Friday, 28 July 2006

INTERNET OF INTEREST #5

Yes, here are some more notable sites from internetland this week. Enjoy!

Back To The Future Version 1: I'm sure most of you are fans of this seminal 80's time-travel classic, but did you know that Eric Stoltz was the original star, not Michael J. Fox? Well, okay, so you did. But this website has some fantastic screenshots of Stoltz as Marty McFly! In a parallel universe, Stoltz probably had a career and Fox was in Fly II...

More Kill Bill: Quentin Tarantino speaks about his plans for a prequel and sequel to his blockbuster kung fu flicks from 2003/04...

Star Trek XI Poster: Lost creator JJ Abrams is taking over the Star Trek franchise, with a likely prequel movie starring a younger Kirk and Spock. Check out the retro poster!

Babylon 5 Is Back: I never liked Babylon 5 (I was a DS9er) so this news doesn't excite me, but I'm sure fans of B5 will get a kick out of its DVD return...

Watch TV Online: but where, I hear you ask! Ask no more, check out this website... but remember that the emphasis is on US citizens...

Thursday, 27 July 2006

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE - Early Footage

The creators of next year's Simpsons movie debuted some very early footage to audiences at the San Diego Comic Con recently. Both scenes are crudely animated storyboards, but the vocal performances are in place and, I have to say, the humour is certainly back! I haven't actually laughed at a Simpsons episode in quite a few years now, so I'm hopeful the movie will revitalize the flagging show.

See the exclusive clips yourself, right here:



Wednesday, 26 July 2006

HEROES 1.1 – "Genesis"

WRITERS: Tim Kring DIRECTOR: Dave Semel
CAST:
Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli), Santiago Cabrera (Isaac Mendez), Ali Larter (Niki Sanders), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet), more...

During a solar eclipse, seven people discover they have developed unique superpowers, such as flight, precognition, teleportation and mind-reading. But why has this happened, and how are the group destined to save the world?

Heroes is one of the hottest new shows of the upcoming US TV season, due to start airing in September on NBC. The Pilot episode (Genesis) essentially sets the premise in motion, as we meet a group of disparate individuals who all begin to develop super powers during a solar eclipse.

Milo Ventimiglia plays Peter Petrelli, a 30-year-old nurse who dreams he can fly, and is so convinced he may actually be able launch himself off a tall building, that he tries to convince his successful elder brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar), who is busy running for political office.

Santiago Cabrera plays Isaac Mendez, a drug-addicted 28-year-old painter who discovers his paintings are actually predicting future events.

Ali Larter
(Final Destination) plays Las Vegas internet stripper Niki Sanders, a young woman who begins to suspect her own reflection is a powerful alter-ego, while trying to pay off a loan shark and put her gifted son through school.

Masi Oka plays 24-year-old Japanese computer geek Hiro Nakamura, an office drone who experiments with his new found ability to bend the space/time continuum, but can't convince a co-worker he's not crazy.

Hayden Panettiere plays Claire Bennet, 17, a cheerleader who finds she's impervious to physical injury and can miraculously heal herself. With the help of a friend, she sets about keeping a video diary of her abilities.

Intriguingly, there are two characters mentioned as starring in Heroes that don't appear in this first part: Leonard Roberts as D.L Hawkins, a prison inmate who can walk through walls; and Greg Grunberh as Matt Parkman, a cop who can read minds. These characters will appear in the second part, which was not made available for early review.

Sadly, the first part of the 2-hour Pilot episode is quite weak and contrived, and shamelessly steals from better sources. Its tone is trying to evoke M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (a lead character even shares Bruce Willis' super power), the overall premise of "gifted" individuals appearing as the result of evolution is clearly influenced by X-Men (a lead character even mentions the comic!), and its format is indebted to Lost.

The Lost parallels are the most interesting: Heroes also deals with multiple characters, one of whom is foreign (Hiro, the Japanese geek) and speaks with subtitles. But the key similarly is how the characters' lives seem to intersect (an enigmatic villain is revealed to be the father of one of the heroes, Pete the "flying" nurse attends to the precognitive painter, a Japanese man is logged onto Niki's website, etc.)

It's one thing to be influenced by others, but Heroes is simply a melting pot of ideas, concepts and formats done much better elsewhere. All Heroes does is pool these ideas and hopes they'll gel together into something greater than the sum of their parts. It fails.

To be fair, the one moderately original idea Heroes has is that (mostly) every character treats their new powers with the joy it deserves. I'm personally fed up with Peter Parker moaning about being Spider-Man, and Bruce Wayne beating himself up about being Batman. Heroes' characters all find salvation in their powers and it's refreshing to see -- Niki has a way to fight back against some gangsters, Hiro can escape his repetitive life, Pete can aspire to step out of the shadow of his successful brother, etc.

There are some good visuals to be found here from veteran TV director David Semel (a dislocated shoulder, a mangled hand, subway time-travel, the opening building leap, etc.) but very little else to sustain actual interest. I've always enjoyed the superhero genre, so it was interesting to see each character's power manifest, but none of them has an ability we haven't seen countless times before (flying, healing, teleportation). The only original power is Niki's malevolent mirror image, but it's also the most unbelievable and ill-conceived ability. I can suspend my disbelief at flying nurses and time-travelling office workers, but having an evil reflection? Nah, sorry...

In terms of writing Heroes is also pretty weak work from creator Tim Kring; the entire Pilot simply alternates between five sub-plots, where we're introduced to each person's life and power. Unfortunately, none of the characters seem to lead particularly interesting lives. Only Niki's struggles to bring up her son and pay off her debts held my interest, and even that story is a cliché.

The Pilot also sets up a hazy mythology about Mohinder Suresh, an Indiana professor who believes such an evolutionary leap was imminent, before apparently escaping to New York to become a cab driver. A shadowy villain in horn-rimmed glasses is also glimpsed throughout the show, and is clearly aware of the professor's beliefs. I suppose this undercurrent will inform the series as it progresses, and it's far too early to say if this facet to the show will prove to be enduring. All I can say is that it certainly didn't grab my interest here. I was too busy wrinkling my brow at the supposed link between a solar eclipse and the dawning of these super-beings. Suspension of disbelief is in overdrive, folks...

The actors are the usual good-looking assortment of cute all-American girls and male models... with a gibbering geek as comic relief. Oh, and for a show quite likely created by sci-fi fans, I found the number of Star Trek references extremely irritating and outdated. Feminists are also going to have a field day with Heroes, as its two female characters are a cheerleader and a stripper! Not exactly extolling the virtues of Girl Power, are they? It's disappointing that the producers clearly didn't consider having women in less stereotyped roles, and another subtle hint that the target audience are male teens who really don't care so long as Ali Larter strips at some point in the season...

Adrian Pasdar was watchable, as was Ali Larter (not just for salacious reasons, I promise!), but the rest of the cast were very thinly drawn (heck, the painter just acts crazy for a few minutes!) Each sub-plot also lurches about without much logic or charm; witness the moment when Claire enters a fiery building without being noticed and is somehow able to immediately locate someone to rescue! However, this review is based on just half of the full-length Pilot leaked onto the internet. I'm sure the visuals will be improved, a few scenes will be trimmed, temporary music replaced, and the whole thing polished. There's also the strong possibility that the second part will bring cohesion to the story and begin layering the sketchily drawn characters. However, there's no denying that so far Heroes just seems incredibly unoriginal, badly scripted and weakly performed.

The only good sign is that it's taking its stylistic cues from Unbreakable and not Mutant X! I'll still say Heroes is one to keep an eye on, particularly for fans brought up on Superman and Batman, and I'll certainly be watching to see if it improves during its initial 13-episode run. But, let's just say I won't be surprised if the Heroes aren't rescued from early cancellation...

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

SAXONDALE - Episode 6 - TV REVIEW
Series 1. 24 Jul 06. BBC 2, 10:00 pm
WRITERS: Steve Coogan & Neil Maclennon DIRECTOR: Matt Lipsey
CAST: Steve Coogan (Tommy Saxondale), Ruth Jones (Magz),
Rasmus Hardiker (Raymond), Morwenna Banks (Vicky), Ben Miller (Bernard Langley), James Bachman (Therapist), Tony Way (Pest Controller) & Andrew O'Neil (Hi-Fi Shop Owner)


The penultimate episode of Saxondale belatedly marks a rise in consistency, with a clearer plot and more overt laughs to be had. In Episode 6, Tommy and Raymond investigate a rival pest control firm's supposedly underhand tactics with local flea infestations, allowing for more of the brilliantly underplayed comedy between the two actors.

Rasmus Hardiker has a pretty thankless role in the show, often pushed into the background to just look gormless and give weak smiles to Tommy's antics, and nothing much changes here... but his understated expressions remain highlights of the show for me. He has an easy-going chemistry with Coogan that works well, and it's nice to see Episode 6 capitalizing on Raymond's vacant personality. A scene where Raymond lingers in an office after Tommy has made his dramatic exit ranks as one of the show's biggest laughs.

Steve Coogan has certainly created a brilliantly observed character. As a show, Saxondale has problems, but none of them are really the fault of the characters, particularly Tommy himself. I particularly like how Tommy veers crazily from being a buffoon (an embarrassing moment when flea eggs are revealed to be glucose powder is excellent), but is also quite competent (there's a fantastic hi-fi jargon face-off) and semi-cool (the wonderful air-gun shoot-out).

What set this episode apart is the fact it actually had a proper narrative story. It was still a little uneven, and a falconry sub-plot was essentially pointless, but it was nice to see Saxondale provide something meatier for your mind to chew on. It's all very well watching expertly performed characters speak carefully-crafted dialogue, but it's all quite hollow without a reason for events to be happening and a bigger picture to be interested in.

Ruth Jones is criminally wasted every week, which is a great shame as she's proven herself a talented comic actress in Nighty, Night. She's even more marginalized this week, a cruel snub to her talents that writers Coogan and Maclennon should rectify for the probable second series.

Morwenna Banks is superb as Vicky the secretary, a brilliant creation that even upstages Coogan in their scenes. It's even more amazing because her character is actually quite slight, yet she makes Vicky into an undoubted highlight each week. The antagonism between the pair is very good, and it was nice to see Tommy actively try and crush her acidic twittering this time by pointing out her grammatical mistakes and Bible ignorance. It's just a shame for Tommy that Vicky's so vapid to even understand his witty retorts.

Overall, it's becoming increasingly difficult to rate any episode of Saxondale higher (or indeed lower) than a 3 out of 5! This is a good sitcom with superb performances and smart writing, but it still lacks decent plots and broader laughs. Saxondale bubbles along very nicely every week, and always provide chuckles and admiration for its actors, but it just never flies into unexpected territory to provide some gut-busting laughs.

However, for what it's worth, I found Episode 6 to be marginally better than the previous episodes because of the broader laughs to be found (air-gun, hi-fi jargon, flea eggs, the "toxic" drink) and the presence of an involving story. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of subtle dialogue and performance-based comedy, and Saxondale is a clear proponent of that style, but to really achieve success I think a balance is still yet to be found...

Monday, 24 July 2006

SEQUELS: THREE'S THE CHARM?

I remember the days when a movie's sequel was often derided for being inferior to its predecessor -- on principle. The problem is that most films are designed to be self-contained stories; with plot, character, and structure working towards a resolution. There's rarely a need for a sequel for the majority of films made, unless the premise is sufficiently flexible to allow another story using the same characters, or it's designed to be a trilogy from the beginning.

Oh, and if the studio makes millions and get greedy...

There are famous examples of good sequels, however: The Godfather Part II (better than the original?), Batman Returns, Star Trek II (the best Trek), Terminator 2, Superman II (more entertaining?), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (more expansive), Aliens (more elaborate), X-Men II (better story), Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Toy Story 2, Gremlins 2, Hot Shots Part Deux, etc...

But it's still debatable if these films are actually better than the originals, rather than just decent continuations. Many sequels twist the original's premise to a fresh degree (T2 is effectively a remake, but with two cyborgs), some sequels send the same characters into another adventure (Bill and Ted go to Heaven and Hell, Toy Story 2 focused on a Woody rescue, Superman fought super-villains, Batman fought different enemies), and some sequels clearly begin to forge a trilogy/saga (X-Men II, Aliens, etc.)

There's usually no denying that most sequels are worse, and rarely better than the original: Back To The Future Part II (too convoluted), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (an excuse for visuals), Ghostbusters II (weak story), Die Hard 2 (formulaic), Robocop 2 (too sadistic), Men In Black II (too similar), Predator 2 (too numbing), Speed 2 (boring), Scary Movie 2 (not scary... or funny), Airplane II (too recycled), Tomb Raider 2 (poor), 2010 (dumb), Ace Ventura 2 (unfunny), etc.

But perhaps it's time to reassess the situation. Nobody expects sequels to be better, so we're pleasantly surprised when they're at least entertaining. For all their obvious faults, I'd still say The Lost World, Die Hard 2, Predator 2 and RoboCop 2 entertained me, for example... and therefore they aren't the travesties they're often considered.

Recently, the trend in film has been for trilogies or prequels. George Lucas has a lot to answer for! Some movies even go beyond trilogies into full-blown sagas of 4 or more films! How have these movies fared? If a single sequel struggles to earn its worth, what about Part III's and IV's?

Strangely, the pedigree for "threequels" is better than sequels! Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King is many peoples' favourite in the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions is preferred over part 2 by many people, likewise Jurassic Park III, Star Wars: The Return Of The Jedi is fondly remembered, Back To The Future Part III was entertaining, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 improvement on 2, Lethal Weapon 3 is pretty good, Alien 3 continues to gain respect in light of the trite fourth chapter, Die Hard With A Vengeance is better than Die Hard 2, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade is a fine adventure in the same vein as Raiders, Austin Powers In Goldmember is better than Spy Who Shagged Me, Terminator 3 wasn’t the expected turkey it could have been, Dawn Of The Dead is considered the best of Romero's zombie saga, and I'm sure Spider-Man 3 and Pirates Of The Caribbean 3 will both be pretty decent movies next year, too...

Mind you, we’re forgetting Batman Forever, Scream 3, Superman III, Star Trek III, RoboCop 3, The Godfather Part III, X-Men III, Karate Kid Part 3, Beverly Hills Cop III, Omen: The Final Conflict, Police Academy 3, Home Alone 3, Jaws 3D, Friday The 13th Part III, etc.

Things definitely turn murky for Part IV's. Jaws: The Revenge, Alien Resurrection, Police Academy 4, Superman IV, Lethal Weapon 4, Batman & Robin, The Next Karate Kid... ahem. Yes, best to leave sequels alone the third part... although Star Trek IV offers a glimmer of hope for franchise-makers...


So I guess the jury's still out! But I don't think you can write off sequels on principle these days (especially Part III's it would seem!) Movies are increasingly being made as multi-part money-spinners, thanks to Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings. And, provided the premise is strong enough, lightning can strike the same place twice (just maybe not as strongly as the first time...)

Sunday, 23 July 2006

INTERNET OF INTEREST #4

I'm hoping to review the US TV pilot episodes for The Nine, Traveler and Heroes very soon, months before they air in America, and perhaps 6 months until they touch down in the UK!

In the meantime, I know many of you like the internet of interest links, so here they are:

Spider-Man 3 Animators: a very interesting insight into the difficulties of bringing comic-book characters to the big screen...

Star Wars vs Dune: ever realize just how similar George Lucas' Star Wars is to Dune?

German novel defeats Potter and Da Vinci
: a new German book is decimating both Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code in its native land. Will the book go on to dominate the world?

Serenity/Firefly Documentary FREE download: if you're a fan of Joss Whedon's sci-fi adventure, be sure to download the free documentary!

Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Preview: Oh, I love YouTube...

25 Cinematic Cliches: fun list of movie cliches you know and love/hate...

Friday, 21 July 2006

"FREDDY VS JASON" (2003) – DVD REVIEW
REGION 1. PICTURE: 2.35:1 (WS)/4:3 (FS) AUDIO: DD EX 5.1/2.0
DIRECTOR: Ronny Yu WRITERS: Damian Shannon & Mark Swift
CAST: Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), Monica Keena (Lori Campbell), Jason Ritter (Will Rollins), Kelly Rowland (Kia Waterson), Ken Kirzinger (Jason Voorhees), Chris Marquette (Charle Linderman), more...


Director Ronny Yu successfully relaunched demonic doll Chucky on audiences, with Bride Of Chucky (1998); by downplaying the horror and upping the kinetic action, gore, and laughs. It was a smart mix that made the Child's Play character more accessible for newcomers while never alienating fans. Yu continues this trick for Freddy Vs Jason, the long-awaited grudge match between two of the horror genre's most enduring villains –- A Nightmare On Elm Street's Freddy Krueger and Friday 13th's Jason Voorhees.

A prologue (clips of Nightmare movies, mixed with new pre-burns Freddy flashbacks) outlines the birth and modus operandi of Mr Krueger. It transpires that Freddy's reign of nightmare-induced deaths in the all-American town of Springwood has come to an end. The curse of diminishing sequels, huh? Well, no, actually the town's adults have successfully repressed the memory of Krueger so that the town's kids are no longer aware of Freddy and susceptible to his influence. Out of mind, out of sight...

But Freddy has a plan to invoke terror on Springwood/Elm Street once again, by resurrecting fellow psychopath Jason Voorhees to go on a killing spree...

Freddy Vs Jason isn't a scary movie. The violence is playful and sometimes beautiful, the gore is absurdly exaggerated (decapitated dad), and CGI neuters the horror by reminding us of its digital falsity (a nose amputation), yet a great deal of the movie works because it stays true to the characters, has strict internal logic, and offers a plot and level of mayhem that marks a high for both franchises. But it's not scary. It's having far too much fun to really care about orchestrating genuine chills.

Given a sprightly run-time, Yu packs a lot into the movie; barely a scene goes by without violence, or the threat of violence from Freddy/Jason. It's fast, savage, and does exactly what it says on the tin. With 17 movies between them, there really isn't anything fresh or interesting to say about each character individually (Freddy's the paedophile child-killer, victim of vigilante justice, able to continue killing via dreams; Jason's the indestructible bullied mummy's boy who drowned in a lake and returns to slaughter with his machete), but by forcing the two killers together... Freddy Vs Jason actually transcends its roots to provide some intriguing subtext.

The cast (the meat?) of the story are the usual assortment of adolescent clichés; the misogynist boyfriend, the embittered geek, the sexy virgin, the loudmouth slut, a duo of stoners, the handsome ex-lover, etc. It seems pointless to bemoan clichés in the slasher genre, as they're now ingrained in the fabric of these movies, and removing them would upset the apple cart (do you cut kissing from rom-coms, or explosions from action movies?) For what it's worth, the cast give better performances than you'd expect, with one even getting a noble death scene quite at-odds with the genre's "everyone must die gruesomely" mentality.

The most memorable aspect of Freddy Vs Jason is how well-crafted it is. Shannon and Swift's script adheres to genre conventions (dumb teens making dumber decisions), honours the original films (Nightmare 3's dream-preventing drug returns), ensures there are imaginative deaths (folding bed), and culminates in a genuinely exciting monster-et-monster standoff between Krueger and Voorhees. Director Yu is clearly having great fun, and visually gives the movie a glossy sheen absent from the low-budget 80's/90's instalments of all Nightmares and Fridays.

A few scenes are particularly strong: a Freddy shadow in the street, Jason slaughtering party-goers in a crop field with a fiery machete, Freddy leaping out of Crystal Lake onto a pier, Jason being impaled by dozens of razor-sharp steel rods, Freddy using Jason as a human pinball, and (in a brilliant sequence that evokes chills and sympathy) the moment when Freddy discovers Jason's fear of water and creates a shower that shrinks the behemoth down to a whimpering deformed child.

Robert Englund, horror veteran and icon, could probably play Freddy in his sleep by now. The Nightmare On Elm Street sequels reduced Freddy to a humorous anti-hero, and this incarnation of Freddy survives for Yu's movie. Freddy is quick with the one-liners and pithy remarks, but does get a few chances to make the blood run cold. As a character, I find him more interesting than Jason, although his "nightmare killings" usually mean he plays second-fiddle to the effects (a stoned caterpillar!), and his most gruesome killing barely features him (the blood bath/foot veins scene).

Canadian stuntman Ken Kirzinger makes his debut as Jason (four-time Jason Ken Hodder was replaced, much to fan chagrin), but it’s hardly difficult to stomp around with a machete, is it? Still, Kirzinger is taller than Hodder (6'5") and undoubtedly has more presence. Jason's killings all take place in the real world, and as such he gets the most ferocious slayings (usually by penetrating "rape" with his machete/penis). One early killing is even shot as if it were a male rape.

Monica Keena is the obligatory virginal heroine (Lori Campbell), a beautifully cute screen presence familiar to Dawson's Creek viewers, who actually does well in crafting a heroine with morals. The rest of the cast are drawn thinner, falling into archetypes, but nobody really underperforms and everyone seems to be treating the material with the right degree of tongue-in-cheek humour. For Destiny's Child fans, it was surprising to me that singer Kelly Rowland was actually pretty good.

The special effects are a good mix of old-school (blood-spurting dummies), and new-school (CGI shadow), but the emphasis is on good old-fashioned blood-bags and make-up. The climactic battle between the titular titans is essentially an elongated punch-up, with each semi-omnipotent do-badder refusing to die. This is cartoon violence for adults, made clear in a moment Freddy accidentally strings himself up by the foot whilst on the verge of defeating Jason. Wile E. Coyote would be proud.

Overall, fans of either villain will surely love this movie; it's one of the best "sequels" to either franchise, and is even quite accessible to new horror fans, while ensuring you get the urge to revisit those "video nasties" of yesteryear. If you don't have any affinity for Freddy, Jason, or the slasher sub-genre in general, then I have no idea why you'd watch this anyway (unless you thought it was a pop-video face-off between Freddy Mercury and Jason Donovan).

For the rest of us, this is a slick B-movie that provides everything you'd expect from the title and even offers a few nuances and cinematic riffs that neither franchise has experienced for years...

DVD REVIEW

PICTURE: Interestingly, the movie comes in both widescreen 2.35:1 anamorphic and 4:3 full-screen on the same disc. I'm sure most people will opt for the widescreen version, but choice is always nice I suppose. The quality of both transfers is generally very good, with clean blacks and lots of detail. There are some smeary scenes, with the "black light" interior of a fan being particularly blurred, but the majority of the work is very good.

SOUND: There is a fantastic Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track that has plenty of bass and ambience, with some particularly good surround sound effects in a number of scenes (Jason pinball, etc). A stereo track is there and does a reasonable job, but is obviously underwhelming by comparisonn.

EXTRA FEATURES: This 2-disc Platinum Edition edition has extra's on both discs. The bonus features on Disc 1 include...

Commentary track with Ronny Yu, Robert Englund and Ken Kirzinger: A pretty good yakker track, with Englund on fine form with anecdotes and opinions. Director Yu and Kirzinger are somewhat sidelined by veteran Englund, but are both good.

"Jump to a Death" Menu Option: A neat idea for all the gore-hounds watching... who need never listen to all that dialogue stiff again, and get straight to the blood.

The bonus features on Disc 2 include:

Deleted/alternate scenes including the original opening and ending with filmmaker commentary: A huge array of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Yu and executive producer Douglas Curtis. Most interesting is the longer original opening anf the wisely-axed original ending.

Behind the scenes coverage of the film's development -- including screenwriting, set design, make-up, stunts and principle photography:

Articles: two pieces from Fangoria magazine entitled "Freddy & Jason Go To Development Hell" and "Slicing Toward Completion". Interesting for real fans.

Production Featurettes: Some excellent featurettes on the movie, such as "Genesis: Development Hell" (10 min), "On Location: Springwood Revisited" (15 min), "Art Direction: Jason's Decorating Tips" (12 min), "Stunts: When Push Comes To Shove" (22 min) and "Make-Up Effects: Freddy's Beauty Secrets" (6 min).

Visual Effects Exploration: There 12 visual effects featurettes for SFX intensive scenes, all very interesting.

Storyboards and galleries: Want to watch photos of the cast and crew, with some drawings? No? Well, avoid this.

Publicity & Promotion: The original theatrical trailer and 8 TV spots are here for your enjoyment, as is the music video from Ill Nino ("How Can I Live", 3 min), plus a delightfully silly 5-minute pre-fight conference at Bally's Casino in Las Vegas between Freddy and Jason! A rubbish featurettes entitled "My Summer Vacation: A Visit To Camp Hacknslash" (4 min) is also there – basically a one-day summer camp for film geeks awaiting the movie's release.

There is also some goodies for those with a DVD-ROM: A script-to-screen option, enhanced playback mode, etc.

Overall, this is a fantastic DVD release that will certainly please its intended audience and give you a decent insight into how the movie (and others like it) are created. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 20 July 2006

THE ORACLE OF BACON

I'm sure you know the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? If not, allow me to elaborate. Basically it's a game based on the somewhat charmed career of actor Kevin Bacon. Now, Bacon's success has never really hit the stratosphere, but he remains in constant employment and has starred in many popular films (Tremors, Footloose, Sleepers, Hollow Man, etc).

The game is to try and link any actor/actress to Kevin Bacon in "six degrees or less". A typical example would be that Jack Nicholson is one degree away from Bacon, because they both starred in A Few Good Men; but Keanu Reeves is two degrees away, because Reeves starred in Speed with Sandra Bullock (1 degree), and Bullock starred in Loverboy with Kevin Bacon (2 degrees).

Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon is therefore based on the idea that no actor in Hollywood can be more than 6 degrees away from Kevin Bacon. But, have you ever tried The Oracle Of Bacon?

The Oracle Of Bacon is a website that officially closed down in 2001, but still works and is automatically updated. The system basically searches for links on the IMDB between anyone working in film (actors, directors) and Kevin Bacon. Essentially, it's the ultimate player of Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon! But the game is different on the Oracle website, because the aim is to find someone with MORE than six degrees of separation!

Have a go yourself. It takes ages just to find someone with more than 3, let alone 6!

Wednesday, 19 July 2006

DMD - Issue 178

Another week, another edition of DMD! DVD Fever have kindly released Issue 178, which includes news on Adam Resurrected, Bond 22, The Eye remake, Fantastic Four 2, The Fountain, Gallowwalker, Halo and Night Of The Living Dead (in 3D!).

There is also the usual UK/US box-office charts and list of upcoming movies...

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

SAXONDALE - Episode 5 - TV REVIEW
Series 1. 17 Jul 06. BBC 2, 10:00 pm
WRITERS: Steve Coogan & Neil Maclennon DIRECTOR: Matt Lipsey
CAST: Steve Coogan (Tommy Saxondale), Ruth Jones (Magz), Rasmus Hardiker (Raymond), Morwenna Banks (Vicky), James Bachman (Therapist), Sarah Hadland (Tina) & Vicky Pepperdine (Homeowner).


The settling in period is officially over. Saxondale's fifth episode remains frustratingly unable to pull itself the show together into a cohesive whole, but at least we get the reprisal of a theme from Episode 1 (Raymond's home life with Tommy and Magz).

When Saxondale began I thought Tommy and Raymond's father/son undercurrent was going to be integral. A sort of latter-day Del Boy and Rodney, with a pest control can instead of a Reliant Robin. That's clearly an aspect writers Coogan and Maclennon chose not to focus on, making Saxondale a one-man comedy vehicle.

Again, the story is fractured and slightly messy: Tommy and Raymond help an animal lover rid her attic of a squirrel, Raymond hits the town with secretary Vicky and her friend Tanya, and Tommy joins a gym after realizing he's not as fit as he used to be (after being unable to pull himself up into an attic.)

There are some amusing moments in all these subplots, as we've come to expect. Tommy accidentally crippling his neck with some gym equipment is particularly funny, especially when said injury causes him to be a hazard on the road in his Mustang. Saxondale could do with some broader comedy to balance things out, and this moment hits the funny bone.

Elsewhere, the verbal dexterity is on good form -– perfectly encapsulated by poisonous Vicky (we even get the first hint at why her relationship with Tommy is so frosty). After five weeks it's a little depressing to find that 90% of the humour in Saxondale comes from the mannerisms and repartee of its central character; the supporting cast tend to merely feed him lines, or act as the straight men to his posturing, while there are very little visual "jokes" (just mannerisms). It's sad, because when Saxondale does spread its wings it almost takes to the air (the towel catch, the injured driving, the salad dressing drink, etc.)

Coogan and Maclennon should be congratulated for crafting an enjoyably daft and strangely likeable character with Tommy, but this is essentially a one-man show without much range to its comedy. There are only so many pithy one-liners you can smile at wryly before you start aching for a belly-laugh. But one rarely comes.

Saxondale is too tentative and obsessed with slowly manipulating Tommy into a mix of situations without much thought for anything else. Above all else it's clear just how weak Coogan and Maclennon's storytelling abilities are -–interesting moments flash by (Raymond's girlfriend) while other potentially classic moments don't reach their full potential (Tommy's gym session).

This is the dictionary definition of a curate's egg, but personally I still find it survives on Coogan's exemplary performance and its witty dialogue. The maddening thing is that with broader laughs, stronger plots and more emphasis on its fine supporting cast, Saxondale would be nudging classic status, and becoming a genuine rival to Coogan's Alan Partridge. But, as it stands, Coogan seems content to sit in the shadow of Partridge...

Monday, 17 July 2006

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 2 RETROSPECTIVE

Doctor Who's second series should have built on the success of its debut year, but while it maintained the momentum, it struggled to maintain the quality. In many ways, series 2 was just a paler continuation of last year, not really having its own identity beyond David Tennant replacing Christopher Ecclestone in the TARDIS.

Tennant was unquestionably less impressive than Ecclestone eventually became as The Doctor, despite most of the difficult groundwork in place. That's not to say Ecclestone was perfect either; he wasn't. In fact, he was often embarrassing when the role required "wackiness" from him, probably because such behaviour was out of Ecclestone's natural comfort zone.

Tennant's Doctor is geekier and more approachable, but Ecclestone's had a dark centre lurking behind the grins that Tennant only recaptures in bursts. Simply put, Tennant's Doctor should have been more fun than he was. A lot of the blame lies with the writers, with most writing The Doctor in a fairly generically goofy way, never giving us any real insight into his character, and therefore denying Tennant decent material to work with. Last year Ecclestone's Doctor had the Time War tragedy to provide some isolation and seriousness, but The Doctor had nothing comparable this year.

Occasional moments did tap into The Doctor's personality with just the right combination of eccentricity, seriousness and drama: the Doctor torn between spending the day with Mickey or Rose (Rise Of The Cybermen), the entire Girl In The Fireplace episode, The Doctor's farewell to Sarah-Jane (School Reunion), the window pane explanation (Army Of Ghosts), the moped scene (The Idiot's Lantern) and the fabulous beach farewell of Doomsday. But such scenes were few and far between.


Billie Piper was the crux of the show last year, as Doctor Who shifted the emphasis onto companion Rose Tyler as a means for new audiences to enter the Who universe through her eyes. It was a brilliant idea and well-executed, but nothing really progressed this year for her. Rose was less naïve and green around the ears, but the only new facet to her character was the more overt signs she fancied the Doctor; witness the jealousy of Sarah-Jane in School Reunion.

The Doctor-Rose "romance" was a slight undercurrent this year but never blossomed into anything, quite rightly, until the tear-jerking "I love you" moment in the finale. But, for the meat of the season, the writers were faced with a relationship dead end – with The Doctor only able (willing?) to return Roses' affections platonically. More could have been made with this frustration, but TARDIS romance is perhaps too much of a hot potato with Whovian purists and young audiences. With sex clearly a no-go area, Rose and The Doctor had to make doe-eyes at each other and be content with that.

While friendship became the only outlet for the characters, even their companionship lacked the spark of last year. To my recollection, only three sequences really exhibited any sparkle –- The Doctor and Rose posing as waiting staff (Rise Of The Cybermen), and the investigations of The Idiot's Lantern and Fear Her.

It was also notable how ill-treated Jackie Tyler (Camille Codouri) was this year, particularly when Codouri tends to improve every scene she's in! She single-handedly rescued Love & Monsters from total failure, yet was given short shrift everywhere else.

In stark contrast, Noel Clark managed to carve out a half-decent character with Mickey Smith, taking an annoying one-note character and turning him into sympathetic comic relief (School Reunion) and eventual action hero (The Age Of Steel).

Executive producer and writer Russell T. Davies, however you feel about his scripts, masterminded an effective relaunch of the show in 2005. I'm sure many of the show's successes would have happened without his input (in terms of design and production values), but his casting and grand scheme to series 1 was superb. In particular, the subliminal occurrence of BAD WOLF last year was a masterstroke... so it was disheartening to see him replicate this idea with Torchwood for series 2...

Yes, Torchwood. We all know it's the upcoming Who spin-off with John Barrowman, but was also a word sprinkled throughout series 2. So, while BAD WOLF remained enigmatic until the finale, Torchwood's meaning was pretty much sussed very early on, giving the series a slow feel as it limped to its "revelation" that Torchwood was a government agency created by Queen Victoria to investigate alien technology. Yeah, we know; you told us in the press release for Torchwood, guys...

I like the idea of giving Doctor Who a seasonal sub-plot, but Davies is going to have to think up something more interesting for series 3, as simply peppering scripts with a certain phrase to be explained in the finale would be lazy and tiresome if attempted yet again...

The episodes themselves varied in quality, as indeed they did last year, but the wavering quality was more noticeable because the show couldn't gloss over any weaknesses with nostalgia and the goodwill from fans just thankful the show was back on air.


New Earth -- limp sci-fi, rambling narrative, cheap gags; Tooth And Claw -– impressive effects, fresh pace, neat plot; School Reunion -– good characterisation, clichéd premise, poor plot; The Girl In The Fireplace -– deft plotting, strong performances, great imagination; Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel –- cool premise, misshapen plot; The Idiot's Lantern –- unfulfilled promise, weak execution; The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit -– epic scope, strong drama, great effects; Love & Monsters –- poor plot, ill-conceived; Fear Her –- weak story, meandering; Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday -– fast pace, epic scope, engaging story, great effects.

The biggest offender this year was undoubtedly Love & Monsters, an episode littered with problems and weaknesses, for some it even marks a low point for the entire show. Most of the episodes were enjoyable, yet ultimately disappointing, particularly the mid-series Cybermen story. The best episode was The Girl In The Fireplace, Steven Moffatt's show that made me hope he replaces Davies someday and remodels the show into the shape we glimpse through fleetingly through his writing.

Mind you, Russell T. Davies output was considerably better than last year. Tooth And Claw was easily the best "fantasy episode", while Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday was a very entertaining finale. A shame he still writes forgettable pap (New Earth) and diabolical smugness (Love & Monsters) between these high points.

Interestingly, last year's non-Davies penned episodes were the highlights, but not so much this time around. The Cybermen two-parter was sporadic work from Tom MacRae, Mark Gatiss disappointed with Idiot's Lantern, Fear Her was trite and boring, while School Reunion was immature and only saved by the Sarah-Jane/K-9 subplot.

However, beyond Moffatt (who receives too much praise, perhaps!) the real standout for me was Matt Jones' fabulous two-part episode The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Frightening and mysterious, with excellent special effects and tense atmosphere, it will be interesting to see what Jones cooks up in series 3!

Overall, the Who barometer is still in the healthy zone. It's clear that the show has lost its armour of nostalgia, which is no bad thing. Last year the Cybermen episodes would have been praised to the heavens, but the thrill of seeing Doctor Who on our screens is beginning to wane. Familiarity and nostalgia isn't enough now... we want to see Doctor Who raise its game and give us the imagination and unpredictability of its classic years.


I'm sure the Daleks will always be waiting to exterminate any lull in the ratings, but the producers shouldn't rely on characters from the extensive back-catalogue. Who has a rich and multi-layered history, but simply raking over past glories prevents the show from forging its own mythos. The honeymoon period is over, Mr Davies. With a new companion in the TARDIS next year, let's see the creativity really begin to flow... oh, and less time spent in contemporary London, perhaps?

Friday, 14 July 2006

INTERNET OF INTEREST #3

Hope you're enjoying the recent run of DVD reviews! I hope to continue this ongoing feature, with a mix of new and old releases that take my fancy. Let me know if you have any requests for reviews I have in my collection. I have included links to all the reviews in the right-side column, together with links to all of my Doctor Who series 2 reviews.

Now, here are some informative and interesting media-related links from around the globe:

4D Cinema: a Bavarian cinema with totally immersive surround sound unlike anything you've ever heard in your life!

Memory Stick Movies: does this spell the end for UMD already?

Bollywood Spoof: check out this parody of those all-singing Bollywood films!

Blu-Ray and HD-DVD: Looks like Warners will embrace both new formats...

Cinema Etiquette: phones off, no talking, no noisy sweets, etc...

Transformers Script Review: want to see what they think of next year's Michael Bay adap?

Thursday, 13 July 2006

DMD - Issue 177

Dan's Movie Digest has its 177th issue up at DVD Fever now. There you will find news on Pirates Of The Caribbean III, Avatar, Die Hard 4.0, Dracula: Year Zero, Jumper, Fantastic Four 2, Indiana Jones 4 and Watching The Detectives.

There is also a review of the Rocky Balboa trailer, the US/UK box-office charts and a list of movies begging for your attention.

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

"ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK" (1981) (SPECIAL EDITION) – DVD REVIEW
REGION 2. PICTURE: 2.35:1 (WIDESCREEN) AUDIO: DTS/DD5.1
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter WRITERS: John Carpenter & Nick Castle
CAST: Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Lee Van Cleef (Hauk), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Donald Pleasance (The President), Isaac Hayes (The Duke), Harry Dean Stanton (Brains), Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie), more...


Back in the 70's and 80's, John Carpenter made a series of iconic cult classics that inspired a generation of filmmakers: Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Christine (1983), Big Trouble In Little China (1986), The Thing (1987) and They Live (1989). The 90's marked Carpenter's decline into misfires such as Vampires (1998), while the 00's haven't seen him recapture his glory years, with the appalling Ghosts Of Mars (2001).

Escape From New York arrived in theatres at a time when Carpenter's first three movies had all become successes, and is often considered the director's crown jewel. It's easy to see why, as it plays to all of Carpenter's strengths; a dystopian, violent future, with a memorable anti-hero who gleeful snubs authority...

The plot is wonderful high-concept pulp: in the future (er, 1997) New York City is a maximum security prison, so when Air Force One crash-lands in the city, the authorities have no choice but to send in a criminal to recover the onboard President (Donald Pleasance) so he can attend a crucial seminar.

Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a swaggering one-eyed anti-hero with a major chip on his shoulder. Russell's career has been linked with Carpenter in a number of films (Elvis, 1979; The Thing; Big Trouble In Little China), but it was with Escape From New York that the pair really found cohesion.

Snake Plissken is perhaps the sole reason this movie remains as popular as it does, because such badass characters rarely age. The production itself is steeped in 80's low-budget atmosphere, with a permanent gloom and wonderfully simplistic synthesized music score (Carpenter's own work). The film has certainly dated, not helped by its 1997 "futurism" and presence of the World Trade Center, but there's something undeniably fun and oppressive that still works decades later.

For a $7 million movie, Carpenter does a brilliant job making audiences really believe in the situation. A few moments occur off-screen for budgetary reasons (the Air Force One crash), but the "ghost town" New York, populated by criminals known as the "Crazies", is quite brilliantly portrayed so thriftily (filmed entirely in St Louis, Illinois).

Beyond Russell, Escape's cast is quite a bizarre melting pot of talent. Legendary Western villain Lee Van Cleef plays prison commissioner Hauk with just as much growly brilliance as his Western characters, Ernest Borgnine is annoying as the Cabbie (a character who only serves to hook characters up), Harry Dean Stanton has a nice little role as Brains, Adrienne Barbeau is wasted as Maggie, Donald Pleasance makes a bumbling President (English accent?), while Isaac Hayes' performance as The Duke should have been more sinister than it actually is.

So while the eclectic casting doesn't really work in some key areas (a better villain for Snake would have been perfect), the film is essentially a vehicle for Kurt Russell to stalk around the city brandishing a gun and grumbling. It's not really a stretch, but Russell manages to make Snake one of modern cinemas more memorable anti-heroes. The cynical ending is a classic that stays true to the character, and should be applauded for providing such a perfectly downbeat ending.

Overall, Escape From New York is an entertaining movie with a superb first Act, that slowly stagnates in Act II, and eventually limps to a weak climax on a bridge. The problem is that the movie is all premise, and once the premise has been presented Carpenter doesn't really have anywhere very interesting to go, so the movie just trundles to its inevitable conclusion.

Carpenter certainly ensures the whole film is dripping with atmosphere and Russell carries the whole movie on his shoulders. For modern audiences, the scenes of a hijacked Air Force One being flown into the side of a building also earn added chills given the events of 9/11.

At time of writing, Carpenters movies are being remade with the director's permission (Assault On Precinct 13, The Fog, Halloween), but it's a cruel irony that Escape would gain most from a modern remake to do justice to the premise –- yet Carpenter's own 1997 sequel Escape From L.A was practically a remake and failed dismally...

Mind you, would you really remake Escape From New York without Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken?

DVD REVIEW

This Special Edition DVD release isn't particularly special, but it does contain some interesting extra features and a superb commentary track. The animated menus are in the style of the movie's "line-graphics", with Carpenter's throbbing score -- a great appetiser that sets the mood superbly.

PICTURE: The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image has been given an overhaul for this DVD release. Generally the image is very good considering its age, but there's still grain in the odd scene and an understandable lack of crispness from a 1981 movie.

SOUND: Fans will be excited to see the movie has been given a DTS sound mix. The DD5.1 track is undoubtedly very good, although the rear speakers aren't used as much as you would perhaps expect. Still, there are some good aural moments to keep you in the movie's reality.

EXTRA FEATURES:

Commentary Tracks: There are two commentary tracks, one from director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, the other from producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. Both commentaries were made in 1994 for the movie's laserdisc release, so everyone occasionally references supplemental material not on the DVD. Of the two tracks, Carpenter and Russell give a legendary discussion of the movie, chatting away like two best friends and packing in lots of information. Hill and Alves are far drier and spend too much time discussing only design facets to the movie.

Original Opening: We were originally meant to begin the film by seeing Snake rob a bank and attempt to escape in a subway train, and this 12-minute scene is available for you to take a look at. The quality isn't fantastic, and this scene was rightly cut from the completed movie, but it's still interesting.

Return To Escape From New York: This is an entertaining 22-minute documentary on the movie, with interviews with most of the cast/crew in later years (Russell, Carpenter, Castle, Hayes, Barbeau, Stanton, etc). There are lots of good anecdotes and this is a worthwhile extra.

Trailers: There's always something enjoyable about watching the awfully made trailers of the 80's. We live in an age where trailer-making itself is an art-form, so it's quite fun to see how fast this aspect of movie-making has transformed in just 20-odd years. "Snake Bites Trailer", "Theatrical Trailer" and "Promo Trailer" are all here for you to get your retro fix.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

SAXONDALE - Episode 4 - TV REVIEW
Series 1. 10 Jul 06. BBC 2, 10:00 pm
WRITERS: Steve Coogan & Neil Maclennon DIRECTOR: Matt Lipsey
CAST: Steve Coogan (Tommy Saxondale), Ruth Jones (Magz), Rasmus Hardiker (Raymond), James Bachman (Therapist), Morwenna Banks (Vicky), Montserrat Lombard (Stevie) & James Lance (Matt)


Episode 4 seems to be conclusive proof that Saxondale is unlikely to improve. But that's not to say it's bad; in fact it's very enjoyable and sporadically brilliant. Steve Coogan is magnificent in the title role, every tic and mannerism brilliantly observed and acted, but Tommy Saxondale remains little more than a decent sketch show character coasting along in a sitcom.

The plot this week, and I use the term loosely, involves Tommy's daughter Stevie visiting home with her boyfriend Matt. The obvious generation clash ensues between Matt and Tommy, although not in an overt way akin to Meet The Parents. The fascinating thing about modern father/(potential) son-in-law relationships is that most hip twentysomethings have a respect and appreciation for the 60's/70's culture their new father-in-laws grew up in. Who doesn't like Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols?

So, as beautifully depicted in this instalment, Matt actually gets on quite well with Tommy when discussing his roadie days with Deep Purple, etc... and the relationship only sours when Tommy isn't as keen to hear about Matt's extreme-sporting lifestyle –- mainly because it makes his unspectacular life seem that more boring. It's a classic case of male posturing across the generations, sidestepping the expectation of Matt being a total pain and Tommy being the voice of concerned reason for his daughter. Watching Tommy try and assert himself on others is the series' main source of comedy, and the interplay with Matt is wonderful in this episode.

Four episodes in and Ruth Jones doesn’t look to have been given a comic character, really, but she's brilliant as Tommy's girlfriend despite this. A scene where Magz steps in to save Tommy's pride is a great insight that their relationship actually works, as is a shared laugh when Tommy spouts his anguish at Matt's boasts. They seem to have real respect and love for each other's quirks, which makes a change from traditionally nightmarish comedy marriages like Basil and Sybil Fawlty.

Montserrat Lombard as Tommy's daughter Stevie isn't given much to do within the story, but she at least resembles Tommy and isn't the expected characture she could have been. There was a time when the easy route would have been to make her a female version of Tommy, with similar views on life and personality, so it's testament to the writers belief in the show's reality that she's normal. Tommy is the only obvious exaggeration in the world of Saxondale, and even he is clearly more grounded and realistic than other Coogan creations –- most notably Alan Partidge. Of course.

J
ames Lance, playing Matt the potential son-in-law, is very good and drawn realistically. Lance appeared in I'm Alan Partidge (where he played a wry, condescending Travelodge porter) and Matt is essentially a nicer, cleverer, version of that persona. He's good, but it's a shame more comic potential wasn't mined by revealing his thoughts on Tommy (was he purposefully making Tommy feel inadequate? Did he like Tommy?) Well, we never really got to know...

B
ut this is Coogan's show... and therefore the emphasis is too often on Tommy's viewpoint, almost as if Coogan's scared to let the other characters get a look in without him being present. This is perhaps by design, or maybe it's because Coogan is just used to Partridge dominating all the scenes in I'm Alan Partridge by default. Whatever the reason, someone should tell him Saxondale could survive by occasionally letting us into the supporting cast's lives. Even the legendary Alan Partidge had his comic support (indecipherable Mike, meak Lynn), but Tommy isn’t really afforded such backup.

Tellingly, Coogan even guest stars as a flop-haired teen in a council flat -– for no particular reason, other than to remind us how gifted Coogan is at mimicry. We get it, Steve. The teen character is good fun, but it's also an unnecessary presence that steals screen-time better served with the main cast -- particularly as they're already malnourished with their own gags!

Overall, this was another perfectly enjoyable 30 minutes, but Saxondale sorely lacks the storytelling prowess to lift it beyond observational comedy. The "plot" here is basically just another incident Tommy is faced with, acting as an excuse for Coogan and Maclennon to flex their dialogue-writing muscles. The craftsmanship of Saxondale's jokes has never been in doubt, but Saxondale could be so much more if the stories were multi-layered and involved actual progression and twists. At the moment, things just move in a linear fashion, with a few diversions (Morwenna Banks' secretary gets to spit venom again), until the episode just ends...

Monday, 10 July 2006

LORD OF WAR (2005) – DVD REVIEW
REGION 2. PICTURE: 2.35:1 (WIDESCREEN) AUDIO: DD5.1
DIRECTOR: Andrew Niccol WRITER: Andrew Niccol
CAST: Nicolas Cage (Yuri Orlov), Bridget Moynahan (Ava Fontaine), Jared Leto (Vitaly Orlov), Ethan Hawke (Jack Valentine), Ian Holm (Simeon Weisz), more...

"There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: how do we arm the other 11?" -- Yuri Orlov

So begins Lord Of War, a quite brilliant drama from talented New Zealand writer-director Andrew Niccol; most notable for high-concept sci-fi movies like Gattaca (1997), The Truman Show (1998) and S1M0NE (2002). Along with M. Night Shyamalan, Niccol has been a modern purveyor of quality sci-fi, so it's unusual that Lord Of War is such a drastic 180-degree turn into semi-realism.

Lord Of War is a fictional biopic of Yuri Orlov (Cage), a Ukrainian living in America with his family, including a faux-Jewish father, who decides to become a "gun runner" after witnessing the attempted robbery of a restaurant. Together with his younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), Yuri quickly becomes a prominent worldwide arms dealer (providing arms to 8 of the world's top 10 war zones), and success brings him untold riches and a trophy wife... but do all good things come to an end?

Interestingly, Lord Of War doesn't really have an anti-gun message, rather it presents an entertaining account of an arms dealer's "adventures" as Yuri tries to sell post-Cold War Russian arsenal to African warlords. Niccol's script contains plenty of interesting facts and arguments for (and against) the "necessary evil" of trades dealing, all littered within the central story of Yuri trying to balance a normal home life with his extraordinary working life...

Nicolas Cage is always a very engaging actor to watch in movies, able to give serious performances (Leaving Las Vegas) and quirky performances (Con Air) with equal gusto. In Lord Of War, he gets to walk the tightrope between the two, giving Yuri a fundamentally plausible personality, yet with an inherent charm and eccentricity. He's a great anti-hero, and while we never totally agree with his pro-war view, we can understand that real-world politics means the argument is decidedly grey...

The cast are all wonderful, particularly Bridget Moynahan (Ava Fontaine) who turns a perfunctory role into something very subtle and engaging. Jared Leto as Vitaly is also very good, eventually proving to be the most active moral compass to the movie, and Ian Holm plays against type as a quietly sinister rival arms dealer. Ethan Hawke is his usual intense self, being the movie's most vocal anti-gun voice.

Niccol is foremost a writer in many peoples' eyes (despite having directed his own scripts for Gattaca and S1M0NE), but it’s with Lord Of War that he really breaks out. His style is quite reminiscent of Ridley Scott and David Fincher, bringing a fluid style and punchy colour scheme to life. His camera flourishes and framing of shots is beautiful, and I hope Niccol gets to direct more things in the future. It would be interesting to see if he can direct other peoples' stories with just as much energy and style.

The opening sequence following the "life span" of a bullet -– from factory production line, to the head of an African child – is remarkable and charged filmmaking.

Overall, I found Lord Of War to be a very entertaining story immaculately told by Niccol and expertly played by the cast. It's refreshing to see a movie tackle a topic with such relevance to our lives (no matter how hidden this underworld remains), yet also refuse to simply bash us over the head with a single viewpoint. Lord Of War is perhaps too "cinematic" to really get a under the skin, as it's more interested in providing an entertaining story than present a wholly accurate documentary-style account of the arms trade. As such, I'm not sure how much of the movie is a fantastical exaggeration of this life, and how much is frighteningly true. Maybe that was the point.

Niccol's movie entertains and educates at the same time, something a more serious-minded version would perhaps have struggled with. Lord Of War certainly made me consider the arms trade far more than I would usually, and for that I think Niccol has succeeded in his goal.

DVD REVIEW

For such a great under-the-radar movie, it's disheartening to find the DVD given such a poor release...

PICTURE: Niccol films things with a beautiful eye, and the picture transfer for the movie is appropriately gorgeous. Sumptuous landscapes, inky black nights and great detail in every scene.

SOUND: The DD5.1 sound mix is pretty good, although the rear speakers aren't used quite as often as you'd expect. Throughout the film I was only ever aware of them for distant gunshot sound effects. A real missed opportunity given the movie's topic.

EXTRA FEATURES:

As I said, this is a very disappointing release, made even worse with the inclusion of an unskippable Mars bar advert before the main menu appears. A satire of QVC, with two presenters selling an AK-47, almost makes up for this, however.

The animated menu screens are weak copies of the opening bullet sequence, giving the DVDs presentation a somewhat naff air. A shame, as the movie itself is so slick and deserved something more professional.

Director's Commentary: this is the only extra feature on this release of Lord Of War, and Andrew Niccol gives an insightful view into making the movie. He's a little dry sounding, but certainly knows his stuff and provides plenty of information.

Sunday, 9 July 2006

"SERENITY" (2005) – DVD REVIEW
REGION 2. PICTURE: 1.85:1 (WIDESCREEN) AUDIO: DD5.1
DIRECTOR: Joss Whedon WRITER: Joss Whedon
CAST: Nathan Fillion (Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds), Gina Torres (Zoe), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Chiwetel Eljiofor (The Operative), Summer Glau (River), more...

Writer-director Joss Whedon is an acquired taste. His first foray into movies was the trite Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992), with Kristy Swanson; a failure that evolved into the spunkier TV series with Sarah Michelle Gellar in 1997. Whedon spent the interim working as a "script doctor", anonymously polishing the screenplays to movies such as Speed and Toy Story.

After Whedon's career skyrocketed with Buffy, he returned to movies by writing Alien Resurrection (1997) -– but the film was also a resounding failure. So it was back to TV with Buffy, and later its spin-off show Angel (1999), which only lasted a few years before cancellation. Whedon stayed with TV for his next project, a sci-fi western called Firefly (2002), but that show lasted a mere 11 episodes before being canned. However, strong DVD sales of the Firefly box-set gave impetus for a retry -– with Whedon asked to retool the series for movie screens as Serenity…

Serenity focuses on Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, a war veteran (on the losing side, interestingly) who now makes a living with a motley crew of criminals aboard the eponymous spaceship. But the crew's lives are complicated when Mal takes on two new passengers -- a young doctor and his telepathic sister, who are actually fugitives from a sinister coalition dominating the universe...

I've never seen Firefly and wasn't sure if that would influence my enjoyment of Serenity. Unfamiliarity with the TV show could be used as an excuse, but all movies have to be enjoyed by fans and newcomers alike. It's a balance that's very difficult to get right, just take a look at Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) or The X-Files Movie (1998).

So without the deeper knowledge of a fan (or "Browncoat"), I have to declare that I found Serenity to be enjoyable, but wholly forgettable. Fans of the TV series will champion Serenity outright (it was their support that gave rise to the movie, after all), so they clearly don't want to be bored with too much scene-setting.

Whedon did an admirable job in countering these inherent problems, and it helps that spaceship adventures tend to follow a basic formula. Audiences unfamiliar with Firefly are aware of Star Trek, so it's not too difficult to settle into Serenity's basic groove. This is effectively a variant on Trek, with the crew petty criminals and the universe given an Old West aesthetic (grimy brown uniforms, sun-bleached desert planets, rusting machinery and old-fashioned guns with bullets, etc.)

The plot is fun, yet ultimately quite laborious; despite a punchy start and some intriguing scenes in the first half. There are plenty of well-staged stunts and Whedon's trademark smart-ass dialogue comes intact from TV -- whether that causes smirks or winces depends on your tolerance for his tangled wordplay. The characters are broad enough to make them relatable to people acquainting themselves to these new faces, but they're also mostly two-dimensional. Only Nathan Fillion and Chiwetel Eljiofor get more rounded characterisation, and thus dominate every scene they're in.

The universe Serenity inhabits remains somewhat sketchy throughout and the diversions to other planets and characters in Act II often seem superfluous to the main plot at times. It's a problem The Chronicles Of Riddick also suffered from, introducing the audience to so many new characters, concepts, planets and relationships that it becomes a little distracting and, ultimately, distancing.

At heart, Serenity is too much like a TV episode to really be successful on the silver screen. It has moments that deliver a cinematic experience, mainly from some cooler-than-TV effects sequences, but little else. There are imaginative scenes that hint at greater things, but the fact remains that the story is difficult to invest in or care about. Perhaps familiarity with Firefly helps matters, but... I've already said that's no excuse.

By the time the credits rolled, a few things were obvious to me: Nathan Fillion was the movie's shining light (a Han Solo/Kirk hybrid that works brilliantly), the special-effects were unexpectedly strong, Eljiofor (the "woman" in Kinky Boots!) made a brilliant villain, but... I didn't particularly care about any of the death scenes, the mythology with the war and Reavers made little sense to me, and overall this seemed more like half-decent television episode...

I'm not hungry to play catch-up with the Firefly DVD box-set after seeing this movie, nor do I think a sequel is warranted, but I'd definitely have given the series a whirl on TV if this was its first episode. If that's faint praise, then so be it...

DVD REVIEW

Serenity may have bombed at the box-office (budget $40m, box-office $25 in the US), but DVD is where the TV show was embraced by fans, so it's no surprise that the Serenity DVD release is given a fairly extensive package and great transfer.

PICTURE: The 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic picture is very good, with decent levels of details throughout and some well presented campfire scenes without much smearing of the image. The best moments of the disc are undoubtedly with the dazzling exterior landscapes, with brilliant sharpness and clarity.

SOUND: Strong DD5.1 sound work, particularly with the Reaver chase sequence. There are lots of directional sound effects thrown around the speakers and sharp gunfire. The dialogue occasionally seems lost, but that's probably not due to any fault with the audio transfer. The music is also impressively balanced with the effects mix.

EXTRA FEATURES:

Director's Commentary: Joss Whedon gives a fantastic commentary to the movie, quite essential for fans and refreshingly frank about the aspects of the movie. A real highlight of the extra's and Commentary tracks in general.

Deleted Scenes: 9 scenes are scooped up from the cutting room floor; ‘Extended Lilac Entrance’ (a few seconds of talk from River), ‘Extended Kaylee and Jayne’ (1 minute of extra exchange between the pair), ‘Inara and Sheydra’ (2 minutes of Inara teaching companions and denying the rumours that she had an affair with a pirate), ‘Operative Tracks Mal’ (2 minutes of the Operative learning more about Mal and Serenity), ‘Extended River and Simon/Haven Opening’ (also includes some more of Shepherd Book), ‘Escape from Companion Training House’ (Mal and Inara fool Alliance soldiers on their way back to her shuttle), ‘Mal and Inara Shuttle Chase’ (a few seconds of humour), ‘Mal and Inara Quiet Moment’ (a touching couple of minutes between them) and ‘Extended Mal and Operative Coda’ (just a few extra words).

Outtakes: 6 minutes of goofs, with the cast clearly enjoying the experience of making this movie.

'Future History: The Story Of Earth That Was' Featurette: a 4 minute piece with Whedon explaining the backstory to the sci-fi universe.

'What's In A Firefly?': a 10 minute featurettes with Whedon and the cast talking about the original TV show's cancellation and their hopes for the movie.

'Joss Whedon Introduction': a great intro from Whedon himself, made directly to the Firefly fans that made Serenity possible. Perhaps a bit too long at 4 minutes, though.

'A Filmmaker's Journey': a good 20 minute featurettes about the making of the movie, again showing the level of fun the cast had on set.

Overall, this is an essential purchase for fans, and an entertaining distraction for everyone else. The DVD neatly exploring the love and affection for the project in its extra's, while ensuring the visual/audio transfer is top notch.