Sunday, 28 April 2013

Iron Man Three

Through A Glass Starkly

Iron Man Three
USA/China 2013
Directed by Shane Black
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Tiny, slight but sharp, splinters of 
spoilers working towards the heart of this review.

Please Note: The posters advertising this movie refer to the title as Iron Man 3 whereas, on the actual print of the film I saw playing at UK cinemas last week, it was definitely Iron Man Three... which is how I will refer to it in this review. 

You know, I really have always liked screenwriter Shane Black’s work a heck of a lot. Specifically, I loved his writing on the first Lethal Weapon movie, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. When he got his directing gig on another gem he’d written (adapted from an old Mike Shayne adventure) called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I was blown away all over again. I think this guy is a true artist when it comes to popular culture and I look forward to him getting his Doc Savage movie off the ground (as long as it’s set sometime in the thirties that is). Which is why I kinda regret some of the things that I feel I need to write here to give Iron Man Three a fair shake of the stick.

I also really loved the first Iron Man movie. I think it’s certainly one of the best two or three super-hero movies ever made and it delivers some serious and sometimes morally challenging ideas with the grace, delivery and style of a 1930s screwball comedy, especially in the scenes of dialogue between Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr) and Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). I couldn’t say enough good things about that first movie when it was initially released and that’s not really changed in terms of the first one now. The second movie though... well the Stark/Potts relationship took a backseat for the most part and ultimately, I felt kind of let down by it and, though it pains me to say it, I feel the same about Iron Man Three in some regards.

Now please don’t get me wrong here... I thought Iron Man Three, the fifth film to feature Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man (so it’s really Iron Man 5 if you’re counting people!) had some fantastic stuff in it and some of Shane’s writing in the smaller, dialogue filled sequences is absolutely brilliant. In fact, on paper, there’s really not much not to like. The main title character is changed by the events of this movie, which may well have some sort of impact in future films and some new concepts are introduced such as not having to be in the Iron Man suit to be able to pilot it, for one, and then the next logical jump from that being that you can command a whole army of empty suits into your personal crack unit... that was a nice idea (although how they top this kind of thing in future movies I don’t know).

It’s absolutely filled to the brim with some nice moments such as Happy (played again by the director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Jon Favreau) being addicted to the TV show Downton Abbey and the brilliant portrayal of The Mandarin by Ben Kingsley which, if you know as little about the screen incarnation of this character as I did, will be quite a pleasant surprise to you when Tony Stark’s character gets to met him in the flesh. The movie also deals with concepts such as a lead character who inadvertently makes his own demons (which I think is a road we’ve kind of been down on before with Iron Man but it seems to work pretty well here) and also dealing with the psychological consequences of the heroic “save and fall” that Tony Stark pulled off in the fourth Iron Man film, The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble). This is all good stuff and there’s enough good writing on show to tie everything from Tony Stark’s past screen exploits together in a neat and appropriate package, which is just what Shane Black does.

I think the main problems, for me, were the deadly dull bits between the strong dialogue sequences and the sometimes not so kick ass action sequences... and also the ongoing issue that you need to keep having foes who are able to take on Iron Man and try to get them as credible as you can within the silver screen edition of the Marvel Universe that nobody questions it. It was always done fairly “real world” by using people with technically brilliant weapons or weaponised armour in the first two movies, but here Shane Black takes a more organic, “more human than human” approach with ex Neighbours TV soap star Guy Pearce playing a scientist who has invented a drug to give people the ability to grow limbs back (The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man really needs to work with this guy, I think) and also to turn them into either super-powered villains or, in some cases, powerful bombs. I guess this could have been handled credibly in a kind of “4-colour-Cronenberg” kind of way but, alas, the flashy, orange CGI work and over the top nature of the super-powered beings in this did seem to scratch a little at the credible surface of even a movie that has characters such as Iron Man running around in them. I guess, since The Avengers, all bets are off when it comes to credibility of the antagonists but I would have preferred him to face a more realistic set of villains in this one. I guess I can see why they felt they needed to do this, though.

The editing was something I lament on this movie, especially in a long battle towards the end of the story (which is where most of the action is located anyway... towards the end of the film). I did have trouble following the speed of the cuts and found placing the shots which flashed before my eyes in this sequence into some kind of coherent order fairly challenging, to be fair. As a result, the final fight in the movie didn’t really hit any emotional high points for me (which are often best done in isolation anyway) and I did find some of the footage kinda incomprehensible as I tried to follow along. And despite that, I still feel the movie needed about 20 - 30 minutes of judicious pruning in certain areas when it comes down to it. A shorter, tighter film may have worked better.

Another weakness of these particular Marvel branded movies is, of course, the consistency of the musical scores...

Marvel have done a heck of a lot of things right in the last five years or so when it comes to the specific subset of the Marvel Universe films they are bringing out as opposed to films series like Spider-Man and X-Men from other studios. They’ve gone for mostly great scripts, well thought out choices of director (Kenneth Branagh for Thor for instance, was one of a few strokes of genius) and they are inhabiting all these movies with a strong set of well established, “serious” actors who lend a certain amount of weight to their roles and who are not, as often happens, ignoring the ensemble nature of the way the characters all need to work together. This is all good stuff, of course.

Why then, are they completely compromising all that by not giving each subset of heroes who make up The Avengers their own, string of signature scores? Take this particular sequence of Iron Man films, for instance. We’ve had three stand alone Iron Man movies (not including The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers within this example, because it just makes the water muddier when it comes to music) and three separate composers scoring each one with completely different leitmotifs for the characters. Seriously, people, we had Ramin Djawadi, John Debney on the second and now Brian Tyler on the third... all of them are excellent composers and all of them have done brilliant and appropriate scores for these films... but none of them match up with each other. Why?

The only stab Marvel made at musical continuity was getting Captain America: The First Avenger composer Alan Silvestri back for The Avengers, but this didn’t do much justice for the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man characters in terms of melodic value and binding the characters together with an integration of those specific melodies. So Iron Man Three does, unfortunately, continue the trend of completely ignoring the musical continuity of the character in every way except style (there’s usually a lot of percussion in the Iron Man movies, for sure).

Having moaned about all that, though, and my general dissatisfaction with certain elements of the film... there are still a lot of really great scenes throughout the running time which are more than worth paying the price of admission for. I’ve already mentioned Ben Kingsley’s scene stealing performance as... well, anyway, his few but amazing scenes. In addition to this you have the Tony/Pepper scenes still fairly sharp and witty in the dialogue and you also have a teenage character for some of the movie who really reminds us that, although it’s never really in great shape, Tony Stark does have a heart and is a real human being who is trying to do the right thing. And I still love the character’s arrogance and the way that his self awareness of his personality informs the audience that you can’t take this guy at what’s showing on the surface... a real testament to Rob Downey Jr’s continued excellence at playing this, and many other, characters.

So I’m done with this one. It’s not the best but even so, it’s a heck of a ride and although you might find yourself dissatisfied with certain sequences, there’s a hell of a lot of good stuff on show and the director, production team and studio should feel proud that they’ve been able to deliver an above average super-hero movie again. It’s not that easy to do.

One last thing... this film continues the trend of the movies having an additional scene after the last drop of the end credits play out... and it’s pretty cool and I was pleased to see one of my favourite living actors sharing some screen time with Robert Downey Jr again. Let’s just say that, if you were a fan of the last movie starring this character... you will want to stay seated for this last, little sequence.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Doctor Who - Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS

Fiddling While TARDIS Vernes

Doctor Who - Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS
Airdate: 27th April 2013. UK. BBC1

Warning: New spoilers waiting to be discovered as you journey to the centre of this article.

For a long time now, Doctor Who fans around the world have been given occasional little audio and visual glimpses of other parts of The Doctor’s famous time and space travelling machine, TARDIS, besides the main console room which features in a lot, although not nearly all, of the stories. But rarely are we given a real chance to see what the rest of the TARDIS is properly like and even just the sound of the cloister bell, a famous chime in the Doctor Who universe, is enough to light up fans' eyes en masse (first used in Tom Baker’s last story Logopolis and still used in the Matt Smith series more than it ever was in the past, strangely enough).

So it was with much trepidation that I embarked on this episode with the Jules Verne inspired title of Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS... after 50 years of not having enough budget to show us much else of The Doctor’s good vessel (in spite of at least one Hartnell story taking place in its entirety on board this ship). I was really not wanting to see much else of it in all honesty.

Moffat does like to change things and tinker with the established myth of Doctor Who more than The Meddling Monk and sometimes that can get quite interesting (when confined to certain acceptable parameters) and other times that can just seem quite arrogant, unnecessary and, frankly, leaving a downright tragic aftertaste in the mouth. I’m dreading what is going to be revealed in four weeks time at the end of the current series, for example... he’s already made some horrible references to The Doctor’s name in some scenes that really didn’t work in the last series and onward and... well... let’s all wait and see.

So, did the episode which was advertised to be an exploration of some of the parts of the TARDIS we’ve never seen before prove to be an interesting and respectful look at the space/time vehicle of this beloved show’s history or... did it fall flat? My expectations were not really going too much in either direction, well... with the exception of aforementioned trepidation, that is... and I can say now that this episode proved to be...


There was, as I’m sure a lot of us were all expecting, a lot of running down corridors and some of the rooms (and you really didn’t get to see much more than the corridors for most of the running time) looked like cheap CGI backgrounds as opposed to actual sets... but the episode certainly wasn’t anywhere disrespectful to the shows of the past and, considering it was presumably the “bottle neck”* episode of the current series, it was mostly quite entertaining too (Bottle neck episode is a term for an episode of a TV show which is deliberately “written cheap” to allow money allocated to be used for other episodes when unexpected costs happen. These episodes frequently feature few sets and often a lot of flashbacks to previous episodes, to the extent that many people also refer to them as “flashback episodes”. Many shows have them and they’re often not very hard to spot.).

This episode offered a few tantalising glimpses of things every fan would want to explore further, such as a Gallifreyan library with a certain book charting The History Of The Time War which gave Clara a mini moment of epiphany in regards to The Doctor’s name and his place in the universe, so to speak. Unfortunately, the episode also managed to cop out on all these little things because the way our heroes got out of this week's story was, frankly, a big time and space reset button which erased the versions of our characters out of history after they’d saved themselves from earlier folly, thus rendering the majority of the characters (at least the important ones) without a memory of the episode. So that was a bit pointless.

And, yes... we got to hear the cloister bell again. Briefly.

Nevertheless, although there was some hellish imagery used in the story, there were also some wonderful, visual delights, with a very diverse set of colour palettes used from scene to scene... especially the moment when The Doctor and Clara went from running through orange and green lit corridors to the side of a “snarling” plateau which used colouring more reminiscent of the Pertwee era. Pertwee, in fact, was also heard in this episode... as were a few Doctors and companions, since the removal of a panel on the TARDIS console triggered a series of sound bytes from the shows past, starting with a sample of The Doctor’s grandchild Susan Foreman (as played by Carole Ann Ford) explaining the TARDIS acronym from the very first episode of the very first story, An Unearthly Child. 

And talking of children, and possible grandchildren, it was also nice to have a glimpse, once again, of Melody Pond’s (aka River Song’s) cot from the A Good Man Goes To War episode too. Nice touch and one is still wondering, or at least I am, if Clara will eventually be revealed as the daughter of River and The Doctor at some point... or is she a future incarnation of The Doctor’s Daughter perhaps, ripped from David Tennant’s DNA in his third series as The Doctor. That’s another of my many theories this week... I’m hoping Moffat’s got something a little more clever planned for his big reveal though.

It wasn’t a fantastic story, it has to be said, but it certainly wasn’t a big letdown like the five episodes which comprised the first part of “Series Seven” were either, so that’s okay. It kept me interested and it really feels like the producers of the show are working up to something big. Now I’ve been twice bitten by that already with this series over the last couple of years so I’m not going to get my hopes up just yet... especially with Moffat now threatening that this year will somehow change the show.

What I will do, though, is look forward to next weeks Victorian London shenanigans with the return of my favourite lesbian Silurian, my favourite Sontaran and Bond/Avengers gal Diana Rigg in it. Wish I could leap seven days into the future and check it out now.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Olympus Has Fallen


Olympus Has Fallen
USA 2013
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Very slight spoilers lurking stealthily to jump out and stab you up!

In his new film Die Hard, Bruce Willis plays an action hero who is trapped in a building with a group of terrorists... woah.

Wait, wait. Okay... sorry folks. For a minute there I got my movies mixed up. Let me start this review again.

In his new film Olympus Has Fallen, Gerard Butler plays an action hero who is trapped in a building with a group of terrorists.

Yep, that’s nailed it good.

For anybody still in any doubt... yes, Olympus Has Fallen bears a similar structure and stimulates the exact same thrills that the original Die Hard movie did. The simplistic plots to both are uncannily alike and when I tweeted less than an hour before going to see this new one that I was just going off to see Die Hard 6: Today Is A Good Day For Olympus To Fall, I really wasn’t expecting the similarities to be so blatant and while I think the original Die Hard has a lot of edge over Olympus Has Fallen, in both its witty visual and musical language and, also, its good humour, the slightly more straightforward Olympus Has Fallen is also quite entertaining and is actually quite competently made.

That being said, the film doesn’t quite satisfy enough at the end.

Similarly, a film I liked years ago by the same director, The Replacement Killers, also suffers from the same lack of over the top panache in the “end game” stakes but then again, that might not be what the director was aiming for with this one. And while it’s far from a perfect action movie, it’s certainly very well crafted... not particularly in composition terms but certainly in the editing. It’s not the jumpy MTV generation style of visual jiggery pokery you might be expecting from an action fest of this magnitude and there are some nice, fluid and longer shots amidst the “dazed and confused” style of editing going on in some of the more insanely loud sequences in the movie. And at least the shots all seem to match up to each other.

What I’m trying to say here, I guess, is that the action sequences, of which there are many, won’t leave you confused and wondering about what’s just happened... it’s all very well put together and easy to understand. They’ve started getting a little better at this kind of stuff again just lately in Hollywood it seems, as opposed to five or so years ago when you couldn’t follow hardly anything in these types of action jamborees.

Olympus Has Fallen is a phrase used for when The White House has been “taken” and it’s certainly been taken in no uncertain terms in this movie (a group of terrorists with a particular set of skills, no doubt). Aaron Eckhart, an actor I rate quite highly in modern Hollywood, does an excellent job of playing a president who is taken hostage with his staff in his own bunker in The White House and Gerard Butler, who is not such a slouch himself, plays the action hero with a tragic link to the president’s recent past life and is the “man of the match” and “on the scene” when it comes down to being the only “weapon” that stands between the nuclear destruction of the USA and North Korean terrorists. Although one of the ways he does this, and there seems to be an abundance of this kind of action in this particular movie, is to run around stabbing terrorists in the head.

I’m not kidding. That seems to be almost a mini theme of this movie. Stabbing people in the head. I’m not sure you can even do that all that efficiently, can you? I understand a high speed bullet will go through a person’s skull but surely a blade weapon which isn’t launched at “deadly miles per hour” is just going to glance of the skull of a person, isn’t it?

Apparently not, it would seem, and the person who knows this the best is Gerard Butler... who will basically stab anything in the head that moves in this film. Now, yes, I know he’s got to be all stealthy and not fire off any shots lest the terrorists know he’s there and “shhhh... be wery, wery quiet, I’m hunting rabbit”... and all that but, seriously, there’s more head penetration action in this flick than Deep Throat. What can it all mean? A disturbing trend setter perhaps.

Anyway, Gerard is obviously the man for the job and we watch as he runs about the floors of The White House, getting a couple of people to safety and figuring out how to get into the bunker before atomic death reaches Washington in fairly more realistic way than Martian death rays or giant reptiles. He’s ably supported by a brilliant cast, too, including the aforementioned Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster and the much wasted Rhada MIichell as “the wife of the action hero”, who is there to provide the odd poignant moment while Mr. Butler’s character takes a shot (in the head) at redemption to make up for the time six months prior to these events when he fumbled saving the life of the President’s wife.

And that’s what this movie is about. Redemption!

Well, okay, redemption and, you know, stabbing people in the head really a lot. It’s about that too.

I have to say that the character set ups in this one, dead Presidential wife, teaching the President’s son all the nooks and crannys of The White House etc are really kinda obvious, but at least what’s on the written page is executed extremely well and this extends to Trevor Morris’ excellent score which is appropriately flag waving and percussive and matches the on-screen fireworks pretty well... although it does get buried under the sound effects quite a lot, I'm afraid. I’d like to hear this as a stand alone score away from the film but, sadly, so far it’s only available as a download and not on a proper CD... so I probably won’t get the opportunity. Still, if we’re lucky, somebody might release it at some point.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say about Olympus Has Fallen. If you like the Die Hard kinds of action movies and you want to see one that succeeds in all the areas a movie like that needs to succeed in and which presses all the right buttons, then this movie is it and you won’t regret giving it some of your time. That being said, it’s not something I’d probably look at again as opposed to the Bruce Willis films, which I probably will give a spin every ten years or so. But, again, having said that... I’d be fine with queuing up for a sequel and seeing how that goes. If explosions and bloody mayhem and err... head stabbing... are your thing, held up by some solid acting from all the principle cast (and the various people being stabbed in the head), then you should probably get down to your cinema to see this one while you can.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Doctor Who - Hide

Ticket To Hide

Doctor Who - Hide
Airdate: 20th April 2013. 

Warning: This review will be haunted by quite big spoilers.

Now that’s more like it. Proper classic BBC ghost story time and, very much classic Who. And we even had a return visit from an old friend... sort of.

Okay, so this is the kind of thing that British TV used to do so well in the 1970s... with various M. R. James adaptations and shows like The Stone Tape (which I still haven't seen) and The Omega Factor. In fact, this weeks story could almost have been a classic episode of that great TV sci-fi scarefest of the late seventies, Sapphire And Steel... except with Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman replacing David McCallum and Joanna Lumley.

Now, as usual for a lot of these kinds of things... the writers will spend the first third or more of the show building up the sheer supernatural scariness of the seeming plight of whoever the main protagonists happen to be, before tearing it all down and sewing it up as either a) some kind of time window thingy or b) some kind of alien creature thingy. As it happens, though, while I was expecting it to be very much of the first possible solution to this weeks ghost problem... and I was trying to work out which of this week’s two leading ladies was actually going to turn out to be the ghost that was haunting them all due to the intervention of The Doctor and Clara... it turned out that the writer had cross-pollinated a bit of both of my expected two possible outcomes and gone for a not quite as thrilling but certainly interesting blend of the two.

On hand to please the drooling fans and to give the young psychic lady, Emma Grayling, a helping boost to open up a tiny wormhole in time was the old friend I mentioned earlier... the old friend being a blue crystal from Metebelis 3. Long in the tooth fans of the show... and by that I mean very ancient people like myself... will possibly remember the planet first showing up in the Jon Pertwee era story The Green Death, with Jo Grant keeping a blue crystal from the planet where The Doctor picked it up. She takes it with her at the end of the story, when she leaves the show, but sends it back to The Doctor in time for it to be an important plot device in the last proper Jon Pertwee story, Planet Of The Spiders (featuring the titular Spiders of Metebelis). So it’s good to see the famed blue crystal again and one wonders if, being this is the fiftieth year of the show’s broadcast, it might pop up again a little later in the year, since it’s such a famous prop for the show.

The atmosphere in Hide was evoked very well with all manner of spooky shivers on hand with the only real fumble being, in my opinion, a quite overt reference to the classic 1963 Robert Wise film The Haunting... which is my all time favourite horror movie and which is based on an equally chilling novel by Shirley Jackson called The Haunting of Hill House (check it out if you’ve not read/seen it but leave the 1999 remake alone while you’re about it). The famous hand holding scene lifted quite ineffectually from this, I have to say, is something I’ve mentioned before, I’m sure, in relation to the executive producer of this show, Steven Moffat. His writing style of “the scary thing is already happening or has happened and you didn’t notice it” kind of spooky element is very much something he tries, and often succeeds, to emulate and although he didn’t actually write tonight’s episode... one has to wonder if he didn’t ask for that specific lift from The Haunting to be put in there.

Apart from that wrong step, which frankly would have been a lot better with a lot less lighting and a lot more ghost/time travel logic behind it in terms of direct aftermath, the rest of the episode is all a big thumbs up from me in terms of top notch writing, blistering acting performances (I want to see these two new characters again) and some nice editing and shot composition... not that I have particularly big thumbs, mind you. There was a particularly nice lighting effect (or more likely computer manipulated desaturation and recolouring effect) whenever The Doctor was in the “pocket universe” for example, which really was easy on the eye. Was very impressed by it, I must say. There was even a kind of time-travelling variant of the photographs that David Warner and Gregory Peck were having so much trouble with in The Omen, but that worked so well that it was only when I was sitting back and writing this review just now that I realised the connection. Good stuff.

And Murray Gold’s score, although I think it had a lot of old stuff tracked in, also had some nice strong statements and variants of the Eleventh Doctor sub-theme rattling around at key moments and I must confess my foot was definitely tapping through a lot of the episode. Still looking forward to some nice CD score releases from this season from Silva Screen at some point later on in the year.

There was also some nice moments with the TARDIS and Clara’s relationship going on as “the old girl” learns to start trusting Clara a little, not that I’d give that much stock, to be honest. I still think Clara could either be the next incarnation of The Doctor (if Tennant doesn’t ‘re-land that role’) or quite possibly the new nemesis of The Doctor... or an old one... The Rani, The Master... when is that timelord pocket watch going to come out?

And I don’t think there’s much else to say about this one, to be honest. If I wasn’t quite as satisfied by the show’s denouement as I’d hoped I’d be, I was still certainly taken a little unawares by it (just a little though) and it was still interesting enough to hold my attention. And when the end logic of both mini solutions of this weeks ghostly apparition were both revealed to be all about love, then that’s always enough to get my heart behind a show. Love rules! I like it.

Okay, so all good stuff. Next week’s episode looks like it could go either way with an exciting journey to the centre of the TARDIS.. let’s wait and see how that one turns out, shall we?

Friday, 19 April 2013


Cogito Argo Sum

2012 USA
Directed by Ben Affleck
Redemption BluRay Region B

“Argo f*** yourself.”

A phrase which takes on a little (just a little) extra resonance during the course of this movie, which I finally caught up with on Blu Ray... although I really had wanted to go see it at the cinema and found myself thwarted by a “too full up” life at the time. That I wanted to go see a movie involving some politics, a subject I know little about nor have any interest in, may have surprised a good deal of my friends but I’ve always been a bit of a Ben Affleck fan after his sterling work in his films with Kevin Smith, particularly the third and fourth of the Jay And Silent Bob movies, Chasing Amy and Dogma.

I also wanted to see the old Saul Bass Warner’s logo, which this movie opens with, on a big screen again... another thing in which I was stymied but that’s okay. People will keep coming back to that logo in homage for many years to come, I reckon. It also signals the kind of film Ben Affleck is trying to make... that is to say... something mired in the style of seventies Hollywood filmmaking and which stands up against such political thrillers as The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. Indeed, I’d heard that the style of the filmmaking was very close to those kinds of movies but I think that might a bit of wishful “interpretation” in this case.

Certainly, the film does more than hold up against the two films I just mentioned and many more of their ilk... Argo is a great movie and a great achievement and, perhaps, even deserved its Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards this year, in as much as any of them deserve it (which is pretty much never, in my book, but that’s another story). But, though it does eschew a few obvious modern film making techniques, and while Ben Affleck has certainly gone to some lengths to keep the film very close in style to a seventies movie (copying sequence structures and blowing up film so the grain is more prominent), I think the film still has quite a strong feel of the contemporary about it and I think there’s more than a little of nostalgia, as it relates to post-modernism, in the make-up of this movie than was perhaps required.

And that’s not a dig at Ben Affleck (nor the movie) as I don’t think that “looking back” symptom of nostalgic reverence is something that can easily be escaped or ignored and, I think, it’s probably a mistake to think you can do that... and possibly box office suicide too if you were 100% successful.

Having said that, the film does have long sequences where it does feel very “1970s” like and hats off to Mr. Affleck for making this all work so well. There’s an unwillingness to use hand held camera for most (if not all?) of the film but that doesn’t stop there being a lot of motion in the camera and the long smooth tracking shots which twist and turn and then are cut against other similar kinds of shots and then broken up completely by little short shots is something which works really effectively as a modus operandi here and, dare I say it, kinda brings a modern sensibility and thrill to a movie by subverting the very techniques it is intending to imitate.

What this leaves us with is a brilliantly shot (actually) motion picture which, even at it’s most Hollywood near the end when a series of freak coincidences, which I in no way believe happened that tightly in real life, are drawn out to make the suspense almost unbearable... is a very satisfying film to experience. I now look forward to seeing the extended cut of the film which is also, apparently, on the Blu Ray disc... as well as some of the fascinating documentaries included with the two versions of the movie.

Also, as would be expected for an enthusiastic individual like Affleck, he’s got some of the best actors giving amazing performances in this film, with no one really being narrowed down as actually owning the film (although Alan Arkin comes close) and with Affleck giving a very downbeat and reflective performance which allows the people around him to also come to the fore - Affleck is wise in that he really doesn’t let loose with anything showy in this one, performance wise, because I’m not sure this kind of delicately toned drama could have held itself together if he, or any of the others for that matter, had gone the more “theatrical” route (after seeing his performance as Bartleby in Dogma, I’m pretty sure this guy could have just dominated the movie if he wanted to... but he cleverly reigned it all in and showed a certain amount of taste unexpected from someone entrenched in the Hollywood community).

The film is a powerful masterwork because it takes a very real, intense situation and manages to keep the tension on it when the way it would have been filmed by many other people would have lessened and devalued what is at stake. It is, after all, a very simple story about a very simple incident. However, because of the way Affleck approaches the material, that is to say, as a true artist (or as much as one can be a true artist in the crazy and collaborative world of movie making), it means the audience never once loses sight of just what is at risk (seven lives) and is kept at the edge of their collective seat because of this approach.

The great Alexandre Desplat’s score is something I wasn’t really picking up on in the context of the movie and is something I need to hear again, but it certainly doesn’t sound out of place in this and the choice of someone who can be as subtle as Desplat is another brownie point for the production team. A very well put together package.

My only regret on my first watch is that I didn’t know the guy playing the storyboard artist for the fake film within a film was actually playing real life comic book icon, Jack Kirby... so I’ll have to look out for him again when I watch the other cut. Amongst other things.

Argo, then, is a great and powerfully entertaining movie and one of the best American films made in the last few years (although I still would have given Moonrise Kingdom - reviewed here - the Oscar for best picture last year) and certainly something any serious lover of cinema is going to want to add to their “watched” pile, if only to have some kind of opinion, good or bad, on it.

And to anybody who says anything any different, well there’s a phrase in the movie which would best sum up my response to that. I’m sure you can remember what it is.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Man With The Golden Gun

The Brave And The Gold

The Man With The Golden Gun
1974 UK
Directed by Guy Hamilton
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

The Man With The Golden Gun is the last of the four James Bond films directed by series regular Guy Hamilton. It was also, to the 6 year old child version of myself who had been sitting in a cinema waiting for the movie to start, my earliest disappointment in the milieu of film.

I’d seen Live And Let Die at the cinema when I was 5 years old, you see, and Bond had immediately become my new hero. Especially as, over the course of the remainder of the year, my parents had taken me out to see a few double bills of the earlier Connery films. It also had Christopher Lee in it, who was Ian Fleming’s cousin, as it happens, and who had been offered the role of Dr. No by Fleming years earlier. Now I think this was the same year (or it may have been a year or two earlier, can’t remember if I was 4 or 5 when I saw my first Hammer horror) that I first saw Taste The Blood Of Dracula when I’d been taken on a visit to my Uncle’s to watch said film on his “colour” television set (which was a big deal to me, since we only ever had a black and white TV until I was well into my late teens) and I was therefore also quite stoked to see how he got on in this movie playing a different character...

And then my disappointment began.

The film starts off with Marc Lawrence playing a similar role, possibly even the same character, as the one he played in Diamonds Are Forever (“I never knew there was a pool down there”). He takes on Scaramanga in his “funhouse” or “assassin’s playground” or whatever you want to call it and, at the end, a wax figure of Roger Moore’s Bond pops up and Scaramanga shoots the fingers off of its right hand before we go into the opening credits... and Lulu’s blisteringly seductive voice, belting out one of the catchier but lyrically challenging songs in the series. And from that pre-credits sequence I was a very glum six year old right until the end of the movie.

Because you can see Scaramanga’s demise so clearly telegraphed from the opening pre-credits sequence that even at that tender age, the assassin’s end was obvious and, frankly, defies credibility. And since I was the kind of kid who would favour the story dynamics over the way the camera works at the time (and I’m not a fan of the shot design and so on in the Bond films directed by Hamilton, as a rule, anyway) I was just humongously disappointed.

As a young ‘un, of course, there were other excitements on offer in Moore’s second stab at Bond. The comical school girls in their mini tribute to the kung fu craze which had exploded at the time was something I found most amusing (although not now) and Clifton James’ reprisal of the role of Sherif Pepper from Live And Let Die was a nice touch (again, at the time). There’s even some rather nice set design in the temporary offices the British Secret Service use in a half sunken boat, which may seem vaguely reminiscent of the set design in the German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, in it’s “crooked house” stylings.

But for my younger self, this all paled in the face of the mantra of “I know how this movie is going to end” and even though I am much more (if not all) these days about the general mise-en-scene of a movie rather than any inherent story value, there is still a sense of outrage following me from my past whenever a movie fails to be less than obvious... which seems to be a constant failing of the majority of modern movies I see (I never did get around to watching James Cameron’s Titanic, ever, for example because, well... it sinks at the end, right?).

Looking at the film today I can say only three pertinent things about it...

1. John Barry’s score is stunning, even at it’s most corniest when a slide whistle is used to “mickey mouse” a much publicised, first time on film corkscrew car jump. I especially like the corny lyrics of the end titles version of the song, where Lulu belts out the following... “Goodnight. Goodnight. Sleep well, my dear. Have no fear! James Bond is heeeeeeere!” This stood me in good stead until I heard the brilliance of the Doc Savage song at the cinema, just a short year later.

2. The film is just as humdrum in many ways as the first time I saw it, but at least Moore’s version of Bond was written with a little more edge to him still than was usually associated with that actor. Moore apparently objected to certain scenes and his character was radically softened for the next installment.

3. The new blu-ray print suffers from none of the problems I had experienced with previous home video versions of this movie and looks pretty amazing in terms of clarity. To be fair, though, even comparing it to the DVD versions released previously... this one really did need some fixing.

And that’s about it for this one I’m afraid. The Man With The Golden Gun is a bit rubbish for a lot of its running time with only an enthusiastic John Barry score to keep someone like me entertained. But even so... not as awful as some of the Roger Moore Bond films went on to become.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Doctor Who - Cold War

Icing With Death

Doctor Who - Cold War
Airdate: 13th April 2013. UK. BBC1

Warning: Frosty spoilers lurking dangerously beneath the surface.

When I was a kid, there were three big monsters in Doctor Who and the rankings were mostly based on their recognition to the widest majority of people as harbingers of creepy menace and possible death in the show... and they went like this...

The number one enemies, of course, were The Daleks... who had been with the show since the second story of the very first series. The second most recognisable characters were, of course, the half-man, half-machine Cybermen, who had passed time with the show since the very last Hartnell story and who had turned up a lot in the Troughton years (curiously, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor only ever encountered the cybermen once, as a bit of a throwaway sequence in the anniversary story The Five Doctors... but the target novelisations were big in the 70s and kids really did know who the cybermen were... in no uncertain terms).

The third most recognisable “enemies” from the show, just a little ahead of The Master, the Sontarans and th Ogrons, were The Ice Warriors, who started out life appearing opposite Troughton’s Doctor a number of times and then continued into the Pertwee era with the two serialised Peladon stories, The Curse Of Peladon and The Monster Of Peladon. That last story dates from 1974 and, actually, that’s the last time we’ve properly seen them since then in anything other than a quick, flashback reference... almost 40 years ago (although the Tennant era story The Waters Of Mars does have some slight references to them both in dialogue and the partial look of the antagonists in that story, to be fair).

And then, last year (seemingly a fair few months before the story was showing up in the news... I don’t know how that happened), a friend of mine told me that they were bringing them back for the 2013 series of Doctor Who.

To be honest, I was kinda split in how I felt about that.

One of the things I’ve really not liked about the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who is that a couple of the redesigned alien creatures (or let’s call them monsters, shall we) have been absolutely terrible compared to their original incarnations. The Silurians, for example, though much more facially expressive than their Pertwee and Davison era incarnations, are pretty rubbish designs in comparison. And even the Daleks got kind of knobbled and turned into something much less scary and unwieldy in Matt Smith’s first season... so I really haven’t trusted the people behind the most recent production team on the show to really come up with a decent redesign. That finally changed, however, when I saw a photo of the new design a few months ago and thought it looked... well, pretty good actually. Looking much less like something they’ve wanted to downright change and back into the realms, again, of something they just want to tweak and improve a little for modern audiences of the show (the new Zygon design for the 50th anniversary story of the show to be broadcast in November also looks pretty good too, I have to say). Although the lack of hair at various joints bothers me just a little.

And now the episode is finally upon us, written by Mark Gatiss who I find a bit hit and miss on these things... and it was actually a pretty good episode.

Set entirely on a Russian nuclear submarine in the early 80s, the episode deals with a thawed out Ice Warrior (yeah, okay, they started off back in Troughton's time as a reference to The Thing From Another World and Gatiss uses that here as a nice little reference), a once great hero of his people who has been stranded in the ice for 5000 years and who wants, after he has been attacked by a jittery human, to wipe out the planet... lucky he just happens to be on a nuclear sub then.

The episode is nicely claustrophobic with The Doctor and Clara just happening to land on the submarine just as the “monster of the week” wakes up. The tension between these two new additions to the crew and the Russians is all quickly forgotten as The Doctor takes charge of the situation, with allowances for a few mistakes by the Russians along the way.

There were some good things about this week's story such as some overly enthusiastic red and green lighting in certain scenes, which looked like the BBC had hired Mario Bava and Dario Argento to work on the episode and, this weeks installment did indeed have a couple of big time movie actors amongst the crew of Russians... namely David Warner and Liam Cunningham. The real eye opener, though, was the neat trick of revealing that the Ice Warriors as we usually see them are actually clothed in armour (something which could be seen as something of a contradiction in some ways since, in the old days, they did occasionally wear helmets over what we are now told is their armour) and then having the armour open up and “something” getting out and running amok. We only ever see its hands and, for a little while, it’s head... but this is more than enough to keep things scary and I’m sure Gatiss and co are not exactly unaware of how much like George Pal’s martians from his 50s movie version of H. G. Well’s War Of The Worlds this level of the "reveal" is and how it will affect the audience. Very creepy and appropriate for an episode of Doctor Who, I must say.

There were, however, a couple of clunkers in the episode too... as far as I could make out.

Number one is... why have the captain ban The Doctor from going to talk to the Ice Warrior and instead have his new companion do it with The Doctor talking through a headset? Yeah, okay, I know... for dramatic reasons. But, honestly... it made no sense.

Second gripe is... the TARDIS disappears to get itself out of trouble almost immediately at the start of the episode, stranding The Doctor and Clara in the submarine with the Russians and their new martian acquaintance. However, it relocated to the opposite pole of the planet so... how the bleepity bleep bleep was it still able to translate The Doctor and Clara into perfect Russian for the crew and vice versa? We’ve certainly not been told that the translation circuits (or whatever they're called) have got anything like that kind of range before. I’d just assumed when it disappeared at the start that it was lurking somewhere close... so that was either a bit of an oversight or carelessly insulting the intelligence of the audience as far as I’m concerned. That element of the plot seemed a little lazy to me, truth be told.

But, honestly, I’m kinda just nit picking here. It was a pretty great episode of Doctor Who (which is not bad considering how “Series 7” has been playing so far both last year and this year), so I’m thrilled we got another good one out of it and, also, very clear evidence that the Ice Warrior is not alone and that his race are all still alive and kicking. So I’m sure they’ll be back in their droves either in the last episode of this series or perhaps as one of many sets of aliens (possibly) in the 50th anniversary story when it airs. Time will tell.

In the meantime, next weeks episode looks nice and “old school” spooky so I’m looking forward to that one now, too.  But as far as greeting an old foe back goes... it was “Ice to see you”.

Thursday, 11 April 2013


Obli-Vi, Obli-Va

USA 2013
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Playing at cinemas now.

I’ve said it before about a gazillion times on this blog and I’ll say it again now because it’s still just as relevant to this movie as it is to loads of other big-budget Hollywood blockbusters over the last 10 years or more. It’s like the people behind the production and release of these films have discovered a stash of old 1950s/1960s short story collections by the likes of Philip K. DIck and Robert A. Heinlein and are intent on regurgitating every single one of them as large scale productions for a mass, modern audience.

I guess this works for you if you’ve never had any exposure to the golden age of science fiction and the conceptual goldmines found therein, but what it means if you’re even just a little older than a teen is that it’s unlikely any of the premises being touted in these movies will come as a surprise to you or take you unawares. Of course, there’s something to be said for doing these kinds of stories on screen right now... the use of various forms of special effects make them a hell of a lot easier to render credibly on the collective imagination than they would have been 30 or so years ago. But that’ s about it and, honestly, that’s exactly what you get here.

Oblivion is a well made film which is absolutely beautifully designed but it has one big major flaw which the publicity machine for the film is as much responsible for as the final product itself. The trouble with the brilliantly cut and intriguing series of trailers we got for his movie is that they set up the expectation of some kind of heavy twist... so you know there’s going to be one before you go in. We have the enigma of the woman in the dreams/memories of one of the last two guardians of the earth turning up in a pod which lands on our ruined, post alien apocalypse planet from out of the past. There’s a mystery to be solved and, to be fair, the trailer does its job well.

However, the film just doesn’t have quite enough going for it to pull off a totally unexpected endgame and take the audience unawares. Most people will have, from fairly early on I believe, more than just an inkling about what is really going on and I know damn well that the full visual confirmation and impact of “what is really happening” on Tom Cruises’ main protagonist Jack Harper was no surprise to most people I know who saw the movie on opening night (although I’m not going to tell you what that particular reality is here) and most people have figured that stuff out just by the implication of the character’s main set-up for the audience, especially regarding the “company line” on the memories of their people. However, even if it did still remain a mystery until the trick revelation when Tom Cruise, in one of a few little homages to the Planet Of The Apes series of movies, penetrates the “radiated zone”, the way the camera work chooses to continue to shadow certain details of some of the shots is a dead giveaway. But like I said, I won’t spoil it here.

With that particular story weakness aside, the film is quite triumphant in everything else it tries to do... although a little judicious pruning of the running time by 20 mins or so may have been advisable, I think.

The design of the world our two main protagonists and antagonists live in is very cleanly realised and the sleek curves of the little flyer Jack pilots in his job to maintain the, quite lethal, flying drones is just one of many visual (and indeed aural) pleasures on show in the film. And when I mention those drones as lethal, I mean exactly that. They are set up quite quickly in the story as something to develop later on during the course of the film and you see just how deadly they are, dealing out swift annihilation to anything which isn’t supposed to be present on the planet. This helps somewhat later in the narrative when, inevitably, as you know they will, Jack and several other characters have to try to deal with these things... you certainly realise how real a threat they are.

That’s another thing the movie does well, actually. Racks up the tension.

There’s a fraught and quite intense suspense sequence fairly early on in the movie when Cruise explores a sink hole to fix a second, downed drone and instead finds himself in a trap. This will, most likely, have a certain percentage of cinema goers balancing precariously on the edge of their coca cola stained seats and the denouement of the sequence is quite a relief when it comes. And it’s this same sequence, too, which also helps set up the “danger-Will-Robinson-danger” aspect of the drones which serves it so well in the last third of the picture. Although, having remembered that sequence now, there’s another flaw in this picture in that the way that Cruise is rescued here from his potentially deadly fate, as a quick reveal at the moment before certain death, is used at least twice more in the movie to get various people out of a hole. No worries, they work fine, but it would have been nice to find a less repetitive solution to those kinds of sequences.

However, the special effects (for once) are really amazing and serve the environment of the story in a much more supportive and believable manner than they have done in many science fiction movies and the acting by Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough and even Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who I last saw in the Swedish thriller Headhunters - reviewed here) is all beyond exemplary and the way in which these people inhabit their environments gives the credibility to the story telling that all good science fiction needs.

And Oblivion is good science fiction.

Obvious, it’s true, but if you can get over the inherent weaknesses of the storyline it’s definitely got that "classics of science fiction" vibe to it... which given my opening statements, kind of figures. The story may work better as the graphic novel it was originally intended to be (the publication of which was delayed until this film adaptation of it was released) but I’m not sure I could now divorce that experience sufficiently from the film to be able to appreciate it on its own terms, I suspect.

It’s also got a score which supports the movie well and should be good as a future listen on the CD release, blending orchestral style scoring (possibly done on synthesisers, I couldn’t tell from the mix in the movie) with electronic back beat sweeteners during certain of the action scenes. Coupled with an array of sounds which almost make up a leitmotif on their own, such as the beeps of the drones, it makes an awesome assault on your eardrums and really helps you get into the film and behind the emotions of the characters very quickly.

And the characters are quite interesting characters (even the deliberate cyphers) it has to be said. Another plus point for the film.

Oblivion, then, is not a bad movie. Not a great one, to be sure, but certainly enough to keep most lovers of the science fiction genre satisfied until the next big thing comes around. It’s certainly not as entertaining as many of the films with which it seems to share the same aesthetic palette - Minority Report, I Robot or the Burton remake of Planet Of The Apes - to be sure... but it does have its own thing going for it and it shouldn’t annoy too many people with the obvious nature of the main storyline... even if it does beg, borrow and steal from a lot of the classics. Definitely worth checking out if science fiction is your thing.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Dark Skies

Dark Grey

Dark Skies
USA 2013
Directed by Scott Stewart
Playing at cinemas now.

Any spoilers in here are those which are already in the trailer. 

It was well over twenty years ago that I first heard of Whitley Streiber in something other than the context of his early career as a horror writer. I read a report, I think online, about him having been seen going around the area he lived in and spending a small fortune buying all kinds of alarm equipment and firearms etc to make his home as unbreachable as he could to any kind of hostile invaders. The article took a slightly patronising tone, reminded people that he’d just written the “autobiographical” novel Communion, and metaphorically patting him on the arm as if to say, “There, there. We believe you.”

The thing is, and the thing that stuck in my mind when I read that small snippet of an article, was that, well why would you go out of your way spending all that money and taking all that time to fix up and install all these different devices, if you didn’t at least believe something was out to get you?

So I read the book and saw the movie and, frankly, what I read in the book chilled me to the marrow. And so, a few years before TV shows like The X Files and, um, Dark Skies, popularised this kind of stuff big time, I started doing some research in my spare time on the subject myself. I got the librarians at the place where I worked to get out inter-library loans on various of the more respected accounts of the phenomenon of... well...alien abduction, and began to really read up on it.

About the same time, a British guy named Nick Pope was working for the Ministry Of Defence and was assigned the task of investigating various UFO related reports which had piled up over the years and ascertaining if any of them had any interest or, indeed, posed a threat to the military. My understanding is that Pope didn’t believe in such hogwash and went at it with a very cynical attitude. The attitude didn’t last too long though because he found that a small percentage of the things he investigated really didn’t have any explanation, from what I gather, other than what he was trying to debunk, and he resigned and the MOD shut the project down. He carries on investigatng, somewhat less cynically, in a private capacity today, from what I can gather.

And, again, around the same time, someone came to work at the same place as me for a while and one of his previous jobs had been air traffic control. He “believed” totally and said after the kinds of things that you routinely see and get reported in that job, you have to sign the official secrets act.

So I carried on reading and two things came out of my personal research into extraterrestrial visitors.

One of the things I noticed is that the people who firmly believe this stuff and investigate it do tend to be the most cynical people going. They distrust everything but solid evidence and, sometimes, that evidence is there to be found (and ignored or covered up by any kind of government sanctioned body).

Secondly, I believed this stuff so much, because the cases made from various methods of research were so airtight, to be honest, that I had about three years of sleepless nights (that’s okay, I was younger and could handle that... but it was fear that kept me awake). I mostly, deliberately stay away from this kind of stuff now. I believe the matching accounts of groups of people on crowded streets (mayors, police officers and passers by) who all collectively witnessed single incidents of the most amazing and unbelievable kind and all independently reported these things... as much as I believe the aliens can be categorised and identified by most people involved in these encounters, even those who have come from small tribes cut off from the rest of the planet and who are “totally” unpolluted by anything happening in Western culture. They all draw the same drawings.

So yeah, I leave that stuff alone now because, frankly, I’m getting on now and I need my sleep.

And that’s exactly why competently put together movies like this one called Dark Skies (which has no ties with the similarly themed TV show from a couple of decades ago) work so well on me.

Now I saw a trailer for this movie and it looked pretty much like a standard haunted house meets Greys scare movie, Greys being a specific and most widely seen alien type (if you believe that kind of thing, but that’s exactly why they’re mined so much in modern popular culture). Well I have to say, this movie does pretty much everything as advertised. There are no twists, just scary visitations from our little grey friends (Zeta Reticulans, for the record) interwoven with a few other phenomena to spice up the scare factor and neatly summarised by the “Van-Helsing-but-only-in-an-advisory-capacity” alien researcher played so credibly by the always watchable J.K. Simmons.

The whole film is full of standard scare tactics and cliché ridden horror tropes but, that’s okay, because it is really all quite well put together and it certainly had my heart beating faster (but then again, as I have taken time to explain here, I’m prone to that kind of extra-terrestrial implied threat anyway). The music, by composer Joseph Bishara, is well put together and delivers all the modern atonal nightmarish quality you’d need in a score like this, sci-fi’d up with a bit of subsonic synthesizery stuff which kicks in when required. The direction and shot design are all pretty much adequate/competent and the performances are all fine too.

The writing is a bit patchwork in its sources, to be truthful, and the obvious attempt at misdirecting you away from the actual target of the extraterrestrial antagonists is both obvious and quickly guessed, so the ending is of no real surprise and it really could have done without the “beat you over the head with stuff you were more than aware of at the time” flashbacks in the little epilogue sequence... although the very last 30 seconds or so was a nice touch.

But, all said and done, the film is still quite scary (it veers from various research accounts at times to quite deliberately justify why it is trying to scare the audience at one point) and certainly, although nowhere near the best film made on this kind of subject material, it does still manage to be quite grippng and suspensful througout a fair few of the set pieces, despite the number of familiar “horror moments” which are piled on. So, yeah, if you like this kind of stuff then you certainly shouldn’t find yourself too dissapointed in this one. It’s a scary night out at the pictures.

And if you find yourself dweling on the dubious nature of the story and the presence of a malevalent extra terrestrial force on earth which "first" appeared on the scene during the age of science, ask yourself this... Why are elves, pixies, faeries and whatever other small creatures always popping up in various countries’ cultural mythologies?

And why do churches have gargoyles?

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten

Ring Out Your Dead

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten
Airdate: 6th April 2013. UK. BBC1

Warning: Very slight spoilers on this one, I suppose. 
If you really aren’t expecting them.

Well... I think this is going to be a very short review.

The Rings of Akhaten was, frankly, very dull.

Well okay, not that short a review then. Let me try to add to that.

I watched this one with my family and the general concensus in the room for this one was, I’m afraid, that it was kinda dreadful. I’d have to go on record as saying, it wasn’t dreadful by a long chalk... it just wasn’t very good.

Okay, so there are some very nice things going on this episode which include new companion Clara’s first journey to another world, a throwaway comment by Clara that the TARDIS doesn’t like her (which could mean one of a couple of things and I’m sure we’ll find out what when the time is right) and a mention by The Doctor of his grand-daughter... buy whom he presumably means his travelling companion Susan, who he left on earth after his defeat of the Daleks in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth. Of course, if she was a time lord, like him, she’s presumably long dead by now... erased from existence in the Time War we’ve heard so much about.

There were also some nice sets (lots of reds and earthy colours), some nice costumes (especially some of the alien creatures) and, erm, stuff. Lots of nice stuff which momentarily escapes me. Oh, yeah, the first five or ten minutes were pretty good with The Doctor visiting Oswin number 3 at different points of her life and finding out why the leaf in her book is so precious to her. That was all good stuff.

Also nice to have The Doctor facing death and having his new companion save his life in her second episode. Of course, this was a tactic employed with the second Amy Pond episode too but, who cares, it makes for some dramatic television. Plus, there were some great Doctor-as-messiah quasi religious kind of shots going on in the episode which made for some nice things to look at...


There was no real action in the episode apart from some kind of “low speed” flying bike chase which had some terrible visual effects in it that managed to detract from the action enough to remind me of those old Blakes Seven episodes from the 1970s. I’d go as far as to say that this was pretty much as lifeless and unexciting as one of the modern Doctor Who episodes could get... except I’d also have to make that same comparison if we were watching classic Doctor Who too.

Seriously yawn inducing in places. I’m not gung ho for action scenes usually but this one could have done with a little less “cosmic wonder” and a bit more running around being chased by things. Oh, and probably a bit less singing too. In fact, I know Murray Gold has been accused of overscoring modern Doctor Who before, and it’s something I usually defend him from, but I have to say that this show had so much exciting music going on in the background for so little visual action that you could hear the mindset of the composer as he tried to spice up the on-screen visuals by speeding up the rhythms and throwing everything but the podium in there. While this tactic worked well for Elmer Bernstein in The Magnificent Seven, I’m afraid the lighter weight of the episode couldn’t really support it and, although I’m sure some of the music from that episode will make for a good listen on the inevitable album, it just kinda gets a little too obtrusive in the context of playing support for the visual image in this one.

And that’s all I’ve got to say, really. Some nice performances with everyone working really hard to bring an alien world to life before your very eyes... it just needed to either pick up the pace a little or really slow itself down to a two parter and given some of those heavy dialogue pieces a little more room to breathe perhaps? But one or the other I reckon... this one just felt badly paced.

Never mind. I’ll live. Ice Warrior on a submarine next week so maybe it’ll pick itself back up then.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Side Effects

Kill Pill

Side Effects
USA 2013
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: This review has big spoilers right from the outset. It’s the only way I felt I could say something even remotely interesting about this film and so I would urge you, if you know absolutely nothing about this movie but are considering seeing it, to go into the movie totally blind and then maybe read my review after you’ve seen it. 

So I quite like Steven Soderbergh as a director... ever since I saw Sex, Lies and Videotape when it came out at the cinema, many years ago. He also made an absolute genius movie called The Limey, which is a bit of a cinematic masterpiece and I do generally like his stuff (I reviewed his film The Girlfriend Experience starring porn legend Sash Grey here) but, just so we’re clear, I will never forgive him for trying to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which is like trying to remake Casablanca or Star Wars in terms of sheer audacity. Leave the classics alone!

Anyway, I went into Side Effects knowing absolutely nothing about the movie. I think I may have seen a trailer which was quite disjointed and, I think, didn’t really make clear the kind of movie it was... and I’m glad that was the case because about half way through the movie I realised my stupid suspicions about the main female protagonist were actually right and the movie turned into something completely different to the way it was being presented.

The film is very slow paced and well designed, as you would expect from this director. He chooses to use a mixture of different shooting styles and edit them all together very cleverly into something that works and builds a mood or “vibe” which then becomes what the film is about as much as any linear plotting... much the same, in some ways, as Danny Boyle often does these days (see my review of Boyle’s latest, Trance, here) but not going for the high energy in-your-face kind of montages that Boyle does.

Starting off with what is, in fact, a crime scene... we see pools of drying blood on the floor of an apartment and then the film flashes back three months from this point. A point it catches up to about a third of the way through the movie (much earlier than I was expecting). Because the subject matter of the film focuses on a very depressed young woman who, when her husband gets out of prison for insider trading, tries to kill herself... Soderbergh manages to misdirect his audience quite skilfully with his usual modus operandi of “fly-on-the-wall” style recording of scenes into thinking that the bloody floors seen at the opening are connected to a successful suicide attempt by the young lady in question (played really well by Rooney Mara). But, as the film slowly winds on and we get to meet some of the other principle characters, like Jude law playing the young psychiatrist who takes on Rooney Mara’s character Emily as a patient, and Catherine Zeta Jones who plays her previous doctor, Victoria Siebert, we gradually find out that people we thought were minor players are actually main characters in an actual storyline (as opposed to just a series of observations on the nature of depression) and this starts to drum home as we see the person who everyone expects is the male lead, Channing Tatum as Emily’s husband, viciously stabbed by Emily while she is in a somnambulistic trance (in a sequence not quite as extreme but certainly not unlike the classic stab mayhem sequence which marks the first killing in Brian De Palma’s original version of Sisters). Although, by now, I’d begun to pick up on the trick of the way things were going to go I still heard the audience I was sitting in the cinema with on this gasp as this scene went down... so Soderbergh really played that one right, I reckon.

My suspicions were already up by now but the movie continues to play out for a while with this sequence just being another side effect of the new drugs Jude Law’s character has prescribed for Emily... but then things started to go the way I had suspected they might and the film turns into a proper thriller of a movie with a very long lineage which traces it back at least as far as 1940s American film noir and the likes of such movies as Double Indemnity and its many retreads.

Jude Law’s character, Dr. Jonathan Banks, has been made a patsy by two of the characters and as a result is ostracised by his community, loses most of his income and even loses his wife and child as more pressure is put on him. However, this is where things get interesting as the lone, obsessive figure everyone thinks he has become (which he has) fights back using the tools of his trade and starts to play off the two antagonists together, getting something a little too much more than justice and perhaps, when his final triumph comes, acting just as badly as the two villains of the piece.

I really can’t say much more about the movie in terms of plotting in case you are still reading this and are going to go see the movie... but what we have here is a brilliantly realised film which begins by approaching the material in a less direct and more observational, “untainted-by-any-emotional-or-judgemental-agenda” kind of way, and because the director makes this choice, the film really sucker punches you (even if you are, like I was, vaguely suspicious that there is more going on here than at first meets the eye) and kicks up the tension notch after notch until it gets you to the place you’re kind of, for the most part, hoping it will go. Most of the film you will probably be rooting for Jude Law’s character but he too, leaves a nasty aftertaste in the mouth at the end and ultimately this is one of those bleak noirs where you realise that, everyone to an extent, is a bad person.

Performances by the actors and actresses, as they always are in a Soderbergh movie, are excellent and this is also to be expected with such strong leads. I think I don’t speak falsely when I say that time will probably be very kind to this movie and I would expect it to be written about ad nauseum over the years and included as a key contribution on most major studies of the thriller/noir in film on most curriculums within the next ten or fifteen years. An unexpected delight and certainly worth the time of any cinephiles with a particular bent towards that kind of cinema.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013


Smooth EnTrance

UK 2013
Directed by Danny Boyle
Playing at cinemas now.

I’m not the biggest Danny Boyle fan, it’s true, but having said that, I almost always appreciate his films on some level and I very much liked his 28 Days Later. That being said, my main reason for going to see this movie was not the director, nor the majority of the excellent cast he has assembled to make this mesmerising thriller. I went to see this gig because of the always brilliant Rosario Dawson, who I first became aware of in the underrated and really quite phenomenal Josie And The Pussycats (seriously, if you want to see a really entertaining and subversive piece of propoganda about the current state of the music industry and the teenage audience it pretends to support, go see Josie And The Pussycats... such a great movie).

Trance is an ensemble piece when it comes to the acting but Rosario Dawson is, once again, the main attraction of this film, for this jaded audience member anyway, and it would certainly be true to say that she has a very “smooth entrance” in this movie... I just can’t tell you why without giving away one of the nicer surprises of the visual splendour of the film.

And visual splendour cut sharply like a diamond with some great editing is exactly what you get from Boyle here and it’s certainly one of the more addictive of the movies he’s made. Unfortunately, the main shaker and mover behind the plot is probably going to be obvious to the intended target audience even from just watching the trailer but, once you get over the fact that this film isn’t really going to surprise you all that much in terms of the deliberate and, sometimes quite elabourate, visual red herrings Boyle plugs you into in order to redirect your attention away from the truth of the plot, then you can start to watch the sometimes quite visceral image/sound poetry purely on its own terms. And frankly, the sooner in to the movie you do that, the more likely you are to have a better time with it.

Boyle uses a variety of techniques from longer, swooping visuals to hand held camera, fast edits, mixed stock treatments and differing rhythms... that he manages to make all that work without losing the interest of the viewer is a good indication of his particular talents in being able to put together a coherent entertainment for the screen. The transitory nature of the little story scenarios he builds up, before pulling them down before you, maybe gets a little tiring and just plain expected even from the outset, but this doesn’t stop there being some really nice little moments including a scene which, although you suspect it’s just a fantasy sequence already, reveals itself through such a nicely surreal and gory effect that you won’t feel cheated by the various redirection tricks going on around you as you watch.

Like a good Italian giallo (which it in no way resembles or tries to be) the deliberate blurring of the audiences focus to be able to bother following a specific line of enquiry makes for a movie where, in the end, you just won’t care who has done what... and like I said, if you saw the trailer then you probably guessed just who is on control here right from the word go anyway. Unfortunately, it’s one of the problems of the subject matter that it almost always tips itself off by its very nature but the director’s “sleight of hand” in some sequences is quite artistically and refreshingly achieved and most viewers who have an eye for visual opulence will not be too worried by the perhaps less than revealing nature of the solution to the mystery (and talking of revealing nature, there’s so much more I could say about the glamorous Ms. Dawson’s contribution to the film, especially in reference to my post title... but it’s probably best I don’t).

Trance is not a really great movie... but it’s certainly a good one and definitely one of the better distractions at the cinema right now if you want to go and see a movie which doesn’t rely totally on blowing things up (although there is some gun play and some quite raw scenes of violence on show here, to be fair). If this is your thing then Trance is probably one of the better options you’ve got at the cinema right now. Definitely something you should sample if you call yourself a fan of the medium and you want to support something British.  Who knows, it might inspire you to try to  give yourself a bit of a smooth entrance every now and again yourself.