Saturday, 25 April 2015

Twentieth Century Zanni

Today I watched The Cocoanuts, the first of the Marx Brothers movies from all the way back in 1929. I am currently working on my thesis for Cat University, which I intend will be about the transformation of traditional Commedia dell'arte theatre to cinema and then to TV and the form it exists in today.

The Cocoanuts is useful in two ways - firstly because it is such an old movie that not only is it in black and white but also it was made not long after mannys learned how to talk on camera (the invention of the so-called 'talkies') in 1927.

Secondly, before the Marx Brothers made movies they did a theatrical version of The Cocoanuts, so it can be seen as a direct transition piece between the two mediums; from transient live performances to permanent recordings.

To justify the movie as a work of Commedia dell'arte we must look at the characters and see how they map to the Commedia archetypes. The easiest are Bob and Polly who are obviously the innamorati. Polly's mother Mrs Potter is clearly of the vecchi, while the villainous Harvey and his partner Penelope only masquerade as members of that class.

The Marx Brothers are, as always, playing their own archetypal characters with minor variations to fit them to the plot of the individual story. They are, of course, the zanni. Chico and Harpo clearly fit to this, both by being being lower class petty criminals and from the way they come to the assistance of the separated lovers and are instrumental in their reunion.

Groucho, as hotel manager, seems to be in a position of authority, but the hotel is so unsuccessful that circumstances, combined with his own frustrated social-climbing character, contrived to place him with the zanni.

The film is very very silly and I loled many times while watching it. The funny scenes are broken up with scenes of mannys singing and dancing, as well as Chico and Harpo playing musical instruments, but these bits are not long so they do not end up being too boring. There is one funny song though and that is the one where the manny has lost his shirt.

I found the slapstick bits are very funny, with my favourite bit being the scene where the mannys are going in and out of two adjoining rooms a lot very fast. Groucho and Chico's lines were often very funny too, I especially liked the "why a duck" bit although poor Chico never did find out why and I don't suppose we will ever know.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Starcat and Scary Cat Have Been Assigned (Part Two)

Starcat and Scary Cat review Sapphire & Steel: Assignment Two

Assignment Two is the longest of Sapphire & Steel's six stories at eight parts, and since we are long cats that means we like it already.

Rob and Helen are not in this story. In their place we have George Tully, who is a psychic researcher and may or may not be a FBI agent as well. Starcat thinks he is, Scary Cat isn't sure. He meets Sapphire and Steel in an old train station. Because we know Sapphire and Steel from Assignment One, Tully is the outsider to both them and us, so the situation between Rob and Helen and Sapphire and Steel is reversed.

The story is slowly paced to spread the plot over all its installments, but doesn't tend to force in dramatic beats or cliffhangers at the end of every episode - like some TV series do - instead ending at seemingly random or inopportune moments, simply because the 25 minutes are up.

The train station location - really a TV studio set - is even more impressive than the house was in Assignment One. Most of the atmosphere and sense of threat is created by the look and feel of the set rather than from the SFX, it really convinces on an emotional level.

Where there are SFX they are used minimally but very well, such as the moment at the end of part 2 when Steel experiences a plane crash - a bright light shines on David McCallum, who is now dressed in a pilot costume and sitting in a room on a chair, acting as though he is suddenly in a plane. Then the camera tilts, shakes and spins to create the illusion of a crash.

The extra length combines with the minimal cast to allow the relationship between Tully and Sapphire and Steel to develop. They are both investigating the ghosts but have different methods. Early on Tully is subtly shown to be really quite clever, and there is foreshadowing of his eventual fate.

The main ghost character is Sam Pearce, who gives a face and voice to the antagonist for most of the story (parts 2 to 6) and is scary at first because he is unknown, and later because his death was scary and horrible in a manny's war.

"Great wars, civil wars, holy wars... You know, sometimes I wonder why they bother to send us here."

Even Tully is scared, and this puts him in conflict with Steel as to how they should treat with Pearce. Steel regains his trust when he rescues Tully (and Sapphire) from the submarine in a well-staged, tightly-edited sequence in part 4.

The second half of the story is very, very scary and wonderful all the way through. Tully helps Sapphire and Steel hold a scary seance. Cleverly there are parallel scenes of Sapphire, possessed by Sam Pearce's friend Elanor's ghost and talking with an accent to show it, and Pearce reliving the summer before he went off to get killed in the war, even reverting to being out of uniform - a wonderful way of showing the effect it is having on him - these scenes are a particular highlight of part 5. As is the bit where the tangible darkness flows through the set until it surrounds Sapphire and Steel and Tully, the scariest moment of the series so far - though a scarier moment is still to come!

Sapphire spends most of part 6 having sleeps, Tully gets scared and Steel is caught in Pearce's trap.

That is a dramatic high point that the next part cannot top, so it doesn't try. Instead there is a dramatic break as Sapphire and Steel and Tully are sent forward 12 days into the future. Then the tension is allowed to build again as Steel formulates his plan for the final episode, and we are made subtly aware of just how out of their depth Steel, Sapphire and poor, doomed Tully really are.

"I want to make a deal with the darkness..."

Scary face!

This is the ultimate scary moment of the story, as the Darkness takes over Sapphire. Steel is forced to lie to her and to sacrifice Tully to defeat it, but when the ghosts turn against it and Tully goes knowingly - and very bravely - the Darkness is tricked and left with nothing.

The most important character in this story does not even appear, and that is Tully's cat Nelson. Steel tells the Darkness that Tully's early death will affect Time and cause resentment ("resentment" is Darkness noms) but he had previously established that Nelson is Tully's only friend or family member, and Tully's neighbour would look after Nelson when Tully was not there. Yay, cats are not noms; not even Darkness noms.



Gold is a leading contender for Paul Darrow's hammiest performance as Avon.

In the presence of guest actor Roy Kinnear, playing "old friend" Keiller (chances of making it to the end of the episode alive: none at all), Darrow ups his performance to OVER NINE THOUSAND levels of ham.

Keiller is essentially a main character in this one, with more to do than any of the regulars except Avon and, maybe, Soolin. He calls Soolin "pretty one" several times, leading me to wonder if there was not some last minute rewriting of the script going on, and it was originally Tarrant doing Soolin's bits.

Here Avon has found Keiller's photocopier and is using it to do some space photocopying. From it he finds out that Keiller may have worked for Servalan, so maybe this is a trap.

Vila has the least to do in this episode, even though it is a heist, but this is probably because he has noticed that their heists have always seemed to go wrong in the last couple of seasons.

Tarrant is pretending to be happy on catnip. Steven Pacey is great in these bits - his delivery of his "happy" lines manages to be funny while fitting into the story perfectly.

There are some good action scenes in which Paul Darrow hams up his every gesture to help make them even more exciting.

Servalan turns up for one scene at the end because of course she does.

Although Servalan is also in Orbit and Warlord, she does not meet or interact with any of the other regular characters in them. This means that this scene is the last time she meets Avon and the others. Is that why Avon and Servalan look so happy about it?

Avon and Servalan stand very close to each other and nearly kiff, but don't.

The episode ends with Avon's ultimate moment of ham as he laughs manically at their heist having gone wrong.

Gold is a really good episode, fast-paced with many twists and turns of the heist plot that, the first time you see it, will keep you guessing as to what is going on. And Paul Darrow is a joy to watch in every scene... er, as usual. Mew.

A couple of years after this episode was made, some mannys wrote a song about it. Once you know the song is about Gold, it becomes obvious that the lyrics are about Avon, listen:

Friday, 17 April 2015

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermannys Part One

Revenge of the Cybermannys is the last story of season 12 of Doctor Who, following on directly from the ending of Genesis of the Daleks. It stars Tom Baker as the Doctor, Ian Marter as Harry and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah.

The Doctor, Harry and Sarah begin the story in space, then they appear on Nerva as last seen in The Ark in Space. The plot gets going when they find a dead manny, and Harry says he has been dead for two weeks, so clearly something is rotten in the state of Nerva as they find more dead mannys and serious music plays to let us know it is serious.

There are some mannys on Nerva who are alive though, including Harry Mailer from The Mind of Evil and Dev Tarrant from The Way Back, so they are obviously baddys. Dev Tarrant is called Kellman in this and he talks with the other mannys so we can get the exposition required to know what is going on. Nerva is a beacon, there in space to warn other spaceships about an asteroid so they can avoid having a "space collision" with it. (Alas, this flash of Nationesque dialogue is not typical of the episode as a whole.)

An alien in a cave is trying to contact Nerva, but he is shot by two other aliens. There is no immediate clarification of the significance of this so it is very mysterious. The manny on Nerva who hears the signal tells Kellman he thinks it came from the asteroid, which Kellman calls "Voga".

The Doctor opens a locked door with a little help from Harry and Sarah. While there is little humour in this episode, the Doctor's line here is funny:
"If you two would put your weight against the door and stop it opening too suddenly - I don't want to lose my arm, I'm rather attached to it. It's so handy."

Two of the aliens are Vorus, who is played by David Collings from Dark Towers (and lots of other things as well, including Monkey, Sapphire & Steel and Lord of the Rings), and Magrik, played by Michael Wisher who was in only the previous story, but he looks different because then he was Davros and now he is Magrik. Magrik is scared of cybermannys but Vorus is brave, which is a start towards giving them distinguishing characterisation. Together they have some sort of plan but we don't know what it is yet.

The Doctor, Harry and Sarah are captured by Nerva's Commander and Harry Mailer. Kellman wants them to be shot but the Doctor convinces the Commander that he and Harry are doctors and can help with the "plague" that Kellman was trying to blame them for.

Kellman has some of John Drake's old equipment hidden in his room and he uses it to spy on the Doctor and the Commander. When the Doctor hears the nearby asteroid is called Voga he connects it with the cybermannys and knows that the plague is really cybermanny poison.

Kellman uses a radio disguised as a typewriter to send a signal to the cybermanny's spaceship, making him look even more of a baddy than being played by the same actor that played Dev Tarrant.

The Doctor looks in Kellman's room and finds his spying stuff really easily. Kellman comes back and is suspicious so he sets a trap to electric the Doctor. This isn't the cliffhanger though - that is when a cybermouse pounces on Sarah to try to poison her.

This is a serviceable first episode - quite a lot happens, including a parallel subplot with the aliens that remains separate from the plot with the Doctor on Nerva throughout, and the cybermannys only make a brief appearance  - enough to make their presence felt without undermining their menace; enough to whet the viewer's appetite for more.

On the other paw, it puts the pieces of the story in place without the kind of wit or panache that it needs to make the episode worthwhile in its own right and, especially for a story following on from Genesis of the Daleks (one of the all time great Terry Nation classic stories), that isn't good enough.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Brig can't help you now, he's in Geneva

This video is full of in-jokes for Doctor Who fans like me. Look out for two appearances from Kevin Stoney ("a Stoney-faced deceiver") lol!