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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

REVIEW - DOCTOR WHO (1996)

Directed by: Geoffrey Sax
Written by: Matthew Jacobs
Starring: Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, Eric Roberts
Music by: John Debney
Release date: 12th May, 1996


Today, the Doctor Who TV movie is generally remembered for two things: one, for the being what turned out to be the bridge between the original series and the revived series, and two, for being of the most divisive segments of the show's 50+ year history. An insight into the hellish future that would've arisen if Doctor Who was given to a creative team that had no understanding of the show, this telemovie was produced by the Fox Broadcasting Company and served as a backdoor pilot for a new British-American-Canadian series that would've been commissioned if this movie proved to be successful. Ratings in Britain were high, but it failed to resonate with those across the pond, and so the series went into hibernation once more until its revival in 2005. And if this movie is any indication of the quality of the stories we would've received from Fox and co, that's probably a good thing.

We're quickly introduced to the Doctor courtesy of every lazy screenwriter's BFF: voiceover, and told that The Master - the Doctor's childhood frenemy - has a dying wish: for the Doctor to take his remains back to their home planet, Gallifrey, after being put on trial and executed for his crimes by the Daleks and the horrible helium voices that they seem to have here in their fleeting cameo. ...Aaaaaand then it's never brought up ever again. The Master's essence escapes (somehow, as it's never actually explained) from the Doctor's TARDIS, which (again, somehow) causes it to crashland in San Francisco on the 30th of December, 1999. As soon as the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS he is shot by an Asian gang member and taken to hospital by the imaginatively-named Chang Lee, and Sylvester McCoy's Doctor dies and regenerates into Paul McGann's, with the help of some face-morphing CGI that's actually a bit more believable and creative that many of the attempts in the classic series. After overcoming a pointless bout of amnesia, the Doctor befriends the surgeon who tried to save his previous incarnation's life, Grace Holloway, and they eventually find themselves having to stop the Master from destroying the planet. There's some other stuff involving the Eye of Harmony, the Master wanting to steal the Doctor's regenerations and an atomic clock or something, but the plot is wafer-thin and incoherent. And while having a send-off for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor is nice for the fans and continues the tradition of showing every Doctor's regeneration process, literally transforming your main character into someone else about fifteen minutes into the movie may prove to be bewildering for newcomers.

There are some great production values, with the TARDIS console being a particular highlight.

Paul McGann is a fantastic Doctor in every sense and by far the best thing on offer here. His gentlemanly and somewhat youthful incarnation of the Time Lord is quite a change from past versions, and most likely served as a basis for certain Doctors in the revived series. He's also one of the very few actors who seems to show some genuine enthusiasm, and is very likeable with his sense of childlike wonder and earnestness. It's a crying shame that McGann never actually got to play this role onscreen more as he showed huge promise, although he has done a very extensive list of audio dramas and briefly returned for a seven-minute minisode detailing his final moments as the Doctor for the 50th anniversary of the show in 2013.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast isn't anywhere near as strong. Eric Roberts seems to be having fun in the role, but his Master's occasional moments of menace are hampered by this incarnation of the character's apparent love for the camp and overly-theatrical. Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) is a weak and completely useless character who's omission probably would've improved the movie, and Daphne Ashbrook's Grace Holloway is as dull as her surname suggests. Not only does she have very little interesting qualities, but we know almost nothing about her, and her romantic relationship with the Doctor is incredibly forced, as he literally grabs her out of the blue for a snog when there wasn't even a hint of romance between the two beforehand. It assumes that the relationship between the two needs to be romantic because they're two members of the opposite sex, and comes off as lazy, especially when the character of the Doctor has remained largely asexual up until now. There's no point in reinventing the character every few years if you aren't going to take a risk or two, but if they had to take it down this route it could have at least been done in a more believable way. Apart from the contrived romance, it's also stuffed with other clich├ęs such as a generic end-of-the-world-by-midnight plot, car chases and cartoony dialogue.

Slyvester McCoy's Doctor moments before his demise.
It doesn't really seem to know which audience it's for, either. One one hand we have numerous superficial Doctor Who tributes being used in the place of characterisation and storytelling, such as the Doctor offering numerous people jelly babies very much in the vein of Tom Baker, and on the other we have subplots such as the Doctor apparently being half-human. The inclusion of this is puzzling, as it's brought up twice and goes absolutely nowhere (it's also been retconned various times through throwaway lines in various other Doctor Who stories), and this is far from the only spit in the face to canon here, which makes it hard to tell whether writer Matthew Jacobs knows Doctor Who at all, or is deliberately going out of his way to enrage fans.

It tries to appeal to audiences both new and old, and somehow manages to fail at both. All of this comes complete with an Americanisation of the Doctor Who universe that makes it barely feel like Doctor Who at all, and it slaps you in the face with its symbolism: the aforementioned regeneration scene of Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann is intercut with clips of the creation of life scene in Frankenstein, the song playing on the Doctor's record player in the TARDIS repeatedly becomes stuck on the word "time" (God knows why because it serves no purpose or relevance to the movie other than the fact that the Doctor frequently travels through time), all topped off with some overt visual references to the Doctor as Jesus Christ.

The Doctor, Grace, and the T-800.

You would've thought that, due to the immediate skepticism that an American interpretation of Doctor Who would receive, the creative team behind this would've tried to preserve the sensibilities of the show and avoided any American stereotypes, or at least have given it a decent script. But apparently not, and as a result it's hard to recommend the Doctor Who TV movie to anyone. Fans will still find plenty to complain about and anyone wanting to get into the show is better off looking elsewhere. If it wasn't for McGann it would have very little to no other redeeming qualities. Shame. He deserved better.


Saturday, 8 November 2014

REVIEW - MAN OF STEEL (2013)

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Release date: June 14, 2013


Man of Steel surprisingly proved to be one of the most polarising movies of 2013. Some of that was due to legitimate complaints, some of it was due to Richard Donner practically rewriting the character of Superman in the public eye, and then others I can't even fathom. Neverless, this movie was very highly anticipated: comicbook movie veteran and Dark Knight duo Christopher Nolan and David Goyer were at the helm, it was (yet another) chance for DC to kickstart the shared universe that they've wanted for so very long, and it was a timeless character's return to the big screen after 26 years (because Superman Returns may as well have never happened). But is it as strong as its title suggests?

This is a fairly standard origin story, but at the same time, Man of Steel is quite a departure from any other Superman movie that's come before it. The first act of the movie is set on the planet of Krypton, before the planet's imminent destruction due to it's core collapsing after decades of being mined for natural resources. Here, we learn that Krypton has adopted a lifestyle of genetic engineering, but Superman is unique as he is the first natural birth in centuries. Krypton's key to its engineering is the Growth Codex, an ancient artefact that decodes the genetic makeup of everybody on the planet and translates a child’s attributes before his or her birth. Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his son to Earth to forge his own destiny, but General Zod (Michael Shannon), born and bred to ensure the survival of his race, travels to Earth to terraform it into a new Krypton.


This version of Superman is much more modern, so if you're heavily attached to the Donner movies, know that this is a relatively big departure (if you're expecting to see the continued adventures of the man who saves cats from trees in his underwear, you are going to leave disappointed). Man of Steel is the complete opposite of the 2006 remake-boot Superman Returns, in that instead of spending most of its time honouring its predecessors, it isn't afraid to carve its own niche. A lot of it feels like very sci-fi as opposed to straight-up superhero movie, with its themes of paranoia and first contact, stylistic production design (the planet of Krypton has more in common with Avatar’s Pandora than it does the white wasteland of the original Richard Donner film) and birth/phallic imagery reminiscent of Alien. These changes are very refreshing and arguably needed. Here, Superman and his universe are as contemporary and realistic as they can possibly be without betraying the character. Don't worry, Superman still flies around in a unitard at rapid speeds and fires lasers from his eyes, but Man of Steel is the story of an unrealistic character in a realistic world. The government initially distrust him for being not only an illegal immigrant but a potential weapon of mass destruction, and this movie doesn't shy away from any consequences for the little people if a battle of gods were to take place in the middle of a public area.

Some changes have actually proved to be too radical for some. In particular there's a moral choice that Superman chooses to make that has unsurprisingly enraged purists. The choice admittedly isn't explained very well to the audience - it's a monumental moment for the character yet all he really does to address that is let out a scream - but it works in the service of the story that it wants to tell (which is essentially one big origin. Superman is even referred to by either "Clark" or his birthname "Kal" for most of it). This tackles the common complaint that Superman is too high-and-mighty and unrelatable compared to us Earthly folk, and it addresses what is arguably one of the most important aspects of the character: despite being a God from among the stars, he has much more in common with human beings than you might think. There's potential here for some very interesting character development in sequels that could give him a satisfactory arc and go a long way in making him a more fleshed-out character, but it leaves some threads hanging, so you won't see that happen here. It does make a solid standalone narrative (there's no blatant sequel-baiting here), but for some, how you feel about Man of Steel's story as a whole may depend on how accepting you are of certain elements being left open for future exploration. 


Man of Steel has some stellar presentation. While it's less stylised than most of Snyder's work - thankfully it doesn't come off as pretentious as Sucker Punch did - there are some fantastic-looking shots that tell the story through the visuals themselves, and its worlds are very well-realised. The action scenes on display here are also pretty extraordinary. After The Avengers I didn't think action scenes in superhero movies could get any bigger, but Man of Steel's are damn near surreal and unlike anything put to film. The choreography is solid, but what really makes them work is their gargantuan sense of scale. The Kryptonian characters move blazingly fast, and at one point Zod flies headfirst into Superman, then they shoot right out of the Earth's stratosphere and beat the crap out of each other in space, for crying out loud. 

With that being said, the action does hurt some of the pacing and gets a bit excessive towards the end. It helps that they're all so well done, but by the time it's all over, you're a bit exhausted and the pacing suffers. One huge battle that you didn't think could possibly get any bigger ends, then another one begins. Kind of ironic, considering that fans had been complaining about how Superman never threw a punch in any of the older movies. These scenes do give off a genuine and refreshing sense of threat that's largely absent from the superhero movie genre, but for some they may also be slightly heavier than expected from a Superman movie, with all the mass destruction and occasional 9/11-style imagery (if this movie is anything to go by, it seems that compared to Marvel's tried-and-tested family-friendly formula, the DC cinematic universe will favour a darker and slightly more mature tone, although this isn't really a dark movie by definition). The DNA of Man of Steel is evident in scenes such as these. It's not without heart, but at its core its a sprawling epic that takes itself quite seriously.


The brawls are aided by some top-notch CG work and Hans Zimmer's score. Zimmer is seriously one of the best guys in the business when it comes to theatrical compositions. Elements of The Dark Knight can be heard at times here, mostly due to the somewhat heavy use of drums, but some of the compositions have real power. While it's hard to pick a favourite, one of the pieces that plays during Superman and Zod's climactic battle is suitably grand and very epic. To be honest, if there's any movie soundtrack that I feel as if I should buy that I haven't yet, it's this one.

While on the subject of the score, it's probably necessary to address the new theme. John Williams' original Superman theme is without equal. By today's standards it's camp and cheesy but it's an extremely well-made and infectiously catchy piece. Zimmer's theme isn't quite as hummable, and really it doesn't lay a finger on the original but it's still a rousing piece and it fits this new universe like a glove. It also represents Superman's character well: at first his loneliness and uncertainty is captured through some relatively melancholy piano work, then a more invigorating section comes in symbolising his ascension to something more.


This movie is very well-cast. Superman has a pretty sizeable amount of parents and some get more screentime than others here, but every single one of them is played impeccably. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner in particular are perfect. The former is in it for more than you might think and gives us what's arguably the best version of Jor-El we've ever had, while the latter ensures that some of the movie's quieter moments shine. That isn't to discredit the other actors' efforts, however.

While he might not reach the same levels of OTT greatness as Terrance Stamp did in 1980's Superman II, Michael Shannon's Zod is an imposing figure and the most layered version of the character to be seen in mainstream media at the very least. To us, he's a complete monster, but he truly believes he's fighting the good fight. It's a slightly sympathetic portrayal and a refreshing change from the large number of villains who don't even try to be anything more than diabolical moustache-twirlers and often bring the quality of the movie down. Even if you don't necessarily root for Zod, you at least understand his motivations. Fellow Kryptonian Faora also ends up being quite memorable, which is surprising due to Antje Traue's miminal acting experience. The villains are great in this movie. 


Amy Adams' Lois Lane spends a lot of time turning up whenever the plot requires her to, but nevertheless she's a great fit and more believable as an intrepid reporter than past incarnations have been. She even gets to kick some ass of her own. This isn't much of a focus on her relationship with Superman, though. The romance aspect seems like it's there just because it needs to be. You can decide for yourself whether that's a good thing or not.

As for Superman himself, it's doubtful that Henry Cavill will be remembered as fondly as the much-beloved Christopher Reeve (in the male fanbase, at least), but he certainly looks the part and he does a great job with what he has here. He's more dynamic and intimidating than those before him - partly because the guy's ridiculously ripped  - and he has the gentle yet authoritative air about him that Superman needs. The only problem is that his personality isn't very varied. It isn't particularly overbearing and he has good reasons to feel the way he does, but at the same time, seeing his slightly younger self converse with family members in flashbacks is almost jarring because he's so much more animated.


Man of Steel struggles a with bit of hokey dialogue, some pacing issues and at times it can get too caught up in its theatrics, but that doesn't stop it from being a from a fresh and highly entertaining reimagining for the Big Blue with a huge sense of scale, even if fans will be debating its moral choices for at least another year. Now, for those of you who don't know... there's a little movie called Batman v Superman coming out in early 2016, which will wet the cheeks of nerds worldwide and serve as a partial continuation of Man of Steel's story. To say I'm excited would be a huge understatement.