Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey


Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

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We who would Valiant Read – Part 4


Valiant now has 250 issues under its belt and a stable line-up, which still includes five features from its first issue. Issue 251 is cover-dated 22 July 1967. The Summer of Love is in full swing, psychedelia and flower power are in the air, I am about to end my first year at Grammar School. All’s well in the world, for now.
Let’s remind ourselves of Valiant‘s line-up as we hit Part 4.
We continue to be 40 pages for 7d. The only colour is on the cover, offering the recent They All Laughed, But… Inside is Captain Hurricane (4½pp), The Crows (½p), The Nutts (1p) Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Operation ‘Rescue’ (1p), Legge’s Eleven (2½pp), letters page It’s All Yours (1p), The House of Dolmann (4pp), The Steel Claw (2pp), The Astounding Jason Hyde (3pp), Mytek the Mighty (2½pp), Billy Bunter (2pp), The Wild Wonders (3pp), Lords of Lilliput Island, the newest series (2pp), The Laird of Lazy Q, another new series (2pp), Tatty-Mane, King of the Jungle (1p), and Sam Sunn (1p). Sporting Roundabout (½p), which had been a feature of the comic almost since it began, was left out, but was back two weeks later. And ‘Gabby’ McGlew, His Yarns aren’t True (1½pp) was the bad penny. Even the atrocious Sporty kept coming back.

Valiant 1968

Two issues into the new instalment and The Steel Claw was struck another idiotic blow. Not content with equipping him with a superhero costume, the creators stuck him with, wait for it, a teenage sidekick, by the name of Blackie Morris, another of those handy orphans who swan around looking for father-figures to get them into extreme danger: where were Social Services, I ask you?
Looking at Lords of Lilliput Island after it had had a decent chance to impress, I’m going to repeat what I said in the last instalment: the series that are built around a situation instead of around recurring characters are vastly inferior. I can’t summon up any interest in goings on amongst the midgets and the good and bad boys on Mayo Island, none of whom have any afterlife. They aren’t conceived as characters and thus have very little of it.
Much the same could be said of The Laird of Lazy Q, which was also a one-off story, and done by issue 258 (9 September) but McGregor had got character, and he could easily be seen capable of returning in future stories, which makes this series considerably more involving. It was replaced by When Britain Froze, another situation story about… well, if you can’t guess… This was a mere 1½ pages but was unusual in its heroes being brother and sister: that’s right, a girl. The first one since Diana Dauntless.
I’ve already expressed disappointment in The House of Dolmann, which has good, strong art but little else but some of its stories veered into the horrible territory of Jerry Siegel on the later Spider, or, even worse, Gadgetman and Gimmick Kid. A villain named the Ghastly Gardener who dressed like a scarecrow and whose tools were oversized gardening equipment was so far beyond the Pale that the Pale couldn’t be seen from Jodrell Bank.
Sporting Roundabout in issue 261 (30 September) threw up another of those mini-features whose significance only arrives in retrospect, matching Bobby Charlton (41) and Jimmy Greaves (44) as the only two footballers to have scored over 30 goals for England, and wondered if one of them would be the first to score 50 goals. We know now that neither would, but who could have guessed it would take another fifty years before that landmark arrived?
Lords of Lilliput Island was progressing in the same repetitious manner that The Last Boys had, an endless series of potential advances constantly anticipated and shot down by Tug Wilson, sending everything back to zero again.
The Steel Claw’s battle against the crystalloid invaders of Earth was unworthy of the series in every respect except the continually excellent art. Blasco’s line-work was perfectly detailed and his mastery of shadow absolute, making this Valiant’s best strip by a mile.
The Xmas issue, no 273 (23 December) saw When Britain Froze expand by half a page to 2 pages, but not improve in dullness. Since it was back at its normal length for the last issue of 1967, that extra half page was clearly just a Xmas bonus…
And we moved on into 1968 with the end of Lords of Lilliput Island and the news that it was being replaced by a feature that stood a decent chance of being decent, a revival of the popular detective, Sexton Blake. When Britain Froze then put in another two page shift to spoil my little joke but its kid-heroes finally found their father who unwittingly had invented the antidote to the freezing frogs, which raised hope that that too would soon melt away. It only took two more instalments.
Sexton Blake’s debut, linked to the then-successful lTV version of his adventures that I used to watch so avidly, was promoted on the cover on issue 276 (13 January 1968). Once again, the comic’s term for it was ‘picture-story’ and once again I wonder. But this was a one-off, and They All Laughed was back a week later.
Unfortunately, Sporty was starting to appear more regularly again, and in full page stories. The strip’s biggest problem, apart of its completely predictable unfunniness, was that Reg Wootton’s art was not only ugly but looked completely out of place, a stranger from a distant decade with no correspondence to the year 1968, or indeed any year in which Valiant’s target audience had ever lived.
When Britain Froze was replaced by the first Western since The Laird of Lazy Q, in the shape of Red Kerrigan, Fighting Sheriff of Red Gulch. Unfortunately, all it took was a second’s look to spot that this was a reprint of some Fifties series, no doubt first run under a different name, and now filling space and looking wrong.
However, Kerrigan was only a short term stopgap, designed to fill a spot until issue 283 (2 February), when Valiant underwent its first ever full-scale revamp. Two long-standing stories, Legge’s Eleven and Mytek the Mighty finished, as did the unwanted Sam Sunn, and a horde of new series began. I know I’ve not said much about Mytek, but it was always a good, solid, entertaining series, with strong, if not exceptional art, and there’s just something so appealing about a 100 feet tall robot gorilla. I’d miss it.
They All Laughed ended in favour of a promo for the Red Arrow, the issue’s free gift of a plastic flyer, and would be replaced the following week by Is It True (no question mark), presenting odd incidents that the reader had to decide were true or false before page 12. Inside, it was all change. Tim Kelly and Dr Diamond’s increasingly dull time travel adventures took them to the Wild West and there were new adventures for Sexton Blake, the Wild Wonders, whose adventure looked like it was going to return to the original idea now that we were once again in an Olympic year, this time Mexico, and The Steel Claw,. Though still the art highlight of the comic, the series badly needed some better, i.e., less ridiculous storylines.

The new football series was Raven on the Wing, drawn by Tim Kelly’s creator, Francisco Solano Lopez, in which Baldy Hagan, the new manager of fading Highboro’ United, was trying to break through the Club’s high-minded chivalry by introducing a bare-footed gypsy boy with super senses into the team. Bluebottle and Basher was a new one-page cartoon about a small cop and a big crook. Little Orvy was a two-pager about a little boy’s imaginary adventures whilst learning at school. Credited to Rick Yager, it was an oddly drawn affair of highly-stylised cartoon realist art in tiny panels, and was a reprint of a short-lived American newspaper strip that had run from 1959 to 1963.
The Ironmaster seemed to be a Phantom Viking rip-off, with street kid Danny Ventor falling down a ventilation shaft, finding a load of strange gear and being transformed, in an electric shock, into an armoured gladiator, whilst The Shrinker was sinister little scientist Capek, who had invented a machine to, what else, shrink people, starting with RAF pair Squadron-Leader Flint and Sergeant Slake. This was a reprint of the series as it originally appeared in Buster, from 1962 onwards.
Finally, the new back page feature was Master Spy, the Schoolboy Secret Agent. I agree. Actually, this broke with back page tradition by being a serial, but that didn’t make it any better. At least I didn’t last more than a handful of weeks.
I began this read through with a two DVD set that only went up to 1968, but when the second disc proved to be faulty, I had to invest in a six DVD set that covers the complete run. With issue 288 (6 April), I’m moving into disc 3.
Issue 290 (20 April) seemed a good point to assess the state of Valiant and the new stories that had come in at the start of the year. Raven was the outstanding character, with a serious football story to tell, albeit through exaggerated positions and characters. Neither The Ironmaster nor The Shrinker had anything interesting abut them, whilst the new cartoons were as completely unfunny as those that had gone before them. Little Orvy had good art, and an educational aspect to it, but stood out more for how tedious everything else was than on its own slender merits.
It reminded me of reading Lion last year, and how the comic’s early, strong showing in the Sixties started to drain away in 1968, as the influence of superhero comics started to expand. The Steel Claw even offers a direct parallel to The Spider: great art, shame about the stories. There’s a sense that the comic may have peaked, and be entering into a decline. If so, I hope it will be at least gradual for some time yet.
The peripatetic Tom Kerr was now drawing Kelly’s Eye, though in a style that initially attempted to mimic Solano, but week in, week out moved closely to his own approach and linework. And time was up for Jason Hyde in issue 293 (18 May), closing his X-Ray Eyes for good.
There was good news in issue 296 (1 June) with the end of the unliked Ironmaster and the announcement of the return of Mytek the Mighty, though the fact that the enemy was the dwarfish Gogra yet again was boring: how come he kept surviving being stepped on by a gigantic robot gorilla? Meanwhile, the Sexton Blake series was getting a bit repetitious with Blake or Tinker or both of them falling through trapdoors at least every other week: did their villains not have the imagination, or perhaps not the money, to build anything else?

House of Dolmann

Dolmann continued on in the same way every week, but for at least one contemporary reader, Dolmann’s habit of throwing his voice into his puppets was growing somewhat irritating. Given that some of the little bleeders were quite openly nasty about each other, the practice grew increasingly schizophrenic, with the only interpretation that different sectors of Dolmann’s psyche were at war with each other. Or that the guy was plain nuts. Either way, it wasn’t the most mentally healthy set-up.
A new series, Voyage of No Return, arrived in issue 310 (7 September) as a replacement for Little Orvy: not so much like for like, though. Meanwhile, Raven on the Wing was going the way of all football strips: one story about football then straight into the same old nonsense about secrets and rich inheritances.
There was no need to wait nine weeks to assess Voyage of No Return: three were enough to mark it as crap. Indeed, but for the art, I’ve have assumed it to be a Fifties reprint. Perhaps it was a remake from the original scripts? The Shrinker returned to normal size in issue 312 (21 September) and made way for… Return of the Shrinker, tacking implausibility onto a weak idea with no room for development.

The new Sexton Blake adventure, starting the same week, suddenly dated Blake’s series to the 1930s, a more natural setting for him, but hardly one that had been noticeable thus far. And the villain in the new Mytek the Mighty story was… Gogra.
There was also a change of artist for the strip. The new man was another decent artist with a good and fairly detailed line but he assembled his pages in square and rectangular panels with clear gutters between them, in consequence to the other artists, the majority of whom blended their pages with overlapping dialogue bubbles, varied and angular layouts and partial or total ommission of panel borders. Mytek, in this style, felt hopelessly juvenile.
This was a period when the whole of Valiant was just jogging along, producing nothing demanding a comment positive or negative, so I find myself mentioning the issue 320 (16 November) Is It True? simply because it anticipates the plot for Jurassic Park… And despite my original assessment of its art, I’ve now come to the conclusion that Voyage of No Return, with its tiny panels and stilted dialogue, is an actual Fifties reprint, and further evidence that Eagle had the only good stuff of that decade. And a longer exposure to Sexton Blake half-convinced me that it too was reprint material, only for the length of Tinker’s sideburns.
Speaking of retreads, Sporty still kept cropping up irregularly, and even ‘Gabby’ McGlew was restored for issue 325 (21 December), just in time for Xmas (had it been in time for Easter, I’d have probably used ‘resurrected’).
Two issues later, Valiant entered 1969. Sexton Blake’s adventure with the Museum of Fear was going on longer than any of his previous stories, but only had three more instalments left. The Steel Claw’s attempts to clear his name of being a traitor were going on considerably longer, with no end in sight, especially when his quest to receive the Shadow Squad’s Code Bullets (what secret organisation worth bothering with conceals its list of agents in bullets?) were split up between three locations.
Still, the tedious Voyage of No Return reached a dull ending in issue 330 (25 January 1969), arousing hope for a better replacement. But the two-page River of Fire had the instant look of another Fifties wash-up.
And on the subject of art, there was a subtle change to that on Raven on the Wing in issue 334 (22 February) when, after one page of Solano Lopez, a new artist mimicking his style took over, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this was a return for our old friend Tom Kerr. And as a few weeks passed it became clearer and clearer that this was welcome back, Tom. As for Lopez, changing political conditions in his native Argentina had allowed him to return there from exile in 1968, though sadly not permanently, ending his association with Fleetway.
Return of the Shrinker, meanwhile, just dragged on and on through endless cliffhangers whose only point was to postpone the end of the series for another week, long past the point of any remaining interest. Even The Wild Wonders were starting to drag now, following the faceless criminal Number One around Australia without ever getting any nearer capturing him. Between this and Tim Kelly’s adventures in time, there was growing to be an air of staleness about Valiant, as though its writers had run out of new stories to devise.
At least River of Fire didn’t outstay its welcome, but its protagonist Chris Carron stuck around for a new story starting in issue 340 (5 April), Mission of Fear. This was no more enticing than Carron’s first, and underwent a radical change of art style as early as issue 342 (19 April). But Carron’s second outing only lasted until issue 346 (17 May), when it gave way to something that was at least different.
Return of the Shrinker saw Capek finally defeated in issue 343 (26 April), but, dismally, the editor saw no reason to end the series just because it was repetitious and the Shrinker re-returned for another adventure the following week, this time intent on shrinking people for The Shrinker’s Revenge. This was ridiculous. Valiant was providing far too many parallels to Lion‘s progression into doing the same thing over and over again.
The new story was a sports series, The Secret Champion, starring sports-mad, but sports-incompetent Mark Keen. Keen couldn’t play for toffee, so he became a sports reporter. He also became some ludicrous whiting out in captions since the series was blatantly a repeat whose original hero clearly had a longer name. But on assignment overseas Mark accidentally released a 2,000 year old Roman gladiator, Marcus Canus Brittanicus, a long dead ancestor, who swore to watch over him.
There’s not enough time to assess that one properly, though it looks initially like another deadbeat idea, for with 14 June 1969, Valiant hit its 350th issue, almost half its long run. This section has now run 100 issues, and it’s time for a breather.

The Infinite Jukebox: Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’


Once upon a time, I fell in love. Of itself, this wasn’t necessarily an unusual thing but what made this unique was that, for the first time, she had fallen for me. And before I’d done been smitten.
She was a very private person so, even now, over twenty years since the last time I saw her, I’m not going to give her name, nor any personal details. Loving and being loved was a new experience, and a formative one. For the first time, I had somebody to whom I was responsible, for whom I had to be strong. That experience changed me out of all recognition.
I was very into music, and it was inevitable that I would play loads and loads of it at her. The first day, I gave her a lift home after work and automatically shoved the cassette into the player when I started the car. The tape was of REM, Document, and I can still remember the eagerness in her voice when she turned to me and said. “You do know you’ve got some great music here!”
With some exceptions, it was me playing music to her and she revelling in all the new things she heard off me. Not everything, of course, and there was some feedback in the other direction: given her heritage, I started appreciating The Chieftains a bit more, though I had seen them in concert less than a decade previously: my second Chieftains gig was one of our first formal ‘dates’.
As we drifted further apart, in later years, our tastes diverged. She got heavily into Maria Carey, which was not something we were ever going to share. Sadly, given that our first musical bonding was over REM, I never got to take her to see them, but we did share a 10,000 Maniacs concert, which she loved to bits, and loved the band even more than she did REM. There was a second gig a year later, but the date coincided with something family, and family always came first with her, and no matter how close we were, one thing I was not and never would be was family.
Sometimes, music is pure, unadulterated nostalgia. ‘Wonderful Life’ reminds me of her, first and last and always, because she loved it. It’s rich, romantic sound, it’s easy, smooth chorus, Colin Vearncombe’s singing. I loved the song, but not as much as she did. Now, though, it is indelibly associated with her, whenever I hear it she is in my head, and all that we did to change each other’s lives.
The odd thing is that it was more her song than mine, but my love for it persisted, and hers waned, until putting it on on a pub jukebox for her produced only indifference, as indeed did I. So it’s a memory of her for that reason too. She changed her opinions about a lot of things in those last few, sporadic years, and we never got to discuss what led to that, about any of them. One day, she put the phone down on me, and that was it. We spoke together, on the phone again, only once, years later.
But ‘Wonderful Life’ has us both in it. It is a talisman into which we vested what was best and finest about our time together, so it is both light and shade to me. Like the stone axe in Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Jan’s ‘Bunty’, it is something real. Except that it cannot be taken away and hidden in a museum.
Does she remember me when she hears it? Does she still remain to hear it? She was older than me, and I no longer have any idea if she is alive. But as long as I have ears for this song, she will always be alive, and everything that was sad and bad and destroyed no longer exists, only our love and our passion. When things were good, when they were right, it was indeed a Wonderful Life, and I owe poor Colin Vearncombe, who is no longer with us, a debt for encapsulating what was in his song.
And sometimes I cry like a baby for what never will be again.

Lou Grant: s02 e05 – Murder


There’s a killer on the street…

I’ve said before that Lou Grant is ‘impeccably liberal’, meaning that it associates itself with liberal points of view, and positions itself on the worthy side of every argument, especially in an era where various underdogs needed to have a voice raised for them. Since this is a view point with which I have every sympathy, I enjoy the show. Most of the time, it manages to be just short of heavy-handed in making its points, some of which derives from the strong, well-characterised and familar cast. Some might argue that this splits the focus, detracts from the real point of the story, which is to show the underlying injustice of life, if we are only seeing it through the filter of Lou, Rossi or Billie. I’d argue that the framework of the cast keeps the story from being too ‘issue’-oriented, and grounds it in real life.

That kind of stabilty was threatened by episode 5 of the second series, which revolved around two crimes, one of them murder.

In the long opening sequence, we see a young woman, a mother, going about her business, a man looming, threatening,  chasing and ultimately breaking down her apartment door. The killing, which remains unseen or undetailed, is evidently brutal and nasty. Billie, picking up the report, sees her story rduced to one paragraph on page 26.

In contrast, Rossi covers the story of an older woman who, having surprised burglars in her property, drives them off with a golf club. She gets page 1. It’s not just that Mrs Walker’s story is ‘feelgood’ and Marla Evans’ is downbeat. Mrs Walker is rich and white, Marla was poor and black.

The contrast is self evident. It’s in your face and the show does everything to telegraph that, without actually going so far as to state it out loud, not that it can resist edging near to that step. One’s a comedy, the other a tragedy, as Billie builds up a picture of a thoughtful, intelligent, combative young woman, against the somewhat self-centred old moneybags who is enjoying being the centre of attention, so much so that at one point I was wondering if we were going to discover the robbery never took place, and she had made it up for the public recognition it got her.

Ultimately, the show’s biggest failure was in its ending. Mrs Walker’s case ended with a Police stake-out that, far too easily, captures thegang, only for Rossi’s story to be shunted inside because Mrs Walker has outlived her welcome (one point at least where the show practiced subtlety), and Marla’s story, after a genuinely moving tribute paid by her Pastor at her funeral, was rounded out by having her killer caught in a manner that spurred the witness who’d kept her mouth shut for fear of retaliation now come forward to point the finger at him. That was too comfy, too cozy.

Not, therefore, the seris’ greatest ever, the heart on its sleeve playing more of a part than professional television writing. But, as I had occasion to say multiple times whilst watching Deep Space Nine, we don’t know how much of that can be attributed to the demands of writing weekly Network TV, as opposed to letting your emotions get the better of you.

Worrthy is indeed the best word for this episode, but the nature of the story itself called for something a bit more grounded than worthiness.

The Last *Last* Eagle


About two years ago, I celebrated buying the last issue of the classic Eagle comic that I needed to build the collection I had long dreamed of. And how it was incomplete, missing the centre sheet.

When I set out to read Eagle in chronological order, I also started a list of those that were imcomplete, or badly damaged, or in just too poor a condition. There were about two dozen or slightly more of them.

Today, I have replaced the last of them, ironically from the same seller as last time. Volume 11, no. 1, whole, intact, complete. As is my collection.

What am I going to do now?

Person of Interest: s02 e04 – Triggerman


Love in the Mob

I was looking for a simple episode of Person of Interest to accommodate a need for simple thoughts and, so far as any such episode may be regarded as simple, I was rewarded. We’re still early in season 2, the calm after the storm of Finch’s kidnapping, here linked in the still extant concerns Finch has about going outside the Library, and his adopting Root’s definition of humanity as Bade Code, to refer to the Number of theWeek, Riley Cavanaugh.

The episode begins in media res. Reese is observing Cavanaugh (guest appearance by Jonathan Tucker). The Number is a stone-cold killer, an enforcer for the relatively small-time mob boss George Massey (Kevin Conway). He’s an obvious choice for a perpetrator, but in this instance he’s a victim: Massey suspects him of omething he doesn’t like, and sends his son Eddie to kill Riley.

And also to kill Annie Delaney (Liza J Bennett). Annie’s the hostess in an upmarket restaurant that pays to George. She seems to have attracted George’s attention, probably because she’s an attractive wide-mouthed dark-haired woman. She’s also the widow of one of George’s men, Sean, killed nine months ago. Annie had a lot higher opinion of her late husband thatGeorge appears to (‘degenerate gambler’) but then George is a man of firm opinions, all of them centred on the gratitude and respect due to him for, well, for being George essentially. He sends Riley to make any disappear and Eddie to make Riley disappear.

This is because Riley and Annie have fallen in love, and he is protecing her, and the two of them having the lack of respect to not tell George, when they know George has a thing for her, which is an affront that a petty tyrant like George cannot take. George, George, George, George, the man cannot have his ego flattered enough.

Once the tide turns, and Riley kills Eddie before Eddie can kill him, Reese has to protect a killer. Finch is not sympathetic and neither is Carter. Both see only the callous killer, and who’s to say they’re wrong? John Reese sees other things. He sees Annie, the innocent dragged into this, not a Number herself (why didn’t the Machine pick up both? A logical slip overlooked for the sake of the story), but who needs to be protected. He sees that Riley is, truly, in love with Annie, who brings out that spark of decency in the triggerman, for no-one is simply one thing, and we are all multitudes. And he sees the trained killer with the eye of a trained killer: John and Riley may be chalk and cheese, but they will understand each other better than any outsider can understand either.

But this is too simple for Person of Interest: there is a twist. Sean Delaney wasn’t killed for getting caught in Russian Mob territory, he was stealing, and he was stealing from George, simming off the take. George had him killed, and it set-up to look like the Russians. The killer was Riley.

He was supposed to keep an eye on Annie, told her to call him if she needed anything. He was reliable (if useless with water-heaters!), he never let her down. The outcome was inevitable. Riley has never told her he killed her husband.

And he never intended to get out with her. Despite her refusal to leave him, Sean always meant to send her alone. He knew what he was – the Bad Code that Finch calls him – but she was the best thing ever to happen to him. So the ending was inevitable: Annie is taken to George, who’s on the point of telling her Riley’s secret when the triggerman and Reese, now working together, conduct a raid. Shots come from all directions. Reese gets Annie out. Riley doesn’t make it. But he kills George: Father like son.

At the end, Reese queries Finch’s use of the term Bad Code. Without disclosing that it came from Root, Finch repeats its definition in computer terms but says it doesn’tapply to humans: humans can change, can grow, can repair themselves. The reference to Riley is clear.

This was an almost entirely self-contained episode, in regards to the deeper concerns that have been building up over the last few episodes, but there were a couple of returns, layiing trails for what is to come. The first of these was Detective Szymanski (Michael McGlone), returned to duty after being gut-shot last season.

But of greater significance was the appearance in the guest star list of Enrico Colantoni, of Carl Elias. George has put a bounty out on Riley and Annie, Finch (as Harold Crane) visits him in prison to request a favour. Elias might be in prison but he retains control of his empire. He’s intrigued to meet John’s ‘boss’. He puts the word out, but there is a price. Elias has had the need for possessions and material things stripped from him. He has timeto think. He plays chess, but no-one in prison can give him a good game. Harold ‘Crane’ can…

Film 2019: The Red Shoes


I’ve stayed with the Powell/Pressburger box set for a second week for two reasons. The first is that this is a working Sunday, which means I wanted something familiar, a known quantity. The other is that this is the biggest box set in my collection, with as many films as four of the other six put together, and if I just watch one every few weeks, there’s going to be a long series of these films at the end.

The Red Shoes is a classic British film, released in 1948, and starring Archers regular Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and ballerina Moira Shearer in her first acting role. It’s a film about ballet, for which The Archers effectively created their own ballet company, choosing rightly to cast dancers who could act rather than actors, and incorporating an uninterrupted fifteen minute ballet, composedand choreographed for the film, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’ – as is the film, naturally.

I’m in no position to comment on the ballet elements of this film because I’m a complete ignoramus in this sphere, a true don’t-know-art-but-I-know-what-I-like. Better people than I have praised the film in this regard (and dismissed it contemptuously) and I’m happy to go with their interpretation.

The three principals are Boris Lermontov, Director of a ballet company (Walbrook), Julian Craster, a gifted musician and composer (Goring)and Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page, a dancer with the capability to be a great dancer (Shearer). The latter is the girl in the Red Shoes, both in terms of the ballet and in her own life, and though Shearer is by a distance the weakest actor in the production, the story centres upon her.

Lermontov – based primarily upon Sergei Diagheliv with elements of J Arthur Rank and Michael Powell himself – is the consummate artiste. He lives for dance, eschews what we would call human emotions, and is contemptuous of those who dilute their potential or their achievement by falling in love: dictatorially, he will sever relations with them instantly.

Lermontov is the incarnation of Cyril Connolly’s ‘Pram in the Hallway’ belief. Dance is his life, and no other considerations must be allowed to divert even the tiniest fraction of commitment to that. And he will not tolerate those who do that.

Which is going to be the cae with both Julian and, especially, Vicky.

It’s a long time in coming. The film takes a realistic amount of time to building this pair up as the different yet parallel successes they are going to be. Julian, a more forceful personality, more convinced of his own genius, is the dominant element in this act of the film: he starts as a music student whose Professor has stolen his work, is offered a lowly musiiical role with Ballet Lermontov and progressing to rescoring ballets and then the composition of the music of the Red Shoes Ballet.

Because of Shearer’s limitations, which the film works around brilliantly (though not unnoticeably), limiting the number of lines she has, and using her as a still point, a point of silence around which things happen, Vicky’s progress is quieter but more determined. She believes in herself and her abilities but, paradoxically, lack’s Julian’s overt confidence in that talent. Only in the ballet senes does Shearer truly come alive, and she is dynamite: passionate, emotive, tireless, dominating the screen.

The inevitable happens: Vicky and Julian fall in love. It comes out of the background, with no open signs to the audience, who are put in the same position as Lermontov, to whom it is no mere surprise but a shock, a shock that threatens to overturn his plans. Julian is fired. Unable to persuade Lermontov to rescind this decree, Vicky quits.

Some critics see this development as springing from Lermontov developing personal feelings for Vicky, and given the sequence of events, it’s a distinct point. I can only say that I have never felt it in the film. Part of it may be from the fact that Walbrook was gay (but so too was Goring), but the careful and complete portrait of him created by the film at every point means that I can only see his interest in Vicky as being her potential ability, and the possibilities of developing that further than any other dancer he has worked with: Svengali instead of lover or husband. Goring is far more convincing as someone wanting to spend his life with Vicky. There is a beautifully touching scene as the pair cuddle in the early hours, in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, moonlight on the Mediterranean Sea, and Julian drifts into the future, imagining an eager and beautiful young women asking him what was his happiest moment…

But this is not just a film about ballet, but rather a film about obsession, and ability, and the drawing of lines, and besides the tragedy of the Red Shoes must be played out. Vicky accompanies her Aunt on a holiday in the Med whilst Julian supervises the First Night of his Opera. Lermontov finds her, draws her back to dance ‘her’ ballet, TheRed Shoes. Julian arrives from London to take her home. He and Lermontov blaze at each other over Vicky’s future. As I said before, Lermontov is concerned with Vicky the Dancer, Julian with Vicky the Woman. His is the deeper, more holistic love, but Vicky is the Dancer and the Red Shoes cannot beremoved whilst there is dancing to be done. Julian accepts his defeat gracefully, unable to move outside his love for Vicky, whilst Lermontov is only triumphant.

Vicky is wearing the Red Shoes. It’s an intentional inconsistency, a moment of artistic unity, not chronological accuracy. Crippled, broken by her loss, by the destruction caused by having to choose at all, Vicky is drawn away by the Shoes: down the stairs, out of the theatre, across the road, and with Julian running with hopeless desperation to stop her, she makes the only choice that is entirely hers to make, and throws herself under the train.

Oh yes, it’s melodrama, but ballet is melodrama, the elevation of feelings and urgencies into emotion that cannot be contained, and so Vicky’s sacrifice is entireky in keeping with the film. The Red Shoes Ballet is danced with an empty spotlight highlighting all the moves Vicky can no longer make. Her last, dying request to Julian is that he undo the Red Shoes, returning herself to him for a final moment.

Though I barely understand half the film, I am absorbed by it. Walbrook and Goring are sensational and so, in her very undetstated way, is Shearer. The film makes not merely a virtue but a triumph of her limitations, relying on her still presence in scenes to create a sense of effect on the other players. She is entirely at home in the dance and in everything that relates to the dance, and of course her fellow dancers, and it is of immense help that, even when stood still, Shearer has the capacity to dominate a scenewith her flaming red hair, her slim physique, her long, pale legs. Though perhaps a little too round in the face for classical beauty, this adds an individuality to her appearance that completes a stunning picture.

In the end, I return to that theme of obsession, of ability, and how or even if this can be reconciled with the massive distraction that is love for someone else. The Archers step back, offer no definitive solution. In their differing ways, Boris Lermotov, Julian Craster and Victoria Page are all destroyed by their inability to find that solution. Modern opinion will find it misogynistic that it is the woman who is singled out for physical destruction, but would you want to be either of Lermontov or Julian afterwards?