Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 3 (2010)

A lot of people seem to love Breaking Bad, but I find myself a bit ambivalent about it.  The main reason for that is pretty simple: I find Walter White a repellent and reprehensible individual.  It's hard to thoroughly engage with a show where I dislike the protagonist quite so much.  At least for me, ol' Walt lacks any of the charisma or empathetic traits that might make his deeply narcissistic self more tolerable.  I mean, even Dexter Morgan and Frank Underwood at least know that they're bad people.  Walt, on the other guy, is convinced he's the hero and that the world owes him something for the (admittedly tough) hand he's been dealt.

What I'm saying is that when your script has hired killers plotting to murder your main character and my main reaction is irritation that they won't succeed, there may be a problem.

So why does this season still get a qualified recommendation?  Well mainly because of the second half of its run, where it seems like Walter finally starts to try and act a bit less like a jerk.  I mean sure, his motives for doing so are still pretty selfish, but we can't have everything.

And you know, there are other characters in the show than Walt, and they're often a good deal more likeable than he is, so I can watch and enjoy their stories, and lament at the inevitable pain they suffer whenever their lives intersect with that of this horrible, horrible individual.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Power Rangers (2017)

A group of variously troubled or outcast teens stumble across an ancient spaceship, where the electronically-stored consciousness of an alien warns them that the Earth is in immediate peril of destruction.  They have 11 days to unlock the secret of the morphing field and embrace their destiny as the planet's protectors: The Power Rangers.  If they fail, everything goes boom.

I've seen a lot more films at the cinema in 2017 than in a typical year: about 20.  Many of those films have lived up to my expectations, while several have fallen short, either because they simply weren't as good as I'd hoped (Beauty and the Beast, John Wick 2) or because they were a cinematic blight that further defiled the corpse of a once great franchise (Alien: Covenant).

Only one film, on the other hand, proved to be markedly better than I expected it to be.  I freely admit that in this regard, Power Rangers had a pretty low bar to clear.  I was expecting maximum cheese and endless toy shilling.  Instead I got The Breakfast Club with robot dinosaurs and alien superpowers.  And how could I not enjoy that?

Power Rangers offers up an engaging cast, a scenario that the characters always treat as serious even when the details might be a little goofy (the villain's name is Rita Repulsa, after all), and is a genuinely fun SF action movie.  Sure, it's not going to be to all tastes, but if you're at all a science fiction fan, it's certainly a far better way to spend two hours than say Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  I'm pleased to hear that toy sales and a strong showing on home media might be enough to justify a sequel.  I'd certainly hit the theatre again if there is one.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Orphan Black, Season 4 (2016)

Season 3 of Orphan Black had some issues with cohesion.  The plot-line revolving around one of the 'core four' clones felt very divorced from that of the other three.  This season does a much better job of getting all of the quartet interacting on the same things, and ironically it does so by revealing a lot more to us about a fifth clone: the dead police officer Beth, whose suicide was pretty much the opening act of the entire show.

I'm generally pretty wary of the "now let's flashback and show a bunch of stuff that happened a long time ago" as a story-telling technique, as it can often be a pretty heavy-handed and clumsy way of changing the meaning of past story events in order to correct a story that has gone off course.  In this case though, it works well: the events that are revealed generally reinforce the plot direction taken at the end of the last season.  That plot direction wasn't one I felt was all that well set-up back then, but I have to admit it was probably smarter to leap into it before doing all this flashback material, so good call by the show's writers on that front.

As always, the cast remains very strong.  Tatiana Maslany has rightly been lauded for her work on the show, but she is ably supported by pretty much everyone she works with here.  The casting is a real benefit to the show.

Fingers crossed that the fifth and final season will deliver a solid ending to what has been an enjoyable show over the past four series.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Salt (2010)

Evelyn Salt is a well-regarded CIA agent who suddenly finds herself accused of being a Soviet-era mole from the KGB.  Fearing for her husband's life - "when they try to burn you, the first thing they do is burn your family" - she breaks out of CIA custody and goes on the run.  Or that's what she claims is her motivation, anyway.  The people chasing her, of course, can't take the luxury of assuming she's on the level.  Certainly not with the life of the visiting Russian president on the line ...

I saw Atomic Blonde a few months ago.  It was a stylish action movie with a strong female lead, and plenty of secret agent high jinks and double crosses.  It was also ultimately a bit unsatisfying to me, because no matter how great the fight choreography or how enjoyable Charlize Theron's performance was, the film was an extended exercise in technical sophistication obscuring narrative weakness.  None of the characters' motivations or actions make a lick of sense, and the movie just seems to hope that a thumping 80s soundtrack and Theron being a bad-ass will distract you from that fact.

I mention all this because Salt is another spy action film with a tough female lead and plenty of double crosses.  On the other hand, the motivations and actions of the characters in this film make sense.  Or at least, make sense if one is willing to accept the basic "let's re-create the Cold War" motivations of the bad guys.  Which is admittedly quite a lot to swallow.

Salt is not a film that offers a transformative cinematic experience.  But it is a solidly crafted modern day espionage movie and overall a pretty entertaining watch in a pretty clearly James Bondian mold.  I'd certainly be more interested in seeing Salt 2 than Atomic Blonde 2, a stale Jason Bourne sequel, or - for that matter - yet another Bond movie.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

House of Cards, Season 4 (2016)

I generally watch shows and write their reviews 6-10 weeks before the reviews actually get posted.  Normally that doesn't really matter, but in this case there were some rather ugly revelations about leading actor Kevin Spacey that will inevitably cast a deep shadow over this show.  With the exception of this paragraph and one edit in the final paragraph (which I've marked as such), this review remains as I originally wrote it, before the news about Spacey became known.

Frank Underwood is President of the United States, which you'd think would be a pretty sweet position to occupy, but it's proving a thorny throne indeed.  He's fighting a bitter selection battle within his own party, and even if he prevails in that he's staring down the barrel of a formidable Republican candidate in the younger, more glamorous William Conroy.  It's really not a good time for reporters to be sniffing around some of his shadier past dealings, or for his relationship with his wife - usually the main foundation of his strength - to be on the rocks.

But there's an old saying about never backing a rat into a corner, and when the chips are down, Frank is certainly as mean as rattus rattus, and might well be at home in a pack of James Herbert's murderous, man-eating rodents.

A couple of times in the past I have praised the US House of Cards for taking a longer form approach to story telling than that of the UK original, because I felt that Francis Urquhart (as he was named in that version) had things go his way rather too easily, overall.  The risk of such longer form tales though is that they can begin to collapse under their own weight, and I think the structure of House of Cards is definitely starting to look a bit shaky here in its fourth season.  The need to "outdo" what has come before in terms of bastardry and machination is definitely starting to tell on the series overall plausibility.

Now if you're a fan of the show, (edit) and you're not completely put off by the recent news about Spacey, (end edit) then I still think it is worth watching, even at this stage.  The performances remain strong, and there is certainly some black humour to be found in the various sordid events.  But the shine has gone off the show just a little.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The 47 Ronin (1962)

This is my third review of a film based on the 47 Ronin in as many weeks, so hopefully you are familiar with the basic plotline by now.  But if not, you can always go read one or the other of them, because I'm not going through it in detail again.

This is the 1962 Japanese version of the tale, which went under the title ChÅ«shingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki in its home country.  Don't be fooled by the "starring Toshiro Mifune" byline on the cover, by the way.  He is in the film, but it is a relatively minor role: he's not even one of the 47.

First things first: I have in the past made some affectionate jabs about the length of Seven Samurai.  That film clocks in at over three hours but the key thing about it is that it earns your attention for that time.  This film is every bit as long, but for my money it rather fails at the "earning it" part.  It's just long, rather than epic.

So we've got your standard set-up for the tale here, with the samurais' lord falling foul of a rival and being forced to commit seppuku.  This film spends longer on that than the other adaptations have, but then it spends longer on everything.  Frankly, for all that the rival is kind of a jerk, it's hard as a 21st century westerner to feel much sympathy for the lord: it's explicitly his pride that leads to his fall and while he makes a big deal of talking about how he hates corruption, he's also very wealthy.  It's easy to be scornful of "gift giving" when you're drowning in cash already.

But of course these characters aren't 21st century westerners and despite the fact that the lord put his own personal honour ahead of the well-being of his family and retainers, his samurai begin a long and involved plot to kill the rival and reclaim their lord's honour.  The film doesn't do a very good job of explaining why the plot is so long and involved, mind you: the rival doesn't seem that well protected at first, and it is only later that he accumulates an army of bodyguards in his newly-built, fortress like house.

Slow-paced, with too many characters doing too similar things to each other, this film is interesting as a native interpretation of the story, but it's not actually something I can recommend as a movie.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Nikita, Season 3 (2012)

The first two seasons of Nikita dealt with her (and her allies) battle to bring down Division, the ultra-secret covert ops organisation that took care of the missions too sensitive (and often too immoral) for public agencies like the CIA to handle.

Now in the third season Nikita's group find themselves leading Division, at least on a temporary basis.  Their remit: to close out the ongoing operations, bring the agents home, and close the organisation for good.  Of course, not all of those aforementioned agents are going to accept the change of regime.

It took me a long time to complete this season: I watched the first ten episodes and then it took me about two months to bother getting around to the rest.  That "eh I'll get to it later" reception sure isn't a good sign, and it's thus no surprise that I've slapped a "not recommended" tag on this review.  But what are the reasons I cared so little?

Well, there are several related problems at work.  But mainly it's an issue of competence.  The continued decay of Alexandra continues, with her only glimmers of capability being when she's executing a plan that was brainwashed into her by the villain.  "Only good at screwing up" is not really a by-line you want for a character who is supposed to be an elitely-trained secret agent.

The villain is also a competence problem.  Having been treated as basically outclassed in season two (where she was manipulated and ousted from leading Division by another villain), and then forced on the run when Nikita's group took over, she is now somehow outwitting them at almost every turn.  Having setbacks for your heroes is fine.  Having setbacks when they seem to hold all the cards - such as an elite cadre of agents with a well funded and equipped base - just kinda makes them look like chumps.  The show does eventually reveal that the villain has the backing of an even more secret, even more powerful group, but it's too little too late, particularly when said group's agenda is so "what a twist!"-tastic that I'm kind of mordibly curious to see what contortions the show will go through in season four to justify it.  Eventually.

Also: I really dislike the pose they've forced Lyndsy Fonseca into for the DVD cover.  Symptomatic of the whole treatment of her character, really.