Sunday, 28 October 2012

Review: Skyfall - A Doctor Who fan on James Bond

If you sit down and think about it, there’s a fair bit of similarity between Doctor Who and James Bond. Both are big popular franchises (I dislike calling Who a franchise but I'll let it pass here) that have been around for circa fifty years. Both involve an invincible hero who has changed his face several times. Both are usually accompanied on their adventures by young women etcetera etcetera. Perhaps because of this - though I wouldn’t class myself as an out-an-out Bond fan - I view the other iconic British adventure series alongside Who with respect and have enjoyed many of the films, for instance Roger Moore’s fun thriller Live and Let Die (helped no doubt by Paul McCartney’s fabulous theme song) and Pierce Brosnan’s rollicking GoldenEye.  

However, my favourite Bond must be Daniel Craig.  His first film, Casino Royale, was the first Bond film I saw and I was immediately impressed with his utterly convincing rendition of the character as a rougher around the edges but still likeable rogue. The film itself won me over by its inclusion of a deeper relationship between Craig’s Bond and the brilliant Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, which I felt added much needed emotional side to the character, who in my little knowledge of him, didn’t often let it out. On the other hand, the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, left me cold, having struck me as not much more than a blurry action-fest. I felt it lacked the fun and humour which I knew Bond could offer. And I’m always more inclined to like something if it’s fun and humorous; thank you, Doctor Who.  
However, I have now seen the latest, you’ve-probably-heard-of-it-everywhere film in the series, Skyfall, and found it hugely entertaining. Warning for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film and doesn’t want to know anything at all, I may mention minor spoilers. Everyone else (which I hope is most of you out there on the other side of the screen), do continue.

Firstly, it’s just so much fun. Whereas Craig’s previous outings as Bond have stripped down the humour and traditional Bond quips, Skyfall reinstates them in all their punning glory. A lot big blockbusters shy away from employing humour (although this may have been rectified by Avenger’s Assemble earlier in the year) but Skyfall understands that it’s an important slice of the enjoyment pie. For instance, in the cinema in which I saw the film, the audience were regularly chuckling out loud at some of the great lines delivered. A few times it slips into generic ‘film’ dialogue but largely it’s a fine script, at best in the snappy conversations between Bond and Judi Dench’s Q.
Also, there’s some strong storytelling on show. The pre-credits scene ends on an entirely shocking note which even if the film doesn’t subsequently mine as well as it possibly should have done its still a great moment nonetheless that leads to a brilliantly psychedelic title sequence involving skulls made of blood. This is just one example of many times in which the film surprised me by doing things I didn’t expect the usually-formulaic Bond films to include. There’s an excellent scene set in the London Underground which of course sees the usual Bond tropes of chases and explosions but is more interesting because it puts the superspy and his extravagant world into a more mundane, relatable place than the usual exotic locations. Also, it starts to feel really quite different when the action swaps to even more unlikely setting for a Bond film where we encounter some unexpected revelations…And if that sentence didn't whet your appetite I don't know what will. 
Furthermore, I think what really lifts the film is its cast full of entertaining characters all capably played. Ralph Fiennes and Naomi Harris are both enjoyable in their respective roles (you’re getting nothing from me here) while Ben Whishaw, an ever-reliable actor, is great as the new Q, Bond’s gadget man, who he plays as a sardonic computer genius. However, the best performances of the film are definitely awarded to Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and, the villain of the piece, Javier Bardem. Craig is at his best, and most Bond-y, as a more experienced agent than in his previous films while Dench, effectively one of the film’s leads, gets to sink her acting teeth into a bit more than usual. Bardem, on the other hand, is terrifically creepy yet camp as Silva, a villain with a much more personal aim than most megalomaniacs in Bond’s world.

Overall, Skyfall includes all the things than Bond films should; spectacular action sequences, yes, but what most impressed me was its emphasis on humour and warmth. With strong performances all round and a good story going for it with many a moment I wasn’t expecting, Skyfall is a fun cinematic rollercoaster which one the admiration of this Doctor Who fan.
I'll leave you, in proper Bond-y (is there a proper term? Bondian?) mood, with Adele's theme for Skyfall called, well, 'Skyfall'. Good day.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Countdown to Doctor Who at 50: The Ninth Doctor

As Doctor Who, the best television show on the planet (I'm famous for my impartial attitude), reaches its fiftieth year very soon, I'm dedicating a post to each Doctor every month. Just this once, let's go back seven years and remind ourselves of the no-nonsense and Northern Ninth Doctor.

'The ground beneath our feet is spinnin' at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We're fallin' through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go... That's who I am.'
                                                           The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)

In 2005, after sixteen years off the air, Doctor Who needed to remind viewers why it had been loved by so many in the original run. The best way to do this; have an excellent incarnation of the Doctor as your lead. And, they certainly got that, in Christopher Eccleston. The Ninth Doctor's success can be measured by how well his short but magnificent era was received: with unanimous love. His Doctor reflected the change the show itself had gone under since its own regeneration. a much more melancholy, brooding version of the Doctor although with all his perenial quirks and sense of humour, the show was different but it was still quintessially Doctor Who. In his own words, the Ninth Doctor is, undoubtedly, fantastic.

The Ninth Doctor immediately sets himself apart from other Doctors. While every other incarnation wears a tie, a shirt and an eccentric article of clothing (a bow tie or a long scarf or a ... stick of celery), the Ninth is usually clad in a jumper and leather jacket that suits his close-cropped hair, again in sharp contrast with, say, his predecessor's Byronic locks. All this fits his character; a Doctor who's stripped down to basics; his love of life, and seeing it protected, is there as much as ever but its rawer, somehow. This Doctor has been born out of a terrible war from which he was the only survivor; and he is determined to stop such tragedies that he witnessed - and took part in  - happening ever again. However, he still always possessed his kindness and love of laughs such as when he entertained a group of homeless children in World War Two with his jokes and teased Captain Jack about bananas.In fact, just like the very first Doctor was a prickly, sometimes harsh character who gradually mellowed, the Ninth Doctor, the first Doctor of the revived series, did too. Mostly, thanks to a rather special friend...

More than ever before, the Ninth Doctor, now the last of his kind, needed a companion to travel the universe with. Thankfully, when investigating an Auton invasion of London, he found one in shop girl Rose Tyler, desperate for more than just her boring, everyday life. The Doctor and Rose quickly became the best of friends, closer perhaps than any of the TARDIS teams seen before. In Rose, the Doctor found almost a role model to remind him of a kinder, more human way to see the universe. For instance, in their early travels, the Doctor encounters a lone Dalek, perhaps the only creatures he truly hates, and ruthlessly tortures it. Later, however, after many adventures with Rose, the Doctor denies the egging on of the Dalek Emperor and decides not to destroy the Daleks, and proclaims himself a coward.

The inseparable pair were also joined by others on the journeys such as Captain Jack Harkness, the flirty former Time Agent turned conman, and, very briefly, whizzkid Adam Mitchell who was dropped off back home for bad behaviour. Also, considering how this Doctor hated this 'domestic', he regularly met with Rose's family, her mouthy but endearing mother Jackie and her ersatz boyfriend Mickey, who the Doctor would often tease calling him 'Ricky' or 'Mickey the Idiot'. However it was Rose who was with him in all his adventures. Right to the end, when the Doctor made the greatest sacrifice...

The Ones to Watch:


The episode that relaunched the series after sixteen years in the wilderness is a an excellent example of the Russell T Davies series'  quickened pace and the mix between science fiction and domestic drama. Eccleston and Billie Piper shine in their roles immediately as the series' leads while the inclusion of the Autons from the
show's pasts cements this as proper Doctor Who.

The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances

Steven Moffat's first writing credit for the show is one of his best. Publicly known as one of the scariest Who stories ever - and rightly so, the child and his gas mask zombies are chilling creations - it also features some of the sharpest lines in Doctor Who ever. A supreme episode.

Bad Wolf/ Parting of the Ways

Even though we've had several other series finales since, this two-parter still packs a punch when watched today. Not only a grand culmination of the mystery of the Bad Wolf with a ton of Daleks, it's also a fun parody of Television's obsession with game and reality shows. I still don't even mind the deux ex machina ending too much either.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Blog Post for Burton

With his new stop-motion animated film, Frankenweenie, released in the UK this week, I thought it about time I dedicated a blog to my favourite director, the estimable Mr Burton. The creator of the man with the scissorhands, that skeleton who sings a lot and the Batman movie franchise. Yes, that's right. Bow down to him.

I'm not quite sure how I first encountered Burton's work but I know I found his films not just entertaining but fascinating as a child. And also pretty scary; his horror film Sleepy Hollow - which I probably shouldn't have been watching at a young age - certainly made an impression on under-10 me. I imagine it was his singular style, making the macabre and the grotesque lovable which interested me. I'm not the biggest fan of films (I do like films though, don't get me wrong) but I've always connected with Burton's work and can still say - and I think I'm in a minority here - that I haven't seen a film that he's directed I don't like. Yes, some are certainly better than others and some I only like while others I really like but all of them are good, original, entertaining films. Mainly because they are directed by Tim Burton.

In case you're not familiar with his films but would like to give them a go (and as you can probably tell, I would recommend it) here's my top five films directed by him (so there's no Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas - ironically not actually directed by the man). So why not book yourself a holiday in a gothic castle or haunted town and take some of these films for company... And watch out for those things lurking in the night. Though they may well just be misunderstood.

Edward Scissorhands

Seen by many as Burton's masterpiece, Scissorhands sees the innocent, abandoned creation of a mad inventor, Edward, a man with - well, you know that part - taken from his castle home to a bright, sunny town where he unwittingly causes a stir among the neighbourhood. Its a wonderful expressionistic film upon which every following Burton film is judged next to. Johnny Depp is superb while Winona Ryder also performs exceedingly well alongside him. Engrossing, funny and tear-jerking.

Batman Returns

While Burton's first Batman film is still fun, its sequel, Returns, is an improvement even though/because its one of the director's darkest offerings. Not the superhero blockbuster many were expecting, its largely a film about a strange batch of severely oddball, psychologically-interesting characters, particularly its villains with De Vito's Penguin, Pfieffer's Catwoman and Walken's Shreck chewing up most of the screen time away from its star. It doesn't have much of a plot but its still great to see the Batman world through a Tim Burton kaleidoscope.

Ed Wood

While not exactly a box office hit, this is probably Burton's most critically lauded film - and deservedly so. Its a biopic telling the tale of 1950s sci-fi/horror director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp - who else?), known by many as the Worst Director of All Time. Filmed in black-and-white (a trick Burton is using again for Frankenweenie) it properly captures the feel of the sort of movies the real Wood made and avoids the obvious route of making fun of Wood. Instead it views him as an optimistic individual with dreams bigger than his talent could match.

Sleepy Hollow

A rare proper horror film from Burton, Sleepy Hollow is a lavish production that looks great as well as being a genuinely well-told story. Based on the classic spooky tale by Washington Irving, lateral-thinking detective Icabod Crane is called to the creepy New England town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate tales of the fabled Headless Horseman - and has his beliefs tested to the limit. Part-horror, part-whodunnit supported by a fantastic cast, this remains one of Burton's most entertaining films.

Corpse Bride

Truth be told, even if I could include Nightmare on this list, Corpse Bride would still get the place. Although I'm extremely fond of its counterpart, I prefer Corpse's style and think Burton's experience shows in the film's confidence. It also possesses a stronger story; Victor Everglott has been forced into an arranged marriage, terribly nervous about his upcoming wedding he practises his vows in a forest only to accidentally wed Emily, the corpse bride, and becomes embroiled in the ironically lively world of the dead. At the moment, it's my favourite of Burton's stop-motion films but I'm hoping Frankenweenie will give it a run for its money.

In other news: I write for WhatCulture! now Whatculture! is cool.

If you're interested, please read my first article for the good people at Whatculture! titled '7 Doctor Who Monsters Who Most People Forget.' Go check the site now to see which of the show's array of beastly baddies made it on to the list. Oh, and watch that space for future articles. See you there.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Countdown to Doctor Who at 50: The Eighth Doctor

My quest to look at each Doctor in the run-up to Doctor Who's big 5-0 continues as we turn our attention to Paul McGann, the Doctor for just one night. But you can't miss him; he's the guy with two hearts, remember?

          I love humans - always seeing patterns in things that aren't there.'
                                                                        The Doctor (Paul McGann)

Few actors coming into the already-demanding role of the Doctor have had it as hard as Paul McGann. For one thing, he has to endear himself to the audience, get them to accept him as the latest incarnation of the character and put his own spin on it all in one television movie. In which he doesn't even appear until twenty minutes in. Even worse, as the movie is separate from the classic series and the revived series that followed it a few years later there's an argument that he shouldn't be counted among the other Doctors at all. Thankfully, though, Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor burns briefly but so brightly on screen; banishing all those deniers. In the short time we get to know him, we are shown enough - although we would have liked more- to see that Paul McGann is the Doctor!

In a sharp difference to his previous persona, a scheming wizard, the Eighth Doctor had an insatiable love of life and adventuring. He was brave (abseiling down a tall building despite a new-found fear of heights), a genius (working out the Master's fiendish plan), a bit of an action-hero (he's good in a motorbike/ambulance chase!) and he's also a little bit psychic (don't ask). And half-human (really don't ask). His appearance befits his character perfectly; in his green velvet coat, cravat and waistcoat (all stolen from a hospital lock-up - sound familiar?) and long locks he seems quite the dashing Victorianesque hero; which is exactly what he is. Gone are the question marks of his last few bodies, this Doctor just wants to go for it and have fun. Hurrah!

Although we only see one adventure of this Doctors he does have a companion of sorts; one quite intimate companion.
After dying from being shot on the streets of San Francisco on the eve of the new millennium, the newly-regenerated Doctor, temporarily bereft of his memories, only recognises one face; that of Dr Grace Holloway, the woman who operated on him. Skilled, determined and intelligent, the Doctor finds a near-equal in Grace. In fact, he takes such a shine to her that upon recovering his memories he snogs her - twice! At the end of the adventure, after another kiss and a resurrection from death or two (what did I say about not asking?), the two doctors part company on good terms; but the Doctor and Grace's relationship would have a big impact on the revived series. Every Doctor since the Eighth has kissed every companion they've had (I could compile a full list but I think those who enjoy that sort of thing will have more fun working it out for themselves). Clearly, the Doctor - a character who never to seemed think that way at all -  got the taste for romance in his eighth incarnation - and liked it.

The One to Watch

The TV Movie

The movie is like no other Who story. Without the feel of the classic series and the spark of the revived series it just sort of sits in the middle somewhere; a mixture of both but with added American.
None of this is a bad thing, of course, as the movie is actually great fun. Despite all the plot holes - and there are many - it's very hard not to just enjoy yourself. Yes, the Master's plot to steal the Doctor's lives doesn't make too much sense but who could fail to see the fun in Eric Roberts melodramatic, campy Master - delivering lines like 'Soon, Doctor, I will have all your lives!' and admitting how he likes to 'drezz' for the occasion. Also, there's some fascinating developments to the Doctor's character which have not been taken up by the later series giving the movie a somewhat unique slant on the character.
Overall, it's a blast but a full series, as was hoped, was never made. So, sadly, we never got to see the Eighth Doctor again (at least on television; Paul McGann still stars in regular audio-based adventures featuring his Doctor). The next time we saw the Time Lord, when the series finally did come back proper. he was a lot lonelier, begrudged and northern...
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