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    Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

    Ten years have passed since Caesar led an ape exodus out of San Francisco into the sanctuary of a redwood forest. The group of apes he united from an ape sanctuary and a medical testing facility are now living in peace within a forest. The society has been mostly isolated from human beings, since they've been far too busy dying off after ill-effects from the same virally-transmitted treatment which made the apes so smart in the first place.

    The apes now all communicate through sign language, but Caesar occasionally emphasises points by saying key phrases out loud. Speaking out loud seems to take special effort, but clearly this ability is part of what marks Caesar out as the leader, albeit along with a reputation for wisdom.

    However, his closest friend no longer appears to be Maurice, the circus orangutan (whose sign language ability was remarkably strong even before receiving the brain-enhancing treatment). Now Caesar appears to be very close friends with Koba, who we'll all remember from the previous movie as the ape covered in scars from medical testing.

    A new character to appear here is Blue Eyes, Caesar's son, who finds himself receiving somewhat conflicting advice over the course of the movie from Caesar and Koba, particularly when the ape settlement is visited by a group of humans who are armed with guns...

    The local human settlement consists in Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) whose character is locating a power source to help his fellow humans rebuild from the virus-instigated chaos they have survived. Keri Russell (Waitress) plays his girlfriend who is also a doctor accompanying him. Kodi Smit-McPhee (the voice of Norman in "Paranorman") plays Jason Clarke's cartoon-drawing son. While these actors are all very talented their characters do not have strong personalities and never really get a chance to properly make their mark during the story. In an even smaller role is the wonderful Gary Oldman, but he has been given this role precisely because they needed someone to give the character weight in spite of a relatively small amount of screen time. As with the previous film, the main stars are the apes.

    This is unfortunate, since having already named four ape characters (Caesar, Maurice, Koba and Blue Eyes) only two of them really have a strong personality here. Blue Eyes never really forms much of a personality (though I guess they might have been going for a 'brooding teenager' vibe) and any sense of Maurice's personality is mostly borrowed from the previous film. Only Koba and Caesar really get to be strong characters. They are, admittedly, strong enough to produce some very powerful scenes; scenes where other characters are also involved. But the script seems to be completely balanced on their shoulders, so little attention being given to any other personalities. Naturally Andy Serkis' talents in the role of Caesar will already be well-known from the previous film, but Koba has a new actor taking on the role. Toby Kebbell was the conflicted 'Doc' from the Brit Marling movie "The East" last year and he gives a really strong performance here as Caesar's right-hand man shaping the destiny of the apes.

    In the end, my main problem with this film is the lack of characterisation. But there are a few nagging issues related to my love of the franchise as a whole which go beyond this. Now don't get me wrong. I had a good time with this film. However "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", though not perfect, had given this franchise a new lease of life and a lot of new potential. And with most characters being rather lacking in that personality, it limited how much that potential could be met.

    Perhaps the most annoying missed opportunity was Caesar's wife. She spends much of the movie being too unwell to contribute and, in spite of a brief moment of tenderness between her and Caesar (that's not a euphemism for sex you'll be pleased to know), she never really gets to make much of an impact. Perhaps even more worrying is that barely anyone in this enormous ape community appears to be female. Their numbers seem to have grown dramatically since the last film, so unless there has been a recent female ape massacre, this is pretty confusing.

    The massacre must have been pretty recent since Maurice has a large group of young apes to whom he is teaching reading and writing. One of the signs that this is a clear remake of "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" is the prominent phrase "Ape Shall Not Kill Ape" being taught to the young apes. But fans of the Planet of the Apes movies will know that one of the major characters from the very beginning was the ape scientist Dr. Zira, a prominent female character. So while "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a clear step-up from 'Battle' (widely believed to be the worst of the movie series) failing to take advantage of the opportunity to set up a strong female ape character seems like a big mistake. Though not as big a mistake as failing to include more female ape extras in the ape community.

    Another problem (which some may have been waiting for after my recent post on Wittgenstein's philosophy of language) is the odd way that the apes now speak. As I said before, speaking out loud clearly takes special effort, so it is understandable that apes would decide to leave certain words out in order to shorten their sentences. But even in the subtitles for the ape sign language, we see pronouns and connecting words missed out.

    In my last post I referred to this as 'pigeon English' though I may have made a mistake there (more than just the spelling error). Pidgin English normally refers to language derived from English by non-English speakers. However, these apes are very much English speakers. It's the only language they know. Using the English of Caesar and Maurice (and possibly some apes from the testing centre like Koba) to get them started they would have been expanding that language through social interaction in the community. They would now have their own English dialect (which I believe is called a creole).

    What they would not have, however, is fluent English only with pronouns and connecting words left out. That is a very contrived form of speech, like Yoda's English which is complete except with a few words or phrases somewhat mixed up, or Grimlock from Transformers, known for phrases like "Me Grimlock think that is smartest thing I ever done!" And let's face it, the reason for this oddly-broken form of speech from the apes is not because it's realistic, but rather to suggest that the apes are 'tribal' and 'primitive'. This feels like somewhat of a betrayal of the franchise which has always shown that the apes, in spite of their other-ness are just as civilised as we are - as well as just as cruel. This movie seems to be trying to put forward that message, so it's unfortunate that this message is somewhat compromised by the rather lazy decision to have the apes' language be made artificially primitive in this way. (Admittedly another tribal element is the tribal face-paint, but that's more clearly a sign of a different culture rather than an indication that the apes are 'less developed'.)

    I'd argue that it would not only have been more in line with the message of the franchise to show the apes signing in fluent English, but it would also make more sense logistically. A lot of the sign language is not shown on camera and I'm not sure that they actually gave the apes the same sign language as is commonly used today. If the apes are signing in their own form of signing, then the subtitles are a translation. Why would a translation be in broken English? The intelligence of the apes seems to be undisputed. Caesar's intelligence developed quicker than human intelligence in "Rise Of The Planet of the Apes". So it is misleading to downgrade the quality of ape speech in the subtitles. They are fluent language speakers and should be translated as such.

    For all my complaints, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" includes strong emotional moments, some very clever physical acting and some spectacular action sequences. The plot is often very predictable and unfolds in a pretty basic way, but still there are some very nice touches along the way. The ape effects are better than ever, the acting is great and the central performances of Serkis and Kebbell utterly brilliant. This makes for a very satisfying entry in the series and I hope it forms part of a sci-fi franchise which still has its best entries ahead of it.


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    When "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" started getting some positive buzz I made a point of working through the previous movies in the series. Having now seen the latest entry, it's time to rank the series:

    8. Planet of the Apes (2001)

    I didn't think this was all that bad when I first watched it, but then again I was less critical of movies in general back then anyway. This has not aged well. The first thing I noticed was the very obvious actors-on-springboards effect being used. I know that apes can jump higher than humans and clearly Burton thinks this effect is very dramatic, but it was so over-used that it quickly started feeling comical.

    Even Paul Giamatti's orangutan character, who I remembered quite fondly from seeing this when it came out in the cinema, seems way too cheesy here. The purpose that Mark Wahlberg's protagonist serves is also hard to understand, not just because of his ridiculously uncharismatic and boring performance, but also because all the humans can speak and all the humans think being enslaved by apes is a bad thing. It's not at all obvious why he would be able to shake up the social status quo.

    Burton clearly wanted to use this movie as an opportunity to shove together a bunch of quirky visuals, but I have to say it now looks particularly obviously like a set. And to be frank, I wasn't keen on his little touches. The ape with the music box getting his human with dwarfism to dance? It might have been a nice touch if the rest of the film was well-handled, but in this film it's just one more groan-worthy element among many.

    The big thing to complain about here is the ending, but there's a very simple change which could save the ending. Take General Thade's name off the monument! General Thade is the big villain in the film and at the end of the story the apes are nowhere near mastering advanced human technology like computers and Thade is pretty much traumatised by his misuse of a ray gun. The idea that Thade could have flown a spacecraft in his lifetime (never mind all the other stuff that we are expected to believe he could have done to make the ending possible) is ridiculous. But the idea that apes could eventually master these things is perfectly reasonable. And you've got to give Tim Burton some credit in that, regardless of how little sense it makes, the ending IS a powerful visual. I immediately wanted to see the original movies to understand what it all meant.

    Talk about unnecessary remakes... I mean, frankly ALL remakes and reboots are unnecessary until the point where they turn out to be good. And it turns out that Tim Burton's remake is frikkin' appalling.


    7. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

    It's confusing how so many of the Planet of the Apes movies have low age ratings. Admittedly the UK rating wasn't quite so confusing. Planet of the Apes was given an "A" for 'adult' (which meant children might need adult supervision). But in the US the movie had a 'G' rating. This low age rating wasn't consistent though. Somehow 'Beneath', in spite of moments of pure nightmare fuel, still kept the G rating and it wasn't until, Conquest, the movie preceeding Battle, that the rating finally went up to PG. But with Battle the rating went right back down again.

    The reasoning was that the series had always been aimed at children and Battle was supposed to mark the end of the movies and the beginning of the tv series. So as a result, Battle, a film which really ought to feature a big violent conflict, is far tamer than Conquest before it. The budget also seems to reflect the tv quality that would come later.

    All this being said, there's a reason why I prefer this to Tim Burton's remake. Burton's movie might be prettier, but Battle still has Roddy McDowall playing the character of Caesar and the characters still feel endearing. Battle retains the heart of the series, even if it lacks the excitement and the brains. I would argue that "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" owes a lot to the basic set-up provided here.

    With all that being said, let me just make clear that "Battle" is a load of rubbish. But endearing rubbish. It's a terrible way to end the initial 5 movie series, but as a low point in a series now spanning 8 movies, it's not all that shameful.


    6. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

    Beneath is a bit of a mess and it's unfortunate that all the best characters are pretty much stuck on the sidelines here. The movie is split up into the action back in the community of apes and the action in the forbidden zone.

    Back in the community of apes we still have Cornelius (though not actually played by Roddy McDowall here) and the awesome Dr. Zira. Sadly their role is simply to introduce the brand new (out of nowhere) talking human character to the world of talking apes before sending him to the forbidden zone after Taylor (Charlton Heston).

    There are a few political developments in the ape community, but those don't matter except to bring the apes to the forbidden zone later on. (And the logic involved there is a little hazy.)

    Meanwhile in the forbidden zone we have some pretty crazy imagery involving some ultra-evolved humans who have been hiding underground. Unlike the non-talking humans on the surface, these guys have psychic powers. Unfortunately along with being cult-like, they are also rather lacking in personality. The other characters to keep us company in the depths of the forbidden zone are Taylor (played by Charlton Heston who really doesn't want to be here and who is giving all his salary from the movie to charity) and some other random guy who is essentially the exact same character as Taylor without the charisma. With Heston's lack of motivation, we end up with essentially TWO Taylors BOTH lacking in charisma. Which sadly knocks down the impact of the cultish creepy-as-hell underground-dwelling humans.

    Nevertheless, the creepiness alone makes this worth a look. Sure, the film is utter rubbish and a bit of a slog, but it has imagery that will stick with you and, as part of a larger series, it's watchable.


    5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

    The latest film in the series is lacking in characters and has a ridiculous lack of decent female characters, but the two central performances from the characters of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell) are amazing. Jason Clarke also isn't bad as Malcolm, the human stuck in the middle of the conflict between the humans and the apes.

    There's some spectacular imagery and a few surprisingly powerful emotional moments and the movie owes a lot to those two fantastic central performances for that. However, the story is rather paint-by-numbers, owing a great deal to the basic template set up by "Battle for the Planet of the Apes".

    Dawn is definitely a good film and I'm glad it's keeping the series going, but I hope later instalments can raise the bar in terms of writing and storytelling, to match the quality already present in central performances and effects work.


    4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

    For some this appears to be the favourite of the initial 5-movie series. But while the relevance of the civil rights movement had been present in earlier films, here it becomes very on-the-nose. Almost like someone getting a loudhailer and shouting "DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE SYMBOLISM NOW?!!"

    Nevertheless, what makes this work is the excellent performance from Roddy McDowall as Caesar. In previous films he played Cornelius, a mild-mannered scientist. But here in Conquest, McDowall plays Cornelius' son Caesar as he becomes an angry revolutionary with none of his father's pacifism.

    I never realised that the milder speech at the end was a post-hoc addition to the film. The original cut of Conquest has a very frightening finale. Even with the milder altered version, I must admit that the ending stuck with me.

    It's often said that you should remake bad films, or at least films with the potential to be made better. It's pretty clear that with the right talent to replace Roddy McDowall this film had the scope to be made much better. Arguably now it has been remade in the form of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" with Andy Serkis in the role of Caesar. It's not a shot-for-shot remake by any means, but I think we should be glad of that. Both movies have their place in the series, but Rise is a different take on this intriguing sci-fi premise.

    Conquest looks distinctly unpolished and is somewhat lacking in budget. However, the central performance helps the audience to look past that and the message behind the film is strong enough to make this a very worthwhile watch in spite of its flaws.


    3. Planet of the Apes (1968)

    Charlton Heston is a bit Zapp Brannigan here. Black guy dies first. There's some awkward misogyny. Still this remains a very engaging sci-fi classic with some now-timeless imagery. And it's clear that the values of the civil rights.movement of the 60s are buried beneath the surface (as would become more overt in later sequels)

    This is an intelligent sci-fi classic which became a surprise hit. Part of that is the award winning make-up effects which don't hold up brilliantly today, but are good enough to prevent it dating anything like as much as you would expect.

    Admittedly everyone knows the 'twist' ending now because it is generally spoilt by the front of the DVD box, but I don't actually think the 'twist' is all that important to the film. It doesn't matter that we already know what is happening. What matters is that we are following characters who are coming to terms with what is happening.

    It's actually quite interesting how Heston begins as a bit of a nihilist, with nothing but contempt for mankind or for notions of progress. He's a bit of a reluctant apologist for mankind, trying to justify a society he became an astronaut to get away from when he comes across the ape society which seems to hold his species in contempt.

    There's a load of food for thought in "Planet of the Apes" and in spite of being rather dated, it's still an entertaining watch. I'm disinclined to consider a movie discredited by bad sequels, but I think it's fair to suggest that this film is increased in my estimation by its good sequels which would come to explore its themes more fully. I think that is fair since those sequels needed this film to set up those themes in the first place.


    2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

    "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is not just a simple remake of Conquest, but an homage to the Planet of the Apes series as a whole. The first half is sadly lacking, not least because of James Franco's rather poor central performance, but in the second half, where Andy Serkis gets to take the limelight, the movie quality suddenly takes a leap forward.

    On a second watch, I find myself looking back on this film remarkably fondly. It's not perfect by any means, but a lot of effort has been put into the little details and this sequel seems to understand the importance of the civil rights subtext (as all good POTA sequels really should).

    There's one important moment in the film which has a big 'wow' factor, both for newcomers and fans of the series alike. I don't even think I need to say what that moment is, though if you are confused please ask in the comments. And it's a moment that could so easily have been misjudged. People might have questioned why they needed to escalate things to that level so quickly. Yet I've not heard anyone make that accusation.

    In spite of an awkward first half, the second half has a real magic to it. Rise manages to take the best from the series and bring it all together, wrapped in a bow, to please fans and delight newcomers. In spite of a few missteps, the overall effect is remarkable.

    One last point: While Rise marks the first POTA sequel to use CG effects instead of make-up effects for apes, it is also pioneering CG motion-capture just as John Chambers' make-up effects were pioneered for the first movie in the series. And thankfully a major difference is that the CG motion capture continues to be developed for these films, unlike in the old sequels where less and less was spent on make-up effects as time went on.


    1. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

    This isn't everyone's favourite, but then again this isn't everyone's list. This is my personal favourite POTA movie. I really enjoy the humour, but it's not all light-hearted. All through the film there's a sinister backdrop, as the humans' mistrust of the apes leads them to learn the truth behind their captives' origins.

    Having already seen Conquest probably gave this a little more weight, since I had an idea of where things were heading. This might have seemed a little too chipper and cheerful otherwise. Except I think the darker side of the story is always present. Very early in the film one of the apes from the future is killed, so it's not clear that our protagonists are safe even from the start.

    Still, things get very dark by the end, so perhaps my fondness for horror-comedies and black humour lends itself more easily to this sequel. Also this film has the biggest amount of emphasis on the very best character of the series: Dr. Zira. While Cornelius is important too, Zira seems the more headstrong of the two of them.

    Escape had a seemingly impossible task of reinvigorating the series after Beneath. The ending of Beneath makes a sequel seem like an impossibility. So the very idea that Escape would be able to explore the themes in ways the previous sequel had almost entirely failed to do (as well as handling some "Terminator"-style time travel destiny ideas, decades before Terminator would ever do so) is a development few could have predicted.

    Wonderful characters, very funny comedy, insightful social commentary, a cool time travel plot and some sinister ideas in the background. "Escape From the Planet of the Apes" is my personal favourite of the series.


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    Under The Skin (2013)

    I've heard a lot of mixed impressions of this film, with some lauding it as one of the best films of the year. So, as a sci-fi fan, I realised there was a possibility that I could love this. I heard it was a bit artsy and possibly rather dull, but I mistakenly believed I knew the story it was based on, which meant that I was convinced that the climax would definitely be exciting regardless of what came before.

    After some hard searching I've found the story I believed this was going to be adapting and I do admittedly feel a little silly. My mind was immediately drawn to a short story called "Hitch-Hiker" from a collection of short stories entitled "Break of Dark" by Robert Westall. Westall is perhaps best known for "The Machine Gunners" and is a children's writer. But "Hitch-Hiker" was a story about a man travelling around near Glasgow who is surprised to find a beautiful naked woman stranded outside his tent. It becomes clear as the story progresses that she is an alien.

    Now looking at wikipedia plot summary for the book "Under The Skin" it appears that the film isn't a particularly faithful adaptation. But the themes are a little different. This isn't quite as simple as an 'evil alien' plotline.

    That being said, I never really feel like the film gets much beyond the evil alien side of things. The alien-ness of her is made very stark during an abstract display at the start which is sort of like the construction of an eye, while in the background we hear a sound not unlike a computer learning to speak. It is indicating that the alien protagonist is taking on the appearance of a human. Scarlett Johansson is rather creepy in the way her character seems to turn the charm on and off as she finds people walking by on the street. She goes from cold and unfeeling to a masquerade of empathy. It's pretty clear that we are following a villain.

    The best part of the film would have to be the scenes where our alien protagonist snares male human victims, causing them to descend into a kind of ooze. It's quite a spectacular scene, but sadly having been repeated three times we really could have done with a wider plot to focus on and that was pretty thin on the ground.

    Having us follow a villain, the film had two choices. Either we would come across a more challenging prey (like in horror films, when the villain encounters the 'final girl') or the villain would come to question their own role (like Christian Bale's 'thought police' officer in "Equilibrium" who starts thinking for himself). I would have preferred the former, but there's no reason why the latter couldn't work if done interestingly.

    The thing is, I didn't find it a particularly compelling decision to change Johannson's character from an alien woman who traps and kills men to an alien woman who wants to have a relationship with a man. For one thing, I really didn't understand her motivation. What does she want? We never really know.

    And to be quite frank, I thought the ending was a little too simple and obvious considering the long and tedious build-up beforehand. Sure, the visuals and atmosphere are pretty good, but that's not enough. "Beyond The Black Rainbow" was prettier and had better music and while "Under The Skin" is a little more polished and a little better paced, they are both equally limited in terms of story.


    (Robert Westall's book of short stories "Break of Dark" containing the story "The Hitch-Hiker" is on Google Books here, but unfortunately it is missing a huge central chunk of the story. Still it's enough to get a good taster for it and to see why I associated it with the basic synopsis of "Under The Skin".)

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  • 08/09/14--09:29: Director Showcase: Ronny Yu

  • Ronny Yu is a Hong Kong director who I know first and foremost for his highly entertaining contributions to two 80s horror franchises. On the one hand, there's my absolute favourite entry in the Child's Play franchise "Bride of Chucky", which managed to successfully combine both the horror and comedy elements as well as introducing the awesome character of Tiffany to reinvigorate the series. On the other hand there's "Freddy Vs Jason", a film which combined the Friday The 13th series and the A Nightmare On Elm Street series and acted as an homage to both, establishing itself as one of the better entries in both franchises.

    However, Ronny Yu also has some background in martial arts films and perhaps his most revered is "Fearless". I've also now checked out a low budget flick starring Bruce Lee's son Brandon (who so famously died making the early comicbook flick "The Crow") called "Legacy of Rage" and Ronny Yu's latest contribution "Saving General Yang".

    Fearless (2006)

    An interesting tale about a fighter who stands against western imperialism. I don't know to what extent it could be called a 'true' story, but it's an interesting one all the same.

    There are some fantastic action sequences here. However the central story sometimes feels awkwardly paced. This is often the problem with 'true life' stories or book adaptations. You have to follow a certain set of narrative steps, regardless of how messy they make the script.

    The story is pretty reasonable though the fighting representing China at the end feels like a different movie from the fighting for ego and reputation towards the beginning.

    Still this is a fully entertaining and engaging action film.


    Long zai jiang hu (1986) (Legacy of Rage)

    I wouldn't say that I exactly hated this action flick with Brandon Lee, but the acting is bad, the storytelling is somewhat confused and our protagonist has the most unlikely friend ever who, early and obviously, betrays him.

    However, the really big problem is that there is barely any action in this film. We finally get some action in the last 15 minutes, but we'd been waiting so damn long for it.

    Even though this movie has a sweet side which makes it bearable rather than boring, it really doesn't feel worth the effort. The film may also be lowered in my estimation by some pretty cheesy dubbing on the DVD I watched.


    Saving General Yang (2013)

    It should be noted right off the bat that this is not a beautiful artsy action film like "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" or "Hero". There's still parts that look good, but it's not going for that same colourful fantasy vision. Things are kept relatively plausible in this film.

    While it could be partially a result of the translations used for the subtitles, the dialogue feels a little stilted. Everyone is very uptight and it's rather difficult to identify with the characters. But oddly the character which irritated me the most was the wise Buddhist monk they approach.

    There's some political wranglings at the beginning regarding an accidental death during a tournament and some fighting taking place against rival armies. (Our protagonists are serving the Emperor of the Song Dynasty and their enemies are Khitans serving the Empress of the Liao Dynasty.) General Yang is cornered fairly early on in the film during his skirmish with the Khitans and his wife asks a wise monk in the mountains for advice.

    Now this monk is a complete arse, no bones about it. He insists that their family is doomed to misfortune because they are involved in warfare. I couldn't help but think of the monk like he was a hippy. This isolated figure sitting out of harm's way in the mountain and musing on transcendent truths and mocking those dealing with the real political minefields of the time. And my view of this figure isn't improved when his servant hands over a note which reads "Seven shall leave, six shall return."

    I was wondering how much drama we could ever get in a film where six of the seven brothers are destined to survive, but things are not as clear-cut as you might expect. (And as you might imagine, I'm not endeared to the monk any more when he starts handing out misleading prophecies.) The monk even appears to General Yang in a dream at one point and I felt the monk was a complete dick there too. While the film clearly isn't demonising the monk figure, this isn't a good film if you are hoping for positive portryals of wise old monks.

    The pacing isn't perfect and the characters feel a little 2 dimensional for the most part. But this film is a lot of fun nonetheless. One other little annoyance, however, is towards the end when the decision is made to spare someone's life. There's this odd pattern in a lot of films in recent years (particularly often in superhero films it seems) where the protagonists are meant to avoid killing to sometimes quite absurd lengths. If you are dealing with a hardened killer that is very hard to track down and even harder to defeat, you may find your regret sparing them when you finally have the upper hand.

    Rather than saying anything which might spoil the "Saving General Yang" movie, I'm going to talk about a Spider-Man comicbook storyline. In the Spider-Man storyline "Maximum Carnage" Spider-Man keeps finding the villain Carnage during Carnage's rampage of destruction and murder across the city. Each time Spider-Man and his allies found Carnage they'd fight for a bit before Spider-Man insists "no, I must not kill him!" and Carnage gets away. Goodness knows how many lives are lost because Spider-Man insists on repeatedly sparing this mass-murderer. Perhaps the more well-known and simpler example would have been Batman crashing his motorcycle rather than killing the Joker in "The Dark Knight". Imagine how many lives would no longer have been at risk if Batman had just murdered that monster!

    But what's especially weird in "Saving General Yang" is that these brothers are soldiers. They've killed countless people. The figure being spared is ruthless, untrustworthy, has not surrendered himself, has been actively and visciously trying to kill the protagonist we are following at the time and, in any case, there's no realistic means of taking this figure prisoner at this stage anyway. So our protagonist leaves this guy alive and turns their back on him. This is nuts!

    But all this being said, I had a good time watching this film. I think there are some unfortunate flaws, particularly in pacing and characterisation, but this is a fun watch all the same.


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    How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

    I'm not so fond as most with the first HTTYD movie. I think it's great, but not up there with the best Pixar films. Still these films are actually based on a book series, so there's presumably a fairly wide scope to expand the HTTYD universe.

    That being said, while this sequel kept promising to expand the universe in interesting directions, it doesn't really go very far.

    It's quite bizarre how HTTYD2 both starts and finishes by saying that their town is special because they have dragons, despite having encountered a whole bunch of other people who have dragons over the course of the story.

    Earlier this year Amazing Spider-Man 2 cut short a central relationship which had been vital to the series' success. Now HTTYD2 has done the same and in both cases I think the filmmakers have made a mistake.

    A series thrives on the interactions and developments of its characters and while it's certainly shocking when a character is gone for good, you've got to weigh up the pros and cons. In Alien3 I can understand killing off the annoying child character in order to emphasise the hopelessness of the protagonist's circumstances. But when you are losing one of your most talented performers you need to think more carefully.

    HTTYD2 introduces us to a wider world where dragons are recognised as more than just rampaging beasts by a growing number of figures. However, in expanding the mythology it seems to forget the events of the previous instalment.

    One 'new' addition to the mythology is a dragon who controls the other dragons - except that was the main villain of the last movie, wasn't it?

    We also have a human villain who wants to control the dragons. And apparently characters who had previously never believed training dragons was possible all know about the evil dragon trainer already.

    And then there's Hiccup's mother who is, quite frankly, mad. I think some of her craziness might be intentional, but when she's criticising the slaughter of dragons it's never quite explained how nuts that would have been at the time.

    Let's just remind ourselves of the scenario of the previous film. The dragons were stealing all their animals. It turns out that they were doing this in order to feed a bigger dragon that was controlling them but the fact remains that they were threatening the town's livelihood and the townfolk were losing their limbs trying to fight the.dragons off. In such a scenario suggesting that they simply leave the dragons alone would be dooming the town to starvation and ruin. It was only the ability to train the dragons which ended that situation.

    Oh and she abandons Hiccup as a baby. I think she deserved a lot more criticism for that than she ever receives here.

    Oh and the bit where she and Gerard Butler are singing together kind of irritated me.

    All this being said, while I found the plot hard to get on board with, the effects were wonderful - particularly the water effects. And there are a lot of funny little touches such as the way the dragons play fetch and mess around. The dragons make for very.endearing pets in this film. (Albeit at the expense of some unfortunate traumatised sheep.) So in spite of all my criticisms here and there, I did have a good time with this film. It's an enjoyable watch, but it's not a step-up for the series. Just a fun bit of entertainment so long as you don't worry too much about the shallowness of the plot or the message.

    One last thing: The question is raised whether Hiccup should become chief. Is it me or is the solution obvious? Hiccup's strengths are as an inventor and animal trainer, but his girlfriend is a capable warrior and would be perfect as the new chief, wouldn't she?


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    The Best of Men (2012 TV Movie)

    Sure, it's a made-for-tv movie and it feels like it. Nevertheless, the performances are so good and everything is just handled so well that I just felt joy from beginning to end. There's not a lot in the way of impressive directorial flourishes, but there is a good story told well and emotionally engaging as all hell.

    At the centre of it all is Eddie Marsan playing the true-life figure, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German doctor who is finally allowed to treat spinal patients in Britain during the latter half of World War II. Marsan has a very wide range as an actor, but this is definitely my favourite performance from him so far.

    Another stand-out performance comes from Rob Brydon playing a particularly vocal patient. But to be frank, the whole cast is absolutely wonderful.

    A few figures come off as a little cartoonish, helping to ensure that this is more of a feel-good drama and avoids acting as a downer for the audience. Nevertheless, this film has a clear heartfelt important message. I won't give away what happens to make this story so important. (Believe me, if you don't know about Dr. Ludwig Hoffman, you WILL find yourself surprised.)

    Funny, well-paced, with some great emotional-depth and a stellar central performance. "Best Of Men" is an absolutely wonderful drama which deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.


    Labyrinth (2012 TV Series)

    Oh dear me Christopher Smith, what happened?

    Christopher Smith has become one of my favourite directors. While there's a decidedly annoying decision for one of the scenes in his first movie "Creep" it was nevertheless a pretty cool debut. He followed it up with "Severance" which I saw in the cinema upon its release. Not realising that it was the same director, nor how great it would be, I missed "Triangle" in cinemas (not least because I thought it was about the Bermuda Triangle - which it isn't). And his latest film "Black Death", with Sean Bean, was one of the better "medieval horror" films of late (others being "Centurion", "Valhalla Rising", "Season of the Witch", "Solomon Kane" and arguably also "13 Assassins").

    It's been a rather long wait since "Black Death" and it seems that Christopher Smith has tried to transition to tv. (Something it seems that the very similar director Neil Marshall has already successfully managed by directing the excellent 'Blackwater' episode of "Game of Thrones" and starting the series "Black Sails", which I hope will be rather less disappointing than this was.) Unfortunately he seems to have chosen a 'Da Vinci Code' knockoff. I remembered seeing Kate Mosse's book "Labyrinth" in bookshops and I always thought it came before Dan Brown's cheesy bestseller. But it seems I was mistaken.

    What's perhaps most annoying of all is that "Labyrinth" is about the massacre of the Cathars in the 13th Century. It's a really interesting historical event to base a drama around. Unfortunately Kate Mosse's book is instead about some kind of mystical books supposedly connected with the Holy Grail. To be frank, I'd rather be watching the bleeding Indiana Jones movie if we are going to go that goofy.

    The film is set both in the distant past and in the present day. In both eras we are following a very naive and drippy protagonist. I haven't seen Vanessa Kirby in anything before, so I cannot say whether this is her normal performance, but Jessica Brown Findlay should be absolutely ashamed of her performance here. That being said, if an actor normally performs better my instinct is to blame the director and as horrendous as the script might be, I think Christopher Smith has to accept some responsibility for these two blank-faced and dim-witted protagonists.

    Historical accuracy is pretty thin on the ground here. My gf noticed that in the sections set in the past Jessica Brown Findlay's character was not wearing a headress, meaning she was either a prostitute or unmarried. It turned out that she was supposed to be married character, but clearly the filmmakers were keen to show off her flowing long hair.

    But this is a minor quibble, particularly by comparison to what is to come. Early on it's shown that her character's husband has a mistress. Bizarrely the consequence later on is that (i) the mistress reveals her affair with the husband, expecting to bring shame on him, (ii) he is so upset by this that he threatens his mistress with death and (iii) we are expected to take his side. Let me explain the problem here. (i) Married men cheating on their spouses would not have been a big scandal in this era. Sure, the wife wouldn't be so keen, but the husband would see this revelation as having little bearing on his moral or social standing. (ii) Since this revelation would be so easy to shrug off, it seems bizarre for him to threaten death. (iii) While I guess causing his wife to get upset could be used as an excuse for a death threat, that would indicate a very petty and bloodthirsty character.

    The chaste and innocent (read boring and naive) married woman is contrasted by the wily temptress (read insecure, bitter and using sex to gain some sense of self-worth) who is her sister. (She's sleeping with her sister's husband because she sees the two of them as rivals.) The more interesting of the two sisters often seems to be written as just plain evil most of the time, but I still get the impression that Christopher Smith had made a conscious effort to try to add an extra dimension. Unfortunately I think only rewriting the script would have done the trick. And by the way, if you want to kill someone it's not terribly smart to send them some poisoned bread, telling the servant delivering the bread to explain that you made it yourself. (Thankfully it turns out that the victim was too stupid to realise that they were dying from eating poisoned bread. What in the hell?)

    There are a variety of great cast members all giving pretty lame performances. Surprisingly good here (relatively speaking) is Tom Felton (of Harry Potter and ROTPOTA fame). He doesn't have a lot to do in the film, but he gets a very prominent role in the battle scene (which I think was one of the bits Christopher Smith had more fun filming).

    Dare I say, the plot is a lot worse than "The Da Vinci Code". It's not far into the modern day section of the story before we have a creepy threatening man wearing a large crucifix, as if to say, "Hey! I'm the evil hardcore traditional Christian guy! Don't expect any subtlety or realistic motivations from me!"

    "Labyrinth" is a boring derivative tiresome mess.


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    Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

    Remember how in the mid-credits sequence at the end of Thor 2, Benicio Del Toro explains that the Ether was just one of six planet-destroying magic stones? Well it turns out he wasn't kidding. Here in "Guardians of the Galaxy" they really do just find another sparkly magic rock with very little to distinguish it from the one we found in 'Avengers' and the one we found in 'Thor 2'. And speaking of indistinguishable, we also get a villain who is basically a stand-in for Loki, only with none of the charisma.

    All that being said, "Guardians of the Galaxy" looks gorgeous. The design of the world in which the characters live is fantastic. I feel like I'm damning with faint praise here (just like when I said that "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was better than "Battle for the Planet of the Apes"), but it has to be said that "Guardians of the Galaxy" comes across rather like a Star Wars movie and, to my mind, it wipes the floor with the Star Wars prequels. We see a variety of awesomely designed environments building a full world in which the characters can exist with flying vehicles and technology for them to use.

    Sadly the characters themselves seem incomplete. It seems to me that the more important the characters were, the less interesting they were. The big surprise actually was Groot the humanoid tree-person. Actually one reason why he wasn't as goofy as I'd been expecting is because he's basically Swamp Thing. Sure, he's more like Swamp Thing before John Constantine comes along to tell him he's essentially a nature god, but there's still time for Groot to develop that way. Marvel actually have their own more clear-cut Swamp Thing clone, but that's Man Thing (a name I cannot imagine catching on) and he's already had one of their least impressive movie outings. Anyway, the variety of plant-based powers exhibited by Groot is by far the most creative element of the film. And he's not really the most central of the characters.

    Another two characters who were pretty entertaining were 'Drax the Destroyer' and 'Rocket' (the talking gun-toting Raccoon). If you put these two personalities together you basically get the character of Jayne from Firefly. By themselves, Rocket gets the mostly amoral, in it for the money, character. While Drax gets the dim-witted muscle side of things. Okay, so actually there's a little bit more to Drax, but I still reckon Rocket is less interesting version of Jayne. One again, these two are amongst the more interesting characters and they aren't really the central protagonists.

    The central character is Star Lord. Yet another case where an obnoxious egoist becomes the hero - and I'm afraid Chris Pratt is no Robert Downey Jr. Or at least, he's not working with such great material. I thought he was funnier in "The Lego Movie".

    Gamora, the green alien played by Zoe Saldana, gives every indication that she's going to be a badass in early scenes, but quickly becomes the unlikely love interest for Mr. Ego. I guess if you have a Tony Stark-type figure, you need a Pepper Potts-type figure too. While she's supposed to have ultra-super-ninja skills, those are pretty inconsistent - and she gets damsel-in-distressified at one point.

    And, as has been said in the past of the X-Men movies, only it's even more true here, there are simply too many characters here to give them all a decent amount of development time. There's an awkward balance between developing this big variety of characters and pushing forward the generic world-destroying-macguffin-wielded-by-god-like-maniac plot. We get to see the villain Thanos at one stage (the guy who was teased at the end of "Avengers") and his whole presence in the story seems like a complete waste of time. Most of our time is spent with Ronan, who is perhaps the most boring villain we have ever seen in all the Marvel movies so far.

    With all this being said, I have to admit that Guardians was pretty fun. It's nowhere near the best Marvel film, but it's not the worst either. It's enjoyable and it has its moments. But the best fun comes from the more minor characters, with Groot and Drax actually providing the most fun of the bunch.

    One last thing though. The opening scene with the cancer is a cheap attempt at a tearjerker. Yeah, I'm sure a few people feel like that was a really powerful moment. Cancer is always going to be an easy way to tug at the heart strings. But help me out with something here.... If that present is so damn important to him, why didn't he open it sooner and why was the end of the film suddenly considered the right time to finally unwrap it? I'll tell you why. Because the opening has NO relevance to the rest of the film. It's a cheap tearjerking framing device so the filmmakers can pretend the film has some smigin of depth. Personally, I wasn't buying it. This is a pretty shallow Marvel film. It's quite fun, but Marvel can do better. And as per usual I find myself mainly having to judge things on how much they made me laugh. Despite how the trailer might have looked, previous Marvel films have been a lot funnier.


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    The Hunter (2011)

    Willem Dafoe is a great actor. However, I rarely see him in a leading role.

    There is no doubt that Dafoe carries this leisurely-paced indie drama. Even playing such a reclusive character his performance is crammed full of emotion.

    Right from the start we discover that he is being employed to find and kill the last remaining tazmanian tiger, yet Dafoe is always wholly relateable. We always sympathise with his character in spite of his questionable motives.

    Various elements are quickly set up. Dafoe is lying about his background and which animal he is pursuing. He also becomes quite attached to the family at the house where he is staying. But by the end I found myself left confused by the film's message. It also didn't help that a climactic moment in the final act involved some rather unconvincing CG effects.

    "The Hunter" has great performances and some really good characters. But the plot seems rather unsure what to do with them. It's a perfectly adequate film, but I found the ending rather flat.


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    Kidnapped For Christ (2014)

    It's actually a misleading title since many of these 'kidnappings' are performed by organisations without a religious affiliation. Nevertheless, this American organisation is fundamentalist evangelical Christian (are we surprised? It's either that or Roman Catholic amirite?) and the filmmaker was (prior to uncovering this hypocrisy at least) a strong believer in that faith.

    What's a little more irregular however, is that they are taking those kidnapped children to the Dominican Republic. Many of these organisations are quite happy to run within the US itself.

    The odd thing about these kidnappings is that they are actually arranged by the children's parents. While that might sound like sending your child to a holiday camp, in those instances the child is normally informed about the trip in advance. Also these 'camps' don't just run over the holidays. The parents pay huge amounts for their care and tuition so they can stay for months or often years.

    So perhaps it is like being forced to go to boarding school? And having the decision forced on you? Sometimes in the middle of the night by complete strangers?

    Well yet another aspect of this camp which makes it strange (apart from the way it is located in the Dominican Republic and is importing children from the US) is its bizarre discipline procedures. There is a complicated points system for behaviour. Avoiding picking up naughty points basically involves doing whatever you are told to do without question. That includes regular demands that children do sets of press ups, star jumps and the like. It also involves passing spot checks with bizarre requirements (such as that shirts hanging in the closet must have all buttons done up and must be 'evenly spaced'. Any complaint about conditions will lead to being disciplined. Any calls home are monitored. Any attempt to tell parents about the bad conditions results in a punishment for being manipulative.

    If someone is on the highest tier of punishment then there will be a period of time (weeks perhaps?) during which they will not be allowed to talk to other children. The worst punishment of all is the sinister sounding 'quiet room'.

    Oh, and they also use corporal punishment. They're old-fashioned like that....

    Children can be there because they are causing trouble for their parents. While children can be there because they are gay, the reason given tends to be that the child is 'confused'. All these inconsistent punishments are viewed as a treatment for the children's 'conditions' and this appears to be pretty much a one-size fits all approach. (One girl, known for self-harming, had a slightly different approach in that, along with all the hardcore punishments she also had to ask others to use sharp objects for her, and wait for permission to enter rooms.)

    The documentary is pretty well made but it's lacking a holistic view of the issue. The filmmaker entered this nominally Christian establishment with the full intention of documenting the 'good work' of this Christian establishment. However, these with a healthy cynicism will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that the main motivator of this establishment was money. The children weren't selected because they were from poor and difficult backgrounds. They were simply the children of parents willing to pay the fees. It wasn't long before the filmmaker realised that many of the children were out of place and so she began questioning the organisation, along with its extreme methods and its underlying motivations.

    There are plenty of children who have grown up in places like this after being sent there by their parents against their will and actually has a rather more informative article on their website about this trend in American society. However, what this documentary offers is the opportunity to see the experience first-hand in a real setting and to see interviews with the people running these places. Reading the Cracked article one might easily wonder what monsters could ever run a place like this, but watching the film it is rather easier to see how many of the employees could just accept what they do as 'how things are' and just see it as a typical routine. They see themselves as offering a service to the parents and they see their methods as a necessary way to completely alter the behaviour of difficult children. Their facilities are completely unregulated (in some states they can even run these within the US itself without regulation) so they have no authority figures coming in to tell them that what they are doing is inappropriate and having unnecessary negative effects.

    At the end, we can see how the experience of being sent away has affected the victims for the worse. Though we also see how one of them is actually convinced that being sent there saved her life. There's plenty of interesting content in the documentary regarding its individual case, even if the wider situation is left mostly unaddressed.

    I'm discinlined to give this a rating. That's not because it's bad, but rather because it's rather difficult to separate a documentary from its content. If this was bad, I'd give it a low score. But I think this is an important film and if you are into documentaries you should check it out. Then again, once you've read the Cracked article, little in the documentary is likely to surprise you.

    The Cracked article referred to can be found here

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    Okay, so I didn't pre-select this group of sci-fi movies for reviews. It was more that I had a lot of movies still to review and many of them happened to be sci-fi. And since sci-fi is my first love as far as genres go, unsurprisingly I've kept checking out new sci-fi movies since then. So here's the latest one I've come across...

    +1 (2013)

    Oddly titled "Shadow Walkers" in the UK. A title which has absolutely no relevance to the film's content whatsoever. "+1" is a science-fiction film about a group of older teenagers/young adults most of whom are home for the summer after their first year at uni. The party seems to be set up by an absurdly wealthy friend and while this is rather taken for granted, it does at least explain the size of the house in which the events unfold.

    A strange comet causes a doppelganger of everyone at the party to appear. Initially no one at the party notices because the partygoers are led to an event outside while the doppelgangers repeat their actions inside.

    Meanwhile this party is the first opportunity for the protagonist to find his ex-girlfriend and apologise for the events in the initial segment of the film. He managed to mistake another girl for his girlfriend and yet found himself kissing the other girl anyway. He is promptly caught in the act by his current girlfriend, hence why she is his ex by the time we get to the party.

    The premise is actually quite interesting, but the script does not really take full advantage of it. The characters don't really get much opportunity to develop and there are several dangling threads which are left unexplored.

    I've heard a few people refer to this as horror and while it doesn't exactly have a horror atmosphere, there is a definite feeling that things have become decidedly dodgy by the end. I'm afraid to say that the ambiguity does the film no favours.

    The biggest problem I have with the film (and perhaps this is unfair) is a VERY dodgy reaction I read from a number of people on the IMDB forums afterwards. You see, the ending had me puzzled on how to react, so I wanted to hear how other people felt. I was shocked to see a number of people calling it a "happy ending". There's a nagging in the back of my mind that perhaps the filmmaker also intended for this ending to be considered happy and, if this is correct, then the film is morally abhorrent. On the other hand, if the filmmaker intended the ending to seem as creepy as I found it to be, there's still the question of why it is left ambiguous. It feels like there should be rather creepier musical tones at the end to match the distinct unease of the audience.

    Another issue that I probably ought to mention is that it seemed a little racist to have the Nyotaimori woman (naked woman on whom sushi is served) performing kung fu (though actually the rather more racist element might be her seemingly knowing no English when she's complaining about poor treatment). The party has a number of extravagant elements, but annoyingly it often feels more like an opportunity to insert gratuitous nudity than a genuine party. (And you can even see this in the poster.)

    I wanted to like this film. I thought it had some promising aspects and I was prepared to forgive it the lack of character development and some slightly unconvincing turns in the story, because a great deal of the film was clearly planned out very well. However, in the end the film is a little too happy with itself. It doesn't make its message hit home as well as it should and what should have been a powerful yet creepy ending becomes one that is easily confused for 'happy' (with seriously dodgy connotations). The film seems unaware of the creepiness of its own content.

    There was real potential here, making the final film a bit of a waste...


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    The Act of Killing (2012 Documentary)

    This is quite an incredible piece of work. It's quite hard to.fathom what or how the filmmaker must be feeling behind the camera since it's harrowing enough just watching the finished product.

    The documentary-maker has travelled to Indonesia to visit the figures responsible for a military coup in which they killed thousands of people accusing them of being communists.

    He has then asked these figures whether they want to make a creative artistic film about these killings they are so very proud of.

    The whole enterprise feels doomed. Heck, even once they've agreed to make the film, how could the filmmaker hope to hide his revulsion at the events depicted? Why would the film even be limited to killings? Wouldn't the filmmakers inevitably find himself making disingenuous propaganda for a bunch of monsters.

    What makes this work is the admiration of these murderers for American gangster flicks. It turns out that, even while performing the killings they had gangster movies on their minds. We are regular misinformed by a variety of figures during the film that 'gangster' means 'free man'.

    The premise of 'The Act Of Killing' is that directing a film about the killings would inevitably make the killers think more deeply about their actions. In the role of director and creator you inevitably need to consider the motivations and feelings of the characters.

    It must be remembered that the figures responsible for the massacres do not deny what they did, do not regret what they did and are actually proud of their actions, even while describing those actions as sadistic.

    Surrounded by proud killers who gain regular praise for their past cruelty, listening to them relishing every gruesome detail they recall with smiles on their faces, the director must surely have been terrified. This film represents one hell of a risk and the way it paid off is extraordinary.

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    When I was on one of my bouts of searching for music in the same style as the soundtrack from "Drive" (yes, I'm still listening to that synthy stuff years later), I came across some music which actually belongs to the genre of Chiptune.

    Chiptune is a genre based on making music purely out of the sounds which can be produced from a gameboy. (Otherwise known as 8-bit music.) For many of us, I think our first exposure to this genre was the 8-bit version of "Threshold" from the "Scott Pilgrim Vs The World" soundtrack.

    I was pointed to what is probably the best song from Unicorn Kid by a youtube user claiming it was the chiptune equivalent of selling out. So perhaps Unicorn Kid doesn't count as chiptune? (Not sure that adding in a few sounds which AREN'T straight from a gameboy is such a bad idea.) In any case, the song "Lion Hat" consists in a beautiful melding of squeaky noises which really appealed to me. I think others may find it annoying beep-y rubbish, but heck if you don't check it out you won't know what you are missing:

    Lion Hat

    (video link)

    Here are some more cool Unicorn Kid songs. He's actually released a hell of a lot of music which I'm not so keen on, so these are my personal recommendations...

    Wild Life

    (video link)

    Snack Size

    (video link)


    (video link)

    8 Bytes

    (video link)


    (video link)

    Holding Hands

    (video link)

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    Hmmm... I'm not really liking this.

    In fact, to be frank I felt like "Time of the Doctor" was very nearly as bad as Russell T. Davies' "End of Time" travesty. So even before starting the first episode of Series Eight of NuWho I already felt like Doctor Who was somewhat in the doghouse. (Which is a pity, because I really really enjoyed the 50th Anniversary Special.)

    So a few things everybody else has probably noted already:
    - Capaldi doesn't need a load of lines going on about how he's Scottish now. We get it. You're Scottish. When Eccleston was Northern he just said "lots of planets have a north" and that was the end of it. It's a waste of time.
    - Why is so much of this episode wasted on pointless speeches? When we finally got 'the restaurant' it was great! Both Clara and the Doctor accuse each other of the same character flaw at the same time - which was more like the sort of fun bickering we expect between them. Nobody in the restaurant is actually eating - ZOMG! Why couldn't we get to this twenty minutes earlier? Creepy robots looking for spare parts. Now this is more like it.
    - Did the Doctor kill the villain or did he persuade the villain to commit suicide? - Seriously, does that matter? Either way, the Doctor saved his friends, just like he always does.
    - Do we really need a phone call from Matt Smith? Isn't Clara supposed to have seen every single Doctor already? Why would she be particularly freaked out by Capaldi? How is Matt Smith's Doctor even supposed to know he has another regeneration still coming when he makes that call?

    But the weirdest bit for me was this: What was Jenny clapping about???

    Clara essentially seems to be saying to Vastra "oh you totally fancy me" and then Jenny starts clapping. It makes no sense to me.

    The best explanation I can come up with right now is that Jenny was finding the whole argument as tiresome and awkward as I was and was just desperate to get to a point where it was over and done with.

    Can anyone else help me out with this? Why was Jenny clapping?

    Other LJ friends have had the following to say about the new Doctor Who episode (and please let me know if I missed you out or if you'd like your link removed from here):
    Sabotabby - Liked it
    Shadowkat67 - Liked it
    Xerinmichellex - Didn't like it

    Oh my goodness, suddenly it all makes sense. Ben frikkin' Wheatley was directing!
    Doctor Who generally thrives on its comedy, so who could possibly worse for the job of directing the episode than a guy who made a whole comedy movie which wasn't funny?

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    Philomena (2013)

    I have mixed feelings about Stephen Frears as a director. He does these strange combinations of 'sweet and cheerful' and 'fraut with emotion'. It's a crowd pleasing combination because it means that you never go so dark as to alienate potential viewers, but you are still engaging the audience with the issue at hand.

    Still, it's probably notable that the film of his which I enjoyed the most is probably his darkest: "Dirty Pretty Things" (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Audrey Tautou and even Sergi Lopez, all in the same movie!). It was a film about illegal immigration, prostitution, sexual harassment and the illegal trade in organs, but even that had its sweeter side.

    In "Philomena" I was actually surprised at how minimal the tragedy is (at least initially). The protagonist is wronged because her child is adopted by a rich family. Now, this is a child which she could not actually afford to raise herself and which, in that social setting, would have been considered a shame on her. (She was an unmarried mother. Not a big deal now, but back then was enough to get you committed to an asylum.) Living with the nuns was not much fun, but there are now stories emerging of far worse treatment in Church-owned establishments. But thankfully(?) things do get worse. More has happened in those decades since her son was taken away from her. So by the end, we really do have a story worthy of our outrage.

    Judi Dench is unsurprisingly a great actress. I'm not sure about her Irish accent, but the way she captures the personality and mannerisms of the character she is performing is perfect. I'm a little less sure about the decision in the script to have her suggesting they spend their time in America watching "Big Momma's House". I'm hoping that this was put in because it really happened (presumably due to Philomena feeling nervous and out of her depth), because otherwise it seems like by far the worst of the ways the script emphasises the class divide between her character and the journalist played by Steve Coogan.

    Steve Coogan isn't generally known as a great actor. He's far better known as a great comedian. However, I felt he provided a very strong performance here and acting alongside Judi Dench he never seems out of place. That being said, his character's failings often seem overblown. He is so rude to Philomena's daughter that it's remarkable that she ever agrees to speak to him again.

    I'm not sure about the decision to keep showing cinefilm footage of her son's life without her all over the place. As much as it was good to have some stylistic touches, I didn't feel that one worked. At a point where Philomena does not know what has happened to her son, it feels wrong that we should be seeing clips of her son with his new parents.

    I must also admit, I wasn't really buying into the message at the end. That's not a big criticism, since being able to discuss a film's message is part of the point. I don't have to agree with the filmmakers. I simply need to have understood what their point was and to have had that point displayed to me in a clear and plausible fashion.

    There's a message of forgiveness here, but it must be noted that it is forgiveness with a twist to it. I still don't think forgiveness was the right response, but I can understand its importance in the context.

    Philomena has its flaws, but even though I felt strangely distant for much it, this is still a film with a powerful message and strong emotional resonance in places.


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    Amreeka (2009)

    I'd been meaning to see this for quite a while based on the trailer. It seemed almost akin to "Amelie" in its level of sweetness.

    Amreeka is about a woman and her son who travel from Palestine to the US for a better life. In particular, the son hopes for a better education and greater opportunities than he could receive in Palestine.

    The central actress playing the boy's mother is an incredible actress and really helps to carry the film. But the character she is playing is so naive that it's rather hard to suspend disbelief.

    The son actually seems to acclimatise quicker than his mother does.

    Still if you can get past the aspects which are exaggerated either for dramatic effect or for laughs, it has to be.admitted that this film is quite funny and very sweet.

    However the film also ends rather suddenly with the characters being sweet without a sense that plot lines were really resolved.

    This film did not have a high profile release and I can see why. In spite of good direction and great performances, particularly from the central protagonist, there isn't much of a story here.


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    This is the sixth in a series of movie lists I've been making charting my favourite movies of each year.

    My top films of 2007,2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 were the following:

    Click here to see my top 5 for 2007 (which I have plans to expand)
    Click here to see my top 10 for 2008
    Click here to see my top 10 for 2009
    Click here to see my top 10 for 2010
    Click here to see my top 10 for 2011

    Part way through 2012 I suggested that it had been a great year for movies. I was rebuked for this comment at the time. Looking at my favourites of the year (having been able to fill in many of the gaps) it is interesting to see that many of my selections had a very limited cinema release, if they made it to a cinema at all. "Dredd" was a flop, "Cabin In The Woods" had its released delayed for years, "The Revenant" had its straight-to-DVD release delayed for years, and most people in the UK have never even heard of "Detention". Of all my "very best of the year" top 10 movie lists, this one for 2012 contains by far the most obscure entries. I still think this was a pretty great year for movies, but I don't think I'd have been feeling that way if it hadn't been for wonderful online recommendations opening me up to so many hidden gems.

    10. Excision (2012)
    UK release: 2 November 2012

    A twisted coming of age tale, with a protagonist who has a sexual fascination with blood. Both horrifying and comical at the same time, "Excision" is an incredible piece of work. Inventive dream sequences help to colour the more down-to-earth character drama. While Annalynne McCord is exceptionally brilliant in the central role, Traci Lords also gives a great performance as her mother.

    My review here

    Richard Bates Jr.'s next film is "Suburban Gothic" about an unemployed man who discovers he can channel the paranormal.

    9. The Girl (2012 TV Movie)
    UK release: 26 December 2012

    In the same year where we saw Antony Hopkins donning extensive prosthetics to make himself look like the great director Alfred Hitchcock, Toby Jones is able to do an even more effective job working mainly with his own highly expressive face. This is a not even remotely flattering portrayal of the director (though it's worth noting that, for all it's cutesiness, neither was "Hitchcock" with Antony Hopkins), but it does work very well as a Hitchcockian drama, thick with menace and atmosphere.

    My review here

    Julian Jarrold's next film is "Girls' Night Out", a romance thriller about Princess Margaret in the immediate aftermath of WWII.

    8. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
    UK release: 13 April 2012

    A bizarre remix of horror tropes combining sci-fi with horror, as an honest love letter to the horror genre as a whole. In order to satirise something well you are best off having some affection for the subject matter. While this film takes more than a few stabs at the state of the horror genre (and certainly "Cabin In The Woods" is more of a comedy movie than a horror movie itself) it is still strong horror fans who will be in the best position to appreciate the joke.

    My review here

    Drew Goddard has been announced as the writer and director of the "Sinister Six" movie (connected with the Amazing Spider-Man franchise) planned for 2016.

    7. Skyfall (2012)
    UK release: 26 October 2012

    Paying tribute to James Bond's 50th Anniversary, it was important that "Skyfall" be special without being a huge departure for the series. To fulfil these strangely contradictory requirements the studio brought in award-winning director Sam Mendes and it proved to be one of his most enjoyable films in years. There's much more focus on James Bond as a legend than there is on the specific mission, yet we have one of the most intimidatingly personal villains (performed expertly by Javier Bardem) and a strong replacement in the role of Q (Ben Whishaw doing the best possible job imaginable in taking over from the irreplaceable Desmond Llewelyn).

    The action scenes are exciting, Daniel Craig is able to bring a subtle emotional performance to the cold character of Bond, we have one of the best Bond themes in quite a while, and there's actually no shortage of humour here either. In a long and tumultuous movie series Skyfall stands apart.

    My review here

    Sam Mendes is working on a follow-up Bond movie.

    6. Dredd (2012)
    UK release: 7 September 2012

    We've been a long time waiting for a better adaptation of the classic British comicbook character. So far there'd been "Robocop" (which was basically Judge Dredd, only completely and totally reimagined) and the rather misjudged action film with Sylvester Stallone (which had little to distinguish it from Stallone's rather more endearing "Demolition Man" from a few years earlier - both being satirical looks at the future which were more about the comedy than the action).

    So when no one was expecting it (and with the misleadingly cheesy title "Dredd 3D"), "Dredd" with Karl Urban turned out to be a pretty perfect superhero movie (albeit with an anti-hero). While "The Raid" managed to reach an audience earlier, "Dredd" was the first of the two to decide on the setting of a tower block and actually makes much better use of the setting creatively. "Dredd" is more smart and stylish than anyone had any reason to expect.

    My review here

    5. The Revenant (2009)
    UK DVD release: 2 April 2012

    I'm a big fan of horror-comedy movies and while zombie-comedies have a history stretching all the way back to "Return of the Living Dead" with "Shaun of the Dead" causing a more recent rush on the genre, "The Revenant" takes a more plausible approach than most. Premised on a soldier who awakens upon the return of his body to the US, discovering that he is unexpectantly undead, he goes to his best friend for help. The protagonist is, admittedly, not exactly a zombie (hence the title), but there are still very fixed rules on his kind of undead state and the film explores it perfectly and hilariously.

    A new updated list of horror-comedies is well over-due and this will definitely take pride of place amongst the newcomers.

    My review here

    D. Kerry Prior is in pre-production on "The Saturn Particle Rampage".

    4. The Innkeepers (2011)
    UK release: 8 June 2012

    I initially wasn't sure how I felt about this film, but on subsequent rewatches I realised how intelligently the whole film was set-up. It's the sort of film which invites a second and a third watch, partly because of how well the ideas come together, but also because of Sara Paxton's excellent performance as Claire, the awkward college drop-out. All her emotions are open for anyone to see and she's clearly lacking in confidence, often seeming unsure how to organise her own limbs. There's a scene of her trying to throw some rubbish into the skip round the back and what should be a fairly mundane moment becomes hilarious because of the actress's expert physical performance.

    I often hate ghost films but what I LOVE is horror comedy. There is plenty to laugh at here. I also think that the ghost aspects of the story are rather less clear-cut than you'd normally expect.

    My review here

    Ti West is currently filming "In a Valley of Violence", a western with Karen Gillan, Ethan Hawke and John Travolta.

    3. Sound of My Voice (2011)
    UK release: 3 August 2012

    Brit Marling is a bit of a marvel. Not only is she a very impressive actress, but she is also responsible for writing some of her best films. She wrote the documentary "Boxers and Ballerninas" which I admittedly have not seen. She also wrote the movies "The East" where she infiltrates an anarchist group, "Another Earth" where she wrestles with the existence of a twin world identical to our Earth, and (of course) "Sound of my Voice" where she is actually the leader of a cult. "Sound of My Voice" is my favourite of these.

    There's an unexpected sci-fi element revealed early on the films, but the way it unfolds is ambiguous and this is one of the cleverer sci-fi outings of recent years as a result. I will admit that I am not entirely sure what every scene means, but everything central to the story is explained pretty clearly.

    Regardless of whether Brit Marling's character is telling the truth or not, the group she runs still has all the creepy manipulative traits you'd expect from a dangerous cult. It's interesting how the film manages to remain consistently plausible, even as the tension mounts.

    My review here

    Zal Batmanglij is directing two episodes of the upcoming tv series "Wayward Pines" (starring Melissa Leo and Toby Jones amongst others). Brit Marling will be performing in two upcoming films:
    - "The Keeping Room" about three southern women who defend themselves while the men are away fighting during the final days of the American Civil War.
    - "Posthumous" about an artist who poses as his own brother when mistaken reports of his death cause a surge of interest in his artwork. (Brit Marling plays a journalist covering the story.)

    2. Detention (2011)
    UK DVD release: 27 August 2012

    Hyperactive non-stop craziness in this film about time travel, aliens, movie-related serial killers, fly-related mutations and grizzly bears. Josh Hutcherson might be making it big in the "Hunger Games" series right now, but to me he will always be Clapton Davis. As the main protagonist here, it's surprising that Shanley Caswell's career is struggling so badly elsewhere. Her most high profile role is a fairly insignificant part as one of the daughters in "The Conjuring", yet in "Detention" she is charismatic, funny and makes for a dynamic central character.

    The jokes come at a mile a minute and honestly? Most of them are hilarious. On a second watch I also discovered that we sometimes have two entire conversations being pursued simultaneously. On every single watch there is something new to pick up and that's part of why I'm now rating this film so highly. I have found myself rewatching this film again and again and it has been an absolute joy every single time.

    My review here

    The only thing Joseph Kahn has directed since "Detention" is a music video for Britney Spears' song 'Perfume'. (The video is okay. The song is terrible.)

    1. A Royal Affair (2012)
    UK release: 15 June 2012

    Mads Mikkelsen is so awesome. Though he now has wider appeal than ever for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the recent tv series, I knew him first of all for his roles in Nicolas Winding Refn movies. Here he plays a doctor whose Englightenment values led to a huge shift in the political sphere in Denmark. It's a remarkable story which I had no knowledge of before this film.

    "A Royal Affair" is well-acted, dramatic, gorgeously-shot and actually has far more CGI work involved than you might suspect on first watch. I'm not normally one to fall in love with costume dramas, but this film is simply exceptional.

    My review here

    The director Nikolaj Arcel has not done any more directing work since "A Royal Affair", but he has written a number of films including "The Keeper of Lost Causes" and the upcoming "Fasandræberne" for director Mikkel Norgaard, as well as providing story ideas for an adaptation of a children's superhero story called "Antboy".

    Honourable mentions:

    The Grey (2011)
    UK release: 27 January 2012

    The honourable mentions are in no particular order, though "The Grey" was one of the selections on my initial 'top ten' list at the end of the year. A story that is truly 'existential' since it considers the various reactions to the inevitability of death. Liam Neeson begins the film suicidal and then finds himself face-to-face with death in the form of ravenous wolves when he is one of the survivors of a crashed plane in a barren frozen wasteland. While the trailers made it look like one of the many typical cheesy Liam Neeson action movies, it is actually not quite as active as the promotional material suggested and at least ten times more intelligent. It's not about Liam Neeson being a badass, it's not about outdoors survival and it's not even really about wolves. It's, more than anything else, about death. But wow, more people should be checking this out.

    My review here

    Life of Pi (2012)
    UK release: 20 December 2012

    I must admit I was sceptical. The early teaser was a rather unpolished reveal of the CGI tiger and I wasn't convinced that Ang Lee's name was going to be enough to guarantee the film's quality. While I quite enjoyed the book way back when I read it, I'd always felt like the prologue and epilogue could have been happily left out. So imagine my surprise when the film was not only absolutely gorgeous with fantastic special effects which well deserved their awards, but the ending managed to speak to me in a way that it had entirely failed to do in the original book! Much discussion could be made on interpretations of the ending and I think that is a strength. I have as yet to hear anyone suggest that the ending ruins the movie or that it would have been better with the ending left out. Meanwhile the performances through the film are fantastic and the emotions run high throughout. Only one change from the book annoys me and that's the decision not to show the various religious leaders getting upset with one another when they discover that Pi has been following all of their religions at once.

    My review here

    Margin Call (2011)
    UK release: 13 January 2012

    This only becomes more remarkable on each watch. I think the symbolism of the final scene is a bit much, but apart from that there is not a minute wasted in this drama concerning the beginnings of the global recession of 2008. Paul Bettany gets to do some of his best work here, Kevin Spacey also provides a pretty great performance and there's a great refreshingly grounded performance from Zachary Quinto in between his performances as vulcans and super-villains. This is pretty dramatic stuff, even though most of the runtime is people sitting around talking.

    My review here

    Another 8 good movies from 2012

    Brave (2012)
    UK release: 13 August 2012

    Often seen as a low point for Pixar and I suppose I can at least accept that it was a step down from the heady heights of "Wall-E" and "Up". However, this still had the magic for me and I think this was in part due to so many little reminders of my favourite classic Disney movie "Sword In The Stone". The clear highlights for me were Kelly Macdonald as Princess Merida and Julie Walters as the witch with a one-track mind.

    The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
    UK release: 3 July 2012
    While I didn't really follow the Harry Potter movie series, I feel I need to give these writers (with backgrounds in the Harry Potter series) full credit for restarting this franchise with the emotional depth it deserves.

    Avengers Assemble (2012)
    UK release: 26 April 2012
    I'm not as enamoured with this as most people, but I still think it is definitely one of the better Marvel Studios movies. It gets a bit carried away in the third act with it's ridiculously long drawn out battle scene and the 'macguffin that will destroy the world' stuff is rather tired. It also has a rather flat opening scene. But Joss Whedon clearly had a lot of fun shoving this set of superheroes into a room together and having them play off one another and those are the really good parts of the movie.

    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
    UK release: 13 December 2012
    This used to be in my top ten, but it's always awkward judging movies which are part of longer series. Unless the third part in the series blows me away, I think I'll have trouble recommending this quite as strongly as I did before I saw the second part of the trilogy. I still think this is the best of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, but then I was never much of a fan of the Lord of the Rings movie series anyway. I prefer the first Hobbit movie for two simple reasons. Firstly it's fun, which is a quality I found distinctly lacking from previous entries. Secondly, it features Sylvester McCoy (the seventh Doctor) and gives him a sled pulled along by supersonic bunnies. Seriously, how can you argue with that?

    Juan de los Muertos (2011)
    UK release: 4 May 2012
    Arguably funnier than the Edgar Wright directorial debut movie which inspired it's title. Though a little unpolished in places, this film is an absolute joy and a great addition to the horror-comedy genre. If you are a zombie fan, it's a must see.

    ParaNorman (2012)
    UK release: 14 September 2012
    The director of Coraline produces the kind of exciting animation we've come to expect. The film is also hilarious. I don't know how many of the horror movie references the average child is going to pick up on, but I'm not too worried about that. Personally I thought this was brilliant. Yet another must-see for zombie fans...

    Prometheus (2012)
    UK release: 1 June 2012
    While absolutely beautiful with awesome performances from Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, this will be somewhat sullied if they never release any sequels. It's an interesting premise still with plenty of scope for further exploration. While I was initially unimpressed by what I thought was essentially an Intelligent Design Theory movie only with aliens instead of God. But the concept of religious devotion held by the creator-aliens and it's barbaric nature by comparison to our modern ways reminded me of Lovecraftian cosmic-horror themes. There are many fans of Spielberg's wise and awe-inspiring magical aliens, but I've always been more interested in the alien force-of-nature for whom the only sensible reaction is fear. What's impressive about the way Prometheus approaches this concept is that the aliens are not only scary and characterised by a brutal culture far removed from our own, but I could actually empathise with the aliens anyway. The first event in the film is one of these powerful creator-aliens performing a ritual self-sacrifice, so is it any surprise that when their flawed creation comes to them pleading for a longer lifespan, they are disgusted? Prometheus has some very poor characterisation and some rather unimpressive dialogue, but I find the rest of it so fascinating that I find much of that easy to overlook.

    Young Adult (2011)
    UK release: 3 February 2012
    Charlize Theron gives another stellar performance. I'm always keen on black comedy when done well and here with the young adult novelist who writes well for children because she refuses to grow up, I had an awesome time. Sometimes a film really benefits from having an absolutely pathetic lead character, particularly when they are completely brazen about their flaws. The only other film I've enjoyed from director Jason Reitman was "Thank You For Smoking" and both are similar in the way the director only narrowly avoids over-doing the sentimentality at the end.

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    Hellbenders (2012)

    A comedy where the concept is rather funnier than the film as a whole. The opening of the film admittedly had me laughing out loud.

    The concept is of a sect of 'hellbound saints', a group of exorcists who specifically aim to use the method from the movie "The Exorcist" to defeat the most powerful demons. (You'll remember that in the Exorcist the priest defeats the demon by committing suicide while possessed.) In order to be possessed you need to be impure and the intention is to send the demons to hell, so the Hellbenders are priests who intentionally live in a state of debauchery to be ready to use this technique against demons.

    Naturally Clancy Brown (the Kurgan from "Highlander") is on his A-game as the leader of the Hellbenders. But a surprisingly fun addition to the cast is 'Bubbles' from the wire (actor Andre Royo). He plays the bureaucrat of the group, recording all their sins to check they are all 'damnation-ready'. However, it's clear that breaking the rules is against his nature (so he's a far cry from the junkie he plays in The Wire').

    There are some great moments and this is a lot of fun, but I think a lot of the appeal for me comes from the twisting of religious concepts. I'm a fan of the "Preacher" comics, the exorcism tv show "Apparitions", my favourite of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels is "Small Gods". It's a particular field of interest for me. Oh... and Father Ted of course. ;)

    There are some cool effects, there're some fun silly elements and there's some humour. I had a pretty good time with this one. But I'm all too aware that if the basic premise doesn't appeal to you, this is unlikely to have the same attraction.

    Also some of Clifton Collins Jr's lines towards the beginning of the movie were completely incomprehensible to me so I ended up just leaving the subtitles on.

    But I must say, I found the explanation for why there's no superheroes called Clint very amusing indeed. I guess I'm immature like that...


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    I didn't exactly have high hopes for either of these, but I wasn't expecting either of them to be quite so unbearable.

    Maleficent (2014)

    Okay admittedly I was told that Angelina Jolie would be the only good thing about this and it's true, she really is the only good thing about this. Actually, I tell a lie, the special effects work is gorgeous and often kind of cool. But could we have the story unfold for itself for a bit without constantly having the gaps filled by voiceover narration? I found the whole thing felt like a bad adaptation of a book. It's like they had so many plot points to introduce and not enough time to fit them in, so the film would rush from one point to the next. It's like a story written by a child, rushing to all the important points in the story without spending the time to build any of them up.

    I was also told that the good fairies were no good. Well, before I decided to give up on the film, it must be admitted that they weren't great, but they were given nothing much to work with. I'm pretty certain that Juno Temple (Killer Joe) and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake, The Girl and tons of other stuff) could have given fantastic performances if they were only given decent material and a decent opportunity.

    When it became clear that the voiceover narration wasn't simply setting up the story, but was in fact going to be guiding us all the way through the movie, I couldn't take it any more.

    Oh and if you're not going to let the third fairy's blessing counter-act the curse, why not let her finish it properly Maleficent come into the hall? It was ridiculous hearing Maleficent's new muted curse. The curse is that on her sixteenth birthday she'll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die! Elongating it to pricking her finger on a spinning wheel and falling into a sleep from which she will never awaken.... unless she receives true love's kiss.... What? What kind of a curse is that? It's the kind of curse you are expecting to get broken, that's what it is. Meh....

    Cuban Fury (2014)

    Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, The World's End, Hyperdrive (TV)) and Chris O'Dowd (Calvary, FAQ About Time Travel, The IT Crowd (TV)) in a movie together! Just the idea of it sounded brilliant. Whatever the premise of the movie might be, those two would surely be awesome. How could they not be?

    Well, pretty easily as it turns out. Chris O'Dowd is giving a highly animated comedic performance, but unfortunately nothing he is saying is funny. His lines simply don't make him anything other than an obnoxious bastard. It seems the writer worked on a few series of "Misfits" and that involved a lot of people being obnoxious to each other, but that's the difference really. Those characters were horrible to each other, whereas here it is very one-sided. Chris O'Dowd is mean, and Nick Frost's character just takes the abuse.

    Yes, that's Olivia Colman. No, she can't make this material work either.

    Meanwhile Nick Frost doesn't really seem to work that well as a leading man. I'm not going to say he can't do it, but I'd say he's more of a dramatic actor than a comedian. He needs the material to work with and then he can sell you on the character, but he cannot manufacture laughs out of nowhere. Heck, not many incredible comedians can do that. Peter Sellers is about the only name that comes to mind.

    Basic issue is that the plot seems absurdly predictable. (Mean bastard from work won't get the girl. Against all odds, but with the help of salsa dancing, Nick Frost will get the girl. Yay, happy ending.) But worse than that, nothing in the film seems to be funny, yet this is clearly intended as a comedy. Not even the slapstick was working for me. I just got the movie for two seconds and suddenly realised that I could not remember having laughed once the whole time the movie had been running.

    Doctor Who: Series 8, Episode 2 "Into The Dalek"

    On the plus side, this week's Doctor Who episode was a return to form. It reminded me of the episode "Dalek" from the first NuWho series. Also Capaldi has been allowed to calm down a bit this time and he's got a sort of Tom Baker element to him. I've not actually been that keen on Tom Baker's style, but what's good about this shift is that it is drastically different from the style of the last three Doctors and, in this episode at least, it seems to be working.

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    Borrowed Time (2012)

    One review website brought this to my attention. The movie had low to mediocre ratings elsewhere, but the inclusion of Philip Davis made me want to give it a chance. I've seen him in a number of films and tv programmes before, often acting alongside the excellent Ray Winstone, and he's always great.

    To be fair to the reviewer who gave me the recommendation, "Borrowed Time" is sweet and fun. The problem is, it's actively trying to be funny, but it seems better at eliciting a smile than a laugh.

    The most obvious comparison is with last year's "Wild Bill" but that trumps this in every possible respect, be it humour, pacing, excitement, performances, writing, style, clearness of message and so on.

    The first thing we see in this film is the protagonist stealing flowers left in memory of someone who's died. This is okay since we know that he is moved by desperation to make a good impression on his sister. But then we discover that she's tired of him stealing from her. This is a seriously hard sell and from this point on it was a long while before I stopped resenting having to follow this amoral bum of a protagonist.

    We are later introduced to the protagonist's friends with such pearls of wisdom as, "You should steal from someone who deserves it. People on holiday definitely deserve it." What lovely endearing characters - ugh!

    Meanwhile a particularly ineffective attempt at humour comes in the form of a crook who thinks he's some kind of ninja. I can imagine this seeming good on paper, but the presentation on film simply failed to work for me.

    Even Philip Davis couldn't make up for the failings in the script. He comes closest to.making me laugh, but I was never really convinced of his past as a teacher. His character is never really allowed to develop much beyond 'grumpy old man'.

    Borrowed Time ends up seeming pretty inoffensive. Everything resolves a little too neatly, though I wish there were some proper comeuppance for those obnoxious kids the protagonist hangs around with. Sadly, this film is completely lacking in ambition, even if it makes for a fairly adequate tv movie overall.


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    Django (1966)

    The first half of this film is pretty damn impressive. A mysterious stranger enters town dragging a coffin. He proves he can handle himself when he comes across some unsavoury types. This is your classic Western-movie badass and in that initial part of the film I was on the edge of my seat.

    Then in second half the pacing just dropped straight down to a crawl. It's like the complete opposite of what you want from a movie really. The movie "Unforgiven" with Clint Eastwood does the complete opposite of this. "Unforgiven" starts off a bit meandering, with a load of different character milling around and then it all comes together for an exciting finale. Whereas "Django" starts absolutely brilliantly and then doesn't seem to know what to do next. At the beginning I wanted to know everything about the protagonist and by the end I had no interest at all.

    It's a real pity.


    Shotgun Stories (2007)

    Of director Jeff Nichol's films, this was the only one I had yet to see. While it's a small scale debut, I enjoyed "Take Shelter" and "Mud" so much that I was hopeful for this to be an equally impressive debut.

    As it turns out "Shotgun Stories" didn't really blow me away. It has fantastic performances, particularly from Michael Shannon. But I simply could not understand why I should care about the feud which unfolds between the two families. I was convinced that the payoff would come with the resolution at the end, but frankly this is a rather anti-climactic film.

    Very well-made, but I found the story dull and pointless. If anyone has seen this and can explain what the point was, I'd be grateful.


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