Tuesday, 31 October 2006

THE TERRIFYING TOP 10

It's Halloween, so time to watch some scary movies and perhaps frighten little kids who knock on your door wearing back-to-front winter coats and crummy plastic masks.


10. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981, John Landis)
"Stay off the moors, lad..."

Two American tourists backpacking across Europe are attacked by a werewolf on the Yorkshire moors. One dies, and becomes a rotting corpse only visible to his surviving friend, who is destined to transform into a werewolf at the next Full Moon.

This is one of the most enjoyable horror movies ever made, finely balancing chills and a few chuckles. All of the actors are enjoyable screen presences, particularly Jenny Agutter as a sexy nurse, but the real thrills comes from the chilly 80s atmosphere and some startling special-effects (and yes, it's STILL the best werewolf transformation ever...)

9. THE THING (1982, John Carpenter)
"You gotta be f***ing kidding me..."

A research team working in the Antarctic discover a shape-shifting alien that soon infiltrates their base and hides amongst them...

A remake from John Carpenter that oozes with tension and sinister ambience. The actors are all believable, with plausible reactions to the alien menace. Cinema has rarely been so claustrophobic, and the sequences where the extra-terrestrial reveals itself are a highpoint for "body horror" animatronic effects.


8. HALLOWEEN (1978, John Carpenter)
"Laurie... what's the boogeyman?"

A psychotic murderer returns to his hometown to slaughter babysitters at Halloween...

Another Carpenter scare-fest, this time setting a template for contemporary slasher movies. It may seem a little hokey in places these days, and the premise has been dulled significantly through sequels, but the original is still a fantastic example of the genre.


7. SAW (2004, James Wan)
"Game over!"
Two strangers wake up in a dilapidated room to find themselves the latest captives of a killer called Jigsaw, who devises sick games for his victims to play...

The first Saw is sometimes criticized in some circles, but I've never understood why. This an extremely interesting and well-told thriller that manages to bring something new to the serial-killer genre. A frightening, blood-soaked film with a fantastic twist ending!


6. RINGU (1998, Hideo Nakata)
"Four people died from watching this video-tape!"

A cursed video-tape kills whomever watches it, unless someone can solve its mystery...

The US remake was excellent, but the original is somehow more affecting. The visuals are fantastic and the original premise makes this standout from the crowd. Ringu started the whole J-Horror genre and remains one of the greatest horrors of the past 10 years...

5. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991, Jonathan Demme)
"I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti..."


FBI Agent Clarice Starling attempts to find a serial-killer called Buffalo Bill with the help of Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter...

A massive hit at the Academy Awards, this is simply a superb film in every respect: amazing performances, particularly from Jodie Foster, and an iconic performances from Anthony Hopkins. Amazing filmmaking and intense moments of horror.

4. ALIEN (1979, Ridley Scott)
"In space, nobody can hear you scream..."

The crew of the spaceship Nostromo answer a distress call and make contact with an alien entity that they bring back aboard...

Ridley Scott is an excellent director, and Alien remains one of his masterpieces. The production design is simply stunning and years ahead of its time, while the creature from H.R Geiger is a fantastic monster. There is thick, creepy, atmosphere that builds through the entire film, and some shocking moments -- most memorably when John Hurt is taken ill at the dinner table...


3. CARRIE (1976, Brian DePalma)
"It was bad Mama; they laughed at me..."

A shy teenager, constantly bullied by her classmates, exacts her revenge when her telekinetic abilities are unleashed...

This Stephen King story was brought to the big screen by famed director Brian DePalma and contains a truly impressive central performance from Sissy Spacek as Carrie White. This is a brilliantly simple story, masterfully told, with some terrifying moments and plenty of shocking scenes.

2. THE EXORCIST (1973, William Friedkin)
"What a wonderful day for an exorcism..."

A teenaged girl is seemingly possessed by a demon and her family forced to call in an exorcist...

Okay, no surprises for this being in my Top 10, but it deserves to be. The film's notoriety sometimes undermines it (can it EVER be as scary as your imagine...?) but that's part of the appeal. If you believe, this is frightening stuff, and if you're a total atheist... you'll still be unnerved at the possibility. What people forget is that The Exorcist contains some excellent performances and exhibits great humanity...


1. THE SHINING (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
"Redrum. Redrum. Redrum..."

A family spend the winter looking after a haunted hotel, where the spirits begin to make an impression of the father and his psychic son...

Yes, it's Stanley Kubrick's lesson in horror. This is stunning work from the great auteur, who squeezes fantastic performances from everyone involved through his infamous multi-take philosophy. Jack Nicholson is on excellent form in this iconic role (complete with fire axe!), while Kubrick's genius is on full display with some amazing sequences and punctuations of brilliant horror... spooky, chilling, totally absording...

Monday, 30 October 2006

LOST 3.4 - "Every Man For Himself"

25 Oct 06. ABC, 9/8c
WRITERS: Edward Kitsis & Adam Horovitz DIRECTOR: Stephen Williams
CAST: Josh Holloway (Sawyer), Matthew Fox (Jack), Angeline Lilly (Kate), Michael Emerson (Ben), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond), Jorge Garcia (Hurley), Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliette), Dominic Monaghan (Charlie), Emilie DeRavin (Claire), Michael Bowen (Pickett), M.C Gainey (Tom), Edward Gomez (Munson), BIll Duke (Warden Harris) & Rodrigo Santoro (Paulo)

Sawyer's escape attempts prompt the Others into taking drastic action to ensure his obedience. Meanwhile, Jack's medical skills are called into action...

The second half of this 6-episode "mini-season" of Lost begins with Every Man For Himself, a Sawyer-based story that reveals the con man was once imprisoned for his crimes...

Sawyer's flashbacks have always been fun to watch, usually because they involve confidence tricks that require a denser level of plotting than usual. Sadly, the flashbacks in Every Man For Himself are not up to this high standard, although the pay-off is enjoyable and we find out an intriguing new aspect to Sawyer's life through an old girlfriend/con victim.

As with most of season 3 so far, the present day situation is now more interesting than the flashbacks. The writers seem to be finding it increasingly difficult to link the flashbacks to the current situation emotionally or thematically. Still, this flashback is certainly more plausible and enlightening than Locke's from Further Instructions.

Back at The Hydra, Kate and Sawyer are still locked in those polar bear cages (does anyone else think they're too small for bears, though?) and Jack is in solitary confinement indoors. This episode provides some much needed development of both stories, as Sawyer's escape attempts force the Others to administer a medical procedure on him that is quite startling and sinister...

Josh Holloway is perhaps the best actor on the show, blessed with a compelling character that gets to play hero and villain at the same time. Sawyer is always great fun to watch swaggering around, pricking ego's and giving people nicknames. Every moment he's on-screen is always a joy to watch.

As Kate, Evangeline Lilly isn't getting much to do so far, despite the promise of major drama from Henry Gale/Ben in the premiere's beach dinner scene. That said, she's always easy on the eye, and this episode sees the Sawyer-Kate relationship hot up during a brutal scene.
Matthew Fox is always at his best when he's playing the put-upon hero thrust into dramatic situations, of which there were plenty throughout season 1, but less (for him personally) in season 2. Here we see Jack back trying to save a person's life, and we even get a nod at what his greater purpose might be to the Others...


With the emphasis of this mini-season set mainly on The Hydra, the archetypal beach scenes are now less frequent. In season 2 the Hatch dominated the show, so I'm hoping season 3 will get back to the romantic/tragic aspect of plane crash survivors on a tropical island. In Every Man For Himself, we revisit the beach to focus on Desmond -- and get further proof that season 2's magnetic storm in the Hatch have somehow given him clairvoyancy. But why (or how) can Desmond see the future?

Lost likes to introduce these mystery side dishes for audiences to chew on between the bigger questions (Locke's mobility, the Black Rock, Danielle's history, the "sickness", etc) and so far it hasn't answered any of those. I hope season 3 does put a few of these smaller mysteries to bed, particularly as they have now introduced a new one with Desmond's second sight -- otherwise it's just over-egging the pudding!

Oh, and don't get me started on the two new castaways introduced to the show for no apparent reason. They actually made their debut last week in a short beach scene, but here Paulo (Rodrigo Santoro) gets a golfing scene with Desmond. Are either of them required? Do we need new characters with new flashbacks at this stage? They can't be central to the overall Lost mystery, so why bother? It was interesting to see Mr Eko and Ana-Lucia surface last year, but this seems to be stretching things...

Overall, Every Man For Himself is easily the best episode of the season in basic dramatic terms, thanks to the work of writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horovitz. The climax even reveals a new revelation about the island's geography that should cause hot debate amongst fans.

On the evidence of episode 4, I'm now more hopeful that the remaining episodes will prove worthwhile -- and no doubt end in a major cliffhanger, to be resolved when Lost returns in February. Keep watching...

Friday, 27 October 2006

HEROES 1.5 - "Hiros"

23 Oct 06. NBC, 9/8c
WRITER: Michael Green DIRECTOR: Paul Shapiro
CAST: Masi Oka (Hiro), Milo Ventimiglia (Peter), Adrian Pasdar (Nathan), Ali Larter (Niki), Greg Grunberg (Matt), Jack Coleman (Mr Bennett), Hayden Panettiere (Claire), Santiago Cabrera (Isaac), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Mohinder), Leonard Roberts (D.L Hawkins) & Matt Lanter (Brody)

Peter is given an important mission from a future-Hiro, while Nathan discovers the blackmail plot over his political campaign. Meanwhile, Matt uses his mind-reading ability to solve his marital problems...

You can't deny that Heroes is fast-paced. We're only a measly five episodes into the show and already it has more stories and characters than a Medusa has snakes. But while its sprightly pace and multi-plotting is commendable, it also lacks discipline; with sloppy writing and illogical moments threatening to trip it up.

Hiros contains quite a few plot contrivances that raise their ugly heads, most memorably when Nathan escapes the clutches of Mr Bennett by flying off into the air, only to land outside a diner in the desert and be witnessed by Hiro. The unlikeliness of their chance meeting requires suspension of disbelief (which I'm prepared to grant), but what follows amounts to a deadly sin of storytelling: Hiro somehow manages to speak near-perfect English to Nathan!

Did I miss something? It was established that Hiro is Japanese and totally unable to speak the lingo, hence his wranglings with the New York police, or the fact he couldn't leave an understandable message for Isaac on his phone. But, all of a sudden, with his friend/interpretor Ando absent, Hiro is practically fluent!

It's clear the writers just couldn't be bothered to keep up the subtitles, or have Hiro speak through an interpretor to other people, so they decided to have him develop pidgeon-English to save time. Well, okay guys, but surely this was a problem for the character that should have been identified in the Pilot? You don't see the producers of Lost suddenly making Jin drop the Korean because it causes them a writing headache, do you? No, they effectively use it as part of the drama.

It's things like this that makes Heroes look bad. By essentially admitting a mistake and trying to change it (and hoping nobody notices!) it just makes the show look half-assed. If this is the relaxed attitude the producers take to storytelling, why should I have any faith in them being able to handle the more complex plots in the show?

Hiros (a title that makes no sense; being just a pun on the show's title and a character's name) is a fairly entertaining installment. Stuff happens. Stuff always happens in Heroes, even if it's at the expense of believability. Here, Mohinder disappears from the story because he doesn't believe Peter's story of clairvoyancy, flying and time-control. Erm, is this the same guy who spent the first four episodes trying to track down people with such abilities? So why is he so skeptical about super-powers now? He lectured a class on the likelihood of this stuff in Genesis, regaled Peter with his beliefs in a cab once, and even narrates the show as a true believer! It doesn't make sense to me. It just seems that the writers wanted to get rid of Mohinder and leave Peter to go it alone. Fine. But in doing so they've sacrificed another character's credibility.

Other lapses of logic are abundant: Hiro goes to Vegas with Nathan (leaving his friend Ando behind without even saying goodbye!), Ando arrives at Niki's house asking for her help (he's a client of her webcam shows) with no explanation given about how he knows where she lives or what help he would possibly need, Hiro can't drive a car because the manual is in English(!), and Matt uses his mind-reading skills to foil a robbery (but tells the robber to leave his gun behind, whereby he picks it up and is assumed to be a robber himself by all the customers -- a case of mistaken identity that also happened to Hiro in episode 2!)

The overall impression of Hiros is of strain. The show is beginning to crumple under the weight of its self-imposed fast pace and multiple stories. It would be advisable for the writers to start focusing on just a few characters each week and slow things down a tad. At this rate, Heroes is going to rattle along at top speed and burn itself out prematurely, as the writing increasingly bends or breaks its own rules to suit current situations. Only a few of Heroes' characters actually act plausibly, most just do whatever's necessary for the plot to move on...

Heroes is still good fun, and I'm interested to see where it's going, but it's quite embarassingly flawed at times, and that's a great shame because it has huge potential.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

TORCHWOOD 1.2 - "Day One"

22 Oct 06. BBC 3, 9.55 pm
WRITER: Chris Chibnall DIRECTOR: Brian Kelly
CAST: John Barrowman (Capt Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Burn Gorman (Owen Harper), Naoka Mori (Toshiko Sato), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Sara Lloyd Gregory (Carys), Ceri Mears (Banksy), Adrian Christopher (Prvt Moriarty), Justin McDonald (Matt), Tom Price (PC Andy), Brendan Charleson (Ivan Fletcher), Rob Storr (Gavin), Alex Parry (Eddie Gwynne), Felicity Rhys (Bethan), Naomi Martell (Receptionist) & Donald Longden (Mr Weston)

Torchwood investigate a crashed meteorite, and Gwen accidentally releases a strange alien lifeform...

Now that the exposition has been dealt with, Torchwood gets down to business with its first "proper" episode. Things start promising enough with a brilliant flaming meteorite sequence and energetic rush to the crash-site, although once the alien's modus operandi is revealed it all becomes a bit tacky...

The problem is that Day One utilizes one of the worst sci-fi cliches: the alien that requires sex to survive. This idea is a staple of low-budget smutty sci-fi where the only asset is its leading actresses, er, assets. Only the film Species dared bring this low-rent idea to the masses courtesy of Natasha Henstridge's ample bosom.

Anyway, a teenaged clubber called Carys (Sara Lloyd Gregory, much better than the material) is soon possessed by the gaseous alien and spends the next day having sex with men and turning them into piles of dust at the moment of orgasm.

It's hard to decide whether Day One will be indicative of the show's quality, or whether it represents growing pains, but I'll give Torchwood the benefit of the doubt, for now. It's almost as if writer Chris Chibnall was briefed about the show's "adult themes" and immediately latched onto sex as the natural idea for his episode. Instead, it smacks of desperation and unoriginality.

Sci-fi shows that resort to nymphomania as a plot device are usually reaching a nadir, and to suggest scenes of people having sex immediately makes Torchwood "sexy and edgy" is just ridiculous. Still, it means we get another same-sex kiss (the second in as many episodes, this time between Gwen and Carys), which proves to be totally unnecessary (the alien needs MEN), but I'm sure it ticked a "slick/sexy/edgy" box for the producers.

Elsewhere, Cardiff is filmed as if it's a cosmopolitan metropolis, the homely Welsh accents continue to undermine the show's edginess, we revisit Torchwood's Hannibal Lecter-esque prison cells (there's even a Lecter-Starling moment between Gwen and the "Resident Weevil" -- heheh), a security guard has a wank, the overblown music becomes intrusive too often, and a gadget appears that you just know will come in handy later -- James Bond style...

Beyond the randy alien, there are attempts made to convince us that Gwen is an asset to Torchwood because of her humanist approach to crime-solving. It's a nice idea, but I can't quite understand why the rest of the team aren't on her wavelength, as there's nothing in their characters to suggest they're particularly disinterested in their fellow man. Still, Gwen's humanist approach only extends to pinning up photos of Carys and suggesting they call her dad!

Overall, Day One is very disappointing given the possibilities of the show, but somehow brainlessly watchable. It has the odd titillation and entertaining scene to make it just about worthwhile, but it's crippled by its old-hat smutty premise and some illogical moments (hey, let's put a girl possessed by alien gas in a cell with air holes!)

To fulfill its adult sci-fi remit, Torchwood is going to have to try much harder than simply shoehorning sex, moderate swearing, and gay kissing into every single plot. A faintly embarassing episode and a worrying low-point for a new series so early in its life.

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

TORCHWOOD 1.1 - "Everything Changes"

22 Oct 06. BBC 3, 9.00 pm
WRITER: Russell T. Davies DIRECTOR: Brian Kelly
CAST: John Barrowman (Capt Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Burn Gorman (Owen Harper), Naoka Mori (Toshiko Sato), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Indira Varma (Suzie Costello), Tom Price (PC Andy) & Paul Kasey (Weevil)

Cardiff police officer Gwen Cooper stumbles upon a secretive organisation called Torchwood, led by the dashing Captain Jack Harkness, who deal with alien threats to Earth...

Following on from the astounding success of the BBC's revamped Doctor Who, Torchwood (an anagram of its sibling series) arrives as a slick, sexy, alternative for those who find the Who a bit too whimsical and childish. Doctor Who's executive producer and head writer, Russell T. Davies, opens the series with Everything Changes, essentially one huge set-up of the show's premise.

Eve Myles, exuding girl-next-door sexiness at all times, plays PC Gwen Cooper; a hard-working Cardiff police officer who witnesses the mysterious Torchwood team resurrect a murder victim using a strrange steel glove. Gwen starts her own investigation into this "special ops" team and discovers their underground "Hub". From here, under the leadership of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), a specialist team protects the Earth from alien threats whilst scavenging their technology...

John Barrowman is the show's main link to Doctor Who, where he played the same character during Christopher Ecclestone's tenure as The Doctor (last seen in a space-station fighting Daleks in the distant future). His re-appearance in 21st-Century Cardiff isn't explained for the moment, and neither is a strange new ability he possesses...

As the show's lead, Barrowman is pretty good. He has screen presence and charisma to burn, and while he's occassionally a little hollow in his delivery, he makes for an interesting character in an old-fashioned pulp sci-fi way.

Gwen Cooper is essentially Torchwood's version of Rose, with Eve Myles following a similar plot to Billie Piper's introduction to Doctor Who: an ordinary Brit is enticed by a dashing new man in her life (Jack), leading her away from her nice-but-dull lifestyle (here a boyfriend) and into extraordinary sci-fi adventures...

Eve Myles has more gravitas as Gwen than Billie ever mustered, although her doe-eyed pout became a little tiresome. At the moment, Torchwood is severely lacking the comedy element of Doctor Who, instead determined to make you sit up and notice its more adult themes.

Ah yes, the "adult themes". A lot has been made of Torchwood's post-watershed timeslot, but is it really so different to your average episode of Doctor Who? Well, yes. Torchwood has the same glossy aesthetic as Who, although it contains far more rainsoaked scenes and aerial shots of Cardiff. There's definitely a more mature sensibility in terms of style, performances, sexual themes (a homosexual snog) and a smattering of blood. It's hardly 18-certificate material, but it's certainly not early-evening Saturday night family viewing either. Thank God.

To discuss the plot would be generally pointless, as practically the entire episode is just one long introduction to the premise and characters via Gwen's investigation. There is a tacked on murder sub-plot, but it's hardly a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Despite its faults, Everything Changes held my interest far more than Doctor Who's series premiere Rose. Russell T. Davies is a writer revered in mainstream circles for resurrecting Doctor Who (not to mention his credentials writing Queer As Folk, etc) but whose writing abilities are often questioned by discerning sci-fi fans. His episodes of Doctor Who are often mediocre and occassionally downright bad, so it's with great relief to find Everything Changes a cut above most of its output...

There are some genuinely interesting moments from Davies here, such as a murder victim being temporarily resurrected for a minute and realizing "there's nothing..." at the moment of death, a sequence with Gwen trying to prevent oncoming amnesia at her computer, and a surreal moment in a corridor with an alien.

However, there are also the usual moments of Davies excessiveness: a silly Batman-style scene with Jack standing on a building overlooking the city, a pointless moment that prompts a gay kiss (for no real storytelling reason other than crass humour and because Davies can get away with it now), and a few frustrating plot holes, not to mention the strain of making an organisation like Torchwood seem credible.

Overall, Everything Changes is a decent introduction to Torchwood, saved by some good performances (particularly from the two leads), a good sense of pace and some decent special-effects (the resident alien "Weevil" is impressive stuff). Time will tell if this X-Files/Men In Black hybrid will have the longevity of Doctor Who, but I'm atleast hoping its existence will mean the TARDIS can escape Earth now Captain Jack's got things covered...

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

HEROES 1.4 - "Collision"

16 Oct 06. NBC, 9/8c pm
WRITER: Bryan Fuller DIRECTOR: Ernest Dickerson
CAST: Adrian Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli), Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli), Santiago Cabrera (Isaac Mendez), Ali Larter (Niki Sanders), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet), more...

Nathan attends a business meeting in Las Vegas, where stripper Niki is working and Hiro is busy using his powers to cheat at gambling. Meanwhile, Peter finds Mohinder and demands answers...

Events continue to cool down after the hectic start to Heroes, with the episode focusing on just a few of the many subplots and fleshes out some of the characters' lives and powers. Writer Bryan Fuller, who previously worked on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, brings some much needed quality to the writing. The dialogue flows much better here, with the characters taking on greater depth and believability as a result. In particular, Nathan and Niki suddenly become the show's greatest acting assets thanks to a great scene in a Vegas hotel.

The plot treads water for the most part, with nothing particularly important happening until the climax. Collision is mostly about character development and moving some of the disparate heroes together like pieces on a chess board.

Unfortunately, with so many balls in the air, a few are left hanging. Matt the telepathic cop is captured by Mr Bennett and has his power subdued owing to the presence of a mysterious black man (the silent guy seen in bar last episode), but this is a subplot that is quickly forgotten about.

Santiago Cabrera is still criminally underused as clairvoyant painter Issac. Although he's given a few scenes to work with, they don't really give any insight into him as a character, just confirm exactly how his power works. It's disheartening to see some characters still being used as convenient plot devices, and Cabrera has the most reason to complain.

Masi Oka remains the star of the show, here cheating in the casino with his powers (and a homage to Rain Man?); Milo Ventimiglia is good as Peter but his character remains bland for my liking, although his "leeching" ability to feed off other peoples' powers should prove interesting; Sendhil Ramamurthy's usually OTT performance is reigned in quite successfully here; Hayden Panettiere is surprisingly good, Tawny Cypress is a good actress, so I hope her role as Simone (Issac's friend, Peter's lover) develops into something worthwhile; Jack Coleman's creepy Mr Bennett is good boo-hiss value; while Nora Zehetner's character Eden could become totally superfluous unless she hides a secret (a mole?)

While Fuller does wonders for the show's dialogue and pacing, Collision remains little more than marginal developments. A subplot with Claire seeking revenge on her rapist (and murderer if she wasn't invulnerable!) isn't convincing, despite Hayden Panettiere's valiant attempt to squeeze drama out of the situation.

The premise of Heroes is great fun, and the characters' powers, together with the mysteries surrounding them, make for entertaining viewing. For all its faults, there's enough here to entertain and draw you into its comic book-style format. But Heroes will only earn greater respect if it begins to prove it has direction, and isn't just a jumble of moments and half-formed ideas designed to excite audiences on a superficial level each week. The good news is that, for the time being, things are developing fast and the show is building a strong mythology.

Monday, 23 October 2006

EXTRAS 2.6 - "Episode 6"

19 Oct 06. BBC 2, 9.00 pm
DIRECTORS & WRITERS: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
CAST: Ricky Gervais (Andy Millman), Ashley Jensen (Maggie Jacobs), Stephen Merchant (Agent), Shaun Williamson (Shaun/Barry), Robert Lindsay (Himself), Jonathan Ross (Himself)

Andy is guilt-tripped into visiting a sick boy in hospital who's a fan of his sitcom, all at a time when he's becoming showbiz mates with chat-show host Jonathan Ross...

Reality and fiction collide with each other in the final episode of Extras' entertaining, but narratively weaker second series, when Andy (Gervais) is interviewed by Jonathan Ross on TV. Footage of the interview is taken from Gervais' own interview on Ross' show, and the plot sees Andy becoming friends with Ross, much like Gervais is in real life.

So it's clearer than ever that Andy Millman is an alternate version of Ricky Gervais, for while Gervais struck comedy gold and critical respect with The Office, Millman struck comedy bronze and critical disdain with When The Whistle Blows. Andy is Ying to Ricky's Yang, essentially.

The blurring of realities in Extras certainly reaches a high point with Episode 6, and it actually seems very egotistical to splice your own interview into a sitcom and get a showbiz mate involved in your meta-comedy. It might just be a bit of fun for Gervais, but after spending the past five episodes extolling the evils low-brow sitcoms, etc, it seems hypocritical to so blatantly do something similar yourself.

Thankfully, the Ross-Gervais love-in disappears quite quickly, leaving the rest of the episode to compensate. Andy's social life is again inconvenienced by the mother of a sick boy who's a fan of Andy's sitcom, and he's talked into sitting at the kid's bedside. Later, Andy gives his agent an ultimatum: a meeting with screen legend Robert DeNiro to discuss a film project, or he's fired...

While series 2 of Extras has lacked the wit and realism of series 1, often relying on crudity to gets its laughs, it's true that the pitfalls of fame have been quite neatly handled. Here, the lure of showbiz friends and parties pulls Andy away from his true friend Maggie, in a plot that might be obvious but is performed well by both actors.

The headlining star is Jonathan Ross (although a late surprise guest eclipses him totally), and Ross essentially plays himself. Unlike previous guests, Ross' persona isn't twisted cruelly, as his real personality is already quite exaggerated (his love of Japanese toys, etc) although he does star in a marginally homo-erotic water pistol fight at a picnic...

Ross might get top-billing, but it's Robert Lindsay who steals the show, playing an egotistical version of himself. It's a great performance, particularly in his embarassing rendition of a Broadway hit to a sickly child. Lindsay even plays along with some good-natured jibes about his sitcom My Family (a huge ratings hit, but reviled by industry insiders -- much like the fictional When The Whistle Blows).

Episode 6 is enjoyable and belatedly marks a slight upsurge in quality from the show. Extras is always worth watching, but the early episodes totally lacked the spark of series 1 and focused too much on Andy's sitcom. Episode 6 still contains crudeness for easy laughs (a masturbation scene with a pornographic pen) but that doesn't really matter so long as there's a balance with more substantial and witty jokes.

Ashley Jensen's role has been seriously undermined to nothing more than comic stooge who feeds Andy lines, whereas she was an enjoyable character in her own right last year. There is also a tendency to recycle the same gags, but dress them up differenty, leading to almost every episode having a comic misunderstanding involving a disabled person.

The show doesn't end with anything to suggest a new direction for a third series, unless the unseen DeNiro meeting leads to Hollywood, but I hope there is one nevertheless. I think there's more mileage left in the premise, although series 2 was shakier than series 1, so I'm not clamouring for an extra portion like last year.

Friday, 20 October 2006

LOST 3.3 - "Further Instructions"

16 Oct 06. ABC, 9/8c
WRITERS: Carlton Cuse & Elizabeth Sarnoff DIRECTOR: Stephen Williams
CAST: Terry O'Quinn (Locke), Dominic Monaghan (Charlie), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond), (Mr Eko), Ian Somerhalder (Boone), Jorge Garcia (Hurley), Justin Chatwin (Eddie), Chris Mulkey (Mike), Virginia Morris (Jan), Joel Himelhoch (Sheriff) & Dion Donahue (Kim)

Locke wakes up in the jungle unable to speak, and sets about trying to locate Mr Eko by contacting "the island"...

On the surface, this episode of Lost has everything going for it; it's focuses on Locke, one of the most fascinating characters and blessed with an intriguing flashback history, it returns to the scene of last season's climactic Hatch to reveal the fates of Desmond and Mr Eko, and even welcomes a familiar face back into the show...

So why is Further Instructions so difficult to enjoy? The fact is, this episode is messy and below the high standards of the show. On a superficial level it contains some entertaining moments (a Locke "mind trip" back to Sydney Airport, another polar bear, and even a bit of clairvoyancy), but none of it gels together very well.

The problems stem from the plot, which veers from unbelievable to ridiculous. Locke wakes up post-Hatch implosion unable to talk but convinced he must contact the island via a "sweat lodge". O-kay. In season 1 Locke was faintly mystic in his beliefs (the Aboriginal Walkabout, etc), but why does he want to contact the island anyway? Not pressing the button resulted in the destruction of the Hatch, but there's nothing to suggest a mystical solution is called for. If anything, the events with the Hatch were quite scientific in nature and the only problem facing Locke is the absence of Mr Eko.

Anyway, for some strange and unexplained reason, Desmond somehow survived the implosion of an underground bunker and finds himself stripped naked in the jungle! He proceeds to run around in no particular direction, for no apparent reason, until a chance meeting with Hurley directs him back to the beach. This is another example of the bizarre plotting in Further Instructions, with the writers clearly unable to properly explain last season's finale adequately, or relocate their characters back into the story effectively.

The ridiculous angle comes most notably from Mr Eko's fate -- dragged by a polar bear into a cave! The "island" tells Locke to save Mr Eko, which he does by arming himself with a torch and, er, a can of hairspray!

A criticism of season 2 was the handling of Locke's character, who went from boar-hunter to button-presser. Personally, I quite enjoyed seeing Locke's faith in the Hatch button tested at various intervals, but the season 1 Locke was certainly more charismatic and mysterious. Further Instructions is mainly focused on getting Locke back to his original personality, but it does so in such a silly fashion it almost makes Locke a parody of himself.

The flashbacks are a massive disappointment, particularly as Locke's flashbacks are usually a highlight of any season. Here, Locke's history moves into an unseen time period with Locke as a member of a commune, who picks up a young hitch-hiker called Eddie and introduces him to their lifestyle. The only element of the flashbacks with a link to on-island events, is a drugs element that might eventually makes Locke's dislike of Charlie's addiction more understandable. The rest is massively superfluous and struggles to provide the usual commentary on present day island events with Locke's character. A terrible waste.

Further Instructions is easily one of Lost's most haphazard episodes. There are some fun moments (Locke's hallucinations, a hint that Desmond might now be clairvoyant -- or is it temporary?), but most of the episode is just silly. A particular bugbear I have with Lost is how characters react to news or interact with each other following major events; a problem abundant in this episode...

Why hasn't Charlie gone to look for Desmond, Locke and Eko? Why is he just sat on the beach with Claire when he witnessed the Hatch malfunction?

How did Mr Eko, Locke and Desmond escape the Hatch implosion? In particular, Desmond was even further underground with the fail-safe key, so how did he get to the surface... and lose all his clothes?!

Most irritatingly, Hurley just witnessed several major events: the revelation of Michael as a double-murderer, the departure of Michael and Walt from the island, the fact Henry Gale is the Others' leader, and the capture of Jack, Sawyer and Kate. So why is he walking nonchalently through the jungle back to camp? Surely you'd be fearing for your friends' lives and rushing back, yes? I don't care how unfit you are!

Lost has always contained weaknesses like this, with characters rarely talking to each other frankly and openly, but usually it isn't handled so jarringly. In Further Instructions, there are just too many inconsistencies and bad judgements of character to let it pass.

A frivolous episode beneath the show's usual quality.

Thursday, 19 October 2006

LOST 3.2 - "The Glass Ballerina"

11 Oct. ABC, 9/8c
WRITERS: Jeff Pinkner & Drew Goddard DIRECTOR: Paul Edwards
CAST: Yunjin Kim (Sun), Daniel Dae Kim (Jin), Byron Chung (Mr Paik), Tony Lee (Jae Lee), Josh Holloway (Sawyer), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Matthew Fox (Jack), Naveen Andrews (Sayid), M.C Gainey (Tom), Tania Raymonde (Alex), Paula Malcolmson (Colleen), Michael Bowen (Pickett), Joah Buley (Luke) & Tomiko Okhee Lee (Mrs Lee)

Sayid, Sun and Jin decide to moor their sailboat at the Pala Ferry and find Jack's rescue team. Meanwhile, Sawyer and Kate are put to work by the Others...

The Glass Ballerina is a Sun and Jin flashback episode, two characters whose lives always seem more interesting in flashback than on the island. We return to the Sun-Jin-Jae love triangle started last season, which comes to a head after Sun's father Mr Paik discovers her illicit affair with the bald lothario.

On the island, the adventurous side of Lost returns with Sayid's plan to lure The Others into a trap at the Pala Ferry. It's refreshing to see Lost stretch its adventure muscles, after the mythology-heavy second season's reliance on Hatch-based mystery. This, combined with the "prisoners versus guards" subplot with Sawyer, Kate, and Jack, means the episode certainly moves at a more agreeable pace than last week's premiere.

Josh Holloway continues his excellent work as Sawyer, making a move on Kate despite its repercussions, while Jack's story doesn't really go anywhere until the final scene with Ben (formerly Henry Gale). Matthew Fox's character has become increasingly annoying over time once his resourceful leader role was diminished last season, so I'm hopeful he'll get back on track in season 3.

A smattering of questions are even answered, such as: Ben's last name, the current date, and a few theories about off-island activity are finally put to bed. But don't you just love it how a definite answer prompts more questions?

In summation, The Glass Ballerina is a good episode of Lost, blessed with a more adventurous streak, although the prison camp subplot could become quite tiresome unless something remarkable happens soon; perhaps involving Alex (Danielle the crazy French woman's estranged daughter) who makes a welcome return here. The potentially yawnsome Sun and Jin flashbacks were also quite enlightening and contained a surprise I didn't expect...

NEXT TIME -- We find out what happened to Locke, Mr Eko and Desmond after The Hatch went haywire...

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

HEROES 1.3 - "One Giant Leap"

9 Oct 06. NBC, 9/8c pm
WRITER: Jeph Loeb DIRECTOR: Greg Beeman
CAST: Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli), Santiago Cabrera (Isaac Mendez), Ali Larter (Niki Sanders), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet), more...

Hiro returns to Japan to persuade his friend to help him stop the nuclear attack on New York, Niki buries the dead bodies of her enemies in the desert, while Matt Parkman officially joins the FBI's search for serial-killer Sylar...

After the initial rush of new characters, new powers and new threats of recent weeks, things calm down in Episode 3, with new writer Jeph Loeb seeking to clarify and gently nudge along the show's fresh web of ideas.

One Giant Leap is disappointing after the fine work produced last week that made Heroes a must-watch show, primarily because it's increasingly clear some of the character's storylines are plain drab compared to others.

Hiro's journey remains the most addictive, although this week's reliance on the comic-book that predicts his actions is a bit silly -- why not just read the last page and save yourself a lot of hassle?

Nathan and Peter Petrelli are perhaps the most frustrating characters at the moment, although the exploitative Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) is suitably smarmy and Peter's boyish belief in his greater destiny is performed well by Milo Ventimiglia. It's just that the political backdrop isn't being used very compellingly.

Hayden Panettiere (Claire) is sexy and likeable, but despite having one of the best powers (invincibility), and an important link to series mythology (the bespectacled villain is her step-father) her story so far is unremarkable and underwritten. This week a tired and predictable date-rape angle is used to unconvincing effect.

Ali Larter (Niki) spends most of the episode burying bodies, with her son mysteriously able to sleep through it all in the back of a convertible car parked in a desert. It's little oddities like this that wrankle in the show and give it that half-assed atmosphere of writers desperately trying to juggle an overly-complicated sub-plots. Still, we at least get the information that Niki's ex-husband is a murderer. Is he the maniac Sylar introduced last week?

Ah yes, Sylar; the super-villain being tracked by Greg Grunberg's telepathic cop Matt and Clea Duvall's bottle-blonde Fed. It appears Sylar can control peoples' actions and might also have a few other abilities (he seems to vanish, but then again... most villains have that habit in the world of television!)

A review of any episode can quickly degenerate into simply recounting the various plot developments, so I'll stop there. Just be assured that while One Giant Leap lacks the bite of last week, Heroes is still moving in a strong direction and should sustain itself for awhile yet.

At the moment Heroes is 80% set-up and 20% development. The balls are still being thrown into the air (a main cast member has yet to be introduced even 3 episodes in!), so I just hope they don't come crashing down too soon.

Heroes isn't a particularly clever or well-written drama; examples of mediocre writing abound, particularly when you realize that every hero has a lone confidant (Claire's friend, Hiro's co-worker, Niki's babysitter, Mohinder's neighbour, Peter's brother, Isaac's friend, Matt's FBI accomplice, etc... it's spooky!), or consider the unlikely fact Mohinder's next-door neighbour Eden is so acquainted with his father's work! You can feel the writers' desperation at trying to shoehorn in a "sounding board" for Mohinder's character.

But, while flawed at a writing level, Heroes has ambition and imagination to spare. For fans, there's even a strange symbol that seems to be appearing throughout the episodes... and, well... yes, there's yet another eye-popping final scene to make you tune in next week...

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

ROBIN HOOD 1.2 - "Sheriff Got Your Tongue?"

14 Oct 06. BBC 1, 7.05 pm
WRITER: Dominic Minghella DIRECTOR: John McKay
CAST: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Lucy Griffiths (Marian), Keith Allen (Sheriff), Richard Armitage (Guy Of Gisbourne), Gordon Kennedy (Little John) & Sam Troughton (Much)

The Sheriff arrives in Locksley and demands the townsfolk tell him where Robin is hiding, not realizing that Robin has been captured by a gang of thieves in Sherwood Forest...

After the lacklustre opening episode, the sense of fun picks up with Sheriff Got Your Tongue?, with a more relaxed sense of adventure and the sense that the show is moving into a comfort zone.

This is still amiable and lighthearted stuff, perhaps not to everyone's taste in the wake of gritty mediavel movies such as Kingdom Of Heaven and King Arthur, but it should please the family demographic.

There is the potential for problems further down the line, with the revelation in this episode that Robin lacks the killer instinct following his stint in the Crusades. This could be a method of ensuring Robin simply doesn't assassinate the Sheriff (something that inexplicably never happens in any Hood incarnation), but it could also be a badly-judged way of limiting the bloodshed for a pre-watershed show. If proved true, the sight of arrows harmlessly shooting weapons out of hands and thunking into trees to scare villains could become tiresome and repetitive.

Jonas Armstrong remains charismatic, but the youthful cast don't carry the gravitas some a gang of thirtysomethings would. At times it's like watching naughty schoolboys running around the forest. You half expect them to start having games of conkers and building treehouses, before their mothers call them in for tea.

As such, Richard Armitage and Keith Allen are the most enjoyable presences so far, as Guy Of Gisbourne and the Sheriff respectively. With age comes experience, and both actors chew the scenery with just the right amount of panache. In particular, Allen gets more to work with this week and has quite a few scenes to sink his teeth into.

Sam Troughton as Much is an energetic and likeable character, seemingly playing his sidekick in a similar vein to the Hobbits Merry and Pippin from Lord Of The Rings. Gordon Kennedy isn't quite the physical presence required for Little John, and a subplot about his estranged wife and son seemed a bit forced.

But the really frustrating thing about Robin Hood so far is the quality of the writing. Dominic Minghella's dialogue is a little clunky, but the real problem is the storylines, which have so far thrashed around all over the place from set-piece to set-piece, usually involving the rescue of people from Nottingham Castle.

At the moment I'm willing to put this down to "growing pains" as the series seeks to stamp its own identity on such a well-known story. But, once the pieces are all in place, I hope the series doesn't degenerate into a series of overly-familiar rescue scenarios week after week. It will be difficult, as the Robin Hood story is a relatively simple one that can be sucinctly told in a two hour movie, so spreading the narrative indefinitely for years (while keeping audience interest in the Robin vs Sheriff and Robin-Marian romance) will be tricky.

In summation, there is enough quality in the performances and production to make Robin Hood worthwhile. This episode kept my interest and contained a handful of good scenes, although the lack of violence (Robin's arrows haven't struck flesh) and a haphazard sense of plotting is so far keeping this series from flying high.

Monday, 16 October 2006

LOST 3.1 - "A Tale Of Two Cities"

4 Oct 06. ABC, 9/8c pm
WRITERS: J.J Abrams & Damon Lindelof DIRECTOR: Jack Bender
CAST: Matthew Fox (Jack), Josh Holloway (Sawyer), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Michael Emerson (Ben), Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliette), Julie Bowen (Sarah Shepherd), John Terry (Christian Shepherd), M.C Gainey (Tom) & Blake Bashoff (Karl)

WARNING: I hate spoilers and always try to avoid them. However, with Lost it's impossible to discuss anything without mentioning things that could be classed as spoilers. I strongly suggest you don't read this review until you've seen the episode. I'll never ruin major surprises (like character deaths), and do my best to avoid them in general, but don't blame me if I indirectly ruin something for you...


Jack, Kate and Sawyer find themselves held captive by The Others in a strange complex somewhere on the island...

After a stunning pre-credits sequence, easily one of Lost's most jaw-dropping moments, the season 3 premiere settles into an interesting but ultimately unmomentous story. Unlike last year, the fallout to the preceding season's finale is nowhere near as unpredictable as Desmond and The Hatch was. Instead, A Tale Of Two Cities is a fairly run-of-the-mill story of imprisonment and mind games.

This week's flashbacks focus on Jack, a character who was the focus in season 1, only to fade into the background during season 2. It doesn't help that the writers have gradually made Jack quite a whiny and tortured person, as he was far more enjoyable to watch as the tough but kind-hearted doctor.

Jack's history with his alcoholic father and marital problems has never been particularly interesting to me, despite the always excellent presence of John Terry as Christian Shepherd. Another piece of Jack's puzzle is presented to us, although after two years it's becoming difficult to care about some of the characters' histories when the present day island-based adventure is now far more interesting. Only Locke has a flashback storyline I'm desperate to see reach a conclusion.

Anyway, it transpires that The Others live in more modern accomodation than you'd expect, and have access to "The Hydra" (a underwater hatch, explaining season 2's shark). It's still not clear if The Others are remnants of DHARMA, but at this moment it's difficult to think why else they'd be there! Of course, straight answers are never very forthcoming with Lost, with any answer usually spawning more questions.

Sawyer finds himself locked in a cage that apparently used to contain a polar bear (a definite explanation for where the season 1 polar bear came from), so it would seem Sawyer and Kate are being kept in a zoological station of some description. Why? Well, folks, that's another question...

To be frank, A Tale Of Two Cities does very little beyond accustom the viewer to the new locations and characters. The most enjoyable and rivetting moment happens in the first five minutes, with everything else failing to match it. Elizabeth Mitchell joins the cast as Juliette, another enigmatic Other and sexy blonde (the number of identikit sexy blondes on the show is staggering and increasingly confusing...)

The really good news is that Michael Emerson is now a main cast member as Henry Gale (real name Ben, we discover). Emerson is a wonderful actor and brings a much needed creep factor that unsettles the screen whenever he's around. At the moment it appears Ben is the leader of The Others, although you can never be sure of anything with this show! Where's Miss Klugh?

Overall, A Tale Of Two Cities isn't a bad episode, but it's certainly not as dramatic as the season 2 premiere. In fact, much of what happens was predicted by fans throughout the summer, and it's worrying that the pre-credit twist (while undeniably excellent) is basically the same trick performed in last year's premiere. Together with the fact season 3's opening hours will be split (hydra hatch/boat) just like season 2' (swan hatch/boat) is another echo that makes it seem like the writers have fallen into a pattern.

Then again, every time you suspect Lost is about to jump the shark, it manages to get back on track and throw a delicious curve ball. I hope season 3 will continue to see the show evolve into new areas now we're out of The Hatch. Perhaps a few answers to some long-standing questions might also be in order, as it would be a mistake to store up all the answers for the final season.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

TRAILER PARK: Grindhouse

Any movie fan should be clamouring for Grind House, the next movie from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino has yet to make a bad movie (Jackie Brown is just the "least good" of an amazing filmography). Rodriguez went a little haywire after 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn, focusing too much on his cutesy Spy Kids franchise, before making his awesome return to adult cinema with 2005's Sin City.

The pair have now teamed up for Grind House, a duet of hardcore movies based on the "grindhouse" aesthetic of the 1970s. Tarantino will direct Death Proof, a slasher film starring Kurt Russell; while Rodriguez directs zombie movie Planet Terror with Michael Biehn.

In an effort to make this "grindhouse" experience as authentic as possible, there will also be trailers for fake movies, some directed by Eli Roth (Hostel) and Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead). These trailers will include a blaxploitation film, a kung fu film, a sexploitation film, a Spaghetti Western and a Swedish porno.

Also of interest is the project's eclectic cast. There are potential career resuscitations for Kurt Russell, Michael Biehn, Josh Brolin and Jeff Fahey; roles for From Dusk Till Dawn alumni Danny Trejo, Michael Parks and Tom Savini; plus some other up-and-coming actors like Freddy Rodriguez, Naveen Andrews (Sayid in Lost), Stacy Ferguson (Black Eyed Peas), Rose McGowa and Rosario Dawson (Sin City).

If none of that has wetted your appetite, then you must be dead. The film opens next year in the US on 6 April, but check out this awesome trailer... and begin counting the days...


Friday, 13 October 2006

Superman II - Richard Donner Edit - 5-Minute Scene!

Superman II, the beloved sequel starring Christopher Reeve, is being re-released on DVD in November as a newly-edited version! The movie will also include scenes shot by director Richard Donner before he was replaced by Richard Lester. WB have put up a 5-minute scene, which includes updated special effects!!

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EXTRAS 2.5 - "Episode 5"

12 Oct 06. BBC 2, 9.00 pm
WRITERS & DIRECTORS: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
CAST: Ricky Gervais (Andy Millman), Ashley Jensen (Maggie Jacobs), Stephen Merchant (Agent), Shaun Williamson (Barry/Shaun), Sir Ian McKellen (Himself), Damon Beesley (Martin Savage), Iain Morris (Guy Henry), (Liza Tarbuck (Rita), Sarah Moyle (Kimberley), Jamie Chapman (Brains), Andrew Buckley (Gobbler), Shaun Pye (Greg), Gerard Kelly (Bunny), Sarah Preston (Make-Up Woman), Nadia Williams (Third A.D), Jonathan Cake (Steve Sherwood), Anna Crilly (Woman At Tea Table), Priyanga Burford (Sir Ian's Assistant), Rufus Wright (Fran/Leslie), Germaine Greer (Herself), Mark Kermode (Himself) & Mark Lawson (Himself)

Reeling from a critical panning of his sitcom, Andy secures a part in a play being directed by Sir Ian McKellen to regain some respect, but isn't aware his character is gay until the audition...

In the penultimate episode of this patchy second series, Extras finally produces something with the correct laugh-to-cringe ratio, even if it comes at the expense of more low-brow writing...

Sir Ian McKellen is the prime celebrity target, but gets off lightly with a silly scene where he bestows his acting knowledge to Andy ("I pretend...") that's hardly the match for fellow X-Men star Patrick Stewart's turn last year. However, McKellen is as magnetic as ever in his scenes and a joy to watch.

Extras has already established Andy Millman's unease around gay people, and it's a character trait that's given centre stage in Episode 5. The problem facing Andy is Ian McKellen's insistence of a real kiss with co-star Leslie, and the fact a group of homophobic friends are in the crowd on opening night.

It's a breath of fresh air to see the comedy and awkwardness of Extras return and work in tandem again. Previous episodes haven't quite managed to weave the two together properly, but here the plot, comedy and embarrassment-factor all pull together.

Elsewhere, the underused Ashley Jensen (Maggie) and the overused Stephen Merchant (Agent) are thrown together in a slightly unlikely manner, but thankfully their romantic date together proves to be a highlight with the hapless Agent's toilet problem involving an egg whisk...

The episode again ends with more humiliation for Andy, again played out to a crowd full of people, friends, and a personal enemy. It's a situation that is becoming increasingly predictable, but retains its power to make you feel empathy for Andy thanks to Ricky Gervais' performance.

Series 2 has moulded Andy into a tragically unlucky figure, whereas last year he was merely disgruntled, and the "normal" one compared to Maggie. Series 2 has also made Andy a sexual incompetent, with numerous references to his late virginity and inability to chat-up women; a new facet that is a little at odds with last year's character.

Overall, Episode 5 is definitely the best of series 2 so far, and on-par with series 1. The jokes are broader and more low-brow (a vaseline gag could even be considered "beneath" the show, but it remains funny). There's also a perfectly executed gag with a fizzy drink bottle that is sublime physical comedy and one of the funniest moments of the year.

Thursday, 12 October 2006

HEROES 1.2 - "Don't Look Back"

2 Oct 06. NBC, 9/8c pm
WRITER: Tim Kring DIRECTOR: David Semel
CAST: Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli), Santiago Cabrera (Isaac Mendez), Ali Larter (Niki Sanders), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet), more...

As the Heroes continue to develop their powers, a new threat is revealed in a killer called Sylar and Hiro makes a nightmarish discovery in New York...

Just to recap; I reviewed the first episode of Heroes (in a rough-and-ready format) a few months ago here, and much of what I said at the time is still true. Some problems were ironed out by the time it premiered on NBC, such as a more plausible rescue from a fire-ravaged building, but the scattershot pacing and characterisation remained. Overall, I gave the Pilot a rating of 2/5, but the finished product was a more solid 3/5.

Don't Look Back finds Peter in hospital following his leap from a building... Hiro discovers a comic-book that has predicted his arrival in New York... Claire averts celebrity status for her heroism... Mohinder finds an ally to help him trace his father... and Niki discovers a frightening side to her power...

The amazing thing about Don't Look Back is how it hits the ground running and introduces a number of new elements that immediately make Heroes one of the most interesting shows on television, if still the most unoriginal and thinly written.

Ali Larter continues her impressive work as Niki's power goes from being the most ludicrous to the most original and intriguing. Of all the characters she undoubtedly has the strangest ability, and her character's struggle is the most dramatic aspect to the show at the moment.

Masi Oka could so easily become the most annoying character on TV (and if they don't reign in his cute sci-fi references, that could still be the case), but right now Oka's made Hiro a very watchable bundle of energy. It helps that Hiro's powers are perhaps the most impressive in the show, and his storyline the best thing about Heroes at the moment.

I'm not going to needlessly churn over the rest of the cast's actions this week, needless to say that some characters are still underused -- Isaac the precognitive painter is effectively a walking plot device at the moment! Mohinder is the lynchpin to the series, and there are signs his investigation into his father's death could evolve into something more interesting than first thought.

The main interest this week is the arrival of another hero, namely Greg Grunberg as a cop called Matt Parkman who discovers he has the ability to read minds. This comes in useful at a crime scene where FBI Agent Audrey Hanson (Clea Duvall) is investigating a serial-killer known as Sylar. It's with the mysterious Sylar that another new component to Heroes is introduced, as Sylar is clearly gifted with strange abilities himself (a family he murdered were frozen stiff and had their brains removed!)

The new additions to the show introduced in Don't Look Back go a long way to making it compulsive viewing already, despite only a few characters being written with any depth, and the dialogue being a little weak. There's also the vague sense that writer/creator Tim Kring just has a list of cool moments and revelations to throw into the story whenever the script runs out of steam. If true, Kring clearly can't keep that trick up forever, but for now he's done a decent job of introducing the many characters and plot-threads.

The final scene with Hiro is such a spine-tingling moment it surely ranks as one of the best climaxes to any sci-fi show of the past few years. For the moment, Heroes is on a roll I didn't expect based on the competent, but worrying, first episode.

My only concern is that once everyone's powers are explained and developed fully, the characters will remain relatively empty and the series will struggle to keep its momentum. However, with so many characters, a growing mix of personal and global perils, not to mention the overall mystery, Heroes should make for great entertainment in its first season at the very least.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

ROBIN HOOD 1.1 - "Will You Tolerate This?"

7 Oct 06. BBC 1, 7.05 pm
WRITER: Dominic Minghella DIRECTOR: John McKay
CATS: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Lucy Griffiths (Marian), Keith Allen (Sheriff Of Nottingham), Richard Armitage (Guy Of Gisbourne), Gordon Kennedy (Little John) & Sam Troughton (Much)

Returning from the Crusades, Robin of Locksley finds that England has fallen under the harsh rule of the Sheriff Of Nottingham in King John's absence...

Undoubtedly one of England's greatest legends, second only to King Arthur, Robin Hood has been adapted countless times for stage and screen -- from the dashing 1938 adventures of Errol Flynn, through the 1980s TV series Robin Of Sherwood, to Kevin Costner's American incarnation in the 1991 hit movie.

The BBC have revived the beloved myth for contempory audiences high on Lord Of The Rings, and are clearly hoping to create a Doctor Who-style phenomenon for the winter months. But will Robin's arrow hit the target?

Robin Hood's first episode is restricted by the fact it has to go through the motions of setting up the overly familar concept. So we find Jonas Armstrong's Robin returning to England with his friend Much (Sam Troughton), only to find the people under the tyrannical rule of the Sheriff Of Nottingham (Keith Allen).

Will You Tolerate This? opens with a fun scene of Robin (already obscured behind a large hood, immediately evoking a curious parallel to contemporary teen "hoodies"), fending off some of the Sheriff's horsemen with flashy archery skills -- the kind of which defy ratonality, but are no doubt impressive.

From here, the story trundles along and introduces many of the story elements you're expecting to see. Of particular interest is the episode's focus on Robin's status as respected landowner of Locksley and the political aspect of the Sheriff's actions. Of all the updates to the show, the medievel politics stood out as being quite pleasing to see in a family show.
With the show ultimately sticking to the broad story of Robin Hood, it's more interesting to note its changes.

Armstrong's Robin is a roguish charmer with an eye for the ladies, apparently styled on a lead singer of an indie band. The fact someone so young has apparently seen the atrocities of war in the Middle East and is ruler of a township isn't easy to believe, but Armstrong's age and good looks doesn't stop him making a strong impression where it counts.

Lucy Griffiths plays Marian -- no longer prefixed "Maid" and thankfully not written as a waif who makes doe-eyes at Robin every few minutes. She's a plucky heroine with a natural beauty and should prove to be quite an engaging romantic foil for Robin.

Keith Allen has nabbed the potentially scene-stealing role of the Sheriff, a character always enjoyable to watch in any incarnation, but now made particularly notable by Alan Rickman's performance in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.

Allen isn't a favourite actor of mine, primarily because he hasn't really starred in anything of note (beyond Shallow Grave -- where he played the dead flatemate...) There's something a little seedy about Allen, but thankfully this quality serves him well as the Sheriff. Allen is no Rickman, but he wisely plays the Sheriff straighter than Rickman's snarling panto villain, and makes a good impression. But there are elements of Rickman's baddie sprinkled into the script -- such as when the Sheriff crushes a budgie in a fit of pique!

The supporting cast are good, particularly Richard Armitage as Guy Of Gisbourne -- a villain who, for my money, often surpasses the Sheriff because he's more pro-active. Armitage is a striking and imposing figure who I hope can use these assets to create an unnerving antagonist and not just a stereotyped macho henchman.

The production, filmed in Hungary, is of a very high standard. The countryside is beautiful with the buildings believable and atmospheric, particularly Nottingham Castle. It's clear a lot of money has been spent on the series' aesthetic, although I'd have preferred a dirtier look myself. At times, everything is so bright and beautiful you feel like you're watching a re-enactment group riding horses through a theme park.

However, this a minor complaint given the quality of everything on display. The only element that caused me genuine concern was in the needlessly-flashy directing, with every little sword fight or punch-up tarted up with distracting visuals. For period action films I always find it annoying when flashy Matrix-esque camera moves are introduced. Did Peter Jackson over-complicate Lord Of The Rings' action sequences with anything more complicated than slow-motion? No. Robin Hood would be wise to follow this example, as the show-off editing of even the simplest action beats grew irritating -- particularly a contrived sword fight in the opening 10 minutes.

Episode 1 was a solid if unremarkable beginning. The actors are by far the strongest aspect to the show, closely followed by the set design. The plot will hopefully develop once the show's concept is set-up (Robin unites outlaws to "rob from the rich to give to the poor", yada yada...) and we should have an entertaining family adventure for our Saturday nights.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

CHILDREN OF MEN
Cert: 15 Duration: 109 minutes
DIRECTOR & WRITER:
Alfonso Cuaron (based on the novel by P.D James)

CAST: Clive Owen (Theo Faron), Julianne Moore (Julian Taylor), Michael Caine (Jasper), Claire-Hope Ashitey (Kee), Pam Ferris (Miriam), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Luke), Danny Huston (Nigel), Pete Mullan (Sid), Charlie Hunnam (Marichka), Paul Sharma (Ian) & Jacek Koman (Tomasz)

Britain has a close relationship with dystopian futurism. Since George Orwell's classic 1984, the UK has been the setting for a variety of downbeat futures; from Terry Gilliam's fanciful Brazil to the recent V For Vendetta. Now it's director Alfonso Curaron's turn to shine a murky light on our potential future, in an adaptation of P.D James' novel Children Of Men.

Britain, 2027 A.D. The green and pleasant land is now a grey, polluted shell, home to the last remnants of humanity following a global meltdown born out of an infertility epidemic (no pun intended). For 18 years, no babies have been born; a sad fact that means mankind is on the verge of extinction and the living face a childless world without hope or a sustainable future.

Clive Owen stars as Theo Faron, a former political activist who now works at the Ministry Of Energy. On the day when the youngest human is killed by a disgruntled fan, a world-weary Theo is kidnapped by a terrorist group (the "Fishes") under command of his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), and given a mission that could mean the salvation of the human race... to transport a pregnant girl to off-shore authorities...

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who came to prominence in the West with Y Tu Mamá También, before creating arguably the best Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner Of Azkaban, stays with Britain for another literary adaptation. However, as screenwriter, Cuarón's story contains many alterations to P.D James' source book. In fact, only the concept remains fully intact.

Children Of Men is a bold and intelligent piece of speculative science fiction. There is no shortage of dystopian movies around, but what sets Cuarón's film apart is the attention to detail and determination to craft a compellingly realistic experience.

The calibre of the cast is exemplative of Cuarón's growing stature; Clive Owen is enjoying a resurgence in his career, and here he tackles a character with more humanity and emotional range than we usual see in him. He's a solid actor, although he remains emotionally difficult to form a connection to at times.

The next actor of note is Michael Caine, a screen legend now enjoying the supporting roles that afford him to take some risks, or have some fun. In Children Of Men, Caine plays Jasper; a long-haired recluse living in the middle of a wood with his mute wife. Jasper is a roguish charmer who has seemingly resolved to remain young at heart given the crisis around them. It's a great performance, full of eccentricity and poignancy, with Caine on dazzling form.

Julianne Moore is one of modern cinemas best actresses, and she rarely delivers a bad performance. She's good here as the opinionated activist, although the role isn't big enough to really leave its mark.

The supporting cast are all very good, with nobody giving a bad performance. Young actress Claire-Hope Ashitey is fantatsic as pregnant Kee, Pam Ferris is good as a former mid-wife, even afforded a heart-tugging scene to sink her teeth into. The main antagonist is Chiwetel Ejiofor as rebel terrorist Luke, who once again makes a compelling villain. On the sidelines, Pete Mullan makes an impression in a small role as a prison warden called Sid.

But, this is Alfonso Cuarón's movie every step of the way. No actor can upstage Cuarón's direction, with Children Of Men most notable for its stunning camerawork, cinematography and art direction. The future Britain is perfect; always recognisable despite occassional technical flourishes (the animated advert billboards on buses, etc.) There are also some brilliant scenes of warring citizens and bombed streets.

The suburban dystopia is created with such care and attention that the movie has plausability to spare. Throughout the movie you are fully immersed in this world and, thanks to some "on the shoulder" camerawork, some sequences are particularly immersive.

Two scenes should stick in your memory; firstly, a frightening ambush by terrorists, shot (apparently) in one continuous take. Secondly, another action set-piece choreographed to perfection and filmed in one take with a single camera, as Theo races through the ravaged streets of a refugee internment camp. Both are exemplory cinematic moments that, for my money, cement Cuarón's growing reputation as a filmmaker bordering on genius. The only film that compares to these moments in recent memory was Spielberg's D-Day opening from Saving Private Ryan.

However, for all its technical and artistic achievements, beyond its concept, Children Of Men isn't particularly special. The storyline is quite simplistic, and expectation for a killer twist never materializes. The story pretty much plays out as you'd expect, beyond a few bumps in the track, and the finale is slightly disappointing in its abruptness.

You get the feeling that Cuarón was so enamoured with the concept behind P.D James' book, and its artistic possibilities on-screen, that he forgot to write a story with more turns in its beaten track. There are plenty of political parallels that are enjoyable to pick out, and Children Of Men will certainly spark huge post-movie debate... but, as a story, it's not much more than a generic dystopian road movie, really.

However, despite its storytelling fault, the pro's far outweight the con's. This is high-concept political sci-fi from a visualist on fine form, acted with conviction by a talented cast. For the first hour, you suspect this might be the best film of the year, it's just that the last hour doesn't really go anywhere interesting once the set-up is over.

Monday, 9 October 2006

EXTRAS 2.4 - "Episode 4"

5 Oct 06. BBC 2, 9.00 pm
WRITERS & DIRECTORS: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
CATS: Ricky Gervais (Andy Millman), Ashley Jensen (Maggie Jacobs), Stephen Merchant (Agent), Shaun Williamson (Barrie/Shaun), Chris Martin (Himself), Ronnie Corbett (Himself), Stephen Fry (Himself) & Richard Briers (Himself)

Andy is bemused to find his sub-par sitcom has earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Comedic Performance, but a series of misunderstandings converge to ruin the big night...

The second series of Extras continues with a consistently amusing episode that pokes fun at the television BAFTA ceremony. Episode 4 is perhaps the series' most accessible episode, freed from the occassionally overbearing assault of bad taste gags and instead content to poke fun at celebrities.

Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay and husband to Gwyneth Paltrow, is the episode's big name guest star (another singer after Episode 2's David Bowie; I guess the Live 8 networking went well last year, Mr Gervais?). Martin impresses as a competent deadpan comic, savaging his eco-friendly image by insisting a white background is emblazoned by his band's Greatest Hits album whilst filming a charity appeal.

Again, the obsession with Andy's sitcom is the primary focus, this time when Chris Martin wrangles a guest spot in When The Whistle Blows to promote his new album. It's a curious piece of meta-comedy, as Gervais and Merchant have essentially "sold out" themselves by including this skit in Extras, whilst making their statement about sell-out celebs. I'm still not sure if they're guilty of the sin they're speaking out about, or not.

Ashley Jensen is better utilized this time, but still on the periphery compared to last year. It's enought to make me consider the fact Jensen's attentions were split during filming (she has a role in a US sitcom Ugly Betty). If so, her reduced role may be understandable, but it's still disappointing. If not, this is a criminal waste of a talented actress. In a scene at a dressmakers, where Maggie is derided by a snooty employee, she exhibits more humanity and believable frailty than Gervais can muster in an entire episode.

But, onto the BAFTA awards. To be honest, the potential for hilarity at a formal awards bash is somewhat squandered. A key sequence where Richard Briers cuts a speech short to stamp on a malfunctioning catchphrase-spewing doll of Andy, is awkward and unbelievable.


Outside of the ceremony itself, the episode's saving grace arrives: the sight of Ronnie Corbett snorting cocaine in a toilet, and later being reprimanded by a BAFTA official (who alludes to the fact he expects such behaviour from Corbett). The role of celebs in Extras has always been to twist the perception of themselves, and turning national treasuer Ronnie Corbett into a junkie troublemaker is just inspired. Kudos to Corbett for accepting the offer to spear his nice guy persona to ruthlessly.

Elsewhere, the episode again fluctuates between highs and lows. Stephen Merchant's character is quickly becoming a tiresome one-joke entity, and no matter how sporting Shaun Williamson is at being the butt of the joke... even his bumbling henchman role is beginning to stagnate.

The problem with Ricky Gervais in this series is that Andy is always on a downer. Last year he was somewhat morose and unhappy, but it was tempered with his fun relationship with Maggie. This year he's depressed about his sitcom's status, his inept management and the problems of celebrity, but there's no no fun with Maggie. A respite is offered in Episode 4 with a fun Pretty Woman pastiche, wherein Andy gallanty offers to buy an expensive dress for Maggie, only to try and reverse the situation when he discovers the garment costs £2,500. But it's not enough, despite even the first glimmer of a romantic interest between the pair.

A serious and somber heart has always been at the core of Extras, but with believability increasingly stretched for the sake of a cheap gag, and the relationship between Andy and Maggie pushed into the background, Extras seems to have become a fitfully funny sitcom without the consistency it had last year.