Sunday, 30 November 2014

On 30.11.14 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

Even the world’s biggest directors have to scale down once in a while – after making iconic sci-fi epic Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s studio asked if he wouldn’t mind losing a zero or two from the budget sheets next time around, and thus was born Spione (it’s German for ‘Spies’, don’t you know).

When government agent 326 encounters the beautiful Sonja, pursued by the police for a crime she was forced to commit, she convinces him to hide her away, but little does he know she’s one of those eponymous Spione, out to get him. And if 326 is a proto-007, his nemesis and Sonja’s employer is a proto-Blofeld: Haghi, a bank director (boo, hiss) who secretly leads a sinister espionage organisation and plans to steal a vital Japanese treaty in order to bring about war (even more boos and hisses).

If you’ve seen Metropolis, Spione may initially strike you as less visually decadent. There are no sweeping futuristic cityscapes here, no enormous and imaginative sets – don’t expect proto-Blofeld to have a proto-volcano lair – and some of the longer office-set sequences may test a modern viewer’s patience across the two-and-a-half-hour running time. But Lang really is a master of imagery, and there are some great action sequences, inventive settings, and some real top-quality moustaches on show.

Spione may not be Fritz Lang’s finest film, but it is a surprisingly exciting thriller, visually rich despite not having Metropolis’ budget, and nicely critical of the wasteful rich in a time of Great Depression – all in all, further proof if ever it was needed that Lang truly was a Master of Cinema.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

If you read my review of last year’s Catching Fire, you’ll know that I rather like The Hunger Games. The first two films established this series as much more than the admittedly-funny ‘Battle Royale with cheese’ joke suggests – it’s simultaneously a big sci-fi blockbuster that appeals to a broad audience and an intelligent media satire, avoiding many of the more annoying trappings of many other ‘teen’-marketed films – all the angst-ridden moping around that goes on in Twilight, for example.  

For the final part of the trilogy, however, the series seems to have fallen into one of those traps – in what can either be interpreted as wanting to retain as many of the book’s details as possible or wanting to milk as much money as possible, Suzanne Collins’ third novel Mockingjay has been adapted into not one but two films.  

Following on from Catching Fire’s dramatic cliffhanger, Mockingjay Part 1 is distinctly different from its two predecessors in that it doesn’t feature a visit to the Hunger Games themselves; rather, it throws us into the action as all-out war is beginning between the bourgeoisie of the Capitol and rebellious forces from the impoverished districts. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is taken to the believed-destroyed District 13, where Julianne Moore’s President Coin and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee plan to use her as a propagandic heroine to incite rebellion across the districts. Though re-united with old buddy Gale, whose hair is far too neat to be realistic for the fugitive resistance fighter he now is, Katniss is more concerned about games buddy Peeta, who’s being held captive in the Capitol by a wonderfully bearded Donald Sutherland. And there’s a film crew led by Natalie Dormer off of Game of Thrones, who has a really cool half-shaved hairstyle. Got all that? Oh, and there’s Jeffrey Wright as techie Beetee whose name you really should remember, otherwise you’ll be as confused as me by the line “Thanks to Beetee, we now have ten percent improved access to the airwaves” – now isn’t that the weirdest product placement ever?

That was a lot of set-up for the actual critical bit of the review, which seems fitting for this film; at times, Part 1 feels like set-up for Part 2 rather than a story which works in itself – whereas previous instalments, while clearly part of a larger story, had their individual trips to the games arena as structural devices. A big part of this problem is the distinct scarcity of good action sequences, and there are only two or three moments when it feels like, you know, stuff is happening. And the best bit’s in the trailer.

That’s actually a common criticism of this film; some critics seem to have really disliked Mockingjay Part 1 because it’s very much a Part 1. Personally, while I found this a problem at some of the slower moments, it didn’t bother me as much as it has others. I remained engrossed through large chunks of the film, largely because I found myself really invested in the political side of it, a fascinating exploration of the importance of wartime icons. Whereas previous instalments saw the Capitol pacify their citizens with reality TV, this time both sides are up to the same tricks – even the rebels we side with are using Katniss as the futuristic equivalent of Kitchener on the the ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters. A rebellion needs its figureheads to give the oppressed people hope, but to what extent is this type of broadcast any different to the villains’ propaganda, and to what extent should we believe everything we see on TV? This is not just a ‘teen’ film – it’s a clever media satire.

As well as the political side of it, I also found myself very invested in the characters. As ever, Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as Katniss – heartbroken by the horrors she sees, awkward when placed in front of a camera, but a passionate activist who’ll fight for her cause when provoked. I’m not sure if Katniss is quite as likeable in this film as before, though – she spends a little too much time worrying about Peeta, and it borders on Twilight-level mopey, straying from the sterner, resilient side which I liked before. The 'I'm not sure I signed up to be a propaganda tool' moping is interesting. The 'Do I love Peeta?' moping, not so much. It’s also not quite clear what exactly her feelings for Gale are – previously he was the love interest neglected because she was too busy fighting the good fight, here he’s the fellow soldier who she’s kind of friends with but also there may be something romantic there and I don’t really know… I’m sure readers of the books will know exactly what’s going on, but to someone like me who hasn’t got around to them, it could all be a little clearer and more concise.

One more point, and it’s a positive one – I love the production design on this series, which consistently hits just the right balance between grounded realism, bleak dystopia, and futuristic fantasy. I particularly love how the design of the Capitol’s soldiers is somewhere between Star Wars’ stormtroopers and a modern-day SWAT team, and the visual disparity between the ruined districts and the Capitol’s colourful pomposity perfectly enforces the film’s themes – though I kind of wish we’d seen more exteriors of the Capitol in this instalment, even if just as establishing shots for the President Snow scenes, to counter all the bleakness…

So Mockingjay Part 1 has its flaws – Katniss isn’t quite as strong a heroine, and its lack of action causes it to feel too set-up heavy. Nevertheless, it does have lots of interesting characters, it builds strongly on the series’ satirical edge, and it looks lovely. Would Mockingjay have been better as one long third film? Probably. But the whole of The Hunger Games series remains an excellent example of politically aware sci-fi with broad appeal. I compared Catching Fire to The Empire Strikes Back, so Mockingjay Part 1 is the first half of Return of the Jedi. It gets all the pieces in place for the big finale, it’s almost-but-not-quite as good, and it features an attempt to rescue one of the male leads from captivity. Hey, that works weirdly well. I hope there’s not a big trap coming.

Friday, 21 November 2014

On 21.11.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

Issue 407 of Starburst Magazine is out now, available in all good retailers, as long as they're a large WH Smiths*.

It's a Doctor Who issue, so I've contributed a feature article – a history of the TARDIS in the style of an interior design magazine. Weirdest thing I've written in a long time. I'm now Starburst's "resident interior designer", so this should open up a whole new career path for me.

Also, look out for my review of the fantastic What We Do In The Shadows, and lots more great Doctor Who content.

* Or a Forbidden Planet, one of many independent comics retailers, or this website.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Though it sometimes feels like it’s aspiring to the heights of 2001 but not quite reaching them, Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar is an entertaining effort which asks important questions about our relationship with the universe and has some fascinating sci-fi ideas.

The central concept – we used to look up to the stars, now we just look down into the dust – is one that I, as a supporter of space travel, find compelling, and the world of Interstellar is a dystopia I really don’t want to end up living in. This is a world where schools teach that the Apollo landings were faked to bankrupt the Russians and where NASA’s been forced to go underground after lack of public support for space exploration. If only the human race had realised sooner that the only hope for humanity lies in the stars…

But Matthew McConaughey comes to the rescue! He’s great as Cooper, an astronaut leading the mission to find a new home for humanity, and his relationship with his daughter is particularly affecting. I dare you to watch the sequence where he has to tell her he’s going, then drives away as her granddad holds her back, the rocket countdown playing over this, and not have something in your eye.

The supporting characters, however, are not so great – even Anne Hathaway’s fellow astronaut isn’t given nearly enough depth or character for us to enjoy spending the film’s long running time in her presence. Dialogue is often terribly expository and theme-setting, including one particularly clunky speech from Hathaway about how love is the most powerful force in the universe. No, really.

It doesn’t help that everyone takes everything deathly seriously, and the only attempt at comic relief is a robot slab. Which could be a daringly brilliant move in a better script, but here… really isn't. It’s just not funny enough. Without any laugh-out-loud moments, Interstellar’s humour settings are disappointingly low (I know I’m not the first to make that joke) and I was left wondering if this would be any better if, as originally planned, Steven Spielberg had led this project.

Nevertheless, it’s a visually remarkable film, and there are some great concepts behind the planets the team visit. A planet with clouds of ice, a planet where time runs one hour to seven years anywhere else – all very different to what’s often seen in other sci-fi movies, and all used to great dramatic effect. Like Gravity, this is a film that should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

So, some really interesting ideas, but flawed by poor characterisation and awkward dialogue. Still, I can get behind any film that warns us against being negligent of developing space travel – let’s not leave our legacy as one little flag on the moon, eh?

Alan Turing was one of the biggest heroes of World War II, right? His work cracking the Nazi enigma codes brought forward the Allied victory by an estimated two years, saving fourteen million lives and developing the predecessor for the modern computer in the process. A top bloke. 

Naturally, society repaid Turing by prosecuting him for his homosexuality, treating him with chemical castration which drove him to suicide, and omitting him entirely from Dougray Scott thriller Enigma. It took some time, but Turing was pardoned for his so-called crimes in 2013 and, in 2014, finally finds himself the subject of a film – portrayed by Sherlock himself Benedict Cumberbatch in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.

Flitting between three periods of Turing’s life, The Imitation Game shows us Turing’s codebreaking career at Bletchley Park, along with his schooltime relationship with first love Christopher, and his prosecution in later life. The bulk of the film, naturally, is in the wartime drama, as Turing struggles to prove both to his team and to Commander Charles Dance that his codebreaking machine will work. It’s surprisingly tense for a film about a man making a computer, with the team constantly against the clock, and the shocking ethical dilemma they face once they do crack Enigma – just how much of their intel can they use without letting the Germans know their code’s been cracked?

The emotional focus of this section is where the film’s come under criticism, for Graham Moore's script explores Turing’s relationship with the talented Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley); while he’s not allowed a woman on his team, Turing sneaks work to her discreetly, and builds up a lasting friendship along the way. While the story of Turing championing Clarke as she overcomes the sexism of the time is great, the film’s focus on their relationship has been decried by some critics as a defocus away from Turing's sexuality and therefore a cynical move to gain a broad audience. Indeed, there’s a distinct lack of any substance or grit to the theme of his sexuality – other than some coy looks between young Turing and Christopher, we never actually see him with any male partners.

On the other hand, while we don’t see his sexuality, we certainly hear about it, and it’s impossible to say the issue’s glossed over when we’re faced with heartbreaking scenes of Turing admitting he can never have feelings for the woman he’s had to take as a fiancĂ©e and of a great war hero turned into a shivering mess as a result of punishment for, as he puts it, “asking a man to touch my penis”.

Also, I don’t believe it’s fair to criticise the film for aiming at a wide audience. Turing's story is not as well known as it should be – a family member of mine hadn't even heard of him before this film. If a populist biopic can increase awareness of the great work Turing did – and The Imitation Game does make that clear – then that is a good thing. But would a little bit of gay shagging have done too much harm? There is the old stereotype that mainstream audiences would be put off by it, but one look through Tumblr would show that there’s definitely an audience out there for Benedict Cumberbatch taking his clothes off.

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch – he’s great, of course. He has the whole arrogant yet insecure genius shtick down to a tee. It's what he does. His Turing is basically Sherlock but with the social awkwardness played for sympathy rather than for laughs. The real surprise is the kid who plays young Alan. He's incredible. The way he experiences his first great love and first great loss, without saying it out loud, hiding his feelings from the world, yet clearly betraying them in his face. That kid's going to do well for himself. The supporting cast is full of exactly the actors you want in a Posh British Period Drama – Knightley, Dance, Rory Kinnear, and Mark Strong, who was born to play the heads of secret government organisations. 

The Imitation Game is a very impressive film – it may be another Posh British Period Drama, but it’s a bloody good one; a compelling portrayal of an incredibly sad, incredibly important story that needs to be told. Is it softened, Hollywoodised? Yes, to the extent that it talks about Turing’s sexuality rather than showing it. But that doesn't remove the celebration of Turing's successes and the sadness of his fate.

Monday, 17 November 2014

On 17.11.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

I am a success! Well, more of a success than I was this time last week. My sitcom Breaking News has won an RTS award - more specifically, the 'Royal Television Society Yorkshire Centre Student Television Award 2015, Second Place, Comedy and Entertainment'. But if that's too much of a mouthful, just satisfy yourself that I win because I'm awesome. They gave me champagne and everything.

Watch episode one of the award-winning Breaking News below and the other award-winning episodes here.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

It’s always sad when a Doctor Who series finishes. Even the end of the shambolic series six left me at a loss. I mean, I’d rather spend my Saturday evenings watching shit Doctor Who than sitting staring into a wall, crying at how everything eventually dies. Or worse, watching Atlantis. Series eight has been a surprisingly enjoyable series – no masterpiece, but a big step up from the latter half of the Matt Smith era, thanks to Peter Capaldi’s frostier Doctor, Clara having a consistent character, and an absence of overwhelmingly bollocks plot arcs – and so it was a shame to see this run come to an end with Death in Heaven, the second part of the big Cybermen-and-Master-vs-Earth finale that began with Dark Water.

The main point I have to make about Death in Heaven is that Michelle Gomez is amazing as the Master. Manipulative, unhinged, and utterly terrifying, yet hilarious and impossible not to enjoy, with a playful evilness bordering on childishly silly; I love how she switches accents throughout the episode, doing one whole scene in a ridiculous cockney twang. A brilliant Master for a brilliant Doctor – I do hope she comes back sooner rather than later.

I particularly enjoyed the Master’s scene with endearingly nerdy UNIT scientist Osgood. “I’m going to kill you,” she whispers. “Is she really?”, we ask, as she counts down in her charming, evil manner. Yes. Yes, she does, shaking any doubts about her as a serious threat by nastily dispatching a character I’d started to like. It is a shame, however, that Osgood never got a chance to really shine! Sure, she had the best line of the episode (“We do have files on all our ex-prime ministers. She wasn’t even the worst”) but it feels like Osgood had so much more to give. Which is probably why her death comes as a shock. 

This came in the middle of a globe-spanning conflict against the Master’s Cyber-army, which was Steven Moffat’s most simply-but-deftly plotted finale in a while, seeing the villain always in search of more life joining forces with a Cyber-race offering immortality, lacking the rushed pace of recent finales and with some great graveyard horror and airborne action chucked in. I do, however, think the first half hour of the episode has two major flaws. 

Firstly, like Dark Water and a couple of other episodes this series (In the Forest of the Night, Deep Breath), the Doctor spends a lot of time being told things and not actually doing anything. Done well, this story could have been a brilliant Doctor-Master chess game, but at times, the Doctor’s passive willingness to fall into any trap placed in front of him rendered the action rather flat. In fact, once he's taken Clara to the Nethersphere, the only time the Doctor really advances the plot in the entire two-part finale is when he throws the bracelet to Danny. That’s it, he throws a bracelet. In comparison, look at The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. All the heroes are constantly on the move, defeating zombie Cybermen and stone Daleks, progressing the plot, earning every piece of information they gain – and exposition sneaks in seamlessly as all this shit goes down.

My other major problem is a pretty gaping plot hole – why the hell does Danny, in full knowledge that Cybermen are about to emerge from all the graves in the world, rescue Clara then dump her unconscious in, of all places, a graveyard? That’s the stupidest thing he could possibly have done, and it’s never even mentioned why. A big jump too far in the name of plot convenience…

One more minor gripe… that title sequence giving Jenna Coleman top billing was an unnecessary gimmick typical of Moffat at his most mindlessly attention-grabbing. It would have been a cool idea had the episode actually delivered on that premise, but Clara pretending to be the Doctor was inevitably revealed to be just that – pretending – in her first post-titles scene. Maybe this sequence would have been more appropriate in Flatline, just two episodes ago, which actually had Clara take up a Doctor-type role. Here, it was all a bit pointless.

Oh yeah, and the kid being resurrected – nice emotional beat, but – what? If the bracelet’s a teleporter, how does he gain a body?

These points aside, there are a lot of great moments in Death in Heaven, and I particularly enjoyed the final fifteen minutes, which fittingly paid off a lot of the series’ emotional threads. Clara seeing off Cyber-Danny is surprisingly affecting (though it would have been nice to have seen more of their relationship prospering in order for this to hit hard), but the real kicker is that final scene in the cafe, in which Clara and the Doctor tell each other that most common of lies – “I’m alright”. I’ll never think of hugs in the same way again. 

Despite a couple of major flaws, and a few minor ones, Dark Water/Death in Heaven is Steven Moffat’s strongest finale since 2010. That may not be particularly high praise, as recent finales have been more than a little problematic, but there really is a lot I loved about it. This is a story that, if sometimes lacking in the dramatic tension required, benefitted from a longer running time that allowed it to not rush its terror – so let’s have more two-parters in series nine. Also begging to be brought back next year, of course, is this fantastic new incarnation of the Master. After all, she can never stay dead for long.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers caused rather a bit of a controversy upon its original 1994 release. Aiming to satirise media representations of violence, the strongly 18-rated serial killer movie ended up accused of inciting ‘copycat’ crimes itself. Returning to it 20 years later with this new Blu-ray release, it’s not difficult to see why it raised so many eyebrows.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are a pair of extremely dangerous murderers on a killing spree. But while the couple on the run provide the film’s Badlands-inspired emotional backbone, Stone’s real interest lies in the vast and sensationalised media storm that brews up around Mickey and Mallory – we see interviews with their ‘fans’ across the globe, and the film’s climax sees ratings-seeking journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., on fine egotistical form) broadcasting live from a prison riot Mickey incites, even as the riot descends into horrifying carnage. Important questions are raised about media portrayal of criminals – questions which there are no easy answers to and which are still relevant in 2014.

Stone adds to this theme with his use of hyper-stylised visuals. The violence may be more stylised than a Tarantino flick (indeed, Quentin wrote an early draft of the script) but this is all part of the highly political filmmaker’s argument – it’s telling that the fight scenes, which switch between colour and black & white seemingly at random, are shot in exactly the same style as a “reconstruction” in Gale’s show, the only notable difference being that Mickey and Mallory are played by different actors.

The sheer style and brutality of Natural Born Killers may leave you shocked on first watch, but close examination reveals a darkly satirical film with a thought-provoking central issue, one that’s as relevant in the year of the film’s 20th anniversary as it ever has been.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

On 6.11.14 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

I've been a contributor to film website The Big Picture for a couple of years now, and have recently been asked to step up as the site's new editor. Blimey. Only time will tell how I handle this position of responsibility.

Anyway, The Big Picture now carries a monthly theme, and November's is sci-fi. Which is good for me, as it's a genre I can bullshit my way around reasonably well. Here's a piece I've written on THX-1138.

"If there’s one sci-fi film that comes to mind at the mention of George Lucas, it’s Star Wars. And yet, six years before his grand space opera undeniably changed the course of the genre, Lucas gave us THX-1138, a lower key and much more cerebral piece of science fiction. Despite both commercial and critical failure upon release, Lucas’ debut feature presents a unique and unsettling dystopian vision that’s worth revisiting today."

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Only ten weeks ago, we all sat down to watch Peter Capaldi’s debut as the Doctor, and already we’re at the beginning of the end of his first series – Steven Moffat’s Dark Water, the first instalment of a two-part finale. I was both excited and anxious for this one. On the one hand, I’ve been enjoying series 8's characters a lot more than series 7's, and the ‘Missy’ plot has been intriguingly built up. On the other hand, recent Steven Moffat finales have been disappointing, and I didn’t want another Name of the Doctor type mess…

Dark Water starts on a weird note. One minute in, and Danny Pink is dead, knocked over by a car – a scene that should have been tragic and yet, because of its strange placing in the narrative, really isn’t. We know this episode’s going to be about the afterlife, so this is a clear set-up for our leads to arrive in Missy’s Nethersphere, and thus there’s no believability in it. Maybe it would have worked better to have Danny die at the end of the previous episode (yes, I know that’s what happened with Rory in series five, but at least that worked dramatically). And, as much as Clara’s disbelief draws attention to this, and as much as Doctor Who has dealt with death-by-car brilliantly before (2005's Father’s Day), it does feel like an overly obvious, mundane way to go about this scene. Like Doctor Who made by the writer/director of Sometimes Fires Go Out. Maybe the tiger still on the loose from last week could have mauled him to death.

Then it gets weirder. Clara’s response to this situation is to concoct a sinister plan in which she’ll threaten the Doctor with destruction of his TARDIS keys if he doesn’t agree to bring Danny back. Now, I get that the Doctor’s not always keen on messing with time and so may need persuading, but couldn’t she just, you know, ask him? Appeal to emotion? Rather than turning into an evil supervillain in the awkwardly melodramatic and entirely unnatural manner typical of Moffat’s writing.

So, ten minutes in, and Dark Water is a painful experience so far. And then they go to hell, and it gets a lot better.

What strikes me most about the events that unfold in the Nethersphere is that they’re surprisingly… coherent. Now, obviously, that’s no mark of a great episode, and should be the bare minimum, but compared to Moffat’s recent timey-wimey, all-over-the-place, new-scene-every-20-seconds finales, the slow pace with which the true nature of this so-called afterlife was revealed was refreshingly tense, leading up to a brilliant reveal of the Cybermen and an even more brilliant reveal of Missy’s identity – this is why we should have two-parters back! (Though it is silly how the trailer consisted mostly of clips from next week’s episode, thus giving away too much, too soon.)

And, with Danny finding out just how horrible death can be and with skeletons coming to life in their tombs, Dark Water was also a deeply unsettling episode. Not monsters-jumping-from-dark-corners scary, but ideas scary. Proper, clever horror. The kind of scary that parents will complain about after their kids have gone to bed worried that grandma was conscious during her cremation. The kind of scary that came with a wonderfully dark sense of humour – the “iPads? We’ve got Steve Jobs!” line being both morbidly hilarious and the single most unexpected justification of a minor detail I’d previously complained about ever. 

My main problem with this episode, however, is its use of Clara and Danny. Their character development over this series has been great – just last week I praised how their relationship has tangibly moved on with each story. And yet, this episode, part of the showrunner-penned finale, seemed to have less of a sense of their relationship than others. Sure, things happened to them, and we had lots of “I love you” exchanges, but what happened to all the conflicts being built up between them? Clara lying to Danny about travelling with the Doctor, Danny hiding his traumatic past from her, the Doctor's distrust of Danny as a soldier – these should be coming to a crescendo, but were hardly brought up. Oh, and the “shut up, shut up, shut up” line – please, Steven, stop turning every line of dialogue into a catchphrase.

Of course, the real talking point of Dark Water is its final reveal. Missy is the Master. The clues were there – Missy as short for Mistress, the heart scene, the Time Lord tech, the fact that this is the one major Who villain Moffat hasn’t done yet. And yet, even though I’d worked it out, I thought the reveal was terrific. Michelle Gomez is an incredible Master, simultaneously funny and terrifying, and I do hope she’ll stick around for stories to come. My one complaint is that Moffat, as we’ve come to expect, made a little too much use of gender stereotypes in his dialogue. If you want to change the minds of those who don’t believe the Master can be female (and thus, don’t believe the Doctor can be female), just don’t mention it. Just let her be brilliant, because she clearly can be. This is a villain who’s previously been a rotting corpse, a snake, and a super-powered tramp firing electricity from his hands – it’s not so weird that she’s now got boobs, is it? And that tumblr-baiting kiss really wasn’t necessary…

We’ll see if Gomez’s Master is allowed to come into her own next week. And whether Clara and Danny’s on-the-rocks relationship is at all tied up. And how the Earth deals with all those pesky Cybermen. But in Dark Water we have a promising set-up that, if weak in character beats, is both a solid alien conspiracy thriller and a fantastically morbid horror story.