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.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Tudors, Season 2 (2008)



I generally avoid spoilers in my reviews, but The Tudors is - admittedly rather loosely - based on actual events that occurred nearly five hundred years ago, and which you may well have learned about at school or college, so I'm going to be a bit less circumspect than normal.  So if you don't know about Henry VIII and you want to watch the show unspoiled, then you should stop reading at the end of this paragraph: because my review for you is "if you don't mind a lot of sex and violence, and some not every nice things happening, then The Tudors is worth seeing for its strong performances and lavish costumes".

Still here?

Right, then I assume you know all about the six wives business and Henry's break with the Pope which led to the formation of the Church of England.  And if you didn't, well, you only have yourself to blame for continuing to read.

Season two of The Tudors begins with the final stages of Henry's quarrel with the Pontiff, as the English King seeks to annul his marriage by any means necessary so he can wed Anne Boleyn.  Anne (brilliantly portrayed by Natalie Dormer) is much younger than his first wife, and Henry believes she will give him the male heir he so desperately desires.  Opposing the breach with Rome becomes steadily more and more dangerous as Henry's patience wears thin with those who do not support his agenda, but Anne's apparent triumph comes with huge risks.  If she fails to provide the son that Henry demands, her fall from grace will be swift and final.  The question of the heir forms the focus of the second half of the season, as allies and enemies within the court jockey for position and intrigue either for or against Anne's interests.  And as you either know, or can guess from the fact that Henry has four more wives to get through yet, Anne isn't going to get out of this season alive.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Maniac (2012)



Frodo's a weirdo loner who's also a serial killer.  And we see a lot of the film as if we were him, with the camera as his eyes.

That's pretty much the whole pitch - and whole content - of this film.  Elijah Wood is Frank Zito, a guy who restores mannequins for a job and who murders and scalps women for a sexual thrill.  I mean yes, we get some backstory about why he (believes he) has this compulsion - in a not exactly stunning display of originality, it's Oedipal - but that doesn't exactly do a lot to extend the formula of the film.  It's pretty much stalk a woman, kill and scalp her, dress up a mannequin to "be" her, have a flashback about mommy, and then repeat.

Even the arrival of Annie - a vivacious photographer with whom Frank is immediately infatuated - doesn't do much to change things up.  Frank still stalks and kills other women, even if he manages to act something approximating normal while in Annie's presence.  The only real evolution therefore is that we now switch to waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Annie to become the movie's Final Girl.

I wish I could say that things get more interesting when that shoe does drop, but frankly they just get sillier.

One for gore hounds only.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Archer, Season 3 (2011)



Season 3 of this off-colour spy spoof starts with Sterling Archer on a South Pacific bender of booze, women and becoming a Pirate King, and ends when he and the rest of the ISIS agency take part in a spacefaring mission that turns Moonraker up to 11  There are plenty of over the top hi-jinks in between those book ends, of course, including Burt Reynolds, cyborgs, and the Yakuza.  Not all at the same time, alas, but the show has several more seasons to run, so we can hope.

I've discussed the crazy, messed-up nature of this show in my reviews of the previous seasons, so I won't go over that in detail again.  Instead I wanted to call out something I really like about show, which is that no matter how silly it is - and it can be very silly - it remains internally consistent within its own events.  So it's perfectly okay to have both functional cyborgs and ubiquitous cell phones while the USSR still exists and World War 1 veterans appear to be in their 70s, but once the show establishes something about a character, it sticks to it.  Stuff that seems like a throwaway gag when introduced will be retained and referenced later.  It has a low key but consistent attention to continuity that would shame most "serious" TV shows.  Stuff that happens in the show informs events later on, which adds a nice extra touch of interest when you're watching a bunch of episodes back to back, and it helps to make characters feel more rounded because when we learn things about them, those things stay relevant and true later on.

If you liked earlier seasons of Archer, I see no reason you wont have a great time with this one, too.




Friday, 10 March 2017

A Bridge Too Far (1977)



I've said of a number of films in this set that they don't make movies like this any more, and that goes double for A Bridge Too Far.  Not only is it another ensemble based piece that is most interested in depicting the strategic sweep of events, ahead of personal stories - though it does show more of the latter than some of the other movies in this set - but it is also unapologetically a film where the good guys fail.

Operation Market Garden, the offensive on which the film was based, was an Allied attempt to break the German defences on the Rhine and expose the Third Reich's industrial heartland to a land attack.  Had it succeeded, it might have ended the war as much as six months earlier.  But it was always a gamble, requiring three groups of paratroops to land up to 60 miles (100 km) behind German lines, seize several key bridges, and then hold out for several days until an armoured thrust could reach them.  And said armoured thrust could only make the journey on a single narrow, raised road, because all the other terrain was too swampy for heavy vehicles to traverse.

Hardly the easiest of circumstances, and the plan also relied on good weather, and on an assumption that the attack would face only "old men and boys".  In fact, they would face veteran troops and armoured units under the command of Field Marshal Model, widely regarded as one of the finest defensive commanders of the war.

A Bridge Too Far is thus a film about heroism in the face of terrible adversity.  And as I said, a film that's ultimately about failure, when no amount of heroism can overcome the odds.

I suspect if it were made today it would make a much bigger deal of Operation Berlin, where 2,400 besieged paratroopers withstood massive German attacks and then escaped back to Allied lines, to give us a Dunkirk style story of  "victory". Well, as someone much more notable than I once said: "wars are not won on evacuations".

This is a sombre film, but one worth seeing, I think.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fraggle Rock, Season 4 (1986)



I've remarked previously on the different interpretations of how many seasons Fraggle Rock had, so let's just say that this is the last 24 episodes of the show, as that at least is fairly uncontroversial.

However you count the seasons, it's pretty clear in the last dozen or so episodes that the creators knew the show was winding down.  The status quo that's endured for the preceding 80 episodes suddenly starts getting shaken up, with significant shifts in the relationship between Fraggle and Doozer, Fraggle and Gorg and even - gulp! - Fraggle and Silly Creature.  Heck, even Uncle Traveling Matt returns to the Rock, marking an almost total end to the 'postcard' sequences that have appeared in almost every episode of the first three seasons.

There's also a marked shift toward tackling more ambitious or off the wall ideas.  A couple of episodes here have some genuinely sombre moments (The River of Life and Gone But Not Forgotten specifically), while we also get diversions into a Sam Spade-esque flight of fancy and some surprisingly overt statements of the Fraggles' essentially communist social structure.  It's a bit like they figured "oh well, they can't cancel the show again!".

This is not to say that the existing formula of silly humour and exuberant songs is entirely jettisoned.  In fact I'd say some of the songs in this season are among the show's best, and there are plenty of funny scenes to be found as well.  The show's just bit richer and more varied in these final episodes, making it probably my favourite of the four boxed sets.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Scooby Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery (2014)



Thanks to his elite computer gaming skills, Scooby Doo wins an all expenses paid trip to "WWE City", a metropolis entirely given over to all things pre-wrestling, including front row tickets to Wrestlemania.  And after a little cajoling, he and Shaggy persuade the entire Mystery Machine gang to take the trip with them.

Of course, faster than you can say "Scooby Snacks", the gang find themselves confronted with a rampaging demonic bear and the fiendish theft of the WWE world championship.  Can these two events be connected?  (well, duh!)  And which of the various WWE superstars will be friends and which will be foes in the quest to find the answers?

WWE Studios doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation as a producer of fine cinema, but this film?  This film is an act of genius.

I'm sure most of you right now are giving me (or the screen, anyway) a sceptical look.  Perhaps some of you are already phoning the guys in the white jackets to take me to my comfy padded cell.  But if it's crazy to love a movie which pits four wrestlers and a talking dog in a steel cage match against a giant demon bear, then quite frankly, I don't want to be sane.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Wire, Season 2 (2003)



Thirteen women are found suffocated to death in a shipping container after their air pipe was damaged.  Another woman is found bashed and floating in the harbour.  Meanwhile an argument - over of all things, a stained glass window - puts a senior police officer on a vendetta against the local stevedores' union.

How all these events tie together, and where else the connections might spread, is the central framework of The Wire's sophomore effort.  And while this season isn't quite as good as the first, that's a high bar indeed: one not many programs attain.  This season is still a fine show, and effective TV drama.

One reason I don't think this quite reaches the same heights as the first season is that it has a rather longer, slower burn to it.  The police characters are scattered when the season starts and it takes quite a long time for them to reassemble.  This means that for quite some time they each have their own plot threads going on.  Meanwhile, the show has to introduce and track a new group of crooks, at the same time also keeping the Barksdale crew from season one in the mix, because you can be sure that business isn't entirely over.

Which brings me to the plus side for season two, it's clear that they knew they were getting at least a third series when they made this: the conclusion of this arc very neatly dovetails into a new storyline that will clearly drive the third season.  I, for one, am eager to see it!

Monday, 6 March 2017

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)



2001's Pearl Harbor depicts the wholly fictional lives of two boyhood friends who grow up to be aviators during World War 2.  They're both present during the "day that will live in infamy", where they manage to get their planes into the air and help shoot down a dozen Japanese aircraft (which is almost half of all the actual Japanese losses on the day).  They then participate in the Doolittle raid over Tokyo, which occurred six months later.  During all this, they even find time to get into a love triangle with Kate Beckinsale.  Or so wikipedia tells me, anyway.  It's a Michael Bay movie after all, and I only watch those when they involve oil workers and giant asteroids.

The point of that preamble is to illustrate something that I've mentioned in several reviews recently: the very different approach between modern war movies and those of the 'classic' period from the late 60s and early 70s.  Now to be fair, it's the classic period that's the unusual one, with its focus on the how of events ahead of the who of characters.  Earlier war films were much more in line with those we'd see today.

As you might surmise, Tora! Tora! Tora! is nothing like Pearl Harbor.  Instead it's a pretty rigorously accurate account of the events leading up to the Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet.  It shows the divisions within the Japanese command as to the advisability of war, the similar divisions in America about whether an attack was imminent, and the series of coincidences and happenstances that contributed to the operation achieving complete surprise on the defenders: coincidences and happenstances that you'd probably scoff at, if they were fiction.

This film did fairly poorly at the US box office when it was released, possibly because its depiction of the US personnel was not exactly flattering.  It also came in for a scathing from the critics.  Roger Ebert, for one, hated it: it was too slow and the march of events too inevitable, and it didn't have any girls.

From my perspective though, the inevitability of the march of events is the point, as is the stately pace with which they approach.  The attack on Pearl was a calamity for the US, and Tora! Tora! Tora! is in some ways more a disaster film than a war movie, with the catastrophe looming larger and larger until finally it breaks like a thunderclap in the climactic act.

It's not, indeed, a perfect film, but it is most definitely one worth seeing.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Upcoming Schedule Change

The review this coming Wednesday will be the 1000th posted on this blog, and so next week marks a good point to change the update schedule.  I've got a number of commitments now that I didn't have when I started the blog, and I've also made a large dent in the pile of as-yet-unwatched movies and shows on my shelves.

Because of all these factors, after March 10th I'm reducing the definite schedule for reviews to two per week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.  I may well post one or more bonus reviews in any given week, so if you don't want to miss any then I suggest you follow my twitter @crowroadaw, or sign up for email updates, or choose some other method of staying current.

If you're a book reader you may also want to keep track of what I'm reading at goodreads.  My reviews there are generally only a few sentences, and I don't have any specific schedule - I just post when I finish something - but if you read genre fiction or history non-fiction, I may talk about something that interests you.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Blade Runner (1982)



In the 'future' of 2019, humanity has handed most of its dangerous, dirty work into the care of artificial humanoids known as replicants.  The latest models of these replicants are distinguishable from humans only via a complex pyschological test.  They're also stronger and tougher than we are, but genetically engineered to have a lifespan of only four years.

Because they present a 'danger', replicants are banned from Earth.  A special police unit known as 'Blade Runners' is set up to hunt and 'retire' them when they do.  Our film begins when group of replicants go rogue and come here in search of the man who masterminded their creation, then kill the first Blade Runner assigned to find them.  The hunt then falls to Deckard, who is forcibly drafted back into a service he'd previously quit for one last job.

I must admit that I've never liked Blade Runner as much as the geek handbook says I am supposed to.  I think the first hour is too slow, the romance is unconvincing - and at times just plain icky - and the investigation is (a) powered mostly by luck and the incompetence of the bad guys rather than any special skill on the part of the protagonist and (b) largely a failure in any case.

What the film does have going for it, though, is great visual design and an evocative vision of the then seemingly far-off year of 2019.  Watched today, some of the details are delightfully anachronistic - apparently we can have flying cars and off-world colonies, but the idea that we might have a phone we can carry in our pockets is just craaaazy - but it looks great, and it's refreshingly ethnically and culturally diverse.  We don't often see films that have the courage to imagine a future that really feels different to the time it was made.  Normally it's just "today's culture, but with new tech".  It also benefits from a fine performance by Rutger Hauer as the leader of the replicants.

Blade Runner is worth seeing for the visuals and the cultural imagination it shows.  I think it's certainly worth seeing for those factors alone, but it's most definitely a flawed film in my eyes.

(Note: There are a lot of versions of this film out there, so to be clear, this review is of the 'final cut', which differs from the original theatrical release mainly in that eliminates that version's explanatory voice overs and tacked on deus ex machina happy ending.  There are other chances, but you probably won't notice.)

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Nikita, Season 2 (2011)



Nikita Mears continues her struggle to bring down Division, the super secret black ops agency that originally trained her to be an elite spy and assassin, assisted only by a group of mavericks who don't always agree with her about the best route forward.

The first season of Nikita was a generally pretty good show with a weak conclusion.  This time around it is a generally weak show with a pretty good conclusion.  Not a great conclusion - one of the big flaws that has plagued the whole season is still present - but a pretty good one.  So at least it ends on a relative high note.

So what are those flaws I mentioned?  Well the biggest one - the one that continues even into the season's conclusion - is that the show is way way way way way way way too impressed with its bad guys, to the point where the shows feels more about them than it does about Nikita and her rag tag band of allies and frenemies.  I was heartily sick of both big bad Percy and other big bad Amanda by the end of the 23 episodes here.  Not least because for a large chunk of the season, the show keeps forcing the idiot ball on one of the good guys in order to make the bad guys look more awesome.

The second issue is how superfluous most of this season really is.  Like, you could watch the first 20 episodes of season 1, and then the last three of this season, and the only disconnect you'd have to deal with would basically be "oh, those guys who were obviously going to join Team Nikita actually did so" and "there are a couple of new secondary characters floating around".  And sure, episodic TV shows often more or less have a status quo they stay at, but Nikita actually dramatically changed its status quo at the end of season 1, and then spent most of this season slowly changing everything back to the way it was before.  It's a bit baffling really.

Still, the very end of this season shakes things up again, in a way that makes me feel some hope for series 3.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

America's Sweethearts (2001)



Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) were Hollywood's number one power couple; married stars who performed in a succession of eight monster smash hit films together.  Their ninth collaboration, directed by a renowned auteur, is due for its first press screening in just a few days.

Alas, during the filming of that ninth collaboration, their marriage fell apart,  Gwen took up with what the script tells us is a "handsome young Spaniard", though he's played by Hank Azaria, who frankly doesn't seem all that studly to me, and who in real life is older than either of the two leads.  Eddie had an emotional breakdown and has spent pretty much the entire time since at a mountain retreat trying to get over things.

Which would be bad enough, but there's also the minor problem that the renowned auteur hasn't delivered the film.  He promises it will be there for the press premiere, but point blank refuses to share what he's done until then.  Which .. well, it's not very plausible that a studio would allow this, to say the least, but sure for the purposes of the film let's accept it.

Anyway, it's up to publicist Lee (Billy Crystal, who also co-wrote) to not only get the two sparring spouses to both turn up for the press junket, but then to milk their feud for whatever PR advantage he can find.

So we've got three of the four major players of the film in place.  The last is Gwen's sister Kiki (Julia Roberts), who just might have a smidgen of chemistry with old Eddie herself.  All these people, plus dozens of reporters, are now all in one place, waiting for the film to finally show up.  No doubt everything is going to go totally smoothly, right?

Well of course it isn't.  That's kind of the point of this kind of film.

America's Sweethearts has a great cast, and some funny moments, though the rather far-fetched premise gets stretched to even more ridiculous lengths when the auteur finally does show up.  If you're looking for a rom-com that's not so treacly as the average example of the genre, though, this might be just the movie you want.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Orphan Black, Season 2 (2014)



One of the challenges facing any show driven by a core mystery / conspiracy is that it has to find a way to provide some sort of forward progress and answers, without blowing its big question.  It's a difficult line to walk.  For my money most often shows fail this task by devolving into a series of largely meaningless plot twists, losing momentum and my interest along with it.  Yes Lost, I am talking about you.

Season two of Orphan Black doesn't do a perfect job of walking the tightrope, I think.  There's a bit too much wheel-spinning activity where lots of stuff happens, but the end result of all that kerfuffle is that things are pretty much exactly where they were before it all happened; a few too many "dun dun dun!" moments that are resolved less than half an episode later.  I'm reminded in some ways of the old serials that used to play before the main feature at the cinema back in the 1930s and 1940s.  These would often consist of 10-12 twenty minute episodes, but the end of the second episode and the beginning of the second last would have the characters in exactly the same places.  This meant that you could drop all the stuff in the middle and make a movie out of the first two and last two episodes, and the story would still make sense.  So from episode 3 to episode N-2 was just filler.

Now this show doesn't quite go that far, as there is stuff that happens in each episode that advances the story in various ways, but when a character gets kidnapped by group X, then escapes, then voluntarily returns to them, then changes her mind and escapes again ... well, it does feel like at least a bit of padding is going on.

Fortunately Orphan Black has some sharp writing and a fine cast.  On the latter front, Tatiana Maslany has rightly been acclaimed for her performance as multiple characters, but I would be remiss not to also mention Jordan Javaris and Skyler Wexler, who are excellent in their supporting roles.  On the former, pretty much everything this season that involves uptight soccer-mom Alison is pure gold.

There's definitely a wobble or two here as Orphan Black walks the mystery high wire, but it hasn't fallen off it.  I'll be coming along for next season to see if they can keep the balancing act going.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Battle of Britain (1969)



In June 1940, Nazi Germany reigned supreme in Europe.  They'd swept through Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, defeating all in their path, and driven the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk.  All that stood between the United Kingdom and the seemingly unstoppable blitzkrieg was thirty miles of water.

In earlier times, the might of the Royal Navy would have meant that the UK was inviolate, but in this new era of warfare it had already become clear that air power could dominate a surface navy.  If Germany would win control of the skies, an invasion might be possible.  This is a very big "might", to be honest, given the Nazis' lack of proper troop transports, but nobody wanted to test it to find out, so the country's first line of defence became its newest, smallest military service: the Royal Air Force.

For five months, until winter and then Hitler's scheme for an invasion of the Soviet Union rendered British shores safe, a vital struggle was waged in the air.  This film chronicles that conflict.

Like The Longest Day, this is the kind of war movie they don't make any more: one where the progress of the war itself is the focus of the narrative, and the characters we meet exist only to provide a context to that conflict.  They may have their own miniature storylines within the film, but the emphasis there is on 'miniature'.  For instance, we might meet a pilot in a scene, learn some particular tidbit about them in their second scene, and then see some kind of fallout related to that information in the third.

This is not to say that the film doesn't give you characters to care about: just that it does so not by providing us with deep insight into them, but by using instantly recognisable archetypes and scenarios in their individual tales.  We get the struggling marriage, and veteran officer, the plucky young pilot, and so forth.  Many of these characters will experience less than perfect outcomes, of course.  There's a war on, after all.  But the film also injects a few moments of levity to change up the atmosphere, where it is appropriate to do so.

If you've an interest in a period of war that led to one of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches, this is certainly worth your time.  While the style of film-making is one that has gone out of fashion, it is still an effective one.  In addition, being made less than thirty years after the events it depicts, the movie has the advantage that much WW2-era equipment was still available for use on screen, and people who lived through the actual events were on hand to provide expert advice.  This provides it a degree of verisimilitude that I expect a more modern film would lack, even if it ultimately had more spectacular visuals.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Bride and Prejudice (2004)



Yes, this is another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - this time giving it a Bollywood-style makeover.  By this point you may be wondering how many versions of this story I'm going to review, and the answer is ... well, pretty much all of them, really.  I have at least two more to come, though neither is likely to happen for a while as I haven't actually purchased those movies yet.

So we're transported here to Amritsar, India, where the Bakshi family has four beautiful daughters, but not much in the way of dowries to offer with them.  Their mother is desperate to find them wealthy, respectable husbands, and soon sets her targets on British-Indian barrister Balraj, who has recently come to town with his American friend Will Darcy.

Balraj and eldest daughter Jaya immediately hit it off, but the sparks that fly between second daughter Lalilta and Mr Darcy are of the rather more adversarial kind.  She finds him arrogant and intolerant of Indian culture.

And from there, we're basically onto the standard narrative of the book, albeit with numerous musical numbers added - it is a Bollywood style film after all - and with suitable adjustments for the change in setting and time period.  The result is a pleasantly engaging film with a charming cast (I particularly liked the unusually sympathetic Mr Collins-expy), though it is perhaps a bit slight in substance when it comes to resolving the Wickham storyline (which is shame, because it did quite a good job of setting it up).

If you want a feel good diversion and don't mind musicals as a format, this is a sound choice.