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      12.08.2010 11:29
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      Lots of special features accompanying a classic pair of Who adventures

      It's just turned 1965, everyone's dancing to The Beatles' Xmas No.1 hit "I feel fine", the Daleks have just been defeated on Boxing Day and Carole Ann Ford has hung up her boots as long-running Doctor Who companion Susan.

      On Saturday night on BBC1, the successful science fiction show Doctor Who is about to see the greatest amount of viewers since the show's beginning, a figure that wouldn't be neared until Tom Baker stepped up to the plate, and the Daleks weren't even making an appearance!

      Having been released as a double VHS boxset back in the day, "The Rescue" and "The Romans" appear to be destined to stick together, and this special DVD boxset contains both serials and a number of entertaining extras to boot.

      -----

      Dr. Who: "The Rescue" ****/*****

      Written by David Whitaker
      Broadcast 02/01/65 - 09/01/65

      Due to the fear of being typecast, Carole Ann Ford had decided to leave Doctor Who at the end of the last story, "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", her character Susan having fallen in love with a young farmer by the name of David.

      The Doctor had to make a hard decision to leave her behind on Earth, and the regular cast of Hartnell, Russell and Hill found it hard to see her go as Ford had been there since the very beginning - she was the 'unearthly child' after all.

      It hurt Bill Hartnell especially hard who couldn't understand Ford's reasons for leaving at all - why leave when the going was good? - and he was forced to get used to a new addition to the party, a new friend, the very first new companion.

      "Doctor, we appear to have landed while you were sleeping!"

      As the Doctor (William Hartnell) enjoys a well-earned nap, the TARDIS materialises on the planet Dido, where a spaceship from Earth has crash landed sometime earlier.

      Aboard the ship are only two survivors: gruff and untrusting Bennett (Ray Barrett) and young, ever smiling Vicki (Maureen O'Brien), the rest of the crew having perished at the hands of Dido's indigenous population.

      The pair are protected in their ship only by the terrifying Koquillion, an alien who has taken an unhealthy interest in their well-being and safety, but all is not as it seems.

      It is up to the time-travelling trio, the Doctor and school teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), to solve the mystery and save the pair of humans from a grisly end, but can they do it in time?

      "Don't you think there's just a chance, a little chance, that my ideas might prove the better ones?"

      Not wanting the Doctor to just be left with Ian and Barbara for his continuing adventures, producer Verity Lambert decided to fill the gap made by the departing Susan with a similarly young girl, a spot that ended up being filled by stage actress Maureen O'Brien.

      Although it might seem that they were just trying to get a carbon copy character, O'Brien's Vicki is very different to Ford's Susan, and O'Brien shows much more promise and acting aptitude in her first serial than Ford ever did in her entire run.

      With youthful vigour, pretty face and a VERY short dress, Vicki is a character you wouldn't be surprised to find dodging tents across a muddy field being chased by Sid James, before collapsing onto a haystack amid dirty chuckling.

      She certainly lights up the screen and very quickly gels with the other regulars, especially William Hartnell, whose long grandfatherly talk with her provides some good acting and honest drama for the show.

      Being only a two-part adventure, "The Rescue" still allows for plenty of mirth and smiles, which were never really had in the previous much-more-serious serial "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", and Ian and Barbara are really allowed to stake their claim here.

      Although William Russell as Ian is more or less turned into the action hero again, it appears that that is what he does best, while Jacqueline Hill shines once as history teacher Barbara who is forced into a desperate situation on an alien world.

      In support, Ray Barrett is very good as the untrusting Bennett, a bed-ridden character whose legs were hurt by the aliens on Dido when the ship crash landed.

      His untrusting attitude is well-justified - just who are these strangers and where did they come from?

      It is the threat of Koquillion that really drives the story, however, a truly terrifying creature with long claws and great spikes coming out of his head, which looks suitably nasty lurking in the shadows when we first see him by the TARDIS - just what does he want with the crew from this small ship?

      He serves to add a lot of drama and pace to this character-driven piece, making his showdown with the Doctor at the end all the more impressive in the dingy, smoky cavern.

      I very much enjoyed "The Rescue", and although the easily escapable cliffhanger between the two episodes is a bit silly, the serial is a very entertaining slice of Doctor Who, with good sets, lighting and mystery, not to mention the introduction of a charming new companion who already shows great promise as an on-screen character.

      The extra bonus features aren't as extensive as for the previous serial, but the documentary "Mounting the Rescue" is an excellent look into how the serial was made, including interviews from William Russell (Ian) and Maureen O'Brien (Vicki).

      There's also some PDF materials that can be retrieved if playing through a computer, as well as a Coming Soon trailer for the Colin Baker serial "Attack of the Cybermen".

      -----

      Dr. Who: "The Romans" ***/*****

      Written by Dennis Spooner
      Broadcast 16/01/65 - 06/02/65

      From the very outset of Doctor Who, the idea for the show was to allow the Doctor and his companions opportunities to tread two basic storylines: the first would be the science fiction element, the future story, the one that could involve strange new worlds and weird alien races; while the second would deal with the historical, an opportunity for the show to be instructive on Earth's rich past, for a story to be built around a significant individual or event and be realistic.

      This allowed the little kiddies to hide behind the sofa one week, only to get a good dose of interesting historical knowledge the next.

      By this point the time-travelling crew had already met a wide range of history's important dates and leading figures, including meeting the Aztecs, Marco Polo and Napoleon Bonaparte, and it was only a matter of time before we got a chance to meet the Romans.

      "Alright? Of course I'm alright my child. You know I am so constantly outwitting the opposition, I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the art, the gentle art, of fisticuffs!"

      The last time we saw the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and new crewmember Vicki (Maureen O'Brien), was in the TARDIS, which had just left the planet Dido and rematerialised on a cliff-edge, a precipice the spaceship promptly tumbled over.

      A month or so later, we find our time-travelling heroes lounging, wining and dining with all the privileges of the well-to-do in ancient Italy, 64 AD to be exact.

      Enjoying their holiday away from the trials and tribulations they often find themselves in, the Doctor and Vicki, becoming bored of just sitting around and doing nothing constructive, set off to visit Rome.

      On the way, they come across a dead body, the body of an old man with a lyre, and through a case of mistaken identity the Doctor is taken to be Maximus Pettulian, the famous lyre player himself who is to play at the court of Emperor Nero (Derek Francis).

      Meanwhile, Ian and Barbara's peace is soon shattered when they are attacked in their villa by slave traders - Barbara is to be auctioned off while Ian is to be sent to the Coliseum as a gladiator.

      As Vicki and the Doctor play court politics and do their best to outwit the fearsome, yet bumbling, tyrant Nero, Barbara and Ian must escape as soon as they can before they end up with the lions, and then there's the great fire of Rome to worry about...

      "I'll stick you both in the arena, on an island with water all around and... and in the water there will be alligators... and the water level will be raised and the alligators will get you! Fool! Traitor!"

      Having previously written the time-travelling crew's trip into the dangerous French Revolution in "The Reign of Terror", "The Romans" was Dennis Spooner's second attempt at writing for Doctor Who and proved to be quite a break from tradition, introducing a good dose of farce into the mix, rather than limiting himself to an outrightly dry Roman epic.

      In truth, at times "The Romans" is more "Up Pompeii" than "I, Claudius".

      I have before commented on William Hartnell's tendencies to break into fits of giggling like a little girl, and this serial has plenty of it, from him wrestling with a would-be assassin to his oh-so-proud-of-himself lyre-playing.

      Hartnell completely hams his way through "The Romans", leaving all that good work he'd done in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" and "The Rescue" behind, but truth be told he is enjoying himself immensely and it is fun to watch.

      After all, Hartnell loved farce and rarely got the opportunity to perform comedy as he was often cast as the grizzled army sergeant or the villain.

      He loved Doctor Who and saw it very much as a show for the children, so "The Romans" was an excellent opportunity to have some fun and he shines on-screen, even if the whole thing is difficult to take seriously.

      Joining him in this is Derek Francis, a character actor who also turned up in several bit-part roles in the Carry On series, who gets to play Emperor Nero as a sadistic Benny Hill, a role it seems he was born to play.

      Much of the third episode is given over to the farce and slapstick of the serial, led by Nero's bumbling character who chases after Barbara and others down corridors with cheeky giggles and more often than not gets himself into trouble.

      He portrays the over indulgence of the Roman way of life superbly, uncaring of everyone but himself, but he does it in such an over the top way that, like Hartnell, he cannot be taken seriously, which is a shame given that for the most part the background story is fairly realistic.

      It shows the trend Doctor Who was following with these historical serials, using history as window-dressing rather than really giving a good indication of what life was like at the time.

      It's good to see Ian and Barbara both getting large roles in "The Romans", allowing them quite a bit of scope.

      Their scenes in the villa are well written with some good banter, making them all the more realistic as characters, so that when their situations turn quite desperate, they serve well as a contrast to the Doctor and Vicki's separate adventure.

      The idea of completely separating the two adventures works very well, especially when the characters keep missing each other at Emperor Nero's palace, making the whole thing much more like a stage play, and in truth it is fairly enjoyable.

      What is a real missed opportunity, however, is in developing Maureen O'Brien's character of Vicki.

      This is her first trip in the TARDIS, and instead of letting us see how she reacts to be taken back to the Roman times, the whole falling off a cliff finale from "The Rescue" is forgotten about and we suddenly find that a month has passed, in which time the characters have settled themselves and enjoying the weather.

      What's worse is that Vicki is then pretty much sidelined and falls straight into the Susan role of keeping mainly out of sight, out of mind.

      This is a real shame as I was looking forward to her cementing her position in the series, so I will have to wait until the next serial: "The Web Planet".

      "The Romans" didn't really do it for me, I'm afraid, and the critics of the time when it was released kind of agreed with me, seeing it as silly and with characters that were way too over the top.

      To be honest, this is part of the charm of the serial, and why I can't completely denounce it, seeing as even though Derek Francis' interpretation of Nero was almost Frankie Howerd, I really enjoyed his on-screen enthusiasm!

      Must be all those Carry Ons I've watched.

      "The Romans" is fun in places, but didn't really feel much like Doctor Who.

      The extras, meanwhile, are really very good, especially the three main documentaries.

      The first, "What has "The Romans" ever done for us?" is a really in-depth look into the serial and how it was made, as well as including a nod to the more recent Tennant episode "The Fires of Pompeii".

      "Dennis Spooner - Wanna Write a Television Series?" looks into Spooner's style of writing and all the other series he worked for, all told from the point of view of those that knew him.

      "Girls! Girls! Girls!" is a great little extra that runs through all of the swinging 60s Doctor Who companions, from Hartnell's Susan to Troughton's Zoe, but it does give away a few spoilers if you're watching old Whos for the first time.

      There are also smaller features: "Roma Parva" explains the set design used on the serial and how they built up the sets and decided where the cameras needed to be placed; while Blue Peter treats us to a Roman banquette in the studio!

      There's also a Coming Soon trailer, but it's also for the Colin Baker serial "Attack of the Cybermen" - why they needed the same thing on both this and "The Rescue"'s disc I don't know.

      -----

      Overall, while I really enjoyed the two-episode story "The Rescue", I would probably say that this boxset is probably for completists only.

      "The Romans" is an amusing indulgence, but doesn't live up to the previous serial at all, and was a bit of a failure as a solid dose of farce, even if the costumes and sets do look good.

      Once again, the BBC have outdone themselves with the extras and they are always excellent additions to the discs, and overall I found this a worthwhile purchase!

      [The DVD boxset can be purchased from play.com for £15.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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      • More +
        11.08.2010 15:47
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        A sequel that has near-ruined the reputation of the original movie, for shame!

        One hundred reviews after I looked at the classic 80's sci-fi action epic "Highlander", I have decided to consider its sequel, a film that is considered to not only be one of the worst sequels of all time, but one of the worst films ever made... period.

        "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If you don't take it out and use it, it's going to rust!"

        The original movie concerned Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) born of the Scottish highlands, who is mortally wounded in battle only to wake up the next day without a scar on him.

        Banished from his home village for witchcraft and being in league with the Devil, he is discovered by the wise Egyptian Ramirez (Sean Connery) who explains that they are both immortal - they are in a game played throughout the centuries where the only way to die is to have their heads chopped off.

        They must do battle with the other immortals until they reach the place of the Gathering, where those who remain will battle to the last and the winner will receive the 'Prize': the prize of all knowledge, to have children and to grow old and die.

        "Things don't change Katana, I like that. You're still a jerk."

        "Highlander" was never meant to be part of a series - at the end of the film Connor MacLeod had won the prize and all the other immortals were dead, including Sean Connery's Ramirez.

        So a sequel wasn't just unneeded, it was a ridiculous idea, and to top it all off Sean Connery's back too.

        After the events of the first film, due to pollution the Earth's ozone layer has taken a turn for the worse and is fading, leaving millions with radiation poisoning.

        Heading a team of scientists, Connor MacLeod designs a protective shield that saves mankind, but has the adverse affect of creating a perpetual nighttime that crushes the hopes and dreams of those living under it.

        Fast forward to 2024 AD and Connor MacLeod is an old man enjoying Wagner's Götterdämmerung at an old opera house, when the words of his old mentor Ramirez take him back in memory hundreds of years into the past, back to the planet Zeist.

        Ramirez and MacLeod take part in a ceremony that will forever bind them together, even in death, before they lead a doomed rebellion against the evil tyrant Katana (Michael Ironside).

        The rebellion easily thwarted, Ramirez and MacLeod are sentenced to exile, to become immortals to fight for the prize on Earth, the prize to either grow old and die or to return to their home planet.

        Disgruntled that MacLeod won the competition, is not yet dead and may well return to Zeist for revenge, Katana sends a pair of assassins to finish off the old man.

        In the fight, MacLeod calls desperately for Ramirez' assistance, before managing to kill the pair of crazed killers.

        Killing the pair causes MacLeod to enjoy the Quickening, returning him to his former youthful and immortal glory, while Ramirez comes back to life in Scotland and makes his way to America to find his old protege, to help fight against Katana, who they know will be coming soon...

        "Scratch? What are you talking about? It passed right through me. Just look at my splendid waistcoat!"

        To get around the apparent plot issues then, it is made out that the immortals came from a completely different planet and were exiled to Earth, completely changing the whole Highlander mythology.

        Future sequels would conveniently forget this whole idea, but you've got to admit it is an ingenious way to get around the whole plot problem, even if it is a truly terrible idea.

        It would probably be best to mention now that there are several different versions of this movie and for good reason.

        Filmed mainly in Argentina, the country hit financial problems during filming, and if that wasn't the worst of their troubles, the company financing the film continually inteferred with director Russell Mulcahy's vision that the finished product was nothing like what he originally had conceived - he hated the production so much that he tried to get his name removed.

        The theatrical version is all over the place and a truly terrible piece of filmmaking, poorly edited and on whole makes very little sense whatsoever.

        The version I watched this time around, however, is the 'Renegade Version', the director's cut, where Mulcahy went away and did the best he could with the material that was filmed in order to create a watchable sequel to the original movie.

        And to be honest, this director's cut isn't actually too bad.

        There are still some truly terrible issues with the film, granted, but it's a lot better than it used to be.

        "Time to say goodbye Highlander!"
        "Why, you going somewhere?"

        One way, in my mind, to make the whole plot work, is that when MacLeod and Ramirez are exiled to Earth, they are then born not knowing anything about their previous lives on Zeist, and only when MacLeod wins the prize of infinite knowledge does he recall his true past and is given the technical understanding to build the new ozone shield.

        However, this is not made explicit, so your guess is as good as mine - the fact that the viewer needs to fill in the plot holes is very lazy to say the least!

        Acting performance-wise, "Highlander II" is in no way taxing.

        Christopher Lambert, the Frenchman playing a Scotsman, glides through the film easily, knowing his shallow character well and still able to quip like the best of them.

        Near the end of the movie, he is starting to look a bit annoyed with everything, revealing his on-set grumpiness perhaps, seeing as he wanted to walk from the project before completion due to the shoddy script, only having to complete the film due to contractual obligations.

        Sean Connery, meanwhile, is only in the film because Lambert refused to do the film without him, so the Scot playing an Egyptian got paid several million for just over a week's work.

        Connery is here for comic relief only and is completely unneeded for the storyline to work - his reappearence during a stage performance of Hamlet makes really no sense whatsoever, although his time in the suit fitters and on the plane to America are fairly amusing.

        As the main antagonist, Michael Ironside does his snarling and gurning best as the sadistic Katana, but never comes close to Clancy Brown's Kurgan from the first film.

        He is amusing on-screen however, but never really puts up much of a fight against Lambert, to the point where I was near-shouting at the screen for MacLeod to finish him off already.

        The final fight between the two is pretty pathetic and unmemorable as well - in fact the final quarter is the film's slow death as all hope peeters out of the production.

        Also in bad-guy mode is John C. (Dr. Cox) McGinley as David Blake, the corrupt out-of-the-80's businessman in charge of the ozone protection set up by MacLeod years earlier - the idea that the ozone has repaired itself above the protector is one of the story's driving points.

        McGinley is quite a nasty character here, but seems out of place and out of his depth, completely mismatched with Ironside, making his final moments all the more amusing.

        "Alas poor Yorrick, I knew him Horatio..."
        "Actually it's Ramirez."

        Script-wise, you know that if Christopher Lambert was prepared to walk out on it, it had to have been bad, and rightly so.

        Michael Ironside's Katana, in particular, has some pretty dreadful lines, but he mouths them with relish as he always does (if you can't afford Jack Nicholson, get Michael Ironside).

        The special effects aren't too bad for the most part, but in places they look quite shoddy - the Back to the Future Part 2 hoverboard-esque sequence looks pretty naff.

        Overall, "Highlander II" is a very bad film and should never have been made, but at least this Renegade Director's Cut saves it partially by re-editing things into a (mostly) logical order.

        So in summary, if you watch "Highlander II" without seeing "Highlander" first, you will be thoroughly confused.

        "If you watch "Highlander II" after first seeing "Highlander", you will most likely absolutely hate it.

        Is there a good reason as to why you should see "Highlander II"?

        No.

        [The original theatrical version can be purchased from play.com for £3.99, while the Renegade Director's Cut costs £7.98 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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        • More +
          04.08.2010 20:25
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          A classic story of alien invasion involving the return of an excellent enemy

          Written by Terry Nation
          Broadcast 21/11/64 - 26/12/64

          After "The Aztecs" came the yet-to-be-released-on-DVD serial "The Sensorites" and the partly-missing adventure "The Reign of Terror" that took place during the French Revolution.

          This capped off the first ever season of Doctor Who and due to its soaring popularity, a second season was quickly put into the works, a second season of historicals, dramas and science fiction, including the return of an old enemy.

          Season Two began with the three-episode "Planet of Giants", but like "The Sensorites" this has yet to be released, so we move onto the second serial of the season, the first ever Doctor Who sequel that would be the first to see the departure of one of the Doctor's companions.

          "But you know young man, I have a feeling, or call it intuition if you like, I don't believe we're anywhere near your time, the 1960s."

          The TARDIS materialises below a disused bridge by a murky river and the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions, his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and school teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), disembark to investigate.

          It appears they have found their way back to London, but the city is deserted and there are no sounds of life whatsoever, no cars, no birdsong and not even the chimes of Big Ben.

          Instead they find what is left of mankind under the stern control of men who have had their minds destroyed and turned into robot-like soldiers.

          These robomen are being controlled by villainous aliens the Doctor and his companions have met before, the evil pepperpot-shaped nasties from the planet Skaro known as the Daleks.

          Cut off from the TARDIS and from each other, the time-travelling crew must make their way through the dangerous streets and sewers of London towards the Daleks' huge mine in Bedfordshire, where the machine-like aliens are burrowing towards the very core of the planet!

          Can the Doctor find a way to disrupt the plans of the Daleks and free mankind from slavery?

          - "We have already conquered Earth!"
          - "Conquered the Earth? You poor pathetic creatures, don't you realise before you attempt to conquer the Earth, you will have to destroy all living matter!"
          - "Take him! Take him! We are the masters of Earth!"

          "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", the Daleks' second appearence in the long-running TV series Doctor Who, was once again written by Dalek brainchild Terry Nation, who had the fantastic idea of bringing his creations closer to home: to the streets of London.

          This is where the so-called 'dalekmania' really kicked off, with those iconic images of the Daleks travelling across London Bridge and guarding Nelson's column at Trafalgar Square, helping to spew out as much dalek merchandise as was humanly possible.

          The story required and allowed for much more location work than had previously been used in other serials, so the crew got up very early one Sunday morning to avoid as many pedestrians and as much traffic as possible, in order to get the shots they needed.

          "Emergency Regulations: It is forbidden to dump bodies into the river."

          What is excellent about the "...Invasion of Earth", as was with the original story "The Daleks", Nation utilises a cleverly paced slow reveal in order to reintroduce the villainous characters.

          With the fantastically eerie black and white outdoor shots of London and the abandoned wharehouse, the desperate situation our heroes have found themselves in becomes very apparent when a lone Dalek slowly rises up from the Thames, first its eye piece and then the plunger.

          This first episode is probably the best of the six, but that is not to say that the action and mystery isn't kept up throughout the whole serial.

          We are quickly introduced to a series of new characters from the human resistance based in London, including heroic pragmatist Tyler (Bernard Kay), the young idealist David (Peter Fraser) who befriends Susan, wheelchair-bound scientist Dortmun (Alan Judd), and brash Jenny (Ann Davies).

          There is a lot of variety between the support and they are played well, even if their characters are quite archetypal and of a form.

          Alan Judd as the crippled scientist is perhaps the best of these, playing a character bent on defeating the Daleks using a bomb of his own design, a bomb that can defeat the 'dalekanium' casing the creatures use to protect themselves.

          Racing through the streets of London with Barbara and Jenny during the third episode is perfectly done and exciting, with a fast-paced percussion score from Francis Chagrin to keep up the tempo.

          "Don't call me Doc! I prefer Doctor."

          By this time in the run of the first Doctor, the players are well fixed in their roles and characters, and William Hartnell especially is now much more what we have come to expect from the Doctor as an on-screen presence.

          Although there are a couple of his occasional script slip-ups during the "...Invasion of Earth", Hartnell very much knows what he is doing and shows some true emotion, especially at the end of the last episode, because this is where we say goodbye to Carole Ann Ford who had played the Doctor's granddaughter Susan since the show's inception in "An Unearthly Child".

          Although she very much became the 'young girl who screams' as a character, and she portrayed rather annoying flights of ever-changing emotion, she was the Doctor's link with humanity and the planet Earth.

          By "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" she has very much grown up and her bonding with Peter Fraser's David adds romance and a little hope to what appears to be a hopeless situation.

          Staying on in the TARDIS, however, are school teachers Ian and Barbara, played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill.

          Russell's character Ian is pretty much relegated to action-hero duty, beating off robomen and struggling up mine shafts for the majority of the story, while Hill's Barbara really gets to shine as a woman who will stop at nothing to find her friends.

          Her scenes escaping London, including commandeering a truck and crashing it through a troop of daleks, are great fun.

          There are a couple of issues I have with "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", which are a shame given its importance to the series, but one of the problems is with the actual length of the serial - it probably doesn't deserve to be six episodes long as it drags in the middle, many of the scenes involving are heroes stopping for a breather and discussing the situation.

          This distracts slightly from the finale, which isn't as polished and high-tension as it could have been, probably because the evil masterplan of turning the Earth into a giant spaceship doesn't really make much sense.

          We're also introduced to a strange creature called Slyther, which appears to be a strange mutation of sorts that is never explained, other than being referred to as the supreme dalek's 'pet'.

          The Daleks' flying saucer spaceship also looks terrible and feels unneeded, but more on that in the extras section.

          Otherwise "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" is an exciting piece of Doctor Who sci-fi reminiscent of "The War of the Worlds" and "The Day of the Triffids", fantastic in scope and pulled off well by all concerned.

          "One day I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. Goodbye Susan."

          There are also plenty of extras contained on this edition, with a whole extra disc devoted to turning you into a dedicated Who nerd.

          The first disc (with the actual serial) offers the opportunity to view the story with or without new CGI model sequences involving the Daleks' flying saucer, which look quite good and have improved the shots considerably.

          These scenes can be integrated into the actual serial or watched by themselves.

          The disc also includes the original BBC 1 trailers from the time, and have very hammy voice-overs.

          The second disc is jam-packed with documentaries and other extras, including: "Future Visions", a detailed look at how the future London was designed; "Future Memories", a documentary featuring several of the original supporting cast and their thoughts on the production; "Talking Daleks", a documentary on those that voiced the evil tin cans; and "Now and Then", a feature that compares the locations used during the production to how they look now forty years on.

          "Script to Screen" explains how the script and stage plans were used to decide where to position cameras on-set, and there's an original BBC audio story called "Whatever happened to... Susan?"

          There's an old rehearsal film from Carole Ann Ford's own collection, when she brought a handheld camera on set, showing rare colour footage of cast and crew, which is a nice little addition to the package.

          What we always wanted however, is the Blue Peter special where Valerie Singleton shows us how to decorate a swiss role in order for us to make a Dalek cake! Yum!

          This is a fantastic release of a classic story and a must-have for fans of the show.

          [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £6.99 (including postage and packing), at time of writing]

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          • Inception (DVD) / DVD / 48 Readings / 47 Ratings
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            03.08.2010 16:57
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            A complex visual and score spectacle from start to finish

            [A review of the film only]

            "Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange."

            As a car flies backwards off a suspension bridge towards the choppy waters below, and Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) leads a team to break into a snowy mountaintop military base, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) battles through a weightless hotel corridor, desperately trying to organise a 'kick' that will wake everyone up.

            They are in the rich and powerful business tycoon mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who's had special training to ward off potential attacks from those who sneak into people's dreams to steal important (and often top secret) information.

            His specially-trained subconscious army will stop at nothing to protect him.

            But Cobb is the best at his job, the best at extraction, the art of designing a dreamscape, planting a subject's mind in it and then going about and searching and finding the information he's been paid to steal.

            But powerful businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) has not found Cobb to do an extraction, but something much more challenging: inception, the tricky business of planting an idea in someone's mind without them ever knowing about it.

            Cobb is going to need the help of expert dream builder Ariadne (Ellen Page) in order to design a dream within a dream within a dream, in order for them to go deep enough into their subject's mind.

            With the laws of physics thrown out of the window, with city streets inverting themselves and huge buildings crashing down around them, can Cobb's team fight off a well-armed subconscious and figure out what is dream and what is reality?

            "Wait, who's subconscious are we going through exactly?"

            From the mind of Christopher Nolan, the director of "Memento", "The Prestige" and most recently "The Dark Knight", this original work is a myriad of mind-bending CGI and complex plotting, a two-and-a-half hour film you can't risk taking your eyes off or dumbing down your concentration for.

            If you decide to go to the toilet or make a cup of tea halfway through without pausing the film, you may just ruin it.

            I'd heard about how confusing the film was from various people before checking it out at the local cineplex, so I knew I would have to keep my eye on the ball at all times.

            When we arrive at the situation of having a dream within a dream within a dream, the film goes into madness mode, and it all gels together on-screen thanks to some superb editing, and a fantastically powerful score from Hans Zimmer.

            Truly, the film's soundtrack is brilliant and is probably my favourite thing about the movie - it's a film I won't watch over and over again, but I could listen to the score a thousand times and never get tired of it.

            While I enjoyed the plot and the visuals, it was the characters and lack of outstanding performances that were a bit of a let down.

            Leonardo Dicaprio has certainly improved over the years and I like him as an actor, but in "Inception" he isn't quite the powerhouse the film needed - his character is gentle and a bit of a push-over, a family man with a hidden past, but one not so dark as to make him an anti-hero.

            That's certainly what this film needed more of: a central key character who will stop at nothing to get the job done, a more-obvious rule-breaker.

            In a supporting role, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tommy from "3rd Rock from the Sun") is solid as Arthur, friend and business partner to Dicaprio's Cobb.

            I've read some real big praise for his performance in "Inception", but I don't think he amounted to anything *that* special - this is no Heath Ledger as the Joker.

            It's really the visuals and score that make the impact.

            In smaller roles, and parts that probably should have been relegated to lesser known talents, come from Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite.

            Caine is certainly only in "Inception" because he's a friend of the director, having been cast as Alfred in the two most recent Batman movies, and Postlethwaite seems a bit wasted as a frail old man on his deathbed.

            So should you go and see this movie?

            Well, if you enjoyed either "The Matrix" or "Dark City", two relatively similar styles of movie, or certainly if you've enjoyed Nolan's previous works, then "Inception" will probably do it for you, but if you're not willing to keep your mind in gear for the full two-and-a-half hours of visual and soundtrack spectacle, then it might be a bit of a wasted effort.

            I found "Inception" to be a very enjoyable slice of sci-fi, and perhaps you will too.

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              06.06.2010 13:46
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              A one-way trip to the Pliocene: what will be found on the other side?

              In 2034, aging scientist Theo Guderian discovered the way into Exile, a device that could open a one-way portal to the Pliocene six million years in the past.

              Being only a one-way trip, its scientific usefulness was questionable and Guderian remained in obscurity until his death.

              That is until 2041, when Theo's widow Madame Guderian was visited at their small home in Lyon by a loner wanting to travel through the portal, to escape from the world and its troubles, to live out the remainder of his days in an untouched Eden.

              One-by-one the time trippers came, asking to be sent into Exile, paying high prices for the opportunity, and the numbers soon burgeoned and Madame Guderian steadily got richer until she herself decided to make the trip into the unknown.

              Group Green is the latest in a long line of time-trippers, a motley bunch of wackos, sadists and those that just want to get away from it all.

              They prepare for the trip like any other group would and are put through their survival paces until the big day comes.

              On the other side, six million years past in the Pliocene, there is wildlife and plantlife aplenty just as expected, but Group Green find that humanity has been enslaved by an alien race known as the Tanu.

              Controlling the population through golden and silver torcs, which can either subdue the wearer or heighten their psychic metafunctions, the Tanu are genetically similar to humans and are force-impregnating the women to carry on their dwindling race.

              Seeing their chance, part of Group Green escape and discover a resistance led by the aging Madame Guderian, a group of humans bent on bringing the Tanu down.

              "Good old metaboodly psychokinoodly!"

              As the first book in a series, "The Many-Coloured Land" is principally a novel to set up the main characters and storyline that will follow, but that doesn't mean that it isn't full of twists and turns along the way.

              The character introductions at the beginning are thorough and represent a wide variety of interesting personalities: mostly loners and people who are not likely to really work well as a group who must come together in desperate circumstances.

              Only we never know what those circumstances are going to be, which is key to this great sci-fi novel.

              At the other end of this portal, we never know what is going to be there - have all the previous humans created a civilised society, have they reverted to savagery or have they all been eaten by wild animals?

              The novel is split into three sections: 'The Leavetaking', 'The Initiation' and 'The Alliance', breaking up the initial character introductions, arrival into the Pliocene world and the taking up of arms.

              The first two sections are easily the best of the three, as the whole strange situation is the main appeal of "The Many-Coloured Land".

              That's not to say that the character introductions are dull in any way, because they're not - Julian May's writing is very easy to read and his dialogue creates realistic characters.

              But when we get used to the Pliocene era and we get settled with the characters, the surprises and plot twists stop coming, so while the plot moves forward there isn't really that much to look forward to anymore.

              The extinct animals of the Pliocene aren't really all that interesting and May struggles to use them in any great way, unlike what sorts of fun he might have had with a load of dinosaurs.

              But while the plot becomes fairly linear in the final third of the book, the first two thirds really make up for it and "The Many-Coloured Land" is a very enjoyable dose of sci-fi.

              What this says for the remaining instalments is hard to say, but unless there are more interesting twists in the next book, "The Saga of the Exiles" may well dry up, but I certainly hope it doesn't.

              [The book can be purchased from play.com's PlayTrade for £2.40 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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              • Dr Who: The Aztecs (DVD) / DVD / 49 Readings / 49 Ratings
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                02.06.2010 16:29
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                A solid historical adventure for the TARDIS crew with not an alien in sight!

                Written by John Lucarotti
                Broadcast 23/05/64 - 13/06/64

                Back when Doctor Who was first being dreamt up, the original idea was to combine a mixture of educational historical-based serials and futuristic sci-fi-based serials.

                The historical stories allowed for infinite scope into Earth's past, allowing children and adults entertaining ways to learn about the way things were.

                By the time "The Aztecs" came along, the sixth serial of the first season, the Doctor and his companions had already met with a Stone Age tribe in "An Unearthly Child" and the famous merchant in China in the sadly now-lost story "Marco Polo".

                I've never been a great fan of the historical Doctor Who episodes as they have always felt more like filler than anything else, even those from the most recent series, but the early historical serials like "The Aztecs" are especially unusual for the show as they have nothing to do with anachronistic technology or out-of-place aliens.

                They are drama pieces through and through, allowing us to focus on the period's culture and ideas, rather than shoving an otherworldy creature into Victorian London, for example, and spending the remainder of the story running away from it.

                "You failed to save a civilisation, but at least you helped one man."

                After being blackmailed into finding the keys of Marinus in the previous serial, the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and school teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) materialise in the 15th Century inside an Aztec tomb.

                Barbara is the first out of the TARDIS with Susan, and the history teacher immediately recognises where they are, seeing as Aztec history was her speciality, and in true Doctor Who companion fashion she goes off wandering and quickly finds herself in trouble: mistaken, in fact, for the Great Spirit of Yetaxa by the local High Priest of Knowledge Autloc (Keith Pyott).

                As the rest of the time-travellers exit the tomb, however, the door behind them closes and they are unable to force their way back in, sealing themselves from the TARDIS.

                To fit in (so they're not found out to be impostors and then sacrificed for desecrating the tomb), the Doctor, Ian and Susan must pose as Barbara's servants, but Tlotoxl (John Ringham), the butcher-like High Priest of Sacrifice, is dubious about the new arrivals and sets out to reveal that the strangers are nothing more than frauds.

                In this time of sacrifice, nearing the end of the doomed Aztec way of life, can Barbara play the game of the Aztecs and stave off Tlotoxl's attempts to destroy them while the others find a way to get back into the tomb and escape in the TARDIS?

                "You can't rewrite history! Not one line!"

                From the very start, what I like about "The Aztecs" is in its original mission to go out an educate the television viewership about this period in history while entertaining them with a solid story.

                A lot of time and effort is gone into exploring the way the people of the time thought and acted and how the will of their Gods had a great effect on their daily lives - why would a man happily go and be sacrificed?

                After Patrick Troughton's second adventure "The Highlanders", there would never again be a purely historical drama story for Doctor Who - we would certainly travel back into Earth's past, but we'd always meet an alien race or a monster there that would take centre stage.

                A long-standing misconception about the Aztecs themselves (and one I always made) is that they were an ancient people, and when we say ancient we usually mean from when records began to around the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but they were actually a society from the 14th to 16th centuries until they were conquered by the Spanish during their colonisation of the Americas.

                But then, I've never been an Aztec history buff, so if you're like me and don't know your Aztecs then there's a helpful and interesting short documentary special feature on the disc, "Cortez and Montezuma", an old Blue Peter history lesson presented by Valerie Singleton that details the fall of the Aztecs.

                "I made some cocoa and got engaged."

                Character-wise, "The Aztecs" is very strong - it is a story led by its performances, and the key supporting players are very good as both protagonists and antagonists alongside the familiar crew.

                The sinister and extraordinarily hammy executioner Tlotoxl, played by John Ringham, is an excellent machiavellian character working behind (and at times in front of) the scenes trying in earnest to bring the mistaken prophets down and have them killed.

                With his crazy, straggling hair, huge feathered hat, and with a thick black striped painted across the lower half of his face, he doesn't look like someone who had a healthy family life.

                As a villain he is perfectly nasty and brutal, gorging on the chaos and bloodlust of the Aztec mythology.

                Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge played by Keith Pyott on the other hand, is Tlotoxl's antithesis and the voice of reason, an older man who would be just as happy to live in a society that *doesn't* sacrifice people, but he is very much a follower of Gods and has stopped using his own brain.

                He becomes Barbara's trusted advisor and link to the good of the Aztecs, and he is very much an interesting character, although he is not as strong as an on-screen player as Ringham is.

                This serial is really Jacqueline Hill's time to shine as Barbara, however, who must rise to the challenge of controlling a people so backward for the times that they could never have foreseen the attack and colonisation from Spain.

                It brings about the first issues in Doctor Who with the possibilities of changing time, something the Doctor warns sternly about.

                Hill's humanity as Barbara seeps through, however, and she tries earnestly to halt the human sacrifices in order for the Aztecs to see the error of their ways, but in the case of the butcher Tlotoxl it falls on deaf ears.

                The rest of the regulars take pretty much a backseat to Barbara, especially Carole Ann Ford as Susan who took her scheduled holiday during episodes two and three, only turning up in footage that had been filmed previously.

                That's not to say that William Hartnell as the Doctor and William Russell as Ian don't get into their fair share of scrapes.

                Hartnell winds up falling for a lady and accidentally proposes to her over a cup of cocoa, while Ian struggles to become the ruler of the Aztec army by defeating the other likely contender: the head-strong Ixta played by Ian Cullen.

                Cullen is quite young and amateurish in style, wooden in his delivery and showing very little emotion, so it's surprising that he gets as much screen time as he does.

                There are a few fight scenes for both Cullen and Ian to get involved in, all three of which are poorly handled by today's standards, especially a very weak performance in the first episode where the army general Ixta must fight a lowly soldier.

                However, their final battle atop one of the sacrificial temple pyramids in episode four is very well placed and is excellent for the cheap budget, even if the choreography isn't the best - it does make for a rip-roaring finale.

                Overall, the four-episode production is a very solid piece of work with good sets and good characters, allowing it to be viewed these days in a much better light than some of the more futuristic serials of the time, some of which look really naff.

                Enjoyable and never dull, "The Aztecs" is entertaining historical Doctor Who drama at its best.

                The DVD contains a plethora of extras, including the short Blue Peter documentary already mentioned, as well as two interesting interview documentaries with original members of the cast and crew: "Remembering the Aztecs" and "Designing the Aztecs", which gives particular insight into the rehearsal process and what the main cast were like behind the scenes.

                There's also a look into how the original prints of the story were restored for DVD release, a photo gallery of the production, and a silly little animation about "Making Cocoa" presented by Tlotoxl and Tonila who will show you how to make the special Aztec drink.

                [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £6.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                  31.05.2010 21:33
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                  A bit of a mixed bag story-wise, but The Keys of Marinus has its enjoyable moments

                  Written by Terry Nation
                  Broadcast 11/04/64 - 16/05/64

                  Right back at the very beginning of "Doctor Who"'s television run, right back in its first ever series, the whole production was up in the air and all over the place, and it's not really too big a surprise when you discover why.

                  Given fifty-two episodes to work with as a series, this allowed the production team lots of scope story and character-wise, as well as plenty of opportunities to mix and match as the ordering of the serials were swapped about.

                  "The Keys of Marinus", which became the fifth serial in this first season, was a bit of a rush job.

                  Hot off the success of scripting the fantastic epic "The Daleks" that had caught the nation by storm and had children running about playgrounds yelling "EXTERMINATE!" at one another, Terry Nation was quickly drafted in to write a futuristic story that could fit snugly between "Marco Polo" and "The Aztecs", two long historical pieces.

                  Utilising a multi-faceted story not unlike "The Chase" in the second season, the Doctor and his companions were able to hop about between various locations in a handful of small low-budget short adventures, which also made allowances for two Doctor-less episodes so that lead star William Hartnell could go on holiday during filming.

                  "I don't believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that."

                  The Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and school teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), are transported in the TARDIS to a strange beautiful world where the beaches are glass and the seas are acid.

                  A great, seemingly deserted nearby city is run by just one man: Arbitan (George Coulouris), the Keeper of the Conscience of Marinus, a complicated machine that can control the minds of the whole planet in order to prevent crime.

                  Four of the five keys needed to work the machine have been spread across the planet in order for the machine to not fall into the wrong hands (that of the Voord) and Arbitan needs help in recovering them, so he seals off the TARDIS and blackmails the Doctor and his friends into doing his bidding.

                  Handing them wrist bracelets that can transport them great distances, the group of time travellers quickly find themselves in lots of danger, from mind-controlling brains in jars and homicidal plant life to freezing mountains and a charge of murder that could lead to Ian's execution!

                  Can our heroes find the four keys, save the world from the Voord and escape the strange planet intact?

                  "Perhaps it's frozen."
                  "No, impossible... not in this temperature. Besides, it's too warm."

                  As the above quote suggests, a scene that I had to rewind to make sure I heard it correctly, there are parts of this serial's script where it falters quite badly, but this may well be down to William Hartnell forgetting his lines, as was all the more prevalent in the previous serial "The Edge of Destruction".

                  What "The Keys of Marinus" does provide, however, is an entertaining mix of stories that allows the whole cast to shine in relatively cheap-looking sets.

                  Episode 2 concerns the first microcircuit key and takes the time travellers to the City of Morphoton, a glorious palace where their every dream can come true.

                  Obviously not all is as it seems, and Barbara cottons on more quickly than the others, discovering that the whole operation is run by snail-like brain octopuses in jars.

                  They look hilarious.

                  At the end of this episode the group separates - the Doctor heads off in search of the final key, while the others move onto the second.

                  This allowed Hartnell to go off on holiday for a couple of weeks and similar plot devices would be used for each of the main cast members in turn for similar reasons later in the season.

                  Episode 3 takes the search to a strange over-run jungle where chemical experiments have turned plants into fast-moving, hungry monsters that act rather like Triffids.

                  Then comes episode 4, which transports Ian, Barbara and Susan to a freezing mountainous wasteland where an unscrupulous bearded trapper known as Vasor (Francis de Wolff) has a mind to steal their possessions and leave them for the wolves.

                  Will Ian and Barbara be able to get the better of the large brute or will a squad of mechanical ice soldiers hidden in a cave be too much for them?

                  These two episodes without the Doctor work rather well as they allow Ian and Barbara to hog all of the limelight and shine as they are easily the best characters on the show.

                  While William Hartnell is entertaining as the Doctor, his script slip-ups and his penchant for moments of hamming it up don't make for a particularly realistic character, and Carole Ann Ford meanwhile is just a bit rubbish as Susan, a character that has already been reduced to the major screamer of the show.

                  The final segment of episode 5 before wrapping up the keys storyline sees Ian go on trial for murder, which allows for the Doctor's triumphant return to the screen just in the nick of time so he can represent Ian in court.

                  This episode wasn't really as interesting as it could have been and relied on a lot of dialogue and not much action, interspersed with Hartnell looking way too pleased with himself in some scenes and giggling like a little girl.

                  What is probably most disappointing about "The Keys of Marinus", however, is that the danger of the Marinus machine getting into the wrong hands is never really felt.

                  Surely going off and finding the keys and bringing them back would be a bad idea, especially when the rubbish-looking Voord are closing in?

                  The Voord themselves look like a load of guys in gimp suits with a strange helmet shoved on their heads, and the only good scene with them is when one falls to his death into the sea of acid.

                  With plot holes and scripting issues, "The Keys of Marinus" is by no means perfect and it certainly isn't anywhere near as good as Terry Nation's previous effort creating the Daleks.

                  It is serviceable, however, and a good half of the six episodes are solid and entertaining, allowing for plenty of Ian and Barbara, who work really well together on screen and make for an entertaining pair of heroes.

                  The DVD contains a number of extras, including a commentary and an interesting half-hour documentary with designer Raymond Cusick recalling his work on the sets of the serial.

                  There are also scans of the set of Cadet Sweets cards, the original Radio Times listings, and a Coming Soon trailer for the "Dalek War" boxset.

                  [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £7.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                    26.05.2010 22:25
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                    Bailing out the banks - where has our money gone?

                    "This is Michael Moore. I am here to make a citizen's arrest of the board of directors of AIG."

                    Controversial filmmaker and socialist extraordinaire Michael Moore has, since 1989, highlighted corporations' mass-downsizing and destruction of the American way of life in "Roger and Me" and "The Big One", analysed why the US is full of gun-nuts in "Bowling for Columbine", asked the question as to why we went to Iraq in "Fahrenheit 9/11", and examined the terrible American healthcare system in "Sicko".

                    In his sixth and most recent documentary, Moore had wanted to make a direct follow up to "Fahrenheit 9/11" by discussing George W. Bush's second term as President of the United States, but during pre-production there was the economic downturn and the subsequent recession, which seemed much more pressing.

                    After the American people bailed out the banks with their millions of dollars, just where did that money go and when will they see it again?

                    In effect, the banks are seen to have pulled off a gigantic heist with only the top brass of the corporate banks seeing any of the precious dollars as it helped line their pockets, so how did we get to this situation and how is it to be resolved?

                    Meanwhile, Moore explores the grander theme of capitalism and its methodology of profits, along with that evil little term 'socialism' again.

                    Issues raised include 'dead peasant' policies, in which companies are allowed to take life insurance out on their employees, only to make more money when the employee dies, as well as privately owned 'for profit' prisons.

                    In a country run by banks, it appears that the overarching principal is to make the poor poorer and the rich richer, so that if you watch Michael Moore's films over the years, the United States seems to be steadily turning into a feudal state.

                    As is the way with his films, Moore splices insightful interviews, pranks and harrowing true-life stories to paint a picture of an America taking a nose dive, the global recession hitting the working and middle classes hard.

                    The information, however, is not presented in a very easy-to-understand way, unlike "Bowling for Columbine", so there is very little use of layman's terms to explain the economic downturn.

                    In fact, Moore goes in search of understanding, quizzing bankers and Wall Streeters alike about derivatives and economic policies, only to look thoroughly confused, and that's just about what I felt for the main portion of the movie.

                    Trying desperately to understand all the ins and outs of the economics, my brain disintegrated.

                    However, that is not to say that "Capitalism: A Love Story" does not highlight some key, fundamental issues about the state of the US, and this comes mainly from two disturbing practices.

                    The first concerns privately-owned, profit driven and company-organised prisons that get paid by the local state government for each inmate confined, and we are told of one particular juvenile prison where the local judge was on the company pay-roll and sent many young offenders to prison for the smallest of crimes.

                    "Time is money. Lots of money."

                    One girl, caught smoking weed at a party, was sent to the juvenile prison for two months, which turned into nine months, as the prison employees were the ones who decided when the child had had enough 'rehabilitation'.

                    The longer the child was there, the more money the prison would receive from the taxpayer - what a fantastic money-making scheme!

                    The second horrific capitalist invention is corporate-owned life insurance, otherwise known as 'dead peasant' insurance,

                    In principal, companies wanted to make sure that when they spent lots of money to train up important and high-ranking employees, they didn't lose out if that employee unexpectedly died.

                    So they were able to take life insurance policies on their workers so that if the employee did die, the company would gain in the benefits.

                    In some cases, this meant that it was sometimes more profitable for the company if that worker died rather than went on living.

                    One such real life story concerns Irma Johnson, whose bank middle-manager husband recently died of cancer.

                    Unbeknownst to her, the bank he worked for had taken out a life insurance policy on his life, making them the beneficiary in event of his death.

                    The Insurance company then accidentally informed Irma that the bank had received benefits from the life insurance claim of over one and a half million dollars.

                    The bank had made a huge amount of money from his death, and Irma and her son never saw a penny of it.

                    "Is this the United States Congress, or the board of directors of Goldman Sachs?"

                    While the individual stories are very interesting and saddening to witness, some don't seem to be investigated as fully as they might, so we skip between different situations that are only really connected by the idea of making profit, so this is not just a story about the economic recession and instead it has a much broader focus.

                    It does, of course, explore the recession territory also, but "Capitalism: A Love Story", as said, does not explain things simply for those without an Economics GCSE, so be expected to face plenty of Wall Street lingo and legal mumbo jumbo.

                    Importance-wise, the film doesn't have the impact or the heart of "Sicko", and is more unfocussed than it should have been.

                    So ultimately, this may not be Michael Moore's best, but it is an interesting look-in on how the capitalist ideology has twisted the United States.

                    "This is capitalism. A system of taking and giving. Mostly taking."

                    [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £12.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                    • Sicko (DVD) / Documentary / 60 Readings / 58 Ratings
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                      19.05.2010 23:42
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                      Michael Moore's best piece of work

                      "My name is Linda Peeno. I am here primarily today to make a public confession. In the Spring of 1987, as a physician, I denied a man a necessary operation that would have saved his life, and thus caused his death. No person, and no group, has held me accountable for this, because in fact what I did was I saved a company a half a million dollars."

                      "Sicko" is Michael Moore's fifth cinema-released documentary after "Roger & Me", "The Big One", "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11", and this is probably his most important and influential piece of work to date.

                      Here in the UK we pay taxes that go to the National Health Service (the NHS), which was set up just after the second world war to look after old, young, rich and poor alike, giving the people of Britain a way to stay healthy and to not have to think about expensive health insurance.

                      The United States, however, are not so enlightened.

                      Due to a deal struck with Richard Nixon, health insurance companies have turned into multi-billion dollar corporations that run on the premise of making profit, just like any other company.

                      The companies are very selective of who they take onboard, depending on patients' current and past ailments, age, BMI etc, and before they ever hand out any money the company will look ultra-thoroughly into your records to see if you were withholding a piece of information that could allow them a loop hole so they wouldn't have to cough up the cash.

                      This is the picture drawn by Michael Moore, and it is a horrific one, that even those with health insurance may still not get covered when they are ill because of the company employees whose job it is to find ways to get out of paying up.

                      For those without health insurance, the story is even more grim, where operations cost thousands of dollars and this can wind up with families being broken and having to move out of their homes because they can no longer afford to pay the rent.

                      One horrific story involved a man who in a freak woodworking accident had two of his fingers chopped off - two vastly different prices were put on the fingers being put back on to his hand - re-attach the middle finger for $60,000 or the ring finger for $12,000, and he had to choose which, depending on his income.

                      Suffice is to say he went for the ring finger.

                      In America it seems, a price is put on health, which ranks it the 27th healthiest nation in the world, a long way from the top for one of the world's richest countries.

                      With drug companies and Health Maintenance Organisations (HMOs) having all of the money and all of the power, Moore highlights how they bought off members of congress, including both the then outspoken Hilary Clinton and the previous President of the United States George W. Bush.

                      "Sicko" is a fantastic piece of film-making that really highlights the major important issues and voices the seemingly common horror stories about dealing with health insurance companies in the US, stories we would never otherwise have got to hear.

                      Of course, how widespread these problems are are difficult to tell, and as you would guess Michael Moore uses those stories with the most impact, which some might say heavily bias the film.

                      However, the fact that any of these situations had come about will come across as quite disgusting, especially for those of us lucky enough to have a national health service that pays for our drugs and operations, rather than a privately owned business charging us each time we visit the hospital.

                      Moore highlights many different personal stories throughout the movie and there is certainly not a lack of research on his part, as he meets those with and without insurance and what trials they have to get through in their lives.

                      One such story involves a pair of grandparents who are taken ill with heart attacks and cancer, who then have to wind up footing a gigantic bill that turfs them out of their home and into a small room in their daughter's house miles away.

                      Another sees a young wife who lost her husband because their HMO refused to pay out for a life-saving surgery their doctor had recommended, but the company called the process only 'experimental' and allowed him to die.

                      "Sicko" is peppered with these real-life stories and they hit the viewer hard.

                      What is perhaps most interesting and fun to watch about the film is Michael Moore's visit to Canada, England and France, all three of which have national healthcare services, and he tries to fathom why these countries would adopt what the US call a form of socialism (a dirty word, harking back to the Red Scare).

                      Why should we shell out for other people's healthcare?

                      Why don't we just look after ourselves and pay our way as and when we need it?

                      It's difficult to imagine England without the NHS, no matter how much we complain about it, and while Moore paints a much more rosy picture of the service than we might actually enjoy, there's certainly no way I would want to live in a country that would foot me a bill if ever I had an accident.

                      Moore's big stunt in "Sicko" is probably his best yet.

                      Hearing that the terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay are receiving an excellent level of healthcare unlike the vast majority of Americans, he loads up a troop of 9/11 wreckage workers onto a boat who now suffer from many respiratory ailments, amid other problems due to the dust from the Twin Towers collapse, and they set sail for the Bay.

                      Obviously they're refused access and they wind up in Cuba, that country the US have been told for years and years to fear and distrust.

                      Cuba is in fact one of the healthiest countries in the world with a superb national health service, and the 9/11 workers find that simple medicines that cost hundreds of dollars in the US can be bought in a Cuban pharmacy for a pittance.

                      Moore checks them into a local hospital and they are expertly cared for, returning to America healthier and happier and not a penny poorer.

                      That is a health service.

                      "Sicko" is a truly remarkable film, and a movie that is even better than "Bowling for Columbine" due to its natural importance - it will most certainly invoke an emotional response because the stories themselves are heartbreaking, and it is disgusting to hear how the companies themselves work behind the scenes.

                      This is a superb film and is definitely one that must be seen by all.

                      "In the meantime, I'm going to get the government to do my laundry."

                      [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £4.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                        16.05.2010 14:41
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                        The damning truths behind the Iraq War revealed

                        "I couldn't believe that virtually no member of Congress had read the Patriot Act before voting on it. So I decided that the only patriotic thing to do was for me to read it to them."

                        Two years after hitting the world with "Bowling for Columbine", controversial filmmaker Michael Moore's devastating examination of a United States kept in a permanent state of fear with easy access to guns, he examines President George W. Bush: his rise to power, his time in government, the reasons behind warring with Iraq, and his family's links with Osama Bin Laden.

                        You what?

                        After Bush controversially won (or stole) the 2001 election against Al Gore, he was looking a pretty duff and useless president, taking lengthy vacation breaks and even having his limo pelted with eggs during his inauguration.

                        In one way or another it could be said that the 9/11 terrorist attacks against New York's Twin Towers helped him in securing face with the American public, coming to the rescue as a president of war who would lead America into battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan in their search for the perpetrator known as Osama Bin Laden.

                        Little did the public know of course, Bin Laden's extended Saudi family were being quickly flown out of the country so that they wouldn't receive any backlash from the American people.

                        Why did the Bush Administration care so much about the Bin Laden family?

                        Surely they should be kept in the US and interrogated to find out where Osama Bin Laden might be hiding?

                        But then, the Bush and Bin Laden families are great friends and business partners in the oil trade, so they obviously get some special privileges, and then wouldn't it be nice to sort out Saddam Hussein, kill two birds with one stone, and send their own business contractors into Iraq to take control of their oil fields?

                        Obviously the American people and the world wouldn't support the US if they just marched into Iraq unannounced, so false links with Osama had to be dreamt up, as did the promise of weapons of mass destruction, and hook line and sinker, with the media helping once again to generate as much fear as possible, Bush was in with the people and in with the oil.

                        By this point, the nearly 3,000 people that had died on September 11th 2001 had all but been forgotten, Osama and the WMDs were nowhere to be found, and Iraq was in a state of anarchy and still is today.

                        This is "Fahrenheit 9/11", a complex and damning documentary that reveals truths the world must learn from to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

                        Taking its title from Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451" and obviously the 9/11 attacks, "Fahrenheit 9/11" paints a picture of the US that resembles an Orwellian 1984 more than any kind of democratic country.

                        But while the fear perpetuated by the media continues as a theme in both movies, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a very different film to "Bowling for Columbine".

                        "...Columbine" was an exploration of the American people, a chance for Michael Moore to go out onto the streets and research why US citizens are as they are and figure out why the country's level of gun crime was so high.

                        "Fahrenheit 9/11" on the other hand is much less an exploration and more like a dissertation on George W. Bush and the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, a much more complex treatise that doesn't have the similar humour or set pieces.

                        The fact that even Moore finds it difficult to find any humour in his subject shows us how strongly he feels about the injustice done here.

                        There are some truly heartbreaking scenes, especially in some of the interviews, and the story of Lila Lipscomb is a saddening look into an American family broken by the Iraq war.

                        From her initial grand patriotism and support for her son in the US military, she is destroyed when he is killed on duty in Iraq, and in a truly moving scene where she visits the White House she breaks down in tears, terribly angry with a pointless war and a useless government.

                        Unlike its predecessor, "Fahrenheit 9/11" hardly has Michael Moore onscreen and he mostly narrates, only rarely popping up now and again from behind the camera, and his only real stunt is trying to recruit US congressmen's sons and daughters to join the army.

                        It isn't an easy film to watch by any means and is hard hitting in every way - what is missing is the humour of Moore's previous efforts, gone is the satire and instead we are left with bare, cold, horrible truths.

                        Its focus is unrelenting and very few get away unscathed, if any, and it's a film that definitely needed to be made.

                        "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive."

                        [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £4.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                          13.05.2010 23:55
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                          An excellent documentary that reveals the true nature of America

                          "The pen is mightier than the sword. But you always must keep a sword handy for when the pen fails."

                          A year after the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York that brought down the Twin Towers, Michael Moore released his third theatrical documentary and his most successful film critically to date: "Bowling for Columbine".

                          Describing a country in outright fear, the film focuses on America's love of guns and why the proportion of firearm-related deaths in the US is much higher than in any other country.

                          As a backdrop and Moore's main reason behind asking this question is related to the film's title: why did two students at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado take it upon themselves to massacre friends and teachers alike on April 20th 1999 before turning the guns on themselves?

                          What sort of society and upbringing could have led to such an event happening, and why is it America especially that suffers from these sorts of tragedies?

                          Through skilled editing, narration, interviews and set pieces, Michael Moore's thesis is both interesting and entertaining as he dissects the main issues, tackling the problem from all sides and asking questions very few have dared to ask.

                          Essentially, it is quite a fascinating issue, the old American stereotype of the 'shoot first, ask questions later' attitude that seems to sum up what the US is about, but where does it stem from?

                          As Moore compares the US with Canada, Canada watches the same violent films, plays the same violent video games, listens to Marilyn Manson, has millions upon millions of guns (being a country built on hunting), and even keeps its front doors unlocked, but still only suffers 165 gun-related deaths a year, compared with 11,127 in the US.

                          It appears to be a conditioning of fear brought on by the US media and shows like "Cops" that keep the people scared and trigger-happy.

                          A group that takes a real bashing in the film, partly responsible for this reign of fear, is the National Rifle Association (the NRA) along with its then president Charlton Heston, whose subsequent rally in Colorado merely a week or so after the massacre was blasted by critics for its poor taste in timing.

                          The shot of Heston lifting his rifle in the air and proclaiming "From my cold dead hands!" is a horrific scene of an ultra gun nut.

                          What really does it, however, is the now-famous interview led by Michael Moore with Heston at his home in LA, where the documentary-maker tries to get the old movie star to apologise for the rally, only to have Moses shuffle away from the interview, obviously horrified by where the line of questioning had gone.

                          As Heston walks away from Moore's questions, trying his best to ignore him, it'll change your view of Heston forever.

                          Then there's the South Park-inspired history lesson entitled "A Brief History of the United States of America", an animated short that looks at possible reasons as to why and how this embedded American fear came about, including big arm nudges towards the links between the NRA and the KKK.

                          But what is really harrowing and is the key to "Bowling for Columbine" is in the examination of the Columbine High School Massacre itself.

                          A lengthy scene has us watching the black and white CCTV camera footage as the gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stomp around the school, firing off their weapons as we watch, unable to help.

                          Masses of students in the cafeteria area instinctively dive for cover under the chairs and tables, desperate to get out of the line of fire as the merciless young men wage war.

                          Having just come from bowling club earlier in the day, what had made them snap?

                          Meeting up with two of the survivors that still have bullets lodged in their bodies, Michael Moore takes the fight to Wall Mart, an American brand of supermarket that sells bullets behind the counter as Tesco does aspirin and paracetamol.

                          Now fitting snugly into his documentary style of sweet-natured charm with sometimes-bouts of won't-back-down arguing, Michael Moore sometimes plays the fool in order to try and provoke a response, which in some respects can make him seem quite cocky and Borat-like in style.

                          However, Moore pieces the film together expertly, utilising a true focus for him to tackle rather than the meandering of "The Big One" which was really all over the place.

                          "Bowling for Columbine" is much more polished than '89's "Roger & Me", as you might expect, and is an excellent watch, from the comparisons of the US to other countries across the world, to Moore opening a bank account and getting a free gun, to his tragic interview with cinema great Charlton Heston.

                          Winner of 2003's Academy Award for Best Documentary, the win is probably best remembered for Moore using his acceptance speech to have a rant against the Iraq War.

                          While Moore is endlessly controversial in his approach, "Bowling for Columbine" is an excellent watch and a real must-see, so if you haven't yet had the pleasure, I would advise you to do so.

                          "If more guns make people safer, then America would be one of the safest countries in the world. It isn't."

                          [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £4.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                          • The Big One (DVD) / Documentary / 50 Readings / 50 Ratings
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                            10.05.2010 18:31
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                            Michael Moore's second feature-length documentary

                            "If it's just about profit, why doesn't General Motors sell crack?"

                            Outspoken socialist Michael Moore is about to go on tour of America to promote the release of his new book "Downsize This!", so he takes his film crew along for the ride to document the trip and to record his interviews and stage talks as he goes.

                            This is the premise for Moore's third film, his second feature-length documentary after 1989's "Roger & Me" and two years after the release of "Canadian Bacon".

                            As he explains at the beginning of the movie, he's been out of work and can't get a job, so he decided to write a book instead (as most people would do) and managed to get it published by Random House who go and send him on an author tour of America.

                            Out on the tour he meets all sorts of people, talking to the common workers and hearing their problems, encountering strikes and downsizing, all the while trying to take action against the corporate big shots by forcing his way into their company buildings and trying to secure interviews with the guys upstairs.

                            This is interspersed with Moore narrating and now and again taking to the stage and giving crowds his opinions and insights into the current state of affairs in America.

                            His biggest success comes towards the end of the movie when he gets to come face to face with Phil Knight, the CEO for Nike, a company that makes all of its shoes in Indonesia using a poor, young workforce (some workers are as young as fourteen).

                            What Michael Moore does well in his films is to offer an interesting point of view and to put his ideas forward in an entertaining way - the viewer is never confused by the state of affairs, they are explained in layman's terms and the injustice of many of the situations is plainly revealed for all to see.

                            It is an America we are not supposed to see, and "The Big One" is a good follow-up to "Roger & Me", which revealed General Motor's reasons for downsizing their car production plants in Flint, Michigan.

                            However, unlike "Roger & Me", "The Big One" is quite unfocussed and doesn't have the same drive as the former, nor does it have the overarching purpose that drives his later films like "Bowling for Columbine" or "Sicko".

                            Instead, it is a bit of a mish-mash of events that took place during Michael Moore's book tour, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, because ultimately we are getting a good range of emotions and energies across the whole of the United States.

                            We can see that people are in similar situations across the wide country, where large corporations that boast massive profits are cutting their workforce and moving their production elsewhere, often to poorer countries, in order to save money and increase profits even more so, all in the name of benefiting the shareholders.

                            As the shareholders line their pockets, America's main workforce suffers: crime, suicide and alcoholism increases alongside the ruin of healthcare and social values.

                            No other film-maker has really brought these problems in the US to a worldwide audience, so in this way Michael Moore is a true credit.

                            There are, of course, issues with sensationalising to make the biggest possible impact and to make a successful movie, as is the way with documentaries, but "The Big One" is interesting and solid in its depiction of America.

                            If Michael Moore had gone out with a proper mission and purpose, rather than filming a bunch of stuff that happened along the way, maybe this film would have been better.

                            [The DVD can be purchased from PlayTrade at play.com for £3.11 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                            • Canadian Bacon (DVD) / DVD / 27 Readings / 27 Ratings
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                              09.05.2010 18:14
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                              A very average, light-comedy with a low-key Michael Moore message

                              "It's time we put America back in North America!"

                              After rising to fame due to his first directorial effort: 1989's "Roger & Me", a documentary that focussed on General Motor's CEO Roger Smith who downsized the company's production plants in Flint, Michigan, forcing many of the thousands of workers into poverty, Michael Moore didn't do much for several years.

                              In 1995, Moore released "Canadian Bacon", a film he had written, produced and directed, a project he had really struggled to get off the ground, and currently it is his only non-documentary film.

                              Other than being Michael Moore's only wholly fictional film, it was also the last film to be released for comedy great John Candy.

                              "There's a time to think and a time to act, and this gentlemen is no time to think!"

                              The President of the United States (Alan Alda) has a problem: his peaceful policies have kept the country safe and out of war, but arms companies have subsequently not been making profits and have had to downsize their plants.

                              Facing rebuke from a country that is slowly but surely finding itself out of work, he calls on advisors Stu Smiley (Kevin Pollack) and General Dick Panzer (Rip Torn) to come up with a way to make him popular again.

                              Their suggestion?

                              Start a fake war with their friendly neighbour Canada, smearing the press with propaganda to get the American people really worked up and to get the factories spewing out weapons again.

                              Stationed at Niagra Falls, within sight of Canada's border, is US Sheriff Bud Boomer (John Candy) with his deputy: the gun-toting Honey (Rhea Perlman), who spend their day making sure suicidal Roy Boy (Kevin J. O'Connor) and factory-worker Kabral (Bill Nunn) keep out of trouble.

                              Seeing it as their American duty to help attack Canada, the four set off in a small rowing boat across the water to do a spot of sabotage.

                              In the heat of the moment of meeting two mounties, Boomer, Roy and Kabral accidentally leave Honey behind enemy lines.

                              Now they have to infiltrate the peaceful Canadian community and make their way to Toronto to save their friend, while the President has problems of nuclear proportions to deal with.

                              "Surrender pronto, or we'll level Toronto."

                              If you're familiar with Michael Moore's work, then it is quite easy to pick out his articulate satirical ideas in "Canadian Bacon", having a go at corporate America and the presidency alike and calling upon his experiences with General Motors for his inspiration.

                              The downsizing of workers and the closing of plants closely resembles his work in "Roger & Me", and this is almost an outlandish fictional account of what could have happened with Flint.

                              It was probably over ten years ago now when I went through a phase of trying to watch all of John Candy's films, relishing in the likes of "Uncle Buck" and "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" but also subjecting myself to "Nothing But Trouble" and "Cannonball Fever".

                              At the time, "Canadian Bacon" was just another light comedy that had no real effect on me - I was too young to see the relevance to any everyday situation, and to anyone not knowing Michael Moore's background that would not be surprising.

                              Yet John Candy is truly the star of the show here, rather than any real point Michael Moore is trying to get across.

                              As Sheriff Bud Boomer, he is a sweet-natured, bumbling, dim-witted policeman who follows his gut no matter what - Candy was great in these low-key comedy character roles.

                              John Candy would go on to make "Wagons East!" after this but died of a heart attack half-way through production at the young age of 43 - a terrible loss of talent.

                              Rhea Perlman, best known for her role as Carla in the long-running TV series "Cheers", plays a very similar character here - think Carla armed with an automatic rifle.

                              Honey is a one-woman army who is fixated on bringing down Toronto's CN Tower, and she will stop at nothing to fight her way there.

                              At the opposite end of the hierarchy is Alan Alda as the useless US President who starts a fake war with Canada.

                              Alda gives a solid performance in the role, but is nothing special, playing off Kevin Pollack and Rip Torn effectively but never really delivering any big laughs.

                              Whether this is down to scripting issues or not, "Canadian Bacon" isn't really that funny, even though the storyline is fairly original and there's a number of famous American and Canadian faces in the production, including cameos from Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Wallace Shawn and Steven Wright.

                              The best of the cast is easily John Candy, whose scene interrogating an elderly couple who look after one of Canada's hydro-electric plants is hilarious, ominously dunking a biscuit into his freshly brewed tea and warning the old lady to leave her sharp knitting needles alone in case she uses them as a weapon.

                              Ultimately then, "Canadian Bacon" is a fairly average movie that gains in relevance the more you watch Michael Moore's other work.

                              On its own, however, this is a light-comedy for John Candy fans only.

                              [The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £3.99 (at time of writing), including postage and packing]

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                            • Iron Man 2 (DVD) / DVD / 44 Readings / 42 Ratings
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                              09.05.2010 13:59
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                              A poor sequel to a great movie

                              [A review of the film only]

                              For me, the original "Iron Man" has taken its place as probably one of my most re-watched films of recent years, not because I can't get enough of it, but rather because housemates and others discover that someone else we know has never seen it, so "Iron Man" must then be popped into the DVD player almost immediately.

                              It seems you can't go through life without experiencing Iron Man, so we sit back and enjoy a little Tony Stark with plenty of wisecracks and explosions along the way.

                              "Sir, I'm gonna have to ask you to exit the doughnut."

                              The original "Iron Man" released a couple of years ago introduced us to the main character of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), famous playboy and billionaire, owner of weapons manufacturing corporation Stark Industries, who is captured by terrorists and promptly escapes by designing and building his first Iron Man prototype.

                              We see the building of his first Iron Man suit, a beastly, colossal machine armed to the teeth with high tech weaponry, and when back in America it's all about how he struggles to keep the machinery out of the wrong hands.

                              In the closing moments of the first film, in unconventional superhero style, Stark revealed his identity to the world as Iron Man and becomes an icon and nuclear deterrent as a souped-up vigilante.

                              Six months later, however, somewhere in Russia, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is the son of Stark senior's now-dead business partner who has the building know-how to construct a similar suit.

                              This one, however, is armed with electrical whips and he wants revenge for his father for not getting a share in the company and for living in obscurity for most of his life.

                              When Vanko attacks Stark at an F1 race in Europe, rival arms dealer and businessman Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees this as his chance to get an upper hand in the new arms race and takes the villain under his wing.

                              Now that it appears his technology has got out of his control, Stark must face battles on all sides, from friends and enemies alike, but just who are the strange, always-in-the-background Avengers led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and what do they really want?

                              "I have successfully privatised world peace."

                              What made "Iron Man" a successful superhero movie was that it was a cool and enjoyable origins tale, utilising technology rather than generic super powers, to develop a playboy billionaire into a heroic figure.

                              Robert Downey Jr's performance is a memorable one, showing off wit and charm, creating a likeable rogue that exploits the people around him, playing a perfect anti-hero.

                              In "Iron Man 2", he slips right back into the mould, but as is the way with superhero sequels we now have no origins story to enjoy here - that tale has already been told.

                              This is why the character development for Stark in this film is minimal, and while he has witty one liners attributed to the Stark character but he doesn't really make much of an on-screen impact.

                              In my plot-synopsis above, I didn't even need to mention Stark's love-interest Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) or his best friend the army lieutenant Rhodey (Don Cheadle), because they pretty much drift in and out of the movie, have little effect and weren't particularly that interesting.

                              The character of Rhodey was previously played by Terence Howard in "Iron Man", so the change to Don Cheadle doesn't really make much sense, and while I really like Cheadle he's never really given the opportunity here to light up the screen.

                              Probably the best character in this sequel is Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, a loaded smarmy businessman who will do anything he can to get the better of Tony Stark.

                              He pretty much replaces the Obadiah Stane character played by Jeff Bridges in the original movie, and Rockwell plays Hammer with relish, stealing nearly every scene he's in.

                              Mickey Rourke, on the other hand, as the villain with a taste for revenge, fails to add much gravitas to the proceedings, mumbling his lines in a heavy Russian accent to the point of rarely understanding a single thing he's saying.

                              Although he looks pretty cool with his big electrical whips, slicing up F1 cars along a racetrack, he really doesn't get a chance to try out any proper acting - he doesn't even get the chance to ham it up, something the character sorely needed!

                              This leaves Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, whose extended talking scenes have no real bearing on "Iron Man 2" and feel like they've just been inserted so as to set up the character for the future multi-superhero "Avengers" extravaganza down the line.

                              There's even a very brief scene at the end of the credits that links the film to the forthcoming "Thor", but it was hardly worth waiting around for.

                              Character-wise, "Iron Man 2" falls flat on its face, because there are really too many extra personalities here to use, none of which are particularly interesting, so the focus that should be on Tony Stark and Ivan Vanko is pushed to the sidelines - the whole revenge plot should have been the key focus and motivation in a similar vein to Batman and the Joker from "The Dark Knight", so it's a big opportunity that's been missed.

                              The on-screen CGI, also, isn't particularly good, where scenes with Iron Man and War Machine (aka Rhodey in a suit) look ultra unrealistic, especially the fight at Stark's house and the silly overblown finale.

                              It's nowhere near as good as the fight with the behemoth mechanical Stane at the end of the first film.

                              The only good things about "Iron Man 2" are really Sam Rockwell, a couple of AC/DC tracks that were used to good effect, and the scene at the racetrack, otherwise I found the two-hour film quite boring and ineffective as a sequel.

                              See it if you liked the first film but don't expect wonders.

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                              • How To Train Your Dragon (DVD) / DVD / 68 Readings / 63 Ratings
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                                04.05.2010 23:34
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                                A fantastic, funny and brilliant-looking animation

                                [A review of the film only]

                                DreamWorks Animation have been producing a steady stream of computer-generated animations since 1998 with "Antz", their excellent take on the bug story, ever-challenging Pixar for the top spot and throne for best animated productions.

                                Even with "Shrek", "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda" to the studio's name, DreamWorks has never been able to quite reach the heights cinematically of Pixar with its "Toy Story", "Monsters Inc.", "WALL-E" and "Up".

                                Not only is the animation of Pixar better, but the stories themselves have much more to them, much more lasting appeal.

                                "How to Train Your Dragon" is DreamWorks' latest effort, and while it may well be the best thing they've ever produced, and it's a hugely enjoyable romp from start to finish, it does not quite reach the epic proportions of "WALL-E".

                                Or does it?

                                "Everything we know about you guys is wrong."

                                Berk is a Viking stronghold led by the mighty chief known as Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), and it is constantly under threat from swarms of dragons of all shapes and sizes, terrible fire-breathing beasts that burn down houses and steal livestock.

                                One night as the dragons attack and the big, burly Vikings run to their battle stations, Stoick's young and extraordinarily-weedy son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), apprenticed to one-armed, one-legged blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson), breaks curfew and takes up arms with his newly designed slingshot and manages to take down one of the mighty beasts flying through the sky.

                                However, no one sees it happen, and no one will believe him.

                                In the morning, when the attack is over, Hiccup goes into the forest in search of the felled dragon and finds it injured.

                                Unable to do his Viking duty and kill it, he instead helps it to recuperate, names it Toothless, and discovers that dragons aren't the horrible monsters he had been led to believe.

                                But the Vikings of Berk are set in their ways, and Chief Stoick decides to set off on a quest to find and destroy the dragon nest, while his son is to enrol in a school that specialises in killing dragons.

                                Little do they know, however, there is a much bigger threat than just the dragons raiding their town.

                                A MUCH bigger threat.

                                "Your mother would have wanted you to have it. It's half her breastplate."

                                "How to Train Your Dragon" is the third film I have now seen in 3D at the cinema after "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland", and the same old issues I have with the glasses and the format run true here also.

                                The glasses themselves, while not particularly uncomfortable, still drown out a noticeable amount of on-screen colour, which is disappointing for an animation like this when you want to be able to appreciate the full vibrancy of the picture.

                                In fact, there were several points where I decided to completely remove the glasses because I wanted to see the true colours, but then I had to put up with the intentional fuzziness every so often that marks the 3D.

                                Sometimes you can't win.

                                The 3D effects, the lessening of the colour and the darkening of the screen due to the glasses is particularly off-putting, especially in the opening at-night battle scene, all three of these issues making it difficult to discern exactly what is going on.

                                However, I have to say that the 3D does work in places, but I would probably have preferred to have been able to see it in 2D instead.

                                The film itself, however, is excellent.

                                Fantastic in scope and scale with some superb scenes of flying through the air, I find myself comparing it to Studio Ghibli in that exhilarating fashion with films like "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke".

                                Hey, we may have seen the simple storyline and archetypal character relationships before, and I found it very reminiscent of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs", but here there is a correct balance of comedy and drama, all set to a beautifully realised and fantastically animated world.

                                The characters all look really good, especially the Viking Chief Stoick with his grandiose red beard, and the voice acting for the most part is spot on.

                                Famous "300" Spartan Gerard Butler voices Stoick with that broad Scottish accent of his, and his character of the wise, burly leader who only wishes his son had grown some muscles, is something he easily slips into.

                                Meanwhile, Jay Baruchel voices Hiccup, the nerdy young Viking ill-proportioned to fight dragons who fancies the girl way out of his league.

                                Baruchel's voice is a bit out of place against Butler's heavy accent, and it sounds like it's constantly breaking, but at least it makes him sound more geeky so this is only a very small gripe.

                                So how come this film deserves five stars?

                                After all, some of the character voices grated, the underlying story is unoriginal and very easy to predict, and the 3D got in the way more than anything else.

                                However, "How to Train Your Dragon" looks fantastic and is hugely enjoyable with a witty script and good, solid characters.

                                And then there's the dragons themselves.

                                Ranging from long, snaking lizards, to great bumble-bee like fire-breathers, DreamWorks have not limited themselves here to the classic design and each and every one has its own personality and background.

                                Toothless, the injured young dragon Hiccup nurtures back to health, is a bubbly, friendly character all its own, and makes for an amusing and unusual pet - it was a very good idea not to let the dragons have voices as this would most likely have spoilt it.

                                With its large, immersive world and soaring musical score, I lost myself in "How to Train Your Dragon" - it is certainly not just a film for the kids, it is something everyone can enjoy, just as animations like this should be.

                                So while it might not have the epic longevity or important-feel of "WALL-E", it is fantastic entertainment I will certainly be searching out when it hits DVD.

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