Monday, November 10, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Dark Water/Death in Heaven"


Warning - This review will contain spoilers!

Well, another season of Doctor Who has come to an end. How did the finale, a two-part story scripted by showrunner Steven Moffat fair and how it stand up against the rest of the series? How did Series 8 fare compared to the other seasons of the show and what of Peter Capaldi? I hope to answer all of these questions in the following review, so without further let's dive right in...

Distraught over the death Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Clara (Jenna Coleman) almost incapacitates the Doctor and his TARDIS by throwing the time machine's seven keys into a volcano. Seeing how far she would go to save the man she loved, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Clara to 3w, a mysterious institute fascinated with death. The Doctor comes face to face with Missy (Michelle Gomez), the strange woman who has dogged his heels throughout the series, and together they manage to contact Danny in heaven. No sooner have they accomplished this does the Doctor learn that 3w is harboring Cybermen and Missy is in actuality his arch enemy, the Master! With the future of planet Earth hanging in the balance, the Doctor will have to use UNIT to save the day. But at what cost?

When it comes to two-part episodes like this, I tend to find one portion to be better than the other. Here, Dark water/Death in Heaven managed to remain consistent throughout. I must applaud Steven Moffat for keeping the tone the same throughout the two episodes, even when plot twists are introduced and the scale becomes much grander in the second half. I do not hesitate to say that these two episodes have been two of the darkest episodes in Doctor Who's recent history, dwelling on subjects like death and the afterlife, rather taboo for a children's show. However, I found it to be quite compelling and original. I would be lying if I said I wasn't drawn in - especially by the episode Dark Water which had to lay on the mystery extra thick.

The Doctor and the Master - or is Mistress?
We'll revisit the story itself in a minute, but I need to take the opportunity to address the performances from the principles. Peter Capaldi pulled out all the stops in these two episodes. He is without doubt the best actor to have taken on the role of the Doctor since the revival in 2005 and, aside from Matt Smith, is my favorite Doctor. The changes which we the audience have witnessed in his character since the start of the series have been tremendous - a truly brilliant character arc. I look forward to Capaldi's future in the role as I know he will retain that tremendous quality.

Also of particular note was Michelle Gomez as Missy. When it was revealed she was in fact the Master at the end of Dark Water, I wasn't quite sure what to think. (Not to sound too narrow-minded, but I have never been a big proponent of the whole gender swapping thing.) I reserved my judgment and I must say she did an excellent job. Gomez communicated a sense of the Master's true deranged character in a cold, quiet manner which was far more successful than John Simm's scenary-chewing attempts when he played the character. It wouldn't be too outrageous to liken Gomez's Master (Mistress, whatever) to Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector; speaking quietly and delivering a genuine chill up the spine.

While the scripts for Dark Water/Death in Heaven fared well for Capaldi and Gomez, it fell rather short when dealing with the companions. Jenna Coleman delivered her usual fine performance but it seemed like the independent nature of Clara's character became a bit too outrageous when she virtually kidnaps the Doctor and nearly destroys the TARDIS. What's more, this scene, which really goes nowhere, was hardy linked to the rest of the episode. Samuel Anderson, who usually gave a pretty decent performance in the past, seemed rather flat here, especially once he's been turned into a Cyberman. I don't want to bash too much on the script - especially since it did afford Capaldi one of his greatest Doctor moments; skydiving from a crashing airplane without a parachute, tearing a page from James Bond's playbook in Moonraker.

As I said at the top of this review, both episodes of the finale fared equally. Therefore, I give them both 3.5 out of 5 stars. So, in all, how did Doctor Who series 8 fare? Rather well. It featured some truly excellent episodes, but a fair share of mediocre ones. I'd say the series did afford Peter Capaldi a nice introduction and I look forward to his future in the role.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review - "A Scandal in Bohemia Graphic Novel"

I am actually not very familiar with Sherlock Holmes graphic novels. The extent of my knowledge consists only of the graphic novelizations by Ian Edginton featuring moody, evocative artwork by I.N.J. Culbard. All four of them, published by Self-Made Hero, are highly recommended. But today's subject is a little different. Today I take a look at an interesting take on A Scandal in Bohemia by Petr Kopl.

Going over the plot of the graphic novel may be a little redundant as it more-or-less follows Doyle's original but also manages to weave the plot of The Speckled Band into the mix. Despite this, this particular graphic novel may be a little surprising for the more ardent Doylean. The tone of this retelling is quite light and fun, bordering at times on outright parody. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson aren't above exchanging banter and getting into petty squabbles. One particular scene found the detective strong up from the ceiling of 221b hanging by his feet testing a theory. Aside from the fact that there's something overtly Robert Downey Jr. about the panel, it was actually quite funny, especially as Watson enters the sitting room, only to find his friend in a most unusual situation.

Holmes as drawn by Petr Kopl
However, the tone of graphic novel does change and scenes of genuine suspense or horror were conveyed quite nicely. These instances came more often than in the segment retelling The Speckled Band which managed to convey its original's sense of Gothic horror beautifully. The artwork was of particular note here, and I feel as though I should devote a bit of time to the artistic style. Though drawn in an obviously cartoon style, the exaggerated features of the characters was actually quite charming. Holmes is portrayed as quite angular with pronounced chin and nose, and surprisingly enough, Watson is drawn as quite the competent medico and not in the traditional buffoonish style. The illustrations added to the more-or-less light-weight sense of fun which ran throughout the graphic novel and heightened the "fun factor."

There were also a number of interesting asides and references to outside works to make this reader's eye widen. Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days makes a cameo appearance, and Watson becomes a member of the former's exclusive club. Mata Hari is also referenced (this comes as something of a funny twist come the comic's end) as are both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These touches, though enjoyable, were something of a distraction from the overall narrative and with the inclusion of Frankenstein's Monster into the mix (yes, Frankenstein's Monster is in here too) one began to feel that the writer's tongue was planted a little too firmly in his cheek. That's not to say this was a drawback just something of a stylistic surprise.

In all, A Scandal in Bohemia was a fun, very entertaining read. As far as Sherlock Holmes graphic novels go, it fared quite well I think. I do not hesitate in recommending it to fellow Sherlockians, and seeing as Petr Kopl has authored other Sherlock Holmes graphic novels in the same vein, I would be interested in taking a look at those too. I award A Scandal in Bohemia 4 out of 5 stars.

***

A Scandal In Bohemia – A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository . In ebook format it is in Kindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #1 "1979 Version"

To celebrate Halloween, here's my pick for the best Dracula film - the winner, the 1979 version released by Universal starring Frank Langella as the vampire. This oft-overlooked film is without doubt the most atmospheric and stylish version of Bram Stoker's story ever committed to film and boasts a particularly fine cast.

The 1979 version began life as a revival of the 1920's stage play which had originally starred Bela Lugosi. The show was performed both in America, where Frank Langella took the role of the vampire, and in Britain where Jeremy Brett took on the role. The play, featuring sets designed by famed illustrator Edward Gorey, was a tremendous success which eventually spawned a film version. In the director's chair was John Badham, whose last directorial job prior to filming Dracula was Saturday Night Fever! However Badham managed to create a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere for the film. It's a beautiful film to watch.

Many reviewers today complain that the latest DVD (and blu ray) releases have drained all of the colour from the film. This is true, but the result is brilliant. The re-coloured DVD adds tremendously to the overall atmosphere, accentuating the bleak nature of the story. What's more, when there are scenes of vivid colour, there is a greater contrast (like the controversial vampire wedding with lasers and the brightly-lit climax). The action is also updated to 1913 which gives the characters the opportunity to inhabit a stylish Edwardian world.

Of course taking centre stage is Frank Langella's Dracula. Langella performs the role in the vein of Bela Lugosi - a cool, hypnotic vampire. However, Langella doesn't perform with the same theatricality which Lugosi did which makes this Dracula all the more creepy and manipulative. Langella's subtly-played Dracula makes him seem eerily alone and humane - a point which is accentuated by changing the now-famous line of dialogue to "Listen to them, children of the night...what sad music they make." To play off of Langella's Dracula is Kate Nelligan's Lucy. Nelligan's heroine is a strong, independent character which makes her falling to Dracula's will all the more creepy.

Frank Langella - best Dracula of them all?
Interestingly characterised on IMDb as a romance, the 1979 version was one of the first to portray Dracula as a romantic figure. However, the movie succeeds brilliantly in this respect. Later versions (*cough Francis Ford Coppola's version cough*) reduced Dracula's threat by making him a romantic figure. Here, Langella's vampire is still an evil, manipulative figure, yet you cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness for Dracula come to the film's inevitable conclusion.

The rest of the cast compliment Langella and Nelligan nicely. In the role of vampire hunter Van Helsing was the great Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier. While it could be argued that Olivier was slumming it in this horror film, Olivier delivers a strong performance, and the script afforded the actor an interesting acting opportunity as Van Helsing becomes the father of one of Dracula's victims. Donald Pleasence lends some light comic relief to the film in the role of Dr. Seward and Trevor Eve plays a likable, sympathetic Jonathon Harker.

In all, the 1979 version of Dracula is underrated, but something of a minor masterpiece in terms of Dracula adaptations. However, one thing stood out the most while working on this review series - each of the five films I selected were totally different from one another, so in terms of favourites, Dracula films are perhaps the most subjective. If you're partial to classical theatricality, faithful surrealism, atmospheric evil, blood-and-thunder bombast, or stylized melancholia, one of the five films I selected should appeal to you.

We've come to the end of this review series. If you liked these reviews or believed I left out a particularly good version (or take umbrage with my constant Francis Ford Coppola bashing), then feel free to leave a comment. Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night"


Warning - The following review will contain spoilers...

Doctor Who Series 8 has brought on another new writer. This time it's Frank Cottrell Boyce, a famed author and screenwriter known for his magical fantasy stories, including his sequels to Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His debut for Doctor Who entitled In the Forest of the Night was hyped as putting the Doctor in a powerless position. Does it ring true? Let's take a closer look...

Over night a forest has sprouted up across the entire planet Earth. Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) are left to take care of a group of children from the Coal Hill School. However one of them, a mysterious girl named Maebh (Abigail Eames) has disappeared, only to turn up outside the TARDIS uttering cryptic messages. Lost in the forest, will the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) be able to discover what caused the forest to sprout up?

Boyce's assertion that the Doctor would be powerless in this episode was rather accurate. Armed with only his sonic screwdriver (which doesn't work on wood), the Doctor has very little to go on as he tries to solve the mystery. This was an interesting opportunity to see the Doctor in a different light and Peter Capaldi, as always, rose to the challenge. It's no exaggeration to say that Capaldi was the best thing about the episode - the vein of sarcastic, dark humour which was so prevalent in last week's episode carrying over.

Abigail Eames and Peter Capaldi
The other positive aspect is the production design. In the Forest of the Night was an incredible episode to look at, with some beautiful visuals. Shots of sunlight rays shining through tree branches were plentiful and really added to the naturalistic, mysterious tone set forth in the script.

But, the episode cannot stand only on its visual merits. The acting was on a whole was good from the ever reliable Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson. The child actors, who have had a hit-or-miss track record in Doctor Who, fared well enough. But, none of them could conceal the heavy-handed dialogue in the script. This was without doubt the episode's being downfall with a "save the environment" message not-so-subtly weaved in. The dialogue between Clara and Danny seemed too contrived at times and the children's dialogue was cliched and unreal. I never thought I'd here talk about selfies in Doctor Who. The most poignant moment was when the Doctor, trying to convince Clara he should stay on Earth, told her "This is my world too. I walk your Earth. I breath your air." These are the exact same words which Clara used when telling the Doctor he should leave the planet forever in Kill the Moon. It was sadly a throw-away moment, likely written into the script by showrunner Steven Moffat.

So, In the Forest of the Night managed to succeed on atmosphere and acting but the heavy-handed plot and dialogue brought down an otherwise original, interesting premise. In the Forest of the Night is unfortunately the weakest episode of Series 8. I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #2 "1958 Version"

It seems to be an undisputed fact that Hammer Films revolutionized the horror film genre. With the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, the studio pushed the envelope when it came to horror. The film's tremendous commercial success made it inevitable that a follow-up was in the works - and it was even more inevitable that Bram Stoker's immortal novel would be dramatised next. Released as Dracula in Britain and Horror of Dracula in America, the film would come to be one of the most respected in the horror genre and lead to a lengthy film series.

I have already had the chance to review this remarkable film once before on this blog as part of Peter Cushing Month last May. I encourage you to click here to read that review as I'll be filling in some of the gaps from that previous review.

Of course the main attraction in the film is Christopher Lee's Dracula. Interestingly, the vampire count is side-lined for much of the film and in fact he has only sixteen lines of dialogue and speaks to only one character. However, Lee's Dracula pervades the remainder of the movie, making the most of his limited screen-time. Lee's Dracula is perhaps the most animalistic ever committed to the screen, his red eyes perpetually blaring and his fangs dripping with blood. Seldom has Dracula been so unnerving and creepy, and certainly far-removed from the debonair, well-cultured Bela Lugosi of the 1931 film.

Of course the other high point of the cast is the ever-welcome Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire. Of all the actors to play Van Helsing who has appeared on this list (including next week's choice), Cushing is perhaps the best. He's the most far-removed from Stoker's original conception, but Cushing's athletic and quick-witted Van Helsing makes for an excellent hero, and also sometime of a prototype for his fantastic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Cushing and Lee contribute greatly to the sense of bombast which runs all the way through the film. The final act in particular are a series of chases and fights which keep the film's energy up to the brilliant, awe-inspiring conclusion.

A study of red-eyed ferocity
Fearing typecasting, Christopher Lee was less then enthused when he learned that Hammer planned on adding a sequel to Dracula. What eventually transpired was something of a Hammer franchise and I'd like to take a moment to look at these films individually. 1960's The Brides of Dracula didn't feature Lee's Dracula at all and instead focused on Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. The film is excellent - one of Hammer's finest. Lee donned the vampire's cape for 1966's Dracula: Prince of Darkness which finds the count brought back to life after a group of travelers find themselves stranded at Castle Dracula. Lee's Dracula has no dialogue whatsoever in the film, and while not the best of Hammer's Dracula sequels, it's an entertaining piece of '60's horror.

Next was Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The film is probably the best-looking of Hammer's Dracula movies; scenes wreathed in fog and coloured filters which lend an eerie, fairy-tale like quality to the film. The next, Taste the Blood of Dracula is my personal favourite Dracula sequel. Lee's Dracula has the smallest role of any Dracula film, but it's a well-mounted, visually-stunning film and surely the nastiest sequel thus far. It's also the turning point in the Dracula series as the films which followed dropped in quality. Arguable the lowest point in Hammer's series was Scars of Dracula which tried as hard as possible to compete with the increasingly gory horror films released in America, but the effort was in vain and what transpired is a plotless, unsatisfying film. Hammer decided that Gothic horror was no-longer in vogue in the early-'70's, so the studio transported Dracula into the 20th century with Dracula A.D. 1972, a fun film made cringe-worthy by the dated '70's references (I never thought I'd hear dialogue like far out and groovy in a Dracula film). The last film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula combined vampire lore with spy thriller and science fiction, but ultimately failed to succeed.

Though some of Hammer's sequels are entertaining in their own right, none can eclipse their brilliant first effort. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee head a strong cast in an exciting and creepy version of Bram Stoker's novel. Check back next week as I celebrate Halloween with my favourite Dracula film, perhaps the most stylish and atmospheric version ever committed to film.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Flatline"


Warning: The following review will contain spoilers

After last week's episode Mummy on the Orient Express, I was excited for another installment to be penned by the same writer, Jamie Mathieson. But one or two things made me a little nervous - could Mathieson deliver a script of the same high calibre, and it seemed as though the episode was going to be Doctor-lite, coming in the midst of an already companion-heavy season. Did Mathieson's second episode Flatline deliver the way his first did? Let's find out.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive in Bristol to find something is very wrong. People have been disappearing throughout their town, their visages appearing on the walls of a tunnel. All the while, the Doctor is trapped inside the TARDIS which has inexplicably began to shrink on the outside. It seems as though an alien race has invaded the planet, draining the power from the Doctor's time machine and causing the mysterious disappearances. With the Doctor more-or-less out of commission, it's up to Clara to save the day.

Like his last episode, Mathieson's Flatline had a very interesting, original premise. The alien threat, a new one, who trap people in one-dimensional surfaces were very creepy and the scene in which they manage to ensnare a police constable was chilling and intense. The production design also managed to bring the creatures vividly to life as they took three-dimensional form and chased the heroes through the train tunnels.

Peter Capaldi was in excellent form as the Doctor. I do not hesitate saying he gave his finest performance in this episode. He managed to combine his usual intensity with a vein of sarcastic, sharp humour. The fact that he was confined to the TARDIS control room for almost the entire duration did not limit his performance at all. Capaldi is arguably the best actor to have taken on the role of the Doctor in some time and each episode further justifies that point. Jenna Coleman also did well as Clara. Luckily, the episode wasn't too centred on her as Clara has really taken centre-stage on three separate occasions this series. While she did play an important role again, the script managed to keep the Doctor in a role of authority.

While much of the episode was good, I couldn't help but feel that the execution of Mathieson's ideas was lacklustre. The finale, though inventive, was incredibly rushed and I couldn't tell you how the Doctor managed to save the day. The group of community service workers who Clara vows to protect were not characterised at all so I could hardly identify with them. The most well-rounded of the group, Rigsy (Jovian Wade) tried to be the hero of the day and sacrifice himself with no provocation and with no character building, this moment didn't seem justified. Lastly, and this one's a minor quibble, the continuity folks dropped the ball here as the length of Peter Capaldi's hair changed a few times between scenes. Unless I missed something about the TARDIS' failing life support systems changing the length of the Doctor's hair then this was a minor, but annoying quibble.

In all, Flatline had an original premise and good performances, but the execution did leave something to be desired. While not a bad episode, I wouldn't say that it was a series highlight. I give Flatline 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Coming Next Week - In the Forest of the Night by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Friday, October 17, 2014

Top 5 Dracula Films - #3 "1973 Version"

With a cast headed by Jack Palance, a script written by famed writer Richard Matheson and directed by the man responsible for the American soap opera Dark Shadows, the 1973 adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel is perhaps one of the most accomplished. With a sense of evil and mystery unparalleled in any other version, this one also stands out as being one of the most faithful to the original novel.

The 1973 adaptation of Dracula was produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Curtis was the creator of the soap opera Dark Shadows which followed the lives of the Collins family and the haunted mansion in which they lived. The show, almost canceled due to low ratings, was reinvigorated by the appearance of Barnabas Collins, patriarch of the Collins family, and a scheming vampire. With the appearance of the vampire Collins, Dark Shadows became immensely popular and would run continuously until 1971.

With the success of Dark Shadows, it seemed only likely that Curtis would turn his attention to Bram Stoker's immortal classic. Initially actor Jonathon Frid, who had played Barnabas Collins, was approached to play Dracula, but the part eventually went to famed American actor Jack Palance. Palance's Dracula is terrifically creepy, his low raspy voice incredibly chilling. What's more, Palance's Dracula is an unpredictable creature of the night; after finding his hiding place disrupted by the gang of vampire hunters, Dracula lets loose a roar of dinosaur-like proportions. This unpredictable nature, coupled with the actor's physicality make Palance's Dracula a force to be reckoned with.

Jack Palance - an unpredictable vampire
Aside from Jack Palance's Count Dracula, the main reason this adaptation has been selected for this list is its overwhelming sense of evil. The recurring theme played by a music box is both melodic and melancholy, but adds to the evil atmosphere. This plot point was created by the screenwriter Richard Matheson who is perhaps best known for his own vampire novel I am Legend which has been adapted to the screen numerous times. Matheson also adapted to the screen a number of Edgar Allan Poe short stories for Roger Corman's film starring Vincent Price, and the hammer horror favourite The Devil Rides Out with Christopher Lee.

Matheson also contributed one of the script's most original ideas; making Dracula and Vlad the Imapler one and the same. Matheson's script also included a romantic subplot which found Dracula journeying to England after discovering Lucy Westenra bears a striking resemblance to his own lost love. This original subplot is well-handled here, far more so than in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1993) which took the menace out of the vampire. Despite the romantic angle, Palance's vampire never seems weak or un-threatening like Gary Oldman's did in that latter, unremarkable film. These new plot elements add greatly to the film, though they never distract from Stoker's original storyline which is kept more-or-less in-tact.

The rest of the cast fares quite well. Simon Ward appears as Arthur Holmwood who takes centre-stage as this version's main hero. Wardwas no stranger to the horror genre - he had appeared alongside Peter Cushing in 1969's Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Nigel Davenport, a prolific character actor, appeared as one of the most authoritative Van Helsing's on screen and Fiona Lewis added great weight to her role as both Lucy and Dracula's deceased wife.

In all, with its fine cast, original writing and incredible atmosphere, the 1973 adaptation of Dracula still stands out as one of the best. The recently-released blu-ray is an excellent purchase for any Dracula fan. Next Friday we take a look at one of the most beloved versions of Dracula which spawned a prolific legacy of horror movie history.