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?

Friday, 26 May 2017

Creep Creepersin's Frankenstein (2009)

Victor lives alone.  Well, alone except for his pet rat Frankenstein, and his occasional hallucinations of his mother, all of which appear to involve him being verbally abused.  Lonely, not too bright - he's unable to grasp that the women putting their phone numbers in magazines are actually adverts for phone sex operators - and barely socially functional, his life mostly consists of watching old public domain horror films, talking to Frankenstein, and eating a whole lot of scrambled eggs.

Eventually, however, Victor's viewing habits provide him with an idea for how he might ease his loneliness: he could literally make a friend, just like the good Dr Frankenstein did.  Because as we know, that went well.  The minor fact that Victor doesn't actually know anything about anatomy surely won't be any hindrance ...

The general tone of Creep Creepersin's film oeuvre was eloquently summed by by 1000 Misspent Hours as "cheap gore and off-duty strippers", but this - his first film - is actually pretty tame on the sex and violence stuff, and seems to be making a genuine effort to explore themes of loneliness and disassociation.  In this regard I think its ambition significantly outreaches its creator's actual capabilities, which may be why his later efforts have focused on schlock.

I can't really recommend Creep Creepersin's Frankenstein overall - I don't think I could recommend any film that runs less than an hour and still feels too long, as this one does - but there are a handful of moments in the picture where you can see the glint of something interesting.  It's a shame they're buried in so many long stretches of nothing much.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Weeds, Season 4 (2008)

There are people who'll tell you that you should quit Weeds after season three.  I can see where they are coming from.  The show shifts location, jettisons many well liked characters in favour of new ones, and embarks on a pretty thorough Flanderization of some of those who do remain (Doug especially, but also Celia and - the few times he turns up - Dean).  The combination is bound to put a few people off.

On the whole, however, I feel comfortable with giving this season a qualified recommendation.  The show's still blackly funny - and most definitely not afraid to make you uncomfortable as you're laughing.  I like the new setting, and I think the show was right to shake up its location since the whole "soccer mom deal pot" angle was looking pretty played out by the end of season three.  This season pushes Nancy into a new and frankly much more dangerous world as she gets tangled up with a cross-border drug and people smuggling ring.  These new associates are into heavy stuff that makes pot-dealing look like a kids' game, and they're commensurately ruthless and violent.

Now Nancy's never been the most cautious or careful of people, and she's figuratively and literally in bed with these people before she really comes to understand what kind of operation they have.  When she finally twigs to it, she's caught between her abhorrence of what they do and her need to stay alive.  Which, of course, leads to more of her usual seat of the pants improvisations and escapades.

Weeds is a changed show in season four, and not always for the better, but there's still a lot to like, in my opinion.  And keep an eye out for Cesar if you do watch it: he's a relatively minor new regular, but he's an intriguing character, very well performed.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Mrs Brisby is a small mouse with a big problem.  In a few days, her home will be destroyed by the farmer's plough.  Normally she would just move her family until the danger has passed, but her youngest son is in bed with pneumonia and cannot be moved.  Her only hope for help is the mysterious clan of rats that live in the farmer's rosebush ...

As I've mentioned before, I'm not intrinsically opposed to movies making changes from the books on which they are based.  Unfortunately for The Secret of NIMH, all three of its big changes misfire.

The first change is one that in principle is a sound idea.  The novel that inspired the film pretty much entirely lacks an antagonist.  There are threats, for sure.  The farmer's plough, his vicious cat Dragon, and even the mysterious organisation known as NIMH are all out there, but they're environmental dangers, not a scheming adversary.  The film introduces one in the shape of Jenner, a malevolent member of the rats who schemes to murder the current leader and take over the rosebush.  Having an active villain is a solid concept, but Jenner's introduced too late and given too little to do to actually be an effective one.

The second change is again a sensible enough idea gone wrong.  Horribly wrong, frankly, since the idea is "let's have a comic relief character, since the original story is a pretty sombre one", and the execution is "let's have Dom DeLuise do his tiresome well-meaning buffoon schtick all over the place".  Ugh.

The third change, though.  Oh lordie, the third change.  That's the kicker, because it's simply a terrible idea to begin with.  The film invents a magic amulet that provides a supernatural solution to Mrs Brisby's problem, rendering much of what has gone before completely pointless.  It's a terrible, tonally discordant ending to the film.  So disappointing.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Marvel's Agent Carter, Season 2 (2016)

Peggy Carter's second adventure takes her to Los Angeles, where former sort of love interest Daniel Sousa now runs the west coast division of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (which is rather like the FBI, but focused on the kind of weird cases that tend to crop up in the Marvel Universe).  The reason for Peggy's journey is the body of a young woman, which has turned up in a lake that is somehow frozen, despite it being the hottest day of the year.

The case quickly escalates beyond the matter of a single - albeit odd - murder, however.  It's not long before more frozen bodies are hitting the floor and words like "atomic weapons test" are becoming relevant to proceedings.  Naturally Peggy and Daniel are in the thick of the action, reuniting their old partnership, but there are a couple of new LA faces thrown into the mix, including the handsome and charming Dr Jason Wilkes, to complicate any extension of that partnership beyond the professional.

There's plenty to like about this season of Agent Carter: the cast is excellent (both good guys and bad), the costumes cool, and there's plenty of great banter.  On the other hand, it's got a few wobbly bits.  The pacing is one issue: the middle few episodes feel a bit padded, and then the ending a bit rushed.  The other major misstep, at least for my personal tastes, came in the way they developed Daniel Sousa's character arc.  Suffice it to say that after episode 5, I lost any respect for him.  Which is a shame, since I liked him a lot back in season one.

Also be aware: they set up some stuff for season three at the end of this series, and the third season will never happen.  So if you hate dangling plot threads that'll never be resolved, then I am afraid that's going to irk you here.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Day the World Ended (2001)

Dr Jennifer Stillman is quite excited about her new job as the school therapist in a small town, but she quickly finds that the locals aren't very welcoming to strangers.  Though what can you expect of a place that elects the Mayor from Buffy to be sheriff?

In any case, as cool as the townsfolk are toward her, Dr Stillman can't help but notice that they're flat out hostile toward local boy Ben McCann.  He's picked on at school - and then blamed by the school nurse for the altercation - and seems to be constantly being told to sit down, shut up and not look at anyone.

Naturally, the Doc wants to help young Ben, but it does have to be said that there's something a little odd about the situation.  Nobody wants to talk about his mother at all, and then there's the fact that the boy seems to believe his father was a from another planet.  It'd be enough to make you think about moving back to the city even before the murders start ...

This is one of five cable TV films in the 'Creature Features' series.  The gimmick of the films was that they used the names of cheap 1950s Science Fiction movies, and then crafted new scenarios of their own to match the title.  Or, as I suspect happened in this case: dug up old scripts and slapped on whatever title was least inappropriate.

The Day the World Ended is not by any means a terrible film.  The kid playing Ben is surprisingly good and the creature effects are solid enough given it was made for the small screen over fifteen years ago, but it's also not a very memorable one and Nastassja Kinski is not really up to the task of being a leading lady.  Frankly, there are plenty of other, better movies in this niche, so I can't recommend it.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Burn Notice, Season 4 (2010)

Last season was a 'one step forward, two steps back' kind of deal for Michael Westen, which resulted in him being pushed into partnership he didn't want.  Troublesome team-ups are actually rather a thing for the season, as Westen's team grows by one new member: another burned spy whose presence may well complicate Michael's already tempestuous relationship with "ex" girlfriend Fiona.

Of course, in addition to all this Westen has to maintain not only his ongoing efforts to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the CIA, but also come to the aid of the various friends of friends who find themselves in need of his unique skillset.  Whether it's a woman taken for all she's got by a con man, or a doctor whose clinic is being targeted by drug dealers, it seems Miami is never short of folk who need Michael's help.

The formula of having both a 'villain of the week' as well as ongoing, season long arcs gives Burn Notice plenty of opportunities to have guest stars, and the show has certainly never been shy on that front, with plenty of genre-TV alumni like Tricia Helfer and Lucy Lawless turning up for episodes.  Season four ups the guest star game still further with Burt Reynolds making an appearance as a retired spy, former T-1000 Robert Patrick showing up a few times, plus appearances from Richard Kind (though admittedly that guy is in a lot of stuff).  There are also a couple of alumni from The Wire here, which I didn't know back when this show was first airing.

Burn Notice continues to work its formula well in season four.  If you've enjoyed it to this point, you should continue to have fun here.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Scooby Doo! and WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon (2016)

Evidently Scooby Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery did well enough that a follow up was justified.  Which I am pleased to see, because that was a fun film.

This is also a fun film, mind you, though like a lot of sequels it tends to retread a lot of the same basic material as the original, but writ a little larger.  So instead of a major wrestling show, we now have a three day 'extreme off road race' with personalised vehicles for the WWE superstars participating.  The whiff of Wacky Races is more than a little obvious.

The film's premise is that WWE is holding this extravagant race for a million dollar prize, and various of their personnel are taking part.  The cast is rather an eclectic bunch.  Major figures like the Undertaker or Triple H having prominent roles is no surprise, but the prominence afforded to Los Matadores certainly seems to indicate that WWE expected the tag team to catch on with their audience (spoiler: they did not).

In any case, Shaggy, Scooby and the rest of the mystery-solving gang are present at the event, and wouldn't you know it?  An apparently supernatural menace appears to threaten the race.  This is Inferno, who it must be said has by far the coolest ride in the film.

Though I do also have a soft spot for Rusev's locomotive-themed car

Naturally enough, WWE Chairman soon puts "those meddling kids" on the case, and hijinks ensue.

While lacking some of the freshness and charm of the first Scooby/WWE crossover, this is a harmless bit of goofy entertainment for the younger set.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The L Word, Season 6 (2009)

It would be hyperbolic to say that the only two reasons to watch season six of The L Word both happen in the pre-credits teaser of the first episode.  But only just.

Explaining why is going to require pretty major spoilers, so if you don't want to read 'em, you should leave now.

Okay, so the first of the two reasons I mentioned above - and a good example of how weak  this season is overall - is that Lucy Lawless has a guest spot.  She plays Detective Sergeant Marybeth Duffy, who is introduced to the show as a result of the second reason: someone has killed Jenny Schecter.

Now if you haven't actually watched The L Word, you're not likely to understand why Jenny's murder would matter so much to long time viewers.  So just trust me when I say that the fandom hated her with a white hot fury, and that the sentiment was pretty thoroughly justified.  Schecter - especially since season three - is a narcissistic, self-centred prima donna who never once gets called for any of the frankly terrible things she does to her supposed 'friends'.

Now you might be wondering how a season that starts with the death of such a character can go so very wrong, and the answer is simple enough, and also comes in two parts.  Firstly, because after this intriguing opening, the writers jump back several months and then put us through eight episodes of hair-pulling frustration as Schecter's behaviour becomes more and more ridiculously heinous, to the point where it is completely unfathomable than anyone still voluntarily associates with her.

And secondly, because having set up the entire season as a murder mystery, the show refuses utterly to discuss who did it.  Everyone has a motive, due to Jenny's abhorrent behaviour, and the last episode ends where the first began, right after Detective Duffy arrives at the crime scene.  So basically, a complete cop-out on actually providing an ending, challenging even The Sopranos in lacking closure.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons was one of the favourite books of my childhood.  It was adapted to screen in 1974, with Ransome's low key tale of rambling childhood holidays in the Lake District, featuring lots of sailing and camping, being faithfully reproduced with very few changes from the text.

This more recent adaptation, on the other hand, recognises that Ransome's tale is probably a bit too low key and idyllic for modern audiences.  In the books, the four Walker siblings are very capable, get along with nary a cross word spoken between them, and their adventures are much more dramatic in their imaginations than they are in reality.  It's only at the end of the book that a dose of real life danger appears, when one of them witnesses a burglary.

In this version, that burglary becomes part of a much more prominent plotline involving international espionage, and the kids' relationship is much more fractious, with the kind of bickering and misadventures you might expect if you stuck four young people in one place for any length of time.

These story changes have both positives and negatives, I think.  The addition of the espionage storyline definitely adds more excitement, and acts to drive the story along in a much more purposeful manner.  On the other hand, I feel like the Amazons - a pair of local girls whom the Walker children befriend - get rather sidelined by the restructured narrative, which is a shame.

Overall though, it's a nice little movie that does a solid job of adapting an old family favourite for modern audiences.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Wire, Season 4 (2006)

Season four of The Wire continues the show's run of well-acted, hard-hitting law enforcement drama, but expands the narrative's attention quite widely.  Not only do we get an enlarged political element as the Democratic primary for Mayor heats up, but also the addition of a large number of teenage characters as some ex-police characters move into middle school education.

Which doesn't mean that police work is completely ignored, of course: there's an ongoing if badly run attempt to take down drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, and several homicide cases that will ultimately tie back to this operation.

The number of plot threads carried over from season three, and the number of open ones left at the end of this season's thirteen episodes, are the major reason for the "Qualified" part of my recommendation.  Season four of The Wire definitely feels like it is a part of a larger narrative, rather than being a truly standalone story.  It would probably be pretty hard to leap into the show with these episodes and really follow everything that's going on or to understand why the various characters interact in the way they do.

On the other hand, what's likely to be confusing for new viewers is often a joy for long term fans as they see characters and stories evolve organically from previous events.

If you haven't checked out The Wire yet, you should - just be sure to start from the beginning, to really the full effect.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mr Banks likes things neat and orderly, like they are at the bank where he works.  Unfortunately, there is nothing especially orderly about children, as he and a succession of frazzled nannies have discovered.  When he resolves to fix the issue once and for all, however, he gets rather more than he bargained for: the magical Mary Poppins, who flies in on the east wind to set the Banks household to right with a combination of supernatural powers and weapons-grade sangfroid.

Despite what Saving Mr Banks might try to tell you, P L Travers did not much care for this film.  Which I think goes to show you that authors are not always the best people to ask about adaptations of their work.

Not that I'd say Mary Poppins is a flawless film, mind you: I think it's a bit too long, that some of the musical numbers overstay their welcome, and that the ending is a bit rushed (certainly more rushed than an ending should be in a film that runs nearly two and a half hours).  And let's not forget Dick Van Dyke's accent.

But very few things in life are flawless, and the film's combination of visual phantasmagoria, strong performances (special shout out to David Tomlinson's turn as Mr Banks) and bombastic cheerfulness allow it to sail merrily along despite any minor blemishes it might have.  Admittedly, the visual aspects aren't as impressive today as they were when it was released, but they still hold up quite well after all this time: not bad for a movie that's over 50 years old.

A final warning: there's a good chance you'll end up with one or more of the film's songs stuck in your head for a long time after the movie itself is over.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Castle, Season 4 (2011)

Much of season 4 of Castle simply continues the show's basic formula.  So we get a lot of quirky cases, such as one with all the victims dressed as fairy tale characters, another where the killer is a zombie, or a noir homage with much of the action set in 1947.  And we get a lot of simmering unresolved sexual tension between Castle and Beckett.

However, this season does also do some things to disrupt the status quo.  There's a bit more attention put on the supporting cast, which I appreciate since I think they're pretty darn vital to the show's successful light entertainment package.  We see Castle's daughter Alexis transition from high school to college, Detective Ryan get married, and more flexibility in the character balance in the episodes.  Sure, there's still a lot of the Castle and Beckett show, but we also get episodes where Castle is working more closely with Ryan and Esposito, or where a guest star comes in to interact heavily with one of the leads.  Oh, and the season finale has some significant character developments too, I guess :)

Now some of the experiments work better than others.  Anything that gives Molly C Quinn more to do on the show is a great idea, for instance, but the mid-season attempt to do a Frederick Forsyth style thriller is embarrassingly ham-fisted, though there is some entertainment value in guest star Jennifer Beals's ability to make almost every line of dialogue sound dirty.

Season 4 of Castle remains mostly light, frothy fun.  It's not challenging TV, but it's certainly easy to watch.

Friday, 14 April 2017

AfterDeath (2015)

A woman wakes on a beach with no memory of how she got there.  Strange black smoke bursts out of the sand, driving her inland.  Her panicked rush leaves her breathless, but eerily, she cannot feel the pound of her heart: or, in fact, a pulse at all.

Venturing on, she finds a house.  It's occupied by four strangers, most of whom seem rather more sanguine about probably being dead than our more-or-less leading lady, whose name we learn is Robyn.  For her part, Robyn's not intending to just sit around waiting for something to happen: she intends to find her way home.  But the five deceased mortals might not be the only occupants of this strange locale ...

AfterDeath is a UK horror film with basically only six characters and three locations.  That this provides a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere actually works well with the film's plot, though it was probably a mandatory case of budgetary necessities in any case.

The film features a solid cast who perform their roles well.  It's nice to see four of them being female, too: not a common thing in  movies that don't feature a lot of bosoms!

The movie also features decent CGI effects, especially for its budget.  I won't say that the black smoke "looks real", but the cases where it interacts with physical objects are actually implemented rather well.

I won't go into details about what the characters discover about each other and the place that they're in, but like a lot of such films it is squarely founded in a single belief system.  For the purposes of the plot, you'll need to accept that the precepts of Christianity are 100% true within the film's reality.  Which is not to say the movie itself is evangelical at all, but it is something you'll have to go along with to make the story work.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Life in Cold Blood (2008)

David Attenborough was 80 when this, the last of his Life documentaries, was being made.  You'd never know it though, at least not from seeing him roam volcanoes, rainforests and deserts in pursuit of the reptiles and amphibians that are his subject matter.

Life in Cold Blood is a five part series, and as with all of Attenborough's work, it is obvious that considerable time and effort has been spent on planning the structure of the show.  This attention to detail is a hallmark of the Life documentaries and probably a key component of why the shows have been able to be the first to film many previously undocumented activities.  In this series, for instance, we have footage of the tiny pygmy leaf chameleon, and the first known video of a rattlesnake killing and each its prey.

Attenborough begins with an episode that focuses on the diversity of reptilian and amphibian life, showing why they are much more complex and varied creatures than we tend to think of them being. The other four episodes then each focus on a specific subset of creatures.

Episode two covers the first vertebrates to leave the oceans and come onto the land: amphibians.  Attenborough discusses the ways in which these creatures are still linked to the water (in particular, many of them must return to it to breed), and introduces us to the lungfish, which dates back some 380 million years and still lives in Australia today.  He also covers salamanders, frogs and caecilians - limbless, burrowing amphibians.

Episode three moves onto lizards, which are the largest and most diverse group of reptiles.  More time is spent with chameleons here, but we also meet the shingleback lizard, which has long monogamous relationships, as well as the pygmy bluetongue skink, which is so rare and hard to find that for 30 years it was thought to be extinct.

Episode four is the one that a significant subset of people will want to skip: it covers snakes.  This is where we get the rattlesnake footage I mentioned above, as well as see Attenborough interact with the  Mozambique spitting cobra much more closely than most of us would ever want to!

Finally Attenborough turns his attention to the tortoises, turtles, and crocolidians.  This last group prove far more diverse and nurturing than you might expect, with the spectacled caiman being a particularly notable example as it nursemaids an entire creche of young from multiple parents.

If you have any interest in the cold-blooded animals of the world, you should check this out.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Mandingo (1975)

The early 70s saw a lot of revisionist westerns made: films that savagely deconstructed the myths of the United States' early years, such as Soldier Blue or (godawful though it is) High Plains Drifter.  Those years were also the height of the "blaxploitation" craze.  Apparently producer Dino De Laurentiis saw these two flavours of film and decided that they'd be like chocolate and peanut butter if he smooshed them together.

Hence Mandingo, a film where the nearest thing we have to a protagonist is a racist, slave-owning rapist and murderer.  This is Hammond Maxwell, who is presented as a cut above his fellow whites in the film because he isn't violent with his female slaves when he takes them into his bed.  He even goes so far as to become so fond of one particular slave that he promises not to sell the child she's going to bear for him.  What a swell guy. huh?

Hammond's father wants him to marry and have children with a white woman.  Mulatto babies with slave women can't inherit and don't count.  There are precious few marital options out there, and Hammond more or less settles on his cousin Blanche by default.  Spoiler: it's not going to be a happy marriage.

Meanwhile, Hammond has also purchased a new slave, a pure-bred Mandingo named Mede, whom Hammond intends to train as a fist-fighter and use as a stud to sire more slaves.  According to the film, you see, members of the Mandingo tribe are uncommonly strong and docile slaves.

And you can probably work out most of the terrible places the film is going to go from here.  De Laurentiis was never one for subtlety or restraint in the films he produced, after all.

Oddly, that lack of finesse is simultaneously Mandingo's greatest strength and weakness.  It's the latter because the histrionic and over the top dialogue and direction often undercut the impact of the horrible things being done, but it's also the former because it doesn't flinch from showing those horrible things ... and in particular from showing that at the end of the day, Hammond's kindness to his slaves is a very thing veneer over a well of hatred and anger than runs as deep as in him as it does in any of his peers.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 3 (2010)

The real life Belle de Jour created an award-winning blog about her experiences, which she then turned into a series of successful books.  The TV version of Belle skips the weblog stage, with season three beginning just as her first memoir hits the shelves.

Reception to the book is strong, and TVBelle's editor wants her to start work on another straight away.  She's not sure that being an author is really her, but she does know that Duncan (the editor) is quite dreamy.  So she deliberately sets out to try new experiences - fetish clubs, roleplaying, sex with food and even sex as a client - to use for material.  These escapades, together with subplots involving Belle's friends and sister, form most of the narrative drive for this season.  Well, that and the burgeoning romance with Duncan, of course.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl remains irreverent, sex-positive fun.  The awkwardness of certain encounters is certainly played for laughs at times, but any judgmental attitudes from characters are portrayed negatively, and Belle herself is staunchly open-minded.  "We've all got kinks" she opines, "The key is just finding someone whose kinks fit with yours".

As long as you aren't made uncomfortable by the frank examination of varied sexual practices, this is a fun show with a likable cast.  Well, except for the ones who aren't meant to be likable!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Auschwitz (2011)

Uwe Boll is best known for his schlocky adaptations of video games, several of which I like far more than they deserve.  He is not, however, a film-maker known for his subtlety, judgment or taste.  So when he announced his intention to make a film about the infamous Nazi extermination camp, it was hardly a surprise (except possibly to Boll) that the news was received with something less than enthusiasm.

The movie itself begins with Boll talking directly to the camera and explaining his reasons for making the film.  In essence, these are that he does not think previous films have properly communicated the horrors of the Holocaust; because young people today (particularly German youths) are ignorant of what occurred; and because genocides are still taking place in the modern world.  All of which are admirable goals, but as the confused and tedious melange which follows so amply demonstrates, he's not the film-maker to achieve them.

Boll's intro is followed by a series of interviews with teenagers, asking them what they know about Auschwitz and the Holocaust - which in most cases can be summed up as 'not much', though a few show glimmers of knowing more - then some archive images of the actual camps, before we head into the 30-40 minute section of scripted film that is the core of the movie.

This section shows two groups of prisoners arriving at Auschwitz, being processed, and then sent to die in the 'showers'.  Afterward, their bodies and belongings are stripped of valuables - gold fillings are pulled out with pliers, hair is shaved for wigs, jewelry is confiscated, and so on.  At the end, two guards discuss the how their comrades are coping with the psychological pressures of being mass executioners, as well as their own plans for escape if the Soviet Army reaches the camp.  In the hands of a skilled writer and director, this work could probably be quite stark and powerful.  In Boll's, it is just dull.

The movie closes with another long section of interviews, and a final statement from Boll that is more or less a repeat of his intro.  And then, after 70 minutes that feel a lot longer, it finally ends.

There's merit in making a film that unflinchingly portrays the banality of Nazi evil, but it requires more talent than Boll possesses to successfully tackle such a challenge.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Wire, Season 3 (2004)

Pretty much the only reason this is a "Qualified" recommendation is because you probably need to have seen the first two seasons of The Wire in order to get the most impact out of this season.  If you have seen those first two seasons, then you can go straight to a full recommendation, because this is an exceptionally well put-together show.  The acting is solid, the characters are rich and complex, and the scripts are tight as a drum.  There are no lazy "idiot ball" moments here.  When characters mess up - and they do, often - it's for plausible, in-character reasons: they've got a pre-established weakness or blind spot, or they're acting on incorrect information or deductions.  If only more writing - be it for TV, the big screen, or on the page - was as rigorous.

This season sees intense political pressure on the Baltimore Police Department to bring down crime numbers "by any means necessary".  The politicians are probably expecting some creative reclassification of cases and a few more police brutality complaints.  They get both of those things, but they've underestimated just how creative some senior officers can be, which may well cause the whole initiative to blow up in their face.

At the same time, Lieutenant Daniels and his team are trying to make cases against violent, drugs-related offenders: a brief which becomes a lot more urgent when notorious kingpin Avon Barksdale is released from prison and destabilizes what had been a relatively quiet time - in terms of murders, at least - in the narcotics industry.

Not that Barksdale is free of troubles of his own: his right hand man Stringer Bell has led the organisation in a different direction while Avon was incarcerated, and there are young up and comers on the street who are pushing into the gap that's been left.

The Wire is top notch stuff.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Loved Ones (2009)

Brent's out for a driving lesson with his dad when a bloodied man suddenly appears in the road.  Swerving to avoid the guy, Brent hits a tree and his father is killed.

Six months later, both Brent and his mother are still deeply affected by the accident.  Brent's coping methods - cutting himself with a razor blade and engaging in dangerous solo rock-climbing stunts - aren't exactly the healthiest of options, but thanks to the care and attention of his girlfriend Holly he is slowly becoming more or less functional.  The two are planning to attend the end of school dance together.

Unfortunately, Brent never makes it to the dance.  He's drugged and dragged off instead, and awakes to find himself in a much more macabre and deadly situation ...

The Loved Ones has been described as a "slasher romance", and - in the decidedly off-colour way you might expect of such a combination - it kind of is.  It's also a very black comedy, with sound effects and visual cues used to generate a lot of slightly nervous laughter.  It's deftly directed all round, in fact: nicely shot, and cleverly edited.  I like the way that it implies a lot of terrible things without directly showing them.  They probably did it this way at least partly to save money on effects, as this is a small budget Australian film, but they've made a virtue out of necessity in the process.

The cast is also really good - especially Robin McLeavy's demented little turn.

This is decidedly gruesome, twisted fun, but fun nonetheless.