Friday, 25 May 2018

The Big Bang (2010)

Three cops interrogate a private investigator.  The man is blind due to a recent head injury, but they refuse him medical attention until he answers their questions about his current case.  Obviously no love is lost between them.

With much reluctance, and no small amount of hard-to-understand-mumbling, the PI begins to recount his search for an ex-con's female pen pal, which somehow evolves into a case involving thirty million in conflict diamonds and a scientific research project similar to the Large Hadron Collider.

So when you look at the cast of this film, you might be tricked into being hopeful about it.  I mean sure, Antonio Banderas hasn't done anything notable in a long time, and Sienna Guillory was the worst thing in the Resident Evil films that featured her ... but Sam Elliot! Delroy Lindo! Jimmi Simpson!  These are talented people.

Alas, your hopes will be futile.  Although the film dearly wants be a new "Usual Suspects", it doesn't get within shouting distance of that lofty goal.  This is mainly the faulty of the script, which is witless and absurd, and then compounds those flaws by being smug and affectedly intellectual.

Boring and self-important nonsense, the highlight of which seeing former WWE superstar The Kurrgan in a supporting role.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

House of Cards, Season 5 (2017)

The House of Cards finally comes crashing down in its fifth season.

It would certainly be fair to say that the show has had structural wobbles before this, but up until now they've managed to shuffle the deck fast enough to more or less make up for it.  Unfortunately, even the quickest hands will fumble eventually, and they certainly do so here.

The basic plot arcs they season covers sound reasonable in and of themselves: the resolution of an increasingly acrimonious presidential election, and then the challenge Frank Underwood faces as it becomes increasingly clear that he cannot cover up his many nefarious activities forever. 

Instead, the problem is the pacing.  The election arc goes on way beyond the point that I just wanted it to be over (also true of real US elections, and I don't even live there!), while the latter plotline is abbreviated by its late start and therefore gallops along at breakneck speed, crashing through several major interpersonal relationship changes in the process.  It all ultimately makes for an unsatisfying watching experience, even while the on-screen performances continue to be good.

Netflix have announced one more season of the show to wrap it up.  Season six will be shorter, at only eight episodes; and entirely it eliminates Frank, to focus on his wife Claire (Robin Wright).  Honestly, these changes are the only reason I am at all interested in checking out the final season: the previous structure of the show seems pretty much exhausted at this point, and I doubt I would bother checking out another season of Frank's antics.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Ninja Cheerleaders (2008)

Three beautiful, brainy college cheerleaders - who also happen to expertly-trained ninjas - moonlight as go-go dancers at the local strip club in order to raise sufficient money to attend an Ivy League school.

The strip club in question is owned by the trio's ninja master, and when he is kidnapped and their hard-earned nest egg stolen by a recently paroled mob boss, they swing into (poorly choreographed and performed) action.

Ninja Cheerleaders suffers from a number of issues.  One of these is an identity crisis.  98% of the film is a goofy, PG-13 comedy.  There's no blood, little bad language, and despite working in a strip club the main cast never lose their underwear.  But then there are random scene breaks of a gyrating topless dancer.  It's a bit like the film-makers made the movie and then decided it wouldn't work without some gratuitous skin.  In actual fact, the gratuitous skin doesn't make it work any better.

The film's second issue - or actually issues - is its technical deficiencies.  I've already mentioned that the action scenes are badly done, and so are the stripping scenes and the cheerleading scenes.  Basically anything that requires physical activity is a bit rubbish.  But that's okay, because the acting's not really very good either, so the non-physical scenes are also a bit rubbish, which at least keeps everything at the same level, I guess.  Not that even great performances could have saved the script, which is badly structured, rarely funny when it wants to be, and fails to follow through on plot lines it introduces.  Will one woman's adversarial relationship with her mom's boyfriend matter to the story?  Nope.  Will the cheerleading coach's crush on the same woman ever matter?  Nope again!  Will the theme of them being strong, independent women who don't need men to look after them at least be carried through to the climax of the film?  Hell nope!

To be 100% honest, I could probably overlook all the many, many deficiencies of this film if it actually managed to be fun.  There are many deeply flawed films I have thoroughly enjoyed.  But Ninja Cheerleaders is not just a bad film, it's a boring one.  And there's no coming back from that.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

M*A*S*H, Season 1 (1972)

As the Korean War remains locked in a grinding deadlock, there is a constant flow of casualties that makes a mockery of the seemingly interminable peace talks.  The first point of triage and treatment for the injured as Mobile Army Surgical Headquarters: MASH units.  Unless you've been under a rock for the last forty-some years, you probably know that this show concerns itself with the antics and experiences of the men (and to a much lesser extent, women) of one such unit.

Frequently farcical, sometimes poignant, M*A*S*H is one of the most successful, well-known comedies in television history.  It ran for 11 seasons, which means it lasted about 3 times as long as the actual war on which it is based, and the movie-length finale remains the highest-rated single television broadcast in U.S. history, some 35 years after it aired.

Given all of the above, you might be surprised to see the "Not Recommended" tag on this review.  Allow me to explain.

As renowned and successful as M*A*SH undoubtedly is, it is very much a product of its time.  Many of the characters are frankly quite unappealing people (even if they're also quite charismatic), and the depiction of gender relations is awful.  Male infidelity is treated as expected and ordinary, and the-not-quite-promises they make in pursuit of young women as a source of comedy.  "Ha ha!  He led her to think they had a future together, and then lied that he was married so he could break it off!  Such japes!".  Yes, I am sure that many men did cheat on their wives while overseas for years on end, and that many lies were told in the process, but that doesn't mean the show should depict them as "just a bit of fun".  Quite a few scenes in this season left me feeling very uncomfortable in a way that the writers clearly did not intend.

Oh, and let's not forget the many instances of using homosexuality as a punchline.  Those wacky gays, it's funny to make jokes about beating them up, right?  No, show, it is not right.

Some might argue that it is unfair to judge a show from 45 years ago by modern sensibilities, but I'm not one of them: I won't give a 1930s film a pass for its terrible racial elements, either.

Despite my overall negative opinion of this season, there are some funny and/or touching episodes here.  I'll call out "Tuttle" as a great bit of farce and "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet" on the poignant side.  Unfortunately, at least for this season, the bad outweighs the good in my books.

Friday, 11 May 2018

All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

When head cheerleader Alexis dies in a training accident, formerly anti-cheerleader film student Maddie (who actually captured the fatal accident on her camera) tries out for the squad.  "Lexi was my friend too" she notes.

Maddie wins her way onto the squad - and into the affections of its new leader Tracy - but she has a secret agenda behind her sudden change of heart.  An agenda that might prove a lot more dangerous to her and her new team-mates than any of them imagine.  Though as it happens, not even death might be enough to stop these cheerleaders from getting some payback ...

All Cheerleaders Die is a somewhat uneven film.  Sometimes this is quite deliberate - it makes frequent use of whiplash-like changes of mood to punctuate events, for instance - but other times it just comes down to a lack of consistent execution.  There are some presumably-meant-to-be-funny moments that aren't, for instance; as well as pacing issues.  Parts of the film drag a bit, while there are other sections where it sprints through plot points rather too fast.  It's also a film with rather nastier violence-against-women themes than its raunchy comedy-horror demeanour first suggests, which may well not be to all tastes.  Said violence is always depicted as bad, but it's fairly confronting in its execution.

If you've got a reasonably strong stomach for the type of content it includes, and an appreciation for black comedy, this film might raise a cheer from you.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Warehouse 13, Season 1 (2009)

When relaxed, "vibe"-driven Secret Service Agent Pete Lattimer and his much more controlled, by-the-book colleague Myra Bering thwart an apparent attack on the President, the last thing they expect is to be ordered to the wilds of South Dakota.  Once there, however, they discover the closely-guarded secret of Warehouse 13.  You see, items that are important to particularly noteworthy people can develop seemingly supernatural powers (though as their new boss notes, "Radio would seem like magic" to those that don't understand it).  These powers make the items - known as "artefacts" to the Warehouse 13 crew - dangerous to leave out in the world, and it is now Myka and Pete's job to get out there, find the dangerous objects, and bring them back for safe-keeping.

Of course, it's hard to completely conceal the existence of artefacts, and there are plenty of people out there who would go to considerable lengths to own a sword that can make you invisible, or a cloak that lets you walk through walls.  And if those people knew of the warehouse itself ... well, a whole building full of artefacts would have to make a very tempting target!

Warehouse 13 is a light, science fiction-themed investigative drama about the wacky hijinks that inevitably result of chasing objects with weird powers, and tangling with the people who own (or want) them.  Whether it's Edgar Allen Poe's pen, Lucretia Borgia's hair pin, or a goblet belonging to an ancient Roman emperor, every item comes with its own (often deadly) challenges to recovery.

So now you know what it is, is in any good?  Well, to be honest, the show's scripts - at least in this opening season - are workmanlike but not exceptional.  Fortunately, the cast are all strong, and make even the more mediocre plots into entertaining diversions.  If you're in the market for something that's tonally similar to Castle, Eureka (with which it actually has a crossover in a later season) or Leverage, then you should probably at least give it a shot.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Black Swan (2010)

Nina Sayers is a dedicated if rather tightly-wound ballet dancer who is in the running for the lead role in her company's new production of Swan Lake.  Unfortunately, while she is a technically excellent performer, she struggles to shed her inhibitions and embrace the sensuality that is needed to portray the Black Swan.

Enter Lily, a much less disciplined but also far less inhibited dancer, a newcomer to whom Nina is irresistibly drawn even as she grows ever more alarmed that Lily might steal the role from under her.  As the pressures mount, Nina's never strong mental health begins to suffer.  How much of what is happening is in her head?  How much is real?  What will Nina do in order to defend the role she desires so badly?

Director Darren Aronofsky previously examined the nature of destructive obsession in The Wrestler, and while the specific details of the two films are very different; ballet vs pro-wrestling, a young dancer seeking her breakthrough role vs an over-the-hill former star chasing the memories of his past; the themes are certainly similar.

Perhaps to some extent, which film you prefer might depend on which resonates more with you, but for me the nod easily goes to The Wrestler.  The struggles and mistakes of the protagonist in that film simply feel more grounded and 'real'.  With Black Swan, I was left feeling I'd seen this story done, and done better, before.