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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.
The Avengers (1998)
Not as bad as people think, nowhere near as good as it should have been
The Avengers must rank as one of the biggest disappointments in 1990s film. Uma Thurman as sexy TV icon Emma Peel? Ralph Fiennes as suave John Steed? Sean Connery as a James Bond-inspired villain? What more could one ask.
Well, a better grasp of what made The Avengers such as success on television, for starters. Not that the 1998 film version doesn't attempt here and there to replicate the feel of the original series. Connery's weather-controlling madman is right out of the TV show's playbook, as is a segment virtually lifted whole from the classic Emma Peel episode "The House That Jack Built" -- and while I think Elizabeth Hurley or Catherine Zeta Jones would have been much more suitable choices for Emma Peel, Uma Thurman does hit most of the right notes. Elsewhere, though, it falls short.
Fiennes just doesn't feel right as Steed. Except for his opening scene prancing through a Ministry test-fighting range -- considered by some to be the best and most Avengers-like moment in the film (perhaps due to a welcome cameo appearance by the original Avengers TV theme music) -- he comes off as rather wimpy for lack of a better word. Patrick Macnee's Steed had charisma and was revealed in the TV series to be capable of being quite thuggish when the situation demanded. Fiennes displays none of Macnee's qualities. You know you're in trouble when Macnee, who has an amusing voice-only cameo in the film, displays more personality and charisma with his voice alone than Fiennes does in the entire film.
Also a disappointment is Sean Connery, who clearly seems off his game here (thankfully he bounced back in his next film, Entrapment, ironically co-starring one of my dream Mrs. Peels, Catherine Zeta Jones; that film suggests the type of chemistry that is totally lacking between Connery and Thurman in this film). His voice doesn't sound right for some reason, almost as if he played the role with a cold.
The biggest problem with the film was the decision to cut its length considerably, strangely enough in the process deleting many of the scenes in the trailer. Without these scenes, much of the film makes little sense, especially the rather unexplained presence of Peel's evil double, whose existence is better explained in the cut scenes. (I highly recommend tracking down the novelization of this film, which includes the cut scenes and makes a lot more sense than the movie).
As a longtime Avengers fan I was also disappointed by some of the character decisions. Once again modern filmmakers appear unable to take platonic characters from TV and let them keep their lips apart in the movies. The introduction of a romantic subplot between Steed and Peel really feels out of place and goes back to what I said earlier -- that you need an understanding of how the source material works in order to do a good remake.
All this said, The Avengers as a movie isn't the worst thing ever made. And it's entertaining in its own way. At the very least watching Uma Thurman parade through in a series of sexy outfits is not an unpleasant waste of 90 minutes. But as a remake of a classic TV series, this was yet another failed attempt at recapturing the magic, something that is extremely hard to do at the best of times and has only been accomplished by a handful of projects, such as the recent revivals of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who.
True Crime: New York City (2005)
Impossible to control - threw my copy in the trash
This review is for the PC version of the game.
I've never thrown a game into the garbage before, but that is what I have just done with True Crime: NYC. Fortunately I only paid about $10 for it at a discount store and not $50 or whatever its original price was.
The game had a lot of promise. The idea of a virtual NYC you could drive around was a cool idea, and that part of the game I really liked (although it got annoying after the 50th time I got smashed into by other cars). And I like the idea of having big name voice actors involved, though I have to wonder how hypocritical it was to have Marsika Hargitay of SVU playing a female detective whose skirt is only a few steps down from a thong (if there are cops who actually dress like this on duty outside of the vice squad, I'm signing up!).
And I liked the basic plot - what little I could get before i gave up in disgust.
And give up I did. I'm OK with games that are difficult, in terms of being able to achieve goals or fight and survive. But when one literally requires 4 arms in order to hit all the controls you need to accomplish anything, at that point I say the game is poorly designed and not worth my time. What's worse, actions that work perfectly well during the training mode mysteriously no longer work once the "real" game starts. As a result instead of frisking and arresting suspects, I ended up either pushing them in front of cars (which was fun, I'll admit, but not quite what the game wanted me to do) or my gun came out and I shot them, which again wasn't exactly the mission.
There is a difference between being frustrated with a game that is difficult and being frustrated with a game that is physically impossible to play. The first issue can be alleviated by finding a hint guide somewhere, or even finding cheat codes. But there's no cheat in the world that protects against bad design.
As I say, this is with regards to the PC version. Maybe the console versions are simpler to operate and therefore actually can be played. If you have a choice, take the console version. Unless you have 4 arms, of course.
Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride (2006)
Much better than a lot of folks say
Although by definition a Christmas special should be standalones, The Runaway Bride includes a lot of set-up for season 3, as well as some genuinely chilling moments.
True, the action tends to get a bit comical at times, and Catherine Tate is extremely annoying for the first 1/3 of the episode, until she gets a chance to calm down; her final scenes are wonderful. Since Donna was never intended to be a permanent companion, it's hard to judge whether she would have passed muster. Maybe when the time comes for Martha Jones to leave the TARDIS, Donna Noble and Catherine Tate might be given another go.
What got me about this episode was how it went from comical to action-packed to pitch black in tone within the space of minutes. The use of one name -- the Doctor's home planet, mentioned by name for the first time since the 1996 TV movie -- turned the episode into one of the darkest episodes of the new Doctor Who, while the use of another name gave it one of the new series' most poignant moments.
On first viewing, The Runaway Bride is somewhat off-putting. Watch it a couple of times, though, and the layers begin to reveal themselves.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Still one of the best SF films of all time
The Quiet Earth is a classic science fiction film, of a type that is rarely produced by Hollywood or anywhere else for that matter. But there are no spaceships, aliens, mutants, or big battles. There are a couple of explosions, but those are pretty obligatory for any movie, so they don't count.
Seriously speaking, The Quiet Earth is a masterwork of performance, understatement, and dialogue that is just as timely and potent today as it was back in 1985. An Oscar-worthy (but incredibly unnominated) performance by Bruno Lawrence dominate the film -- literally; the first half of the movie is a one-man show as he plays a haunted scientist who wakes up one morning to discover that a secret government project he'd been working on -- indeed had just resigned in disgust from -- had been tested. And he finds himself, apparently, the only man left alive on the planet. (Watching this film again some 20 years after I last saw it, I was reminded of the current controversy over HAARP stations which, on the surface, sound not too much different from Quiet Earth's "Project Flashlight").
The first half of the film offers a series of vignettes showing Lawrence's character slowly going mad - declaring himself president of earth, making friends with department store mannequins, and playing late-night saxophone solos on the deserted city streets. This part of the film clearly borrows from Charlton Heston's The Omega Man -- the DVD liner notes all but confirm this -- but it does so in a way that gives it its own unique voice. The resolution is also unique as our hero finally pulls himself back from the abyss of madness.
The second half of the film (and herein lies the real spoiler) in which our hero discovers a young redheaded woman still alive, gives viewers a chance to grasp at some normalcy, and actress Alison Routledge provides a vivacious and headstrong performance. Her chemistry with Bruno Lawrence is terrific, to the point where you actually share Lawrence's resentment when a third survivor is located. I'm disappointed that her film career never seemed to take off as evidenced by the rather short IMDb film list for her.
What I like about The Quiet Earth is there are so many opportunities for it to fall into cliché, but it manages to come up with fresh approaches almost every time. Even the unavoidable romantic triangle that forms among the survivors is handled with style and originality.
The unfortunate thing that has annoyed me for the last 22 years is that the very poster art for the film -- and, now, the DVD case -- is a huge spoiler for the end of the film. Yes, it's one of the most spectacular special effects shots in motion picture history, yet I wonder if anyone has ever managed to see this film without having already seen the poster art? What an impact those final images (coupled with a awe-inspiring theme score) must have on the unspoiled.
Like most truly good SF films, The Quiet Earth doesn't explain everything. And as such it may not be for everybody. But if you want a smart, occasionally surprisingly funny, and always challenging film guaranteed to spark discussion and repeated viewings, this is it.
Superman II (1980)
Interesting for film buffs; not as good as original
(This review also contains a very subtle potential spoiler for Superman Returns)
The Richard Donner version of Superman II cannot be considered a complete film in any way, shape or form. Obviously this is because Donner never was able to complete his vision of the film, and as a result this is a cobbled together mixture of Donner scenes, scenes shot by Richard Lester for the theatrical version of Superman II, and even a couple of screen tests edited together to recreate a key scene Donner never filmed.
I've heard some people -- including actors involved in the film -- call the Donner Cut superior to the original. I have to disagree. I liked it well enough, but I felt there was too much padding, from unnecessary toilet jokes (making moot the criticisms that Lester inserted too much inappropriate humor into his version -- it is Donner who gives us the spectacle of a flushing toilet in the Fortress of Solitude!) to some really slow character moments. The first 45 minutes are rather uneventful and could have used some trimming. Lester's Superman II feels more like a complete film, and has some action set pieces that add a level of excitement to the film that, after the initial novelty wears off, the Donner version admittedly lacks.
That's not to say the Donner Cut is a bad film. It has a lot to recommend it: more footage of the underrated Sarah Douglas as Ursa, for one thing, allowing a bit more character development. The relationship between Lois and Clark is established as becoming sexual a bit more clearly than in the Lester version; this may be a bit controversial, but it works.
The real joy in this film is seeing some pretty substantial scenes involving Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando. There is a subplot about "the father becoming the son" which was all but eliminated from the Lester version. Here it's given full reign and plays out beautifully (in the process providing a strong tie to Superman Returns where the theme resurfaces). Of most note is the one and only scene filmed in which Brando and Reeve appeared in the studio together (the scene was later re-filmed by Lester with Susannah York instead of Brando.) Donner's version also makes more clear the fact that Jor-El had created an artificial intelligence program; Superman I and the Lester version of Superman II sort of gloss over this. In the Donner cut it's made more explicit, which is quite something considering this was filmed in 1978, long before A.I. became a buzzword.
The performances in this film are consistent with those of the first Superman film, which makes sense since they were shot at the same time. Margot Kidder, in particular, looks terrific (she never looked better, even in the simultaneously shot Superman I); reportedly she wasn't pleased when Richard Lester took over Superman II, and I think you can tell by comparing her performances for Donner with those for Lester.
The ending is a problem only if one desires to "decanonize" the Lester version of the film along with Superman III and IV. The fact the ending is virtually identical to the first Superman film might put some people off. But it is clearly stated on the DVD that Donner would have used a different ending for Superman II had he been allowed to complete the film. So once again we are simply reminded by this (and by Chris Reeve's hilariously changing hairstyles in the screen test footage used in lieu of Lester's Niagara Falls secret identity revelation scene) that the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II is not intended to be a replacement for the theatrical release -- which, despite many people disliking Lester's work, will remain the definitive version. Instead, it is a fascinating and highly recommended piece of "what if" experimentation which gives a fascinating look at how the production of a major film can result in widely diverging creative ideas.
Casino Royale (2006)
A unique Bond film reintroducing the series
Sometimes I feel like I'm in the minority in that I pretty much consistently enjoyed all the Bond films made between 1962 and 2002 ( Except for A View to a Kill which I hated). I felt the recent Bonds of Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan were great films, and Die Another Day was the best Bond film in years (despite an awful performance by Halle Berry). But some people felt that things like Bond's invisible car in DAD were the last straw and they wanted something different. And when Brosnan was effectively fired as Bond, I personally felt the Bond franchise was going to die. Especially when we started to hear rumors of inappropriate actors being considered for the part -- some as young as 23-24.
Eventually it was decided to make the 21st official Bond film into not only an adaptation of a Fleming novel (the first full novel to be adapted since Moonraker back in 1979) but a reboot of the series.
I've been on pins and needles about this for close to 3 years now. Reboots and reimaginings are terribly hit and miss. Sometimes they work well. Sometimes they are disasters. And sometimes they work really well for many people and become very popular, but for others the product loses much of what made it appealing (case in point for me being the reimagined Battlestar Galactica which doesn't do much for me - I prefer the original series).
Fortunately, and in my opinion against all odds, EON Productions has delivered a "reboot"/"reimagined" Bond that works on virtually every level. Although it has been updated for the (sorry for the cliché) "Post-9/11 world", it is still recognizably a Bond film with over-the-top action set pieces, colorful villains, multiple gorgeous Bond girls, and even gadgets.
Yes, you read that right. Despite the much-ballyhooed decision to drop Q from this film, there are still gadgets a-plenty. Granted many of them are of the type you can probably buy at Circuit City (though I don't know of many people driving around with portable defibrillators in their glove compartments) -- but gadgets are gadgets. (There was no need to omit Miss Moneypenny from the film, though -- she's in the original Casino Royale novel.)
Daniel Craig gives possibly the best performance of any Bond actor. Yes, I know it's considered a sin to rank anyone higher than the exalted Sean Connery in the role. But Daniel Craig, I think, manages the trick. And this is just on his first outing. Imagine how he'll play the role once he grows into it. Although I personally would have chosen Clive Owen for the part - the man was born to play Bond, I swear -- I think Daniel Craig was an inspired and unexpected choice. Just the sort of shake-up the series needed (the last actor chosen to play Bond who was not some sort of heir presumptive was George Lazenby; granted, in his case, the effectiveness of the choice remains a matter of debate nearly 40 years later).
Eva Green, meanwhile, has set a new gold standard for Bond girls, and in fact becomes the first such character who one would wish would appear in a sequel. Sadly, this is not to be.
I have the utmost respect for the scriptwriters on this film. (Who, it must be pointed out, are the SAME people who wrote the much-maligned Die Another Day). They have managed to write a film that actually follows the basic plot of Ian Fleming's novel quite closely (of course the film updates a lot of things and does add a number of new story lines such as Bond's pursuit of the two terrorist bombers in Africa and Miami). And by closely, I mean they also took the brave step of including the two most startling and important elements from Fleming's novel.
One of these is the infamous torture sequence, which is presented almost exactly as it is depicted in the novel. Audience members gasped when this scene appeared.
The second mirrors the end of the book, although in suitable more cinematic fashion. I won't go into details and spoil it here, but it is extremely well handled.
After two previous false starts - the 1954 TV adaptation and the 1967 spoof -- filmmakers have finally given us an adaptation of Casino Royale worthy of Ian Fleming. And in doing so, they might well have produced the best Bond film of all time.
Superman Returns (2006)
Much better than I expected
I have to admit I was worried when Superman Returns was first announced. The biggest concern I had was the decision to link this film to at least the first two Christopher Reeve films. I felt this was a huge gamble, especially with the death of Reeve in 2004, and one that could have resulted in audiences rejecting the film and its new star.
In retrospect, this concern was a bit silly. After all, the James Bond films went through 20 movies and five actors, yet managed to maintain common trappings, music, characters, and actors (Casino Royale, being a relaunch/reboot, doesn't count). So in that respect, having Routh taking over the role in a film that uses the same music and makes clear references to earlier films, is really no different than, say, Roger Moore taking over the role of Bond from Sean Connery.
With that concern out of the way, Superman Returns is a terrific film that manages to reinvigorate and renew Superman in the same way Batman Begins revived Batman and Casino Royale breathed new life into Bond. The film has a grand stature to it -- something Superman III and IV decidedly lacked.
I'm not sure of all the story directions taken in the new film. Saddling Lois with a fiancé and a son made for an interesting dynamic, but it was also frustrating. I will give credit to the writers for taking a brave (and canon-busting) position with regards to Lois' son. It was unexpected and does in fact open the doors for future story possibilities (not to mention endless debate over certain physical matters best encapsulated by Larry Niven in his classic essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex"). Unfortunately, in the film's only major misstep, the big reveal about Jason is spoiled by some awkward telegraphing earlier in the film.
The cast is terrific. Brandon Routh is an excellent Clark/Superman, although he looks a little young for the superhero part. (Then again, Reeve was only a couple years older when he got the part). I don't understand the animosity towards Kate Bosworth -- I thought she was terrific and far superior to the actresses who played Lois on Smallville and Lois & Clark, though as with Routh and Reeve, she has a long haul to be compared with Margot Kidder.
Kevin Spacey, playing his second bald-headed bad guy (after a brief appearance as a version of Dr. Evil in one of the Austin Powers films) is wonderful as Lex Luthor. He manages to not only put his own stamp on the character, but he also strongly resembles Gene Hackman in the role -- it's an interesting double-trick that works well. Parker Posey is also effective as this film's equivalent of Valerine Perrine's Miss Tessmaucher; her character could have stood a little more development, though, especially as to why she stays with Lex despite the fact she clearly hates the man (even Perrine's character, despite being angered by his actions, was never shown to actually hate Lex like Posey's character does).
One cameo worth noting is Peta Wilson (formerly of La Femme Nikita) as a somewhat addled PR flack. It's nice seeing her on the screen again - I don't think she's done anything major (aside from some TV work Down Under) since League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Speaking of cameos, look for Jack Larson and Noel Neill of the 1950s Superman TV series playing small roles; too bad someone from the 1970s-80s film series didn't similarly appear.
Frank Langella fades a bit into the background as Perry White and doesn't seem to give the character the same sense of experience and wisdom as Jackie Cooper did. And Eva Marie Saint is wasted as Martha Kent (her best work was left on the cutting room floor). But these are minor criticisms. Also, for all the hype about Marlon Brando appearing on screen again in CGI-altered archive footage from 1978, when we finally do see his face, it's so obscured by crystals and special effects that it hardly seems worth the effort. And you need to seek out the deleted scenes on the DVD to actually clearly see one of the photos of Glenn Ford from the first film that are visible in the Kent home in Smallville; it's a nice touch that I wish was more evident in the final cut, especially given Ford's recent passing.
Superman Returns could have been a train wreck. Instead, Bryan Singer & Co. have delivered a clever, fast-paced, entertaining film that manages to recapture much of the magic that made the first two Christopher Reeve films classics. Here's hoping the revived franchise keeps the quality up for longer than Reeve's films did.
Starts OK but goes pear-shaped
(This review contains potential spoilers)
I'm probably being generous with 3 stars, but for the first 45 minutes or so, Superman IV isn't a bad little film. Granted, it's instantly obvious the budget is a fraction of what had been used for the first 3 films, and Luthor's nephew is a terrible 80s teen "dude!" stereotype. But the opening sequences with Clark visiting the old farm in Smallville and the return of Margot Kidder's Lois Lane are both welcome. Mariel Hemingway provides a sexy third side to the film's romantic triangle ... but it could be argued a film like this didn't need that.
It had been 10 years since the first Superman was filmed, and this gives the regular actors added depth as they played their familiar roles. Gene Hackman is an exception, playing Luthor a bit too low key for the character's own good.
At about the 45-50 minutes mark, things start to collapse as the close-to-an-hour's worth of deleted scenes begin to take their toll on the film -- for example, suddenly Clark looks all grey-haired and dying with no real reason given. And while the battle between Superman and Nuclear Man is clearly inspired by the comic books -- and would have worked well in the comics -- in live action, it just comes off as silly. And when the filmmakers abandon any pretense to reality (by, among other things, having a human character survive hanging around in the vacuum of space) the film just falls apart.
The film is worth seeing, though, for the byplay between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. It's a pity the opportunity was lost in Superman III to expand on this more when Kidder was written out of the film.
But, as the fourth entry in a franchise that began with the spectacular Superman I and Superman II, this film is an extreme disappointment -- though, at the same time, it's one of those films that seems ripe for the remastering/directors edition/upgrading routine that has been done with other films.
The Great Morgan (1946)
The strangest MGM musical of them all!
The Great Morgan could well be the most unusual musical in the entire MGM canon. Produced for overseas audiences (heaven knows what impression they must have gotten about America from this!), Great Morgan is an extremely disjointed affair, although this is intentional.
The "plot" if you can call it that is Frank Morgan (a top comic actor of his day) is hired to put together a movie using odds and ends from the MGM vaults. He does so by splicing together a string of completely unrelated short subjects and musical numbers, interspersed with a repeated loop of a scene from some melodrama. The effect is not unlike some early David Lynch or Antony Balch film. If this film weren't lost for so many years, I'd have almost considered it an inspiration for Monty Python's disjointed style too.
For MGM musical fans, the main reason for seeing this is for a brief dance routine from Eleanor Powell that had been edited out of one of her films (exactly which one is impossible to say - some sources say Broadway Melody of 1936 but she looks older than she did in that film. And she doesn't look right for the IMDb's guess of 1939's Honolulu, either).
Powell is as sexy as ever, but unfortunately there is a definite air of lack of respect for her and indeed for many of the other performers in this film, which is rather annoying. Powell had actually left MGM by this time, and this was presumably a way of burning off some extra footage while adding a bit of sex appeal to the proceedings. A similar feeling of disrespect is felt when the underrated Virginia O'Brien performs a lively number with Jimmy Dorsey and his band (I think this was probably cut from "Ship Ahoy" which also featured Powell along with O'Brien and Dorsey). As with Powell's segment, the film keeps cutting away to reaction shots of annoyed and bored studio executives who obviously would rather be watching something else.
Not all the segments are musical. A long "Lake Woebegon Days"-style Americana segment about the automobile is quite interesting for automobile lovers, and an overlong but extremely well-filmed segment on badminton provides some attraction for sports enthusiasts, but will leave you wondering "what the heck is this doing here?". The film's other major musical segment, a long Latin-themed vignette that fills up most of the first half of the film, is pretty interminable.
Aside from Powell and O'Brien's segments, the best part of the film is its gag ending.
The Great Morgan (which occasionally shows up on TCM) is a long 57 minutes to sit through for what is basically only a half-hour of worthwhile material (I'm including the badminton short because it was kinda cool, if overlong), but serious MGM musical fans should check out this curio, as should fans of Eleanor Powell. Hopefully, though, the original footage of her dance number still exists somewhere and will one day be shown in a more respectable venue.
Doctor Who (2005)
The Doctor's back and it's about time!
Doctor Who has always been about time, and I have to say the return of one of TV's most enduring franchises could not have come at a better time. With Star Trek coming to an end on television, there is no better time for Doctor Who to regain its place as TV sci-fi's guiding light. It's a shame a lot of people, perhaps used to bashing Enterprise for the last 4 years, are so well-practiced at the art that they're now training their sights on the new Doctor Who. Well, as a 20-year fan of the franchise I can say that their venom is misplaced.
Doctor Who is the type of science fiction that TV has been sorely lacking -- something that's fun. There's none of the angst and West Wing-in-Space shenanigans of Battlestar Galactica, the soap operaness of Firefly or even the straight-jacket of continuity that has plagued Star Trek for 18 years. Yes, Doctor Who has continuity, and bless the BBC for NOT making this a reboot, but given the nature of the show it has a lot more flexibility than perhaps any SF series ever made for TV.
I knew Doctor Who was back from the moment the theme song started. Although rearranged it uses elements of the original 1960s theme that haven't been heard since 1980, including the electronic scream. The grand old TARDIS sound is back, too.
As for the actors, I think Chris Eccleston does a superb job. People are complaining he's too Northern (whatever that means). These same people probably complained that Sylvester McCoy was too Scottish. The Doctor changes personalities as he changes bodies -- the fact he comes off looking and sounding a bit like a football hooligan is just part of this Doctor's charm. It's a shame Eccleston has already quit the role, because I would love to see how he develops the part in the long run. Then again, as all previous Doctor actors can attest, you can never leave the role for too long. He'll be back for some "Two Doctors"-like event in a few years. Mark my words.
Billie Piper, meanwhile, aside from giving Carole Anne Ford, Nicola Bryant, Louise Jameson and Mary Tamm a good run for their money for the title of Hottest Companion ever, is surprisingly good as Rose. I really wasn't sure what to expect -- the list of pop singers successfully turning to acting is a short one -- but she does a good job and manages to be more than eye candy.
The special effects and the music are also top-notch on this production which is every bit as good as Hollywood SF. Maybe that's why the Sci-Fi Channel refused to buy the show -- Doctor Who upstages their homegrown productions shamelessly.
The debut episode, "Rose" had a few problems. The photos showing the Doctor in past eras were poorly Photoshopped (although it could be argued that maybe "Clive" just created them -- could he be a former companion?). And some of the comedy was a bit awkward (such as the hand attacking the Doctor). Also, if you're not in tune with the dialect you might find some dialogue hard to understand -- I eagerly await the DVD release so I can figure out what the heck Rose and the Doctor are saying in several scenes. But all told, "Rose" could well stand as one of the best "revival" episodes of any series ever.
Let's hope we've just seen the start of another 26-year dynasty. Long live Doctor Who!
Update: The second episode of any series is always a major hurdle, and I thought "End of the World" passed with flying colors. It pays tribute to Douglas Adams - who not a lot of people remember was script editor of the show for two years and reportedly was inspired by Doctor Who to create Hitchhiker's Guide. And with the latest movie version of that book due out only weeks later made the timing of the episode perfect. There were some shaky moments, but while "Rose" felt like a new breed of Doctor Who, "World" had the feel of a classic Tom Baker episode and showed that the series can balance the old and the new. I won't tie up the IMDb by adding reviews of every episode, but I'll just say that it passed the Second Episode Test for me. Doctor Who is back!
A sad send off for some great characters
(Review contains minor spoilers)
Don't get me wrong. I love Abbott and Costello and I love this film, but at the same time I can't help thinking how far once mighty characters like Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster had fallen. Back in 1931 they dominated the screen and scared the hell of out of people. By 1948, they were straight men to two of Hollywood's most popular film comics.
"Meet Frankenstein" marked the triple swan song of Universal's "big 3" monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, and the Wolf Man. The producers scored a coup by casting the original and definitive Dracula, Bela Lugosi, in what was, incredibly only his second and final screen appearance as his most famous character. As The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. is wonderfully consistent as the tormented Lawrence Talbot, though perhaps in deference to the comedy trappings, his desire to die takes a back seat and he actually takes on the air of the hero, even as his monsterous alter ego. (The fact he was cured in the previous monster film, House of Dracula, is conveniently ignored; maybe he had a relapse). Glenn Strange meets Boris Karloff's record by making his third appearance as the Monster. Sadly, once again he never really gets a chance to do much with the role. The pattern of his previous two appearances continues: he spends most of the film comatose, only to come to life in the last few minutes. He does, however, get a few lines of dialogue - the first time the creature has spoken since Ghost of Frankenstein.
The supporting cast are basically just "there." A pair of duelling femme fatales make nice eye candy, but otherwise don't make a big impact. Nor does the film's resident good guy scientist.
Abbott and Costello are fun, as usual. Abbott gets a bit tiresome with his skepticism, but Costello is in top form. Some have said that A&C's decline began after this film, so it could be said this is in some respects their swan song, too. The same goes for Lugosi, who had already been written off for dead by movie producers by the time this film was made; only obscure b-movies and rock-bottom Ed Wood features lay ahead of him. Likewise Chaney's career never really prospered away from the Wolf Man.
For fans of the monsters, this is a delight because it pokes fun at most of the conventions and the cliches the Universal series created. It's also worthwhile for film buffs who want to see Lugosi's second performance as the Count. But it's a shame that the beloved trio of monsters never got a chance for a serious, scary send off.
One of the best spy spoofs
Fathom was released in 1967 during a period when the James Bond films spawned a slew of ripoffs and spoofs. Some, like James Coburn's Derek Flint series, managed to gain some success while being entertaining. Many, like the very poor Modesty Blaise and even worse Casino Royale, bombed and rightfully so.
Somewhere in the middle is Fathom, a lightweight caper comedy starring Raquel Welch that, for some reason, has remained undeservedly obscure for more than 30 years.
Welch, who sadly never got a chance to be a true Bond girl (she lost out on the chance to co-star in Thunderball), demonstrates that 007 clearly got the worse end of the deal by letting her go. This could be the sexiest of her 1960s-era films and her performance, while hardly Oscar-worthy, is very appealing. More the pity that she wasn't cast as Modesty Blaise -- she might have made that other spoof worthwhile.
I won't try to detail the plot. It's impossible to do so without spoilers and there are so many twists and turns that you won't know who is doing what to whom until literally the last 5 minutes. The plot is perhaps a little TOO complex, and indeed there are a number of characters who are lost in the shuffle. But everyone - including, most importantly, Welch - seems to be having a good time, and there is a refreshing minimum of violence which is somewhat rare for the time.
Compared to the other muddled spoofs of the era, Fathom isn't that overly hard to ... fathom. If you get confused, just give your brain a rest and stare at Welch for a few minutes that you'll be right as rain in no time!
Dead Like Me (2003)
Dead Like Me is one of those unique TV series that will be remembered long after "flavors of the day" shows like The Sopranos are forgotten. It is bright and dark, hilarious and sad, awe-inspiring and introspective -- all at the same time. It is a wonderful piece of television.
I recently saw the season one DVD set and I must say this show is a marvel. Although it took me a few episodes to warm up to Ellen Muth as George the slacker grim reaper, the show was easily carried by old pro Mandy Patinkin as food-loving reaper Rube and his co-stars, including the gorgeous Rebecca Gayheart who makes a welcome - though all to brief - return to TV after coming off her own real-life tragedy which rivals anything seen on Dead Like Me. I won't rehash the details or the debate -- go look up her IMDb biography if you need more information.
The rest of the cast is outstanding, including Jasmine Guy - much older and wiser than her Different World days - Callum Blue and latecomer Laura Harris as George's fellow grim reapers. Harris, as wannabe actress Daisy, starts out annoying but very quickly develops layers that make her among the show's most interesting characters.
The format of the show is fascinating as there are two arcs going at the same time: George adjusting to the afterlife, and her family slowly falling apart because of her death. Central to this is George's kid sister Reggie, played by newcomer Britt McKillip. It probably isn't considered kosher to refer to an 11-year-old as beautiful unless you're a parent, but keep an eye on this one as she is going to develop into a spectacular talent.
Of course, a supporting cast means nothing without a strong lead, and Ellen Muth more than delivers. As I said above, she took a little getting used to, with her unconventional looks and a performance that gives "quirky" a whole new twist. It wasn't long before Muth truly owned the show and the character, and her narration is hilarious and touching throughout.
There were a few minor missteps in the show's first year. For some reason it was decided to do a flashback/clips episode at the 3/4 mark of the season. I will admit that the episode is fantastic and actually one of my favorites, but it might have been stronger without the flashbacks. Such things might be necessary when you're trying to create a jumping on point for an arc, but this isn't the case with Dead Like Me -- and the first season was only 14 episodes long; too short to need a recap.
The other problem I have with the show is the apparent use of the "Reset button" between most episodes. The events of one episode do not necessarily carry over into the next. This is very apparent as George appears to forget certain lessons learned in the previous episode on occasion. This is probably a minor quibble as this might not be so apparent if you watch the show in weekly chunks rather than all at once.
On the other hand, Dead Like Me is the first made-for-cable series I have seen that integrates adult language and sex (though the latter is relatively minor) in a way that is not jarring. This is not a kid's show, but I wouldn't have a problem letting a teenager see it.
Dead Like Me is easily the best series of the 2003-2004 television season, with Wonderfalls -- created by the same man -- in a very close 2nd place though it only aired 4 episodes. Dead Like Me deserves all the Emmys it can get.
A generation of speech impediment starts here
When I was a child, I had a speech impediment. Due to my father having a Scots accent and my mom a prairie Canadian accent, it was discovered that I couldn't pronounce certain words properly. After several years of speech therapy I finally managed to speak like everyone else.
Watching Teletubbies, I fear we're setting up a whole generation of kids who can't speak properly. The show's content itself is neither here nor there. I've come to accept that pre-school television is now supposed to be banal, stupid, and uneducational (just look at what has happened to Sesame Street in recent years). And there is no denying that the show's production is among the most unique I have ever seen. Full marks there.
But my problem with this show is that everyone uses baby talk, and worse yet, baby talk with a British accent. I have no trouble with a generation of latchkey kids who will probably end up with British accents as Teletubbies is the show that teaches them to speak ... but at least let's get them speaking properly.
If you have young children, and they are still developing language skills, I urge you to not let them watch Teletubbies. You'd be better off letting them watch Barney. It's just as stupid and mindless, but at least you can understand what they're saying. Better still, lobby someone to release DVDs of classic shows like Mr Dressup, Mister Rogers, pre-1990s Sesame Street (before Elmo ruined it) -- or even Barney. Anything but this potentially dangerous series.
The Star Boarder (1914)
Not too exciting
Charlie Chaplin was still working out the kinks in his Little Tramp character with this rather tame comedy of errors. This one generated barely a chuckle from me, perhaps due to the lack of chemistry between Chaplin and his so-called leading lady in this film, playing a landlady whom everyone thinks Charlie is in love with.
Perhaps had Mabel Normand been given the role of the landlady, there might have been a bit more spark. Certainly Chaplin's later leading lady, Edna Purviance, would have been perfect in the role. But such as not to be.
There are a few funny moments, such as when Charlie bats a tennis ball out of sight (reflecting perhaps the real-life Chaplin's growing interest in the sport?), and a pointless though funny sequence in which Charlie raids a fridge and gets drunk.
The best and funniest sequence comes near the end when the landlady's son, who secretly photographed the comedies of errors between his mom, his dad, and Charlie, puts on a special "parents gone wild" slide show and the usual Keystone mayhem ensues. The boy, incidentally, is played by Gordon Griffith, who appeared in a number of Chaplin's Keystone comedies before making a name for himself as Tarzan's son.
The Star Boarder falls somewhere in the middle ground of Chaplin's Keystone comedies. There's enough humor to hold one's interest, but it can't be considered one of his better works.