Wednesday, 29 September 2010

.Coming drama from the BBC...

Just in case you were wondering if or why the BBC is still one of the best TV broadcasters in the world you are cordially invited to do one of two things. Firstly, you can turn on ITV on almost any night of the week and...just despair. Or you can spare three minutes of your time to look at this rather nice preview trailer of some forthcoming BBC drama attractions. There's some rather tasty stuff here, from the BBC's new sci-fi series 'Outcasts', a gritty new thriller called 'The Accused' starring Chris Eccleston, four-part drama 'Single Father' starring David Tennant single father (screening very soon), a biopic starring Ruth Junes about the life of Carry On legend Hattie Jacques, a mini-series reboot for 'Upstairs Downstairs' (due to screen over Christmas)...oh, and the first quick clips of Katherine Jenkins,Michael Gambon and a certain Mr Smith in action in this year's still-untitled Dr Who Christmas Special. The BBC is presently getting all worked up about 'Strictly' (hours and hours of the cheesy stuff until me!) and 'The Apprentice' ("you're fired!" ad infinitum...yawn) but this is the stuff I pay my licence fee for. Bring 'em on.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Coming soon to BBC4...First Men in the Moon....

Stuff would just like to draw to your attention to a forthcoming TV attraction which you really need to keep an eye out for. BBC4, increasingly home to some damned fine TV drama (the recent 'Road to Coronation Street' was probably the best UK single drama I've seen in years), is due to screen what looks like an extremely promising (and surprisingly spectacular) adaptation of H G Wells's fanciful sci-fi drama 'First Men In The Moon', adapted by and starring Mark Gatiss, former 'League of Gentlemen' star whose increasingly-impressive CV includes writing and appearing in the recent BBC smash 'Sherlock' as well as continued contributions to Dr Who (his fourth episode has been filming recently...fingers crossed it's an improvement on his third). Anyway, courtesy of t'BBC, here's a jolly exciting trailer from 'First Men In The Moon', coming your way in October...

Stuff Goes Graphic: Dr Who and the Walking Dead...

You may have noticed, across two glorious – if haphazard – years of my World of Stuff, that I’m not really big on comics. It wasn’t always so; back in the 1970s and, as far as I can remember, into the early 1980s, I was seriously into the mighty world of Marvel Comics (and, sometimes, the slightly less upmarket DC Comics, always ITV to Marvel’s classier BBC1) until, literally overnight, I just lost interest. Just like that, as the other man with the fez used to say. Oh I’ve gone back now and again, tempted by a few of the comic books (or graphic novels as they were dubbed in an effort to make them seem less like...well, comics) which, it was said, raised the form into something a little more respectable and, indeed, respected. But, admirable as they might have been, stuff like ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and even the legendary ‘Watchmen’ left me a bit cold. Nowadays my only real contact with the four-colour world of comics is via occasional perusals of the strip in the monthly ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and, in all honesty, I can take ’em or leave ‘em.

Two things, though, have conspired to drag me back into the world of comics – albeit, I suspect, very briefly. Both of my recent comic book experiences have a strong connection with the world of TV; one of them’s inspired by a long-running TV show, the other has, conversely, inspired what it’s hoped will become a successful genre series. Allow me to introduce you to the BBC’s first full-length ‘Doctor Who’ graphic novel, ‘The Only Good Dalek’ and Image Comics’ ‘The Walking Dead’. Created and written by Robert Kirkman ‘The Walking Dead’ is a dark and brutal zombie apocalypse strip which is about to become a short-run US TV series (although a second, longer run is pretty much guaranteed before the first even airs) masterminded by Frank (“The Mist”) Darabont and starring Britain’s own Andrew (This Life, Teachers, Afterlife) Lincoln.

But let’s look at the good Doctor’s latest comic strip romp first. Because a ‘romp’ is what ‘The Only Good Dalek’ is. Writer Justin Richards has taken the Doctor and, more especially the Daleks, back to the 1960s. In doing so he’s created a bit of a nirvana for long-time fans of the series as the storyline references long-forgotten concepts and creatures from the so-called ‘classic’ series but, to be fair, he manages to do it in a way which doesn’t necessarily alienate newer fans and many of them are throwaway references and foreknowledge isn’t a requisite to enjoying the rather simple Doctor vs Daleks adventure as it rattles across nearly 130 pages. So when the TARDIS pitches up in what appears to be the petrified forest of the Dalek planet Skaro (complete with fossiled Magneton creature), the hardcore will squeal with pleasure – and I shudder to think of the ecstacy overload they’ll experience when Varga plants, Slythers, Robomen, Mechonoids and Ogrons turn up further into the adventure. The adventure itself is as traditional Dr Who as it might be possible to get away with nowadays; this is pure Terry Nation through and through, the Daleks portrayed as the Galaxy-conquering army of thousands with their armada of flying saucers as seen in the legendary old TV21 comic strips, fighting against the black-clad forces of the Special Space Security squad (also a throwback to the 1960s TV show). The story it simplicity itself and that’s its strength. At a remote and secret spaceborn installation called Station 7 humanity gathers and examines Dalek technology collected during Mankind’s unending battle with the might of the Daleks. Station 7 is also home to something which the Daleks themselves are desperate to get their plungers on and even the Doctor becomes alarmed by the nature of Station 7’s research. Is it true that the only good Dalek is a dead Dalek? Or is there another way?

There’s really nothing much wrong with ‘The Only Good Dalek’ – but there’s also nothing at all exceptional about it. It has none of the wit and character nuance of the current Tv series – this is all black-clad soldiers and bearded scientists and they’re all pretty much indistinguishable and they mostly end up as cannon fodder. Station 7’s tough-as-nails Commander Tranter has a prosthetic eye and a secret even he doesn’t know about, and Amy spends a lot of her time in the company of feisty SSS agent Jay. Matt Smith’s Doctor is fairly generically-characterised with only the odd snap of dialogue evoking his TV portrayal and whatever character Amy has on TV (and I’m still not sure what it is) is entirely missing here and Amy could be replaced with any girl’s name you might care to think of, whether it’s one from the history of the TV show or not. The story features the new, squat, multi-coloured Daleks catastrophically introduced in this year’s terrible ‘Victory of the Daleks’ episode and while they work a little better in comic strip form and in greater numbers, they just don’t look right. I still don’t understand why a race of creatures determined to wipe out everything in the cosmos which isn’t them would want to inspire terror and fear by colouring themselves like party balloons (“Argh, look at those Daleks...ooh, doesn’t that bright red colour look lovely??”) and even in strip form the new design is fat, ugly, awkward and angular with those jutting-out shoulder panels and clumsy scart-studded back panel. The Daleks just don’t look scary any more despite the fact the basic shape remains and no matter how many swathes of them we see in ‘The Only Good Dalek’, they somehow don’t quite seem like Daleks any more. Artist Mike Collins, however, does the best he can and manages to give the new Daleks at least a bit of their former status in some dynamic, ferocious action panels highly reminiscent of the classic Dalek strips of the 1960s.

And at the end of the day, ‘The Only Good Dalek’ is clearly designed to absolutely evoke the space opera ethos of the 1960s Dalek adventures both on TV and in comic strip form. In that respect it offers nothing new, it’s highly retro and, despite the relentlessly one-note nature of its storytelling, it’s huge fun and, if nothing else, it’s a real rattling page-turner.

‘The Walking Dead’, however, is another matter entirely. This is tough, bleak, dark and brutal stuff – but then we’re in the ‘adult’ world of the real graphic novel here, where blood is spilt and swear words abound. We’re also in the familiar territory of the zombie apocalypse in a continuing story – the comic book itself is at around issue 75 now, I understand – designed by its creator Robert Kirkman who, as fan of zombie cinema, became frustrated by the fact that zombie films, however good they may be, just end when their story’s told. Kirkman wanted to know what happened next, what further trials the characters might endure. So he created ‘The Walking Dead’ where the familiar zombie Armageddon is just the jumping-off point for stories of human survival in adversity, how the human spirit struggles and thrives when all around has fallen to pieces. I’ve always enjoyed these sorts of stories, of course – from ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘Survivors’ on TV, through movies like ‘I Am Legend’, ‘Book of Eli’ and the desperately-bleak ‘The Road’ and any number of literary apocalypses courtesy of writers like John Christopher and Simon Clark to name just two I can remember because I can’t be bothered looking up any others. Tell it like it is.

‘The Walking Dead’, with its stark yet oddly-realistic artwork by Tony Moore, kicks off with Atlanta cop Rick Grimes, injured in a highway shoot-out, waking up in a desolate, deserted hospital. In the best traditions of ‘Triffids’ and ’28 Days Later’ Grimes stumbles about trying to orientate himself and finds that the world’s a very different place from the one he was last conscious in. Yep, there’s been some sort of zombie virus – the strips’ a bit vague on that one – and humanity has been routed, the dead have risen and they’re munching on the survivors. Grimes, bewildered and afraid, sets off to find his wife and son, making his way to nearby Atlanta where, he’s told, other survivors have congregated for protection. When he finally gets to the city he’s in for a bit of a shock...

Now it’s early days for me and ‘The Walking Dead’. The first graphic novel collection, ‘Days Gone Bye’, collects just the first six issues of the comic and so far the story’s not really done anything new with the genre beyond fleshing out its core characters and confronting the reality of trying to keep the essence of humanity alive in a world where it’s pretty much gone for good. Rick pitches up with a group of survivors in a rickety settlement just outside the city and here we meet a disparate cast of supporting characters all of whom have their own stories to tell and their own human dramas to come to terms with. There’s gore and adventure too; at one point Rick ventures into the city for supplies, smearing himself in bits of decaying zombie corpse to distract the zombie hordes wandering the streets of the city. Plus there’s plenty of biting, chomping and shooting – the stuff of your traditional zombie apocalypse yarn.

‘The Walking Dead’ is an impressive piece of work, though. Moore’s style is hugely visual (early trailers for the TV series – there’s one down below, incidentally - recreate memorable images from the strip) and expressive and Kirkman’s powerful, unpretentious writing means it’s easy to become involved with the characters and their crises and, by the end of the first graphic novel, I think I was sufficiently hooked to want to come back for more.

While I’m on a zombie ‘tip’, as it were, just time for me to give a bit of a ‘shout out’ for a new DVD release. ‘The Horde’ is, in fact, a French zombie horror, given a brief cinema release before making its way onto DVD. ‘The Horde’ is frantic, mental stuff. A crack troop of elite cops infiltrate a staggeringly-rundown block of flats somewhere in Paris to break up a brutal bunch of drug-dealing gangsters. Wouldn’t you know it, it all goes horribly wrong, not least in the sense that there’s suddenly a - gasp – zombie apocalypse and the block is suddenly under siege from hundreds of fast-moving, ravenous undead looking for a quick bite. It’s a veritable horde of ‘em, in fact (hence the name). ‘The Horde’ rushes along at 100 mph; it’s barking mad, with virtually non-stop zombie slaughter, machine-gun action and, most curiously, hand-to-hand zombie combat. It’s more of an action film than a horror movie and the publicity describing it as the ‘Die Hard’ of the zombie genre probably isn’t too far from the truth. It’s fair to say there’s been a bit of zombie overkill in the last few years and I’m really not sure how many more zombie movies we can be reasonably expected to tolerate but ‘The Horde’ is super-adrenalized stuff from start to finish and if you’re in the mood for some blood-crazed nonsense, it’s worth 90-odd minutes of your time, it really is.

Coming soon to the FX Channel in the UK: The Walking Dead...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Stuff's back...summer movie round-up!!

Hey, it's been a long time. How you doing?? Stuff's back from its summer holidays - an entirely unplanned one, as it happens. Rest assured I've not just been sitting around in my pants watching old TV shows on DVD (well, not all the time) but circumstances have kept me away from posting for a while. Having just notched up 2 years of Stuff (albeit a pretty quiet second one) it's onwards and upwards now with far more regular psoting throughout the autumn and winter. To get us back up and running, a quick rundown of some of the big (and not so big) summer movies, the films you'll be snapping up in time for Christmas if you missed 'em on the big screen. 'ere we go...

Of course I’ve seen ‘Inception’. What sort of a cinematic equivalent of a luddite do you think I am?? In fact, I saw ‘inception’ twice and there’s every possibility I’ll see it again when it arrive son DVD. I’m very glad I saw it twice because first time, frankly, I was scratching my head after thirty minutes and pretty much lost by the time we reached the shock ‘twist’ ending – which left the audience gasping and oohing and ahhing and me just going “What just happened?” Second time’s a winner though; this is where ‘Inception’ starts to make sense (only starts, mind you). I remain a bit ambivalent about Christopher Nolan, the director touted by many as the Great Saviour of modern cinema. His ‘Batman’ films leave me cold, I loved his version of ‘Insomnia’ (the Nolan film most cinephiles are coldest about) and admired ‘The Prestige’ and I’ll admit my three-disc ‘Memento’ DVD stares balefully at me from me shelf demanding that I take up the challenge and actually just watched the damn thing. but I’m scared of it, it’s all backwards apparently! So I’m wary of Nolan’s movies, and maybe, to my own shame, it’s because I know I’m going to be challenged and expected to use my grey matter in an era when lots of CGI and blowing stuff up is thought to be enough to tell a story. Nolan doesn’t play those games; he uses those toys but he has his own rules.

‘Inception’, then, is a real mind-mangler. You’ve surely seen it so I won’t bore you with the details of what I’ve gleaned of the plot but it’s built upon the tantalising premise that it’s possible to infiltrate someone’s dreams and steal their ideas. Loenardo DiTitanic plays Cobb, an intense and troubled ‘corporate raider’ who is hired to do something rather different; he’s charged with planting an idea into a business rival’s mind through dreams. Like some warped ‘Oceans 11’ Cobb sets about assembling a team of experts to help him, including new girl Ariadne (Ellen Page, thankfully far less irritating than her smart-mouthed turn as ‘Juno’) who, by being new to the technology and the concepts, acts as our “But what…?” girl throughout the movie although even she has a moment where she’s required to ask “Whose dream are we in now??”

It’s when the mind-heist starts that the film really starts to get brow-furrowing as Cobb and his gang penetrate deeper and deep into their victim’s subconscious until the audience is never really sure which unreality they’re in and how far away from the real world they’ve drifted. Along the way the film is punctuated by bravura action sequences – ferocious gunbattles (one of which is an achingly-loving homage to ‘Oh Her Majesty’s Secret Service’) and some astonishing special FX as cities fold back in on themselves and landscapes collapse like decks of cards.

‘Inception’ is as multi-layered as the minds its characters invade and, unusually for a modern multiplex movie, it demands your absolute attention from start to finish; anything else means you’ve lost your way and once you’ve lost your way in ‘Inception’ it’s the Devil’s job to find your way back. Yet again DiCaprio reaffirms his position as one of modern Hollywood’s most intriguing star names and ultimately ‘Inception’ is a broad, intoxicating, intelligent and yes, a sometimes frustratingly opaque movie. But it’s a movie like no other and it’s one you’ll find yourself revisiting rather more than the more obvious blockbusters of the last few years. Film of the year? Well, not for me…that’s still either ‘Kick Ass’ or ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ but in a year punctuated by stale warmed-up sequels and misfiring action movies, ‘Inception’ is a breath of fresh, if somewhat occasionally foggy air.

What can you say about a film as dumb as ‘Piranha 3D’? I mean, it absolutely does what it says in the tin and it does it with its tongue lodged so firmly in its cheek it’s virtually breaking through the skin. I’m still not sold on 3D movies because I’ve still not seen one which uses the technology to advance the story; it’s all about throwing things or jabbing things at the audience. No-one’s using it to support the narrative (excuse the pretension) and when, in ‘Piranha 3D’, a killer fish consumes Jerry O’Connell’s bloodied manhood, swims off with it, swims back into frame and coughs it up, burping as the…appendage floats out of the screen towards us, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever will. Notionally a sequel to the two 1980s Piranha movies (the second of which was directed, in part, by James Cameron, fact fans) this is, in so many ways, more of the same with a bit more gore. An underwater tremor opens a sea-floor fissure through which swim shoals of prehistoric piranha. This, obviously, occurs in the vicinity of a breach town on sleepy Lake Victoria. Worried local sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), investigating some grisly slayings on the lake, fails to get the semi-naked party-frenzied spring break teens to “get out of the water” and it’s not exactly spoiling the movie’s great secret to reveal that the kids are attacked by piranhas and ripped to bits – with plenty of blood, exploding heads and severed limbs hurtling across the screen. Elsewhere Julie’s kids (one nervous teen, two yappy under-tens) have somehow become involved with a local pornographer (O’Connell) making the softest of soft-core porn movies on his yacht (the underwater naked lesbian dancing clinch scene is real laugh out loud stuff) and it’s not long before the yacht is breached and starts to sink whilst the piranhas circle hungrily and snappily.

Utter nonsense from start to finish but directed by Alexandra (Hills Have Eyes) Aja with gusto if not much regard for narrative logic. There are some funs cameos amidst the buckets of blood including Eli Roth as a party-goer who gets decapitated, Christopher Lloyd in his default loony scientist mode, and Richard Dreyfuss acknowledging his legendary role in ‘Jaws’ and taking an early, bloody bath.

Tom Cruise can’t do right for doing wrong these days and his star seems to be on the wane morĂ© through a campaign of attrition rather than due to the quality of his movies. he’s back this summer along with Cameron Diaz in the frothy, thrilling ‘Night and Day’ which has been panned to high heaven by sniffy critics tired of Cruise’s wholesomeness (he’s a family man, doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t have affairs – shock! horror!) despite the fact it’s been a welcome shaft of good old-fashioned action/romcom adventure in a sadly lacking cinema summer. Cruise plays secret agent Roy Miller who engineers an airport encounter with ditzy June Havens (Cameron Diaz) for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious but soon become clear as we realise that Miller’s on the run from his superiors who have decided he’s outlived his field usefulness. There’s something familiar about ‘Knight and Day’ as it marries elements of films as diverse as ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ without bring much new to the table, it’s true. But Cruise is always good value and here he’s at his best, mixing a twinkling humour with a cold-blooded ruthlessness and Diaz, out of her depth, desperate to get back to her normal life and yet finding herself caught in Miller’s wild slipstream, gives depth to a character which could have been a one-dimensional whining stereotype. It’s a real worldwide travelogue, too, with scenes in Austria, the US, the UK, and most points in between. Great action sequences, stunning car chases, visceral fights – ‘Knight and Day’ is pretty much a perfect popcorn concoction and although it may have sold itself short at the Box office, it’s one worth seeking out when it hits DVD later in the year.

Which is more than I can say for ‘The A Team’. Hollywood’s obsession with plundering tis TV past continues despite the bellyflop of films likew ‘Bewitched’, ‘Lost in Space’, ‘Starskly and Hutch’ and numerous others. The movie versions always miss the point of the originals, jettisoning the charm of a TV show and replacing it with mindless spectacle and tongue-in-cheek scripts. Of course ‘The A Team’ was fairly tongue-in-cheek to start with so it’s hard to work out why the movie version seems to underpowered. Maybe it’s she sheer bloody-minded emptiness of it or maybe it’s just the noise or the idiocy of some of s set pieces – the parachuting tank is one stunt contrary to the laws of phsyics too far for Stuff’s liking. Or maybe it’s just the casting – it doesn’t really work. Liam Neeson looks vaguely embarrassed as A Team head honcho Hannibal Smith, charged with putting together a crack team to liberate some currency printing plates from Iraq only to find themselves framed for something else and imprisoned when they get home. Fortunately they busy loose, kick ass (not in a good way) and clear their names – yet still end up on the run for sequels which, hopefully, will never be made. Smith is joined by Sharlto Copley as the borderline clinically-insane ‘Howlin’ Mann’ Murdock, a character so endlessly irritating you really crave a stray bullet to put him out of our misery. then there’s bland smoothie Templeton ‘Face’ Peck (Bradley Cooper) and, worst of all, a wrestler called Quinton ‘Rampage’ Johnson as the legendary BA Baracus. The original BA was of course played by bling-crazed Mr T whose portrayal and real-life persona were so larger-than-life he’s pretty much irreplaceable. Johnson doesn’t come close. Not much of an actor, he has no real screen presence or charisma and a mid-movie decision to make Baracus discovers religion and eschew violence pretty much robs the character of any purpose.

‘The A Team’ is a mess because it makes the mistake of not even trying to take itself seriously. The stunts and actions sequences are either ridiculous (the tank) or bafflingly pointless (the climax involving all the container crates) and even a bit of knowing self-referencing (an imprisoned Murdock is watching an old ‘A Team’ episode on TV) can’t salvage much from this noisy, raucous, dead-headed piece of trash aimed at the attention-deficit crowd. having said that, like last year’s similarly-stupid ‘GI Joe’ it’s not offensively bad it’s just not a movie likely to enamour itself to many fans of the TV version and it’s certainly not a film you’re going to remember much about three days after you’ve seen it.

Angelina Jolie is back in action-heroine mode in the moody, pacey ‘Salt. another film clearly set up to launch a franchise and, by virtue of the fact that it’s actually quite good, more likely to earn one than ‘The A Team’. The titular Evelyn Salt is clearly being pitched as a female Jason Bourne; she starts out as a quiet CIA agent craving piece and tranquillity and domestic bliss. When an apprehended Russian defector ‘outs’ her as a Russian spy, Evelyn, despite her protestations of innocence, has to go on the run and fast. This involve outlandish chases and escapes – one sequence sees her leapfrogging from vehicle roof to roof across a busy freeway, another has her climbing a lift shaft wall like some human fly – as she keeps one step ahead of her CIA pursuers, particularly the cool-headed Liev Shrieber, her friend and confidant who may have his own secrets.

The sort of action flick is scarcely new territory for luscious, putting Angelina – she’s been here before in the underrated ‘Tomb Raider’ movies and the ridiculous ‘Wanted’. ‘Salt’ is better because there’s some humanity in the characters and the audience is rooting for Evelyn as she tries to evade capture and even when it suddenly becomes clear that there’s more to her than meets the eye. At 90 minutes this is a fast and furious film with no noticeable flab and plenty of bang for your back. Ending with Evelyn on the run, let’s hope ‘Salt’ has left enough Box office flavouring (eh?) to generate a sequel because I’m always up for a bit of Angelina action. If you know what I mean…