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

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

On 1.10.13 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
I do think that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a remarkable achievement. Granted,  Avengers Assemble (and yes, I do like that title) is the only individual part of it that’s really impressed me, but the sheer ambition of the multi-film world and the carefully plotted connections between the films, not forgetting the one-shot short films, is a unique and fascinating venture.

The latest addition to this universe is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a TV series which continues the adventures of the shady government agency set up in the films so far, or at least a small section of that, headed by fan favourite Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), back from the dead, alongside gruff action hero Grant Ward (Brett Dalton, proving that real names don’t have to be less badass than character names), pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), techies Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and newly recruited hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet).

The first episode, broadcast last week, is unimaginatively titled ‘Pilot’, despite the fact that it isn’t a pilot and is, in fact, a first episode (there is a pilot in it, but she’s perhaps the least focused-on character, so there’s still no real reason).

Anyway, my first serious gripe with this episode comes in the plotting – imagine an Anonymous hacker is kidnapped by the NSA and 10 minutes later is working for them. That's basically what happens. Skye’s introduced as an activist trying to expose S.H.I.E.L.D.’s unscrupulous methods – which is a very interesting way for the series to explore its world – and yet this is all forgotten about by the episode’s midpoint, when she's getting all chummy with the crew. Her motives are never really explored and this part of the story feels very rushed.

My other problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it's too sexy. To put it another way, acting ability wasn't a priority when casting. It's no wonder Skye doesn't have the V mask - I'd be surprised if any real member of Anonymous looks like that, or has that quick a wit. The direction and editing are too 'sexy' too – it all feels a bit overproduced and artificial, which isn’t helped by the amount of clichés inherent in the early scenes. Agent May’s locked herself away in an office job after being damaged in an unknown combat incident and is reluctant to get back into the field, but is tempted back by this crack team? Hmm…

I did get into the story more in the second half, once the 'getting the gang together' thing was over with. The group’s first case, to track down a man who’d gone off the rails after being given experimental super-serum and could literally explode at any moment, gave an interesting angle on this world; his final speech about what it’s like to be an ordinary guy in a world full of gods and super-heroes promised good things for the rest of the series.

Another thing I liked was Joss Whedon’s characteristically witty dialogue – though not as frequently as in Avengers, I did laugh out loud at several points, most notably the follow-up to Coulson’s much-trailered stepping out of the shadows. It seems that Scottish Agent Fitz and English Agent Simmons were set up as the comic relief characters, and indeed provided some of the funniest moments, though I’ll remember them more as the ones with really sexy accents (that’s a good thing, this time). I want Elizabeth Henstridge to sing me to sleep and tell me everything’s going to be alright. And I’m English myself, so can only imagine how foreign and sexy (or foreign and confusing) they must sound to Americans…

One final thing I liked was how the episode was littered with continuity references to other Marvel films – the Extremis serum from Iron Man III, for example – without it ever feeling too overbearing, making Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really feel like a natural part of that universe. I’ll be interested to see what other Marvel characters can be drawn into the series as it goes on. All in all, I didn't love Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but will stick with it for a while. The series may or may not grow on me...