Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Burn Notice, Season 5 (2011)

Season five begins with things looking pretty rosy for Michael Westen.  He's got his professional life back in order, and - perhaps rather more surprisingly, given he's far less capable there than on the job - even his personal life is going great.

Of course you don't get a happily ever after at the start of a season, so I don't think I'm exactly spoiling anything when I say that Michael's life is about to be filled with a whole bunch of new complications, from enemies he didn't even know he had.

Burn Notice is one of those shows with a specific story arc promise at its core, but unlike a lot of such programs *cough*Lost*cough* it does a good job of actually evolving that core premise over time.  Each season has felt like a pretty natural and productive step on Michael's journey.

Do you sense a 'but', coming?  Because yeah, this is the first time where things start to feel a bit stretched.  Just how many layers of conspiracy are there going to be, anyway?  Given there are two more seasons, I'm figuring at least one.

Now this is not to say that this isn't still a fun or enjoyable show.  It is, though after eighty episodes, the basic heist structure of each episode is starting to get a tiny bit worn.  On the other hand, this is the last season I saw when the show was originally airing, so maybe when I watch next season with whole new episodes I'll be happy as a clam once more.

The upshot is, that this is a pretty decent 18 episodes of TV.  And if it doesn't feel quite up to the seasons before it, well, it's hardly uncommon for a show to wear down a little over time, is it?

Friday, 16 February 2018

White Lightning (1973)

Gator McKlusky is doing time for running moonshine when word comes that his younger brother - smart, studying at college, and not involved in anything illegal - has been murdered.  McKlusky is willing to do anything to strike back at the men who killed his kin: even make a deal with the authorities and betray his fellow whiskey-runners if it means he can get revenge on the corrupt Sheriff who ordered his brother's death.

Of course, the Sheriff hasn't successfully overseen a major booze-smuggling operation and all around circle of corruption without learning a few tricks about how the world works, and he's not going to readily accept the newcomer in town when his contacts are telling him that the Feds have his organisation in their sights.

Neither side will pull any punches as the wily sheriff and the vengeful ex-con face off.  There'll be gunfights, fisticuffs and car chases aplenty, along with all the consequential damage those sort of things cause.

The first thing I'll say about White Lightning is that it's probably not a good idea to think of Gator as "the good guy" here.  This is not a film that has "good guys", really.  Some people are worse than others, but at the end of the day almost everyone in the film is self-centered and out for their own interests.  Gator is a liar and a philanderer, for instance, and given the choice between hurting an enemy and helping a friend, you can be pretty sure he will plump for column A every time.  He's the hero of the piece only in comparison to the people he's up against.

If slightly-sleazy 1970s anti-heroes are your bag, this is probably worth your time.  Otherwise, I think there are plenty of better action movie alternatives out there.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Magnum P.I., Season 8 (1987)

As I noted in my review, season seven was originally intended to be Magnum's last hurrah.  This eighth season was in fact only confirmed right as production of season seven was wrapping up, and then suffered scheduling issues - Tom Selleck having taken on other jobs when he thought the show was ending - that reduced the number of episodes to only 13 instead of the usual 22.

These factors may be why this season feels a little unfocused, especially compared to the last.  The writing staff wove consistent themes of maturity and responsibility throughout season seven, giving it a coherent 'feel' that this series rather lacks.  Instead, season eight returns to the much more scattershot tone of earlier seasons, with the deeply grim ("Unfinished Business") and the deeply goofy ("Legend of the Lost Art", which plays with the fact that Selleck was the original casting choice for Indiana Jones) interspersed with each other seemingly at random.

Despite feeling a bit weaker than the season immediately before it, however, this is still a fun set of shows when the episodes are looked at individually.  The show reportedly had an excellent sense of camaraderie amongst cast and crew (much as the seemingly immortal Supernatural does today) and you certainly get the sense that they had fun making the program, which helps buoy things along.

I'm glad I watched Magnum P.I. again as an adult.  It was a more complex, varied and ambitious show than we tend to remember it being, and if not every episode was a winner, it was still pretty dependably entertaining television over its eight year run.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Dick Tracy (1990)

There's more or less open warfare in the underworld as "Big Boy" Caprice makes a play to become the Boss of the city.  The only man who can stand in his way is incorruptible detective Dick Tracy.  But Tracy has a few problems of his own.  His obsessive approach to his work is undermining his relationship with his girlfriend, and now there's sultry femme fatale Breathless Mahoney on the scene, offering to provide the evidence he wants if only he'll choose her instead.

Sometimes, a film is less than the sum of its parts, and this is definitely one of those times.  Accomplished director/star Warren Beatty has assembled an exceptional cast (and Madonna, though to be fair her performance is solid), and gone to great lengths to capture the visual style of the original artist.  The film also has great set and costume design, utilising only a handful of colours in a deliberate effort to evoke its comic strip origins.

Unfortunately, the cast and visuals can't save the script.  In part this is because they actively work against each other.  Robert De Niro is a fine actor, but when you make him unrecognisable with prosthetics and then have him mumble every line, you're not really getting the full effect.  Yes, I know that's the character he's playing, but maybe don't cast him in that role, yeah?

Another big problem is the script, which is rather unimaginative and didactic.  It tells us Dick Tracy loves Tess Trueheart, but it doesn't do much of a job of showing it, and a lot of the character beats in the film are either similarly crude.  I know the source material isn't exactly sophisticated stuff, with its physically deformed criminals like The Brow or Little Face, but in this regard the film really needed to try a little harder.

Ultimately, Dick Tracy is worth checking out if you're a fan of the source material or if you can enjoy its lush visuals for their own sake - and on that basis, I did quite enjoy it - but if you're looking for a strong script, you should pursue another suspect.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Castle, Season 6 (2013)

I was pretty leery of the finale of season 5 of Castle because I thought we were going to see a hackneyed "woman sacrifices her career dreams for love" thing, because I knew they weren't going to actually transform the basic structure of the program, but I'll give the show credit where credit is due: it actually does a good job of justifying why Kate Beckett ultimately stays as an NYPD detective rather than becoming an agent of the US Attorney's office.

Once that's out of the way, the focuses of this season are basically on delivering the usual wacky case of the week antics, and on the ongoing subplot of Castle and Beckett's impending nuptials.  The quality of the wacky cases is generally pretty good, though there are a couple of weak entries ("Time Will Tell" is stupid, for instance, and not the good kind of stupid).  The marriage subplot is not as interesting or as funny as the writers seem to believe, but the two characters are a fun on-screen couple (despite the fact that off-screen, they apparently didn't get on so well), so it is mostly tolerable.

This season also marks the end of a major ongoing plot thread that's been around since season one.  While I do think the resolution to this was all a bit sudden and involved a lot of cheap narrative trickery to get there, it was nice to see real progress on that front.  In fact, if it weren't for this season's cliffhanger ending, I'd say it would make a pretty satisfying point at which to stop watching the show.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Max Payne (2008)

The wife and child of Detective Max Payne were murdered.  He arrived home in time to kill two of the culprits, but the third escaped and was never found.  Payne transferred to cold cases, and uses his now-copious free time to try and hunt down the final killer.

And then suddenly there are fresh bodies turning up, and Max finds himself the number one suspect because these are film-and-TV cops and therefore if they aren't protagonists they're idiots.

Wikipedia reports that star Mark Wahlberg said of his title role in this film that it was "all driven by emotion".  And he may very well have said it, but you certainly won't see that on the screen.  Wahlberg is stoic to the point of being comatose for pretty much the whole duration of the film.  I can't say I blame him: it felt like the movie was trying to put me to sleep, too.

Max Payne is a dumb action film, with a nonsensical plot and secondary characters that exist only to perform narratively useful actions at the times the script needs them to.  And honestly, I could forgive all that stuff if it wasn't for the fact that it is also boring.

If you simply must watch a gun-happy action film based on a computer game I didn't much like, watch Hitman instead.  At least the main actor there seems to be awake.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Weeds, Season 5 (2009)

Nancy Botwin's marijuana business inadvertently led to the complete immolation of her home town of Agrestic.  Now relocated to southern California (and sometimes to Baja California in Mexico), her ongoing efforts to remain one step ahead of the fallout of her previous desperate gambles inevitably lead to even more desperate gambles.

For me, season 5 of Weeds is very much a tale of two halves.  I thought the core arc with Nancy and her family was actually pretty solid (and ends the season with an emphatic exclamation point), but the misadventures of the ancillary cast - Celia, Dean and (especially) Doug - are tiresomely far-fetched and nowhere near as funny as the show seems to think.

A cut down version of this season that only focused on the Botwins (except the Silas and Doug as business partners bit, because it belongs in the ancillary cast cesspit) would actually be pretty solid.  Unfortunately, the actual season is a bit like a semi-rotten piece of fruit.  There are some sweet and juicy parts, but you have to be careful where you bite into it or you might end up with a mouthful of something rancid.

Overall, I'll still give the show a qualified recommendation, because the good bits are good, but be prepared for an uneven ride.