Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan (based on a story by David Goyer)

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Michael Caine (Alfred), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Gary Oldman (Lt. Jim Gordon), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb), Nestor Carbonell (Mayor Anthony Garcia), Keith Szarabajka (Det. Stephens), Anthony Michael Hall (Mike Engel), Joshua Harto (Colman Reese), Eric Roberts (Salvatore "Sal" Maroni), Chin Han (Lau), Michael Jai White (Gambol), Ritchie Coster (The Chechen), Cillian Murphy (Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow) & William Fichtner (Gotham National Bank Manager)

After a re-imagining that successfully scrubbed the bad taste of Batman & Robin ('98) from the world's collective mouths, Christopher Nolan returns with his eagerly-awaited sequel to Batman Begins ('05). The Dark Knight finds Batman (Christian Bale) deciding to find a crime-fighting heir in "white knight" District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) -- a lantern-jawed public figure cleaning up Gotham's streets, legitimately. Thrown into an already volatile situation is human hand-grenade The Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychotic bank robber hired by the city's underworld to kill the Batman...

Undeniably brilliant for long stretches, The Dark Knight is still a victim of hyperbole to some degree. The storyline doesn't quite have the texture, nuance and intrigue of Begins, but three particularly excellent performances (Ledger, Eckhart and Gary Oldman) and production improvements are enough compensation to make Knight the equal of Begins. Above all, just giving its hero a worthy adversary ensures Knight is enthralling -- in much the same way Superman II is more riveting than the technically superior Superman: The Movie. The hero's only as good as the villain...

Heath Ledger's performance is the one grabbing the headlines, nudged along by the actor's untimely death a few months after he finished filming. Ledger's take on The Joker is one for the ages; an amoral terrorist, face caked in clown make-up disintegrating in sweat, with reddened mouth scars and stringy green hair. A world away from Jack Nicholson's "evil uncle" in Batman ('89), Ledger's a hunched sneer of tongue-flicking, giggling lunacy. What makes him frightening is his sheer force of screwball personality; coupled with the fact his modus operandi is something Batman's never encountered before, and can barely comprehend -- a man who, to paraphrase butler Alfred (Michael Caine), "just wants to see the world burn"...

Aaron Eckhart perhaps gives the most refined performance as Harvey Dent, a good man and face of hope for Gotham who gradually becomes corrupted by The Joker's machinations, to become Two-Face. It's the only origin story in the film (The Joker wisely arriving fully-formed and smothered in mystery), and his downfall is essentially the theme of Dark Knight. Eckhart's no stranger to playing corrupt men (see: Thank You For Smoking), so he's in a comfort zone that allows him to bring that experience to bare. While the finer points of Dent's fall get a bit hazy, the general sweep of his corruption works very well.

I expected Christian Bale to get lost in the mix, overshadowed by Batman's most colourful nemesis -- but, while naturally less prominent than he was in Begins, Nolan refuses to fall into the trap of the earlier films: allowing Batman to play second fiddle to the villains. Sure, The Joker's antics and Dent's spiritual demise burn brightest in the memory, but Bale's still given plenty of room to make an impression. Again, Bale looks more comfortable as Bruce Wayne -- playing him as a spoilt rich kid, arriving at fund-raisers in a helicopter with three babes hanging on his arm. Bruce Wayne's a bit of a big-headed prick in public. Indeed, there seems to be three persona's at play in Nolan's world: Batman the granite-voiced vigilante, Wayne the indulgent playboy, and Bruce the humanitarian philanthropist.

Surprisingly, Gary Oldman gives a notable performance as Lieutenant Jim Gordon. It's not that I don't rate Oldman as an actor; it's just that Gordon was a bit superfluous in Begins and didn't strike me as being important enough to focus on in Knight. But his story actually ran parallel to Batman's investigation, and takes some unexpected twists and turns in the latter stages. For a character that barely got a look-in during the earlier films, Gordon's success is indicative of Nolan's real-world perspective on Batman and its close connections to film noir detective stories.

The supporting cast carried over from Begins continue their fine work: Caine is dry-witted and anchors the film's humanity, Morgan Freeman's amiable Lucius Fox has a few neat scenes, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes) is fine, if unremarkable. There are a lot of new faces with relatively minor roles to play, but I was most surprised to see Eric Roberts giving a decent performance as mob boss Salvatore "Sal" Maroni. And the geek in me grinned at the presence of Nestor Carbonell (Lost) as Gotham's Mayor and William Fichtner (Prison Break) as a gun-toting bank manager.

Christopher Nolan is just as confident orchestrating Dark Knight as he was in Begins, perhaps more so now his crew realize the magic possible from this comic-book interpretation. The action's slicker, the fight choreography smoother, and the refinements to Batman's suit and aesthetic of Gotham City (abandoning the murky, ghetto-like squalor of Begins) are easier on the eye.

There aren't too many set-pieces to satiate audiences after pure blockbuster escapism, but that's clearly not the driving force behind Dark Knight. This is a film with ideas, characterisation and themes at the forefront of the script. It offers food for thought, but not much nourishment in the way of action. That's not to say there isn't spectacle (a raid in Hong Kong, a car chase, a game of chicken with the "Batpod", the demolishment of a hospital, etc.), just that these are brief outbursts in the midst of a crime-based character study.

Overall, The Dark Knight is definitely a top-quality product that picks up the ball and runs with it. By the end, I didn't feel as invigorated by Knight as I was by Begins (its freshness has understandably faded in the 3-year wait between movies), and I think the flow of Begins' script was more sustained and layered. That said, the villains are far more enjoyable in Knight and Ledger's performance raises the bar a notch higher. In fact, it's almost depressing to realize The Joker's time has come and gone -- because, while I'm sure other Bat-villains will be rejuvenated in sequels, The Clown Prince Of Crime will be a very tough act to follow...

Warner Brothers
Budget: $180 million
152 minutes

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

BONEKICKERS 1.4 - "The Cradle Of Civilisation"

Writer: Matthew Graham
Director: James Strong

Cast: Julie Graham (Prof. Gillian Magwilde), Adrian Lester (Dr. Ben Ergha), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Viv Davis), Hugh Bonneville (Professor Gregory Parton), Michael Maloney (Daniel Mastiff), Silas Carson (Kahmil Hammadi), Frances Tomelty (Karen Magwilde), David Ryall (Max Garris), Nina Sosanya (Rachel), Darrell D'Silva (Amwar), Matt Rippy (Jimmy Paul), Vicky Hall (Nurse Strong), Telka Donyai (Khanna), Gemma Baker (Sally), Sherif Eltayeb (Ali) & Justin Allder (Aide)

An Iraqi archaeologist arrives in Bath with a cultural delegation to reclaim a Babylonian relic looted during the Iraq war...

You can't say it's not imaginative and it (generally) fills each episode with enough incidents to keep you mindlessly attuned. It's just that Bonekickers sits squarely in the realm of preposterous nonsense, and there isn't really enough excitement to have you overlook how it strains to keep the ball rolling...

"The Cradle Of Civilisation" concerns an ancient Babylonian relic discovered by an archaeologist during the Iraq War, who smuggles it back to Britain to sell to a private collector. The vase-like relic is covered in writing, which Iraqi politician Silas Carson (Kahmil Hammadi) believes is an ancient prophecy describing who will reunite Iraq and restore the country to its former glory. Throw in a snake (that can "see", but needs 3-D specs), a band of killer occultists, and a chess-playing child genius, and you have a typically bloated and curiously inert adventure mystery...

I've actually been impressed with the creativity in Bonekickers' storylines. It's just a shame these kernels of good ideas are fleshed-out into hackneyed plotting and laughable dialogue. The Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones are similarly implausible at heart, but they have a commitment and nose for entertainment that overrides an audience's common sense. Indy once met a 2,000 year-old Templar Knight, but we accepted it because it fitted with the established comic-book, '40s movie serial tone. You can't really make the same jump with a contemporary BBC drama. It makes me wonder if Bonekickers might have been improved by setting it in a Golden Age of archaeological discovery, like the 1920s.

Another big problem has been the characters; none of whom are satisfying creations. Hugh Bonneville is the best performer, because he's playing it as a goofy caricature with the fun that entails. Sadly, he's wasted in this episode. Julie Graham grows in confidence every week, but I have a tough time liking Gillian Magwilde because... well, she's essentially an irritating, grouchy know-all.

Like "The Eternal Fire", this episode again involves a sub-plot based around Gillian's love-life (she dated debonair Silas after being dumped by Ben in '92), but it's a development that's as interesting as it sounds. Not very. And I pity poor Michael Maloney -- stuck in the thankless comic-relief role as egotistical curator Daniel Mastiff.

The sword-based mystery underlying the series is moving out of the shadows, which was nice to see -- although it's consequently obvious Gillian and her nutty mother (Frances Tomelty) are after Excalibur. Wisely, writer Matthew Graham thus stirs another mystery into the ongoing narrative, as Silas alludes to Viv (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) being more than she seems. I just wish I had more faith that it's all leading to something revelatory and exciting.

Overall, "The Cradle Of Civilisation" is another confection of sporadic intrigue and irritating dumbness. Of all the episodes, this one lacks a mystery worth investigating (despite its designed "relevance" to contemporary Middle Eastern issues) and loses its thread once nasty occultists and a killer snake begin to soak up the story.

29 July 2008
BBC1, 9.00 pm

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Who will battle the bat next time?

The Dark Knight is smashing records around the world just now, fuelled by positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth. It has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 246 reviews. Mind you, I have noticed a few dissenting voices rallying against the hyperbole this past week; claiming Batman Begins has a much better story, and Christian Bale's not as brilliant second time out...

So, are these critics just trying to have their voices stand out from the crowd, or do they have valid arguments that most people have ignored because of Heath Ledger's apparently bravura performance? Well, I'll be seeing the film tomorrow, so watch out for my review this Thursday/Friday.

But whatever happens, the studio are definitely going to start talks about another sequel over the summer. That much is obvious from the amount of money and kudos being showered on the movie. I suspect that Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale will be back to tie-up their Batman involvement with a trilogy-capping third outing. After that, who knows. There are certainly plenty of villains in the Batman mythology, which is part of the franchise's huge appeal. Compare and contrast with Superman, who only has Lex Luthor in the public consciousness as an adversary.

Who will Batman face next time, then? Writer David Goyer has revealed that The Penguin and Catwoman won't appear in future sequels, but I have a tough time believing him. Catwoman is a particularly easy fit for Nolan's "reality-based" take on Batman, because she's a cat burglar that can be written supernaturally, or otherwise. Angelina Jolie's representatives have apparently taken steps to ensure the studio know she'd like that role -- a choice '60s-era Catwoman Julie Newmar would be happy with:

"Angelina would own the part. My industry friends tell me [she] has made inquiries about the role. I can understand how it would pique her interest. Catwoman is Batman's one true love. She's tremendously popular with women because she's both a heroine and a villainess."

I can see Christian Bale and Angelina Jolie together, engaged in a complex love-story. I know Batman Returns got there first with Michael Keaton/Michelle Pfeiffer, but I'm sure Christopher Nolan can find a slightly different, more intriguing way to tackle a romance where both parties have secret identities.

And what about The Penguin? Is he really that difficult to transplant into Nolan's Batverse? How about a disfigured mob boss whose features have given him the nickname of "The Penguin"? It seems achievable to me. The Riddler would also slot in very well, although his character's slightly too close to The Joker, really. Mr. Freeze? Poison Ivy? Both could be brought down-to-earth rather nicely, if audiences can wipe the memory of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thuman from their minds.

There are also lots of Batman villains the general public aren't aware of (i.e, they never turned up in the '60s series with Adam West). Tackling a little-known villain worked brilliantly in Batman Begins, with Ra's al Ghul. So how about Ventriloquist, who has multiple personality disorder and controls a dummy gangster called Scarface? Or Black Mask, whose main gripe is actually with Bruce Wayne, not Batman? That would be an interesting twist on the hero/villain dynamic. Maybe Deacon Blackfire could show up, a man who builds an army made of Gotham's homeless in the sewers? His story might tie in with The Penguin quite nicely...

Just, please: no Robin or Batgirl. For the love of god...

10,000 B.C (2008)

Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Roland Emmerich & Harald Kloser

Cast: Steven Strait (D'Leh), Camilla Belle (Evolet), Cliff Curtis (Tic'Tic), Joel Virgel (Nakuda), Afif Ben Badra (Warlord), Mo Zinal (Ka'Ren), Nathanael Baring (Baku), Mona Hammond (Old Mother), Marco Khan (One-Eye), Reece Ritchie (Moha), Joel Fry (Lu'Kibu), Kristian Beazley (D'Leh's Father), Junior Oliphant (Tudu), Boubacar Badaine (Quina), Tim Barlow (Pyramid God) & Omar Sharif (Narrator)

Basically a lobotomised Apocalypto, Roland Emmerich's prehistoric adventure isn't historically accurate, isn't exciting, doesn't have any memorable performances, and belatedly morphs into Emmerich's 1994 hit Stargate...

Steven Strait plays D'Leh, a prehistoric hunk whose mountain village of hunter-gatherers is attacked by a Warlord (baritone Afif Ben Badra) and half its populace stolen away to be slaves -- including D'Leh's blue-eyed girlfriend Evolet (Camilla Belle). D'Leh heads off in pursuit with a loin-clothed posse, including best-friend Tic'Tic (Cliff Curtis), with the blessing of village mystic Old Mother (ex-EastEnder Mona Hammond)...

For some reason, the rescue party's ragged clothes protect them from a climate of snowy mountain ranges and they make it all the way to Egypt on foot -- making me wonder why these raiders travelled such a vast distance for a few slaves? Is there a shortfall in Africa? To be honest, this geographic absurdity is just one of many errors: the premature domestication of horses, the use of woolly mammoths as beasts of burden (in the desert?), the existence of pyramids a good 6,000 years too early, etc...

Still, inaccuracy in Hollywood movies is nothing new. Academy Award-winners Braveheart and Gladiator both contain errors to make a history professor choke on his coffee, but those films had an emotional spirit that justified a bit of poetic license. That's just not the case with 10,000 B.C. It's dumb on every level, and only becomes mildly entertaining when it embraces its obvious 10 Million Years B.C-style silliness.

In the Giza-set final act, that includes a blind oracle kept in a pit and a Pyramid God who echoes the Egyptian alien deities in Stargate, things become a bit more pleasurable. As a historical action-adventure it's laboured, limp, silly and inaccurate throughout. As breezy fantasy-tinged nonsense, it's briefly diverting toward the end -- albeit spoiled by a cheesy, totally absurd ending.

Given the fact Emmerich's career leans heavily on overexcited spectacle (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow), why is 10,000 B.C so visually bland and forgettable? An early woolly mammoth hunt fails to quicken the pulse (bad greenscreen), an attack by "terror birds" (think velociraptor-meets-ostrich) is formulaic sub-Jurassic Park tedium, and a CGI sabre-tooth tiger wanders in from Jumanji. The only impressive FX shots are the aerial views of a pyramid being built, covered in ant-sized people.

What ultimately kills 10,000 B.C is Emmerich's decision to avoid a realistic approach to the material, in such a blatant way. It's no surprise to learn he loves Fingerprints Of The Gods (1995). This is a film where the abundance of mumbo-jumbo inexplicably works, placing the whole thing in the realm of historical fantasy.

The reason for Emmerich's reliance on mysticism is born from the German director's inability to create relatable, interesting, compelling characters on the page -- a misstep not helped by a bad choice of actors all round (Strait only there for his muscles, Belle for her beauty, etc.) For a man of Emmerich's talent and tastes, it's just easier to rely on ancient prophecies and false Gods to keep a storyline active, instead of ensuring his audience are caught up in the story of a man trying to rescue the woman he loves. I never felt a connection between D'Leh and Evolet, and consequently didn't care about any of the film's lukewarm peril.

Emmerich evidently saw Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (it follows its storyline, even including a human sacrifice when the heroes arrive at a pyramid), and saw the opportunity to tell the same story in a different era, with CGI beasties. The aim was probably to pull in audiences put off by Apocalypto's violent realism and (sigh) subtitles. Gibson's epic was far from perfect (historical nitpicks are present there, too), but it's a masterpiece compared to Emmerich's needless, stupid retread for the idiots at the back.

Warner Brothers
Budget: $105 million
109 minutes

'80s RETRO: Ghostbusters (1984)

Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Cast: Bill Murray (Dr. Peter Venkman), Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Ray Stantz), Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), Sigourney Weaver (Dana Barrett), Rick Moranis (Louis Tully), Ernie Hudson (Winston Zeddemore), Annie Potts (Janine Melnitz), William Atherton (Walter Peck), David Marguilies (Mayor Lenny), Slavitza Jovan (Gozer), Paddi Edwards (Gozer, voice) & Ivan Reitman (Zuul and Slimer, voices)

A childhood film hot-wired into my brain's pleasure centre, Ghostbusters was one of the first video-tapes I replayed to death, giving me the uncanny ability to recite huge chunks of the film at the tender age of 7. Nearly 25 years since its release, it's still the best supernatural comedy ever made; birthing a best-selling theme tune ("who ya gonna call?"), superb cartoon series, merchandise, video-games, and the inevitably disappointing sequel...

Ghostbusters concerns cynical Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), childish Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and geeky Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), three parapsychologists kicked out of university who, after an encounter with a frightening spectre in a library, use the first-hand experience to develop a way to capture and contain ghosts...

Setting themselves up as paranormal pest control, they buy a dilapidated fire house and equip an old ambulance with ghost-catching gadgets, to become a sensation across New York City. Later, cello-playing client Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) hires the trio to exorcise her haunted kitchen, unaware she's living in "Spook Central" -- an art-deco skyscraper designed to act as an antennae for supernatural deity Gozer...

Something of a Saturday Night Live foray (Aykroyd and Murray began their careers there, and snotty spook Slimer was even based on SNL alumni John Belushi), Ghostbusters is an early example of a comedy "troupe" demonstrating their talent to a wide audience -- in the same way today's "frat pack" of Stiller, Ferrell, Wilson, Carell, et al, are invariably thrown together in the pursuit of box-office. It wasn't the first SNL-connected film to be a hit (coming after Animal House and Caddyshack), but it was the first to become a global phenomenon and cultural touchstone.

Across the board, the performances are perfect. Murray stands out as the sarcastic cynic, pursuing Weaver like a grumpy bulldog. His deadpan delivery provides most of Ghostbusters' best lines and moments: from the amusingly sinister ESP test (electrocuting a dork to amuse a babe), through the possession of his girlfriend ("what a lovely singing voice you must have...") to his befuddled quips in the rooftop climax ("this chick is toast!") It's the quintessential Murray performance -- well, until his late-90s shift into dramatic territory with Rushmore and Lost In Translation.

Aykroyd and Ramis' characters stick to the actors' comfort zones: the former a quick-talking, excitable man-child; the latter a stiff nerd who shies away from the advances of colourful receptionist Janine (Annie Potts). Comedian Rick Moranis steals scenes as Dana's diminutive neighbour, later possessed by a hellhound to become "The Keymaster" to Dana's "Gatekeeper" -- a paranormal, Freudian echo of his unspoken desire to bed her.

The addition of a fourth Ghostbuster, blue-collared Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), never works -- primarily because he's unnecessary to the developed chemistry between the original trio, and the desire to throw an everyman into the mix isn't required by then. Or was Hudson added so the film would appeal to a black demographic? Whatever the reason, it's not that Hudson's bad or distracting in the team... just dead weight.

Looking back, the film isn't the work of perfection rose-tinted memories would have you believe: Murray's courtship of Dana comes across as smarmy pestering half the time, the middle is flabby and devoid of ghost-catching, while the '80s pop video-style that sometimes intrudes hasn't aged well (see: the ethereal release of trapped ghosts across the city). To compensate, there are plenty of edgy scares that probably wouldn't make the cut in a family film these days: the opening library haunting is genuinely creepy, the library phantom delivers a shocking surprise, and an Exorcist-lite possession chills the blood...

The FX were cutting-edge back in '84, and they hold up reasonably well today -- beyond those stop-motion hellhounds and the glove puppet in Dana's fridge ("Zuuuul")! I was particularly struck by the iconic sight of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man trudging his way down a New York street -- the wide shot of which remains a perfect visual of surreal scale. In an age where CGI wasn't the answer to every FX headache, trying to work out how things were achieved adds another layer of fun in the 21st Century...

Overall, Ghostbusters is a modern classic that's stood the test of time, with its '80s-ness more charming than dated. As tastes have developed and kids became more sophisticated in the '90s, I'm sure today's youngsters might find it drags compared to the whizz-bang of Men In Black (an obvious alien twist on this premise), but how can you not get excited when Ray Parker Jr's brilliant theme tune kicks in, or find the cast anything less than entertaining?

Columbia Pictures
Budget: $30 million
107 minutes

Battlestar Galactica: Comic-Con Panel

Highlights of the BSG panel at Comic-Con '08, compiled by

"... the final two episodes are perfect. There's a lot of closure to a lot of the storylines, but there are still some questions, which are the way that things should be."

Update: the whole hour-long panel can be seen here.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Doctor Who at the proms

A Doctor Who Proms special was attended by 6,000 fans at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring music from the show and classic space/time-related pieces by Wagner and Holst. The event was hosted by Freema Agyeman and included a special 7-minute scene, written by Russell T. Davies, which you can see in the embedded video above.

"Music Of The Spheres" only really "works" if you were there live (given its interactive nature with the audience and orchestra), but it's still worth a watch. Just don't expect anything on a par with the Children In Need "Time Crash" special.

Seek The Six

Welcome to The Prisoner viral marketing campaign. Be seeing you.

Chuck vs. The Second Season

The web is alive with Comic-Con footage filmed on camera-phones just now -- in all their herky-jerky, audience whooping glory. I wish all the trailers would be released officially a day after they debut at the San Diego event, don't you? Anyway, here's another one: a massive 6-minute preview of Chuck's second season...

Now, I had issues with the first season, which improved after the first half-dozen episodes, but for a comedy-drama it wasn't a notable success at either. For me, I kept watching mainly because of the performances; with Zachary Levi, Adam Baldwin and Yvonne Strahovski all doing excellent work, despite often shaky material.

Thankfully, this preview for season 2 looks bigger and better. The sound quality's quite poor, so I didn't catch all the jokes, but it looks more confident and twice as funny. I assume NBC have increased Chuck's budget (based on the stunts shown here) and the various guest stars look fun -- especially Michael Clarke Duncan. And, yes, gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski has quite a few leggy/cleavage/lingerie shots to send her fans into meltdown.

I'm more excited about Chuck's return than I was yesterday, so this preview did its job. We have Chuck's long-lost love Jill played by Jordana Brewster (making everyone wonder what this geek's secret is with the ladies), the arrival of Captain Awesome's parents "The Awesomes", Nicole Richie vs. Yvonne Strahovski in a shower fight, Buy More boss Big Mike falling in love with Chuck's mother... and much more.

So, has Chuck evolved into the show it should have been from the start? I really hope so. There was always a lot of potential in the premise. Or have the producers just thrown together EVERY decent bit of footage from ALL the episodes they've filmed? I guess we'll find out when Chuck returns for more missions on NBC, starting 29 September.

TRAILER PARK: Dexter, season 3

The third season trailer of Dexter has been around for a few days, but here it is in case you missed it. SPOILERS for UK viewers watching at the ITV or FX pace, obviously. To be honest, I'm not "hooked" by the direction season 3 appears to be taking. I'm sure it'll be good, and obviously shows have to evolve or die, so this is just a gut response to the trailer.

Jimmy Smits should be a great addition to the cast, and Michael C. Hall is incapable of giving a bad performance, but I'm less psyched for season 3 than I was going into season 2. But maybe the whole vibe about Dexter getting a new lease of life (living without Harry's Code) will be better than I expect. Just as long as he doesn't become a serial-killer without a conscience, as that will totally alienate audiences and colour Dexter's grey areas decidedly black-and-white.

Dexter returns to Showtime in the US on 28 September.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

LOST: Comic-Con Q&A

It was Lost's turn to hit the Comic-Con stage, and producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse once again wetted our appetites for the fifth season, even though we have a long 7-month wait. They also unveiled another Marvin Candle DHARMA video for the crowd, which I've linked to above. Skip to the 1-minute mark, where it begins properly.

What else we learned from Lindelof and Cuse (spoilers for those who haven't seen season 3):

1. The island DIDN'T move when the hatch imploded back in season 2.

2. Daniel Dae Kim will be back on the show, despite the fact Jin was killed. In flashbacks or as an island ghost, though?

3. The long-awaited Rousseau flashback will happen in season 5, despite the fact she died in season 4.

4. The flashbacks/-forwards will be mixed up in season 5, to keeps fans on their toes.

5. Faraday's journal will feature prominently in season 5. It is confirmed that it contains details of events that haven't happened yet.

6. Richard Alpert will be seen barefoot in season 5, so fans can finally count his toes (as there's speculation the island "natives" only have four toes on each foot, because of the four-toed statue seen in season 2's finale).

7. Kate will see Sawyer again.

8. Vincent the dog is safe and well.

9. The anonymous raft riders Faraday helped are probably dead.

TV Week 13: Dragons' Den & The Kevin Bishop Show

My thirteenth TV Week column is now up at, with reviews for the series opener of Dragons' Den and brand new The Kevin Bishop Show.

HEROES: Unaired DVD episode & Comic-Con reaction to season 3

Well, I didn't expect this. Heroes' creator Tim King announced at Comic-Con that the season 2 DVD will include a brand new episode, filmed but shelved because of the writers' strike...

The episode was intended to commence the beginning of a new volume ("Outbreak"), continuing from the moment Peter Petrelli accidentally releases the deadly Shanti Virus. Only, he never did, of course. The WGA strike forced the writers to rethink their strategy, so Peter didn't drop the vial in the broadcast episode and the whole "Outbreak" volume was ditched. Therefore, this never-before-seen episode has no bearing on Heroes and won't be accepted as canon. But, I'm sure it will be of great interest to fans. And a big reason to buy the new DVD, of course.

Speaking about season 3, Kring said:

"Last time we tried to do a slow build up. This time we're going to start the story right away and we're off to the races. You will see that Heroes is back and back in a big way."

The premiere for season 3 was shown to the Comic-Con audience, so there are MAJOR SPOILERS drifting around on the internet. Be careful where you browse, everyone! I won't give anything away here, suffice to say: one powerless character gains powers and a presumed-dead character is alive. So those rumours are confirmed. The reaction to the premiere was very positive, with fans saying it captured the flare and wit disastrously missing from season 2.

Heroes returns on 22 September, and soon after on the BBC.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Prisoner: meet the Villagers

The Prisoner remake from ITV/AMC is rounding out its cast. Jim Caviezel (Passion Of The Christ) and Sir Ian McKellen are the big stars, as Number 6 and Number 2 respectively, but there's also:

Lennie James (Jericho) as Number 147.

Jamie Campbell Bower (Sweeney Todd) as Number 11-12.

Hayley Atwell (Brideshead Revisited) as Number 41-5.

Ruth Wilson (Jayne Eyre) will be playing Number 313. She recently spoke about the series, which starts filming soon:

"It's [about] this guy who gets taken into this village and everyone's got a number, not a name. And it’s about how he finds his way back, and what the village is. It's very ambiguous but completely different. I don't wear a corset in it, finally, in my career."

"[The miniseries is set] now, but kind of timeless. It’s like a parallel universe. It's a bit weird and sci-fi-ish, but it's kind of now. It's a six-part television series. [My character] is the love interest, but it also is someone who is working for a very important corporation. And she's not what she seems... she turns up in the village blind, and with a number. And you don't know whether it's a joke, or if she’s in a parallel world."

"She's in a parallel world, and it’s actually a different part of her. It’s very ambiguous, very interesting. I’ve got an American accent to do."

THE MIDDLEMAN 1.5 – "The Flying Fish Zombification"

Writer: Andy Reaser
Director: Allan Kroeker

Cast: Matt Keeslar (The Middleman), Natalie Morales (Wendy Watson), Mary Pat Gleason (Ida), Brit Morgan (Lacey Thornfield), Jake Smollett (Noser), George Williams (Deputy Commissioner), Sherry Mattson (!!!! Promo Girl), Tina Joy Manera (!!!! Promo Girl), Melanie Hawkins (Bonnie Blue), Timothy Josefy (Fishmonger), Todd Stashwick (Head Guard/Mr. White), Al Damji (Rod Argent), Drew Tyler Bell (Pip), Michele Nordin (Heidi) & Joshua Levine (Dave)

A zombie outbreak clashes with Wendy's promise to attend Lacey's "Art Crawl"...

Wendy: And I get the feeling you don't share my enthusiasm.
Ida: Then I'm wearing the right expression.

Ratings are low for The Middleman, meaning ABC Family have ordered the producers to ditch an intended thirteen episode. That's not a great sign for the longevity of this comic-book series, but while The Middleman has been sporadically amusing, there's just not really enough to ensure your commitment...

Half the jokes are aimed at knowledgeable geeks, with the other half dealing in slapstick and cartoon-y visuals to keep kids happy. Consequently, there's not much sustenance for anyone over the age of 12 who don't have an obsessive knowledge of genre TV/film. Imagine if Doctor Who didn't cater for general audiences, and instead focused on making a minority of viewers giggle over jokes flying over the heads of everyone else? It just wouldn't work.

That said, "The Flying Fish Zombification" is actually one of the better episodes, as writer Andy Reaser ensures the storyline isn't wholly reliant on the usual insanity of The Middleman's (Matt Keeslar) latest mission. Instead, there are two sub-plots that focus on the characters: Wendy (Natalie Morales) aces her martial arts training with Sensei Ping (sadly, off-screen due to Mark Dacascos' absence), and doesn't believe The Middleman's sincerity over her physical superiority to him; and Wendy's double-life once again intrudes on her home-life with artistic best-friend Lacey (Brit Morgan).

Both subplots give rise to annoyances, however. It's frankly ridiculous to find that Wendy can get the better of Sensei Ping, whose Bruce Lee-like prowess was a big part of a recent episode. I understand her bettering of the martial-arts guru was itself a joke, but it undermined the Sensei Ping character and didn't sit right with me. Wendy's supposed to be an everygirl character, not someone with hidden Kung Fu abilities.

Elsewhere, I really like Brit Morgan's performance as best-friend Lacey, particularly because there's a genuine chemistry between her and Morales, but the whole "double life" aspect to The Middleman is already overplayed. It would be more entertaining if Lacey and chilled-out neighbour Noser (Jake Smollett) were aware of her activities, in my opinion.

The main story involves zombies who crave trout over human flesh, apparently the bite victims of flying pike (CGI fish with just the right level of rubbery silliness to them). As usual, the investigation to prevent a mass zombie outbreak takes The Middleman and Wendy down some interesting avenues, but the mystery is typically a bit silly and washes over you.

What keeps "The Flying Fish Zombification" ticking along is the improving chemistry between all of the actors and sub-plots that mix with the A-story to much better effect. It was also nice to see a bit more expansion of The Middleman's universe, with Wendy's "Middlemobile" being taken out on a mission (hiding a rather snazzy rooftop turbine engine), and the story includes quite a few amusing distractions – from a sexy zombie trio chanting "trooout" to the ridiculousness of a company being named "!!!" ("pronounced" as a silent bodily reaction).

However, while certainly a confident episode and huge improvement over the execrable "The Manicoid Teleportation Experiment", the series is overall beginning to feel a bit stale. The imagination is definitely there to see on screen, but it lacks a sense of sophistication -- beyond its in-jokes, that require a three decade education in sci-fi/fantasy programming.

It might help if there was a recurring mystery lurking in the background of the show, or just a sense of direction for the season, but The Middleman seems content with its simple crime-fighting set-up and standalone episode format. Even if everything about the show is stolen or spoofed from far better films and television shows.

14 July 2008
ABC Family, 10/9c pm

Friday, 25 July 2008

Box Office Charts: w/e 25 July 2008

In the US: As expected, eagerly-awaited Batman sequel The Dark Knight proves unstoppable, storming to #1 with a record-breaking $66.4m in its opening day and a huge $158m in its first week... the "girly" alternative to Batman was ABBA-inspired musical Mamma Mia!, which earned a decent $27m to take #1... Hellboy II takes a notable tumble 4 places from #1... but simian CGI adventure Space Chimps is the week's big flop, taking a paltry $7m...


(-) 1. The Dark Knight $158m
(-) 2. Mamma Mia! $27.8m
(2) 3. Hancock $14m
(3) 4. Journey To The Center Of The Earth $12.3m
(1) 5. Hellboy II: The Golden Army $10.1m
(4) 6. WALL•E $10.1m
(-) 7. Space Chimps $7.18m
(5) 8. Wanted $5.07m
(6) 9. Get Smart $4.13m
(8) 10. Kung Fu Panda $1.86m

In the UK: Audiences are flocking to summery feel-good musical Mamma Mia!, which stays at #1 for asecond week, fending off stiff competition from Pixar's WALL•E, with the little robot having to settle for #2... Eddie Murphy sci-fi comedy Meet Dave echoes its US poor showing, failing to break the £1m barrier and touching down at #5... while Brit flick Donkey Punch doesn't find much of an audience, despite half-decent promotion by star Jaime Winstone...


(1) 1. Mamma Mia! £4.5m
(-) 2. WALL•E £4.2m
(2) 3. Hancock £2m
(3) 4. Kung Fu Panda £1.5m
(-) 5. Meet Dave £681k
(4) 6. Journey To The Center Of The Earth £581k
(5) 7. The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian £463k
(7) 8. Wanted £425k
(6) 9. The Forbidden Kingdom £190k
(-) 10. Donkey Punch £144k


A 14-year-old girl keeps a diary about her teenage experiences. Teen comedy-drama starring Georgia Groome, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aaron Johnson & Alan Davies.

A successful, single businesswoman discovers she's infertile and hires a working class woman to be her surrogate. Comedy starring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shephard, Sigourney Weaver & Steve Martin.

Batman joins forces with Gotham City's new District Attorney Harvey Dent, to stop a psychotic bank robber known as The Joker. Comic-book sequel starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal & Gary Oldman.

Who's writing the Who specials?

Russell T. Davies has revealed who'll be scripting the 4 specials before Steven Moffat takes over Doctor Who in 2010. The '08 and '09 Christmas Specials will be written by RTD, and he'll co-write 2 specials in '09 with Gareth Roberts ("The Shakespeare Code") and Phil Ford (Torchwood's "Something Borrowed").

In related news, Steven Moffat is at Comic-Con and has been fielding questions from US fans. Regarding the workload involved with Who, he had this to say:

"Well, I suppose it's daunting, but I've run television shows before so that's alright. I always say I'm daunted but I'm not really. I'm just terribly excited. It's just such a fantastic job to have. It's a very exciting job so what's the point in wasting time stressing about it?"

"Of course it'll be stressful! Whatever I do next will be stressful. Doctor Who will probably be more stressful than anything else but it'll be more fun. And it's probably the biggest job in, certainly, British television. I think it is. It really is. So why waste time being frightened of it?"

He also revealed that he started writing season 5's premiere while on the plane to Comic-Con from the UK, and that River Song probably didn't know David Tennant's incarnation of The Doctor in his recent two-part episode "Silence In The Library"/"Forest Of The Dead". There's a very good interview with Moffat at io9, too. Check it out.

LAB RATS 1.3 - "A Protest"

Writers: Chris Addison & Carl Cooper
Director: Adam Tandy

Cast: Chris Addison (Dr. Alex Beenyman), Geoffrey McGivern (Professor John Mycroft), Jo Enright (Cara McIlvenny), Daniel Tetsell (Brian Lalumaca), Selina Cadell (Dean Mieke Miedema), Helen Moon (Minty Clapper), Margaret Cabourn-Smith (Secretary), Andrew Brooke (Protestor) & Sue Vincent (Protestor)

Lab Rats is the greatest children's comedy since Maid Marian & Her Merry Men; so it's a shame it's on at 9.30 pm when its audience are in bed. Seriously, record an episode and watch it after Newsround on a Friday -- it's ten times funnier in scheduling context. If you imagine the "lab rats" are overgrown kids left alone in a science class, with the Dean (Selina Cadell) actually their dotty headmistress, it all starts to make sense...

As I've chosen to treat Lab Rats as a kid's comedy, I find it vastly more enjoyable as a result. There's something to be said for targeting a TV show at the right demographic, so you'd have thought the cartoon opening credits would have helped BBC2's schedulers realize they should palm this off to CBBC pronto.

"A Protest" involves people outside the university protesting about experimentation on animals, while the Dean starts baking Dutch cakes using the eggs being thrown at the building. As befits a studio-based comedy, all of the goings-on outside are heard and not seen -- save for one scene of two protesters breaking into the lab, only to be scared away by the sight of enormous, glowing eyeballs attached to peoples' heads. Don't ask.

This episode actually contained quite a few funny lines, and the actors are clearly settling into their roles. Chris Addison has been the linchpin since episode 1 (as co-writer, he clearly understands what he wants to achieve), but it was nice to see co-stars Dan Tetsell and especially Jo Enright make more of their roles. However, it was Helen Moon as Minty who made the best impression -- dropping into a handful of scenes to spit out a cynical remark, before vanishing. Moon's been stuck in the background in a thankless, unnoticed role for a few episodes, but writers Addison and Carl Cooper have suddenly realized how to use her.

There are still quite a few times where Lab Rats' tireless quest for a surreal detour is taken too far (Brian dressing as the Tin Man to cheat motion-detectors, for example), but generally there were some amusing diversions here. I particularly liked the madness of the retina scan, and how events conspired for Alex to accidentally offend protesters all the time. The show works best when there's a clear sense of direction and jokes are returned to for pay-off later. The creative writing required to achieve such a tapestry of comedy (a staple of David Renwick's One Foot In The Grave) isn't quite being achieved yet -- but Lab Rats is giving it a good go.

Overall, I'm warming to this sitcom. The characters are beginning to find their comic voices, the script had more hits than misses, and if you view it from the perspective of a child after a zany half-hour of easy laughs and mischief, "A Protest" is perfectly acceptable stuff. So, how about it, BBC? Put Lab Rats on before 6pm and you might find an untapped audience of children who would lap up jokes about liquorice-cheese cakes and exploding microwaves that leave your face blacked-up like a Tex Avery cartoon...

24 July 2008
BBC2, 9.30 pm

Rift at Torchwood and a bad lieutenant on Mars

Freema Agyeman might be off Russell T. Davies' Christmas card list, having ditched Torchwood to star in Law & Order: London. Agyeman was set to become a regular cast member of the Doctor Who spin-off (following her successful guest-appearances in season 2), but she's belatedly decided to turn her back on the sci-fi hit, which returns next year for a 5-episode run. Scripts are being hastily rewritten to accommodate her character's absence.

Now, this was reported by The Sun, so they may have intentionally put an "angle" on it -- like making it into a BBC defection story, because L&O:L is an ITV series. Career-wise, it makes sense for Agyeman to move onto new things now that DW and TW have raised her profile. L&O:L will be more challenging and, if successful, likely to run and run for years. Still, if the TW writers really are midway through writing, and now have to introduce a brand new character because of Agyeman's late-decision, that's very unfortunate.

In the US, the fortunes of the Life On Mars remake seem to be improving. After a terrible pilot (leaked onto the internet to widespread derision), the series has ditched Rachel LeFevre (as Annie Cartwright), added Ray and Chris back into the cast, transplanted the action from L.A to NYC, been given permission from the BBC to change the underlying mystery... and now movie veteran Harvey Keitel has agreed to replace Colm Meaney as Gene Hunt!

How's that for juicy casting? I'm not belittling Philip Glenister's performance (and he'll always be the real Gene), but Keitel is definitely a few dozen steps up the actor's league. It'll be interesting to see what he brings to the role. A lot of bad attitude and shouting, most likely! But isn't he far too old, at 69?

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Prison Break: are you ready to break in?

The premise to Prison Break's fourth season is beginning to leak out... SPOILERS! Michael will learn Sara's still alive early on (the head in a box must have been from Madam Tussaud's), before persuading Homeland Security that the nefarious Company exist...

From there, Michael will be given immunity by the government to rescue Sara and destroy The Company with the help of brother Linc, Sucre, Bellick and Mahone. A big part of the season will involve the gang having to break in to a maximum security building where the villains reside, including uberbitch Gretchen. Meanwhile, T-Bag will become relevant because he still has possession of a "vital clue" -- which must be Whistler's bird book...

It all sounds quite interesting, although I'm not sure how it will all fit together -- what with Sucre, Bellick and T-Bag stuck in Sona prison at the end of season 3. And didn't Mahone join forces with baddie Whistler, too? I'm predicting the first half of season 4 will revolve around getting Sucre (and by extension Bellick and T-Bag) out of Sona, before this year's "twist" of breaking in to The Company's HQ becomes the second half focus. But that's just a guess. Where are The Company based if the US government can't just storm in there, though? Hm.

As I mentioned before, I'm still not jazzed about Prison Break's return (not helped by the silly about-turn over Sara's fate), but this show has the uncanny ability to get your pulse racing. It's never been particularly intelligent post-season 1 (as it used up its unique ideas there), but I like the cast and there's something refreshing about a show that isn't pretentious and just wants to entertain. Pure and simple. SPOILERS END!

'80s RETRO: Airplane! (1980)

Writers & Directors: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams & Jerry Zucker

Cast: Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson), Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack), Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey), Peter Graves (Captain Clarence Oveur), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdock), Lorna Patterson (Randy), Robert Stack (Captain Rex Kramer), Stephen Stucker (Johnny Henshaw), Frank Ashmore (Victor Basta), Jonathan Banks (Gunderson), Craig Berenson (Paul Carey), Barbara Billingsley (Jive Lady), Lee Bryant (Mrs. Hammen), Joyce Bulifant (Mrs. Davis), Marcy Goldman (Mrs. Geline), Ross Harris (Joey) & James Hong (Japanese General)

The first movie hatched from the minds of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (hereafter ZAZ), following their writing of Kentucky Fried Movie ('77), Airplane! is a riotous spoof of airline disaster movies, following the basic plot of Zero Hour! ('57).

Robert Hays play Ted Striker, a wartime fighter pilot whose experiences gave him a fear of flying, who boards Trans American Flight 209 to try and get back together with erstwhile girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), a stewardess on the flight. Unfortunately, after the cockpit crew are incapacitated by food poisoning, Striker becomes the only man capable of landing the plane full of passengers...

For a comedy approaching its 30th anniversary, Airplane! holds up remarkably well, mainly because its parodies of then-modern hits like Saturday Night Fever are kept to a minimum. The same won't hold true for modern spoofs Scary Movie and Meet The Spartans, crass films that revel in lazy mirroring of contemporary pop-culture, outdating themselves the moment they're released.

Filmed in 1979 and released in 1980, Airplane! has dated aesthetically, but because it pokes fun at old-fashioned disaster films (The Concord: Airport '79, et al), its late-70s creamy-brown veneer actually works in its favour. And the scenario of a regular guy trying to land a passenger jet, with the help of a control tower's stern voice, is lodged in the mass consciousness as a timelessly amusing cliché. It even carries more relevance in today's post-911 world than it did back in the '80s, too.

Another masterstroke with Airplane! comes from the astute casting of actors then only known for their dramatic roles. Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen were "proper" actors, not comedians -- although the latter duo would become prolific in spoofs as a result of their standout roles here. While today it's difficult not to grin at square-jawed Stack, glue-sniffing Bridges, nonchalant pervert Graves ("have you ever been in a Turkish prison?") and pokerfaced Nielsen ("don't call me Shirley"), their involvement in such a daft comedy exacerbated the hilarity back then.

At a sprightly 87-minutes, the gag-rate is one the highest ever achieved in a comedy. Airplane! overflows with sight gags, one-liners, wordplay, non sequiturs, pratfalls, parodies and in-jokes. Barely a moment goes by without something to make you smile, and the abundance of material rewards multiple viewings. Just a few years ago I noticed how a scene set in Rex Kramer's home was actually a clever optical illusion -- as the shot is presented as if Kramer's being seen reflected a mirror, until he steps through the "mirror" (actually a doorway). I don't know how I'd missed it all these years, but how many other comedies are you still discovering jokes in 20+ years later? Being British, I also didn't realize "co-pilot" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a famous basketball player, the Michael Jordan of his day, until the mid-90s.

Like all great comedies, many of its jokes have entered the global consciousness and become as quotable as Monty Python. The classic exchange "surely you can't be serious? / I am serious. And don't call be Shirley" is the most obvious example, while the delightfully silly idea of inflatable "auto-pilot" Otto never gets old. But there are also some well-written moments of dialogue (the "how soon can you land?" conversation), clever jokes (the Jive Talking), gross-outs (the shit literally hits the fan), and extreme silliness (Ted's "drinking problem" means he throws cups of water into his own face). Its fondness for fast, scatological humour was later appropriated into '90s shows like South Park and Family Guy -- in many animation being the natural place for ZAZ-style humour.

Airplane! is an influential giant of its genre; a spoof that came hot-on-the-heels of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles in the '70s, but punched the quality, quantity and pace through the roof. It became the fourth most successful movie of 1980, grossing $83 million at the box-office while costing a mere $3.5 million. The three members of ZAZ sprinkled the '80s and early-90s with great spoofs like The Naked Gun trilogy and Hot Shots! couplet, but there's something alchemically perfect about their first venture together. Airplane! stands apart as the best of the ZAZ oeuvre, and one that will entertain and amuse generations to come.

Shirley, I am serious.

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $3.5 million
87 minutes

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

CASTING: Merlin & Law & Order: London

The BBC's next big Saturday night drama is going to be Merlin, chronicling the time before Arthur becomes King, as a youthful Merlin develops his magical powers. The series has just secured the services of John Hurt (as the voice of the Great Dragon) and the lovely Michelle Ryan (EastEnders/Bionic Woman) as evil sorceress Nimueh...

Colin Morgan (Doctor Who's "Midnight") stars as the eponymous wizard, while Santiago Cabrera (Heroes) is playing Lancelot. Newcomers Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath will play Guinevere and Morgana, respectively. It was previously announced that Richard Wilson (One Foot In The Grave) has a part as Merlin's mentor Gaius and Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) will be King Uther Pendragon -- father of Arthur, played by Bradley James.

The 13-part series is currently being filmed in Wales and France, and will be shown on BBC1 this September. In a coup for the BBC, Merlin will also be shown on primetime network television in the US, as NBC have picked up the rights.

Over on ITV, the British Law & Order spin-off is assembling its cast, which now includes Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who/Torchwood), Jamie Bamber (Lee in Battlestar Galactica) and, um, Bradley Walsh (Coronation Street). Filming starts next month under the watchful eye of showrunner Chris Chibnall (Torchwood).

'80s Retro Reviews

I'm hoping to put together some retrospective film reviews, looking back at some of my favourite movies from the 1980s. Obviously these will focus on childhood classics and blockbusters that became cultural touchstones, but I'll try and throw in some 80's oddities, too. I'm not going to tie myself down to a schedule with this, so just expected occasional reviews to be posted as and when 'till the end of summer...

Suggestions of films to review, or general '80s-themed comments are welcome and encouraged!

BONEKICKERS 1.3 - "The Eternal Fire"

Writer: Matthew Graham
Director: Sarah O'Gorman

Cast: Julie Graham (Professor Gillian Magwilde), Adrian Lester (Dr. Ben Ergha), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Viv Davis), Hugh Bonneville (Professor Gregory Parton), Michael Maloney (Daniel Mastiff), Shauna MacDonald (Boudicca), Anthony Green (Marcus Quintanus), Sally Dexter (Gloria), Jay Villiers (Cassius), Jonathan Aris (Jeff Greenwood) & Henrietta Bess (Reporter)

After an earth tremor at the Roman Baths, the team dig down into catacombs to prove a theory involving Boudicca...

Bonekickers would be a lot more fun if it abandoned its contemporary archaeological element and just gave us weekly "what if?" stories plucked from history, mixed with dramatic conspiracies...

"The Eternal Flame" finds the Wessex University quartet digging under the famous Roman Baths in, er, Bath -- with Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) convinced their findings prove that a Roman called Quintanus (Anthony Green) fell in love with the Celtic Queen of the Britons, legendary warrior Boudicca (Shauna MacDonald)...

It's not long before the archaeologists are digging under the Baths, which is experiencing tremors brought on by sulphuric gas leaks beneath the surface. Later, Dolly (Hugh Bonneville) heads off to the lab with Viv (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to date a jaw-bone they dig up, leaving Gillian and Ben (Adrian Lester) behind. Another tremor forces Ben and Gillian to take refuge inside a catacomb exposed by the earth-shakes, where they discover a mosaic that seems to prove Gillian's theory of forbidden love between Quintanus and Boudicca.

Facing a life-or-death situation with poisonous gas seeping into the chamber, romantic feelings are reawakened in Ben and Gillian, whom we learn came close to marrying back in '92. As luck would have it, it's also Valentine's Day and the acoustics can pick up love ballads from the gift shop above them...

Yes, it's more silliness from a show that's struggling to find a balance between realism and dramatic license. The kernel of ideas in every episode have been quite interesting so far, it's just that the execution isn't particularly riveting. I think it helps if you have little to no knowledge of British history, but it's not really the fact Bonekickers' ideas are codswallop, it's the fact none of the characters inspire much affection.

Bonneville is the more likeable actor, mainly because his character's as exaggerated and silly as the events surrounding him. Lester tries admirably to maintain a calm and rational vibe, but can't overcome the dopiness of the dialogue he's required to speak. Graham's improved slightly, but she's still annoyingly obsessed with buzzwords like "imagination", while Mbatha-Raw almost fades into the background whenever she doesn't have to ask questions the audience are asking at home (beyond "why am I still watching this?") or throw coquettish looks Lester's way.

To be fair, if you lower your expectations and accept the fact Bonekickers has no chance of becoming a contemporary Indiana Jones, there are regular perils to overcome and a few interesting nuggets of information cribbed from Wikipedia (like the Strontium explanation). The ridiculous nature of everything can also be fun. I particularly liked how the final resting place of Boudicca turned out to be easily accessible through a Roman sewer's stone hatch! Did nobody think to look up there through the centuries? And where else can you find people running away from poison gas underground, before stumbling into a Roman-age minefield to hear Wet Wet Wet's "Love Is All Around Me"?

Overall, this was the first episode of Bonekickers that actually bored me at times (with the four characters quickly divided into pairs and stuck in two locations throughout the episode), although I quite like the recurring mystery of Gillian's research into that mysterious sword. My own theory: it's King Arthur's Excalibur and has been owned by many historical people through the centuries, which is why it's cropping up all over the place, like in this episode's Roman mosaic.

22 July 2008
BBC1, 9.00 pm

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

CAPRICA: Trailer

Click above for the Sci-Fi Channel's trailer for Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica prequel spin-off, which looks to be going straight to series.

The Wikipedia synopsis has this to say about the show:

"Caprica shows the Twelve Colonies at peace and living in a society close to our own but stylistically reminiscent of the 1950s, when a startling breakthrough in robotics brings to life the age-old dream of marrying artificial intelligence with mechanical bodies."

"Joseph Adama, a renowned civil liberties lawyer and father of future Battlestar commander William Adama, becomes an opponent of the experiments undertaken by the Graystones, owners of the computer giant spearheading the development of what would become the Cylons."

Now, I don't believe in hating something before I've seen it. I really hope Caprica will be a wonderful slice of sci-fi that somehow provides an interesting foundation to BSG. But, I get the feeling this is a shameless cash-in opportunity for Sci-Fi. I don't think we need a prequel to BSG, particularly one that's explaining a back-story nobody's that interested in.

I mean, at least with the Star Wars prequels fans were keen to learn how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Is anyone interested in seeing the birth of Cylons on Caprica? Isn't it enough to just know people created them? I just don't see the attraction of this project. It also seems to screw-up BSG's mythology -- as I always thought the man-made Cylons were the metal toaster variety and they evolved themselves into humanoid models much later. Or have I missed something?

That said, Caprica does have Ronald D. Moore's blessing (he's a co-creator), so maybe it'll develop a family history to BSG that I don't even realize I'll enjoy yet. Still, nothing in this trailer gets me excited. It looks like a humdrum variation of I, Robot to me. It'll inherit BSG's loyal fanbase for awhile, but does it have anything to capture imaginations? The last show that needlessly filled in the blanks to a prolific show's history was Star Trek: Enterprise... and we all know what happened to that.

I'm just not feeling this one -- likewise the second BSG TVM planned to air before the last-half of season 4 next year. The Razor TVM was fun, but totally unnecessary, so I don't understand why we need a Cylon-centric episode showing an old storyline from the perspective of the enemy. It just seems like they're squeezing every drop from BSG while they can.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Writer & Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on a novel by Upton Sinclair)

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday), Dillon Freasier (H.W Plainview), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Kevin J. O'Connor (Henry Brands), David Willis (Abel Sunday) & Russell Harvard (H.W Plainview, older)

An unscrupulous oil prospector promises to improve the fortunes of a small religious community sitting on an oil field...

Inspired by Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, Paul Thomas Anderson presents a fascinating look into the early days of oil production -- out in the American desert, dangling inside dusty holes, chipping away at solid rock with a trusty pickaxe. Our guide on this journey through the late-19th/early-20th century is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), greasy-moustached and busy raping the earth for black gold...

Essentially a conman, Plainview uses a well-rehearsed sales pitch, promises of community wealth, and the veneer of a family-orientated lifestyle, to trick dimwit locals out of their precious subterranean treasure. Enter the Sunday family, particularly evangelical preacher Eli (Paul Dano), who sit on a Californian oil field and trust that Plainview's drilling will enable their congregation in Little Boston to flourish.

From the strident opening note of Johnny Greenwood's jangling score, that ushers in a mesmerising and dialogue-free opening 15-minutes (echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey in that respect), Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a beautifully-realized, handsome epic from beginning to end. Like many films nudging a 3-hour runtime, I'm sure the story could have been told in half the time, but it's never a chore to sit through...

This is primarily down to Daniel Day-Lewis, who deservedly won an Academy Award for his blistering performance as Daniel Plainview -- a man who allows his thirst for wealth cloud his priorities, devour his humanity, and ultimately leave him as hollow as the ground he's plundered. It's an eloquent, perceptive, sometimes manic performance ("I! Drink! Your! Milkshake!" has become a cult) that cements Day-Lewis' reputation as the best actor working today. However sporadic.

There's great support from Paul Dano as Eli Sunday, too -- another "conman" who performs exorcisms of his god-fearing flock at the Church Of The Third Revelation. It's a subtle, quiet, involving performance. Can anyone else believe Little Miss Sunshine's Dano was once the "ugly-teen" of The Girl Next Door, a mere 4 years ago? That teen sex comedy has retrospectively become a junction point for hot new Hollywood talent (Emile Hirsch went Into The Wild, Timothy Olyphant headed to Deadwood). Only Elisha Cuthbert's career stagnation spoils my theory...

But I digress. Eli's a young man whose faith in Plainview turns to dust when promises start going unfulfilled, although both men's acrimony forms the only significant adult partnership of their lives -- albeit one based on shame, lies, mutual loathing and corruption. Indeed, there are no real women characters throughout the film. Plainview's conniving revolves around making people believe he's an upstanding family man -- while actually never fathering any children of his own, and consequently forced to pretend a fictional wife died in childbirth.

One of the best elements of Plainview's character is how he learns to genuinely love his secretly-adopted son H.W (in the wake of a debilitating accident), yet the fact this relationship is built on a lie ultimately stunts his ability to put his boy before his work. Interesting to note how the eventual emancipation of H.W has its roots in a young girl he befriends and grows to love.

The wider cast aren't too integral, as the film leans heavily on Day-Lewis and Dano's performances and intertwined stories, but Kevin J. O'Connor (The Mummy) pops up as a missing relative and upsets the balance to fine effect. For an actor usually cast as the comic-relief in Stephen Sommers flicks, O'Connor shows that he has more range than expected. It was actually a shame his role in proceedings was dramatically cut short.

For a relatively low-budget film (it took 2 years to get the funding for such a risky, non-commercial venture), There Will Be Blood looks twice its price-tag. P.T Anderson oversees everything with a Kubrickian eye for perfection, to produce a film that visually stays alive in your mind with its collection of standout sequences (like the frightening ignition of an oil derrick) and beautiful vistas.

Anderson already has a catalogue of great work behind him (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), but this is undeniably his greatest cinematic achievement so far. It speaks of a truly gifted director, able to bring us fresh material that opens a window on a pocket of American history most people have rarely thought about. The bravura opening, excellent choice of musical score (by a member of Radiohead), and general aesthetic reminded me of something Stanley Kubrick might have cooked up. Have we found a spiritual successor to the big K? Time will tell, but this is head-turning evidence to the affirmative. Let's hope his Kubrickian work-rate gets left behind, though...

Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films
Budget: $25 million
158 minutes

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Dark Friday Knight

I'm a bit overawed by the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight, which has been rattling along for what seems like an eternity. While undeniably imaginative, creative and incredibly cool, they were in serious danger of banging people into submission! Well, that's if you frequent movie-related websites on the internet, I suppose. Chances are "normal" people have only seen the obligatory posters, billboards and TV spots.

Amazingly, The Dark Knight took $66 million in its opening day in the US (a new record, beating Spider-Man 3's $59.8m) and $155 million over the weekend. It's also #1 on the IMDb chart, too! Is it really The Best Movie Ever Ever Made? Well, 69,000 people have voted it an average of 9.5/10, so they clearly thought so. It's been getting rave reviews practically everywhere this week, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 94% fresh rating, based on 207 professional reviews.

Their summation:

"Dark, complex and unforgettable, The Dark Knight succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but as a richly thrilling crime saga."

The Dark Knight opens this Friday in the UK, with previews on Thursday evening. It's also on IMAX if you're lucky enough to have one close by. Incidentally, when will IMAX's become the norm, eh? My local ODEON doesn't even have a digital screen yet, and "digital" already sounds very old-hat in the wake of High Definition and IMAX 3-D.

Anyway, I'm hoping to see The Dark Knight when it opens this weekend, along with half the nation I'd say. Are you going?

In the meantime, some Batman links for you all:

A Brief History of The Joker
Batman Movie Posters
Dark Knight: IMAX Behind-The-Scenes
Batman vs. Batman vs. Batman Video
10 Ridiculous Batman Weapons
Batman Through The Years
5 Reasons The Dark Knight Is Better Than Batman Begins

TV Week 12: Dexter, Would I Lie To You? & The Charlotte Church Show

A little late, owing to a server crash, but now have my twelfth TV Week online. There you'll find small reviews for the FX premiere of Dexter's second season, Angus Deayton's panel show Would I Lie To You? and Charlotte Church's chat-show.

The Cottage (2008)

Writer & Director: Paul Andrew Williams

Cast: Andy Serkis (David), Reece Shearsmith (Peter), Jennifer Ellison (Tracey), Steven O'Donnell (Andrew), Dave Legeno (The Farmer), Jonathan Chan-Pensley (Chun Yo Fu), Doug Bradley (Old Man), Georgia Groome (Farmer's Daughter #1), Eden Groome (Farmer's Daughter #2), Johnny Harris (Smoking Joe), Katy Murphy (Farmer's Wife), Simon Schatzberger (Steven), Eden Watson (Daughter #2) & Logan Wong (Muk Si San)

Two incompetent brothers kidnap a mobster's daughter and hold her for ransom in a remote cottage, unaware a local psychopath lives close by...

The unexpected follow-up to Paul Andrew Williams' gritty debut London To Brighton, horror-comedy The Cottage would ordinarily appear first on a fledgling filmmaker's resume...

A pet project of the Portsmouth-born director, it stars comedian Reece Shearsmith (usually obscured by make-up playing nutters in League Of Gentlemen) and Andy Serkis (usually obscured by CGI playing creatures in Peter Jackson movies), as backbiting brothers Peter and David. Lad's mag favourite Jennifer Ellison plays Tracey, a foulmouthed mobster's daughter who's kidnapped by the incompetent brothers and held for ransom...

What begins as a low-budget comedy focused on its titular locale, soon veers off into Texas Chain Saw Massacre territory, as the kidnapper/kidnapped dynamic shifts and characters find themselves separated and stumbling into a psycho farmer's private land. Local country bumpkin stereotypes are taken to the nth degree, as "The Farmer" (Dave Legeno) -- resembling a creature from a cut-price zombie movie -- arrives for a second-half full of gore, violence and general craziness.

The shift into clichéd sub-Chain Saw is a shame, particularly as the more interesting elements of The Cottage are found in its sibling chemistry (Serkis and Shearmith could have been the Laurel & Hardy of horror with a better script) and the mob boss background to events (sadly not developed, and forgotten about once things turn schlocky). Actually, there's a final scene that attempts to tie-up both halves of The Cottage after the credits -- but, really, unless you know it's there and have the DVD, who would stay 'till after the credits?

Andy Serkis is the standout, clearly relishing doing something left-field and home-grown -- the kind of film his Lord Of The Rings director would have been making in the 80s. He's the irascible straight man, but holds the comedy and drama together very well in the first-half, before the film chooses to focus more on dimwit Peter's predicament...

As Peter, Reece Shearsmith basically trots out his League Of Gentlemen tics and aggrieved bitterness, tending to make Peter a bit too unlikeable and aggravating. It's a fun performance that sometimes hits the right mark, and contains plenty of crackerjack energy, but it's slightly too exaggerated and cartoon-y. That said, the character slots into the bizarre second-half much better.

Jennifer Ellison makes a very strong impression at first -- glaring from behind a gag, which we soon learn prevented obscenities that will make her Brookside fans cover their ears. Tracey's a beautiful bundle of bosomy bad attitude, but the character doesn't develop or grow from this two-dimension, and eventually sputters out into nothing. And is it just me, or is Ellison looking a bit bloated and craggy these days? The product of uncomplimentary lighting? Complimentary airbrushing in the magazines? Or maybe it's the fact her "latest" photoshoots were taken 5 years ago -- keeping her eternally youthful for the readers of Nuts and Zoo?

As an attempt to inject some Shaun Of The Dead-style knockabout humour into a mishmash of Evil Dead and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Cottage isn't very successful. It just doesn't attack anything particularly well, or transcend its inspirations. The humour is more attuned to Severance's dry tone, and while the gore is successfully achieved, there's nothing imaginative or refreshing about it. It's all been done in countless knock-offs before this.

Overall, The Cottage is a misogynist horror-comedy that isn't particularly successful at either. Serkis is very good and Shearsmith has his moments, but everything else is by-the-numbers gross-outs stuck to a script that throws away its first-half promise (what happened to those creepy locals, led by Hellraiser's Doug Bradley?) to regurgitate another inbred maniac stalks hapless strangers scenario. Disappointing.

Budget: £2.5 million
92 minutes