Sunday, August 24, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Since last we spoke, loyal readers, it’s been eight months of equal parts anticipation and dread. The former because it’s a new Doctor played by an enormously talented actor whose TV résumé dates all the way back to the time when Peter Davison was still playing the part. The latter because the head writer and lead creative mind on the show is still Steven Moffat, who last time we checked in with him at Christmas proved that even he can cock-up the end of an era that he spent four years shepherding. Would he actually be able to deliver on all of the promises he’s made in the intervening months that we’d be getting a new, reinvigorated version of Doctor Who?

With only one episode down, it’s impossible to answer that question, but based on this 80-minute opener, the future looks tight. To rework some classic dialogue from the Master, an entire season of this level of quality scarcely bears thinking about. Here we’ve been blessed with an episode of Doctor Who that feels like cinema. The scenes play out for four and five minutes at a time. The script isn’t in a rush to get to the end. The performances feel as though they’re building toward something fresh and new, rather than being built upon something that previously existed. The amount of quotable dialogue could make up its own recap. And yet it’s never, ever an “everything but the kitchen sink” type of affair. It has to be one of Moffat’s finest, most restrained and well thought out Who scripts.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Leviathan: Blu-ray review

In 1989, there were no less than three underwater sci-fi thrillers in cinemas, but only one truly made waves: James Cameron’s masterpiece The Abyss (seriously, a case can be made that it’s his best movie, even if it isn’t his highest grossing or the most popular). The other two films – Deep Star Six and Leviathan – were released prior to Cameron’s movie and failed to find much of a theatrical audience. Eventually, both films moved on to rest comfortably on many a video store shelf, where they found viewers looking for a Friday night distraction. And while Deep Star Six has never really received a decent home video release here in the States, Scream Factory has stepped up to the plate to deliver a nice little Blu-ray of Leviathan.

Set miles below the surface in an underwater mining station, Leviathan tells the story of workers who discover a sunken Russian ship (named ‘Leviathan’), and inadvertently bring aboard an alien evil residing in its bowels. One by one, it begins to pick them off, yet death is not quite the final word for this motley crew. As you might surmise, Leviathan is short on originality, shamelessly cribbing from Alien, Aliens and Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. Curiously enough, aside from its setting, Leviathan bears almost no resemblance to The Abyss.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Blu-ray review

With the steady, ongoing rise of streaming media, encyclopedic TV-on-Disc collections are heading the way of the dodo bird. So when a classy Blu-ray box set such as Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery hits the market, it’s worthy of celebration. Peaks, with its modest number of installments (30 episodes, two of which are movie-length), is the perfect show to which extra-special treatment should be given, especially in light of its cult following—which, ironically, has increased over recent years thanks to the series’ availability on streaming.

As with the Peaks Gold Box DVD collection from 2007, content producer Charles de Lauzirika is the man that should be celebrated here. Among de Lauzirika’s other home video credits are The Alien Quadrilogy and Blade Runner: The Final Cut, so the guy knows what fans want and this Blu-ray is no exception. But before moving on to the fine collection de Lauzirika has assembled, let’s talk Peaks for a bit.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting Starlog.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Scanners: The Criterion Blu-ray / DVD Combo review

It’s difficult to calculate the exact influence the work of David Cronenberg has had on sci-fi film and what the genre might be like without him. His work, or at least the first half of his career, so squarely belongs to Cronenberg that it’s entirely possible his absence wouldn’t make a big difference at all, as nobody can do Cronenberg like Cronenberg. Even Cronenberg arguably had a tough time of conveying his specific brand of sci-fi by the time he got to eXistenZ in 1999, which to date remains his last completely original screenplay.

But a new Criterion release demands that we travel all the way back to 1981, when American audiences were considerably less familiar with the Canadian filmmaker. Despite having made a half a dozen features prior to it, Scanners was the movie that put Cronenberg on everyone’s radar, and it blew their minds…

Read the rest of this review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Criterion Blu-ray / DVD Combo review

Back when I first saw 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in the mid ‘90s, we didn’t have the internet. And the Criterion laserdisc I owned (one of the very last Criterion laserdisc releases) was bare bones, so beyond the film itself, there was no information on it. If memory serves me correctly, for some time I believed it to be based on a true story, and the movie’s opening intro, coupled with its mission to not answer its central mystery, might lead anyone to believe that it is. It just seemed like a highly artistic interpretation of real events. And it still does today, though via this brand new Criterion edition, decked with numerous bells and whistles, it’s easier to discover the truth, which is that Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a fictitious novel by a lady named Joan Lindsay – a paperback copy of which is included in this set.

Hanging Rock - from a distance
The story at first revolves around a girl’s school in Victoria, Australia, in 1900, and the students’ St. Valentine’s Day outing to the imposing volcanic monument, Hanging Rock (which is a very real place). Upon arrival, quiet weirdness abounds, and after several lazy, dreamlike hours, three of the girls and one of the teachers have gone missing. The second half of the film studies the effects the disappearances have on not only the school, but also the nearby town and its variety of residents. It is, after all, a small town at the turn of the century where people do not just disappear.

Mrs. Appleyard passive-aggressively terrorizes Sara
The movie is crammed with ideas, thoughts, and feelings, expressed through an intricate, restrained drawing of its numerous characters, with the repression of the time period leading to people unable to properly communicate their fears, hopes, and desires. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the severe, imposing school headmistress, takes out her frustrations on the awkward student, Sara (Margaret Nelson), while the much younger and more vibrant Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) is wracked with guilt over her inaction the day of the picnic. The befuddled Sgt. Bumpher (Wyn Roberts), who leads the investigation and search party to find the missing, continually finds himself at a loss for words (his position, coupled with his resemblance to Graham Chapman, leads to a frequent expectation for him to finally break out with an “All right! All right! All right!”).

Michael and Albert spy the schoolgirls headed for the rock
The privileged young English boy Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard, who, for my Whovian brethren, played Olvir in “Terminus”) is haunted by the disappearances more than anyone else, and he makes it his mission to find out what happened, regardless of the potential cost to his own well being. By contrast, his blue collar Aussie acquaintance, Albert (a young John Jarratt, the bad guy of Wolf Creek), is haunted by his own past, and has closer ties to the school than he could ever know. Not every struggle in Hanging Rock is caused by the mystery, yet they often appear to be reflected in it.

Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda
What is perhaps most absorbing about Hanging Rock is not the characters we spend time with throughout the entire film, but rather the missing girls, led by the luminescent Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), and their intellectual math instructor, Miss Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) – all of whom cast a potent spell in the 40 or so minutes of screentime they have. Lambert is a cinematic angel, and her visage haunts the movie long after she’s gone, just as it does the viewer after the credits roll. But these days Gray’s McCraw is my favorite. The steely, calculating teacher, enlightened with a knowledge of the world that Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson would appreciate, appears to be living out of time and place. McCraw hypnotizes, not least because the movie dishes even less on her disappearance than the others. The film strongly suggests that the rock awakens something primal and perhaps even sexual in these women – something they were unable to tap into or unleash in the society they had grown up a part of, but that the rock opened, and they found inviting.

Mlle. de Poitiers (l) and Miss McCraw (r)
Yet those assertions are more my interpretation than anything else. Picnic at Hanging Rock should mean something different for each viewer. It’s that kind of movie, and the open-ended narrative is the lack of punctuation on an unfinished sentence. It’s an exercise in mood and sound (the music ranges from classical works to Zamfir’s pan flute to evocative original compositions), and most certainly stunning cinematography by Russell Boyd. Though it was not director Peter Weir’s debut film, it was the one that introduced his considerable talents to the world. Weir has since gone on to helm some truly incredible films over the course of his long career, though there’s not a one of them I wouldn’t put up against Hanging Rock just to demonstrate how strong the movie really is.

Lastly, keep an eye out for a very young Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook), who receives theatrical billing much higher on the marquee than her character - an amorous maid working at the school – demands. Off the cuff: Anyone else often find themselves playing games of “Is that Jacki Weaver or Sally Struthers?”


Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Picnic at Hanging Rock arrives in a dual format combo single Blu-ray/ two DVD set, which is a recent Criterion experiment that apparently, as of last Friday’s announcement, will be halted come September. Bit of a shame, really. I can see how DVD consumers would have issues with the price increase, but Blu-ray enthusiasts that “didn’t like making room for DVDs they didn’t want” just smacks of the oft-ridiculed first world problems. As a Blu-ray freak, I am always happy to get a free DVD with my purchase, Criterion or not, so I didn’t even really have time to warm up to this new presentation before it was dispensed with. In any case, the movie looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the 5.1 surround track more than gets the job done. Weir uses both pictures and sound to weave his tapestry, and both are surely tighter here than on any previous Region A/1 release. 

At the top of this piece I mentioned the Criterion laserdisc. It was followed by a bare bones DVD edition in 1999, and now, 15 years later, we have this hulking combo set that includes the paperback novel. Seriously, when the package arrived, I thought there were two movies enclosed. After all this time, Criterion rectifies those previous meager presentations with a host of lovingly prepared goodies.

Extras kick off with a 10-minute introduction by film scholar David Thomson, which is followed by an enlightening 25-minute interview with Weir - a welcome inclusion, as he meditates and dishes on all things Hanging. Likewise, “Everything Begins and Ends” is a 30-minute doc featuring interviews with producers Hal and Jim McElroy, exec producer Patricia Lovell, DP Russell Boyd, and cast members Anne-Louise Lambert and Helen Morse. At first glance it would be easy to take this disc to task for not featuring a commentary track, but between the Weir interview and the doc, there’s really no need for one as plenty of ground is covered, and Hanging Rock is not the kind of movie that viewers should be walked through scene by scene anyway. 

Additionally, there’s a theatrical trailer, and 26-minute period doc from ’75 entitled “A Recollection…Hanging Rock 1900,” much of which is shot at Hanging Rock, including further interviews with Joan Lindsay, Dominic Guard, Weir, and others. Lastly, on the video side of things, there’s a 50-minute black and white short film called Homesdale. It was this movie that led exec producer Lovell to hire Weir to helm Hanging Rock, though why that is remains yet another mystery, as the tone, feel and subject matter of the short isn’t much like the feature film. Even Weir seems puzzled by the fact in the interview piece. (Frankly, Homesdale is such an oddball piece, its weirdness makes Hanging Rock seem pretty straightforward by comparison – perhaps therein lies the answer.) 

In addition to the Lindsay paperback, this edition includes a beautiful 28-page inner booklet, laced with stills from the movie, and featuring a new essay by author Megan Abbott entitled “What We See and What We Seem,” as well as an excerpted piece from a 1996 book on Weir, by Marek Haltof, entitled “Peter Weir and the Australian New Wave Cinema.”

All screengrabs in this piece were taken from the DVD.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Live and Let Die

Pimpmobiles. Alligators. A trip through Harlem. Voodoo. Cigars. Blaxploitation. George Martin. Bourbon and water. Tarot Cards. Snakes. The City of New Orleans. Paul McCartney and Wings.

“That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” – 007 in Goldfinger

Somebody’s out to prove Roger Moore ain’t your daddy’s James Bond.

On the calendar, 007 entered the ‘70s with Sean Connery’s last official entry, Diamonds are Forever, but it wasn’t until two years later in 1973 that the shift of the decade really affected cinema’s most popular secret agent.

The Plot: Three MI6 agents are killed – one each in New York, New Orleans, and the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. M (Bernard Lee) assigns Bond (Moore) to the case. He follows the trail of bodies, only to discover an elaborate heroin producing, smuggling and selling operation, masterminded by the ruthless San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), who operates under heavy makeup stateside as Mr. Big, where the goods are dispersed through a chain of soul food restaurant/bars called Fillet of Soul. But faux voodoo and mysticism surround Bond from the word go, as does the hypnotic spell cast over him by Kananga’s delicately beautiful reader of cards and seer of visions, Solitaire (Jane Seymour).

The Girls: Nabbing the role of lead Bond girl must seem exciting for an unknown actress, but as has been proven repeatedly, it rarely leads to a big time career. Seymour is one of a handful of actresses to buck that trend and with good reason: Solitaire ranks high on the list of Bond’s classiest ladies, and her story is arguably the heart of the picture. The character isn’t necessarily written with a huge amount of depth, yet that very simplicity makes her complex. In a movie full of charlatanistic voodoo, she stands out as the lone figure possessing the psychic ability to see into the future. Additionally, she differs from the Bond girl flock by sporting ornate, body-covering costumes that contrast with the oft-expected “Bond girl in a bikini” mold. And she’s a virgin, until James enters her, um, life.

Read the rest by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Monday, June 09, 2014

An Adventure in Space and Time: Blu-ray / DVD review

There is no reason why anyone should ever have made a movie about William Hartnell. From today’s vantage point he was a relatively obscure actor who, up until the end of his career, was best known for playing drill sergeants and thugs in a variety of English pictures and series that are hardly even talked about today. Before the winter of 1963, perhaps his closest brushes with true fame included working with Peter Sellers in a couple of his early pictures (The Mouse That Roared and Heavens Above!), and a sizable role in the Lindsay Anderson-directed Richard Harris vehicle This Sporting Life

But everything would soon change for Hartnell, when that last picture, released in January of ‘63, brought him to the attention of up and coming BBC TV producer Verity Lambert, who was searching for a lead actor for a new science fiction series she was helming. He was cast, and 50 years later we have this TV movie, An Adventure in Space and Time, which tells the story of the most exciting – and tragic – stretch of his career.

Though Hartnell is central to the goings-on, the movie, of course, really traces the birth of Doctor Who. Yet when I met director Terry McDonough (Breaking Bad) at a BBC America event last summer, he told me point blank that the theme of the movie was “No one’s irreplaceable,” a sentiment that, it could be argued, has practically become anthemic for the Doctor Who brand over the years. The moment a new actor is cast in the central role, people immediately begin bombarding him with the question, “How long do you intend to stay?” The thrill of meeting a new Doctor is a powerful force indeed. The idea has bled over into other franchises and media as well. In the worlds of comic book and science fiction/fantasy movies and series especially, it’s now the norm. Don’t care for Ben Affleck as Batman? Don’t worry, in a few years there will be another one that you might like better.

But few concepts have been able to make that transitional process as part and parcel of their ongoing storyline as Doctor Who has, which is only one of the many things that makes it the unique creature that it’s become. Adventure sketches the origins of that uniqueness, and gives viewers a behind the scenes peek into a process that for many is as much a mystery as the Time Lord himself. And for those of us who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of the genesis of Doctor Who? The movie must surely be a dream come true. I’m enamored enough with it I can easily see it becoming a yearly ritual.

Brian Cox as Sydney Newman
If success has many fathers, An Adventure in Space and Time suggests that Who had no less than a half a dozen. To whom should ultimate credit for the series be given? Perhaps Sydney Newman, the brash Canadian BBC TV exec who initially came up with the basic idea? Or Lambert, the determined young producer that took Newman’s ideas and turned them into ratings gold? What about Ron Grainer, who wrote the iconic theme tune, or, even more so, Delia Derbyshire, who pulled a Lambert with Grainer’s composition? Would Lambert have been able to make any of it happen without the equally wet behind the ears director Waris Hussein, who brought all of the elements  together in that mesmerizing first episode? Can anyone ever discount Terry Nation’s creation of the Daleks, which ensured the success of the series (and that’s to say nothing of Ray Cusick’s iconic Dalek design)? And surely Hartnell played an enormous part in making Doctor Who such a massive success. He believed in the power of the series and stuck with it - despite his ailing health and the toll the rigorous production schedule was taking on him - even after Lambert, Hussein, and all of his co-stars had moved on. 

The very best television is the result of a magical alchemy, and the whole of Doctor Who may be the most perfect example of that in the history of the medium. The series may have ultimately become the epic, ongoing story of one Time Lord, but as has been proven time and again over the last 50 years, the concept stretches way beyond any one person, and it seemingly, as Peter Capaldi said last year, “belongs to all of us.”

Sacha Dhawan and Jessica Raine
But Adventure is squarely focused on that first core group of people, and the struggles they went through while laying all that groundwork. Initially, the movie belongs to Lambert (Jessica Raine of Call the Midwife and Who’s own “Hide”), and her ongoing efforts to get the series off the ground. Hired by Newman (a pitch perfect Brian Cox, who brings equal parts of humor and menace to the proceedings) to expand on his raw concept, she immediately finds herself talked down to by the more experienced men surrounding her. As the first female producer (who’s also Jewish) working at the BBC, the job clearly won’t be a simple one, and she runs into sexist attitudes right and left. She soon finds a kindred spirit in Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), the first Indian director (who’s also gay) at the BBC, and the movie credits their collective, bold ingenuity as the truest spark behind the concept. The debate has raged harder than ever in recent years as to whether or not the Doctor should be played by a woman. Doctor Who doesn’t need a woman in the central role. What it needs is another female showrunner, and it’s nothing short of preposterous that a woman was the first, yet there hasn’t been one since.

David Bradley as William Hartnell
As the movie moves forward, its emphasis subtly changes from Lambert’s struggles to those of the show’s leading man, brought to cantankerous life by David Bradley (who’s getting more high profile work in his 70s than at any other point in his career, and deservedly so). What is probably Adventure’s boldest stroke is its depiction of Hartnell as an extremely difficult and often unlikeable man - bold not because he wasn’t either of those things, but because by most counts he was, and the movie doesn’t aim to whitewash such facts. But the movie also shows the effect that Doctor Who had on Hartnell - how it softened him as a person, and gave him a renewed sense of self. In the end, Hartnell wins the viewer’s sympathy as his memory takes a sharp decline due to arteriosclerosis, and he is gently let go from the greatest job of his career. Bradley may not sound like Hartnell, and he’s roughly 15 years older than Hartnell was at this time of his life, yet he remains ideal casting, as he forms a movie version of Hartnell that is nigh impossible to shake once the credits roll. This is precisely the type of performance an Emmy nomination is made of.

The movie itself feels designed to appeal to non-Who fans as well as the fanatics (though for the fanatic, it is crammed wall to wall with Easter Eggs of all shapes and sizes, lending it a serious multiple viewings factor). On this most recent viewing I was struck by the film’s similarities to Mad Men (and no doubt, the BBC’s own The Hour). It fetishizes the 60s in a similar fashion to the AMC series, and its attention to detail feels cut from the same cloth. (The cigarette smoking is off the charts.) Further, the movie tackles some of the same themes as the early seasons of Mad Men. If you know a Mad Men fan going through withdrawals, you might just want to sit them down for this one. 

If there’s anything to take Adventure to task for, it’s that it falls prey to some of the same sort of compositing issues that nearly every biopic ever made seems to suffer from. So if this manner of scripting is part and parcel of the biopic format, can we really hold it against the movie? Does Adventure need to tell the story of the birth of Who and rewrite the biopic as well? Probably not. Indeed, I’d be nitpicking what’s likely the greatest, most efficient script of Mark Gatiss’s career. He’s apparently been trying to get this picture off the ground since at least the show’s 40th anniversary (if not before that), so he’s had plenty of time to hone the vision.

An Adventure in Space and Time was the underdog presentation of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. Here in the States it was quietly nestled into the Friday night schedule with considerably less fanfare than its bigger brother, “The Day of the Doctor.” But it is an equally important story and one that I am so charmed by that I now want to see behind the scenes movies made of some of the other eras of the series, as well. The Colin Baker movie would blow people away.

DVD/Blu-ray Extras: We are very lucky here in the States to have this killer, three disc release of An Adventure in Space and Time. (At the time of writing, the movie has not been released on Blu-ray in the U.K.) This set includes one Blu-ray and one DVD which both feature identical programming, and then a second DVD with an entire classic series serial and some other swank extras.

Aside from the feature presentation, the Adventure Blu-ray and DVD each have several short featurettes and goodies. “William Hartnell: The Original” (5:16) is a brief examination of the man himself, including interviews with some of those who worked with and knew him, as well as a few bits of that amazing, recently discovered interview with Hartnell that was featured in its entirety on last year’s “The Tenth Planet” DVD. There is a “making-of” (11:24) hosted by Carole Ann Ford. “Reconstructions” (6:34) are scenes of classic Doctor Who that were recreated for use in the movie (some are in black and white, and some are in color). These are so perfect in production and execution one wishes that Bradley and company could be used to remake all the missing episodes. “The Title Sequence” (1:24) feels rather pointless as it is simply the movie’s credits sequence played again. Finally there are two short deleted scenes that total 1:33, the best one of which features Delia Derbyshire working on the theme tune.

The third disc here is a repressing of the first disc of the previously released “The Beginning” DVD box set. It features the entire four-part “An Unearthly Child” serial, as well as the original pilot episode that Sydney Newman so memorably loathes in Adventure. The pilot is frequently technically awful, yet the material manages to remain engaging. Watching it, it’s easy to see why Newman’s reaction to it might’ve been precisely as shown in the film: “I should fire both of you, but instead I want you to do it one more time” (bit of paraphrasing there). I remain amazed that with all of the episodes of Doctor Who that remain missing, not only do we have all of “Child,” but that this pilot is still around, too! Beyond the five episodes, the disc also carries over all of its original extras, which include four very funny comedy sketches, starring a host of familiar faces, which total around 15 minutes or so, a title sequence music video (2:36), a photo gallery (6:03), and commentary tracks for “An Unearthly Child” Episodes One (Gary Russell moderating Verity Lambert, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford) and Four (Russell moderating Russell, Ford and Waris Hussein), as well as one for the pilot episode (with Gary Russell moderating Lambert and Hussein).  

Friday, May 30, 2014

Ravenous: Blu-ray review

Once upon a time the big movie studios would occasionally make a risky film - sometimes with a bunch of money, and other times with just a little bit. Either way, it was an artistic gamble, and sometimes it would pay off, and other times it wouldn’t. This never seems to happen anymore, where all such choices are made only after myriad polls, research, and analysis, rather than from the gut. These days the risky fare is showing up on TV in the forms of shows like Hannibal (as perfect an example as any for this particular review). I’ve always wanted to meet and shake the hand of the Fox exec[1] who greenlit Ravenous - a period black comedy-horror western about cannibalism, in which the central character, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), doesn’t even speak a complete sentence for the first half hour. 

The modestly budgeted film ($12 million) tanked something fierce upon its release in spring of ‘99. Despite opening on over a thousand screens, its B.O. take was only around $2 million. But, as many movies of quality do, Ravenous lived to see better days, and over the years amassed a pretty hardcore cult following (undoubtedly aided by the increasing popularity of its two stars, Pearce and Robert Carlyle).

In the midst of the Mexican-American War circa 1847, Boyd, having been branded a coward by General Slauson (John Spencer), is sent to Fort Spencer in the remote, wintry Sierra Nevadas, where nothing ever happens. The Fort is staffed by a motley collection of military misfits played by Jeffrey Jones, Neal McDonough, Jeremy Davies, David Arquette, and Stephen Spinella, as well as a pair of Native siblings, amusingly named George (Joseph Runningfox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey, the only female in the picture). The trend of isolated boredom is bucked by the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Colqhoun (Carlyle). Starving and near death, he tells a tale of survival involving Colonel Ives – a member of his party who resorted to cannibalizing the rest of the expedition when the food ran out.

And little more should be said about the plot to the uninitiated. Knowing much else about Ravenous would spoil its manic twists and turns. The script’s unpredictability is one of the film’s numerous strong attributes. Despite its gruesome, graphic depictions of humans dining on each other’s flesh, the film has been called by many (including yours truly) a vampire movie in disguise. There are aspects of its story that echo the relationship of Louis and Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, yet on this viewing I found myself not wanting to acknowledge the vampiric parallels – as if they might somehow take away from the uniqueness of the movie, which actually bases its extensive chowdown on the Algonquian Wendigo myth. Maybe back in ’99 we needed to make such connections and conditions in order to accept a movie that revolves around such an unsettling topic, but today we’re living in a world in which a network series like Hannibal has been granted a third season. There’s no longer any reason to romanticize or qualify Ravenous to those who aren’t in the know, for if you’ve dined on Hannibal for thirteen weeks straight, this 100-minute movie should be a walk in the park (albeit a pretty twisted park).

Behind the lens, Ravenous was directed by the late Antonia Bird, a last minute replacement after the film’s original director, Milcho Manchevski, parted ways with the production after shooting began. Bird was brought onboard at the insistence of Carlyle who’d worked with her on two previous pictures, Priest and Face. Though Priest ruffled a few feathers upon its 1994 release, and met with a fair amount of acclaim, it might still be fair to say that Ravenous will be the movie for which she’ll ultimately be most remembered. The moody cinematography was accomplished by Anthony B. Richmond, and while recent credits of his aren’t particularly impressive, he once upon a time helped give a number of Nicolas Roeg movies - such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth - their distinctive looks. The screenplay was the debut of Ted Griffin, who’d go on to co-create another hailed concept that failed to find an audience, the recent one-season FX TV wonder, Terriers.

But perhaps the most exceptional layer of Ravenous is its score. I’ve often heard it said that the best movie scores are the ones you don’t notice, an assertion I take great issue with. To me, the best scores are the ones that stick in your mind – hopefully along with the rest of the picture – for weeks after having experienced them. Michael Nyman had created many such scores for the films of Peter Greenaway, though perhaps his most famous score was for Jane Campion’s The Piano. Here Nyman is, curiously, paired with Damon Albarn, who is nowadays best known as the mad genius behind Gorillaz. Together (or rather apart; they allegedly made their contributions separately), Nyman and Albarn composed and created a work that stands on its own, ranging from quirky tonal sounds to full on majestic orchestrations. The now out of print Ravenous soundtrack goes for pretty big dollars these days, which itself is something of a testament to its quality. Let the menu screen of this disc spin for a while in the background, and the central theme will undoubtedly hypnotize you.

The print used for this Blu-ray had some noticeable dirt on it, but after a bit it either disappeared or, caught up in the movie and I was, I ceased to notice it. While nobody will ever accuse Ravenous of having a varied color palette, the movie looks fair here, but not stellar; inconsistent would probably be the best word to describe it. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track fares considerably better, in all the right places.

Blu-ray Extras: The very best DVD/Blu-ray extras are often produced years after the movie itself, once the actors and/or crew have gained some perspective on the proceedings, or when there’s no longer any danger of offending co-workers or executives or what have you. This Scream Factory Blu-ray offers up a recently shot 20-minute interview with Jeffrey Jones entitled “The Ravenous Tales of Colonel Hart,” in which he, as a history buff, discusses the implications of manifest destiny as presented in the picture and candidly dishes on the firing of Manchevski and the hiring of Bird. For the Ravenous buff, this is outstanding stuff and a welcome inclusion.

The rest of the extras are, I believe, all ported over from the original DVD release. There are three, count ‘em three, commentary tracks: Bird and Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and finally Carlyle flying solo. There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary by Bird, a theatrical trailer and TV spots, and two galleries of stills detailing the costume and production design. As with many Shout/Scream discs, the artwork can be flipped over to reveal an alternate cover that matches the original Ravenous movie poster art (pictured).

[1] While I can’t find a definitive answer, it appears that the late Laura Ziskin, who headed the arm of Fox (Fox 2000) that produced Ravenous, may have been the culprit.

Portions of this review were lifted from an earlier Rued Morgue article entitled Five Great Movies You May Not Have Seen...But Should.

Screenshots were taken from Vagebond's Movie Screenshots.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World DVD review

When the two recovered Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials were revealed found last year, it was easy for “The Web of Fear” to get all the attention. It is, after all, one of the best Who serials of the sixties, and that find – even with one remaining missing episode – was a landmark. Naturally, “The Enemy of the World” took a bit of a backseat to all the fabulous Yetiness, atmospheric faux London Underground, and the greatness of the Great Intelligence. “The Web of Fear” takes little more than a casual glance in its direction to be able to declare its “classic” status. By comparison, “Enemy” does not feel as instantly, recognizably perfect, and some aspects of it (the arguably tacky futuristic costuming[1], a potentially rambling narrative, and no monsters or aliens) might be off putting to some.

For this viewer, though, “The Enemy of the World” gets better and better with each successive viewing, and I’m now at the point where I’m really sort of in love with the entire affair. From the word go – with the TARDIS materializing on a beach, and the Doctor stripping down to long underwear and jumping into the ocean for a dip – the serial feels like something very special indeed, and Episode One continues with that vibe for the duration of its running time.

Victoria: “Perhaps we’ve landed in a world of madmen!”
The Doctor: “They’re human beings, if that’s what you mean, indulging their favorite pastime – trying to destroy each other!”

Mary Peach as Astrid Ferrier
Farther down the beach, a group of men spy the time travelers, and inexplicably recognize the Doctor. The trio is then chased by the men in a hovercraft, and is subsequently rescued by a blond woman in a helicopter who takes them to a safehouse, where they barely have time to catch their breath before coming under attack once again. After making yet another daring escape, the woman, Astrid Ferrier (Mary Peach, the serial’s most valuable guest player), takes the time travelers to meet Giles Kent (Bill Kerr), and the story unfolds: The Doctor is a ringer for the man poised to all but take over the world, Salamander. Giles fanatically leads a resistance movement with Astrid as his second in command. Their proposal is as seemingly simple as it is realistically complex: Will the Doctor impersonate Salamander, and aid Giles in bringing him down once and for all?

Beyond Episode Three, which has been around for ages (available in the “Lost in Time” DVD box set), my only real previous exposure to this story was the Target novelization, written by Ian Marter, which I devoured as a teenager. That was a long time and many Target novelizations ago, but my most vivid memory of that book was its thrilling sense of adventure – perhaps even more so than the average Target book. All these years later, and “Enemy” really lives up to enough of what my 14-year old imagination conjured up. It has been described by some as James Bond-like, an idea that I struggled with until maybe the third viewing, at which point it came into focus. The scope of the entire thing is global. It takes place in 2018 on an Earth that’s been divided by world government into zones, and the action occurs across several of them, including the story’s primary setting, the Australasian Zone (specifically, Australia).

Of course, the entire thing was made in the U.K., but all factors considered, the serial does a fine job of living up to all the script’s ideas, mostly through clever writing and the diversity of its characters. That perfect first episode, with its mesmerizing location shooting, gives way to a largely studio-bound subsequent five episodes that despite the odds manage to really work. It is deceptively good fare, and though it can feel sprawling and unfocused, the key to getting it, I think, is to really invest in all the characters no matter how seemingly fleeting their appearance. Not everyone is always who they seem, and nearly everyone has a significant role of some sort to play.

Astrid: “Oh, you’re a Doctor?”
The Doctor: “Not of any medical significance.”
Astrid: “A Doctor of law? Philosophy?”
The Doctor: (slyly) “Which law? Whose philosophies, eh?”

The story, as I understand it, was devised due to Patrick Troughton’s desire to stretch his talents a bit, and so here he plays both the hero and the villain (with the two characters only sharing screentime in, literally, the serial’s final moments), a gimmick that works splendidly. Salamander gets a great deal of screentime throughout, and thus the Doctor is never quite as front and center as he normally would be, giving the production a markedly different texture. Making the villain so deviously layered and central to the goings-on is nothing short of a masterstroke, and Troughton slips so wholly into the role it becomes easy to forget it’s the same man who plays the Doctor.

So he excels as this new character, and as the Doctor he’s also got unusually great material to play with. Where his performance just dazzles is in the scenes in which the Doctor is learning to imitate Salamander - not just mastering the thick, Mexican accent, but also adopting his mannerisms, and cultivating the look. Troughton’s performance within his performance (inspired by yet another performance) is a revelation, even by the already impeccably high standards one associates with Troughton’s work on this series. If it weren’t for Peter Capaldi’s casting, this serial would’ve provided the definitive answer to the question, “Who’s the greatest actor to have ever played Doctor Who?”

Jamie and Victoria at CSO Park
But as great a find as “Enemy” is for Troughton fanatics and Who fans in general, it’s also brilliant because it represents the very first work Barry Letts ever did on the series. Here he’s in the director’s chair, and his work on this thing is damn tight and frequently inventive (the editing, however, is sometimes questionable). There’s even a scene set in a park in Episode Two that features that trademark Letts CSO! Moments later, during a scene between Astrid and Denes (George Pravda), which takes place under a disused jetty (“A disused Yeti!?” – The Doctor), watch the way the light ripples off the water, and onto the characters’ faces – all practically done in studio. It’s no wonder he was offered the job of producer just a couple years later based on his immediate understanding of the fabric this serial needed to be made of. Likewise, he assembled an excellent cast - a number of them would return to the series further down the road in different parts. The greatest tragedy of the rediscovery of “The Enemy of the World” is that Barry Letts did not live to see its return to the fans, and to the tapestry of the series which he gave so much of his life to. Looking at it again after all these years, I think he’d have impressed even himself.

There’s a line of the Doctor’s in “The Enemy of the World” that’s entirely emblematic of the BBC’s trashing of all of those episodes of Doctor Who (as well as countless other hours of television) back in the seventies: “People spend all their time making nice things, and then other people come along and break them.” Thankfully, this long thought “broken” serial has been rescued and brought back to us where it belongs. Let’s keep some fingers crossed that these finds aren’t the last. 

This hallway is one of my favorite things in this serial

[1]The Discontinuity Guide – one of the more enjoyable Doctor Who reference guides ever written – takes “Enemy” to task over numerous costuming decisions. Across the board I disagree. The kinky rubber suits have aged beautifully, in a Planet of the Vampires sort of way. And Salamander’s matador getup is bold, crazy and perhaps the precise sort of thing someone who wants to rule the world might think fashionable. (Keep in mind, also, the character is from a Mexico of the future – a future where, perhaps, bullfighting has finally been outlawed, and as such the outfit is more symbolic of his ancestry.) It is irrelevant that someone in “our” world couldn’t realistically pull it off; this is Doctor Who!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear DVD review

The 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who brought all sorts of delightful surprises: A new Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi, the return of Paul McGann to the role of the Eighth Doctor, and the appearance of Tom Baker in “The Day of the Doctor” are only a few of the big ones that leap directly to mind. However, nothing was more surprising than the revelation of the discovery of two lost serials (minus one episode) at a TV relay station in Nigeria.  We’ve gotten sort of used to single episodes popping up every few years, but entire serials? Not since “The Tomb of the Cybermen” was found in Hong Kong in 1991 has something of that ilk happened, and this time not just one serial, but two (minus one episode)!

And the serials – “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” - play consecutively in the Who timeline, making the find all the sweeter, as the former dovetails directly into the latter. Yet the decision has been made to release them on DVD in reverse order (“Enemy” will be out next month), perhaps due to the fact that “Web” is the stronger of the pair. Strong is probably an understatement, as it is tempting to hail “The Web of Fear” as the greatest surviving serial of the Troughton era, if not of the entirety of the ‘60s. Here’s a serial where virtually nothing goes wrong: a tight, engaging script (stretched out over six episodes, no less) from Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln; incredible direction from the always on target Douglas Camfield; seemingly meticulously constructed sets doubling for a deserted London Underground; a flawless cast of layered characters acted to the hilt; hulking robot monsters lurking in the dark; and the introduction of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney – a true cherry on the cake flourish, even if its significance was completely unintentional at the time.

Professor Travers (Jack Watling) is attacked by a Yeti
After being attacked in outer space, the TARDIS makes a forced landing in contemporary London – in its Underground railway system, which is curiously deserted. The crew – the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) – explore, and eventually encounter the military as well as a surprise meeting with Professor Edward Travers (Jack Watling, father of Debs), whom they recently met in 1935 Tibet, during their first encounter with the Great Intelligence and the Yeti (see The Abominable Snowmen”). But that was 30 years ago, when Travers was a much younger man. He’s astonished to see that his friends haven’t aged, and as a result now believes in their previous claims of time travel. Soon enough it becomes apparent that the Yeti and the Intelligence are again on the move, only this time the goal turns out to be something very precious to the Doctor indeed.

Anne Travers (Tina Packer) is attacked by a Yeti
As stated above, there are at least a half a dozen reasons this story - as the kids today say - rocks so hard (or maybe it was yesterday they were saying that; I can no longer keep track). We could debate the real standout, but I’m going with the characters and the cast, which operates like gangbusters from the word go. Troughton, who always sets an impeccably high standard, is seemingly working on an even higher level than usual. For someone who grew up only knowing Troughton’s era as the extant material of the frequently subpar Season Six, to have been able to see more of these earlier adventures come together over the years – particularly all this Season Five material – is something of a revelation, perhaps never more so than here.

These soldiers and Jamie *might* be attacked by these Yeti
Travers, and the disconnect he feels with the time travelers – surely this was the first time the series had ever pulled such a maneuver? To introduce a character, and then reintroduce him a few stories later as an old man? What a wonderful idea! And his daughter, Anne, played so perfectly by Tina Packer, is a great example of the series getting feminism right before it was even a huge issue (“When I was a little girl, I thought I’d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.”) Her character demonstrates that the show was more than capable of drawing strong women. Each soldier has a distinct personality, but my favorite (so to speak) is Driver Evans (Derek Pollitt), who has the sort of persona that emerges when a dozen people are locked in a room together, and everyone agrees on the one person to unanimously dislike. He’s a thoroughly cowardly, awful human being that fails to rise to any occasion, and Pollitt’s performance is a hoot.

Writers Haisman and Lincoln had a big falling out with the series over their Season Six script “The Dominators,” which is such a shame, as “The Web of Fear” appears to set up a third and perhaps final showdown between the Doctor and the Intelligence. Alas, we’d have to wait until Christmas of 2012 to see the entity return to our screens in “The Snowmen,” which never comes close to matching a serial like “Web” for fun and scares. Indeed, the highest praise I can offer “Web” is that it often feels like a Hammer production of some kind. Speaking of “The Snowmen,” I found this tidbit (along with the accompanying JPEG) while looking around for information on “Web.” I wonder what happened there? Were the leaked plans abandoned? If so, what a shame, because “The Snowmen” would’ve been ten times better if they’d actually brought back the Abominable Snowmen.

Normally, at this point there’d be a lengthy section of this review devoted to all the bonus features, but alas, this DVD is sadly bare bones, sans a trailer for “The Enemy of the World.” I’ve read numerous behind the scenes reasons as to why no extras were produced, but first and foremost the reason would be that it would have taken probably a year to produce those extras, and I’m sure it was felt that the sooner the DVDs were released, the better. As you no doubt know, these episodes were released all over the world on iTunes in November. In the U.K., “Enemy” followed on DVD later that month, while they held off on “Web” until February. Now we’re getting both of them. Maybe someday there will be special editions, but as I understand it there are certainly no current plans to do so, since the classic Who DVD range is winding down. Indeed, after “Enemy” next month, to the best of my knowledge the only title left to release is “The Underwater Menace,” which has been held up for various reasons that are entirely outside of my sphere of knowing, but hopefully we’ll get it some time this year.

Having made excuses for the BBC, now it’s my turn: As magical as it is to finally have these episodes, thought lost forever, it’s equally horrible for them to be accompanied by…nothing. Again, we’re used to a standard with these discs, and one can only say, “Well, at least we have the episodes!” for so long, before one wants a commentary track with Frazer and Debbie, or a documentary about the making of the serial, or a photo gallery, or production notes subtitles, or freakin’ Toby Hadoke, for chrissake! For most of us who’ve been partaking in the classic Who DVD experience for the past 13 years, these features have become as much a part of classic Who as the serials themselves. And it is nothing less than a tragedy that Episode Three was not recreated using proper animation, which is now the accepted standard. For a serial of this importance to be the one that we’re left with only a reconstructed episode of…just kills me. On the plus side, the episodes look magnificent – truly, they do - some of the best looking episodes of black and white Who I’ve ever seen. Here they’ve been given the VidFIRE treatment, which seems to be the only major difference between this disc and the iTunes versions.

As I wrote this article, I got a message from a friend who told me there’s some kind of internet flamewar going on involving megafan Ian Levine accusing Phillip Morris (the guy who found both “Enemy” and “Web”) of hoarding episodes, and that there are plenty more out there that are being sat on. So who knows? Maybe these two serials aren’t the end of the great missing episode find. Please, fates, before I die let my most wanted serial be found, because right now I’m declaring the last frames of Episode Six of “The Web of Fear” the most depressing Doctor Who in existence. As the serial winds down, it’s like a punch to the gut:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor Blu-ray review

Should read: "As endured on BBC America"
At Christmas, I was not a particularly happy Whovian - in direct contrast to the excitable boy I’d been back in November during the 50th Anniversary celebrations. How could Steven Moffat pen one of his greatest episodes of Doctor Who, only to follow it with one of his worst? And as the grand finale to an entire era of the series, no less? My recap for Vulture was pretty scathing, yet, believe it or not, I held back a bit for fear of coming across like a crazed, fanboy lunatic. I quickly discovered, though, through the comments section of the recap, other online commentaries, and simply chatting with friends in person and on Facebook, that I wasn’t alone: “The Time of the Doctor” appeared divisive even by often divided modern Who standards, and folks normally given to an open-minded approach to the current series were having difficulties accepting that this jumbled, frenetic mess was indeed the last hurrah for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.

Fast forward two months, at which point I received a review copy of the Blu-ray disc. I had only viewed the episode once back on Christmas night, as once felt painful enough (never before have I been so quick to delete an episode of Who off the DVR). So, with a fair amount of trepidation, I put on the Blu-ray and gave it another spin, in an attempt to see it with fresh eyes. My reaction this time around was not one of crushing disappointment for the material. Such a reaction can easily manifest itself in a word like hate, as in “I hated that episode so much!” Truth is, I’ve never truly hated an episode of Doctor Who, probably because hate is so not what the show is about. And this second viewing revealed that “The Time of the Doctor” wasn’t much different than all the “Silver Nemeses” and “Underworlds” that came before it. “Time” is an episode overflowing with so much good will, that hate was no longer on the table. (This does not mean I suddenly fell in love with it.) More on this later.

"You're in for a *big* surprise!"
One might think that unrealistic expectations for “Time” played a part in my initial reaction, but that wasn’t at all the case. In fact, if anything, some of that reaction had to do with fears being realized. When it was announced last summer that Smith would be leaving at Christmas, it was disheartening. We hadn’t even seen the 50th yet, and Matt was now due to exit the TARDIS a month later. The game-changing “The Name of the Doctor” had just aired a few weeks earlier – an episode which felt as though big things were in store for Eleven. Everything seemed to be happening so fast in comparison to the exits of previous Doctors. Tennant had a lengthy series of four specials built around his exit, which culminated in a nearly two and a half hour, two-part send-off. This smacked of suddenness, reminiscent of Eccleston’s hasty exit from the series.

When November rolled around, and “The Day of the Doctor” was finally unveiled, sure enough – nothing in that monumental episode’s narrative indicated that the following episode would be the fall of the Eleventh. Quite the contrary, it ends with a Doctor who has a renewed sense of purpose. It seems obvious in hindsight, to me at least, that somewhere after shooting “Day,” during the 4 month break he took before shooting “Time,” Matt decided to leave the show, for whatever reasons. Who knows what they were? We may never find out. I know that conventional wisdom and logic dictates that these things are planned out far in advance, but if that had been the case, then why did Steven Moffat do such a sloppy job of dramatizing Matt’s exit, especially given the care that had clearly gone into the previous two episodes?

The script is as clumsy as this Cyberman
“The Time of the Doctor” feels hastily written, as though boxes are being ticked off, one by one, from one scene to the next. It’s not organic like the very best Steven Moffat writing is. Even Moffat-penned episodes that I don’t much care for are put together with considerably more thought than this. It’s like an entire season has been squished into a single episode – as if Moffat had very definite long term plans (or at least plans that extended to another season) for the Eleventh Doctor that were cut short, but he had to execute them anyway, in order to complete his vision. (For instance, he must have known for some time – perhaps since creating the War Doctor – that he would address the 13-incarnation limit at the close of Matt’s tenure.) Because I can maybe imagine a version of these events that play out over a season, and it feels more dramatically right. Maybe a town called Christmas would’ve been involved, but likely not…which brings me to another issue.

Christmas - not just the town, but the holiday, and the now ubiquitous Christmas specials. It wouldn’t be sporting to call for an end to the annual special (though it feels like the areas in which it can be taken have run their course), but please, for the love of all that is Gallifreyan, can we never again have the Doctor regenerate at Christmas? A regeneration episode should be a dangerous, difficult scenario infused with all manner of gravitas – not the treacly sort of sentimentality this was made up of. (RTD at least had the good sense to wait a week and regenerate him on New Year’s Day.) But a holiday regeneration? Never again, I say! This further underscores my above theories, which, it should be reiterated, is all they are - theories and speculation: Moffat must have begrudgingly settled on this, as I simply cannot believe that his plan all along was to have the Doctor end his regeneration cycle at Christmas. Indeed, the town called Christmas feels entirely at odds with everything concerning the doom-laden Trenzalore that was set up in “Name.”

"My turkey isn't the only thing half-baked here..."
So, either some version of the events I’ve laid out above is true, or Steven Moffat is the most incompetent dramatist in the kingdom. Now I’ve had my issues with the Moff here and there over the years, but never has my opinion of his talents changed: He is one of the best and smartest TV writers working today, which is why I must believe something along the lines of what I’ve laid out above is closer to the truth than accepting that the events as they went down in “Time” were his plan all along. It simply makes no narrative sense whatsoever, given what came before in the previous two installments.

Having gotten all of that off my chest, let’s go back to my minor reappraisal of the episode. What struck me as worthy on the second viewing was the emotion of it all, which is pretty sound. And I do believe that for a substantial portion of the viewing audience, the emotions and feelings of the series are amongst its strongest attributes, hence the reason it worked for about half the people who tuned in. Another thing that I was pretty blinded to on the first viewing was Matt’s performance, which is pretty great, especially given all the different stages of his Doctor’s life he has to wade through. I don’t think it’s the best work of his tenure by a long shot, but given the frequently subpar material he has to work with here, it’s a touching showing on his part. “The Time of the Doctor” is essentially a “Greatest Hits” package, and like all such collections, it can please in the short term on its own, but is ultimately hollow, and shown up by the bigger picture of everything that led up to it.

For me, Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor will always end with him surrounded by all of his previous selves, eagerly moving forward into a bold new direction that’s promise will hopefully be fulfilled by Moffat as we enter the Peter Capaldi era of the series later this year.

The Doctor carts around what's likely the remains of a human head for hundreds of years

Blu-ray Extras: In addition to the main program, there’s a touching “Behind the Lens” piece that runs about 13 minutes - a making-of that includes bits from the heartrending final table read, as well as the cast and crew saying goodbye to Matt on set. It will tug at your heartstrings, perhaps even more so than the episode proper. Also present are two, 45-minute BBC America-produced docs: “Tales from the TARDIS,” which features interviews with most of the previous living Doctors; and “Farewell to Matt Smith,” which is something of an overview of his era. All in all, a decent package given the asking price, and if, like me, you’re not a fan of the episode, there are at least these bonus goodies to justify the purchase.