Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Crown Is A Slightly Subversive Tapestry About The Royal Family With A CGI Elephant And Enough Coughing To Startle The Fast Show's Bob Fleming

Doctor Who, left, and Her Majesty The Queen
in the Netflix/Lockets drama, The Crown
The Crown (Netflix), like the royal family, is a faith-based endeavour. Dramatically, it poses a challenge, because the story is known, so the appeal of the enterprise becomes a matter of style and costume. Beyond that, it is about impersonation, and the willingness of the cast to test the old actors’ cliche/excuse, about finding the truth of the character rather than doing an impersonation. But what is the truth of the Queen, of the Queen Mother, of Winston Churchill? And how can that be made vital? 
Let’s start with the style, because it is obvious. The Crown is a beautifully constructed edifice. It is a past fashioned from the daydreams of Cecil Beaton. The lighting is subtle, the colours rich. The world looks looks fantastic, rather than real, and everything is in its proper place. The mist that envelopes London in 1952 is, as the wireless announces, a veritable peasouper. The flashbulbs of the nascent paparazzi are pure Weegee. The royal tricycles are a nostalgic delight. The pens are fountain, the dogs are corgis, except when they are the Duke of Windsor’s pugs, when they are dismissed in glassy RP by the Queen (Claire Foy) as being “awfully gassy”. The false notes are few, though the scene where Prince Philip (Matt Smith) hypnotises a stampeding elephant in Nairobi has a jerky quality to it which suggests that a computer, rather than a stunt pachyderm, did the tricks.
But aside from being a brochure for an upmarket Butlins in which the chalets are palaces and the everyday dramas are matters of constitutional importance, what is left? Well, there is a lot of coughing. “Spot of blood in my spittle,” says King George VI to his wrinkled retainer early in the first episode, and from that hack on, he scarcely appears without the drumroll of a phlegmy ejaculation. At one point, the outgoing monarch seems to be toking on medical marijuana, though it’s possible he just enjoyed a mangy gasper. The bloody spew is significant, of course, because it heralds the elevation of Elizabeth to the throne, where - like Victoria in ITV’s Victoria - she will graduate from being a girl overwhelmed, to a soft-feminist cipher in a world of scheming, idiot men.
How is it? Well, if we assume that being the Queen is a bit like being the drummer of the Rolling Stones, with 20 years of hanging around for every five years of activity, it’s true to life. The plot moves at a glacial pace, with half-defrosted royals bumbling carelessly through matters of historical significance while polite, undynamic onlookers mumble rhubarb. The early episodes are dominated by John Lithgow’s rambunctious turn as the failing Winston Churchill, who symbolises changing times from the comfort of his bath at Number 10, where he drinks and smokes and sleeps as London chokes in the smog. The Labour leader, Clement Attlee, is played as a less-decisive version of Captain Mainwearing. Foy, as Her Majesty, is just perky enough, and - though they’re disguised by the logic-defying rituals of the ruling class - there are enough seditious moments to make this velvety National Heritage wall-hanging feel quietly subversive. “They’re all married to Nazis,” says Churchill. “What a bunch of ice-lipped monsters my family are,” sneers the permafrosty Duke of Windsor. 
Like the monarchy, it shouldn’t work, but it does. 
Meanwhile, in the migrant labour robo-satire Humans (All4) the androids are revolting with greater confidence than they did in the first series. 
“As I understand it,” says one, “I feel.” 
“I am also oddly attracted to the word ‘radiator’,” says another. 

Serial Box 

Presumably, in The Missing (BBC iPlayer), there will be a moment when the plot knits together to reveal - rough guess - an army cover-up of a paedophile abuse ring, and - another guess - a case of fake dementia from a suspected abuser. Till then, we’re left with David Morrissey’s pained murmur and the endless mysteries of Keeley Hawes’ face. More annoyingly, the limping French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) has been tested to the point of destruction. Baptiste is the only fully-developed character, everyone else being emotional responses to half-disguised tabloid horrors. He could have been the new Morse, but surviving this cryptic apocalypse, in which he bumbles to the front line in the fight against Isis while dying of cancer, may be a case too far. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Despite The Venom Of His Inner Numskulls, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror Is Tales Of The Unexpected With iPhones

Kelly Macdonald (right) is a sweary Scottish cop
It’s an odd place, the inside of Charlie Brooker’s head. Reading his journalism, or watching Screenwipe, you’d expect his inner Numskulls to be venomous, splenetic creatures, firing bile through his nostrils and sputum through his eyes. But his television series, Black Mirror (Netflix), is oddly traditional in its approach. Though the six films traverse genres, they share a point-of-view, being somewhat futuristic, and concerned with the malign influence of technology. The soldiers have a chip in their heads that make then see the enemy as horror zombies. The beautiful people rate each other on social media, so they never have to interact with the scum. The kid who fears being shamed on the internet is blackmailed, by text, into doing something unspeakable. Someone invents a system in which the most unpopular people on Twitter are killed by robot bees. (No honey from that hive mind).
The aim, as Brooker has attested, was to create something akin to The Twilight Zone, a fantasy anthology in which each episode was free to wander within the parameters of a certain worldview. Judging by the reaction on (irony alert) social media, Brooker has satisfied his audience. It’s true that Black Mirror shares with Rod Serling’s fantasy series a habit of exploiting wrinkles in normality. But the science is only a slight exaggeration of what currently exists, and the fiction in these computer game narratives seems retro, and conservative in its instincts. It is, more or less, Tales of the Unexpected, with iPhones.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Is it binge-able? Possibly, though watching a lot of this stuff can be a headnip. The final film, Hated in the Nation, in which Kelly Macdonald is a cop on the trail of the evil genius who employs those drone drones to enact Twitter revenge, is the most straightforward, and also contains the line which comes closest to summing up Brooker’s point of view. It’s not entirely publishable, and depends for its impact on the colour of Macdonald’s language. It can be found around 30 minutes from the end. “OK, OK,” Macdonald says, “the government’s a cauliflower. What are we gonna do about it?” Except she doesn’t say cauliflower. 
Anyway, the best film is Nosedive, the social media satire directed by Joe Wright and starring Bryce Dallas Howard, though it’s run close by Shut Up And Dance, a malign Challenge Anneka in  which Alex Lawther is humiliated by the webcam of his computer. Men Against Fire, which adds a technological angle to the socialisation of soldiers, is also quite effective, though it is typical of Brooker’s oeuvre; hiding its craft beneath an arc of ire which is adolescent in its purity. 
In Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (Sky On Demand/Now TV) Jude Law plays the pontiff as an irritable, vindictive bully who may not believe in God. The show has already won large audiences in Italy, and its sacrilegious elements are (slightly) diluted by the drama’s ability to wrap its absurdity in a cloak of black comedy. Law certainly has fun portraying the pope as a Cherry Coke-drinking rock star whose troubled dreams are only marginally more disturbing than his untroubled waking hours in which he challenges the culture inside the Vatican. He also refuses to be visible, suggesting the greatest artists of recent times - Salinger, Kubrick, Banksy and Daft Punk - were invisible. So he is, you know, fallible. Things perk up in episode 2, where the mafia-like struggle gets underway, and Diane Keaton - the nun who raised the dope Pope - appears wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a joke about her virginity. 

Serial Box 
In Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) the sense of hyper-reality has grown so familiar that it seems fitting when the splatter from a shooting dusts up the lens of the camera. If it’s about anything - and it may be a very elaborate parable contemplating nothingness - Westworld is a kind of existential paintball about storytelling itself. It includes the useful, western-derived phrase “to go blackhat” (play with your worst urges). The Frankenstein figure, played by Anthony Hopkins, lives in a grand house with cyborg servants, but he also like obeisance from his fleshy colleagues. The enlightened cyborgs are the most sympathetic characters, while Ed Harris’s grim desperado inhabits an ambiguous space. “This whole world is a story,” he growls. “I’ve read every page except the last one.”