Tag Archive: United Kingdom

(Quick aside before my actual review. As always. Yes, I realize that my last three films have been from the 1950s now. I was supposed to review Woody Allen’s 1990s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors but the copy of it that I got sent from Netflix was cracked so there was no dice there. If I review a film tomorrow [which I may not because I’m going to be working on the new Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti album for my NYC job and I also have to see my academic adviser for Morgantown school life], it’s going to be the more modern Like Water for Chocolate. So for those of you who have grown tired of me reviewing so many older films, that should change shortly.)

It’s one of the rare pleasures of watching an absurd number of movies that you get to see when future directors lift entire scenes from older films to suit their homage/genre feature purposes. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for it, almost to the point that he’s been accused of plagiarism (although I’ll let it slide for Tarantino since they are such loving [and usually awesome] scenes that are better remembered than the films he cribbed from). One can put in the Indiana Jones films and go back and look at old adventure serials to see exactly which scenes Lucas and Spielberg took from to make the movie. The 1955 World War II “classic”, The Dam Busters, was liberally stolen from in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope for the Death Star sequences. An interesting and surprisingly science-driven look at one of the lesser known aspects of World War II, The Dam Busters is an educating film if not quite an entertaining one.

In the waning months of the European campaign of World War II, British military scientist Doctor Wallis (Michael Redgrave) believes he has come up with a way to cripple the German industrial machine. Most of German’s steel manufacturing at the time was reliant on power generated by hydro-electric dams, and if one were to knock those dams out, the German’s ability to continue to arm themselves would be crippled. Doctor Wallis devises a “bouncing” bomb to be delivered by highly trained fighter pilots to breach the German defenses and blow up the dams. After much fighting with the British government, his plan is eventually approved, and with the help of ace pilot Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), the Brits train an elite cadre of pilots to fly behind German lines and lay the groundwork for the ultimate Allied victory.

Much like The Longest Day (but without suffering that film’s interminable length), The Dam Busters works more as a history lesson than a dramatic film. Roughly the only character traits developed in this film is Commander Gibson’s love of his dog (whose racist name I will not be printing in this review). Other than that, everyone from the top down is a bland mix of archetypal World War II caricatures. Even when the flyboys let off some steam by getting into a playful fight with another group of airmen, you feel like you’re watching more a bland representation of a historical occurrence than a moment which could have shown the boiling tension these men are facing before they go off on a possible suicide mission. The only times when the film’s History Channel presentation has any life (besides the climactic final mission) are the small science moments where Michael Redgrave delights over his own ingenuity.

However, during the bombing missions themselves, I must admit that I let out some mild squeals of glee when I saw just how many images from the iconic Death Star scenes were taken from this movie. Whether it’s the turret run, trying to hit an almost impossible target, the sights on Luke’s Tie-Fighter (or do the Rebels use X-Wings? I can never remember. I’m sure some nerd will correct me), or even some of the dialogue on how their voices sound on the comm systems, it really was just a real life version of the big battle in A New Hope. The film was nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar, and while some of the artillery fire and flak may seem really fake looking today, it’s obvious that The Dam Busters was a major technical achievement when it was first released. There is just something inherently thrilling about dogfights, and The Dam Busters delivers the goods.

For those who don’t find themselves enamored with the minutiae of history, The Dam Busters may come off as a terrible bore. The characters are all instantly forgettable, and it isn’t until the final thirty minutes or so of the film that any action ever actually happens. However, for World War II buffs and those interested in the lesser-explored sides of military history, it has its moments. It’s one of the only military dramas I can think of where a scientist was one of the primary heroes. That has to count for something. Peter Jackson has long been rumored to be working on a remake of the film. If that ever comes to fruition (after the three Hobbit films [serious overkill]), I could find myself getting very excited for the direction he could take this compelling story.

Final Score: B-

The Academy Awards has a really annoying habit of awarding Oscars to filmmakers and actors/actresses based on their “career” rather than the particular film they’ve been nominated for. As much I love the original True Grit, I would never say it was one of John Wayne’s best performances and I don’t think he gave half the performance of Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Similarly, The Departed is a really fun crime film but it’s towards the bottom of Scorsese’s body of work and it wasn’t nearly as exceptional as Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. I could go on with lists like these all day. I truly believe that Meryl Streep might be the greatest actress of all time, but her third Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady has to be one of the biggest screw-ups since someone thought it was a good idea to nominate Sandra Bullock for Best Actress (let alone let her win). Let there be no mistakes, Meryl Streep gives another phenomenal performance in this film. She’s the greatest actress of her age, but there were two far more astonishing and fiery performances from breakthrough actresses (Viola Davis and Rooney Mara) that deserved this award more. Instead, the Academy chose yet again to honor someone’s career rather than the actual best from that year. It doesn’t help that this film is historical biopic disaster but more on that later.

The film shuttles back and forth between the present (I was very shocked to learn that Margaret Thatcher was still alive. She’s only 86.) and Thatcher’s (Meryl Streep’s) younger days both before joining Parliament and her eventual reign as England’s first female Prime Minister. In the modern day, Thatcher is in the grips of dementia, suffering from hallucinations of her long dead husband Dennis (Harry Potter’s Jim Broadbent in the present, Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd in the past) and unable to tell when or where she is or remember the whereabouts of her estranged son. Over the course of a troubled day where she is giving away her husband’s belongings and finds herself reminiscing over the many years she devoted to public service and to the fierce battles she waged against the entrenched forces controlling the government. Whether it was breaking the back of Britain’s labor unions, declaring war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, or deregulating virtually every major industry in England, Thatcher left a legacy of legislative accomplishments (whether they are good or terribly evil is up for you to decide) that are all she has to comfort in her old age and frazzled mental state.

I realize I spent my entire opening paragraph attacking the Academy’s decision to award the Best Actress honors to Meryl Streep, but regardless, she was as excellent as she’s ever been in this role. I couldn’t get a handle on where the filmmaker’s political loyalties lie (which is perhaps why I felt the film was such a muddled mess with its blurry and fleeting description of historical events with no real context or statement) but Streep did her damnedest to make Thatcher as sympathetic a figure as possible. While I still believe that her makeup did a significant portion of her acting in the sequences where she was an old woman (the film’s Best Makeup Oscar was well-deserved), there was an incredible amount of nuance to her performance. She showed the nastier sides of Thatcher (her ambition, her pride, her lack of tact), but we also saw her as a loving wife and as a frail, vulnerable old woman as opposed to the image of the “iron lady” that is so popular in the modern retellings of her legacy. Streep will be (and almost already is) one of the legends of the big screen that will be uttered in the same breath as Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe (in terms of cultural impact. All of those actresses are infinitely better than Monroe). If anyone doubted her ability to project the fierceness and toughness that Thatcher possessed, they obviously weren’t familiar with Streep’s career. However, what was most impressive was her ability to add in all of Thatcher’s weaknesses so naturally and in such an understated manner among side her most glaring features.

However, as great as Streep was, the film’s script is a terrible mess.  I appreciate the attempts to humanize Margaret Thatcher by showing her as the mentally deteriorating old woman she’s become, but it causes the meditations on her political legacy to be weak and without substance. I’m going to betray my own political leanings here when I say that I think Margaret Thatcher was one of the most despicable figures of the post WW II world (along with her buddy Ronald Reagan), and she did more to set England on the road to fascism than the threat of Hitler ever did (Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was largely a response to “Thatcherism”). So, how does the film handle the controversial political legacy of one of England’s most divisive figures? It treats them as pat transitional scenes with little thought towards the effects that her heavy-handed political decision making ultimately caused. The film makes no judgments on her decisions, only the resoluteness and obstinancy with which she made them. I just don’t think you can make a film about Margaret Thatcher and not have it make an ultimate statement about her political legacy one way or the other. This film took the easiest way out when discussing her achievements, and for all history buffs and political junkies, it will obviously suffer for it. I can’t even imagine that Thatcher’s admirers will enjoy the way the film has almost nothing to say (besides repeating historical facts) about her time at 10 Downing Street.

Besides Streep’s virtuoso performance, the only other thing the film had going for it was the elements of surrealism that creeped in when we witnessed the elderly Thatcher at the lowest depths of her dementia. It added a stylistic touch that at times made up for the dryness of the storytelling. At the end of the day though, this film was a dud, and if the Iron Lady herself still had the mental faculties to see this film, I can’t imagine she’d appreciate the weak picture it painted of her (the film’s weaknesses not her own). I can only recommend it to the most stalwart Meryl Streep fans and to those who take it upon themselves to see the year’s culturally relevant films (Meryl Streep’s Oscar win makes it one such film). Everyone else can give this tepid and overwrought biopic a pass.

Final Score: C+

Here’s another thing that I should have finished writing about on Sunday but I found myself postponed because of the Oscars that night and then my birthday/going out with a friend on Monday. Regardless, it is now time to write about the second disc of Matt Smith’s initial season as the Doctor (even if I’ve already seen the first episode of the next because I couldn’t stand not knowing how the two-parter that begins in episode four ends). All I can say so far about this season is that I don’t understand why people have a problem with Matt Smith whatsoever. I said something along these lines in my last post about this season, but it bears repeating. Matt Smith hasn’t proven himself to be a superior Doctor to David Tennant yet, but in just five episodes (cause like I said, I’ve seen one more), Steven Moffat has done more to revitalize and re-imagine this series than Russel T. Davies was able to accomplish in his entire tenure. Yeah, he’s begun to flagrantly ignore the established canon of the series, but he does it in a very clever and meta way, and I approve.

After receiving a phone call in the TARDIS from Winston Churchill, the Doctor and Amy travel to 1940’s London at the height of the blitz (when the Doctor is in the blitz, you know it’s going to be a good episode) to inspect new technology that Churchill believes will help England win the war. The Doctor arrives three months after the message went out (in Churchill’s time) because the newly regenerated TARDIS is still a little sticky about getting time right. In the interim, Churchill has already rolled out his tech which turn out to be Daleks that a Scottish scientist claims to have invented. It turns out the Daleks made the scientist (who is a robot) and have been biding their time to create a new production line that rolls out the next evolution of the Daleks because the Doctor fails to stop them from being created or escaping (though he does save humanity). In the next episode (which is part 1 of a two-parter), the Doctor gets a message from River Song thousands and thousands of years in the future (and millennia after she had sent the message) to rescue her which the Doctor does in predictably awesome fashion. However, there problems have only just begun when River (who is the prisoner of a religious order of warrior space marine/monks) leads an investigation of a ship that contains the universe’s last weeping Angel. Little do the Doctor, Amy, and River know that the labyrinth where the ship crashed is also home of thousands of Angels who have spent the millennia dormant but are just about to wake up.

“Victory of the Daleks” is in the running for my favorite Dalek story that wasn’t the Season 2 finale. I loved that the Doctor was able to stop the Daleks from helping the Nazis destroy London but he was unable to do any damage whatsoever to these newly formed Daleks (I loved the colorful nature of their new design. They don’t seem quite so monotonous anymore) and he essentially lost the same kind of battle that always trips up superheroes like Batman and Superman where he has to let the bad guys get away to save people he cares about. Too often, it seems as if the Doctor has achieved a near total victory over enemies like the Daleks and Cybermen and then the series provides a massive retcon to allow them to return. Here, we at least know, these guys are out there biding their time til they can return and there won’t have to be some ridiculous excuse plot for why they’ve returned. “The Time of Angels” was the real star of the disc though. It may not have been as good as the original weeping angels story, “Blink,” but it was damn close. It was wonderful to see the return of River Song and we get another layer of her as yet incredibly unexplained relationship with the Doctor, but she has such a playful and flirtatious nature with both Matt Smith and David Tennant that it doesn’t matter that she’s basically still just an enigma wrapped in a mystery ( I feel like I screwed that quote up). Also, it was simply terrifying. The Weeping Angels are unbelievably frightening, and it ended on an absolutely massive cliffhanger. The pacing was phenomenal and there was much more action in this story than the original “Blink”. I’m just glad I know how it all ends (brilliantly).

I’m going to keep this reviews length to a minimum because I really want to have it up before the new episode of Justified starts in ten minutes. All in all, I’m really excited about where this season is going. I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that it might be my favorite season of the show yet, and there’s a possibility that I think Matt Smith was better suited to the role of the Doctor than Christopher Eccleston was (and I really love Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor [he was my first]). I can’t wait to see where Steven Moffat takes everything, and I love the fact that he’s really made an effort to incorporate what ever cosmic threat that promises to destroy the universe this season into the regular episodes much more naturally but also more emphatically than Russel T. Davies had during his tenure. With the exception of Bad Wolf, all of the big bads at the end of the season, only seemed especially noticeable in retrospect. I’m down for the rest of this Doctor’s travels, and I can’t believe there was ever a time when I was scared to begin this season.

Final Score: A-

Well, back when I finished “The End of Time,” David Tennant’s last go as the Doctor, I promised myself that I would take an extended hiatus from Doctor Who so that I could watch some other programs. I had become so attached to David Tennant as the Doctor that I wanted to give myself some time to get over losing him and being forced to adjust to a brand new person (and by proxy a brand new companion) playing everyone’s favorite time-traveling alien. Well, I guess we can say I didn’t end up keeping that promise to myself. I made a friend here in NYC who is also a fan of Doctor Who (and ran into Matt Smith on the streets of Manhattan) who convinced me that I should get over my reservations about Matt Smith as the Doctor (because he has developed a fairly intense hatedom over the years [mainly because he isn’t David Tennant]) and just jump into Steven Moffat’s reign as the head writer of the series. After watching the first season of Mad Men and the fifth season of Dexter, it was obvious that it was time for me to come back to Doctor Who, and I’m so glad I did. Matt Smith is no David Tennant, but he’s deliciously bizarre take on the Doctor along with Moffat’s always stellar writing means this could be the most well-written (if not most loveable) incarnation of the Doctor yet.

After the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration into his current form (Matt Smith) caused the entire TARDIS to essentially burst into flames, the newly regenerated Eleventh Doctor crash-lands into the garden of  a young Scottish girl (living in England) named Amy Pond. Amy’s terrified of the crack in her wall and the voices she hears at night that seem to be coming from the crack. After the Doctor eats all of the food in her house (and hilariously spits most of it out), he investigates the crack which is a crack in space-time itself and features a proclamation that someone named Prisoner Zero has escaped. The TARDIS (which has also regenerated) nearly melts down again and the Doctor promises Amy that he’ll be back in five minutes after he fixes the TARDIS. Cue 12 years later in Amy’s time (and 5 minutes later for the Doctor), and the Doctor finally returns to Earth to find Amy all grown-up (and now the unbelievably sexy Karen Gillan). Having spent her entire life being told that the Doctor was a figment of her over-active imagination, Amy is both relieved and irritated to finally see the Doctor show up after all these years. This being the Doctor though, their reunion is anything but peaceful when an alien species known as the Atraxi return to Earth to capture the shape-shifting Prisoner Zero and threaten to incinerate the entire Earth if he doesn’t surrender. The Doctor helps the Atraxi capture Prisoner Zero and then chews them out for threatening Earth with a classic bad-ass Doctor boast. The Doctor leaves Amy momentarily, but once again, he thinks a couple minutes have passed and it’s been another two years with the Doctor returning on the night before Amy’s wedding to her boyfriend Rory. The Doctor whisks her away for an adventure where they visit the U.K. in space on a starship where children are disappearing and everything isn’t as it seems.

The most obvious way to begin my critique of this new season would be to examine the new Doctor, and that’s obviously where I’m going to start. Matt Smith has been great so far. He’s perhaps even more bizarre and outright alien than even David Tennant was. It seems like the well of his eccentricities is endless, but when he’s required to be serious, he handles the dramatic material just fine. Everyone loves David Tennant because he was simply so charming and adorkable. Matt Smith isn’t trying to make his Doctor as likeable. Instead, he’s just a really strange but empathetic alien with a serious anger streak when it comes to A) the Daleks (I’ve seen one more episode past this disc) and B ) needless pain and suffering. However, me might be the most hilarious Doctor I’ve seen yet. Whenever he isn’t in full-blown serious mode, he’s generally making me laugh with some truly outrageous thing he’s said or done (“I wear bow ties now. Bow ties are cool.”). Karen Gillan obviously needs brought up as well. So far, she seems to have more personality and charisma after three episodes than either Donna or Martha ever had. She’s not quite as endearing as Rose at the moment, but she’s infinitely more attractive. I apologize if this comes off as chauvinistic, but Karen Gillan is just unbelievably gorgeous. I’m curious to see what route they take her character down especially since she’s engaged to be married, and I feel like poor Rory is going to get the same emotional neglect that Mickey had to deal with.

Stephen Moffat wrote both of these episodes and while I’m not sure if either of them were as good as “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” or the WWII blitz or first River song two-parters but they were still well-written and very creepy in their own ways. Steven Moffat has an unmatched ability to subvert all of the traditional cliches and tropes of a Doctor Who story all while subtly scaring the bejeejus out of grown men. This may seem heretical, but I’m going to call Matt Smith’s introductory episode “The Eleventh Hour,” a far better introduction than either Christopher Eccleston (who had sort of an awful pilot) or David Tennant. I feel like it nailed the essence of his character which is the most important introduction of a new Doctor (it took nearly half a season to really understand Christopher Eccleston) while simultaneously delivering an excellent story (David Tennant was barely present for his initial introduction episode). This could have been a self-contained story for either of the other Doctors and would it have been stellar quality. The fact that it introduced a whole new Doctor made it even better. “The Beast Below” was just as good and shows a more morally ambiguous side for this Doctor than we’ve seen in the past.

I’ll draw this to a close. I’m very excited about this new series. Like I said, I’ve actually already watched the third episode (Daleks and Winston Churchill!), and episode four is going to involve the Weeping Angels! I mean, you literally can’t top that. A great (imo) Dalek story followed by a Weeping Angels story that even Matt Smith’s detractors enjoy. This could be the best season of the show so far. Matt Smith hasn’t been better than David Tennant, but the writing so far has been a hell of a lot better than the Russel T. Davies years. I will always miss David Tennant (and Billie Piper), but I know now that I’m in good hands with Matt Smith and he won’t lead me wrong.

Final Score: A-

One of the most intriguing aspects of running this blog that I’ve discovered over the course of the last year is the opportunity to see two movies from a writer-director that are so thematically and stylistically different that you would never have believed they were from the same person if you didn’t already know it to be a fact. Try comparing a movie like Match Point (a crime thriller) from Woody Allen to one of his absurdist comedies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or one of his more serious dramedies like Manhattan. Similarly, how did David Lean go from making a small, quiet romance like Summertime and then head on out and make Lawrence of Arabia (I actually don’t remember which film is older and I’m too lazy to look it up right now). Well, British director Mike Leigh gets to join the ranks of directors who works I’ve reviewed for this blog are radically different from one another. The last film I watched of Mike Leigh’s was the period abortion drama Vera Drake which was heartbreakingly sad and depressing. His Golden Globe-winning 2008 comedyHappy-Go-Lucky may not be quite as joyful as its title or protagonist let on and was a serious case of mood whiplash from Leigh’s other more serious films.

In Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy (Golden Globe winning Sally Hawkins) is a frighteningly cheerful and optimistic woman. If you took every quirky “indie” rom-com heroine and put them in a blender, you still wouldn’t have a character as odd and bizarre as Poppy. An elementary school teacher, Poppy would ride her back to school everyday, but when it’s stolen (which doesn’t seem to ruin her good cheer one bit), she has to learn to drive and hires Scott (Sherlock Holmes‘s Eddie Marsan), a misogynistic, racist and angry man, to be her instructor. Poppy’s buoyant and endless energy and warmth immediately create tension between her and the always glum (if not straight out furious) Scott. However, when Poppy begins to date a social worker who visited her classroom to help one of her students who had been violently acting out, Scott becomes jealous and all of the anger and rage he had been bottling up has the potential to explode on Poppy who would never intentionally harm any living creature (not even the slightest of exaggeration). Along the way, we see Poppy with her best-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) as Poppy weaves her way in and out of different people’s lives in a state of pure, uncorrupted bliss.

Sally Hawkins gave one of the most unique and eclectic performances I’ve ever witnessed as Poppy. As much as I love films like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer), their leads are only slightly eccentric and perhaps flirting with quirky. Poppy borders on being mentally unstable. She is truly just a one-of-a-kind creation that makes Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel look boring in comparison. Had it not been for Sally Hawkins as Poppy, there’s a chance this film would have been borderline unwatchable because Poppy was just so strange that it would have been too easy to “Hollywood”-ize her character, to make it too theatrical. Yet despite being such a content and cheerful person, Hawkins managed to keep her characterization in the realm of reality and though she spent much of the film in the midst of one giggle fit after another, there were moments when Hawkins managed to give Poppy some depths that hinted that perhaps this facade was just to protect her from something much harder and more painful. Somehow even more impressive than Sally Hawkins was Eddie Marsan as Scott. There was so much vitriolic hate and rage in the moments when he suffered one of his many breakdowns that I honestly feared for Poppy’s safety and thought that I would never want to piss Eddie Marsan off in real life because he sold the anger and fury so well. Once again, he managed to make a character like Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth that was fueled on pure anger without making it seem over-the-top or campy which lesser actors would have failed at accomplishing.

The process by which Mike Leigh makes his movies is almost self-evident in the very natural and realistic sounding nature of the dialogue that pops off of every scene. Rather than writing actual dialogue, his films are largely improved during extensive rehearsal sessions which then result in the actual dialogue being used in the film eventually coming around so it can be practiced. This is not a plot-driven film, and rather a series of vignettes where we get intimate and detailed looks at Poppy’s life (as well as that of her close circle of friends) and are able to see just how someone like Poppy would ever be able to operate in our modern, cynical world. Because there is very little in the way of plot (other than Poppy’s ultimate confrontation with Scott), the first half of the film will likely result in viewer wondering what in the hell type of movie they are watching because even by film’s end, you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the “point” of the film. However, the last half is over-loaded with compelling episodes that really flesh out Poppy, and whether it’s her interactions with a homeless man, being lectured by her sister about “growing up”, or finally going toe to toe with Scott, we really get to see that there’s more going on in Poppy’s brain than her cheerful demeanor lets on.

If you require your non-plot driven films to have a “point” or some grand statement about life in order to be worthwhile, Happy-Go-Lucky will not be for you. I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to parse out exactly what the film means, and I’m still unable to come up with a definitive answer other than a quiet look at one truly bizarre woman’s life as she tries to find her own happiness and bring smiles to the lives of others. It’s so sharp and insightful into this personality that I suspect that there are perhaps very British commentaries about British society that I am missing out on as an American, but I can’t help if I don’t quite grasp the inner-workings of a very particular subset of British society. For all fans of British humor and fine acting, Happy-Go-Lucky will satisfy you on both fronts and perhaps inspire the same level of introspection in you as it inspired in me. This is a film that I feel I will appreciate after more viewings and after I’ve had the chance to wrestle more with its subtleties and subtext. Go ahead and acquaint yourself with Poppy. Methinks you won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: B+

Anyone who’s read my review of Ran knows that my favorite play by William Shakespeare is King Lear. It’s dark and depressing, and there’s not much in the way of catharsis for the audience. There’s so much scheming and backstabbing; it’s just brilliant, and it was love at first read for me. Another one of Shakespeare’s plays that is as political as King Lear is Richard III which I have somehow managed to never read or see a production of. That is an unfortunate truth that I have come to regret as today I finally watched my first adaptation of Richard III and it was brilliant. It reminded me quite a bit of what would happen if King Lear and A Song of Ice and Fire had a baby where the main character was a completely sociopathic villain. Richard of Gloucester has leaped to the forefront of my favorite Shakespearean roles, and were it not for a slightly campy and over-the-top ending to this radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, 1995’s Richard III could have been nearly as good as Ran.

Set in an alternative history of the 1930s or ’40s where a fascist monarchy controls England, Richard III is Shakespeare’s plays seen through the lens of 20th century horrors. As his brother King Edward slowly succumbs to a terminal illness, Richard of Gloucester (Lord of the Ring‘s Ian McKellan) schemes to usurp the throne. With methodical precision, Richard kills off his family members left and right while securing powerful friends with promises of high rank in his court. Going so far as to have his pre-pubescent nephews locked up in London Tower and eventually murdered, Richard, a hunchback with a paralytic right arm, wipes out all of his rivals that have been left over from the War of the Roses til he ascends to the throne as King Richard III. When his endless grab for power finally causes the rest of the British nobility to declare “enough”, it is up to the Earl of Richmond to lead an army to despose of this evil monarch.

The movie has a fine ensemble cast (and Ian McKellan’s snub for an Oscar nomination is criminal). Annette Bening shines as always as Queen Elizabeth (the wife of Richard’s brother, Edward IV). Robert Downey Jr. gives a nicely flamboyant take on Lord Rivers, another heir to the throne that Richard has murdered in his bed while Lord Rivers is making love. Jim Broadbent is the perfect toadie and the ultimate kiss-ass as the Duke of Buckingham that helps Richard ascend to the throne and does his murderous bidding (until he can’t handle the thought of murdering the young Princes). Maggie Smith, Dominic West (McNulty!), and Jim Carter round out the stellar cast. However, the weight of the film is all on Ian McKellan’s humpbacked shoulders and he carries it like a champion. Richard is basically a complete monster, but Ian McKellan plays him so well that he remains easily the most interesting person on the screen. Whether it’s his asides to the audience reminding us what a bastard he is or the indifferent way he orders the murders of everyone around him, McKellan brings life to a character that would seem far too easy to oversell.

Books and books have been written on Shakespeare’s play (which is edited both in terms of setting as well as content often though most of Shakespeare’s lines remain intact) so I’ll stick to how this fared as a film adaptation. In short, it was completely riveting. For the entirety of the film (except when I was laughing at the almost farcical nature of the film’s end), I was glued to my screen. The film has the color and energy of the jazz age with all of the darkness and depravity of the Third Reich. The film takes the Nazi Germany parallels very seriously and this is essentially what happens when you combine Shakespeare with Nazis and it’s brilliant. Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, placing the play in a modern setting while still using the play’s original lines didn’t create a silly or annoying aspect of the film. All of the actors were up to the challenge of delivering these iconic lines (“My horse, my horse. My kingdom for a horse!” or “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of york”) without making them feel cheesy or artificial in the film’s context.

My only complaint remains the ending which suddenly transforms this quiet and cerebral film into an action piece that seemed intrusive to the rest of the film’s style. For all fans of Shakespeare, if you’ve managed to miss this little gem, it’s worth your time. Richard of Gloucester has long been one of the most coveted roles for serious actors to portray and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a real shame that I had waited til I was nearly 23 years old to finally see a version of this delightful part of Shakespeare’s body of work because it outshines nearly everything else, and I would love to see a stage play version that was entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s original work. I’m now curious to find out how much this film changed in terms of basic plot (beyond the setting changes) from the original work and which version I would ultimately prefer.

Final Score: A-

I think I might have quoted Jim Morrison in my review for the last disc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I don’t really care cause I’m going to do it again. “This is the end. My only friend the end.” I just finished Doctor Who: The End of Time, the two part special that finally closed the book on David Tennant’s run as the Tenth incarnation of everyone’s favorite Time Lord. After breezing through the rest of the specials that closed out his run, I began to subconsciously come up with other activities for myself to engage in rather than see my time with the Tenth Doctor to a close, but alas, today I could hold it off no longer. David Tennant (and his myriad companions and the writers of the series itself) provided me hours upon hours of exciting, terrifying, heart-breaking, and simply fun British television in a science fiction environment that I could use to escape from the less than always endearing real world. To quote the Doctor before you, you were brilliant, and even though this special didn’t fully transform into the send-off you deserved until its final 30 minutes, I’m willing to let that slide because you transformed the lives of so many science fiction fans around the world.

The Doctor finally returns to the Ood homeworld to discover just what the Ood meant when they foretold that his song was coming to an end as well as the prophecy of the woman on the bus (from “Planet of the Dead”) who spoke of the Doctor’s death and a man who would knock four times. While all of humanity is suffering from nightmares that they can’t seem to shake (underscored by narration by none other than past James Bond himself, Timothy Dalton), only Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), Donna Noble’s wily grandfather, seems to realize that something is amiss and desperately searches for the Doctor. On the Ood homeworld, the Doctor sees mysterious visions of the Master (John Simms) and a plot to resurrect him which the Ood believe will lead to the end of time itself. Though the Master died at the hands of his wife Lucy Saxon, part of his being lived on, and a cult dedicated to the Master half-succeed at resurrecting him (though he is now slowly dying from an unquenchable hunger). As the Doctor arrives on Earth (and enlists the help of Wilfred Mott), he stumbles across a plan by a wealthy business man to use an alien medical bay to achieve immortality for his daughter. When the business man kidnaps the wounded Master to fix the machine, the Master uses it to transform all of humanity into copies of the Master (except for Wilfred Mott who was protected and Donna who is still half-Time Lord), and this heralds the return of the Time Lords from their time-locked destruction in the Time War led by President Rassilon (Timothy Dalton).

With the help of Wilfred Mott (and two aliens who were in disguise working on the medical device), the Doctor is able to escape and formulate a plan to defeat the psychopathic Master. The Time Lords see the Masters return as their chance to return to the real universe and manipulate the Master into following through with this plan for them. The Doctor realizes at the last minute what the Time Lords intend on doing (and he can’t let them return because it means the Time War would re-engulf the universe) and he flies back to Earth to stop them. While he is able to keep the Time Lords from returning (and the Master sacrifices himself to save the Doctor after he realizes the Time Lords had manipulated him), the Doctor has to sacrifice his own life in order to save Wilfred Mott by absorbing a lethal dose of radiation in Wilfred’s place. The Doctor catches one last glimpse of his past companions and then sadly returns to the TARDIS (with a heartbreaking “I don’t want to go yet”) to regenerate where we meet the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) whose explosive transformation nearly destroys the TARDIS.

Like virtually every Russell T. Davies story, the plot here wasn’t as impressive as the emotional payoff that we got at the end of the episode. Every single season finale was more engaging on a story level, and while I love John Simms as the bat-shit insane Master, this particular Master story did not stack up very well to the one from Season 3’s finale. Though the Master does get points for being one of the only villains who ever seems to succeed at his villainous plans. He just always gets stopped in the final stages. No, for me this episode will be defined by seeing the complete metamorphosis of David Tennant in his early days as the Doctor and where he ultimately landed at the end. I liked Wilfred Mott a lot more as a companion than I ever did Donna (and am I the only person who thought the Doctor was implying the strange Time Lord woman was actually Donna herself?). Like with the Season 4 finale, I spent the entirety of the final 30 minutes or so of this episode in tears. The chance to see everyone for one last time (though the Doctor only spoke to Rose, who didn’t know who he was yet, and Sarah Jane Smith’s daughter) along with the bravery of the Doctor’s actions really got to me at an emotional level.

David Tennant, I salute you. I no doubt enjoyed your run as the Doctor more than Christopher Eccleston (though not by an extreme margin and you had the advantage of lasting three seasons), and while I poke fun at the sillier aspects of the series writing, I know not every tale can be a Stephen Moffat master piece. I’m going to take a break from the program now that you’re not in. It isn’t because I fear watching Matt Smith’s run; it’s just that I want to let the emotional connection I created with your imagining of the Doctor and the Whoniverse to have a chance to settlebe fore I move on to new frontiers of your many, many worlds. For millions and millions of sci-fi fans, you were a stepping stone into the world of Doctor Who, and you’ll be missed. I’m not saying that the series will never be as good as when you were on it, but it will certainly never be the same.

Final Score: A-

There’s a website that I like to visit called TVTropes.org that is sort of the wikipedia of popular culture and the conventions used for creating fiction in all of its mediums. One of the tropes they discuss is a phenomenon known as “Poe’s Law” which states that “a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing, and if a real thing sounds extreme enough, it can be mistaken for a parody.” Try to say something so extreme on any internet forum where you can only possibly be joking but say it completely straight and see just how many people think you’re being serious. I’m bringing this up because the film I just watched, Chris Morris’ brilliant political satire Four Lions is a scathing indictment of fanaticism as well as the way that western conservatives see all Muslims. If you don’t come into this film as a liberal or someone who at least knows a little bit about Muslim culture (which this film intentionally doesn’t portray accurately at all), this film could end up negatively reinforcing some false and awful stereotypes you have about Muslims and the Islamic faith. For every one else in the audience who will get that this is a comedy and satire, this is one of the best political satires I’ve seen since In the Loop, another hilarious British satire I watched in this blog’s original format.

Four Lions is a brilliant send-up of the notion of “home-grown” terrorists and chronicles the incompetent exploits of five British Muslims who believe that they are al-Qaeda jihadists ready to martyr themselves for their beliefs. Omar (The Road to Guantanamo‘s Riz Ahmed) is the group’s ring-leader and is joined by his dim-witted friend Waj (Kayvan Novak), the boisterous Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the paranoid Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), and the newest recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali). Over the course of the film, these “Lions” bungle their way through one failed mission after another, whether this is going to Afghanistan and accidentally killing Osama bin Laden, having one of their members blow up on accident while running through a sheep field strapped with explosives, and generally making complete fools of themselves. They only want to be martyrs and go to paradise but when they can’t even think to buy the materials for their homemade explosives from more than one store, their heavenly reward of virgins is going to be much harder to come by than they had planned on.

This film is legitimately laugh-out-loud hilarious. I haven’t heard this much cursing in a British film since the last time I watched In the Loop‘s profanity laden monologues from Malcolm Tucker (seriously watch that clip. it might not make any sense out of context if you haven’t seen the film, but if you have, you’ll laugh your ass off again). These men were just so unbelievably bad at being terrorists. Omar is supposed to be the most level-headed and intelligent person in the group, but he was the one who fired the bazooka the wrong way and killed Osama bin Laden (this film came out before his actual death). It viciously mocks the way that people use ideology to manipulate and corrupt harmless religions and harmless people. Waj isn’t a bad guy; he’s simply being dragged along by Barry and Omar because he’s too dumb to make any decisions for himself. No one comes out unscathed from this film’s unflinching eye for humor and biting social commentary. This film shouldn’t offend any Muslims or any intelligent people. The only people that may take it the wrong way would be those that aren’t smart enough to figure out what it was about in the first place.

As long as you can hear the phrase “comedy about terrorists” and not cringe or immediately begin making moral approbations, then I’d recommend taking this film for a drive. It’s smart, hilarious, and it even makes you think. There are certainly people out there that it may offend, but if you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, this movie should be easy enough to handle. This is dark comedy, not at it’s darkest (that award certainly goes to Happiness) but perhaps at its most outrageous. With a great cast, great gags, and some gutbusting set pieces, Four Lions was a remarkable debut from a British talent who is sure to make a name for himself in British comedy.

Final Score: A-

Sometimes I feel like I begin to belabor this point on this blog, but I am an unreformed liberal. I’m not just a liberal by American standards; my political views would probably be more in line with a European socialist nation than even our most “leftist” American state. With that said, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that I wasn’t a big fan of the Bush administration. While I’ve never considered George W. Bush to be patently evil (if for no other reason than I don’t think he’s intelligent enough to be that crafty), his cabinet members and advisers were a whole ‘nother story. The war in Iraq was a colossal mistake and the treatment of many Muslims here at home and around the world was such a blatant disregard for our national values of freedom and liberty that it was nearly sickening. The so-called “War on Terror” is the most obvious example of the rapid erosion of liberties in this nation under the name of “freedom”, and the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo is a chilling expose of one of the most shocking atrocities committed under the mantle of the War on Terror.

Combining archival footage of the initial War in Afghanistan (and later reports on the construction of Guantanamo), interviews with the three real-life protagonists, and dramatic re-enactments of events there were no cameras around to record, The Road to Guantanamo is the heart-wrenching true story of the “Tipton Three,” three British Muslims who were falsely detained and tortured in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for over two years until their eventual release in 2004. Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul were three British citizens who had traveled to Pakistan weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. for Shafiq’s arranged marriage to a girl from his family’s Pakistani village. While there, they decided to enter Afghanistan to help out the locals who were shortly to be out of home, food, and virtually all forms of shelter. After the bombing begins in earnest, the Tipton Three try to return to Pakistan but wind up in a village controlled by Taliban forces. When U.S. bombing runs threaten to destroy the town they’re in, the men try to flee with one of the Taliban convoys and end up arrested by Afghanistani forces. When it’s discovered that they’re British and speak English, the men are considered high-priority suspects and spend the next two years of their lives being viciously tortured and questioned by American intelligence officers.

It can be easy to put aside thoughts of human rights abuses when you try to rationalize the existence of a place like Guantanamo Bay. After 9/11, this nation was hell-bent on making sure another incident like that never occurred again. So, to many people, thoughts like “I don’t care if these Middle Eastern men (even if Afghanistan can almost hardly be called the Middle East and has more in common with Pakistan and India than Iran or Iraq) are detained indefinitely and without trial if it means I’m safe” don’t seem radical. You never stop to think about what happens when an innocent man gets caught up in all of this. While it was assuredly quite dumb of Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif to go into Afghanistan right before the Americans were sure to invade, these men weren’t Al-Qaeda or terrorists. They were just young British men with perhaps poor decision making skills and extraordinarily bad luck who spent two years in complete hell just because they were brown and in the wrong plaec at the wrong time. Much like with capital punishment (where the possibility of one innocent man being executed has the potential to nullify the entire institution), the chance (and ultimate reality) that three men could slip through the cracks of a system built to protect global citizens from terrorism seemingly says that this system needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Director Michael Winterbottom ensures a gut, visceral reaction to the mistreatment seen on screen. While the dramatic re-enactments are just that (re-enactments), Winterbottom tapes them with a grainy hand-held camera that expertly gives it a feeling of verisimilitude. Much of the opening act of the film is a chronicle of their road trip that led them from England to Pakistan to Afghanistan, and that establishes an emotional connection with these men who are much like any young men in their 20’s. So to see their world so completely shattered by war and eventual imprisonment only heightens the anger Winterbottom wants to evoke in his audience (which he succeeds in doing). During the segments where Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif are being tortured at the various camps they stayed in before their release, Winterbottom doesn’t hold back from showing the gritty and nearly unwatchable details of the hell U.S. intelligence officers put them (and their many co-prisoners) at the camp. Winterbottom’s portrayal of the atrocities committed at this camp is actually so effective that if I were a jihadist, I would show this film as a propaganda tool to recruit people to my cause. It’s simply that effective.

If the film has a significant flaw, it is that it can move a little too fast for its own good. Winterbottom places so much emphasis on each scene achieving maximum emotional impact that the context of certain moments can be lost in the wake. The film is told so primarily through the eyes and mouths of the Tipton Three that when events occur outside of their perception, very little explanation is given as to why it’s happening which works to disorient the audience much like the individuals on screen, but it fails to educate the audience and helps give credence to claims the far right would have which is that this is leftist propaganda. Their release from Guantanamo was an especially murky subject in the film as little to no reason is actually given as to why American suddenly decided to let these guys go after keeping them prisoner for so long. However, these are minor quibbles against an otherwise phenomenal film. For everyone that is a liberal, muslim, or at the minimum, not a neo-conservative fanatic, you should watch this film as it will open your eyes to the myriad ways our nation’s values were subverted in our own quest to protect ourselves.

Final Score: A

Well, it’s been two weeks since I’ve reviewed a disc of Doctor Who, and it’s been nearly that long since I’ve actually watched the first two episodes of this disc. As mentioned in my review for Anansi Boys, I’ve had some big things going on in my life (plus a fairly ridiculous addiction to Skyrim which will apparently never abate). So, if my review tends to skew towards the one episode on this disc that I’ve watched semi-recently, then I apologize (which is really a shame if it happens because “Forest of the Dead” is probably my second favorite episode of the series). Without ruining anything, let us just say that this particular disc of the show is the consistently best it’s been since we had the one-two-three punch of “Human Nature,” “The Family of Blood,” and then “Blink” to put the icing on the cake. After some slight disappointment in the last disc, Doctor Who returned in rare form with the kind of intelligent (and terrifying) storytelling that makes Doctor Who one of my favorite science-fiction programs.

The disc begins with a two-parter written by the one true scribe of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat. The Doctor has received a mysterious message on his psychic paper calling for help at the biggest library in the universe. However, when the Doctor and Donna arrive, it turns out to be completely empty except for one little girl who promptly disappears when she sights the Doctor and Donna. This same little girl appears to be at her home in the modern world being attended to be a psychiatrist named Dr. Moon. As the Doctor and Donna try to discover why there are no human life forms on this planet (but 100,000,000,000 non-human life forms that they can’t see), a spaceship arrives with a crew of archaeologists led by a woman named River Song who seems to know the Doctor even though he says they’ve never met. It turns out a horde of parasitic life forms that live in the darkness have taken over the library and now they’re hungry for new arrivals. There’s a lot more to it than that but I really don’t want to ruin any of it for anyone that hasn’t seen the episodes yet. They’re that good. In the last episode of the disc, the Doctor (who leaves Donna behind at a spa) goes on a spaceship cruise on an uninhabitable planet to see a waterfall made of sapphires when an unseen entity attacks the ship, and in a situation very akin to The Mist, the passengers slowly start to turn on each other as no one is able to trust anyone and no one (but the Doctor) can work together.

Each serial is getting its own review (serial not episode because the two-parter is one serial) because they were both that good. I loved the introduction of River Song. She seems so mysterious but charismatic and she had such a playful relationship with the Doctor that I can only imagine what it will be like once she and the Doctor finally both know each other (I’m really looking forward to the episode where she meets him for the first time). It was very frightening which is par for the course for a Stephen Moffat story. That man knows how to scare the pants off of his audience (young and old alike). However, what makes it so special for me is the second episode “Forest of the Dead”. Once again, without wanting to ruin any of the episode for those who haven’t seen it, the scenes with Donna in an alternate universe are among some of the most tragic and heartbreaking of the whole series. For the first time in her entire run, I was finally able to empathize with Donna’s character and hopefully that respect remains for the rest of her run. Simply put, Steven Moffat is the very best Doctor Who writer, and the only episode of his that I like more than “Forest of the Dead” is “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

Russel T. Davies wrote the disc-ending “Midnight,” and this was the kind of strong narrative and dark storytelling that he would eventually bring to Torchwood and is quite unlike anything I’ve seen him provide before. This is potentially my favorite non-Stephen Moffat episode of the entire series. The Doctor didn’t save the day (even though the day was saved). He nearly died. There wasn’t copious amounts of running. There weren’t cheesy sci-fi aliens in rubber suits. There was very little techno-babble. It was just dark and claustrophobic and psychological. It was one of the episodes of the show that is so mature and cynical that I really have to question this show’s “for children” status (as I seemingly do at least two reviews a season). Also, there was almost no Donna to even potentially slow things down. The episode just turned so many of the standard Doctor Who plotlines on their head and everything that worked for The Doctor in the past nearly got him killed this time around. It was just brilliant.

I’m coming onto my last disc of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor (though I’ll still have his four made for TV movies to watch), and I’m getting very sad. I’m thinking about making an executive decision which is that I take a break from Doctor Who after I finish David Tennant’s run because with the exception of River Song, it will eventually be a new series under Steven Moffat rather than Russel T. Davies, and I really, really, really, really want to start watching Angel. Plus my dad bought me the first season of Justified for Christmas, and I want to watch the first two seasons of that before Season 3 airs in January. We shall see if I can accomplish that feat. I’m a big fan of Timothy Olyphant and the first two episodes seem really intriguing. Well, regardless of what I choose, we are reaching the end of an era and much sadness will be shared by all who enjoyed the antics of the simply adorkable David Tennant. There isn’t nearly as much love for Matt Smith, and I’m just going to be very sad to leave the joyful and exciting Tenth Doctor behind.

Final Score: A-