Elsewhere I've reviewed tonight's Doctor Who, an exercise in absolute torture as usual. I'm finding it harder and harder to write though I do think I've managed to explain in this case why some of the direction is so flat in comparison to other episodes -- it's supposed to be -- which isn't an argument I've seen in any other reviews yet ...

Carry on Cleo

Film When Corinne Marchand's title character in Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) first appears, it's in full frame close up, her porcelain features filling the frame, melting the heart of this viewer (at least). It's a startling image not least because the preceding shot, of a table top in which the Tarot cars of a fortune teller predict Cleo's fortune is in full colour. We're intrigued.

What follows is an hour and a half of similarly surprising images as we follow Cleo about the Left Bank of Paris as she awaits the results of a biopsy across a ninety minute period almost in real time. We discover that she's a singer who's accepted that much of her perceived talent is derived from her looks, yet we can't help wondering if her beauty and mostly superficial personality aren't a bridgehead to something deeper.

The film slips as Adrian Martin notes at Criterion between fiction and a documentary record of Varda's home during an uncertain period:
"... it is as jazzily photographed and busily edited as any more conventional narrative film. Rather, Varda seizes the kind of immediacy and tension associated, at the start of the sixties, with the cinema verité documentary movement and uses it to create a new form of fiction. Unlike traditional story films, which skip everywhere in both time and space, Varda gives us a gauntlet: every second piling up, every step traced out. And she picked the best possible site for this gauntlet walk: the Left Bank of Paris is preserved for us in all its early sixties vibrancy and diversity. Indeed, Varda once described the film as “the portrait of a woman painted onto a documentary about Paris.”
One of the greats which I've been saving for quite some time but watched tonight to cheer myself up at the tail end of a cold/man-flu, its influence has seeped directly and indirectly into dozens of other films in the half century since release so much so that our sight-seeing not just the geography of Paris, but the history of cinema.

I can now see that Richard Linklater directly references it in both of the Before Sunsomething films (particularly the final fifteen minute love affair and indeterminate conclusion) and how the so-called modern Mtv shooting and editing style of Bay and Greengrass can be found in the car scenes here - except in this case, Cleo isn't chasing some generic villain carrying a mcguffin but her own destiny.

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Then I first saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona in screen nine of the Odeon at Liverpool One on the 13th February 2009 at 3:10pm, sitting in Row C, Seat 10. That’s right. I still have the ticket. Or receipt as they have there. Or more precisely a scan of the receipt:

My attendance was in a rare professional capacity to produce this formidable review for Liverpool Confidential, formidable because it’s about as comprehensive a survey of a Woody Allen film I think I’ve produced:
”Barden and Johansson are eye-catching enough, but the emotional heart of the film is Hall, whose face ripples constantly with expression. Vicky is between temptation and outside expectations, the heart and the head at war. […] Hers is the character most of us identify with and by the time Vicky falls under Juan Antonio's spell, the film has us in its clutches too. We’re constantly aware that this is the hardly-feminist account of an artist wrapping the hearts of three women around his paint brush, but all the while we’re beguiled.”
The description of the kids walking out is true of course, and that was after they’d played with their mobile phones for a bit and chatted to each other. Sometimes I wish that when the BBFC awards certificates, it would take into account the audience a film is clearly aimed at as well as the literal content. Though quite how a film with these sex scenes attracted a 12A anyway I’m not too sure.

Now Since my Liverpool Confidential review is so wide-ranging even to the point of emphasising Rebecca Hall’s contribution to the film (which we'll talk some more about in the next paragraph), there doesn’t seem to be much point in restating any more of that text or repeating any of the poetry. If anything, I’m more impressed with the film, and watching it within context, it’s clearly his most confident piece since Melinda and Melinda in terms of editing and construction without any of the uneasiness that greeted his London films and with due respect the achievements of Melinda and Anything Else, clearly his best film in the noughties (a position that will no doubt keep changing).

The reason that Hall’s character stands out is because she visibly has the most screen time, which simply increases the disingenuous of the poster where he photo doesn't appear and she's relegated to a secondary layer in the billing. Though the story moves away for Scarlett’s dalliances with Penelope and Javier, it’s Rebecca who has the objective view of their three way relationship and her performance that guides our opinion of it. She’s also the character with the funniest lines; early on when Javier propositions the two girls, she seems to physically imitate Woody and that continues into the next scene where she’s shown cowering at the back of the plane. It’s extraordinary.

Given the lack of a release yet for Whatever Works in the UK (I'd like to see it first at the cinema), this is effectively the end of this odyssey for now, much to your relief I’m sure. But unlike the Hitchcock retrospective, I don’t want to attempt a proper summation because Woody’s career continues. I still stick by my theory that with Melinda and Melinda, the director, just as he did between Love & Death and Annie Hall, was completing one section of his career ready for another and even taking some elements of Scoop into account, each of the films which has followed could not necessarily described as Woody Allen films were it not for the credits and that seems to be a deliberate decision, commercially or no.

But unlike Hitchcock, Woody doesn’t seem to have in his head a concept of a “Woody Allen” film and that’s what he’s deliberately disregarding. Hitch often said that such and such a film, The Wrong Man, for example, wasn’t really a Hitchcock film. Woody clearly has an idea of how movies should be made and of his own limitations, but I don’t think he has the same idea others may have of what a “Woody Allen” film is like, something to work towards or disregard, he's not aware of his own auteur status. He simply feels like he’s gone as far as he can in one direction and is trying something new, his workload and continuing ability to be bankrolled and attract a good cast allowing him to experiment.

None of his previous ensemble appear in these later films. Most of his standard elements of style are absent. Sight unseen you might consider the possibility that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was directed by a much younger man or woman, or at the very least a European director. It certainly has more in common with the Bertolucci of Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers than the Woody Allen of Curse of the Jade Scorpion or even Hannah and Her Sisters. The dialogue is less mannered, there’s an easy poetry visually and linguistically and it’s the first of his films to feature scenes in a “foreign” language as the academy would have it, and I don’t mean the Queen’s English.

Of course, on viewing Whatever Works, which is his brief return to New York, I could be proved wrong. But this year’s fall release, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was filmed in London again (with the brilliant detail of Lucy Punch replacing Nicole Kidman in a prominent role). His 2011 project temptingly has Marion Cotillard playing a Muse according to the imdb. But none of them sees the return of anyone from the old ensemble and the signature jazz tracks which were recognisably his mainstay are gone – even in Whatever Works judging by the soundtrack album which is available on Spotify.

What I will say, is that watching all his films so far in such close proximity has only increased my admiration for his work and its consistency. Even his worst film, Hollywood Ending, has some excellent relationship scenes and at his best he’s clever, intelligent, romantic and charming and probably the Shakespeare of American filmmakers in terms of variety, poetry and thematic depth within certain specific limits. If my favourite films are still the earlier pictures from the late seventies and earlier eighties, because I grew up with them, my fondness for the later work, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry and yes, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has increased. Now, what's next?
Politics Isn't this just Boxxy as directed by Wes Anderson?

As a budding hipster, it's good to have a guide to the finer points. I wonder what she would have made of sloanes.

New Politics.

New Politics Throughout the campaign one of my mantras was "Vote Clegg, get Clegg" and unbelievably that is what's happened. Of course, I hadn't considered that we'd also get Eric Pickles, Theresa May, Ian Duncan Smith and bloody Michael Gove but somehow watching a giddy Vince Cable stepping up Downing Street to collect his job as Business Secretary went some way to cushioning the blow. Some. Way.

Yes, it's strange to see Nick standing behind a lectern next to David Cameron with the latter not deliberately misinterpreting his policies and it will be difficult for him to have to defend some of the more um, expressive, Tory policies in Prime Minister's Questions when the new PM is off abroad or ill. But he'll also technically be in charge of the country for a few stretches. Give or take, some give and take.

David Laws as Secretary to the Treasury, Osbourne's number two with Vince breathing down the new chancellor's neck too. That should make the budget make for interesting reading/listening. Danny Alexander as Scottish Secretary with David Mundell as his deputy. Chris Huhne possibly as Environment Minister in charge of a programme which includes the eradication of the extra airport runways in London.

The lambs and lions may be lying together but strangely this doesn't feel like the end of days. As requested in his statement last night, I'm going to trust Nick and the Liberal Democrats. Reading the coalition agreement I can't really believe how many Lib Dem policies are potentially going to implemented. The section on Civil Liberties is a jaw dropper. Stephanie Flanders has a run down of the tax policies.

What I will say, is that trust can only go so far. There's nothing in this document about culture or non-environmental science. It's in these areas I'd look to the Lib Dems to also have a hand in shaping policy, in not standing by and letting Murdoch's claws crush our rich media landscape for his own ends. In other words, if they fuck with the BBC, I'm going to the Greens.

Sefton Park

Sefton Park, originally uploaded by mobilevirgin.

New World.

Politics I've been watching BBC News almost solidly for days. These are historic moments and when I'm reading the book or watching the documentaries about all of this in future years I want to be able to remember what it was like to experience these dramatic political changes as well as the hindsight. With very little information to go on, just whispers in the ears of political correspondents, the coverage has largely consisted of a stream of politicians old and new offering their opinion on which form the coalition should take like a very slow, broadcast piece of qualitative market research, punctuated with statements from participants that say very little.

The overall impression is that as I suggested pictorially yesterday, after years of obscurity, of being laughed at and satirised in parliament and ignored in the media, the Liberal Democrats are now in the position of deciding if a figure like Alan Johnson or Ben Bradshaw keeps their job, with both speaking in a conciliatory manner about people and policies they publicly despised a week ago. A key example was Michael Gove on Newsnight last night revealing that the 10k tax break is one such sweetner being agreed to, with Kirsty Walk rounding on him and asking how the Tories would find the £17 billion to pay for it!

"Scrap Trident?" she asked.

This is a new world.
Politics Gordon Brown resigns. Perhaps Nick Clegg's pre-election message should have been ...

"Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can ever imagine."

Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Cassandra's Dream (2007)

Then Even though Scoop was overlooked for a cinema released, Cassandra’s Dream had a relatively smooth passage into cinemas, perhaps because crime thrillers are easier to advertise. Having waited six months to see it, I then waited another six months for the dvd which I saw in January 2009. I didn’t like it. And said so. A lot:
”But Cassandra’s Dream is rubbish. It might even be offensively bad.”
Now I don’t think I need to quote much more from that review. You can go and read it for yourself. I took umbrage with much of the film only singling out Hayley Atwell and Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography for praise. I hated the structure, the scripting, the dialogue and the performances. I speak of clockwatching and booing and whilst it doesn’t stoop to the level of my Company Men response in terms of cheap jokes I’m was very pissed off. Indeed.

On second viewing I’ve been trying to work out exactly why I my reaction against the film quite so fierce. It’s not rubbish. It’s not “offensively bad”. Cassandra’s Dream certainly better than some of the ITV Drama Premieres it sometimes resembles and whilst it’s true that it’s near impossible to be sympathetic towards these brothers, that’s also true of Macbeth. Morality plays and tragedies are supposed to illuminate the extremes of human weakness and it does that admirably.

Having watched Hitchcock’s Frenzy in the meantime and a couple of seventies exploitation thrillers, I can see the influence of those, consciously or not with big scenes played against small crusty rooms, in dirty garages and racetracks. As possibilities open up to the brothers, so the landscape changes, the room increase in size and the drinking establishments become more upmarket and such things seem to expand and contract depending upon which brother is ahead.

Philip Glass’s music is excellent too; there is touch of the Bernard Hermanns about the main theme as filtered through Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Basic Instinct. Woody rarely uses original scores on his films; here it pays dividends naturalising some of the scenes and allowing him to cut the action as he sees fit rather than around the score which was the case in Match Point. As he says in this rather good interview about the film, he wanted to simply compliment the action (rather than, I suppose, trying to add an extra thematic layer).

My initial problem with the film, as best I can gather, was this: if you were to strip the titles and hand it sight unseen to someone and ask them who directed it they would most likely guess at a British director, they could not say Woody Allen. Because it’s set in London, because it’s as close as he’ll get to a traditional thriller, because the dialogue though heightened sounds like it was written by someone else, possibly Pinter, because even though on close inspection you can identify some stylistic similarities, it has as much to do with the Allen’s auteur style as Topaz had for Hitchcock.

But it’s really not that ghastly. Not really.

The Vampires of Venice.

TV In these uncertain times for the nation, when frowning men in suits are walking from cars into buildings and back again and no one has a fecking clue about the future of the country, weekly events like Doctor Who come into their own. We should just be thankful perhaps that the hand over of power at the top of our favourite franchise ran so smoothly by comparison. If it had been like the current constitutional negotiations, we might have seen Moffat attempting to form a coalition with a different Nick (Briggs), the latter demanding the resurrection of the Voord as a red line deal breaker (though presumably without a couple of thousand people turning up at Upper Boat demanding an adaptation of The Fishmen of Kandalinga -- from the 1966 annual).

The Vampires of Venice is particularly welcome because it is so comfortingly familiar, drawing together old and new series traditions to produce a supremely entertaining forty-eight and a half minutes. If ever there could be an episode designed to convince fans that the show is just the same as it always was, it would be this Hammer infused gothic horror adventure with creepy candle lit corridors in foreign climes, mythic creatures revealed to be aliens with a leader given to portentous speeches prophesising doom for her people. The title even evokes Vampire In Venice, the spaghetti horror from the 1980s with Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu.

You can almost imagine Philip Hinchcliffe watching the episode over a sherry at the retirement home for old Doctor Who producers and with a slight chuckle in his voice pointing to the plasma screen and muttering “That’s it! That’s it! If only I’d had the budget … Bob? Bob? Are you there?” “Calm down Mr Hinchcliffe. It’s only a television programme.” “But look Bob, they’re finally doing that version of Lust for a Vampire we were talking about, and at six o’clock in the evening! And it looks like a feature film!” “It’s not Bob, Mr. Hinchcliffe, it’s Olla. Have you taken your diabetic pills today?”

Except of course, mythic creatures that aren’t all they seem employing fairy tale fantasy elements to mask technology infuses the Moffat era too; interestingly a combination of the preview in the parish newsletter and Doctor Who Confidential suggests that writer Toby Whithouse had a pretty free hand in crafting his story, but with its lush Croatia in for Venice architecture, giant fangs and lashings of the uncanny it fits perfectly with the past five episodes evening including a variation on the now familiar crack. It’s the oh so quiet. Sshh. Ssssssh. So peaceful until …

As an aside, Venice isn’t, surprisingly, a regular stop for the Doctor and this is his first television visit. Spin-off media offers two visits; Big Finish’s The Stones of Venice in which the Eighth Doctor and Charley stop the city from sinking despite the best efforts of Michael Sheard and the bonkers Virgin Missing Adventure The Empire of Glass in which author Andy Lane has the First Doctor and Steven Taylor mixed up with Galileo and William Shakespeare as a spy, which presumably explains the photo on the Doctor’s library card (squee). Aside over (since I'm now having to ditch all my choice State of Decay comparisons).

In developing the piece Whithouse appears to have looked to his own earlier episode School Reunion for inspiration. Like Krillitanes, these perception filter employing fish from space are a disenfranchised people attempting to absorb the local culture by inhabit a school, the Doctor sharing portentous conversations with an intractable, sinuous leader whose pack is unexpectedly destroyed through a suicidal explosion that the timelord finds himself leaping to escape from. No former companion to distract us this time, of course, though at least we can now induct Russell’s adaptation of Casanova into the Whoniverse as an unofficial spin-off.

Whithouse also has to deal with the companion's boyfriend again. The production team and Arthur Darvill try their best not to make him Mickey 2.0 – his knowledge of the TARDIS for example, and eventual camaraderie with the Doctor, but some of the scenes here couldn’t help but sound like light rewrites of Boomtown, in which the companion’s partner has to jealously deal with his partner’s dazzling new best friend and her time spanning adventures. The difference will presumably be that his and Amy’s future happiness is a key element of the ongoing arc story though it’s worth asking what Pond was doing at home on the night before her wedding when Williams was at his stag party. Does she have any other friends?

Back at the retirement home, Derick Sherwin is quietly pleased that some of his era seems to have seeped through too. Apart from a recognizable companion structure – a science geek and a Scot (albeit with a reversed gender make-up), Matt is at his most Troughton in this episode, hopping about the internal structure of the TARDIS, his hands forever moving in unusual ways, his voice cheerfully disappearing into anecdotes and making inarticulate noises during a solution which was the stuff of a season five four parter, battling extraordinary elements (foam or in this case rain) before saving the world with the simple flick of a switch.

Sherwin might also appreciate the imaginatively old school approach to reproducing Venice as revealed in Confidential and how despite the budget they still had to resort to a cardboard cut out and a paddling pool across a cobbled courtyard to create the impression of a gondola drifting up a canal. In his book, What is cinema?, film critic Andre Bazin talks about how the best film makers understand that it’s the illusion of reality created in the frame that counts and the suspension of disbelief was total here (unlike the dome the Doctor had to shimmy his way up at the end though my digibox is particularly unforgiving to any kind of CGI element).

But the 60s episodes were never this funny (sorry Dennis and John). From the Doctor’s cake burst in the teaser (leading into the titles with the kind of comic beat not seen since the other first series) to the sight of the gondolea wearing Rory’s stag t-shirt, this is an episode unafraid to be a romp. There’s a Gallifrey Base thread developing which lists all of the best lines (and a flame war about the innuendo – yes, really) and though nothing quite touches City of Death, you have to love the confidence of the series to be able to chuck in "Blimey, fish from space have never been so....buxom" or “Yours is Bigger than Mine?” “Let's not go there!”

If there’s a problem, it’s that for a show about vampires (sort of), the episode isn't that scary. Helen McCrory has a certain camp serpentine Joan “He’s good for families” Collins steeliness but her character Rosanna Calvierri’s real alter-ego just looks like a well designed alien. If her Oedipal relationship with her son is creepy, her daughters are simple eye-candy and less sinister than a bar invading hen night. And the execution by aquatic predator worked better when Spielberg was directing it. Perhaps like The Brain of Morbius, appropriating the imagery of Hammer and the like is one thing, delivering it to a family audience, and now getting it past BBC standards, is something else.

Only as Amy was led into the green light and Calvierri’s transformation process did I get a tinge, but even that scene ran up against the syncopated shooting and editing style which I’ve noticed in all of these episodes, were the action is sometimes obscured by the camera shooting from an unexpected position, or the cutting in and out of shots early with apparently important lines given off screen or as was the case at the close of this episode with the moment of silence not given room to breath. It reminds me enough of Gilliam’s work in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to suggest that it’s a deliberate choice, and it doesn’t ruin the episode, but just sometimes it can be distracting.

Then again, at least it's not like many "classic" series episodes where you could guess which direction the actor would be walking by the camera Ron Jones or whoever decided to cut to and the reason for shooting abroad was entirely dependent on the cheapest air fairs. But in the old series you wouldn't have expected John Nathan-Turner to going swimming in the seas around Lanzarote dressed only in a pink bikini so that Nicola Bryant knew what to expect when she was forced to do it, like the swan attracting executive producer of the current show. Perhaps for all its formal similarities, The Vampires of Venice differs from tradition in just the right places.

Next week: How Do You Want Amy?