Homeland (Series 1 & 2)

More twists than the Nürburgring.

Carrie Mathison works for the CIA. She hears that some US soldier who’s been held prisoner by some extremist group has gone over to the beardie side. Not long afterwards, Nicholas Brody is released from captivity. “He’s a mad beardie!” screams Carrie. A lot. “No,” Brody keeps saying in a flat monotone, and everyone believes him.

In fact, Brody is working for Abu Nazir, plotting to kill the Vice President, who gave the order for the drone strike that killed Nazir’s son, Aisa to whom Brody had become deeply attached. (Just as an aside, how is it that when Brody is rescued, he’s a dishevelled mess, but he was perfectly all right while he was teaching Aisa?) The cunning plan is to herd the VP and everyone to a safe room so that Brody can then blow himself up, but the bomb fails to explode, and then his daughter rings him, and he can’t go through with it.

Don’t worry about it, says Nazir. You can still be evil. “How?” asks Brody. Become a politician.

And so Brody ends up becoming a Congressman, and tipped as a potential Vice President.

There’s one small fly in the ointment. Carrie is temporarily reinstated with the CIA so that she can go and have a chat with the wife of a terrorist commander in Beirut, who has some information. In typical Carrie style, she shouts hysterically and runs into the house where the commander lives so that she can gather intelligence. It seems to be no more than his shopping list until Saul finds an SD card sewn into a bag which has the video in which Brody explains why he blew himself up (but never did).

Thus, the CIA turns Brody, although to save Carrie, he gives Abu Nazir the serial number of the VP’s pacemaker so that the beardies can hack into the man’s heart and kill him. Job done.

The CIA eventually get their man after Carrie rants and raves hysterically again, but he gets them back by blowing up Langley with a bomb. “What’s my car doing there?” says Brody. “That’s not where I parked it.” Oh, f… says Carrie, getting cut off by the explosion. You did it! You did it! she screams wildly. “No,” replies Brody in a monotone, and for once he’s telling the truth. They go on the run, and Saul is left in charge.

Carrie is a manic depressive, but has hidden this from the CIA. She ends up having sex with Brody. In one episode, Saul Berenson (Carrie’s mentor) suddenly declares that she loves Brody. Really? There’s no real chemistry between Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, and Danes has the wild-eyed loon thing down a treat.

Brody’s daughter, Dana, is also prone to Carrie-like mood swings and hysterical rants. I suspect the writers didn’t know what to do with the character of a teenage girl, thus turning her into mini-Carrie. The character seems to be constantly on the verge of rumbling her dad, and she discovers that he’s a Muslim (I note that Jessica Brody doesn’t confront him with a bacon sandwich).

Homeland is both compelling and ridiculous at the same time. It’s as if the writers sat around trying to think of more and more implausible plot twists. The character of Carrie gets more and more annoying as she rants and raves at regular intervals. “Don’t do it, Carrie!” says Saul. Does she bother listening? No. If she was a World War I general, she’d be telling her men to charge straight at the machine guns because bullets only sting a little bit.

While the plot twists may make Homeland compelling, they can feel relentless, and although art requires the suspension of disbelief, it has little power against eye-rollingly inane plots.

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A pot pourri of reviews

Dark Mirror.

Dark Mirror is a series of one-off stories about modern technology, either how it affects us or how it might affect us in the future. Charlie Brooker (sometime Guardian wit) does his best work with political satire (the first and last episodes) and strains himself to get sufficient material for the rest, none of which were worth more than a ten-minute vignette.

Mrs Brown’s Boys (Third Series).

I knew of Mrs Brown’s Boys, but was at a disadvantage, having never seen it before. Once I got to know the characters, I was on a sounder footing with it.

The programme revolves around Mrs Brown and her family, which is not wholly boys, neighbours (well, the slightly dozy Winnie), and friends, with everything shot at home or in the pub. The performances appear to be done live, hence they film through the spontaneous retakes that sometimes interrupt.

I don’t know whether there’s ever been anything else between Father Ted and Mrs Brown’s Boys, but the latter has the same sort of surreal humour as the former. Must see if I can find the first two series sometime.

Witchblade.

I’m trying to recall how it is I read the comic on line many years ago, but I can’t, and I certainly read it long after the TV series (2000) had come and gone.

Sarah Pezzini is united with the Witchblade so that she can go on cut-price adventures in New York, battling supernatural forces, Mr Blond (who may or may not be on her side) and Mr Blond’s minion (or son), who is in love with her.

I’m not surprised the series didn’t last even if Yancy Butler’s alcoholism hadn’t been a contributory factor in its cancellation. It didn’t help turning the second series into a reboot in which Pezzini has visions of the events which happened in the first. Another problem, I think, i that it took itself a bit too seriously. Mr Blond being outed as a cross-dressing Nazi in suspender belt and stockings being leaked on the Internet in some colossal rant about predictive texting on mobile phones might’ve been just the shot it needed.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

This time it’s contemporary satire. Shield has been infiltrated by the NSA Hydra, led by Robert Redford (who also leads Shield). Only Captain America can save the day, but he has to fight the Winter Soldier, who’s actually his old friend, Bucky, who was captured by the Germans and given a metal arm with, strangely enough, a red star on it.

There’s a big fight on some flying battleships, which are reprogrammed to shoot each other down. Oddly enough, where the other two blast each other’s engines to pieces, the third only sustains a minimal amount of damage so that it can crash into a building.

Another competently done action flick in the seemingly endless Marvel series which has plenty of fighting and explosions for Third-World audiences, and a bit of satire for good measure.

Pacific Rim.

Most of the few comments about this which I’d seen on line were dismissive. It’s the live-action version of RahXephon or Neongenesis. One after another, the kaiju have been coming through a wormhole and wrecking havoc on Earth. Humanity responds by building giant mechas which can only be adequately controlled by two people who happen to be compatible. But the construction of a massive wall around the Pacific is seen as the ultimate, but rather wrong answer.

It may not exactly be how the Japanese would do mecha anime, but a lot of the elements are there such as the nitwit scientists who discover that the attacks are a prelude to an invasion or the somewhat shy Japanese girl who wants to be on the team (and gets to be without the unnecessary ado which would be found in the American version).

A film for anime fans, but won’t make a lot of sense to anyone not familiar with this sort of thing.

Lucy.

Lucy has to deliver some blue powder to some Korean gangster (no, I think this one comes from south of the 38th parallel) who then decides to use her as a drug mule by shoving the drug, which is some sort of baby-grow powder, inside her. The bag leaks, and Lucy develops superpowers, eventually turning herself into a computer and transcending time and space.

There were times when the film was reasonably engaging, and times when it was just being overindulgent because it had nothing of consequence to say.

Jupiter Ascending.

A sci-fi faerie tale about a girl called Jupiter Jones who happens to be the reincarnation of the mother of the galaxy’s ruling family, whose various ageing, but eternally young offspring all want to use her or kill her. Don’t worry. She has a space werewolf to protect her. The family’s especially dirty little secret is that they harvest planets inhabited to create the elixir that keeps them perpetually young. Well, there you go – satire on the parasitic consumerism of the tiny minority who have most of the money.

Having started life as a cleaner on Earth, even though Jones may own the whole planet, she goes back to being a cleaner, and she doesn’t quite hate her life so much. So another message – common people, know your place.

Last Knights.

A fantasy romp in which Morgan Freeman is executed for clashing with a corrupt official and Clive Owen pretends to be an alcoholic while secretly plotting his revenge.

Good triumphs. Well, sort of. Good gets massacred and improbably survives a twenty-foot fall off a balcony on to some fairly hard-looking flagstones to give the corrupt official the lumps he richly deserves. But the emperor decides someone needs to be punished because an attack on his officials is an attack on him.

Another of those weird fantasy films where everyone has a different accent.

Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Samuel L. Jackson is some nutjob who wants to kill off a lot of people to save the planet from being destroyed. It sounds like the same sort of weird logic that fuels Intelligent Design. Only the Kingsmen can stop him. Perhaps.

In the meantime, some new recruits are being put through their paces to see which of them can ultimately shoot a dog and become part of this elite band.

At the end of the day, Eggsy thrashes the chief henchman and the villain, saves the world, and snogs a princess before he pops home to give the local bully a smack or so.

If the film had focused on one side (the main plot) or the other (the selection of a new recruit), it might’ve worked a little better even though the two parts were eventually melded together as Eggsy took up where Harry had left off.

Ender’s Game (book)

By Orson Scott Card

As Earth’s only hope, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is packed off to Battle School at the tender age of 6 to become a great military leader. He is, of course, already a genius, and in spite of all the psychological torment the school puts him through, he manages to survive and shine.

But why has he been sent to battle school? Because mankind is fighting a war against the buggers.

Buggers?! Yup, buggers, Card’s (Scott Card’s? NB. Americans, please choose sensible names) unfortunate term for the race of insects against which the human race has fought two wars and is on the verge of fighting a third.

Having endured Battle School, Wiggin is sent to Command School because time is running out. He’s reunited with some of his classmates from Battle School, and after a series of supposed tests, the pass mark for the final exam is genocide (insecticide?). Wiggin becomes a great hero, but can’t return to Earth, and having been sent to a former insect colony, he discovers something unexpected.

While Wiggin is at Battle School, his psychopathic brother, Peter, plans to conquer the world along with their sister, Valentine. Together, using the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes (writing as their alter egos to muddy the waters further), they establish themselves as major commentators on the nets, influencing politics and international relations. Wiggin is a blend of the other two. He can be decidedly deadly (the incidents with Stilson and Bonzo Madrid), but he also has a conscience (the egg). It seems strange that although both of the older Wiggins were rejected from Battle School, no one seems to have considered that they, being just as brilliant as their younger brother, might pose some danger to Earth in the right or wrong hands.

Ender’s Game is an odd book in that it’s a story of institutionalised child abuse and, ultimately, casual genocide. Card writes Wiggin as a highly resilient child who endures everything that is thrown at him and yet survives largely unscathed by his experience. The book is about war as a game, and although the characters of Peter and Valentine are used to explore political ideology, Wiggin isn’t subject to any sort of racist indoctrination. (Tellingly, this article on Wired says “The only time his beliefs came up in our conversations was a comment he made about fiction being a totally inappropriate venue for any kind of ideological proselytizing.”)

The original story goes back to 1977, and the book was first published in 1985. At the time, the Vietnam War would’ve been recent history, but the Cold War had not yet come to an end. Although the threat to Earth is external, in a bout of unintentional foresight, Card writes of the Russians preparing for a terrestrial war in spite of a treaty which is intended to keep the peace on Earth while the insects remain a threat. The alien race could still stand for the Russians at the time or Communism (totalitarianism) in general.

Thus, if Ender’s Game is a Cold War yarn, is Ender Wiggin a reflection of Card himself, who, it seems reasonable to suppose, was quite possibly a child whose precocity isolated him from others? Wiggin perpetually shines throughout the book, coming close to defeat in some battles, but never losing one. His fatal fights with Stilson and Bonzo Madrid are the sort of scenes of wish fulfilment that would appeal to clever people who have been bullied by stupid ones.

Ender’s Game is well written, but ambiguous. Wiggin’s treatment raises intermittent comments; the extermination of the insects ultimately doesn’t bother anyone; and Wiggin’s discovery of the egg potentially undermines his genocidal victory. What is the reader meant to think? What’s the message? And do you have to be a Mormon to understand it?