a sept. The show had taken Sandor on an interesting journey previous, having shifted not only loyalties but morality, with a somewhat different take on things after being paired with Arya.

Here, Clegane's story is given significant heft, with the episode structured around his story, itself a sad reminder of the inevitability of war in the world of Game of Thrones, and its effects on everywhere - nobody is safe, no matter how far, remote, or peaceful they are. And for a man with a history of violence, it's almost impossible to escape. He seems content as part of the commune, if still as cynical as ever, but it's fascinating watching his conversations with the leader Ray - played by Ian McShane - who has had seemingly as dark a past as Sandor. McShane's casting is a masterstroke, bringing wonderful gravitas and depth to a tiny part (in the scheme of things) which has a crucial role in reintroducing Sandor.

The warrior's attempt to get away is shattered by the Brotherhood of Banners, who kill everyone in the commune for no discernible reason - something we're unfortunately used to seeing in Game of Thrones. Joffrey may have become the king we all loved to hate, and Ramsay is doing a similar job, but they both did cruel and inhuman things not for tactical or leadership reasons, but because they wanted to and they had the power to do so. The episode ends powerfully, with Sandor finding the bodies of the commune members strewn across the field. In his scenes he was shown to be chopping wood with an axe, almost as a redirection of power from his previous use of similar items, but the final shot has him picking up the axe from a tree stump, his motivation clear.

Speaking of Arya, she's not having a wonderful time trying to escape Braavos and the faceless men, and after booking passage on a ship she was approached by an old lady who, hugely predictably, turned out to be the waif. It was a bit uncharacteristic for Arya to let her guard down like that, but it was after a little moment where it felt like was saying goodbye to the city - and ready to become a Stark again. She was stabbed quite a few times, although while the episode left her looking bleak, you know it's not going to kill her off (it doesn't help that you see her in the preview for the next episode afterwards). The other Starks aren't getting on particularly well either: While Tormund was able to rally the wildlings to Jon's cause, House Glover had no interest, and while House Mormont pledged their allegiance, they only have sixty-two men. Nevertheless, the young leader of House Mormont was a charming girl of ten years old who happily talked smack to Jon and Sansa, with Davos eventually getting through to her, possibly thinking of Shireen.

Things in King's Landing are beginning to pick up, and we finally have a bit more of an idea of Margarey's plan after she secretly passed a drawing of the Tyrell rose to her grandmother, confirming her allegiance under the watchful eye of the faith militant. Olenna had a brilliant scene with Cersei where she just absolutely railed against her leaving her absolutely struck dumb, and hopefully she'll stick around in the show even though she's back off to Highgarden. Cersei undoubtedly has something up her sleeve, and chances are the theorised "Cleganebowl" is about to come true with Cersei choosing zombie Gregor as her champion, and The Mountain versus The Hound sounds like a fantastic way to go.

PS Yara likes the ladies. Never saw that coming.

- Charlie

You can read Charlie's look at previous episode, Blood of my Blood, here.

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