Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Great War: The People's Story

TV producer Isobel Charman is no stranger to making documentaries using diaries and letters read by actors. So, a perfect choice to make ITV's The Great War: The People's Story, a series marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, using the diaries and correspondence of some of those involved.

I spoke to Isobel (below) about her eBook, Alan Lloyd-The Lost Generation, documenting the life of an upper-crust young man from Birmingham who joined the army in the same month he was married.


What was it about his story that stood out from many of the others?

"We really needed a story that had the big beat points that distinguish it from the other ones," she explains. "So the Imperial War Museum suggested we look at Alan's letters... and it's staggering how the events of his personal life, they interplay with the chronology of the war.

"The fact that he gets married as the war breaks out; his wife is pregnant just as he leaves to go to the front. It has all the extra elements that made it amazing, but heartbreaking. So it leapt out from all the other obviously very touching accounts. It had all the extra ingredients, because those life moments were happening as the war was breaking out."

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

I like the fact the eBook is a modern way of telling a very relevant 100 year old story

"Yeah it's exciting for ITV. This is a new venture for them, to publish in this way, and it's really exciting to be part of that; to bring history to people in this very contemporary way. That's what the whole project tries to do really; it's something that happened 100 years ago, but the people's stories are fresh, and suffering is something that... it doesn't matter when it happened, people can identify with it: suffering and heroism and loss. So the way the whole project has been done is to make it very contemporary, and publishing these eBooks is part of that."


Elizabeth Crawford is a writer and book dealer on women's history, particularly the suffrage movement. Her latest work is the eBook Kate Parry Frye - The Long Life of An Edwardian Actress and Suffragette.


In 2009, Elizabeth (above) had been told about Kate's diaries which were lying in a wet north London cellar.

The diarist had died in 1959 and they wound up with people who had no connection with her. 
Elizabeth saw that these damp diaries were packed with ephemera and flyers about the women's suffrage movement and knew it was right up her street.

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

"So as a dealer I bought them, but when I got them home and dried them all out and started reading, I just got gripped," she explains. "I produced one book out of it, which was called Campaigning for the Vote, examining Kate's suffrage years."


The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Kate was born in 1878 and kept a diary from the age of nine right up to her death, so there was no shortage of research material. 
Her father had come from humble beginnings before becoming an MP. 
"He'd founded a chain of grocery stores, so they lived rather well," explains Elizabeth. "They had a big house in Kensington, and another on the Thames, both of which were rented because that's what people did then."

However, it came as a shock to Kate when the money dried up. She worked for the suffrage movement, living in digs, while her family lived in rented rooms in Worthing. When her father died, she had a tough struggle to survive.

It makes for compelling reading, especially in light of pending Meryl Streep movieSuffragette, on which Elizabeth is an adviser.

By Christmas 2013, ITV suggested Elizabeth might want to write Kate's life story as well as their eBook, "So I then got to work and did it".

Elizabeth adds: "She was just one particular woman; nothing startling about her, except she was very determined. She wanted to be remembered, so she kept this fantastic diary, and it had a will of its own. Nobody could destroy it... and now her whole life story is out there for anybody to read."


Pamela Armitage Campbell (below) may be in the autumn of her life, but she has a spirit that is infectious.


I'm guessing she picked it up from her astonishing father, Reg Evans, the man whose life story is worthy of any big-screen movie.

The First World War hero was decorated for his bravery on the front line in 1915; he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal before suffering an injury that could have destroyed most people. 
He was shot in the face in February 1916, an injury which cost him most of his jaw and sent him away from the battlefields.

However, he refused to bow out of the conflict. After undergoing pioneering surgery and a period of recovery, he volunteered to continue to serve for the British forces in Russia. Regwas posted far away from home until 1920, long after his peers had been demobbed.

"I've had my father's letters for many years now," explains the eloquent octogenarian. "I've spent a lot of time on my own because my husband worked in Germany and I was living in France, so I would take them out periodically and type out the letters. It would take a long time because they were written on bits of paper; anything he'd had to hand in the trenches."

It was through these notes and letters that she not only managed to bond with her father but also her grandmother.

"They were mostly written to his mother so I got to know him very well, and I got to know my grandmother, who I'd never met through these letters," remarks Pamela. "Although there weren't many letters from her to him, his replies to her letters gave an inkling into the sort of character she was. The sort of person she was."

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

A couple of years ago, Pamela was contacted by Isobel Charman with the idea of making a series for ITV. 
"She came up to the house here in Peterborough and was absolutely amazed by this mountain of information that there was, sitting here waiting to be used," explains Pamela. "So she read through quite a few of the letters..."

Eventually ITV series The Great War: The People's Story was born.

Pamela was so inspired as the project gained momentum, she thought the letters would make a great book in which she could "...write the rest of Dad's story from his birth to his death."

So she started to piece together the missing pieces of the literary puzzle. 
ITV helped get the book published, and now Reg's story can be read by the masses.

"It's been a rollercoaster," explains Pamela. "A complete rollercoaster, because I was only nine when he died, and he had been in hospital for about 18 months before that.

"Really my memories of him are as a baby and as a very, very young person. So to read and find out about his character and values he was trying to teach us as children, my brother and sister and I, to see him put them into practice those values in his own life in the war and in the way he treated men around him and under him and above him even, to get their respect was just absolutely amazing."

"Although he wasn't the only, or the greatest hero, he was a hero and he did go through the most traumatic experience, but he always came through with a smile or with a song or with some encouragement for those who were observing him, and would have been very hurt or sad for him," explains Pamela.

"Because from a very handsome man he turned into a monster really to look at. It must have been devastating."

"I don't know if he ever looked in a mirror. It doesn't say (in his letters), but it must have been devastating for his family and friends, and wonder what was ahead of him. What sort of life was he going to lead after that, after the war?"

While many books about the First World War centre on the horror of the conflict, Pamela is keen to point out her eBook also contains a lot of the humour documented in her father's letters. Eggs, for example, being sent to the troops wrapped in newspaper.

She adds, "I hope that people won't be put off and think, 'Oh, it's just another war book'. It isn't. It's a story of bravery, heroism and encouragement".

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Transformers. The age of extinction review

"It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever..."

Thirty years ago, Kyle Reese offered those words of warning to heroine Sarah Connor in James Cameron's iconic sleeper hit The Terminator.

Having endured the fourth movie in Michael Bay's Transformers saga, it seems an apt description for a cast iron money-making machine.

The film series can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't fear critics, or logic. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you, dear film goer, stop (paying).

I've sat through the previous movies and was lucky enough to attend the LA premiere ofTransformers: The Ride, so more due to needing a rainy day movie than any desire, I settled down for Bay's latest slice of formulaic adventure.

The usual sights and sounds abounded.

  • Heroes running away from huge explosions in slow motion.
  • Uber photogenic pouty heroine in short shorts being ogled by the camera.
  • Robots ripping each other apart in slow motion.
  • Robots transforming to deliver a bit of exposition.
  • Characters stating the obvious before enacting said dialogue. "We've got to lose them in this corn field", before, er, motoring through a corn field to try and lose the villains.
  • Cool sound effects, with the exception of Mark Wahlberg's laser gun, which sounded like an asthmatic penguin.
  • Bay reworking the Armageddon sub-plot - over protective father warming to his prospective son-in-law after bonding over death-defying extra terrestrial threat.
  • A seemingly endless final battle so long some punters staggered from the cinema like they'd been stuck on a transatlantic flight.
  • A couple of great character actors (Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci) possibly thinking of the cash while adding some depth to the lightweight plot.
  • Comedy characters slotted in to add some levity to the explosions. In this case a chubby Jurassic Park/Dennis Nedry-style Brit boffin. Fat guys. Always funny in Producer Steven Spielberg's world.
  • Oh, and Optimus Prime's recurring monologues about nobility... having wrecked a couple of major cities. In one scene he rides a Dinobot through a small Chinese wall, despite the fact he could have leapt it or gone round it.

Ah yes. The Dinobots and China. Kids love dinosaurs and robots, so it was a no-brainer we'd get those toys making an appearance in the franchise at some point. 
And with China being such a lucrative market, a third act which sees most of the country levelled was a smart move to keep those overseas cash tills ringing.

The Transformers Ride launch, Universal, LA

How does it rank against the other three films? Well it's possibly the best TF movie since the 2007 original. Long, yes; occasionally incoherent, (Mark Wahlberg seems to ignore full stops in his script), and it features some awful CGI - the enemy robots are made from gravity-defying blocks that appear to have no weight or heft, making them look like a bad video game cut scene.

However, as epic cinema goes, it was never dull. Irritating at times, especially during those obligatory Bay sunset scenes and the attention deficit disorder shots which cut every few seconds. 
(The obsession with super cars was like a feature-length Top Gear challenge, only without the wit. 
Only in a Michael Bay film can a Bugatti Veyron look mundane because of all the other super cars on show).

However, compared to Transformers 2 and 3, this was a slight improvement. A little like a (robot) bull in a slightly classier China shop.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Under the Skin The Review

How much exposition do you need in a film? Those clunky scenes when characters discuss plot, stitching Scene A to Scene B? Obviously film is a visual medium, so in theory nobody needs say anything. 

In Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer decides less is definitely more, keeping dialogue to a minimum as Scarlett Johansson’s alluring alien arrives in Scotland and begins patrolling the streets for men. 
In short, it’s Species with A-levels. 

There are bound to be comparisons with Nic Roeg’s the Man Who Fell to Earth, the last time an intelligent, erotic, surreal study of an alien’s arrival on Earth made such an impact. That was almost 40 years ago. 
Since then we've had plenty of alien visitor movies, but many were teen-friendly offerings designed to make pots of cash or satires such as Brother From Another Planet and Morons From Outer Space. 
Glazer had spent a decade developing the movie, distilling the source novel down to its purest form. And the result is disturbing, mesmerising and unforgettable. 

Johansson is terrific in one of the boldest roles of her career. Initially a predatory, blank avatar unaffected by empathy, her visitor merely exists to trap men and use them.
’Why’ would be spoilerific. 
How she does it is part Hellraiser; asking guys back to her dingy house where they are understandably seduced, and then live to regret it. 

Through it all the soundtrack throbs and pulses. The camera largely taking a back seat as we watch the visitor watching the locals, searching for her next target. 
It's as voyeuristic as Rear Window or Blue Velvet, and just as compelling. 

Arguably the best scene involves a loner with “nice hands”, as affecting as anything you've seen all year. It's at this point Johansson’s lethal ET starts to gain a degree of humanity. 
Yes, I could describe more of the plot, who the nice handed character is, and lots more, but better to let the movie wash over you. 

UTS is a haunting, waking dream of a movie. It may have made a modest impact at the cinema, grossing a couple of million dollars in the States alone, but given the limited number of screens it played on, and the arty sensibilities, there's perhaps little wonder. 

Like all cult films, it will prove far more indelible than tent pole movies which dominate the opening weekend box office then vanish without a trace. 
Hopefully we won't have to wait another decade for Glazer’s follow up. He's too great a talent to languish in whatever limbo space ScarJo’s alien was born from. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

22 Jump Street. The review

The beauty of 21 Jump Street was it was a movie version of a TV series hardly anyone was desperate to see. 

The only place it could go was up, and was surprisingly hilarious.

So at the start of the sequel, 22 Jump Street, we wonder how much comedy is left to mine from that seam of TV-inspired nostalgia.

Surprisingly there's plenty, not least because the knowing script is happy to poke fun at the fact it's exactly the same plot, only this time set at college instead of school.

Once more, dream team Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are superb as the old school enemies turned rookie cop mates.

In a thrilling opener reminiscent of Beverly Hills CopMorton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum) pursue a group of drug dealers led by Ghost (Peter Stormare). 
A truck chase that is both exciting and funny is rare, and this is both.

They fail in spectacular fashion, so Deputy Chief Hardy (the ever brilliant Nick Offerman)sends our heroes across the street to work for Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Their mission: go undercover as college students and find the drug supplier of "WHYPHY" which killed a student who apparently bought it on campus.

Jenko befriends football players Zook (Wyatt Russell) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro), while Schmidt falls for art student, Maya (Amber Stevens), much to the annoyance of her grumpy roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell).

To reveal much more would be spoilerific. Safe to say, nothing is as it seems on campus; there are red herrings aplenty, one literal, while the comic timing is superb.

Having seen it after the woeful A Million Ways To Die in the West, which is often cruel and leaden in its delivery, there's a joy to the energy here.

The film-makers treat the audience with a degree of respect, and even though many of the gags seemed to go over the heads of many teenage cinema goers, for a fan of meta comedy such as Mike Myers' finest works, this was like catnip.

Hill may have dropped the ball with some comedies over the years (The Watch for example), but following his superb turn in The Wolf of Wall Street, here he's terrific as the likeable co-lead, the yin to Tatum's nice but dim yang, Jenko
The latter is happy to send himself up, not least with a great in-joke about the wonderfully silly White House Down, while his eventual reaction to a character (spoiler) half way through is comedy gold.

He also looks superb in the breathless action scenes, running, jumping, brawling. Okay, Hillmay be the star when they tour the interview circuit, but Tatum is a genuine movie star when it counts.

This may be a lads' comedy, but the two female co-stars, Amber Stevens and Jillian Bell, are brilliant: the former an even cuter, younger Zoe Saldana-alike; the latter a funnier, youngerMelissa McCarthy-alike. If there's any justice both will be in a possible 23 Jump Street and no doubt plenty of other Hollywood offerings in the coming years.

Superbly helmed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of THE most reliable comedy directors working today, this is the perfect antidote to any spring or summertime blues.



Follow Roger Crow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RogerCrow

Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Edge of Tomorrow - The Review

The Edge of Tomorrow - The Review

For 30 years I've loved The Twilight Zone, a passion rekindled recently with the Blu ray box set. 
Those relatively cheap black and white dramas, many penned by Rod Serling, were either 30 or 60 minute ’what if?’ dramas. They created great premises for broader canvases, bigger budget, big screen offerings, some of which (Real Steel) were turned into A-list epics. 

The Edge of Tomorrow could have been another of Serling’s mini masterpieces, the ’what if’ tale of a soldier resurrected to fight an alien war on Earth. 

In this case Tom Cruise is William Cage, the cocky PR man railroaded to fight against an extra-terrestrial enemy. However, his unit is decimated in a Saving Private Ryan-style attack in Normandy, and Cage wakes up a few hours earlier to live the day over and hopefully glean enough information to defeat the enemy. 

Yes, it's a video game-style premise with Cage’s seemingly unlimited lives a handy perk as he tries to level up.
He's helped by Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the poster girl warrior who may or may not know more about Cage’s condition than he first thinks. 
What follows, for the first two thirds at least, is a snappily paced mix of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Aliens and The Matrix, as our heroes fight whizzing, murderous creatures with the aid of clunky exo-suits. 

At one point Cage’s automated metal skeleton runs out of energy and powers down. He steps from it and leaves it standing, an empty shell. And for me that is the third act. 

Whatever wonderful ’story battery’ powered this multi-million dollar vehicle simply runs out of energy and becomes a generic, by-the-numbers adventure, hampered by the same murky, digitally graded darkness that plagued X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Hunger Games 2. 
I'm so bored of action scenes taking place in darkness, especially when the antagonists are so abstract. 

Through it all, Cruise is his usual committed self, but Blunt steals the show as the fearless posh trooper, who lights up every scene she's in. 

In a nice nod to Aliens, Bill Paxton is the gruff Sergeant Farell, commanding his drop ship troops. The scope of the movie is impressive, and director Doug Liman handles the action with flair, but the ghosts of Mr and Mrs Smith and Jumper’s humdrum finales return to haunt us. 

Whether by design or accident there is a feeling we've been here before with Tom’s earlier work, notably Minority Report (outwitting the enemy with pre-emptive moves) or last year’s elegant but sterile Oblivion (hero attempts to destroy big alien brain intelligence thing and wipe out enemy forces in one fell swoop. Smart move, but yawnsomely predictable.) 

Sadly the final scenes are also a let down, as are the closing titles. Recent Marvel offerings Iron Man, Avengers Assemble and Thor: The Dark World have offered stylish, engaging credits, but EOT looks like it was created a decade ago with a generic closing song and a feeling that the budget had all been spent by the time those last bits had to be tagged on. 

I really wanted to like Tom’s latest. I adore his positivity and enthusiasm for big crowd pleasers like this, but feel that when you strip away the shell of the movie, you're left with a sub-standard Twilight Zone episode with a rubbish pay-off. 
A real shame. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

XMen days of future past. The review.

The future is rubbish. (Isn't it always in sci-fi epics?)
Shape-shifting Transform...er...Sentinels have laid waste to the mutant world. 
Making a Last Stand, (another one), Storm, Professor X, Magneto, Kitty Pryde, Frozonefrom The Incredibles (oh, apparently not), and a few other mutants playing Portal (for real) take on the mighty Destroyers from Thor (oh, apparently they aren't, though they seem to be variations of them).

Thankfully Ms Pryde has the power to send the long suffering X types back in time so they can get their collective derrières kicked again.

What our heroes need is someone who can go back to 1973 and stop Miles Dyson inventingSkynet... er, the little guy from Game of Thrones - Trask (the always wonderful Peter Dinklage).

The 'Sarah Connor' in this Terminator-style X-Men epic is Raven, aka Mystique, who still looks very blue and rather plastic. At no point does she 'put metal in the science oven'. Or will she get an Oscar for this. But Jennifer Lawrence is still one of the greatest young actresses you've ever seen.

So while she tries to kill Trask in 1973, Hugh Jackman shows off his stunning pecs (like crumpled wrapping paper stuck on an Action Man) and his rear end, for which millions of mums were truly grateful.

As Logan, aka Wolverine, is sent back to his 1973 body, he has to persuade Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and the young, doped up but still groovy Professor X (the brilliant James McAvoy) to help him break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of his plastic Penatgon prison and stop Mystique killing Trask.

Of course Magneto is the uber villain whose friendship with Xavier usually consists of a game of chess, saying "Charles" a lot, promising to help, and then betraying him with OTT set pieces involving twisted metal. It's like GroundX Day.

On the plus side, Fassbender is as great as ever and looks very cool in a hat. A bit like Bowiein the 1970s. All cheekbones and intrigue.

Thankfully our heroes are helped by Quicksilver, the breakout new star of the show whose lightning-fast reactions give us the movie's best set piece. A bullet-time kitchen scene filled with wit, style and panache.

Geeks of course spent part of the movie explaining to indifferent partners how Quicksilverwas also that kid in the post-credits sting for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Only played by someone else. And his sister is Scarlet Witch. Or will be. Only not in 1973. 
Still following? Good.

Director Bryan Singer has a lot of fun with his best film since X-Men 2. Yes he's spinning about 20 plates at once, but does a good job of keeping most of them rotating, even if he spends a little too long on young Xavier meeting his aged self.

The movie is hugely ambitious, brilliantly made, nicely edited and scored (both by John Ottman), and you can see where the budget went just by watching the credits. 15,000 people worked on the movie, and I'm guessing 14,000 were just slaving over laptops creating the impressive effects.

The whole thing is engaging enough and features some of the best thesps in movies. But for me it needs a sucker punch moment. That scene which grabs the heart strings and makes me a little misty eyed.

Sadly there was none of this here, possibly because when every other person in a movie has a gift, it's hard to be amazed. It's like the old Python sketch, Bicycle Repairman. In a world where everyone is a superhero, you yearn for someone normal.

Naturally I'll be among the millions who flock to see X-Men: Apocalyspe in a couple of years, and imagine another 15,000 folks will be kept busy animating bits of fractured metal and the like. However, I'd rather see a movie shot like the outstanding NT version ofCurious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, without a single effect on a simple stage, for the sake of one sucker punch moment, where I care about the fates of the protagonists instead of just being indifferent to their inevitable resurrection.

Sometimes less really is more Bryan.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Godzilla. The review

It's rare I get to feel like a kid on Christmas morning while watching a movie. More often than not filmmakers have contempt for the audience or signpost everything so far in advance, you feel like an A level student in a kindergarten.

Thank heavens Monsters director Gareth Edwards has given us such a terrific movie inGodzilla, or to coin a phrase for the text generation: OMGzilla

This is the sort of film Steven Spielberg used to make with Close Encounters and War of the Worlds: personal stories set against epic backdrops.

It's got the feel of Cloverfield, but without the stomach-churning found footage angle, or the annoying characters, and rubbish dialogue.

The great cast is the first piece of the puzzle to get right in Godzilla 2014, and in Aaron Taylor Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen (wonderful) and the especially good Bryan Cranston, there's a solid foundation for the fantasy that unfolds.

The story gives us enough of the right material to believe the motivations of protagonists and antagonists - nuclear testing; heroes forged by loss; grown-up hero desperate to keep his family, and others together; smart scientists and military folk colouring in the grey areas and giving us enough exposition to carry things forward. Cue final smack down.

There are some terrific touches, such as the HALO jump (scarlet flares scoring the misty skies) and assorted shots of the eponymous beast emerging through the fog like Night of the Demon.

The score by Alexander Desplat is classical and thrilling, while the effects range from the special to the okay.

It's tightly paced, brilliantly directed, hugely satisfying and doesn't outstay its welcome.

Edwards has successfully made the leap from indie filmmaker to blockbuster director with ease.

I can't wait to see what he does next.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Amazing Spider-man 2. The review

For the most part, The Amazing Spider-man 2 is exactly what you expect: likeable teenager Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) continues to fight crime, while romancing gorgeous girlfriend Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). 
We have plenty of stunts, shots of Spidey freefalling towards the streets of New York City, and several minutes of him swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper.
In 3-D, it looks fabulous. 
What's far less fabulous, is Jamie Foxx as the geeky underling who eventually becomes Electro: think Watchmen's Dr Manhattan, with clothes and bad monologues. 
His dialogue would have sounded embarrassing in one of those 1960s/1970s Saturday morning cartoons.
If you can gloss over his take on Jim Carrey’s vengeful loser Edward Nygma in Batman Forever, the rest of the movie has a lot going for it.
The relationship between Parker and Stacey is magnetic; Dane DeHaan is fantastic as sick rich boy Harry Osborn, and there are good turns from the likes of a returning Sally Field, Campbell Scott and Chris Cooper.
For the most part it's entertaining stuff, but I was yearning before a sucker punch moment that director Marc Webb supplied with his first Spidey movie (the cranes scene), or Sam Raimi with the original Spider-Man 2 years ago (Aunt May’s packing up speech).
Thankfully TASM2’s third act takes some unexpected twists and turns, but those expecting to see a lot of Paul Giamatti as Rhino in the major clash promised by the extensive adverts will be sorely disappointed.
(Think The Underminer scene from The Incredibles, and you get the idea).
As good as Andrew Garfield is as the eponymous Web Slinger, it's Emma Stone who steals the show.
She has more substance than Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson in the original trilogy, and actually helps our hero instead of screaming a lot in the third act.
It's also refreshing that Spidey doesn't lose his mask every half an hour like in the Raimi movies.
So, not a perfect movie by any means, but thanks to that third act, Foxx’s earlier sins are (almost) redeemed. 

Transcendence. The review.

I wanted to like Transcendence more than I did.
The directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's favourite cinematographer, Wally Pfister, it boasted a top drawer cast and a great idea.
After all, any movie with Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany have to be worth a look, didn't it?

The tale of an assassinated computer genius who becomes a digital avatar/Godlike figure was pretty heady stuff. But while the tale unfolded intriguingly, it went nowhere fast.
Too many tracking shots of solar panels does not a great thriller make.

The special effects are pretty good, the performances are all top-notch and the script isn't bad either.
While I am all for sci-fi thrillers that are more cerebral than explosive, this was anti-climactic.
And that may be the main reason it underperformed in the states.

It's bound to attract a cult following on DVD and Blu-ray, but I doubt many people will be desperate for a second viewing on the big screen.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Tom Cruise Effect

The other week I was lucky enough to attend the Empire awards.
A galaxy of stars were in attendance, as you might imagine, and some of my favourite actors and film makers got the plaudits they richly deserved.
Having dinner on the next table to Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry would have been amazing enough, but there were so many highs on that evening, it's hard to pick the favourite moment.
James Nesbitt's opening number was superb; Simon Pegg humble speech was emotional; Arnold Schwarzenegger was genuinely hilarious as he popped in, picked up an award and cleared off, and I was thrilled to see James McAvoy pick up a gong for his superb work on the movie Filth.
And then I met Tom Cruise.


Rather aptly, Professor Brian Cox was on stage to award to a gong for Gravity, but I would have been fascinated to see what he thought of the Cruise effect.
There are stars, there are super novas (which burn twice as bright and last half as long) and then there is the black hole that is Tom.
Toward the end of the night I watched from a distance as what seemed like whole room gravitated towards him, desperate to have their photo taken with the man himself.
Personally, I just wanted to shake his hand, and say thanks for a lifetime worth of blockbuster movies.
A photo would have been the icing on the cake. 

If there's one billing that summed him up, it would be:
Tom Cruise: Legend. 
That may have been a rare flop, but it seems to have summed up his entire career.
So, as he filed past, I half expected he’d ignore me. 
Thankfully, Cruise is not one of those blokes.

As you’ll have seen from his many hours spent signing autographs, taking phone calls and having photos taken outside movie premieres, he's all about the fans.
I reached out a hand behind a line of security guards and fully expected he’d ignore me. 
After all, I was just another nameless journalist who just happened to have spent 30 years watching, loving, being thrilled by his movies. 
I was the guy who was so excited about Legend, I made myself Ill on that opening night (and saw it twice in a week). 
I was the guy who was there on the opening night of Top Gun at my local flea pit, when a mate and his girlfriend fell out and left 10 minutes in. 
I was the guy, like millions of others, who spent months and years paying and queuing in the rain (before multiplexes) to (aptly) see Rain Man (twice), and Days of Thunder (couldn't get in - saw Spaced Invaders instead, which was awful). 

And then I landed a job writing about films, and was still paying to see Mission: Impossible, Interview with the Vampire (twice), Eyes Wide Shut, Mission: Impossible 2 (twice), Magnolia and all those other amazing, occasionally disappointing (Rock of Ages) movies. 
I spent years interviewing his colleagues, such as Joe Pantoliano (Risky Business) and Simon Pegg, asking about whether Tom was as cool as he seemed or if he had a secret plan for world domination. 
No, he really was that cool. 
On the night of the Empires I could see why Cruise and Pegg were best mates. Both loved movies, both loved each other’s work, and both loved working with JJ Abrams, who later presented an award. 
Being a journalist it's seen as uncool to express too much emotion towards stars, but a degree of professional, mutual respect is fine. 
So I kept my cool... and then Tom shook my hand. 
It wasn't one of those ’Oh another random handshake, I wonder what's for dinner, mind on other things’ handshake. 
Tom Cruise was interested, committed to the moment 100 per cent, and when I babbled “Cheers Tom” he was genuinely grateful. 

For those five seconds I was the most important person in the room, and that is Cruise’s greatest skill.
To take a genuine interest in a stranger, albeit for a few seconds, is impressive.
There are great actors who may be awkward if you chat to them, and then there are megastars who earn every penny.
No prizes for guessing which camp Tom falls into. As he filed out of the hall, he was taking an age with the fans begging for selfies. 
I know it's not cool to like Tom in some circles. He's just a bit too successful for some Brits. We like to keep stars in check, build them up when they're on the rise to stardom and then melt their Icarus wings if they get too close to the sun. 
But that's Blighty for you. Cynical, wary of success because it's an alien concept.
We know where we are with failure. It's reassuring and comforting every time we fall, like a blanket. 
Movie stars tell us through screens that for two hours at a time you can forget reality and lose yourself in dreams. And if you work hard and mix in the right circles, you can reach dizzy heights and bask in the sun, even if you fly too close to it. 
So there you go. Thirty years of watching Cruise on screen, 23 years writing about him condensed into five seconds of thanks in one hand shake. 
Cheers Tom. 

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Captain America: the Winter Soldier Review

Given the advanced reviews for Captain America: the Winter Soldier, I expected it was going to be one of the best Marvel films so far.

Maybe because I had just sat through Martin Scorsese's three-hour epic The Wolf of Wall Street, or maybe because the premiere was at midnight, but the sequel didn't grab me as much as I wanted it to.

It certainly ticks all the boxes when it comes to epic set pieces and impressive visuals. Alas, after a while I tired of the blurry hand-to-hand combat, and was a little bored during the third act, which felt too much like the deafening heli-carrier battle from Avengers Assemble.
(My spellcheck aptly changed that to 'headache' carrier.)

Okay, there is much to admire about Joe and Anthony Russo's film. The shadowy Three Days of the Condor/Jason Bourne style-plot marked a welcome change for a superhero epic.
But the sight of Robert Redford, with that extraordinary hair, giving a rather lacklustre performance, left me colder than Christmas.

Chris Evans is good, not great as Steve Rogers; Scarlett Johannson sexier than ever asNatasha Romanov, and Samuel L Jackson on good form as Nick Fury, as usual.
(Fans of SLJ's work will spot a nice little in-joke during a graveyard scene).

There are also good support turns from Jenny Agutter and Colbie Smulders, but it's just a pity that Neighbours veteran Alan Dale pops up and spoils any tension as a World Council member.

I did get a frisson of excitement like a child on Christmas morning when Steve and Nickentered a hangar with heli-carriers, but for me there were none of those moments like in the first film when I was moved as selfless Steve threw himself on a grenade.

In a previous blog, I said the problem with Capt America is partly down to Chris Evans. He hasn't got the acting chops to carry a film of the scale, but having seen the film the key problem is the fact that Cap is just not that great a hero. A little too goody goody for my tastes, and although he acts as a great foil for warriors like Iron Man and Thor, as the star of his own show he is a little disappointing.

One great addition to the Marvel universe is Anthony Mackie's Falcon. As a fan of the Capt America comics, it was great to see this iconic supporting character finally given his big screen chance.
Admittedly, some of his aerial action scenes tended to grate a little after a while, but Mackieis a great actor and I wouldn't mind seeing him in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron or the inevitable Cap 3.

Stay tuned for the inevitable credits teaser for one of the next big Marvel films and some rather cool closing titles.
It's certainly not the worst film you'll see all year, but it could have been so much better.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Brian Clemens: Professional British Legend

Brian Clemens is one of the most influential British writer/producer/directors in history having created The Avengers, The New Avengers and a string of international hit series and films. With the release of his classic TV series The Professionals on Blu-ray, DVD and download, I spoke to Brian about his life and work.

What was the seed of the show - was it a need for a British Starsky and Hutch?

Oh well it began like that. Brian Tesler of London weekend television having liked the way we did The Avengerssaid he'd like a buddy show in the Starsky and Hutch mould, or at least as a rival to them. And I came up with two ideas. One was about two undercover cops. The other one was The Professionals. He liked The Professionals and said "I'll commission the script, If I like it, we'll make 13". A bit unheard of these days, but that's exactly what happened of course.

Did you relate to CI5 boss George Cowley as the show runner overseeing a couple of slightly cocky stars?

No, not really, because Cowley was my business partner's idea to bring in Gordon (Jackson). Originally we had Clive Revill, a New Zealand actor. He's in The New Avengers; the one who Steed's killed and he carries the bullet in his heart. We wanted him to do theCowley part, but he'd just done a pilot in America and if it was taken up he'd be very rich, so he couldn't do it, so we looked around. Albert (Fennell) who'd worked with Gordon on a number of occasions, brought his name up, and I thought that was brilliant, becauseGordon had just finished doing Upstairs Downstairs, and I'm sure that he was looking for a change of pace to cast aside the butler image.

Anthony Andrews was the original choice for Bodie. Was he not chosen because the dynamic between him and Martin Shaw wasn't quite right?
It was nothing to do with Anthony, who is a fine actor. It was just that when you got him and Martin on screen together, it was like seeing the same person. They both had the same sort of throwaway style and I was looking for Black and Decker, not black and black, so we recast (and chose) Lewis (Collins).

There was a real spark between Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins but judging by a making of documentary on the new discs, they didn't see eye-to-eye initially.

I don't think they got on too well.

Which may have added to the dynamic

Oh absolutely! Yeah.

Would long-form series like 24 work well for a Professionals reboot?
Well I think it would work pretty well. I mean actually the stories have caught up with us and it's very castable.

I never understand why the BBC put (Benedict) 'Cumberbunch' or whatever his name is in everything, because they can't get Stephen Fry. And actually when you put someone on television for two nights, you've got an instant star, even if they are terrible.

Is it true that Lionsgate are prepping a Professionals film prequel?
That's right, though you didn't hear it here first, I understand that there is going to be an announcement it Cannes, and that's in May isn't it?

It is

I've been told all this before because it's been going on some years now.

The HD remastered version of The Professionals makes it look fresher than ever. 
Yeah, that they haven't sent me one yet, but everyone who's seen it says it looks smashing.

It looks like it was shot yesterday
Yeah, that's good, it can't do any harm. Maybe they can sell it in America now.

Did you have any idea how influential The Avengers would be when you make that first episode?
Not really, no. You never really know you're going through a golden age. Golden age is always back then, it's never now. But we were going through a golden age.

It must have been great working with Patrick McNee, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. 
Oh yeah, many good friends.

What were your thoughts on The Avengers film version, because I didn't think it worked?
No, well I could have made that work. They didn't involve anybody who knew about The Avengers. 

It was ridiculous; they got it so wrong. The Americans never understood The Avengers; never understood what made it work. Which was why they never interfered with the series. They were afraid it was a house of cards and if they removed the wrong card, the whole thing would collapse.

I'm a big fan of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. What were your memories of making that?
Oh that was great fun. Great fun. They keep threatening to bring that out again, you know, remastered. They keep threatening to remake it too. That's the trouble with this country, nobody actually does anything.

It was a great format as well
It was intended to be a format, yeah. He's called Kronos because that's Greek for 'time'. I thought I could take him through all sorts of time warps. He could turn up anywhere. He says it in the film, "where ever there is evil to be fought..." So the world was my oyster, or my lobster. (laughs).

You've been involved in so many influential series over the years. I imagineThe Avengers was a personal favourite
Oh yeah, well it was the most fun to work on.

And it must've been great that lightning did strike twice for The New Avengers?
Yep, but it wasn't an accident though. I like people to think it was an accident. It's an accident after a great deal of work.

And it turned Joanna Lumley into an overnight star
Yes, I had to interview several hundred young actresses. We tested about 20 on camera. And I always knew it was going to be Jo Lumley, but I had to go through the motions to convince the people around me.

Were there any lesser known projects that were personal favourites? 
Well I liked (sitcom) My Wife Next-Door. They've never really done (repeated) that. I think it must be something to do with the artist holding that back or re-shown.

How was it working on Highlander II?
Oh, that was fun. I was in Hollywood for that, and that was Hollywood big time. That's always good fun.

Did the producers want something different from the first film?
They didn't know what they wanted. I got it because I came up with the idea who the Immortals were. They came from another planet with a different time warp, so when they lived for a minute, it was 400 years.

What's been the secret of your success, because you've been so prolific?
I don't set out to be. I love everything I write at the time of writing, and I don't go for bullsh*t. I don't send 'messages'. There are messages to be found that are not upfront, and I think that's what's wrong with a lot of British products at the moment. It's too social. It should be entertainment first and social under the cover as it were.

You've lived in Bedfordshire for 50 years. Were there no plans to retire to Hollywood?
Oh no. I've enjoyed working in Hollywood and living there, but I wouldn't want to be there for ever and a day. I'm European. I like the food. I love France and Spain for eating. The American way of life is too like ours. I go foreign, I want it to be foreign.

Tell us about your new play
Yeah, Murder Weapon, it's threatening to be put on at Windsor and Nottingham sometime late spring or early summer. That'll be fun. My thriller of the year. My pension (laughs).

What was the most memorable day of your career?
That most memorable day I think was when I was given the OBE by the Queen. That was quite something. I felt kind of proud of myself... a bit. They don't give you any money though (laughs).

Maybe it should have been a knighthood?
I'm working on it (laughs).

:: The Professionals Mk1 Available on Blu-ray & DVD from 31st March. Now available on iTunes in SD & HD. Network Distributing