Monday, 30 June 2008

ITV confirm Prisoner remake details

Six Of One recently leaked information about the upcoming ITV/AMC remake of classic sci-fi series The Prisoner, and ITV have officially confirmed them. Jim Caviezel (Passion Of The Christ) will be Number Six, and Sir Ian McKellen will play Number Two.

John Whiston, director of ITV productions, commented:

"For those of us who were watching grown up TV in the '60s The Prisoner was dangerous, exciting and challenging TV. For those of us who were too young to stay up to watch the series, it casts a long shadow. You don't embark on something this iconic without the best team around to do it justice for a whole new era."

The 6-part remake will be written by Bill Gallagher (Clocking Off):

"I was haunted by The Prisoner when I saw it as a boy on its first broadcast. Here was something that was more than television, something I couldn't quite grasp but couldn't let go of. It's a unique opportunity for a writer to be able to go back to The Village and tell some new stories about that strange place and its surreal menace. We have a terrific cast and a wonderful director [Cold Feet's Jon Jones], so we hope to serve up something as beguiling and disturbing as the original was."

Rambo (2008)

Director: Sylvester Stallone
Writers: Art Monterastelli & Sylvester Stallone

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Julie Benz (Sarah Miller), Paul Schulze (Michael Burnett), Matthew Marsden ("School Boy"), Graham McTavish (Lewis), Tim Kang (En-joo), Rey Gallegos (Diaz), Jake La Botz (Reese), Maung Maung Khin (Major Pa Tee Tint), Ken Howard (Reverend Arthur Marsh) & Dennis Kipronoh Sang (Volunteer)

After a group of Christian missionaries are captured in Burma, John Rambo agrees to lead a team of mercenaries into the jungle to rescue them...

On a high after his sixth Rocky film made a surprise splash at the box-office and garnered positive reviews, writer-actor-director Sylvester Stallone turned his attention to his other iconic character: Vietnam veteran John Rambo. 26 years after the first instalment ('82s First Blood) and 20 years after the last ('88s Rambo III), audiences have moved on from the musclemen who filled cinema during '80s Reaganism, and Stallone's now in his 60s. The march of age and time didn't stop Rocky Balboa ('06) finding an appreciative audience, but Rocky was always a more textured "underdog" character than the violent, bandana-wearing, excess of Rambo...

The plot is predictably very simple: John Rambo (Stallone) is living in Thailand, catching poisonous snakes for local showmen, when he's asked by Christian missionary Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) to lead his group into Burma up the Salween River, so they can get vital medicines to people terrorized by the Myanmar Armed Forces. Rambo declines to help, until beautiful missionary Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) appeals to his sense of decency -- and flutters her eyelashes. Inevitably, after being dropped off up river, the clueless missionaries are captured days later, so Rambo agrees to deliver a group of armed mercenaries into the Burmese jungle on a rescue mission...

Cue a gratuitous amount of violence; as bad guys are mown down by machine guns, limbs are dismembered, stomachs disembowelled, throats ripped out, a WWII bomb decimates a large expanse of jungle, and heads pop like water melons dropped onto concrete. For gorehounds, there's enough here to get your bloodthirsty juices flowing, but little else to sustain interest beyond the visceral onslaught. But then again, what do you expect from a Rambo movie -- where intentions of a psychological study, based on David Morrell's 1976 book First Blood, quickly gave way to blood n' guts sequels in the '80s?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Rambo returns to the continent that messed with its hero's mind during the Vietnam War, to show us the atrocities of the Burmese government are every inch as nightmarish -- and not distanced by decades of time. Indeed, the film even opens with news footage of people caught up in the world's longest-running civil war -- between the tyrannical government and the Karen rebels who hope for democracy.

You can argue the film's trying to justify itself, as the "gratuitous" nature of Rambo's deeds are given context in this grainy video-footage opening, but is it really just granting itself an excuse for the brutality? I'm not sure, but I do know the Karen rebels have taken Rambo's "live for nothing, or die for something" line as a motto, claiming Stallone's film gave them fresh resolve to defeat their oppressors -- so that's surely a good thing?

Beyond the queasy violence and political backdrop, Rambo is devoid of subtleties and a diverting storyline. Stallone's far from an Adonis these days, but his granite-like face, bulldozer body and dour attitude remains the same. He may be entering his sixth decade on this earth, but you still wouldn't want to pick a fight with "old man" Sly. Interestingly, Stallone keeps his body under wraps (not an option for Rocky's boxing scenes), so you can still imagine there's a washboard abdomen lurking under his dirty green shirt. It's just a shame Rambo tends to rely on massive guns to dispense bloody vengeance in this fourth film, as his physicality is reduced to a dash through a jungle (a blast-wave licking at his ankles) and a few moments where he rises up behind Burmese baddies, like H.R Geiger's Alien eyeing up a snack.

The supporting cast all have thankless roles, but do what they can. Paul Schulze plays pacifist Michael, whose "character development" ends with him bashing a man's skull in with a rock (amoral message; check), Matthew Marsden (former soap star, now a regular in cheesy flicks like Anacondas) plays nice-guy mercenary "School Boy", Graham McTavish plays dislikeable cockney leader Lewis, the recipient of bad karma for pissing off Rambo, and Julie Benz (Buffy/Dexter) is "love-interest" Sarah, a blonde who views Rambo in the same way Fay Wray saw Kong. I half-suspect they'd drug Rambo and ship him from his jungle abode, to put him on display in New York..

Overall, Rambo is trashy nonsense of the highest order. It exists purely to make people gawp at the blood-spattered visuals and offers nostalgia for fans of '80s action cinema, and the Rambo franchise in particular. The story is all set-up and climax, with zero character development or surprises, while the 93 minutes drag in-between the violence. It's grizzly, outrageous, dumb, blunt, distasteful and violent. But that's what the target audience expect, and exactly what Stallone delivers.

Budget: $50 million
93 minutes

CHUCK 1.12 - "Chuck Versus The Undercover Lover"

Writer: Phil Klemmer
Director: Frederick E.O Toye

Cast: Zachary Levi (Chuck), Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah), Adam Baldwin (Casey), Joshua Gomez (Morgan), Sarah Lancaster (Ellie), Tony Todd (CIA Director Graham), Bonita Friedericy (General Beckman), Scott Krinsky (Jeff), Vik Sahay (Lester), Ryan McPartlin (Captain Awesome), Igor Korosec (Russian Creep), Vahe Bejan (Fat Drunk Russian), Cutter Garcia (Hostile Customer), Pavel Lychnikoff (Victor Federov) & Ivana Milicevic (Ilsa Trinchina)

Casey discovers his dead ex-girlfriend is still alive, and about to marry a Russian gangster...

"I'm glad Casey had someone at least once in his life. I was
beginning to think, downstairs, he was built like a Ken doll."
-- Chuck (Zachary Levi)

A welcome tweak to the Chuck formula, "... Versus The Undercover Lover" is a Casablanca-style storyline that focuses on ball-breaking protector John Casey (Adam Baldwin). For the past 11 episodes Baldwin's played a fairly two-dimensional parody of a humourless field agent, so it was great to see him have a few other notes to hit. We open with a teaser that's dramatic and serious, as Casey's beautiful photo-journalist lover Ilsa Trinchina (Ivana Milicevic) leaves his hotel bedroom and is inexplicably killed in a bomb blast. Jumping forward 3 years, Chuck (Zachary Levi) "flashes" on names of Russian criminals, listed on the hard-drive of a hotel computer in for repair -- which includes "Ilsa Trinchina"...

Chuck is excited to discover Casey has a romantic history, as it shows there's a softer side to his unflappable gruffness. Casey's not so pleased about Chuck uncovering something from his secretive personal life, but is admittedly confused about why his photo-journalist cheated death and didn't get in touch. And why is she hanging around in a hotel full of Russian villains? Fortunately, a mission to investigate the hotel gathering with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) soon reveals Ilsa is engaged to crimelord Victor Federov (Pavel Lychnikoff).

Elsewhere, the B plot isn't particularly exciting, as Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin) clash over how to celebrate their anniversary: Ellie wants a big-screen TV to bring them closer together after work, while neat-freak Awesome would prefer a washer and dryer. Morgan (Joshua Gomez) is thrown into the tiff, after deciding to mediate as a "therapist" -- a role that brings him closer to Ellie as a shoulder for her to cry on. It might even have been interesting if there was the slightest chance of a Ellie/Morgan/Awesome love-triangle, but even writer Phil Klemmer pokes fun at the fact Morgan has zero chance of being "the other man" who comes between them.

Typically, the subplot is a distraction that doesn't really affect the A story, and comes across as distracting and superfluous in most regards. The series is becoming a bit laborious in how it balances the two halves of its identity: fish-out-of-water espionage comedy-drama, and grassroots slacker comedy. It can, and has, worked well in the past, but as much as I've grown to like Lancaster, McPartlin and Gomez, they just can't compete with the Chuck/Sarah/Casey triptych.

But this is Baldwin's story, and he equips himself well -- making Casey less of a cartoon and more human in his pursuit of true love. I've always thought of Casey as a 12-year-old kid who spent his life idolizing James Bond and found himself immersed in espionage, and endowed with the training in adulthood to live out his childhood fantasy -- but at the expense of everything normal people hold dear. "... Versus The Undercover" shows that's not wholly accurate, and Casey's just naturally stunted in how he deals with everyday emotions. Or maybe he's just created himself a façade to hide behind when on long-haul missions like the one to protect Chuck/the Intersect?

I was disappointed the storyline didn't follow on from episode 11's exciting climax, but this benefited from doing something a little different. I'd like to see more stories with the emphasis away from Chuck, although not every supporting character is weighty enough to handle a proper back-story just yet. The Buy More characters are particularly strained; acting like they're in a crossbreed of Office Space/The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with an eye on auditioning for The Office.

Overall, "... Versus The Undercover Lover" features the increasingly enjoyable duo of Chuck and Casey, and excellent support from guest-star Ivana Milicevic as Casey's sexy beau. An undertone of Casablanca is a big cliché, but works quite well, and there's an agreeable amount of physical fun. Later scenes set in the hotel almost build to classic farce, with people hiding under beds and falling out of high-rise windows into a swimming pool. Oh yes, and Yvonne Strahovski gets to wear a few figure-hugging dresses and a locker-room change is squeezed into the narrative to satisfy her fans.

It's a decent episode that breathed freshness into Casey's character and provided a lot of fun, but the subplot was a slog and it's a disappointing penultimate episode -- particularly after episode 11 set-up the audience for something far more exciting.

23 June 2008
Virgin1, 10.00 pm

Sunday, 29 June 2008

TV Week 9: Top Gear, MeeBOX & The Culture Show

After a short break, my ninth TV Week column is up at, featuring reviews for the return of Top Gear, Adam Buxton's comedy pilot MeeBOX and The Culture Show. Enjoy!

DOCTOR WHO: "Journey's End" Trail - "The ending approaches..."

Don't expect any confirmation about how that scene in "The Stolen Earth" will resolve itself*, but here's the BBC trail for the season 4 finale on 5 July @ 6.40 pm.

* David Tennant's been filming the 2008 Christmas episode, so I think we can rest easy...

DOCTOR WHO 4.12 – "The Stolen Earth" (Part 1 of 2)

Writer: Russell T. Davies
Director: Graeme Harper

Cast: David Tennant (The Doctor), Catherine Tate (Donna), Billie Piper (Rose), Freema Agyeman (Martha), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah-Jane Smith), John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones), Thomas Knight (Luke Smith), Bernard Cribbins (Gramps), Jacqueline King (Sylvia Noble), Adjoa Andoh (Francine Jones), Julian Bleach (Davros), Michael Brandon (General Sanchez), Penelope Wilton (Harriet Jones), Andrea Harris (Suzanne), Lachele Carl (Trinity Wells), Richard Dawkins (Himself), Paul O'Grady (Himself), Marcus Cunningham (Drunk Man), Jason Mohammad (Newsreader), Paul Kasey (Judoon), Kelly Hunter (Shadow Architect), Amy Beth Hayes (Albino Servant), Gary Milner (Scared Man), Nicholas Briggs (Dalek, voices) & Alexander Armstrong (Mr. Smith, voice)

When the Earth is transported to a mysterious celestial location, The Doctor and Donna travel to the Shadow Proclamation for help, as earthbound former-companions try to defeat the Doctor's greatest nemesis...

In typical Russell T. Davies fashion, "The Stolen Earth" is about as subtle as a kick to the face; riddled with illogical moments, grating comedy and a handful of performances that beggar belief. It's also a stupendous amount of fun, once it manoeuvres around the silly reactions of people as another alien disaster rocks their world. If there's one thing Who's had problems with since it returned, it's how it fails to make these earth-shattering events plausible during, and after, they happen. Next season we'll meet a contemporary human who doesn't believe in aliens, trust me!

"The Stolen Earth" finds The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) returning to Earth fresh from their BAD WOLF scare from Rose (Billie Piper), bemused to find no danger whatsoever. However, seconds later, the entire planet is whisked to a secret celestial location, leaving the TARDIS hanging in empty space with them still aboard...

As the perplexed Doctor travels to the oft-mentioned Shadow Proclamation for help (revealed to be a rather disappointing asteroid-base, populated by an elderly lady and some Judoon), the episode spends most of its time showing us the fallout from four terrestrial perspectives: New York-based UNIT employee Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman); the Cardiff-based Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Gwen (Eve Myles) of Torchwood; Ealing-based Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and her son Luke (Thomas Knight); and the inter-dimensional Rose, who rather conveniently stumbles upon Donna's mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King) and her Gramps (Bernard Cribbins).

Of course, it's no secret that the culprits who've plucked the Earth from orbit, and deposited it amongst 25 other planets, are the notorious Daleks. Arriving in waves of B-movie flying saucers, the Daleks ravage the planet in a few impressive CGI sequences, before proclaiming a total victory – their dynasty restored thanks to rogue Dalek Caan (last seen teleporting to safety in season 3's "Evolution Of The Daleks" cliffhanger). It transpires that Caan meddled with the timeline and, at the price of going totally insane, resurrected the creator of the Dalek race, Davros (Julian Bleach).

It takes awhile for "The Stolen Earth" to settle into itself -- afflicted by RTD's predilection for unsubtle excess, cheesy dialogue, clunking comedy, and ridiculous cameos. Shoehorning chat-show host Paul O'Grady into proceedings was eye-rolling stuff that took you out of the reality presented – as if the TV schedules would trundle on as usual when the night sky fills up with alien worlds!

The crossover appeal was generally good fun, but only effective regarding the Torchwood team's involvement – who you can believe they exist alongside Doctor Who, because crossovers for Captain Jack and Martha Jones have laid some foundations. Less successful is Sarah-Jane's presence; her kid-friendly spin-off sitting awkwardly in the context of its parent series.

Martha Jones, having been re-branded as a UNIT super-soldier this season, is better utilized -- but it's amazing how much affection for Martha has dissipated since she left Who as a regular. Her scenes alongside UNIT superior General Sanchez (Michael Brandon) are written very broadly ("gentlemen, we are at war!"), and require suspension of disbelief when she acquires top-secret access to "Project Indigo" and is given a secret "key" that will likely come in handy for next week's conclusion. Meanwhile, Rose marches around London with a Men In Black-style gun, intentionally kept out of the loop until the last 10-minutes, an explanation for her inter-dimensional travel still unforthcoming.

The long-awaited return of Davros is curiously matter-of-fact, after some shadowy teasing. His arrival isn't a disappointment, it's just exactly what you'd expect -- and nothing more. It's a testament to Classic Who that Davros' design and prosthetics haven't been updated much (like Terry Nation's pepperpots), and actor Julian Bleach (also the villain in Torchwood's "From Out Of The Rain") does a marvellous job of complimenting the three previous Davros actors; Michael Wisher, David Gooderson and Terry Molloy. His synthesized voice is quietly malicious, spine-tingling stuff to give kids the creeps.

With so many superficial treats for the fans in this whirlwind of an episode, the spectacle of Davros' return doesn't stand apart as anything truly special. Still, season 4's foreshadowing of missing planets and bees got a decent pay-off, and the sense of expectation for the "God"-like Doctor to find the missing Earth and swoop in to save the day (after receiving mobile phone "prayers" en masse) worked very well, and built some genuine excitement into the last 15 minutes.

And then, there was the unexpected emotional gut-punch of the cliffhanger. I'm not going to spoil things here, but suffice to say the Doctor and Rose's eventual "reunion" was perfectly handled, with a shocking sting in its tail that will leave fans gobsmacked and speculating madly 'till next week. The cliffhanger is one of Who's finest, and my jaw was on the floor as the credits rolled.

Have the producers managed the impossible, and kept you-know-what a secret all these months? Or will there will be a cop-out solution to the frankly stunning last shot -– probably involving Donna (are we still in a parallel universe?), or the Doctor's hand in a jar? "Journey's End" can't come soon enough for the answers to be revealed.

Overall, if you're being critical and evaluating everything separately with a level-head, this is a solid but unremarkable episode. It's enthusiastic, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink plot will have fans and especially children salivating, while the final 10 minutes are admittedly perfect big-scale, big-stakes storytelling.

It's too cluttered and crazy to be truly affecting, but I certainly enjoyed the ride after the initial bumps and can't wait for next week's conclusion. For sheer indulgent joy, "The Stolen Earth" is heartily recommended – but I wish RTD would craft stories that are logical, consistent and not riddled with plot-holes. Still, he clearly adores unashamedly huge, broad, kid-friendly, emotional, dumb, silly, extravagant, excessive stories – and on that level, this is a pinnacle.

28 June 2008
BBC1, 7.10 pm

Saturday, 28 June 2008

24: Season 7 Cast Photo

Behold: Jack Bauer and friends, new and old! The TVM arrives in November, ahead of season 7 in early-'09. Tick, tick, tick. Click the photo for a bigger, clearer version. I'm loving the darker vibe and Washington D.C background.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Saw V: Oh, so THAT'S how Jigsaw returns!

This poster is just hilarious. Seriously, I'm still giggling 20 minutes after seeing it. It answers the big question every Saw fan has about the upcoming Saw V ('08) and Saw VI ('09): how will they bring back Tobin Bell as serial-killer Jigsaw? I mean, the guy died in Saw III and they strained to bring him back using flashbacks for Saw IV, and couldn't keep that up forever.

And the answer is oh-so-dumb: some other psycho, clearly inspired by Jigsaw's modus operandi, rips off his face and uses it as a ghoulish mask! Thus allowing actor Tobin Bell to basically play Jigsaw again. Hilarious! Maybe they'll explain his exact vocal match as a Mission: Impossible-style voice-box. And the height/weight/build coincidence? Well, that disparity didn't stop Travolta and Cage in Face/Off.

These guys are genius. To be fair, that's only how I assume they'll be bringing Jigsaw "back from the dead", based on the teaser poster (above). The IMDb has Tobin Bell's character listed as "Jigsaw/John Kramer" which wouldn't be accurate, but maybe an update is due...

Saw V arrives this Halloween. IMDb also has Shawnee Smith listed in the cast (despite the fact her character died in Saw III, too.) Expect flashbacks for her, I reckon. Annoyingly, the lovely Julie Benz (Dexter) continues to choose bad film roles post-Rambo by starring in this overplayed tripe.

60th Emmys: Comedy & Drama Finalists

The Emmy nominees have been announced in the US.

The 10 big hopes for "Comedy Series" are:

30 Rock
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Family Guy
Flight Of The Conchords
The Office
Pushing Daisies
Two And A Half Men
Ugly Betty

I don't watch all of those shows, but I assume The Office will win (unless that's just too obvious for this awards-laden series). I don't understand why Pushing Daisies has been included in the mix, as it's definitely amusing and light-hearted but not really constructed around jokes. I've liked what little I saw of 30 Rock, too. And, I know Conchords has a big cult following, but I found that show incredibly stretched and repetitive.

The 10 finalists for "Drama Series" are:

Boston Legal
Friday Night Lights
Grey's Anatomy
Mad Men
The Tudors
The Wire

Again, I don't watch them all, but I'd like to see Mad Men win. I really enjoyed Lost's fourth season, but I prefer seeing new shows get awards -- if only to ensure they're kept on-air! If Mad Men doesn't win, how about Dexter? Doubtful, but that would be fantastic. Damages has a good chance, too.

Box Office Charts: w/e 27 June 2008

In the US: Generally positive reviews and familiarity with the '60s comedy series propelled Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway to box-office gold with Get Smart... but the other big comedy release, Mike Myers' The Love Guru, flopped in at #4 amidst very poor reviews for his "comeback". Time to get in the sound booth for Shrek 4, methinks.


(-) 1. Get Smart $38.7m
(1) 2. The Incredible Hulk $22.1m
(2) 3. Kung Fu Panda $21.9m
(-) 4. The Love Guru $13.9m
(3) 5. The Happening $10.5m
(5) 6. Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull $8.54m [review]
(4) 7. You Don't Mess With The Zohan $7.45m
(6) 8. Sex & The City $6.53m
(7) 9. Iron Man $4.03m
(8) 10. The Strangers $2.12m

In the UK: Hulk continues to smash #1... Indy swaps places with Sex & The City, moving up to #2... Noel Clark's crime sequel Adulthood surprises everyone to take #4 (it was technically #1 for awhile in its opening weekend!) which is amazing for a Brit flick with very little marketing... low-budget Teeth intrigues horror-hounds to bite #7, finding more love than Kiera Knightley's romance The Edge Of Love could summon, in at tragic #9... and horror flick The Ruins limps in at #10 -- but they can blame zero marketing, unlike Ms. Knightley...


(1) 1. The Incredible Hulk £1.8m
(3) 2. Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull £1.4m [review]
(2) 3. Sex & The City £1.21m
(-) 4. Adulthood £1.20m
(4) 5. The Happening £834k
(5) 6. Superhero Movie £502k
(-) 7. Teeth £235k
(6) 8. Gone Baby Gone £199k
(-) 9. The Edge Of Love £180k
(-) 10. The Ruins £124k


Documentary filmmaker Chris Waitt investigates why he's been so unlucky in love.

The Pevensie children return to Narnia to help an ousted prince regain his throne from an evil king. Fantasy adventure sequel starring Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage & Warwick Davis.

A nerdy apathetic office worker discovers a hidden talent for assassination when he meets an enigmatic, alluring professional killer. Action thriller starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman & Terence Stamp.

CHUCK 1.11 - "Chuck Versus The Crown Vic"

Writer: Zev Borow
Director: Chris Fisher

Cast: Zachary Levi (Chuck), Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah), Adam Baldwin (Casey), Joshua Gomez (Morgan), Bonita Friedericy (General Beckman), Tony Todd (CIA Director Graham), Julia Ling (Anna Wu), Vik Sahay (Lester), Mark Christopher Lawrence (Big Mike), Scott Krinsky (Jeff), Kelvin Han Yee (Rashan Chen), David Paluck (Agent #2), Michael Wiseman (Agent #1) & Yuriana Kim (Mrs. Wu)

Chuck goes undercover as Sarah's husband, to foil a counterfeiter who later endangers the lives of Anna, Morgan and Anna's parents...

"Would you stop sneaking up on me like that?
This is a retail store, okay, buddy -- not Tora Bora."
-- Chuck (Zachary Levi) to Casey (Adam Baldwin)

I have to admit I'm bored by the "will they, won't they?" vibe to Chuck, as nothing's likely to happen between Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) under the rules of television romances. But I've accepted that. What's growing tiresome is the near-identical fumbling scenes between these would-be lovers -- with every episode's writer offering essentially the same material for Levi and Strahovski. You know the drill: Chuck babbles his feelings nervously, as Sarah looks uncomfortable and can't meet his puppy-dog eyes.

"... Versus The Crown Vic" (named after the ill-fated pride-and-joy of car enthusiast Casey) is quite enjoyable, if unremarkable. Chuck goes undercover once again, this time to a casino -- affording an obvious musical riff on the Bond theme and a left-field reference to Wesley Snipes actioner Passenger 57 ("always bet on black"). With Sarah pretending to be his wife, they're after information on a millionaire counterfeiter -- meaning Sarah has to get closer to this week's villain, by potentially sleeping with him aboard his luxury yacht.

Elsewhere, the Buy More B-story is tinged with a lacklustre Christmassy vibe, as the store prepares for its annual Christmas party -- with Lester (Vik Sahay) annoyingly insisting it's referred to as a "holiday", not "Christmas". Oddly, nobody resents Lester's view, so I assume writer Zev Borow believes it’s a valid point worth making. But I disagree. Christmas is Christmas, no matter what your religion is.

Anyway, the real meat of the Buy More story concerns Morgan (Joshua Gomez), who wants to meet his new girlfriend Anna's (Julia Ling) parents. Naturally, they decide to meet as the local marina, where Morgan spots Sarah on the deck of a luxury yacht -- trying to get closer to the counterfeiter -- and alerts Chuck to the fact his girlfriend might be having an affair.

Bubbling under the surface of everything is Chuck's hurt feelings, as he thinks Sarah still fancies his old-friend Bryce -- despite the fact she's decided to continue protecting Chuck, after Bryce offered her the chance to "elope" with him. Despite my annoyance at how the Sarah/Chuck scenes are still being played, having their uneasy relationship simmering under the bread-and-butter plot works well. This episode isn't particularly complex or intelligent, but it's undeniably improved by the cumulative interest in the Chuck/Sarah situation. And the episode was worth watching for one standout moment -- when Sarah bites back at Casey (Adam Baldwin), needling him about his duty-bound attitude and trying to make him admit he pines for a normal life, too. Baldwin's icy reaction to his colleague's emotional manipulation is perfect.

The story moves at an agreeable pace, managing to make the continuing clash between Chuck and Morgan's separate lives work (just about) and builds to a decent resolution. However, "... Versus The Crown Vic" is mostly memorable for its denouement, that sets the scene for the last 2 episodes perfectly. I'm not really convinced by it in a "real world" sense, but it definitely got my psyched to see how loyal-to-a-fault Casey deals with his orders to "deal" with Chuck now Intersect 2.0 has been created.

Overall; this is a regular episode of so-so interest, improved by the Chuck/Sarah subtext in most scenes -- but I wasn't interested in the Morgan/Anna* "meet the parents" sub-plot, and the Christmas backdrop wasn't utilized very well. But, y'know, seeing Yvonne Strahovski in a black bikini made up for it.

16 June 2008
Virgin 1, 10.00 pm

* Morgan/Anna = Morgana; King Arthur's nemesis? Or have I been watching too much Moonlight, with its Mick/Beth = MacBeth thing? Hmmm.

"Read more..." busted for Internet Explorer

DMD's "Read More..." facility seems to have broken down for Internet Explorer users. Serves me right for fiddling with HTML code*, eh?

Strangely, everything still works fine for Firefox users -- another good reason to swap allegiance from Microsoft to Mozilla. IE users can still access posts by clicking the Post Title to open the page directly. I'll be working on a fix later today, so hopefully it'll be sorted by the weekend. If not, I can always revert to a backed-up template. So bare with me!

*All I did was change a bloody background colour! Grrr.

UPDATE: Hmm, I've managed to fix it in IE6 (but maybe it's not working for Firefox now -- will check when I get home). If you're having problems, please comment.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

Director: Russell Mulcahy
Writer: Paul W.S Anderson

Cast: Milla Jovovich (Alice), Ali Larter (Claire Redfield), Iain Glen (Dr. Sam Isaacs), Oded Fehr (Carlos Olivera), Jason O'Mara (Albert Wesker), Spencer Locke (K-Mart), Ashanti (Nurse Betty), Linden Ashby (Chase), Mike Epps (L.J), Chris Egan (Mikey), Matthew Marsden (Captain Slater) & Madeline Carroll (White Queen)

A survivor of a zombie holocaust joins a band of people travelling across the Nevada Desert...

The original Resident Evil video-game revitalized interest in zombies back in '96; a sub-genre that had laid dormant since the '80s. Its gaming success arguably provided the catalyst for 28 Days Later ('02), Shaun Of The Dead ('04), George Romero's return with Land Of The Dead ('05), and many likeminded movies. So why are its own cinematic adaptations so disappointing? Paul W.S Anderson's Resident Evil ('02) irritated fans by ignoring the game's storyline, brainless sequel Apocalypse ('04) was total crud, and now Extinction arrives with British director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) working from the third Anderson script. And actually, it may be damning with faint praise, but this is the best instalment in a weak horror saga...

Milla Jovovich returns as Alice, for a sequel that shifts the suburban zombie horror to the bright daylight of the Nevada Desert, riffing on themes and ideas from Mad Max. Alice is now a nomad on her way to Alaska to find other survivors, inexplicably developing telekinetic powers to keep her fighting prowess superficially fresh. And yes, Jovovich does kick ass with bone-cracking aplomb -- as well she might, being continually cast as the sexy, quiet, lone dispenser of violent justice (see: '97s The Fifth Element, the previous Resident Evil's and '06s Ultraviolet.)

After a tussle with some kidnappers, Alice hooks up with a convoy of desert rats -- including franchise regular Carlos (The Mummy's Oded Fehr; cursed to face-off supernatural bad-guys forever?), Claire Redfield (Heroes' hottie Ali Larter), obligatory teen K-Mart (Spencer Locke), personality vacuum Nurse Betty (R n' B star Ashanti), etc. Elsewhere, corporate villain Dr. Sam Isaacs (Iain Glen) is experimenting on clones of Alice in his Umbrella Corp. facility beneath the desert -- swarmed by thousands of zombies above and only accessibly by helicopter.

There's always a jarring sensation between these movies, as neither has led naturally to the next. I'm assuming they make more sense if watched in immediate sequence (anyone for a RE marathon?), but a recap of events isn't forthcoming and I spent a good 10 minutes trying to remember if the climax to Racoon City-set Apocalypse necessitated this jump into Mad Max territory. I suspect writer Anderson (despite being heroine Jovovich's fiancé) just couldn't be bothered crafting a franchise that makes chronological sense, and instead inserts offers an early narrated sequence that leap-frogs us into a post-apocalyptic scenario.

Director Russell Mulcahy -- career highlight Highlander ('86), career lowlight Highlander II ('91) -- actually deserves credit for making Extinction anywhere near watchable. He can't improve the pedestrian plot or bland characters, but he orchestrates some diverting action sequences, and the production values eclipse the previous films.

So yes, it's visually more appealing and has enough schlocky moments to satisfy gorehounds. Alice's escape from zombie dogs, an attack by a murder of crows, a 360-degree fiery camera-rotation, and the climactic assault on Dr. Isaac's compound, are all eye-catching stuff -- even if you don't care about anybody in jeopardy, or the outcome. And the less said about the boring mano-et-monster grapple (a staple of every instalment), the better.

Chances are you've seen the previous flicks, so already know if you're willing to give this a chance. It's the kind of film where they say "lock and load" with a straight-face, and features the cliché of someone being bitten by a zombie and keeping it a secret. Never a good idea. It's loud, brash, dumb and wholly reliant on jump-scares.

The zombies aren't frightening, and the only interest comes from watching Jovovich hack-n'-slash throats with two massive knives, as Iain Glen chews up the screen from his subterranean lair. It looks quite stylish (a sequence in a sand-covered Vegas is stand-out) and doesn't overstay its welcome at a sprightly 94-minutes, but it still doesn't compete with the games' ability to chill blood. Maybe that's why the Japanese have made their own CGI animation, Resident Evil: Degradation, having spent the past 5 years watching Hollywood stink-up their pixels in live-action.

Needless to say, Extinction sets up a fourth instalment that will be twice as ridiculous, but I'm sure Milla Jovovich will be back to pout, chew some English, show her thighs, and high-kick zombie scum. As for Mulcahy, he's been rewarded for this surface-level success with direct-to-video prequel The Scorpion King 2: Rise Of A Warrior. One step forward, two steps back -- huh, Russ.

Screen Gems
Budget: $45 million
94 minutes

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Robert Carlye interrogated for 24 secrets

Lots of news on the 24 TVM and its delayed seventh season, this time from new co-star Robert Carlyle, who spoke to Strangely, Carlye suggested November's TVM will also comprise the first few hours of 24's seventh season (due to air in '09), but this was quickly denied by a FOX network exec speaking to TV Guide.

Still, the confirmed intel gleamed from Carlyle is:

1. The TVM will be set in the fictional African nation of Sangala.
2. Carlyle plays Jack's best friend, but hasn't seen him in over a decade.
3. Carlyle's character might not appear in season 7.

I may not have mentioned this before, but it's also known season 7 takes place 4 years after season 6 -- because Chloe O'Brien's child will be 4 years old. The TVM will be set several months before season 7. Of course, nitpicky fans have been calculating these sizeable gaps between all the seasons, concluding that Jack must be 51 years old and season 7 will take place in 2017! It seems even time can't catch up with ol' Jack...

Tinkering with the look

You may have noticed a few little changes to DMD just recently. Yep, I'm tinkering with the template. All the hyperlinks aren't bold now, and the background colour to the main column has turned white. I just thought the links were too distracting in the main column when reading posts, and it's always easier to read blogs on white backgrounds. It's nice that the "star ratings" now blend into that whiteness, too.

I'm not finished, by any means. I might make the links a darker colour (so they stand out better in the navigation column), and Internet Explorer isn't as intuitive as Firefox with the HTML changes -- meaning the old pale-blue colour is still the background when you click "Read More..." on selected posts. I'll fix that later.

So bare with me as a I keep experimenting. Of course, if there are any changes you really don't like, please let me know. As a blog-owner, I might just be getting bored and pointlessly changing things for the worse. You, the blog-readers, are the people that really matter -- so I'd appreciate any feedback. Cheers.

Juno (2007)

Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody

Cast: Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie Bleeker), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), Allison Janney (Bren MacGuff), J.K Simmons (Mac MacDuff), Olivia Thirlby (Leah), Eileen Pedde (Gerta Rauss), Rainn Wilson (Rollo), Daniel Clark (Steve Rendazo) & Darla Vandenbossche (Bleeker's Mom)

A smart-talking teenager gets pregnant and decides to give her unwanted baby to the perfect couple...

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the phenomenal success of independent film Juno (particularly in the US) now seems like a gross overreaction. Juno's not a terrible film, and it's heart is in the right place, but it's not as hip as it thinks it is -- with Diablo Cody's dialogue so manufactured and determinedly off-kilter as to become distracting. And the wordplay isn't even particularly quotable, as none of it trips off the tongue. Seriously, a few hours after watching Juno I couldn't remember a single decent line -- unlike, say, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Heathers or even Clueless.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) gets herself up the duff, thanks to a moment of passion with jogging-obsessed nerd Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Juno's a quick-witted, eccentric teen (she puffs on an unlit pipe and uses a novelty hamburger phone), and her proactive nature has her seek out some adoptive parents for her unborn baby. Step forward Vanessa and Mark Loring (Alias' Jennifer Garner and Arrested Development's Jason Bateman); two childless, very successful, likeable yuppies who placed an advert in a magazine about adopting.

There follows a nice enough story (told over a year, chaptered by seasons), with Juno dealing with how her pregnancy affects her supportive old-fashioned dad Mac (Spider-Man's scene-stealer J.K Simmon), caring mom Bren (Allison Janney), nerdy "boyfriend" Bleeker and the Loring's -- lovely but anxious Vanessa and laid-back commercial composer Mark.

It's a difficult film to hate, as the story is delivered well and there's a sure-handed sense of care and attention from the actors and director Jason Reitman. Everyone knows they have an original script to work from (indeed, Cody won an Oscar), and the film serves her words and plot extremely well. I also enjoyed the sense of unpredictability, as the story avoided many of the developments and "twists" you expect from the get-go. That, and Ellen Page's undoubted star quality, are the main reasons to watch Juno.

However, there's a general sense of trying too hard. Juno's so obsessed with being smart-ass, that everything becomes a little distancing. It's not just that normal people don't talk like Juno and her immediate circle, it's that every character's loaded with nothing but that dialogue. The Loring's don't actually develop, even when the story demands they should, and Mark just vanishes in Act III with no resolution. The MacGuff's are sympathetic about everything; the perfect parents, but terribly boring. Bleeker plays third fiddle to events (particularly annoying as he's the baby's father), although casting Michael Cera was a wise decision. He might be a one-trick pony with limited range, but it's a trick he performs well and his well-judged silences in-between Cody's dialogue spoke louder than the hipster verbiage spat back in his face by Juno.

As for the eponymous preggers heroine... well, Page is a fantastic actress and perfect casting. She's an old soul in a young body, like Juno. I just don't really believe her character exists as anything other than Diablo Cody's idealized memories of her teen self. Juno references pop-culture no 16-year-old girl would know, or care, about in reality. I don't care how doggedly trendy and unconventional they're meant to be, none of it rings true. One day thirtysomething Cody will write a character her own age, and this Juno-style dialogue will find a more plausible outlet.

The tone is a mix of Wes Anderson (animations, weird fashions, kooky music) and Freaks & Geeks, with unfortunate slips into Napoleon Dynamite -- admittedly earning Juno its one laugh-out-loud moment with a "stink-eye" comment. I just wish Juno tickled the funnybone with greater regularity, instead of being content to perform verbal gymnastics that you become numbed to after 40-minutes.

Still, there's nothing here that's offensive and Page is a magnetic presence, Simmons is great, Garner impresses and Bateman's always good value. You'll be interested in seeing how it all pans out (such is the soap-like attraction of unwanted pregnancy stories), but it doesn't have much repeat value. Newcomer Diablo Cody should be applauded for winning an Oscar for her first screenplay (no mean feat, although it'll be a millstone around her neck now), but I'm not wholly convinced the script's that great -- it was just the most obvious element to celebrate in a film that touched mass audiences.

Overall, Juno's worth watching and sporadically amusing, but it's far from a miniature classic. Ellen Page makes Cody's complex language work off the page, and the nature of the story will keep your attention, but there's a whiff of emperor's new clothes about it all.

Fox Searchlight
Budget: $6.5 million
96 minutes

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

DOCTOR WHO: "The Stolen Earth" Preview

A quick 60-second clip to further wet your appetite for this Saturday's season 4 finale of Doctor Who. God, those Daleks give the word "repetitive" a new meaning. And stupid Captain Jack gives up far, far too easily...

THE MIDDLEMAN 1.1 - "The Pilot Episode Sanction"

Writer: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Director: Jeremiah Chechik

Cast: Matt Keeslar (The Middleman), Natalie Morales (Wendy Watson), Britt Morgan (Lacey Thornfield), Mary Pat Gleason (Ida), Jake Smollett (Noser), Colby Wilson (Firefighter), Dawn Chubai (Reporter), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Dr. Gibbs), Stephen Sowan (Ben Stanley), Emilio Salituro (Tino), Scott Patey (Eddie), Lorena Gale (Mrs. Johnston), L. Harvey Gold (Domenico Colfari) & Jennifer Jenei (Stripper)

A smart-talking temp worker is recruited by an enigmatic man to help him fight monsters...

"Tell the truth if you want, but if you do I'm going
to have to root you like a hog and kill you."
-- The Middleman (Matt Keeslar)

The show BBC Three's terrible Phoo Action wanted to be, former Lost scribe Javier Grillo-Marxuach adapts his comic-book series for the small-screen -- ironic, as The Middleman originated as a TV spec script JGM couldn't get picked up because of prohibitive costs and zero interest...

Newcomer Natalie Morales (a younger, shorter, wise-cracking Rosario Dawson lookalike) plays twentysomething heroine Wendy Watson, a temp worker whose encounter with a tentacled monster in a laboratory brings her to the attention of the man tasked to clean up the mess: the eponymous Middleman (Matt Keeslar), a Joe Friday-style monster-slayer with a proclivity for milk and Country & Western, with the gosh-darn boy scout attitude of Clark Kent.

Wendy is later recruited by The Middleman (Men In Black-style), who's impressed by how she kept a cool head and accepted the crazy situation with hardly a raised eyebrow. So she's whisked off to The Middleman's secret H.Q (the Jolly Fats Wehawkin Temp Agency), where she meets his android receptionist Ida (Mary Pat Gleason) and is told the world is exactly like a comic-book -- full of monsters, robots, aliens and other critters to fight. He's the "middleman" in-between order and chaos, receiving missions and equipment from an unseen superior, and Wendy basically becomes his apprentice.

Their first assignment is to find the shadowy Tommy Gun-wielding assassin of various city gangsters, a mystery that leads them to a government research facility, run by Dr. Gibbs (24's Mary Lynn Rajskub), who has found a way to make gorillas super-intelligent -- so they can paint, play chess and even talk through an electronic voice box.

The Middleman is crammed full of references and in-jokes, most of which will fly over the heads of the show's target, young audience. I suppose they add another layer of comedy for people who still giggle over Charlton Heston quotes from Planet Of The Apes, but most are either obscure or unnecessary. Indeed, this show is comfortable with its own unoriginality -- with every character, situation, creature and joke reminding you of something else. Fortunately, creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach ensures the influences are of good stock -- so while The Middleman is definitely a melting pot of old ingredients, it cooks up something appetising.

Natalie Morales is the stand-out, which is quite remarkable considering this is her first proper acting job. She's sexy, a bit geeky, fun, spirited, clever, witty and has genuine screen presence. If there's one thing that'll tempt you back for more, it's to see Morales. Matt Keeslar is fine as the stiff Middleman, but I wasn't particularly excited by him. He was a bit two-dimensional here, but that's how the character was written. Hopefully he'll show some depth and interesting facets to his personality in the weeks to come. Still, I can see potential in the Wendy/Middleman dynamic, even if it's something we've seen countless times before in duo's like Streebeck/Friday or Agent J/Agent K.

The production values weren't terrible, although the opening monster attack featured some awful CGI and the general aesthetic isn't as slick and polished as you'd hope. But the low-budget vibe works in its favour at times (particularly with the comedy man-in-suit gorillas), and it will hopefully force the creators to be more creative. The jokes aren't laugh-out-loud stuff, but there were plenty of amusing moments sprinkled throughout: the way a location legend accidentally typed some dialogue, Wendy's censored swearing, Wendy's reaction to seeing android Ida's opened-up face, etc.

It's a middling start, but balancing sci-fi with comedy is harder than people think, and The Middleman does a better job than most. For families; kids will enjoy its cartoon-y atmosphere, funky visuals and appealing leads, while parents will grin at quotes from Scarface/The Godfather, and soak up the amusing banter and sprightly pace. At the moment, The Middleman is clearly trying too hard to please, doesn't have any ideas to call its own, and features too much knotty dialogue and pop-culture references -- but there's definitely potential for Pushing Daisies-style imaginative entertainment, and Morales makes a great heroine.

16 June 2008
ABC Family, 10/9c pm

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

PS3: a blu-ray of sunshine

I have taken the plunge and bought myself a Playstation 3. That's what happens when you buy a HD TV, you develop this craving to actually watch stuff in HD. So, £280 bought me the 40GB version of the PS3 -- which basically means you only get 2 USB ports, no card drive, and no backwards compatibility with PS2 games. None of that matters to me in the slightest, so it was a good buy and saved me £50.

Strangely, I'm not going to use it to play games. I just don't play games nowadays. I hit some kind of block when I was 24 and now can’t summon enthusiasm for anything without the word "Mario" in the title. I got the PS3 purely for playing blu-rays, as it's still the cheapest player on the block, now supports DTS sound, and is good quality.

But while the blu-ray thing is great, I'm actually more excited about the fact the PS3 can play AVI, MP3, WMA, JPEG and GIF files. Yes, by connecting my external HDD, I can now watch a tonne of TV shows and music ordinarily only viewable/listenable on my PC. And you have no idea how fantastic that is. A sizeable chunk of things I watch is seen on a monitor, so it's brilliant to be back in a more comfortable living room, on a soft sofa, watching a 37" TV. Bliss. The quality is also far, far better than my monitor.

The funny thing is, I had no idea the PS3 even did this. Did you? When I connected my external HDD to a friend's PS3 out of curiosity, it didn't recognize any files. But it turns out you have to press "triangle" if that happens, and choose "Display All" -- et voila! Files! Sony should advertise this, as there are a lot of people still tied to their PCs or laboriously connecting laptops to TVs, who might be persuaded to get a PS3 because of this feature alone. Surely. I would have bought one sooner, had I known.

I'm happy anyway. The hi-def experience has arrived for me.

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp (story by George Lucas & Jeff Nathanson)

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Cate Blanchett (Irina Spalko), Shia LaBeouf (Mutt Williams), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Ray Winstone (George "Mac" McHale), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Jim Broadbent (Dean Charles Stanforth) & Igor Jijikine (Colonel Dovchenko)

In the 1950s, Indiana Jones becomes embroiled in a Russian plot to find a mysterious crystal skull of otherworldly origin...

It's strange to consider the last time Indiana Jones was in cinemas, we were essentially living in a pre-CGI world where Steven Spielberg was still 4 years away from discovering dinosaurs. But the seminal '80s blockbuster franchise returns, after 19 years in development hell, where nearly every Hollywood writer worked on an unproduced script for George Lucas -- who was too busy playing with his Star Wars toys to focus on Indy.

After all this time, you'd think the resulting film would be a polished gem, but it's actually a melting pot of ideas, characters and storylines from a dozen different minds and a hundred script rewrites. Inevitably, the screenplay's patchwork development is reflected in the finished film -- with every good aspect countered by an unfortunate misstep. The scales manage to achieve equilibrium, but the overall quality of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (henceforth KOTCS) is resoundingly average, with sparks of brilliance and flashes of tedium...

It's the 1950s and comic-book Nazis have been replaced by comic-book Russians. I'm guessing we'll have to wait for Spielberg to tackle a historical Russian epic before he apologizes, a la Schindler's List. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr (Harrison Ford) is still a university professor of archaeology, and still has a nose for trouble. In the opening scenes, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Russian woman who thinks a raven-wig and blue boiler suit is a good look, has kidnapped Indy and his middle-aged sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone), and taken him to a crate-filled warehouse in Roswell, New Mexico -- familiar from the denouement of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

As fans froth at the idea Spalko's after the Ark Of The Covenant, we're instead plonked into a storyline concerning the retrieval of a mythical Aztec crystal skull, with obligatory supernatural properties. Spalko wants the skull to release latent psychic powers, which she'll use to lead the Soviet Union to a Cold War victory over the communist state's enemies. "Same old, same old" as Indy himself mutters in one scene.

And that's a problem with KOTCS: diehard fans will already know 85% of what's going on (thanks to spoiler-heavy reviews), a post-X Files climate means most people will be 5 steps ahead of Indy's investigation (and unsurprised by the "surprises"), and everyone else will just be swept along in mild confusion -- waiting for the occasionally thrilling, but cartoon-y action sequences.

For the first hour, KOTCS is surprisingly solid and hits some highs. Even the lows (Indy surviving a nuclear bomb by getting inside a lead-lined fridge) have a pulpy, exaggerated charm. And even that love/hate Nevada desert sequence closes with an iconic shot of our whip-wielding hero dwarfed by the God-like spectacle of a mushroom cloud. I found myself remembering that glorious visual days later -- such was its awesome perfection.

Unfortunately, once you've acclimatized to seeing Harrison Ford looking more rugged and leathery as the eponymous tomb raider, and settle in for a decent adventure, KOTCS grows increasingly repetitive and starts overstepping its mark. Things take a dip shortly after Indy teams up with hair-obsessed, Marlon Brando-esque greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who ushers in the first red-line map sequence that has Indy plant a foot on foreign soil.

It's not a disastrous downshift, but the studio-based "exteriors" and computer-generated FX combine to give everything a false veneer. Spielberg didn't want to leave his family to film scenes in foreign locations, sadly. You could argue this doesn't matter in a franchise born from Lucas and Spielberg's fondness for cheesy B-movies (where falsities was commonplace), but location shooting and non-CGI stunt-work was part of Indy's appeal. The Venice boat chase from The Last Crusade has twice the excitement of a comparative jungle jeep chase here -- bloated as it is by CGI foliage, greenscreen sword fights and a ridiculous Tarzan moment for young Mutt.

By the time characters are surviving fatal drops over enormous waterfalls in a jeep with no seatbelts, you're convinced you've accidentally stumbled into a pre-screening of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. Indy was always an average guy with extraordinary tenacity and knowledge, prone to failing and resorting to desperate measures. But that Indy disappears after the opening Roswell sequence, to be replaced by someone who thinks it's a good idea to fire a bazooka inches away from his sweetheart's face, and nearly decapitate everyone in the ensuing explosion of wreckage.

As Spielberg grapples with the story's repetitiveness (most of Act II has Indy and gang being caught by Spalko, being forced to help her for a bit, then escaping -- over and over and over...), the actors do a decent enough job. It would have been unforgivable if Harrison Ford gave a half-hearted performance, so a lot of KOTCS success is down to the fact Ford brings Indiana Jones back to the big screen. Sure, he's older, grey-haired, slouchy, and body-doubled in many stunts, but Ford still delivers the goods with a laconic swagger. Ford lights up the screen when he grins (and suddenly it's like the '80s never went away), but it's a shame he doesn't have much to smile about.

Spielberg's latest muse Shia LaBeouf (the "new Tom Hanks", supposedly) is far better than he had any right to be. Ridiculous name aside, Mutt Williams is a worthy sidekick and, while it's obvious from the start what his secret relationship to Indy is, when it's finally revealed I didn't have a problem with it. They even toy with the idea of setting up LaBeouf as Ford's successor, and as much as I enjoyed LaBeouf here, I'm hoping that will remain a sly joke.

The rest of the cast are less successful. Cate Blanchett make a strong impression physically and is appropriately creepy-yet-sexy, but Spalko's a lazy characterization and doesn't deliver any malice. It's a shame, as I suspect Blanchett could have been superb if the script treated Spalko as anything more than an icy Soviet bitch. Half her success is down to the costume department.

Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood, in the film's biggest link to the old movies. Unfortunately, it's strangely non-eventful when she makes her belated entrance, and Allen's determination to appear as feisty as she was in Raiders, while actually resembling a ditzy middle-aged mom 28 years later, is one of KOTCS other disappointments. She's not awful, just shoehorned into events to be wasted.

Ray Winstone and John Hurt fare even worse. Winstone could have been great as a Sallah-replacement, but his character is empty and annoyingly switches allegiances every 20 minutes. The script even references this stupidity in dialogue, but knowing the writer understands the fault doesn't solve it. Hurt has a thankless role as a university egghead who's gone crazy after staring into the eye sockets of the crystal skull, so spends 99% of the film flailing his arm around and staring into the middle-distance. I half-suspect his role was supposed to be occupied by Sean Connery, as Henry Jones Snr, which would have given more credence to the reverence for the Jones family. No wonder Connery turned the offer down, if true.

It's beginning to sound like KOTCS is a terrible movie, but it's not. Certain things prevented me from hating it: the pop-culture significance of the character and franchise spoke to my inner child, there are a handful of well-executed action scenes (like a motorbike escape across campus), Harrison Ford's performance is good fun, most of the in-jokes and past references work, and a sense of old-fashioned fun permeates every second. For the fourth movie in a film saga approaching its third decade, KOTSC holds its own against the march of time and evolving taste.

I can understand why some people hate KOTCS, but also why many like it. For me, it's the worst Indiana Jones movie, but I still enjoyed watching it and would recommend it to friends. I even liked the controversial sci-fi aspect to the plot, which I thought made a welcome change from the religiously-themed adventures, and worked well in context with the 1950s -- a notable period for sci-fi B-movies Indiana Jones owes some of its existence to. It's just a shame the plot is so uneven, the majority of the characters unmemorable, and John Williams score (a highlight of the otherwise bland Star Wars prequels) is a cruel let-down. Honestly, the classic theme tune was hardly used! Indy's fear of snakes was also reduced to a single, silly moment in quick sand. Both unforgivable.

KOTCS may not have the style and panache of Raiders, the rollercoaster craziness of The Temple Of Doom, of the humour and humanity of Crusade, but it's a decent sequel that entertains for 2 hours. Just lower your expectations and be grateful it avoids a Phantom Menace-style debacle -- thanks to Spielberg's talent for polishing over cracks in a creaky story and Harrison Ford's undimmed charisma. The man in the hat is back, and that's all the incentive you need to see this.

LucasFilm/Paramount Pictures
Budget: $125 million
124 minutes

PREVIEW: LIFE ON MARS (US) - "Hit And Run" (Unaired Pilot)

Writers: David E. Kelley & Stu Moss (based on the screenplay by Matthew Graham)
Director: Thomas Schlamme

Cast: Jason O'Mara (Sam Tyler), Colm Meaney (Gene Hunt), Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen (Maya Robertson), Rachelle LeFevre (Annie Cartright), Lenny Clarke (George Randall), Doug Scott Kramer (Edward Kenmore), Abby Eiland (Beth Mitchell) & Chelsea Connell (Kashowa)

A modern-day cop wakes up in 1972 after a traffic accident, and has to deal with the culture shock while trying to get back home...

You'd think a US translation of the BBC's Life On Mars would be simple enough. After all, there's a stronger tradition of '70s police dramas Stateside; from Starsky & Hutch and The Streets Of San Francisco to CHiPs. However, this limp Pilot is strong evidence to the contrary.

Every small thing that works has its roots in the BBC series, but you can't help but compare it (unfavourably) to its UK counterpart. This Pilot resembles a bad photocopy; faded, soulless, joyless and lacking any chemistry between its actors. No wonder the production team have moved from Los Angeles to New York and are currently re-shooting the whole thing, before it premieres on ABC in September...

The storyline remains the same as the UK version, with a few tweaks, flourishes and editing of pop-culture references that wouldn't work in America (no confusion over a "mobile phone", for instance). Irish actor Jason O'Mara plays modern-day L.A detective Sam Tyler, channelling Matthew Fox's voice and turning John Simm's confused average joe into a square-jawed, hunky hero. Sam's embroiled in a tense case, working alongside girlfriend Maya Robertson (Battlestar Galactica's Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen) to stop a murderer.

After a botched assault on a suspect's house in the suburbs, Sam is run over by a speeding car and wakes up to find himself in L.A, circa 1972. Well, I assume it's '72 -- the blurry, 360-degree camera-spin revealed this world as a retro Grand Theft Auto video-game. I'm hoping this was unfinished special FX; but if the production have to employ CGI because they can't find a '70s-looking area of modern L.A, no wonder they're packing their bags for the Big Apple...

If you're familiar with the British show, the beats of the story remain mostly intact. Sam is quickly recognised as the LAPD's new recruit by oafish cop George Randall (Lenny Clarke; essentially taking Dean Andrews' role) and arrives back at the police department to meet sweet Annie Cartwright (Rachelle LeFevre) and, of course, boorish Gene Hunt (Colm Meaney, proving Philip Glenister's inimitable).

Of course, the intended audience of Life On Mars won't be very familiar with the BBC series. For me, it's impossible to watch this without comparing O'Mara to Simm and Meaney to Glenister, every step of the way. But even if you've never seen the BBC show, it's difficult to imagine anyone truly enjoying this. The high-concept idea and the central "am I in a coma, or back in time?" mystery still works well, although this Pilot seems to be even less ambiguous than the UK show. Seriously, if the American Sam Tyler doesn't wake up in a hospital bed in the series finale, I'll eat my hat. And can the US version keep the idea going for 60+ episodes? The UK series arguably should have finished after just 8 episodes, and only just managed to stretch itself to 16 instalments.

I had similar reservations about the US Office when it started, and that show also premiered with an uncomfortable scene-for-scene translation of the British opener. Fortunately, the US Office came into its own when they decided to abandon a few of the UK show's tenets and carve out their own path, with a more exaggerated style. Can Life On Mars do the same? Possibly. But, despite the welcome news they've ditched sunny L.A for gritty NYC, they're still going to be left with the same actors and storytelling dilemmas come September...

Jason O'Mara isn't terrible as Sam Tyler, but his reactions to being thrown back in time 38 years aren't very plausible, and he's every inch the handsome alpha male that's been played-out countless times on American TV. The great thing about the UK show was how Sam's modern-day policing skills gave him greater fitness and psychological insights, but he was always in the manly shadow of the bear-like Gene Hunt and his racist, sexist, old-school, hard-man act. Here, you suspect Sam could beat up Gene easily enough, and assert his authority over the herd.

While Colm Meaney's a great Irish character actor, famous for his roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I don't envy him stepping into Gene Hunt's snakeskin shoes. Philip Glenister's a tough act to follow, and while I was initially pleased by the casting of Meaney, his performance here is pretty bland and lacks sparkle. He's uncouth and punches Sam in the stomach 10 seconds after meeting him, but he doesn't mesmerise or scene-steal at any stage, and if you've never seen the UK show, you'll perhaps be surprised Gene has become a national TV hero.

Maybe it has something to do with the disparity between UK and US policing? In Britain, Gene Hunt was a throwback to a simpler time, where brute force and instinct caught criminals, not paperwork and forensics. In the US, while things have technologically moved on from the '70s, the perception is that modern American policing has retained its reliance on hunches, gun-fights and maverick cops. While the US Life On Mars can point and giggle at the crazy fashions, bad haircuts, old cars, stores selling vinyl records, and policeman thinking D.N.A is a poison, the mental discrepancy between '72 and '08 policing isn't as stark Stateside. Consequently, the fish-out-of-water gambit is lessened somewhat.

On the plus side, I quite liked Rachelle LeFevre as Annie Cartwright, but maybe that's only because I never rated Liz White in the BBC version, with her simpleton warble. Mind you, this Pilot's take on '70s-style sexism around Annie is pretty gutless in comparison. But I could imagine O'Mara and LeFevre forging a connection in future episodes -- they certainly have a better chance than O'Mara and Meaney becoming a compelling double-act.

Overall, it's easy to see why Life On Mars US hasn't caught fire behind-the-scenes. The producers are probably just as frustrated as I was watching this Pilot, as it seems like a no-brainer to Americanize. But something's getting lost in translation, and I'm not sure a change of scenery is going to iron out the kinks. I still hold out hope Meaney and O'Mara can get a handle on the characters, and the writers find ways to illustrate the cultural divide between '72 and '08. It really should have been much better than this, so we'll see if the departure of David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal) and arrival of Josh Appelbaum (Alias), Andre Nemec (Profiler), and Scott Rosenberg (Con Air, which starred Meaney) can inject some life into a very poor trial run.

Premieres: 25 September 2008 (US)

Monday, 23 June 2008

Robin Hood; time to hang up his arrows?

Am I alone in thinking the BBC's Robin Hood series should just end now? If killing Marian (Lucy Griffiths) at the end of season 2 wasn't bad enough, it will also be competing with Ridley Scott's take on the English legend, entitled Nottingham -- with Russell Crowe as a good Sheriff, Sienna Miller as Marian and now Sam Riley (Control) is rumoured as the bad Robin. Suddenly, the BBC's Keith Allen and Jonas Armstrong look rather feeble, don't they?

But here's the biggest indication Robin Hood's third season might be its last. SPOILER ALERT. It's been reported that Keith Allen has filmed his death scene as the Sheriff. If true, how can Robin Hood continue without Marian and the Sheriff? I suppose it's possible, but the whole show is moving further and further away from the legend -- probably because the cast are fed up with spending months filming in Budapest. And the Doctor Who team think they've got it tough filming in Wales!

SPOILER ENDS. If true, I don't think Robin Hood should continue into a fourth year, no matter how great the ratings are. It's time to call it a day after the third season, I think -- which I hoped they'd realize when lovely Lucy Griffiths asked to be written out.

PREVIEW: FRINGE 1.1 - "Pilot"

Writers: J.J Abrams, Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Director: Alex Graves

Cast: Anna Torv (FBI Agent Olivia Dunham), Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop), John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop), Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth), Blair Brown (Nina Sharp), Lance Reddick (Phillip Broyles), Kirk Acevedo (Charlie Francis), Mark Valley (FBI Agent John Scott), Shaun Shetty (Indian Man), Gregg Blake (Passerby), Bernadeta Wrobel (Flight Attendant), Joan Barrett (Old Woman On Plane), Chris Britton (Dr. Bruce Sumner) & Katerina Taxia (FBI Agent)

When all the passengers on a flight from Hamburg are found dead, FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates. But the only person who can help has been institutionalized for 17 years, meaning Olivia must gain access to him through his estranged son...

Any television show from the creative minds of J.J Abrams (Alias/Lost/Cloverfield) and writing duo Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (The Island/M:I-III/Transformers) is going to be big news. Fringe is the result of this meeting of minds; a sci-fi thriller heavily influenced by The X Files, with a twist of The Twilight Zone, and all the movie-quality flash $10 million can muster. It also stars actors from Lost, Lord Of The Rings, Dawson's Creek -- and features a lab assistant named after the frail professor from Futurama? If this doesn't draw an audience of genre fans, nothing will.

Anna Torv (Mistresses) stars as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, a committed and intelligent investigator having a secretive relationship with hunky fellow Agent John Scott (Mark Valley). Both are part of an inter-agency investigation of an international flight from Hamburg, which appears to have been the target of advanced biological terrorism: every passenger dissolved to the bone.

Despite a prickly relationship with Homeland Security's Phillip Broyles (Lost's Lance Reddick), Olivia soon impresses by finding a link between the Hamburg incident and pseudo-scientific experiments carried out by Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), who has been institutionalized for 17 years for killing a lab assistant. After Olivia's lover becomes afflicted with the same contaminant that killed the airline passengers, his body is frozen to delay the cellular degradation, meaning Olivia must gain access to Walter through his estranged genius son Peter (Joshua Jackson) and hope his proficiency in "fringe science" can find a cure...

I really enjoyed Fringe's Pilot, which manages the difficult trick of introducing all the characters, creating a tonal identity, laying the foundations of a mythology, and never forgets to tell a good story that fills 80-minutes very nicely. Comparisons to The X Files are inevitable, but this manages to be quite different, while definitely playing in the same sand pit. The best injection of freshness comes from the central trio -- a female federal agent, a "mad scientist" and his bitter child prodigy. It's not a typical dynamic, and the show is at its best whenever Torv, Noble and Jackson are allowed to bounce off each other. Crucially, the Pilot made me hungry to see them tackle more bizarre occurrences, which is half the battle of an opening episode.

I was surprised to see Torv shoulder the whole episode, as she a recognisable face, but it's clear J.J Abrams' knack for spotting female talent continues, after launching the careers of Keri Russell (Felicity), Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Evangeline Lilly (Lost). Torv is tough and sexy, but has a rawness that nicely prevents her being just another implausibly beautiful FBI babe.

John Noble is great fun as Walter, first seen with a unkempt beard in a mental institution, before proceeding to equip a basement laboratory with gizmos, gadgets and... a cow? While definitely the broader character of the three, used mainly as comic relief in his obscure demands, blunt social interactions and incontinence, Walter's great fun and could develop very nicely. This episode only needs him to be the eccentric kook, and Noble does that extremely well -- while still hinting at hidden depths and complexities, particularly in his frosty relationship with his son.

Speaking of which, Joshua Jackson is also very good as Peter. I never saw much of Dawson's Creek, so everything I know about Jackson is from the generally poor films he's been in since leaving that teen drama. And I was pleasantly surprised by his cynical, sceptical, smart-talking character, particularly as my expectation for an Olivia/Peter partnership (of Mulder and Scully-style dynamism) was avoided.

It's possible, perhaps even likely, they'll become a firmer partnership in future episodes, leaving Walter in his lab while they do the field work, but time will tell. For now, I liked how Peter is sceptical of his father's left-field theories and pseudo-scientific background, while still acknowledging his successes -- particularly after one scene, where Walter enables Olivia to enter her comatose lover's sub-consciousness, via a floatation tank and dosage of LSD.

All the other characters are sketchy, but Lance Reddick brings his glowering intensity to bear once again as Broyles -- the man who will seemingly become their boss, and who has knowledge of a mysterious "Pattern" of activity around the world. Yes, it seems the Hamburg incident is just the tip of the iceberg, as the second half of the Pilot begins to reveal a worldwide threat -- apparently coming from Walter's multi-millionaire former lab partner, who's now CEO of global business Massive Dynamics.

Production-wise, director Alex Graves (The West Wing) does a marvellous job of creating a miniature movie, and there are several excellent sequences, such as: the opening, frightening attack on the airliner, Olivia's hospitalization after an explosion (shown in sharp, bright, audio-visual flashes), and a Bourne-style car chase for the climax. The ambience is slick and accomplished, and while regular episodes won't be as epic, it's easy to imagine the vibe Fringe will be aiming for week to week. I also liked the way location legends were shown hanging, three-dimensionally, in mid-air -- a trumping of Heroes' episode titles.

Overall, it's hard to find much to moan about here. Fringe is clearly a collection of old ideas, but that's been J.J Abrams' stock-in-trade for years now. Alias was obviously indebted to countless espionage shows, Lost is Robinson Crusoe-meets-The Prisoner, and Cloverfield was just an American Godzilla. Abrams' great strength is how he can breathe fresh life into ideas you'd imagine would be quite limiting. I mean, who expected Lost to evolve to where it is now, based on season 1's Cast Away en masse?

The biggest problem facing Fringe is how it's going to tackle science-based subjects in an interesting way, coming after 9 seasons of The X Files. Chris Carter's '90s phenomenon soaked up a lot of sci-fi material, and it's all relatively fresh in audience memory -- so is Fringe's corporate conspiracy and triptych of unusual characters enough to stave off feelings of repetition?

A true measure of Fringe's success just isn't possible yet -- we need a few more episodes to judge how these characters and its premise will play. But this is definitely a compelling, inventive, engaging, and creepy first step onto the fringe of a brand new TV show. And its final line is killer.

Premieres: 9 September 2008 (US), FOX