Terminator Salvation (2009, McG)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

During a war with sentient machines, John Connor is given a mission to storm the opposition’s headquarters. Meanwhile, a mysterious man can’t remember anything since his own death 15 years earlier…

Main characters:

* Top billed is Christian Bale, playing the third on-screen John Connor we’ve had in this series. (The fourth if you count a cameo of an older version in 2029. The fifth if you count a TV series. More on that later…) After the teen of T2 and the twenty-something of T3, John is now a man of 33 (ie, the age that another idealistic JC was when he was crucified) and is fighting for the human resistance forces in the post-apocalyptic war we’ve been told about since the original movie. It’s a tough, harsh, cold world as the few remaining humans attempt to combat all-powerful metallic overlords. John has yet to reach his destiny position as the movement’s leader, however; here, in 2018, he has superiors whose orders he doesn’t always agree with. When he meets a cyborg with no love for the enemy, Skynet, John is not enamoured but reluctantly joins forces with him to mount a rescue of some humans prisoners. (That’s right, even after his experiences the previous two films, this John Connor finds it hard to believe that a cyborg might be a good guy.) Bale gives a typically po-faced, deadly serious performance, often doing little more than barking his dialogue into a handheld radio. The actor also famously lost his shit on set after the director of photography distracted him during a take. (To be fair to Bale, he later apologised profusely.)

* When we first meet Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), it’s in a prologue set before Judgment Day. He’s on death row after a criminal incident that killed his own brother and some police officers. Soon before his execution he’s persuaded to donate his body to Cyberdyne – the tech company featured in the earlier films. Then, much later, an understandably discombobulated Marcus awakens in a nightmarish future: 15 years have passed, there’s been an apocalypse, the machines have taken over, he’s not aged a day, and he’s very clearly not dead any more. WTF? He soon encounters murderous robots, but is saved by a man called Kyle Reese who says he’s a member of the human resistance… Then, after a big action sequence that should have killed Marcus, we learn that he is actually a cyborg. (He’s more shocked by this spectacularly obvious ‘plot twist’ than we are.) Turns out, he was built by Skynet to be an agent who could unknowingly infiltrate the resistance and get close to its figurehead, John Connor. Having met John, what does the cyborg Marcus do? Does he assassinate him? Take him prisoner? No, he’s so outraged by what’s been done to him that he agrees to help John defeat Skynet… Did the IT boffins not see that one coming?! Worthington is nominally this film’s lead actor, and in fact there are rumours that initially Marcus was the POV character throughout. (Then Christian Bale was hired, necessitating a swelling of John Connor’s role. Before that, Connor had been a cameo.) But the actor plays the part too tough-guy for us to care much about him.

* Kyle Reese is, of course, younger than when we knew him in the original Terminator movie. He hasn’t yet travelled back to 1984, he hasn’t heard of Sarah Connor, and he hasn’t even met John Connor. Young and impulsive – and just a bit cynical – he constitutes the LA branch of the resistance. He gets to wheel out one of the franchise’s key lines of dialogue – ‘Come with me if you want to live…’ – but is later captured by the machine forces, which provides John (who knows Kyle will one day go back in time and be his father) with the motivation to rescue Skynet’s human hostages. Kyle is played by Anton Yelchin, who fails to remind us of Michael Biehn’s original in any way beyond having the same name.

* Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) is a resistance pilot who crashes near Marcus after a big action sequence, so he helps her disentangle from her parachute cables. As he has knowledge about Skynet’s forces, she takes him to see her boss John Connor… Blair is certainly a sexy character, and it’s not a bad performance, but she’s a perfunctory role. She’s just there to move Marcus from plot point to plot point.

Other characters:
* Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) is the woman who comes to Marcus’s prison cell in 2003 and gets him to sign away his body to Cyberdyne. He twigs that she’s a cancer suffering whose time is running out. Later, in 2018, Skynet’s AI mainframe uses her likeness when talking to Marcus.
* General Hugh Ashdown, played by the dependably gruff Michael Ironside, is a resistance bigwig who clashes with the impetuous John.
* John’s wife and confidant, Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), is no longer the vet we met in Terminator 3. Now she’s shifted to human medicine, all the better for fixing up war casualties. She’s also pregnant. Despite a new actress, she’s still a fairly boring character who only really exists on the periphery of the plot.
* Barnes, played by rapper Common, is one of John’s lieutenants.
* Sarah Connor’s voice is heard when John plays some of the cassettes of advice she made for him in the 1980s. Linda Hamilton returned to rerecord the lines so that new inelegant information could be crowbarred in. (‘This is tape number 28. It’s Sarah Connor to my son, John’).
* Star (Jadagrace Berry) is a mute child who hangs out with Kyle. She seems to have psychic powers of some kind – or maybe just an uncanny sixth sense.

Where: The prologue takes place in Longview State Correctional Facility. When we cut to the future the events range across California – taking in both LA and San Fransisco. John also has a diversion out to sea, because the resistance’s headquarters are housed on board a submarine (cute idea). When on land, Terminator Salvation’s vision of a nuclear-winter West Coast amounts to either dusty, arid scrub and deserted highways, or bland, bombed-out ruins of cities. Other than the obvious broad strokes, the locations and production design do little to texture the story.

When: The opening scene is set in 2003 – so before the events depicted in Terminator 3. The bulk of the movie is then in 2018, which is some years after Judgment Day in this new Terminator timeline. At one point, Marcus says he was born on 22 August 1975, making him 28 in the prison scene.

I’ll be back: Partly because he was then the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not directly involved in this fourth Terminator movie. So here his famous catchphrase is instead said by John Connor before he leaves for a mission. Schwarzenegger does, however, still have a hefty presence in the film. Making use of CG technology that was then quite new and is now becoming a cliche, we see a T-800 burst out of a metallic booth and attack John. It looks exactly (well, nearly exactly) like a 1984 Arnie and the incidental music clangs heavy with the famous old Terminator cue. It’s a remarkably impressive visual effect, and the scene does actually make plot sense too as John has stumbled across the T-800 development lab.

Spin-off: In the year before Terminator Salvation’s release, a TV off-shoot called The Sarah Connor Chronicles had begun airing. Starring Lena Headey as Sarah and Thomas Dekker as John, it was a sequel to the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in other words, it ignored Terminator 3 and created *yet another* alternate timeline). The story saw Sarah, John and a reprogrammed Terminator protector (Summer Glau) evading Skynet agents sent from the future while attempting to avert the coming apocalypse. After a fun-enough start, the series soon lost its lustre and was axed after 31 episodes across two seasons.

Review: It seems that eras tend to get the Terminator film they deserve. In 1984, cinema was in the wake of visionary and impactful science-fiction movies like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner; it was also the golden age of slashers such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. So therefore James Cameron’s original Terminator blended the two genres, creating something as smart as it was stylish; as downbeat as it was intense; as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi. Seven years later and the world had moved on. Hollywood budgets had grown, as had the digital technology available to filmmakers, so Terminator 2: Judgment Day added huge spectacle, revolutionary CGI and 1990s confidence to the mix. By the time the series reached Salvation, cinema had evolved again. The noughties saw a rush of sequels and reboots that took their subject matters more seriously than previous incarnations – see for example 2005’s Batman Begins (with Christian Bale), 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek (with Anton Yelchin). Terminator Salvation nominally does the same trick as those films, but what it lacks in comparison is dynamism. The best of that era’s series relaunches tell their stories with pace and style and just the right amount of character complexity. They’re also often *fun*, even while being much less frivolous than, say, Batman Forever or Moonraker. But Salvation is a dour, drab and depressingly straight-ahead film. It has a grimy and colourless visual palette, which is at least in keeping with the shallow characters, broad-stroke emotions and functional plotting. There’s no *heart* to any of it. This is also very much a sci-fi war film, overloaded with bombastic action (admittedly including some fun long takes) and Terminator tech that feels like it’s been cut-and-paste from another noughties reboot: 2007’s Transformers movie.

Five two-day-old coyotes out of 10

Stan Helsing (2009, Bo Zenga)

Stan Helsing

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? Small-town America, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? This lame comedy film’s link to Dracula is lead character Stan Helsing (Steve Howey), who is the great-grandson of the Abraham Van Helsing from Stoker’s book. Stan is a slacker who works at a video store (did we still have those in 2009?!). He’s given the task of delivering some tapes, which he attempts to do while on his way to a Halloween party with his friend Teddy (Kenan Thompson), his ex-girlfriend Nadine (Diora Baird) and Teddy’s date Mia (Desi Lydic). They get lost in the countryside and end up in a gated community where various monsters from other movies are causing some rather tame havoc. So we therefore get spoofy – and unnamed for legal reasons – equivalents of Leatherface (from 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Michael Myers (from 1978’s Halloween), Jason Voorhees (from the Friday the 13th series), Freddy Krueger (from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street), Pinhead (from 1987’s Hellraiser) and Chucky (from 1988’s Child’s Play). Various other horror movies are referenced too, including an oh-so-topical joke about the snotty nose of the girl from The Blair Witch Project (1999). An additional connection to Dracula comes from an appearance from his Brides, here repurposed as a trio of slutty strippers.

Best performance: The whole film is pathetic, lazily sexist trash. Many moments feel specifically designed to amuse idiotic, immature frat boys – hence the obsession with boobs, upskirts, porn, masturbation, strippers, hookers and perverts. One of the main characters, Mia, is even a ditzy blonde who works as a massage therapist (‘Someone who whacks people off…’), dresses in a succession of kinky outfits, asks whether her vagina makes her look fat, and looks happy when someone accidentally penetrates her. Having said all that, actress Desi Lydic manages to land her crummy jokes and is – by some distance – the funniest performance in the movie.

Best moment: The four friends enter an unwelcoming, redneck bar. Dressed in their Halloween fancy-dress costumes, they nervously walk across the room to a vacant table. As they pass by the bar, we see three men reading newspapers. The respective headlines read: ’10th anniversary of tragic fire’, ‘Town fears Halloween horrors’, and ‘Cowboy, Indian, superhero and stripper headed for table 9.’

Review: This boring and witless mess is one of the many, many genre-spoof comedies that looked at 1980’s Airplane! and thought it was a really easy film is make. There are tits gags, lots of toilet humour, a bit of homophobia, a tired Leslie Neilsen cameo, and a plot that isn’t even trying to make sense. The script reeks of being tossed off without any thought at all, then filmed by people who are far too in love with themselves.

Three rats out of 10

Demons (2009)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a spin-off, really. This short-lived TV series – one of ITV’s responses to the BBC’s Doctor Who – tells the story of teenager Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke). He’s the last descendant of the famous vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who was actually a real person and not just a character in Bram Stoker’s book. Because of this lineage, Luke has a duty to ‘smite’ the various ‘half-life’ creatures (vampires, demons, harpies, etc) who live unseen in London. Luke learns all this from his American godfather, Rupert Galvin (Philip Glenister), who explains the mythology and guides him in the fight. He also introduces Luke to another person who was dramatised in Stoker’s novel: Mina Harker (a haughty, humourless Zoe Tapper), who looks about 30 but is immortal due to being infected by Count Dracula’s blood in the 1890s. She’s now a famous pianist, blind, and has a visionary sixth sense. In the first episode, Luke’s sarcy friend Ruby (Holliday Grainger) also gets caught up in proceedings and joins the team; she fancies Luke but he doesn’t realise. Later on, there’s another explicit connection to Bram Stoker when Mina’s son, Quincey, shows up. He was born near the end of the novel but is now a murderous vampire.

Best performance: Not this show’s strength, acting. The regulars can’t bring any life to the scripts, while guest stars such as Mackenzie Crook, Richard Wilson and Kevin McNally are often in League of Gentlemen-style make-up that encourages comedic playing. Philip Glenister is especially disappointing. Galvin was written as a Texan, but the actor opts for a soft, generic American accent and you can see the lack of conviction behind his eyes.

Best episode: Probably episode four, Suckers, which features some heavy connections to the book Dracula. We see flashbacks to a younger Mina during the First World War (when she deliberately turned her ill son into a vampire to save his life), while Luke is given a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel. He can’t be arsed to read it, though, so Ruby does it for him. When she reaches the final page she realises that Quincey is Mina’s son… but never mentions that another character called Quincey, who the son was named after, features in the novel from page 57 onwards.

Review: No one sets out to make a bad television series, but this is really, really crummy. It’s a British photocopy of the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a young hero having to juggle school with secretly fighting demonic monsters. (He also has a foreign mentor called Rupert G and a mum who doesn’t know what’s going on; can call on the help of a sexy immortal; and uses a library as a base of operations. Joss Whedon is owed royalties.) But Demons feels like a series made by people who neither understand nor have a passion for the genre. Shows as good as Buffy support their strangeness and mythologies with strong characters, genuine emotion and a balance of action, drama and humour. But here there’s never any sense of the stories or the characters or the situations existing organically. Everything feels mechanical and soulless and hackneyed. It’s all effect, no cause. (Oh, and the fight scenes are often rubbish.)

Three scenes filmed at Highgate Cemetery out of 10

Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

Film Title: Inglourious Basterds

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In France during the Second World War, two plans to assassinate the Nazi high command are put into place…

What does QT do? Writer/director Quentin Tarantino had been mooting this project for over a decade, and it seems he had a few failed attempts at finishing the script. It started off as a loose remake of the 1978 Italian movie Quel maledetto treno blindato, which was released in America under the name The Inglorious Bastards. (An exploitation rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, it’s a gung-ho men-on-a-mission film. Bits of it are fun.) But the more Tarantino wrote, the more his script moved away from the original. The Brad Pitt subplot has an echo of the 70s film, but this is certainly not a remake. Tarantino claims his misspelt title is just an affectation. He also has a cameo as a dead German soldier who’s being scalped.

Notable characters:
* Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) is a French farmer who’s visited one day by an SS officer hunting for Jews. LaPadite’s conversation with the officer, Landa, is the film’s opening salvo and is a scene loaded with menace. One of LaPadite’s briefly seen daughters is played by Léa Seydoux, who later stared with Landa actor Christoph Waltz in Spectre (2015).
* SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has gained the nickname The Jew Hunter because he combs war-torn France looking for them. It’s an astonishing performance, for which Waltz won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Landa is unspeakably evil – if all the cunts in the world got together to vote for the biggest cunt, he’d stand a chance of winning – but you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s polite, seemingly easy-going and has a childlike and formal manner, yet has ultimate power in almost every scene. Because of the story’s chapter-like structure, the character actually goes away for long stretches. But he still dominates the film.
* Shosanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent) flees LaPadite’s farmhouse when Landa kills her family. Four years later, she’s living under an assumed name in Paris and managing a cinema. When the Nazis plan to use her establishment for a film premiere, she sees an opportunity to kill the top brass. Laurent gives a brilliant performance of strength and quiet turmoil.
* First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a showboating army officer who leads a small platoon of Jewish-American soldiers. They call themselves the Basterds and their mission is to hunt down and kill Nazis. (Raine insists on scalping the victims.) Pitt is as broad as his Tennessee accent, but it’s quite entertaining.
* Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is Raine’s second in command. He’s acquired the nickname The Bear Jew and enjoys killing Nazis with a baseball bat. Eli Roth is billed fourth in the opening credits. FOURTH. It pays to be Quentin Tarantino’s mate, it seems.
* Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke)… oh, you know.
* Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is an Austrian member of the Basterds. They recruited him after he killed 13 members of the Gestapo.
* A narrator (Samuel L Jackson) twice provides some exposition. He tells us Stiglitz’s backstory then later explains why cans of nitrate film are so dangerous.
* Private First Class Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a young German who has risen to fame because he killed 250 Allies in three days from a sniper’s position. A movie called Nation’s Pride has been made about his exploits, with Zoller playing himself. He meets Shosanna/Emmanuelle and flirts with her. But she isn’t interested because he’s, you know, a fascist fuck-stain. Brühl is really good at playing a cocky little twerp who can, and does, turn nasty at a moment’s notice.
* Marcel (Jacky Ido) is Shosanna’s lover, a black man who works at the cinema. He’s an oddly minor character who we sadly never focus on.
* Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) appears twice, firstly when he delivers Shosanna to a meeting with Goebbels, then later in an underground tavern when he suspects some German officers of being spies.
* Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and aide (ie, mistress) Francesca Mondino (Julie Dreyfus) are in Paris to oversee the premiere of Nation’s Pride.
* Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British Army officer who used to be a film critic and is an expert on German cinema. He’s handpicked for a mission to go behind enemy lines, hook up with the Basterds, and assassinate some Nazis. However, once he and the Basterds have met a double agent in a local tavern, Hicox gives the game away by using a non-German hand gesture (very Red-Grant-ordering-the-wrong-wine-in-From-Russia-With-Love, this). Fassbender is terrific, clipped accent and all. (Simon Pegg was considered for the role but was busy on The Adventures of Tintin.)
* General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) gives Hicox his assignment. Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) watches from afar.
* Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a famed German movie star and also a double agent for the Allies. She arranged to meet Hicox once he’s in France, but chooses a location that brings a whole heap of problems… Kruger’s is another excellent performance.
* An OSS Commander (Harvey Keitel) is heard over a radio when Landa wants to make a deal for his surrender.

Returning actors: Brad Pitt had an enjoyable cameo in True Romance. Eli Roth and Omar Doom (one of the Basterds) had been in Death Proof. Julie Dreyfus was in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode and Death Proof. Bo Svenson, who’s glimpsed in the Nation’s Pride film, had a small role in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and was also the lead actor in 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards. Although only providing voice parts, Samuel L Jackson is in his fifth Tarantino film, Harvey Keitel his fourth.

Music: Tarantino wanted the great Ennio Morricone to score the film – and it would have been the first purpose-written score for one of his movies – but the composer was busy. So some archive cues by Morricone and others have been employed. David Bowie’s 1982 song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) is used to great effect when Shosanna is preparing for the premiere. She’s also surrounded by the colour red, symbolising her murderous intent.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is divided into five chapters with on-screen titles: ‘Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France’ (which lasts around 20 minutes), ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (16 minutes), ‘German night in Paris’ (25 minutes), ‘Operation Kino’ (40 minutes) and ‘Revenge of the Giant Face’ (42 minutes). They play in chronological order, but the second has fun with flashbacks within flashbacks, while the finale also features brief flashbacks.

Connections: Tarantino has said that Eli Roth’s character, Donny Donowitz, is the father of Lee Donowitz, the coke-head movie producer in True Romance.

Review: Inglourious Basterds is a film made up of great scenes rather than a wholly great film. There is a through-line and the subplots build to a shared climax, but the episodic structure means that characters often go absent and the tone varies quite a bit. (We switch from scenes of unbearable tension to sections played for laughs.) So as a piece of storytelling it’s a bit fragmented. Despite all this, though, it’s still very impressive and is headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue. Some of the individual chapters are also mini-masterpieces in their own right, such as the opening scene at the farm. Here, Tarantino shows a *masterful* control of time and space. The build-up of anxiety is palpable, as is the creeping horror, and there’s a constant threat of violence and catastrophe underneath the surface. The camerawork is also thrilling in its clarity and precision: it’s always telling story, always adding meaning and subtext. You find yourself holding your breath while Landa gently (ie, menacingly) questions LaPadite. The scene is reminiscent of the Westerns of director Sergio Leone, which favoured long, slow, deliberate preludes to violence and revelations. In fact, the chapter title is a pun on Leone’s best film: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). This buttock-clenching fear is generated elsewhere in the film too. Landa’s meeting with Shosanna in Paris (the strudel scene) is equally nerve-shredding – despite a few hints, you’re never quite sure if he knows who she is – and the sequence in the tavern, while a superficially light-hearted conversation, has real edginess and danger once a Gestapo officer sits at the table. On the other hand, despite giving the movie its title, the Basterds’ scenes tend to be a bit cartoony. Cartoons with horrific bursts of violence, that is. Other notable aspects of this marvellous movie include the fact it’s Tarantino’s first period film (he revels in the culturally arrested Paris of 1944), the extensive use of subtitles (there are entire conversations in French and German), a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy (THEY KILL OFF HITLER!), and a motif built around the power of cinema (which is evident in Shosanna’s job, Zoller’s fame, the nitrate film, Hicox’s career, the premiere…). It might be damning with faint praise to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s fourth best movie. But given the strength of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, that’s still an accolade worth having.

Nine pages of history out of 10

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009, Gavin Hood)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Immortal mutant James Logan takes part in a scientific experiment and is injected with a metal called adamantium…

Get used to multiples names…
* James Logan (Hugh Jackman) adopts the name Wolverine in this prequel to the X-Men trilogy. The film is the story of his life up to and including the moment he loses his memory.
* Logan’s childhood friend Victor Creed, who becomes one of the movie’s main villains, is played by Liev Schreiber. Early on we learn that the two share a father. Notwithstanding that, an actor who looks similar to Hugh Jackman has been cast as Logan’s mum’s husband.
* For the second time in three X-Men films, William Stryker features. As this film is set 20 years before X2, he’s been recast: Danny Huston has taken over from Brian Cox.
* In the early 1970s, Logan is seconded into a military squad of mutants. One of the team is played by Ryan Reynolds and is later experimented on by Stryker and becomes a zombie-like creature called Deadpool. Other mutants in the squad include Fred J Dukes, who’s later known as the Blob after putting on a ridiculous amount of weight (Kevin Durand), Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), John Wraith (will.i.am) and Zero (Daniel Henney).
* While hiding out in Canada Logan has a boring girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins). She may as well be called Character Who Gets Killed To Make The Hero Angry. (She later shows up again: it’s revealed she’s a mutant too and her death was staged.)
* On the run, Wolverine is given aid by an elderly couple (Max Cullen and Julia Blake) who may as well be called Mr and Mrs Convenient Characters Who Help The Hero Before Getting Killed.
* When Wolverine needs information about Styker’s base, he asks the only mutant to have ever escaped: Remy LeBeau aka Gambit (Taylor Kitsch).

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* William Stryker had featured in X2 (2003) and will also crop up in the First Class trilogy (2011-2016). In this film he mentions having a son, who we then see briefly: the son is also in X2. Stryker’s secret base at Alkali Lake is also seen in X-Men (2000), X2 and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
* Deadpool got a whole film to himself in 2016. Although still played by Ryan Reynolds, it’s a different take on the character.
* Both this movie’s Victor and Sabretooth from 2000’s X-Men are based on the same comic-book character, though it’s open to debate whether they’re meant to be the same man in the film series.
* We meet a teenager called Scott Summers (Tim Pocock). The grown-up Scott was one of the good guys in the 2000-2006 X-Men trilogy.
* Although not named, one of the mutants being held prisoner by Stryker is clearly meant to be Emma Frost – a popular character from the comic book. A different version of Emma will be X-Men: First Class (2011).
* Near the end of the film, Charles Xavier shows up to rescue the freed mutants. Patrick Stewart recorded new dialogue, while unsettling CGI has been used to show the character look like he would have done in 1979.

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend the writer Rebecca Levene to talk about this film: “I may be the only human being on the planet who actually likes this movie. Yes, the story’s a convoluted mess, but then so is Wolverine’s backstory in the comics and there are some genuinely inspired moments – particularly the title sequence montage showing Wolverine and Sabretooth’s long and violent history. Most of all, though, the comic geek in me loves the other X-Men cameos. Here at last is Gambit in all his sexy Cajun glory. And Deadpool’s ultimate fate may be a travesty – what lunatic takes away the Merc with a Mouth’s ability to speak? – but before that Ryan Reynolds gives us a glimpse of the star turn he’d later deliver.”

Review: This one doesn’t work. The characters are as thin as the pages of a comic book. Laughs are few and far between. But the biggest issue is simply that there’s no wow factor. The action is computer-game-ish – boring slo-mo violence and laws-of-physics-defying stunts – while there’s a real lack of polish to the filmmaking: exterior scenes are often filmed on a sound stage, while greenscreen shots are sometimes laughable. Also, curse of the prequel has struck again. Because we already know the broad strokes, at times the movie feels like an exercise in box-ticking. There *are* some good ideas, of course. The titles sequence shows us a montage of Logan and Victor fighting side-by-side in the American Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War (very Saving Private Ryan, this) and Vietnam. As the eras progress, Victor gets more and more reckless – smart, economic, fun storytelling. But after that the film gets vague and aimless. The main body of the story is set in 1979, for example, but the production design isn’t especially pushing the period. Instead it’s a bland version of ‘a few years ago’. There are no mobile phones or computers, but the odd old car aside it could be any time. That’s representative of the way the whole film is directed: no focus, no unity of vision, no distinctiveness.

Four ‘Three Mile Islands’ out of 10

Red Dwarf: Back to Earth (2009)

Red Dwarf

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

Regulars: Fictionally, nine years have passed since the last episode. Lister, the Cat and Kryten are as before, but Rimmer’s back to being a hard-light hologram – it’s not specified if this is the man created in series eight or the old Rimmer returned to the fold. Not that it matters hugely. The resurrected crew of Red Dwarf have vanished, again with no explanation, as has Holly. Kochanski, meanwhile, has been killed off between series. (Or has she? See below.)

Episode 1 (10 April 2009): The crew find a sea monster in their water-storage tank… An enjoyable opener, with a return to comedy based on the interaction of the four core regulars. Good fun.
Observations: The cliffhanger from the end of series eight is totally ignored. Sophie Winkleman (yes please) plays Katerina Bartikovsky, a stern, no-fuss hologram activated when Rimmer fails to do his job properly. This is the first episode of Red Dwarf to be directed solely by co-creator/writer Doug Naylor.
Best gag: An oblivious Rimmer listening to music while the others are being attacked by the sea monster.

Episode 2 (11 April 2009): The characters use a tentacle from the sea monster to travel into another dimension… Here’s where things get complicated. The dimension the team travel to is, well, ours. Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten end up in Britain, 2009 – where of course Red Dwarf is a TV show. (My head hurts.) However, it’s not *exactly* the reality we live in, because Red Dwarf is not a niche sitcom that Joe Public has kind of forgotten about. If Back to Earth has a major failing it’s the deluded belief that a branch of Currys would be showing Red Dwarf on its TV; that the sales assistant and a customer would have detailed knowledge of the show’s gags; that the local sci-fi shop would be decked out almost entirely with Red Dwarf merchandise; that two young children on a bus would know the show intimately… Talk about wishful thinking. But never mind: there’s plenty of fun to be had. When Kryten finds Red Dwarf DVDs in a shop – the actual, proper BBC releases of earlier series – he realises that the gang are fictional characters. Lister then goes one further and finds a Back to Earth DVD – ie, the DVD I used for this review. He reads the back-cover blurb… Yup: it’s the same text used on my copy. (My head hurts.)
Observations: We learn that these episodes are actually set after the then-hypothetical series 10. (My head hurts.) The unseen ‘series nine’ is said to have been the best ever. There was an episode where Kryten told Lister that Kochanski had been sucked out of an air lock. There’s a three-second shot of the regulars waiting for a train at Canary Wharf tube station. What an effort to go to. Jeremy Swift plays the manager of a sci-fi shop called They Walk Among Us! In this episode, references to 1982 sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner start to mount up. As do mentions of old Red Dwarf episodes (Polymorph, Parallel Universe, Meltdown, Timeslides…). Rimmer and Lister read an issue of SFX magazine with Red Dwarf on the cover – an actual issue done specifically by the SFX editorial team. (My head hurts.) The episode ends with the team driving onto the set of Coronation Street. (Did I mention that my head hurts?)
Best gag: Katerina says that killing a hologram doesn’t count as murder, so Rimmer gleefully pushes her into the path of a car.

Episode 3 (12 April 2009): Having gone to the set of Coronation Street and found Craig Charles, the actor who plays Lister in Red Dwarf, the team ask him to tell them where to find their creator… Perhaps the most insane episode of Red Dwarf yet, this goes past bonkers, doesn’t stop at out-of-its-fucking-tree and ends up all the way back round at kinda working. The Coronation Street section doesn’t make a huge amount of sense – the studio sets are in the relevant exterior buildings, no one’s around aside from three actors, and no one’s that perturbed by *fictional characters* showing up, one of whom looks like Craig Charles – but it’s good fun. The episode then makes a turn and becomes a Blade Runner pastiche. It’s *really* well done, with good matches for sets, costumes, dialogue and plot moves. The mini chase sequence is especially impressive.
Observations: Craig Charles plays himself as well as Lister. His then Corrie co-stars Michelle Keegan and Simon Gregson have cameos. Richard O’Callaghan plays the ‘creator of Red Dwarf’ (a spoof of Tyrell in Blade Runner). (How many people feared that it would be Doug Naylor playing himself?) At the end of the story, it’s revealed that the last two and a half episodes have not been real. The story’s MacGuffin – a hallucination-causing sea monster – is related to the despair squid from series five’s Back to Reality. (Oh! Hang on! Back to Reality… Back to Earth… The clue’s sitting right there in the title.) Chloë Annett makes a surprise appearance late on, playing a Rachel-from-Blade-Runner-like Kochanski in the fantasy sequence. It’s also revealed that Kryten invented the story of the real Kochanski’s death; she actually just decided to leave.
Best gag: Lister types out dialogue that the others have to say – typos, comments on the fiction, and all.

Best episode: Part Three. Worst episode: Part Two.

Alternative versions: There’s a ‘Director’s Cut’ available on the DVD, which bolts the three episodes together as an omnibus and adds at least one deleted scene back in. It’s actually the disc’s default version.

Review: The first Red Dwarf to be commissioned by and shown on TV channel Dave falls into the ‘good enough’ category. It’s not setting the world alight, but it has charm and is very watchable. Time has moved on, pressure has eased, and it’s not as try-hard as the late-90s series. As discussed above, the comedy gets very post-modern and self-referential but there’s plenty of good stuff – including, for the first time in what seems like ages, some genuine emotion in the Kochanski subplot. Clearly made on a budget, the production values are neat and trim rather than cheap. It was shot with digital cameras, which give it a certain sheen, and some decent CG set extensions make Red Dwarf itself look impressively epic. (Having said that, a couple of studio sets in the department-store sequence are pretty appalling.) We’re also back to single-camera shooting, but unlike in series seven there’s no studio audience or canned laughter, so it works much better.

Seven massive tentacles out of 10

Star Trek (2009, JJ Abrams)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ninety-four years after the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock is thrown back in time along with a vengeful Romulan called Nero. Their time-travelling creates a new, alternate reality where Spock’s younger self – as well as James Kirk and other familiar faces – team up to defeat Nero…

For only the third time in a Star Trek movie, we hear the famous narration. And for the third time, it’s Leonard Nimoy who delivers it. It comes at the end of the film: “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing missing: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilisations; to boldly go where no one has gone before…”

Regulars: The elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy) can’t prevent the destruction of Romulus, so when pissed-off Nero travels back in time to seek revenge, Spock follows him – thereby creating an alternate reality. The James T Kirk of this new timeline is born in the opening scene: his mother goes into labour while being evacuated from a starship. Kirk’s dad, meanwhile, is killed just after he discusses baby names with his wife. We next see Kirk as a kid, where he’s clearly a bit of a wild child, then as an adult when he gets into a bar fight with some tough guys. After joining Starfleet, he cheats at the Kobayashi Maru test (as did the original Kirk), then is quickly promoted to first officer of the Enterprise during a crisis. However, after he rows with the young Spock (Zachary Quinto), he’s stranded on an ice planet where he has to evade CGI monsters and bumps into the Spock from the future. At the start of the film, we see this timeline’s Spock being bullied as a boy for being only half-Vulcan, and he kicks off when his human mother is insulted. As a young adult, he turns his back on the Vulcan Academy and joins Starfleet, where he develops the test that Kirk uniquely beats (by cheating). When Captain Pike goes off to talk to Nero, Spock is made captain of the Enterprise. Nyota Uhura meets Kirk in a bar, where he tries to flirt with her. She’s studying xenolinguistics at Starfleet – Kirk quips that she must have a talented tongue. She’s initially assigned to a different ship because boyfriend Spock was trying to avoid favouritism; she soon demands to join the Enterprise and takes over as communications officer. Also in the new crew is Pavel Chekov, a Russian who has trouble with his Ws. He does a natty bit of beaming to save Kirk and Sulu from certain death. Hikaru Sulu is a late-replacement helmsman who cocks up his first go at driving the ship, but shows his mettle on a mission with Kirk. Dr Leonard McCoy meets Kirk when they both join up. He has a fear of space-travel, and has lost so much in a recent divorce that he’s only left with his ‘bones’; during the crisis at Vulcan, the Enterprise’s medical chief is killed so McCoy takes over. Finally, after Kirk has been abandoned on the ice world, he meets Montgomery Scott, a grumpy engineer doing research at a remote Federation base. He has a mute alien sidekick, Keenser.

Guests: Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth plays Kirk’s dad. Faran ‘Warehouse 13’ Tahir plays the captain of the USS Kelvin. Eric ‘the Incredible Hulk’ Bana plays Nero. Greg ‘mate of JJ Abrams’ Grunberg plays Kirk’s stepdad. Ben ‘Dark Shadows’ Cross plays Sarek. Winona ‘Winona Ryder’ Ryder plays Spock’s mum (in aged make-up: the scene she shot as a young woman was cut). W. Morgan ‘seaQuest DSV’ Shepherd plays a prissy Vulcan official. Bruce ‘…didn’t he play JFK once?’ Greenwood plays Captain Pike. Tyler ‘Tyler Perry movies’ Perry plays a Starfleet bigwig. Rachel ‘Alias’ Nicholls plays Kirk’s one-night stand, Gaila. Deep ‘Doctor Who’ Roy plays Scotty’s sidekick, Keenser.

Best bits:

* The prologue – the wormhole, the Romulan ship, the chaos on board the Kelvin, the frenetic editing and whip-crack camera moves, Kirk’s birth and his dad’s sacrifice… It’s an 11-minute sequence that grabs you by the throat. This isn’t your father’s Star Trek.

* The graceful yet powerful incidental cue over the logo.

* Kirk as a boy, in a stolen sports car, bombing along and listening to the Beastie Boys. He’s chased by a robotic cop and ends up leaping from the car just before it careers off a cliff.

* The Harrison Ford smirk that a grown-up Kirk gives to Uhura after her accidentally feels her up.

* “You can whistle really loud, you know that?”

* Pike to Kirk: “Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.”

* Kirk’s green-skinned girlfriend (a knowing nod to the original TV series).

* The Kobayashi-Maru test. A smug Kirk eats an apple because he knows he’s going to beat it.

* The reveal that Spock designed the test.

* Kirk and Spock’s first meeting – a courtroom-style clash over Kirk’s cheating.

* “Who was that pointy-eared bastard?” asks Kirk. “I don’t know,” replies McCoy. “But I like him!”

* In a brilliant run of comedy and plotting, McCoy puts Kirk through blindness, a huge tongue and ridiculously swollen hands in order to smuggle him aboard the Enterprise.

* Spock walking from engineering, into a lift and out again onto the bridge – all in one fluid shot.

* The TV-show-like lighting effect on Pike’s eyes as he sits in the captain’s chair.

* Kirk realizing what the lightening storm is, and his mad dash through the ship to find Pike. (In a wonderfully illustrative bit of writing, Spock listens to Kirk despite their antagonism and backs him up when he talks sense.)

* “I’m Christopher Pike. To whom am I speaking?” “Hi, Christopher. I’m Nero.”

* The guy in the red space suit. A red space suit. Red.

* Kirk and Sulu’s skydiving down to the huge platform above Vulcan, and the subsequent fight.

* Spock running into the Vulcan temple and telling the group that the planet will imminently explode. Because they’re Vulcans, no one quibbles with him and they all flee.

* Uhura and Spock’s moment in the lift, him grieving and her being supportive

* “Out of the chair,” Spock says in a singsong reprimand when he spots Kirk slouching in the captain’s seat.

* Spock’s nerve-pinch on Kirk.

* Old Spock! “I am Spock,” he says to a confused Kirk. “…Bullshit,” says Kirk.

* The trippy mind-meld sequence, which handily fills in backstory.

* McCoy challenges Spock’s logic: “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”

* The perspective gag as Keenser, who’s about four-feet tall, runs down a long corridor.

* Scotty’s story about experimenting a beaming process with Admiral Archer’s beagle. “I know that dog!” says Kirk. “What happened to it?” Scotty: “I’ll tell you when it reappears.”

* “Can I get a towel please?”

* Spock getting angry.

* The touch-too-hard slap on the arm that Kirk gives Spock after they make up.

* The Enterprise rising out of the gas atmosphere of Titan.

* Kirk’s expression when he spots Spock and Uhura kissing.

* A computer thinks Spock is his older self. “Wow, that’s weird,” says Kirk, trying to sound casual.

* When Nero has been defeated, Kirk offers mercy, explaining to Spock, “It may be the only way to earn peace with the Romulans. It’s logic, Spock. I thought you’d like that.” Spock: “No, not really. Not this time.”

* The two Spocks meet.

* When Kirk is promoted, he relieves an injured Pike of his command. “I am relieved,” says Pike, putting about 47 different meanings into the phrase.

* The final scene on the bridge – each crewmember getting their moment in the spotlight. (The way Kirk says “Bones” is pure Shatner.)

TV tie-in: Given the presence in this movie of Captain Pike, it felt right to also rewatch Star Trek’s pilot episode. In The Cage – which wasn’t broadcast at the time – Pike is played by Jeffrey Hunter and is in command of the USS Enterprise. It’s a fascinating piece of sci-fi history, notable for both the great ideas already in place and the oddities later dropped when the series was picked up. Of the cast, only Leonard Nimoy as Spock became a regular. What stops the episode being fully entertaining is its earnestness – when the show went to a series, William Shatner took over as lead actor and added some much-needed charisma and a sense of fun.

Review: What’s immediately obvious about this movie is that there’s emotional rigour at all times. It might be a big-budget, summer blockbuster full of CGI and action scenes – but it’s constantly dealing with characters, relationships, choices, reactions, hopes, feelings, regrets and friendships… The story is built around two leads, Kirk and Spock, and actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are both fantastic. They’re channelling their predecessors, for sure, but are not doing simple impressions of Shatner and Nimoy. While you can sense the original characters’ DNA in these performances, there’s also danger and unpredictability. The rest of the team are fun too. Simon Pegg doesn’t show up until the halfway point, but adds a turbo-boost of comic relief, and Karl Urban is also terrific as the tetchy and sarcastic Dr McCoy. Meanwhile, other actors move away from the established template: Zoe Saldana, for example, is not especially reminiscent of the original Uhura (this one has a personality). This familiar-yet-different tone is down to the plot’s time-travel element. It’s a wonderful example of having your cake and eating it. The film acts as both a reboot *and* a continuation. By creating a separate timeline, it can utilise all the recognisable Star Trek continuity, but it also has freedom to tell its own story. The destruction of Vulcan feels like a mission statement: in this Star Trek, nothing is safe. It means the film can appeal to both fans and newcomers. If you don’t see any irony in Captain Pike ending up in a wheelchair, then no matter; if you do, then you get something extra. But in what other ways is this one of the best films of the 21st century? Well, it looks absolutely superb. There’s real beauty in the production design. The 1960s-style costumes are a treat. The CGI is skillful and used to tell story. And the infamous, extensive lens flares keep everything alive and ‘in the moment’. There are also bountiful amounts of energy and pace and zip to the whole thing, thanks to brilliant director JJ Abrams (who has yet to make a weak film). The two hours *breeze* past. This is endlessly rewatchable entertainment packed full of vitality.

Ten cupcakes out of 10.


A Serious Man (2009)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

A schoolteacher’s wife wants a divorce, his dream job’s under threat, his brother’s sleeping on the sofa, his neighbour’s crossing into his garden, his son’s dealing with a bully, his daughter wants access to the bathroom, and a student’s trying to bribe him… How will he cope?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Ooh, look: it’s The Big Bang Theory’s Howard as a young rabbi.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): None.

Best bit: The shaggy-dog story about the dentist.

Review: A strange one. The way Larry’s life gradually crumbles apart around him is fun to watch and is well paced, and there are lots of good actors in fun roles, but it’s hardly the most gripping 100 minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen. The movie begins with a seven-minute prologue – all in Yiddish and set at some indeterminable Ye Olde time – which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the film. And, like in Burn After Reading, the story just stops rather than having an ending.

Six TV aerials out of 10.