Stephen Caswell

Stephen Caswell is the creator and editor of Popular & Cultured. He’s probably most likely to be found writing reviews for REALLY old movies, which he calls Retro Reviews. Video reviews can be found on his YouTube channel.

Game of Thrones poster

Does this count as a spoiler?

Without a doubt, this was the episode that made you feel sorry for the kings. Quite a lot has happened so far this season (and we’re only four episodes in) but the story has been primarily focussed on reminding us who that character are, and why we should care – especially as the story is changing so drastically now. The previous seasons have followed a rather linear path regarding the War of the Five kings, but with that over in Season Three, Season Four became a wrap-up of the story; now, Westeros and Essos are becoming more prominent and being forced to react to the changes that have happened so far.

Oh, and boat travel – there has been a lot of that this season, but that kind of fits in with the new direction of the story.

To that end, ‘Sons of the Harpy’ introduces some new characters in the form of the Sand Snakes –  the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell. These badass characters from the books are diluted slightly, in part because their first introduction has to be very heavily steeped in exposition. We are introduced to them through Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s paramour from Season Four, who was seen in an early episode presenting her ideas for war to Prince Doran. Now, she has assembled the Sand Snakes in the desert to explain her plans to start a war behind his back.

In the books, this plan is put together over the course of several chapters, through the point of view of another daughter of Oberyn who is in line to Dornish throne, but still wants to get revenge for the death of her father. While cutting her (as they appear to have done) works for streamlining again, you’re likely to be less invested in their plan, and forcing the Sand Snakes to launch into long speeches about who they are and why they care comes across as very disjointed and strange.

On the other hand, Cersei – while not doing a lot especially – has had enough screen-time this season for her own plots to come across as interesting and intriguing. She has already done her best to sweet-talk the High Sparrow, but now she makes the play to rearm the ancient Faith Militant in the hopes of having an additional army under her command. We get a sweet scene of them then embarking on a crusade across King’s Landing doing their best to bring an end to any sinning in the city. The scene itself is scarily reminiscent of the first episode of Season Two, in which all of King Robert’s bastards were hunted down and killed in one way or another. It appears as a Pandora’s Box of sorts, and it makes you feel more than sympathetic for poor king Tommen, who’s supposed to be in charge and now forced to pick up the pieces.

On the other side of the world, we have King Stannis. Without wanting to talk about his main scene for too long (for spoilers sake), it is by far his most human he has ever appeared, and his tear-jerking scene ranks up amongst some of the best in the series history.

Jon, however, has one of the most awkward. He has done a lot so far, and in one brief scene he is “tempted” by Melisandre. Of course, she’s as subtle usual, so it just becomes a test of Jon Snow’s vows, and his love for the deceased Ygritte.

Sansa and Littlefinger have some more time together, although this episode was more Littlefinger’s than Sansa’s. The two of them talk in the Catacombs of Winterfell, and spend time discussing her aunt, Lyanna. Littlfinger discusses the story of the Tournament of Harrenhal for the first time in the series, and with the inclusion of a single comment Stannis about Ned Stark’s honour, we might be taking drastic steps towards a much loved fan theory (R+L=J). Littlefinger spends his time conspiring with Roose and Sansa, in turn, although it still isn’t clear what he’s up to.

Jaime and Bronn have some great scenes together, as they make their way into Dorne. Bronn appears very doubtful of their success, while Jaime appears hopeful but also lost in the events of the previous season. It appears that he has taken the death of his father very badly, and totally blames Tyrion. The two have great chemistry still, and the blunt comments of Bronn bounce off Jaime’s “honourable” stance on things.

On the subject of Tyrion, he continues to do his best to get one up on Jorah Mormont, his captor from the previous episode. Their scenes are tense and interesting, especially given the change from the books that Tyrion was actively seeking out Dany in the first place. Now he can do his best to openly mock Jorah for the utter stupidity of his plan, as he believes Jorah will still be executed for returning to her.

Which isn’t hard to believe, as Dany did her absolute best to throw away any remaining good will in the city. As previously mentioned, I have given up on Dany and as far as I’m concerned her cause is lost. That was before this episode, when she again takes advise from Sir Barriston about loving the people and supporting their traditions, and goes ahead and refuses to do either of those things in the very next scene.

Also, she may have gotten a great character killed, simply by brutally forcing an entire city of people to give up on their own age-old traditions, simply because she doesn’t agree with them.

In summary, this was a very mixed episode. While I’m not fuming entirely for the stupidity of Dany this time (mainly because I shut down whenever she turns to avoid getting angry), it also wasn’t utterly lighting me on fire with excitement. There was a lot to like, as there were some nice character moments which tease at more interesting things to come, but there are lengthy stages where the action is high, but the content is low.

 
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The Jazz Singer (1927) poster

Poster now with 50% less racism!

‘The Jazz Singer’! We’ve done it – we’ve breached the ‘talkies’. Sort of. If there are two things that ‘The Jazz Singer’ is known for, it is the tremendous step forward of recorded sound, and the use of blackface. Thanks Hollywood: is every major breakthrough going to be accompanied by racism? Well, ‘The Jazz Singer’ is actually not what you’d expect at all. It’s not got sound throughout, and the blackface is in a few short scenes for (arguably) an understandable reason, but we’ll get onto all that in a bit.

The film follows the story of a young Jewish boy who is the son of a prominent Cantor. While his father wants him to spend his life singing prayers, but the boy’s true passion is Jazz. After a confrontation, the boy is banished, and runs away to pursue a career in show business. Fast forward ten years, and young Jakie Rabinowitz has changed his name to Jack Robin, and is preparing to perform in his Broadway debut, but trouble on the home front draws him into a confrontation with both his father, and his own racial identity.

That’s where the blackface comes into the picture. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ this is not, and while a modern audience would be well within their right to call the film out on the gratuitous use of blackface, it, understandably, wasn’t criticised at the time. The blackface is used to show Jack forsaking his own Jewish heritage and becoming part of the larger American culture, as well as becoming unrecognisable to his own family and friends. Sure, this wouldn’t fly today, and it isn’t the sort of thing to be encouraged, but the film uses it to not pass judgement or criticise any race in particular, but as a noticeable message communicating a theme to its audience.

On a less controversial note, let’s get onto that recorded sound. As I mentioned, it doesn’t run throughout the entire song, and there are still long moments of silent cinema with title-cards galore, but each of the nine songs in the film show the actors singing and have well synced sound running in time with them. On a few small occasions, the actors finish a song and continue to speak with sound, which does feel revolutionary and fresh, especially after watching so many purely silent films recently. On the whole, the sound – even just the ambient sound of applause or someone banging on a table – is exciting and makes you appreciate how far film has come over the last century.

The acting is all phenomenal, with Al Jolson making a truly strong and commendable performance, along with May McAvoy, appearing both powerfully confident and innocently young. Directed by Alan Crosland, the film is an adaptation of the 1922 stage play ‘The Day of Atonement’ by American short-story writer, playwright, and later screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson. All comes together to make a truly powerful piece of cinema which captures you imagination in startling ways, and tells a terrific story.

At the end of the day, ‘The Jazz Singer’ holds up for the most part. While the blackface will (and rightly should) turn off many modern day viewers, the story is powerful and moving, as it struggles to honestly tell the tale of a man finding his place in the world, casting aside his family and his heritage, and discovering a new life in a new time. And for the film to take the first tentative steps away from silent cinema, it tells a parallel story of film itself growing and changing, and adapting to the changing times.

4/5 – Love It
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Game of Thrones poster

Does this count as a spoiler?

With all that happens over the course of a season of ‘Game of Thrones’, we’ve all become used to the less involved episodes every now and again. While season five, episode three (‘High Sparrow’), has a fair amount going on, it still comes across as a smaller, filler episode. That said, it was still thoroughly entertaining.

We only get a few points of view this episode, and thankfully Dany wasn’t one of them. While she’ll no doubt be refusing to own up to her continued mistakes next episode, it was still nice to have a little reprieve.

There is hope for her, though, after Brienne and Podrick regained their greatness once again in a small, character-building scene. They have a chance to do what they’re good at – a funny back and forth with Dan and Dave bringing back some great dialogue for them. It proves that the last episode was a slight misstep, and they aren’t turning into a walking cliché with terrible writing. Once more, I’m invested in their quest, and Brienne’s exposition heavy speech – in which she discusses her childhood and explains how she came to support Renly Baratheon in the first place, is heart-warming and moving.

Arya has perhaps the least to do this episode, as she continues to train under Jaqen H’ghar, with the hopes of becoming a Faceless Man. Her scenes are primarily based around the colossal strangeness of the House of Black and White, and highlighting just what it is that they do there. It’s interesting enough, but the stand-out moment comes when she’s forced to throw away all of her possessions, and change out of the outfit she’s been wearing since the second season, which, if you think about it, is great from a hygienic perspective.

Cersei’s story is a great step in the general plot of instigating her own downfall, as she steadily becomes more and more dissatisfied with her inner circle, and choses to arrest the High Septon after he is found in a brothel by Lancel and the devout Sparrows. When he is accused of sinning and publicly shamed by the Sparrows, he runs to Cersei and demands justice. Enter Johnathon Pryce as The High Sparrow. In keeping with ‘Game of Thrones’ tradition, he serves as the one character that is goodness through-and-through, so you can expect him to die or fall from grace or hide a terrible secret in the coming story – that’s not a spoiler, it’s just a trope.

On the flip side, Qyburn continues to be cartoonish brilliant as ever. The final episode of season four gave him a comically oversized syringe and asked him to do his best Dr. Frankenstein impression, last episode had him casually asking to keep a severed head, and this episode has him talking to Sir Gregor’s corpse as it writhes around under a sheet. Don’t ever change, Qyburn.

And on the subject of comically evil, this episode serves as a triumphant return of my boy, RB! Ramsey is always an utter joy to watch, even when he is doing something utterly deplorable. Whether he’s skinning someone alive, hunting people in the forest, or simply asking Reek to shave him as a power play, Iwan Rheon has such fun with the role that you almost forget how utterly despicable he is. Ramsey has always had more appeal for me in the series over someone like Joffrey, as he had a continuous monstrous presence about him, and came across as someone who wanted to be liked and loved by the people who despised him. Ramsey doesn’t. Instead, he has taken the villain role to heart, and properly run with it.

Roose gets to be the grand negotiator once again, as he is still the Warden of The North, and despite his son being legitimised, the Northerners rightly hate him. Roose’s plan to have people look past their illegitimacy is largely intact with the story from the book, however there is one major change: while in the books, Littlefinger has arranged to send Jeyne Poole to Winterfell and pretend it is Arya (to legitimise the Bolton’s claim to the North), this time he sends the real Sansa.

Yes, it is finally revealed where Sansa and Littlefinger have been traveling all this time, and it is back home. Winterfell is being rebuilt, and while there wasn’t as much time devoted to reminding us how we haven’t really seen it since season two, it was beautiful to be back – despite all the flayed bodies. It’ll be fun to see how the new Sansa storyline plays out, especially as she’s a far more important character than Poole, and she has a motivation for going there. Revenge.

Now, she has the man who stabbed her brother in the heart and the man who burnt down her home in the same castle as her. I’m beginning to feel that she isn’t trapped in there with them, but they’re trapped in there with her…

Jon’s storyline is relatively brief, and serves as him both solidifying his position as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and gaining the respect of Stannis. Davos gets a chance to deliver a fairly compelling speech in their time together, which was nice, as we haven’t really seen enough of him recently. And while Jon’s defining moment in the episode was still a fist-pump occasion, it seemed a little too much like a fan’s interpretation of the books, as the majority of the cold, hard badassery was taken away, in favour of reducing a much hated character into a sobbing mess.

Tyrion has a very short section, based around the fact he is tired of sitting in his wheelhouse, and wants to get out and visit a brothel. From there, we see the greatest triumph of this season so far – showing off the diversity of Westeros and, mainly, Essos. Like with Braavos, Volantis appears as an entirely new place with a different culture and a totally different feel. It’s utterly refreshing and reminds you that Dany has been specifically seeking out the worst and most dysfunctional cities to visit. Until a familiar face arrives to throw a spanner in the works…

‘High Sparrow’ truly works as a great episode, delivering just enough story to keep up  the pace, while focussing on the interactions of the characters and making them all more human once again.
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Age of Ultron poster

Some of the best moments in Cinematic History look just like this poster…

And so we begin possibly the most exciting year in movies for decades. ‘Jurassic World’ is set to remind us how terrifying dinosaurs are, ‘Spectre’ is set to bring back Bond’s most powerful nemesis, and ‘The Force Awakens’… well, do I even need to explain? First and foremost, perhaps, is ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’, which takes us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe once more, to put a close on Act Two, and take the third highest grossing movie and most important cinematic moment of the last few years to new heights.

But does ‘Ultron’ surpass the first ‘Avengers’ film? In a word: Yes. The first ‘Captain America’ movie had a fairly simple plot, which had its sights set on the end goal for the entire runtime. In ‘The Winter Soldier’, there are twists and turns throughout, which blur the lines of what the final confrontation will be, and make the whole experience more fresh and engaging. So too, with ‘Age of Ultron’. Whereas ‘Avengers Assemble’ had a very simple plot of “get the crew together, get them to fight together, get them to fight the bad guy”, ‘Age of Ultron’ begins in medias res, with the entire crew of the Avengers battling their way to one of the final Hyrda bases to take back Loki’s stolen staff.

From there, the film blends together the weird mix of genres from each film, making something that is, once again, totally unique. From the fantastic party scene early on, showing off all the character and secondary characters (Falcon and War Machine, included), The Avengers themselves are at this point believable and interesting characters, with their inner rivalries becoming all the more interesting because you can be on two characters side at the same time.

Enter Ultron.

Ultron himself is a tremendous villain, balancing the wacky dialogue of Joss Whedon with the menacing presence of James Spader, but the greatest success of his character is his creation. The whole story throws a brilliant twist on the Frankenstein story, with Tony Stark being a commendable figure with a noble goal, but his creation begin just as evil and all powerful as most accidental monsters are. Similarly, Captain America’s opposition to the creation of Ultron in the first place is both justifiable and completely in line with his overall character.

Being a sequel to several different films, you already know all the characters, and can almost predict their reaction by this point, but it also makes it more difficult to see any of theses characters as villains. You know that Stark is not a bad guy, despite his meddling in the wrong place, because we’ve seen four films of him doing that and getting good results. Similarly, Captain America doesn’t come across as a kill-joy, because we’ve seen him be the voice of reason and fairness in three previous films.

To that end, the film does a fantastic job of taking the spotlight off Thor, Cap, and Iron Man, and shifting it to Hulk, Black Widow and (surprisingly) Hawkeye. They understandably took a back seat in the first film, yet here they have important sub-plots which actually make you care about the forgotten Avengers. If you had told me last week that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye would be the emotional heart of the film, I would have laughed in your face, but he really pulls it off. Mainly by being the least powerful character, but also the one with the most to lose.

Going back to the subject of sequels, however, highlights another way the film shines. While there is plenty of ground laid for the upcoming two-part third Avengers film, this does not feel like it is bridging the gap. It’s not a sequel to anything really – its another films that happens to continue the story of the larger Marvel Universe, and it could work as a stand-alone film very well. While references and in-jokes may be lost, and the characterisation wouldn’t come across in the same way, ‘Age of Ultron’ simply works as a damn good movie.

On the technical side, there are a huge number of tracking shots, and I’m always a sucker fro tracking shots. The Projects sequence from ‘True Detective’ and the New Year’s Eve scene from ‘Boogie Nights’ stand up as some of my favourite screen moments, but ‘Age of Ultron’ could top them all. For a start, the film begins with a huge tracking shot of the entire Avengers crew diving in and out of one-another and watching each others backs as they push through a huge battle with Hydra, and without wishing to spoil anything, one of the final climactic moments turns out to be a slow motions continuous take of the Avengers playing king-of-the-hill against and endless onslaught of robots. While the introductory sequence seemed a little bit too CGI, it wasn’t anywhere near as noticeable as ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’, because you’re watching super heroes move in ridiculous, inhuman ways, and not a close up of a ‘Total War’ game. Oh, and the sequence concludes with all the Avengers on screen at once, leaping forward in slow motion.

‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’ seriously kicks arse. While it a noticeably long film, you will struggle to get bored; in part due to the tremendous performances from everyone involved. While the Big Three are of course, a joy to watch, the stand out performances were Johansson, Ruffalo and Renner, who each reinvigorated their characters with emotion and depth they hadn’t had until now. Honorary mentions go to Andy Serkis (always a pleasure to see him with a mouthful of scenery) and both Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as the Maximoff twins, proving that they are not only great actors, but that they’re chemistry truly was the best thing about them in ‘Godzilla’.

And finally, it stands to reason to commend Joss Whedon for knocking it out of the park again. As long as he continues to make exciting and interesting films this good, I’ll forgive him for not making another ‘Firefly’ film.
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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) poster

Once a murderer, always a- Nah! He’s a great guy, really…

Things are really picking up steam now – we’re a week away from the end of the silent era of Hollywood Cinema, and we’ve already taken a look at one of the most ground-breaking films of the silent era. But before we bid farewell to silent film, there is one final entry, in the form of 1927’s ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’.

While not a best picture, ‘Sunrise’ was honoured at the first ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, which looked back at films from 1927 and 1928. There, it won the Award for Best Unique and Artistic Quality of Production, on the only occasion that award has ever been given out. Janet Gaynor also won the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which was attributed to this film, and a number of other works over the course of her career. The movie was also able to win Best Cinematography. Furthermore, before we get into it, it is worth mentioning the director: F. W. Murnau.

If that name means anything to you, you probably know that Murnau was the man who directed 1922 German film ‘Nosferatu’. In 1926, Murnau chose to emigrate from Germany to America, moved to Hollywood, and began working at the Fox Studio. Here, he immediately began work on ‘Sunrise’, an adaptation of the novel ‘Die Reise nach Tilsit’ (‘The Trip to Tilsit’), by German novelist Hermann Sudermann, who passed away a year after the film’s release.

The film follows the story of a man in the midst of an affair with a woman from the city. She has asked him to sell his farm and move with her to live in the city, but he must first drown his wife. When the time comes, he finds himself unable to do it, and the couple begin a reconciliation process as they travel around the city, before returning home to (hopefully) begin their life together anew.

One thing is for sure; ‘Sunrise’ is e beautiful movie. The German Expressionism of Murnau’s early work makes its way into the film to give the occasional distorted scene, and there is a great use of the overlaid shots (used tremendously in ‘Metropolis’) to show the inner thoughts of the characters and really draw you into their mind. Finally, one scene in particular appears to be the grandfather of green screen technology, even though Blue Screen would not be fully invented for three years, and it would be decades before it was fully recognised as a film-making technique.

Murnau surely brought great performances out of his actors. Certainly, Gaynor’s work was phenomenal, and she was thoroughly deserving of her award, but George O’Brien puts in stellar work as a broken man, down on his luck, and desperately trying to recover his love and life. Margaret Livingston plays The Woman from the City, whom the man is willing to kill his wife for, and her interestingly complex portrayal makes a character that could seem cartoonish evil, come across as more real and believable.

While the movie is likely to make you tear up on a number of occasions, it is the sort of film that requires you to push a few nagging thoughts from your head to truly enjoy. Firstly, why is the woman taking back her husband? Didn’t he try to murder her early in the film? Wasn’t he having an affair before deciding to try and murder her? Did they honestly leave their baby at home for the whole day? Seriously, didn’t he try to murder her at the beginning?

That said, this is a film about two people falling in love all over again. It is a film about coming to terms with the city, and learning that it isn’t an ominous and dangerous place, but an exciting and advanced new world. It is a film that is so simple, it just has to work. ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ is not about the bleaker parts of life, but the special and honest moments instead, and the true beauty of love. And for that, this simple little film has to be seen, for drawing so much from the silent era, and blending it seamlessly into a picture that is at once moving, and imaginative.

4/5 – Love It
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Game of Thrones poster

Does this count as a spoiler?

With everyone caught up once again with what is going on, we can dive back into the general ‘Game of Thrones’-ness in episode two, ‘The House of Black and White’. The story continues the plotlines of each of the characters from the previous episode, with the addition of Arya and the Martells of Dorne.

So, as we arrive back in the world once again, we have a very similar shot to one in season three. Arya steadily approaches the Titan of Braavos by ship, carrying on from the series finale last year. The arrival scene was almost identical to the one where Stannis and Davos arrived in the previous season, yet we have more of a chance to see Braavos itself, and it turns out that it looks like Singapore crossed with Venice. Arya travels to the titular House of Black and White, and spends the majority of the episode waiting outside the door. We get plenty of Arya one her own once again, and continuing to be the brutal shell she has become over the series so far. If not for the final shocker at the end of the episode, her scenes would have come off as incredibly depressing; she sits for days in the sun and rain, chanting her prayer. It seems as though no part of the carefree little girl from the first season is left at this point.

Once again, following on from the previous season, Dorne is out for revenge against the Lannisters for the nightmarish death of the beloved Oberyn. When a beautifully elaborate threat arrives for Cersie, she believes that her daughter, Myrcella, is in danger. For those who forget who that is, she’s the girl that Tyrion sent to Dorne in season two, just before the riots broke out. Jaime takes it upon himself to head into Dorne and rescue her, proving himself to be a good father and a powerful Lannister to Cersie. He also sets up what might be the best possible buddy-adventure storyline since Arya and The Hound.

Before we get into Dorne, it would be good to take a quick look at what is currently the worst buddy-adventure storyline: Brienne and Podrick. When these two set off together last season, I loved it. Throughout their travels in the books, I love it. But in this episode, I found them almost unbearable. Having failed to rescue Arya at the end of the last season and lamenting this fact in the previous episode, Brienne and Pod take a moment to rest in a tavern. In a hilarious turn of events, Littlefinger and Sansa happen to be having a meal in the same tavern, apparently still on the way to their mysterious destination. What followed, was possibly the most awkward and forced dialogue in the entire series so far. When George R. R. Martin writes an episode, you know it is him because everything just sounds a little off, yet it still flows well and the point comes across well. He did not write this episode, however; David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, did.

David and Dan are the people responsible for ‘Game of Thrones’ being on the air. They are two of the greatest screenwriters currently working in television, and I love their work. But for everything good, there has to be something bad to balance it out, and all the tremendous writing in previous 41 episodes was entirely karmically balanced by this single scene. Perhaps it was Michael Slovis, the director who made a mess of it, however. Dan and Dave have churned out utter brilliance over the years, while Slovis has directed… last week’s episode. I was prepared to then discuss how a horseback chase/fight was totally generic and looked very low budget for this show, until I read an interview explaining how the original fight had to be scrapped at the last minute.

For the record, it was only the Brienne and Podrick scenes that were in any way bad in this episode: the introduction to Dorne was fantastic. We have a lovely shot of the Watergardens, and get a chance to meet Prince Doran Martell, and Indira Varma makes a brilliant return as Ellaria Sand, still justifiably bitter over the death of Oberyn. While there isn’t quite the same reaction as in the books, where we learn how up in arms the entire country is over the death, I feel as though there is still a chance to ease us into Dorne’s reaction in the next few episodes.

I was expecting there to be either no storyline at The Wall this episode, or for it to be small and insignificant. However, as Jon has arguably the most to do this season, it makes sense for his story to hurtle forwards at a break-neck pace while everyone is finding their feet. Again, his character is tested (as it is every season) by an enticing offer from Stannis, yet it doesn’t resonate as much as it does in the books. Like with the Tyrion storyline, I feel as though it is probably for the best, as there is still a lot to get through.

Tyrion and Varys don’t have a lot to do this episode. For the first time in a while, this season seems to be a season of traveling. Sansa and Littlefinger are taking multiple episodes to exchange snide comments on the road, and Varys and Tyrion are taking some time to enjoy a rollicking, drunken adventure until they reach Daenerys.

And thus, I was totally done with Dany. I never wanted this to happen. I thought she was great, I thought she was interesting, I thought she was honourable, I thought she was taking on more than she knew how to. But damn it, she just lost me entirely. She threw away any shred of respect I had for her by listening to, and then entirely disregarding, the advice of Sir Barriston Selmy. You do not disrespect Barriston “the Badass” Selmy. Ever.

At the end of the episode, we get a brief glimpse of huge dragon once again, showing off the tremendous CGI in place, yet it was far too little, and just too late.

Overall, this was a good episode. Jaime, Jon, the Dornish and Arya were all brilliant, and I can’t wait to see what will happen as their stories unfold. I’m certain Brienne and Podrick will make their way back from this, as it wasn’t terrible overall, just somewhat mishandled. Dany, however, I am done with.
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Metropolis (1927) poster

‘My name is ‘Metropolis’, king of films:
Look on my robot, ye Mighty, and replicate!’

With the age of sound fast approaching us, let’s take a look at a silent film which takes the epic scope of the early Griffith movies, adds in the grand architecture of Lon Chaney’s movies, and the revolutionary styles of German expressionism. Well, that’s the review for ‘Metropolis’ out of the way – time for lunch.

Okay, okay, okay…

Released in 2027, ‘Metropolis’ follows the story of a social uprising in the science fiction urban dystopia of the title. The film was directed by Fritz Lang, who would later direct ‘M’ (which we’ll cover in the future), based on a screenplay written by himself and his wife. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film at the time of its release, costing around 16 million USD adjusting for inflation. Now we have to take a closer look at the film.

In an age when your average Hollywood blockbuster would cost you hundreds of millions of dollars, ‘Metropolis’ still holds up very well for its use of practical effects and miniatures. Scenes of the giant skyscrapers separated by scattered freeways and biplanes making their way from place to place conjure a city that is real very much alive. In the same way you feel this life and depth to the city, you can really feel the weight of all of this pressing down upon the workers who live in the bowels of the urban sprawl. A place where gardens and theatres are perched atop a skyscraper, the ground itself conjured images of a slum, and deep beneath the earth are the factories which keep the city alive.

The cinematography for the film was especially pioneering, as many occasions show layered and patchwork mixtures of various images to reflect the bustling business of the higher world. One scene showing a character’s first venture into the land of the rich and powerful evokes the images of montages showing off wealth and splendour. In a similar vein to ‘A Page Of Madness’ using the editing to give you a look inside the broken psyche of the characters, ‘Metropolis’ uses it to show the wonder and amazement of the characters surrounded by bright lights and loud costumes.

While the expressionistic and exaggerated style is great for the story and themes, the costumes and props work as a great indicator of the time. While the majority of the costumes are the standard 1920s attire, the scenes in the laboratory during the creation of the robot “Hel” strike a tremendous balance between the magical imagery of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’, and the super-serious science of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. It is a brilliant balance of science and fiction, making the story feel both real and fun. But the design of the robot itself was so spot on, that it is no wonder the film stands the test of time.

The robot of ‘Metropolis’ is one of the most recognisable images when people look back at the works of silent cinema, and it is obvious why. While Lon Chaney was creating visually unique and interesting make-up techniques to give his performances more of a visual edge, the robot was designed in such a way that everyone has seen it in one way or another. Whether you are a fan of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Mass Effect’, science fiction has been forever reimagining itself, but paying homage to the iconic design, in either C-3PO or the physical manifestation of EDI, the roots of ‘Metropolis’ and its design can still be found today.

It is perhaps this reason that ‘Metropolis’ should be required viewing over everything else. While the story, themes, characters and music all hold up brilliantly, it is the iconic power of this silent epic which continues to resonate today.

5/5 Build Shrines To It.
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Game of Thrones poster

Does this count as a spoiler?

Another year, another season of ‘Game of Thrones’. Okay, let’s not make this sound as though it’s a drag – ‘Game of Thrones’ is awesome. The series is awesome, the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series it is based on is awesome, and a lot of the expanded lore and history is awesome. But with such a high calibre of content, coming back after four fifths of a year is always going to be an apprehensive time. Everyone needs a brief refresher on what has happened up to this point, we need to be reminded of why we care about all the characters and their struggles, and on the off-chance there is anyone alive that has only decided to start watching the series now, they need to know just who are all these people.

And so, ‘The Wars to Come’ – the first episode of the fifth season of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’. How does it hold up for a first episode? Brilliantly. That said, it is because not an awful lot happens in the episode itself.

The episode begins with a flashback (which I will discuss in a moment), before picking up shortly after the events of the season four finale – Cersie and Jaime Lannister stand over the corpse of their father, and discuss how his death has changed everything. For Jaime, it is a time to prepare for the coming storm, and for Cersie, it is another round of ammunition to use in her hatred for Tyrion. From there, we see the return of Lancel Lannister, now a devout follower of The Faith of the Seven, who reintroduces the most boring religion in Westeros to the audience, while setting up themes of forgiveness and justice – something sorely lacking in this universe.

Tyrion himself is still grappling with the realisation that he murdered his lover and his father last time we saw him, but the self-loathing he is going through (and by all rights he has earned it) is cut short by the laying out of Vary’s plan of action; basically a quick synopsis of what to expect from the pair for the rest of the season. The chemistry of Tyrion and Varys still hold up, with Varys continuing the straight-man routine, and injects just enough life and optimism back into the scene to support the beautiful scenery of their location.

The same location, in fact, that Dany spent her first episode back in season one. Illyrio Mopatis, the hairy man from those few episodes, has been cut – his appearance in the books now being replaced by Varys. It was a change I would have more difficulty with, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Kevan Lannister (Lancel’s father and Tywin’s brother) returning for the first time since season two. While I would have loved to see a few episodes of Tyrion and Illyrio drinking and making jokes until the former feels fit enough to continue, his omission does streamline the story, which makes sense, seeing that they apparently want to cover two books in one season this year.

Sansa and Littlefinger continue their game of refusing to fully trust each other, while still smiling sweetly and acknowledging a growing respect, yet their story ends on a cliff-hanger (ish) as they leave the Eyrie and head for an unnamed location.

Brienne and Podrick have possibly the shortest part to play in the story, as Brienne grapples with her failure to find and rescue Arya previously, while seemingly still blaming Podrick for her disappearance. The fun dynamic of the two of them has gone (for now, at least) but there is a hint at some more character growth for each of them as the season continues.

By far the weakest part was Dany’s story. My biggest problem with Dany, is that she began back in 2011 as clearly one of the best characters, starting off in a terrible situation, finding her strength, and earning the love and support of her people (and dragons). In the second season, she grapples with what it means to be a leader, learns about who to trust, and goes through the third season as a powerful and wise badass. Then she reaches Meereen. It’s not that I have such a problem with the Meereenese knot – obviously she needed to stay in one place for a while to allow the rest of the story to catch up with her – my problem is that she is becoming a worse leader and a less likable character as time draws on.

Her time in Meereen is spent throwing the established order out the window, and then enforcing her own way of thinking and living upon an entire city that do not want her there. When acts of atrocity are committed against her and her supporters, she continues to retaliate for fear of appearing weak, bringing more pain and suffering upon her supporters. This comes perfectly around in a scene where she revisits the dragons she imprisoned last season, hoping to set them free again. Unfortunately, having been chained up in a cave for a while, they are far from accommodating. Dany continues to make sudden, big gestures, but when she thinks reasonably and tries to change anything later, she finds out the hard way that it is too late.

That said, this episode did show a visual culmination of everything ‘Game of Thrones’ stands for: boobs covered in blood.

Jon had the most story in his section. While Sam and Stannis remind the audience what the plot will cover in the coming weeks, Jon has a personal story about becoming a leader, and learning the value of other people’s points of view. Without wishing to spoil anything, he is forced to offer an option to a character which is refused, and has the decency to respect that, despite disagreeing with it. At the end of the episode, he shows that respect in a powerful, and impactful way.

All in all, the episode was great for wetting the appetites of audiences, as plenty is set up and teased. We also see the sort of struggles – and how well the show handles them – which a lot of characters are likely to face this year. But before we finish – the flashback.

Each year, the first scene has been used to resolve plots or introduce new characters. In season one, we learned about the White Walkers, in season two we met Stannis and learned about the powers of Melisandre, season three was the fallout from The Fist of the First Men, and season four was the symbolic destruction of the Starks and the victory of the Lannisters.

While there is the whole region of Dorne to be introduced, I feel as though this flash-back to Cersie’s childhood was great for giving us a new look at the character. In the books, the first time you see things from Cersei’s point-of-view, everything changes, and she becomes a must more interesting and believable character. This functions in a similar way, as we now know of the prophecy which will colour her views for the rest of the season, and have made her the character we see on screen. This tiny piece of backstory makes her later exploits appear so much more reasonable in their proper context.

That said, I still don’t know why they sexualised the creepy woods witch. Why take a character called “Maggie the Frog” from the books, and give her a pronounced cleavage? Huh, HBO?

I’m still excited for the rest of the season, though.
Proscar order

The General (1926) poster

Pictured here: The entire film.

With Chaplin often considered the very best of silent comedy, Buster Keaton often goes all too as forgotten or overlooked. Now, following on from a tremendous performance by Chaplin in ‘The Gold Rush’, I’m taking a look at a piece by Keaton that was considered a tremendous flop, and apparently lost him the approval to make most of his creative decisions in his films. Is ‘The General’ bad, though? Well, Orson Welles (the man often credited with making the greatest film of all time), described the film as “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made” – so it must be pretty good.

Last time we looked at a piece by Buster Keaton, my biggest complaint was that it was too short and wavered around in the story department. On this occasion, those point were worked out perfectly. The film feels the right length, and the story is condensed enough to allow the film to revolve almost entirely around two long chase scenes. While I was annoyed by ‘Sherlock Jr.’ taking such a long time setting up a scenario that wasn’t sufficiently resolved, ‘The General’ sets up everything it needs to in the first few minutes, and the action kicks off almost immediately.

The action takes place almost entirely on a moving train, with Keaton’s engineer character running backwards and forwards trying to keep the engine running, while also avoiding traps and, later, setting them. The craziness of the stunts in the film makes the tension artificially heightened, with Keaton not solely performing brilliant physical and slapstick comedy, but also doing so on a moving train, often jumping from carriage to carriage at high speeds. One of the biggest surprises was just how much comedy could come from a single character in a single location (admittedly a moving one) and with a single goal. At first, anything that ends up posing some form of harm to the protagonist ends up resolving itself without him noticing, and later, it turns out that many of his comical errors work out for the best in the end.

One of the most beloved things about Buster Keaton is his character’s simplicity. No matter what the situation, he is the little man trying to do good. This is part of the reason I was disappointed by ‘Sherlock Jr.’, as his powerful alter ego takes over for the majority of the screen time, and we don’t get a chance to see him battle for his success. In ‘The General’, Keaton is always the little man that could, and spends his time working flat out to achieve his noble goal while proving that he may not be the most competent man in the room – although he is always the best man.

It’s this careless innocence that allows the film to get away with an awful lot. Every time he gets off the train for one reason or another, you can bet that the train will begin moving again and force him to chase it down. You can also bet that it’ll be funny every time, either because the humour has been raised to the right level, or because Keaton always has some tremendous reaction to every situation. There is also the fact that, in the second half, Keaton is making a getaway with the female lead, and the pair’s dynamics are a joy to behold. By this point, Keaton has gone through all this before, and has a chance to play the straight man to Marion Mack’s comic relief. On the one hand, seeing her taking a break to sweep the floor of the train or turning herself into a damsel in distress by trapping herself on the train is a little cringe worthy – but on the other hand, a recurring joke of her picking the smallest pieces of firewood to stock the engine is always hilarious.

At the end of the day, ‘The General’ is a true, rip roaring adventure that cleverly plays on the ideas of staging and character, and is able to make a thoroughly tremendous chase scene into an entire movie. The film is defiantly worth watching, as it is one of those films that you will never have seen anything like it before.

4/5 Love It

A Page of Madness (1926) poster

The creepy clown tradition seems to run pretty deep…

And so, Japan. Back before their popular culture had taken over the entire world and their film industry had settled into the mould of mass-producing constipation-curing horror movies, they were taking drastic measures to differentiate themselves from other film industries around the world. In a similar vein to Germany’s love-affair with the expressionist approach, in 1926, director Teinosuke Kinugasa dove head-first into the fight against naturalism in films.

‘A Page of Madness’ follows the story of a janitor working at an insane asylum, who is married to one of the patients. The couple’s daughter arrives to tell them about her recent engagement, and the family begin to delve into their deepest, most haunting secrets and memories. Well, at least that’s what Wikipedia thinks.

One of the biggest problems with ‘A Page of Madness’, is that the original film print was lost for around 45 years, and when it was discovered in the 70s, a third of it was missing. Another problem is the lack of any title-cards, as the theatrical version would feature a narrator in – similar to Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’, only live. Without a real sense of the story, and the fact that it is cut rather short, it should seem strange that this film even makes it onto the list. And in all honesty, the film is a bit of a mess, in the story telling regard.

But, that does not bring it down as a waste of time. In some cases, like ‘The Birth of a Nation’, the story can actually be the most harmful thing for a movie. I’m not suggesting that it’s not necessary – my favourite part of films is usually the storyline – but in some cases, a lacklustre script can be used as a great way to showcase a style, theme or technology. Everyone can appreciate that the script for ‘Avatar’ was pretty shoddy, but the draw of the film is the one-of-a-kind CGI work and special effects.

The biggest strength for ‘A Page of Madness’, therefore, is its fantastic work is setting a tone. For the opening sequence, a slideshow of maddening footage is cut together quickly and efficiently, causing a sweet sense of insanity. The use of shadows, set design and staging, create the illusion of the asylum being more than just a physical place – the characters are trapped within a labyrinthine prison located in their own minds. The simple act of putting it on screen, shoving it in the audience’s face, forcing them to look, thrust you into that same mind-set. The creaking, moaning musical accompaniment also helps to build this atmosphere of insanity, which wears away at you after a while.

‘A Page of Madness’ becomes a chore to watch – and not in the way you might be thinking. It isn’t boring like ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, it isn’t oppressively vile like the second act of ‘The Birth of a Nation’, but it is maddening in its own right. It’s the sort of onslaught of images, music and general motifs that brings you to the point of insanity yourself, and really forces you to connect with some of the characters on a deep and emotional level. The film is raw, thought-provoking, and dangerous, with a sense that it will never end – helped in a large part of you not really knowing where the story is going.

When that end does come, after only an hour, it is exhausting. It’s the sort of film where you need to take a long walk outside after you finish it. But it certainly works from an artistic perspective. On the one hand, this film felt like it was physically assaulting me. On the other, I had no idea what was going on, or why I should care – this did help quite a bit with setting up the former. I honestly don’t know whether it is worth watching. I think I will again, one day, when the scars have healed, but in the meantime, I don’t really wish to set myself up with that level of torture again. But it is an experience, certainly, and I suppose that in order to full acquaint yourself with the honest power of film, then ‘A Page of Madness’ will give you an experience you aren’t likely to forget for a long time.

3/5 – Watch It