Hamlet (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 13 August 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Hamlet (Credit: Big Finish) Written by William Shakespeare

Script Editor: Justin Richards

Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Alexander Vlahos (Hamlet), 
Miles Richardson (Claudius), Tracey Childs(Gertrude), 
Terry Molloy (Polonius), Daniel Brocklebank (Horatio), 
Deirdre Mullins (Ophelia), Samuel Barnett (Laertes), 
Jolyon Westhorpe (Rosencrantz), Geoffrey Breton (Guildenstern), Barnaby Edwards (The Ghost), 
Youssef Kerkour (Barnardo), Alex Jordan (Francisco), 
James Joyce (Marcellus)

Big Finish Productions - Released August 2017

“Not another one!” Recalling Brenda from Bristol’s much-quoted reaction to the announcement of the 2017 General Election I had a similar reaction to the prospect of yet another production of what is perhaps the most performed of all Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is probably the well-known and widely regarded as the one of the most outstanding works in the whole of English literature. However, much as I am a fan of Shakespeare and certainly feel that his tragedies leave the comedies in the shade by comparison, I’ve always favoured his history plays especially that one about the hunchback king who ended up buried in a Leicester car park, which tend play up the political drama with a strong emphasis on tragedy and a dose of black comedy thrown in for good measure.

Whilst not being my personal favourite Hamlet certainly owes a debt to the history plays with plenty of political goings on for those paying attention (provided you’re not watching one of the film versions which chose to cut out Shakespeare’s intended ending with the arrival of the Norwegian prince Fortinbras at the head of an invading army) even though it focuses mainly on the tragedy of its eponymous central character.

This audio production marks a first (but hopefully far from the last) venture into the works of Shakespeare from Big Finish who have built their reputation largely upon the production of brand new adventures featuring established characters. Recent years have seen them take a few tentative steps into adapting classic works which have included last year’s excellent dramatisation of Dracula and most recently a series of adaptations of the works of H.G. Wells. This production has emerged as the brainchild of producer Scott Handcock and lead actor Alexander Vlahos who have previously collaborated on five series of Big Finish’s first wholly original series The Confessions of Dorian Gray. At this stage I should confess that whilst I thought Vlahos gave an excellent performance throughout that series, I was rather disappointed at the decisions taken on how it was brought to what has been described as a definitive ending last year.  When I first heard that the pair’s next project would be to take on Hamlet I was rather sceptical. I am however delighted to say that my fears that Big Finish were over reaching themselves were unfounded and that this is an excellent production which makes a genuine virtue of the audio medium. Whilst Hamlet remains oft-performed with many stage and film versions available to peruse, a quick online search indicates that there are only a few radio productions in circulation, and only one which was recorded within the last decade.

With so many recent TV actors stage renditions of the prince of Denmark to be compared with including Tennant, Simm, Cumberbatch and the prospect of Hiddleston in the wings, Vlahos is an almost uniquely youthful Hamlet. He is genuinely believable as a distraught university student who has returned home to find his father dead, and both his mother and his expected inheritance suddenly in the control of his uncle. He has a lot of fun with the advantages of being on audio and not give a theatrical shouted performance such as playful delivery of lines such as “words, words, words” and a delicately whispered rendition of the most quoted speech in the whole of English literature from Act III. The dumb show performed by the players in the same act is cleverly adapted into narration of Shakespeare’s stage directions. It is left up to the listener to decide how much of Hamlet’s apparent decent from melancholia at the feeling that he has effectively lost both parents to the very edge of apparent madness is genuine and how much is an act to keep his uncle and step-father guessing.

Miles Richardson, perhaps best known to Big Finish listeners as the enigmatic Irving Braxiatel from their long running Gallifrey and Bernice Summerfield spin-off series, gives excellent support as Claudius, the king who appears to be trying to act in his nephew’s best interest whilst hiding the secret that he has murdered his way to power. One wonders if Shakespeare missed a trick by not making Claudius more central to the action as he certainly shares common features with other anti-heroes including the aforementioned hunchback and the eponymous lead character of the Scottish play. If viewed from Claudius’ perspective the play has the feeling of being a pre-cursor to House of Cards, in which case Richardson is absolutely perfect to play the king with an uncertain grip on power and it was no surprise to learn that he was Handcock and Vlahos’s first choice for the role.

There are only two women in the cast but both give great performances. Tracey Childs is a harsher Gertrude than some previous portrayals. However, she does not seem too overtly under the spell of her new husband which lends the character a little more believability. Deirdre Mullins also gives a very believable performance as Ophelia who is perhaps the most tragic character of the whole play as she gets caught up in the games between Hamlet and his uncle and manipulated by her own father Polonius (an excellent performance from Big Finish stalwart Terry Molloy).

Of the remaining cast, honourable mentions should also go to the always excellent Samuel Barnett (of whom more soon in the upcoming Cicero series as well as BBC America’s Dirk Gently),Barnaby Edwards as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, Daniel Brocklebank as Horatio and James Joyce in various ensemble roles including, if my ears were not mistaken, Fortinbras in the play's concluding scene.

It would be remiss to conclude without acknowledging the excellent atmosphere created by Neil Gardner’s sound design and the music of James Dunlop, whose previous work was a major contribution to the success of The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

One minor quibble, and this is based on a lack of knowledge of different versions of the text which exist, is the choice to pronounce the word “murder” as “murther”. Whilst I assume this must derive from an earlier version of the text than I’m familiar with which it would surely have made more sense for a production aiming to appeal to audiences who won’t be familiar with the play to use a pronunciation which would have made more sense to the modern ear. Script editor Justin Richards is however to be commended for having kept cuts to the text to a minimum and allowing this release to run for a full three hours. However, the line “remember me” appeared to be missing from the ghost’s departure in Act I which would have gone unnoticed had Hamlet not then quoted it a few lines later. Perhaps this was an edit which was overlooked. Overall these did not affect this reviewer’s overall enjoyment of this excellent production.

This reviewer’s appetite has now been well and truly whetted for more of the Bard’s works to find their way into Big Finish’s studios. Already a production of King Lear starring David Warner is on the way later this year and hopefully there will be more to follow in the near future.

Whilst it may not be this reviewer’s personal favourite, this production certainly goes someway to exploring the indefinable quality of what makes Hamlet such a special play to experience in performance but when asked to set down what that quality is one can only conclude by giving Hamlet himself the last words:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

Hamlet is available now from Big Finish and on general release from September 30th 2017





Game Of Thrones Season 6: Episodes Seven + EightBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 May 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Jaime Lannister and Bronn (Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/)

7 - The Broken Man

Written By: Bryan Cogman 

8 - No One

 Written By: David Benioff + D.B. Weiss
 

STARRING: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer, Carice Van Houten, Alfie Allen, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams,   Diana Rigg, Rory McCann,  Dean-Charles Chapman,
Clive Russell, Jacob Anderson, Jerome Flynn,
Daniel Portman, Nathalie Emmanuel, Gemma Whelan,
Gwendoline Christie, Kristofer Hivju  + Conleth Hill

WITH: Jonathan Pryce, Julian Glover, Anton Lesser,
Ian McShane, Tim McInnerny, Bella Ramsey,
Richard E. Grant,  Essie Davis, Tobias Menzies,  Tom Wlaschiha, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Eugene Simon, Richard Dormer,
Paul KayeIan Gelder, Hannah Waddingham + Faye Marsay

AND: Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Ian WhyteHafþór,
Júlíus Björnsson, Ricky Champ, Margaret JackmanIan Davies, Murray McArthur, Ross McKinney, Tim Plester, Daniel Tuite,
Leigh Gill, Rob Callender,  Sam Redford, Ian Davies, Steve Love



Directed By: Mark Mylod 

Showrunners + Producers: David Benioff + D.B. Weiss

Game of Thrones is now available on DVD,
Blu Rayand streaming services Worldwide

The build up to a truly riveting climax for Season Six gathers apace in these episodes. Whilst neither move the story on drastically further, there is some welcome development for two characters that once formed one of the show's more unlikely, but also more entertaining doubles acts - namely the Hound and Arya.

When these two were last together they seemed to have formed a deep bond, but Arya never quite forgave the Hound for his murder of a childhood friend of hers, and followin Brienne (brutally and perhaps unfairly) beating him in one-on-one combat, she took the chance to rob him and leave him to die.

And yet he still survived.


Many readers of this site may at first do a double take, especially if they never picked up the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire saga. The Hound had only the briefest of resurrections there, but his passing mention was enough to confirm that he had not been killed off by his wounds (which also occurred in an entirely different location). Here we have a much more developed explanation, whereby a whole community of pious and kindly people save him from his grievous injuries (the most significant being an infected bite on the neck – which harked back somewhat to Khal Drogo’s fate).

Having Ian McShane as a one-shot guest star was a great decision by the production team. He really makes the most of his role as Brother Ray; which is primarily composed of sharp interplay with the rather more cynical Sandor Clegane. At times this focus on a beautiful picturesque country retreat in the Riverlands is very ‘anti’ Game of Thrones. There is even a pre-credit sequence that may make some viewers unsure they are on the right channel. But towards the end of The Broken Man, there are clearly ominous signs of something nasty on the way.

The motivation behind the Hound ‘breaking back’ to his old mannerisms of swearing and revelling in brutal killing is strong; he had bonded with an entire community that made him see the world he lived in as worthy of some optimism after all. The revenge on the breakaway group from The Brotherhood Without Banners is grim and bloody, but also immensely gratifying. It is also fun to see the reunion of Cleagane with Thoros and Beric Dondarrion, and how they eventually allow their former enemy to have two acts of vengeance (by hanging) rather than just the one. 

*

As for Sandor's cruel and lethal older brother, there is a snippet of his potential destructive capabilities (developed thanks to Qyburn). Although some deaths on the show have been more graphic than this, it still is a powerful moment as one of the Faith Militant is ripped apart – losing his spine, and bleeding profusely into a nearby drain.

Brother Ray (Credit: popsugar.com)

Yet the potential for a Trial By Combat  - which would be a guaranteed win for Cersei - is quelled thanks to the smart thinking of The High Sparrow, who prompts Tommen to change the law on how guilt or innocence is ascertained. Many fans have keenly hoped for a showdown of the two brothers since a brief face-off in Season One. Yet it remains something that has never quite happened thus far.

It is rather less clear-cut however for Jonathan Pryce’s beautifully-played zealot when it comes to getting ‘into bed’ with the Tyrells. (And there is a risque exchange with Margaery where he encourages her to resume conjugal duties with her much younger husband). Using her powers of intellect and wit, the Queen is able to show Olenna she still is bonded with the Tyrells. Thus it is clear to followers of the show that her public declaration on the steps of the Great Sept was tactical, rather than sincere.

Whilst that is some relief for the Queen of Thorns, she still has decided that enough is enough and embarks on a return home to Highgarden. Her verbal abuse of Cersei is a terrific one-to-one scene – to my mind such exchanges are the bread-and-butter of the show. Olenna's firm put down of Cersei as possibly ‘the worst’ person she knew in her long life is a great one-one-one scene for Diana Rigg and Lena Headey.

**

Arya has her best material of the season so far, as her carelessness in wondering the streets with no disguise and sure-fire she can return home almost costs her life. That she trusts Lady Crane to nurse her back to health also proves decisive; the 'Waif' finally ensures the marked woman is slain, for the purposes of the Many Faced God

That the younger Stark lady uses her former blindness - which perhaps lasted several months in actual chronology - in the final showdown with her enemy is clever and poetic. Perhaps a brief scene of these two fighting in the dark would have been welcome, but the cutaway to The Hall of Faces and Jaqen's reaction soon after is still a rousing moment with which to end the second of this pair of episodes. Finally a girl is truly not 'No One'.

**

Elsewhere, we follow the other principle surviving Starks as they try to reclaim Winterfell from the Bolton-Karstark-Umber 'axis'. Jon is desperate to accumulate an army, even if know it is going to be comfortably outnumbered and less disciplined than that of his enemies. He has at best mixed success.

Initially, he manages to find the one remaining Mormont who is left intact and relevant to the North; the young girl Lyanna. However, despite not even being eleven yet, she has a gravitas and cool logic which  makes her a formidable presence. Davos is the most confident in interacting with her, and it recalls the fine interplay Liam Cunningham had with Shireen actress Kerry Ingram. 

Bella Ramsey's debut on the show rivals Maisie Williams' early days in the role of Arya, and she makes what could be a silly and overly comedic scene play out beautifully.

Speaking of comedy, how welcome it is to see 'Percy' from Blackadder - otherwise known as Tim McInnerny. He of course can do serious roles justice -  as was the case in Doctor Who - but there is always a tinge of melodrama with this actor. Yet this is by no means a bad thing, when much of Thrones takes itself so seriously. His refusal of Jon is painful to see, but totally understable given how poorly the late Robb handled politics, in a region where self-preservation and insular thinking is commonplace. Also, this particular 'lost avenue' takes place in Deepwood Motte – an area of the Westeros map which is given much more prominence in the books. The showrunners do a fine job here in acknowledging their source material but carving out a different path.

More positively for the 'born again' Jon, the Wildlings will be with him come hell or high water. They have of course already faced the army of Wights, and whilst they suffered a heavy defeat at the time, they do know a worse enemy is looming that keeps coming back. Consequently an alliance is galvanised, with Wun Wun (the lone surviving giant) helping the process.

Sansa has little direct impact in negotiations. However we know from The Door that Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale could help. A short scene depicts her receiving a letter, and the hope would be that the older Stark daughter has some options, which others in the 'good' Alliance do not have.

What is also notable in these Northern scenes, is that whilst Jon and Sansa have grown a great deal, they are not the best at the subtleties of politics and negotiations – which makes viewers wonder if either would quite manage on the Iron Throne, were the opportunity to present itself.

**

As for the Blackfish potential source of aid, some great work is done in exploring just how this is ultimately a dead end. It also functions as an interesting emotional journey for Brienne and Jaime. Since the Red Wedding, there had been next to no mention and absolutely no screen time for Clive Russell. So it is to the benefit of this present season that this fine character actor bows out with his two very best performances.

With Jaime dismissed from the Kingsguard, and having lost two children (with Myrcella’s murder hitting him especially hard) there is a bit of a redux for this great character. Flashes of the brute with a ‘charming’ smile begin to show again. Not much softness is displayed by the golden-handed warrior when he puts Walder Frey’s sons in line. Even less mercy is evident when he threatens Edmure Tully with a catapault demise for the child he gave to Roslin Frey. Bronn himself has had near enough of Jaime by now; knowing that the often-said 'A Lannister Always Pays His Debts' did not materialise in his case. 

However, I have some minor issues with the Riverrun sections. One is that some of the dialogue for Bronn and Podrick is a little too self-indulgent and crude. The suggestion that Pod likes Brienne is very silly, as they were always just an odd couple of clumsy slow-witted serving boy and serious, proficient fighter. It may show some of Bronn’s frustration with not having a romantic partner after all the hard work he has done of late, or it may just be an attempt to do broad humour to please some of the ever growing audience of the show.

Another disappointment is that the Blackfish simply gives up on fighting for Sansa, even though he would be a good addition. However, this does help the story itself as later Jaime does not ask his men to pursue Brienne and Pod, as they row away down the river. (He certainly would have done if this notorious enemy of the Lannisters was present). Further, director Mylod opts to not show the final stand for Ser Brynden Tully, and we must assume the character either inflicted a fatal wound or two, or was instead swiftly dispatched by Jaime’s men.

**

Finally, some words on the other regions across the Narrow Sea. After her rousing speech atop Drogo, Dany has virtually nothing to do in this section of Season Six. However, she makes a surprise appearance once the Siege of Meereen begins in earnest. Without a line of dialogue, it is still very telling just how angry she is with Tyrion for his handling of both the city, and the politics with the Slave Masters who had visited not long ago. Peter Dinklage continues to be very watchable, but some of his recent dialogue is not of the highest quality, and could easily grace routine fan fiction. The lack of source material does sometimes work against the show, but it depends on a given storyline, and also if the director can paper over the cracks. The farewell scene between Tyrion and Varys is good setup for the later siege, and raises suspense if these two will ever reunite. However, once again they freely walk around Meereen without any guards for backup.

A much better section sees the relationship of Yara and Theon further developed. With his ability to father children, or indeed to have any kind of full physicial relationship taken away from him by (the mercifully distant) Ramsay, Theon still is struggling to feel worthy of being a player in the Game. But Yara manages to achieve some kind of response, through making her brother feel outraged over the phrase ‘a few bad years’. His torture will never leave his trouble psyche, and neither will his guilt for what he did in Winterfell with the Ironborn. But he still has potential to prove himself. Also Yara is quite brazen in showing that she has a preference for women, but treating them like objects – at least in the context of the ready supply of whores in Pentos.


Many pieces on the board have been set now. The biggest (and final two) episodes of the season should result in a rush of excitement and drama, as the 2016 run of Thrones reaches its destination point.

 





Game Of Thrones Season 6: Episodes Five + SixBookmark and Share

Monday, 10 April 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Hodor Caught in A Temporal Paradox (Credit: http://www.mymbuzz.com/)

5 - The Door
(Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss)

6 - Blood of My Blood
(Written by Bryan Cogman)


STARRING: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer,
Carice Van Houten, Alfie Allen, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Aidan Gillen, Diana Rigg, Joseph Mawle, John Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hannah Murray, 
Jacob Anderson, Daniel Portman, 
Michiel Huisman,
Nathalie Emmanuel, Gemma Whelan,
 Gwendoline Christie,
Kristofer Hivju, Conleth Hill + Iain Glen

 
WITH: Jonathan Pryce, David Bradley,
 Richard E. Grant, 
Kristian Nairn, Vladimir Furdik, James Faulkner, Essie Davis, 
Ellie Kendrick, Tobias Menzies, Pilou Asbæk,
Michael Feast, Tom Wlaschiha, Roger Ashton-Griffiths,
Ian Gelder, Hannah Waddingham, + Faye Marsay.

 

AND: Samantha Spiro, Eugene Simon, Freddie Stroma, 
Rebecca Benson, Tim Plester, Daniel Tuite, Ania Bukstein,
Sam Coleman, Kevin Eldon, Leigh Gill, Eline Powell,
Rob Callender, Ben Crompton, Gerald Lepkowski, 
Wayne Foskett, Sebastian Croft, David Rintoul, + Kae Alexander

 SPECIAL GUEST STAR: Max von Sydow


Directed By: Jack Bender
 

Showrunners + Producers: David Benioff + D.B. Weiss

Game of Thrones is now available on DVD, Blu Ray
and streaming services Worldwide

Myriad viewers are presented once again with the middle episodes of the part-fantasy/part 'War of the Roses' serial epic. This sixth run of adventures to feature some of the most iconic characters of recent times on television is mostly breaking new ground, although sometimes there is a return to the material George RR Martin so vividly produced. (And readers can certainly take their pick - there are paperbacks, hardbacks, eBooks, and even a fully illustrated edition of the very first volume).


The Kingsmoot was a riveting passage in the somewhat turtle-paced A Feast For Crows (that tome feeling at times flat, in that half the characters' were kept off-page until Book Five). This scene is played a little more 'bare bones' in the TV show, but still works in conveying suspense and plot progression. Having Theon bravely concede he is not a leader, due to both his mutilation and also his sister being constantly there for the Iron Islands, is one of the more poignant moments for this brilliantly-played character. Yet his 'rubber stamp' of Yara's stirring speech is quickly quashed by the self proclaimed murderer of King Balon.

Although their father was not a good man, or particularly accomplished, he still would have likely intended Yara to take his place. Instead Euron with his bluster, but also some credibility, is quick to seize upon the baser elements that form many of the Iron-born reavers' fundamental character traits.

The chase/christening scene is a dynamic form of direction from Jack Bender, and portrays the different factions that may play a notable role in the overall future of the kingdom. Stirring music from Ramin Djawadi is used throughout. Whilst it is heartening to see the Greyjoy siblings escape on the ‘best ships’, it is also ominous that their uncle is resolute in being able to eventually find and slay them. 

*

Whilst Episode Three saw Sam's story arc tread water, there is now proper progress here. For some time it had been clear just how unpleasant was the highborn Randyll Tarly, and in particular how poorly he regarded his son. Regardless of the character only being depicted through spoken dialogue, viewers truly felt for Sam. Finally Randyll has an onscreen guise, (and the casting of James Faulkner is once again spot on). That his other son Dickon is relatively meek, and both his wife and daughter are so placid, takes away nothing from his grim gravitas. With Tywin now conclusively out of the show, it is good to have a reminder of how special Charles Dance's contributions were in days of yesteryear. 

Sam is learned and intelligent, but under such a barrage of verbal abuse and contempt by his own father, he is powerless to prevent headstrong Gilly from revealing her true origins. The tension at the dinner table is as worrying a moment to long-term viewers as any 'blood and guts' swordplay. The key difference lies in the subtlety of spoken dialogue, as opposed to choreographed action. The stolen Heartsbane is a loss to Horn Hill, but a triumph for Sam. It shows how much he has grown as a (makeshift) warrior, and a dedicated partner and friend for those closest to him.

*

Jorah has been 'lost' in many respects, even before we first met him in Season One, due to the magnitude of his being a disgraced knight. He had however found a purpose in being so devoted to his Queen. Yet twice she banished him. This time he wishes to dismiss himself, and for the very last time, but instead is tasked with finding a cure for his greyscale infection. This is no mean task, but should he (somehow) succeed, then he is expected to return to Dany's side, upon her 'rightful' acquisition of the Iron Throne. Whether this will ever happen is a very open question, but the key to this scene having such resonance lies in the brilliant acting from Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen play their roles. It also is intriguing, in having Daario feel for Dany's clashing emotions, even if he still dislikes Jorah. 

A terrific tracking shot of Dany's Khalasar following her, as Jorah prepares to leave, highlights just how slick a show Thrones is, and how worthy it has been of its various cinema 'upscalings' in recent times. In the concluding scene of Blood Of My Blood it becomes clear how devoted Dany is to her Dothraki identity (without of course ever relinquishing her Targaryen origins). Her proclamation that her warriors will cross the Sea - which is unprecedented for these barbarians -  and overcome all enemies on the mainland, is a stirring moment.

Yet it remains to be seen if Tyrion's negotiations - in the absence of the established monarch - are going to pay off. There is not too much screen time for Dinklage's magnetic character, once again with this portion of episodes; with the latter seeing the grand-persuader/drunken-wit being kept wholly off-screen. As the 'Imp' is still under pressure to convince the people of Meereen that peace is secured, and that Dany was responsible, he resorts to hiring someone with the right look and way of speech.

The Most Dangerous Being in Westeros - The Night King (Credit: http://vanguardseattle.com/)

Yet another Red Woman is unveiled before both Tyrion and Varys, who represent the absent Queen. Yet the 'Eunuch' transitions from being supremely certain that he can control this visitor, to looking both surprised and frightened. Despite being a complete stranger, she manages to forcefully narrate the dreadful events that saw him castrated, and how they are part of the Lord of Light's designs. Varys had always believed he was in charge of his upward ascent in status, but the Priestess affirms how both of them were brought to this time and place, through higher powers (and designs). Ania Bukstein does great work in her limited screen time as this religious figure, which is indicative of how effective many 'minor' roles are in this ensemble TV series. Varys is always a strong presence in the show, but some earlier Season Six episodes did verge a bit too much into broad comedy. Regardless, he continues to be played with just the right amount of understatement by Conleth Hill. The show also does fine work in establishing just how much Tyrion and Varys had their comfort zone back in King's Landing. 

From hot dusty land, to wintry and forboding climes. The Door showcases a number of powerful demises, and the most moving of these applies to the gentle semi-giant that is Hodor. Whilst never the deepest character, he was kind and loyal, and Bran is almost ruthless in making a choice that results in Hodor's brutal and slow death. There also is a temporal-paradox 'echo' generated, which causes the previously articulate 'Wylis' to lose his established persona. Whilst Bran and Meera manage to make a frenzied escape, the show mainly conveys a deep impression of how time and causality may actually not always be linear. The flashbacks that have been such a strength of this latest season take on a new dimension, as the younger version of Hodor is forced to see his eventual death as Bran wargs through him.

The preceding scenes at the Weirwood, and the escape through the tunnel are again evidence of how strong the production values are for the show. Another of the Night’s King's lieutenants/underlings is destroyed by dragonglass and the effect is riveting, but nonetheless there is a sense of tension and hopelessness, as the great Tree is no longer a haven. As the few remaining Children of the Forest are extinguished, The Door has already made the viewer feel conflicted about their fate. Many centuries ago, these supernatural beings created the White Walker race, as a defensive act against the men that invaded and threatened their territories. Foresight of the dangers to the wider world, and indeed their own race, had not factored into the Children's minds.

To see yet another direwolf perish is regrettable, and also somewhat needless as he does not manage to do much damage to more than a wight or two. But by this point in the show, it also is more than expected. Whilst in some respects a mere animal, 'Summer' will be missed, as again part of the Stark legacy is lost. Now only Ghost and Nymeria remain amongst the living of this striking family of animals.

There is some scope for hope, at least. Benjen Stark, who seemed to have been killed off long ago in the show’s timeline, is back - albeit not fully alive. He had been saved by the Children at some earlier point in time. In a contrast to the creation of the Night King, his wound from a Walker was prevented from spreading, thanks to the application of dragonglass. The actor who originally played him is back as well, and this is welcome. 

Whilst the resolution of Bran and Meera's run from certain death come across as yet another fortuitous escape in this show, it still works well enough.  Plenty of fire, fury, and chaos is displayed in the woods/wilderness, and there is the extra edge of this following on from the bizarre back-and-forwards flashes of history that swirl around Bran’s consciousness as he is pulled on a sled. The transition from one old man ‘stuck in a tree’ (played by the incomparable Max von Sydow) to a still not fully adult man is set to be one of the major factors in the closing stanzas of Game Of Thrones. Benjen clearly asserts how his nephew is crucial to standing up to the Night’s King. But will his lack of being 'ready'  be too great an obstacle?

*

In perhaps a welcome change up from intensity and sadness, the theatre scenes in Braavos involve a brilliantly twisted telling of some of the major events in Seasons One to Four. Another variation of Ned is witnessed on-stage, and the Northerner’s most stupid characteristics are exaggerated, and made into his sole defining traits. This is painful for Arya to watch, but even worse is the way that the infamous beheading is rendered for entertaining the crowd; complete with an unconvincing am-dram fake head rolling onto the stage – and the crowd’s mirth at this reminds the refugee noble woman of just how tarnished the Starks’ reputation is amongst most of the populace.

The performances of most of the stage players are truly engaging - to fictional audience member and TV viewer alike. 'Sansa' is a bit part, and actress Bianca being encumbered with such limitations is truly bitter. 'Tyrion' is played as a straight-up villain, but the dwarf stage actor behind him, whilst equally confident in his prospects with women, is far less charming than the real deal. He seems to get on well enough with Lady Crane - who portrays 'Cersei' exquisitely.  Whilst Crane is clearly the best of the bunch, Bianca is determined to seize the ‘opportunities' she has been 'denied' - even if that means resorting to help from the Faceless Men. Richard E Grant does well as apparent ‘head of the company' Izembaro; a man clearly needy of a good crowd, and colleagues who do not complain of “small parts”.

Arya is still being advised by Jaqen to kill another mark, with the mysterious mentor clearly stating there is no 'chance' of evading this assignment just because Crane is a 'good' person. But the younger Stark lady sees someone who makes Cersei a lot more sympathetic than the real article (who of course is still firmly on her 'kill list), and is clearly hesitant. Eventually she defies her orders as an 'assassin in the making' and does not allow the alcohol she herself laced with poison to be drunk, going on to make it clear that Bianca had her own deadly designs in getting a 'better' role. The Waif is clearly delighted that Arya still has not committed to the different 'morals' of the House of Black and White, and finally she can cause more than just a little pain to her nemesis. However, 'Needle' had been safely in hiding, and now is set to be used as a weapon once again. 

*

Travelling briefly to Molestown from Castle Black, Sansa is contemplating how to turn the kidnap of Rickon and the Bolton control of Winterfell into a reversal of fortunes. It certainly will not be easy. A plan is currently in progress with Jon, Davos and others trying to rally forces together against Ramsey.

Having had Littlefinger re-introduced in a manner showing his supreme self-confidence, it is gratifying to see Aidan Gillen remind us of how human and weak this man can be. Memories are stirred of the excellent ‘Power is Power’ scene from back in Season Two. It is also a great moment for Brienne, who was dismissed in such an off-hand fashion as having a ‘record of failure’, when she first tried to serve Sansa. Since that embarrassing low point, Sansa has been through hell courtesy of her despicably sadistic husband. Still Baelish is no fool, and came to Molestown with both news of the Blackfish’s mustering of forces at Riverrun. Thus Sansa's Uncle could help both her and Jon. Furthermore - as seen already in Episode Four -  Baelish has secured the aid of the Knights of the Vale, and they are encamped back at Moat Caitlin. Whether Sansa trusts her long-term advisor and 'protector' to let her use these warriors to her advantage is kept somewhat unclear.

*

Some military advantage can sometimes mean nothing at all. And the High Sparrow has managed to render a (seemingly serviceable) scheme by the Tyrells and Lannisters  - to retake the City - as nothing but ineffectual. With the King taken into the fold, and the people of the capital convinced that the Crown and the Faith combined is the way forward, two noble houses are made to look clueless. Of course for viewers there had been enough build-up of Margery's seeming assimilation (but most likely this is just her being calculating), and Tommen had for some time now given Pryce's overseer zealot a lot of chances to pour propaganda into his regal ear. The exclamation mark for the Tyrells' lack of control sees Olenna spell out to her slow-witted son Mace just how conclusively the High Sparrow has ‘beaten’ them.

The story does nice work in segueing from Jaime's humiliation as a dismissed member of Tommen's Kingsguard, to still being deeply in love with Cersei (and vice-versa), to some build-up with the situation over in Riverrun; where the Kingslayer is certain to feature in coming episodes. It is welcome to see Walder Frey and his sons again after a long break. Also, it still feels relatively easy to re-engage with the characterisations and portrayals of these shameless and cowardly opportunists. David Bradley is once again note-perfect, and his take on Walder is distinctly different from his contributions to both fictional and semi-biographical Doctor Who.


More than halfway through now the show continues to do well with its many components. This season has had a lot of material to cope with; such is both the source substance of the novels, and its own myriad threads. These two centre episodes have done fine work on exploring themes of respectively loss, fighting to regain one's 'rightful' land(s), supernatural power, as well as a nicely meta take on some of the more memorable political moments of the universally well-regarded earlier years of the show.





Game Of Thrones Season 6: Episodes Three + FourBookmark and Share

Thursday, 16 March 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Dany and Khals (Credit: HBO (IGN.com))


















3) Oathbreaker

4) Book Of the Stranger

STARRING: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham,
Carice Van Houten, Natalie Dormer, Alfie Allen, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Iwan Rheon
Aidan Gillen, Diana Rigg + Iain Glen 

WITH: Conleth Hill, Gwendoline Christie,
Julian Glover, Jacob Anderson, Daniel Portman, John Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hannah Murray, Gemma Whelan,
Finn Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Michiel Huisman,
Nathalie Emmanuel, Kristofer Hivju + Tom Wlaschiha

AND: Paul Rattray,  Ben Crompton, Joseph Naufahu,
Souad Faress, Hannah John-Kamen, Owen Teale, Art Parkinson, Anton Lesser, Natalia Tena, Faye Marsay, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ian Gelder, Brenock O'Connor, Hannah Waddingham,
Lino Facioli + Dean S. Jagger  

SPECIAL GUEST STAR: Max von Sydow (The Three-eyed Raven)

Showrunners + Producers: David Benioff + D.B. Weiss


Game of Thrones is now available on DVD, Blu Ray
and streaming services worldwide

The latest series of one of the most successful genre adaptations ever continues to progress in fine style with this pair of episodes. A key theme of the show, which I will bring in to focus, concerns different types of power.


Influence, reputation, and status are one manifestation of power. Paramount to this working is the element of respect. Dany began the season in a rather precarious position, being bound and at the mercy of Khal Moro, who had seemingly taken pride of place in Dothraki society over her late husband Drogo.

Despite being the key character that signifies the ‘fire’ aspect of the ‘song’, the Targaryen heir is forced to reside with fellow widows of fallen Khals. But she promptly seizes on an opportunity to try and extricate herself from either a humdrum and subservient existence, or an undignified demise. Luckily for her, she has two strong and skilled fighters, both utterly in love with her, and both not far away.

The Mormont/Daario dynamic has developed in enjoyably tense fashion, ever since ‘The Rains Of Castamere’. Then, Jorah realised he would never be able to win his Queen’s heart, even with tenfold the military victories of his much younger rival. To see them have a brittle alliance, designed to enable the rescue of their monarch, is engaging and produces some nicely understated moments of humour. One example comes when Daario seizes on a spare weapon that he had concealed carefully, and without which Mormont may well have perished. It had gone against a previous agreement that should they be apprehended, they needed to have no weapons found on them. Further, they have to cover their tracks as they look to infiltrate Vaes Dothrak. Looking to ensure that there is no ‘spilt blood’, Daario uses a handy rock to mash a stabbed Dothraki to pulp; complete with evocative sound effects..

Dany’s charisma is enough to get at least one temporary ally out of the Dosh Khaleen - her fellow widows and prisoners - and perhaps her plan to switch the balance of power would have worked regardless. However it no doubt a massive help for her that her rescuers block the one means of escape for the Khals. This also makes her exit through the flames, at the close of Episode Four, truly a stand out. Emilia Clarke plays the confrontation with Moro beautifully. As he spits out one venomous threat after another, she calmly stares him down, before proceeding to demonstrate just why “none” of these savage men are fit to serve as leaders of their people.

Clarke has long since declined to appear nude in the show again. Consequently a similar effect to that used for Cersei’s 'Walk Of Atonement' is implemented. The vision of the flame-defiant Queen, walking out of the inferno she herself created, ensures she has every last able and willing Dothraki on her side. That only Mormont does not completely bow, but instead attempts to look Dany in the eye is a very interesting moment. Then the question is begged - what future does she envision for someone like him?

As the ‘Fire’ consolidates another part of her wider army and reinforces her status, up at The Wall, the ‘Ice’ also is exerting some gravitas. Thanks to being reborn, Jon Snow is able to make the Night’s Watch stand up and pay attention, and the same applies to the Wildlings who he had once fought against so bitterly. Melisandre declares that Jon was brought back by the Lord of Light, and therefore Stannis was not the ‘promised Prince’ that she had first thought. Despite this being such a huge event, the show manages to also bring some levity to bear. Tormund – who has always been a quotable supporting character – makes fun of Jon’s "pecker", in trying to play down any kind of godlike powers. Edd is rather more shocked, but his line of " Are you sure that is still you in there?" also entertains in deadpan fashion.

In Episode Two, one of the men to betray Jon met with a bloody end thanks to the giant Wildling known as Wun Wun. However, there are still three officers, plus Jon’s former steward Olly, needing a comeuppance. The direction is strong here as we are teased with the possibility that perhaps the Lord Commander will accept the boy was misguided, and offer him one last chance. Perhaps this really is the case, but without source material from author G.R.R Martin it is hard to be sure. In the event though, the one survivor from the village massacre in Season Four is still resolute; he feels he was justified to keep opposing the Wildlings, even if that meant stabbing his devoted mentor. He makes only a determined scowl in terms of a response to Jon’s offering of a final statement. This is notably different to the others who respectively show disbelief, a wish for his mother to hear a different story concerning his death, and a proud declaration that their actions were just and fair. The last of these three officers to speak up is Alliser Thorne, and his enmity with Jon had been very well developed from the very first season. Owen Teale did very well, in what could have been a simplistic role. Whilst the character is not likeable, it does feel a loss in a way to see him killed off. 

The moment when Jon actually carries out the joint death sentences is shockingly stark and brutal, and evokes the same cold dispatch applied to Janos Slynt in Season Five. The sudden cut to the faces of the lynched men is a very disturbing moment, despite this being a show full of death. The funereal feel to the end of Oathbreaker is compounded, as Jon relinquishes control of the Night's Watch to Edd; the last true brother in black he can count on, at this point. Whilst Jon has more status than ever before by surviving a lethal attack on him, part of him seems to have died that cold night at Castle Black.

There is also a more brutally obvious illustration of power and respect, as Arya continues to suffer at the hands of the mysterious 'Waif'. When she is asked about the Hound, it is confirmed just how conflicted she was, when she left the former bodyguard of Joffrey to die in the wilderness. However, Arya has suffered enough pain, and impairment to one of the five senses. To her relief, she is granted her normal eyesight again. Perhaps the show has been doing more with these confrontations with the Waif - and philosophical conversations with Jaqen H'ghar - than simply checking on a storyline so far away from most of the others. If that is so, then just how this will all play out remains to be seen.

The material back in Mereen itself moves quite slowly, as Tyrion and Varys continue their efforts to outwit The Sons of the Harpy, and perhaps also find out just who is in charge. Some elements of respect are at work, but mainly it is a chess game, where a number of key moves have yet to play out. There is no doubt some set-up going on, but the scenes never breath full life and seem to  be a waste of two great actors in Hill and Dinklage. Tyrion may have secured a tentative alliance with the main leaders of the absent Dany’s enemies, but he seems just far too confident by his normally calculating standards. It is almost as if the wine, and the altitude of the Great Pyramid, has really got to his head. Grey Worm and Missandei are sensible enough characters, but it just seems a bit contrived for them to be clearly onto something in pointing out Tyrion’s supreme over-confidence.


Bran and Three Eyed Raven Observe Past Events (Credit: HBO/ Sky Atlantic)Power, in the sense of magical force, is most obviously featured in the way that Bran is trying to see the past actions of his father Ned. Thanks to the help of the aeons-old Three-Eyed-Raven, the second youngest Stark is able to be ‘present’ in another time zone, and even ‘heard’ by his father. It is truly welcome to see a version of Ned who was rather more upbeat and sure of himself, if admittedly arrogant here. Whilst Sean Bean’s portrayal of this pivotal character remains a highlight of the entire show, the character of Ned is still strong enough in his own right. These flashback scenes truly feel from a different period in time, and in Episode Three convey the sense of a kingdom being turned upside down with the Baratheon/Targaryen power struggle.

Despite his having supernatural power, Bran perhaps witnesses more than he would have liked. It transpires a combination of luck, and help from the injured Howland Reed, allows Ned to vanquish the “far better” Arthur Dayne in a swordfight. That the scene ends on a deliberate cutaway, concerning a Tower and the cries of Ned’s sister, begs the question when the resolution will come. After all, this is a show that has dragged out story arcs past more than a mere week or two many times previously.

Then there is powerful magic, that is suddenly granted to someone who previously had gifts of 'foresight', and the ability to help with an assassin in the form of a “shadow”. It is remarkable just how jaded Melisandre is, so far in this season. She clearly is an old soul (and a very old human as seen at the end of Episode One), and her questioning of Jon on what he saw works on several levels. The viewer is clearly aware of her weariness with life, and her concern she may have crossed a line in actually bringing a person back from the beyond.


Power can also be displayed through the almost intangible form of family ties, and love for one's relatives. It is a truly heart-warming moment when Jon and Sansa embrace - given their respective journeys. Yes, they had very little interaction in the early episodes of the series to begin with, but at this point with most Starks dead, missing or captured this feels like a justified moment of hope. Episode Four is quick to establish what an excellent dynamic these half siblings have together, and clearly more is to come in later episodes. It also shows how both Kit Harington and Sophie Turner have grown as performers. Loyal viewers can reflect how each has grown resilient, and able to survive the cruel reality of Westeros, with each passing Season.

The show perhaps missed a trick by not having a brief scene or two showing the difficult journey for Pod, Brienne and Lady Stark. Yet their tired and dirty faces perhaps invite the viewer to envisage their own mini-story privately. However, there has been plenty of excellent set-up for several years, with making viewers hate Ramsay. Thus Sansa’s urging to retake Winterfell will clearly drive on the season arc, as regards these characters.

In terms of family ties concerning the Lannisters and Tyrells, both dynasties remain frustrated by the machinations of the High Sparrow. Tommen and Cersei still struggle to have a setup that works for both of them, e.g. a simple visit to the resting place of daughter Myrcella, is made into a major obstacle for the Queen Mother. But later on, Tommen is able to notify Cersei that Margaery is due to face her own Walk of Atonement.

This is not the most welcome of news for the ‘Queen of Thorns’ (Diana Rigg), who already has found it galling that both her grandchildren remain in rags and in captivity. Clearly there is a need to deal with the High Sparrow and his minions, but the price may be steep. Olenna still believes it is worth it, and pragmatically proposes that the Sparrows be the main party to perish: "Better them than us."

When looking at this material set in Kings Landing, whilst it admittedly still revolves around political intrigue and family rivalry, sometimes it feels somewhat sparse. Although this latest season is doing quite well without any concrete source material, cracks can occasionally show. One example I can cite is a scene with the Small Council, where the Mountain’s intimidation of Pycelle (and others) was played for low brow laughs. This really should have been edited down, and the so-called humour kept for a ‘deleted’ DVD extra. It simply comes off out-of-place, considering how late in the ‘Game’ events are now.

More positively, the reunion scene of Yara and Theon Greyjoy is done very well. Whilst a bit of glossing over Theon’s escape from the forces of Ramsey and his allies is contrived, this passage of the show still offers solid drama, and character work. Initially Theon's sister is venomous in reminding him how he refused rescue (back in the middle of Season Four). But he eventually affirms that Yara "should rule the Iron Islands". This has added resonance, as moments before he was fighting back tears, in recounting the physical and mental toll Ramsey’s cruelty took on him.Osha and Rickon in Danger (Credit: Game of Thrones, HBO, Sky Atlantic)

And the new 'Lord Bolton' continues to unleash horrors of both immediate violence, as well as tactical intimidation. With these two episodes he has gained another ally in 'Small John' (Dean S. Jagger). This ally is notably brutal and cold, as well as unwilling to bend the knee. Whilst a small scene, in terms of being just another conversation, it still is a shock to see that Shaggydog, Osha and Rickon did not find long-term sanctuary. The kindly Umber who had backed Robb Stark has passed away, and his heir is nothing more than an opportunistic turn coat - betraying the people he had been entrusted to protect.

Clearly Ramsey will use Rickon as his main chess piece on the board to try and control Jon, but by also having a large percentage of the factions once loyal to Ned (and briefly also Robb), he clearly is the favoured party in the battle to come. Whilst Rickon's direwolf was put down off-screen, there is a rather disturbing on-screen exit for Osha. Despite being a capable fighter and streetwise, she just cannot outwit Ramsey, and she pays for it with a stab to the neck. 

The viewer hopes Rickon somehow will remain safe, but by the precedent of the show, it certainly does not look too promising.


Some of the more minor subplots in these episodes perhaps do not directly fit the three power categories. The journey of Gilly and Sam feels a touch like padding. The potential face off, between high-born Sam and his cruel father, however promises to bring some more involving drama to the show.

Whilst I pointed out the notable impact of the High Sparrow on the familial ties in the Capital, there is some rather ropey material for the very skilful Jonathan Pryce. He seems to be given screen time that delves into pointless back story. We know how he is mainly a fraud and confidence trickster. Whilst perhaps making viewers wonder if Margaery is under this fanatic's spell, there is rather too much evidence to suggest that she is just as scheming (if not more so). 

However, just the right amount of time is used to reintroduce Littlefinger, who has always been both memorable and well-played in equal measure. His quick manipulation of Robin Arryn, so as to scare Royce with the potential fate of the 'Moon Door, is a relatively brief scene. However it is beautifully played by all featured, and really puts the labored religious fanatic material at King's Landing into perspective.

On a final note, the music so far for this season has been superb. Some of the stunning material includes: Dany’s ascension in the flames, Jon's resignation as Lord Commander, the tension at the Small Council, and the chilling impact of Ramsey slaying someone that stands in his way.

 





LoganBookmark and Share

Saturday, 11 March 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Logan Movie Poster (Credit: www.traileraddict.com/logan-2017)
































 


  STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen,
Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez 
+ Richard E. Grant 

WITH: Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse, Al Coronel,
   Frank Gallegos, Anthony Escobar, Reynaldo Gallegos,  Krzysztof Soszynski, Stephen Dunlevy,
Daniel Bernhardt, Ryan Sturz 

AND: Jason Genao, Hannah Westerfield, Bryant Tardy,
   Ashlyn Casalegno, Alison Fernandez + Parker Lovein
 



DIRECTED BY: James Mangold

STORY BY: James Mangold
 

SCREENPLAY BY: Scott Fran , James Mangold, Michael Green

Executive Producer: Joe Caracciolo Jr.

Producers: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner
    
Executive Producers: Stan Lee, James Mangold, Josh McLaglen

 Co-Producers: Dana Robin, Kurt Williams

Music: Marco Beltrami

Cinematography: John Mathieson

Film Editing: Michael McCusker, Dirk Westervelt

Released: March 2017

 

Note - Some Spoilers Feature (with specific details kept to a minimum).

This final official outing for the Wolverine character - as played by the charismatic Hugh Jackman - finds the ferocious mutant living in New Mexico in 2029. His former X-Men comrades are no more, and there have been no more mutants sighted in the populace, for many a year. Logan is now showing his age, and his scars, with his healing superpowers clearly rudimentary, at this point. He makes a basic living as a limo driver, and lives over in a junkyard refuge. His companions are an aged and mostly senile Charles Xavier, who needs strong doses of medication to hold back the potentially destructive psychic powers that once were so stable, as well as ex-mutant-hunter Caliban (Stephen Merchant).

Logan knows deep down that his body is failing, but refuses to admit it to anyone. But then something else appears that diverts his internal self-pity - a mission to look after someone 'special', but vulnerable. Despite early misgivings, the Canadian-born ex-super-soldier agrees to safeguard Laura (Dafne Keen) who seemingly speaks only Spanish in brief quantities. Before long, it becomes clear just how dangerous a fighter she is, and why she is being targeted by the sinister Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his Reavers - an army of cyborg killers. Eventually, Laura's origins under the dark aspirations of Dr Rice (Richard E Grant) make themselves known, but with the added optimism that there may be a safe haven for not just her, but a whole clutch of young mutants that no one knows about in 'proper' society.


Having had such a strong trailer, it is a relief that the film proper mostly lives up to such lofty expectations. Despite what seemed to be suggested, there is still plenty of civilisation left on planet Earth. However, mutantkind is near extinct, and with this being essentially another in the X-Men franchise, the film has a real sense of emptiness and loss for much of its duration.

Further, this is a truly cynical grim and pessimistic version of the Wolverine character. Jackman has had this edginess before, but usually combined with some humour and everyman qualities. But this is very much someone who has been devastated by cataclysmic events, and is always ready to pop his claws out at the first opportunity. His uneasy friendship with Caliban, and somewhat brutish nursing of Xavier, shows just how close he has become to the animal inside.

Patrick Stewart has also confirmed that this film is his last in the role of Professor Charles Xavier. Since the beginning of the new century, Stewart and Jackman have come to embody the roles of Charles and Logan, and in a way that will be hard to overshadow any time soon - if ever.

The Professor we see in large portions of this film is frail, needy and somewhat of a liability. He has lost a good amount of control over his remarkably strong telepathic/telekinetic powers, and at times this renders humans, but especially mutants, utterly powerless around him as he has one of his ‘seizures’. Some of the film’s (notably truncated) budget went into these set pieces where Charles loses control. It was a wise move to make X-Men: The Last Stand lose some or most of its place in official continuity, including Xavier’s perfunctory death. Whilst he meets with a rather grim fate here, there is something poetic about it, and the writers even manage to slip in a nice little nod to Stewart’s biggest genre role - Captain Jean Luc Picard - when he is later buried.

Although there is much serious emotion, with melancholy, regret and a sense of friendship damaged, there is also hope, and some jokes at times. I really liked how X23 suddenly was able to talk, and following this 'switch' many of her lines had a quick punch to them; perhaps reflecting her disconcertingly brutal fighting style. The various bickering moments between Logan and his former mentor from the 'School for Gifted Youngsters' never gets tiresome. Indeed it can be very funny, with an extra dimension of this being an 'uncle/nephew' dynamic for those who faithfully followed the different X-Men films over the years. And, as one would expect, Merchant has terrific comic timing, thus making the viewer quickly care for Caliban, even if the character as written is somewhat flat in comparison to the main three leads.                                                                                                    
The villains are quite good, when taking into account that they are not really intended to be the focus. Pierce – complete with Terminator-esque metal hand - never is given a definitive speech, or something truly memorable to do in the action scenes. And yet Holbrook breathes full life into this creepy stalker of our heroes, coming off as both deeply unpleasant and remarkably persistent. He also makes for a fine lieutenant barking orders, and barely bats an eyelid should most of his men get chopped down, or he himself faces a bomb about to explode in his face. That he is ultimately not bested by Logan but a group of untested children 'fighters', who are still far from mastering their ‘uncanny' powers is nicely ironic.

Logan And Charles (Credit: http://www.blastr.com/)I find Richard E Grant an actor who can sometimes grate, but the slimier or more self-serving a character he plays, the better he convinces me. Here he is cast well, as the deranged scientist who believes he can use mutation as a carefully controlled 'benefit' for 'normal' society. He is rather overconfident of his gravitas, and certainly lets his guard down near the end. Much of the film’s core plot rests on the influence of this character, and by having him kept to the background in the earlier exposition - glimpsed on video fragments - Grant is used just to the right degree to be fully effective.

However the most chilling and formidable foe is a bestial, superpowered version of Logan himself. This gives Jackson a chance to play something totally irredeemable, and there is seamless technology used to bring our lead actor into the same frame for prolonged patches of action in the film. The final showdown between X24 and Wolverine is a brutally visceral one. Also, in keeping with the core theme of the story - its outcome does not totally rest in the hands of the title character.

4DX is one of the ways to enjoy the film (with IMAX and 3D being others). The screening i went to was a first for me, where punters were firmly instructed to leave their heavy items at the front, just under the main screen. And with good reason. For a two-hours-plus film, this often felt like one of the family ‘experience’ rides that feature at a theme park - except stretched out to the maximum. Whilst a little gimmicky, it still added to a film that already was engaging audience’s intellect and feelings. In this case, emphasising the physicality side of the film was not such a bad idea.

Logan is a generally successful action movie and definitely up there with the best of Marvel's output. The simple story allows this to be a great character piece, but sometimes the film's pacing feels just a touch laboured. A lot of characters make strange decisions, and given how powerful the children in the final act prove to be, it almost could be argued that Logan's sacrifice was something of a waste. The final confrontation is truly adrenaline-rushed, and emotionally gripping, however. The key to this movie is the grizzled veteran finding a person in his life, who is as close to being his own child as he ever could have hoped. And their bonding is played in note-perfect fashion. When viewed through the lens of this strong familial emotion, this would be a much poorer film if the door was still left hanging for Jackman to return.


FINAL SCORE - Four Stars out of Five:

This is a rip-roaring tale of good versus evil, structured as part-Western, part-road-movie. It is essential viewing for Marvel fans, and especially for admirers of the X-Men's uncontested figurehead.





The Avengers - The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 28 February 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two (Credit: Big Finish)
2.1 Playtime is Over by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
2.2 The Antagoniser by Paul Moris and Simon Barnard
2.3 The Mad Hatter by Matt Fitton
2.4 The Secret Six by John Dorney

Starring Julian Wadham and Olivia Poulet
with Lizzie Roper, Michael Keane, Kiruna Stamell,
Andrew Wincott, John Banks, Richard Earl,
Michael Lumsden, Paul Kemp, Eve Webster,
Maggie Service, Paul Chahidi, John Voce,
Terry Molloy, Ozzie Yue, George Asprey,
Jonathan Telfer, Anita Booth

Directed by Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released in November 2016 by Big Finish Productions

Big Finish’s The Avengers ranges offer not only an opportunity for listeners to imagine themselves visiting the 1960s, but for the 1960s to visit them. In this case four stories originally published in D.C. Thomson’s girls’ comic Diana are developed for Big Finish’s older audience and for the auditory instead of visual medium. In doing so they acquire an extra level of knowingness while remaining aware of their roots.

The four stories all draw on familiar girls’ story concepts. Playtime is Over draws on the mystique of the circus and the possibility that some children might not be who they say they are. The Antagoniser is a story about doing harm to animals. The Mad Hatter is about a princess in danger. The Secret Six is about a fancy dress ball which gets very out of hand. All these settings suit the exaggerated, boldly-drawn and brightly-coloured world of the Steed and Peel Avengers, as well as source material where Emma Peel is presented very much as an aspirational heroine for a child readership.

Julian Wadham is a more earnest, straighter Steed than the role’s television originator Patrick Macnee, and similarly Olivia Poulet is a less wry Emma Peel than Diana Rigg, with a tendency to sound a little more exasperated by her experiences. However, these changes arise not only from casting different performers but from the change of medium. Listening to the Big Finish adaptatins, one realises how visual an experience The Avengers was, particularly once it was on film and the budgets seemed to increase every year. There’s no point in a raised eyebrow when the listener can’t see it. The challenge is to find a new way of communicating the tone.

These adaptations succeed to varying levels. Playtime is Over launches the set, but is the most awkward, perhaps because of its subject matter, adults of restricted height masquerading as children to commit crimes. They are generalised in the script as ‘dwarfs’ but one is played with a high voice slightly reminiscent of popular 1960s comedian Jimmy Clitheroe, suggesting a different condition. The effect is disturbing on more levels than perhaps intended. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to draw attention to nominative determinism as an eccentric feature of one family in this story, when it clearly prospers in other families too elsewhere in the set. However, there is a pleasing reversal towards the end and several performances to enjoy too.

The other three stories are less troublesome. The Antagoniser is at first reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as domesticated animals turn on humanity, but broadens into satire on familiar 1960s targets such as the television personality and the possibilities of mind control. The Mad Hatter and The Secret Six are both reliant to a great deal on that mid-60s Avengers staple, the comedy foreign accent, which can also make one wince. However, the vocal talents of the cast are impressive. Particularly evocative of time and place is Richard Earl’s Dr Verbatim in The Antagoniser, in a part which one could imagine Colin Jeavons playing in a similar fashion in the 1960s; and Maggie Service as Princess Helga in The Mad Hatter embodying – envocalising? – assumptions of mutual incomprehension and struggles with English, but also bewitching hints of sexual freedom, which seem to have peppered the British view of continental Europe between the Second World War and entry into the European Economic Community.   

The bane of fan reviews, I once read, was the paragraph towards the end which began ‘As for the sets and costumes…’ and I fear that where modern audio productions are concerned the equivalent phrase is ‘As for the sound design…’ Writing of which, there are several highlights, from the Steed and Mrs Peel’s apparent sabre duel (actually attacking a champagne bottle) in Playtime is Over; to the escape in The Antagoniser from angered, stampeding Ayrshire cows (though surely given where the comic strips were originally published they should have been Angus cattle?); to the horse chase in The Secret Six. Most of the music is cheerily Laurie Johnsonesque though not all, and this is just as well for these stories are not strictly speaking in Brian Clemens’s Avengerland but a place close enough to it for there to be policemen and working class characters. Then again, the (literally) highly-flown praise for British engineering (with of course appropriate sound effects) in track four of Playtime is Over made me think the writers were selling 1960s British industry to a 1960s American audience via the ABC network rather than remaking 1960s pop culture through the downloads and CDs of the 2010s.

The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two is a self-aware box set, scattered with jokes about the medium and the producers’ other wares. It’s mostly pleasant listening so long as one recognises that this is its own The Avengers and can’t be a recreation of the best of the Steed and Mrs Peel era. I hope that this isn’t the end and that the rights to the TV Comic strips are also available.