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The Man of Steel November 27, 2006

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 Well, it was no. 1 on my DVD wishlist for this autumn. Now that I’ve got the Superman: Ultimate Collection what’s the verdict?

Firstly, one can’t fail to mention the complete balls-up that Warners have made with this set. As has been widely reported, instead of the new Superman III: Deluxe Edition, the Ultimate Collection includes a disc that claims to be the aforesaid, but is in fact the barebones 2001 release. Not good. Buuuuuut, replacements will surely be offered down the line, and I refuse to let this spoil my fun. So there.

The set is otherwise a thing of beauty - a classy silver tin and glossy packaging for the discs themselves: all 14 of them. Let’s count: Superman: The Movie (4), Superman II (3), Superman III (1), Superman IV (1), Superman Returns (2), Look, up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (1), You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman (1), Bryan Singer’s Video Journals (1). Who mentioned overkill? ;-)

Having had the chance to watch some of the new bonus material over the weekend, it’s pretty damn good. You Will Believe features new interviews with almost every surviving participant, while Bryan Singer’s journals from the production of Superman Returns are interesting; one chapter in particular is fascinating, with Singer flying to New Zealand to spell a physically exhausted Peter Jackson on the set of King Kong, to the bewilderment of an uneasy Naomi Watts.

Oh, yeah, and I also watched all the films again. Superman: The Movie (Director’s Cut) remains an all-time favourite. I honestly can’t fault it in any way; it’s unquestionably the best comic book adaptation ever filmed IMO, as evinced by the fact that almost every comic book movie since then has copied its story structure (the main reason I don’t enjoy the Spider-Man series).

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is the sequel that the original always deserved. Re-edited and reconstituted into an almost entirely different film, it works supremely well, considering the constraints on the project. Donner remarks in his commentary that it isn’t exactly as he would have made the film originally, but it’s pretty close. That’ll do for me.

Richard Donner and Bryan Singer.

Superman III and IV, on the other hand, were just as I remembered them: a ‘comic’ misfire and a complete train wreck, respectively. I don’t think I’ll be watching them again for a loooooooooooong time.

back home on the farm

Which brings me to Superman Returns, a film that I found moderately entertaining in the cinema. Watching it again in such close proximity to the earlier films, I enjoyed it a lot more. Kudos to Bryan Singer for shunning the standard ‘reboot’, instead crafting a respectful sequel to the first two Reeve films that is, nonetheless, spectacular and thrilling in its own right. Brandon Routh as the new Supes is growing on me, and Kevin Spacey makes for a deliciously evil Lex Luthor. I’m keen to see Singer’s follow-up in a couple of years time, Superman: The Man of Steel.

Supes and Lois, 2006 style

You know the name. You know the number. November 16, 2006

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As you can probably guess from the title, I just got back from seeing Casino Royale. After four years of a curious emptiness in life, unsure of where this mightiest of film franchises was going to turn next - another formula Brosnan adventure? A hip make-over with a 20-something fool in the lead? - here we are. Back at the beginning. Bond’s, that is.

Taking Fleming’s original novel as its middle act, the makers craft a gritty, explosive Bond movie that strips the franchise (and the man) down to the core. I’m not going to waffle too much about the film, but let’s just say that Craig brings Fleming’s Bond, the original “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, to the screen with brutal force, and is lucky enough to be surrounded by a damn fine movie in the process.

I’ve been a Bond fan since I was … five? six? I can’t remember a time before I was aware of the franchise. And so I find this most recent outing immensely satisfying, but not so much as just the sheer pleasure of seeing a new Bond film at the cinema. Bond is, for me, the purest movie entertainment I’ve ever known: a fantasy world so utterly thrilling, glamorous, and centred on a character who’s been the definition of ‘cool’ since I was that small five (or whatever) year old. I love each and every Bond film, whatever their flaws. Do I think Die Another Day’s invisible car is the most stupid idea in the long, sad history of stupid ideas? Unquestionably. Do I love Die Another Day in spite of this? Of course. Be it a lazy Bank Holiday afternoon spent watching Moonraker, or the week I spent revisiting all six (or seven, you could argue) Connery outings this summer, there’s nothing anywhere I’m a bigger fan of than Bond. Well, maybe a good single malt whisky. Or, better yet, both together.

And here I am, still grinning like a madman from that 144 minute rollercoaster ride and the knowledge that producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson (the ‘Keepers of the Flame’) have done it again - brought Bond back, reinvigorated in such thrilling fashion, and to such critical acclaim. I haven’t felt this happy as a Bond fan in, oh, about four years. Bond is back in action, and on the evidence of Casino Royale, you wouldn’t want to fuck with him.

A decade in the life of a secret agent November 13, 2006

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Brian De Palma’s stylish Mission: Impossible (1996) was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of the modern age for me, and remains a personal favourite, yet it was followed by one of the most disappointing sequels I can recall. John Woo’s M:I-2 (2000) was a Mission: Impossible movie in name only, with the plot (such as it was) comprising a rough approximation of how a 5-year old might conceive a Bond movie. It also featured Tom Cruise playing an Ethan Hunt completely removed from from the character in the original, and brought back Ving Rhames only to ignore him, and make no reference to the fact that he was even in the first film. Come to think of it, if there wasn’t a “2″ in the title, you’d be hard pressed to work out that M:I-2 was supposed to be a sequel to anything at all. I could go on for days about that train wreck of a movie, but suffice it to say that I had middling expectations when the inevitable third instalment was announced.

See Tom run.

Needn’t. Have. Bloody. Worried. The masterstroke in the creation of Mission: Impossible III (2006) was hiring JJ Abrams as director. It might seem something of a risk to entrust this behemoth of a summer movie to a guy who’d never before directed a feature film, but on the other hand, Abrams created Alias - the TV show that made Jennifer Garner a star, and which itself borrowed huuuuugely from the Mission: Impossible TV series. For M:I:III, Abrams brought on board his trusted Alias writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and the film ends up as almost a spin-off from Sydney Bristow’s TV escapades.

Abrams and his writers first bring back the feel of the original film: there are meticulously planned, ’impossible’ missions herein; there’s an actual IMF team once again; Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is the familiar guy from the original; Ving Rhames is back again - and this time in a ‘proper’ sidekick role; the plot is relatively straightforward, but makes room for a couple of very nice twists along the way.

Tom Cruise and Keri Russell kick some bad guy butt.

The plot, in fact, is Alias all the way - a continent-hopping hunt for a mysterious, deadly toxin; a slimy bad guy; a handful of impossible-to-escape situations; gripping, adrenaline-charged stunts; and the all-important personal factor: in the same way that Alias‘ Sydney Bristow finds her private life forever brought into the firing line, so Ethan Hunt faces in M:I:III his most personal threat yet.

Cruise and Michelle Monaghan

Abrams thrives with his big budget: more accustomed to recreating exotic locales on a small Los Angeles backlot for Alias, here he actually gets to go to Shanghai and Rome; he can build entire highways just to blow them up if he feels like it (and he does). Abrams also has, in Tom Cruise, a star just as energetic and willing to throw himself into the fray as Jennifer Garner was on Alias.

I must say, I’ve never had a problem with Cruise: if he wants to jump around on Oprah’s sofa, I could care less. A decade on from his first M:I outing Cruise is, if anything, more convincing in the role now. While he remains admirably fit (as a gym regular, I can respect that a lot), a little character has started to creep into his features with age, and it only aids his performance as Ethan Hunt finds himself in the most testing situations he’s ever faced. Throw in a strong supporting cast of familiar faces (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne, Ving Rhames) and gorgeous gals (Michelle Monaghan, Keri Russell), as well as assured direction from Abrams, and I can find little fault with M:I:III. As a summer action movie, it succeeds on all fronts. All I can really say is, that’s how you do a Mission: Impossible sequel, Mr Woo.

Cruise: “Mr Brassel, it’s unacceptable to judge Agent Farris’ competence based on a mission-”

Fishburne: “It’s unacceptable that chocolate makes you fat, but I’ve eaten my share and guess what?”

“So, I’ve gotta go bury this hamster before the dogs eat him. Wanna help?” November 8, 2006

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Occasionally when I find myself finally watching a film that I’ve overlooked thus far (usually for some silly, idiosyncratic reason) I want to hit myself over the head with a heavy object, several times, for having deprived myself of what turns out to be a film so perfectly up my street, it pretty much stops outside my door and rings the bell. Enter Garden State.

Sarsgaard. Portman. Braff. In the rain.

Andrew (writer/director Zach Braff) is an over-medicated struggling actor living in LA. Travelling home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, he decides to try life medication-free for a few days. As well as trying to resolve his complicated relationship with his father (Ian Holm), Andrew hangs out with childhood pal Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a quirky, fun-loving girl named Sam (Natalie Portman); in her company Andrew begins to emerge from his hitherto comatose existence.

Zach Braff and a girl who seems awfully familiar from somewhere ...

Garden State is, as a friend of mine put it, very much the kind of film you’d expect from a young, first-time director. I know exactly what he means: it’s languidly paced, semi-autobiographical, witty, populated by young characters, some oddball, some troubled, and its outcome is hopeful and touching. None of those are bad things - I loved the film, and I normally enjoy ‘hip’ indie comedy dramas about as much as having teeth pulled; just don’t go into the film expecting something astoundingly original. There isn’t a great deal of drive to the narrative, and sometimes the story slips into moments that are just too self-consciously quirky or offbeat, but it’s largely a warm-hearted, well-crafted, and very funny film. The characters and performances are the thing, and both are excellent here; you’ll either invest in them and love the film, or … I suspect it’ll be a pretty dull 90 minutes. For me it was one of those films you don’t. Want. To. End. You know roughly where the story’s going; the fun is in spending time with these characters on the way.

Natalie Portman at the Oxford Student Union November 6, 2006

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Many thanks to my brother (I knew he had a purpose ;) ) for getting me a prime seat at the Oxford student union this past Saturday, where guest speaker Natalie Portman was due to appear for an informal talk and Q&A with students. You’ll have to excuse the sycophantic tone that creeps in below - this may come as a complete shock, but I’m just a slight fan of Natalie; I can’t help but write this way. It’s like typist’s Tourette’s or something.

Portman, in England to shoot The Other Boleyn Girl, had come to Oxford at short notice, not that she seemed ill-prepared or, in fact, uneasy in any respect. The slightly built 25 year-old, even more beautiful in person (did I mention I’m a fan?), was a graceful and comfortable public speaker, addressing the packed chamber of 100+ students on the subject of Microfinance aid work, which she is actively involved with through the organisation FINCA. Portman spoke articulately about the subject, displaying an obvious depth of knowledge, although she later jokingly apologised for being “another actor coming to talk about my charity work ...”

Once her initial talk was over, Portman, very much at home among the student audience, made it clear she was there to speak about any subject of interest; with the floor opened to questions, the topic of conversation naturally shifted towards her acting career. Thankfully there seemed to be few Star Wars obsessives present, and the only embarrassing moments came from the occasional male student who (understandably) couldn’t help but precede his question with gushing praise for Portman, her acting abilities and, in one case, how she’s a beautiful on-screen crier (although, admittedly that one did get a big laugh and reduced Portman herself to blushes). The questions themselves ranged from the obvious to the more offbeat (asked about her appearance on Sesame Street, she laughingly declared it her favourite work).

In between anecdotes about frying eggs on R2-D2 while filming The Phantom Menace in the Tunisian desert, there were serious topics broached, such as the situation in Israel, where Portman was born and recently returned to visit. Whatever the question, though, our guest came across throughout as friendly, modest, family-orientated (with her parents and cousin present) and, despite her academic achievements and Hollywood status, down-to-earth, fun-loving; very much ‘one of us’ (or perhaps I should say ’them’, since I haven’t been a uni student for 3 years now).

The most amusing question of the afternoon? An American dude, with “If you could high-five anyone in the history of the world, who would it be?” Utterly stumped, Portman asked him who his choice would be. Quick as lightning, he replied “you”, and duly got his wish, to the amusement of all.

And what of jackal himself? Did I get to pose a carefully-crafted, deeply intellectual question to Nat? Actually, no. They ran out of time before I got the chance, but I’m not complaining. Truth be told, I’d probably have degenerated into another of the gushing acolytes as soon as I stood up, anyway.

Now if only we could get Jessica Biel next time … there’s a thought.

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