Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979)

Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell a house to the reclusive Count Dracula, despite the manifold warnings of the locals that the Count and his castle are bad, bad news.  When the unnerving, rat-toothed Count becomes besotted with an image of Harker's wife (who has been inexplicably re-named Lucy, instead of Mina), old Jonathon starts to regret his pigheadedness ... for death now draws close to his home and family.

If you search online for reviews of this remake of the 1922 classic Nosferatu, you'll find glowing accounts from multiple sources, including the late Roger Ebert.

I have no idea why.

Yes, the film is visually quite striking at times.  But artfully shot landscapes and re-mixes of the clever imagery of the original film do not make a good movie.  Not by themselves, anyway.

Perhaps the film works better in German.  It was filmed in both that language and in English, and given the heritage of the actors and writers it's entirely possible that the acting and the script both suffered in translation.  Certainly I hope that it did, because in English they're both at a community theatre levels.  When you're making a sombre horror film and the dialogue feels like a retread of Monty Python's Cheese Shop sketch, something has gone wrong.

Ironically, this is a remake of a silent film that I suspect would itself work better as a silent movie.  Mute all the dialogue and add a few text interstitials, and the film would at least be a treat for the eyes without being an assault on the ears.

Or you could just watch F W Murnau's original film, instead.  That's what I'd do.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Ruins (2008)

If you're a horror movie fan, you can skip this review: just go get yourself a copy of The Ruins and have a good time.

For the rest of you, I'll try to convince you it's worth your time to see.

Four American tourists befriend a young German man while on holiday in Mexico.  He tells them that the next morning he is travelling to a remote Mayan ruin to collect his brother, who previously went there with a lady archaeologist.  With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the foursome agree to accompany him to see the ruin.

Given that this is a horror movie, you can be sure that the trip doesn't end up being an especially jolly one, but I'll refrain from going into any more details about the plot, because I think that the film does a very good job of slowly unfurling the true threat, and to just state the details baldly would not do it justice.

I will, however, take some time to praise the film-makers.  They've done very good work here.  This is by no means a "big budget" film (it cost about $8 million) but it's technically very proficient and you never feel like you're watching a cheap movie.  In particular the casting team has done a great job.  All the core group of actors deliver solid performances, and it is no surprise to see that they've generally gone on to bigger (though not necessarily better) things.

About the only complaint I might make of this film is that once it hits the end game, it feels like it rushes through things just a little.  But when the worst thing you can say about a movie is "gee, I wish they'd given the last couple of scenes a few minutes more to breathe, so they were as effective as the earlier parts" ... well, it speaks pretty well of the film as a whole, I think.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

A Killing Strain (2010)

A group of strangers shelter in an isolated farm house as the zombie apocalypse begins.  Can they work together to survive or will the rivalries and disagreements between them prove even more dangerous than the horde of flesh-eating undead outside?

If you've ever seen Night of the Living Dead you're probably thinking "gee, that sounds familiar".  And it should, because in the expansive realm of low budget zombie flicks, A Killing Strain's primary claim for distinction is the extent to which it borrows from the film that defined the genre.  Not that this movie is like Romero's masterpiece in all ways, of course.  It has a confirmed cause for the zombie outbreak, for instance, which the older film avoided.

Oh, and A Killing Strain is also different from Night of the Living Dead in that it's terrible.  The acting's mostly bad, for one thing, though to be fair to the cast it's hard to imagine anyone making some of the scenes in this script work.  For instance, there's an awkward conversation about fried coke that goes on for several minutes.   It's a scene that would land with a thud even if much of the performance wasn't stilted and uncomfortable.

Just in case bad acting and scripting wasn't enough, though, you can be sure this film also delivers bad action choreography and effects work.  It's nothing if not consistent in being of poor quality.

The world is full of low budget zombie films, presumably because it's comparatively easy to make them.  There's a very good chance I'll see at least a couple more in the course of this month, in fact.  I can only hope that if I do, they offer something at least a little more interesting than this film does.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

The conclusion to 2012's Resident Evil: Retribution had the heroes teaming up with their former arch-nemesis Albert Wesker for a final stand against the mutant zombie horde that has overrun the planet.  I'm not sure what writer/director Paul Anderson originally planned to do with that scenario, but I suspect that the delays in making this film - it was originally intended for 2014 release, and instead only just snuck into the 2016 season - probably changed them significantly.

We start here with another account of the "T virus", which caused a zombie outbreak and the collapse of civilisation; and with the news that the apparent "last stand" was a trap.  The only survivor - other than the villainous Wesker - is Alice (Milla Jovovich, returning to punch and shoot zombies for a sixth and presumably final time).

After being chased by monsters for a while, Alice stumbles into another big dump of exposition that justifies all the rest of the being-chased-by-monsters she'll do in the rest of the film.  Humanity's last remnants will be destroyed in 24 hours, and only Alice can save them.  How, you ask?  Why, by penetrating to the heart of the evil Umbrella Corporation and releasing an anti-virus that destroys the T-virus, and anything infected by it.

Which includes Alice herself.  Tough break.

If you've ever seen a Resident Evil film before, there's absolutely nothing to surprise you here.  It's the sixth instalment in the franchise and it's very much in the footsteps of those that have come before it.  Alice teams up with a bunch of other folks, and they tangle with monsters until almost none of them are left, and then she faces off with scenery-chewing bad guys.

So yes, it's pure formula.  But - for me at least - it's a fun formula.  If you like the idea of monster-action, you could well have a good time.

(The first movie is still by far the best in the series, though)

Saturday, 7 October 2017

American Mary (2012)

Mary Mason is a gifted medical student, but one whose considerable financial difficulties are putting her future at risk.  When she applies for work at a massage parlour that promises "no sex required", the interview unexpectedly spirals into an opportunity to do a little off the books medical treatment, and from there into the world of black market body modification.

Mary's not looking to make a career of such illicit work, just using it to pay the bills while she finishes her training for a legitimate career, but her plans change after she is sexually assaulted by the surgeons who are training her.  The underworld contacts she's made help her "disappear" the primary culprit, who becomes her unwilling 'guinea pig' for practicing new procedures (can't say I feel any sympathy for him, really), and she launches a new career catering to those who can't get the surgery they want through legal medical channels.

Of course, a surgeon can't disappear without someone taking notice, and Mary's breaking all kinds of laws with her new occupation, so this isn't exactly a safe or stable career she's chosen.  Can she stay ahead of anyone who might wish her ill, or will she end up, so to speak, on the cutting room floor?

I've seen other reviews describe American Mary as nausea-inducing, but I honestly didn't find it that confronting.  Still, there are some surgical scenes, and several minor characters with real life body modifications such as tongue splitting, which I guess may make some folks uncomfortable.

More problematic for me was the plot, which was rather fractured and disjointed, with various sequences that kind of came and went independently of each other, and a romance subplot that just kind of existed, without much establishment or resolution to it.  I feel like the script needed a good bit more work before it would really have been ready to shoot.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Shallows (2016)

When her mother dies of cancer, med student Nancy Adams takes a break from her studies to travel the world.  One of Nancy's key objectives is to locate and surf at an isolated beach that her mother visited in the early stages of being pregnant with Nancy.

At first, the beach seems to be everything Nancy hoped it to be, but when she follows a pod of dolphins out into deeper water, things go awry.  There's an injured whale here, and - perhaps attracted by the injured animal - there's also a great white shark lurking beneath the waves.

Luck allows Nancy to survive the shark's first attack, but she's now trapped hundreds of metres from the safety of the shore, and the great white clearly intends to finish the job.  The shark has all the physical advantages in this situation, of course, so Nancy will have to rely on her wits to survive ...

The first half hour of The Shallows is excellent, with some lovely underwater photography and a growing sense of tension and menace.  Things remain quite strong through the middle as well, once the shark makes it attack.  Sure, it seems very unlikely that a great white would bother spending hours stalking a single woman when there's an injured whale right there, but if you're willing to overlook that - and the film does ultimately offer a figleaf justification for the beast's obsession with eating our heroine - then it's got lots of decent set pieces.

In the last 30 minutes alas, the scenario does start to collapse under the growing weight of its own implausibility.  There were a couple of moments where I laughed out loud at developments: something that very much breaks the tension and I am sure was not intended.

If movies-that-make-you-jittery are your thing, then this is certainly worth seeing for the first hour, at the very least.  For the rest, well, just don't think about it too much.  Though it did occur to me afterward that if you treat this film as a sequel to Deep Blue Sea, with this killer shark being an escapee from that movie, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense.  For certain definitions of sense, anyway!

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Swamp Devil (2008)

A girl is murdered in some woods, and then seventeen years later, a teenage woman is also killed.  Not longer after this, Melanie Blaime receives a call telling her that her father - whom she coincidentally hasn't seen in about seventeen years - is dying, and asking her to return to her old hometown to see him.

Daddy Blaime isn't actually dying, though: instead he's the prime suspect for the more recent murder, even though the evidence against him seems to amount to "he says there's a monster in the swamp so he must be crazy".  Of course, being the kind of movie this is, it's no spoiler to say that Pops is right on the money about the monster thing.

Making genuinely scary movies is actually a pretty tough thing to do well, which is why a lot of horror films don't bother to try.  Check out the later entries in just about any slasher franchise, for instance, and the overall tone is likely to be more pitched at shocks and thrills than building any real atmosphere or tension - to the point where it's debatable if they are horror films at all.

Swamp Devil is similarly bereft of any real scares, not least because the monster encounters are staged more as action sequences than anything else, but I think its claim to being a horror film is pretty sound, nonetheless, as it hits a lot of tried and true 'vengeful spirit' story beats.  I also give it points for not dragging out the mystery too long, allowing it to get down to monster antics around the halfway point of the film.

The restrictions imposed by its made-for-TV budget mean that Swamp Devil is probably only worthwhile for hard core horror film aficionados.  That's something of a shame, though, as there's the kernal of a decent film in here, and I could certainly see myself raiding the basic plotline for use in a Halloween roleplaying game.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

2017 October Schedule

During October, I'll be posting reviews on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, for a total of 13 reviews over the course of the month.  They'll all be horror-themed reviews, so if nominally scary movies aren't your thing, then feel free to take a month's break from this blog :)

The normal Tuesday and Friday schedule will resume in November, with the first review for that month appearing on the 3rd.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Secretary (2002)

Lee Holloway is an emotionally sensitive young woman who uses self-harm to cope with her feelings of awkwardness and isolation.  After learning to type, she wins the job of secretary of uptight lawyer E. Edward Grey.  Grey warns her that the work is dull, but Lee simply answers that she "likes dull".

It soon becomes clear that Grey is sexually aroused by Lee's compliant and obedient nature; an arousal he attempts to quell with vigorous exercise.  After he becomes aware of her self-harm, however, he orders her to stop, and the pair begin a BDSM relationship.  Unfortunately, Grey remains deeply conflicted by his own desires, and this quickly becomes a threat to their relationship and the happiness Lee has found in it.

Secretary is a film full of awkward, uncomfortable moments between two awkward, uncomfortable people, but - provided you're okay with the BDSM elements, and if you're not you probably won't be watching it to begin with - it's also a quite touching romance.  The two main cast members are both very strong, and do a great job of conveying the tension and passion between their characters.  I do think the film overplays things a bit in the final act, which undercuts the impact a little, but overall it's quite effective: I found it easy to like both parties and to hope for their happiness together.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

House of Cards, Season 3 (2015)

Frank Underwood has clawed his way to becoming the most powerful man in the world, but his savage campaign to seize the top job has left his own party bloodied and battered.  President Underwood faces a hostile congress that emphatically rejects his political agenda and a rebellious party that doesn't want him to run for re-election.  Oh, and there's the little matter of a flare-up in the middle east and an adversarial President of Russia to deal with.

Of course, Underwood didn't get where he is by wilting under pressure, and you can bet he'll fight hard and dirty to keep what he's gained and to secure his own legacy.  And any collateral damage he inflicts on others who are in the way ... well, that's too bad for them, but it's the price they pay for trying to mix with the ruthless and powerful.

I enjoyed this season of House of Cards considerably more than I did season two.  It feels more grounded, and the rivals with whom Underwood faces off feel more compelling and real than those of last year.

If you like your political fiction (as opposed to your political reality!) bleak and Machiavellian, this is solid stuff.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Bedevilled (2010)

Hae-won is an over-stressed, confrontation-averse bank officer.  When the pressure finally overwhelms her, she's forcibly instructed to take a vacation.

Initially, Hae-won follows this instruction by moping around her apartment and drinking heavily, but then she decides to spend a week visiting the isolated Mudo Island, where she spent holidays as a child.  Given some of the things we later learn about those holidays, you might wonder what would prompt her to return at all, but nothing can really prepare her for what she finds on arrival.  The island has fewer than ten inhabitants, and her childhood friend Bok-nam, who is the only young, able-bodied woman, is more or less treated as a slave by the men and older women.  About the only two things that make Bok-nam's terrible existence bearable are her love for her daughter and her hope that her old friend Hae-won will help her, and so this visit may ignite events that Hae-won never could have imagined.

This is an ugly film.  Most characters are outright evil and even those that aren't are rather broken.  The film rarely flinches from depicting the full ugliness of Bok-nam's life, and the few times it does show circumspection, you'll be glad of it.  It's not quite a "video nasty" in the style of say I Spit On Your Grave in that it doesn't generally have the skeevy titillating atmosphere of those films, but it's certainly every bit as graphic.  And it does occasionally overplay its hand into unintentional absurdity, especially during the final act.

Ultimately I feel like Bedevilled falls a little uncomfortably between two different camps.  It's much too grim and stark to fit into the sensationalised sex and violence oeuvre so successfully adopted by shows like Game of Thrones, but at the same time it veers in that direction often enough that it doesn't quite gel as the harrowing, impactful experience it might otherwise have been.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Banshee, Season 1 (2013)

Banshee's premise was explained to me as "Jewel thief gets released from jail and then pretends to be the new sheriff of a small town as he attempts to track down his former accomplices".  From that, I kind of went in expecting something dry and a bit quirky.

Not so much.  While I was thinking it would maybe be like Northern Exposure meets Breaking Bad, what I actually got might be better described as "a car crash meeting of Riverdale and Spartacus: Blood & Sand".

So yeah, dry and quirky isn't Banshee's thing.  Sex and violence, on other hand, most definitely is.  There's frequent nudity and numerous sexual scenes, and even more frequent (and often rather unnecessarily protracted) bloody mayhem.

This isn't to say that the premise that was described to me is inaccurate.  It's not.  The show is very much about a jewel thief pretending to be a small town sheriff while trying to reconnect with his former accomplices, but it's also about that jewel thief trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous Ukrainian mobster who wants him dead.  And about the ruthless crime boss who pretty much runs the town in which our main character is carrying out his sheriff-impersonating shenanigans.  So many people get bloodily beaten or killed in the course of the season's ten episodes that things occasionally venture across the line from "ferocious" to "farcical".

If you don't mind the deliberately shocking content, and the rapidly escalating implausibility of the premise, there's fun to be had with Banshee, but it's very much exploitation-level stuff, on the whole.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Operation: Endgame (2010)

It is the inauguration of Barack Obama, which is bad news for the black ops agency The Factory.  It's been allowed to get up to all sorts of inappropriate mischief in the previous eight years, and that's all about to come to the light of day.  Or at least, it should.  Some within the Factory are determined to ensure that their tracks are covered.  And they don't really care what they need to do in order to achieve that goal.

Apparently the original script for this film did quite well in screenwriting competitions back in 2004.  It was presumably at least somewhat different back then, what with Obama's election being several years in the future.  I wonder if it was also funnier back then, because while I did laugh a couple of times during this ostensible comedy, there was an awful lot of macho posturing type stuff that I think was supposed to be comically over the top, but didn't really work for me.  It was over the top, certainly, but I didn't find it to be so in a manner that was funny.

Things do improve once the action elements of the film kick off, as the film at least has momentum then, but it's best not too think too closely about the plot.  It's one of those complicated triple-cross things which only work if everything falls exactly into place.

There's a great cast here, of recognisable if not exactly A-list names.  I just wish they were assembled for a better film.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Orphan Black, Season 3 (2015)

The writers of Orphan Black seemed to have created a rod for their own backs.  By far the most engaging and entertaining of the various clone sisters in the show is the uptight soccer mom Alison, but she's also the one that's got very little to do with the whole "secret cloning/genetics experiments" storyline at the heart of the show.  Everyone else has some skill or ability that ties into this.  Cosima has the science; Helena the special forces skills; while Sarah has both street smarts and is the only clone able to have children of her own.  Alison ... well, she used to help with the finances but even if this was still necessary it's not exactly something that keeps her front and centre in the show.

What this means is that season three sometimes feels like you're watching two different programs, as most of the characters feel like they're in something like The Americans while Alison's apparently turned up to work on Weeds.  Both solid shows, but not exactly an easy mix.  The writers do what they can to generate reasons for other characters to get involved in Alison's story arc, but they can't so readily resolve the problem of the different tones.

Fortunately, the show does a better job handling its other challenge: maintaining a core mystery and moving it forward in a satisfying way.  There is one major plot twist that I don't think was entirely earned, but other than that it holds together quite nicely.  I'll certainly be checking out season four.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Wonder Women (1973)

Renowned athletes are mysteriously disappearing.  On the hook for half a million dollars of insurance over the latest disappearance, Lloyds of London hire ace investigator Mike Harbor to find the missing man.

Harber (played by Russ Hagen, who looks kinda like a cut price Dirk Benedict) is the kind of man who keeps a sawn-off shotgun in his safari suit, but even he isn't really ready for where this case is going to go: black market brain transplants, pubescent assassins, murderous mutants, and an army of kung fu femme fatales.

The sad thing about Wonder Women is that it takes that gonzo list of ingredients and produces such a tepid final product.  A big part of this is that it doesn't really build or integrate the components at all.  The killer kid, for instance, disappears out of the film about halfway through without any kind of resolution, while the mutants are clumsily introduced all of five minutes before they're needed for their murderous rampage.

The film's second major flaw is the pacing.  Even at about 85 minutes, it feels pretty stretched at times, with one chase scene in particular going on and on and on and on.  And on.  It does have a couple of moments of quite neat stunt work, I have to admit, but that doesn't really compensate for how interminable it feels.

At the end of the day, if you're looking to get your "70s cheapie" groove on, there are better options than this out there.  Black Mama White Mama comes to mind, for one.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

House of Cards, Season 2 (2014)

There's an explosive plot development in the very first episode of the second season of House of Cards.  It's a stark and shocking moment.

The problem with explosions though, is that while they can start fires, they can also snuff them out.  And for my tastes, the latter case applies here.  As I said, the moment itself is stark and shocking, and honestly it was probably inevitable that it would happen at some point.  But while doing it early gives the opening of the season some real impact, it has some significant drawbacks that I think hamper the rest of the episodes.

For one thing, it deprives the show of one of its most interesting interpersonal relationships, and while the writers make an effort to fill the gap in a couple of different ways, one of them never really gets out of second gear, and the other takes a while to build up.  I do have hopes it will pay off in season three, but honestly, it needs to, as pretty much all the original conflict of the show has been resolved now.

Overall, House of Cards is still an enjoyable show in season two, but the sophomore offering does definitely feel like a step down from the first year.  It will be interesting to see how it develops - and whether it recovers or falters further - from here.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Gun Woman (2014)

A sadistic monster rapes and murders a woman, then cripples his victim's husband.  Said husband is a successful doctor, who applies his brilliant mind and large sums of cash to getting revenge.  This won't be easy, because the villain also has vast sums of money, and is protected by an entire platoon of armed guards.  In fact, the only time the bad guy is vulnerable is when he makes a visit to a secret compound that caters to necrophiliacs.

The doctor's scheme for revenge is thus rather elaborate: he will train a woman to be a deadly killer, then surgically conceal the components of a gun inside her body, give her drugs so she appears to be dead, and have her deliverable to necrophilia central, where she'll wake up, rip open her own body to get at the gun, and execute an inevitably gory revenge in 22 minutes or less, because that's how long she'll have before she bleeds to death.

Gun Woman consciously evokes the exploitation films of the 1970s in its look and feel, and it starts as it means to go on: with a naked woman, who is promptly murdered.  Nudity and gore are pervasive throughout the film, especially in the final act, where Asami Sugiura spends a solid 15-20 minutes killing folks while stark naked and covered in blood.

Obviously, given the deliberately gratuitous content, this will not be a film for all tastes.  But if you are in the market for a trenchantly exploitative 80 minutes of sex and violence, it certainly has you covered!

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 1 (2008)

High school chemistry teacher Walter White discovers that he has lung cancer, and the prognosis is that he'll be dead within two years.  Walter's already working two jobs to try and support his family, and they'll be left pretty much destitute once he's gone.  So of course the obvious thing for him to do (at least on a TV show) is start making crystal meth.  With the proceeds of this illicit activity, he should be able to leave a substantial nest egg ... assuming he doesn't get caught by the cops (who include his own brother-in-law) or killed by an irate criminal.

Armed only with his chemistry skills, and the dubious assistance of a former student who has become a low level drug-dealer, Walter sets out to make a mountain of money, and doesn't intend to let anything stop him from that goal.  Not the fact that he knows pretty much nothing about criminal activity, not that he's suffering from a debilitating disease (and/or its debilitating treatment), and not even that his new partner is a drug-using slacker with impulse control issues.

Naturally, things don't go entirely to plan.

When Breaking Bad is slanted more toward drama and really black comedy, it's very good work.  A fine cast, good writing.  Thumbs up.  Unfortunately, at least in the first season, the writers do seem to throw in a lot of quite slapstick-oriented physical humour, and that's not so successful.  There were a couple of times where I turned to my phone for amusement while waiting out a particularly persistent scene of this kind.

Overall though, so far Breaking Bad is pretty good.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Rocketeer (1991)

Cliff Secord is a struggling pilot in 1930s California.  He makes ends meet with crop-dusting and other odd jobs, but his main goal is to participate in the national aviation tournament.  That seems impossible, however, when his new plane is written off in an accident caused by a pair of crooks trying to escape the FBI.

But then Cliff stumbles across the experimental rocket pack that the crooks were trying to steal, launching him into a new career as "The Rocketeer", just in time for him to tangle with hoodlums, a giant hit man, and Nazis.

When I was seven or eight years old, I used to love re-runs of King of the Rocket Men on TV.  Which makes it pretty surprising that I never got around to seeing this film when it hit cinemas.  It should have been right up my alley.  And it makes it doubly surprising that I'd never seen it at all until now.  Especially since I've seen many people mention it fondly.

Having finally corrected this oversight, I can report that the film is ... okay.  The cast is personable enough (and Timothy Dalton is great) but the script and action leave a fair bit to be desired.  In particular, I think there are several occasions where the film aims for (and misses) laughs when it should have aimed for (and hopefully hit!) excitement.  It's not a bad film: I was more or less entertained through the run time, but - other than Dalton's performance - I never felt it lifted above "modestly enjoyable".

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Archer, Season 4 (2013)

When I reviewed season three of Archer I spent most of my word count talking about the show's commitment to internal consistency, despite the deliberately anachronistic setting it has adopted.  That's because there comes a point with most shows where it's difficult to find much to say beyond "hey, if you liked the previous seasons, you'll probably like this too".  Well, unless said show goes off the rails in some way.

Archer season four does not go off the rails, however, so it's very much in the "if you liked it before, you should still like it now" camp.  It continues with the basic formula of over the top spy show spoofery we've had up until now, as when the staff of ISIS have to protect the Albanian ambassador while he's at a restaurant ... while said restaurant is being broadcast on a Gordon Ramsey-esque reality TV show.  Or there's the mission where Archer is bitten by a snake and has his own Heaven Can Wait experience as he lies near death.  Of course, unlike Warren Beatty, Archer doesn't learn anything from the experience.

This season also features some pseudo-crossovers with Bob's Burgers and SeaLab 2021; I say pseudo since characters and settings from those other shows appear (re-animated in the Archer style), but there's never an explicit acknowledgement of the other show.

Anyway, the short and the long of it is indeed that if you liked the show before now, it's well worth watching this season as well.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Robot Wars (1993)

In 2041, only one of the great mega-robots - titanic armoured fighting machines - is still operational.  This is the scorpion-like MRAS-2, which defends the "North Hemi" from the rebellious "Centros".  Economic times are tough in the west, though, so the giant war machine also doubles as a tourist transport!

North Hemi authorities plan to trade their way out of the financial doldrums by selling "mini-megs", smaller versions of the mega-robot, to the Eastern Alliance.  Given the history of adversity between the Alliance and the Hemi, this strategy carries lots of risks, but the economic situation is bad enough that they're pressing ahead despite the objections.

Of course, the Eastern Alliance might not be satisfied with just a mini-meg, and could have plans of their own ...

Robot Wars comes from Full Moon Productions, who are probably best known for their direct to video series such as Trancers, Puppermaster and Demonic Toys.  They specialised in cheap genre films at a time when expensive genre films simply didn't happen.  We live in a different world now, cinematically speaking.

Robot Wars is pretty standard Full Moon fare: a simple story, acting that varies from poor to adequate, and pretty basic set and costume design.

That's some real 2041 style, happening there

The bulk of the time, effort and money has clearly been kept back for the stop-motion mega-robot sequences (just as it was for the stop motion puppet sequences in Puppetmaster).  These are pretty good, on the whole.  Nothing to scare Ray Harryhausen, mind you, but David Allen and his team have done solid work, especially given the likely budget they had.  Unfortunately, while the work is solid, there isn't enough of it.  We see quite a bit of re-used footage, and the film's climactic battle is somewhat short and underwhelming.

This is a workmanlike relic of a simple cinematic time, but unless you're a nerd of a certain age, as I am, you can safely skip this and go watch Pacific Rim again, instead.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Tudors, Season 4 (2010)

The final season of The Tudors tracks the downfall of Henry VIII's fifth wife, and the course of his sixth marriage.  In addition to Henry's marital roller-coaster, the show touches on the siege of Boulogne, the ambitions of the Earl of Surrey, and the ongoing strife between the 'High' and reformist elements of the Church of England.

As with season three, this season suffers from packing rather a lot into its run time.  This is particularly notable here given the show's inconsistent depiction of time.  Henry himself suddenly ages noticeably in the last two episodes, for instance, and there is dialogue about the length of his last marriage (which in reality was only four years), but almost no other character looks appreciably different from the start of the season.  Well, except the dead ones, obviously.  And there are rather a lot of those.  Henry VIII was not good at moderation.

I definitely think this show's best days were over once the second season concluded, but it remains solidly acted, opulently decadent melodrama, if that sort of sex and murder shenanigans are your thing (and given the success of Game of Thrones, it seems like it is a lot of people's thing).  Just don't watch The Tudors thinking you're getting a documentary: it puts accuracy a very distant second to drama.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Johann Karlo's Gun Driver (2016)

It is 2017, ten years after the great Nuclear-Biological-Chemical War.  Those with the means have escaped off-world to the Martian colonies, while those unfortunates left behind are forced into containment zones.  These zones keep them safe from radiation and other fallout of the war, but also put them at the mercy of any thug with the muscle to take over and run things.

I always raise my eyebrows when I see a film billed as being a specific person's.  Making a movie is a collaborative effort, after all, not the work of a single auteur.  On the other hand, Johann Karlo has no less than fifteen credits on this film, touching pretty much every aspect of the movie, so perhaps he has a better claim than most.  Certainly, it's clear this was a passion project for him.

Alas, you can have all the passion in the world and still make a bad film, and that's very much the case here.  Karlo is clearly a fan of The Road Warrior - and probably of that film's many cheap and nasty 80s knock-offs - and riffing on them pretty heavily here, right down to digging up plenty of era-appropriate technology.  Unfortunately, his reach far exceeds his grasp.  Even if one sets aside the community theatre-level acting and the sometimes near-unintelligible sound, one is still faced with major problems.

For example, there's the laughable 'action' sequences, which are perhaps best epitomised by the 'chase' scene conducted at literal walking speed, or the climactic encounter with the bad guy which is basically just two groups of guys pointing guns at shooting at something off screen.

Then there's the script, which features such gem-like lines as "You can't trust anyone these days, but somehow I know you're different", and a super-awesome-mega-car that doesn't actually matter for the plot.  I mean, yes the hero drives it at the end, but he doesn't do anything with it that he couldn't have done with any other vehicle.  If you make a point of how awesome your car is, film makers, then you need to show the car being awesome.

If you want to watch something that's riffing on 80s apocalyptica, you're much better off seeking out Turbo Kid instead.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)

Francis Underwood is the House Majority Whip in the US Congress.  He's just been instrumental in helping the new President win election, and he expects to be rewarded for his efforts by being appointed Secretary of State.

The President has other plans, however, and Underwood finds himself left in his current role, ostensibly because his skill in getting legislation through the house makes him "too important" to leave Congress.

For an ambitious man with almost no moral scruples, this is like a red rag to a bull, and Underwood sets out to advance his own interests, whatever the cost to those around him.  Of course, there are others who will oppose him, and even his own allies can become threats over time ...

Back when I reviewed the original UK House of Cards, I remarked that I thought this US adaptation was better.  It's longer run time allows more depth to the characters and also for Underwood to face more setbacks and challenges than his UK counterpart ever did.

The show is also helped by excellent performances.  Kevin Spacey is a powerhouse as Francis Underwood - both he and Robin Wright definitely deserve the Golden Globes they later won for the show - and the rest of the cast is very solid as well, without a poor performance to be seen.

I guess some people might find Underwood too unpleasant to be a compelling protagonist, but for everyone else, this is cracking stuff.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

This sequel to 2014's The Maze Runner begins with the teenage protagonists apparently being rescued from the clutches of WCKD.  Because yes, the books were the kind of fiction where the bad guys' name is "Wicked".  Of course, this is YA dystopia, so the apparent deliverance is nothing of the sort, and these "rescuers" are merely the next stage of their captivity.

Thanks to the aid of another teen, our heroes pretty quickly work out that things aren't on the up and up, and bust out of the facility where they're being held.  Their plans beyond that point are in theory pretty simple: head for the mountains and find an organisation called "The Right Arm", which is reputed to be at odds with WCKD.  Of course, WCKD isn't likely to just let them go, and there's also the minor issue that the whole planet's descending into a fast zombie apocalypse, to complicate matters.  Plus, can they really trust all of their number?

The novel The Scorch Trials is one of the (presumably unintentionally) silliest books I can recall reading, and significant props must go to screenwriter T S Nowlin for turning in a script that eschews the most contrived and arbitrary parts of the original work while still maintaining the same basic "shape" to the narrative.  The resulting story might be more conventional in its details than the source material, but it's also a lot better constructed and delivers satisfying action/drama antics.

Production of the third Maze Runner film was delayed due to the main actor suffering an injury during filming, but I'm pleased to see that both the writer and director of this film are returning: I'll be quite interested to see their adaptation of the trilogy's final chapter.  In the mean time, if this is your sort of thing, check it out.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 4 (2011)

The final season of Secret Diary of a Call Girl sees Belle/Hannah trying to juggle even more plates than usual.  Not only does she have a new relationship starting up, and her usual gaggle of clients to handle, but she's also forced to become a stand-in madam when her usual boss has a little trouble with the law.  It's not a job Belle particularly wants, and some of her co-workers are more than ready to try and undermine her now she's doing it.  Oh, and there's talk of a big screen adaptation of Belle's book, as well.  Sooner or later it seems inevitable that some of these 'plates'are going to fall and get broken.

This final season delivers much of the raunchy but wry comedy of the previous series, as well as a number of broader, more slapstick style comic elements.  This is offset by even more Drama (with a capital "D") than before, all of which gives the supposedly light entertainment a slightly stressful and ultimately somewhat melancholy tone.

I've enjoyed all four seasons of this show: it's certainly been refreshing to see a program that takes a very clear "as long as you're all consenting adults, have at it!" approach to sexuality.  Even this show is not perfect on that score, but I doubt you'll find many other programs which sympathetically portray wrestling fetishists, say.

If you've got an open mind about sex, and don't mind a pretty big dose of angst with your laughs, then Secret Diary of a Call Girl delivers to the end.

Friday, 28 July 2017

626 Evolution (2017)

Two young women - one a badass parkour ninja, the other a middle schooler with a terrible foster dad - are secretly under surveillance by a shadowy organisation.  Neither is initially aware of this, but as things in each of their lives begin to spiral out of control, it is only a matter of time before they find each other ... and the truth about who they are.

One of the main things that I liked about Arrowstorm Entertainment's Survivor, which I reviewed several years ago, was that it had a (mostly) very capable female protagonist who was played by an actor who had the physical chops to convincingly pull off the role.  No "really, Kate Beckinsale is an action star!" awkwardness here.

Said actor was Danielle Chuchran, so when the same production company launched a kickstarter in which they promised a science fiction thriller were "Dani's back in fighting form, kicking butt and taking names", well I figured it was worth dropping fifteen bucks to check it out.

It wasn't.

There are three main problems with 626 Evolution.  The first is the omnipresent and very annoying narration.  I'm sure it is supposed to be sardonic and witty, but mostly comes across like a 14 year old desperately trying to be sardonic and witty, and utterly failing in the process.  To be fair, the narrator is a 14 year old character, so I guess it could be deliberate.  It's still awful, though.

Then there's the action scenes  Much of the parkour and fist-fighting stuff is fine, but there are some gunfight scenes that are ... really not good.  The use of CGI in place of more costly and difficult practical effects is really obvious, and the action has no flow.

Third, there's the acting.  The performances - including from Chuchran, who I have seen be capable in other works - are uniformly poor.  They're not helped by some occasionally murky sound, either.  Some of the problem might be the film's use of a lot of POV shots, which means characters are often talking directly at the camera, but I also wonder if the filming schedule was highly compressed.  It would explain the lack of polish on the delivery.

Ultimately, 626 Evolution is a step backward for both Arrowstorm and Chuchran.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Magnum, P.I., Season 6 (1985)

Like season 5 before it, this series of Magnum P.I. is widely considered one of the weakest in the show's eight year run.  In fact, the folks over at the Magnum Mania forums ran the numbers and this season came out bottom in terms of average episode rating, and fewest "great" episodes.  Though, they hastened to add, even a bad season of Magnum is pretty darn good.

I'm not a Magnum Maniac myself, but I can agree with the basic sentiment that even a weak season of the show is still pretty enjoyable light entertainment, on the whole.  Like season five, I think this series does suffer a bit from being a bit too heavy on the humour vs the drama.  Some of the funny episodes are genuinely amusing, but one of the strengths of early Magnum was its willingness to mix things up in terms of tone, and season six leans heavily on the funny stuff.  It's probably no surprise that the episodes rated most highly by the Maniacs in this season are the ones that buck that overall trend: the more sombre episodes, such as the espionage-themed Blood and Honor or the gritty Way of the Stalking Horse.

While the tone tends heavily to the somewhat-silly, the actual scenarios themselves remain quite diverse, as Magnum has to deal with spies, dolphins, carnival workers, castle rustlers (in an episode with a Wild West style arrangement of the theme tune) and a South Pacific coup.  Not to mention yet another of Higgins's many half-brothers.

Basically, if you like the basic light entertainment PI show feel that Magnum is all about, then you should enjoy this season: but it's probably best to watch it at staggered intervals, rather than binge watching it, as it's certainly not designed with the latter approach in mind.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

In box office terms, Mockingjay Part 2 was the worst performing of the Hunger Games series.  The producers blamed Star Wars, despite episode 7 opening several weeks later (and despite, you know, them knowing full well when it was coming out).

I personally tend to blame the two preceding films, neither of which are particularly good.  Sure, they all have fine action sequences, solid effects, and decent acting ... but the narrative framework in which all that occurs is flaccidly-paced and often rather farcical in its details.  It's difficult to truly care about characters who are placed in such obviously artificial situations.

So does this film rise above these failures?  Well, in a word: no.  The entire final hour makes that good and clear.  This sees the rebels fighting their way into the evil guys' city.  Said evil guys have festooned the place with murderous devices called "pods", which we're told in narration are so densely distributed that there's one "every ten paces".  And if these devices were just the pop up flamethrowers that we see the first time one is activated, then sure I guess I could accept that the villains somehow had the time and resources for this.  But in a later sequence, a pod does the following:

  • seal off an entire city square with seventy foot (20 metre) tall iron doors; and
  • flood said square with some sort of tech liquid to a depth of ten feet or more (and said liquid apparently has the ability to turn into razor wire if it touches someone, or something); and
  • after a while, pump the liquid out again
All of which succeeds in killing exactly one rebel soldier, by the by.  Sure sounds like a plausible and effective use of resources in an apocalyptic final stand against your enemies!

Now sure, the premise of the Hunger Games has always been pretty silly, but the original story kept the stakes very personal and the focus sufficiently narrow that this didn't matter overmuch.  By increasing the stakes and widening the scope, the later entries magnify the story's weaknesses and minimise its strengths.

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.

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

If ever there was a movie that suffered from middle chapter-itis, this is it ... even though, since they made four films in the Hunger Games series, it's not strictly speaking the middle.  At least until the end of the picture.

Anyway, Catching Fire exists pretty much solely to set up Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, and it more or less just retreads the plot of the original Hunger Games to do it.  The evil, corrupt oppressive Capitol is evil, corrupt and oppressive, and Katniss Everdeen has to go into a manufactured death match with 23 other people because of evil, corrupt and oppressive reasons.

Now, I knew that restraint wasn't going to be a feature of the Hunger Games series when the first book had all the dead competitors return as science fiction werewolves to make another stab at killing Katniss, but seriously, I'm pretty sure the only reason none of the bad guys in this movie have moustaches is because they twirled them so hard they fell off.

Okay yes, I guess Donald Sutherland technically has a moustache since he has a beard, but it's my review and I'll hyperbole how I want to.

In any case, there are colossally silly and arbitrary evil guy plans and even sillier good guy plans, and a lot of stylish action sequences, and Jennifer Lawrence frankly giving the material a lot more gravitas than it deserves with a strong performance.  We also get introduced to a bunch of new characters who I assume will continue to feature in the remaining two films.  I for one look forward to seeing more from the crazy lady with the axe.

But outside expanding the cast?  The entire 140-minute run time of this film could be pretty much encapsulated in the "Every Revolution" tagline on the DVD cover above.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Omega Factor (1979)

I read someone else's review of this series where they described it as "The X-Files, if it was made in 1970s Britain".  It's not a bad summation ... though not in my mind as positive a thing as that reviewer intended it to be.

Conspiracy TV - that is, shows which feature a shadowy, Illuminati-esque organisation as a largely unseen adversary - often face a fairly critical problem.  The need to keep the antagonist central to most episodes, without every allowing them to be materially defeated, often causes them to become so pervasive and powerful that the audience is left wondering how it is that they haven't already won.  When you combine this tendency with the fact that the bad guys here have access to mind control ... well, it's safe to say that The Omega Factor has this problem in spades.

Journalist Tom Crane specialises in articles regarding psychic phenomena and other wacky theories of the 1970s.  In the course of his latest round of research, he discovers that he himself has powerful, untapped psychic abilities.  This brings him to the attention of Department 7, a secret branch of the UK government that researches such matters.  And also to the attention of Edward Drexel, a malevolent psychic who - despite his power - Crane soon comes to believe is merely the pawn of a larger, sinister organisation known as "Omega".

So one catastrophic flaw that The Omega Factor suffers is the fact that Tom Crane is a terrible person.  He's hugely unlikable on any number of fronts.  His arrogant pigheadedness gets his wife killed in the first episode, and then by the third episode - barely weeks alter - he's actively pursuing a relationship with his dead spouse's best friend.  When the two of them do hook up (unlike Mulder and Scully, the sexual tension is not left to simmer), he treats her very poorly, both personally and (since they work together in Department 7) professionally.  The fact that in the context of the show, he always turns out to be right, does nothing to make him less irritating.  Quite the reverse, in fact.

Couple the jerk protagonist with the show's lack of closure - it was cancelled after one season - and tI can't see any good reason to spend time and money tracking this one down.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Pride and Prejudice (2003)

The most iconic screen version of Jane Austen's novel is probably the excellent 1995 mini-series, though my personal favourite remains 2012's Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Which you can watch here.  Seriously, it's almost certainly a better use of your time than anything else you have planned.

Made roughly at the midpoint between those two adaptations is this third version of the tale: a low budget independent production.  Here, Elizabeth Bennet is a college student and aspiring novelist, studying at an unnamed campus in Utah in the modern day, while her sisters are re-cast as her friends and roommates.  Her three potential suitors - the charming but feckless Wickham, overbearing and pompous Collins, and socially awkward Darcy - then revolve in and out of her life in more or less the patterns you might expect, if you're familiar with the basic structure of the novel, though as with any adaptation that changes its setting, some changes from the original are inevitable.

The changes made in this version are a mixed bag.  On the plus side, I think they've done quite a good job with the central Elizabeth/Darcy storyline: there's a nicely realised moment where you can see Darcy reassess Elizabeth after his unfavourable first opinion, for instance.  On the negative side ... first of all, the film tends heavily toward farce-based humour and it's fairly hit and miss in how well it comes off.  Secondly, some of the other character beats misfire.  The Wickham/Elizabeth flirtation never seems to be something she's all that interested in, for instance, and Charlotte Lucas's role is reduced to a single two minute scene that doesn't lead into anything or pay off on anything from before.  Frankly, she could - and probably should - have been completely excised.

At the end of the day, this is a harmless enough hour and a half, but there are some really great screen adaptations of this book, so why would you spend time with an inferior alternative?

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Supernatural, Season 5 (2009)

When Eric Kripke created Supernatural, he conceived of it as a discrete five year arc, culminating in the Winchester brothers taking on Lucifer himself.  I guess he figured once you've had your protagonists throw down with Satan, there's not much left for them to do.

Given that the show is now in its twelfth season, I guess he was wrong, but this season is still configured in such a way that - if you ignore the final few seconds, at least - the story can be considered "over".  Certainly Kripke himself was done with the show, moving on to new projects after this season and leaving the Winchesters in the hands of other show runners.

I also plan to leave Supernatural here, at least for the time being.  I've enjoyed the show, but there are a lot of other films and programs that I'd like to check out before committing to another seven (or eight or ten or however many there are in the end) seasons of Sam and Dean brooding at each other while battling ever more extreme mythological threats.

So as a conclusion to the show, how does season five work?  Well ... unevenly, frankly.  The pacing is rather wonky, with far too much stuff jammed into the final five episodes, including a couple of plot twists that frankly don't bear too much thinking about.  Jettisoning two or three of the weaker standalone episodes in the show would have helped a lot on the pacing.  A little more writerly self control would have helped with the latter.

Despite my feeling that some elements of the season were fumbled, though, there are definitely plenty of good moments here, so the show's worth checking out if you're into supernatural shenanigans, brooding bad boys, or both.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (2012)

2012 saw the release of Journey 2: Mysterious Island on the big screen.  It was a pretty average film, frankly, but it was a big enough release that it was inevitable someone would trot out a cheapie adaptation of Jules Verne's novel in the hope of riding its coattails.

I actually came to the film via a different route, however: I'd recently purchased the 1961 and 2005 versions of the story and was actively searching for other interpretations.  When I discovered this one, with a leading role for Gina Holden, I had to pick it up.  Ms Holden makes a habit of turning up in TV shows that almost no-one but me likes (Blood Ties, Flash Gordon) and I thought I'd see if that translated to film.

It doesn't, for the record.  Ms Holden was also in Sand Sharks in 2012, and I would not be willing to put money on this film being better than that one.

We begin in March 1865, where several Union soldiers - and one Confederate - end up being blown out to sea in a hot air balloon.  A massive storm arises, and they end up crash-landing on a tropical island.  An island they soon discover is inhabited with dangerous beast-men.

Things escalate when a small plane also crashes on the island.  Aboard are two young women from 2012.  Their information that the Union ultimately wins the Civil War is naturally welcomed by most of the men.  Though frankly, in March 1865 the Confederacy's end was literally only weeks away, so it shouldn't be the surprise it's presented to be.

Also welcome is a stately home they find on the island, which offers some protection from the beast-men (who are the laughably least menacing menaces that ever didn't menace menacingly), and the occasional gifts they receive from a mysterious benefactor (spoiler for 150 year old book: it's Captain Nemo).

On the debit side?  The island has a volcano, and it will shortly kill them all if they don't find a way to escape from this time-lost land.

The cheapness of this film is apparent throughout the movie's run time, but I could forgive that if the script wasn't such a clumsy mess of ham-handed exposition, paper-thin characters, and revelations that don't actually matter.

Hopefully one or both of the other adaptations will be better - they'll both be reviewed here eventually, so we will find out!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Robot Chicken Season 4 (2008)

One of the merits of Robot Chicken's rapid-fire format is that if you don't like a particular skit, you never need to wait more than two minutes for the next one.  And there's always the chance that the punchline will redeem the skit in any case.  In this season, for instance, there's a sketch that starts with nothing but 30 seconds of a guy pooping in the toilet, and then in the last 10 goes in such an unexpected tangent that you can almost forgive the excessively long scatological opening.

Poop and flatulence related humour is, it should be noted, sometimes regrettably large part Robot Chicken's material.  The show itself actually calls this out in a season finale musical number (to the tune of "It's A Wonderful World").  While such self-awareness is refreshing, it would perhaps be even better if they just didn't do so many of them, and instead had more of their other material.

Said other material generally consists of mocking celebrities, horribly corrupting your childhood memories (GI Joe, MASK and Strawberry Shortcake all come in for a hammering here), and incredibly nerdy gags.  Sometimes all at the same time.

Robot Chicken will not be to all tastes, but if you've ever wondered how Wrath of Khan would look as an opera, or what would happen if you mashed Yellow Submarine with Hunt for Red October, or how to turn Horton Hears A Who into a tale of drug addiction and oral sex ... well, this is the show for you.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Gallowwalkers (2012)

It's almost impressive that they could make a movie about undead cowboys this boring.

Gallowwalkers features Wesley Snipes in the lead role, and production was heavily delayed by the star's tax trouble.  It ultimately spent three years in production, then another two sitting on a shelf somewhere until it finally found distribution.

Now with heritage like that it's probably not surprising that the film has flaws.  Some of these are to pretty much inevitable in the circumstances: the large number of scenes where we can't actually see the fact of Snipes' character, for instance, is understandable enough given that the man was often unavailable for shooting.  Even the clumsiness of the narrative - large exposition dumps, subsidiary characters that occupy a lot of screen time but don't seem to actually contribute to the plot at all, long diversions away from Snipes - might well be a result of frantic re-writes to account for the star's absence.

On the other hand, the poor execution of the action sequences and the complete lack of tension in the final denouement, are just bad film-making.  The flatness and lack of spark in the action is particularly irksome since you can see that they had some interesting ideas for stunts: things that should have been exciting and dramatic but simply aren't, because the cinematography and editing isn't up to standard.

About the only thing in the film that is up to standard, in fact, is the costume design.  There are some pretty cool-looking (if not necessarily very practical) outfits.  So good work, Pierre Vienings, and hang your head in shame, everyone else.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Wire, Season 5 (2008)

Frustration mounts in the Baltimore police department as budgetary constraints force investigations to be closed for lack of resources to pursue them, and severs the flow of overtime that most cops rely on to get by.  Reporters at the Baltimore Sun are also feeling the financial pinch, with enforced layoffs and cuts to departments.  Resentment mounts everywhere, and it is surely only a matter of time until people in both organisations start to step outside the rules ...

The final season of The Wire is widely considered the show's weakest, and I can see why.  It's a couple of episodes shorter than those before it, and it has the largest cast of characters to date - including several new faces from the newspaper.  Things get stretched a bit thin at times, and some of the story arcs intersect in only very minor ways.

That said, even at its nominal worst, this remains one of the best shows on TV.  Sharp writing, a great ensemble cast, sympathetic-but-flawed characters on all sides of the equation, and a continued rejection of easy answers.  Perhaps most impressively of all, it frequently puts characters you like on opposite sides of an argument and allows you to at least understand and empathise with both positions.

Heck, it even manages to land a solid ending.  How many long-running TV shows can say that?