Thursday, 17 April 2014

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Becoming

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel was cursed with a soul by gypsies he had scorned, but a moment of true happiness with Buffy ensured he lost it again. He's been wreaking havoc in the lives of the Scoobies, psychologically torturing them and going so far as to kill Jenny Calendar, who had been close to translating the spell to restore his soul.


Buffy gears herself up to face Angel, but he has other plans. With the recent discovery of the ancient demon Acathla who is able to send the entire world into a hell dimension with one breath, Angel decides he wants to end the world. Meanwhile, Buffy and Willow discover Jenny's translation of the restoration ritual and it's agreed they will try to restore Angel's soul. An attack on the library leads to Giles' capture to discover how to do the right ritual and Buffy heads to the mansion to face down Angel, armed with a new unlikely ally.

If there's one thing that Buffy did consistently well throughout its seven seasons, it's the finale episodes. Sometimes two-parters, sometimes standalone, always the result of a season long arc, Buffy finales have always been cracking episodes, capturing the humour and emotion that makes the series so strong. Partly, it's because the threat of cancellation always hung over the show, which meant that the writers always wrote each season to bring the series to a largely satisfying close should that happen.

There's a constant sense of horror to Becoming, building from Buffy's desire to finish her battle with Angel, the impending end of the world scenario (neatly paralleled with Buffy having to take finals), the self-immolating vampire at the front of a classroom and Giles' torture scenes. It returns the second season to the slow build of tension that has been mounting throughout the last few episodes and the building sense of dread climaxes spectacularly in the final scene of Part One.

It's the first of several major flashback episodes, one which use some element of the past to explain a character's motivations. For Angel, it shows the episodes in his life that have been the most talked about; his siring, the killing of his family, driving Dru insane and seeing Buffy for the first time. It starts building towards his solo quest for redemption with the spin-off wasn't in the pipeline (announced shortly after Becoming aired). It's a useful technique, demonstrating how Liam, Angel's pre-vamp self, was always a bit of a twit so the fact that Angelus turned out so evil isn't a surprise. It also gives us a greater understanding of how much he has to make up for and how significant the regaining of his soul was. As he said in an earlier episode, 'you have no idea what it's like to have done the things that I've done... and to care'.

With the discovery of the curse that could restore Angel's soul, Willow and Buffy set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons when it comes to deciding his fate. It's a complicated moral decision and Whedon utilises the characters to represent different sides of the argument. Whenever the central characters fight, it's always particularly galling, like seeing a close family in the throes of a heated argument. Xander goes all out, bringing forth his callous streak to declare that Angel should die and Buffy is compromised by her feelings. Buffy sees it as a back-up plan, as does Willow who would perform the magic. Giles, meanwhile, is the most compromised of them all, understanding Buffy's position whilst also still reeling from Jenny's death.

Stakes always seems so much higher when the Scoobies are ripped apart and few scenes are as powerfully frightening as the one in which the gang are attacked in the library at the end of the first part. Whedon's reputation for killing off people suddenly wasn't quite as concrete as it is now, but after the death of Jenny, it felt like anyone could be next. At the end of the episode, Buffy is about to be arrested, Willow's unconscious, Xander's got a broken arm and Kendra's dead (goodbye Bianca Lawson, we barely knew you).

The haunting voiceover from Whistler about Big Moments cements this sense of loss; we have no idea how to follow this Big Moment and at this stage, neither do the characters. It's another example of a voiceover working particularly well and because it is a voice we're not used to, it adds a sense of detachment to the scene. Whistler is watching this play out with us. It also ties us back to Passion and recalls the slow motion discovering of Jenny's death. The message is clear; this is a game-changing episode and we still have the second part to come.

These Big Moments continue into the next episode, including Joyce finding out that her daughter is a Slayer. It's one of the lighter moments in the episode, post-alliance with Spike, which leads to a wonderful moment in which Joyce and Spike awkwardly bond over their previous meeting in School Hard. It soon gives way though into a conversation between Buffy and Joyce which leads to the latter running away from home. Their mother-daughter relationship is always one of the best aspects of the season, particularly as they try to negotiate understanding each other and this is sorely tested here. 

Everything that occurs in this episode determines that by the end, Buffy is left entirely alone. It's a common theme in the season finales and whilst the series is at great pains to prove that she is nothing without her friends, it also points out continually that when it comes to the big fights, there's only so much help they can give. Becoming features one of the best explorations of this. It may be really obvious that the fight is not entirely David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar, but there's no denying that it is one of the best one-on-one showdowns of the series, probably second only to Buffy and Faith's clash in Graduation Day. The stakes are high and the tragedy of the outcome makes it just that bit worse. When Buffy kills Angel, she can't face her friends and departs alone; only now has she truly lost of everything.

Whilst Part One focuses on Angel's past, Part Two hints a lot towards key developments in future. There's another reference to the Mayor and his interest in Buffy, Xander tells Willow he loves her while she's unconscious and Willow begins practicing magic with the restoration ritual. These will have all flown over our heads when it first aired, but it's great to go back and catch them on the way through the rewatch.

And so to the heartbreaking end of the episode. It still pains me to this day that Xander is never called out on his lie, but without it, the ending wouldn't be so awful. Buffy saved the world again, but at great personal cost this time, something which this season has continually hinted towards. When she pulls off in the bus at the end, to the strains of Sarah MacLachlan's Full of Grace, it feels very final despite knowing that she'll come back. The ramifications of this episode also have a long-lasting impact on the third season, which is also arguably the series' most consistently good run. 

Well, that's the second season everyone. It's all going rather quickly now. Also, just as the Angel series was announced after Becoming, I'm announcing that I shall be doing an Angel re-watch alongside the Buffy one when we get to the end of the third season. How very exciting. Well, for me anyway, I've only seen the entirety of Angel once through.

Quote of the Week:

Angel: No weapons... No friends... No hope. Take all that away and what's left?
Buffy: Me.
*Air punch*

Let's Get Trivial: The Mutant Enemy monster at the end dispenses with his usual 'Grr arrgh' to say 'Oh I need a hug'. You and me both, fella.

Demonology 101: Whistler is the first instance of a good demon existing in the Buffyverse, something that becomes increasingly important to both Buffy and Angel in their respective series.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Go Fish, here.

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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones - The Lion and The Rose

As ever, major spoilers in the following review... Please don't read ahead if you haven't seen this episode.


It's an outing at the writer's desk for George RR Martin himself this time as we enter the second episode of this season, The Lion and the Rose. It's a fairly big sign that something big is coming if you see Mr Martin's name in the opening credits and so it proves once again. The episode opens in brutal fashion as Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) engages in a human hunt with companion and the newly christened Reek (Alfie Allen) by his side who has cast off his old identity as Theon Greyjoy. Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) continues his journey north with Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Meera (Ellie Kendrick) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) and has visions of where they must go next. Then, to King's Landing, where the final preparations are being made for Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Margeary's (Natalie Dormer) wedding.

With a show such as Game of Thrones, there are always going to be those episodes where certain moments will overshadow the scenes that have gone before it for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it is from the sheer shock of what you had just seen, such as the Red Wedding. And it is to another wedding we turn for the other reaction that might overshadow the episode; sheer, unadulterated glee. It seems morally wrong to revel in the death of a character, but Game of Thrones doesn't exactly operate on an even keel when it comes to moral codes. Then there is the fact that the character in question is one of the most odious, most hated and downright evil characters to have ever walked across the screen.

Jack Gleeson's performance as Joffrey has always been one of the best in the series, capturing the Boy-King's maniacal love of power and the torture he inflicts on others. He's slowly grown into the character everybody loves to loathe and in some ways, it will be sad to see him go. However, just in case we had any sympathetic feelings at all, Martin leads up to the fatal moment with one of the worst acts of Joffrey's brutality not involving a crossbow. A not-so-subtle power-game between Joffrey and Tyrion showcases the King's hatred of his uncle, using a play with dwarfs to illustrate the War of Five Armies, not only humiliating Tyrion, but also torturing poor Sansa with some graphic attacks on the player representing her brother, Robb. Tyrion slowly placing his hand over his wife's during this scene was one of the sweetest moments in a dark episode.

And so to the death itself. Book readers will know how it is done, but I'm enjoying reading everyone's various theories around the internet (I won't be detailing it here). The episode had already been fairly brutal before we even got to King's Landing (more on that shortly), but there was an over-riding sense of things coming to an end slowly building throughout. With Shae sent away by Tyrion, Stannis and Melisandre regrouping at Dragonstone and the Boltons on the move, the episode felt more characteristic of the usual 'Episode 9' dramatic turns rather than the second episode. By the time we got to the wedding, the tension mounted slowly with every cruel comment or prank that Joffrey played. The moment itself was built beautifully as everyone slowly realised that he was choking; some hesitated, some rushed in gallantly, some stood back and watched it happen. And then for the fans, there was a nice, extended close-up of Joffrey's purple, bloated face, just so we could all make sure. It's not hard not to cheer at that.

Now to the scenes that we saw prior to the Purple Wedding. The episode opened far more brutally than it would later end, as Ramsay Snow uses his authority to engage in a hunt, chasing down a young woman with hounds and his bow-toting companion. The hunt itself was composed well, building throughout and getting considerably more graphic as the victim was chased down. Whilst not quite at the Joffrey level of hatred just yet, Snow is putting in a decent bid to replace him as the show's most reviled character. Theon may have been an ambitious but useless leader, but his plight is a sympathetic one and Allen's performance of the transition from the brash, over-compensating Theon to the maligned, broken Reek has been excellent. The look on his face when he found out that Robb was dead was heartbreaking.

Amidst all the death, we also got a few quieter scenes to highlight some of the underlying issues in Westeros. A particularly good scene was that between Tywin and Olenna (Diana Rigg is just marvellous isn't she?) which reminded everyone of the Westeros financial troubles. Tywin may shit gold as the saying goes, but the crown still owes a hell of a lot of money. Can we also have a round of applause for Oberyn, the sassiest man in Westeros? Seriously, Pedro Pascal is knocking this role out of the park. I want to see him go toe-to-toe with Tywin and Cersei at least once a week for this season. I also loved the scene between Jaime and Bronn. I may still remind myself that Jaime once pushed a child out of a window, but the fact I have to do this is a testament to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and the writers for giving him such a compelling, sympathetic arc.

The fourth season is clearly set to pull no punches, starting with a major demise in the second episode. The big, dramatic moments will always be the ones that people remember, but where Game of Thrones really excels is those scenes in between.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of the previous episode, Two Swords, here.

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Raid 2


The notion of 'bigger is better' is an old one when it comes to film-making and particularly when it comes to sequels. The Raid was as lean as they come, a film set entirely in one location and with a scant plot on which to hang a series of impressive fight sequences on. Whilst character beats, particularly with Rama (the surely soon to be international action superstar Iko Uwais) and brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah), were well-handled, they aren't the bits that everyone talks about when they talk about The Raid. It's the door kill, or the drugs lab fight, or the stunning silhouette shot on the staircase before all hell breaks loose. To go bigger from there is the next logical step, zooming out from the microcosmic workings of the tower block to the wider criminal underworld in which it belongs.

Picking up just a couple of hours after the climax of the first film, The Raid 2 finds Rama tasked with an undercover mission to root out the corrupt cops within the Jakarta police force. He quickly befriends Uco (a scene-stealing Arifin Putra), the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), the head of the biggest crime family in Jakarta who has ruled for years in a truce with the Goto crime family from Japan. However, the uneasy peace is threatened by shadowy background dealings and Rama finds himself involved more and more until he realises he must fight his way out.

With a longer run-time, Evans allows the story to breathe in a way that the claustrophobic location of The Raid couldn't and the sequel is much stronger for it. For all of the violence and technical bravado, this is a film about the importance of family and not losing touch with yourself or your loved ones. Time is taken to establish family dynamics, relationship histories and character motivations to almost Shakespearian levels (Uco is a potent combination of Hal and Hotspur whilst Bangun displays all the world-weariness of a Henry IV). Even characters such as Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) have a clear and tangible history to them. It may be simple character-based work (too often forgotten in the action genre), but it serves to enhance the film beyond just its action sequences and as it builds towards its climactic showdown, the emotional resonance deepens and the fights become that bit more involving.

Once again, the action sequences are going to be the bits that everyone will talk about when it comes to the film. Thankfully, the fight choreography is once again superb, each fight as unique and as unpredictable as the next whether they're set in a prison yard or in the inside of a car. Evans' kinetic camera work is perfectly pitched, sweeping with the performers as they crash through their fight sequences, close enough to retain the immediacy of The Raid, but also with enough sense of when to hold back and let the punches speak for themselves. It is endlessly inventive; you watch from camera angles you never thought possible, or fly through a wall with one of Rama's victims. The larger cityscape also gives Evans a broader canvas to paint red and each location is utilised well to keep the action fresh, be it a subway train or a swanky nightclub.

The brutality of the images are enhanced greatly by the film's soundscape; hits are felt with shuddering thuds, weapons carry their own unique soundtrack (Baseball Bat Man is more often heard before he is seen) and bodies hit walls with wince-inducing decibel levels. The music, scored by Fajar Yuskemal, Aria Prayogi and Joseph Trapanese, underscores the building tension well without threatening to overwhelm the action. However, Evans' real skill is knowing when to pull all of this back. Often, the film's quieter moments are its most powerful; it's the sense you get at the back of your neck when the music stops or a character composes themselves and the film develop its own rhythm of ebbs and flows to which you quickly become accustomed. 

There's a keen understanding here of the importance of the calm before the storm and the quiet that descends after it, even if it is just to allow the audience to breathe for a second (trust me, you'll need it). It's also in these quieter moments that the performances shine. Uwais is given more emotional work for Rama here and rises to the challenge admirably, retaining the quiet charisma and giving you an admirable hero to root for. Putra's Uco is an electric presence, all pent-up rage and swagger, whilst Yayan Ruhian gives a tragic performance as Prakoso and gets a fantastic fight sequence all to himself.

In a movie industry saturated with sequels and franchises, it is not only refreshing to see a sequel that more than lives up to the hype of the first film, but one that is brave enough to take risks, to expand and to explore a new story. The Raid 2 is something really quite exhilarating.

*****
- Becky

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Go Fish

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Not a huge amount relevant to this episode. Angel's still evil, I guess.


Heading for the State Championships, the Sunnydale High swim team are taking advantage of their prestige, but soon one of their number is found eviscerated on the beach and one in the cafeteria. Xander spots a fish monster leaving the scene of the crime and decides to go undercover to investigate whilst Buffy protects the next swimmer on the list. Go Fish is probably one of Buffy's more science-fictiony episodes and it does attempt to provide a commentary on the lengths American schools will go to to enable their teams to win as well as the personal lengths athletes will go to. It's also still as bad as I remembered.

Flirting with B-movie territory, thanks in part to the obvious man in a fish monster suit, Go Fish is an episode about various kinds of body horror. First up, the swim team themselves obviously turn into giant gill monster fish things, leaving their human skin behind. Writer Marti Noxon has often spoken about the central metaphor of steroid usage and it's largely the most effective aspect of the episode, if not the most subtle. The swim team become overly aggressive and arrogant, almost territorial, as their success grows. However, it soon becomes clear it is as a result of bodily corruption so bad that Angel spits out Gage's blood and lets him go. We know it must be serious when Evil Angel doesn't want to kill someone.

The horror, then, is about the corruption from within, demonstrated brilliantly in the scene in which Gage transforms into a fish monster right before Buffy in the boy's locker room. It's a superb job of the make-up department and I can't help but wince every time Gage starts ripping open his own chest to see scales underneath. Even the aforementioned obvious man in a suit look is handled well, all scaly and oozy, despite the resemblance to the fish monster things from Stingray. The idea of your body out of your control is a common horror trope, particularly analogous to cancer or other bodily degenerative diseases. Here, the swim team's bodies are in the control of their coach, continuing a Soviet experiment that clearly didn't work out too well.

However, this isn't the only type of body horror explored in this episode and it's arguably the less subtle of the two. When taken out on a date with Cameron, swim team star and all round monologuing douchebag, Buffy finds herself having to fend off unwanted sexual advances; he locks her in the car and tries to force himself on her. Thankfully, Buffy manages to sprain his wrist and break his nose and escapes the situation. Though clearly not at fault, Cameron, the coach and Snyder all blame Buffy because of the way she dresses. Later, Buffy is thrown to the fish men because 'boys have other needs'. Basically, Buffy is about to be gang-raped by fish monsters. In both situations, her bodily autonomy is taken away from her and they are the most psychologically disturbing moments in the episode. Linking back to the episode's theme of the lengths American schools will go to to protect their own teams, I'm reminded of the recent Steubenville rape case and the way in which the footballers were treated not only by the town, but by the press. Go Fish aired 16 years ago and this aspect of it is still relevant. That's not only scary, it's depressing. 

It's not all depressing body stuff though. In fact, one of the most hilarious moments of the episode comes with the big reveal of Xander in Speedos. Depending on your feelings towards Xander, this may be one of his character highlights. It's a scene that showcases the sparkling dialogue that Noxon is brilliant at as well as the chemistry between the four high school leads. At Xander's proclamation that he's undercover, Buffy snorts and declares 'not under much'. Meanwhile, Cordelia and Willow can barely contain their glee. It's little moments like this, and the constant fish-related puns, that stop this episode from being entirely unsubtle metaphor and helps us to keep in mind that the show can be so much better.

If it does have all this stuff going on, then why do I think it is a bad episode? The trouble with Go Fish is it just feels completely out of sync with this stage in the season. This is the episode before the big two-part finale and it's a retrograde step, especially considering how well I Only Have Eyes For You set up the dynamics of the Buffy/Angel relationship. It says absolutely nothing about the central characters and does little to build anticipation going forward. Since Surprise, we've had such an excellent run of episodes, both arc-related and Monster-of-the-Week so I always find it disappointing when I get to Go Fish because it feels like it should be in the first half of the season and not the back run of episodes. In fact, as my 'Previously...' stated, there's nothing really in this episode to tie it into anything else. Substitute Angel for a random vamp and it could even be a first season episode.

Next week, thankfully, the show will return massively to form and I'll have more stuff to write about. I am never not an emotional wreck at the end of the Becoming two-parter. Why does Season 2 make me cry so much?!

Quote of the Week:

Buffy: I think we should lock up the rest of the swim team before they get in touch with their inner halibut.

Let's Get Trivial: This is the last episode in which the opening 'Into every generation...' speech is used.

Sunnydale Who's Who: Gage is played by Wentworth Miller, he of Prison Break fame and recent scribe of the magnificent Stoker. Also look out for a small part from Shane West, who he didn't really do much after the double whammy of a Nicholas Sparks movie and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as another member of the swim team in one of Xander's steam room scenes.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at I Only Have Eyes for You here.

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Monday, 7 April 2014

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones - Two Swords

After what feels like an interminable wait, Game of Thrones returns for its fourth season, promising the usual brand of sex, political wrangling and violence.


When a new season of Game of Thrones arrives, the first episode always has the most difficult job of the ten instalments, re-acquainting everyone with how Westeros lies after the events of its previous season. After the monumental events of the last season, Two Swords appears to have had the toughest job of the season openers so far with the status quo disrupted like never before. It is a testament to DB Weiss and David Benioff that it succeeds brilliantly, once again immersing us in the world and feeling for all the world like it had never been away. Using the tried and tested method of moving across the map and zooming in on the main players' activities, Two Swords gets the audience swiftly up to speed and hints towards the big events for the upcoming season.

The first episode opens with the re-forging of Ned Stark's sword, Ice, overseen by Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in a slow-burning (pun intended) metaphor for the climactic events of last season, which saw him cut down the final threatening members of the Stark clan. With Tywin looming out of the shadows, Game of Thrones quickly reminds the audience that the landscape of Westeros has changed hugely again. Gone are the Starks and therefore the last great threat to Joffrey's power and through underhand tactics; the honour that the family prided themselves on has always been their downfall and now, the Lannisters have sent a clear message that trying to attack them with honour is never going to work. Sleights of hand, betrayal and tricks are the way forward.

Speaking of which, we're swiftly introduced to a new political player, one who appears to understand the Lannisters more than most. Dornish prince, Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), also known as the Red Viper, is in town with his paramour Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) at the King's invitation for the upcoming nuptials. In this scene, Game of Thrones gives us an info-dump of great proportions The Martells' chequered past with the Lannisters has only previously been mentioned in passing when Myrcella Baratheon was married off to a Dornish prince. However, it's in these scenes that the writers really excel, granting us exposition through clever dialogue and thinly veiled political antagonism. We're soon up to speed on the nature of the tension between the Dornish and the Lannisters, as well as the nature of the Red Viper himself, without feeling subjected to endless exposition. Newcomers Pascal and Varma feel like they've been with us the entire time, so easily do they slip into the series' cast, and I'm especially impressed with Pascal, who fills the Red Viper with a calm and quiet rage, threatening to spill out at any second.

North, on the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) must deal with the fallout from his undercover mission with the wildlings, a mission so secret only Quorin Halfhand knew of it before he did. Jon Snow, like Ned Stark, has always been a bit of a one-note, if fascinating, character, bound by honour. He got interesting last season because he is forced into breaking his oath, engaging in a little duplicity and learning a few other things besides. In his one scene here, we're reminded of that conflict and the guilt that has resulted from both his espionage and his relationship with Ygritte (Rose Leslie). Harington shines in Jon's hearing scene, bringing out the Stark belligerence as well as the taunting wit that is a part of his character in the books and this bodes well for the rest of this season as Jon finds himself battling his former companions.

Whilst the entire episode is strong, there are two scenes in which Two Swords really hits its stride for two very different reasons, reflecting with ease the varying scale of the series. First of all, there is a focus in on Dany (Emilia Clarke) now travelling towards Mereen with her army and three growing dragons. Glimpses of the dragons are always at suitably important moments; here they are used to demonstrate Dany's growing power, as well as the instability of her situation. They are tempestuous and violent, scrapping with each other over a dead sheep which hits the ground unceremoniously at Dany's feet. It's an impressively technical scene with the special effects work on the dragons looking superb with swooping crane shots to highlight their growing strength. Alongside this, we also get wide shots of Dany's vast army and the treacherous ground they are covering. It's the biggest scale we see in the entire episode and acts as a reminder that the insular, often petty squabbling of Westeros is threatened by something far greater.

However, the other exemplar scene is one such petty squabble, a close-quarters, high stakes spat between the Hound (Rory McCann), Arya (Maisie Williams) and a group of bandits masquerading as the King's Men. The group includes Polliver, he who killed Lommy and stole Arya's sword Needle. It's an excellent example of a slow build of tension, as the Hound slowly gears himself up to fighting the assembled troupe. And then there is Arya. I spend a lot of these reviews heaping praise on Maisie Williams, but she is once again excellent here in a key scene for Arya's development. In a beautifully shot sequence, Arya strikes a water dancer pose and cuts Polliver down, striking the first name from her list herself. She slowly and deliberately kills him with Needle, repeating the words he himself had said prior to killing Lommy. The final shot of her standing over him, silhouetted in the light, was the perfect capture of her character and the dark acts towards which she has been driven.

A rousing opening then for Game of Thrones and plenty of hints towards what is promised to be an action-packed season. It has got steadily stronger as the seasons have gone on and if this instalment is anything to go by, we're in for more greatness.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of Season 3's final episode, Mhysa, here.

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Friday, 4 April 2014

FEATURE: Clint Mansell - 'Ark At Him!

Unless you're a fan of film scores or alternative music, Clint Mansell might not be the most recognisable name to you. However, you can be sure you've heard his music, not least if you've watched Sky Sports in the last few years. Born in Coventry, Mansell's stock has risen greatly over the years, especially with his partnership with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, and that stock is now about to go through the roof with his score to Aronofsky's latest, the massive biblical blockbuster Noah.

Best known before his film career as the lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell followed composers like Cliff Martinez and Danny Elfman from the pop world to the scoring stage in 1998 after the break-up of PWEI. His first assignment would be the beginning of a relationship that has defined his film music career, coming together with first-time director Darren Aronofsky to score the surreal thriller PI. Joining songs from dance-orientated artists such as Roni Size and Aphex Twin, Mansell's score was influenced by the drum-n-bass movement as well as the industrial side of things, and was a perfect fit for the idiosyncratic film and its stark black and white photography. The unconventional score heightened the paranoid sense of the lead, Sean Guillette's Max, and was its own intense character in the film.

But while Pi was a success and a huge sign of the potential both Mansell and Aronofsky had, the score that would follow would introduce a piece of Mansell's music into pop culture iconography. Requiem for a Dream is probably the best anti-drug film you'll ever see, a haunting and horrifying work that follows the journey of four characters in a downward spiral of addiction. Mansell's music for the film used the Kronos Quartet to provide a cold and needling soundscape for the film, personified by the driving 'Lux Aeterna'. The latter would become Mansell's calling card, later becoming a theme for Sky Sports News and exploding further in a re-orchestrated "epic" rendition for the theatrical trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

While Aronofsky looked at rebooting Batman and toiled away on a mysterious project known as The Last Man, Mansell worked on gangster film Knockaround Guys, horror film The Hole, thrillers Murder By Numbers and Suspect Zero amongst others, before ending his Aronosfky-less period with two Hollywood blockbusters, Sahara and Doom. These scores allowed Mansell to add more strings to his violin, combining his unique alternative sound with more conventional scoring techniques that brought a fusion that would further enhance his reputation in the score world. The following year, in 2006, Aronofsky's secret project that had gone through several iterations finally came to fruition. It was called The Fountain

Mansell's score reunited him with the Kronos Quartet for a film that was an attempt at heady hard science fiction, with religious and philosophical overtones. Echoing the three different storylines in the film, Mansell collaborated with Kronos Quartet and Scottish post-rock band Mogwai to create a sense of musical convergence that would suit the decidedly non-traditional film. What they brought to the film was a sense of force, of awe. Emotional intensity. The Fountain was critically acclaimed, with the score seen as a huge part of the success of the film. While it remains as one of Mansell's great achievements, it also serves as a precursor for events to come for both parties.

Mansell went on to score The Wrestler for Aronofsky, as well as films such as Smokin' Aces, The Rebound, and Duncan Jones' well-received science fiction thriller Moon. Patterned after the more esoteric SF films of the seventies such as Silent Running, Moon demanded music that was typically cold and almost computerised, but with a sense of introspective emotion for the character of Sam Bell. In response, Mansell's score was alien and eloquent, with a wonderful warm piano for Sam and electronics for the moon base. As the film neared its climax and Sam made his discoveries, more traditionally orchestral elements were introduced to mirror the human element with brilliant effect.

His next score was another Aronofsky collaboration, Black Swan, where he adapted Tchaikovsky's ballet score for the intense psychological thriller. Following this was drama Last Night, action film Faster, and video game Mass Effect 3, before moving on to Park-chan Wook's Stoker and the Irvine Welsh crime flick Filth. And then the flood came.


Noah is a bold move by many of the people involved. By the producers of the film, by Aronosfsky, and certainly by Mansell, who again employed the Kronos Quartet along with a huge orchestra to build a sound nothing quite like he had made before. Aronofsky's film is massive in scale and as such, Mansell's score had to match that while simultaneously providing intimate grounding for the title character and his family. And it's one hell of an achievement, with the soundtrack neatly chopped into four acts.

Noah begins with chugging strings and percussion that sounds like lightning. It immediately emits a "biblical" feel, and the mysterious motif that cuts through the opening of the act named 'Wickedness' sets a foreboding tone. What follows is a wave of cacophony, with biting Herrmannesque strings birthing a chaotic atmosphere for a jagged three-note repeating motif to slash its way through. It's overwhelming and terrifying, providing an instant doom-laden 'storm is coming' feel that is briefly soothed through a beautiful viola solo before the mysterious motif returns with driving percussion. Uncertainty is built through more strings and guitar, before brass and percussion take over to remind you of the sheer scale of the thing. 

Mansell refuses to go into what would be considered the traditional approach with over abundant choir, instead using the strings of the Kronos Quartet to play out the more emotional and familial side of things with the orchestra providing the texture and colour for the force of nature and wrath of man, and god. The second act - 'Innocence' - opens with the excellently-named 'Make Thee An Ark', which uses strings as percussion with a guitar overlay to build into a huge brass section with a gorgeous viola line. It's a modern equivalent to 'The Shark Cage Fugue' from Jaws, and certainly provides ample ark-building music. What's astonishing in Noah is the way it seamlessly switches from absolutely massive to microscopically intimate, so indicative of the way of nature, then driving back upwards with wondrous choir (it's not used as often as you'd expect, but when it is, it's so, so good).

In counterpoint, there's a malevolent tone to the darker music, with thundering war drums and sinister cello, as well as the return of the three-note motif, now getting closer and closer. In return, family is key and the viola and violins represent this, with the strings ending the act on a powerful and optimistic note. The third act - 'Judgement' - begins small with guitar, but quickly intensifies with some massive percussion, before the devastating 'By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed' that really qualifies as some of the best disaster music I've ever heard. It's just unrelenting, overwhelming, chaotic, with bellowing brass lines and haunting violin, along with the thunderclap percussion. Amazing. Electric guitar gives way to a discordant choir and some huge brass sections not only reprising the mystery motif but also developing it further, with a massive statement ending the track. 

A dose of serenity is injected with delicate guitar and viola, providing a small sense of respite before the storm returns and we are battered once again before the final act - 'Mercy' - takes hold. Here Mansell's music is calm and thoughtful, with an emotional viola used to reflect and philosophise. With the storm gone, the strings are left to pick up the pieces, and it's an act of catharcism that Mansell puts us through, one that's greatly needed. The Kronos Quartet are here at their most beautiful, as we reach a sense of finality. What's here is a celebration of survival, and an embracement of hope. The score ends on an absolutely beautiful note, both musically and thematically, before the album's denouement, where the song 'Mercy Is' - sung by Patti Smith - provides a mythic ending to the experience.

Having listened to it a few times now, I don't think there's any doubt that Noah is not only Clint Mansell's greatest score, but also a new chapter in the evolution of his career. The through-line has shown how quickly his sophistication and scoring intelligence has increased, and you can see a clear path from The Fountain to Noah, both in the ambition of the film, and that ambition being met by Mansell's music. A great career, and a great score that makes us hungry for what comes next.

- Charlie Brigden

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Wednesday, 2 April 2014

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I Only Have Eyes For You

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel continues his tormenting of Buffy, going so far as to murder Jenny Calendar before she could reconcile with Giles. Buffy sleeping with Angel was the key factor in him losing his soul, something she still feels guilty about.



For a paranormally-themed show, there aren't too many instances of ghosts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so when they do appear, they tend to be quite special episodes. I Only Have Eyes For You continues the second season's solid back episode run, building in a creepy story of a poltergeist tormenting the students of Sunnydale High. On the eve of the Sadie Hawkins' Dance, strange things are happening in the school corridors; mismatched pairs of men and women re-enact a scene that ends with a gun produced out of thin air. A janitor shoots a teacher, but the gun disappears and he cannot recall why he did it. As Buffy and the gang investigate, it becomes clear that the poltergeist is a former Sunnydale student, James Stanley, doomed to re-enact the moment in which he accidentally shoots his lover, teacher Grace Newman.

At its core, I Only Have Eyes For You is an episode that about the chanc to move on from the mistakes of your past. For Buffy, this is all tied into her relationship with Angel, demonstrated perfectly in the symmetry with the tragedy of James and Grace's death. James is forced into a cycle of guilt and blame, something which Buffy exhibits in the episode's opening moments, turning down a date because she's still hurting from the breakdown of her relationship. Saddest of all though is Giles in his smaller episode arc. Although only glimpsed in a couple of scenes, he becomes convinced that the ghost is Jenny because he desperately needs to forgive her himself. He was robbed of that chance by Angel and clings on to any semblance of hope that she might still be lingering to speak to him.

The emotion stems from the central haunting of James Stanley and Grace Newman, trapped in limbo following the accidental murder-suicide. Buffy is consistently condemnatory of violence against women with tonight's ghostly pairing acting as another prime example. Denouncing James from the off, she declares her sympathy for Grace, making it clear that James is entirely at fault for the crime and deserving of 'sixty years in prison, breaking rocks and making friends with Rosco the weightlifter'. However, the parallels are there with her own situation. Still tormenting herself over her role in the loss of Angel's soul, Buffy is drawn into the role of James, begging for forgiveness from Angel, possessed by Miss Newman. The tragedy of both situations gives the episode a melancholy atmosphere which works well with the scares brought on by the presence of the poltergeist. 

Several of the episode's ghostly set pieces work really well, particularly if you find snakes ever so slightly terrifying (hands up, who's with me? With this and Killed By Death, my dreams weren't safe for weeks). The repetition of the murder-suicide is particularly well done as it takes all episode for us to see the entire scene played out. Drip-feeding us information makes the final moments far more powerful; beautifully cutting between James and Grace and then Buffy and Angel, the episode makes the parallels clear and offering a moment of catharsis for the 1955 pair whilst reminding us all of just how far Angel has fallen.

As with any show adopting the Monster of the Week format in between the season arc, there is a tendency to coast through the filler episodes. Whilst I'd argue that the second season was guilty of that in the first half, the latter half is much stronger, using the monsters to say things about the central characters. Killed by Death arguably didn't push this far enough, not using Buffy's obvious survivor's guilt to be anything more than a device through which to propel the plot. In this episode, the parallels are drawn much clearer and, though much less subtle, do a lot of work in getting Buffy's character to open up a little and convey these feelings of guilt she's been suppressing. It also makes it all the more tragic that, unlike James, she's not offered the forgiveness she craves. Angel is still without a soul and is so physically disgusted by her, he takes a shower on returning to the mansion. She is doomed not to move on just yet and even in Becoming when Angel reverts, her actions are defined by the mistakes she has already made.

Outside of the main events of the episode, there's also another big statement demonstrating that the authorities are fully aware of what is going on in Sunnydale. Snyder comes up with a cover story nearly as good as his gangs on PCP line from School Hard to explain the snake problem whilst in discussion with a police officer. Brilliantly, this scene acts as a foreshadowing of the Mayor's increased role in Buffy's life as Snyder is warned that if he has a problem with handling Sunnydale High's odd occurrences, he should take it up with him. Snyder's reaction is enough to let us know that the Mayor is not a man to be messed with and though it won't have registered as significant at the time, it's one of those gems that rewards on a rewatch.

I Only Have Eyes For You is a deeply sad episode, one which works hard to allow the audience to see how the events of Angelus returning has wounded not only the main gang, but also Spike and Dru. It's also one of the best episode endings in the history of Buffy when Spike stands up from his wheelchair and vows to give Angel a run for his money. Everyone is now neatly positioned for the big finale in terms of their various mental states; Xander still hates Angel, Willow's starting to practice magic, Giles is tormented by Jenny's loss and Buffy is slowly but surely getting herself ready to take Angel down.

It's just a shame we have to go through Go Fish first...

Quote of the Week: 

Giles: To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It's... it's not done because people deserve it. It's done because they need it.

Let's Get Trivial: This is the first episode of Buffy that was followed by a public service announcement, read by Sarah Michelle Gellar, centred on suicide and its dangers for teens.

Sunnydale Who's Who: The guest stars for this episode are incredibly good with Christopher Gorham as James, later of Ugly Betty and Covert Affairs fame and George the janitor, portrayed by Deadwood alumnus John Hawkes (go watch Deadwood now if you haven't, that's an order).

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at previous episode Killed By Death, here.

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