Posts Tagged ‘Martin Sheen’

So, the initial batch of Babylon 5 TV movies. These are, as a little thought might lead you to expect, curious beasts, and difficult to generalise about as a group – some are deeply tied into the grand story of the original series, others are of necessity required to stand alone. Joe Straczynski has gone on record saying that none of the peripheral projects, like these and the other spin-offs, did anything but cheapen the legacy of the original show. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a near thing either way.

The first movie of the bunch is In the Beginning, which tells – in considerably more detail than we ever got to see in the weekly series – the story of the Earth-Minbari War, one of the main elements of backstory for the first couple of seasons.

Now, the immediate problem with this as a premise is that it’s going to be most appealing to people who’ve already watched the show and know a bit about the war in question already, and so most of the audience is going to know the story in advance. This is not a good recipe for drama, and so JMS works hard to build in lots of little shocks and revelations about the regular cast and their roles in the conflict, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of plausibility and good continuity.

So we learn that, as well as Delenn, both Londo and Sheridan are directly or indirectly to some extent to blame for the starting of the war, and that many of the characters first met many years before it was initially suggested. A lot of this they just about get away with, but I really am surprised we never got a scene where Sheridan and Delenn fondly reminisce about their very first meeting and her attempt to have him shot.

It looks very nice and there are some well-mounted sequences, but as the story nears its conclusion it really turns into just a simple recap of events, which the faithful will already know, and which new viewers will likely find go past a bit too quickly. Here the problem of knowing the end in advance really shows its teeth. In the end this particular movie has a lot of curiosity value but is by no means essential.

On, then, to Thirdspace, which is set at some point during season 4, but exactly when is a somewhat fraught question, as it is apparently almost impossible to find a moment when everyone’s in the right uniform and on the station as depicted here. This is a proper standalone story, though informed by the show’s wider universe. Coming home from a routine mission, Ivanova discovers a massive alien construct floating in hyperspace. Believing it to be potentially valuable or useful, Sheridan has it towed back to Babylon 5 and starts to investigate it, with the help of some passing xenoarchaeologists. Unfortunately, the presence of the artefact is having a very strange effect, first on Lyta, then on many of the station’s inhabitants…

JMS says this is his attempt to do a Cthulhu Mythos story in the Babylon 5 universe, to which I can only say ‘Hmmmm.’ There’s certainly a hint of At the Mountains of Madness in the initial set-up of the story, and the way in which the station’s inhabitants are afflicted with bad dreams certainly rings true to Lovecraft. However, a few dream sequences aside, the horror of the artefact is always floating off in the distance somewhere – it never envelops either the audience or the characters.

The way the story develops is also authentically very non-Lovecraftian, although I perhaps sense the dead hand of JMS’s network backers in this. The Cthulhu Mythos is quite short on fist-fights, and the idea of actually giving battle to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is laughable -and yet the climax of the story boils down to a lengthy brawl on the station and a massive space battle against encroaching aliens from another dimension. Everything is finally resolved by Captain John ‘Nuke ‘Em’ Sheridan reaching for his favourite brand of warhead again. Nice idea, very dubious execution.

'Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!'

‘Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!’

One thing you can say about  Thirdspace is that it at least looks fairly lavish: The River of Souls appears to have been made on a much more restricted budget. Set six months after the end of the series proper, this is another standalone story (though one which reuses the Soul Hunters from early in season 1).

You would have thought the people running the station would by now have instituted a blanket ban on any brilliant-but-maverick xenoarchaeologists being allowed to visit, as when they do it almost inevitably leads to disaster. Alas no, and so we have what’s a close cousin to a Wandering Loony story, with Ian McShane rocking up as someone who’s just pillaged a Soul Hunter crypt. Funding his operations is Garibaldi’s corporation, and so the man himself turns up to ask him just what he’s been up to. But the relic McShane has stolen is not what everyone thinks it is, and things become even more involved when a Soul Hunter turns up demanding his property back.

Playing the Soul Hunter is Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen! Possibly the most distinguished actor ever to cake himself in prosthetics and wobble strangely across a soundstage. To begin with, Sheen’s performance just comes across as incredibly mannered and affected – but then it sinks in that Sheen is genuinely trying to play this alien being as an alien being, not just a fantasticalised analogue of a German, or a Russian, or someone Japanese, which (let’s face it) is basically what most screen aliens essentially are.

The story itself is decent but a bit underpowered. There’s also what initially looks like an unconnected B-plot about Lochley and Allen having trouble with someone operating an unauthorised holo-brothel on the station. This, frankly, comes across as a bit crass – Tracy Scoggins has to cram herself into a pink basque, there’s what appears to be a joke at the expense of SF critic John Clute, and it’s all a bit leery. It does connect up to the main story with the Soul Hunters eventually, but I’m still not sure it does enough to earn its place.

None of these movies is especially accomplished, with River of Souls in particular only being lifted above mediocrity by Martin Sheen’s performance. But they’re all fairly watchable and by no means as bad as the worst episodes of the parent series. Is JMS being a bit hard on them, then? I’m not sure – but I’d say his judgement was bang-on about Crusade and the associated movie, which is what’s up next.

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I suppose it says something about this year’s blockbusters, not to mention the quantity of associated hype, when a new Spider-Man movie has been on the schedule for ages but – until recently – has received relatively little attention. There’s a sense in which it’s been squeezed out by the massive buzz surrounding both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (expectations of which are reaching ominously Prometheus-esque levels). This is a shame because Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has much to commend it.

The life of brainy teenager Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has been shaped by the death of his parents in mysterious circumstances when he was but a lad. Awkward and lonely, the chance discovery of some of his scientist father’s old papers changes his life, for they contain a (hmmm) secret formula which is the secret to trans-species genetic modification. His father’s old friend and unidextrous authority on genetic engineering and reptiles – must have been an interesting degree course – Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is still working on this and while visiting Connors’ lab Peter is bitten by a genetically-modified spider.

Weird things start happening to Peter. He becomes much stronger and more agile, starts sticking to walls, and finds himself completely unable to climb out of the bathtub unassisted (Don’t Write In Dept.: I know I used that gag writing about the first movie – if they start making original films, I’ll start writing original jokes). In an attempt to discover the reason for this, Peter passes the secret formula on to Connors, who – being a scientist in a Marvel movie – sees nothing untoward in using it to inject himself with lizard DNA in the hope his arm will grow back. Unfortunate events ensue.

If we were living in a parallel world where this was the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie ever made, I imagine The Amazing Spider-Man would have received very positive reviews, for it is undeniably an accomplished piece of movie-making. But I also suspect some critics well-versed in the lore of the comic would be nonplussed by the decision to use the Lizard as the main villain, not to mention the omission of key characters such as Mary-Jane Watson and J Jonah Jameson, and finally the decision to generally fiddle about with the Spider-Man origin story.

But, of course, this is not the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie (The Amazing Spider-Man was once set to be the title of what eventually appeared as Spider-Man 2). Sam Raimi made that, not very long ago at all. There are spiders and lizards and critters of all kinds in this film, but there’s also an elephant in the room, and that elephant is Raimi’s Spider-Man – as close to a perfect retelling of the classic Spider-Man origin as we’re likely to see. This film is effectively Spidey Begins – an attempt at a from-scratch reboot, but one unable to use one of the classic villains. (I believe the Lizard was one of the villains set to appear in Raimi’s abandoned Spider-Man 4.)

Webb’s movie has a much harder job to do than Batman Begins, in that the Raimi movies were made not that long ago and were, on the whole, considerably better than the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies. Setting out to do something tonally and narratively different, which was clearly part of the brief here, therefore involves intentionally moving away from something which was generally very good in the first place.

If we’re going to compare Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t, it’s fascinating to see how two films which visually look very similar can actually feel totally different as viewing experiences. The most obvious thing about Amazing Spider-Man is that it plays the story a lot straighter than Raimi did, with much less comedy and weirdness. Which you prefer is really a matter of taste, but personally I think Raimi’s approach was slightly more to my liking.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy in Amazing Spider-Man. The performances, from a strong cast including Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary and Sally Field, are uniformly very good. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker as less outwardly nerdy and more gauche and awkward than Tobey Maguire, but pulls this off very well and is – perhaps – better than Maguire at doing Spider-Man’s wise-cracking-through-the-fights schtick. The effects work and action choreography are also top notch.

I wasn’t so wild about the mystery-of-Spidey’s-parents plotline, an element which the now-obligatory mid-closing-credits tag scene promises will continue in any future sequels. It’s also a real shame that the only thing that Emma Stone is given to contribute to the film is a selection of short skirts and boots (and, given she’s playing Gwen Stacy, one wonders if she’s signed up for the same number of sequels as the other main actors). The romance in this film feels mawkish and syrupy rather than charming and it feels as if the whole thing grinds to a halt every time it goes into this mode – I felt like throwing things at the screen every time the ‘romance’ theme started playing. (James Horner’s score suffers from the lack of a strong theme for Spider-Man himself.) And a small quibble – Spider-Man’s habit of taking his mask off in public at regular intervals also makes the idea of his identity staying secret rather implausible!

It’s surely arguable that we really didn’t need another film telling the origins of Spider-Man only ten years after the last one – although I suppose a lot of the kids enjoying the screening I attended weren’t even born back in 2002 – but given that we have to have one, The Amazing Spider-Man does about as good a job as one could imagine, and, in all honesty, a much better one than I was expecting. Hopefully with the sequel Webb and associates can do something with much more of its own identity to it; I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 13th 2003:

[Originally following a review of Morvern Callar.]

Another young person with mendacity issues is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, but in this case the story is true. This is the story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr, who as a teenager earned a reputation as the most audacious conman in US history. He is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who convincingly ages about twelve years in the course of the film.

Abagnale’s story would be dismissed as hopelessly farfetched were one to suggest it as a work of fiction: following a relatively normal childhood, the traumatic divorce of his parents led him to run away from home and begin a career as a passer of forged cheques. This in turn led to him successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer (his Sean Connery impression is less convincing). Of course a lifestyle such as this, which eventually saw Abagnale fraudulently making millions of dollars, was bound to attract the attention of the authorities, and in Frank’s case nemesis takes the unlikely shape of dogged FBI investigator Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who pursues him around America and the world, the two forming a strangely personal bond in the process…

With Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks on board, expectations were obviously going to be high for this movie. And so I am delighted to report that Catch Me If You Can is an absolutely wonderful piece of entertainment, not too deep or heavy but just an expertly made, perfectly judged drama with comic overtones. Leo is much, much better here than he was in Gangs of New York: the combination of charm, bravado, and vulnerability which is his speciality is perfect for Frank. This is another example of a character that on paper seems like a nasty piece of work, but the deft script and Leo’s performance keep you feeling and rooting for him right up to the closing credits. And this makes Tom Hanks’ performance as Hanratty all the more impressive, as somehow he manages to remain equally sympathetic. This is mostly down to shrewd use of Hanks’ star persona, which as ever is largely composed of a hefty chunk of solid decency.

The two stars receive perfectly judged support from a great supporting cast. Christopher Walken plays Frank Sr., and to be fair to him he’s no less plausible as Leo’s dad than Liam Neeson, Gene Hackman or any of the other actors who’ve preceded him. He gives a subtle, affecting performance in a relatively small but pivotal role. Taking time off from showing Dubya how the President ought to behave, Martin Sheen is good as one of Frank’s dupes, and rising star Jennifer Garner (more on whom in next week’s column, fingers crossed) has a memorable cameo.

You can almost sense Spielberg relaxing and letting his hair down on this film, after the rather weightier and darker movies he’s made over the couple of years. He is the master entertainer of modern cinema and his storytelling here is virtually flawless: it’s moving, funny, and tense, with Frank’s strained relationship with his father clearly indicated as the trigger for his crimes. Not that they’re presented as such – there’s a sense of barely suppressed glee as each new scheme of Frank’s comes to fruition. The contrast between Leo’s playboy lifestyle and Hanratty’s much more humdrum existence is neatly evoked – at one point a night of passion for Leo is juxtaposed with a disastrous trip to the laundrette for his adversary. The nostalgic nature of the tale helps keep it light, something played up to by the excellent, retro-styled opening title sequence. John Williams does his usual sterling work on the score, even if bits of it sound suspiciously like parts of his music for Attack of the Clones.

Some films are unfairly dismissed in the eyes of certain critics simply because they’re intended as pieces of pure entertainment and I really think this is one of them. Superbly made in every respect, and enthralling from start to finish, Catch Me If You Can should stand as a career highlight for all involved. Unreservedly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 8th 2007:

I first laid eyes on Martin Scorsese nearly twenty years ago. Not actually in the flesh, of course; he was contributing to a BBC documentary about (of all things) Hammer horror and, to be honest I had very little idea who he was. The name rang a vague bell, though, as having something to do with the recent film about Jesus which had received so much helpful free publicity from the fundamentalist Christians complaining about it – for people claiming to have privileged access to omniscience, fundies are awfully slow on the uptake sometimes.

These days, things have changed for both of us. I have a pretty good idea who Scorsese is and have seen many of his films and he in turn has, er, shaved his beard off and let his hair turn a distinguished whitish-grey. One thing which has not changed is his lack of recognition by the Academy – in fact, were one to make a list of Great Still-Working Directors Who’ve Never Won An Oscar, his would be one of the first names to be included. The list of Great Dead Directors Who Never Won An Oscar is in its own way quite a distinguished one, including the likes of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but on balance one gets the impression this is an injustice that everyone involved would like to see fixed as quickly as possible.

In short, this must surely be Scorsese’s year. His latest film, The Departed, may be a remake, but it’s a classy piece of work set roughly in the gritty urban milieu Scorsese’s best movies all inhabit. The original Chinese movie, Infernal Affairs (aka I Want To Be You), was reviewed here in 2004, and the American version sticks reasonably close, in concept if not detail.

Boston gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson at his most demonic) and Boston police captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) find themselves somewhat at odds as they go about their chosen professions, and so each hits upon a cunning ruse – they will introduce a spy into the other man’s organisation and thus cause him no end of nuisance! Costello virtually adopts a young man named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and puts him through school and police academy until he joins the organised crime task force. Queenan selects a young trainee with the right background, William Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and sends him deep undercover to the point where he can plausibly join Costello’s gang (an eclectic bunch of hoods from places like Aberdeen and East London, judging from the cast list). Both moles soon become aware of the existence of the other, if not their identity, and quickly realise that their lives may depend upon finding the other man first…

One is made aware very early on in this movie that some serious talent has been put into making it. The script is seldom less than polished, and while the story is intricate it is never very hard to follow what’s going on. Similarly, nearly every key role is filled with a name actor doing very solid work – also appearing are people like Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg (who appears to have been Oscar nominated just for swearing a lot – by his standards it’s a good performance, but by no means anything really special). The only really unknown performer in a key role is Vera Farmiga as the woman Damon and di Caprio both get involved with, and she’s pretty good as well. Scorsese’s mastery of soundtrack and technical virtuosity are also on display throughout. This is a distinctly superior thriller.

However, that’s all it is. It’s a great piece of entertainment, but no more, and in some ways it isn’t even as good as the original movie (which I seem to recall I only gave qualified praise to anyway). There’s never any doubt here that di Caprio is a hero while Damon is a nasty piece of work, whereas in the original the spy in the police was presented as a genuinely likeable and almost sympathetic guy. The ending has also been changed, with a much less ambiguous conclusion being inserted (some of the plot mechanics which bring this about seem rather implausible to me, as well).

But anyway, this is still a good bet for a night out – Nicholson is on particularly good form and the film suffers noticeably when he’s not on screen. I’m a little surprised the film is set amongst the Irish mob rather than the mafia, but I suppose Scorsese has been there a number of times before and is wary of spreading too many stereotypes. (It hasn’t stopped him casting Italian-Americans in at least two keys roles in the movie!)

In many cases, winning an Oscar is more a sort of body-of-work award than a prize for a specific film – and bearing this in mind, surely no-one would complain were Scorsese to pick one up for The Departed, even if (to my mind) it’s rather less satisfying and enjoyable than either Gangs of New York or The Aviator. Better to get a richly-deserved award for the wrong movie than to never get one at all.

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