Saturday 25 February 2012

Verdict: Sherlock - The Hounds Of Baskerville

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock
This review contains spoilers

Building upon last week's excellent series opener, The Hounds Of Baskerville shows that Mark Gatiss' and Steven Moffat's take on the super sleuth is going from strength to strength. Whilst the first episode played with the idea of Sherlock falling for the seductive charm of femme fatale Irene Adler, this week we were introduced to something bigger; that Holmes could feel fear. 

Set, just as the original Conan Doyle novel was, on the spooky and desolate Dartmoor in Devon, the change in locale was a interesting new backdrop for the series. Usually confined to the bustling and noisy streets of London, the open plains, dark forests and misted hollows of the sparse moor all added to creating a genuinely frightening entry into the series and a more than worthy adaptation of the original novel (with the smallest of tweaks). Here, Baskerville is no longer a Gothic manor house but a shady animal experimentation lab. And the so called hound? Well, I wouldn't want to ruin to much now would I?

Like I mentioned earlier, there are some truly gripping and scary scenes in this episode, as the "hound" stalks and terrorises Holmes and Watson. In one instance, Gatiss and Moffat seemingly go all Paranormal Activity on us, trapping poor Watson in the dark and deserted lab with said demonic, snarling hound. Never allowed a proper glimpse at the possessed pooch, the audience is treated to an interesting Conan Doyle/Blair Witch mash-up. One chilling sequence where Watson is alone in the darkened wood with only a torch for company was a particularly spine-tingling, paranoia-laden moment. It's not all "things that go bump in the night" however. The dialogue crackles with sharp wit and one-liners that we've come to expect from the series.

Much like the first episode, The Hounds of Baskerville did much to play with the ideal of Sherlock being human. Benedict Cumberbatch was on brilliant form in this episode as a man torn between relying on fact and believing in myth and the occult. The supporting cast also were impressive, most notably Russell Tovey as tortured soul Henry Knight.

The overall 'mystery' was not as multi-layered and intricate as the preceding episode and for anyone paying close-attention such as myself, the resolution will come as little surprise. Not that this takes anything away from my overall enjoyment of the episode. In fact, that the plot was a lot more straight-forward, enabled me to take in and enjoy the story as a whole, instead of trying to keep track of the fast-paced twists and turns that usually are injected by Gatiss and Moffat.

One other downside I can think of is simply the fact that there is only the last episode next week to go before series 2 wraps up and the long wait for another series begins again. Despite this, better to have quality over quantity right? 

Sunday 19 February 2012

Film Review: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace 3D

Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in Phantom Menace
(Image from
Star Wars is back on the big-screen in three-dimensions, with George Lucas taking us back to where it all began (chronologically) with 1999's Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Set 32 years before the events of the original 1977 Star Wars, Phantom Menace charts the discovery of a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) by two Jedi Knights Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) on a remote desert planet.

Widely accepted as the least popular Star Wars film since it's release 13 years ago, how does it stack up today? Whilst the films downfalls and hiccups are still present and are possibly more prevalent today than they were initially (Lucas can't exactly take the digital eraser to Jar Jar now can he?), there is still much to enjoy about the Phantom Menace. 

Whilst the addition of 3D visuals seemed fairly trivial before walking into the movie, I can gladly say that they worked very well, immersing the viewer in the Star Wars universe better than ever before. Benefiting most from the added dimension are of course the action set-pieces. Impressive enough by themselves, the addition of the 3D visuals allows them to really leap out of the screen and get the audiences heart racing. It seems if there was ever a film series made for showcasing the benefits of adding 3D visuals, it's Star Wars. 

The high-speed pod-race around which the fate of Anakin, the Jedi and Queen Amidala's fate revolves is edge-of-your-seat stuff. The same can be said for the finale which sees star-fighter dogfights above the planet of Naboo. The icing on the cake however, is the epic duel between the Sith Lord of Darth Maul and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at the film's climax. Arguably the best light-sabre sequence of the entire saga, the 3D visuals makes it simply spellbinding. 

The rapid shot changes aren't marred by 3D blur to such a degree that it makes them feel wasted, unlike other poor 3D cinema experiences I've had in the past (for example, see my recent review of Underworld: Awakening here) Whilst not perfect, the 3D visuals in Phantom Menace are an impressive addition to the film. It makes for a enjoyable and entertaining experience that will please audiences of all ages. 

As I mentioned before however, the film itself suffers from the same hitches that plagued it back in 1999. Time has not been kind to annoyingly kid-friendly and cartoonish frog/alien hybrid Jar Jar, who still fails to raise a smile and grates throughout. Young tyke Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker also sets about delivering dialogue akin to being a school nativity play, hardly a Dark Lord in the making. Lastly, the overly wordy and "diplomatic" scenes set within the Galactic Senate are hardly enthralling stuff for anyone unfamiliar with the series and may not win over new fans. Phantom Menace simply doesn't reach the admittedly atmospheric heights of those in the original trilogy (where's Han when you need him, eh?)

Despite not being the fan-boy favourite or the promised timeless classic, Phantom Menace should still do well enough at the box-office for George Lucas to continue with his planned 3D re-releases of the rest of the saga over the course of the next 5 years. With 2002's Attack of the Clones up for the 3D treatment next year, that's where the fun really begins. Huge fans of the films like myself will regard seeing Phantom Menace back on the big screen and in 3D as a must and will undoubtedly be the ones to get the most out of the experience. 

Thursday 16 February 2012

Verdict: Sherlock - A Scandal In Belgravia

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Lara Pulver as Irene Adler
-  Courtesy of BBC
This review contains spoilers

Picking up directly where the first series had left off, the first 90-minute episode of series two of the BBC's Sherlock hit the ground running and didn't let up for the entire duration.

With Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) facing off against Moriarty (Andrew Scott) in a tense and gripping finale, the first series decided to end there and then, leaving viewers with over a year's wait to find out the resolution. It may not have ended as explosively as hinted at, instead ending somewhat anti-climatically. This however in no way means that it was a let-down in any sense of the word. The resolution of the cliffhanger, left by creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, instead has served a greater purpose in creating a wider story arc for the series and in introducing Lara Pulver as dominatrix Irene Adler.

Tasked with retrieving incriminating and scandalous photographs of the seductive Ms. Adler with a undisclosed member of the royal family by his brother Mycroft (also Mark Gatiss), Sherlock is in full belief that he will have succeeded by that night. Instead however, he is faced with the fact that Adler is every bit as clever and deceptive as he is. I won't give too much away here for those of you having not seen it because it's a cracker.

Whilst the plot demands the audiences full-attention with numerous interwoven and interlocking strands, at no point does it feel overly complicated or confusing. Like any well-written mystery, there are twists and turns aplenty and nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Also, any questions left unanswered are sure to be a part of a wider scheme that will play out throughout the series.

Much like the highly complex storytelling he has crafted on Doctor Who, there is a sense that Steven Moffat is in his element here as he weaves the multi-layered story together strand by strand throughout the episode and no doubt, the series. The ending may seem a little far-fetched for some, myself included, but I didn't let that affect my overall impression of the episode too much.

The electrically-charged interaction between the two characters of  Sherlock and Adler in the opening act of the episode sizzles is fast-pased with brilliant and burning one-liners. It's highly entertaining stuff as the two cross, double-cross and attempt to outwit the other. As the episode trots along, the story jumps several weeks and months, allowing for the relationship between Sherlock and Adler to develop.

This is done really well and it adds another layer to the Detective's character, something that we saw little of in season one, which understandably focused primarily on laying the framework of the show. Like any good sequel, the second series has dispensed with the introductory phase of the show and allows for characters to grow and expand more.

The writers have cleverly found that sweet-spot between the dark and twisting intrigue of murder mysteries and light-hearted and playful banter of the best sitcoms; there are plenty of giggles and chuckles to be found alongside the enthralling brainteasers.

In addition to this, it would seem the writers have also begun to really invest in the relationship between Sherlock and Watson. The two have really begun to understand each other more and this makes for interesting scenes where Watson struggles to hold down a girlfriend thanks to his loyalty to Sherlock. The two also are hugely funny, with one scene including bedsheets, near-nudity and Buckingham Palace springing to mind.

First impressions indicate that Moffat and Gatiss have taken everything that viewers and critics loved about the first series and improved on it two-fold. There's genuine mystery, deduction and intrigue, laugh-out-loud quips and the occasional dark and more sinister, dramatic moments. A Scandal in Belgravia is another top-notch episode of one the BBC's biggest shows. Fairly elementary really (sorry couldn't help myself)

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Film Review: Underworld Awakening 3D

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Awakening 3D
Movie sequels can be tricky. As can movie prequels. But movie threequels? They are trickiest of the lot. Take Sam Raimi's hugely popular Spiderman franchise for example. The first and second films were both massively successful and celebrated, the only stumbling block came with the overly jumbled third instalment. The same can be said for numerous film franchises such as X-Men, Shrek and The Matrix.

Which brings us to the latest instalment in the widely popular vampire/lycan/action/fantasy/catsuit orgy that is the Underworld series. Underworld: Awakening is the fourth entry into the series but is the third to be set in modern day with 2009's Rise of the Lycans being a prequel to the initial two films, Underworld and Underworld Evolution.

Stepping back into the corseted catsuit for the third time is Kate Beckinsale as vampiric Death Dealer and all-round badass Selene. Set 12 years after the events of Evolution, the warring vampire and lycan factions are now hunted by humanity, who have since learnt of the existence of their kind.

As a relative newcomer to the franchise (having only been introduced mere weeks ago), may I first start off with this; Underworld Awakening is unlikely to attract any of the uninitiated to the series. With an extensive, complex and fleshed-out back story, the Underworld series is best viewed and appreciated in it's entirety. The three films that have preceded Awakening obviously accounted for something, and so I would at first recommend a quick catch up on at least the first two films in order to familiarise yourself with the characters, ideas and plot-lines.

Underworld aficionados will be pleased be to hear however that Awakening is a worthy entry into the series. Whatever the film lacks from the absence of stars such as Bill Nighy and Martin Sheen, it makes up for in satisfyingly gore-drenched vampire versus lycan action.

The actions set-pieces are certainly impressive stuff, but I did feel that the films insistence on adding 3D visuals did detract from the enjoyment somewhat. Rapid shot changes and fast-pased fight sequences were well executed but often reduced to a mash of jarring blurriness and disorientating visuals. The films final third may have one of the most exciting and impressive set-pieces of the entire franchise; it's just a shame the murky and unimpressive addition of 3D lowers the entertainment factor. If you get the chance, see it in 2D instead.

That aside, Beckinsale does a fantastic job of steering a fairly average plot that sees her escape her human captors and uncover her vampire/lycan hybrid of a daughter, Eve (India Eisley). Suddenly faced with maternity, Beckinsale's usual cold-hearted killer shows more vulnerability here and this is the central device that drives the plot forward. Eisley is also satisfyingly creepy and frail as Eve. A notable absence from proceedings is that of Scott Speedman's love-interest Michael. Whilst referred to, his non-appearance was undoubtedly added in as a lead into the plot of Underworld 5. Instead, Theo James' character David, falls fairly flat and has little else to do other than add an fairly pointless injection of heroic testosterone.

The Verdict: 5/10

Overall, the latest Underworld film is a notable addition to the franchise, but ultimately falls short of expectation thanks to it's fairly hammy script and dull visuals. The action scenes are top-notch, but disappointing 3D ultimately means the audience misses out on the excitement. One to catch if your a fan of the series and vampires that don't sparkle.


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