Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Turn Of The Screw

[SPOILERS] Another remake of Henry James' classic 1898 ghost story, this BBC adaptation by Sandy Welch was a fairly successful interpretation of the story (with a few clever twists to embellish the book's Freudian subtext, like bringing the action forward to post-World War I, so that the haunted house was entirely without male residents.) A governess called Ann (Michelle Dockery) is sent to the country estate of Bly to look after her hermitic employer's spooky children, Miles (Josef Lindsay) and Flora (Eva Sayer), where she encounters secretive staff – such as ageing housekeeper Sarah Grose (Sue Johnston) -- and later begins to suspect that a former felonious groundskeeper called Quint (Edward MacLiam) has returned from the dead...

The Turn Of The Screw is a classic story that's influenced so many things that a great deal of its narrative, ideas and scare tactics feel over familiar and predictable. Maybe you've seen the revered 1961 movie, re-titled The Innocents, or notice the similarities to Alejandro Amenábar 2001 hit The Others with Nicole Kidman? Even if you haven't, the basic idea of a haunted English country house, containing two flaxen-haired siblings, cagey female staff, empty gardens, still ponds, and ghostly presences staring through windows, are things that have come to feel quite clichéd in today's pop-culture.

For that reason, a great deal of this 90-minute special felt too cosy and familiar, although that did give things a certain charm. However, the story felt stretched in places (a snappier 70-minutes would have worked better), and I always find it exasperating when people in these stories react in unrealistic ways toward the supernatural. It also didn't help that the children, who are supposed to be victims that need protecting from Quint's malevolent spirit, felt very unsympathetic and annoying. It's the kind of story where everyone and everything seems hell-bent on acting as strangely and irrationally as possible, just to give Ann just cause to doubt her sanity. But that's a key part of the story, admittedly – is the governess insane, paranoid, and projecting her fantasies onto other people? Of course, there's more evidence to say it's a clear-cut case of haunting, with Quint returning to try and possess young Miles so he can continue his debauched lifestyle.

Michelle Dockery was very good in the lead role; likeable and relatable, so we were definitely with her every step of the way. Sue Johnston was fine as the guilt-stricken housekeeper, and the two children were brilliantly cast – Josef Lindsay looking like a negative of the kid in The Omen, and Eva Sayer having a peculiarly adult-looking head on young shoulders. The direction from Tim Fywell was pretty good, giving things enough of a modern-day touch to ensure a few of the spookier moments landed their punch without looking too misplaced in a period story. Welch's script was also very well-balanced, even if things started to grow a little tedious around the 60-minute mark, and I personally don't think the climax to James' story is gripping enough to have warranted the slow build-up.

Overall, The Turn Of The Screw was a thoroughly decent and creepy little ghost story, nicely put together by all concerned. Most of its "faults" can be attributed to the fact Henry James story has bled through so many subsequent films and television shows that the original now feels hackneyed in retrospect –- so you have to keep in mind this was written in the 19th-century before all of its imitators. However, I'm not convinced this BBC adaptation succeeded in bringing anything particularly fresh and interesting to the story, beyond a few welcome tweaks, so I have to admit I was rarely unsettled or frightened by anything presented here. But still, entertained and mildly unnerved isn't a bad response to have.

30 December 2009
BBC1/BBC HD, 9pm

written by: Sandy Welch directed by: Tim Fywell starring: Michelle Dockery (Ann), Sue Johnston (Sarah Grose), Dan Stevens (Dr Fisher), Nicola Walker (Carla), Eva Sayer (Flora), Josef Lindsay (Miles), Mark Umbers (Master), Corin Redgrave (Professor), Wendy Albiston (Baines), Sarah Buckland (Diane), Edward MacLiam (Peter Quint), Katie Lightfoot (Emily Jessel), Nellie Burroughes (Abused Maid), Peter Bygott (Ann's Father), Honor Cargill-Martin (Young Ann) & Cameron Stewart (Police Inspector)

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

TRAILER PARK: The Karate Kid (2010)

The original 1984 Karate Kid was one of those childhood movies that left an indelible impression on me, as a kid growing up in the '80s. In some ways it was my generation's Enter The Dragon, introducing us to the world of martial arts and action cinema. It was also a pretty decent human drama about overcoming bullying, full of classic moments and dialogue that have entered pop-culture (i.e. Family Guy will reference it for an easy laugh.) There were three sequels that nosedived in quality (one starring future-Oscar winner Hilary Swank!), but the original remains a surprisingly robust and emotive movie. It's Rocky for the under-12's, basically. You can read my review of the original here, if you're interested. A remake has been on the cards for awhile, but now it's frightening reality...

Will Smith's son Jaden (last seen in I Am Legend playing, er, Will Smith's son), takes the lead in this remake from director Harald Zwart (The Pink Panther 2, Agent Cody Banks), with chopsocky legend Jackie Chan taking on the iconic role of sensei Mr. Miyagi (ahem, now known as Mr. Han). I quite like the idea of Chan being involved in this film, actually -- he may lack Morita's quiet intensity and quirky charm, but he'll undoubtedly be a lot handier with the actual fighting. I'm not keen on the idea of Jaden Smith still, mainly because he's so much younger than Ralph Macchio's character -- so, instead of the subtext being about becoming an independent man (first car, first girlfriend), it's now likely to be about stopping a gang of playground bullies. Pure and simple. I'm guessing the filmmaker's are going after the kids who are unlikely to have seen the '84 original repeated on television yet.

There's a half-decent tweak to the basic story, I guess. This time, the "Karate Kid" and his single mom have moved to China, so in some ways this remake is combining the original with its immediate Okinawa-set sequel. I'm also glad they appeared to have kept a few key ideas from the original; like Miyagi Han using everyday routines to teach his student fighting techniques via the "muscle memory" of, say, putting a jacket on. It's not quite "wax on, wax off" of "paint the fence" in its beauty and plausibility, but I guess it'll do. The final joke in the trailer, a twist on the original's scene where Miyagi was trying to catch a fly inbetween chopsticks, also earned a little giggle from me. And yes, even with hack director Zwart behind the camera, I daresay the fight sequences will be better than ever before, and Jaden Smith looks more physically competent than Macchio ever did.

I guess what I'm saying is simple: based solely on this trailer, I'm predicting The Karate Kid remake will be fairly mediocre (certainly a pale imitation of the '80s cult classic of fleeting popularity), but the presence of Chan, the athleticism of Jaden, and a few fun injokes may be enough to transform it into disposable fun for old fans. Just so long as it all boils down to another amusingly "undefendable" Crane Kick, right? SWEEP THE LEG!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Dan's Top TV Shows of 2009: #34 - #22

2009 was a great year for television drama, so here's my annual countdown of the best the small-screen had to offer UK audiences. As always, it's all purely my opinion, with a few rules to take into consideration:

Rule #1: TV shows on this list must have aired at least half their episodes during 2009. Rule #2: Only dramas, miniseries or sitcoms are eligible for this list -- not documentaries, gameshows, reality shows, etc. Rule #3: Only TV shows that aired in the UK will be included.

So, without further ado, here's the bottom-third of my list:

34. Demons, series 1
Atrocious ITV attempt to create their own teatime telefantasy to lure the Doctor Who/Merlin audience during their respective "off seasons". The concept was an unoriginal riff on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, with none of the wit or invention of Joss Whedon's '90s show. And quite how you can waste the potential behind "Gene Hunt, vampire slayer" in Philip Glenister's presence beggared belief. [full reviews here]

33. Kröd Mändoon & The Flaming Sword Of Fire
Thanks to the prominence and popularity of fantasy in the '00s, through Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings, the notion of a Blackadder-meets-Monty Python style spoof was a good one. Unfortunately, US/UK co-production Kröd Mändoon & The Flaming Sword Of Fire was a messy, unfunny stinker through and through. I quite liked Alex Macqueen's slimy henchman Barnabus, and India de Beaufort was a stunningly attractive Xena-ish addition to the cast, but there was precious few laughs. [full reviews here]

32. Red Dwarf, special
The once hilarious sci-fi comedy lost its funny bone in the mid-'90s, but nobody ever told co-creator Doug Naylor. This year's three-part "Back To Earth" special was a triumph of production design (the titular crimson ship has never looked so vast and empty), but the script was terribly unfunny. The fact it recycled a revered series 5 episode (duplicating the twist-ending, to boot!) was bad enough, but its extensive Blade Runner pastiche just came across as lazy tosh. The worst thing is probably how it proved so successful for digital channel Dave that they've commissioned more scripts for a whole new series. Please, I know everyone involved has bills to pay, but let the show die already. [part 1 review, part 2 review, part 3 review]

31. Defying Gravity
I love the idea of doing a near-future sci-fi drama set aboard a spaceship with a crew of astronauts, but Defying Gravity didn't know what demographic it was chasing. Its soppy soap elements alienated most of the boys, and there wasn't much there to interest the girls anyway. Its mystery of secret cargo "Beta" was a decent idea, but they teased it out for seven torturous hours, by which time most people had given up. The last batch of episodes were a definite improvement on things, but that upswing in quality didn't justify the hours it took to get there. [read full reviews here]

30. Survivors, series 1
A remake of the classic '70 doomsday drama, with a promising start and a decent finish, but the episodes inbetween were of mixed success. I think the main problem with post-apocalyptic drama on British TV is that the budget isn't there to give us a truly realistic representation of its "what if?" scenario, and its characters were pretty bland. It was also hamstrung by the fact there is clearly no solution to the problem (you can't resurrect the dead), and the so-called "bad guys" were unaffacted scientists hoping to create a cure using the blood of a survivor. Huh? [full reviews here]

29. Whitechapel
Better than expected for a ITV original drama, thanks to inventive direction from SJ Clarkson (who has since gone to the US, working on Heroes and Dexter) and a tryptych of enjoyable performances from Rupert Penry-Jones (as a neat-freak upperclass detective), Phil Davies (as a working class old-timer) and Steve Pemberton (as a rotund Ripperologist). The notion of a modern-day serial-killer copying Jack The Ripper's infamous murder spree isn't anything new, but Whitechapel did a decent job. [part 1 review, part 2 review, part 3 review]

28. Hung, season 1
Sex-comedy from HBO that started off strongly with its Alexander Payne-directed pilot, then kind of just coasted through season 1 with an amicable but meandering tone. A show of good little moments and fun performances from Thomas Jane and Jane Adams (as the gigolo and his female pimp), but nowhere near as sexy, funny and dramatic as it needed to be. [first four reviews here]

27. Primeval, series 3
A turning point for the time-travel/monster-hunting series, as two new characters joined the cast and the dour lead died. The premise was also given a welcome tweak, allowing for more "supernatural" monsters to come through anomalies from Earth's future. Primeval's still a very silly, dumb TV series in so many ways, but it's fun if you're in the right mood and adjust your expectations accordingly. [full reviews here]

26. Prison Break, season 4
It's quite remarkable that Prison Break got this far, but the axe finally fell in the fourth season, which had transformed the premise into something resembling The A-Team. Like most seasons, it started promisingly enough, then went haywire around mid-season as it tried to extend its story beyond its natural end. Still, the big surprise was how well the feature-length finale worked, which only goes to show how a definite end-date can transform a show. I'm glad it went out on a relative high, anyway. [full reviews here]

25. Heroes, season 3
After the disastrous second season, things improved in season 3, but Heroes still looked incapable of equalling its thrilling first year. The opening volume "Villains" soon exhausted its potential, although "Fugitives" was a notable improvement for the latter half of the year. But an abundance of scripting problems (issues with the unwieldy concept, poor use of characters) continued to undermine what once felt fresh, purposeful, clever and surprising. [full reviews here]

24. FlashForward, season 1
Great idea, pockmarked with problems when you try to make a serialized TV show from it. FlashFoward did itself no favours by hailing itself as "the new Lost" before anyone had even seen it, so while the big-budget premiere was slick and gripping enough to keep you watching for awhile, it became clear that none of the characters were very interesting or likeable. A steady stream of plot twists, surprises and fun cliffhangers were undoubtedly its saving grace, and I'm pleased to see it's at least kept a sense of pace, but I don't think it has a longterm future once season 1's wrapped up. [full reviews here]

23. Damages, season 2
I adored the first season, but the follow-up just didn't click for me. I didn't engage with the year's "case" (environmentalism, stock market manipulation), so it quickly became sluggish and tedious. Things perked up towards the end as the dispirate plot-strands came together, and there was enough intrigue and surprises to keep my interest, but this was definitely not up the standard of season 1. One big frustration was how it tried to be a sequel to the first season in too many ways, when I'd have preferred a cleaner break. [full reviews here]

22. Flight Of The Conchords, season 2
A mixed bag of a season that reversed the problem of season 1; in that the comedy songs were noticeably worse, but the scripts were far better. I laughed more than I did throughout the whole of season 1, though -- particularly during the episode where Jemaine got an Australian girlfriend and whenever the clueless NZ Prime Minister was around. [full reviews here]

Continue to Part 2 ==>


Christopher Nolan is my favourite filmmaker working today, primarily because he's barely put a foot wrong since his low-budget debut Following. Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight are all classy, intelligent movies that rank as some of my favourite films of the '00s. Only Insomnia disappointed me, but one dud out of six still ain't bad...

Nolan's latest is the cryptic, mysterious Inception. Very little is known about this secretive film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe and Lukas Haas, but it's sure to be brilliant. Isn't it? That cast is enough to make me buy a ticket. The trailers have been enigmatic, moody things of ice-cool beauty, too. The latest one is embedded above, and while a part of me is worried Nolan's basically found a twist on ideas already covered by The Matrix and Dark City (mindscape realities, gravity-defying fights, the manipulation of buildings...), I'm sure we're in for a stylish, mindspinning treat next summer.

Released: 16 July 2010 (US), 22 July 2010 (AUS)

Monday, 28 December 2009

9 Websites That Changed My Online '00s Life

I first went online at home in 1997, but the prevalence of the internet certainly took hold in the '00s. So, because December's the traditional time for superfluous lists, here are 9 websites/online services that revolutionized my "online life" this past decade...

These days, I trust internet shopping a lot more than I did around the turn-of-the-millennium, but I still get a paroxysm of terror when I type my credit card details into a site that's new to me just because they have a good deal. But, I trust Amazon 100%, because I've never had a bad experience with them and I love the design. I sometimes buy stuff from them that's slightly dearer in price, just because I know I can trust the speed and efficiency.

Of course! Look where you're reading this! I didn't really "get" blogging at first, and I closed my first Blogger account after a few days treating it like an online diary. But then Web 2.0 exploded and blogs got interesting around 2006, as the designs and functionality became closer to that of decent websites. Blogger's still not as slick as the likes of Wordpress, but it's far easier to create a blog with them and the options available to you are 10x better than they were a few years ago.

I love it, but I don't use it much these days. There are two reasons for this: (1) I used it to sell everything I owned of value around 2003, so I have nothing left to sell now! (2) Owing to a silly misunderstanding with PayPal about 5 years ago, I can't open an account with them again... and eBay's tied to PayPal like prisoners in a chain-gang. But, earlier this decade, I used eBay a great deal and got some great bargains from them.

I remember when Yahoo was the dominant search-engine of the late-'90s, but Google overtook it in the '00s. So much so that "Googling" has become a verb and it's a fixture as my homepage. I've never even given upstart Bing a second thought.

Excellent resource for movie info, particularly cast/crew lists. I visit it nearly ever day, if only to peruse the celebrity birthdays. The only thing I dislike is what each film's individual page looks like. I'd prefer all the info to be there to see, but it's all hidden behind links and whatnot. The data IMDb has is exemplary, but not how it chooses to shows it.

Online Banking
I'm not going to tell you which bank I'm with, because I'm overly paranoid, but the concept of paying your bills and setting up direct debits online has revolutionized my financial lifestyle. I still like getting paper statements sent to me every month, though -- sorry, environment.

I still can't quite wrap my head around it, but it's addictive. It's easy to do, you don't feel a slave to it, it's mobile, you can maybe get response from celebrity users, and it's great fun following tweets to TV shows like Big Brother.

The best way to settle any argument is to call up a Wikipedia article. The simple idea of putting a user-maintained encyclopedia was a masterstroke. Remember when researching the 'net was fairly tricky and you had to keep a mental note of many different websites to refer back to? Well, Wikipedia changed all that. Sure, because it's user-generated you can't trust it 100%, but I've personally never had reason to refute anything it says.

A very recent addition to the web, but it's quickly become the premier streaming video site. Remember when funny video clips were attached in huge e-mails and passed around offices? That still happens, thanks to most workplaces and schools blocking YouTube, but never at home. I tend to watch funny clips, film/TV trailers and interviews on YouTube, but it has something for everyone. The fact you can embed videos in your own blog/website has been an obvious bonus for me. The only downside is that the good stuff is so hidden away, so I tend to rely on links.

Intentional omissions: MySpace and Facebook (I've never seen the point in them, and both have terrible interfaces), BBC iPlayer (a great creation, but not something I use very much, and certainly not on a PC because I have Virgin's catch-up service)

How about you? Did any websites change your life in the '00s, or soak up a shocking amount of your freetime? Care to share?

Poll update: Best TV Of The '00s (rule change)

My super-poll to find the decade's 100 most popular TV shows (from a list of 99) is going much smoother now, having excised two shows from the running (Sarah Connor Chronicles, Firefly) thanks to their unruly fans attempting to cheat. However, it's becoming clear that some shows are beginning to cluster at the top of my poll's results, so I'm probably going to slightly revise my intentions now...

The poll will still end on Sunday 17 January 2010 as planned. So, please, click here to vote for your 10 favourite shows of the '00s if you haven't done so already. However, I think I will now reveal only part of the results on that date, before opening another weeklong poll to find the ultimate Top 10 (using the 10 highest-polled shows.) Y'see, right now there are 20 shows at the top of the poll, many of which have the same number of votes. So, to avoid too many "joint-rankers" when I reveal the results, I think it's best to run a quick poll for the "finalists", with the definitive Top 10 revealed on 24 January 2010. Does that make sense?

New Year's TV Picks: 28 December 2009 - 3 January 2010

The Day Of The Triffids (BBC1, 9pm) Two-part adaptation of the John Wyndham novel where the population of the planet are blinded after a solar storm and man-eating plants start to gradually takeover the planets. Stars Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave & Eddie Izzard. Continues tomorrow at the same time.
Not Again: Not The Nine O'Clock News (BBC2, 9pm) A retrospective documentary on the classic '80s sketch show that made stars of Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson.
An Englishman In New York (ITV1, 9pm) Sequel to the 1975 drama The Naked Civil Servant, again starring John Hurt as the homosexual Quentin Crisp.

Nothing! Seriously. Well, except part 2 of The Day Of The Triffids, of course.

The Turn Of The Screw (BBC1, 9pm) Spooky drama about a governess who arrives in a country house to look after two orphans and starts to sense a supernatural presence. Stars Sue Johnston, Nicola Walker & Michelle Dockery.
Three Men Go To Ireland (BBC2, 9pm) Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O'Briain and Rory McGrath embark on another trip, this time from Dublin to the Limerick Poetry Festival.
Greatest Christmas Comedy Moments (Five, 9pm) A mix of classic festive TV clips.
2009 Unwrapped With Miranda Hart (BBC2, 10pm) The comedian looks back at the year's events. Featuring Stephen K. Amos, Rich Fulcher, Duncan Bannatyne & Isy Sutie.
Victoria Wood: What Larks! (BBC1, 11pm) A behind-the-scenes special of the comedian's Christmas special last week.

Sleep With Me (ITV1, 9pm) Seductive drama. Stars Adrian Lester & Jodhi May.
Alan Carr: Chatty Man New Year's Special (Channel 4, 10pm) Special episode of the chat show, featuring David Tennant, Davina McCall & Spandau Ballet.
Graham Norton's New Year's Eve (BBC1, 10.40pm) Countdown to the year 2010 with the Irish presenter. Featuring Dominic West, Sarah Jessica Parker & Joan Rivers.
Jool's Annual Hootenanny (BBC2, 11pm) Countdown to the year 2010 with the musician/presenter.
New Year Live 2009 (BBC1, 11.45pm) Live countdown to the year 2010.

Doctor Who: The End Of Time (BBC1, 6.40pm) Concluding part of the festive special.
Marple (ITV1, 9pm) Mystery drama. Stars Julia McKenzie, Joan Collins, Maxine Peake, Sarah Smart & Alexei Sayle.
The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year (Channel 4, 9.05pm) Comedy panel show about the year 2009. Hosted by Jimmy Carr, with panellists Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Rob Brydon & Claudia Winkleman.

Take Me Out (ITV1, 7.15pm) Dating gameshow where 30 eligible ladies must choose a male partner. Hosted by Paddy McGuinness.
All Star Mr & Mrs (ITV1, 8.15pm) Gameshow where couples answer questions on each other. Hosted by Philip Schofield & Fern Britten.
Piers Morgan On Las Vegas (ITV1, 9.20pm) Piers Morgan takes a look at various world cities, starting with gambling mecca Las Vegas.

Agatha Christie's Poirot (ITV1, 8pm) Murder-mystery with the world-famous Belgian detective. Stars David Suchet, Martin Shaw, Kimberley Nixon, Art Malik, Kate Ashfield & Jane Asher.
Wallander (BBC1, 9pm) Series 2 of the Swedish detective series. Stars Kenneth Branagh.
Celebrity Big Brother: Live Launch (Channel 4, 9pm) The final series of Celebrity Big Brother gets underway. Hosted by Davina McCall.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's Avatar isn't a great film, but it is a spectacular film. A groundbreaking technical marvel that demands you see it in 3D on the biggest screen available to you – as equivalent home technology isn't available or up to snuff. I have no qualms about recommending everyone go see this sci-fi epic, if only to be whisked to an alien planet with a degree of visual realism and immersion never seen before. However, strip away all its fancy digital clothes, and Avatar stands exposed as a naked Emperor: a fairly unremarkable mix of overused narratives (Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas), simplistic characters, ideas stolen from pulp sci-fi literature (John Carter Of Mars) or sub-Disney animation (Ferngully: The Last Rainforest), and elements recycled from Cameron's own filmography (the tech of Aliens, the ecology of The Abyss)...

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington -- the new Michael Biehn?) is a paraplegic ex-marine whose twin brother has died, meaning he gets the opportunity to take his scientist sibling's place on a mission to the faraway alien world of Pandora. It's a huge, dangerous jungle moon that's currently being strip-mined by humanity for the precious mineral "unobtanium". Half the team are dumb mercenaries led by clichéd tough-ass Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), paid to do the hard labour for corporate slimeball Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) in huge mechanical "AMP suits" and enormous bulldozers; the other half are liberal scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who want to learn from the indigenous race The Na'avi – nine-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-like spiritual warriors. To do this they have revolutionary technology that allows people to download their consciousness into an "avatar" body – an alien/human crossbreed that compatible humans can control and use to interact with the natives eye-to-eye

As widely reported, Avatar is essentially Dances With Wolves in space. Jake isn't the subservient type that comprise the rest of Grace's obedient eggheads, and his reckless attitude soon affords him a chance meeting with the tribal chief's beautiful daughter, Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña). A romance soon blossoms, despite the fact Jake's acting on secret orders from Quaritch to provide valuable intel on the Na'avi in order to aide the destruction of their "Hometree" refuge, which sits atop the galaxy's largest deposit of unobtanium. Needless to say, Jake grows to understand and appreciate the Na'avi's culture and their belief in "mother goddess" Eywa (whose energy flows through all living things, Gaia-like), so his loyalties become conflicted over the course of his three-month mission and he eventually sides with Panorda's inhabitants against his own, invading "Sky People". But I reckon you guessed all that going in.

See, Avatar isn't really going to surprise you, or take many imaginative twists down fresh paths. The story is simple but effective in giving the film a decent structure on which to hang all manner of vibrant, jaw-dropping visuals. In the traditional 2D format, you'll likely gawp at the lush, colourful imagery and impressive motion-capture (Cameron's ascending the so-called "uncanny valley" that Robert Zemeckis is stuck in), but it's in the much-vaunted 3D where Avatar becomes a truly extraordinary experience. A constant sense of natural depth comes through here, and Cameron wisely uses his technology to immerse you in the world he's created. He rarely rests on the cliché of having characters point or jab objects towards the audience. Instead, the experience isn't so much concave as convex, once your brain adjusts to the method of presentation – which is itself still very alien to most cinemagoers.

Buzzing insects and ethereal seeds float in front of your eyes, foliage and fauna appear to bend out of the screen, and dizzying vistas really do seem to stretch out beyond the cinema's back wall. More impressively, the people and objects have a tangible quality and texture to them in three dimensions. There are close-ups of faces that have a genuine solidity to what you're seeing, and that really brings CGI to life like I've never experienced before. Say what you like about the film, but you'll leave the cinema ready to sign petitions to get your other blockbuster favourites upgraded to 3D and re-released for their anniversaries. I'm already salivating at the thought of Jurassic Park, Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings getting 3D upgrades.

Undoubtedly, the movie itself is very patchy, sags in the middle, and is about 40-minutes too long. It was a pleasure to bask in the 3D environments for this extended period, but the narrative flabbiness leaves me indifferent about re-watching the film in 2D (even in high-definition) because nothing about it truly transcended the pioneering craft that went into its creation. It has an environmental message that's fairly creditable, but it doesn't really offer much to for adults to chew on about the issues presented. It's action first, conservational message aimed at 10-year-olds second.

Avatar has its ideas and themes, but there's nothing revelatory or unique about how any of it's handled. Still, I did like the theme of interaction that oozed from the film's pores – in the notion of these "avatars", the fact the audience are required to wear 3D glasses to enter this world themselves, and in a trait of the Na'avi's deity that proves vital in the final act. It was also amusing to see a climactic battle take place that's essentially an reprise of Cameron's "power loader vs. Alien Queen" climax in Aliens, only now the human in a mech-suit's our enemy and we're rooting for the extra-terrestrial!

Performances are kind of mixed, too. It was great to see Sigourney Weaver again, ageing gracefully and lending everything a certain appeal for sci-fi nerds who grew up in the '80s. Stephen Lang was fun in an extremely passé role of the dumb, macho, gung-ho army leader. Zoë Saldaña is the standout as Na'avi warrioress Neytiri – arguably the best performance from an actor being motion-captured yet, even besting Andy Serkis' iconic Gollum. Aided by the leap in technology, you can really see Saldaña perform here – so much so that I felt like I was essentially seeing her in blue makeup, until her physical dimensions and proportions reminded me otherwise. Sadly, Sam Worthington makes for a disappointing and rather unlikeable protagonist – alternating between annoying, unsympathetic and pretty bland. I don't see what Cameron sees in this young Australian actor, unfortunately. He has no clear charisma or charm (beyond a brutish swagger), and the consequent romance between Jake and Neytiri suffers as a result of his casting.

Overall, Avatar's a treat for audiences to behold, but James Cameron's imaginative world and WETA's avant-garde special-effects aren't enough to turn this into a true classic. Technically, it's an extravagant glimpse at the next decade of big-budget filmmaking, but it doesn't have the story, characters or heart to find a place in your heart when the lights come back up.

WRITER & DIRECTOR: James Cameron

CAST: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldaña, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, Stephen Lang, C.C.H Pounder & Laz Alonso.

RUNNING TIME: 161 minutes BUDGET: $240 million (approx.)

Saturday, 26 December 2009

DOCTOR WHO: "The End Of Time: Part One"

[SPOILERS] Easter would be a more appropriate time for the resurrection of Doctor Who's "Antichrist" figure, which is one of many bugbears that stacked up and overwhelmed Russell T. Davies' thoughtless and preposterous script. Precision and logic has never been Davies' forte, and the first part of the Christmas conclusion of his "era" felt like impulsive fan-fiction (buoyed by exactly two fun moments), armed with a coda that attempted to salvage the imbroglio by promising us better next time...

The Master (John Simm) is resurrected by a clique of, erm, prison wardens? One of whom took ownership of the ring (er, a horcrux?) The Master fortuitously endowed with his soul, essence, or whatever. A mumbo-jumbo ritual is performed by these acolytes, despite the fact none of them should have any memory of the Harold Saxon politician he posed as during season 3's finale (and certainly no desire to seem him revived), as time was reversed and his reign of terror expunged from history. For some other equally obscure reason, The Master's wife Lucy (Alexandra Moen) is required to put the finishing touch on the group's ritual (by kissing her lipstick onto cloth -- WTF?!), but The Master's lightshow return is cut short when Lucy sabotages the life-giving potion and consequently destroys the prison where the ceremony was being held. The Master is somehow the sole survivor and escapes the devastation regardless, and the only side-effects he suffers as a result of Lucy's disruption is a ravenous appetite, bleached blonde hair, a penchant for hoodies, and Jedi-like superpowers of "force lightning" and the ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound...

The Doctor (David Tennant) is concurrently hurtling to Earth in his TARDIS after the wearisome Ood reveal just enough psychic blather about bad dreams, encroaching darkness, and a prophecy of "the end of time itself" to make it impossible for him not to. He arrives just in the nick of time, too, as The Master is busy turning burger van cooks into skeletons and eating junk food with his mouth open. Luckily, to avoid the need for a plot, it's revealed that Time Lords have the ability to smell each other's presence (a quirk that I don't remember being mentioned before, and will likely never be mentioned again), but The Doctor's distracted from fighting his arch-nemesis by the arrival of Wilf (Benard Cribbins), who has managed to track him down using a busload of elderly curtain-twitchers and a randy pensioner called Minnie (June Whitfield). There follows the episode's one good scene, as Wilf and The Doctor discuss their mortality together in a greasy spoon -- once again proving that Davies' skill lies in making small, intimate moments buzz through characterisation and dialogue, and whenever he overreaches his ambition... he flounders in a stew of half-baked ideas.

I haven't even mentioned enigmatic businessman/author Joshua Naismith (David Harewood), who is busily reconstructing an "Immortality Gate" so that his adult daughter Abigail (Tracy Ifeachor) can use it to never die (er, somehow), but needs The Master's expertise to finish his build. Of course, this so-called Immortality Gate actually has another purpose entirely, which The Master later exploits for himself -– justifying his Aryan hairdo by using his own body as a template to turn the entire human population into a "Master Race" of identical clones. Villains like him need a good pun to end on, see. There was also some guff about humans having dreams of a cackling Master which they promptly forget when they wake up -- although Wilf is the only one able to recall these nightmares, and is also being contacted by a strange old woman through his TV set. I'm assuming that Wilf's more than just an old amateur astronomer, and is perhaps of alien origin himself. Might he be a surviving Time Lord, perhaps positioned in a key role to guide The Doctor towards his destiny?

Beyond the café scene, there wasn't much for David Tennant to sink his teeth into here -- it was all just running around, looking flustered and distressed. I'm hoping Part 2 will deliver the emotional meat that befits Tennant's swansong, as otherwise this special could be a genuine travesty. Likewise, John Simm's rascally portrayal of The Master grew tedious quickly, no matter how many special powers they endowed him with. It's kind of like giving Professor Moriarty a ray gun to blast Sherlock Holmes with -– does that take the drama to another level, or diminish it entirely? Need I ask? Simm's performance as The Master wasn't to everyone's taste when he was introduced back in season 3, but at least his first dastardly plan felt relatively plausible and premeditated, whereas everything that occurs in "The End Of Time" was fuelled by improvisation and coincidence -- the writer's hand clearly visible in how it struggled to suture together its disparate threads, before just screwing them up into a ball and restaging the mass duplication scene from Being John Simm Malkovich.

Overall, while it remains very possible that Part 2 will retroactively improve certain elements of this opening gambit, "The End Of Time: Part One" was still a messy, meandering, overstuffed, often embarrassing mess. There was no poise, grace, intelligence or efficiency here, just a whole heap of odds and ends trying to find form -- even leaning on the amateurish need for a Narrator (Timothy Dalton, spitting) to lend things the veneer of gravitas. So much of it was incoherent that I was left trying to reconcile its faults in-between scenes myself -- like quite why Donna's (Catherine Tate) repressed memories came flooding back after seeing The Master; someone she's never actually met before! In the end I gave up. Maybe Timothy Dalton, the return of the Time Lords, and the death of the Tenth Doctor will stir some life into next week's conclusion.

25 December 2009
BBC1/BBC HD, 6pm

written by: Russell T. Davies directed by: Euros Lyn starring: David Tennant (The Doctor), John Simm (The Master), Bernard Cribbins (Wilf), Timothy Dalton (The Narrator), Catherine Tate (Donna), Jacquieline King (Sylvia), June Whitfield (Minnie Hooper), Claire Bloom (The Woman), David Harewood (Joshua Naismith), Tracy Ifeachor (Tracy Naismith), Lawry Lewin (Rossiter), Sinead Keenan (Addams), Alexandra Moen (Lucy Saxon), Karl Collins (Shaun Temple), Teresa Banham (Governor), Barry Howard (Oliver Barnes), Sylvia Seymour (Miss Trefusis), Brid Brennan (The Visionary), Krystal Archer (Nerys), Lachele Carl (Trinity Wells), Paul Kasey (Ood Sigma), Silas Carson (Ood Sigma, voice) & Brian Cox (Elder Ood)

Friday, 25 December 2009

Box Office Charts: w/e 25 December 2009

Avateriffic, or Avaturd?

In the US
: Unsurprisingly, James Cameron's eagerly-awaited sci-fi 3D epic AVATAR dominated the week's box-office, going straight in at #1 with a cool $73m, which is the biggest non-sequel opening ever... leaving the Hugh Grant/Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? to die with a meagre $7m opening at #4... and George Clooney's Oscar-contender UP IN THE AIR breaks into the top 10 at #8...


(-) 1. Avatar $73m
(1) 2. The Princess And The Frog $12.2m
(2) 3. The Blind Side $10m
(-) 4. Did You Hear About The Morgans? $7m
(4) 5. The Twilight Saga: New Moon $4.37m
(3) 6. Invictus $4.17m
(5) 7. A Christmas Carol $3.42m
(-) 8. Up In The Air $3.1m
(6) 9. Brothers $2.63m
(7) 10. Old Dogs $2.29m

In the UK: AVATAR is likewise a big smash-hit in the UK, although the bad weather perhaps took the edge off it cracking £10m, as it achieved £8.5 to get #1 comfortably... British-made sequel ST. TRINIAN'S 2 performed quite well considering the competition it faced, in at #2 with a decent £1.5m.


(-) 1. Avatar £8.5m
(-) 2. St. Trinian's 2: The Legend Of Fritton's Gold £1.5m
(1) 3. A Christmas Carol £1.03m
(6) 4. Nativity! £578k
(3) 5. Planet 51 £451k
(2) 6. Where The Wild Things Are £415k
(5) 7. The Twilight Zone: New Moon £349k
(7) 8. Law Abiding Citizen £307k
(4) 9. Paranormal Activity £305k
(8) 10. 2012 £171k



Biopic. A chronicle of John Lennon's childhood.
Director: Sam Taylor Wood Starring: Thomas Sangster, Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey & Ophelia Lovibond
Tomatometer: 88% (Fresh; based on 24 reviews)


Action-adventure. Detective Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart partner Watson engage in a battle of wits and brawn with a nemesis whose plot is a threat to all of England.
Director: Guy Ritchie Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel Adams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Robert Maillet & Kelly Reilly.
Tomatometer: 70% (Fresh; based on 92 reviews) "Guy Ritchie's directorial style might not be quite the best fit for an update on the legendary detective, but Sherlock Holmes benefits from the elementary appeal of a strong performance by Robert Downey, Jr."

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Twitter: Top 'Trending Topics' of 2009

One of Twitter's strengths is that it's easy to see what most people are tweeting about via the "Trending Topics". Twitter have compiled a few lists of the most popular subjects people were tweeting throughout 2009, so I thought I'd repost the media-related ones:


1. Harry Potter
2. New Moon
3. District 9
4. Paranormal Activity
5. Star Trek
6. True Blood (hm, which isn't a movie)
7. Transformers 2
8. Watchmen
9. Slumdog Millionaire
10. G.I Joe

1. American Idol
2. Glee
3. Teen Choice Awards
4. SNL (Saturday Night Live)
5. Dollhouse
6. Grey's Anatomy
7. VMAS (Video Music Awards)
8. #BSG (Battlestar Galactica)
9. BET Awards
10. Lost
While I'm here, I might as well remind you that you can follow me on Twitter, too.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Lost: Season 6 Trailer

How can you watch this and not get excited? And there's not even any new footage! Lost's sixth season starts on 2 February 2010 in the US, for one final run of excitement, thrills, action, drama, mysteries and... yes, answers.

TRAILER PARK: Kick-Ass (Hit Girl Teaser)

In case you're not aware, Kick-Ass is a new superhero-comedy adapted from Mark Millar's graphic novel by British director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust). The premise involves various youths taking it upon themselves to become superheroes in the real world, such as the titular Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) and Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

Their only "superpower" is crazy self-belief in what a homemade costume and overflowing confidence can bring you, although a few do seem to have a genuine knack for killing bad guys. The latest trailer (above) focuses on the supporting character Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), a 10-year-old assassin, and her father/mentor "Big Daddy" (Nicolas Cage). The trailer's a "red band" offering, which means it's full of graphic violence and swearing (so be careful playing it around elderly relatives this Christmas), but it's there to draw in the Kill Bill crowd by revealing its own brand of ultra-violence and sarodnic comedy. It certainly grabs your attention, and I heard good things from Comic Con this summer, although admittedly the geek crowd will be obsessing over this on principle. Kick-Ass's teaser trailer, released a few months ago, is below too:

Released: 16 April 2010 (US)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Jack Bauer interrogates Santa

Genius viral from Rebel Christmas Card 2009. Merry Christmas!

Most Watched TV Shows Of The '00s (UK)

Earlier this month I released a list of the Most Watched US TV Shows Of The '00s, which caused a bit of a stir. Now BARB have released an equivalent British list, which is actually even worse:

1. Only Fools & Horses (Christmas special, 25 Dec 01) 21.3m
2. EastEnders (5 Apr 01) 20.0m
3. Coronation Street (24 Feb 03) 19.4m
4. Britain's Got Talent (final, 30 May 09) 18.2m
5. Wallace & Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf & Death (25 Dec 08) 16.15m
6. Tonight: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Special (21 Apr 03) 16.10m
7. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (19 Jan 00) 15.8m
8. The X Factor (final, 13 Dec 09) 15.4m
9. Heartbeat (6 Feb 00) 15.1m
10. I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! (9 Feb 04) 14.9m

Yeah, I know. The American list suddenly looks incredibly discerning. Never underestimate the mass British interest in soaps and reality/quiz shows, eh? And what the hell is Heartbeat doing in there? We have a huge older generation, thanks to the NHS, I guess. The only thing I'm pleased about in that list is Wallace & Gromit. I wouldn't mind Only Fools being #1, if it wasn't for the fact the Christmas specials post-'96 were atrocious. It should also be noted that this list doesn't include sporting events -- if it did, six positions are taken up by Euro/World Cup football matches. Oh dear-y me. Well, I guess there's a chance a few Christmas treats in the next few weeks will give the list a bit more credibility at the eleventh hour...

Monday, 21 December 2009

DOLLHOUSE 2.9 & 2.10 - "Stop-Loss" & "The Attic"

[SPOILERS] Another duad of episodes that told a two-part story, which helped this double-bill transmission pass by much more smoothly. Once again, I'm extremely impressed by how Dollhouse has chosen to meet its premature cancellation, with a string of episodes that have been developing and improving with a razor-sharp precision since it came back from hiatus.

Love appears to be the best spanner to throw into the Rossum Corporation's infernal machine; first through renegade Alpha's obsession with Echo (Eliza Dushku) and now with Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra's (Dichen Lachman) childlike adoration. "Stop-Loss" was another great episode from the show, which appears to be surfing a wave of quality I'm hoping won't be cut short by a wipe-out...

Victor's contract as a doll expires, so his true identity of traumatized Gulf War vet Anthony Ceccoli is reinstated by Topher (Fran Kranz) and he's returned home with a plausible alibi for his five-year absence, sans the stress disorder that assumedly compelled him to signup as an active. However, it appears that Rossum aren't so willing to let Victor return to a normal life, as it's revealed they have a secret army comprised of former-actives who agree to be part of project "Mind Whisper" – a new technology that allows every recruited member to be linked to a group consciousness, essentially creating a hive-mind militia. Once Boyd (Harry Lennix) and Topher realize Victor's been recruited by these men, Boyd goes out into the field with Echo to try and recapture him, going against the orders of DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who has sided with her sinister employers but drinking herself into a stupor most days over the guilt.

"Stop-Loss" was an exciting and interesting instalment, giving us another angle on exactly what the Dollhouse-like technology could achieve. I wasn't that convinced Anthony would agree to be a part of this project, particularly as they went about it in a rather extreme way (breaking into his home to kidnap him), and it was unfortunate that we never got to understand exactly what Rossum plan to do with their group-army, but everything else about this episode worked very well. I often criticize Dushku on this show, but she was certainly in more comfortable territory playing a macho GI Jane-type, required to demonstrate all the martial arts and gun training she's acquired since her Buffy days, so it's easy to buy into Echo when she's being a ball-breaker with a single-minded purpose.

I've also enjoyed the odd romance between Victor and Sierra since the early days of the show, so seeing this continue was the main selling point of "Stop-Loss" for me. Anthony and Priya (Sierra's true self) have a love that can transcend mind-wiping technology, so watching Echo use their bond to break the spell Anthony was under worked very nicely. I would have liked more of a spark between Gjokaj and Lachman when they were reunited, if I'm honest, but admittedly there wasn't much quiet time between them, and both were playing characters who haven't "really" been properly introduced. To them, they just have a peculiar affinity for each other, so I can let it pass.

The episode ended on a moment many critics of the show's internal logic have been calling for, too: DeWitt finally flipped once she realized Boyd went behind her back, working against Rossum with the help of Echo and Sierra, so she had her head of security arrested and all three dolls sent to the infamous "Attic". As its name suggests, it appears to be a place where the bodies of mind-erased dolls are stored in shallow containers full of blue gel, shrink-wrapped like prized toys for an indefinite period...

"The Attic" picked up the story immediately, and took some huge steps forward in terms of the show's mythology, while keeping us entertained with a Matrix-like storyline. Echo, Sierra and Vincent are now in The Attic, which is revealed to be a virtual reality platform where every active's mind is kept in a state of chemically-induced fear, essentially bringing their nightmares to vivid life. This never-ending terror can only be stopped if an active achieves brain-death through the sheer mental exhaustion.

Echo's torment is to be eternally stuck in a dream where she escapes from Attic captivity, only to watch her friends Sierra and Vincent gunned down while fleeing, before the situation resets and repeats. She also meets another resident of The Attic, former-head of security Mr. Dominic (Reed Diamond), and the pair decide to work together in an effort to escape this infernal mindscape – particularly as a muscled phantom known as "Arcane" appears to be hunting down the Attic's residents. They soon realize that every Dollhouse Attic around the world is interconnected (quite a flaw, that), so they can travel between different people's constructed nightmares (including a Japanese businessman with no legs), and eventually hook-up with Anthony/Victor (trapped in an unwinnable military campaign) and Priya/Sierra (forever having sex with Victor, before he turns into the rapist she killed in "Belonging".)

The general premise behind "The Attic" was certainly nothing new to science-fiction, so I was slightly disappointed that Joss Whedon didn't cook up something more distinctive. However, it was breathlessly entertaining, imaginatively directed, and eventually tightened into quite a revelatory package. The boogieman "Arcane" was revealed to be geeky programmer Clyde Randolph (Adam Godley), one half of Rossum's founders who was sent to The Attic back in '93 when he realized his colleagues were planning to use his technology for amoral purposes. His bespoke "nightmare" has been to run simulations into where his technology will ultimately lead humanity, and it seems that every permutation leads to the end of civilization (as seen in "Epitaph One").

Working together, the Attic prisoners devised a way to break free of their virtual world, by killing Echo (it's okay, she's "special" so she can take it) so that she'd awaken in the real-world and be able to break everyone else out when they likewise flatline. There was even a very nice redemptive twist involving Olivia, when it was revealed that she actually sent Echo to The Attic on purpose so she could uncover the truth about Rossum's plans and mount a breakout. A minor subplot also had Topher installing "active architecture" onto the healthy areas of Ballard's scarred brain, effectively turning him into a doll imprinted with his own personality.

Overall, both episodes were another double-whammy for a show that's really kicked things up several gears in December. Another hiatus is upon us until mid-January, but we'll return with a final batch of episodes where the entire Dollhouse staff are now allied to takedown the Rossum Corporation. Will the dystopia of "Epitaph One" come to pass, inescapably? Or will Joss Whedon allow things to end on a triumphant note? I somehow doubt it. You can't "un-invent" technology like this – you can only hope to control it.

17 December 2009
Fox, 8/7c

written by: Andrew Chambliss (2.9) & Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon (2.10) directed by: Félix Enríquez Alcalá (2.9) & John Cassaday (2.10) starring: Eliza Dushku (Echo), Harry Lennix (Boyd Langton), Fran Kranz (Topher Brink), Olivia Williams (Adelle DeWitt), Enver Gjokaj (Victor/Anthony Ceccoli), Dichen Lachman (Sierra/Priya Tsetsang), Liza Lapira (Ivy), Michael King (Hagan) / Tahmoh Penikett (Ballard), Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic), Adam Godley (Clyde Randolph), Tzi Ma (Matsu), Billy Snow (Restored Active), Keir Thirus (Myers) & Vincent Ventresca (Nolan Kinnard)

Christmas TV Picks: 21-27 December 2009

Victoria Wood: Seen On TV (BBC2, 8.30pm) The comedian looks back at her career.
The Millies: A Night Of Heroes (ITV1, 9pm) Award ceremony honouring the British Armed Forces. Hosted by Phillip Schofield & Amanda Holden.

The Funny Side Of Christmas (BBC2, 8pm) Clips from festive television from the BBC's extensive back catalogue. Hosted by Clive Anderson.
Come Dine With Me (Channel 4, 8pm) Festive special of the dining competition series.
Christmas Guinness World Records (Sky1, 8pm) Record-breaking challenged with a seasonal theme.
Mock The Week (BBC2, 9pm) Christmas special of the news comedy panel show.
Alan Carr: Chatty Man Christmas Special (Channel 4, 10.20pm) Festive edition of the comedian's chat show. Guests are Cilla Black, Justin Lee Collins, David Walliams & The Saturdays.
Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe Of The Year (BBC4, 10.30pm) Special edition of the TV entertainment review series, taking a retrospective look at 2009.

Harry Hill's TV Burp Of The Year (ITV1, 7.30pm) Special episode of the comedy TV guide that reviews 2009.

My Family (BBC1, 8pm) Christmas special.
Victoria Wood's Midlife Christmas (BBC1, 9pm) Christmas special from the comedian.
Celebrity Shock List 2009 (Five, 9pm) Countdown show of the 50 most bizarre or outrageous events to rock the world of the rich and famous this year.

Top Of The Pops (BBC1, 2pm) Festive special featuring Robbie Williams, Shakira, Lily Allen & JLS, amongst others.
The Gruffalo (BBC1, 5.30pm) Animated adaptation of the popular children's book. Voiced by Robbie Coltrane, James Corden, Helena Bonham-Carter, Rob Brydon & John Hurt.
Doctor Who: The End Of Time (BBC1, 6pm) First part of the seasonal special, with The Doctor battling The Master. Stars David Tennant, Catherine Tate, David Harewood & John Simm. Concludes on New Year's Day.
Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (BBC1, 7pm) Festive edition of the dancing reality show, where three celebs from the 2009 series compete against past stars Gethin Jones, Rachel Stevens and Austin Healey.
All Star Mr & Mrs Christmas Special (ITV1, 8pm) Special edition of the relationship quiz, starring Joan Collins, Emma Bunton and Andrew Whyment.
The Royle Family: The Golden Eggcup (BBC1, 9pm) Christmas special of the northern sitcom. Stars Ricky Tomlinson, Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash & Sue Johnston.
The Catherine Tate Show: Nan's Christmas Carol (BBC1, 10.30pm) A modern retelling of Dickens' Christmas Carol with Tate's potty-mouthed Nan character in the role of Scrooge. Stars Ben Miller, David Tennant & Roger Lloyd-Pack.

Total Wipeout: Celebrity Special (BBC1, 6pm) Celebrity special of the giant obstacle course gameshow. Featuring Joe Swash, Fatima Whitbread and Ola Jordan.
Ant & Dec's Christmas Show (ITV1, 7pm) Christmas entertainment from the popular presenters, with special guest Robbie Williams.
All Star Family Fortunes (ITV, 8.45pm) A special edition of the gameshow, where the The Webster family from Coronation Street compete against Emmerdale's King family.
All Star Impression Show (BBC1, 9.30pm) Celebs go undercover as other celebs. Features Mackenzie Crook, Bobby Davro, Sally Lindsay, Jerry Hall, Liz Smith, Les Dennis, Joe Pasquale, Eamonn Holmes, Claire Sweeney & David Gest.

Celebrity Mastermind (BBC1, 7.30pm) Celeb edition of the cerebral quiz. Featuring Goldie, Paul O'Grady, Olympian Gail Emms & Loyd Grossman.
Steve Coogan: The Inside Story (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary on the comedy-actor.
The Greatest TV Show of the Noughties (Channel 4, 9pm) Countdown show of the 20 best TV shows of the '00s.
Outnumbered: Christmas Special (BBC1, 10.30pm) Festive special of the half-improvised family sitcom.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Box-Eyed: 12 Treats Of Christmas

Over at this week it's my annual 12 Treats Of Christmas, where I list my pick of the best festive TV specials worth watching over the next few weeks. There's a documentary on a comedy great, a Dickensian parody, filmed Shakespeare, a classic ghost story, a sequel 34-years in the making, a jungle driving adventure, maneating plants, an animated mouse, warring time-travellers, sketch shows, a slovenly family, and more!

Poll update: Best TV Of The '00s

My poll to see what you think the best TV show of the past decade was has hit a few snags. As I feared, a few fanbase's have found the poll and started to skew the result by getting their masses to vote. As I made very clear when this started, those shows have now been removed from the poll. So, sorry if you voted for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or Firefly, but your fans let you down and cost your show a placing. If it makes you feel better, those shows weren't in the top 10 when the voting started to get suspicious.

Anyway, I encourage you to vote if you haven't done so already (closing date 17 Jan), but it's not a good idea to link to this poll in any fan forums or on Facebook. Some people obviously can't be trusted to vote sensibly, which is a shame for all the genuine fans out there who voted within the rules and didn't just get thousands of their online fans to corrupt the poll. Would those people have been satisfied with a cheated win, anyway? Sigh. I've now increased security to block multiple votes from the same IP addresses, which might cause a few people problems on certain networks (apparently). Apologies if this affects you registering your 10 votes, but I'd rather do that than have to eliminate any more shows from the running.

MERLIN 2.13 – "The Last Dragonlord"

[SPOILERS] We're left to assume the Dragon (John Hurt) has been playing a long con with Merlin (Colin Morgan) these past few years, as there's no other explanation for why he'd attack Camelot and endanger Arthur's (Bradley James) life, as he spent most of series 1 insisting that prince and sorcerer are prophesized to rule an enlightened kingdom once Uther (Anthony Head) is dethroned. The fate of poisoned Morgana was also left dangling from last week, although Gaius (Richard Wilson) made it clear the king's ward hasn't died (as many fans erroneously believed.) Fortunately, such quibbles paled into insignificance against the many positives of "The Last Dragonlord" finale...

Continuing from last week's "The Fires Of Idirsholas", the Great Dragon has been unleashed from its subterranean prison by a guilt-ridden Merlin, who can only watch in anguish as the beast starts razing Camelot to the ground, with the king's knights powerless in the face of such awesome, scorching destruction. However, Gaius reminds Uther that the beast can be slayed by one of the supposedly extinct "Dragonlords", who were wiped out by Uther many years ago for their faith in the Old Religion -- but Gaius knows of one famous Dragonlord who survived: Balinor (John Lynch). Arthur and Merlin are summarily dispatched to find this potential saviour, who was last known to be living in a neighbouring enemy realm, but matters are complicated for Merlin when Gaius reveals that Balinor is the boy's long lost father...

The beauty of this episode was its elegant simplicity. While this straightforwardness meant the story was content to tread a fairly familiar path (including a few clichés), it allowed room for some excellent action sequences and more emotionally-satisfying moments than I was expecting. I'm a sucker for a good father/son relationship in telefantasy, so watching Merlin finally track down his estranged father, living as a bearded hermit in a cave, created some legitimately tear-jerking scenes. Balinor is endowed with magic and has spent most of his life as a fugitive from intolerant Uther, having been tricked into allowing the king to make an example of the last dragon by imprisoning it. Merlin is hesitant to blurt out his knowledge of their relationship infront of Arthur, but it's not too long before the truth is revealed over a roaring nighttime campfire...

Colin Morgan has felt oddly sidelined this year, mainly because his character hasn't really developed as much as the other regulars. Sure, he's always present and has a vital role in the stories, but nothing significant has actually changed for him this year. Morgana's "awakening", Arthur's run-ins with Uther, and Gwen's (Angel Coulby) unspoken relationship with Arthur have all been more interesting than the scraps thrown Merlin's way (like his unconvincing romance in "The Lady Of The Lake"), but these last few episodes have given Morgan a chance to shine. And he was practically effervescent in his handling of the emotions Merlin was going through during this finale.

Seeing Merlin reveal his identity to Balinor was a particularly wonderful, understated scene, later topped by the way Merlin's voice cracked when his father called him "son" and he responded with a heartfelt, overjoyed "sleep well, father." Guest star John Lynch was magnificent throughout, too; a very credible father for Merlin, who brought a lot of quiet, intense sobriety to the part. The death of Balinor, after an attack by enemy soldiers in a forest, was also well-handled –- as Merlin was overwhelmed with grief at losing the father he was only just getting to know, but had to hide his feelings infront of the oblivious Arthur.

I'm a little disappointed that Balinor was introduced and killed off so quickly, though, as I'd have liked to see his relationship with Merlin grow over the course of more episodes. It felt like a missed opportunity in many ways, although I can't deny the impact it had on this story, and how the death of a parent gives Merlin something else in common with Arthur. I just hope the series won't come to regret killing someone whose role in Merlin's life could have been quite fascinating if allowed to mature.

The episode climaxed excitingly, with Merlin aware that Balinor's ability to commune with dragons has been passed onto him as a result of his untimely death, before riding out with Arthur's men to fight the rampaging beast in a nearby clearing. I especially enjoyed the moment where Arthur was preparing for a battle he likely wouldn't return from, and being mightily impressed by Merlin's willingness to tag along. Morgan and James continue to have a very natural, brotherly rapport that works brilliantly and feels completely believable.

The special effects were a lot slicker than I was expecting for the airborne Dragon, too -- particularly in light of the fact Merlin often struggles to make its CGI monsters look convincing when they're required to interact with the cast. As an entity, the Dragon worked much better when it wasn't talking for once, and the sequence when Merlin was finally able to play "dragon whisperer" and defeat the beast by showing mercy in light of its species' rarity, was a fine ending that left the door open for the grateful creature's return. As the Dragon inferred in its parting words before flying to freedom, Merlin's leniency felt like a notable step forward in his evolution from gawky adolescent to sagacious young man.

Overall, "The Last Dragonlord" was really quite wonderful and emotionally satisfying stuff, providing an excellent showcase for Morgan in a story that hit the right notes as this year's big conclusion. It's been great to see Merlin improve so immensely in series 2, apparently gaining more fans as people tuned in thanks to strong word-of-mouth, and I'm pleased that a third series has been commissioned by the BBC. In HD, too! Now that the wise Dragon's disappeared, I'm hoping we'll get stories where Merlin doesn't have all the answers given to him in the last ten minutes, so he can start acting more independently and has to use his own knowledge to defeat evildoers. More excitingly, I'm now fairly contented that Merlin's producers/writers have started to get a handle on their show, and things can only get better...

19 December 2009
BBC1, 5.45pm

written by: Julian Jones directed by: Jeremy Webb starring: Colin Morgan (Merlin), Richard Wilson (Gaius), Anthony Head (Uther), John Lynch (Balinor), John Hurt (Dragon, voice), Bradley James (Arthur), Angel Coulby (Gwen), Rupert Young (Sir Leon) & Jonathan Coyne (Asgerd)

Saturday, 19 December 2009


The final Comedy Showcase pilot ended the season on a real downer. Girl Friday was a heinous carbuncle of a sketch show, apparently throwing together a mix of rising stars and mildly-recognisable faces who have small roles in bad sitcoms. There was Sara Pascoe (ironically best known for a role in Free Agents, which was a Comedy Showcase success last year), Josie Long (a likeable stand-up comedian now appearing on panel shows every other week), Kerry Howard (sister of comedian Russell, who also played the gormless secretary in this year's Reggie Perrin remake), newcomer Nat Luurtsema, Kathryn Drysdale (the dippy one from Two Pints...), and Lu Corfield (RADA-trained jobbing actress).

The cast wasn't exactly stellar, although there's something very charming about Josie Long and Kerry Howard definitely has some talent, but everyone else was largely forgettable. Of course, the main problem here was that none of the sketches were actually very funny – with the "highlights" only raising a wry smile, at best. I quite liked the roadside mechanic staging a cliché from a slasher film in order to get a car started, but that was literally the only sketch that lodged in my memory. The rest was very weak, but made worse by the fact quite a few bad sketches/ideas (a dire parody of Loose Women called Looser Women, for example) kept recurring with alarming regularity, as if the writers genuinely thought they were comedy gems the audience would lap up.

Hate to say it, but Smack The Pony is still the only all-female sketch show that's ever worked for me (as a man), but maybe something about Girl Friday got lost in translation between the sexes. All I know is that I didn't laugh once and found most of it rather uninspired (a séance uses a Ouija board to talk to text-speaking ghosts) or dull (old folk recalling odd memories of The Blitz). A few half-decent ideas just didn't go anywhere unexpected or interesting (like a woman meeting her two-timing stalker in a bar), and there wasn't enough raw potential for me to consider giving Girl Friday another chance. A disappointing end to what's been a disappointing run of Comedy Showcase this year.

18 December 2009
Channel 4, 10.05pm

written by: Josie Long, Kerry Howard, Sara Pascoe, Nat Luurtsema, Kathryn Drysdale & Lu Corfield directed by: Ben Palmer starring: Josie Long, Kerry Howard, Sara Pascoe, Nat Luurtsema, Kathryn Drysdale & Lu Corfield