Sunday 28 February 2016

Deadpool by Reese, Wernick, Nicieza and Liefeld

The thing that most immediately intrigued me about Deadpool was where the hell the character got his name. But it turns out its derivation was exactly what I thought: a dead pool is a betting syndicate wagering on who's going to die first. It's already been the title of a film — The Dead Pool was the fifth and final Dirty Harry movie.

This Deadpool is a Marvel superhero; yes, another one. He kills bad guys with guns and swords and his main gimmick is that he can regenerate when he's wounded. Actually, his real main gimmick is that he breaks the fourth wall. In other words, he addresses the audience.

The comic book Deadpool was created by writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Rob Liefeld. This film was scripted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who co-wrote Zombieland), and directed by Tim Miller.

Deadpool's chief virtue is its sense of humour — the opening credits are just hilarious. And it maintains a sleazy, snarky tone throughout which sets it apart from other Marvel extravaganzas. It is also distinguished by deliberately gory and extreme violence. My main reaction to this was to notice how ineffectual it was compared to similar material in Kingsman.

Kingsman was a way better film. At first I thought this was because it was a spy movie, and so it was more rooted in reality than a superhero story. But actually the reason it was better was because it had a plot and characters.

The premise for Deadpool, on the other hand, is terribly scant. Mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is turned into a super powered mutant but the process renders him hideously ugly — in terms of the movie's makeup, this basically means he looks like John Malkovitch. Wade wants to get the mad scientist responsible for his plight to repair his looks. And in the meantime he's steering clear of the girl he loves, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, who was great in Homeland and V).

Given that's all we've got to go on here, the action scenes rapidly run out of steam and the humour, admirable as it is, just isn't enough to power the movie. Ultimately a negligible endeavour. But Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly good.

(Image credits: The posters are all from Imp Awards. I particularly adore the one which attempts to repackage the movie as a date flick for Valentine's Day.)

Sunday 21 February 2016

Black Sails by Levine & Steinberg

Black Sails comes from the same studio, Starz, which is responsible for Spartacus. It's a pirate saga and at first, as we watch two sailing ships joined in battle on the open sea, I was concerned that we might not be in for the same impressive levels of female nudity as featured on Spartacus. 

I need not have worried though; the pirate ship was soon anchoring in port and the crew was off to the local brothel. And indeed, before episode one had concluded we could shout "ahoy" to some girl-on-girl action. The brothel locale also allows for an episode featuring one of the finest screen credits ever — 'Hand Job Pirate'.

Lest it seems that I'm wholly preoccupied with Black Sails for its admirably prurient content, I must hastily add that it's brilliantly written. Created by Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg (who previously worked together on the TV series Jericho, which Steinberg created), Black Sails is an intelligent and beautifully fashioned drama. 

For a start, it is deeply concerned with the politics and economics of piracy, which is something I've never seen on screen before. The first three episodes are written by Levine & Steinberg and they've done a marvellous job — although, chaps, no buccaneer in 1715 would use the word "input".

Two out of three of the first episodes are directed by Neil Marshall, who is very similar to Danny Cannon in that he's a British director whose work on the big screen never moved me greatly, who then went on to carve out a truly illustrious career in American television. 

Marshall has also directed for Game of Thrones and Hannibal. His work here is impressive, though in episode one it's not sufficiently clear that the pirate's "fence" Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael) is wounded by a stray shot, or that his daughter Eleanor (Hannah New) is bruised — important plot points, both.
The show looks absolutely ravishing — pale blue sea, golden beaches, silver palm fronds in the moonlight, the green silk wall paper in a whore's bedroom...  the colours are so gorgeous that I am longing to see it on Blu-ray. The outstanding production design is by Wolf Kroeger, a distinguished talent who won a Bafta for his work on Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans. The cinematography is by Lukas Ettlin and Jules O'Loughlin.
The story is brought to life by a smashing cast led by a swashbuckling Toby Stephens (who has played James Bond in BBC radio adaptions of Ian Fleming), an engagingly weaselly Luke Arnold and a smouldering Jessica Parker Kennedy. The excellent music is by Bear McCreary, now working on Agents of Shield and Outlander.

I just love Black Sails — and even forgive it for having achingly anachronistic phrases like "shorthand" and "time frame" in the dialogue. It has the finest sea battle I've ever seen on screen in episode V — there's also a fine one in episode VIII — and I'm so impressed I won't mention dialogue like "Incoming" and "Fire at zero range". Oh, whoops — I just did... Never mind, this is a terrific show even on the basis of its short first season, and promises still greater things — on top of everything else, it turns out that it's a sly and carefully crafted prequel to Treasure Island. Great viewing ahoy. Set sail, me hearties...

(Image credits: The clever suggestive-of-skull-and-crossbones poster is from Imp Awards. The skeletal ship is from Fast Co Create where there's an interesting article about the title sequence. The shot of New and Kennedy together is from Screen Rant. The solo shot of Parker looking so fetching among the bedclothes is from the very useful Black Sails Wikia. The portrait of her is from Pinterest. The army of skeletons — yay! — is from Sinful Celluloid.)

Sunday 14 February 2016

Game of Thrones by Martin, Benioff & Weiss

I've come rather late to the Game of Thrones party. People have been raving about this TV series, and recommending it to me, ever since it debuted in 2011. But events have conspired to prevent me watching it up until now. (Okay, I was too cheap to buy the boxed set until it turned up in a charity shop at a bargain price.)

Having watched the first couple of episodes, though, I was completely hooked. Once I'd seen the first two seasons I sincerely concluded that this is the greatest serial television drama ever made. Of course, I am an admirer of Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Shield, Rome, etc. but none of these have the epic scope of Game of Thrones.

The series has its origins in a sequence of (huge) novels collectively entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, the first of which is A Game of Thrones. They are the work of George R. R. Martin, a fantasy and horror writer whom up until now I principally knew through his riverboat-vampire novel Fevre Dream. 

George R. R. Martin has also served his time in the television trenches, writing for the 1986 revival of The Twilight Zone and doing a lot of the heavy lifting on three seasons of the series Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990). 

But Game of Thrones was developed for television ("created") by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — known as Dave and Dan to their co-workers. Weiss has a background as a TV producer while Benioff has a number of impressive screenwriting credits on feature films, starting with Spike Lee's 25th Hour (which was also based on Benioff's novel) and the Brad Pitt epic Troy. 

Benioff and Weiss have written numerous key episodes of Game of Thrones and they're bloody good at what they do. George R. R. Martin contributes one episode per season and these are also pretty damned marvellous.

But then so is the whole show, a combination of gripping family dramas, royal court intrigues, quasi-medieval history, sword and sorcery and horror. It has a genuine sense of wonder to it. Oh yes, plus lashings of sex and nudity. 

In fact Game of Thrones became famous/infamous for "sexposition", the use of sex and nudity to keep the viewer interested while presenting exposition in dialogue. To be fair though, I don't think this was as calculated or contrived as viewers like to claim. Although it certainly works.

Game of Thrones is a masterpiece of storytelling. It scores in every department. Not just the writing, but the directing, design, photography (mostly digital, though the first version of the pilot was shot on 35mm film), makeup, costumes, sfx and music. But a special word must be said about the cast, which is uniformly spectacular, right down to the young children.

I was at a party last night where someone told me she hadn't watched Game of Thrones because she "doesn't like science fiction." Well, leaving aside the small fact that it isn't science fiction (it's fantasy, folks, there's quite a difference) there is the big fact that Game of Thrones is simply superlative drama, and utterly addictive.

Try it and you, too, will be hooked. Even if you "don't like science fiction."

(Image credits:These bits of 'wallpaper' were taken from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 7 February 2016

Hannibal by Thomas Harris and Bryan Fuller

The great American novelist Thomas Harris forever changed the face of crime fiction with his book Red Dragon. In it he introduced the concept (and term) serial killer, as well as the notion of a troubled police profiler who has disturbing insights into violent crimes and those who commit them. 

These tropes have become so omnipresent — indeed, tiresomely almost de rigeur — that it's strange indeed to remember that they all come from that one novel and that one (brilliant) writer. Thomas Harris has had as profound an effect on crime fiction as Hammett and Chandler (who between them invented the private eye story as we know it).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Harris's fortunes in terms of screen versions of his work have been mixed. Red Dragon was brought to the screen by Michael Mann, a top notch writer-director. But that adaptation didn't maintain sufficient fidelity to the original. It changed the title (to the anodyne Man Hunter) and even changed the spelling of Hannibal Lecter's name (I ask you – "Lektor"?). However the next Thomas Harris movie was Silence of the Lambs, extremely well directed by Jonathan Demme from a truly first rate script by Ted Tally, who did respect the subject matter. And it was a blockbuster.

This was followed by Hannibal directed by Ridley Scott, who managed to screw things up royally by changing the ending of Harris's book. The less said about that, the better. Then came a remake of Red Dragon, with the proper title restored and a much more faithful treatment of the book — thanks again to a script by the excellent Ted Tally. 

Finally there was the film Hannibal Rising, which I rate very highly (many would disagree); I certainly think it is superior to Harris's book — the weakest in the series. (But then Hannibal Rising was conceived as a film, and Harris wrote the script first. It only became a book later, a very thin and underpowered one, presumably because no one could dream of of missing out on the chance of a cash-in.)

When I heard that there was going to be a TV series called Hannibal, I feared the worst. But I am delighted to say I was wrong, wrong, wrong. On the evidence of the first series, Hannibal is smashingly, stupendously good.

The show is based on Red Dragon, or rather "based on the characters" in Red Dragon. We still have Hannibal Lecter, everybody's favourite cannibal psychopath, along with Will Graham the eerily insightful profiler, Jack Crawford the stalwart FBI chief, and Freddie Lounds the sleazy opportunistic tabloid journalist. But the stories weaving these characters together are fresh and new (and top-notch). 

Plus there have been some intriguing and very cool changes wrought on the characters. Graham (played by Hugh Dancy) is now on the autistic spectrum. Crawford is African American (played by an impressive Laurence Fishburne). And, most brilliantly, Lounds is now a scheming redheaded woman (the Canadian actress Lara Jean Chorostecki).

As for Lecter himself, he is played by the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen, quite recently sighted being menacing in a sausage-dog print shirt in Charlie Countryman. And the big change for his character is that, whereas Lecter was already behind bars when we first met him in Harris' novel, here he is still a free man (or monster). In fact, by a very dark irony, he is working in close collaboration with the FBI team. He's even Will Graham's shrink.

There are some flaws in the show. It specialises in fantasy and dream (or nightmare) sequences but it also specialises in grand guignol shocks. And sometimes it's difficult to tell the two apart. So when a killer's victim, whom we believe to be long dead, suddenly grabs Will Graham's arm (a swipe of a memorable scene from Andrew Kevin Walker's script for Seven) it rather spoils the impact if we initially think it's just another one of Will's waking dreams.

Also, the gruesome subject matter is just a little hard to take. Of course, a Hannibal Lecter story is going to involve some grisly murders. But the problem with a weekly show of this nature is that there's going to be one of these pretty much every episode. (They are not all, I hasten to add, committed by Hannibal — the FBI team investigates a wide range of suspects.) For me and my delicate sensibilities there is a danger that this could be a little too much. That was why I ultimately couldn't watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — I couldn't handle a lavish attrocity every week.

In the case of Hannibal, all this means is that it is ideal for watching an episode a time, interspersed with less intense material (Castle, please step forward) instead of box-set binge viewing.

But, when all is said and done, this is an exceptional show and, despite its subject matter, very beautiful. It is shot in amazingly stylish heightened colours — all bright red autumn leaves and blood splashes — by cinematographer James Hawkins. And there is an outstanding, churning, eerie, avant-garde music score by Brian Reitzell which I will be seeking out on CD. And possibly even vinyl.

But above all, the writing in Hannibal is superb. The series was developed for television by Bryan Fuller, who previously created Dead Like Me (on the strength of Hannibal, I've just ordered both seasons of this from Amazon). Other writers on the team include Chris Brancato, who wrote the period gangster movie Hoodlum (which also starred Laurence Fishburne) and the wonderfully named Jim Danger Gray.

Oh yes, and the episodes are named after posh cullinary terms like Apéritif, Amuse-Bouche and Potage.

Tasty. And moreish.

(Image credits: All the posters are from reliable old Imp Awards.)