Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004)

Garth Marenghi was a prolific author of lurid horror novels in the late 70s and early 80s.  It was perhaps inevitable that he would turn his pen to writing for TV, but only a man of Marenghi's over-weening talent would have been able also direct and star in the resulting series.

Marenghi played Dr Rick Dagless, the leading MD at Darkplace Hospital; a medical facility which just happens to sit over the gates to Hell itself; and together with his colleagues he was planned to face epic evils over the course of more than fifty episodes.

Alas, production issues - up to an including the death or disappearance of cast members - plagued the show.  When every TV channel refused to pick up the series, Marenghi revealed that a secret government agency known as MI8 ("three levels above MI6") had deliberately sabotaged Darkplace for being "too radical".

Fortunately for all of us, Marenghi managed to preserve six episodes of the program in his basement, and in 2004, with the quality of TV at an all-time nadir, Channel 4 finally agreed to broadcast the surviving shows.  They are presented here with the additional bonus of introductions from Marenghi himself, as well as interviews with the author and the other surviving cast members.

... and if you believe all the above, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is of course a parody, presenting the kind of cheap, tacky 80s TV show that an egomaniac might have produced if everyone around him was a creeping sycophant.  If you imagine the deformed union of General Hospital and the 1990s reboot of The Outer Limits, then ... well you're still far shoot of this show's lunacy, but you are kind of on the right track.

Here's fifty seconds to show you what I mean

If utter absurdity is your thing, check it out.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Katniss Everdeen awakes in the supposedly-destroyed District 13, having been spirited there by a secret resistance cabal that had somehow infiltrated pretty much to the heart of the Capitol's oppressive regime.  Once there, she's reunited with her family and with prospective love interest Gale, but separated from other prospective love interest Peeta, who is still in the hands of the enemy.

Impromptu revolts have already broken out in several Districts and District 13's leader wants Katniss to serve as a figurehead to merge these isolated bands of rebels into a single force dedicated to the overthrow of the Capitol.  Our heroine is initially reluctant, but the Capitol's decision to flatten her home District and murder something like 90% of the population goes a long way to changing her mind.

The Divergent and Maze Runner series of books get steadily sillier and sillier as they reveal more about their setting (and in the Maze Runner's case, it starts pretty silly to begin with).  I've not read the Hunger Games books after the first one, but if these movies are anything to go by, the same progression holds true with them as well.  For example, the film cites the pre-massacre population of District 12 as ten thousand people: which is a farcically low number given the size and opulence of the Capitol that oppresses it.  Slave caste societies - which is what this plainly is - need more people on the bottom than on the top.  And the less said about the actions of the Capitol throughout the film, the better.  Certainly their planning department seems to value "is this action evil?" far more than "will this action actually help is?"

On a more personal note, I'm also annoyed that the most interesting character introduced in the second film - crazy axe lady Johanna - is relegated to about 20 seconds of screen time in this one.  Boo, I say.  Boo!

Mockingjay Part 1 includes some pretty decent action sequences, but it fails to situate them in a satisfying narrative context.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Americans, Season 4 (2016)

The Americans may well be the best show on TV that you aren't watching.  Its been listed in the AFI's Top Ten shows every year since it debuted, but has never found a significant audience.  I've seen other fans of the show make the wisecrack that "the only people watching it are the critics - but thankfully they all love it".  And I am thankful, since it is probably the critical acclaim that has kept the adventures of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings available for me to enjoy.

Season four finds their becoming ever more precarious.  This is true both personally, because their secret lives as Russian spies are becoming known to an ever wider group of people; and geopolitically, as the Soviet Union finds itself ever further behind the West in the development of new weapons and technology.  There is an ever-mounting pressure to uncover American secrets and send them home, with an ever-mounting pressure to take risks that could do further harm to the Jennings family's personal safety.

The Americans is unusual in that it is not afraid to have expectations of its audience.  When it asks the cast to sell the immense emotional stress they're under, they don't do it with anything more than a moment of silence and a slight twist of the mouth.  The show trusts and expects the audience to understand what they are seeing, just as it trusts them to remember characters without the need for pace-destroying expository recaps, and to join the dots between separate plot-lines for themselves.

This is not a show you can watch without paying attention, which I suspect is one of the main things limiting its audience, but is also the thing that makes watching it so worthwhile.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Nice Guys (2016)

Los Angeles,  1977.  A young woman hires Jackson Healy to put a beatdown on the PI that's been following her.  This he duly does, but when two guys with guns turn up as Healy's place, looking for this self-same young woman, it seems the investigator he just beat down might be Healy's best bet to keep his erstwhile employer alive.

Quite how this ties into the case of a dead pornographic film star, neither Jackson nor his not entirely ethical new partner could ever foresee.

The Nice Guys is a fun action-comedy film.  It derives most of its laughs from pratfalls and other such physical humour - not exactly high brow stuff - but it executes it well.  It's also helped along by a strong cast who are well suited to their roles.  While neither Ryan Gosling (as the PI) nor Russell Crowe (as Healy) are exactly going to be stretched by their respective characters, they certainly execute them well.  There's also a fine performance from young Australian actor Angourie Rice, who plays the PI's daughter.  IMDB tells me that Rice has a role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which I am definitely A-OK with, based on her work here.

If you're looking for a fun action-comedy romp and don't mind that it has a relatively juvenile sense of humour, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Tudors, Season 3 (2009)

Spoilers for six-hundred year old history below.

The first two seasons of The Tudors were focussed around a single narrative: the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.  For some viewers, the end of that story could well be the right place to quit watching the show.  Certainly, if the presence of a strong female character at the centre of things was a selling point for you, you may find this season a much less engaging experience.  It also deprives the show of its most sympathetic character.

The writers appear to have tried to compensate by packing the show to the gills: the eight episodes here cover several significant events of Henry VIII's reign, not least of which are the king's third and fourth marriages.  There's also rebellion, betrayal, the long-awaited birth of a son, and further religious controversy as those who champion the reformation come into conflict with Henry's basic religious conservatism.

That's a lot of content for the shortest season of the show, and it definitely feels a bit cursory in its depiction of certain aspects.  The longer form story-telling of the first two seasons allowed for more richness of characters, whereas this season relies in large part on the fact that most of the cast are already established.  The few new faces are only fairly briefly defined: all we really know about Sir Francis Bryan, for instance, is that he wears an eyepatch and likes sleeping with other men's wives.  Though perhaps in this case, the lack of character definition is appropriate: Sir Francis was one of the few courtiers never to incur Henry's wrath, mainly because he was so proficient at altering his own opinions to match those of the king.

I don't think this series is as strong as the first two were, but if you enjoy opulent costume drama - and don't mind that The Tudors puts accuracy a very distant second to 'entertainment' - then there's still an engaging if rather grisly tale being told here.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Epic (2013)

Arthur and the Invisible films posited the existence of a civilisation of insect-sized humanoids, which is threatened by a wicked warlord and his oafish son.  Epic posits the existence of a civilisation of insect-sized humanoids, which is threatened by a wicked warlord and his oafish son.

Is there an echo in the room?  Well, there might well be.  Both films even share the casting choice of putting a pop diva in as the voice of tiny-humanoid royalty (Madonna as a princess in Arthur, Beyonce as a queen in Epic).

On the other hand, Epic is much the better movie, and not just because it avoids the somewhat skeevy "adult princess and 12 year old human boy" romance of the earlier film.  There is a romance subplot, but the characters involved are age appropriate, so yay for that.

The plot here is basically that Mary Katherine (or "MK" as she prefers to be known) is a teenage girl who goes to live with her kooky father after her mother passes away.  Said father is obsessed with the little people he believes live in the forest, and his obsession has cost him his wife, his job, and the respect of his daughter.

Of course, kooky guy is pretty much always right in movies like this, so there are indeed little people in the woods, and they are - as mentioned - threatened by an evil warlord.  MK stumbles into this conflict, and must help the "Leafmen" (and a couple of comic relief gastropods) protect their realm from evil.

This is a pretty fun film overall.  It's light stuff, but it has some fun action scenes and the meant to be funny moments generally hit the mark.  You could certainly do far worse if you're looking for kid-friendly entertainment to fill 90 minutes or so.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Starhyke (2009)

In the 31st century, humanity has spread to the stars, waging a series of genocidal wars that have left dozens of alien races extinct.  Our latest victims/adversaries are the Reptids, who hatch a desperate, time-travel based plan to prevent their own annihilation.

Huamnity's star wars success, you see, is largely attributable to the fact that we've eliminated all emotions.  This has allowed us to wage century after century of implacable, merciless war.  Now I'm not sure I buy the idea that "let's commit genocide" is a rational, non-emotive thing to do, but let's assume for the sake of the show's premise that it is.  The Reptids plan to travel back in time to the 21st century and detonate a compassion bomb, preventing humanity from ever extinguishing its own emotions.

Frankly, a compassion bomb sounds like something the world could do with, right now, and it pretty clearly establishes the Reptids as the good guys in all this.  They could after all, have just gone back to the 21st century and blown us up.

The only thing that can thwart the Reptids plan is the dreadnaught Nemesis, which is fitted with an experimental timeslip device.  The dreadnaught and its crew thus make the jump back to our time - but as they do, they're hit with a smaller version of the compassion device.

And you know, there's a solid concept here: with good writing you could get considerable mileage - either dramatic or comedic - out of the Nemesis crew's efforts to pursue their mission while suffering unfamiliar emotions themselves.

Alas, the Starhyke writers are the kind who think that flatulence is the pinnacle of comedy.  So what we get here is characters with names like "Captain Blowhard", hoary old canards like "emotional women binge on chocolate!" and "the only emotion men feel is lust", and fart jokes.  So many fart jokes.

If you feel a need for SF comedy, just go re-watch the better parts of Red Dwarf again, instead.