Friday, 29 July 2016

Elizabeth (1998)



This is the film that launched Cate Blanchett to international attention.  Her performance as the young Elizabeth I is certainly praiseworthy; she is convincing both as the uncertain, naive young queen in the film's first act and as the poised, confident monarch of the final minutes.  And she is ably assisted by the rest of the cast, including Geoffrey Rush as her spymaster, Francis Walsingham.  I do, however, have some misgivings about the film, and the journey it takes us on.

Let's start with historical accuracy.  I'm generally willing to allow latitude on this point, so I'm not going to quibble too much about how much any given event in the film varies from the likely truth.  I am however a bit disappointed by some of the ways in which it does.  The decision to mention Mary, Queen of Scots only once in the film, for instance - not to show her, you understand, but just to mention her - seems a baffling one.  If you're making a film which takes as a central theme the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, surely it would make sense to feature the woman who was the great hope of the Catholic cause?

Tying into the film's omissions and inventions compared to the history, we also have the question of agency.  The film puts a great deal of emphasis on Walsingham, to the point where he feels more important to the plot than she does.  It is Walsingham who prevents Elizabeth's enemies from attending a vital debate in the House of Lords; Walsingham who is intimated to have assassinated the regent of Scotland, and Walsingham who uncovers the plot to murder the English Queen and replace her with Mary.  We can infer he did these things on Elizabeth's orders, of course, but the film does not show this.  It's particularly galling given that in real life there's no evidence he had anything to do with the first two of those three events.

Now the decision to emphasise Walsingham is perhaps understandable, given that Rush was much better known than Blanchett at the time of the film's release.  And if they'd gone all-in on him and called the film Walsingham I'd probably have really liked it.  But they didn't, and so we get a film that seems half about him and half about the Queen and thus perhaps falls a little short of what it could have been.

It remains, however, a well-acted and sumptuous-looking production, and is probably worth seeing for the performances alone.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Jane Eyre (2011)



A young woman staggers across the moors during a storm.  She eventually makes it to a home where she collapses on the doorstep.  Taken inside, she is nursed back to health by the owners of the house.

Recovered, she gives her name as Jane Elliott and accepts an offer of employment as schoolteacher at a village school for girls.  She is warned that it is a small and humble position, but says that both words describe her very well.

We then flash back to the young woman's childhood.  We learn her name is actually Jane Eyre; that she comes from a wealthy family but was raised by cruel relatives; and that after her schooling - also an unhappy experience - she became a governess for the ward of a gentleman named Rochester.

Rochester is dark and brooding and not overly inclined to social pleasantries.  There's also some strange secret lurking in his estate.  It is thus inevitable that Jane will fall in love with him, even though she believes her affections are hopeless due to her lack of wealth and beauty (this is movie-verse lack of beauty of course, so she's actually an attractive woman).

It's probably self-evident to say this, but a romantic drama lives and dies on the strength of its central romance.  And this is a point on which this film falls short, to my mind.  The cast do their best with the material, but I simply don't feel the script does enough to make Jane and Rochester's relationship convincing, particularly given the events that lead her to flee his home and end up wandering the moors.

If Gothic romances are a particular favourite of yours, you may be able to overlook this film's lacklustre efforts regarding the 'romance' part.  Otherwise, I suggest turning your attentions elsewhere.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Pride and Prejudice (2005)



This is fine souffle of a film.  A feather-light frippery of an adaptation that makes up in cheerful melodrama what it lacks in the sharp witticisms of the original novel.  That it is also the weakest of the three versions of Pride and Prejudice that I have reviewed for this blog is not something to hold against it.  The other two are after all the very highly-regarded 1995 mini-series and the to my mind even better Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Coming third to those two is a bit like losing a foot race to Usain Bolt and ... some other really fast guy.  Athletics isn't really my thing.

The basic outline of the story - for the two people in the English-speaking world who somehow don't know - is that Elizabeth Bennet (Lizzie to her family) is one of five unmarried sisters.  When she is introduced to eligible bachelor Mr William Darcy, she is deeply unimpressed, finding him boorish, rude and arrogant.  You can probably guess that over the course of the film her opinions will come to change.

Necessarily slighter than the other adaptations by virtue of having to fit in a feature film running time (and not a Peter Jackson running time either, but a relatively compact two hours), this version sensibly keeps the narrative focus tightly on Lizzie, eschewing the elaborations and diversions in which the other longer-form adaptations could indulge.  That means that it lacks some of their depth, but I for one found the directness and pace quite enjoyable.

Also to the film's credit are its performances.  Keira Knightley is solid in the lead role (though her Oscar nomination for it seems a mite generous, to me), and both Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench are as excellent as you'd expect in their roles.  I also really liked Tom Hollander as the alternately pompous and obsequious Mr Collins.

Really, if you're a Jane Austen fan, you are spoiled for choice as far as adaptations go.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Lie to Me, Season 2 (2009)



This is the only season of Lie to Me to run a full order of 22 episodes and to be honest it does start to feel a little too long when you're binge-watching it like I am.  It might well work better week to week, though: like with my recent review of Magnum P.I., some of the common tropes of the show become a bit wearisome when you see them back to back to back.  Chief of these tropes is probably lead character Cal Lightman's maverick ways.  In any single episode, or even a few episodes at a time, they are fun.  But a whole season of them starts to feel very forced, as he continually gets away with being a complete jerk to pretty much everyone he meets.

As a refresher, the basic premise of the show is that Lightman and his colleagues are experts in lie detection.  They use their skills to assist with investigations - either for private citizens or for government agencies - and of course they ultimately always get the bad guy.

While the premise of the show hasn't changed, though, the structure of it has.  Season one generally had two cases running in parallel, with the four main characters splitting into pairs to run separate investigations, and who was paired with who varied each time.  Season two introduces a fifth main character in the form of an FBI agent, and limits each show to one active case.  While I like the new character I am not as positive about the latter change: having only one investigation makes this much more "the Cal Lightman show" than it previously was, and as I noted above, Cal tends to get quite abrasive after a while, even for the audience.

Another change that I do like is the increased use of recurring guest stars.  Having minor characters return gives them additional chances to bounce off the main cast and develop relationships (either friendly or adversarial).

Most of the investigations in this season are solid, and the supporting cast, though sometimes under-used, are excellent.  If you like the police procedural genre and don't mind the show's central conceit of human lie detectors, then you should enjoy this.  Just maybe avoid watching too many episodes too close together.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Atonement (2007)



In 1935, misconstrued circumstances and a fit of pique prompt a teenage girl to accuse her sister's lover of raping her friend.  The only people to believe in the young man's innocence are his mother and the sister, Cecilia.  Four years later, the young man is released from prison when he agrees to join the army.  Cecilia has remained in contact with him during his imprisonment - and has cut herself off from her family - and they resume their relationship prior to his departure to fight in France.

And France is where the wheels come off the film.

But before I complain, let's start with the positives of the movie.  It's beautifully shot and scored, and full of fine performances.  Saiorse Ronan picked up an Oscar nomination for her role as the teenage girl who makes the accusation, but she's far from the only one doing good work here.

If only they weren't giving those performances in such a willfully stupid and self-indulgent story.

The first but far from worst flaw of the film is its habit of playing games with the order in which it displays chronological events.  This gimmick is actually used quite successfully in some early scenes, where we get the younger sister's perspective on an event, and then the (significantly less sinister) real version.  The problem is that the film continues to use it at a time when it is no longer necessary nor helpful.

Much more problematic, however, is that it pulls the same "ha, the last forty minutes never actually happened!" nonsense as Repo Men.  And for all that this film is wonderfully shot, scored and acted, it's just as hollow and stupid a narrative choice here as it was there.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Doomsday (2008)



For a film featuring a massively fatal pandemic striking London, cannibal Scottish punks, Rhona Mitra being a badass, post-apocalyptic medievalists and a car chase straight out of Mad Max, there is a surprising lack of momentum to Doomsday.  Perhaps it's the very fact that it contains such a wide range of elements: the movie keeps stopping to explain the next bit of madness.  Or the last bit of madness.  Or the current bit of madness.

The premise is that a terrifyingly virulent disease breaks out in Glasgow.  Within days it has killed thousands.  In desperation the UK government erects a massive metal wall to seal the border between England and Scotland.  Everything north of that line is declared a no-go zone: no-one in, no-one out.

Twenty-five years later, the disease reappears: except now it is in London.  The government resolves to send a team north of the wall at last, seeking Scottish survivors that they already knew existed and hope might have a cure.

Leaving behind the escalating crisis in London, the team - which is led by the aforementioned badassness that is Rhona Mitra - finds all those other things I mentioned in my opening paragraph.  Demonstrating an implausible but narratively convenient facility with swords, axes and other hand to hand weapons, Mitra and her team engage in all manner of action-packed sequences as they fight for a cure that - for secret reasons of their own - the wicked politicians down south might not even actually want.  Because yet another plot element was something that needed to be wedged into this already over-stuffed film!

So at the end of things Doomsday is half the movie it might have been if they'd had the discipline to only pack it with half as many things.  But I still enjoyed it, because (a) Rhona Mitra is a total badness in it, and (b) it has a stonkingly fun 80s soundtrack that's a blast right out of my childhood.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Ben 10, Season 4 (2008)



Don't believe the cover of this DVD: it isn't the "complete" season 4 at all.  It contains only 10 of the 13 episodes.  Cartoon Network split the other three (the 5th through 7th in broadcast order, but "the last" chronologically, as much as that matters in a show with such a loose timeline) into a standalone film called The Secret of the Omnitrix.

Dodgy completeness claims aside, what you get here is more of what you will have come to expect from the previous three seasons.  Ben Tennyson turning into aliens to battle bad guys and help people, along with the able assistance of his cousin Gwen (who is by now a fairly skilled witch) and their grandfather (a former member of the setting's "Men in Black" style organisation).

I think overall the quality here is probably a little lower than those of previous seasons: the 'fountain of youth' episode in particular has some pretty fundamental plot flaws.  It does have a pretty solid concluding couple of episodes though, which neatly tie back to the first episode of the season, even if their positioning does break one of the few firm points of continuity within the show!

With clean animation, solid voice acting, and generally fun scripts, it's easy to see why Ben 10 generated three sequel series, eight computer games, and a host of toys.  It's also not surprising to hear that they're about to launch a re-boot.  Whether or not that will live up to the legacy, of course, is yet to be seen.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Shakespeare Retold: Midsummer Night's Dream (2005)



An engagement party is interrupted by a young man.  It emerges that he and the female half of the supposedly happy couple are in love.  She confesses that she does not love her fiancee-to-be and wants to be with this newcomer.  Her parents, probably understandably, are a mite upset, and the event causes the problems with their own relationship to boil to the surface.  The young woman's best friend meanwhile thinks she is making a terrible mistake by ditching the aforementioned fiancee-to-be ... but is secretly a little conflicted because she has always carried a torch for the jilted fellow.  Seeing all this emotional turmoil, the King of the Fairies sets out to ensure a happy ending for everyone.  Unfortunately, he's having his own romantic troubles and will get no help from his capable wife.  Instead, he must rely on a rather less-than-competent minion.  Hilarity ensues.

Well, assuming you have a particular definition of "hilarity", that is.  Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream has always relied on a very broad and ribald sense of humour, much of it on the mean-spirited side.  This is very much a tale of laughing at other people's misfortune.  "Isn't it funny that both the fiancee-to-be and the gatecrashing young man have now been magicked into loving the best friend, instead of the woman they were originally smitten by?"  ... well, given that both the women in question are humiliated and upset by the whole thing, my answer would have to be "no".

Obviously plenty of people do find this stuff funny of course, since we're still making adaptations of the play four hundred years after it was written.  And this particular version profits from having a very likeable cast.  They can't salvage the cringe-based-humour for me (nothing can), but they make the other parts touching and amusing, with the result that, at the inevitable happy ending, I had a smile on my face.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The L Word, Season 3 (2006)



Season 3 of this show opens six months after the close of season 2.  Bette and Tina are back together and trying to raise their child as a couple, but they're falling back into the same old bad habits, albeit with their respective roles reversed.  Dana and Alice have broken up: a development with which Alice is really not coping.  Shane is also struggling to cope: though in her case, it's with being in a monogamous relationship with girlfriend Carmen.  Jenny is about to introduce a new lover, transman Max Sweeney.  Oh, and Bette's former nemesis Helena has become part of the group and has purchased a B-list movie studio.

It is, in other words, packed with exactly the kind of sudsy lesbian soap opera antics that - if you've watched the previous seasons - you've come to expect.  Everyone's playing the break up/make up dance; there are betrayals and confessions and confessions of betrayal; and even the extras are impossibly beautiful.

Also in keeping with the previous seasons, the show continues to be a mix of really well done elements and really not-so-well done ones.  In the former camp, for instance, we have a storyline involving one character suffering from a serious illness: it's genuinely moving stuff at times.  Or there's the execution of Bette and Tina's latest implosion, which deftly handles their role reversal without changing anything about the characters themselves.  In the latter camp ... well, let's just say that the only thing I can find to praise about the show's treatment of Max in this season is that at least his badly written story arc gets to be fairly prominent: the writers never really seemed to know what to do with him after this, and he became more and more marginalised in later years.  Which is a real shame given the marginalisation of transmen and transwomen in the real world.

At the end of the day, if you enjoyed the first two seasons, you'll likely enjoy this one too.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Pathology (2008)



Hot shot medical student Teddy Grey lands a place on a prestigious pathology program in Washington DC.  It means leaving his fiancee for three months, but the benefits to his career will be enormous.

Once Teddy arrives at the hospital, his skills and insight quickly bring him into conflict with a clique that has already formed amongst the pathology program students.  When he handles their hostility without showing signs of being rattled, however, they begin to welcome them into their circle.

Said circle, it emerges, is in fact a secret murder club.  These young pathologists take turns in murdering someone, attempting to make the method of the killing as obscure and undetectable as possible.  The goal is the 'perfect' murder - one where the others cannot determine the foul play involved.

Now you might expect that Teddy, when he learns of this, will try to expose the club and thus become involved in some dangerous game of cat and mouse with them.  Sort of a John Grisham story with doctors instead of lawyers.  Certainly, that's what I expected.  But no, old Ted joins up.  Now in his defence, he thinks that (a) the others have fabricated evidence that would make him the prime suspect if the latest murder was revealed and that (b) all their victims are dangerous criminals.  But still, it's not often that the protag of your average thriller is one of the killers.  And it's not like he quits the group after he discovers they're being a little more flexible about who they kill than he first realised.  Instead he starts a vigorous affair with the attractive murderess Dr Juliette Bath.

It is, in fact, only when he goes home for Thanksgiving, and his fiancee announces that she will be coming to DC with him after the holiday, that Ted begins to rethink his involvement in the murder club.  Of course, his fellow club members aren't likely to accept his resignation with good grace now, are they?

A problem with this film that is not made obvious by the above synopsis is the treatment of female characters in the film.  They pretty much exist only as points of conflict between the male characters and to titillate the male audience.

The problem that should be obvious from that synopsis, though, is this: Ted Grey is a reprehensible human being.  Learning that the club is killing pretty much indiscriminately doesn't make him leave it.  It's only when it starts to threaten the perfect life he'd been building for himself that he tries to get out.  In that context, it's very hard to care about his fate.

Also, the very finale of the film is ... well, ludicrous, even by the standards of this not exactly plausible scenario.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Repo Men (2010)



If you have any interest in seeing this movie unspoiled, you should probably skip this review.

Though really, you should probably just accept my word for it that it's not worth your time.

Still here?  Okay, let's begin.

So the premise of this film is that some time in the near future, artificial organs have become a consumer technology.  You can buy a replacement heart, or liver, or whatever else you want, simply by walking into a store and laying down the cash.  And if you don't have the cash, well they have a range of repayment plans for you to choose from.  Fall too far behind on said repayments though, and the organ in question will be forcibly repossessed, with generally fatal consequences.

So far, so Repo: The Genetic Opera.  Now obviously it's errant nonsense that a company can flat out murder you for being a few months behind on your payments, but my suspenders of disbelief are pretty sturdy so sure, I'll go with it.

Our protagonist, Remy, is one of the repo men charged with recovering insolvent organ owners.  He does so cheerfully and efficiently, chatting amiably with his colleagues about the "deadbeats" he's processed.  All that changes, though, when a work accident leaves him with an artificial heart of his own.  Suddenly he finds himself feeling empathy for those he would previously have killed out of hand.  Which means he earns no income.  Which means he falls behind on the payments for his heart.  The hunter is about to become the hunted.

So now we're yoinking the premise of Logan's Run as well?  Okay then.

Anyway, Remy goes on the run, meets a woman, and has one of those bad-movie romances where "we have spent time together on screen and have differing genitals" is enough for two people to hook up.  Oh, and his best friend is sent out to bring him in.

... so yoinking a lot more than just the premise of Logan's Run then.  I see.

So now we have all the pieces in the place for the last act of the film, and Remy comes up with a mind-bogglingly stupid plan that I would normally spend a couple of paragraphs ranting about.  But I don't need to, because the last act of the film, in which he executes said plan, is all a goddamn dream.  You see, his best buddy smacked him in the head during a fight scene half an hour earlier, and he never really woke up from that.  He's been in a coma ever since.

Now you may be wondering why Remy is still alive if his heart has been repossessed.  Don't worry, the movie has an explanation for that.  An explanation even dumber than "it was all a dream", in fact.  You see, best buddy paid off Remy's heart, and then paid for the cutting edge neural implant that ensures Remy has an awesome dream life in his coma.

Did it not ever occur to this dingbat to just pay for Remy's heart to begin with, rather than putting him in a coma and (presumably) murdering his new girlfriend?

Mind-blowingly stupid.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Robot Chicken, Season 1 (2005)



A mad scientist recovers a dead chicken from a road, reanimates it as a cyborg monstrosity, then straps it into a chair and forces it to watch a huge bank of TVs.

... and that's just the opening credits.

Robot Chicken is a series of rapid fire comedy sketches, made in stop motion animation, and ranging in length from literally-just-a-second to three minutes or more.  I think the concept is that we're viewing things from the perspective of the chicken, as it is bombarded with images, but frankly I don't think that matters overmuch.  The point is that it fires sight-gags, pop culture references, bizarre mash-ups, and scatological jokes at you at a mighty impressive rate.  Each 11-12 minute episode packs in a wealth of material.

How funny will you find it?  Well, if you're of a certain age (having grown up in the 80s really helps), and have a pretty twisted and thoroughly nerdy sense of humour, you'll probably find it hysterical.  I shows Robot Chicken to a friend of mine when it first came out, and he laughed so hard I was legitimately worried he was going to pass out from lack of oxygen.

If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person to find concepts like "The Masters of the Universe: where are they now?" or "let's do Se7en with the Smurfs" more baffling than bizarrely amusing, then you'll probably find the whole thing very dumb and boring.  For myself, I generally find the stuff that trades on pop culture mash-ups and errant absurdity can often be very funny indeed, while the (quite frequent) bodily-function based gags can get a little tiresome when watching several episodes back to back.

Apart from the decidedly off the wall and off colour humour, Robot Chicken's other appeal is "spot the celebrity voice actor": Macauley Culkin, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Burt Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson are just some of the famous names to pop up in the end credits, while N'Sync's Joey Fatone turns up to play himself in a Karate Kid / Voltron pastiche.  Because Robot Chicken is the kind of show where that happens.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Shakespeare Retold: The Taming of the Shrew (2005)



This particular Shakespeare Retold faces two unique challenges compared to the others.  The first is that there's already been a well-received (loose) modernisation of the play in the form of 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You.  The second is that it's The Taming of the Shrew.

So let's get why point two is an issue out of the way right from the start: the basic plot of the play is that a guy marries a notoriously hot-tempered woman, and then emotionally tortures her until her will is broken and she won't disagree with him even when he speaks nonsense like saying the sun is the moon.  All his friends marvel at his success as the former independently-minded woman delivers a long speech about how all her female friends should obey their husbands as utterly and completely as she now does because men are much more important and useful than they are.

... yeah.  You can see why George Bernard Shaw called the play "one vile insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last."

Now there is some critical theory that this vileness is intentional: that in making his characters adopt such extremes, Shakespeare is in fact criticising misogyny.  I ... tend to think that's a very optimistic interpretation.

So anyway, this adaptation casts the woman (Kate) as an MP who is angling for the leadership of the Conservative party in the UK.  Her violent temper and aggressive demeanour mean she's very much single, at least until she meets a financially destitute Earl.  Sparks fly, they get married ... and I spent the next thirty minutes swearing at the TV.  Because you know, "it's okay that he's being a jerk to you if you love him" is not a theme that any modern film should be espousing.

The episode does redeem itself a little at the end, when Kate's long statement of submission to her husband is obviously intended to be satire, but it's far short of what would need to be done to save this story for me.

Stick to 10 Things I Hate About You.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Secret Army, Season 3 (1979)





Season 2 of Secret Army ended with the D-Day invasions.  The end of the war in Europe is now in sight, but if you think our heroes' troubles are over, you've not been paying attention to the kind of show this is.

While the advance of the Allies is naturally a cause for hope and celebration for the members of Lifeline, it does present them with a whole host of new problems.  The most immediate is that their escape lines have been severed by the front lines of the war, and they are unable to send aircrew to safety any more.  Instead, they must settle for merely hiding the men in the Ardennes forest.

Less immediate but still pressing concerns are their communist resistance rivals, who are already preparing for the post-war struggle between east and west, and the continuing efforts of the German authorities to find them.  While Lifeline have carefully protected themselves by pretending to collaborate with the occupying forces, there is a new Luftwaffe officer in town and he is closer to finding them than anyone has been before.

The most distant but most serious threat, however, is the fact that those very same Germans may soon be leaving.  Pretended collaboration may have protected Lifeline from the Third Reich, but it has made them despised by their neighbours, who know nothing of their clandestine activities.  Being lynched by a misguided and vengeful mob before the Allied forces arrive is a very real danger.

And so Lifeline must try to juggle all these new challenges and survive to the end of the war.  It's quite the challenge, and if you think everyone is going to come through it unscathed ... well, then you really haven't been paying attention to the kind of show this is!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Lesson Plan (2010)



I mentioned this documentary in my recent review of The Wave.  Watching that film prompted me to track this down on Google Play, because I was interested to learn more about the real life event and to see if it could answer that niggling little voice in the back of my mind that was asking "did it really happen?".

Lesson Plan does a pretty sound job of answering that question.  It is comprised almost entirely of interview footage.  There's no omniscient narrator explaining the 'official' version of events: just people who were there recounting their own recollections and experiences.  There are a number of discrepancies and differences between the accounts, but when people are recalling forty year old memories, that is only to be expected.  I'd be a lot more suspicious if everyone was reciting the same chapter and verse.

The interviewees include Ron Jones (the teacher who started the experiment), the then-principal of the school, and several of the students who were involved.  The students in particular have differing memories of the Third Wave, and the range of responses and attitudes expressed - without anyone disputing the basic fact that it happened - does a lot to make the whole thing seem more real.

Differences of opinion aside - and those differences are significant, with some participants being very grateful for the experience and others calling it profoundly unjust - there is basic agreement that the experiment ran for four days; that it involved various autocratic techniques such as the establishment of a salute (pictured in the image above) with which members would have to greet each other, or the sudden expulsion of certain members for 'crimes against the movement'; and that on the last day, Jones ended it in a manner which to me suggests he was more interested in creating a dramatic conclusion than in ending it in the quickest and safest way possible.  Perhaps he already had an inkling that the experiment would mean the end of his teaching career and that having a marketable story might be something he needed.

My concerns about Jones's means of ending the experiment aside, this is an interesting documentary, which does a good job of showing how he adapted the techniques of totalitarian political movements to the classroom, and how those techniques could make true believers of some and stifle the dissent of others.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Electra Woman & Dyna Girl (2016)



Sid and Marty Krofft are probably best known these days for the psychedelic kids's show H R Pufnstuf, but several years after that they produced a series of 15-minute superhero episodes revolving around Electra Woman & Dyna Girl.  This duo was a pretty flagrant gender-swap and send-up of the duo of Batman and Robin.  The show ran for a single season as part of The Kroffy Supershow and was then discontinued.

Forty years later, we have this updated version of the pairing, which can be viewed either as eight 11 minute episodes or as a single film.  I picked it up on Google Play in the latter format, myself.

The new version stars Youtubers Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart in the lead roles, and posits a world in which there was previously a great showdown between the superheroes and supervillains.  This event, known as the Shadow War, resulted in victory for the former and the complete disappearance (possibly annihilation?) of the latter.  With the superheroes of the world now having no supervillains to fight, the costumed vigilante trade has become just another brand of celebrity, with product endorsements and fan conventions.

Lori and Jude - a.k.a. EW and DG respectively - aren't part of that high profile circuit, though.  They're just a couple of ordinary folks who've put on lycra costumes, made themselves some gadgets, and set out to protect people and make the world a better place.  I mean sure, they  - Lori in particular - would like to have a bit of fame and fortune for their efforts.  But that's not what motivates them.

And then a Youtube video of them stopping a convenience store goes viral and the small town heroes found themselves very much the flavour of the month in the big city.  Lori embraces this, but Jude is far less enthused. Will their partnership survive this sudden and profound change in their lives?  Or will they have much more fundamental survival concerns after the emergence of the first supervillain in a generation?

Electra Woman & Dyna Girl resorts to scatological or gross out humour a little too readily for my tastes, and the big conflict over their new lifestyle feels a big under-cooked and rushed.  On the other hand, it does overall have a breezy air that makes it quite watchable, Hannah Hart shows some genuine chops as an actor, and I really liked that both women were portrayed as capable and resourceful and we didn't get that whole "maybe I'm not cut out to be a hero" plotline they trot out so often in this sort of thing.

Not a film of substance, but a fun little flick.  Check it out if you're in the mood for something light.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

12 Monkeys (1995)



An issue pretty much any time travel story has to grapple with is "can the past be changed?".  This film deals with the question pretty simply: it flat out says "no", via character dialogue.

12 Monkeys is about Joe Cole, a man from the mid-21st century who saw 98% of the world's population wiped out by a virus in the year 1996.  Like every other surviving human, he lives in a dystopic subterranean world of iron and plastic, pipes and cages.  After surviving a compulsory mission to the surface, Cole is offered the chance to travel back in time.  Not to stop the virus.  As I said, the film tells us that's not possible.  Instead, his mission is to find out how and where it originated so that a scientist can be sent back to study it and develop a cure.  Then, the humans of the future can return to the surface of the planet.

Unfortunately, the time travel experience is quite mentally traumatic, not to mention somewhat inaccurate.  Cole travels back to 1990, six years too early.  There, he soon runs afoul of the authorities.  When he tries to explain his mission, they refer him to a psychiatrist who soon decides he's delusional and has him committed to an institution.

And that, I think, is about as far as I'm going to explain the plot of this film, because it is definitely one that relies on creating mystery and suspense about what's going to happen next to Joe.  Instead lets talk about a couple of the themes it explores.

One of those themes, as you might have guessed from my third paragraph, is whether Joe really is from the future, or if he's as delusional as his psychiatrist believes.  I don't think the question is ever really in doubt for the audience (though it does sometimes seem to try to make us wonder), but it's certainly one that Joe has to seriously consider.

The second theme is one of duty and predestination.  If the virus is real and inevitable, then where does Joe's job end and what does he do once it is over?  And can he just assume that it is inevitable, like he has been told?

12 Monkeys is a well-acted, well-directed film.  I don't necessarily like all the answers it has for the questions it asks, and I think it attempts to make the viewer wonder 'is Joe insane?' are not very convincing.  But those quibbles aside, it's an interesting if bleak science fiction mystery.  Worth your time if you're looking for something a bit more cerebral in your genre entertainment.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Shakespeare Retold: Macbeth (2005)



Joe MacBeth loves to prepare fine food.  He revels in his job as the head chef at a restaurant, and his work there is about to earn a coveted three star Michelin rating.  He has every reason to be proud of his achievements.  Unfortunately, however, almost no-one knows about them.

You see, the owner of the restaurant is celebrity chef Duncan Docherty, and as far as the general public knows, he's the one turning out these works of culinary art.  MacBeth naturally resents this situation, but figures there is nothing he can really do about it.  Duncan pays the bills, and when he finally dies the restaurant will go his son, whom MacBeth is training.

But then MacBeth has a strange encounter with three eerily prescient bin collectors, who forecast that everything will soon be his.  And if he's not sure how that could ever come to be - well, his wife has a few ideas ...

One of the challenges of adapting Shakespeare to a modern day setting is finding one in which the violence of his work doesn't seem out of place.  That's why Geoffrey Wright set his (disappointing) version within organised crime, for instance.  This challenge isn't really well handled in this adaptation.  I'm willing to buy that MacBeth might be convinced to murder Duncan.  We've been shown he has plenty of reason to be resentful, after all.  But this film keeps most of the body count from the play, which strained my credulity passed its breaking point.  I'd have liked to see a more inventive reinterpretation in how characters were written out of the story.

This failure is a shame I think, because the performances are very good.  Keeley Hawes is a great Lady MacBeth, and James McAvoy - probably now best known for playing Charles Xavier in the more recent X-Men films - is excellent in the lead role.  It's unfortunate they didn't get a stronger adaptation to work with.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Magnum P.I., Season 2 (1981)



Binge-watching tends to expose some tropes in Magnum P.I. that would not be quite so irksome if you were watching it week to week.  In particular, the ongoing verbal needling and one-up-manship between Magnum v Higgins gets a bit tiring when you see it happening in every episodes, and it's hard to care very much about the inevitable 'woman of the week' when you know she won't be around at the end of the current 44 minutes.

But lets face it, TV has changed a lot in the 35(!) years since this season of the show first aired.  Modern day binge-watching habits were something that would never have been considered.  VCRs were still relatively new and film companies were still actively engaged in attempting to ban them.  So it's hardly any surprise that such considerations were not on the producers' minds.  It is in those respects a pretty typical work of its time.

On the other hand, the show wasn't afraid to do things that were out of the ordinary, even then.  There's a not-infrequent breaking of the fourth wall, for instance.  Magnum often narrates his activities to us, and he explicitly does so to us: often musing on what we might be thinking about his current situation.  There are also several occasions where he turns to the camera and gives it a significant look.

And then there's the story-lines.  Magnum doesn't just work your common or garden crimes.  This season sees him tangle with ghosts, Soviet defectors, and indulge in a little light commando raid on a Sicilian nobleman's villa (to be fair, as absurd as that entire episode last episode was, it had some good misdirections).  Oh, and we get to meet his sort of ex-wife who just happens to be (a) the love of his life and (b) an anti-communist secret agent working in Vietnam.  Because of course she is.

Magnum P.I. is the lightest of light entertainment, but it's well put together for all that.  I'm a little surprised no-one's announced a reboot of the series, to be honest.





Monday, 4 July 2016

Mythica: The Iron Crown (2016)



I'm going to make a number of complaints in the course of this review, so I figured I should preface my remarks by pointing out that there is a qualified recommendation tag on the review.  So there will be positives eventually!

So as you've no doubt gathered from the first paragraph, this is not a flawless film.  In fact, it has a number of issues.  Many are relatively minor, but there are two fairly major ones.  So let's start with them.

First and foremost, this is the fourth film of a five part series and it really feels like an episode in a series, rather than a complete film.  In general, the other Mythica films have done a pretty good job of telling a story that felt complete and whole in and of themselves, even while being a part of a larger arc.  This one doesn't achieve that.  Now you can make a movie that's clearly the middle of a bigger story and still have it be good - you could argue that the best Star Wars movie does just that - but after three films that managed to be more than that, it feels like a step backwards to see it here.

The other key issue for me is that film has a pacing problem.  It's basically one long combination chase and fight scene.  Now again, this is something that could work (Mad Max: Fury Road, anyone?), but it's a tough task to give plot points enough time to sink in when you're throwing a new stunt sequence at us every three or four minutes.  The Iron Crown doesn't quite manage that balancing act, which means that dramatic moments lose some of their impact and that there are times when there is a real sense of tonal whiplash, as we often go rapidly from something grim to a fight scene with banter, or vice versa.

Other issues?  There's a major steampunk element to the film which was entirely absent from any of the previous three movies; not a major thing but still a bit of a cognitive glitch.  Also, the fight choreography feels a notch or two below the (admittedly high) standards of the earlier films, which sometimes hurts the excitement levels.  Finally, there's a predatory lesbian villain.  Sigh.

Still with me?  I hope so, since I did promise that there were positives.  The big one is for all the missteps it does make, the film lands its central character arc pretty solidly.  Marek - the series' main protagonist - enters the film as the disciple of her wise mentor, and leaves it having stepped up as a leader in the final, last ditch effort to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Lich King.  For all that this film was clearly mostly about setting up the final movie in the series, it does a good job of making you want to see Marek get her big moment, next time.

Of course, some of the kudos for that success should go to Melanie Stone, who has done a fine job as Marek throughout the series.  In fact, kudos should go to all the main trio of actors, as they consistently do good work here.  An honorable mention also for Paris Warner, who has is a lot of fun in her role as a new minor character.

As this is the fourth film in a series I think it likely that most of the people who are likely to watch it are in for the whole arc.  If you are one of those people, this is worth your time, and gives me hope that we're going to get a rousing conclusion next time around.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Arthur and the Invisibles (2006)



Ten-year old Arthur lives with his grandmother.  His parents are busy working and his grandfather - an explorer who once encountered a race of miniature people called "Minimoys" - has recently gone missing.  Arthur's grandmother tells him that some of the minimoys now live in the garden, where they protect a collection of rubies.

When an unscrupulous developer threatens to foreclose on the house, Arthur naturally thinks of the rubies.  Plot contrivance allows him to be shrunk down to the size of a Minimoy himself - a few inches tall at most - and he enters their fantastical world.  His minimoy form also looks quite like one of those "Troll" dolls, to be honest, which is perhaps not the best of decisions.

Anyway, Arthur will find himself battling an evil warlord, rescuing his (also-minimoyed) grandfather, and romancing a princess.  Which, given that she appears to be a grown woman (voiced by Madonna, at that), and he is a ten year old boy ... is kind of icky, really.  Apparently a lot of this last subplot was actually cut out of the film for the US and UK release, so I can only imagine how uncomfortable it would be to watch the original French release.

The unfortunate romantic subplot aside, I guess this is tolerable enough animated fare, but there are frankly many better films to keep the small ones happy.  It may also be a little dark at times for very young kids.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Natural City (2003)



This movie can pretty much be summed up in three words, and those words are "Korean Blade Runner".  The film isn't shy about its inspiration, either: there's not just a strong similarity in the basic premise, but several scenes and sets are very strongly evocative of the Ridley Scott film.

In the dystopic future humanity's numbers have dwindled and the shortfall has been made up by the creation of synthetics.  These artificial humanoids have a lifespan of only about three years, but are otherwise pretty much indistinguishable from human beings.  They are, however, considerably stronger and tougher, making synthetic criminals especially dangerous.

The strangely-named R is part of an elite police unit charged with deal with such criminals.  He's also passionately in love with Ria, a synthetic who is nearing the end of her three year lifecycle.  This romance has already led him into some corrupt activities, such as selling licenses for synthetics 'independently', and thus it's only a step or two more out of line for him to consider the offer he is about to receive from one Dr Giro.

Giro, it seems, has found a human woman in whom Ria's electronic brain could be implanted.  This would allow Ria to live a full human lifespan with R.  All R has to do is bring the young woman to Giro.

Replacing a person's consciousness with another one sounds a lot like murder to me, but R's already shown himself to be rather morally flexible, and he agrees to the plan.  There are only two things standing in his way.  The first is his police partner, Numo.  The second is the very real possibility that Giro has plans he hasn't shared with R.

This film certainly delivers on the visual front, and die-hard cyberpunk fans may well find something to like.  For the rest of us though, I think the plot is a bit too muddled and the action scenes a bit too similar to one another to truly engage the audience.