Saturday 31 December 2011

My Week With Marilyn

Marilyn Haste, Repent At Leisure!

My Week With Marilyn 2011 UK/US
Directed by Simon Curtis
Screening at
UK cinemas.

Funny how a little scrap of knowledge you pick up just before you start writing your review can dispel your main criticism of the subject matter. Doesn’t matter, still going to be a very short review and, in some ways, my enlightenment as to the source of the film I saw means I have even less to say about it than I did have when intending to put pen to paper, or in this case, intending to press fleshy fingertips against the cool, hard plastic keys of my Macbook.

The two brief points I was originally intending to make were that My Week With Marilyn is a pretty good film, well worth a watch and I was also going to go on to say, having read the diary it’s based on some years in the past (The Prince, The Showgirl and Me), that it didn’t quite make my Best Films of 2011 list because it was also a poor adaptation of the source.

However, now I’ve found out that My Week With Marilyn was based on, not one, but two accounts by the same writer (Colin Clark, played in the movie by Eddie Redmayne), I’d have to plead ignorance now as to whether this is a good adaptation or not as I haven’t read the other book.

What I can say, however, is that the movie has a very strong and positively star studded cast, even for the little walk on parts, and that everyone is extremely strong in their roles and this makes for a vastly entertaining movie which is well shot, pacily edited, has a nice jaunty score and doesn’t outstay its welcome in any way shape or form. There’s less emphasis given on the character of famous Sykes actor Richard Wattis than I would have expected from the book I read all those years ago, but ultimately it’s not a problem for me now I know the writers and producers were working from a dual source.

Special mention must go to Michelle Williams who really does successfully capture the flirtiness, confusion, insecurity and general sense of tragedy that was Marilyn Monroe a few years before her death. The performance (and script) are exactly as I have come to think of her from various written accounts through the years and it’s easy to see how she could have accidentally topped herself when she was in this state (if that is indeed what actually happened to her).

This is a really slick production and represents the time period in a bright and nostalgic way (as opposed to going with a more gritty, realistic approach) but the romanticisation of this period didn’t bother me in this one because it’s a quick effective way to bring the period to life and, also, because to someone who is perpetually in the limelight and roaming from interview to film set to camera flash, maybe the reality of the situation did seem somewhat altered by the reflection that a person’s choice of profession engenders.

The idea that Marilyn was a personae projected by Marilyn is very blatantly highlighted in this movie and the realisation of the character becoming lost in her own “legend” while still having very lucid moments of not being that image, really is not a bad thing to call to the attention of the audience of this film. It might even lead some of its viewers to explore the life of the titular character and some of the other famous names that come up... after following in his footsteps for so long as the “new Laurence Olivier”, I bet it was a real blast for Kenneth Brannagh to actually find himself playing the man in question.

I gave this one an honourable mention in my Best Films of 2011 list and would happily suggest that anyone who’s even remotely interested in the people captured in this roaring snapshot of a movie should check this one out... it’s rare that anyone playing Marilyn comes out on top as anything more than a caricature of the bottled screen presence of Norma Jean. This movie does things a little better than most.

Friday 30 December 2011

Best Films of 2011

Twelve Eleven

Okay, so there’s a few things you have to know before diving into my top 12 movies of 2011. I hope you take time to read this intro before skipping to the movies but... either way, thanks for reading.

First thing I’ve decided is that, much to my horror, we are now living in a digital age. I would much prefer to see movies in the cinema on their first run but the sad fact of the matter is that in the UK, some movies maybe screen once or twice only at a festival or two (if that) and then go straight to DVD. Since my number 2 pick was something I needed to desperately include, I’ve gone ahead and included films (only that one as it happens) which pretty much premier on DVD. As I said, I would much rather see these things at the cinema... but the opportunity never arose. Which is a shame, frankly, because though Ive not seen Lucky McKee’s The Woman, I’m guessing that if it had got a local cinema release it would have made this list. As it is, I won’t get to see this movie until next year now.

The second thing which I really hate is that, over the last few years, my diet of film in terms of first run cinema has relied pretty much on what my local cinema decides to show... and unfortunately that means a lot of non-English language movies are not screened anywhere near me... and when they are they often only last a week or so. My local multiplex actually has 15 screens so you’d think the greedy people in charge of the programming might at least free up one or two screens for foreign product. Not so and, unfortunately, this is probably going to be reflected in my list.

The third thing to remember is that... all end of year lists are going to be different to each other and list articles in general are dangerous territory because it’s rare two people agree on everything. Please don’t moan that I left out your favourite film of the year... there could be so many reasons I did this ranging from “I hated it” to “I didn’t get the opportunity to see it.” My apologies if this list is not for you but don’t feel left out... anyone can go create their own blog and pontificate from there. Or better yet, please post your own lists in the comments section below the article for all to see!

Please note that I also live in the UK, so while films like the Besson movie listed were released in their own countries prior to 2011, they’re new to this country.

Okay then... so now the pre-amble is out of the way, here’s my Twelve Best Films of 2011 list in reverse order with a brief introductory note for each one, followed by a link to my full review from earlier in the year. There are twelve for no other reason than, these were all obvious choices for me and deserved inclusion. Hope you like!

12. 127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle
I’m not exactly the biggest fan of movies depicting true events but the combination of the camerawork, dynamic editing and a standout performance from James Franco really pulled me in on this one. Not sure I’d watch it again but this was definitely one of the more interesting films of the year. My full review is here...

11. The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi
Loosely based on a well loved short story by my favourite writer Philip K. Dick, this movie is SO NOT the cross between The Bourne Identity and Inception that the marketing people wanted you to believe it was. This film is great and romantic and full of whimsy... which is why, if you’re going to sell it like some kind of action movie, the audience that you attract will not give good word of mouth. Badly marketed but a great movie! My full review of it is here...

10. Sucker Punch
Directed by Zack Snyder
Another badly received movie, Sucker Punch is a visual and aural feast. This has giant samurais with machine guns and a dragon chasing a World War Two bomber plane... seriously people, if you haven’t seen this then you are missing out on the spectacle of cinema. My full review is right here...

9. Battle: Los Angeles aka Battle: LA
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman
Okay, so it’s big and dumb and a bit of an “invite the guys around for beers” kinda movie, but the Saving Private Ryan meets War Of The Worlds stylistic “mash up” works really well. It’s patriotic tosh... but it’s very well made patriotic tosh and it has another cool performance by the wonderful Aaron Eckhart in it. Worth a watch if you like first person shooter games and lots of explosions. My full review here...

8. Paranormal Activity 3
Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
I love the Paranormal Activity movies. The first one wasn’t that scary but I could appreciate it on a technical level and the second US movie (I’ve not seen the Japanese sequel as yet) really worked well for me with its skewed timelines and it did get me quite jumpy. This third movie is a prequel and, though not quite as good as the second one, still “scared me up good”. Looking forward to seeing where they go with this franchise next. My full review can be found here...

7. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec
Directed by Luc Besson
It’s always good to see Bessson directing again and, although this one is nowhere near his best, it also sees him reteaming with his old composer Eric Serra for the first time in a long while (and it’s a really good score too). Definitely worth a look for the on-screen presence of the lead actress and for the wonderful antics of the mummys at the end of the movie. My full review of it is here...

6. Tron Legacy
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
I think this movie may have come out in the last few days of 2010 but, never mind, it was playing at cinemas well into 2011. A surprise sequel bridging the gap of the decades since I’d seen the first movie in the cinema, this has a great visual style and a surprisingly addictive and kick ass score by someone called, of all things, Daft Punk. Once again, a film to remind us of the pure spectacle of cinema. My full review can be found here...

5. Kill List
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Both brutal and inscrutable, it’s been three and a half months since I saw Kill List and I still haven’t figured out what it was about. All I know is that it started off very simple and got pretty enigmatic in that The Wicker Man kind of way by the time the movie finished. Great performances all around and one to ponder over if you’re in a head scratching mood. I need to see it a second time. My full review here...

4. Troll Hunter (aka Trolljegeren)
Directed by André Øvredal
Another in the increasingly easy to find first-person-shooter documentary style movies, Troll Hunter manages to mix in a lot of laughs with the horror and make for a pretty unique experience. It’s a real fine line of moods to handle and still retain suspension of disbelief but the director handles it pretty beautifully. My review for this one is here...

3. Melancholia
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Gorgeously lit depression, despair and fear as the end of the world looms closer for the characters. Von Triers visual poetry still manages to slowly pull the rug from under you in the final reel.

2. Rubber
Directed by Quentin Dupieux
Quentin Dupieux’s tribute to the cult of “no reason” is made manifest by a homicidal rubber tyre that becomes self aware. No words can truly describe just how delightfully surreal this movie gets... so grab a copy and take a look at it yourself. For my full review, click here...

1. Amer
Directed by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani
A french surrealist masterpiece with only a few words of dialogue in its whole running time, Amer uses the techniques of Italian Giallo cinema and uses actual music tracked in from the scores of various gialli and Italian cop movies. A visual and aural treat, you won’t know what hit you. This is easily the best film of the year and my only regret is that I saw it on my birthday in early January... after that I’d already seen the greatest film I’d see all year, which was kinda sad but I’m happy that great movies like this can still get made and find a small audience. My review of this splendid masterpiece is right here...

So there you have it. Those are my personal favourites of the year, with honourable mentions for My Week With Marilyn and The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn. As I said above, please feel free to post your own Best of 2011 lists in the comments section of this post. I’d be happy to read them.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (US)

Larsson around!

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 2011 US
Directed by David Fincher
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Some spoilers about this film
and the Millenium Trilogy in general.

If you’ve read any of my reviews to the previous “native” adaptations of Stieg Larrsson’s phenomenal Millenium Trilogy books, you’ll know how ultimately disappointed I was with the productions... so much so, in fact, that rather than just go with my usual MO and completely ignore the US remake of a film, I decided to give these ones a go in the hopes that they would be more of an adaptation of the original novels and less a remake of their predecessors. I have to say, however, that I was both equally pleased and disappointed by this latest movie by David Fincher.

Now I know a little about adaptation and cinematic shortcuts to facilitate an appreciation of the problems involved when working from a specific piece of source material but, at the same time, when those compromises involve changing the content on which the work of art is based, I have no respect for the artist involved with such a travesty (which is why Lord Of The Rings needs a remake by someone who will do it properly pronto!). So I’ll make this quick with a review conclusion for those of you who have not read the original novel on which this movie is based... The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an entertaining enough mystery movie which won’t annoy you half as much as it would if you’d have read the original tome.

Now then, there’s good and bad about this new adaptation of the novel but the one wholly positive thing I will say in favour of this US version is that it’s not a remake of the original film (at least as much as I’ve seen of that original version... I’ve only seen the theatrical cuts and not the initial TV editions as yet). This is very much Fincher and the screenwriter going back to the original novel and taking that as something to build from. This is a much more faithful version of the novel than the Swedish version... which really surprised me. Lots of stuff which was missing in the originals was here for me including... Mikael Blomkvist’s sexual arrangements with Erica Berger (although his sexual encounters with a prominent suspect in the case he is working were not included), Lisbeth Salander’s Modesty Blaise-like adventures in embezzlement which lead to the death of Blomkvist’s professional enemy and the misunderstanding/betrayal between her and Blomkvist which leads to her not wanting him as part of her life (a crucial point which was missing from the original movie trilogy and which very much leads to a misunderstood conclusion at the end of the third with audiences who have not read the books) are all present and correct in this version and Fincher is to be applauded by the way that these are all fit into the running time of the movie... although it has to be said the editing is tight. No time for anything other than standard “cause and effect” Hollywoodland editing in service of that preposterous pseudo Holy Grail “the story” I’m afraid.

However, as much as this production team has chosen to include some pretty important points which were conspicuous in their absence from the original versions... it has to be said that there are also some glaring ommissions and negative points in this one too.

Surprisingly, from a film by the likes of Fincher who cut his teeth on the grim and gritty Alien 3 and who has a reputation for making what I could only call “designer bleak” (like Se7en), this seems to me to be a very much dumbed down or softened version of events as depicted in the novel. Blomkvists six month jail sentence, for instance, doesn’t happen in this version... he just gets a hefty fine which kind of changes the tone of certain sequences. Both Salander’s “current” and Berger’s “past” interest in a BDSM lifestyle is also very much absent in anything other than the title sequence (which I’ll have a moan about in a minute). The references to Kalle Blomquist which say everything about how Blomkvist is perceived by the media is also completely excised. Granted the US and UK audiences aren’t as likely to “get” the reference but that’s what cinema is partly here to do, isn’t it? Entertain, educate and illuminate? After all... we “got it” in the books, didn’t we?

The casting in this version doesn’t really seem to be right to me either. Rooney Mara as Salander is probably the most representative of the characters as they are in the novels. She’s no Noomi Rapace but she has a certain quality of her own which she manages to bring to the role in a raw, Salanderish way... so that’s a good, positive thing. But all the other characters, it seems to me, seemed much better served by their Swedish predecessors than as they, at least, look in this version (with the possible exception of Figuerola... we’ll see if Fincher can get himself a stunner of a “muscle-babe” for the third film).

Daniel Craig is, of course, a really excellent actor but, for me, he plays Blomkvist as much too self assured and confident than he is in the books... almost like he’s playing James Bond in a way... which is certainly credible on screen but disturbingly unlike the original character. He’s no cardboard cutout either, and Craig is enough of an actor to play this role... I just don’t believe him as Blomkvist, which is a shame. On the other hand, if you’re not familiar with the original novels then this shouldn’t be a problem for you. However, I did feel that Craig was bringing a certain unnecessary amount of baggage from his 007 role with him when, an actor of this calibre really should have been able to nail the character as slightly more vulnerable. It might have been his direction on set though so I really can’t blame him too much and he does make a convincing on-screen presence.

However, I’m thinking that having the latest 007 in their film must have gone to the producer’s heads on this one. The opening title sequence of this movie is pure James Bond and would certainly not look or sound out of place on any of the recent Bond pictures with it’s curious mixture of heavy rock, fetish wear and girly silhouettes. Where it would look out of place, however, is on a movie like... err.. well this... and it does too. What an inappropriate title sequence for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo! I can’t deny that it’s clever and well designed but... why? It’s just at odds with the atmosphere of both the novel and the movie too (as it happens) and completely killed the mood of the pre-credits sequence while totally failing to set the tone of the movie to come (in much the same way that the “cool and groovy song” over the titles of Hammer’s Moon Zero Two totally fails to set the viewer up for what they are to expect from the film)... that’s a total fail as I’m concerned.

If pushed, I’d have to say that this version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a little more faithful to the novel (although I’d prefer a cross-bred version where the mutually exclusive ommissions were reinstated from the two movies) and possibly a little more entertaining in content... but the atmosphere of the original version is a better match for the subject matter.

Truth be told, though, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is unique in that it’s the only part of the trilogy which can be viewed as a stand-alone story... which makes it very hard to speculate on the success of the next two films in the series. Certainly, if The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest manages to totally miss the story threads represented by Figuerola and Berger as the Swedish original does... I’m really not going to be very happy. All I can say is that I’ll continue to watch the progress of this series with interest and see if the director manages to continue to be as respectful of the source material as this one is... Blomkvist’s prison sentence and sexual exploits notwithstanding.

For reviews of the original Millennium Trilogy movies... please check them out here...

Monday 26 December 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe

It’s In The Trees! It’s coming...

Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe
Airdate: December 25th 2011. UK. BBC1

Warning: Little spoilers which will grow on you and turn into bigger spoilers as you follow them through the word forest of this review...

Oh good grief. You know, whenever I don’t like a movie or a show I find it much easier to find enough things to say about it (read “complain about it” methinks) to turn it into a sizeable article. So fair warning up front kiddies... this is going to be one short review!

Okay... so I was fairly easy on last years Christmas special (compared to most of the comments I was getting back about it from friends and family) but I did acknowledge that, while it wasn’t the worst one they’d done... it certainly was in that same league of some of the more dissapointing episodes. Now I don’t get the time or opportunity on Christmas Day to watch Doctor Who but I usually end up watching it with the family on Boxing Day.

So, post-party last night, I trod fairly tentatively on Twitter expecting the usual round of Doctor Who spoilers and was susrprised that nobody had found anything passionate or interesting to say about it. In fact, once the episode had started, I couldn’t find any comments about that eposode at all, even after it had finished. This was somewhat unusual and from what I would guess is... it wasn’t that well liked.

This suspicion was further compounded when I rang a friend who had seen it this morning and he reported back to me that... it was “alright” but not great and it made a mockery of its own timelines somewhat. Okay then, thought I, I can handle another bad Doctor Who episode at Christmas... after all, I figured... I had survived watching all the episodes of Torchwood: Miracle Day without actually causing myself physical harm to distract me from the pain of bad scripting... and Doctor Who should at least have some good scoring on it to distract me. So I inevitably took the plunge today and watched The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe... and here’s what I thought of it.

Well... I must say, that was a really brilliant and heartwarming episode which was everything like a Christmas special should be. It was solidly written, had some good performances and was really nicely lit... most of it seemed to have been lit or designed with blue (TARDIS blue?) in mind which is not usually a good look when pitching against flesh tones but, hey, it worked really well here I thought (although you wouldn't be able to tell from the images above).

The Doctor was without his regular companions until the last couple of minutes and this worked in Matt Smith’s favour as he didn’t have the distraction of the red-headed firebrand who is Amy Pond to draw the eye away from The Doctor. Matt Smith is an absolutely brilliant actor and without Amy around The Doctor takes full command of the screen.

The story starts during the Second World War as one of the lead characters is “widowed” by the seeming death of her husband... although it has to be said that, because you don’t actually see his final fate, you don’t actually believe he’s dead and the story does kind of tip its hat at that point I’m afraid... still, knowing how it’s all going to end right from the start has never hurt these stories much before and, as anything, it’s about the journey of getting to that conclusion that counts. This journey is mostly set in a forest of the future on one of the two Androzani planets featured in Peter Davison’s final story as The Fifth Doctor, The Caves Of Androzani. I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens but there are references to Narnia and Tolkien and some nice comical work featuring Bill Bailey as the Captain of a “military unit” which all make watching this one a treat.

The timeline isn’t actually screwed up in this one (which makes a change)... and makes perfect sense when the final fate of the World War 2 pilot is revealed. This does, of course, make the title of the piece something of a misnomer... but let’s be charitable. It’s all for the sake of a cheap parody of an episode title and... it is Christmas after all.

My only real grumble with this one is when Murray Gold’s score (partially new and partially tracked in from pieces written for previous episodes... as is the standard practice for modern Doctor Who scoring, it seems) had what sounded very much like a two second musical sting from one of the first two ALIEN movies tracked in to highlight a jump when The Doctor and one of his Christmas companions start their walk in the forest. I don’t know if it was an original Jerry Goldsmith sting from ALIEN or one of Jimmy Horner’s “carbon copies” from ALIENS... but it did pop me out of the story somewhat, hearing a familiar piece of scoring (like all those old cues from the show always do) and I wondered why they actually needed that specific sting in there rather than one written by the always excellent Mr. Gold. Perhaps it was to musically highlight an ALIEN reference that I just didn’t get... but somehow I don’t think so.

Either way, musical anomolies aside, this has got to be one of the best Christmas specials since... well, since The Next Doctor and it’s definitely one I look forward to watching this time next year when the, hopefully reoccurring DVD set of the next series, is released. Talking of which... just what is happening with the next series? There was no trailer for one like in recent years. Do we get one next year or not? About time Auntie Beeb made an announcement, don’t you think?

Saturday 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my blog & twitter readers, followers, commenters and lurkers.

I'll be back in a few days (possibly a week if I over celebrate Christmas) with the new Doctor Who review and possibly a years best movies listing (why the heck not... I was moaned at for not having one last year).

Lotsa more reviews coming in the New Year.

Thanks so much for stopping by and reading. It really means a lot to me.

All the best and see you soonest.


Zombies of Mora Tau

Mora The Same!

Zombies of Mora Tau
US 1957
Directed by Edward L. Cahn
Sony Region 1

Ok... so onto another movie produced by Sam Katzman. These movies are, admittedly, B-movie fodder to be thrust onto an unsuspecting public but, like the previous two movies I saw produced by this guy, there’s always something which serves by way of a redeeming feature. In this one it’s a certain special effect which... well, let me not get ahead of myself here.

Zombies of Mora Tau is Katzman’s attempt to catch on to the burgeoning voodoo zombie craze of the time (still over a decade before Romero’s seminal classic Night Of The Living Dead) and it’s basically the story of a group of... hmmm... “entrepreneurs” who go after a legendary batch of lost diamonds off the coast of Africa... only to find that these diamonds are guarded by murderous, undead sailors of decades past who will not rest until, apparently, the diamonds are thrown into the sea... even though they are pretty much recovered from the sea in the first place by our gang of cutthroat protagonists.

The acting is pretty wooden on this one and the script is quite dire (no surprise there then) but the photography on this one is a fairly crisp black and white and has some nicely competent shot compositions. And that’s not the only good stuff in this movie. Mischa Bakaleinikoff, who also provided musical composition for Katzman classic The Giant Claw delivers a strikingly appropriate score for the kind of movie this is and one of the small sailor roles is played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan! Remember him from such serial’s as the classic Undersea Kingdom?

That being said though, this is a trashy movie after all, and fans of clumsy, trash cinema should find all their buttons pushed in this little opus. The rivalry between the wife of “the boss” and the pure of heart girl who is visiting her gran (who has been on the island the best part of her life to try to bring peace to her walking dead husband - no, not making this up people) is pretty clichéd and hard to swallow and the ridiculous effect at the end, when the diamonds are thrown back into the sea which enables the only zombie who happens to be in shot wink out of existence suddenly, leaving his clothing to fall to the ground, definitely hit a funny bone with one of the people I was watching this with.

Talking of special effects though, I have to give this movie respect for going the length with the idea that they wanted some underwater zombies in it. I always thought underwater zombies were a “relatively” new thing introduced by dodgy Italian zombie movies and people like Lucio Fulci in the 1970s, but here they are in 1957. What’s really great about the underwater sequences in this one however, is the inventiveness of the effects work. Main pretty boy diamond smuggler protagonist goes down to the bottom of the sea in his deep sea diving suit with bubbles galore coming up from his helmet... but when he gets to the bottom and the zombies come to attack him... well they don’t have a diving suit, obviously, as they’re dead already (and slow enough with it) and so the underwater sequences are shot on a set where everyone is just moving around in slow motion to fake being underwater. But what really impressed me is how the special effects crew have hit on the idea to have a soap bubble blowing machine fitted to the helmet of “our hero’s” diving helmet. This gives the rough idea (very rough but it’s such a genius idea that I’m more than prepared to let it slide) of air bubbles rising to the surface as the actors sloooowly prance around the pseudo-bottom-of-the-ocean. Great stuff.

All in all, I’d have to say that Zombies of Mora Tau is not the greatest of movies but it does have a lot of charm, especially when you’ve got such terrible lines being spoken with such conviction by the actors... and, for me, the sheer inventiveness of some of the “make do and mend” style solutions to various effects problems lend it a certain charm that will lead me back to watching this again some day... maybe on a double-bill with the much superior Val Lewton produced zombie remake of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, I Walked With A Zombie. That would be a nice companion film for this one I reckon.

Friday 23 December 2011

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

Cylon Night

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan
US 2009
Directed by Edward James Olmos
Universal Region 2

Warning: The prophets say that there are going to be big, generalised spoilers covering the first couple of seasons of the recent Battlestar Galactica TV show... so say we all.

You know, I really don’t watch much television when it comes down to it. Sure I watch "a" television, but most of the things I watch on that are movies on DVD. However, when the rebooted Battlestar Galactica TV mini series showed up in Britain a while ago, I made a point of watching it... even though I wasn’t expecting much as a fan of the original movie and TV show from when I used to watch it as a ten year old.

I think what got to me mostly was the absolutely kick ass score which was on that new original mini series (and subsequent full series) plus the combination of clever acting and that damn moving camera-that-catches-things style of shooting which programmes like Firefly also used to utilise to great effect. The added paranoia element created by the fact that the upper echelon of the cylons now look exactly like humans (albeit the same twelve models) was the final “page turner” on a TV show which, while I admittedly watched all the subsequent series on DVD, was one of the best to air on television when it came out and, frankly, hasn’t had much to compete with for that title as far as I can tell (although that’s a bit of a sweeping statement considering, as I said, I don’t really watch much made-for-TV fair).

Anyway, the saga of the new Battlestar Galactica was absolutely riveting and even the final episode, which really trowelled the religious angle on and played up to the overt spiritual thread running through the show “big time”, was no dampener on a series that had been at times nail biting and OMG in equal parts since the end of the first season. So it might possibly come as some surprise, given my background with the show, that the so called “prequel” special directed by the actor who plays Colonel Adama (but whom I’ll always think of as Gaff from Blade Runner... hence the term “skin job” in Battlestar Galactica, presumably) is something which I’ve only just got around to watching. All I’m going to say on that particular count is... £3 is better than paying £20 and leave it at that. Amazon are getting their stock in a lot cheaper these days. ;-)

So anyway... “How good can a prequel/cash-in be?” I thought to myself as I sat down to watch. Well, the answer is... simply... very good!

And it absolutely blew my expectations of it out of the water right from the start. It turns out, you see, that it’s not really a prequel after all but actually an alternate view of some of the previous parts of the series, but told from the point of view of the cylons who are hiding among the humans both on the Galactica itself and on Caprica. To be precise, it covers the mini series and onwards up to a point somewhere in season 2 and, because of this, it’s able to start with a bang showing an alternate perspective of the invasion/destruction of the human colonies by the cylons... all set to Bear McCreary’s rocking soundtrack which is, as always, absolutely fantastic but, in this instance I felt, sadly dialled down too much in the mix.

Nevertheless, the whole of the first 20 minutes is absolutely fantastic and I was mightily surprised to find that this episode also had naked ladies running around in it which is certainly not something I’d expect to see in an episode of Battlestar Galactica. Woo hoo! Battlestar Erotica anyone? Sadly, none of the main characters bare all for their art here but seriously, my mind was blown that they would allow this kind of thing on a TV show of such huge primetime popularity in the first place. Naked Galacticans!

Nudity and explosions aside, however, the episode tells the story behind the scenes from the cylons as they go through with a campaign to rid themselves of the humans... Boomer’s sabotage of the water, Boomer's assassination attempt on Adama etc and as the episode/tv movie progresses, you realise that the leader of this particular cylon cell, played again by Dean Stockwell, is seeing the absolute utter failure of any of his cylons to carry out their missions successfully and it’s actually a study of the way in which most of the cylons are corrupted by their contact with the humans and the way in which they begin to empathise with them... apart from one notable scene where Dean Stockwell does something that I don’t want to spoil for anyone here. Lets just say that anyone familiar with both John Carpenter’s original Assault On Precinct 13 and Battlestar Galactica: The Plan will know what I’m talking about. Raspberry ripple anyone?

The Plan is a curious beast because, although it’s set chronologically amongst the mini series and the two series that succeed it, there’s absolutely no way you want to watch this one until you’ve seen all of the episodes of the regular TV show. This movie does, right from the start, for instance, reveal/remind you of the identities of “the final five” cylon models who are a little more special than the rest of them... something you are so not going to want to know until its revealed within the original show itself. That being said though, if you do take the time to wade through all those original episodes, The Plan is a really cool addendum to those early days which you will surely appreciate if you’ve been following the show from its inception. It’s very much a supporting piece as opposed to a stand alone but that in no way detracts from the artistry and sense of compelling fascination you get from watching it... it’s a seriously kick-ass little TV movie and it gives me renewed hope that the franchise could, just possibly, successfully continue past the realms of it’s original shelf life... although bearing in mind the events of the last episode of the actual series... it’s very hard to do a direct sequel, obviously. Plus the Caprica TV series/prequel got cancelled fairly quickly from what I remember... so maybe not.

However, to sum up... if you’ve not seen the original shows (The Mini Series, The Full Series and Razor) then leave this one until you have taken a look at them (and please do, it’s seriously one of the best TV shows ever), but if you’re already up on all that stuff, take a look at Battlestar Galactica: The Plan... it’s seriously good viewing.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Doctor Who: The Claws Of Axos

It’s Beginning To
Look A Lot Like Axos

Doctor Who: The Claws Of Axos
UK 1971
BBC Region 2

It’s been a while since I last saw the Doctor Who story The Claws Of Axos... I’ve not seen it since I was three years old in fact and did not, therefore, have much memory of it... other than the much reprinted photographs of the iconic creatures created for this story, of course. Seeing it again for the first time in 40 years taught me two things...

Thing One is that you certainly don’t have to have modern, tricksy writing, kick ass orchestral scores and increasingly long story arcs to be left with a fun, entertaining and attention grabbing science fiction story... these old episodes had some pretty good stuff going for them such as the relationship which had developed between the characters like The Doctor, his playful companion Jo Grant and their banter with other series regulars such as the U.N.I.T personnel headed up by The Brigadier and their long standing villain, who had been introduced in the Pertwee era, The Master.

Thing Two is that you really do have to beware of Greeks bearing gifts... or to be more precise... you really do have to beware of impossibly beautiful golden beings who are really hideous, red, energy sucking spaghetti monsters in disguise... bearing gifts.

That said, this is a pretty standard and simplistic piece of scriptwriting retelling the story of the Trojan Horse... but this time that Trojan Horse is a substance known as Axonite which is given to humanity as a gift in the hopes that it will be spread around the earth quickly through various representatives of different countries to enable the Axons to steal the energy from our planet. The success of this plan is challenged slightly when you throw in the political angle of a British Government who want to control the distribution of the Axonite themselves.

As I intimated earlier, pretty simplistic writing... but when you factor in the performances of the actors involved in selling this little story and the way in which their characters react to any given situation... then you have something which can be quite gripping at times.

Yes, it’s true the special effects on these ones, for the most part, were worse in places than many of the black and white stories that preceded the Pertwee era (and this tradition continued into later Doctor’s eras in an ever increasing trend for terrible effects work) but every now and again they got it right. Case in point, when a spaghetti Axon wipes out a fleeing soldier with its tendril and the soldier disappears in a wisp of smoke, I found it surprisingly hard (if not impossible) to perceive just how the “trick” in that particular trick shot was done.

It’s a shame the rest of the action and effects were a bit less solid though. When a jeep is blown up, for example, not only does it not blow up where the grenade was (hey, two charges from one grenade... impressive) but it also happens to be speeding down a hill when it’s doing it... that is to say, the jeep’s valuable engine must have been taken out and so the effects crew presumably had to push it down a hill to make it look like it was going fairly fast.

But, as I’m sure most of you readers will know, special effects do not a good story make! Roger Delgado’s performance as the original version of The Master still puts all future incarnations of the character to shame and his vibrant, evil and above all self-assured personality is easily as good, if not more believable, than even Derek Jacobi and John Simm’s incarnations of the role.

And, as I said earlier, the relationship between the characters is not all that simplistic. I don’t recall Jon Pertwee being this grumpy in the role before but certainly, for the vast majority of this story, he definitely plays the role as an “angry Doctor” who might well put William Hartnell’s original “grumpy old man” personae to shame. When The Doctor pretends to team up with The Master to escape the threat of the Axons and leave the earth to it’s fate so he can trick them into getting caught in a time-loop, you almost believe that The Doctor has turned into the villain of the piece... certainly his constant companions fall for it hook, line and sinker.

There are some nice one liners in the script and they’re not all reserved for The Doctor and his companions. Periphery characters who are only in it for the duration of this story (often to provide a body count of victims for the alien menace on hand) also get some interesting bits of dialogue and the whole thing comes across as a real ensemble piece. It keeps you watching when elements of the storyline become a bit tiresome and over padded.

So there you have it. The Claws of Axos... an iconic monster but not exactly a great story. That being said, however, it was certainly a pleasant change from some of the other stuff I’ve been watching lately and hugely enjoyable in contrast to some of the more earnest fare of modern television writing. Check this one out if you like a flamboyant Doctor and some iconic monsters puttering around.

Sunday 18 December 2011


Halt! Hugo’s There!

Hugo 2011 US
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Screening at UK cinemas.

You know, when I first heard that Martin Scorcese was making a movie called The Invention of Hugo Cabret I was kinda looking forward to it because I love films that are titled with an adjective followed by a noun and then followed again by the name of a character. So, The Something Something Of Somebody Someone is always a good candidate to go on my “to watch” list and I’ve had some good experiences with movies that have had that kind of structure to their titles... Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, for example or The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec are the movies which are immediately springing to mind in that context.

So when I then learned, subsequent to this, that the movie would be a children’s film and that it had been changed to the one word title of Hugo (I might say “dumbed down” for the woeful UK and US markets but I’ll try to be nice here), I kinda lost interest in seeing the whole thing. I’ve never been a fan of the name Hugo at any rate and if I’d ever been in a position to have had any offspring in my life, Hugo would be one of the last names I would call them.

However... a few weeks ago, when this movie came out, word of mouth was staggeringly good on the movie and, to boot, I discovered that special effects pioneer and fantasy storyteller Georges Méliès was going to be one of the characters in it. I still resisted for a little while but that good word of mouth kept coming in on it and so, last night, I resignedly walked to my local cinema to judge the film for myself, 3D glasses tucked firmly in my pocket so the cinema wouldn’t con me by charging for another pair on top of their bizarre, extra £1.50 “3D movie tax” they seem to have come up with to further make 3D movies an experience I and most of my friends would rather ignore and pretend didn’t exist.

The movie opens strong with a metaphor of Paris as a well maintained machine ticking over in a visual metaphor that I’d seen somewhere before in early silent cinema... although I can’t remember if these shots were an homage to a French or Russian movie (yeah, well, I’m getting old). We then go into a typically long “around-the-houses-Scorcese-special” of a tracking shot (or a series of shots made to look like a single shot to be more precise) and I have to point out here that when Scorcese does those things and you happen to be viewing it in 3D... watch out, you’re stomach is gonna turn over!

As the scene is set we find ourselves in a visually rich world created by some beautiful design and photography and coloured with some spellbinding acting performances which... I have to admit... left me a little bored and looking at my watch for the first half of the movie. By this point I could fully appreciate the beauty of the film and the inventiveness of it... but I wasn’t really pulled in like I’d hoped for after those initial reports had come in. However, all that changed for me by the second half of the movie when the two main child protagonists are researching early cinema (the film is set in the 1930s) and they come across both a book on film history which features the work of the aforementioned Georges Méliès and, also, the writer of the book who is a passionate cineaste... just the right kind to fire up the imagination.

From here on, Scorcese uses the film as beautiful propaganda for the restoration of old film... which is great news and something we all should be supporting. The passion and verve with which he explores both the work of Méliès (wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley) and his relationship to early film history is an absolute joy to watch and the emotional story with which all this information is pulled together is truly moving... there’s a warm, beating heart in this movie amidst all the Judex and Fantômas posters after all, I found.

This second half of the movie really pulled me in and reminded me that sometimes lost treasures can be found. As the cineaste in the movie started off with the one surviving Georges Méliès movie but, after putting out a search, came back with over 80 found movies which were then lovingly restored, I couldn’t help but think of recent discoveries and restorations in film and TV which are a close parallel. The very recent, more or less complete restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for example (reviewed by me here) or last weeks revelation of the discovery of two old episodes of sixties Doctor Who were what sprang to mind.

This film is less like most other Scorcese films I’ve seen but it’s obvious that, as always, his heart was pumping pure silver nitrate through his veins when he shot this magnificent homage to the pioneers of early cinema (he even gives himself a marvellous little cameo as a photographer recording the day Méliès and his wife opened their own studio) and the way the story of the orphaned Hugo Cabret dovetails into this “grand tale of movie making” is something which, it has to be said, made the 3D effects towards the end of the movie go a little wonky, I’m afraid. Yeah, that’s right! I was tearing up and crying so much by the end that the 3D effect had gone all blurry to me. It’s rare to get a warm film like this in the current climate of cinema and so Hugo is definitely one I’d recommend going to see. Wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to children and certainly it does take a little longer than I’d anticipated to get going... but once it does it’s like an emotional steamroller is slowly thundering over your heart. Absolutely beautiful movie and can’t wait to grab the DVD when it hits the shelves.

One last thing though... before I finish this short review... if you go and see the movie and are moved by what you see, please check out this site here, The Film Foundation, for an opportunity to read about Scorcese’s good work in preserving classic film. If you’re feeling particularly helpful and inclined to the arts, why not take a minute to donate something to this very worthy cause... after all, humanity is nothing without the art it creates and defines itself with and the “art of film” is something which has been popular for such a short space of time, relatively, but which needs assistance more than many other art forms. Take a look at the site if you get a minute... if you’re into movies you’ll find it really interesting and will be glad you took a look, if only to play with their cool restoration slider bar on the front page. And go see Hugo... it’s heart warming!

Saturday 17 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Holmes Is Where The Heart Is

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows 2011 US
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Elementary logic should lead you to deduce the presence of spoilers lurking in the shadows of this review.

Ok then. Since I’m really not a lover of gangster pictures (seen enough gangsters in my school days to ever really feel the need to watch glamourised renditions of these hooligans) I’d never seen a Guy Ritchie movie until his first take on Sherlock Holmes a few years back.

Now I’ve always loved the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce versions of Holmes and Watson at the cinema (even though Bruce’s Watson is far from accurate to the original material) and so the prospect of seeing Holmes modernised into an action hero was less than appealing at the time and I was in two minds whether to see it or not until an old friend expressed an interest in going and dragged me into London with her to check it out.

As it happens, I really enjoyed myself with that first movie. Holmes hadn’t been made into the complete buffoon I’d feared and the introduction of action sequences that I’d worried about so much (forgetting that Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation actually was into bare knuckle boxing at one point in his career) was cleverly underpinned with a bullet-time like series of slow motion sequences which showcased Holmes’ keen speculative intellect in fighting intelligently before the shots were replayed at normal speed to show multiple facet’s of Holmes in what turned out to be an intriguing and hugely entertaining series of set pieces.

Added to this were the shining acting talents of Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law and their various co-stars... not to mention Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous score which still gets regular spins in my CD player. Frankly, that first Guy Ritchie Holmes’ movie was damn good.

Which is why I was, perhaps, just a little disappointed with Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, being Ritchie’s second foray into the world of pulp fiction’s greatest super sleuth and also my second Guy Ritchie movie. But, having said that, I do find myself wondering just why I felt this one didn’t live up to the blood and thunder of the first movie.

Certainly, this one in set on a larger scale with only a small portion of it set in England and I did enjoy the sense of Victorian London that Ritchie managed to squeeze into every frame of the first film. This feels conspicuously absent in parts of this one. And it’s not like this international road-trip of a movie doesn’t hang together as well as it should either... all the threads come together and make perfect sense as the film builds up to Holmes’ famous “last stand” at the Reichenbach Falls... and we all know how that one ends. Actually, this is one sequence where I think Ritchie (or at least the suits pushing the buttons in Hollywoodland) let the movie down a bit as this movie leaves viewers in no doubt as to the final outcome of that infamous fight and it would have perhaps have been a stronger ending if the producers had been brave enough to have left Holmes for dead (as he was for a time before Doyle resurrected the character some years later) for a while and followed up in the next movie in the series... rather than bring Holmes back at the end of this one. Missed opportunity I feel... and more than a little gutless.

Hmmm... well since I can’t seem to adequately explain why this one didn’t quite pass muster with me, I can only assume that this is one of those handful of Hollywood blockbusters which actually takes a little while to grow on you and I suspect that, when the time comes to pick up the DVD (and I will), I’ll enjoy it much more on the second viewing than I did the first.

So let me tell you about the good things this movie’s got going for it.

Well, for one thing... Guy Ritchie has a marvellous, extended, slow motion escape/chase sequence about three quarters of the way through the movie and though I’m not exactly a fan of slow motion in movies (except when a true artist like Dario Argento uses it at the end of Four Flies On Grey Velvet, for example) this sequence was a bit of a tour-de-force and it was a pleasure to watch the way various actions and details had been cinematically “enhanced”, pushing at the visual language of the form in a rather attractive manner. The acting performances were, once again, all top notch although I did feel that the chemistry between Holmes and Watson was a little less brighter than in the last movie. Also, Eddie Marsden’s brilliant portrayal of Inspector Lestrade is sidelined to what amounts to a little cameo role at the end of the movie and Stephen Fry’s inclusion as Mycroft Holmes is immensely watchable but, not necessarily a very faithful rendition of the character (again, I blame that one on the writers myself).

Jared Harris’ performance as Moriarty was an absolute casting coup and I found myself very impressed by the way the high intellect of the character was combined within the animally magnetic personae of this bear of a man. Such a perfect choice and pitch perfect performance as Moriarty, culminating with a speculative slow-motion “pre-fight” fight sequence in which both the minds of Holmes and the nefarious Napoleon of crime were equally engaged... the “telepathic” communication between the two (yeah, you changed the rules there didn’t you Ritchie... I saw!) forcing Holmes to quickly tip the scales and sacrifice himself to stop Moriarty dead.

On the other hand, Noomi Rapace (who played Lisbeth Salander in the original adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), while being unbelievably brilliant in her performance and also being in possession of one of the most distinctive and beautiful faces of any actresses working in her profession, was a little bit wasted in a role which tended to sideline her talents a little too much. Which is a shame and a mistake on the writers/producer’s parts because, frankly, when she’s on screen she absolutely lights it up and she’s the one you are watching when the other actors are speaking their lines. Absolutely great screen presence.

Another downer in this one is the fact that, while I appreciated the humour at Holmes expense in the original movie, the character is treated somewhat more as a joke in this one. Holmes’ fire is somewhat subdued by his treatment at the hands and attitudes of the other characters this time around and I could have done with a few more scenes of him asserting his intellectual rigor over scenes of him fannying around in ladies dresses and suffering the indignity of riding a mule instead of a horse.

Talking of which... Zimmer’s score is, once more, an excellent contribution to the movie as a whole (and I’m sure once I hear it out of the context of its place in the sound mix of the actual film I’ll appreciate it even more) but I was surprised and dismayed to hear him doing a reorchestrated cover version of Ennio Morricone’s musical score to the film Two Mules For Sister Sara during the “Holmes rides a mule” sequence instead of coming up with something of his own. A possible case of temp-trackitus I expect. That being said, of course, it was a more than competent cover (of a much better original) and does nothing to detract from the rest of his brilliant score.

And that’s about it for this one. An entertaining but somewhat less satisfying confection of a movie than the previous film, this one is still worth a watch if you’re a fan of that original outing and the spectacle of some of Guy Ritchie and his team’s mise-en-scene and editing style is surely worth a look if you get the chance. I’m not the biggest fan of this one... yet. I do, however, think it will probably strike me as a better movie when the DVD comes out and I’ve had time to let the first impressions sink in a bit better. Nevertheless, a fine film to view as part of this year’s Christmas viewing... if one has nothing better to do.

Monday 12 December 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)

I Blomkvist A Girl

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
(Män som hatar kvinnor)
Sweden/Denmark/Germany/Norway 2009
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Momentum Region 2 (original theatrical cut)

Warning: Spoilerama ahead!

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of the last movies I watched at the cinema before I finally decided to start up this blog site. As such, it feels kinda ironic that this first installment is actually the last of the three I’ve actually got around to reviewing... the other two are here and here. In hindsight and having watched it again, of course, I can confirm that this first installment is a much better offering than the next two movies in the sequence in many ways.

I’m a big lover of the novels and the second and third of the movies, especially, did not do any justice to the characters and events as portrayed in Stieg Larsson’s original Millenium Trilogy. At the time I saw those, I don’t think I was aware that the movies had been cut down from episodes of a Swedish TV series, with the second and third movies coming off particularly harshly from all accounts. I’ve recently realised that the boxed edition of the movies that has recently come out, at least here in the UK, contains these original, extended (or uncut to be more accurate) and episodic versions of the movies... so I’m now looking forward to grabbing this box sometime next year and giving these versions a go in the hopes that all the vital (and even some of the not-so-vital) elements of the novels are faithfully covered and the end of the third part actually gives one more of a sense of resolution as it did in the novels when you realise the true emphasis of the emotions the characters Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are feeling. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest has more of an up ending because of the history of the characters when they reach this point and, although we get exactly the same ending scene in the movie version, the lack of the parts of the story explaining the dynamics of the relationship between these two characters turn it into something of a flattened ending... rather than giving things the slight sense of hope contained in the novel.

But anyway... let me divorce myself from all that and fixate on the first movie because, as I said before, it’s a far better movie than the two which follow it.

A lot of this, I think, has got to be in the way the movie is put together. It’s a lot more leisurely in its pacing and editing, the cinematography is quite beautiful and there are some wonderful transitions and montages in this movie. I feel the direction is a lot more.... well... confident I guess. It’s not all cut shot, backwards and forwards “to”ing and “fro”ing as the second and third movies, which were helmed by a different director, seem to descend to quite often. There’s just something in the way the shots are lit which give the film, perhaps a little less visual clarity, but certainly a more sense of poetry in the images. A beautiful shot of a bridge with traffic going over it (not the main bridge which is essential to the storyline in this one, although the emphasis of that is toned down in the movie anyway) is not just used as an establishing shot, for instance, but a shot to be held for its own beauty for several seconds in and of itself.

The performances are all dead on but the two main elements which are pretty much missing in action in the movie, the swinger lifestyle of Blomkvist and Erika Berger (once a big wheel in the BDSM scene) and the Modesty Blaise-like personae of Lisbeth Salander as she adopts various disguises to build up her riches around the world, pretty much kill the set up for the next two parts. I’m hoping they’ll be among the elements touched upon in the extended/uncut versions in the new DVD set... especially since Erika Berger is such a strong character in the original novels and absolutely essential to the third book.

To be fair to the director of the two movies that came after this however, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is really the only part of the Millennium Trilogy which could be viewed as a stand alone story... being as it’s really an extended locked-room mystery story, with the whole island as the locked room... whereas The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest both interlock with each other and present a single narrative which derives from the character threads and set ups from this first story. So this one is less conspicuous when it leaves great chunks of the novel out but, the second two are very much reliant on these parts and it really shows by their absence in the movie versions.

So there you have it. When I wrote the reviews of the second one when it came out at the cinema, I was getting worried that the forthcoming US remake (think it’s released over here on December 26th?) would be a pale comparison to the original movies... but I was also hoping that the trilogy would be salvaged by a glorious last part... something which that third movie failed to deliver. Now I’ve kinda got my hopes pinned on the director of the US ones filming the novels properly and not making the same bad choices as the original versions. Time will tell I guess. One thing I will say though, is that Noomi Rapace who plays the titular character in the three original movies was absolutely tailor-made for the role... she’ll be a tough act to follow. Check back with me here at around the end of December and I’ll let you know what I think of her US counterpart.