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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

It was suggested that I come up with some kind of contribution on the topic of ‘public art’ for a forthcoming themed issue of the webzine I contribute to. Once I’d found out what that meant and done some googling, it turned out that there are a few films on this subject, mostly documentaries, but for the most part access to them is restricted, either by geography or a paywall. Maybe this is the future of cinema right here: if, as people are seriously suggesting, physical cinemas will no longer be financially viable in the post-pandemic world, then everything is going to depend on where you live and which streaming services you can afford to subscribe to. At which point I think I will simply just throw in the towel and just stick to watching moronic game shows and TV series from fifty years ago.

Thankfully, that awful day is still a few months away, and in the meantime there are still a few relatively free streamers available: mostly those tied to TV networks, which just means you have to endure them stopping the film now and then while they try to sell you things you can’t really afford any more and never needed in the first place. One of them turned out to be showing The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund (O with two dots over it), an artist whose career has had some ups and downs: The Square won the top prize at Cannes, but on the other hand his previous film, Force Majeure, suffered the indignity of an American remake starring Will Ferrell. So it goes sometimes.

The Square takes place in and around a Stockholm art museum, curated by the suave and thoughtful Christian (Claes Bang). He is something of a public figure around town, and the museum is hosting a number of prestigious shows and installations, including a man pretending to be an ape (Terry Notary) and the ground-breaking ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.

All is well in Christian’s world until he sees a young woman begging for help while he is on the way to work one morning: naturally, his decent and humane instincts lead to him being dragged into a scene with her, her violent ex, and another stranger. Everything seems to resolve itself quite peacefully, but then he is horrified to discover it was all a set up and he has been mugged.

This preys rather on Christian’s mind, as you might expect, and somewhat takes his mind off preparations for a new installation called ‘The Square’, which apparently symbolises compassion and shared humanity. Then, one of his staff is able to trace the location of the stolen phone to a nearby tower block, and rather than face a confrontation, Christian decides to send a letter demanding the return of his property to every single flat.

You know this is not going to end well, but exactly how it all goes wrong is not quite so easy to guess. The general thesis of the film is much easier to discern, though, as it’s not presented with particular subtlety: one scene shows a charity worker in a busy street asking the passers-by to ‘Save a human life’, the irony being that she herself seems completely oblivious to the plight of the various homeless people around her. Most of the film is a series of extended riffs on the same idea: characters make a big deal about how decent, humane, refined and liberal they are, but then their actual behaviour suggests they are rather more petty and self-serving.

There are also a number of pretty good gags about the absurdity of the contemporary art and culture world: at one point part of one of the piles of gravel is accidentally hoovered up, forcing Christian to get some fresh gravel and recreate the pile using old photos as a model. (The Duchampian question of what this says about the nature of art is left implicit.) The hip young social media gurus the gallery hires to drum up publicity for The Square come up with a video which is ridiculously offensive and inappropriate, but still somehow entirely credible.

Elsewhere the film perhaps acts as a reminder that satire and comedy are not always the same thing. In one of the film’s big set pieces (and the one depicted in most of the publicity), the artist pretending to be an ape runs amok at a dinner, which is initially greeted with indulgent laughter from the attendees, but eventually results in an angry mob delivering a beating. It’s oddly uncomfortable and unsettling to watch, as are the various scenes where Christian is given a hard time by a young boy who is suffering as a result of his non-confrontational approach to dealing with the muggers.

In the end, if this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of manners and social awkwardness, although one taking place in a milieu that was unfamiliar to me, at least: there’s a scene in which Christian and Anne (Elizabeth Moss), a journalist he hooks up with, have a protracted row over who should be allowed to dispose of the used contraceptive. Another depicts a visiting artist (Dominic West) attempting to give an interview in front of an audience which contains a man with Tourette’s syndrome: it’s all very low-key and naturalistic, but still somehow squirm-inducing. (Apparently this is one of several sequences in the film based on real events; another touch of verisimilitude which led to problems is that The Square is ascribed to real-life artist Lola Arias – there was a dispute over whether she actually gave her permission to be used.)

You know, reading all this back I’m making The Square sound like a solid, thoughtful, intelligent film, a worthy Palm D’Or winner. Maybe it is – Bang’s performance is a fine one (he has since become rather better known in the UK after appearing in the BBC’s Dracula), and it is clearly not one of those films which has just been slapped together. However, as with Force Majeure, I found a lot of it to be so understated, deadpan and slow that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The problem is compounded here by the fact The Square is nearly two and a half hours long. I’m not saying it sprawls, but I did find it very hard work and in the end watched it, effectively, as a mini-series of three episodes, which isn’t something I normally consider doing. After all that, would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It almost seems more interested in its own austere and careful style than in actually making its points effectively and entertainingly. It actually comes across as slightly pretentious, which for a film aspiring to satirise pretentiousness is not a good direction to go on. It’s okay, but I would be wary of giving a more enthusiastic endorsement.

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It is an odd coincidence, to say the least, that one of the world’s leading streaming sites chooses to release a movie about the Eurovision Song Context in the first year since the ESC’s inception that it hasn’t actually been run. Whether or not David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a worthy substitute for the actual show will probably depend on what you think of it – always assuming you’re the kind of person who actually feels the absence of Eurovision in your life.

But hey, let us not forget: people from all over the world read this blog (and are left equally unimpressed) and it may just be possible that you don’t actually know what the Eurovision Song Contest is. Hmmm. Well, born out of a desire to increase international amity and prevent another war, Eurovision marks the one night of the year when the nations of Europe (or at least those who belong to the European Broadcasting Union, which includes some definite outliers when it comes to what ‘European’ actually means) come together and… sing songs to each other. First comes the best bit: the songs. Six people max on stage, no politics, any language is permissible, and your singer doesn’t actually have to be a native of the nation they’re representing: hence Celine Dion turning out for Switzerland in 1988. Then comes the other best bit: the voting. An international snake-pit of bias and partiality, a mixture of total predictability and wildly random choices. One year Norway won with an instrumental. Another, Finland entered a heavy metal band dressed as Orcs with exploding guitars and won by a record margin. There are even rumours that the UK may have won at some point, back in the mists of antiquity. It’s totally absurd and (yet?) strangely wonderful.

For the wider world, of course, Eurovision’s most famous alumni are ABBA, who won the contest in 1974. The movie opens on this night, with the people of the small Icelandic town of Husavik gathering to watch the show, although recently-widowed local eminence Erick Erickssong (Pierce Brosnan) is rather disapproving. However, the sound of Bjorn and the others is enough to lift the spirits of his son Lars, and sparks a life-long love of the contest.

Forty-something years later, Lars (Will Ferrell) is the town’s parking attendant by day, and an aspiring musician by night, part of the duo Fire Saga with his friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), whom he’s pretty sure is not his sister. His father still seems consumed by contempt for him, though. Will all this change when opportunity knocks, and – through a fairly unlikely series of events – Fire Saga are given the opportunity to go to Edinburgh to represent Iceland at Eurovision? Will his father come to respect him? Will Lars come to recognise his true feelings for Sigrit? Will Iceland’s moment of Eurovision glory finally arrive?

Perhaps I have already given you a clue as what one of the major issues with Fire Saga (not typing that title out in full every time) is: once you strip away all the Eurovision-themed gags and other material, what you are left with is a fairly predictable story of ridiculous underdogs coming good coupled to that of, well, a couple beginning their coupling. Eurovision is largely a backdrop.

Not entirely, however, but the problem here is possibly a UK-specific one. Over twenty years ago the makers of the sitcom Father Ted did a brilliant spoof of Eurovision in one of their episodes. I’m not saying that Fire Saga is knowingly ripping this episode off. I’m just saying the two have suspiciously similar stretches of plot in key areas.

I mean, it’s obvious that Ferrell (who also co-produced and co-wrote, along with Andrew Steele) has done his homework when it comes to Eurovision, which his Swedish wife apparently introduced him to – there are lots of little gags and references to reward devotees of the contest. A group looking suspiciously like the Finnish Orcs briefly appears, as does Demi Lovato as a character with authentic Euro-hair and Euro-cleavage. Dan Stevens turns up as a slick and rather metrosexual Russian entrant; Melissanthi Mahut appears as a cat-suited Greek singer presumably based on Eleni Foureira. They even work in a sequence with Will Ferrell running in a giant hamster wheel. It goes beyond affectionate spoof, though, and things take on a rather smug and self-congratulatory tone with a lengthy sequence where various Eurovision celebs from recent years turn up and sing a medley together – the one who looks like a Swedish Claudia Winkleman crops up, as does the Israeli chicken woman, the Russian chap with the violin, and so on. Is the movie sending Eurovision up or not? It’s hard to tell: the fact that contest director Jon Ola Sand is one of its executive producers suggests  this was never on the agenda. (Even so, the movie gets enough Euro-specifics wrong to annoy actual fans of the contest (I would expect) – if Edinburgh is hosting the show, why are the presenters from eastern Europe? Why is Graham Norton commentating on a semi-final? Why is the voting procedure different?)

On the other hand, I can imagine the entire population of Iceland (that’s nearly 365,000 people) getting justifiably cross with the way their country is depicted as being bankrupt, saddled with a mind-set out of the dark ages, and populated largely by fish-obsessed drunks whose idea of culture is singing along to a song called ‘Yah Yah Ding Dong’. There’s even what seems to be a joke about the Icelandic nation being inbred, though this may just be a different joke that isn’t put across very well.

The ultimate problem with this is that it mostly isn’t actually funny. It’s not a complete desert of mirth, because there are a few funny moments: Pierce Brosnan knows how to handle himself in a comedy (though he’s not permitted to sing), and there’s a very funny cameo from Nadja the Vampire as Fire Saga’s choreographer. Rachel McAdams is also rather better than the script deserves; she is a very capable comic performer and it would be nice to see her get the chance to carry a movie. Here, however, she is saddled with Will Ferrell. (I should also say – and it has taken a few days for this to become apparent – that Husavik, the song McAdams mimes to at the climax (actual vocal by Swedish popstrel Molly Sanden), is one of the genuine musical highlights of the year.)

Now, if we’re talking about bad Will Ferrell comedies, Fire Saga is not as bad as Holmes and Watson, but then you can say the same about a mild case of gangrene. The thing is that Ferrell’s particular style of knowingly ironic stupidity coupled with so-so slapstick has lost most of its freshness. You can see him working hard to find some laughs throughout the movie. But they elude him almost completely.

Compounding this problem is the way in which Fire Saga most accurately captures the Eurovision experience, by seeming to go on forever. A brisk ninety-five minutes is about right for this kind of film – an hour and three quarters at the absolute most. This one goes on for over two hours, and by the end I was feeling every minute of that time.

What are Americans doing making a movie about Eurovision, anyway? The tone is almost patronising, the suggestion that Eurovision is somehow inherently silly. Well – all right, it is, but this film misses the point, which is that something so self-confidently mad really can play a role in bringing the world together. Not having Eurovision this year was one of the genuine (if minor) tragedies of the pandemic. This movie is no substitute: it will not stop you missing Eurovision. If anything, it will make you miss it (ooh ah) a little bit more.

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Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.

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It wasn’t very often that Sagacious Dave, ursine chief of Advanced Self-Erudition at my last-but-two place of work, would venture to recommend a movie or TV show to me. Perhaps, given my part in taking him along to not one but two Jason Statham movies, he just felt it was difficult to make a suggestion of equivalent magnitude or quality. I don’t know. Pretty much the only things I remember him giving the thumbs up were a Ken Burns documentary series – possibly the one on the Vietnam War, I can’t be sure – and What We Do in the Shadows, which he said was very funny.

I made polite noises and never bothered to watch it. Looking back I am trying to remember why this was. Partly because it would probably have involved iPlayering the whole thing, which I only do in exceptional circumstances, but also, I suspect, because it was about vampires, which – despite my many-decades love of Hammer Films, the fact that the only fan letter I’ve ever written was to Kim Newman for Anno Dracula, and the huge pile of Vampire: The Masquerade RPG supplements in my storage unit – I am actually a little bit sick of vampires, post-Twilight. Vampires have got a bit dull and anaemic; I would quote Mr Newman’s line about vampires being to horror what Star Trek is to SF, but for the fact that I obviously do still rather like Star Trek.

However, everything has stopped, we are seemingly becalmed in this half-locked-down netherworld, and sooner or later I expect I will end up watching everything I can lay my hands on, if the electricity or my money doesn’t run out first. Thus I found myself giving my attention to What We Do in the Shadows, although it suddenly occurs to me that Sagacious Dave was probably recommending the TV sitcom, not the movie it was originally based on. Oh well!

The movie was made in 2014 and written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Both of these guys have had pretty respectable careers, one way or another, but Waititi’s has suddenly gone thermonuclear since he began his association with Marvel Studios (younger readers, ask your parents: back in the Old World they made many popular films), effortlessly transitioning from this to the acclaimed Jojo Rabbit from… good heavens, was it only the start of this year?

The premise and conceit of the movie is quickly made clear: this is a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in present-day Wellington, New Zealand. It seems they are there because the former lover of one of them, Viago (Waititi) emigrated to NZ and he decided to follow her there, taking the others with him. Viago is nearly 400 years old and a bit of a prissy fop; living with him are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was turned in the 19th century and is a bit of a rebel; Vlad (Clement), who was known in mediaeval times as ‘Vladislav the Poker’ and is an insane pervert; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is 8,000 years old, somewhat atavistic, and tends to keep to himself.

The film follows the vampires through the months leading up to the main event on the social calendar of Wellington’s unexpectedly extensive undead population: the Unholy Masquerade! The status quo is thrown rather out of whack when one of their intended victims, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), ends up being transformed into a new vampire by accident, leading to a fierce rivalry between him and Deacon and tragedy for the household (sort of). Meanwhile Viago pines over his former love (now a nonagenarian in a nursing home) and Vlad broods over his long-standing feud with his nemesis, a vampire known as ‘the Beast’…

It’s kind of implicit in the premise of the film that this is a spoof, not just of vampire movies but of the fly-on-the-wall documentary too, for there is something immensely silly about the whole notion of the film. The opening moments of the movie do nothing to dispel this: an alarm clock goes off, a hand emerges from a coffin to switch it off, and then Waititi very cautiously makes his way to the curtains to ensure the sun has indeed gone down. A mostly ridiculous ‘house meeting’ ensues in which it turns out that the vampire entrusted with doing the washing-up has been a bit remiss in carrying out his chores… for the last five years. It’s a very funny scene, and the performances by the ensemble are uniformly excellent and well-pitched, but I did find myself wondering just how they were going to sustain the film even for a relatively brief 85 minutes or so.

Well, the film continues to send up documentaries and reality TV shows (a scene where two very laid-back and matter-of-fact local cops have a look round the house is one of the highlights), but what makes the film really succeed is the fact that it isn’t just being played for laughs – there is still a real (if slightly odd) sense in which this is a bona fide horror movie. Partly this is due to the fact that it doesn’t skimp on the fake blood, but there are characters who really do get killed, and the pathos of some of the characters’ situations is handled relatively seriously. It has to be said, though, that these are really just grace notes in what is still essentially a send-up, but one of notable scope and intelligence.

Essentially, the good gags keep on coming: the visit from the cops, various encounters with an unusually well-mannered pack of lycanthropes (‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’), cheery spoofs of various aspects of vampire lore and other movies in this genre (Clement is basically doing an extended parody of Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula in the 1993 adaptation), and so on. It is all well-played and well put-together, and is another demonstration of how even a low-budget movie can include very polished special effects these days.

I enjoyed it all rather lot: I wasn’t exactly rolling off the bed laughing throughout, but it’s clever and engaging and does have that unexpected edge of darkness that makes it just a little bit more interesting than would otherwise have been the case. Possibly this may go down in history as an early stepping stone in the irresistible rise of Taika Waititi, but it’s a fun and enjoyable film in its own right.

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As I have noted in the past, one of the few reassuring universal truths is that nobody is brilliant at everything, and even those who are brilliant at something are almost never brilliant at it all the time. This surely comes as a great reassurance to those of us who are never especially brilliant at anything, at any time. It can still be a bit disconcerting, however, to come across an instance of someone who is usually reliably brilliant – this piece is not scoring highly so far for its range of vocabulary – turning in subpar work.

Still, it happens. It would almost be invidious, and certainly unacceptably negative, to give too many examples, and so I shall just move briskly on to our main topic for the day, and the source of this observation, which is Pedro Almodovar’s 1989 movie Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (title en Espanol: ¡Átame!).

Now, as regular readers will know, in the course of the last year I have gone from having only a vague awareness of Almodovar’s work to becoming a bit of an enthusiast, and I feel like I am starting to get a feeling for the kind of general trajectory of his career: a gradual increase in the sophistication and confidence throughout the 1980s films, followed by the imperial phase movies of the late 90s and early 2000s – then perhaps a little bit of a wobble, before consolidation in his current position as one of the most respected names in world cinema.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a film which doesn’t really fit into this pattern, simply because it’s not very good. It did, however, lead me to contemplate what it is we mean when we talk about good and bad movies. Certainly it is a more polished and coherent movie than, say, Dark Habits, and the key roles are better acted. And yet I find it to be a poorer film. Perhaps the key difference is between weakness of conception and weakness of execution – I find the latter easier to forgive than the former.

The movie opens with a young man named Ricky (Antonio Banderas) being released from a psychiatric institution, which the director clearly finds rather distressing as she is much taken with the lad: there is a note of over-the-top campness here which suggests a much broader film than this actually turns out to be. His first act upon getting out is to find some chocolates and track down the location of a young actress named Marina (Victoria Abril), with whom he had a one-night stand some time earlier.

She is coming to the end of making a horror movie for wheelchair-bound director Max Espejo (Francisco Rabal) – there is possibly an attempt to suggest this is a Spanish take on an Argento-style giallo movie – and looking forward to a break. However, she is nevertheless pounced upon by Ricky when she returns to her apartment, tied up and informed that he will keep her like this until she does the sensible thing and falls in love with him as completely as he is devoted to her…

Looking back upon my life, I now realise that the key factor responsible for my lack of romantic success in my younger years was my ASD, but second to that was probably my deeply misguided belief that copying Roger Moore’s lady-killing moves from his James Bond films would naturally lead to similar results. I can only be grateful that things didn’t get any worse, as they might well have done if, rather than the Bond series, I had taken my cues from films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and other films from what I can only describe as the ‘coercive romance’ subgenre.

By this I mean movies where the male character contrives to put himself in a very controlling position with regard to the female character, but she falls in love with him anyway. Sounds pretty niche and unpleasant, right? Presumably pitched as a wish-fulfilment exercise for a certain kind of male viewer with limited social skills? Well, you might think so, but that’s a pretty good description of the premise of Passengers, which I have seen some women favourably compare to the much more conventional romance Titanic. It’s far from the only film based on the same idea: namely, that women will forgive a man anything as long as his devotion to (or, to put it another way, obsession with) her is strong enough. Is there another trope which makes it quite so clear that the film industry is still largely run by and for men?

It’s still a bit disconcerting to find Almodovar’s name on a film based around such a dubious central idea, but I can imagine how a worthwhile (if still inevitably provocative) film on the topic could be attempted – but it would have to be in part a spoof or deconstruction of the whole notion of coercive romance, perhaps demanding the kind of ironic sensibility and knowing playfulness Almodovar often employs so well. Unfortunately, this is one of his films where these qualities are much less in evidence: the central relationship is handled very ‘straight’, and the film-within-the-film is meant to be a commentary on the story, this is handled with much too light a touch (there’s a line suggesting romances and horror stories are sometimes indistinguishable).

And, crucially, it just doesn’t convince. Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril are both very capable and charismatic performers, but the key moment of the film – when Marina submits to her growing attraction to Ricky – feels sudden and unwarranted. Normally Almodovar makes a virtue of the melodramatic nature of his stories, and the outrageous plotting, but here it doesn’t work: they don’t feel like a natural part of the film’s ethos, but something limited to just this one scene in order to make the film function as a romance.

Compounding the problem is the way that Almodovar concentrates on the central relationship quite strongly, with the result that many other potentially interesting characters and ideas are shuffled off to the fringes of the film – Rabal’s character is an interesting one, as is Marina’s sister (played by Loles Leon), but neither of them get very much to do. This feels like one of the director’s more straightforward films, in terms of its thesis – all the usual unconventionality seems to have been converted into the weirdness of the central relationship, although this is still unusually graphic for what’s theoretically a romance: a graphic sex scene, a couple of scenes with people on the toilet, and a startling moment where Marina finds a new use for a bath toy all conspired (it is suggested) to ensure Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! got an X certificate on its initial American release (something usually reserved for actual pornography).

Maybe they had a point, I don’t know. Perhaps I am letting the fact that I find the idea at the centre of this film objectionable colour my opinion of it too much. Maybe it is possible that by insanely kidnapping a woman, threatening to kill her, and keeping her tied up, you can eventually kindle the flames of love between you and her. But I still think this is a long shot, and to suggest it’s a dead cert is not just misleading, it’s arguably irresponsible, especially when the film doesn’t even suggest it has its tongue in its cheek: the happy ending feels entirely sincere. Whatever touches of quality the film has as a piece of cinema – and these are inevitably present – it’s hard to get past the problem at the heart of the story.

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For a while there I thought I wasn’t taking this Almodovarathon idea nearly seriously enough, with weeks often going by between my watching the different films in question. But that was when I rather foolishly thought the world would only be on pause for a few weeks, maybe a month or so: I’m quite glad I didn’t rush through them all, to be honest, because I would have run out a while ago.

And so I find myself watching the first Pedro Almodovar movie to acquire any sort of cultural traction in the UK (by which I mean, of course, that it warranted a mention in the cinema review section of Radio Times): Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, released in 1988. It has been pointed out that this film has not quite been optimally translated into English, certainly when it comes to the title. The Spanish title is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and apparently (snappy though the extant English title is) ataque de nervios more accurately means an attack of nerves, or panic attack.

Certainly there are a lot of stressed women in this film, chief amongst them being Pepa (Carmen Maura), a reasonably successful actress (she gets recognised in the street and asked to do commercials, in both cases because she plays ‘the killer’s mother’ in a popular crime TV show). She also has a gig doing the Spanish dub of various foreign movies, and it seems that it is here she has met Ivan (Fernando Guillen), one of those charming, silver-fox kind of older dudes who ladies seem to go for. Pepa and Ivan have been an item for some time, but now it seems they have split up – Pepa, however, urgently needs to speak to him about a pressing personal matter.

Pepa’s futile search for Ivan is the core of the movie, and she grows increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit erratic as the film goes on and he seems to be actively trying to dodge speaking with her. Other elements of her life start to pile up on her, making things even more confusing and complex: her young friend Candela (Maria Barranco) turns up at her flat, confessing that she has unwittingly become romantically involved with a group of Shi’ite Muslim terrorists; a young couple, looking to lease the flat, arrive for a viewing and – in a typically outrageous piece of Almodovar plotting – it turns out that the young man (Antonio Banderas) is actually Ivan’s son. Ivan’s mentally unstable ex-wife arrives, and so do the police, not to mention a phone repairman (Pepa has been taking her frustrations out on the handset). It seems like the only person not wanting to talk to Pepa is Ivan himself…

At one point a minor character, who’s just had the events of the movie summarised for him, looks blank and says ‘You’ve got to be pulling my leg’: this is blatantly a black, screwball farce, and the director seems to be revelling in how preposterous it all is. That said, it does take a little while to get up to speed, and the first act is something of a slow start, where it’s unclear exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be and how we are supposed to respond to it. Or perhaps this is another sign of Almodovar’s increasing confidence and deftness as a director: as we first meet and get to know Pepa, she does seem genuinely upset and the film looks like it may be dealing with relatively serious issues. But once all this is established and we’ve become invested in Pepa and her situation, the tone of the film noticeably lightens and the pace picks up. Before long there are tongue-in-cheek gags about Islamic terrorism, a running joke about a jug of gazpacho soup spiked with sleeping pills, and by the end Almodovar can cheerfully include a car chase involving a gun-toting mental patient on a motorbike and it somehow feels like much of a piece with what has gone before.

The combination of outrageous plotting, vivid characterisation, and colourful composition does seem to me to mark this as the film in which Almodovar’s classic style first comes together – needless to say, several members of his unofficial rep company also appear in the movie. Chus Lampreave gets a small part as the Jehovah’s Witness concierge of Pepa’s building, Banderas gets a nice, but relatively minor role, and the film is essentially carried by Carmen Maura, who gives another one of those strong-but-quietly-vulnerable performances which are practically another hallmark of Almodovar’s style.

As the title suggests, this is a film almost exclusively about the actions and concerns of its female characters, and it’s told from their perspective. The men are almost exclusively feckless, useless, or actually stupid, almost without exception a source of problems for the women around them. Pepa’s success at the end of the film, when it comes, is not that she finally manages to track Ivan down and have the conversation with him she’s been desperately wanting all film: it’s that she realises what a waste of space he is and decides he’s no longer worth her time, as a result becoming much less stressed and unhappy.

It’s an appropriate note for the film to close on, and entirely fitting for a film with a definite (if initially well-hidden) feminist subtext to it. The end of the film satisfies, even if, as a whole, it is not quite as masterfully assembled as some of Almodovar’s later films would be: the focus is not initially clear, and the director is not quite as slick as he would later become in selling his more outrageous turns of plotting to the audience. Nevertheless, this film is a lot of fun, once it gets going: it is still a bit rough around the edges, but in its tone, style, and outlook, it is the earliest Almodovar film that I’ve seen which genuinely feels like it anticipates the likes of All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Even if it’s not quite up to their standard, it’s still well worth watching.

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(With due apologies to Tony Hawks.)

It is interesting, and not a little cheering, to see that most people are resisting the crack of the whip as wielded by the vested interests of the untrammelled capitalist system and not trudging back to the old status quo simply because those who would benefit most from this demand them to. For me and many others the pause in everyday life continues (not quite a complete pause, as the passage of time is reflected in the slow erosion of my savings, but that’s by-the-by) and we continue with whatever we’ve been doing for the last two months. In my case this has been online gaming of various kinds and watching films and TV shows online and on DVD.

One of the games I ended up trying was Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures, the latest in a very long line of Trek-related role-playing games and wargames. I and the player group I rassled together have been having quite a good time with this – although it’s hard to tell whether the dud moments we occasionally have are down to problems with the way the system translates Trek into an RPG context or just us not getting the vibe right ourselves as players.

Anyway, we have been having a good enough time to want to continue for the foreseeable future – inasmuch as that expression has any meaning at present – and this has put my mind to the question of writing stories for the game (this would probably be a more appropriate topic for a more gaming-focussed blog, but hey, one thing at a time). Star Trek RPGs can be difficult to write for, as the characters are not acquisitive or inclined to violence as a first resort, standard jeopardy plots are often negated by the ship’s transporter beam, and many key conflicts are often internal or somewhat abstract (you want your players to respect the Prime Directive, but if they treat it as an unbreakable rule in the way that Picard and Kirk frequently don’t, it becomes an obstacle to stories rather than a facilitator of them).

Then there are the really odd episodes that a game like Prime Time Adventures would probably handle better than even a semi-traditional RPG like STA: the one where Picard goes home to his family, or the one where someone unknowingly gets stuck in a micro-universe and has to figure our why the galaxy is now only half a mile across, or… you get my point. Or, and we finally reach our topic, the one with the baseball game.

I speak of Take Me Out to the Holosuite, fourth episode of Deep Space Nine‘s final season. DS9 has a reputation as the grimmest and grittiest of the Trek series, which I suppose is not undeserved – although personally I think of it as a series which, once it found its stride, was essentially about what happens when a utopia faces an existential threat: can it hang onto the values and philosophies which are at its core? When does survival come at too high a price? Nevertheless, the show also occasionally throws out what I can only call a goofball episode, of which this is a good example.

The USS T’Kumbra, an all-Vulcan ship, is docked at the station for repairs and refits, and it turns out its captain, Solok (Gregory Wagrowski), is an old rival of Captain Sisko. That doesn’t sound very Vulcan, I hear you say, and I agree: but quite apart from holding a grudge, Solok is also arrogant about Vulcan superiority and dismissive of other less developed races (which is to say, all of them). Solok completes his bid for the title of least authentic Trek alien this side of Australian Romulan Legolas by also revealing he is a follower of baseball and has formed his senior officers into a team. (It is implied he has done this just to wind the baseball-loving Sisko up – I know, I know, it just keeps on like that.)

Needless to say Sisko accepts Solok’s challenge of a game between the Vulcans and his own staff, to be played on the holosuite in two weeks’ time. Cue various droll scenes of Klingons, Trill, and Bajorans sitting around trying to learn the arcane rules of baseball, try-outs amongst the regular characters, and so on: even sour-natured barkeeper Quark ends up on the team, even though he has virtually no reason to want to take part. Odo is recruited as umpire; O’Brien invents whiskey-flavoured chewing gum for his role as coach; and so on. (Meanwhile, the Dominion War, in which more than a billion sentient creatures die, continues to rage off-screen, although no-one really mentions this as it would break the whimsical tone of the story.)

Most of the latter part of the story is taken up with the game itself, between the Logicians (Solok’s team: in one of many nice touches, their team symbol is the Vulcan IDIC icon) and the Niners (their symbol merges DS9 itself with a baseball). But how can Sisko and his people hope to stand a chance against a team who are much stronger, tougher, and faster, and – perhaps more crucially – actually know how to play?

I suspect I’m coming across as a bit dismissive of this episode, which is not my intention – I do like it a lot, mainly because it is so atypical of DS9. The thing is that it is quite self-indulgent – or that you have to indulge it in its various conceits, I’m not sure which is more accurate. The characters forget about the war to play baseball for a while; there happens to be a Vulcan baseball team in Starfleet; Sisko believes for a moment that his guys have a chance against them (only Worf the Klingon and the genetically-augmented Bashir can realistically match the Vulcans). There is something deeply un-Roddenberry-esque about the decades-long, and seemingly quite bitter rivalry between Sisko and Solok, and Sisko’s characteristically ruthless determination to win (to begin with at least).

There I go again. It is still really very likeable, even if, like me, your grasp of the rules of baseball is negligible – this is apparently one of those stories which has proven a victim of history, as the rules of baseball have changed since it was made – it seems that while people are still playing the game in the 2370s, they’ve reverted to an archaic version of the rules. I would never have known this; I don’t really understand what is going-on game-wise at the end of the episode, although of course I can follow the emotional track of the story, which is about Sisko learning to loosen up and Rom getting his moment of glory (the famous behind-the-scenes anecdote from this story is that Max Grodenchik, who plays the Ferengi, was a semi-pro baseballer in civilian life and found it almost impossible to convincingly play badly).

In the end this is a cheery little story, two-parts character study to one-part love letter to baseball itself. The stakes are personal and the tone gently comic, for the most part. How you’d make people buy into it as a traditional RPG scenario I’ve no idea, but perhaps the lesson to be learned is that some things just don’t transfer from one form to the other that well. In any case, this is an entertaining example of what Deep Space Nine routinely absolutely isn’t.

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As is not unusual with non-Anglophone directors, the very early films of Pedro Almodovar are not widely available on DVD (at least, not in English). His first film to get any kind of wide release is 1983’s Dark Habits. You can forgive someone for not wanting the work they did while they were learning their trade to be dwelt upon in too much detail: a film like Dark Habits is certainly interesting from a historical point of view, but it hardly indicates why Almodovar has become such a major figure in world cinema. The same is probably even more true of Labyrinth of Desire and the other work that preceded it.

Dark Habits (title en Espanol: Entre tinieblas) opens in a fairly straightforward way: a nightclub singer named Yolanda (Cristina Sanchez Pascual) arrives home one night, having collected some heroin for her boyfriend. Their relationship is somewhat strained and Yolanda does not seem overly exercised when he drops dead from an overdose (very little seems to stir Yolanda’s emotions, but this may be for reasons we will discuss later on). Soon it becomes clear that she is being looked for in connection with the death – but what is she to do?

As luck would have it, she recalls a visit to her dressing room by a pair of nuns, one of whom was a big fan of hers. Yolanda decides to take up their offer of whatever help she needs and hides out in the convent. However, the place has fallen on hard times, with nary a prostitute or drug addict to be seen about the place. The sole remaining benefactor of the order is threatening to withdraw her support, which will force it to close. The spiritual wellbeing of the five remaining nuns there is hardly in a better condition. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a big fan of humiliation as a means to spiritual growth and has given her sisters new, not especially ecclesiastical names.

So, Sister Sewer Rat (Chus Lampreave), unbeknownst to the others, moonlights as a writer of trashy bestselling novels. Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) obsessively cleans the convent, often while enjoying the benefits of one of her frequent LSD trips. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) spends her time coming up with tasteful new purple lurex outfits for the devotional statues in the convent, and has a bit of a crush on their priest. Finally, Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) is devoted to the convent’s pet tiger, which roams around the grounds. Yolanda is a little surprised by some of this, and so the Mother Superior thoughtfully offers to share some of her own heroin with their visitor.

Yolanda’s arrival causes a bit of upheaval around the convent, and soon the nuns are starting to question some of their own choices and what their future holds, while the Mother Superior comes up with a plan to blackmail their benefactor into continuing her support – and if that doesn’t work, there’s always drug smuggling to keep the place going. As the Mother Superior’s birthday party approaches, things are clearly coming to a head – will the convent be able to survive?

As you can probably tell, this is not an especially subtle film, although at least the laboured pun of the title seems to have been added for the film’s English release, the direct translation being In Darkness (yes, I know, laboured puns: you’ll find nothing like that around here. Ahem). According to the director it was intended as a satire on the anachronistic nature of organised religion in Spain in the early 1980s. Obviously, the film feels blatantly provocative, and the various depictions of nuns shooting up and so on were enough to prevent it from being shown at Cannes and guarantee a polarised reaction from critics in Catholic countries. To be honest, what’s curious about the film is what a straight bat Almodovar seems to be playing with – the various scenes of the nuns misbehaving are not especially arch or played for laughs, but handled deadpan and naturalistically.

To begin with, this does make them funnier, but it soon becomes apparent that Almodovar doesn’t have much more to offer on this occasion than careful acts of provocation: the film settles down to become a steady enough depiction of how weird life is in the convent, without much in the way of new revelations or striking plot developments. The focus is very much on the nuns, with Yolanda as a relatively passive onlooker: this is an interesting device, especially as it initially looks like she is to be the focal character of the film, but apparently it was something forced upon the director: Almodovar, still an obscure young director with only a couple of minor films to his credit, was approached by a wealthy businessman who offered to fund his films as long as they prominently featured his girlfriend, Cristina Sanchez Pascual. Sanchez Pascual proved to have very limited experience as an actress and so Almodovar was obliged to restructure the film so it was less dependent upon her performance.

You don’t necessarily notice this much as it is a fairly weird film anyway, with only marginal signs of the sensibility Almodovar would bring to the great films he would make in the years and decades to come – there’s barely a male character in it, for one thing, and you do sense a deep compassion for the nuns, despite their various peculiar foibles. There’s a touch of his fondness for wildly eccentric plot devices – one element of the story is an obvious spoof of Tarzan, dropped straight-faced into an ostensibly serious emotional subplot. – but he doesn’t seem to have quite mastered persuading the audience to invest in them, yet.

Oh well. The saving grace of Dark Habits, if you’ll pardon the expression, is the ensemble performance by the actresses playing the nuns, most of whom have gone on to make frequent appearances in numerous other Almodovar movies. They are funny and engaging even when the film around them feels like it’s meandering and short on incident. This is an odd, awkward sort of film in many ways; faintly amusing, somewhat amusing, mostly just self-indulgent. It’s so self-consciously peculiar that any serious satire the director is trying to make of the Church is difficult to make out. But it’s Almodovar, so it’s still watchable – but you can tell it was made at a time when Almodovar was only just Almodovar.

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My usual position when it comes to Theatre of Blood (1973) is that it shows that everyone has at least one great film in them – but only one in some cases. The script is wonderful, the direction is capable, and the music is fantastic – and yet none of the people responsible for these things have a noteworthy career beyond this film. The one who came closest was Douglas Hickox, the director, who had a longish career, much of it as the AD on fifties potboilers: I’ve heard of some of the films he made (Behemoth the Sea Monster and Zulu Dawn, for example), but would struggle to describe them especially distinguished. Nevertheless, every year BIFA gives out the Douglas Hickox Award for the best new director, which probably isn’t anything to do with Theatre of Blood – but I can’t help feeling it should be.

The movie is set in the present day and opens with pompous theatre critic and grandee of London society George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) being summoned by the police to move a gang of homeless people on from a property he is involved with. Maxwell wades in fearlessly – ‘We’ll have no trouble here!’ he cries, unwittingly spawning a catchphrase for a future age. However, the mob of homeless people clearly would like there to be some trouble, and set upon Maxwell, bloodily stabbing and hacking him to death, all in sight of an oddly detached policeman and a poster advertising a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Maxwell’s fellow critics are upset, which rapidly turns to alarm when a second of their number (Dennis Price) is run through with a spear and his corpse tied to a horse’s tail, thus reproducing the death of Hector from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. A third (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawn off in his sleep (this one comes from Cymbeline). Someone is clearly staging a season reviving some of Shakespeare’s most spectacular murders, with the members of the Critics’ Circle in the central role each time. But who, and how?

The surviving critics are uneasily reminded of the actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who would only ever appear in Shakespearean roles and whom they were all routinely very cruel to: in the end, their mockery, and the fact they refused to give him their award for best actor, drove Lionheart to apparently commit suicide by diving off the balcony of leading critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), into the Thames. But his body was never found – could he have survived somehow? Devlin approaches his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), but she is hostile and uncooperative.

Meanwhile the murders continue, restaging scenes from Richard III, Othello and The Merchant of Venice (a radical reinterpretation where Antonio does get his heart cut out – ‘Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,’ says a shocked Devlin, who seems to be more aghast at this than the death of his colleague). Can the police track Lionheart down before there’s no-one left in England to write theatre reviews…?

Quite why this particular group of people wound up making a film as distinctive as Theatre of Blood remains a mystery, but the lineage of the film itself is rather less obscure: it’s obviously a successor to the two Dr Phibes films Price made for American International in the preceding couple of years, but one which greatly refines and enhances the same formula. The basic plot, of a vengeful madman committing a series of extravagant murders, is retained, but the slightly laborious, almost steampunkish whimsy of the Phibes films is dispensed with along with the period setting.

Perhaps most significantly, the weird decision to make Phibes horribly scarred and functionally mute, thus seriously impacting on Vincent Price’s ability to give a performance in the role, is no longer a consideration. As a result this is one of the actor’s greatest films, as he gets to play not just Lionheart, but Lionheart performing many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. One of the reasons why many horror films from the fifties, sixties and seventies are so memorable is because they feature some of the finest actors of their generations, never quite getting the respect they deserve: you could argue that Theatre of Blood is on some level an oblique commentary on this whole phenomenon. But let’s not overthink this – it’s Vincent Price and Diana Rigg performing a range of characters (policemen, masseurs, rather camp hairdressers called Butch), causing mayhem and performing Shakespeare: how can it not be brilliant?

The film’s other stroke of genius, or possible good fortune, comes in the casting of Price’s victims, for Theatre of Blood has possibly the most distinguished ensemble of any British horror movie (even if most of them are only in extended cameos): quite apart from Price, Rigg, and Hendry, the cast includes Hordern, Price, Lowe, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Diana Dors. (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes play the detectives.)

I suppose some people might say that Theatre of Blood isn’t really a horror film because it’s not actually scary – and it is true that it functions as a knowing, grand guignol comedy more than anything else. But even here the film has a few surprises to offer: in places it actually becomes genuinely moving to watch. You believe in the relationship between Lionheart and his daughter completely, and the critics do seem unspeakably cruel as they mock and scorn Lionheart just before his ‘suicide’. The film has an unexpectedly bittersweet, melancholic tone to it, almost as if it is suggesting that there is no place for someone like Lionheart in the modern world – that, rather than taking his revenge on the critics, his plan is simply a doomed parting shot from an earlier age of sincerity (even if it is rather hammy sincerity).

Because, apparently, even as late as the 1970s, it was apparently unacceptable for a film to conclude with Vincent Price getting away with it. Perhaps this was the result of moral concerns, or perhaps because one of the things that lifts the film is that fact that Lionheart is somehow a doomed, tragic figure from the start. The manner in which his plan comes undone is one of the few weak links in the script, but it does lead to an appropriately spectacular and operatic finale. This was apparently one of Vincent Price’s favourites from amongst his own films; Diana Rigg feels it is one of her best, as well. I can’t argue with that. This is one of the great obscure treasures of the British horror tradition.

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Unexpected, an episode of Enterprise first broadcast on October 17th 2001, opens with the ship (NX-01 incarnation, back in the 22nd century) experiencing various odd technical problems: vending machines producing the wrong items, gravity malfunctions, and so on. We get to see this when the gravity fails in Captain Archer’s bathroom (luckily he is only having a shower: things could have been a lot worse). This is quite a lavishly CGI-d scene for what is basically just a throwaway gag, but it is the cold open for the episode so it may have been intended to impress and lure in casual viewers (this may be overestimating the appeal of a damp Scott Bakula clinging to his shower head).

Well, naturally, the Enterprise crew are smart cookies and figure out the source of the problems: a cloaked ship is tailgating the Enterprise, causing problems with the warp exhaust, or something like that (it’s good old fashioned treknobabble). The aliens (who are called the Xyrillians) are very apologetic and explain they have been beset by engine problems, and are using the Enterprise‘s exhaust to recharge. Despite the fact that the episode strongly indicates that the Xyrillians are considerably more advanced than Earth, Archer decides to lend them chief engineer Trip (Connor Trinneer) for three days so he can fix their teraphasic warp coils.

Of course, this is Enterprise, so things aren’t as straightforward as they will be in centuries to come: Trip has to spend hours in an uncomfortable acclimatisation chamber in order to board the Xyrillian vessel, and when he gets there he finds it very disorienting and challenging (the direction and performances suggest the experience is a cross between severe jet lag and a bad trip). However, Trip’s trip improves when he discovers the human food the Xyrillians have laid on for him (they appear to have invented water-flavoured jelly), and the fact there is a distinct spark between him and Ah’Len (Julianne Christie), one of their engineers. Literally so: electricity crackles whenever they touch, which is not the most subtle metaphor ever, but what the hell. The two of them even take time out together to visit what is essentially a Xyrillian holodeck, where they stick their hands in some granules that create a temporary telepathic connection between them (easy, tiger).

Make sure she’ll still respect you in the morning, Trip.

All too soon it’s time for Trip to go home and the ships go their separate ways – but it seems he’s brought back more than happy memories and information on the Xyrillians. He starts growing extra nipples on the inside of his wrists, and the ensuing medical exam requires Dr Phlox to enquire if there was any romance during his time away. Yes, it turns out that Ah’Len has managed to knock Trip up, and he is now pregnant with an alien baby. Various surprisingly broad comedy scenes ensue, as the ship searches for the Xyrillians and Trip has odd cravings and frets about whether Enterprise is a child-friendly environment.

Unfortunately, Trip’s repairs have turned out to be no good, and when the ship catches up with the Xyrillians they are pulling their cloaked tailgating manoeuvre again, only this time with a Klingon battle cruiser. As these are especially brutal and shouty 22nd century Klingons, their first reaction on being informed of this is to declare that all the Xyrillians will be executed, but Archer talks the Klingon captain into letting them off in return for the Klingons getting some holodeck technology (we are pre-Prime Directive so they can get away with this), although not before Trip has to show his baby bump (actually, it looks more like a tumour) on the main viewscreen. Trip’s bundle of joy gets transplanted somewhere non-specific, the Klingon captain shouts ‘I can see my house from here!’ as he visits a holo-recreation of Qo’noS, and everyone heads off happily.

This is one of those episodes (written, by the way, by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman) with a toxic reputation and you can kind of understand why: while there are some good things in it (Trinneer’s performance is charming, and there’s a nice turn from Julianne Christie, who actually manages to make a bald scaly alien in a tinfoil jumpsuit rather alluring), in other places it is just inept or feels bizarrely misjudged.

The pacing is off, for one thing: you can tell that the character-based-emotional-core of the episode is Trip having to come to terms with the possibility of becoming a parent (the kind of theme other Trek episodes deal with reasonably successfully). But after spending a good chunk of the episode getting him over to the Xyrillian ship, and then establishing his relationship with Ah’Len (presumably so Trip doesn’t just come across as an easy lay), the episode only has about five minutes to contemplate this before they have to think about resolving the plot. The other issue is the tone, once the fact of the ‘pregnancy’ becomes apparent: it is much closer to goofy, gonzo comedy than you’d expect in Star Trek, with the other characters smirking and struggling to keep a straight face when talking to Trip.

I could probably also put my armchair xenobiologist’s hat on and comment on how very implausible the Xyrillian reproductive process seems – apparently the males of the species don’t contribute genetically to the embryo at all, they just host it, which begs all kinds of questions about how they maintain diversity in their genome and what the male gets out of the process at all. The fact they also apparently procreate by sticking their hands in holographic psychic gravel together also seems rather unlikely to me. But when the plot demands such things…

I suppose it is all part of an attempt to communicate just how weird and alien the Xyrillians are. This would work better if the show had not apparently been running out of money, for despite everything suggested by the script about the exotic environment of their ship – food growing out of the walls, grass growing on the floor – what we end up with are some of the most garish, ugly, cheap-ass looking sets ever seen in Berman-era Trek. (The technical incompetence of the episode extends into other areas: for instance, Christopher Darga, playing the Klingon captain, is very obviously looking at the wrong camera during most of his communicating-by-viewscreen scenes.)

And yet I find myself oddly reluctant to consign Unexpected to the same reliquary for horribly inept Trek where you will find episodes like Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Gray, and anything featuring mushroom-powered teleport drives. Quite what the point of it was supposed to be admittedly remains unclear, but there are certainly pleasures to be had along the way, from the performances to the fact that it is, in places, much more genuinely funny than most of the supposedly comedic episodes of Next Gen. It’s not great drama, or great SF, or even particularly great comedy. But it passes the test, some of the time at least, in that it engages, diverts and entertains.

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