24 May 2010

Weapons of Mass Distraction

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.
Into the mixed bag of video game movies comes Prince of Persia- The Sands of Time. Dastan is a street urchin-made-prince by his adoptive father and King, and is naturally the most noble and fierce soldier in Persia, whose empire spans across the globe at this stage in history. While sacking a holy city purported to be arming Persia's enemies, Dastan happens across a mystical dagger, whose hilt contains the Sands of Time. The holder of the dagger can turn back time, and when Dastan's world is turned upside down by accusations of treason, he must team up with a princess, Tamina, in order to save the world.

Jerry Bruckheimer has obviously done his utmost here to find a film to replicate the barnstorming success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This one may well be his most likely prospect, but it's clearly just a shame that it had to be set in the Middle East. In the midst of an international conflict, the Disney production is very confused indeed. Gone is the approach of making Aladdin look like Tom Cruise, because that would baffle audiences! Americans aren't from Iran! Everyone is now... British. Yes, and a buffed up Jake Gyllenhaal shall star and put on a decent British accent, and everyone else shall actually be British! Ben Kingsley! Alfred Molina! Jeff from Coupling! To Disney, this might as well register as Galactic Basic.

They've also opted for a heavy handed politicisation of the plot. The Persian army descends upon the holy city at the beginning of the film because they're making non-descript weapons for the enemy- weapons which they naturally can't find once they've subjugated the city. There's also a lot of rumination about whether or not this was a just invasion, and whether or not Dastan should have been "a great man, instead of a good one", and protested against the attack to stop it happening. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we've ended up with a popcorn flick version of Green Zone!

This subtext is scarcely accessible for a family audience, so Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time actually does the one thing you'd think they'd be striving desperately to escape. Every now and then, they stop and stand around so the camera can show whatever battlefield or crowded area they're headed for, while the characters explain what needs to happen. This happens prior to about 80% of the action sequences, and resembles nothing so much as video-game storytelling. You can be forgiven if you reach for a phantom PS2 controller at any of these junctures.

All of this said, it's a lot more competent than it has any right to be. Director Mike Newell does a fine job off the back of having directed the most action-packed of the Harry Potter films to date, The Goblet of Fire, and here brings a similar sensibility to the table. It's always nicely choreographed and doesn't look like a video game fight even if the editing tees it up that way. Neither does it out-stay its welcome at a nice, stream-lined two hours that zips along and doesn't stretch credulity in the way of Bruckheimer's Pirates sequels.

The acting is surprisingly good too, with Gyllenhaal's Dastan ending up a much better action hero than you'd expect of the guy who was once Donnie Darko. Alfred Molina is reliably enjoyable too, but deserves to be singled out for nearly stealing the film in what should really be a thankless comic relief role. Ben Kingsley and Richard Coyle are less noteworthy, but for its female lead Gemma Arterton, I'm hoping it will mark a rethink of her choices.

I thought she was great in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but seeing as how she's back on eye-candy duty in this one, I feel that what happens next is crucial to her career. Arterton's not put to the best use here with her expositionary role- she delivers most of that cut-scene dialogue I mentioned. She doesn't have the best chemistry with Gyllenhaal either, which makes their bickering as irksome as your average romcom dialogue. Basically, if she can continue with meatier roles like Alice Creed in future, I'll be happy. If she takes over from Megan Fox in Transformers 3, as has been rumoured, then she is dead to me. Come away from the Bay-stard!

The sun-bleached setting sits well in the summer blockbuster season, as does its general sense of humour and exciting set-pieces. In many ways, it's only disappointing that Disney were so precarious about the setting, falling back on their old tropes by evoking both Aladdin and The Lion King in the story, with an unhealthy infusion of war in Iraq allegory. And worst of all, they rely on an almost cynical cop-out ending that exploits the central McGuffin to remove any sense of jeopardy that had been building in the apparently apocalyptic threat that the villain poses. It's the big bum note in the narrative, but if you've had as much fun watching it as I did, you'll probably forgive it.

All in all, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is probably the best game-to-movie translation ever, but that's the best in an extremely weak field. It has a stronger lead performance than the material demands from an actor of Gyllenhaal's calibre, even if it's sometimes obscured beneath CGI and action sequences. The result is mixed and sometimes confused, but when it's fun, it's really fun, and a cut above what you would expect from a video game movie. If nothing else, be happy that it's a lot more enjoyable than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and keep your fingers crossed that any potential Persia sequels (and I imagine there will be at least one) don't go to such hyperbolic ruin.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and want to share your thoughts on the film or my review, why not comment below? Alternatively, if you haven't figured out from a merest glimpse at the poster who turns out to be the baddy in this one, brush up on your actor typecasting and get back to me in the morning.

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

22 May 2010

Bad Cops, Worse Cop

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.

Hollywood loves a police procedural. It's a sub-genre that can turn out fare as highly regarded as The Departed and Dirty Harry or as fiercely reviled as Hollywood Homicide or any number of Police Academy sequels. Or in this very week, it can turn out the likes of Werner Herzog's bat-shit crazy The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or the Kevin Smith-directed 80s throwback, Cop Out.
The title Cop Out is a fairly witty pun about the studio's insistence that the film's title was changed from its original A Couple of Dicks, for similar advertising-related reasons as the furore around Kevin Smith's last, Zach and Miri Make A Porno. Not the best of starts.

The film itself follows Jimmy and Paul, two cops who get on the wrong side of everyone with their unorthodox methods and general incompetence. They're suspended from active duty after blowing a hole in an important investigation, leaving Jimmy to try and sell an extremely rare baseball card in order to bankroll his daughter's wedding. The card is stolen, and the two cops go on the hunt to get the card back.

From the start, it's important to note that Cop Out is something of a labour of love. Even for a script that was good enough to appear on the 2008 Black List, the studio was eager to scale it back for a more lucrative PG-13 rating. That it remains intact is down to both director Kevin Smith and star Bruce Willis agreeing to take a pay cut in order to keep it at the higher R rating. I would really like to love it just for being a labour of love, but I'm afraid it's not enough.

I'm a big Kevin Smith fan, but he didn't write this one, and by his own admission, he's not the most amazing director in the world. Black Listed or not, the script needed a polish by Smith before it went into production, because given how he's always written honestly, directing Cop Out seems almost dishonest by comparison. The films he scripted always have an affection for their characters, but sadly it seems like Smith has more affection for Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan here.

Willis puts in a fine turn that goes back to his comedy roots, but he's really the straight man to Morgan, who just annoyed me in this one. His brand of bluster that has worked well elsewhere fell short in Cop Out, and he only mustered a couple of chuckles out of me here. As he's one of the stars, that's sadly true for the rest of the film as well. In my view, someone should've figured they were in trouble when they were relying on Stifler to be the film's comedic highlight. OK, fair's fair, I didn't totally hate Seann William Scott in this, but I still believe he's part of the problem.

Smith has spoken of how he wanted to homage 80s cop movies like Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch, and the fine Harold Faltermeyer score goes a long way towards that, but the rest is fairly pedestrian. Instead of laughing, you'll groan when Willis makes an in-joke about never having seen a film with the line "Yippie-kay-ay, motherfucker". It's a lot lighter on belly laughs than I'd have hoped, and sadly recalls less memorable fare like Hollywood Homicide. This really could've been directed by anyone, and it's missing both the heart and the humour that Smith's other films have.

That Cop Out is Kevin Smith's most commercially successful film says more for audiences than it does for Smith. Clerks II was dirty as hell and funny to boot, but it definitely had a heart of gold. Dogma was a comedic projection of Smith's own Catholic faith without ever mocking more zealous people, even though such people went and protested anyway. And yet many more people saw this film, which falls down even without comparing to Smith's better works.

I like parts of it better than the whole. I like Kevin Smith's films. I like Bruce Willis when he's doing comedy instead. But Cop Out ultimately falls down on account of its script. We're never made to care much about the characters, especially when the film is far more concerned with evoking other films and other characters. It's funny by turns, but that's not funny enough. With a less studio-driven project, Kevin Smith really shines. Cop Out is not that film, and I'm tremendously disappointed to say so.

Cop Out is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
Funnily enough, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans centres around a bad lieutenant, in the New Orleans police force. Post-Hurricane Katrina, crime is rife, but so is police corruption. Don't believe the misleading trailers for this one- Terrence McDonagh is not once a good cop throughout this entire film, and indeed, he gets worse as he goes along. Having sustained a back injury which will affect him for the rest of his life, Terrence quickly moves onto substance abuse and an addiction to gambling. An unusual good guy, but there's still a crime to be solved, and Terrence's personal vices are intrinsically tied to catching a murderer who executed a whole family.

If you're not familiar with the works of Werner Herzog, a man who has brought us suicide penguins and variously been threatened with death and "unsuccessfully shot" in his career as a documentarian, this is probably not the film for you. Indeed, Herzog's involvement should scream to the unaware that The Bad Lieutenant is not a film for everyone. Its intentions are essentially to demolish the police procedural genre by trotting out all of its cliches in a surreal backdrop.

Have you ever asked yourself before now if Heat would have been a better film if we had some animal point-of-view shots? And if some of those shots were from the perspective of animals imagined by our hero? Because that really happens when Terrence spots some imaginary iguanas. These asides are all the more powerful for how infrequent and thus out of the blue they are. This is the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of cop dramas- it is constantly out to unsettle its audience and explode all of their expectations.

It helps enormously that Terrence is played by the Finest Comedy Actor Of Our Time (Even When He Doesn't Know It), Nicolas Cage. Through Terence, he's given a channel for all of his rampant insanity, something we rarely ever see since he became nailed down as the star of compulsively-directed blockbusters like National Treasure. However, Herzog must have focused him somehow, or else this would be another weird misstep like the world-famous awful remake of The Wicker Man. He is dangerous to watch, and he single-handedly makes the film absolutely repulsive, in the best way possible.

The trouble is, in reminding the audience of the tropes in a police drama, it occasionally just isn't weird enough to entirely carry it off. It's easy to get bored in the first hour, through scene after scene of hum-drum police procedure. There are the occasional lifts like the aforementioned animal POVs, which always break any monotony that sadly clumps up on-screen in the earlier parts. As our protagonist's sleep deprivation and drug addiction makes him more unhinged, the same happens to the film just from the act of following him around. There are peaks in the entertainment stakes, but this isn't quite the demolition of the genre that I was expecting.

As I've said, it's not exactly accessible even for those comfortable with the 18 certificate, and all the drugs and violence that comes with it. The absence of sex for the most part is telling- Herzog cuts away every time Terrence is about to get it on with Eva Mendes' tart with a heart. He rejects the titillation of American cinema, but then simultaneously embraces police corruption as a plot device. Terrence goes to extreme lengths throughout, but as mentioned, he's a bastard even before the back injury that sends him on a downward spiral.

Cage's performance reminds me of a joke I used to make about Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy- he's not a character, and the director simply followed Bruce Campbell around with a camera in his everyday life of fighting deadites and killing his possessed friends off as necessary. From most other directors, you might have believed that Cage was out of control, but Herzog's surreal sensibility is ever-present. He wants Cage to be this crazy. Incidentally, if you've seen Cage in Kick-Ass, see if the ending of this film makes it all seem like a spiritual prequel to his character in that film. You know, if some point over the next ten years, he got off drugs, stopped aging and grew a moustache. He's already as crazy here as his Big Daddy...

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is easier to like for what it is than for how good the finished product turned out. It's making a concerted effort to reject all the conventions of a well-trodden genre, but it's almost like the narrative threatens to trip it up. It all makes for an intensely uncomfortable film that's not exactly an auteur's folly, but I don't think it's the modern masterpiece everyone is heralding either. It's certainly memorable, if definitely not a film for everyone.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Cop Out or The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, or just spent your evening watching the rather excellent conclusion to Ashes to Ashes for your cop fix instead, why not share your comments below?

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

20 May 2010

The Zero Room #3- The Vampires of Venice and Amy's Choice

We've now passed the midpoint of the fifth series, and it looks to be doing pretty well. This post covers The Vampires of Venice and Amy's Choice.

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.

Following a come-on from Amy at the end of the previous episode, The Vampires of Venice opens innocuously enough, with the Doctor bursting out of a cake at Rory's stag night, in place of a lovely girl in a bikini. The Doctor's decided that the husband and wife to-be need to reaffirm their relationship, and offers them a date in 16th century Venice. There they find the city has been closed down for fear of plague, and the students of Rosanna Calvierri's school for girls stalk the city for new recruits. More than that, they're vampires, or at least masquerading as vampires, and they have plans for the impossible city. Ah, Venice...

After the new direction of the previous five weeks, writer Toby Whithouse revisits an old favourite of the series, the pseudo-historical. Notably, it's the first historical since 2005 to go back to before the 20th century without implementing a "historical celebrity", like Shakespeare or Queen Victoria. The Vampires of Venice comes along nicely without that baggage, and it's very nicely done by the Being Human scribe. It's not going to be anyone's favourite episode of the current run, but it's certainly decent.

For starters, it looks gorgeous, with the production team having found a marvellous double for historical Venice in Croatia, a location they're going to revisit later in the series to use as Paris. It's a versatile location that works beautifully here. Those disappointed by Amy's lack of wonderment thus far won't like how Karen Gillan once again plays it pragmatic, but might instead enjoy Arthur Darvill's return as Rory. He's got a great sense of comic timing that he didn't get to show off as much in the series opener, and he's simultaneously both reminiscent of and distinct to the show's previous tin dog, Mickey Smith.

Once again, Matt Smith shines in the lead role, here given a lot of material up against Helen McCrory as Rosanna, queen of the "vampires". There's a little of the last of the Time Lords angst that came to characterise the previous two Doctors, but his quiet and righteous fury continues to be one of the most compelling parts of his portrayal. McCrory holds her own to make a meal of a less than memorable villainness, and the vampires in general are tackled inventively. That's an achievement for an idea that's not only been done at least three times in Doctor Who before now, but is also being violated by Stephanie Meyer and any number of clingers-on to the current vampiric vogue.

As I mentioned, no-one is going to declare this the best of the series by the time it's over, and that's largely because the plot goes through the motions. In a Doctor Who drinking game, you'd be fairly sozzled if you had to take a shot every time the Doctor climbed a perilously tall tower in order to save the day, and the reliable supporting character efforts come to the fore once again with concerned father Guido and his daughter Isabella both sacrificing themselves. The lack of consequence doesn't ring true here, even for a story where the hero is in a different place each week. Instead, we get another hook for the series finale, the momentum for which seems to be really building up now.

The Vampires of Venice is a romp, through and through. Romping isn't synonymous with being average, but I'd have preferred a throwbak to Doctor Who's earliest historicals like The Romans rather than something that feels spiritually closest to The Shakespeare Code. It's good all the same, with some great shooting, cracking one-liners and wonderful acting, but it wouldn't be unbelievable if it left you cold. Especially if the prolific success of Edward Cullen and his ilk is doing your nut.

A week later in Amy's Choice, we find Rory has finally got Amy to settle down in Leadworth, and five years on from their travels with the Doctor, she's about to have their first child. The Doctor still comes to visit every now and again, but just when he does, birdsong fills the air. The next minute, they all wake up inside the TARDIS, having all just had the same dream. There's more birdsong, and they're back in Leadworth. A dangerous foe has ensured that they face a deadly threat in both world, but only one world is real. If they die in the dream, they wake up in reality, but which reality is which? And if Amy has to pick, which of the men in her life will she choose?

First and foremost, this is obviously the "cheap" episode of the run, largely constrained to a small village and the TARDIS. Therefore it's an even more impressive feat that this is my favourite episode of the run so far. Its circumvention of the low budget is nothing short of genius, taking the opportunity to go for some real drama and character development over monsters and spectacle. Of all things, it's most surprising that it's written by Simon Nye, creator of Men Behaving Badly, who shows a great capacity for both drama and comedy in his first episode for the series.

It has a terrific villain at its heart in the form of the marvellous Toby Jones. His self-styled Dream Lord is enigmatic and incredibly vindictive towards the Doctor, and Jones knocks it out of the park completely. He's one of the most memorable villains I can think of in the new series, and as I noted over on Den of Geek, he bears more than a few similarities to a certain enemy from the past. The closing moments seem to suggest he'll be back in the future, and I really hope that pans out.

The regulars are great too, with Matt Smith taking a comparative backseat to allow Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill to shine. Amy's name is in the title and it's really a turning point in the series for her- after the end of the Angels two-parter, she's made to realise how much she cares for Rory, to the stage where she's prepared to die for him. Darvill also steps up his game dramatically, still finding time for some brilliant physical comedy involving beating up old ladies. Smith's presence is still felt throughout, especially with the revelation that the Dream Lord is made of the Doctor's darkness. The entire episode is creepier in retrospect for that revelation.

The episode that Amy's Choice bears the closest resemblance to is Midnight, and although this isn't as good, it's economic with its budget and endlessly inventive and memorable. It's also better as a piece of drama than as an episode of Doctor Who, but it certainly won't alienate any younger fans. Other shows have trotted out dream sequences in the past, and this seems almost like a massive "oh yeah?!" to Russell T. Davies' previous assertion that nothing of dramatic value can happen in dream sequences. He'd usually be right, but almost all of this one takes place in one dream or the other, and it's brilliant.

With a fantastic villain and some wonderful turns in the plot, Amy's Choice is the highlight of the fifth series thus far, although it's good for entirely different reasons to the Angels two-parter. It's not the most fun, most re-watchable episode ever, but it is very well put together and doesn't dispense with the sense of humour you've come to expect from Nye and from showrunner Steven Moffat. Urgent, satisfying and downright superb.
I'll be back in a fortnight with reviews of the Silurians' return in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood and the poorly titled Richard Curtis-penned Van Gogh episode, Vincent and the Doctor. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, The Hungry Earth, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 22nd May at 6.15pm.

17 May 2010


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.

Who knew a comedy about suicide bombers could actually be sweet and rather poignant? Some still don't know it, hence the usual brigade out to slap about Four Lions for being morally reprehensible in the like. Of course they've completely overlooked the latest Michael Bay mandated remake monstrosity A Nightmare on Elm Street in the process. Have no fear (not a likely proposition in the latter), I will be covering both.

So, there's a remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. You know the story, or at least what remains of it here- some teens have the same dreams as each other, and dying in dreams means dying in reality. Worse luck for them, as a vengeful gribbly called Freddy Krueger is out and about. There's an effort to install some new plot twists here, from the fairly interesting idea of micro-naps brought on by intense sleep deprivation, to the heinous twist on Freddie's origins that makes for yet another cynically stupid horror remake with Michael Bay's production company Platinum Dunes footing the bill.

This is the first feature film by music video director Samuel Bayer, a name which in this context sounds like a pseudonym for the cinematic Voldemort himself, but I'm assured he only produced it. So Bayer had this to say after his film got the moderately successful US opening weekend he needed to carry on in the business.

"Look, I’m gonna catch a lot of heat for this, but some of these fans on the web should just get up, stretch, breathe, go outside and get some fresh air, maybe get a girlfriend and just get a life. They should see the movie and make up their own minds.”

Essentially, he says fuck you very much for paying to see my shit movie. OK, so pre-release, the film wasn't exactly endearing itself to me, and even though I eventually saw it without paying, I realised I should actually see it because he made one good point. People should be able to make up their own minds.

One scene in this sums up my reaction- remember the quicksand stairs from the 1984 Wes Craven original? That scene is replicated on a landing here, which gives the effect of our miserable young heroine wading through shit. That scene is the distilled essence of 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street, for two key reasons.

1. It's part of a greatest hits package of the original film, replicating memorable scenes with a massively dulled effect.
2. Watching the film is like wading through shit.

It is not only unspeakably awful, but it's boring too. It actually lends itself to awful rhetoric from critics, because it's so easy to feel sleepy while watching it. Guessing that's why they changed the tagline from "Don't Fall Asleep" to "Never Sleep Again" fairly late in the marketing campaign. Not that it heightens the terror even one jot, it's just incredibly boring. The sound design is as ever catered towards a quick jump scare, but still serves as an alarm clock for anyone who's drifting off from the sheer dullness of the proceedings.

Take a moment's silence for Jackie Earle Haley, who really deserved better than this. He's a good choice to play Freddy and he's clearly a fan of the character, but he has nothing to do here. And worse, he has to deal with the terrible swap-out they do on Freddy's origins. Apparently a child murderer wasn't bad enough, so they make him a paedophile instead, something that Haley is forced to trot out by leering over our growed-up lead emos before he eviscerates them. With last year's Friday the 13th, that's two horror remakes in a row from the Arch Bay-stard that have distilled any threat and menace in a monster down to sex. So sex is sexy. Monsters are not. Are you scared yet?

Were it not my duty to entertain in some way as I expect you to read through all this, I could sum up this remake succinctly. A Nightmare on Elm Street is bad. I don't hold the original up as the untouchable horror classic that others have, but this is really just eye-wateringly and arse-clenchingly bad. You could expect no more or less from Platinum Dunes, but Bayer takes an immutably scary idea in the form of Freddy Krueger and rehashes it without innovation or even any real horror. The script operates in syllogism and the acting is, with Jackie Earle Haley excepted, fucking awful. You will not care for these characters, you care only for when this 90 minute shitfest will stop dragging and you can go and watch something else instead.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

13 May 2010

A Plot In Notts

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.
Sir Ridley Scott may seem to some an unusual choice to reinvent Robin Hood, and such fears would be borne out when watching the film, as the man obviously wanted to make a film about the Magna Carta. As it is, we find Scott's Robin Hood, played by Russell Crowe, returning to England from the immensely wasteful and decade-spanning Crusades in Jerusalem. King Richard is dead, so there's none of that Sean Connery-presiding-over-weddings bollocks here. His brother John becomes the new King, and promptly surrounds himself with mates, including the treacherous Sir Godfrey. Robin, posing as a deceased Nottingham noble, must stave off a French invasion and seek liberty by law for the people of his oppressed homeland.

And liberty by law is where the Magna Carta figures into proceedings. Although I can't fault Sir Ridley for taking the myth back to its historical roots by putting the myth into the actual historical setting of the time, this has inevitably led to the film being sold as revealing "the truth behind the legend" of Robin Hood. It's a heavy-handed approach that has previously sunk historical epics like these, and one that sadly suits the 140-minute odyssey created by Scott right down to the bone.

The whole thing could stand to be around 50 minutes shorter, and it would be if it didn't have the task of establishing Robin and the cast of characters we associate with him. There's Allan A Dale and Will Scarlett and Little John and Friar Tuck and a menagerie of supporting characters that furnish the legend rather than drive the plot forwards. So much time in that middle hour is dedicated to Friar Tuck and his bee-keeping, or the umpteenth scene of Robin's men making merry (but don't use that name) while actual plot points loom seemingly off-camera, making very slow progress from the momentum we see them build in early scenes. It's like we're not trusted to believe this is Robin Hood without those characters.
I must say that the plus side of this laboured development is Cate Blanchett as Marian Loxley. She's the widow of the noble Robin poses as throughout, and she's not best pleased. Blanchett is downright excellent in the role, making for a fiercely intelligent and resourceful female character in a patriarchal society. Scott avoids the Keira Knightley brand of historical female empowerment for all but the last half hour, when he walks the film face-first into that brick wall of character development by suiting up Marian in armour. Alas.

As our hero, Russell Crowe isn't too bad, lending the role a bit of gravitas where previously there's been a tendency to cast the character much younger, as in the case of Kevin Costner and more recently Jonas Armstrong, more of whom later. His accent meanders the length and breadth of the British Isles from its intended Yorkshire origins, and questions of his suitability for the role often guide the film into the same territory as Tim Burton's collaborations with Johnny Depp. Scott and Crowe take themselves much more seriously than either of those, and so the whole thing is rather dull.

Such is the focus on attention to detail and world-building that the film forgets to install a proper villain. I can applaud the decision to largely sidestep Matthew McFadyen's Sheriff of Nottingham as an antagonist, even though that performance is fine for all we see of it, and doesn't try to ape the gold standard of hammy villainy in Alan Rickman's portrayal.

However, Mark Strong is good but nearly ancillary as Sir Godfrey, so scant is his screen time. For a little while it looks like King John, played nicely by Oscar Isaac, might be the villain, but he has an about face when the stakes raise. So the de facto villain is France. Yeah, just France, all of it. Did you know this film's opening the Cannes Film Festival this week? It's going to go down a storm, I'm sure.
The imbalance of plot elements with historical accuracy leaves the story knotted beyond comprehension, and so the film's length largely goes towards didactically going through the motions of every little event. There's a leaner film hiding somewhere in Robin Hood, but this one has a massive lull running right through its heart, which makes it near irredeemable.

Maybe it's a matter of personal preference, but I much prefer Scott's work in other genres to his more lauded historical actioners. Gladiator verges on being overrated despite actually being rather good, and his follow-ups here and in Kingdom of Heaven can't match the immutable game-changing appeal of films like Alien, Blade Runner or Thelma and Louise.

And the truth is that its May 14th release date is an anomaly of Hollywood scheduling. It doesn't feel like it belongs as a summer blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination. Instead its muted palette and sombre storytelling would feel more at home in the autumn or winter, and it feels as though it's only out now to maximise box office returns.

It all just put me in mind of the recent BBC adaptation of the story. Some of its attempts to upgrade the series with political context were clumsy and juvenile, but its heart was in the right place, and it reinvented certain aspects with more nous than Scott's version- Friar Tuck, for instance. But it suffered from being stretched too thin in an attempt to replicate the 13-episode runs of the Doctor Who revival, and the film is similarly stretched, but at least over the course of the three series, the TV version came to a satisfying conclusion.
Robin Hood is a lot less risible and a lot more masculine than the Kevin Costner-starring interpretation that everyone loved in the 90s, but it's also lost a lot of the fun of that version too. Now I can deal with a Robin Hood that isn't fun, but is it too much to ask that it's interesting? An excellent performance from Cate Blanchett is the only thing to rave about here, and even when the action scenes kick off in the last act they feel uninspired after the drudgery of the previous hour. It's not badly made at all, just edited with extreme indulgence.

Going for the Robin Hood Begins approach counteracts the slower parts of the plot, but also builds up for a sequel rather than focusing on entertaining the audience. Proof if proof were needed comes in a final title card, proclaiming "And so the legend begins" before the credits. The trouble is, Scott's slate is so full of Alien prequels and board game adaptations (no, he really IS making Monopoly) that I can't imagine him getting to a sequel. But then nor will I be enormously sorry if he doesn't find the time.
Robin Hood is currently playing in cinemas nationwide. If you've seen the film, why not share your comments below? But if you want to protest at how you reckon Mark Addy as a bumbling fat beekeeper is better than David Harewood as a wise and invaluable warrior monk, then you can Tuck right off.

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

9 May 2010

Men Are Talking

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.

"It's called male bonding- haven't you even seen Wild Hogs?" shouts the obnoxious titamaboob in Hot Tub Time Machine. And funnily enough, there's been another film with similar themes in cinemas lately, in the form of Neil Marshall's muscular and gritty Ninth Legion film, Centurion. So which is better- stripping off to get sent back to 1986, or being stripped by angry natives and sent running through a snowy wasteland? The answer may surprise you!
Boasting the most perfunctory title since Snakes on a Plane, the premise of Hot Tub Time Machine must be fairly obvious. Adam and Nick attempt to reinvigorate their friend Lou after he tries to commit suicide by booking a weekend away at the ski resort that the three of them went to as teenagers. With Adam's nephew Jacob along for the weekend, the resort has become dilapidated and boring. Taking a dip, the four are plunged back in time to the resort at its greatest. They resolve not to change anything for fear of ruining the present, but instead find themselves going all out and endangering Jacob's very existence.

Given how the characters variously compare their predicament to Terminator, The Butterfly Effect, Timecop et al, it's telling that no one mentions the most famous film in the time travel sub-genre. Let me take you through some of Hot Tub Time Machine. Jacob is in danger of never being born by events in the past. An asshole bully prevents the gang from getting home. Nick has to get up on stage to perform with his band at one point, and sneaks in a couple of songs that haven't been written in 1986. It has Crispin bloody Glover in it. It's Back to the Future! The trouble is, I liked it better when it was actually called Back to the Future- it was a lot funnier without the cum jokes, Noughties pop culture references and post-Hangover comedy formula.
Don't get me wrong, I did laugh a lot at Hot Tub Time Machine, but it falls over itself with plot. There's nothing as rigid as Doc Brown's rules of non-intervention- indeed, the film takes an even more cavalier approach to cause and effect than Bill and Ted. It's a comedy, so this would be fine if we didn't have Chevy Chase as a spectral hot tub repairman telling them that changing events would be disastrous, and then it blatantly isn't- couldn't we have dispensed with that altogether? In this and other areas, it's clear that someone really screwed up with the editing. While its intentions are halfway honourable and it does do a quite spectacular job of recreating the late 1980s, this is a film that reeks of reshoots and rewrites, probably undertaken while the film was actually in production.

I liked all of the cast immensely, with the exception of Rob Corddry as Lou, the aforementioned titamaboob. He's just too obnoxious to care about like you're supposed to, and I'd sooner have seen more of Clark Duke as Jacob, who's pretty much one of the best young comic actors around, even if he doesn't get to show it here. But on the whole, Hot Tub Time Machine was a film I really wanted to love. Instead, I only liked it, and it disappoints only so far as a film with title can. There are still a lot of laughs to be had before a schmaltzy and tacked-on ending, but the crossover element with the more successful film, The Hangover, pretty much actively prevents any chance of the film being as timeless as the likes of Back to the Future. Unless you really want to see this one, watch the older film again and this time, notice that Thomas F. Wilson is the best thing about the whole trilogy as various Biffs, and that's saying a lot.

4 May 2010

Look, Ma! Three Hands!

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.

A dramatic three-hander, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is showing in selected cinemas this week, bringing a frequently used theatre structure in for a rare outing on the big screen. And I also saw Date Night. What? Yeah, ok, so there's no pithy connection going on except that Date Night is kind of a thriller, in the loosest sense of the word, i.e. it's not. Convergence aside, these are the films, here are my reviews.
Date Night finds a put-upon married couple, Phil and Claire Foster, desperately trying to reignite the spark in their relationship. He spends all day in a crap job at the tax office while she tries to sell real estate to dunderheads, and both are distracted by looking after their young kids. So in a change from their regular date nights, they sneak into a swanky restaurant by stealing another couple's reservations, and end up on the run for their lives as they're mistaken for thieves by a criminal gang.

Let's imagine for a moment that Hugh Grant plays Phil and Sarah Jessica Parker plays Claire. Now read that synopsis again. Now you have a fair idea of why Did You Hear About The Morgans? sucked balls. Instead, Date Night boasts the pairing of the two biggest names in American comedy right now, even if it does still have Shaun Levy at the helm. Levy directed the likes of Night at the Museum and Cheaper by the Dozen. With a plot as generic and trodden over as this and a director as pedestrian as Levy, it's easy to see how the film would've been horrible if not for the inspired casting of Steve Carell and Tina Fey.
Look at the other casting, for instance. Mark Wahlberg as Shirtless Man. Common as a cop. Oh, and a lovely turn from Ray Liotta, who hasn't been told he's in a comedy. I feel this film vindicates my view on romantic comedies once again by showing how relatable characters and likable actors can make a humdrum film a lot better. The script for this one is pretty by-numbers, but it's the peerless comic timing of its leads that makes it inherently enjoyable. Although the film later becomes more action-packed than its beginning, I could happily have watched 90 minutes of the Fosters bickering and exhausting each other. This is great comedy, the kind of thing that's missing from a million Jennifer Aniston romcoms that are neither funny nor romantic.

Ladies, Date Night is quite possibly the best film you'll drag a guy to see this year. If you aren't really interested, drag him to see this anyway, because I don't doubt he's going to suffer through Eclipse later in the year if you're so inclined. The action elements are fine, and indeed better than fine in the case of an inspired car chase in the middle that I've never seen done anywhere else before, but Carell and Fey are the heart of the film. I'm dying to see what they could do with a better script than this, so I hope they work together again in the future. Nevertheless, there's enough material to keep you laughing throughout, even if Levy hares off across genres rather than fully building on the leads' chemistry together.

Date Night is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

1 May 2010

The Zero Room #2- Angels & Daleks

Yeah, by reviewing two-parters as one story, this feature will seem fairly intermittent, but plunging back into the TARDIS, I've got reviews of Victory of the Daleks and the angelic double whammy The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone (to be referred to by the former from here on, for speed).

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.
Picking up from the tease at the end of the previous episode, Victory of the Daleks finds the Doctor facing the metal meanies during the Blitz, with an excitable Winston Churchill ready to deploy them against the Nazis and win the war. The Daleks are generally keeping their eyestalks down, serving tea and submitting to being fitted out with camo-gear and a Union Flag ID tag, but the Doctor knows better. As usual with the Daleks, there's a much bigger plot at work, and Churchill seems oblivious to their true nature. The problem is, matters only get worse once the Doctor actually reveals the truth...

A better title might have been The Daleks Have Landed, because it's the feel of the similarly titled Michael Caine adventure that writer Mark Gatiss has lovingly recreated. It's an interesting spin on the Doctor's oldest enemies, and one that sees them undergo a new paint job and a design overhaul. Ah yes, that redesign. Decried by many as awful shit, I really can't agree. Although people have called them Power Rangers and the like, they reminded me more of the latter day Minis- they're a meaner and somewhat more hefty spin on a classic design. And come on, they look good, really. Embrace change, when it's this good!

The trouble is that Gatiss is terribly eager to get this new Dalek paradigm, which is in no small part responsible for the uneven pacing. In the first 15 minutes, I was impressed by how it was zipping along, but the plot peters out before the last 10 minutes.
Although I really liked Bill Paterson as Bracewell, and appreciated the way his character developed, he's not my idea of a barnstorming climax in an episode called Victory of the Daleks, even if it does make more sense as an ending than some of Russell T. Davies' Dalek episodes. It's great that the Daleks win for a change, but they win far too early. This feels almost like the preamble to the next Dalek story of the Moffat era, rather than a memorable adventure in its own right.

As a result, Ian McNiece's Churchill is also sadly sidelined. What we do see of him is brilliant though, and I think there's real potential for him to be a recurring historical character- he has the Doctor's phone number after all. Karen Gillan doesn't have much to do either, Matt Smith continues to prove his mettle with his indignant attitude to the Daleks- to him, their survival is obscene, and at one point he loses his temper with them altogether. A Doctor can often be defined by how he interacts with his greatest enemies, and he eschews both Christopher Eccleston's outright rage and David Tennant's righteous and weary approach. It's also fitting that Smith's first Dalek story evokes Patrick Troughton's debut, The Power of the Daleks, in having the Daleks pretend to be benign in order to entirely ruin humanity's shit.

To fall short in the most anticipated episode since the Daleks' inception, finally placing the Nazi allegories in a WW2 setting, would be unforgivable if it weren't for the witty script and the great performances. It collapses under the weight of tremendous expectation, but it's certainly not bad. It's an action packed episode that doesn't skimp on story and, despite the more obscure ramblings of fans online, it isn't a merchandising ploy to sell more multi-coloured Dalek toys. Victory of the Daleks could have been an all-time classic, but it's perfectly fine as an enjoyable early entry to the series, evocative of those films on Sunday afternoon telly as much as the Daleks' inexorable progress.The following two parter also has a returning monster of course, but The Time of Angels is head, shoulders and everything else above the previous episode. Opening in a particularly bombastic pre-credits sequence in the first part, the Doctor meets his possible future wife River Song again as she jumps out of an airlock. The ship she's just escaped has a deadly cargo- what is reputed to be the last Weeping Angel in existence- and it later crashes on the planet Alfava Metraxis. The tables are turned on the Doctor and a group of soldiers sent into the wreck to recover the Angel, and Amy Pond is pushed to the very limit as she struggles to survive.

Steven Moffat has said that this story's relationship to the Weeping Angels' debut Blink is as Aliens was to Alien. It expands the monsters while bringing in new, seemingly disparate elements to make it into more of an action story than a horror. The horror is still there for the stone gribblies, whose menace is as indelible as ever. A minor criticism is that they no longer "kill you kindly", as the Tenth Doctor put it first time around. Luckily, the far less interesting modus operandi of snapping necks doesn't weaken their fear factor at all- instead the uncomfortable provision of a voice via a murdered soldier just undercuts the fact that you couldn't negotiate with them before.

That said, we learned here that whatever holds the image of an Angel is itself an Angel. Someone finally decided to create a Doctor Who monster that can come out of televisions to kill you if you look at them- why has no-one thought of this before?!
It's not the Angels' show though, and we still get a great deal of interaction between Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. They each remain note-perfect for the entire series thus far, and Gillan in particular shines out here. She really sells the horror of a blind walk through a horde of Angels just as much as the innuendo of the surprisingly risque closing scene, which threatened to put the "Flesh" in the episode's title if Amy got her way with the Doctor. Less endearing is Alex Kingston as River Song, especially in the first part. For instance, note how a lovely trailer-friendly line about the Weeping Angels is delivered as smugly as the rest of Kingston's dialogue. You'd think any normal person would sound a little more apprehensive about "the most malevolent creatures evolution has ever produced". She knows more than the Doctor does, and thus more than the viewer, but I'd like her more if she didn't bloody act like it so much.

Moffat almost seems to have anticipated that neither River Song or the Angels themselves would leave as much of an impression on their second go around, and it's a good thing he never solely relies on them. To wit, we see the series arc begin to pay off at a point in the series earlier than ever before. Rather than continuing to vaguely pan across the crack in time for the rest of the run, it's embedded at the heart of the story here, and the potential ramifications of its presence will surely loom large for the rest of the series. It also provides a satisfying fan moment when one of the more confusing aspects of 2008's The Next Doctor is explained away, albeit with a mechanism that might allow many more stories to be completely retconned.
His writing continues to bewitch though, whether through one-liners or chills or wonderful character interaction. Here it's best typified in a wonderful final scene for the unfortunate Father Octavian. Even in an angelic headlock, the drama is incredibly potent between him and the Doctor as the two exchange warnings and condolences. The Time of Angels is also brilliant for having been helmed by director Adam Smith, who really makes this one look cinematic rather than televisual. He also delights in terrifying the young audience as much as the Moff does, and keeps the adrenaline going for 90 minutes in a way that the Dalek story couldn't manage for 42 minutes.

The Time of Angels excels as an opening two parter, a slot that's traditionally been a weaker point for the show since 2005, the Series 4 Sontaran adventure excepted. It's as witty and scary as we could expect from Moffat's writing, posturing for a broader story through the entirity of Series 5 without ever disrupting the story at hand. There's an energy here that most blockbusters can't even muster. It's mysterious, atmospheric and truly one of the best two parters Doctor Who has ever given us. Don't blink. Or... open your eyes. Or look at their eyes. Or-- (gets sent back in time)
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, The Vampires of Venice, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 8th May at 6pm.