Ashes to Ashes: Series 1 (2008)

Monday, 5 October 2009, 3:33 pm | Comments (1)

Ashes to Ashes - Series 1With Life on Mars – and the journey of time-travelling cop Sam Tyler – neatly wrapped up after two stellar seasons, the existence of sequel series Ashes to Ashes clearly owes to one thing and one thing only: Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt.

Philip Glenister's brutish, scene-stealing cop is back front and centre in Ashes to Ashes alongside Life on Mars sidekicks Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), who have left Manchester to tackle the criminal scum of London. The trio are brought back to life when police psychologist Alex Drake (Spooks' Keeley Hawes) awakes in 1981 after being shot during the pursuit of a criminal in 2008. Like Tyler before her, Drake finds herself trapped in the past and working with Hunt and his team.

By the time Ashes to Ashes' first season wrapped up on ABC1 last week, it had more or less escaped the vast shadow of Life on Mars. The season's central arc, which saw Drake fighting to prevent the death of her parents in a car bombing, was engaging stuff, and her urge to return to her daughter in the present day meant Drake's even more determined to return to the present day than Tyler was.

Unfortunately, the show stumbles in overcoming the expectations attached to a sequel series. The transition from Life on Mars' gritty depiction of seventies Britain to the glitz and glamour of the 1980s in Ashes to Ashes is accompanied by a jarring tonal shift; at times, Ashes to Ashes borders on a parody of its predecessor. The ingredients are all there (the Ford Cortina is replaced by an Audi Quattro, the pub by an Italian restaurant and the Test Card girl by a very creepy clown) but there's an obvious sense of self-awareness to Ashes to Ashes that was lacking in the original series. While it may be befitting to Hawes' character, who, having read Sam Tyler's files, is convinced that her awakening in 1981 is all in her head, the jokier tone plays contrary Life on Mars' engaging conviction to its conceit.

(Curiously, the lighter Ashes to Ashes would probably have leant itself better to a US adaptation than Life on Mars did, particularly given the in-vogue setting of the 1980s. It also wouldn't have given US producers the ammunition they needed to make a God-awful literal twist in the final episode.)

Glenister still lends great gusto to Gene Hunt who is now aware that his old school policing methods are soon to be a thing of the past (it's ripe material only hinted at in series one – here's hoping it'll be further explored in future episodes). However, Hunt, like Skelton and Carling (sporting an ace perm), seem to be painted in far broader strokes than they were in Life on Mars – witness the bombastic introduction of Gene Hunt in episode one.

Hawes, meanwhile, eventually comes into her own as Ashes to Ashes ultimately does. Her constant (and occasionally annoying) narration in early episodes makes her a less endearing protagonist than John Simm's instantly likeable Tyler, but Drake's tetchy sparring with Hunt becomes a joy to behold. She also develops an intriguing relationship with Montserrat Lombard's Sharon Granger toward the season's end.

It's difficult to assess the first season of Ashes to Ashes as an independent entity (the show even takes its title from another David Bowie song, just one of dozens of funky '80s tunes to feature), and it was always going to struggle to recapture the brilliance and originality of Life on Mars. However, there's still life left in the show's fish-out-of-water premise and with that awkward transitional phase over, Ashes to Ashes should be well placed to develop an identity of its own as the second season begins tonight.

A View to a Kill (1985)

Sunday, 27 September 2009, 9:52 am | Comments (0)

A View to a KillIt may be the Bond fan's whipping boy, but I can't help but think A View to a Kill scrapes by on charm alone.

In fact, the fourteenth Bond film is a bit like a doddery old relative among the others in the series. It regurgitates familiar stories (the plot is a virtual retread of Goldfinger), meanders and makes little sense (the film's first third is concerned with an irrelevant horse racing subplot), tries to be embarrassingly hip (see Bond snowboarding to a cover of "California Girls") and is generally as creaking and tired as 57-year-old Roger Moore, who reprises the role of James Bond here for the seventh and final time.

But A View to a Kill is also the swansong to a particular kind of Bond film that, as a product of the seventies and eighties, might never see the light of day again. Watching Roger Moore cock his eyebrow through an endless stream of double entendres and wry one-liners is like watching a stand-up comic perform a tried and tested act. Sure, it's familiar but it remains entertaining – and the same could be said for the film itself.

The plot, for what it's worth, sees 007 encounter Christopher Walken's Max Zorin, a French industrialist scheming to destroy Silicon Valley in order to corner the world's microchip market. He's assisted by Grace Jones' androgynous Mayday, while Bond receives help from Tanya Roberts whose air-headed geologist is only as smart as the rocks she studies.

The casting standout, unsurprisingly, is Walken, whose psychopathic performance is classic Bond villain material. All those Walken tics are present and accounted for ("More... more powah..." he stiltedly cries at one point, just moments before chuckling as he falls to his death).

What A View to a Kill lacks in exotic locations (Siberia, France, San Francisco), it more than makes up for in the action stakes. There's the opening ski chase (not a patch on The Spy Who Loved Me's iconic opening, but then, what is?), a daft but enjoyable sequence in which Bond clings to an out-of-control fire engine and a couple of Hitchcockian action sequences involving national landmarks.

And any film that ends with Christopher Walken battling Roger Moore with an axe atop the Golden Gate Bridge can't be all bad.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009, 6:14 pm | Comments (2)

Inglourious BasterdsIt was worth the wait.

Quentin Tarantino has been promising to unleash his World War II epic Inglourious Basterds upon us for over a decade. In the choppy wake of the critic-dividing Grindhouse experiment, Basterds is not only a return-to-form for the acclaimed director – it's perhaps his finest film yet.

Tarantino's love and appreciation of cinema is evident in virtually every frame of Inglourious Basterds; the film itself builds toward a finale set during the premiere of Joseph Goebbels' latest propaganda flick. Ostensibly a revenge tale, Basterds serves up an alternate history of World War II that is ultimately a propaganda movie of its own – and arguably a statement on violence in film.

Inglourious Basterds is perfectly paced, playing out like an on-screen novel; indeed, the film itself is split into five chapters during which Tarantino's knack for dialogue flourishes. Unlike those in most films, Inglourious Basterds' lush, natural conversations play out for longer than a mere couple of minutes – few directors could pull off an opening scene that is a fifteen minute conversation as well as Tarantino does here with an engaging sequence in which a Nazi interrogates a French farmer who may be harbouring Jews.

What follows is a sprawling tale as a vengeance-driven daughter of a slaughtered Jewish family, a defecting German actress, members of the British military, the Nazis and a group of OSS soldiers (the titular Basterds) converge, as characters do in Tarantino films, for a violent confrontation.

Although an ensemble picture, Inglourious Basterds benefits from just one megastar in its cast: Brad Pitt as beefcake Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who leads the Basterds on a mission to collect 100 Nazi scalps each. The rest of the cast (with the possible exception of Mike Myers, whose British general has overtones of Austin Powers) is mostly rounded out by a troupe of capable unknowns.

Two of the movie's stars shine particularly bright: Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfuss, a Jewish girl whose family was murdered by the Nazis, and Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, the man who ordered the deaths. Laurent's moving performance grounds the film in some semblance of reality, while Waltz, quite simply, is phenomenal; his nuanced performance as Inglourious Basterds' main antagonist is indescribable – a dead certainty for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

There are a couple of jarring additions, including one of two sequences narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that overtly explains the explosive properties of nitrate film, but in the wake of some brain-crushingly moronic summer blockbusters, Inglourious Basterds is a gust of fresh air.

As expected for a Tarantino flick, violence abounds, and if you're likely to get squeamish at the sight of Raine and his cronies hacking the scalps off of evil Nazis, you have been warned. But when Tarantino (via Brad Pitt) professes during the film's final scene that Inglourious Basterds may just be his masterpiece, it's very difficult to disagree.

Brüno (2009)

Saturday, 29 August 2009, 9:47 pm | Comments (0)

BrünoThe phenomenon of the difficult second album is alive and kicking in Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to the brilliant (and brilliantly titled) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. But while Brüno doesn't recapture the magic of watching Cohen's hapless Kazakhstan reporter navigate conservative America, it's often hilarious, which is more than can be said for most comedies that wind up in cinemas.

Brüno Gehard is Cohen's third creation from Da Ali G Show. In the guise of a fish-out-of-water documentary à la Borat, Cohen sends the extroverted gay Austrian fashionista to America with one goal: to become famous. In our current celebrity-soaked climate, it's a ripe target for satire and Cohen milks it wonderfully. "I'm going to be the biggest Austrian since Hitler," Brüno proclaims.

What follows is essentially a series of sketches/stunts/pranks loosely strung together by Brüno's pursuit of fame and his assistant's assistant's (no typo there) romantic pursuit of Brüno.

In perhaps the film's most cringe-worthy scene (or at least the most cringe-worthy scene that doesn't involve talking male genitalia), a parade of mothers spruik their babies to Brüno in an effort to have their children feature in a photo shoot. Shockingly, the parents show no qualms about their children potentially having liposuction, wearing Nazi uniforms or appearing crucified as long as their child has a shot at stardom. As an diatribe against fame, Brüno frequently hits a bull's-eye.

Of course, Brüno's other target is prejudice. It's an attack that's only partly successful as Cohen's character obviously embodies all the gay stereotype characteristics that the film itself would aim to stamp out. Fortunately, Cohen's unwitting co-stars are well-picked, including a gobsmacking sequence in which US Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul reacts horribly to Brüno's none-too-subtle passes.

Comparisons to Borat are inevitable given Brüno would never have been made were it not for the surprise box office success of the former picture. This follow-up is a much more uneven film, chiefly for the greater proportion of staged set pieces featured. However, Cohen's knack of nailing those stunts in which he would have had just one chance to do so is consistently impressive. This is never more apparent than during Brüno's joint interview with a Palestinian politician and a former Mossad agent, as well as in a remarkable separate encounter with an alleged terrorist leader.

Cohen's slapstick pratfalling is also a joy to behold. A sequence in which Brüno shows up at a fashion show in Milan while wearing a velcro suit is hilarious in its simplicity.

Brüno's crass, controversial and confrontational humour will obviously not appeal to all, but there are more than enough laughs here to justify a watch for fans of Borat's satirical stunt comedy.

Public Enemies (2009)

Sunday, 23 August 2009, 11:17 am | Comments (4)

Public EnemiesThere's something oddly unengaging about Michael Mann's Public Enemies that keeps the film from achieving greatness. Instead, it's merely good. With the director of Heat and Collateral (we'll overlook that sketchy Miami Vice remake) at the helm, it's disappointing that this tale of John Dillinger, one of history's most infamous criminals, isn't the bona fide classic it had the potential to be.

An adaptation of Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43, Mann's film sees Johnny Depp take on the role of Dillinger with a cool, restrained performance that truly sells the character as a real person. It's the central performance Public Enemies needed, given the script itself is rather light on character development; despite clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, the film wells too often on plot at the expense of character.

Elsewhere, Christian Bale lends his trademark gruffness to Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with hunting down Dillinger and his gang, while Marion Cotillard is Billie Frechette, whose romance with Dillinger is sadly underdeveloped.

The real standout, though, is Billy Crudup (last seen all blue and naked as Dr Manhattan in Watchmen) who brings J. Edgar Hoover to life in a minimal amount of screen time.

Stylistically, Public Enemies is a mixed bag. The film is shot in digital which, while visually impressive, is seemingly at odds with the period setting. It's also quite a claustrophobic picture, with Mann often choosing to rely on tight shots to convey a sense of intimacy with the characters; this is at the expense of a feel for the era, which one doesn't get a sense of until some way into the film.

Thankfully, the picture does gather steam as the FBI closes in on Dillinger and his gang – Public Enemies' denouement is as strong as the rest of the film should have been.

One area that scores a direct hit is the film's sound – the Tommy Gun has never sounded as vivid and powerful as in Public Enemies. Each bullet fired is accompanied by a violent crack. If only the rest of the film were as sharp.

Life on Mars (2006-2007)

Thursday, 13 August 2009, 7:49 pm | Comments (3)

Life on MarsFor those of you wondering whether the experience of enduring Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had turned me off popular culture, fret not. To detox, I've decided to splurge on all the critically-acclaimed telly I missed over the last few years while I was travelling the world, having life-shaping experiences and all that.

The first DVD box sets to land in my shopping basket? BBC's Life on Mars, the time travel/cop show with a premise so balmy it shouldn't work, let alone work so brilliantly.

The excellent John Simm is Sam Tyler, a Manchester police officer who is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. With no idea as to how or why he is living in the past, Sam struggles to fit in with the archaic, corrupt and thuggish 1970s Manchester police force led by Philip Glenister's eminently quotable Gene Hunt.

Tyler's time warp dilemma is mostly a subplot on the show, simmering in the background of each week's fresh, '70s-set police procedural. It's a time when forensic science is a developing field, when suspects and witnesses are treated with equal contempt and when it's perfectly acceptable to halt a murder investigation on account of it being "beer o'clock".

It's testament to the sheer quality of Life on Mars' that at no point does the concept ever feel naff. Jokes about the past and present are sly and subversive without ever seeming too cute; "There will never been a woman Prime Minister as long as I have a hole in my arse," bellows the sexist, racist, alcoholic, homophobe Hunt, who still remains likeable thanks to Glenister's commanding performance.

Dean Andrews as the boorish Ray Carling, Marshall Lancaster as the likeable Chris Skelton and Liz White as love interest Annie Cartwright are all perfect for their parts, but the real focus is wisely kept on Tyler and Hunt; their relationship represents a fascinating contrast between the morals and values of the 1970s and the present day.

Life on Mars is rich on nostalgia, truly capturing the essence of the seventies – the soundtrack is amazing (led by David Bowie's dizzying title track) and the cinematography drenched in all those browns and yellows commonly associated with the decade. This vivid detail of the 1970s constantly plays on Sam's mind, as he fights off voices and visions that suggest he's actually gone insane rather than back in time.

Both seasons deliver a pitch-perfect cocktail of intrigue, humour, action and drama through their highly successful meshing of the science fiction and crime genres. Thanks largely to the strengths of the show's two main actors, Life on Mars also succeeds in being strangely affecting; I challenge any other viewer not to share Sam's mixture of emotions each time he hears a voice beckon to him from the present day.

The programme's creators chose to follow the great British tradition of ending a show at the top of its game, and while Sam's predicament remains almost as intriguingly ambiguous at the end of the show as it was at the start, the finale is perfectly satisfying.

(As an aside, don't get Life on Mars confused with the gratuitous US remake, the finale of which sounds as awful as it is different from that of the UK version.)

If I sound like I'm gushing, it's because I am. Life on Mars is one of the finest shows of the decade. Thoughts on the show's sequel – the 1980s-set Ashes to Ashes, which recently premiered on ABC1 – will be here in the coming weeks.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Sunday, 26 July 2009, 4:35 pm | Comments (1)

Transformers: Revenge of the FallenUp until last week, I thought I understood popular culture. I knew reality television would never produce anyone but absolute cretins. I believed celebrity gossip to be a driving force behind the spread of mankind's stupidity. And I accepted no film would ever bludgeon my senses like 2005's Stealth, the Jamie Foxx actioner about a talking plane that turns evil.

And then I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and suddenly the whole world unravelled before my very bleeding eyes.

Where to start? Perhaps by pointing out that the film's robots (and I'm including the so-called humans in this category for reasons that become clearer with each chunk of moronic dialogue mumbled between explosions) are as soulless, boorish, lumbering, clunky, hulking and unnecessary as the film itself.

Granted, this is a franchise based on a toy line (and an inane one at that) and the first film could only be considered passable in a guilty, check-your-brains-at-the-door kind of way, but my God, Revenge of the Fallen is dumb, even by Transformers standards.

It's pointless dissecting the acting, casting, music, cinematography or direction, as all are as subtle as a cannonball to the face. Quite simply, it's a film where the only thing that's special are the effects, and even those are little more than a forgettable mishmash of pixels.

There's a scene towards the end of the film where, for reasons too moronic to explain, a Decepticon is seen climbing one of Egypt's Great Pyramids. As the camera pans up to reveal the robot, the audience is treated to a bird's-eye view of a pair of giant wrecking balls clanging together. Transformer testicles. Proof positive Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is utter bollocks.

At least I still have the undeniable, unquestionable, irrefutable assumption that no film this vapid will ever become a box office hit. Oh.


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