Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Into the Dalek"

Warning: This review will contain spoilers. If you wish to remain surprised, watch Into the Dalek before continuing

Following last week's series debut with Deep Breath, we were left wondering just what Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor would be like. Some of that ambiguity was lifted this time around as the new Doctor came face-to-face with the Daleks for the first time. The episode is Into the Dalek written by Phil Ford and Steven Moffat, and it is the subject of today's review.

Having just made the acquaintance of fellow school teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Clara (Jenna Coleman) is whisked away in the TARDIS once more. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has been called on to heal the patient aboard a vast space hospital. The patient however is a Dalek - yet this Dalek seems to have a conscious and morals. How can the universe's most dangerous creature have gotten this way? The only way that the Doctor will find out is by journeying inside the Dalek, and little does he know that looming close by in space is a great Dalek army waiting to attack...

The Daleks have been a staple of Doctor Who's history, and I'm certain that they shall remain so. The Daleks have appeared so often on the series that it is a wonder that any original story lines can be produced. Yet, Into the Dalek managed to be an original Dalek story, which not only restored some of the menace to the Doctor's most famed foes, but also added new layers to the Doctor's character. Co-written by showrunner Steven Moffat and Phil Ford (writer of fan-favourite episode The Waters of Mars), the script for the episode is perhaps it's greatest achievement. While the idea of traveling inside the Dalek may seem more like The Magic School Bus than Doctor Who, the concept proved to be an interesting one. By shrinking the main characters down and journeying inside the Dalek, Into the Dalek had a great sense of scale, making it feel like a story of epic proportions.

Aside from the original story, Into the Dalek was an excellent character study, especially for Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor. The Doctor's true nature remained rather ambiguous throughout last week's episode, but here the darker, less-forgiving nature of Capaldi's Doctor is showcased front and centre. The episode's most brilliant (an telling moment) comes at the end as the Doctor connects his own mind to the Dalek's and the Dalek sees the full hatred the Doctor feels towards his enemies. Later, the Dalek tells the Doctor that he is "a good Dalek." This is a brilliant piece of characterisation and we really get a glimpse at the darker side to the Doctor which lurks just beneath the surface.

While Capaldi dominated the episode, the supporting cast worked extremely well with him. Jenna Coleman proves to have excellent screen chemistry with Capaldi, and she continues to come into her own. Clara is easily becoming the most free-thinking companion the Doctor has had in some while. Into the Dalek is also the first episode to feature Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, a fellow school teacher at the Coal Hill School. There has been rampant speculation about Danny's character, but for now he seems to be a romantic interest for Clara, employing Steven Moffat's characteristic vein of humour. All-the-same, Anderson made the most of his part thus far, and managed to garner some laughs. It will be interesting to see what Danny Pink contributes to the series as it progresses.

Into the Dalek was an excellent episode featuring original plotting and fine performances from its central characters. Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor and I am even more excited for the rest of this series. I give Into the Dalek four out of five stars.

Next Week - Robot of Sherwood by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Actors (Of All Time) Part I

Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen by more actors than any other fictional character. Therefore, the task of choosing the ten best actors who brought the detective hero to the screen best wasn't an easy one. This list, perhaps more than any other is open to opinion. All-the-same, let us begin...

#10 - Vasily Livanov - Livanov is one of the most beloved actors to ever have played the great detective, something made all the more surprising by the fact that all of Livanov's adaptations were produced in Russian! Vasily Livanov's Sherlock Holmes was a lighter, more humane creation. The series' highlight is the depiction of Holmes and Watson's friendship, and Livanov's Watson, played by Vitaly Solomin, was an excellent foil for both moments of drama and comedy.

The Russian series began with the rarely-filmed first meeting between Holmes and Watson and featured adaptations of such stories as Charles Augustus Milverton, The Final Problem and A Scandal in Bohemia. The series' highlight however is The Hound of the Baskervilles produced on a seemingly epic scale. The Russian adaptation of Hound is one of the most faithful to Doyle's novel and also remains one of the most atmospheric, the Russian countryside providing a thoroughly desolate, lonely moorland setting. Vasily Livanov has been rightfully praised for his excellent portrayal of the great detective and in 2006 was made an Honourary MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for "service to the theater and performing arts."

#9 - Clive Merrison - Of all the actors to lend their voices to the great detective, Clive Merrison stands out as perhaps the best. Interestingly, Merrison is the only actor to play Sherlock Holmes in all of Doyle's original stories.

Merrison's Holmes is cold and calculating, one of the more prickly characterisations in the detective's long history. However, Merrison succeeds in having great chemistry with his Watson, the late Michael Williams. Both men portrayal their characters as written, Williams being notable especially as providing one of the finest Dr. Watsons. Following the conclusion of Merrison's initial run on BBC radio, he returned to play Holmes in The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, all original episodes based on references to untold tales. Merrison succeeded just as brilliantly this time opposite Andrew Sachs as Watson. Though Merrison never graced the screen as the detective, he is certainly one of the best actors to play the part, and one of the most memorable.

#8 - Ian Richardson - Today, Ian Richardson is sadly forgotten in the history of Sherlockian television. All-the-same, Richardson's short-lived stint as the detective yielded two immensely entertaining TV movies - The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Both of Richardson's films deviated greatly from their source material, but Richardson retained an air of absolute conviction performing the role, even in some of the more absurd moments (such as his tussle with killer pygmy Tonga in The Sign of Four). Richardson also stands out amongst his co-stars, both TV films featuring a number of familiar character actors: Denholm Elliot, Connie Booth, Ronald Lacey, Martin Shaw, Terence Rigby and many others. Not only did Richardson succeed brilliantly in his role of the detective, but he also turned in a series of fine performances as Dr. Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. While the series is on a whole sub-standard, Richardson's performance makes the show enjoyable.

#7 - Christopher Plummer - Plummer's first encounter with Holmes occurred in 1977 when he appeared in a television adaptation of Silver Blaze. This would serve as something of a prelude for his performance as Holmes in 1979's Murder by Decree. The film, the second of two to pit Holmes against Jack the Ripper, featured Plummer as an uncharacteristically humane Holmes. Nevertheless, Plummer is a triumph.

Plummer's Holmes is surely the most sympathetic ever committed to film, becoming emotionally invested in the Ripper investigation. While Plummer's Holmes is certainly at odds with Doyle's original, he works wonderfully in this very dark, bleak film and I don't think a colder Holmes would have worked under the circumstances. What's more the script for Murder by Decree allows Holmes and Watson to have a close friendship. Watson is excellently played by James Mason, just one of the many fine actors cast in the film. Murder by Decree is one of the most accomplished Sherlock Holmes films ever made and Christopher Plummer is one of the accomplished Sherlockian actors.

#6 - Nicol Williamson - Nicol Williamson's performance in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution has been praised by me on this blog elsewhere, but I'll laud him one more. Williamson's Holmes is at odds with Doyle's original, but he turns in a fine performance as a cocaine-addicted Holmes. Williamson's early scenes in Baker Street where we see the extent of the detective's addiction is pretty chilling stuff.

Later, as the detective recovers, we get to see the calculating, adventurous side to Holmes' character, and Williamson is incredibly fun to watch as he runs about turn-of-the-century Vienna alongside Alan Arkin's Sigmund Freud and Robert Duvall's Dr. Watson. Williamson's Holmes is a complex, broken character, and Williamson succeeds brilliantly in pulling off the many facets of the great detective, making his performance one of the best, in what is certainly one of the best Sherlock Holmes films ever made.

Well, that concludes Part I of this countdown. Thinking about it now, the first five on this list was the easy part. As we look at the Top 5 next week, the challenge of ranking the actors became significantly more difficult. Nevertheless, what do you make of the list so far? Feel free to comment below.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Deep Breath"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers. Continue at your own risk...

Hopefully I didn't scare you away with that melodramatic opening. Deep Breath has been an anxiously anticipated episode of Doctor Who, coming after eight very long months of waiting. It also introduced viewers to the new Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi. Did the episode live up to our expectations, or leave us a bit wanting? Let's take a closer look...

The newly-regenerated Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive in Victorian London where they quickly meet up with their old friends, the Paternoster Gang, the trio of detectives led by Madame Vastra. It seems that the Doctor couldn't have arrived at a better time as London is in the midst of a mysterious series of spontaneous combustions. What is causing these incidents, and are they, as the Doctor suspects, a series of murders? All-the-while, Clara is coping with the Doctor's dramatic change and she fears that she no longer knows who the Doctor is anymore as they embark on a dangerous journey and come face-to-face with deadly foes.

In all, Deep Breath was a good episode, and I'd like you to remember that throughout this review. There was much to like about the episode, but it wasn't exactly perfect. I suppose I should tackle the elephant in the room first with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I can really only describe him as "wow!" Already, I can see that Capaldi's Doctor will be markedly different than Matt Smith or David Tennant. Capaldi seems to be a darker character, rough-around-the-edges and more inclined to push the envelope of his own morality. There is a brilliant bit when confronting the Half-Faced Man, pouring the both of them two glasses of scotch, telling him that he truly has no qualms about killing him. Jenna Coleman also shines in the episode. Her character of Clara is added new depth, especially in her own confrontation with the villains. Clara proves to be a strong, able companion.

Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor
The Paternoster Gang made yet another appearance. While they are interesting characters, I think they have been used too much lately. The characters are also I think too closely linked with the Matt Smith era and I suspect that their only real purpose in Deep Breath was to have a few familiar faces around to welcome in the new Doctor. It doesn't seem as though the creative team behind Doctor Who has any intention of letting the gang go anytime soon as the trio are to appear in the upcoming Twelfth Doctor novel Silhouette which has been written by Justin Richards.

Deep Breath was directed by Ben Wheatley, making his Doctor Who directorial debut. Under his direction, the episode looked beautiful. There were some exquisite visuals and Wheatley managed to portray a suitably dark environment in Victorian London. While the episode looked fantastic, Wheatley didn't handle some of the set-pieces quite as well. The death of the dinosaur by the Thames wasn't handled very well, nor was the fight beneath the restaurant handled very well either and it lacked a lot of tension.

The last point which was somewhat disappointing was the tremendous missed opportunity of seeing the Doctor's final confrontation with the Half-Faced Man. There was simply too much ambiguity in the scene and we the audience don't know whether the villain jumped to his own death or if he was pushed. While ambiguous scenes can work if handled right, this one didn't sit well with me as it would have been the perfect opportunity to show the Doctor's new darker character. Did he push the villain? Did he persuade him to jump? What happened?

As I said at the top of this review, Deep Breath was a good episode. It was very-well handled by director Ben Wheatley and the rest of the crew and Peter Capaldi has the makings of a brilliant Doctor. It wasn't a perfect episode, so I award it 3.5 out of 5 stars. In my mind, that is excellent for a show which is trying to radically redefine itself.

Next Week - Into the Dalek by Phil Ford

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review - "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2012)

It seems to be a fairly safe assessment that James Bond has eclipsed many of the other famous names in spy fiction. While Bond is surely the most famous, and probably most loved, it would be unfair not to look at some of the lesser-known names of spy stories. One such name is George Smiley, an aging representative of British Intelligence, who was created by author John le Carre. Smiley debuted in the 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The novel was adapted to the small screen in 1979, receiving much acclaim, and featured Alec Guinness as Smiley. Three decades later, le Carre's work would reach the big screen - the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being the subject of today's review.

Secret agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been chosen by his superior, code-named Control (John Hurt) to undertake a covert mission. Prideaux is to go to Budapest in hopes of meeting a contact who will be able to shed light on a possible mole at work in the British Secret Service. However, the mission is a failure - Prideaux's cover is blown, and he is shot and badly wounded. The scandal rocks the service, forcing Control and one of his senior agents, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to resign. Shortly thereafter, Smiley is brought out of retirement when another agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) uncovers new evidence that a mole is still at large within the British secret service. Alongside fellow agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley narrows his suspects down to a close group of men, among them, one of Smiley's oldest friends Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). As Smiley gets closer to the truth, he discovers that uncovering the mole will be a far more dangerous operation than he ever could have expected.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should perhaps come with a disclaimer of sorts: this is the thinking man's spy thriller. Though car chases and action set pieces can be very entertaining, they are nowhere to be found in this story, Smiley's efforts confined to interviews and testimonies. This can make for potentially arid viewing, but there is something incredibly compelling about the film, and it is rather fast-paced, making it fell shorter than its two-plus hours running time.

What attracted me most to the film was its cast, which in my mind is one of the greatest assembled casts of any film period. In the starring role is the versatile Gary Oldman. Oldman presents a low-key and quiet George Smiley, but he is an incredibly likable character who the audience is certain to rally around in their quest for the truth. It is interesting to note that Oldman was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, and one wonders that if the film had not been released the same year as The Artist (for which Jean Dujardin won the award), how Oldman may have fared. If I had more time I'd elaborate on the parts played by Colin Firth, John Hurt and Benedict Cumberbatch as each of them turned in fine performances, but that can honestly be said of the entire cast.

I have not read le Carre's original novel, nor have I seen the aforementioned 1979 version in its entirety, so I cannot describe how the film fares on those fronts, but I feel compelled to make mention of the production design which was very striking. It is obvious that the film was impressively mounted with great attention to detail. The sets were strikingly created, mirroring the bleak, monochrome nature of the story. Of particular note was the set for the secret service's archive room which provided a nice setting for one of the film's more suspenseful scenes.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a film which exceeded my expectations dramatically. The film featured a wonderfully complex story and boasted excellent performances from some of British cinema's biggest names. Despite being far more grounded than the wham-bang nature of most spy thrillers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should not be missed by those who love the spy genre, or those who enjoy a good, old-fashioned thriller. I therefore give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Commitment to Art

In his book, Starring Sherlock Holmes, author David Stuart Davies asserts that there are two methods of acting when it comes to playing Sherlock Holmes: "It seems that actors approach this difficult part in one of two ways. There are those like Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett, who regard the Holmes canon as their bible, devouring every word and using it as a research tool to aid their characterisation. Other actors, like Robert Powell, who played the detective in Sherlock Holmes - The Musical in the late 1980s, regard the script alone as the sole source of all the information required to play the part."

I am inclined to agree with Davies' assessment as it is clear that some actors throw themselves into the role of Holmes more so than others. However, the question I wish to pose today is which school works better? While it may seem that the actors who commit themselves to Doylean fidelity give the better performances, one cannot overlook such fine portrayals from actors such as Robert Stephens or Nicol Williamson whose approach to the role was markedly different. Today I would like to take a closer look at the actors who are committed to the canon and those who are not.

It has been well documented that Peter Cushing was extraordinarily devoted to the role of Sherlock Holmes. Cushing always went to great lengths to add reality to his characters, but his admiration for the great detective was seemingly unparalleled. What made Cushing's preparations even more incredible was how he often did it in the face of writers, producers and executives who didn't care as much. When Cushing was contacted to star in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles, he was rightly worried when screenwriter Peter Bryan wanted to present a "sexy Sherlock." He made sure that everything from his costumes to set pieces were in order; Cushing would burn holes in his dressing gown with a cigarette to give it the necessary, well-worn look. Cushing even went to great lengths in changing lines of dialogue, especially when the detective discusses his fee. As Cushing recalled: "They had some line which was absolutely wrong, so I asked, 'Why can't we use one that Holmes actually said?' And so we used a line from the story The Problem of Thor Bridge: "My professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether."

When Cushing returned to the role on television in 1968, the lengths he went to for fidelity to Doyle's stories remained the same. Sixteen years later, Cushing's approach to the role would be echoed by Jeremy Brett as well as the entire production staff at Granada who brought the stories to life on the small screen. Granada's intention was to adapt the original stories as faithfully as possible. Before production began, each of the stories were combed over in order to find any little details about Holmes or Watson. The result was a card-covered booklet with 1,200 listings entitled The Baker Street File: A Guide to the Appearance and Habits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This accuracy translated wonderfully to the screen and seldom have some of the tiniest details from the canon been depicted.

Nicol Williamson
While Cushing and Brett have been praised for their performances, there are other actors who have played the great detective who spent less time delving into the canon than others. Of particular note is Nicol Williamson who played Holmes in the 1976 adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. I have given Williamson's performance much praise and my piece on his turn as Holmes can be read here. However, Williamson practically boasted after securing the role that he he had never read any of the original stories nor had he seen a Sherlock Holmes movie. While Williamson may not have received the same praise as some his predecessors, his performance is nevertheless brilliantly realised.

But, there is one chief difference between Williamson and others. While actors such as Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and later Jeremy Brett were trying to interpret Holmes as he had been written, Williamson's Holmes is different - addled by drugs and acting far more neurotic and eccentric than usual. The same can be said of Robert Stephens who played the detective in 1970's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens' Holmes is also at odds with Doyle's original, presenting him as being far more melancholic and morose. This difference in interpretations truly makes the two schools of Sherlockian acting rather incomparable. Williamson and Stephens were not trying to present the detective as he was written, whereas Cushing and Brett were.

But, one thing stands out above everything else: all of the actors discussed herein gave brilliant performances as Holmes, and whether they were influenced by the Doyle canon or not, each one has left a great impact on the history of Sherlock Holmes cinema.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Influence of Sherlock Holmes

When Arthur Conan Doyle sat down to write A Study in Scarlet, he was approaching the mystery genre as a thing which was more-or-less a clean slate. There were of course previous mysteries, the genre having been created by Edgar Allan Poe, and since Poe's initial publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had had their own try at the mystery story. Yet, Doyle's contribution would change the mystery genre forever, revolutionising it and paving the way for sub-genres in the years to come.

First and foremost, Doyle's contribution to the mystery genre was in the presentation of the hero. Prior to Holmes' appearance in the written format, Poe's detective C. Auguste Dupin was the name most associated with mysteries. While Dupin may have the distinction of being the first detective, and his influence on not only Holmes but other investigators to come, he is nevertheless an incredibly dull character, seldom venturing from his armchair to solve a case. What's more, Dupin, and his unnamed associate-cum-narrator, are both verbose and bordering on the pedantic, which in part mirrors Poe's narrative style, but even to the hardened mystery enthusiast, C. Auguste Dupin does not hold a candle to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a compelling character, not only in his eccentricities, but the way he solves his crimes. Holmes balances the logical train of observation and deduction with a healthy dose of action - Holmes' knowledge of martial arts would have been completely alien in the mystery genre created by Edgar Allan Poe. Interestingly, Doyle was also the first to present the magnifying glass as a instrument of detection. The illustration seen above, drawn by D.H. Friston for Beeton's Christmas Annual (which was the first published illustration of the detective) depicts Holmes using the tool of the detective's trade.

The "how-catch-'em" - The Mazarin Stone
The Sherlock Holmes canon also yields a number of interesting precursors to later mystery stories. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes alone serve as templates for many stories which would come later on: The Speckled Band served as one of the first locked-room impossible mysteries, The Boscombe Valley Mystery featured an early example of the traditional puzzle mystery and both A Case of Identity and The Noble Bachelor feature the well-worn mystery plot trope of characters adopting a number of identities. It is also interesting to point out that the collection of short stories also features something of a throwback to Poe's second mystery story The Purloined Letter in the form of A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League would see the go-around later in the canon in both The Stockbroker's Clerk and The Three Garridebs.

As the canon progressed the influence on later generations of mysteries became more evident. The last Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear would serve as one of the first hardboiled detective mysteries (click here to read my evaluation of that novel) and three years later His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes would serve as an early spy story (a rather tepid spy story, but its includes a bit of espionage all the same). Both of these short stories feature a darker edge, particularly The Valley of Fear which features a violent back-story and would serve as a segue to the equally dark final set of short stories The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. The first story in this last collection is The Illustrious Client, surely the most disturbing of all the original short stories. Curiously The Illustrious Client doesn't feature much of a mystery at all and it can be argued that it served as something of a template for the "how-catch-'em" school of mysteries which would come later. A few stories later, this "how-catch-'em" style would return in The Mazarin Stone, which though reviled by many Sherlockians, follows the conventions of that latter genre as Holmes knows the identity of the crime's perpetrators but cannot point the finger of suspicion directly at them.

Holmes Cracks the Code of The Dancing Men
The Holmes mysteries on a few occasions featured secret codes of some kind. Again, though the code-breaking mystery was also the product of Edgar Allan Poe's imagination, making its premier in his short story, The Gold Bug, Doyle's short stories added the deductive, reasoning spin which his other stories boasted. Nowhere else has the code-breaking mystery been so well-done than in The Dancing Men which is actually one of the best plotted of all Doyle's mysteries. The first half works to set up the story as a traditional code-breaking venture, but the second takes the story into the realms of murder mystery, where the story really does pick up speed and affords Holmes some of his finest detective moments.

The revolution of the mystery genre is surely attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle. His works more than any other helped to establish the detective as a figure in literature and following the publication of the original Holmes adventures, a number of other authors tried their hand at writing mysteries, many of their creations being dubbed The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes' influence is felt throughout the history of detective fiction and one wonders if writers such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen or Dorthy L. Sayers could have flourished so greatly without the shadow of Sherlock Holmes standing in the wings.

Are there any influential pieces which I neglected? Feel free to leave a comment below.