December 2, 2015

Stand and Deliver (1988)

Maths teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) arrives at a Los Angeles high school. He's supposed to be teaching computing, but repeated budget cuts have left him to teach mathematics to a group of under-achieving rebellious teens. Refusing to give up on a challenge, he decides to not only teach them but push them to excel, facing up against his students, his school principal and the educational testing service on the way.

Stand and Deliver is a 1988 drama directed by Ramón Menéndez, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Musca. In many respects it's a dreadfully clichéd film, replete with corny teen rebels, stereotypical inspirational speeches and training montages. Thankfully in other respects it's a rather uplifting and entertaining work, due to restrained direction, an authenticity of character, and a couple of really great performances in the cast.

At the centre of the film, and acting as its greatest strength, is Edward James Olmos. He plays a character here quite unlike his other works. Escalante is a little awkward, with a bad comb-over and a small physicality. He sort of stumbles and mutters his way through the classes, making embarrassing jokes and pressing the buttons of the class' biggest trouble-makers. He looks all the world like somebody who wouldn't survive a whole day with that class, but Olmos really sells it and makes him into a likeable and inspirational figure. He convinces us that he could turn a class of miscreants and slackers around.

December 1, 2015

Creed (2015)

Halfway through Ryan Coogler's new film Creed there's a scene of a boxing match. The two boxers tap gloves, the bell rings, and they begin to warily circle one another. They start to get in some hits, back and forth. Blood is drawn. Tempers rise. The bell rings, and the boxers go back to their corners to recover and listen to their trainers. They head back out again, punching each other with a fierce brutality.

Somewhere into this scene it becomes apparent that the camera angle hasn't changed. The camera moves fluidly around the ring, from mid-shot to close-up, highlighting the fight, the characters' reactions, the audience and so on, but it's all in a single take. These fighters are getting beaten-up and bruised. There's blood on their faces. That one complex tracking shot just keeps going and going.

The impressive part of the scene is not the technical achievement, although it's worth noting that it was achieved in a single take without editing tricks and with a roving make-up crew diving into the ring and applying the blood to each fighter when the camera was pointed in another direction. The impressive part is just how immersive and emotionally effective these sorts of camera techniques make the fight. I don't think I've seen a better realisation of a boxing match in a film before, and that includes Scorsese's legendary Raging Bull or any of Avildsen and Stallone's six Rocky films. That second comparison is the key one, because of course Creed is a sequel to those Rocky films. It's an enormously welcome and pitch-perfect continuation of one of Hollywood's best movie franchises.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Wounded"

It's 28 January 1991, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise is called in to help when a Starfleet vessel, the USS Phoenix, goes rogue and starts blowing up starships within the Cardassian Union. While Picard (Patrick Stewart) attempts to track the Phoenix down and bring its captain to justice, Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney) is forced to face his own antagonism towards the Cardassians.

The birth of Deep Space Nine continues. Last episode Chief Miles O'Brien received an unexpected burst of character development and gained a wife. This week that development continues, fleshing out his back story and introducing the Cardassians - the alien civilization that will come pivotal to Deep Space Nine. Now I don't think for a second these episodes were developed with a sequel series in mind, but in about a year's time when Deep Space Nine is being put together they clearly became key influences. I do wonder if there was talk about signing Colm Meaney up as a Next Generation regular: there was some work done towards replacing Wil Wheaton with a new actor, most likely a female helmsman, but it does seem reasonable that boosting O'Brien's profile may have crossed executive producer Rick Berman's mind.

November 30, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Eleventh Hour"

It's 3 April 2010 and time for more Doctor Who.

The Doctor (Matt Smith) has just regenerated. The TARDIS needs time to repair itself. His sonic screwdriver has shorted out. Now, without ship, tools or even running at full capacity, he has 20 minutes to save the planet Earth before the alien Atraxi incinerate it completely.

"The Eleventh Hour" was in a pretty difficult position when it first aired. Doctor Who returned to television in 2005 under the control of executive producer Russell T Davies, who successfully re-introduced the series to audiences and updated its format and tone to fit a 21st century audience. Under star David Tennant Doctor Who became the most popular it had been in the United Kingdom since Tom Baker was in the role. That all came to a climax with the enormously over-the-top two-part serial "The End of Time", broadcast over Christmas and New Year. Then suddenly it was all gone: Tennant left, Davies left, the most recent companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) was already gone. Steven Moffat took over and immediately had to find a new Doctor, a new companion, and a way of ensuring viewers didn't leave the series they had grown to like so much.

For good measure Moffat also changed the TARDIS sets, the opening titles, the narrative style and the general aesthetic of the series. A completely new Doctor Who in almost every respect.

Fires on the Plain (2014)

In the final days of World War II, a bullied soldier suffering from tuberculosis makes his way through the Filipino jungle in the hope of reaching his evacuation point in time. On his journey he encounters local guerillas, hides from the American military, and discovers the frightening extent to which desperate, starving men will go in order to survive.

That's the premise of Ooka Shohei's 1951 novel Fires on the Plain, which formed the basis for Kon Ichikawa's 1959 film of the same name. While Ichikawa's film received a mixed response upon its original release it has since been re-evaluated as one of the best Japanese films ever made. It would be a foolhardy venture for any filmmaker to attempt adapting the novel again with such an acclaimed film with which to compete. Thankfully Shinya Tsukamoto was up to the challenge.

Tsukamoto is one of the shining lights of Japanese independent cinema. His films are all either self or privately funded. They usually have an experimental edge and a confronting rough-hewn quality to them. His debut feature Tetsuo: The Iron Man became an international cult hit - so much so that he's generally better known and appreciated outside of Japan than within it. Last year he finally achieved a life ambition: to adapt Shohei's novel, which he first read in high school, in an all-new film.

November 29, 2015

Doctor Who: "Heaven Sent"

Clara is dead, and the Doctor has been teleported to a mysterious castle. It's thousands of years old. Its walls keep shifting and transforming. There are television monitors everywhere, showing the point of view of a shambling, hooded creature that is slowly stalking the Doctor. There is no escape.

Let's talk about Steven Moffat. When Doctor Who finally returned to television in 2005 it was Moffat who seemed most highly praised. His two-part story "The Empty Child" was seen by many as the best of the first season, and then he continued to impress fans and viewers with "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Silence in the Library" and particularly his Season 3 episode "Blink" - widely regarded as the single-best episode of 21st century Doctor Who. Who knows? Maybe the best ever.

When he assumed control of the entire series in 2010 things seemed to suddenly get a lot more contentious. Some fans bristled at the sudden excess of sexual innuendo. Others loathed his choice for a new Doctor. Still more hated his baffling, time-twisted story arcs. I personally loathed Clara Oswald. I tried, I gave her many chances and over her two-and-a-half seasons she did admittedly improve. I still didn't like her.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Data's Day"

It's 7 January 1991, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In a personal log sent to a Starfleet researcher, Commander Data (Brent Spiner) recounts the events of a single 24-hour period onboard the USS Enterprise. It's a day that involves a wedding, a birth, learning to dance, a mysterious Vulcan ambassador and the possibility of peace between the Federation and the Romulan Empire.

All the way back in 1972 the TV comedy M*A*S*H turned a lot of heads with its inventive first season episode "Dear Dad", in which Hawkeye narrated a letter to his father about the goings-on at his field hospital. The episode was so popular that M*A*S*H returned to the format on what seemed like an annual basis. I'm guessing the writers room at Star Trek: The Next Generation liked the "Dear Dad" format as well, because they've stolen it for "Data's Day" - and it's marvellous.

November 28, 2015

The Pull List: 25 November 2015, Part II

Professional wrestling is such a wonderful backdrop for drama that it's amazing it's been used so rarely. Darren Aronofsky famous used it as the basis for his award-winning film The Wrestler, but there's been no wrestling-based TV drama to date and until this week no real attempt to use the sport in a monthly comic book.

Ringside, then, has a great foundation to it. The book follows a former pro wrestler, Dan Knossos, who rushes home to California from Japan on an urgent - but as-yet undisclosed - mission. It's a canny mixture of wrestling drama and crime story, and this cleverly plotted first issue gives the reader just enough of both. Personally I'm gripped, and can't wait to read what happens in the next few issues. If writer Joe Keatinge is smart, and this book gives every indication that he is, then this is going to be a great mixture of gritty crime with a behind-the-scenes showcase of just how the wrestling industry works.

Nick Barber's art is beautifully sparse, using one pen stroke where a less confident artist would use five. It gives the book a nicely stripped-down look, a look helped in no small measure by Simon Gough's faded colours.

There's a huge amount of promise in this book. I'm really keen to see it develop. (4/5)

Image. Written by Joe Keatinge. Art by Nick Barber. Colours by Simon Gough.

Under the cut:reviews of Chewbacca, The Fuse and We Are Robin.