29 April 2010

Stark Contrast

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments. That said, the Iron Man review will contain SPOILERS, because if you haven't seen the first one yet, I doubt you'd be here.

The Internet is abuzz with reviews of Iron Man 2, the definitive beginning of the 2010 summer blockbuster season. With such widespread interest in the sequel, there's only one thing your Mad Prophet could do, true believers. That's right- go back and review Iron Man. You know, because this blog started just shy of the opportune time to do a review of that film. Nah, there will be a quick snifter at Iron Man 2 as well, so sit back and enjoy a blog post that scrutinises the ongoing adventures of Tony Stark.
Iron Man begins with Tony Stark being ambushed by a terrorist group whilst in a military convoy in Afghanistan. He's a billionaire and genius, and his talents are understandably coveted by America's enemies. While in captivity, he pulls a Doc Brown by using the materials provided to create something much more awesome than he's meant to- in this case a mechanised suit of armour capable of dealing heavy firepower. Through these experiences, Tony's eyes are opened to the effects of his work, and when he returns to America, he vows to develop the armour and right his own wrongs as the titular superhero.

In the time since the film came out, Jeff "The Dude" Bridges has publicly decried Paramount's initial handling of the film, setting a release date and even starting shooting before they had a script or a cast locked down. In the same breath, he said that the film turned out as well as it did thanks to the improv skills of director Jon Favreau and leading man Robert Downey Jr. Certainly they make Iron Man the all-out riotous bit of fun blockbuster cinema that it is. You have to remember that Iron Man is no Superman or Spider-Man. With the upper tier characters spoken for, film studios are turning to lesser known characters, making this an unlikely hit when it originally came out.

Of course it's also the film that largely gave Downey the stardom he finally secured in the last few years. He earns every bit of it with his sardonic portrayal of Stark, making the audience like him from barely a minute after the film starts. Favreau wisely keeps him on screen for as long as possible, because in a superhero film where the alter-ego is entirely concealed by a suit of robot armour, there's little room for performance in major action sequences.

Save for a few ingenious finishing moves, there's little to show that Stark is Iron Man, resulting in a number of open-helmeted exchanges when he does don the suit. On which note, it's nice to see they partially employ practical effects for the suit, and that it's near impossible to tell the difference between the effects and the physical suit.
Also to be applauded is his chemistry with literally everyone on screen. He sparks off of Gwyneth Paltrow as his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts without the film resorting to a traditional romantic conclusion. He mocks Terrence Howard's Colonel Rhodes without ever letting the audience lose sight of the fact that they're best friends. Downey is perfectly cast as Stark and is simply one of the best things about this film.

The plot rattles along wonderfully, especially considering they improvised much of it, and the only real problem stems from Iron Man being a second-tier Marvel hero. The first-tier heroes are often so well-known because they also have everyone's favourite villains. In Iron Man's case, his nemeses are more often bigger or more metal versions of himself- another guy in a suit.

Even if the action climax fizzles out, it picks up for one of the better final scenes of any modern blockbuster- a complete subversion of the angst around preserving a secret identity when you have superpowers. Tony telling the press "I am Iron Man" leaves the audience wanting more from the film from the second it cuts to the credits. And who could blame any audience? This is a witty, gloriously acted and hugely enjoyable film that stands up on repeat viewings and doesn't adhere too closely to superhero genre formula. Iron Man defies expectations by pleasing both comic fans and broad audiences, setting up both the origins of the character and some pretty intense anticipation for a follow-up.
It's that intense anticipation that threatens to overshadow Iron Man 2 for me. Beginning simultaneously with the first film's ending before skipping six months on, the sequel picks up with Tony being massively popular for the Iron Man brand and for "effectively privatising world peace." Opposition stirs within the US government, who want to replicate the armour for military usage, and across the globe, where a resentful Ivan Vanko plots vengeance on Tony. Whipping up an arc reactor of his own, Vanko embarks upon a mission to prove to the world that Iron Man is not indestructible...

On my first viewing? I don't think it's as good as the original. I wouldn't call it a disappointment, but it's just missing something. I will be seeing it again to check I wasn't compressing it under the weight of my expectations, but here's my review for now. The first hour or so is really pretty dull. The highlight, an fight scene at the Monaco Grand Prix, has been flogged to death in the marketing, and so has little impact in the context of the film. After a promising opening, it becomes bogged down in extended scenes of sub-poena hearings and corporate mix-ups, which is not what you want from a film called Iron Man 2.

After that second hour though, the film becomes preoccupied with selling the forthcoming Avengers film. The convergence of all the Marvel characters here takes up a sizable chunk of the second act, when I'd really much rather have seen a film solely about Iron Man. It wouldn't be fair to say it suffers from Spider-Man 3 Syndrome, but it does stretch itself massively to cover numerous plot points about SHIELD when giving proper focus to the narrative at hand would have been more satisfying. Despite the flab, it's a decent narrative with some strong action beats, but it seems divorced from the sense of fun that made Iron Man so good.
Of the cast, I can't really declare any faults. Downey is once again superb as Tony, becoming ever more isolated as the tide of opinion turns against him, but special mention should go to Sam Rockwell. Assess your wants and needs, and I guarantee you there is nothing you want as much as Justin Hammer wants to be Tony Stark. He's an incompetent shadow to Tony's genius and Rockwell knocks it out of the park completely in every scene he's in. Don Cheadle makes a better Rhodey-cum-War Machine than his predecessor Terrence Howard right from the off, and Mickey Rourke proves an interesting casting decision, playing Vanko. His righteous anger is pretty much the length and breadth of his character, but Rourke sells it well, proving a threatening screen presence throughout.

Downey has always been fast-talking as Tony, often speaking at the same time as an equally flustered and garbled Gwyneth Paltrow, but it really jars this time around in the early instances of their dialogue together. If there's one character who's perfectly legible and well-covered throughout, it's Happy Hogan, played by... director Jon Favreau. Expanding a cameo from the first film, he gets lots of dialogue in this one, gets involved in action scenes and at one point is pinioned between Scarlett Johansson's legs. If you have to do a cameo, make it more like Hitchcock and less like Shyamalan. I do have to wonder where director Jon Favreau's head was this time around, other than locked between ScarJo's thighs in that one scene.

Is Iron Man 2 solidly entertaining? Ultimately, yes, but it's not a patch on the first one. The unconventional ending of the first film is countered with a bog-standard denouement for two certain characters and a final scene that's kind of copied from the ending to one of the Star Wars films. And just prior to those scenes, we have a villain face-off similar to the end of Iron Man- as mentioned earlier, his opponents are invariably other robots, and that's the case here. I'll hand it to Favreau though, it still seems fresh if not entirely as enjoyable as what's gone before. And it held my attention throughout, so it's visually top-notch even if the meat in the story is a little thin at the outset.
It's funny really, how Iron Man proved a winning formula with little planning and a largely improvised production and this one didn't. The signs of aforethought are all too clear in Iron Man 2, and the half-hearted attempt to recapture that formula turns it into just that- a formula. There aren't many original thrills, but it has a better cast giving better performances than many other films you'll see this summer. Thankfully it hasn't attempted to stray into the intangible territory of "darkness" that many Hollywood sequels try to broach, but sadly it doesn't really try anything else new either.
With the caveat that I may well be kinder to the sequel on a second viewing, let me know what you think of the Iron Man films with a comment below!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

22 April 2010

Spiritually Speaking

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Britain, Britain, Britain, as a good old Doctor intoned on a not-as-good comedy show. With the election currently rattling Britain up and down and all over the place, and multiculturalism still proving a thorny issue in some quarters, it's better to just go to the cinema and forget about politics. You can find a satire of religious and political differences with that bloke off the moneysupermarket.com ads in The Infidel, or a scathing and thinly-veiled look at Tony Blair's premiership in Roman Polanski's The Ghost.
The Infidel centres around Mahmud Nasir, a British Muslim who is frequently agitated by the coverage of religious extremists in the media. The more moderate Mahmud just wants to clear his late mother's house out as his son asks him to be a good Muslim for a visit by his fiancée's new stepfather, a fundamentalist cleric. Mahmud resolves to muddle through, until he finds adoption papers in his mother's effects. Apparently his birth name was Solly Shimshillewitz, and he was born Jewish.

It's not the most conventional premise for a comedy, but I should say from the off that this won't upset nearly as many people as Chris Morris' upcoming Four Lions. That said, I don't think The Infidel is necessarily destined to be overshadowed by that film. It's an endearing comedy drama that doesn't skimp on laughs or more dramatic beats throughout its 1 hour and 45 minutes.

David Baddiel's script is witty and actually kind of profound, with Omid Djalili playing a role it's actually really difficult to imagine anyone else playing. When a performance makes an actor seem indispensable, it should really be applauded. The straight man to his loud antics is Richard Schiff, who's nicely sardonic as a Jew who decides to help Mahmud discover his identity with videos of Fiddler on the Roof and lectures on different types of Jew. Look out also for turns by the gorgeous Tracy Ann Oberman and the brilliant Matt Lucas.

Along the way, the hypocrisies and disputes of both Islam and Judaism are played up, but it's never disrespectful or offensive. Certain caricatures are brought into view, like a hook-handed right-hand man to a Muslim cleric or Jews having an in-built angst that entirely sums them up, but these are ultimately dispelled. The Infidel is not a film concerned with poking fun at religion, but rather in exploring its role in personal identity.

It's not going to set the world alight as Four Lions is expected to, but it is a warm and hilarious film that deserves to be more broadly seen. I even forgave it for its indulgence in the closing credits by finally having Mahmud do a funny dance, seeing as how Djalili seems to be known largely in Britain as "the bloke who does funny dances." And hey, it is still funny when they acquiesce to it- it is, after all, a funny dance!

It nearly outstays its welcome at a running time only a little longer than average for a comedy film, but it's an oddly strategic film. Baddiel's voice translates to the screen very well, and it feels like he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how it would unfold. The Infidel strikes at how ludicrous extremism is without forsaking righteousness, and it's a fine comedy drama that you should seek out if you get the chance.

The Infidel is now playing in selected cinemas across the UK.
The Ghost refers to the nameless protagonist, played by Ewan McGregor, who is recruited to ghost write the memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. The previous manuscript is a crock of shit, but with Lang under investigation by the UN for war crimes, his rivals circle around the writer to try and get hold of its secrets. As he digs deeper, it transpires that Lang may have handed terrorist suspects over to the CIA for torture, and even his predecessor may have been murdered in the scramble to cover up the truth.

To begin, I'd like to quickly say a massive FUCK YOU to any self-righteous tits who've dropped by to accuse me of funding and/or endorsing statutory rape by seeing and reviewing a film by Roman Polanski, as they have elsewhere. It's possible to enjoy this film and still want Polanski to go to jail for his crime, and I don't need moralising from Mail-reading tossers like you. Ahem.

The director's real-life controversy has obvious effects from the opening seconds of The Ghost. He finished editing the film from a Swiss prison, but the name change in foreign markets from The Ghost Writer to The Ghost has left Optimum tacking a poor graphic from the end of the international trailers onto the beginning of the film. It's blunt and poorly implemented, and I can't be the only one who thinks The Ghost Writer sounds better anyway.
What follows though is rather consummately realised, given the circumstances of its post-production. It's a taut thriller, maintaining a strong air of political paranoia and conspiracy theory without ever being any less than exhilarating. The only lull I can remember is somewhere around the last half hour, and it comes right before a glorious peak in the intrigue. The parallels with Tony Blair are there to be read into, as was intended in the Robert Harris novel the film is based on, but it still stands up entirely on its own merits.

Pierce Brosnan is making a fine showing at the multiplex this week, and I've been dazzled by him in both this and Remember Me. Maybe he's finally casting off the shadow of Bond as a character that captures all of Blair's charisma and self-importance while still feeling unique. I was surprised how little he's in the film- we're fully half an hour in before his first appearance and his appearances are intermittent thereafter, but his presence is always felt. Ewan McGregor seems to have got a comparative drubbing for what many have called a poor Mockney accent, but I heard nothing wrong with the offending dialect. Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson shine too where many others might fade into the background to McGregor and Brosnan, and it's worth watching everyone in the sprawling narrative.

Sprawling would ultimately be the key word to describe The Ghost. It's come through the problems of its production admirably to stand as one of the better films of the year so far. With its acknowledgement of Hitchcock's similarly paranoid thrillers and occasional echoes of Polanski's earlier horror film The Tenant, it almost feels out of its time in 2010, despite all contemporary parallels. Although the plot becomes ever so slightly inscrutable after the big twist, the impact of that twist is enough to leave a strong impression on the audience, along with a truly haunting final shot. Exciting, entertaining, and if this is the end to Polanski's somewhat eclectic career, it's a very fine swansong indeed.

The Ghost is playing in cinemas now.
If you've seen either of these films and want to comment on them, on my reviews, or to congratulate me on not celebrating my 50th post in any way whatsoever, why not share you comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

19 April 2010

Round the Twist

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. Given how I'm talking about twist endings, there will be some spoilers here for Remember Me. It's been on release for a good while now, but if you haven't seen it yet and want to, do not read the review.

If you're M. Night Shyamalan, your entire oeuvre revolves around the twist ending. Hell, even your upcoming Last Airbender film will probably follow suit ("The air is bending US!") if his previous works are anything to go by. Seeing as how most film-makers are not M. Night Shyamalan, you'd think they'd be halfway competent at doing twists every once in a while.

And yet rattling around multiplexes at the moment are romantic drama Remember Me and sci-fi action flick Repo Men, both of which resort to lame twists to bolster audience response in the final reel. As mentioned above, there will be spoilers for Remember Me in the review, but the Repo Men review will remain largely spoiler-free, as usual- that comes first...
Repo Men takes place in the near future, where shady medical insurers The Union provide the world with synthetic organ transplants on the terms of a strict payment plan. If you fall behind on payments, the eponymous bailiffs will track you down and take your organs. One of the repo men, Remy, has an accident at work that wasn't his fault, but rather than getting in touch with Claims Direct, he's saddled with a payment plan on his replacement organs. He's also grown a conscience in the process, and seeks to bring down The Union.

Does the beginning of that sound familiar? You may have seen Repo! The Generic Opera, an ultimately ephemeral attempt to make a Rocky Horror equivalent for the torture porn generation. Still, it's succeeded on a moderate level as a cult classic and has Anthony Head, which is always good. This only has Jude Law. But then both films were pipped to the post by a great gag in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, (and Repo Men overtly references said gag) so let's get that argument out of the way before it even transpires.

As mentioned, this does have Jude Law. The man is anathema to me except for a few select roles, including his recent turn as Watson in Sherlock Holmes, which is probably the best screen version of that character ever. Here, Law never convinces as a gung-ho action hero of the American ilk- he's too smarmy and posh. And it's a problem that he's less likeable than Liev Schrieber, because Schreiber is playing one of the antagonists.
One thing that does make Repo Men worth a watch is the turn by Forrest Whittaker. The man has made some mootable efforts both before and after his Oscar win for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, but he's a joy to watch here. His character is like a cross between the buddy cop and the over-the-top villains you'd see in 80s action films. Nick Frost in Hot Fuzz meets Vernon Wells in Commando, and just as funny. Others might sleepwalk through a role like this, but Whittaker actually makes it feel like a bold choice for an actor of his calibre. And kudos to him for it- what the hell have Halle Berry or Adrien Brody done lately?

Sadly, there's not much else to recommend about the film. Like its equally grisly forebear (only without the songs), it falls short of the concept's inherent potential by deploying excessive visual stimulus and next to no substance. The future may not be bright, but does it have to look like Blade Runner with product placement? A few moments are reminiscent of the brainless fun of Crank and Shoot 'Em Up, but these pale next to a misjudged social parallel that's already been explored in last year's Saw VI. Healthcare sucks in America! We get it! Let Obama sort it and stop making sub-par movies.

The lovingly orchestrated violence goes remiss in Repo Men because it's taking itself too seriously. Screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner have contrived a few scenes you won't see elsewhere this year, like a 9-year-old surgeon replacing a knee-cap and some unexpected typewriter violence, but its offset by an annoying and smug narration from Jude Law and that downright worthless twist ending I mentioned above. And the ending is borrowed from a much better Terry Gilliam film, which I won't name here. Ultimately disappointing stuff, although that great turn from Forrest Whittaker might be worth a watch once the film comes on telly.

18 April 2010

Pru Romance

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant make a more dramatic effort in their first feature film together, Cemetery Junction, set in the Reading district of the same name in a seemingly endless summer of 1973. Three lifelong friends, Freddie, Bruce and Snork, rattle around the small town causing havoc. They all feel they're destined for greater things outside of their home, even if they're not sure what yet.

Freddie is focused on more prudential matters than his friends, getting a start away from his working class roots in the life assurance business ran by the imperious Mr. Kendrick. His daughter Julie is Freddie's childhood sweetheart, and when she returns to his life, he finds himself torn between realising his dreams or following Kendrick into a life that's profitable, if not complete.
Cemetery Junction was not at all what I was expecting. Sure, I'd heard that this was a more serious outing for Gervais and Merchant, who have still regularly inserted proper human drama into the hysterics of The Office and Extras, but what this film offers is something that's consistently both moving and funny. Their influences admittedly stem from Saturday Night Fever and Rebel without a Cause, but I caught more of a whiff of Stand By Me from this, albeit setting the teenage unrest trope in a sleepy English suburb rather than across America. It somehow still feels fresh though.

In no small part, this is down to the cast's performances, none of which are really any less than excellent. To single out one truly wonderful performance, Emily Watson makes a very powerful turn with a few brief scenes as Mrs. Kendrick. To Freddie, she comes to symbolise all that is unfulfilled about your dreams and potential when you're a kid. Her performance is understated, but you can't take your eyes off her whenever she trudges on-screen as the wife to a marvellously sardonic Ralph Fiennes, as Mr. Kendrick.

Even though Watson very much forms its heart, the meat of the story largely goes to Christian Cooke as Freddie, with a nice bit of rebellious angst for Tom Hughes as Bruce. Cooke is the tit who was in Demons and the like on telly, but his big-screen transfer shows he is capable when he has a good script. He sparks off against his winsome love interest Felicity Jones very well, and their romance echoes Tim and Dawn in The Office rather than aping it. Elsewhere, Hughes commands as much attention as anyone else in the story with his troubled relationship with his dad, bringing one of the most moving moments of the film at its climax.
However, Gervais and Merchant don't spare on the comedy they're known for in Cemetery Junction. The state of the police pre-PACE Act, previously played up in Life on Mars, gets a few laughs in the shape of a schlubby and likeable copper who isn't above dishing out a beating to help Bruce learn a lesson. Gervais himself makes a marvellous double act with Anne Reid and they get some of the film's biggest laughs as Freddie's dad and nana respectively. Jack Doolan is endearing as Snork, effectively serving as the dirty-minded comic relief, but even his character gets a resolution before the closing credits. "Barry from Eastenders" is nowhere to be seen, but there's certainly no shortage of comedy, including the reason why Noddy wears a hat with a bell on it.

Despite its vast menagerie of characters and themes, the film never loses focus. Although the art direction is excellent, there isn't too much time given over to it, as in the recent Tom Ford flick, A Single Man. By making you care for its cast of characters and making the period anciliary to the plot, it's closer to last year's An Education. Although that period detail is there if you're looking, the story never stops driving forward, covering an awful lot of ground in its 94 minutes. Not since Lone Scherfig's film have I felt so acquainted with a period I wasn't even alive in.

Even though it still covers an everyman making good and a message that you should never settle for what you're expected to do, Cemetery Junction still marks the turn of a corner for Gervais and Merchant. Even though they've never indulged in the over-the-top antics of some sitcom comedy in their previous works, this feels even more restrained, and is all the better for it. So much of Emily Watson's restraint in the film speaks for the film as a whole, and some of the best and most moving scenes in the film don't even have any dialogue, proving the duo's directorial skill as well as their considerable writing talent. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but it's still as good (and better, I would say) than many of the texts that birthed it.

Cemetery Junction is playing in cinemas nationwide now. If you've seen it, why not share your comments on the film and on my review below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

14 April 2010

Moore Than A Feeling

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

I saw a Julianne Moore double feature this week in the form of much-acclaimed romantic drama A Single Man (not to be confused with a certain excellent Coen Brothers film) and multiple-personality horror Shelter.
Shelter opens on Cara Jessop, a skeptical psychologist, condemning a death row inmate to execution with her conclusion that multiple personality disorder does not really exist. Her father is determined to open her mind, to which end he's referred her to a number of patients suffering from the disorder. The latest is Adam, who violently and physically lapses into the persona of David, a disabled boy who was murdered several years before. As more personalities emerge, Cara discovers that Adam personifies a number of other murder victims, and gradually begins to consider the impossible as the bounds of faith and science are stretched.

Screenwriter Michael Cooney also brought us classics such as Jack Frost (no, not the Michael Keaton one, the other one) and its sequel Jack Frost 2- Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman. So this was never going to be The Exorcist was it? If anything, the script is the very weakest part of Shelter. Cooney has no real flair for dialogue and is often over the top in his impatience to get to the creepier parts of each scene. He also brazenly evokes "ill-conceived Hollywood movies" as a reason for Cara's skepticism, while the film still wears Night of the Living Dead on its sleeve as an influence, with frequent mentions by Cara's hipster brother. There's an obvious debt to Romero as Adam's conditions take a supernatural turn. Paradoxically, this doesn't bring the whole film tumbling down, and I actually liked it, in a weird way.
For one thing, the supernatural side to proceedings has not been telegraphed in the trailers, and this at least distinguishes the film from Cooney's other scripts around the same theme, namely Identity and The I Inside. And the reliably excellent Julianne Moore acts everyone off the screen, to say nothing of how much classier she is than your usual female horror lead. Then again, there's some decent support from Jeffrey DeMunn and John Peakes. The big weak link is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Adam. See Christian Bale in American Psycho for how well a psychologically unbalanced but good looking bloke can be done- Rhys-Meyers is risible here. He hams it up and fails to bring anything to the table.

Avid readers will notice that my review for Den of Geek has a 3/5 rating affixed, but in hindsight, it's closer to a 2/5. Maybe a 2.5/5. The point is that while Shelter may be horror by numbers, it's genuinely unsettling in places, and doesn't massively outstay its welcome in 112 minutes, a long running time for a horror flick like this. It's certainly not the 1/5 film that the other rather scarce reviews on the web have declared it, even if it's not going to give any hardened horror fans a sleepless night. Moore elevates the script, the direction is even and capable, and the film doesn't rely on sound editing for its scares. The best film containing the phrase "Satan-worshipping mountain witches" that you'll see this year.

Shelter is playing in select cinemas nationwide.
Elsewhere, in A Single Man, Colin Firth plays George Falconer, an English professor whose partner Jim died eight months prior to the beginning of the film. We find him at the beginning of the day he can't take it anymore and that decides he's going to end his life after just one last day. He goes about saying goodbye to his loved ones, including best friend Charley, and discovering something new in the obsession of a young student. As George goes about his final day, he sees everything for the last time, and thus appreciates it all for the first time.

You may have seen perfume ads that looked like this, but you haven't seen a perfume ad with as much depth as this. At one point, a flashback enables us to see Matthew Goode as Jim, in his pants, in black and white, on a beach. The Hugo Boss logo never arrives, but the visual sensibility of fashion designer-cum-director Tom Ford isn't to be sneered at altogether. For the most part, it really pays off quite well, with milky visuals characterising George's humdrum existence without Jim. And when some of the beauty in life that George has forgotten about shines through, it blushes into colour. Not a subtle device, but a highly effective one. The art direction is also superb, wonderfully evoking the 1960s.

As I've said, it's a handsome film that also has depth, due in no small part to the performances it offers. Colin Firth really should make films like this all the time, because he's clearly a tremendous actor. Fair play to him if he likes those other films, but there's nothing as powerful in Mamma Mia as his constrained fury when he realises that Charley has singularly misunderstood him. Nor does St. Trinian's have anything as gleeful as his deadpan threat to kill the boy who lives next door because he keeps pretending to shoot him every day. A Single Man really showcases his talents in a way I can't remember any other film matching. Julianne Moore holds her own against him, making a comparatively brief but very memorable appearance as a glamorous spinster. She and Firth are what makes the film such a compelling watch.

A Single Man is gloriously shot and oddly life-affirming for a film about a man who decides to commit suicide. It's a bittersweet drama that boasts great performances from its cast and a strong core to keep the more enquiring mind occupied. It's a near overwhelmingly visual debut for Ford, to the point that you almost scoff when numerous characters tell a bereft but well-coiffed George how terrible he apparently looks. Sharp suits and trendy glasses may be the order of the day, but there's just as much substance as style to be found here.

A Single Man comes to DVD and blu-ray on 7th June.
If you've seen either of these films, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

11 April 2010

The Zero Room #1- The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below

Welcome to the first of the promised occasional feature reviewing the latest series of Doctor Who. I'm a massive fan of the show, so I hope my already very indulgent readers will allow me a little fanboy post every now and then.

This week, the first two episodes, The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, introducing the new Doctor, played by Matt Smith, and his companion Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

So in The Eleventh Hour, following the bombastic ending to The End of Time, Part Two, a newly regenerated Doctor is about to prang his crashing TARDIS in quite spectacular fashion by wiping out a shed in someone's back garden. Luckily, the only person at home is a little Scottish girl called Amy, who's enchanted by the raggedy figure who sweeps into her life. An accident with navigation leads the Doctor to abandon her for 12 years, finally turning up in the small village of Leadworth again to reunite with the grown-up kissogram Amy has become. However, as is custom for Doctor Who, there's a peril lurking in Amy's spare room that may cause the planet to be incinerated in just 20 minutes.

All eyes are invariably on Matt Smith for this first outing, despite the best efforts of the costume department to have us ogle short-skirted Amy. Well that's there as well, but Smith is massively charismatic. There are echoes of David Tennant's Tenth Doctor in this first performance, but that's not without precedent in these post-regeneration episodes. Smith finds his own voice by the end of the episode, replete with student/professor get-up and bow-tie. And legs aside (yes, they're lovely too), Karen Gillan is immediately likable as Amy. Although Steven Moffat has previously written episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace, where a girl waits years for the Doctor's various visits to her life through unstable time corridors, Gillan's performance made it seem fresh.

The similarities to what has gone before don't end there. Moffat has previously expressed how great a script his predecessor's Smith & Jones was, and this opener covers remarkably similar ground. An alien prisoner hides out in a hospital, while big old space police romp about threatening to destroy every human involved if it's not brought to justice. And it's at that stage that you wonder if six episodes of Moffat per series might turn out to be too much of a good thing. Such fears are quickly dispelled by the performances, some marvellous one-liners and a novel solution to the crisis involving Patrick Moore and a porn-surfing tech guy. Yes, really.

The Eleventh Hour closes with our first look at a retooled TARDIS interior- the last of a number of revamps in this opening episode. Like its new crew, it's wondrous to behold and feels fresh even though it's something fans are innately familiar with. It does feel a little drawn out at 65 minutes though. While it's totally understandable that they want the maximum exposure for the Eleventh Doctor, the ticking clock elements would have felt better and tighter in a standard length episode. Nevertheless, a cracking statement of intent that embraces what has gone before while still inexorably pushing forward to a brand new era.

Amy Pond finally hops on-board the TARDIS and in The Beast Below, she finds herself a thousand years in the future on-board Starship UK. The ship is populated by all of the citizens of the UK, escaping until the extreme weather conditions on planet Earth ease off. The trouble is, the Doctor thinks it's not moving. That it couldn't ever move. The menacing Smilers seem to enforce a police state, preventing anyone from shedding light on the mystery except the enigmatic Liz Ten. But when anyone makes any headway, they're given the choice to "forget" or "protest", and almost everyone chooses the former. The Doctor however, has a much harder choice ahead...

Second episodes invariably take a starry-eyed new companion to amazing only-in-a-time-machine adventures, and this is no exception. And if The Eleventh Hour lacked action for Amy in its showcase of the new Doctor, then make no mistake- The Beast Below is Amy's episode. She wanders off to explore, as is the wont of any companion in this series, and gets to the heart of what's going on long before the Doctor. The problem is, she chooses to forget, a mistake that nearly gets her sent home by her outraged companion. Smith pulls back some of the attention here in a truly frightening turn that explores the character's darker side just two episodes into his tenure. But the culmination of the story marks Amy as a truly marvellous character, probably more capable than any companion since 2005, and a best friend to the Doctor rather than a romantic interest or eye candy for the audience.

It's still a very busy episode, with the Smilers and Liz Ten and the voting booth and the Winders and that final tantalising hook to next week's episode. But I'd only really say the Smilers lose out in Moffat's framing of the action around the Doctor-companion relationship. The Smilers are really quite frightening villains that may spook out a lot of the show's younger viewers- and that's what they watch for, of course- but the episode doesn't quite get the mileage from them that you'd hope for. I'd have liked to see more of Sophie Okenedo's feisty Liz Ten too, a character who was variously and very cleverly deployed for comic relief and pathos. The political allegory of the protest or forget choice is somewhat timely, as if Moffat knew there'd be a general election announced this week, and it all leads up to a potent denouement with the Star Whale's release from torture.

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan continue to be the best things about this new series, which is some feat when you have writers like Steven Moffat at the helm. In The Beast Below, we already have Smith beating Tennant with a terrific second episode. In something of a misstep, Tennant's second outing was the sub-par romp New Earth, but this is more akin to a Ark in Space or Four to Doomsday. Indeed, that's what the episode closely reflects- the classic series. It's largely studio-bound and distills the essence of the show into an excellent 45 minute mini-movie, with all of what has been added since 2005 still in there. There's a real fairytale quality to these first two episodes, but I'm not sure if that'll continue with next week's episode, so marvellously teased at the end of episode 2...

I'll be back in three weeks' time with reviews of the next two stories. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, Victory of the Daleks, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 17th April at 6.30pm.

5 April 2010

Greece Is The Word

Louis Leterrier's 2010 upgrade of the 1981 favourite Clash of the Titans essentially amounts to a more simplistic retelling of what was a simplistic retelling to begin with, specifically on the story of Perseus, son of Zeus. When the people of Argos (don't laugh) tear down a statue of Zeus in dissent against the gods, Perseus is caught in the crossfire. His mortal foster family murdered, he vows revenge against resentful under-lord Hades, and rejects his immortal heritage when he discovers it from fellow demi-god Io. Nevertheless, he's drawn into a mission no mortal man could hope to survive- he has ten days to get the tools he needs to slay the hellish Kraken when it is released by Hades upon a helpless Argos.
As another 2D film that was latterly retro-fitted with 3D to poke the audience in their bespectacled faces, Clash of the Titans oddly suffers from the same narrative stigma as last month's re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland. We're told at the beginning of the story that our protagonist is prophesied to slay a big old beasty. There's a time limit for when this prophecy's going to come true, and so everything in between this proclamation and the film's climax caters to the means of slaying said beasty as opposed to developing characters or creating tension. So even for a popcorn flick, its narrative is found wanting. The other side-effect of the 3D is that the majority of reviewers seem to have reviewed how terrible the conversion looks rather than the film itself, as if 3D was some unimpeachable device before this. Have no fear, I saw it in 2D, and also found myself underwhelmed.

The problem with remakes like these is, as ever, that the advancements in technology just mean that directors either opt for style over substance (i.e. Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes) or just utterly overdo it (i.e. Peter Jackson's King Kong). Clash of the Titans has more CGI scorpions than you can shake a pincer at, and its digital rendition of Medusa is actually laudable for not being Uma Thurman as this year's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. It's all fairly easy on the eye and it's never really boring, but I did struggle to be actually interested in all of it at various points. Although I still think Sam Worthington is a capable action star, he has bugger all to do here as Perseus, the most Australian Greek you've ever encountered, and he ultimately fails to make the audience invest in his plight or his celestial daddy issues.

Gemma Arterton fares even worse as Io, or as she might as easily have been called, The Woman. See, Warner Bros. doesn't want you to get bored watching a load of beardy men trailing after Perseus, so they needed someone with boobies, and added a few contrived lines along the way to make her actually seem useful to the plot. Sadly, this is the same fate that befell Arterton in Quantum of Solace, where she was solely there as eye candy amidst a more angsty and emotionally interesting film. I have high hopes for her to break this mould in the upcoming The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but thus far it seems that while she's undoubtedly attractive, she serves as set-decoration in most films.

Elsewhere, the cast is rounded out by a mix of very accomplished actors and ones who you will spend most of the film trying to remember what else they've been in. Mads Mikkelson, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Hoult, Liam Cunningham, Danny Huston- you'll try to remember all of them! And as to the former category of course, you have Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, reuniting after Schindler's List in this, of all things. Fiennes' Hades is essentially his Voldemort by way of Chester A. Bum, hamming it up and chewing the scenery almost as much as Neeson's Zeus, who is resplendent and tittersome in a lens-flare inducing suit of armour. Spare a thought for Danny Huston's Poseidon though, who is trussed up in make-up and a wig to look like the Cowardly Lion, only to appear for two seconds or so.
While the cast could otherwise have lent it some credulity, the film is submerged in the aforementioned action sequences, with all else in between seeming ancillary. At their best, they give us genuine thrills in the form of a great face-off with Medusa towards the end of the second act, and at their worst they can be unintentionally funny. All of its best moments are blown in the trailer, which quite successfully made this look like a guilty pleasure in the vein of 300. Even though Neeson's "Release the Kraken!" is gleefully over-egged to become this year's "This! Is! Sparta!", the film itself amounts to about 150, because it's actually only half as good. It's a shame because Leterrier has proven to be an effective action director before with the Transporter films and the underrated reboot of The Incredible Hulk, which actually borrowed elements of Greek mythology to bring Bruce Banner's struggle to a modern context. There's nothing so clever here.

In short, Clash of the Titans resembles nothing so much as a music video based on the 1981 original. Like a particularly butch Lady Gaga video, it stumbles from action sequence to action sequence and generally fails to deploy any of the talents it boasts, at least outside of the special effects suites. OK, I will single out Liam Cunningham as Solon here, because he has a great streak of gallows humour going throughout the film, but he's hardly foregrounded. It's daft and relatively inoffensive, but it seems to lack any kind of magic or charm that might have made it a more memorable retelling. There's the textbook "this might happen again, and this time we'll be ready" ending to make for a clumsy sequel hook, but I can't imagine anyone busting down the doors of the multiplex to see this continued. An underwhelming popcorn flick.

Clash of the Titans is in cinemas nationwide now, showing in 2D and 3D. It was "up-converted" to 3D in post-production, so I reckon you'll be better off seeing it in glorious flat-vision- let me know what you think in the comments.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

4 April 2010

Avoiding THAT Face

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Vikings love killing dragons in the latest from Dreamworks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon. The black sheep of the island community of Berk is Hiccup, son of chieftain Stoick the Vast, who's more interested in making things than killing. After a lucky shot during a dragon raid on the island's livestock, Hiccup ends up befriending Toothless, a rare dragon whose tale he managed to damage. As he learns more about Toothless, he comes to realise that Viking dogma about dragons is entirely wrong, and that there may be a way for both to co-exist. But as the pressure mounts on Hiccup to continue the Viking legacy in light of his new understanding, their friendship becomes difficult to maintain...
From the outset, I have to say that How to Train Your Dragon should really be the criterion for Dreamworks Animation. Under bean-counting Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio has had more misses than successes because they just rehash animation's greatest hits and their own back-catalogue. When I say misses, I mean creatively and not just the contribution to the studio's bank balance- no one will persuade me that Madagascar 3 is being made for any other reason than to capitalise on the box office returns of the first two. Instead, Dreamworks frequently brings in anachronistic pop-culture references and less than talented voice actors who just have bankable names, dating their output considerably.

How to Train Your Dragon on the other hand is just a revelation, and it's potentially the best thing the studio has ever made. Yes, possibly better than Shrek, a film which has suffered in my reckoning for being dated and of course the multitude of sequels. This isn't a film where a bunch of talking animals pull that expression. You know the one. Yeah, THAT one. This is a film that does have sequel prospects from the follow-up books in the series this is based on, but operates entirely fine as a self-contained story. Also, the voice cast are relatively suitable for their roles as opposed to putting Jack Black in as a Viking- even though one of the young characters actually looks to have been modelled on the Dreamworks stalwart.

There are various recognisable tropes and staples, but then most films have those, and How to Train Your Dragon treats the "going native with the perceived enemy" plot with an approach that is distinct to Avatar, which was in production at the same time as this. There are a lot of coincidental similarities with that film actually, but not distractingly so. The upside of this is that it is just as visually bedazzling, with the unlikely choice of Roger Deakins as cinematographer elevating the look of the film to truly spectacular heights. The script is also strong, even if it's not as typically comedic as fans of Dreamworks may expect. What's good about this is that it's more witty than funny, and I found that much more preferable to having a horde of gags that miss the mark. And when it was funny, I really laughed out loud.

Of course, it's not perfect. I do still have a couple of complaints with the voice acting, specifically that the Scottish tones of Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson work well with the adult Vikings, but why then have all the young protagonists been Americanised in dialect? This is by no means a new thing in Western animation, but Jay Baruchel's vocal performance as Hiccup is more reminiscent of Woody Allen than of anything even approaching Norse. David Tennant became a fan favourite amongst readers for narrating the audiobooks and some of the film's promotional material- could they not have got him into the film too? In that much at least, I think Katzenberg's influence is detectable, as he also runs a couple of through those greatest hits of animation in a couple of sequences that seemed inspired by scenes in Aladdin.

For the most part, I have next to no complaints. It's not up there with the best of Pixar, but you should know that the trailers for How to Train Your Dragon really don't do justice to this exciting family adventure that's very easy to like. The character design and script are both nearly flawless, and if it's let down by some of the voice acting, it doesn't bring the whole venture down. Although the final setpiece somewhat contravenes the film's central morality, it's still a sound morality for the most part- don't be afraid of what you don't understand, and try to learn about it instead. It's more thoughtful and gripping than I could have hoped for, and it's a truly unexpected pleasure to watch it.

How to Train Your Dragon is in cinemas nationwide now, showing in 2D and 3D. I saw it in 2D, obviously, because I really believe 3D doesn't add anything. In this case, I really don't mind how you see it, so long as you do. Films like this from a studio like Dreamworks deserve to do well- let me know what you think in the comments.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

2 April 2010

A New Man Saunters Away...

Although your Mad Prophet is typically concerned with blogging about film, he's also a rabid Whovian (fan of Doctor Who , for the unacquainted). With the series about to move into a new era under producer and head writer Steven Moffat, it's time for a blog about the show.

18th June 2005. Over the last thirteen weeks, I've been transfixed by an 900-year-old alien who talks like he's from Manchester, whisking Billie Piper around in time and space. She's been put in mortal peril during a fight with his nemeses, the Daleks, and he's seemingly given his life to save hers. I knew this was coming though, and that someone else would be playing the Doctor by 7.45pm. Because Doctor Who is the kind of show I really wish had been around when I'd been the same ages as the target audience (i.e. 8 years old), I had really got sucked into it, and I was certain this new fella couldn't possibly be as good as Christopher Eccleston had been. The show had been fantastic, and d'you know what? So had he.

A volcano of golden light erupted from the neck and sleeves of Eccleston's jumper and David Tennant entered the building. You can probably guess where this story is going. I still wasn't convinced by his first few seconds that the Tenth Doctor would be as good as the Ninth, but in the six months between the end of the first series of Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who revival and David Tennant's first episode proper, I went back over the series' rich history a little and grew accustomed to the idea of different Doctors. William Hartnell's irascible charm and warmth, Patrick Troughton's mischievousness, Jon Pertwee's tech-fetish, Tom Baker's eye-boggling Bohème and Peter Davison's exasperated observation of a chaotic universe, Colin Baker's pomposity and slight insecurity, Sylvester McCoy's wily machinations and Paul McGann's unfortunate brevity. I realised later that David Tennant was the first bonafide fan of Doctor Who to take the lead role.

The news media frequently reference Tennant's accolades as the best Doctor from opinion polls and the like, and I'd actually agree. That's mostly because Tennant really properly loves the show. This is the man who answered 100% correctly with the show as his specialist subject on a Comic Relief special of Mastermind. The man who asked an audience on The Graham Norton Show if they knew the name of an extra from 1969's Troughton serial, "The Mind Robber". And aside from being a brilliant actor in any case, he's taken on the best parts of all his favourite Doctors in his own portrayal, creating the Nation's Favourite Doctor (TM).

Of course, all things must end, but between the announcement of Tennant's departure from the role in October 2008 and his final episode on New Year's Day 2010 was a long hard emotional slog. OK, so we got two fun romps at Christmas and Easter respectively, The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, but the TARDIS cloister bell was tolling all the way through the specials in the gap year of 2009. There was a promise that someone would knock four times, and that, as the Tenth Doctor put it in one of those specials, a new man would saunter away from the Doctor's death.

Enter Matt Smith, who was cast as the Eleventh Doctor and announced to the nation in January 2009. My honest first impression- that he looked slightly like one of those Easter Island heads. I reserved judgement on what he'd be like in the role, because all I really had to go on was a semi-lucid recollection of his supporting role in the Sally Lockhart adaptations. Certainly I didn't think it was a bad thing that he's the youngest Doctor to date- he's not a teenager, and his early interviews were instantly endearing. A shroud of secrecy surrounded the filming of the next series of 13 episodes, not only out of Steven Moffat's notorious enmity for spoilers, but also because the Tenth Doctor was still very much in the public eye in the run-up to his closing trilogy of episodes- The Waters of Mars and The End of Time, Parts One and Two.

David Tennant is a tremendous actor, and is my second favourite Doctor. Yep, second. Because as good as Tennant is, no one really trumps Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor for me. He's mercurial, cheeky and utterly brilliant in that role whenever you see him, and it's the greatest tragedy in television history that so many of the videotapes containing his serials were wiped by the BBC in the 1970s. Now just six survive in complete form, with an extra serial completed using animation on DVD, which makes me and many other Whovians desperately sad. His was a wonderful portrayal and it's a shame we can't see more of it.

The point where I was really convinced Smith was going to be great was not around any of the clips released in advance of his first full episode, to be broadcast on BBC One tonight, but when I heard how he'd researched for the role. Back in January, he professed that he hadn't really watched the series before. By the time he started filming, he was clad in a bowtie and bumbling around his TARDIS in homage to his new favourite Doctor- none other than Troughton. While I'm sure the Eleventh Doctor will have his own identity, it heartens me to think that in Smith, we have a chance to see more of the Second than ever seemed likely once those tapes where wiped.

Tennant is still typically "my Doctor", having gone through much of the show with him in the lead role, and it was of course heartbreaking to see him go to his death at the start of the year. Opposite John Simm as a ravenous and mad Master and the sublime Bernard Cribbins as Wilf, knocking four times and causing the death of the very man he wants so much to live, Tennant gives a wonderful final performance to cap his tenancy of the TARDIS, with the audience agreeing with him all the way as he sadly utters his last- "I don't want to go."

In typical TARDIS fashion, I'm going to skip back to just before and after this moment to let you know exactly why we should be looking forward to "The Eleventh Hour". Before the mortally Tennant finally makes his way back to the police box he's called home for so long, he encounters a vision of an Ood, a prophetic and telepathic race who reassure him that his death will not be the end. And there are few better summaries of the show's ethos through regenerating Doctors these past 46 years than the Ood's solemn "This song is ending, but the story never ends".

Directly after "I don't want to go", the score swells as the Doctor explodes with golden light once again, revealing Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor. With Tennant's popularity, this is effectively a parallel with the transformation from Tom Baker to Peter Davison back in 1981. Davison was restricted by poor writing to spend his first two episodes moping around the TARDIS after something called a Zero Room, but Smith is immediately pitched into a new life in a crashing spaceship, hurtling towards the Earth. His priority? "Legs! I've still got legs! Good!"

The show has survived many regenerations in the past, and after a year of following the Tenth Doctor's final sentiments right up to the point he actually voiced them, I can't wait for Doctor 11. Daleks, living statues and vampires all await an eager audience in the next 13 weeks, as the new man doesn't so much saunter from his TARDIS as bring it hurtling towards planet Earth, screaming and aflame. Geronimo!

The new series of Doctor Who begins with The Eleventh Hour on BBC One and BBC HD tonight at 6.25.

I'll be reviewing the latest stories, generally fortnightly, here on the blog throughout the series' run.