Sunday, 31 August 2014

A Chat with Mike Tucker

My friend Nick and I are interviewing Mike Tucker, special effects guru best known for Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, novelist, and all round must-see chap, at the Ale Wagon in Leicester on 27th September. Mike will be signing his latest book and chatting onstage about his career.

Hook (1991)

"When are you going to learn to stop acting like a child?"

"I am a child!"

It's rather obvious that the reason I'm blogging this film now is the sad passing of Robin Williams, so it's worth starting with a few words about a comedian and actor of great talent.

I've never been a great fan of Hollywood's popular comedies, which always have the main character learning done heartwarming lesson about family values rather than just, you know, being funny. Robin Williams may have been good at these, being both a superb comic actor and very capable of pathos, but for much if his career he was ill-served by film unworthy of his talents. There are, of course, a good number of quality films starring Williams but his best performance, for me, is a straight role in One Hour Photo.

Hook, although it somewhat fits the definition of a Hollywood comedy as defined above, is nonetheless quite a good film, if not brilliant, because of the spectacle, the sense of wonder that fantasy always brings, and a particularly sublime performance from Williams,who shines here, far outshining the pantomime villainy of Dustin Hoffman, who gets top billing for some reason.

The conceit- a sequel to Peter Pan in which J.M. Barrie simply passed of his neighbour's children's true stories of his own and Peter Pan eventually grows up and becomes a lifeless, Reagan-voting asset stripper who missed the '60s because he was an accountant- is a good one. Yes, he's a bad father as per many such scar actors in such Hollywood films, but the Peter Pan stuff actually makes this interesting. His fear of flying is a nice touch. And Robin Williams brings the role a real depth, far more than is in the script.

This isn't the greatest film ever, but it's fun and, indeed, bangarang. I love the montage with Peter getting his mojo back, and the late Bob Hoskins is great, far outshining Hoffman. Well worth a watch, and nostalgic to see some actual world-building spectacle from the days before widespread CGI.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

"Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist."

Peter Capaldi's tenure can now claim two excellent episodes in a row; in hindsight this is both a far better story and a far better study of our new Doctor than was The Beast Below.

The plot is, obviously, Fantastic Voyage, but we also get a bit of Doctor/Dalek moral comparison that both evokes Dalek and gives us an interesting study of our new Doctor, who may not be a good man but is, perhaps, a "good Dalek"; he may be on the side of good, but that doesn't make him nice. Indeed, he says of Clara that "She cares so I don't have to." And yet... this new Doctor is not too alienating; he's witty, and just vulnerable enough. This is  The Twin Dilemma done right, and Capaldi simply shines. So does Moffat. He seems to have a far clearer idea of what he wants to do here than he did during Matt Smith's early stories. 

There's also some nice arc threads being laid down. This Doctor, even more than before, doesn't like soldiers... and Clara, the Doctor's moral compass and the person, clearly, whom he most respects, is obviously set up to begin a relationship with a former soldier, and one with a troubled military past. That'll be interesting.

Also, of course, we see Missy again. She seems to be collecting people in her "Heaven" who have died because of the Doctor. Interesting. She's obviously a big, mysterious part of this season. And Missy... Mistress? A female Master? Or just clever misdirection? We shall see. 

I have to praise the effects here, too, which were outstanding, and the performances in general. This is also the best Dalek story in ages, and the first in ages to actually be about them. They work best when treated as a dark mirror of the Doctor; mirrors of the Doctor seem, so far, to be something of a season motif. 

So, Robin Hood...

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

"I'm not your boyfriend."

Damn you, Moffat. My lovely wife may be pregnant, and somewhat prone to blubbing, but that bit where Matt Smith's Doctor told Clara over the phone that his new self would need looking after made her cry!!!

This is the best regeneration story I've properly seen thus far (although seeing The Power of the Daleks with actual footage would be nice, hint hint, Mr Morris and Auntie Beeb). The Moff is, as usual, both very clever and very meta in having the script address head on all of the audience's concerns and questions about the new Doctor (Peter Capaldi is the Doctor, superb and very Tom thus far) and the show's future. 

Clara's resistance to this older, non-heartthrob Time Lord echoes that of countless fangirls, one of whom I happen to be married to, but Gem, at least, has been won over. It takes time for Clara to be won over too, but this is both realistic and allows her to voice the fears of a portion of the audience, and moreover the clash between her and Vastra over her denial that the Doctor has changed is a real dramatic highlight.

Capaldi is instantly the Doctor, as expected, but the real delight is Clara who, for the first time, is being given actual character traits and a chance for Jenna Coleman to show what a bloody good actress she is when given the material. It's also notable that, given the new friction between the Doctor and Clara, the two leads have real chemistry, more so than there ever was between Coleman and Matt Smith. A lot if this has to do with Clara suddenly being an actual character with a personality, and not just the walking arc plot MacGuffin that was the impossible girl. She's as much of a revelation here as Capaldi.

The plot, while slightly rehashed from Full Circle, is nicely unfurled, with the surprise baddies ("rubbish robots from the dawn of time") being those clockwork droids from The Girl in the Fireplace way back in season twenty-eight. There are some nice moments as the Doctor and Clara investigate,notably as Clara shows what a tough but she is when being interrogated but most shockingly when the Doctor seems to abandon her, a trick which works in a regeneration story as in no other.

There are other little things to love here aside from the plot and characterisation: the little jokes about the Doctor's accent; the hint that the face he now has (that of a Roman whom he met in Pompeii!) is a clue he set for himself(!)( Strax's many splendidly quotable lines, and the slightly kinky nature of Vastra and Jenny's relationship. Oh, and there's that mysterious lady at the end, who apparently both arranged the Doctor and Clara's rendezvous at the restaurant and performed a similar feat in The Bells of Saint John. We will see her again, I'm sure; season big bad, perhaps?

This is an assured and confident beginning (love the new TARDIS interior and new steampunk title sequence!), with a first class script, an exciting new Doctor and a wonderfully nuanced Doctor/companion relationship. Doctor Who is on a real high right now.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

"This is a jar of dirt."

Sometimes conventional wisdom is correct and sequels are a bit rubbish. This isn't the worst film ever made (that would be There's Something About Mary), but it's a bit pants. 

It's too damn long, for a start. But this film, unlike the last, is utterly devoid of charm, relying on special effects and spectacle at the expense of charismatic characters or a decently structured script. The previous film had all of these faults to an extent, but this time they are all much worse. So much so, in fact, that even Johnny Depp can't save the film.

So, is there anything interesting to say about a film that offers very little but the worst of Jerry Bruckheimer bangs and noises? I suppose the vaguely racist scenes with the tribe on Tortuga are slightly entertaining. And we have a mythology fleshed out for Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman, albeit one with very little basis in actual folklore. At least the kraken scenes look good.

But nothing can save this film; even Jack's death is muted in its impact due to the general rubbishness. Worse still, the film ends by threatening a sequel. God help us...

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Big Swallow (1901)

Yet another quick lunch break blogging of a very early silent short, then, and this time we have a very early but of metatextualism, and you know how much I adore all things meta. 

This film is less than a minute long, but it manages to be playful and fun; the camera closes in on a bloke with a startlingly enormous collar (and the close-up, in 1901, was not in itself something to be taken for granted), until suddenly he swallows the camera and cameraman. We then see the camera and cameraman inside said bloke's mouth (!!!!) and then we see Big Collar Man again, laughing evilly. But, we're made to ask, who is filming these last two scenes...?

The grammar of film-making has never been so much fun. Have a look; it's on YouTube.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

"Welcome to the Caribbean, love!"

I saw this film at the cinema, and enjoyed it then as much as I enjoyed it again now. Mark Kermode may not like it much, but it's a rollickingly enjoyable adventure film with a superbly charismatic turn from Johnny Depp, although I must admit it's bloody long. Keira Knightly is quite good too, and even the fact that the uber-wooden Orlando Bloom plays our Jim Hawkins figure doesn't ruin things. Not bad for a film based on a theme park ride.

Obviously the introductory scene with Jack Sparrow- from the moment he casually steps from the mast of his sinking ship on to dry land until his capture and inprisonment under sentence of hanging- is the best thing in the film, but things don't flag in spite of the fact that there's ages to go. There's lots of nice usage of the tropes of the pirate genre and a bit of the supernatural mixed in there too. The plot may show a few signs of having been written by committee, but the film is all about the set pieces. And they deliver. 

What really lifts this film, though, is the utterly magnificent performance of Johnny Depp; this is a premier example of a potentially average film being elevated by his star into something greater. Case in point: the scene where Jack and Elizabeth, marooned, get pissed together on an island works entirely because of his performance. We're all rooting for him, and it's fitting that he's allowed to flee at the end.

Thing is, though. How will the sequels stand up? After all, Mark Kermode has certainly slated them most entertainingly...

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

"There is even talk... Of an election!!!"

It's hard to say much about this middle part of the trilogy without rehashing things I've already said about the previous film, well-made and good though the film is. Again, it's overlong but gets away with it. And again it's good in the same way as the Lord of the Rings films were good, but less likely to attract the attention of the academy due to lack of novelty.

Not that I mean this as any kind of negative criticism, but this film is more of the same, a splendid turn from Stephen Fry aside. Again, we have the parallel stories of Smaug's gold and the "Necromancer" actually being Sauron. The latter of these two plot threads is essentially what pads out the film, along with a greater emphasis on the dwarves' culture and history (they aren't just after gold, as they essentially were in the novel) and fleshing out the nature of the city of Dale. And then there's the Elven stuff, and Legolas. There's even a bit of political allegory, given the isolationist and Neville Chamberlain-like policies of the Elven king in the face of an obvious Hitler analogue

(Legolas, is, of course, a Wood Elf. Fitting, as there's always a touch of plywood to Orlando Bloom's performance. Boom boom.)

Probably the highlight of the film is Bilbo's awakening of Sauron. Which not only looks amazing but is absolutely made by the excellent voice work of Benedict Cumberbatch. It's odd, of course, to see him paired in this context with Martin Freeman, his erstwhile Baker Street chum, but these scenes are superb. 

It's a superb film, really, and the ending has you on the edge of your seat. At least, it does until Ed bloody Sheeran opens his stupid mouth...

Monday, 4 August 2014

The One-Man Band (1900)

More trickery in front of a static camera from Georges Melies here, less than two minutes long and presented as a novelty rather than a narrative. Like The Haunted Castle, it feels like a piece of music hall-style light entertainment with a camera pointed at it. We are still at the stage where cinema is a novelty and the basics of film grammar are not taken for granted.

It's fun amusing to watch, though, and it's nice to imagine that it has something of Melies' personality to it.

The film is, naturally, in the public domain, and easy to find on YouTube or the online channel of your choice.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The War of the Worlds (2005)

"Trees are funny!"

I have a rule. Never do I blog a sequel before it's predecessor and never do I blog a remake- if I blog remakes at all; I have a big prejudice against them- before the original. Never mind the obvious stylistic nods to the 1953 George Pal film; this is at heart another version of the original novel. Indeed, we open and with Morgan Freeman speaking H.G. Wells' words, and the ending, from a time when Natural Selection was a relatively new thing, is retained in this updated film, set in modern America.

Steven Spielberg and War of the Worlds was always going to be a neat fit, and the film certainly looks great. Sadly, it stars Tom Cruise, but it's nice to see a suitably weird performance from a young Dakota  Fanning, one of my wife's favourite performers. 

The opening section, introducing Sal, his kids Robbie (studying French colonialism in Algeria, appropriately as the original novel was based on the idea of the British Empire feeling what it was like to be colonised) and young Rachel, goes on too long with the stuff about custody of the kids, something which could have been established much more economically; we want Martians!

The spectacle never ceases to amazed but, sadly, there's a reason why Tom Cruise was a has-been by 2005. Everything looks fantastic and there are some nice touches- the Martians ride the lightning to their machines- and the family themes sentiment is even, by Spielberg standards, not overdone. This is a good film, but could have been great with a different star.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

"I don't believe that anybody could be 100% dick..."

I'm an old-fashioned Marvel geek in that I bought a ridiculous number of titles up until around 1994, when most of my favourite runs were winding down, Mark Gruenwald died and I started building up my record collection, which left less budgetary room for comic books. I know an awful lot about Marvel up to that point (I had a lot of back issues going way back) but I'm patchy thereafter. I do, however, remember Jim Valentino's run on Guardians of the Galaxy, a title set a thousand years on the future and with characters called things like Vance Astro and Charlie 27. This film isn't based on any of that, but a load of Marvel's cosmic characters, many of them associated with the great Jim Starlin.

We have fanwanky Marvel goodness aplenty. There is Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon(!), Ronan the Accuser, Thanos(!), a strange cyborg version of Nebula who hears no relation to the character as written by Roger Stern in The Avengers back in the mid-'80s, the Collector, the best Stan Lee cameo yet and even footage of a Celestial!

But this isn't a po-faced epic film; it's  witty, fun action film full of funny and charismatic rogues turned heroes, a cross between Star Wars and Firefly. Chris Pratt stars as Peter, a transplanted human with mysterious parentage and the Han Solo of the film. Karen Gillan disappoints vaguely as Nebula. But the best thing in it is Bradley Cooper's Rocket.

This is a superbly plotted and scripted sci-go action film with wit, action, top tuneage (we get Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" and the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb"!) and an amazingly realised space opera world with some of the best CGI I've ever seen. If you haven't seen it, do so now. It'll be on at cinemas for a good while. 

Oh, and remember, this is a Marvel film. Stay to the end.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Haunted Castle (1896/7)

Early this may be, dating from before the publication of Dracula, but this is generally defined as the first ever horror film by those sensible people who don't consider the sight of a moving train moving towards the audience to be such. It's public domain, obviously, even if your country, like mine, has particularly stupid copyright extension laws, and available on YouTube. Other such sites are available.

The most obviously noticeable things to a modern viewer are the poor condition of the film (surely restoration could improve it?) and the worryingly unsubtle acting. But perhaps "acting" is the wrong word; I may be reading too much into the fact that the film looks like a filmed stage play as, this being 1896, the camera doesn't move, but this looks like a stage magician's act, except all the tricks are done by means of Georges Melies' early experimental use of the camera for special effects. It comes across as light entertainment rather than drama, and is focused on showing off what the new medium can do rather than things such as plot or narrative.

Still, this film is a testament to how much we owe to these early pioneers of cinema. It's shocking to reflect that this. film was considered lost until it's rediscovery in 1988. Many other silents are still lost today.