TV review: Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ S1 EP1 “Pilot” – SERIES PREMIERE

Starring:  Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Ming Na-Wen as Melinda May, Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as Skye, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons

Series created by:  Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Episode directed by:  Joss Whedon / Written by:  Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen / aired in the UK:  27/09/13

What’s this episode about?

S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson returns from the dead to assemble a team of ‘Level 7’ agents to investigate the appearance of a hooded ‘hero’ with special abilities…

Episode review

After much anticipation, Marvel’s small screen companion to their behemoth big screen franchises has been rolled out to an audience hungry for more comic book superhero action.  It’s always difficult (nor fair) to assess a series based on its premiere episode yet the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows a lot of promise for Marvel to replicate their big screen success on a smaller scale.

Just as Marvel cultivated their plans to assemble ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ (culminating in the colossal Avengers Assemble) they set about grouping together a team of small screen heroes in a much quicker fashion as we’re introduced to crack spy Grant Ward, former field agent Melinda May, troublesome hacker/internet activist Skye and techno nerds Fitz and Simmons.

Bringing these disparate individuals together is Clark Gregg, making a confident and welcome return as S.H.I.E.L.D. (that’s ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention and Logistics Division’) Agent Phil Coulson who together with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury has helped bind together the Marvel Cinematic Universe and whose apparent death (in Avengers Assemble – a moment that will now have lost some of its emotional punch) we learn was a ruse to give those iconic cinematic superheroes cause to unite.

Dalton and Bennett have a chance to share some chemistry and goofy whiz kids Fitz and Simmons playfully bounce off one another (whether this will become annoying remains to be seen) but there’s clearly some work to be done to flesh out and find the voices of these characters.  Potentially the most interesting member of the team is Ming Na-Wen’s character, Melinda May, reluctantly enlisted by Coulson for a return to field duty – leaving tantalising hints of a back story to be explored as the series unfolds.

I was initially sceptical as to how AoS could co-exist with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was pleased to see this achieved successfully with well integrated references to the wider Marvel universe weaved neatly throughout (inclduing significant links to Iron Man Three).  There’s also an appearance from Cobie Smulders returning as Fury’s right hand woman, Maria Hill.  Smulders felt a little lost in the mix in Avengers Assemble so perhaps once long running sitcom How I Met Your Mother comes to a close this season we may see more of her both in AoS and in Marvel’s future big screen endeavours.

The abundance of references are generally pleasing and don’t feel forced but going forward there may not be as much need to provide as many links.  An over reliance on them would become stale (even cumbersome) and hopefully the right balance will be struck as the series develops.

Overall this series premiere has a fairly successful mix of action, humour and intrigue that should ensure a sizeable audience.  There’s some work to be done in terms of the characters and developing the show’s own mythology (as there always is with any new series) but the pilot is stylish with good production values and a script that flows comfortably, making good work of introducing the characters in such a short space of time.  Whilst Joss Whedon’s direction in Avengers Assemble felt a little confined and ‘televisual’ at times it works well here, giving the pilot of AoS drive, complemented by its glossy and expensive look.  Given the success of Avengers Assemble it was more or less a given that Marvel would (wisely) tap the talents of Whedon to help secure their footing on the small screen and hopefully there are big things to come.

The bottom line:  The pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. presents exciting prospects for the expansion of the Marvel universe – it’s slick, fun, action packed and holds enough interest to keep viewers watching.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs in the UK on Fridays at 8pm on Channel 4.  US viewers can catch it Tuesday nights on ABC.

 What did you think of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ?  Share your thoughts below!

Agents assembled - Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' is off to a promising start with a slick and enjoyable series premiere.

Agents assembled – Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ is off to a promising start with a slick and enjoyable series premiere.

Comic book review: ‘Star Trek’ (ongoing) #25

This review contains SPOILERS

Written by:  Mike Johnson / pencilled by:  Erfan Fajar

What’s this issue about?

“The Khitomer Conflict” Part 1 of 4:  the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise prepare to embark on their five year mission of deep space exploration but soon find themselves facing a renewed threat from the Klingon Empire…

In review

IDW Publishing’s ongoing Star Trek series continues to chart new territory (and all the better for it) in the aftermath of Star Trek Into Darkness and this month’s 25th issue (unfortunately no expanded page count like those special “anniversary” editions once common in the medium) launches another original storyline which builds upon the title’s “After Darkness” three-parter from issues 21-23.

“The Khitomer Conflict” opens with a Romulan attack on the newly founded Klingon colony on the planet Khitomer (an incident from Star Trek canon that established fans will no doubt be fully aware of) before cutting to the Enterprise docked at a deep space station where the crew are making final preparations to head out into the unknown.  It’s here that we’re introduced to new crewmember Yuki…Sulu, much to the dismay of the Enterprise helmsman of the same surname.  It’s a fun little sequence (especially since Chekov is rather taken with Sulu’s younger sister) that provides some levity before the proverbial storm gathers.

Of course it isn’t long until Kirk and his crew find themselves embroiled in the Klingon’s quest for vengeance against the Romulan aggressors, a dishonourable act that is complicated by the fact that the nefarious Section 31 have provided the Romulans with the very weapons used to carry out their attack.  With the Enterprise responding to a Klingon ‘distress’ call there’s a steady build up to a tense cliffhanger with Kirk a prisoner of the Klingon Commander, Kor (who was played by John Colicos onscreen in the ‘prime’ Star Trek universe).

Long-serving writer Mike Johnson delivers another decent script, deftly balancing those lighter moments between the Enterprise ‘family’ (he certainly knows the universe and nails the character voices perfectly, you can quite clearly imagine Chris Pine or Zachary Quinto delivering the dialogue) with the darker more sinister elements of the story as well as both the space and planet bound action scenes.

For me, the weakest link really is Fajar’s art which I didn’t really take to during the “After Darkness” storyline.  Sure, the character likenesses are generally fine (the odd facial expression aside) and I did like the overall design of the Romulans (sporting Nero-like facial markings and uniforms not unlike those seen in Star Trek Nemesis) and the cover is good, but I’m really not a huge fan of the style (maybe it’s the colouring).  I’m certainly no expert but I’ve read enough comics to know what I like and what I’m not so fussed about and I much prefer Claudia Balboni’s art from last month’s standalone issue which was more reminiscent of the clean, sharp lines of Stephen Molnar’s detailed pencils (I hope he returns to the title someday).

At least the story holds up well and IDW’s Star Trek title has usually been at its best when telling original stories, the standalone character back stories featured in issues 17-20 where generally excellent (with McCoy’s story in #17 the highlight) and it’s good to see that now Star Trek Into Darkness has been and gone the series can continue to move beyond those patchy original Star Trek episode adaptations of earlier issues (although I’m not totally averse to the occasional one).

The bottom line:  The opening chapter of “The Khitomer Conflict” is a promising start to what could potentially be the best story arc IDW’s Star Trek has had to offer.  Although the artwork may not be to everyone’s liking the writing is top notch and faithful to the characters and lore of Star Trek.

Star Trek #25 is out now in print and digital formats from IDW Publishing.

Cover artwork for #25 of IDW Publishing's 'Star Trek' by Erfan Fajar.  A nice cover but  the interior artwork may not be to everyone's liking.

Cover artwork for #25 of IDW Publishing’s ‘Star Trek’ by Erfan Fajar. A nice cover but the interior artwork may not be to everyone’s liking.

Five worthy ‘threequels’

The third entry in any film series is by large considered a disappointment and whilst in some cases this is certainly true (“hello” to Superman III and Jurassic Park III), there are some ‘threequels’ that threaten to stand toe to toe with numbers one and two.

With the recent Blu-ray release of Iron Man Three, I thought I’d look at a selection of five other noteworthy threequels that are far from disappointing…

ONE:  ALIEN 3 (1991)

Follows:  Aliens (1986)

Lt. Ellen Ripley crash lands on the Weyland Yutani prison colony “Fury” 161.  Although her companions are killed in the crash, Ripley is not the only survivor…

Aliens would always have been a tough act to follow but Alien 3 was definitely a step in the right direction, not bigger in an attempt to outdo James Cameron’s blockbuster, but much smaller and more claustrophobic and visceral in the same vein as the franchise’s 1979 progenitor (Ridley Scott’s Alien of course).  Directed with a smattering of art house flair by the then 20-something David Fincher, the Alien 3 that audiences eventually saw had risen from the ashes of a troubled production but stands as an underrated piece of cinematic SF horror that’s oozing with atmospheric chills and should really have been a conclusion to the Alien film series.

Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon aside, Sigourney Weaver is supported by a wealth of British acting talent – Brian Glover, Charles Dance, Ralph Brown, Danny Webb and Paul McGann.  Coupled with Fincher’s youthfully artistic direction Alien 3 has its own distinct flavour.

What came next:  Alien Resurrection (1997) – a sequel too far?  Whilst Alien 3 was ‘arty’ in the best possible sense, Resurrection overstepped the mark and resulted in a poorly conceived and over ambitious mess that lead to the guilty pleasures of two Alien vs. Predator films.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare - again - in 'Alien 3', directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare – again – in ‘Alien 3’, directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

TWO:  STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

Follows:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The crew of the Enterprise are mourning the loss of their shipmate, Captain Spock but when Doctor McCoy begins exhibiting strange behaviour, Admiral Kirk is compelled to defy orders and return to the Genesis Planet…

As established Star Trek fans will know, the most recent J.J. Abrams film is not the first time the franchise ventured “into darkness”.  Both Star Trek II and Star Trek III dealt with some dark yet mature themes including regret and loss, whilst still retaining the core ideals of hope and humanity that Gene Rodenberry had envisioned.  It made sense that the franchise grew with its audience and had relevance in the often dark 1980s.  The Search for Spock – despite relatively little screen-time for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (he was busy behind the camera this time out) – showed us that Star Trek had matured without forgetting those afore-mentioned ideals that made it so appealing.  A large part of what makes it work so well is that you cared about those original characters and rooted for them as they banded together at the risk of losing everything for the sake of their friend and comrade.

The Search for Spock also features a (just) pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd as the enjoyably maniacal Klingon Commander, Kruge.

What came next:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – “the one with the whales” ranks as one of the most commercially and critically successful of all the Star Trek feature films (and the second to be directed by Leonard Nimoy), it brought levity in spades and upheld the key elements of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst paving the way for the franchise’s return to the small screen with the immensely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one...

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one…

THREE:  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Follows:  The Dark Knight (2008)

Bruce Wayne must once again don the cape and cowl to prevent the terrorist Bane from fulfilling the League of Shadow’s plan to destroy Gotham City…

Whilst many will argue that The Dark Knight is the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises was the perfect conclusion and brought the focus back to Bruce Wayne’s story (despite less actual screen time for the Batman himself), bringing everything neatly full circle.

The film features arguably the strongest cast performances of the trilogy and a villain that literally stood toe to toe with Gotham’s Dark Knight and high stakes throughout to the spectacular and gripping finale.

For more on the Dark Knight Rises, check out the GBUK retrospective here.

What came next:  Man of Steel (2013) – although Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga concluded with The Dark Knight Rises his creative presence is felt in the recent Superman reboot, having served as producer and sharing a ‘story by’ credit with screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Another superbly cast ensemble  for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's well crafted Batman film trilogy.

Another superbly cast ensemble for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s well crafted Batman film trilogy.

FOUR:  GOLDFINGER (1964)

Follows:  From Russia With Love (1963)

007 must foil gold magnate Auric Goldfinger’s plot to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold reserve…

Goldfinger is generally regarded as the finest of all Bond films (for me it’s in contention with From Russia With Love) and identified as the point where Bond-mania truly exploded.  It established the template from which (for better or worse) all future Bond films would follow:  the pre-credits mission, a grand and operatic theme song, the gadgets, a compelling villain and an action packed climax as 007 leads a final assault to thwart the plans of said villain.

Gert Frobe (despite being dubbed due to his lack of coherent English) brought true presence and gravitas to the role of Goldfinger, a master villain able to match Bond whit for whit.  Sean Connery excels as the iconic super spy, his performance confidently infused with charm and vigour – leaving you in no doubt that (as good as Daniel Craig is) he was and likely always will be the best screen 007.

And of course who can forget that legendary Austin Martin…ejector seat and all.

What came next:  Thunderball (1965) – considered by some to be the downward turn in Sean Connery’s tenure it’s still a top spy adventure bolstered by Academy Award winning effects, another magnificent score from John Barry and yet another sexy Bond girl – this time Claudine Auger’s ‘Domino’.

Expected to die...James Bond (Sean Connery) faces the challenge of one of his greatest foes - Aric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

Expected to die…James Bond (Sean Connery) is challenged by one of his greatest foes – Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

FIVE:  ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

Follows:  Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a surprising entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series not only in that it’s superior to first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes but also for the fact that it’s a film of two very different halves.  The first ‘half’ is fairly light (even frivolous) as the evolved apes Cornelius (Roddie McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are welcomed with open arms by the media and general public, being treated like celebrities before the sinister workings behind the scenes of the U.S. government lead to a much darker second half as Cornelius and Zira (the latter having just given birth) must run for their lives as they are hunted down.  At this point it’s a film that can be taken much more seriously and throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the uglier, inhumane aspects of human nature.

What came next:  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – arguably the best of the Apes sequels it continues the darker tone of the latter parts of Escape as humanity’s subjugation and mistreatment of apes (a comment on slavery, a subject directly referenced in dialogue by one of the film’s African American characters) leads to a violent revolt by Caesar (another wonderful simian performance from McDowall), the son of Cornelius and Zira.

'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it's tense and shocking climax...

‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it’s tense and shocking climax…

Do you have a favourite threequel?  Share your thoughts below!

Also on Geek Blogger UK:

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

GBUK film classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’

 

Film review: ‘Futureworld’

Year:  1976

Starring:  Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill and Yul Brynner

Directed by:  Richard T. Heffron / Written by:  Mayo Simon and George Schenck

What’s it about?

Two reporters are invited to visit the reopened Delos resort, closed down after its android ‘attractions’ malfunctioned and began murdering the guests…

In review

Having recently reviewed Westworld (which you can read here), I thought I’d take a look at its sequel.  I actually saw Futureworld a few years ago and didn’t remember it being very good but given instances where I’ve looked on things more favourably with subsequent viewings, maybe it deserved a reassessment?

Well, this is certainly not one of those instances.  Futureworld (named from the new ‘theme area’ of the Delos resort) is a prime example of an unnecessary sequel done “for the sake of it”.  The main protagonists are newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Fonda) and television reporter Tracy Ballard (Danner), both weakly drawn and clichéd characters, the snooping reporters eager for a story/the bickering (later romancing) man/woman team up we’ve all seen before in a thousand films and television shows.  Both Fonda (who’d later star in another ill-conceived sequel – Escape from L.A.) and Danning make what work they can of the dull script with the latter the superior of the two leads, infusing a bit of fun in the Lois Lane style hijinks (an intention on the writers’ part?  There’s reference to Superman in the film with an android character named ‘Clark’, after Clark Kent).  Unfortunately Fonda’s performance is a little flat at times although he’s a little more ‘animated’ than James Brolin was in Westworld.  This aside, the two do have decent onscreen chemistry – providing at least one watchable aspect of the film.

Inevitably and predictably things eventually go awry for the two reporters as they end up on the run from murderous malfunctioning androids.  What worked in Westworld just doesn’t here and a sign that it sorely lacks the creative touches of Michael Crichton, Yul Brynner’s cameo as the Gunslinger in a bizarre fantasy dream sequence is a disservice to his Westworld character and a misuse of a fine actor (and a massive shame since it was his last screen appearance) who’s cleverly restrained and nuanced performance was the key to the prior film’s effectiveness.  It’s something that none of the performers in Futureworld are able to replicate – the sequence where Fonda and Danner are chased by android Samurai is a laughable example and fails to instil anything near resembling the chills or tension that Westworld evoked.

Other attempts to shock the viewer also fall flat – the android clones of the two central characters set loose in the final act by the evil Delos corporation (another cliché?) only upholds the above point and again lacks what was achieved so effectively in Crichton’s film.

Futureworld also looks rather cheap, granted Westworld didn’t exactly have a massive budget, but the production design is rather uninspired and the direction workmanlike leaving the film feeling more like a slightly souped-up television production.

The bottom line:  Futureworld is a poor and completely unnecessary follow up to a little gem of SF cinema, with nothing really to recommend it.  You’ll laugh and you’ll cry for the wrong reasons – stick with the far superior Westworld instead.

Futureworld is available on Blu-ray (select territories) and DVD.

'Futureworld' features an android named Clark Kent - guess he didn't want his face associated with the film!

‘Futureworld’ features an android named Clark Kent – guess he didn’t want his face associated with the film!

TV review: ‘Falling Skies’ S3 EP10 “Brazil” – SEASON FINALE

This review contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Noah Wylie as Tom Mason, Moon Bloodgood as Anne Glass, Will Patton as Captain Daniel Weaver, Colin Cunnigham as Pope, Drew Roy as Hal Mason, Connor Jessup as Ben Mason, Maxim Night as Matt Mason, Sarah Sanguin Carter as Margaret, Seychelle Gabriel as Lourdes, Doug Jones as Cochise.

Series created by:  Robert Rodat

Episode Directed by:  Greg Beeman / Written by:  Remi Aubuchon / aired in the UK:  17/09/13

What’s this episode about?

The 2nd Mass prepares to bring down the Espheni defence grid and meet with the Volm commander…

In review

Successfully powering up the Volm weapon (presumably dug up between episodes) and triumphant in bringing down the Espheni’s defence grid, all seems well for Tom Mason and the characters of Falling Skies.  But, this is a season finale and not a series finale and from the early scenes of “Brazil”, despite the celebrations (together with rallying camp fire speeches and characters contemplating what they’ll do after the war) I found myself instilled with the overriding sense that things weren’t going to turn out as rosy as we’d be led to believe.

Falling Skies delivered strong finales in its first two seasons and this year is, thankfully, no different.  With the Espheni grid down, the Volm reinforcements land (it’s strange that the Volm ship was ready and waiting, doesn’t it seem odd that they must have approached orbit just as the defence grid went up?  Maybe I missed something, or am I just being a tad too nerdy here?) and along with them hope for the human race.  The morning after, Tom, Weaver and Cochise head to the Volm ship to meet with the Volm commander, Waschak-Cha’ab (John H. Mayer) who turns out to also be Cochise’s father.  Mason and Weaver are quickly deflated as the Volm commander reveals their true intentions, the human resistance is to be relocated to Brazil and kept out of the fighting as the Volm continue their centuries-long conflict with the Espheni.  Not as sinister as earlier episodes would have suggested but ultimately makes sense as we’ve been given no reason to distrust Cochise these last few episodes.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with Weaver and Mason and after arguing with the Volm commander, Mason is detained leaving Weaver to return to camp.  As expected, Pope isn’t happy about the situation and we see that the war is taking its toll on Weaver, he’s been taking heart medication for the last few months – less than subtle hints at a future storyline?

Back on the Volm ship there’s an exchange between Mason and Waschak-Cha’ab (try and say that without slurring) which conveys some of the central themes of the series – the strength and tenacity of the human spirit.  It might seem cheesy and clichéd but certainly relevant in these often dark times and Noah Wylie delivers the points with reliable passion.  As often seen in science fiction the aliens are confused by this sort of reaction and don’t understand why the human race wishes to go on fighting when the Volm have offered them comfort and security.  Ultimately, Cochise delivers the news that the humans are free to go but they must leave Boston as soon as possible.

With the 2nd Mass back on the road the series goes back to its roots but not before some final set-up for next season, a run in with Karen (Jessy Schram) leads to her being shot by Mason (and a couple more times by Maggie to finish her off once and for all) and being reunited with Anne…with a six-year old Lexi!  Although Tom is obviously disturbed, Dr. Kadar (Robert Sean Leonard, hopefully we’ll continue to see more of his character in season four) isn’t surprised given his studies of her alien DNA.  What’s even more surprising is that Lexi is able to ‘cure’ Lourdes (having spent the majority of the episode chained up and delirious like scenes from The Exorcist, but non-the-less allowing some intense and unnerving turns from Seychelle Gabriel).

So all in all an eventful finale with some good drama and action scenes, it seems that a sizeable chunk of this season’s VFX budget was rightfully reserved for this episode – from the destruction of the Espheni tower and the arrival of the Volm to the final face off with Karen (skitters and Mechs included), no expense is spared.  But it’s also the storytelling, which continues to improve as the series grows and develops.  With Battlestar Galactica’s David Eick due to head up the writing staff next season, I look forward to seeing what’s in store next for the 2nd Mass.

The bottom line:  A strong finale caps off a strong season of Falling Skies and provides tantalising hints of things to come.

Falling Skies returns in 2014.

The 'Falling Skies' finale treats viewers to a plethora of Volm...

The ‘Falling Skies’ finale treats viewers to a plethora of Volm…

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

This review contains SPOILERS 

 please don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen Iron Man Three

 

Time for some iron heroics…

 

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall

Directed by:  Shane Black / Written by:  Drew Pearce & Shane Black / 130 minutes

What’s Iron Man Three about?

Struggling to reconcile the events of New York, Tony Stark must grapple with his demons to face the threat of a lethal terrorist and the reprisals of a past acquaintance…

Film review

Hindsight can be sometimes be rewarding.  Given my previous thoughts on Iron Man Three (which I won’t hide away – you can read my rant here) it was with both surprise and delight that second time around I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I’ve been wrong before (Predators) and always happy to admit that I’ve let geek passions blind my enjoyment of an actually solid piece of entertainment.

Admittedly there still are “issues” with Iron Man Three (which I’ll come back to later) that threaten to grate but which I’ve now become more accepting of.  Anyway, on with the review…

Needless to say the success of Marvel Studios was well and truly secured by the positive reception of Avengers Assemble (as it was titled here in the UK) and it’s with respected confidence that whereas other studios would have opted for more of the same, Marvel’s next film would follow its own path.  Perhaps that’s part of what caught me off guard initially as Iron Man Three really is its own beast and (the occasional reference to Avengers and the wider Marvel universe aside) stands on its own feet.

Taking over the reins from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau is Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black (he also played Hawkins in Predator) who previously teamed up with Robert Downey Jr. for the well-crafted 2005 action crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  Black proves to be the perfect successor to Favreau (who returns in front of the camera as Happy Hogan), balancing all the elements with aplomb, from the dialogue driven character moments to the adrenalin inducing action scenes.

Robert Downey Jr. returns to arguably the biggest and most iconic role of his career and infuses Tony Stark with the charm, wit and flawed humanity audiences have come to expect.  Whilst still not quite the Tony Stark of the comic books, much like Sean Connery did with James Bond, he has made the part his own without dismissing the key elements of the character Stan Lee envisioned.  Whilst there’s more of those sharp witticisms they thankfully don’t become as over indulgent as Iron Man 2.

RDJ continues to share good chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (who is more significant to the story this time out), Don Cheadle is much more settled as Stark’s best buddy Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes aka ‘Iron Patriot’ (the rebranded War Machine) and Rebecca Hall is Maya Hansen – a flame from Stark’s past with questionable allegiances – who (much like Alice Eve’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness) serves the plot and not much more.  This brings us to the villains of the piece, led by the ever excellent Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, seeking reprisal after once being spurned by Stark, with The Pacific’s James Badge Dale appearing as his super-powered right hand man, Savin and the always reliable Ben Kingsley as ‘the Mandarin’.

Overall, the screenplay (co-written by Black) holds up but there are moments where it tries to be more like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with some of the witty dialogue feeling at odds with Stark’s struggle against his post-Avengers anxiety.  RDJ’s ‘team up’ with school kid Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) is heartfelt and fun but threatens to draw out the pace, although it’s also interesting to see a deeper exploration of the man inside the iron suit.  The adaptation of the Extremis storyline (which served as a modern reboot of the Iron Man comics) works – ahem – extremely well and I was fascinated by the ideas posed about unleashing new abilities by tapping into the brain’s ‘operating system’ which goes hand in hand with the technological aspects of the Iron Man universe.  There are also – naturally – a plethora of nods to the comics (the AIM organisation and a suited up Pepper Potts to offer a couple of examples) and the customary cameo from Mr. Marvel himself, Stan Lee.

However, Iron Man Three is not perfect and there is one major element that prevents it from becoming the ultimate Iron Man film – I am indeed referring to that divisive Mandarin twist.  Given the threat built up at the outset I still feel that it was a big mistake not to maintain the Mandarin’s identity as a Bin Laden-esque terrorist.  It would have provided a neat reinvention of the character and much higher stakes for Stark that would have elevated Iron Man Three to a whole other level.  Ben Kingsley serves the part well but the reversal into slapstick comedy upon the revelation that he’s just a washed out actor playing a role is a little jarring – perhaps over time I’ll be more accepting of it but for now it’s a significant flaw that lets the film down.

Iron Man Three boasts some beautiful and sumptuous visuals from Cinematographer John Toll.  It’s certainly the best looking Iron Man film which has a very “wide” feel even in the tighter more static character scenes.  It’s also bolstered by an increased Avengers sized budget that allows for some exhilarating and pulse-pounding action scenes (complemented perfectly by Bryan Tyler’s score) including the decimation of Stark’s mansion, an attack on Air Force One and the effects laden finale where Stark rounds up all of his Iron Man armours for a climactic show down with Killian.

All in all my opinion of Iron Man Three has been elevated from okay to VERY good and although the first Iron Man remains the best of the trilogy (I’m always a sucker for origin stories) it comes highly recommend.

Standout moment

Commandeering the Iron Patriot suit, Savin proceeds with Killian’s plan to attack Air Force One unaware that Stark is not far behind…

The Blu-ray

Slightly more generous than Paramount’s recent release of Star Trek Into Darkness, extras include a trio of short featurettes, a collection of deleted/extended scenes and outtakes, a gag reel and a commentary track with Shane Black and Drew Pearce.

Completing the package is perhaps the best ‘Marvel One Shot’ so far – Agent Carter, which sees Hayley Atwell (as gorgeous as ever) put in a strong yet sensitive performance as she reprises her role from Captain America.

The bottom line:  it required a reassessment but Iron Man Three has turned out to be a much better film than I initially thought.  It’s a consistently entertaining blockbuster with a measure of gusto and heart.

Iron Man Three is out now on Blu-ray (2D and 3D editions) from Paramount Home Entertainment (also available on DVD and digital download).

Another likeable performance form Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel Studios' 'Iron Man Three'.

Another likeable performance form Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man Three’.

TV review: ‘Falling Skies’ S3 EP9 “Journey to Xilbalba”

This review contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Noah Wylie as Tom Mason, Moon Bloodgood as Anne Glass, Will Patton as Captain Daniel Weaver, Colin Cunnigham as Pope, Drew Roy as Hal Mason, Connor Jessup as Ben Mason, Maxim Night as Matt Mason, Sarah Sanguin Carter as Margaret, Seychelle Gabriel as Lourdes, Doug Jones as Cochise.

Series created by:  Robert Rodat

Episode Directed by:  Jonathan Frakes / Written by:  Bradley Thompson & David Weddle / aired in the UK:  10/09/13

What’s this episode about?

Tom Mason returns to Charleston as Project Orange is ready to get underway…

In review

So, with “Journey to Xilbalba” we see Tom Mason return as the loose strands of the season begin to tie together.  Weaver and President Peralta make preparations for the activation of the Volm weapon (although with the continuing paranoia surrounding the mole he doesn’t disclose the target).  It’s make or break time for the human race, as we know from previous episodes the Espheni defence grid will not only prevent Volm reinforcements from landing but will make Earth uninhabitable for humans.

Aptly, Pope is the one to ‘greet’ Mason as he chides that “the prodigal son has returned”.  The Mason boys are of course glad to see their father back safe and sound but painful news is delivered as he believes that there’s no doubt Anne and Lexi are dead (we’ll see).  It’s one of those key little character scenes that Falling Skies delivers regularly with, sometimes, varying degrees of success but works well here highlighting the bonds of clan Mason and a sense that not all hope is lost when they still have each other and a pledge to get even with Karen.

There’s also an enjoyable exchange between Mason and the ever wise Cochise who offers his condolences.  The friendship and trust between the two characters has grown throughout the season much as that of Weaver and Mason in the first season, made all the more legitimate as Mason has stood by Cochise all the while where others have been wary.

Naturally, Pope believes that Mason may have another alien bug in him and makes it known he won’t hesitate to deal with Mason should his suspicions be true.  Proceedings are – literally – shook up as there’s a massive explosion – it’s the Volm complex.  Pope and Mason investigate and find a badly wounded Cochise.  Cochise tells Tom not to give up hope and we learn that the Volm have the ability to regenerate if left to rest.

It’s at this point (and by the close of the episode) that any trepidation toward the Volm the writers have been seeding is unfounded and since they’ve given us an intriguing and likeable character in Cochise, I hope that they won’t be pulling the rug from under our feet in the finale.

As Lourdes plants an explosive device, all hell breaks loose and Falling Skies enters 1970s disaster film territory and a lot like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake citizens of Charleston in the wrong place at the wrong time become trapped (allowing some character building scenes between Hal and Maggie).  There’s a display of the growing trust and understanding between Pope and Weaver (could this spark tensions with Mason?) above the surface as Pope helps to dig people out.

Back below, Dr. Kadar (the always welcome Robert Sean Leonard) is found and with him hopes to blast out to the surface.  Lourdes is discovered with a supposed concussion – she’s left next to Cochise.  The moment we’ve expected nears and something she said to Mason earlier dawns on him – namely that Anne died in Boston.  Luckily Lourdes is caught before she can kill Cochise…the mole is outed.

With Lourdes restrained she taunts Mason about the deaths ‘she’ believes he’s caused by making the wrong choices.  How Lourdes will be dealt with is left, no doubt, for next time as Mason uses her Espheni weapon to blast the way to the surface.

With Cochise fully healed the episode draws to a close as Mason returns Coshise’s earlier gesture by offering him hope that they’ll rescue the Volm trapped in the collapsed facility.

The bottom line:  It seems most of the shocks and surprises of this season are being left for the finale but “Journey to Xilbalba” still offers up some treats leaving anticipation levels for the finale feverishly high.

Falling Skies Season 3 airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Fox (UK).  Seasons 1 and 2 are currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TV review: ‘Falling Skies’ S3 EP8 “Strange Brew”

This review contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Noah Wylie as Tom Mason, Moon Bloodgood as Anne Glass, Will Patton as Captain Daniel Weaver, Colin Cunnigham as Pope, Drew Roy as Hal Mason, Connor Jessup as Ben Mason, Maxim Night as Matt Mason, Sarah Sanguin Carter as Margaret, Seychelle Gabriel as Lourdes, Doug Jones as Cochise.

Series created by:  Robert Rodat

Episode Directed by:  David Solomon / Written by:  John Wirth / aired in the UK:  03/09/13

What’s this episode about?

Tom Mason awakes to find himself in a very different world where the alien attack never occurred, but is all as it seems?

In review

Those expecting a direct pick up from the closing of the last episode should have rightly been surprised when “Strange Brew” opened with Tom Mason waking next to his wife, Rebecca, from a dream where aliens invaded.  It’s approaching Christmas, the whole Mason family are together, did Tom awaken from a dream or is he living it?

It’s always a welcome change of scenario when a show does something like this (I found it very reminiscent of that Stargate Universe episode, “Cloverdale”), breaking from the usual format or expected set-up that comes with an ongoing series.  It keeps viewers on their toes by serving up the unexpected and this is certainly the case with “Strange Brew” – although it never really expects you to believe that this alternate scenario is in anyway genuine (why would it be?).

It was interesting to see all of the various main characters in slightly different guises – Weaver as a homeless man warning that “the end is near” (hauled away by Karen, here a Police Officer), Pope as a professor of philosophy (on the face of it a hilarious proposition but well within the realms of his character, his regular cynicism at times bordering on the philosophical), Ben as a bookworm and Lourdes and Maggie as avid students (Doug Jones also gets a reprieve from the prosthetics albeit in a very small ‘cameo’ moment).

Events start to take an odd turn as Mason finds a present left for him back at his office from someone named…Anne Glass.  Dai (Peter Shinkoda) drops by and accuses Tom of having an affair with his wife who just happens to be this Anne Glass, who Mason has no recollection of.  It seems he IS having an affair though, the evidence being brochures for four different cities – New York, Chicago, Boston and Jacksonville.

Things begin unravelling when back at home Tom sees a flash of himself post-invasion in the mirror and further when he receives a text message from Anne to meet her at a coffee shop (a brief welcome back to Moon Bloodgood).  All our suspicions appear to be revealed when the scene cuts to Tom with an alien probe attached to his face.  It’s all a ploy by Karen (the reliably wicked Jessy Schram) to find out which of the four cities the Volm will be attacking.  Weaver, together with Pope and the Mason boys conveniently burst in at the rescue, Karen is shot.  After being out for two days, Tom wakes up in hospital and reports to the war room to advise Weaver that Karen has moved up her schedule to activate the Espheni grid (preventing the arrival of the Volm reinforcements).  Of course, once Weaver asks Tom to identify their target he realizes it’s another deception and an almost Groundhog Day like scenario as the probe is once again pulled off of his face.  Tension mounts and Karen’s determined to get the information she wants and we see Anne and Lexi in some sort of cocoons – are they dead or is this just desperation from Karen?  No doubt we’ll find out for sure very soon.

As all this unfolds, back at Charleston, suspicions hang over President Peralta as the investigation into Hathaway’s murder reveal that she is the only one without an alibi.  There’s further woe as the communications shack is decimated by an explosion.

As the episode reaches its climax, Tom is aghast as he watches the Espheni grid become active – he’s high above the ground in one of the alien structures.  He escapes by jumping using a skitter as a landing ‘cushion’ and begins walking, only to pass his home before the invasion.  Bringing proceedings to an apt close is Mason’s heartfelt hallucination of his dead wife who urges him to move on…

The bottom line:  “Strange Brew” is an interesting and inventive (albeit “done before”) interlude for Falling Skies that leaves viewers in anticipation of what might be in store as the season fast approaches its dénouement.

Falling Skies Season 3 airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Fox (UK).  Seasons 1 and 2 are currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’

Looking at some all-time film favourites…

 

“Red wine with fish.  Well that should have told me something”

 

Year:  1963

Starring:  Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee

Director:  Terence Young / Written by:  Richard Maibaum

What’s it about?

Crack spy James Bond is dispatched to Istanbul on a mission to capture a Soviet coding device but soon becomes embroiled in the plots of the nefarious SPECTRE organisation…

In review

From Russia With Love is the second cinematic outing for Ian Fleming’s literary super spy (and based on Fleming’s 1957 novel of the same title), James Bond (aka 007), and ranks highly as one of the best – quite possibly THE best – of the enduringly popular film series.

Whilst 1964’s Goldfinger would catapult James Bond into the stratosphere as a pop culture icon and world-wide phenomenon, From Russia With Love presents the audience with a strong, pure Cold War spy thriller that isn’t burdened or encumbered by the weak and formulaic plotting that some of the later Bond films would suffer from (sorry Sir Roger).

With the success of Dr. No the previous year, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli wisely and astutely brought back director Terence Young (who would also go on to direct Thunderball) and screenwriter Richard Maibaum (who returned for most of the subsequent Bond films through to 1989’s vastly underrated Licence to Kill and even the James Bond Jnr. animated series), the former keeping the action flowing and the tension ramped up against the backdrop of the beautiful locations, including Istanbul and Venice, and the latter providing all of the characteristics of a classic spy adventure.

In terms of casting, Sean Connery makes an assured return to the role of Britain’s titular secret agent, with all the charm, charisma, wit and physicality seen in Dr. No.  Although he may not necessarily be the closest interpretation of Ian Fleming’s character (honours for Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig in that respect), Connery certainly carried through the toughness and moral ambiguity of a man licenced to kill whilst making the character his own and presenting a heroic lead that audiences could root for.  It’s because of this he still rightly deserves recognition as being the best screen Bond.

Robert Shaw, a consistently superb actor, is in fine form here as the homicidal assassin Red Grant.  The fact that Shaw appears from the opening (where he effortlessly eliminates a masked Bond-a-like) yet has no dialogue until much later in the film is unsettling and adds gravity to his climactic and brutal face off against Bond.  He gives us one the most memorable of Bond villains, a true threat to our hero and every inch as dangerous.

Newcomer Daniela Bianchi provides the right measure of glamour and allure as Tatiana Romanova and of course who can forget 007’s key Istanbul ally Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) and wicked SPECTRE agents Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (UFO’s Vladek Sheybal)?

The (soon to be) recurring supporting characters are also present:  the late, great Bernard Lee as ‘M’, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny and the first appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as ‘Q’.

The action is above that of just an average 1960s spy film, from the shootout at a Gypsy camp to the tense final confrontation with Grant on the Orient Express and the ensuing helicopter chase and subsequent pursuit by SPECTRE agents as Bond and Romanova attempt to escape to Trieste by boat.

From Russia With Love is completed with an atmospheric and romantic score from John Barry, his first for the Bond film series (although he arranged Monty Norman’s ‘James Bond Theme’, composed for Dr. No).  Barry would go on to score a further ten Bond adventures and is rightfully considered the quintessential Bond film maestro.

Standout moment

After an odd exchange at dinner aboard the Orient Express, Grant’s true identity as an agent of SPECTRE is soon exposed.  Holding Bond at gun point, Grant is determined to complete his mission but didn’t reckon on Bond’s tenacity…

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It’s a sharp, exciting and classic Cold War spy adventure with Sean Connery at the top of his game.
  2. It’s a James Bond film that doesn’t rely on a plethora of gadgets and unlike some of the weaker entries of the series it isn’t encumbered by a tiring formula.
  3. It features arguably one of the best Bond villains thanks to a strong turn from the unforgettable Robert Shaw.

Did you know?

Pedro Armendariz was diagnosed with inoperable cancer during filming.  After finishing most of his scenes he returned home and sadly took his own life, with remaining shots completed using a stunt double and director Terence Young as stand-ins.

If you like this then watch…

Goldfinger:  Another confident return for Sean Connery, this time under the direction of Guy Hamilton.  It’s a favourite among many and establishes some of the familiar hallmarks of the series and features the first appearance of that iconic Aston Martin.

Casino Royale (2006):  The Bond film series re-launches with vigour in Daniel Craig’s first outing.  Wiping out the daftness of Pierce Brosnan’s dire finale in Die Another Day, it refreshes and updates the series without forgetting its roots, presenting a brutal yet very human James Bond who bleeds physically and emotionally, dropping his guard when he falls for the alluring Vesper (Eva Green).

He's behind you...Sean Connery is at the top of his game in 'From Russia With Love' but has his 007 met his match in Robert Shaw's Red Grant?

He’s behind you…Sean Connery is at the top of his game in ‘From Russia With Love’ but has his 007 met his match in Robert Shaw’s Red Grant?

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

This review contains SPOILERS

 

please don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness

 

A bold new future for the beloved and enduring science fiction franchise…

 

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Peter Weller

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof / 132 minutes

What’s Star Trek Into Darkness about?

Captain James T. Kirk takes the U.S.S. Enterprise into Klingon space in pursuit of rogue Starfleet Officer John Harrison…

Film review

Into Darkness is the long awaited sequel to producer/director J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009).  Since its theatrical release earlier this year it has gone on to become the most financially successful of all of the franchise’s big screen adventures and despite overall critical acclaim has proven divisive among the fans (but isn’t this always the case?).

As a life-long Star Trek fan (since the early eighties) I can safely say that although it may not quite have the impact of the 2009 prequel/reboot, Into Darkness is one hell of a ride that acknowledges the hallmarks of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst providing plenty of the rollercoaster excitement that modern summer blockbuster audiences expect.

Into Darkness continues to further explore the characters of the original Star Trek series and films with a well-chosen cast who, beyond merely channelling the performances of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (who appears in a short cameo) et al give fresh, yet familiar interpretations of those iconic characters.

Although each of the characters is given their moment in the spotlight (Scotty resigns, Chekov reluctantly dons a red shirt, Sulu takes command and Uhura tries to reason with Klingons), the film’s focus is really, rightfully, on the burgeoning friendship between Kirk and Spock with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto both proving their worth as successors to Messrs’ Shatner and Nimoy.  Sadly Karl Urban’s McCoy is a little side-lined as a result but hopefully future sequels will explore and develop the infamous Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika.

The Enterprise crew face a more complex villain this time out in Benedict Cumberbatch’s enigmatic John Harrison (more on him shortly) as well as Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (the ever superb Peter Weller) and are joined by Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) – a character that fans will of course be aware of.

Just as the original Star Trek television series provided commentary on issues and concerns of the 1960s (such as the Vietnam War and Civil Rights), Into Darkness addresses topics relating to terrorism through Harrison’s vendetta against Starfleet and Marcus’ push for militarisation in the wake of Vulcan’s destruction.

Gladly the screenwriters understand the characters and core concepts of Gene Rodenberry’s vision for Star Trek.  Following atrocities committed by Harrison (including the death of Admiral Pike) we see Kirk set out on a mission of vengeance, a basic human reaction, tempered by Spock’s sense of logic and morality.  With the Enterprise carrying a complement of long range torpedoes (Scotty all too aptly reminding Kirk that their mission is that of peaceful exploration), which mirrors the real world drone strikes carried out in the Middle East.  It’s all played out as Gene Rodenberry would have intended, presenting our heroes with ethical dilemmas that they must face and overcome to do what is morally right.

One of the most divisive points of Star Trek Into Darkness is the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain.  I’m still surprised that Khan was chosen (even with all the prior speculation) and despite my initial trepidations I feel it worked out well, Cumberbatch is a powerful presence and although physically dissimilar from Ricardo Montalban makes the character his own.  Another bone of contention for some of the fans is the homages to Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.  They do work – the reversal of the Kirk/Spock roles from the finale of Wrath of Khan being a key example.  It’s relevant to the story and character arcs of the film, bolstered by heart-wrenching performances (complemented by another great score from Michael Giacchino) by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.  I’d say it’s permitted this time around so long as future films don’t make a habit of it.

The screenplay holds together rather well although it’s a shame that Khan’s back story wasn’t fleshed out a little more, perhaps via a short series of simple flashbacks.  It wouldn’t have bloated the run time or slowed down the pace yet would have added more weight to the villain’s motives (I look forward to IDW Publishing’s forthcoming comic book mini-series then).

Aside from being a Star Trek film, this is also a popcorn summer blockbuster and the action is riveting and epic with many standout moments, from the Enterprise emerging from the bottom of an alien ocean (during the film’s Indiana Jones-esque opening) and Khan’s attack on Starfleet Headquarters to a tense encounter with the Klingons, the Enterprise’s plummet Earthward and Spock’s climactic edge of the seat chase of Khan through (and above) the streets of San Francisco.  It’s also not as dark as the title suggests with some welcome levity via McCoy’s persistent metaphors and Scotty…well Scotty in general!

J.J. Abrams directs proceedings with reliable aplomb, the more intimate dialogue heavy character scenes flow at an appropriate pace, balanced with the large scale effects-laden action sequences.

By the end of the film there’s a true sense that the Enterprise crew have become a family, Kirk has grown and earned his command and the respect and trust of his crew, ready to set forth and seek out new life forms and new civilizations.

Standout moment

A crippled Enterprise plummets to Earth, with the crew literally hanging for life – their only hope for salvation is the re-initialisation of the ship’s warp core.  Despite Scotty’s protests Kirk decides to sacrifice himself for the needs of the many…

The Blu-ray

Star Trek Into Darkness is presented in its entirety in 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen meaning that unfortunately Paramount have opted not to preserve the IMAX scenes.  This aside the transfer is as flawless as you would expect from a modern production.

Extras are light with only a series of interesting, albeit short, production featurettes included (there’s no commentary).  By comparison the 2009 Star Trek release came with a separate Blu-ray disc full of extras.  It’s a massive shame and sadly a continuing trend with Paramount Home Entertainment releases.

The bottom line:  Star Trek Into Darkness is a solid second entry in the new cinematic Star Trek universe with moral issues balanced with good characterisation, strong cast performances and breath-taking action and excitement.

Star Trek Into Darkness is out now on Blu-ray (2D and 3D editions) from Paramount Home Entertainment (also available on DVD and digital download).

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) confront the captured John Harrison (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch).

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) confront the captured John Harrison (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch).