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Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead (2009)
A last bit of fun before the serious work begins
Planet of the Dead is a fun episode. Anyone coming into it expecting something as profound as Journey's End is going to be disappointed, but as an Eastertime special, it's fun and worth watching. David Tennant, nearly a year after last portraying the Doctor (and having spent months playing Hamlet in the meantime) slips easily back into the role, and Michelle Ryan is a lot of fun as cat burglar-turned-companion Lady Christina. I disagree that she's just a clone of Jenny. the Doctor's Daughter. In fact she's her own remarkable character, and possibly the closest the revived series has seen to Romana (a classic companion of old). There were rumors that Lady Christina might actually turn out to be a Time Lord but this isn't the case (though there's a tongue-in-cheek line of dialogue probably aimed at those wishful thinkers). Fortunately her character doesn't follow in the footsteps of Kylie Minogue's ill-fated wanna-be companion in Voyage of the Damned, suggesting we might see her again.
The reaction to this episode by so-called fans who seem to expect every episode to be groundbreaking, and forgetting this is supposed to be a fun SF series aimed at families, suggests Russell T Davies and Tennant are leaving at a good time as clearly the fanbase has tired of them, just as Trekkies tired of the production team behind Star Trek. The new production regime and new Doctor will, in turn, have the fanbase turn against them in a few years too. As far as I'm concerned, however, Davies and Tennant have rarely made a misstep.
The only element of his special I didn't like was Lee Evans' walking cartoon of a character, Dr. Malcolm. He plays it almost like a send-up, and that's not how Doctor Who works. Yes, it's a show about giant flies and giant swarming metal insects, but the actors play it straight, which is why it works. Still, he does get in a few great lines as well as a terrific shout out to another UK science fiction icon.
Planet of the Dead is a "fun romp" as they used to say, which ends with some rather sombre predictions of things to come. In an interview with Doctor Who Confidential, Davies indicated that this was the last chance for the Doctor to have fun before the run-up to his regeneration begins (indeed the preview for next special, The Waters of Mars, which plays at the end of Planet of the Dead, shows a rather dark episode ahead). As such, Planet of the Dead does the job.
Wonder Woman (2009)
Surprisingly violent - superheroes meets Alias
One of the ironies about Wonder Woman -- and this is nothing new if you explore the history of the character -- is that she is actually one of the more violent of all superheroes. While Superman and Batman (his first few years on the job notwithstanding) have always adhered to a strict no-kill rule, WW has never followed this, and the recent continuity of the comic book has followed on from this idea.
The new Wonder Woman movie has taken this a step further by bringing her into the Alias generation. No longer is she the wide-eyed innocent of the early comics or the Lynda Carter series. This is a stone killer who is depicted killing her enemies -- mortal and men -- without mercy on several occasions in this film, aided by Steve Trevor who likewise is shown to be someone capable of pulling the trigger when needed. Yet when they're not on the job, Diana is shown as sensual and "all-woman" while Steve is a "good ole boy" which is actually a little disturbing.
This sounds like it's a negative review, but in fact it's not. Once you accept the fact that this version of WW plays by different rules from Spider-Man, Batman and the others, it has an added sense of energy that makes for a very exciting film. Since no one seems willing to do a live-action WW film, once again Bruce Timm and his team have shown themselves capable of producing a superior product for the animated arena.
The voice cast is for the most part excellent. A few of the supporting cast - including some name actors - come off sounding a bit flat. But Keri Russell is the best Wonder Woman we've had yet in the animated arena, while Nathan Fillion basically plays Steve Trevor as ... Nathan Fillion. And this is a good thing. Fans of the DC Animated Universe shows will also be happy to hear regular voice actress Tara Strong playing the ill-fated Alexis.
The artwork is superb. WW herself has been given a "fresh coat of paint" and looks fantastic, while Steve seems to have been based upon Willie Garvin of the old Modesty Blaise comic strip. He even throws a knife at one point in true Willie G. style. And the scene where he and WW take down a group of terrorists -- complete with neck-breakings -- is like something out of a Modesty Blaise storyline.
Besides the violence, the PG-13 rating is also earned by a surprising amount of sexual innuendo. But it wasn't overdone, and some of the lines were really funny. Steve's comment about Diana while under the spell of the lasso is not only hilarious -- it's realistic, too. At one point the Amazons are referred to as "armor-wearing supermodels". If it quacks like a duck you may as well call it a duck!
I hope this film leads to sequels or even a full-out series. Although I think the violence is a little overdone -- and superheroes aren't supposed to kill their enemies, that's No. 1 in the rulebook as everyone knows -- and the wink-wink nudge-nudge innuendo would get stale after awhile, I think Warners has set themselves up with a great basis for a new franchise.
But not for Saturday mornings. Neck-breakings and corn flakes don't go together.
Fun for fans
BBV (short for Bill Baggs Video) was an independent production company that in the 1990s and early 2000s produced a large number of low-on-budget but high-on-energy films based loosely around Doctor Who. Some of their projects featured characters that were pastiches of characters from the TV series, while other BBV productions actually obtained the rights to certain creatures and characters from the TV series (but never the Doctor himself).
It's this fact that lies behind the big joke of Do You Have a Licence to Save This Planet? To mark BBV's 10th anniversary, Bill Baggs himself produced and directed this tale of "The Foot Doctor" a "Chrono-Duke" who is called into service by Lord Rassilon when a certain LICENCED Time Lord is unavailable. His mission -- to stop an invasion of Cyberons (BBV's unlicensed version of the Cybermen) while also ducking out of the way of several Sontarans and Autons (actual Doctor Who series monsters licensed from their creators).
Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor on TV (and if you don't know what I mean by Seventh Doctor, then odds are this film will go over your head unless you take a Doctor Who primer) endearingly pokes fun at his TV persona as "The Foot Doctor", while bulky Mark Donovan plays his erstwhile companion.
The jokes are hit-and-miss -- often more miss -- but there's enough here to give some good giggles to fans "in the know". There's no pathos, no high drama, a minimum of "action" - just fun. And even if you find the going a bit tedious, be sure to stick around to near the end for a great joke directed at the other Doctor Who actors! Donovan gets some of the best lines though as he pokes fun at the Doctor Who companion stereotype.
As an earlier reviewer said, this is a must-see for Doctor Who fans. It's no classic, but it's got its charm, and like most of BBV's productions it provides an interesting look into the "dark days" before the return of the real Doctor Who to our TV screens.
The Golden Compass (2007)
A terrific film
It looks to me as if The Golden Compass is one of those films that will attract a range of opinions. In fact it has a number of things stacked against it. It's based upon a very popular book, whose fans will be upset if it's anything less than a dramatized transcript of the text (see some of the reactions to the Lord of the Rings trilogy for similar examples); it's based upon a series of books that are controversial to people who think they're anti-religion; and, being the first part of a planned trilogy of films, it's not a standalone movie.
As someone unfamiliar with Pullman's books, all I can say is that I thought this was a terrific movie, with depths that I'm starting to become used to in recent family fantasy films. Where were these movies back when I was 12? Recent years have seen some incredible adaptations of fantasy books that are as rewarding to this 39-year-old as they would have been back when I as 12.
I will admit that there are areas where the film travels the road already taken, such as the idea of having a heroic little girl leading the way and befriending an heroic talking animal king (a lion in Narnia, the bear in Golden Compass). The analogies with our real world are nothing new either. But the package is put together so well that it makes for an entertaining experience and one that, hopefully, will inspire people to read the original literature.
Dakota Blue Richards is the true find of this movie. It's hard to believe this is her first movie. I half expected to find she had a bunch of TV credits or bit parts behind her, but for a first go, she did really well and I'm sure the director deserves a lot of the credit. She goes a little over-the-top a couple of times, such as when she and Pan are about to undergo "the procedure" ... but then again this IS supposed to be an adventure movie with "how are they going to get out of THIS one?" moments, so that's part of the game. My only concern is she looks like the type who is apt to grow up (mentally and physically) very fast, so I hope they don't plan on waiting too long before finishing the trilogy otherwise they might need to find a way to explain her maturity.
And that brings me to the film's biggest challenge - that it's only chapter one. That's going to be frustrating to some viewers, just like those who were frustrated when Fellowship of the Ring ended on its unresolved note. But such is the nature of the film trilogy. Fortunately, as with LOTR, those wanting to find out what happens next don't have to wait a year or two for the next movie - they just have to go to their local bookstore. And that's the biggest value of a movie like this -- getting people to read. I've heard Golden Compass criticized as being a long commercial for the books, especially with the Scholastic book company as one of its producers. I fail to see how that could possibly be a bad thing. People can nitpick these movies till doomsday, but if films like this, or Spiderwick Chronicles, or Hogfather, or Tin Man, or Lemony Snicket, or Narnia etc etc actually inspire people (of any age) to get away from their computers and video games and out to a bookstore or library so they can start exercising their brains ... I fail to see how that can possibly be a bad thing.
A well done film, but slow to start
Although I never bought into the whole Blair Witch phenomena, I still enjoy unusual "point of view" films, whether they be simulated newscasts like Special Bulletin and Without Warning, or films like Cloverfield that let you make-believe that you're in some awful alternate universe watching actual documentary footage of an apocalypse.
I never saw Cloverfield in the theatre, just on DVD, but I get the feeling the film plays a lot better on the small screen. After all, it is built around home-video footage and that's not the type of stuff really intended for the big screen. As such, it's quite an absorbing ride. I've heard people complain about plot holes, and things being unexplained, etc. I just read one professional review that says the film should have broken away from the first-person occasionally. These types of complaints obviously miss the entire point of the film. The characters never got any answers, so why should we? (At least, not until the sequel!)
I do have to complain a little about the first 15 minutes or so. I really dislike the "character building" prologues that seem to be obligatory in so many disaster films. I've seen some movies (Towering Inferno comes to mind) that go damn near an hour before the actual main event happens. So often these scene-setters are pretty dull, and Cloverfield's is no exception, save for a couple of funny moments and the introduction of Marlena. Especially with a movie like this, I think a quicker "cut to the chase" would have been a better idea, and any character building could have been handled either by the characters as they progressed through the crisis (a good example of one such moment in the film is Marlena joking with Hud about Superman and Garfield), or by simply expanding on the plot point that once in awhile we see an earlier section of tape recorded about a month earlier.
The cast do the best they can with what is, by its very nature, very limiting material. Lizzy Caplan's Marlena is a standout character who I wish was given more to do (the actress reminds me very much if Moira Kelly in a few scenes, too), and Michael Stahl-David does a great job as Rob Hawkins (I wonder if it's intentional or a coincidence that the character has the same name as Rob Hawkins in another end-of-the-world production, Jericho?). And TJ Miller as Hud, despite spending most of the time behind the camera, manages to be both "documenter" and comic relief in some pretty dire circumstances.
Incidentally they missed a bet with the DVD; instead of keeping the film in its theatrical "filmized" look, I was hoping it would revert back to the original video look, which would have made things look even more realistic. Oh well.
According to the DVD, JJ Abrams was inspired by Gojira. He was also obviously inspired by 9/11 (the scene where the heroes take refuge in a store from an advancing wall of collapsed- building dust is almost beat-for-neat identical to footage I remember of a similar take-cover situation on 9/11. Will Cloverfield be remembered as a document responding to a traumatic event, the way Gojira/Godzilla was a direct response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There's no way to tell right now. It will be remembered as one heck of a monster movie, and a noble (if not always 100% successful) experiment in film-making.
Fun film but avoid the dubbed version
I have to confess the weird title and sexy pictures of its star on the DVD box were what first attracted my attention with this film, that and the fact it was directed by one of the minds behind Battle Royale. In fact the box cover suggested this would be another bloodbath-style film along the lines of BR or Suicide Club. But while the film does follow some of the similar theme lines as those two films (I don't know if I'd ever have wanted to go to school in Japan with all the suicides that are apparently going on!) Yo- Yo Girl Cop is far removed from these other shows.
As I understand it, Yo-Yo Girl is sort of a female James Bond or Doctor Who in that it's a venerable role that has been featured in several other films and TV shows over the years and played by different women (the actress who plays Saki's mother in this film was the first to play the role and she's treated with the same reverence you might see if Sean Connery appeared in a Bond film today). As a result, there are a few things Western viewers might not get, such as the significance of the Yo-Yo for example. Or why when the villain suddenly reveals that he has brightly dyed hair that this is somehow significant. The entertaining behind-the-scenes featurette also reveals that the somewhat stilted proclamation Saki makes before her big battle at the end is a traditional part of the franchise (much as 007 saying "My name is Bond, James Bond" is a moment everyone waits for in the 007 films; this film also pays homage to that tradition, too).
Western viewers might also not get the fact that this film's star, Aya Matsuura, is sort of a Hilary Duff type over in Japan (actially, I think all the female leads are singers. Aya does a great job, and I could see how this role might make her a film star over there. (Apparently she did all her own stunts, which involve some slapstick action of the type you'd never expect her counterparts in America to do). Rika Ishikawa, as the resident bad girl, steals every scene she's in, which in true Bond fashion is what a good bad girl is supposed to do.
There are a few inconsistencies that detract from the film. You have to take it as given, for example, that Saki is able to heal a rather serious-looking eye injury within the matter of only a few hours, and also become a master of yo-yo flinging (although to be fair the film does show her screwing it up initially). And the revelation as to the true origin of the Enola Gay "suicide club" is very disappointing. But the performances, humor and action - not to mention the cute girls - make up for it.
One good thing, though, is unlike the horrific experiences with the North American DVD releases of Cashern and Avalon, there doesn't appear to be any indication of major editing or alteration of the film. Hopefully that means distributors are finally starting to understand that North American viewers aren't interested in bastardized versions of these films.
However, do NOT watch the English-dubbed version. I usually prefer watching the versions with the original language and subtitles, but understand those who don't want to "read" their movies. But in this case the dubbing was pretty awful and would definitely give first-time Wetsern viewers a bad impression.
PS. Since writing this review I've read some very negative comments about this film on websites and forums where this new film is being treated the way most TV show remakes are treated - with contempt. Well, just to add to my earlier comments, I was able to enjoy the film in part because I approached it from a completely fresh perspective. It may or may not be better or worse than the original series, but I'm definitely going to try and track down episodes of the original show if I can.
Lesser of the pilot films, made worse by poor reediting for syndication
As the third and final of the Six Million Dollar Man pilot films (before it become a weekly series in 1974), Solid Gold Kidnapping is definitely the lesser of the selection. And if you're unfortunate enough to watch the re-edited version that was created to turn an already overlong 90-minute movie into two full hours, you might wonder why they even bothered making a series!
That said, as a longtime fan of the show, I found it interesting to see the show in its early stages of development. At this point they still weren't sure whether they wanted to make Steve Austin a superpowered James Bond or not, and in this film you see him going through quite a bit of 007's playbook, from sleeping with an enemy (and turning her to the side of right) to chasing down a villain on board a giant cargo ship, you can see the experimentation going on. (Fortunately, this time around the writers kept a lid on some of the Bond-like puns and quips that made the script of Wine, Women and War worthy of more than a few groans!)
There's also very little by way of bionic action. Aside from a cool sequence where Austin throws himself bionic arm-first through the windshield of a car trying to run him down, and a pointless use of the bionic eye (pointless because he uses its night-vision in a fully lit bedroom!), there's not a lot of workout for the $6 million in evidence.
There are some good points. Luciana Paluzzi -- herself a veteran of the Bond films -- is attractive if underused as the Contessa (whose role in the whole kidnapping affair never is really explained), and Elizabeth Ashley gives the show's best performance as a scientist who resurrects the memories of a dead man by implanting his brain cells into her head! This is actually classic sci-fi stuff, but it's not really handled in the best way, especially when the film introduces the jeopardy that she might go mad from the implantation, but never follows up on this.
You can tell that, just as Wine, Women and War test-drove a few potential co-stars for Steve Austin, so too does Solid Gold Kidnapping clearly give Ashley's character a tryout, along with Terry Carter (later of Battlestar Galactica) who plays Oscar Goldman's rather hapless right-hand man. Neither actor or character returned for the subsequent series, but you can tell either could have continued.
There's also some revision in Oscar and Steve's relationship in this film, Richard Anderson plays Oscar more warmly than he did in the previous film, in the process setting the template for the character and the Steve-Oscar friendship for the rest of the series. On the other hand, he and Rudy Wells are surprisingly combative towards each other -- something we'd rarely see in the series.
But as I say, try to see the unedited movie version of this if you possibly can. The re-edited version is comical in an almost Ed Wood fashion, especially when the first 10 minutes of Part 1 are basically cobbled together using stock footage from other episodes, with overdubbed dialogue that doesn't come close to matching the lip movements of the actors ... it's horrible, though Part 2 is nowhere near as awkward, which saves this from getting all-around condemnation.
Solid Gold Kidnapping, in either its original or edited form, isn't one of the best Six Million Dollar Man outings, and certainly isn't recommended for newcomers, but if you're an experienced bionic fan interested in the development of this show, it's worth seeing at least once.
WARNING: Test this DVD before purchasing if possible
This is less a review than it is a warning. Tiny print on the back of the DVD box says that the DVD may not work on all players. I have 3 DVD players in my household, all relatively recent, and none of them will play this disc properly. I was able to get it to work for a few minutes on one machine long enough to tell that it looks good and the games, while similar to some of the set-top games previously released with some of the movies, look to be interesting and challenging. But unless you have the very latest DVD player, I'd try and find a rental copy of this first so you can test it out and make sure it works before investing your money -- especially if you're buying this for your kids. And I have no idea at all if this will work with the HD players.
Avoid the re-edited 2-part version
I recently had the opportunity to view the original version of this TV movie and the re-edited two-part syndicated version back-to-back. At all costs, try to watch the original version instead of the terribly re-edited 2-parter. In order to fill up the running time of two regular episodes, the original tightly-paced telefilm is stretched beyond the breaking point with stock footage, repeated footage, and even footage taken from later seasons of the Six Million Dollar Man.
Among the many bits of padding, there's a confusing sequence showing Austin apparently training -- which is repeated at the start of Part 2. The scene where Austin escapes the exploding yacht is padded with footage from old World War II films (I'm serious), and when he wakes up on Alexei's boat, the editors inserted a recap, more or less, of the first TV movie. Which is great, except the clips show Martin Balsam as Rudy Wells and Darren McGavin as Oliver Spencer -- and in rest of Wine Women and War their characters were played by other actors (and Spencer was renamed Oscar Goldman, to boot). But the silliest and most distracting re-edit occurs when a nearly 90-second sequence of swordfish fishing is inserted between two lines of Austin's dialogue, using an obvious body double holding a fishing rod. It's awful and NOT recommend as something to show a newcomer you're trying to make a fan of SMDM.
The original TV movie, however, is a fascinating example of a TV series in development. The producers weren't quite sure how to develop Steve Austin for television. In Martin Caidin's Cyborg novels, Austin is depicted as a cold-blooded assassin in the Executioner mode, but he had to be lightened up considerably for TV. So producer Glen Larson decided to make Austin more TV-friendly by making him a bit of a James Bond clone in this second outing. It doesn't always work (especially when Austin wears the world's ugliest tux later in the film), but the result is still entertaining, though one is advised to turn one's brain off during the latter part of the proceedings, especially at the end.
This was Richard Anderson's first appearance as Oscar Goldman, and there are still some rough edges in not only his portrayal, but Oscar's relationship with Steve. There's still a lot of mistrust and manipulation going on -- quite a contrast when compared to the first regular hour-long episodes that followed only a few months later. Comparing the James Bond-like approach of this TV movie with the more traditional Six Million Dollar Man missions that followed is an interesting exercise.
Wine Women & War may not be an example of 1970s TV at its best, but it's fun, and seeing it recently reminded me of why Steve Austin was my childhood hero. Just steer clear of the re-edited version if you can. Needless to say, my ranking of 7 is based upon the original telefilm. The reedited version is so badly done, I'd give it a 3.
Ignore the naysayers - this is one of the best shows on the air
Exactly why people seem to hate or otherwise not "get" Torchwood may well be an enduring mystery.
I've heard the series called juvenile, unoriginal, full of plot holes, yadda yadda, so when it began airing here in Canada few months ago I expected it to be a train wreck.
Instead, I discovered that Torchwood is not only one of the best shows I've ever seen, but it on several occasions it has actually surpassed the quality of its parent series, Doctor Who! From the brilliant performances, to the creative stories, to the fact the show isn't afraid to push the envelope, this is a mature, well-written, well-thought-out series. I've studied some of the criticisms and compared them directly with the episodes being lambasted, and I honestly don't see the problem. If it was just me, I'd chalk it up to me having tastes that differ from others (hey, I liked Star Trek: Enterprise, what more can I say?). Yet every week as another TW episode airs here in Canada, I hear people telling me they can't understand why people hate this show, either.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this show has introduced many concepts that were strictly forbidden in the family-friendly Doctor Who franchise up to now: people swear, they have sex (though not nearly as much in this series as critics would have you believe), there's an acknowledgment of LBG lifestyles, and it features a lead actor who is not against killing people in cold blood when necessary. Oh, and according to the Torchwood universe, there is no afterlife, so I could see that upsetting some viewers.
My advice: ignore the critics -- both positive and negative -- and watch Torchwood with an open mind, and you may be pleasantly surprised at how good a show it really is. And you don't even need to have watched any Doctor Who to understand it - thought it helps, especially at the finale of the first season, as well as an episode that serves as a sequel to the Doctor Who episode "Doomsday".
Every episode has been terrific so far, but so far the best episodes include "Countrycide", an episode unlike anything ever produced in the Doctor Who franchise, "Random Shoes", an episode that actually provoked tears when I watched it (Doctor Who has only done that once before and that was the end of Doomsday) and "Out of Time", another emotionally powerful episode (and critics who claim it's a rip off of Star Trek TNG's "The Neutral Zone" simply have never watched that episode nor "Out of Time". Full stop.).
If I had to compare TW to any other show, I'd have to compare it to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, another series that was condemned by certain fan factions for straying too far from the template set by its parent program. Yet over time it became the most critically acclaimed of the modern Treks. I'm confident that Torchwood has potential to eclipse its parent program if it lasts long enough and if viewers just give it a chance.