Sunday, 11 February 2018

Wing Commander - A Film Retrospective

Ah, Wing Commander. For those of you who were PC gamers in the early to mid-90's, Wing Commander may evoke deep feelings of nostalgia for space combat games, complex story telling and full motion video acting. Whilst the first and second games used traditional animation to convey the story, games 3 and 4 brought in real, honest-to-goodness actors, notably Mark Hamill, John Rhys Davies and Malcolm McDowall. That and the increase in quality of 3D animation meant that the fourth game had a budget of $12 million, most of it for the cutscenes shot using both traditional and virtual sets using greenscreens. The was serious money for a computer game back then!

The success of the series, and the fact that by the late 90's, several of the titles had been ported to home consoles and there were spin off computer games, meant that there was much thought given about a jump to the cinema screen. When Chris Roberts, creator, director and producer of the games series decided he wanted his games production company Digital Anvil to move into film production, Wing Commander had its big screen debut.

Got to love the marketing blurb!
And remember, this is a family friendly film too...
The film version of Wing Commander was released in 1999 and Digital Anvil not only produced the film but also provided the CGI for the film. The story was removed from the existing game lore and all of the roles were either re-cast with younger actors or created from scratch for the film. The budget was a relatively modest $30 million and, prior to release, it had all of the hallmarks of a decent time filler. Then people saw the final film.

Principal photography was completed in Luxembourg and an above average number of British actors; Saffron Burrows, David Warner, David Suchet, Simon MacCorkindale, Hugh Quarshie and many lesser known names join Jurgen Prochnow, Tcheky Karyo, alongside Freddie Prinze Jr and Matthew Lillard.

That Prinze Jr and Lillard headline the film should be cause for concern. Whilst they worked very well together in Scooby Doo (hell, their casting was a minor work of genius!), their acting styles are poorly suited for this film and it's plain to see that their acting abilities were not at the top of the list of reasons why they were cast. Lillard gives his usual one note slacker performance whilst Prinze Jr lacks the acting chops to give his character any gravitas. This is evident when he is supposed to look all moody and thoughtful and ends up looking like he's forgotten is credit card pin number. Still, they don't sink the film by themselves.

Most of the rest of the cast look bored, like they know they are in a crap film but at least the cheque has cleared so they might as well make as best they can of the situation. Suchet is wasted (as in underused, not sloshed!), a sub-plot about treason is jettisoned from the film (but is a full plot point in the novelisation of the film), and he ends up getting conked on the head and carried off. I swear he has a smile on his face when that happens. Prochnow gives it his all, proving once again that whilst his (unearned) reputation as a journeyman actor is evidenced here, he is good value for money and hey, the guy's gotta earn a living! He is at least giving it some welly! Burrows has another mis-cast role, she really can't play the hard-ass (but with a soft centre) commanding officer who slowly comes to appreciate Prinze Jr's character. By the way, that characterisation continues to the group of fighter pilots under her command: one is portrayed as a bastard just because he smokes in a mean fashion, smirks at the lead and has a scar. That is the depth of his character.

It's not all bad, acting wise. Ginny Holder has a ball as the proto love interest for Lillard until an unfortunate crash landing (that's the Top Gun link on the DVD case!) and David Warner serenely occupies the screen , head held high, with the while thing beneath him. For him, he accepts the cheque has cleared and he knows he is a professional. Quarshie is shirt-changed but good value anyway, whilst Simon "Manimal" MacCorkindale is a blink and you'll miss him Deck Boss.

So, we know the cast got paid, but what about the rest of the film?

The CGI was passable at the time (think about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, much higher budget, similarly ropey visuals today!) and the sets weren't too bad. The fighter cockpits were taken from old English Electric Lightning frames and these shaped the CGI design of the complete fighter which, to be honest, look kinda naff. Iconic ship designs, they are not. The same can be said for the Kilrathi, the feline aliens bent on destroying humanity. Roberts was never happy with the look and the sets were completed before the look was locked down, leading to overly tall costumes and a cramped, stooped  appearance. Human costumes were another sign of penny pinching, looking cheap and ill-fitting and I swear that the hat and jumper combo was in a boyband music video sometime in the 90's. 

Then there is the tone of the film. It essentially wants to be a World War 2 movie, with screaming dive bombers (in space!), tense U-boat style hunts (including "pings", depth charges and ship to ship torpedoes - if you want to see how that should be done, try Prochnow's career defining role in Das Boot), and a bombastic fighter pilot story on an pseudo aircraft carrier (Top Gun again - btw, the Starship Troopers link from the DVD cover is the fighter pilot as elite combat troops doing a ship boarding set piece - yeah, like highly trained pilots would be used as grunts! - I am looking at you, Space: Above and Beyond!). Seriously though, when Ginny Holder's character, Rosie, dies after her damaged fighter hits the carrier a tad too hard, the wreckage is removed by a tractor with a plough. In space. With no gravity. Sigh.

The problem here is that Roberts wants an old fashioned war movie, dark and gritty, but as it's in space, there are a few, in no way minor, practical differences that can't be glossed over. That and the low budget, poor cinematography and PG rating means that it comes off looking amateurish and crap.

And yet, Wing Commander remains a guilty pleasure. Sure, it's cheesy, loud and brash, lacking subtlety, but you can see that some people were putting the effort in (as mentioned above), Karyo in particular attacks each scene like he's in a totally different film and mention must be made of David Arnold's score, which is typically good for that period of his career. 

I know, I have panned this film, but that doesn't mean to say it does not have its place in the world as a dumb, mindless sci-fi film. Indeed, the so-bad-it's-good card comes into play here and I have found myself laughing at so called serious moments where reality is well and truly put to one side. If you haven't seen this film yet, grab a few cans of lager/bottle of wine/whatever your favourite tipple is, and sit back and enjoy. As a Friday night chillout film, this one is hard to beat.

So, what are your thought? Have you seen Wing Commander? Played the games? Let me know in the comments.



Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Clue

I don't know about you, but there are times when I see a film and it grabs me. Be it the story, the cast or the style, there is something about the film that captivates me and it ends up being one that I can watch again and again. Clue is one of them.

Clue is a film based on the boardgame of the same name (at least for Americans, we call it Cluedo). Unlike the gameshow of the eary 90's, \clue aims mo for comedy through a mix of physical and wordplay gags. Unsuccessful during its original 1985 cinema run, the film gained a wider appreciation upon home video release and is genuinely a cult classic today. (It would have helped that all three endings were included in the home release whereas cinema-goers were shown only on of the three, selected at random for each theatre).

What makes it a continued favourite (and eminently quotable) is the combination of smart script and note prefect cast. The ensemble works fantastically well together and you get the impression they had great fun during filming.
Despite being third choice for the role (Leonard Rossiter passed away before filming and Rowan Atkinson was considered too unknown at the time), Tim Curry not only anchors the film but drives it forward with energy and zeal that would be difficult to match. From eye poppingly zany re-enactments to bouncing round the immaculately furnished set like Zebedee on speed, Curry switches from deadly seriousness to scenery chewing ravings at the drop of a hat (or chandelier), and looks ready to give a nod and a wink to the camera at every turn. Rarely was he given such roles but he nails this perfectly and it's a shame that he never got to show more of that side of his acting. That is not to say that the rest of the cast are not equally great in their own ways.

Lesley Anne Warren vamps it right up as Miss Scarlett, relishing every line she has. Martin Mull is the steady but slightly dim-witted Colonel Mustard, the great Madeline Kahn (who shall be forever remembered for Blazing Saddles - it's twue, it's twue), plays serial wife Mrs White and Eileen Brennan gives an on-edge performance as Mrs Peacock. Christopher Lloyd plays Professor Plum in a restrained performance, unlike most of his film roles, and it is to his credit that he gives this the lightest of touches. Finally, Michael McKean, as Mr Green, adds neuroses and a touch of camp to the proceedings. The supporting cast, mostly bit parts with a handful of lines each, play it mostly straight, Bill Henderson as the police officer probably getting the best of it.

The plot is straight forward enough, several strangers meet at a remote house after receiving mysterious invitations and soon discover that they are all being blackmailed by Mr Boddy. He is quickly bumped off and what follows is farcical but extremely funny, albeit with a macabre sense of humour - by the time the fourth body is dropped off into the lounge, there is an air of resignation about the group, that what should have been shocking is now just routine.

Even though I have seen this film north of a dozen times, it's an easy watch and every now and again, quotes are traded at home. It's a shame that it didn't perform well upon its original cinematic release but with the recent announcement that Ryan Reynolds is headlining a remake with the scriptwriters of Deadpool in tow, there is hope that they keep the tone of the original, even if they update the story and the setting. By no means a cinematic classic, Clue has, and continues to entertain, which means it has surely done its job.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Hard Sun - TV Review

Every once in a while, one of the mainstream UK television networks tries its hand at science fiction. Sometimes, these can be successful (I am thinking season three of Torchwood), yet many times, they fall more than a little flat (pretty much anything on ITV, they always seem to either go kiddie safe or full on mopey drama). That's not to say they shouldn't keep trying and here comes the BBC with a Hulu co-operation: Hard Sun.

Before I go any further, beware, there are going to be spoilers so if you are watching the series on BBC One, beware. However, since it was also full released in BBC iPlayer, you can do what I did and get through all six episodes over a couple of nights.

So, the premise is pre-apocalyptic, the sun is going to kill us in five years, humanity and all life on earth. This knowledge is being tightly controlled until a hacker steals the data and promptly falls off the top of a tower block, triggering the involvement of out two protagonists: DCI Charlie Hicks (played by Jim Sturgess) and DI Elaine Renko (played by Agyness Deyn). From this point, the show becomes a standard cop show with some conspiracy theory leanings, the sci-fi angle is a macguffin that essentially exists to motivate the cast. And what a set of characters we have: Hicks is a rotten person, he steals from the underworld, is suspected of killing his former partner (who Renko has replaced), has a pregnant wife with a daughter and is also sleeping with his late partner's widow. Yep, he literally has no redeeming features - even the displays of love for his unborn child are tempered by the extra-marital activity. Renko has been secretly given another chance to prove herself by investigating Hicks on behalf of the departments head, DCS Roland Bell. She also has a teenage son, the result of a rape attack when she was a teen, who is severely mentally ill and has extreme issues with her. These two are not the best examples of modern Metropolitan Police recruitment and it's hard to think of many shows with main characters that are so completely f**ked up. Sturgess plays Hicks as if he wants to be the next strongman of Eastenders and Deyn, all vulnerable yet handy with a baton, gets to show her acting chops well. The dialogue does let them down though, all hard-boiled, over-wrought and hyperbolic.

The supporting characters are much more likeable: the standouts being sarkey DS Mishal Ali (with a decent Geordie accent) and blokey Welshman DS Keith Greener. There is a pretty much even coverage of the countries and regions of Britain in the unit and smacks too much of quota filling - even so, whilst not overly realistic, the characters themselves are pretty well rounded.

Once we get out of the info dump of episode one, setting up the premise and the characters, episode two switches from conspiracy mode to "nutter of the week" territory, neatly destroying the urgency and paranoia of the first outing. Episodes three and four cover one nutter (so "nutter of the fortnight"), Five covers Renko's son and the need to take on the almost ever present security services, and Episode Six rounds off the series by a game of cat and mouse between the duo and Security Service agent Grace Morrigan (a lovely controlled and meticulous Nikki Amuka-Bird) as well as a second plot strand about missing people - it turns out a cancer victim is taking people to be happy then forcefully lobotomising them. That particular story has a couple of stand outs - one, if you have any fear of something getting in your eye, this episode is not for you, and two, Gotham actor Anthony Carrigan plays the cancer victim, Mr Weiss who, we thought when he first appeared, had walked off the set of Fringe, pale, hairless and wearing a black suit. For one second, we thought cross-over!!! Sadly, it wasn't to be.

Most of the plots strands are tied up by the end, Hicks admits to Renko that he did kill his partner, it's hinted the the DCS was in love with the dead-partner, hence the fight to get Renko to nail Hicks to the crime, Renko and her son start the basis of a relationship that means he doesn't try to kill her and then there is the ending... (I'll get to that lower down).

As I said above, the series was released in one go on iPlayer and I am pleased it was. I don't think I would have stayed with the show for six weeks. The problem? Pacing. That familiar problem of pacing. I can see why they have six episodes, and theme wise, they work well and are well made, but each episode is 50 to 60 minutes long and there are far too many dramatic pauses, long shots, etc that act as just filler. The music is quite good, though when you get harsh sun glare shots, there is always an ominous note, and that gets a bit wearing after the fifth or sixth time in an episode. The opening credits, too, are distinct and stylish, even if they do steal a bit from the new Star Trek: Discovery show, even down to the Michelangelo hands shot.

Now, the ending - the last five minutes of Episode Six vex me. Why? Because at the very end, we realise the Powers That Be have lied, that Hard Sun wasn't five years away, and that it is starting now. A shot of the sun, a giant flare swinging out to one side, captivates everyone who sees it. And then that's it. So everything MI5 have done, the killing, the chasing, all of that was for no point. If the PTB already knew this, why the five years deadline anyway? It feels a cheat by the writer, a shock ending that finishes the story with a final exclamation mark. Much like the "one month later" note at the start of episode two, this feels like a con. This show could have continued for a coupe of years, much like Millennium, which was the vibe we got during the middle episodes, yet no, it's had its six ep run and there you go. Maybe there might be more, the series doesn't air in the US until March but I doubt it. If I were to mark this out of ten, I'd say 5 - average.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Of Things To Come - 2018

So, here we are, firmly into 2018, with a couple of blog posts already done and more to come. This is a good start, for me, anyway!

The aim this year is to post more frequently and more regularly, adding book, film, game and music reviews, with retrospectives in those areas as well branch out with a couple of side projects that I'll cover when they get underway. What I can say is that I am looking forward to those and hope you enjoy them too when they come to fruition.

In addition to the above, there should be the usual wargames shows that I hope to attend. Those will be Vapnartak (York - 4th February), Salute (London - 14th April), Carronade (Falkirk - 12th May), Partizan (Newark - 29th May), Durham - date TBC, Claymore (Edinburgh - 5th August) and 2nd Partizan (Newark - 19th August). I hope to add posts about these shows as they happen but that all depends on how much time I have at each. I may try to get to one or two others but that will be at the mercy of spare time.

Of course, alongside the shows, there will be the semi-regular TWATS meetings, details of which will be (semi-)honestly reported (depending on how I do) here as well ;-) I know there is Shinyloo to come first but after that, it's all a mystery - in other words, we decide at the end of one meeting what the next one will be. However, as always, there will be fine ale and victuals on hand. It's not just about the dice rolling - seriously. I would add intellectual conversation, but that could be stretching it a bit - funny, near the knuckle and interesting, but intellectual? Hmmm...

With that, I hope 2018 is a good year for you all and you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it.



Monday, 8 January 2018

A Brace of Phantoms - Book Reviews

I have been a military history buff since I was a child and of all of the periods I have read about, the post World War 2 period is the one that fascinates me the most. True, there are other periods that interest me and I do have an eclectic library but 1945 onwards is my favourite. Recently, I have finished two books in what I call the "Boys" range. This range of titles has covered the Lighting, Jaguar, Buccaneer, Hunter, Vulcan, Victor, Canberra, Meteor, Javelin, Tornado and the V-Force, but for this post, I'll be covering the two volumes printed about the Phantom.


The usual format for the series is that the author acts as a bridge between stories told in the first person by those who flew, operated and worked with each title's selected aircraft. I like this format as although general history books can be good, nothing beats the personal experiences written down by those who were there, no matter what period of history you cover, and in that respect, volume one is very good. The tales are interesting and really do give you an idea as to how effective the so-called high technology of the day actually was (i.e. not very at times - makes you wonder that if the balloon did go up, the winner would have been the man with the last piece of working tech!). As with previous titles, you learn far more about the aircraft and those who flew and fought with them than any technical work and it is fascinating.

However, there is a but here. Whilst volume two continues the interesting tales, the presentation is far different. Rather than first person, the author, Richard Pike, presents each tale in the third person, adding verbose and flowery writing which pads out the book to no real effect. It feels like he is auditioning for a career in fiction rather than presenting the stories of those whose careers featured the Phantom. The style detracts from the feel and at times makes reading the book a chore. The individual tales are worth a read, it's just the telling that doesn't gel. 

Overall though, if you have an interest in late 20th Century military aviation, these are worth a read, as are the rest of the "Boys" series, just beware the style. I am currently reading Meteor Boys and will post a review when it's finished.  

Saturday, 6 January 2018

A Pair of Films

During the Christmas period, I caught up with a couple of films that had been added to Netflix, one that carried a fair bit of expectation and the other that quietly arrived with little fuss (and was all the better for it).

First up, Bright. Starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, Bright posits an alternate world where Elves (upper class), Humans (Middle Class) and Orcs (Lower Class) live together. All is not well, as the heavy handed social commentary would have it and it is with this background that Edgerton plays the first Orc police officer in Los Angeles. Cue the usual mistrust, racism and bigotry. Add to that magic users and you have a smorgasbord of story tropes to fill two hours.

Now I will say that this film has been panned by critics, some labelling it the worst film 2017. That, it is not, in my humble opinion. True, it's not high art, but then it was never meant to be. What it is, however, is a cracking popcorn movie that will do for an evening's entertainment. The story moves at a good pace and the $90 million budget looks well spent on effects (and probably Smith's fee). Acting is average to good. Smith seems to be relying upon the same schtick that has carried him since Independence Day (except a bit more sweary - even with the early morning scene introducing the character), and whilst this is seems as effortless as always, it does feel a little lazy. Edgerton is superb, despite the hindrance of prosthetic make up. He carries the sense of newcomer and outsider well, adding an honour that is missing from much of the human cast. Noomi Rapace is decent but wasted as the Evil of the story, and although she doesn't phone her performance in, the script doesn't give her much to work with. Overall though, it's an entertaining movie that, if you have Netflix, you should give it a go.

Bright, as noted above, has taken a lot of flack and part of that will be down to the nature of its release. No cinema showings for this one as Bright is the start of Netflix's plans to take on movie studios and deliver more of its own content rather than rely upon buying rights to others - an example being the Marvel Cinematic Universe films that Disney have taken back off Netflix in order to launch their own streaming service. As such, Bright is very much a tent-pole release and one that has a lot riding on it. Given a sequel has bee green-lit, we can presume that, despite the critical response, the viewer response has been good enough.

The Foreigner, starring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan, is more of a thriller, telling the story of a Chinese businessman whose daughter is killed by a renegade Irish terrorist attack. What follows is his attempt to find out who committed the attacks and the revenge he seeks.

The film has had quite a decent international cinema release but not in the UK. On a $35 million budget it took $140 million so it was a success. For a UK release though, it's been handled by Netflix which is a shame as it deserves a wider audience.

Chan plays pretty much against type as a 61 year old (which he was at the time of filming) and really gets to show his acting skills. There is a tangible sense of grief and anger as he slowly follows the trail to those who killed his daughter. There are a few fight scenes, and boy, does he get his arse kicked at times, but his character's background is explained well and doesn't take away any of the story. The film also proves that even in his sixties, Chan still can move about.

Pierce Brosnan plays the Northern Ireland Assembly Deputy Leader who previously led the IRA and renounced violence for a political solution - or did he? No plot spoilers but there is enough meat on the story to keep you entertained, even if Brosnan's Northern Irish accent does slip every now and again. The supporting cast are all good and the film ramps up the tension, particularly in the last half hour, to a conclusion that gives a fitting pay-off to all concerned.

If you do have Netflix or can get a free trial, I would certainly recommend The Foreigner.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Star-Raker - A Book Review

Happy New Year, one and all, and welcome back to TIT! I hope you all had a good festive season.

I managed to catch up with some reading and films over Christmas and the New Year, so there'll be a couple of posts coming up about those but for today, I'll be posting a review for Star-Raker by Donald Gordon.
3'6, a bargain???

Bring on the hyperbole!!! :-)
Some of you may recall Gordon's novel, Flight of the Bat which I reviewed last year here. I liked that novel so was looking forward to reading a previous book. It's not a substantial read, I read it over the course of an afternoon, but it was, overall, rather enjoyable in a lightweight way.

Detailing the prototype flights of a revolutionary British supersonic airliner, it promises both drama and technical accuracy when pilots testing the aircraft start to develop cancer, threatening not only the future of the programme but also the company building the plane.

It is very much a piece of its time (1962) and it takes no imagination whatsoever to see how this could have been filmed in that very clipped, emotionally straight-jacketed British cinema style of the time. It makes the characters feel, if not lifeless, then at least somewhere on the spectrum. Even death brings very little emotional response apart from sniffles into a hanky and a turn of the head.

The story itself moves at a rollicking pace and the sub-plot about politics and the Ministry add a depth that is certainly required. It does tie in nicely and whilst the science of the danger posed by the new aircraft (no spoilers though) is suspect, it's a MacGuffin that serves its purpose well even if, in the final pages, it is used to physically disable a main character is a stupid and pointless manner. (Don't worry, that event is signposted earlier on so you know it's going to happen!).

Still, it's worth a read and won't take up too much of your time. Of the two books of Gordon's I have read, I still much prefer Flight of the Bat.

Speaking of the author, whose full name is Donald Gordon Payne, I must make an apology, in that Star-Raker was his fifth novel, not second. Whoops. He enjoyed later success in having one novel optioned by Disney which was later made into "The Island at the Top of the World"and according to the Wikipedia entry for him, the gentleman celebrates his 93rd birthday today.

Many happy returns, Mr Payne, thank you for two (as read so far), entertaining novels!