Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I loved Matt Smith’s first series of Doctor Who, and will stick up for it to this day. Series 5 got the balance of plot arc and character just right, a grand fairytale adventure with surprising twists, an interesting new take on the Doctor, and finely developed relationships at its heart. It was after that when Steven Moffat’s showrunning went awry for me, with series 6 being an utter mess and series 7’s ‘Impossible Girl’ arc simply uninteresting. And now, three and a half years later, we’ve reached the other bookend, the final episode of Doctor Smith, who bowed out in this year’s Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor. This episode aimed to tie up Matt’s era and to see him out with a bang, harking back to all the important memories of the past few years. Did it recapture what I initially loved about this Doctor? Well, yes, but also, largely, no.

After an audacious opening declaring that after a multi-Doctor story we’re having one of Moffat’s multi-monster stories, The Time of the Doctor descended into silly farce for the first fifteen minutes. And not the good kind of silly farce, but a crude and not really very funny attempt at humour in which we’re constantly told that the Doctor is actually naked. We didn’t even get to see any arse.

Nevertheless, the story picked up a bit when the Doctor and Clara finally set foot in the town of Christmas. With costumes reminiscent of 2010’s best Christmas special ever, A Christmas Carol, the setting for the Doctor’s final battle was a brilliant piece of production design, a snow-capped fairytale village encased in near-permanent darkness. A lot of people seem to have taken against the voiceover, but for me it built upon a really nice atmosphere, and the Doctor growing old while defending this town against all his enemies was a neat way to sign off this Doctor’s adventures – there was even a nice throwback to the very beginning in the Doctor befriending young Barnable, who waited for him as did Amelia Pond.

I also did really like the way this adventure brought together plot points from throughout Matt’s era, not only bringing back the crack in time but also explaining “Silence will fall when the question is asked” in a way much more satisfactory than I ever expected Moffat to manage. OK, not everything made sense – brushing over the Silence as a bunch of genetically-engineered confessional priests from the future does beg the question of why a bunch of genetically-engineered confessional priests from the future would have bothered to go back in time and influence human history from the days of the Stone Age – not exactly the most logical plan to kill the Doctor, is it?

But the big problem with The Time of the Doctor is that, while I really like a lot of the ideas in it, it failed to engage me on an emotional level. The scenes that were meant to be sad… weren’t. And those are the scenes that are important in a regeneration episode. Remember Rose distraught at having been sent home because the Doctor didn’t want her to die alongside him? Heartbreaking, wasn’t it? That basically happened again, and this time there wasn’t a wet eye in the house (especially bad considering I’d been softened by Toy Story 3 and a good deal of wine). Remember the Tenth Doctor breaking down in the café with Wilf? And then his final scene, promising the young Rose she’d have a great year? That’s the kind of beautiful writing a regeneration episode deserves, and The Time of the Doctor’s brief attempts at anything similar fell flat. The fact that it’s half as long as the previous regeneration story shouldn’t have been the issue; if Moffat had just taken out some of the unnecessary stuff, like the entirely irrelevant confrontation with the Weeping Angels, who were cheapened in The Angels Take Manhattan and haven’t been scary since, or the unfunny farce at the beginning, then he’d have had room to take his time with the character stuff and maybe make the episode a bit more affecting. But even that might have been a lost cause, for this episode was far too late for me to engage with Clara as a character.

The problem with Clara is that she’s very much the generic companion and there’s no continuous character arc to get behind. The presentation of her family, introduced as she serves them Christmas dinner, seems entirely disconnected to anything that’s been mentioned of them in previous episodes. Her father’s even played by a different actor, and I bet most of the audience didn’t notice, due to the very little shits we’ve been led to give – a vast let down from Russell T Davies’ skill in giving the companion’s families rounded and interesting characters. In their brief appearances here, Moffat tries to emulate what Davies did – “Look, they’re watching Strictly, that means they’re relatable!” – but fails miserably, with these characters both coming from nowhere and going nowhere.

As well as Clara, this episode introduced us to Tasha Lem, ‘Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe’. Though I did appreciate Orla Brady’s Irish accent, that was the extent to which I enjoyed Lem, who seemed familiar in many ways. As well as fitting that overused Moffat trope, an old friend of the Doctor, her dialogue felt like it had been written for River Song – “Flying the TARDIS was always easy. It’s flying the Doctor I never quite mastered” and the Doctor’s line “You’ve been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life.” And yes, of course she tried to seduce the Doctor, later being pounced on by him. Moffat’s repetitive and demeaning treatment of female characters as nothing more than his space-based sex fantasies seems to be getting worse all the time.

At least we had Handles, the Eleventh Doctor’s longest serving companion. OK, I actually think there is a good idea in having the Doctor carry around a Cyber-head as a personal computer – it’s reminiscent of K9, some of their interaction in the opening sequence was quite funny, and at least it stopped him from over-using the sonic screwdriver for once. But, come on, were we really meant to be sad at his death scene? It’s another example of Moffat’s hyper-pacing spoiling the effect – if we’d known Handles for longer, maybe this scene would have had a chance at working.

So what of the Doctor himself, and his regeneration? Playing it loose with the character’s history so that the Eleventh Doctor is actually the Thirteenth Doctor was a bold move by Moffat, and one I have no problem with in theory – the show was always going to make something up to get past the classic bit of continuity that is the regeneration limit, and it might as well do this sooner rather than later to shut up those who keep going on about how Doctor Who is going to end. The problem is introducing the fact that this is the Doctor’s last incarnation and then wrapping it up in one episode is very sudden for such a major event in his life. This finale could have been more effective had the seeds been planted earlier. Why no mention of this when the Doctor was so worried about his death in series 6, or when faced with his own grave in The Name of the Doctor?

That aside, the new set of regenerations meant that Smith’s Doctor got rather spoiled, having not one, but two regeneration scenes: a massive fuck-off Dalek-destroying tornado of a regeneration, followed by a much more personal handover in the TARDIS. This scene had a lot of nice touches – the Doctor’s “I will not forget one line of this” monologue, the bewigged ghost of Amy Pond, the dropping of the bow tie, the song from The Rings of Akhaten (yes, I still like that episode). And yet, despite all of this, I felt, again, significantly less moved than the fan I was three years ago, who loved the Doctor of series 5, would have wanted the fan I am today to be.

And so it is with an episode which nicely ties up the era both visually and narratively but is a significant emotional letdown that we say goodbye to Matt Smith. A very fine actor, and an occasionally brilliant Doctor, who was increasingly dumped with problematic scripts. At least anniversary special The Day of the Doctor didn’t disappoint, and at least we’ll always have such classics as The Eleventh Hour and Vincent and the Doctor to remember Eleven by. Matt, you will always be the Doctor.

And now, so will Peter Capaldi – who failed to make much of an impression in a very short final scene, to be honest. I wanted something a bit more daring than the now-conventional comment about part of his new body and the realisation that the TARDIS is crashing again, albeit less dramatically than last time. I did like his stare, though. I hope he does a lot of that staring.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On 28.12.13 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments
Hi there. How was your Christmas? Oh, really? What did you think of Doctor Who, then? Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. But now we have Sherlock to look forward to. Weather's been a bit iffy, eh?

Right. Enough small talk. I need your money.

A film I've written, The Crow Scarer, is being shot at the start of February as one of my final year university projects. My team have already raised £2000 but need to double that in order to fund logistics, actors, and, importantly, crows. So, if you've somehow managed not to throw away all your money over the Christmas period, we can help you fix that - head over to The Crow Scarer’s IndieGoGo page here.

Here's a little summary of the story:

Charlie is a professional Crow Scarer and has been all his life. But one day, he’s made redundant, to be replaced by ‘scarecrows’ – artificial crow scarers made of straw and rags. It takes the best efforts of local seamstress Lilly to cheer Charlie up and set him on the path to finding a new job – but none of his new jobs work out, and all Charlie wants to do is scare crows.

 Will Lilly be able to help Charlie get his job back, will he find a way to move on with the changing times, or will he be left as a relic of a bygone era? One thing’s for sure – scaring crows isn’t the same as it used to be.

Please give us money. There’s a selection of perks available and whatever you give will make a difference. And we'll love you for ever.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Issue 396 of Starburst Magazine is out now, and, as you may have deduced from the cover, it's a Sherlock Holmes themed issue, to celebrate the return of the BBC's Sherlock this new year, which I personally am very excited about. My contribution to this issue is not more than a page about Sherlock Holmes books written by people who aren't Arthur Conan Doyle, but it's worth buying for the bits that aren't written by me too.

Pick it up from WH Smith, your specialist comic store, possibly Tesco (not sure if this one's in Tesco), or, of course, right here.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

I was apprehensive when I saw the first Hunger Games film. I didn’t know what to expect, and one of the many things I’d heard about it was “it’s the new Twilight”. Thankfully, this turned out to be bollocks – Hollywood were looking to make as much from the teenage market as they’d done with Twilight, yes, but it was so much more than that. The other comparison I'd heard over and over again was to Battle Royale, often in a very sniffy manner implying that Hunger Games had ‘copied’ the Japanese classic and so lacked originality. Again, it was so much more than that. Yes, it featured young people being placed in a confined environment and forced to fight to the death, but the unique characters, futuristic setting and satire of reality TV were among the elements that made it stand out.

The second film, Catching Fire, moves the story on, with Katniss Everdeen forced back into the Hunger Games as the powers that be work out how to deal with her increasing fame and what this represents for the growing buds of revolution. The Hunger Games pointed its sharp satirical finger at the horrors of reality TV, and Catching Fire turns this into an exploration of the cult of celebrity, with the establishment trying to use figureheads like Katniss to control the populace, and the populace appropriating them as symbols for themselves. As Catching Fire begins, Katniss is putting on the public show of being in love with Josh Hutcherson's Peeta - an unwilling part of the Capitol's propaganda war. When the populace won't take this any more, however, and violent control has to be asserted, she's on the side of the Districts, and the film does a great world-building job in contrasting the bourgeoisie pomposity of the Capitol with the oppressed slums of the Districts, and in exploring what Katniss can represent to each community. Pretty deep for science fiction aimed at a teenage audience, eh?

The one big thing which the Hunger Games series has that comparable films lack, and indeed is very hard to find in Hollywood cinema, is a strong central heroine. If I referred to any other Hollywood female as 'well-rounded', I'd have to be talking about her boobs, but with Katniss, I'd be talking about her character (not that there's anything wrong with Jennifer Lawrence's boobs). Lawrence's Katniss is a perfect action hero – resourceful and agile, vulnerable but determined to survive, facing impossible odds but committed to making a difference. Yes, there’s a love triangle, and that’s a point of comparison with the dreaded T-word, but if anyone, it’s the men in this triangle who do the moping and Katniss sees it as secondary to her struggles to fight for the people. It’s so good to see this subversion of gender conventions create a great female role model in mainstream cinema.

Speaking of that love triangle, I do feel that neither Josh Hutcherson nor Liam Hemsworth come close to matching up to Lawrence in terms of acting ability. But hey, I don’t go for hunky guys, and they’ll get the stereotypical teenage girls into cinemas… At least the supporting cast has some pretty reliable names, including Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, who has the most hypnotically shiny teeth. No wonder the people of the Capitol can't get enough of that shit; I'd happily sit through any show he presented and just stare at the teeth, wandering my gaze over the equally glitzy jacket if I needed a momentary break. Get him on The One Show.

Philip Seymour Hoffman also joins the cast for the second instalment, though his clothes and teeth are both notably less shiny, as is his performance - he's strangely understated as Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, as if he was hoping for a break in between demanding Paul Thomas Anderson films, had entirely forgotten he had to turn up to The Hunger Games, and nearly slept through his alarm. Hopefully Plutarch will come into his own when we go deeper into the character in the next films.

If I had one big complaint about the first film, it was the shaky camerawork. I do like shakycam when it’s used well (Greengrass' Bourne films, for example), but not when used with overzealous shakiness and no real motivation, and in The Hunger Games it felt very distracting from the story. Luckily, new director Francis Lawrence appears to have brought an Allen key to set and tightened the loose bolt on the steadicam, as the shakiness is a lot less problematic in Catching Fire.

There are a few weaknesses in the direction. Though there’s a great sense of jeopardy throughout, a few of the more CGI-reliant action sequences, including an attack from evil fog and a horde of monkeys, feel confusingly choreographed, unclear as to who's trying to do what and who just saved who. “You think she sacrificed herself to save you?”, Katniss asks Peeta regarding a fellow warrior killed in the monkey imbroglio. Katniss doesn’t know what happened in that fight, and nor did I.

Luckily, there are enough action scenes that do work, and they’re balanced well with the more emotional stuff – well enough, in fact, for me to have no problem with the 146 minute running time. One possible criticism is that Catching Fire overall is structurally quite unbalanced, setting up a lot of plot but resolving little. This isn't too much of a problem if you look at it as very much a ‘middle of the trilogy’ film, like The Empire Strikes Back – you really have to have seen the first film to know what’s going on, and it has an ending which left me anxious to see the next. I am a little bit worried that with Mockingjay, the series will follow the Hollywood trend of making the final book into two films – just how long it can be stretched out for without becoming too much is yet to be seen. 

Nevertheless, if the series can keep up the quality of Catching Fire, I’m all in. It’s an exciting science fiction thriller. It’s full of intelligent and relevant satire. It has a strong female protagonist. Young audiences love it. There’s nothing else out there that combines all these qualities, and in that respect, The Hunger Games are well worth celebrating.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Yesterday evening, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the cinema broadcast of the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. Normally, after a new Who episode, I’d write up a review. This time, I’m going to give a bulleted and rambling list of thoughts. Two reasons for this:
  • All the hype surrounding the anniversary will have undoubtedly had an effect on my opinions and so I’m not really sure I can objectively judge how good an episode it is at this point. I honestly don’t know how I’ll look back at it in years to come.
  • I’m fucking mega busy right now.
Anyway, without further ado, my thoughts on The Day of the Doctor:
  • Firstly, I was really worried it was going to be terrible. It wasn’t. It really wasn’t. There was a lot to love.
  • I got a little worried when, about ten minutes in, one of Steven Moffat’s typical sex jokes happened. Something along the lines of “The interface is hot.” “Phwoar, you bet I am, wahey.” Luckily, this was then kept to a minimum.
  • John Hurt is the Doctor! How cool is that?
  • The War Doctor showed a very interesting take on the character we've been following for fifty years. Partly a Hartnell-esque grumpy old man, partly an Eccleston-esque conflicted warrior. And he was John Bloody Hurt.
  • However - why did John Hurt regenerate? Because he's "wearing a bit thin"? I know that's a Hartnell reference, but - what? Surely, if he was old and exhausted, then he would have passed the regeneration tipping point when, you know, fighting a war in which he has to blow up his own planet, and not after having a relaxing cup of tea in an art gallery.
  • I’m so glad that only John Hurt could see Rose and there wasn’t any soppy Ten/Rose stuff. That horse had been flogged to fuckery by the end of series 2.
  • Despite that lovely opening revealing she's now a teacher at Coal Hill School, Clara was written as very much the generic companion. I can understand why, as this episode was always going to focus on the character of the Doctor, and at least she's now rid of that awful 'Impossible Girl' storyline, but I'm really hoping the next series will actually develop and deepen her character.
  • The saving of Gallifrey worked really well. It felt like the inevitable climax that the past eight (if not fifty) years of Doctor Who had been building up to, and a fitting major event for the fiftieth anniversary. I was a little worried when I saw it coming that it would mean the whole new series up to now would have to be rewritten if the ending of the Time War changed, but the reveal that the Doctor had always saved Gallifrey, and just didn't remember he'd done so, solved that issue and added an extra layer of poignancy. Of course the Doctor wouldn't really destroy his own planet.
  • The three Doctors were very funny when allowed to play off each other. I particularly enjoyed them trying to break out of prison, as well as the dialogue “Geronimo! “Allons-y!” “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” (I know that’s not what he actually said, but if it had been on post-watershed, it would have been.)
  • I also laughed a lot at Ten’s scenes with Queen Elizabeth and the Zygon horse. And the not-Zygon rabbit.
  • The Zygons were really effective, well-designed villains. The scene where Kate Stewart transformed into a Zygon was magnificently creepy and had a lot of the kids in the cinema cowering. Brilliant. But…
  • What actually happened to the Zygons? They were just left in the Black Archive. It felt like there was a scene missing. Especially because they set up that thing with Osgood’s inhaler, as if that was going to be used to work out who was a Zygon, but the episode simply never returned to them. A very loose end indeed…
  • The Time War looked very nice and had clearly had a good amount of budget invested in it.
  • It’s a shame they clearly couldn’t get Timothy Dalton back as Rassilon. The Time Lords' glorious leader must have been having one final shit or something when the very important Time Lord meetings we saw were going on.
  • Nice to see all the Doctors got involved in the climax. Even Peter Capaldi – though the BBC have evidently not decided on his costume yet…
  • Also, Tom Baker! That was a really sweet scene. Somehow, I knew exactly what was coming when Clara mentioned an old man. And yet it was still brilliant.
  • Though that final shot of all the Doctors together looked terrible. It looked as if William Hartnell had been done on Microsoft Paint.
  • Speaking of awful effects, the 3D. Oh, the 3D. Fucking hell. If Gravity convinced me that 3D can be really, really beautiful, The Day of the Doctor did a good job of reversing that feeling. In some scenes, it simply didn’t work and I could see a 2D double image. How? Why?
  • There were a few awkward lines of expository dialogue. "Let's go to my office, which is the Tower of London." "He's infiltrated the secret vault - where we keep all the forbidden weapons!"
But, yeah, overall, I'm quite happy with it.

Monday, 18 November 2013

On 18.11.13 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments
Some video content for you today in the form of the first episode of UNION. Following the officers of a students' union, UNION is a Thick Of It-inspired sitcom that I've jointly written, directed and produced with Tom Woffenden. Here it is. Please like it.

Follow @Union_YSTV on  Twitter or like the show on Facebook for updates on future episodes.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

On 14.11.13 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

After the feature I contributed to the previous edition of Starburst Magazine, I pop up again in the latest.

It''s a '2014 Preview' Issue and so I've contributed to a feature giving you all the haps on what film and TV you can look forward to in the next year. I've also written a little bit about aroused Wookiees for the 'Alternative Christmas Viewing' feature.

The really good news is that you can pick up this issue in TESCO! I'm available from supermarkets now...

Go buy it. Go go go.

Or buy from the internet.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

On 30.10.13 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

Friday, 25 October 2013

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Saturday, 19 October 2013

On 19.10.13 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

Issue 394 of Starburst Magazine is out this week, and it's a Doctor Who special to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary. When I was told the cover would be all eleven Doctors, I was worried how it would turn out, but, well, wow. Look at it. Isn't it sexy?

And what's inside is sexier still, for my very first feature article has been published. Entitled Wanderers in Two Dimensions, it's six pages chronicling the history of Doctor Who in comics. I'm really happy with how it looks in print and excited for people to read my work! Here's a sneak preview...

To read the other five pages, get out there and buy the magazine. 

As a special bonus feature for readers of this blog, here are the alternate titles for the article that didn't make it:
  • Saving the Universe with a Pencil and Some Ink
  • A Madman in Many Boxes
  • Time and Relative Dimensions on Paper
  • The Greatest Comic in the Galaxy

Headlines are hard. In this issue, I also review Jack Katz's The First Kingdom and have a brief news article or two.

Starburst is available in WH Smiths, some specialist comics stores, and from the internet.

On 19.10.13 by KieronMoore in    No comments
...and you know what, so was I!

Absolutely Fantastic is my new blog exploring sci-fi & fantasy fan cultures today and their relationship with production and marketing practices. Don't worry, this old ship ain't dead; the second blog is for a university project. Which does mean I'll be obliged to write regularly!

And, yes, I did start an academic project with a Parks and Rec quote and follow that up with a clip of the Kandyman. I'm sure my lecturer will love that...

Sunday, 13 October 2013

It’s an exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan. While the wait for the fiftieth anniversary special plods on, this week the BBC surprised us with an early anniversary present – two new stories! Well, not quite new – they were originally transmitted in 1968, starring Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, and had been lost since. Also, not quite a surprise – rumours of found episodes had been doing the internet rounds for a while. The point is, no one had seen these stories in my lifetime. In fact, no full ‘lost’ story had been unearthed in my lifetime. So this was quite a big deal, and, though novelisations exist, The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were entirely new to me.

I can't remember how that money got into my iTunes account, but it must have been waiting for this day. I gave up my twenty quid, cracked open some Custard Creams, said my thanks to Phillip Morris and his Nigerian TV relay station, and got started on The Enemy of the World.

The Enemy of the World

The Enemy of the World follows the second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria as they arrive in a futuristic Earth to find global politics threatened by Ramón Salamander, a corrupt politician and scientist who plans to manipulate his way into global domination. Complicating the issue, Salamander is, hairstyle and dress aside, the exact double of the Doctor.

I’ve always been interested to see how Troughton handled the double role and indeed his performance is one of the highlights of this story. Though it’s a little suspicious how, in a story set in both Australia and Central Europe, the villain is the only character without a British accent, Troughton makes him one of those villains you love to hate, with a sinister performance that's the antithesis of his Doctor. The Doctor, too, is wonderful. The opening scene, in which the Doctor and companions arrive on a beach, could have been quite boring with any other lead, but Troughton’s clownish prancing around, jogging daftly into the sea, is a joy to watch. He’s so different to the First Doctor, and yet so similar to the Eleventh – although Matt Smith had evidently not watched this story, you can see how this Doctor inspired Smith’s physically clumsy performance decades later.

The Doctor is accompanied by Jamie and Victoria. I do like the dynamic Who has with two companions, but I don’t think this is the best TARDIS team. Jamie’s great – he’s the charismatic action hero figure, concocting a fake assassination attempt to infiltrate Salamander’s personal guard. He’s also Scottish, which always helps. Victoria, meanwhile, doesn’t really do much. She sits around, whimpers, and needs to be rescued. I know what you’re thinking – “She’s a sexist portrayal of a young girl in 1960s TV – at least she can cook, right?” Well, no. In this story, she even fucks that up. I prefer Zoe when she comes along a few stories later.

There’s a lot more to love in The Enemy of the World – the first episode clearly swipes aside all stereotypes about the slow pacing of 60s Who by having an action sequence featuring a hovercraft and a helicopter, and the serial keeps the excitement up with a global scale, a volcano eruption and a very unexpected twist when an extra element is added half way through. There are some points at which the pace dips, particularly when the focus moves away from the Doctor and his companions for some time, but there are enough twists, turns, and action sequences (in which people are very clearly not really getting shot) to sustain interest. An international political thriller with intrigue, action, and elements of James Bond, I really enjoyed The Enemy of the World, more than I expected to.

The Web of Fear

The second found story, The Web of Fear, continues directly on from The Enemy of the World and features the return of the Great Intelligence and the robot Yeti, as well as the first appearance of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, later known as the Brigadier. Pulled into the tunnels of the London Underground, the TARDIS crew find that the trains have been shut down as the British Army are hunting loose Yeti.

Even when played by neither Richard E. Grant nor Ian McKellen, I do like the Great Intelligence as a villain – a mysteriously powerful and god-like entity. Yet it’s the Yeti that really make an impression here, and the image of them skulking through the dark catacombs understandably made a lasting impression on many minds. They may not have the visual believability as some of today’s Who creatures, but their imposing frame and sheer brutality nevertheless remains effective today. Their first scene, in which a Yeti is awakened by a businessman (admittedly, a nasty Jewish stereotype… oh, you guys and your racism) is sheer horror at its purest. Adding to this tense atmosphere is the reveal that the Great Intelligence has a spy among the heroes, beginning a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-esque game of guessing who it is, which successfully wrong-foots the viewer at several points.

The London Underground setting is perfect for this story – it’s much closer to home than the first Yeti story, ramping up the stakes, and it's tight and claustrophobic while large and labyrinthine in scale. Imagine watching this as a Londoner and going to bed thinking there could be Yeti right underneath you! It also means that the BBC could achieve this scale using one or two sets – one tunnel standing in for the entirety of subterranean London – and perfect sets they are too, so much so that London Underground reportedly filed a complaint that the BBC had filmed on their property without permission! 

There are downsides to the story: the journalist character, Chorley, is constantly annoying and irrelevant, and it doesn’t make any sense why the army would invite a journalist to a covert operation like this anyway. A few of the supporting actors are more than a little wooden – though I do like those bits in black and white Who where an actor fluffs a line and they clearly didn’t see it worth re-recording. Victoria, once again, doesn’t have much to do. The absence of the Doctor in episode two is notable (Troughton was on holday!), which means that we never actually see the first meeting between the Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart.

Nor can we see their first scene together in full, as episode three, which begins with the two together, is the only unfound one. The BBC have done a reasonable job of putting something together from the stills and audio that exist, but, frankly, I got bored by this non-episode. Ah, well. The pictures started moving again in episode four.

All in all, I enjoyed The Enemy of the World more, but The Web of Fear is another strong story – atmospheric, full of interesting characters, and well-paced despite its long running time. It's a real treat to see one of the best classic Doctors in action in both of these New Old Doctor Who stories. And now back to waiting for New New Doctor Who

Sunday, 6 October 2013

This review was originally published on The Film Pilgrim on 10th August 2011. As that site has now disappeared from the internet, I'll be re-publishing my reviews and features, staggered over the next few weeks. This one may need a bit of cultural context - I saw the film on the same day as the 2011 Manchester riots...

Release date (UK) – 12th August 2011
Certificate (UK) – 18
Runtime – 115 minutes
Director – José Padilha
Country – Brazil
Starring – Wagner Moura, Irandhir Santos, André Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, André Mattos, Maria Ribeiro

Rio de Janeiro. A city swarmed by crime and disorder, horribly violent, with no-one sure who to trust. Sorry, not Rio, Manchester – but I was safe inside a cinema watching Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. This is a follow-up to 2007’s Elite Squad, which followed the drug-busting operations of BOPE, the military police of Rio de Janeiro, and the life of BOPE captain Roberto Nascimento (Moura). It was a critical and commercial success in its home country and it’s no surprise that a sequel has been produced. 

The Enemy Within moves the action from 1997 to the present day. Now a colonel, Nascimento is in charge of dealing with a prison break out. When this ends in a massacre, human rights activist Diogo Fraga (Santos) pressures the politicians to discharge Nascimento, but his hard-hitting tactics have earned public appeal and he instead finds himself promoted to a position in the Intelligence Secretariat. From here, Nascimento seeks to use his influence to control BOPE and crack down on crime, but finds himself embroiled in a culture of police corruption. His personal life is also explored in the plot; Nascimento is growing distant from his son and is bitter at his ex-wife (Ribeiro) for marrying Fraga. 

Elite Squad 2’s portrayal of the crime and corruption rife in Rio de Janeiro is shocking. Dirty cop Rocha (Sandro Rocha) makes pacts with drug dealers and instils fear with his militia, murdering those who fail to pay him protection money – inspired by true cases of Rio’s police corruption, this puts accepting a free spa break into perspective. Meanwhile, safe in their luxury yachts, politicians like Legislator Fortunato (André Mattos) and Governor Gelino (Julio Adrião) plot to do whatever necessary to maximise their power. Many characters have their own elements of the storyline, but it is Nascimento’s narration that binds everything together. This means that his point of view is prioritised above the others and, therefore, the first half of the film gives off a worrying sense of glorification of right-wing policing. Nascimento is applauded as a hero by his fellow officers after he has orchestrated the jailhouse massacre, while his narration expresses his utter dislike of left-wing intellectuals like Fraga, who he believes are wrongly letting criminals off by granting them human rights. Nevertheless, this all comes together by the end of the film, as Nascimento is led to question his loyalties and actions, kicked off by a particularly emotional scene in which his son Rafa tells him “I’m not like you, I don’t enjoy hitting people”. 

While the exploration of the police characters is excellent, it would perhaps be nice to have seen the characters on the street, living in the crime-infested community, fleshed out a little more, in order to push the film away from being an action thriller and more towards the wide ranging political exposé it aspires to be, as well as adding to the emotional impact of Major Rocha’s brutality. 

Rio de Janeiro is shot artistically and effectively; young cinematographer Lula Carvalho takes the viewer on an exciting and gritty ride through Rio’s favelas with vérité-style camerawork which adds a sense of realism to the chaotic scenes. At points, the fast camera movements can render the action confusing, but with the film’s message about the out of control situation, this may be purposeful. Padilha’s direction is solid and he shows strong storytelling ability, though one or two comic relief moments, such as a militiaman unknowingly referencing Shakespeare while removing the teeth from a skull, seem out of place and unnecessary. 

The sense of realism is added to by a range of well-judged performances. Nascimento is more mature and rounded than in the first film, shown by the interaction with his son and development of his family relationships, and Wagner Moura pulls off this performance brilliantly. Many of the supporting cast also make lasting impressions, particularly André Ramiro, reprising his role as the determined and moral-minded Captain Matthias. 

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within is far from easy watching, but is an expertly made portrayal of a society plagued by corruption as well as a thrilling, uncompromisingly gritty action experience and a recommended watch for anyone interested in world cinema.

So where is director José Padilha today? Well, he's helmed the upcoming RoboCop reboot. Let's hope he can reproduce the great urban thriller style he showed here and cross it with the brilliant satire of Verhoeven's original to create a film that can really overcome fans' scepticism.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

This review was originally published on The Film Pilgrim on 6th August 2011. As that site has now disappeared from the internet, I'll be re-publishing my reviews and features, staggered over the next few weeks. This was the first review I published for them and remains one of my personal favourite pieces. I really hated Sucker Punch...

Release Date (UK DVD) – 8th August 2011
Certificate (UK) – 12
Country – USA
Runtime – 109 mins
Director – Zack Snyder
Starring – Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung

Zack Snyder’s action fantasy Sucker Punch, his first film to be based on his own original story, follows Babydoll (Browning), a girl framed for the murder of her sister and sent to a mental institution by her evil stepfather. She then rallies the girls of the asylum (which has turned into a brothel within her insane state of mind), and formulates a plan to escape. This involves her dancing to distract a series of people while her cohorts – Sweet Pea (Cornish), Rocket (Malone), Blondie (Hudgens) and Amber (Chung) – pickpocket a series of items from them. When Babydoll dances, she finds herself and the gang transported to mysterious far away worlds in which a wise Old Man (Scott Glenn) tells them to blow things up to find the corresponding MacGuffin.

This is undoubtedly a unique premise and is directed by Snyder with visual panache. The swiftly choreographed action scenes have a certain stylish flair to them and are upholstered by impressive special effects. Accompanied by a rocking soundtrack, Snyder never misses an opportunity to blow something up spectacularly. With a variety of enticingly produced environments, ranging from the battlefields of the first world war to a speeding train on a distant planet, there’s no doubting that a lot of effort has gone into giving Sucker Punch a memorable range of "totally badass" imagery that could just be the best thing ever to the stereotypical twelve year old male video gamer.

However good it may look, however, Sucker Punch manages to become something that may not be one’s first thought upon hearing of a film containing giant samurai, German steampunk zombies, dragons and robots – boring. Zack Snyder is a hyperactive child, with a plethora of visual ideas but no attention span to do anything interesting with them. There are laughably stupid moments, such as when a giant Japanese samurai appears – with a giant bazooka, of course. But most of the time, I found myself uninterested by the repetitive action sequences, with the lack of any binding narrative between the sequences rendering them largely meaningless. With no source material to rely on, Snyder shows a complete lack of storytelling talent. Whole scenes, like Amber using a giant robot to fight the German zombie hordes, seem to only be there because the director thinks they look cool, which, as anyone who’s hit puberty knows, is not the way to make a good story.

The film’s problems are furthered by the distinct lack of depth to the characters. The acting can’t really be criticised, because the actors don’t play what can be described as “characters”; “sex objects with guns” would be a more appropriate term, rendering the heroes impossible to have any real sympathy with. It’s hard to describe some of the girls with words other than the considerably unsophisticated “phwoar”, due to their personalities being entirely non-existent. The ridiculous claim that Sucker Punch shows empowered women is worrying; Snyder seems to think that taking his voyeuristic fantasies of young girls in revealing costumes and giving them guns to prance around with is “empowering” them. Somehow, I don’t think a truly feminist movie would have heroines called Babydoll and Sweet Pea.

While the video game comparison is often made (and indeed, it would work better as a game than it does as a film), Sucker Punch is best described as a semi-pornographic music video. The frenetic and interesting visual style is far from enough to justify Snyder’s juvenile storytelling and the utter lack of emotional engagement with the characters.

The extended edition features eighteen minutes of extra footage, if you can manage to sit through it. This includes two major new scenes. Firstly, there’s the show put on by the girls of the brothel; a musical number to “Love is the Drug”. While it jars with the tone of the surrounding scenes, hence its cut from the theatrical release, this Moulin Rouge-inspired sequence allows Snyder to draw on his music video experience and is, admittedly, quite memorable and fun. The other new scene comes late on in the film and features an appearance from the best actor in the film (if not the world), Jon Hamm. His dream world character of the “High Roller” shows up to seduce Babydoll in a scene which adds to the meaning of the following pivotal scene with the real version of Hamm’s character. It’s nice to see this minor appearance fleshed out from a mere Hammeo into something meatier.

The DVD also features a behind the scenes documentary of sorts entitled Maximum Movie Mode, following a similar feature on the Watchmen DVD. Zack Snyder isn’t one to take the word “maximum” lightly – this involves viewing the film with added commentary, interviews, storyboards and more cropping up around the screen. While it could be said that this fits the film, with too many ideas thrown into one, it’s actually quite insightful into the production of the film and an interesting new take on the behind the scenes style.

Also included are a series of animated shorts expanding the worlds of the dream sequences, which are, frankly, quite dull and meaningless, and a very short featurette on the film’s soundtrack, which I don’t have any problems with.

Two years on, and Zack Snyder still hasn't grown up much - here's my review of Man of Steel