Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Nikita, Season 3 (2012)

The first two seasons of Nikita dealt with her (and her allies) battle to bring down Division, the ultra-secret covert ops organisation that took care of the missions too sensitive (and often too immoral) for public agencies like the CIA to handle.

Now in the third season Nikita's group find themselves leading Division, at least on a temporary basis.  Their remit: to close out the ongoing operations, bring the agents home, and close the organisation for good.  Of course, not all of those aforementioned agents are going to accept the change of regime.

It took me a long time to complete this season: I watched the first ten episodes and then it took me about two months to bother getting around to the rest.  That "eh I'll get to it later" reception sure isn't a good sign, and it's thus no surprise that I've slapped a "not recommended" tag on this review.  But what are the reasons I cared so little?

Well, there are several related problems at work.  But mainly it's an issue of competence.  The continued decay of Alexandra continues, with her only glimmers of capability being when she's executing a plan that was brainwashed into her by the villain.  "Only good at screwing up" is not really a by-line you want for a character who is supposed to be an elitely-trained secret agent.

The villain is also a competence problem.  Having been treated as basically outclassed in season two (where she was manipulated and ousted from leading Division by another villain), and then forced on the run when Nikita's group took over, she is now somehow outwitting them at almost every turn.  Having setbacks for your heroes is fine.  Having setbacks when they seem to hold all the cards - such as an elite cadre of agents with a well funded and equipped base - just kinda makes them look like chumps.  The show does eventually reveal that the villain has the backing of an even more secret, even more powerful group, but it's too little too late, particularly when said group's agenda is so "what a twist!"-tastic that I'm kind of mordibly curious to see what contortions the show will go through in season four to justify it.  Eventually.

Also: I really dislike the pose they've forced Lyndsy Fonseca into for the DVD cover.  Symptomatic of the whole treatment of her character, really.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Last Knights (2015)

I wavered back and forth between giving this film a qualified recommendation or not.  It is a better adaptation of the tale of 47 Ronin than the 2013 film, for one thing.  Ultimately I decided not to recommend it, because I felt that "If you want an adaptation of the 47 Ronin, and don't mind that the setting's been rendered into generic medieval empire so that the cast can be multi-racial (though of course, mostly caucasian), then this will adequately fill your needs" was perhaps a bit too qualified.

So, in the aforementioned generic medieval empire we've got a bunch of different lords, all of whom have loyal soldier-retainers who live by a code of honour.  It's all pretty flagrantly 18th century Japan, only full of white people.

Anyway, the emperor's chief adviser is a corrupt sort who expects the nobles to provide him with opulent gifts if they don't want anything unfortunate to happen to them.  Given that the emperor seems to be condoning this attitude, most of the lords knuckle under.

But of course there's always got to be one stiff-necked troublemaker, and it's Morgan Freeman, turning up for a brief period to add some gravitas to proceedings before coming to an inevitably sticky end.  This house is destroyed, his family and retainers driven off the land, and he himself is killed.

The wicked adviser expects reprisals from the dead man's former retainers, and for the next year he turns his home into the most heavily fortified place in the empire, while also spying on all those who he thinks might take part in any reprisals.  Surprise surprise, it's only when he finally believes that they've given up any thoughts of revenge that they spring their desperate plan to make him pay: a plan which even if successful, will probably lead to their deaths.

As I said at the start, if you want a narrative that's close to the classic Japanese story, and don't mind the white-washed setting, this film is probably adequate to your needs.  It has some decent action scenes and the basic plot structure is sound, if not exactly innovative.  However, I suspect the audience that does care about an adaptation of The 47 Ronin is probably also an audience that cares about the setting.  And they might be better served by one of the Japanese language adaptations.  Perhaps even the one I plan to review next week :)

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 2 (2009)

Walter White's plan to quickly a build a nest-egg for his wife and children has hit something of a snag.  Several snags, in fact.  First of all, there's the fact that getting into the drug-dealing game means working with drug dealers, many of whom are violent and impulsive types, especially when they've been sampling the product.  Plus can you really trust them?  They are criminals, after all

Then there's the fact that you're in competition with other dealers, and the territorial squabbles that come with it.  And if the other dealers don't get you, then maybe the cops will.

And then there's all the lying and deception that the job requires, inevitably driving a wedge between Walter and the very people he's ostensibly doing all this for.  Because surprise, surprise - your wife starts to get a bit crabby when you're receiving mysterious phone calls, disappearing without explanation for hours at a time, and otherwise acting in a hugely suspicious manner.

To be honest, it's not hard to see why Walter's "nice middle class man" demeanour is starting to fray a little, revealing a hard, angry edge to the world.

Much as with season one, this series of Breaking Bad is intermittently very good, but it has some tonal and pacing issues.  Certain sections drag on far longer than they probably ought to, and the climactic events seem frankly a bit rushed as they're pretty much all jammed into the final three episodes.  But on the plus side it continues to have strong performances and some fine character writing.

If you're up for a show where the protagonist is headed down a dark road, and you don't mind that said road's sometimes got traffic jams and detours, then it's worth checking out.

Friday, 10 November 2017

47 Ronin (2013)

The story of the 47 Ronin is probably one of the best known tales of Japanese history.  In the 18th century, a feudal noble was forced to commit seppuku after attacking a court official.  Forty-seven of the dead noble's samurai then plotted for a year to assassinate the official and reclaim their master's honour.  Then they too committed seppuku, since in the eyes of the law they had committed murder.

This American adaptation of the story embellishes events in a number of ways.  The court official becomes a malevolent rival lord who deliberately goads the samurais' master into a dishonourable act.  He's aided in this plot by a shape-changing witch, who uses her sorcerous powers to beguile animals and humans alike, while the ronin appeal to the tengu (forest demons) for aid in their quest.  And it also adds a romance subplot between the dead lord's daughter and one of the 47.

Honestly, I'm okay with all of the above additions if they make the film more enjoyable. Spoiler: at least for this film, they don't.  I'm also rather less than thrilled about the decision to make the central character and love interest for the daughter be an alleged "half breed" played by the not actually Japanese at all Keanu Reeves.  Where there really no Japanese American actors (or part Japanese American actors) who could have carried the role?  It's not like Reeves was exactly a major box office draw at the time, as the film's catastrophic financials show.

I'm sure you could make a good adaptation of the 47 Ronin with added supernatural shenanigans and romantic sub-plots, but this isn't that film.  It's a disjointed collection of scenes that don't ever really gel together, and that often don't even measure up as individual sequences in and of themselves.  Keanu's final encounter with the witch, for instance, is simply not terribly interesting to watch.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Castle, Season 5 (2012)

There's a dilemma facing every show that relies heavily on unresolved romantic tension between two leads.  On the one hand, if you don't pull the trigger on the relationship eventually, then your audience might get frustrated and turn against you.  On the other hand, if you do pull the trigger, the whole status quo of your show is going to change, and your audience might not like it and turn against you.  TVTropes has a whole page dedicated to this concept of "Shipping Bed Death", which you should not look up, because it's TVTropes and you will be lost for hours.

The Beckett/Castle romance has been one of the two defining features of the show, the other being the goofiness of the crimes they investigated.  Without getting into specifics, I'm pleased to say that this season of the show does a pretty good job of cutting through the "Will they or won't they?" Gordian Knot.  It's definitely a big step up from season four's rather laboured efforts to maintain the status quo.

On the other hand, every silver lining has a cloud, and I think it is fair to say that the "goofy crimes" element of the show is starting to get a little tired.  If you'd told me before watching that season that "the episode where the murder weapon is a Star Trek phaser is not the silliest thing they'll do this year", I would not have believed you.  But there's a two-parter this year that is sillier than both that and the "Santa falls out of the sky" episode.  A two-parter which frankly compounds the sin of its own goofiness by seeming completely unaware of how stupid it is.

I also suspect that I'm going to be a bit disappointed by the start of season six, because the last couple of episodes of this season dangle the idea of a fresh and interesting direction for the show, but I'm pretty sure they won't have the gumption to go through with it.  So instead we'll just get more of the same basically entertaining light dramedy.  Which isn't a terrible outcome, I admit, but I'll always have that "What if?" feeling now.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Eclipse (2009)

I originally intended The Eclipse to be part of my October review list, and it is a genuinely creepy film at times - certainly it has more legitimate scares than drek like Zombie Apocalypse - but at the end of the day I decided to defer it into November.  Because despite the effective spooky elements, at the end of the day I feel that the focus of this film is on the human drama, with the scares as a spicy addition rather than the main ingredient of the cinematic meal.

Michael Farr is a widower, still struggling with grief from the death of his wife two years earlier, while trying to raise two children, hold down a job, and assist with running a local literary festival.  For this year's festival he's been assigned to help a writer of ghost stories, which might (or might not) go some way to explaining why Michael begins experiencing some decidedly spooky visitations.

The Eclipse is anchored by a compelling central performance by Ciaran Hinds.  He's excellent as the grieving, yearning widower.  He's ably supported by a strong cast and by the film's very effective combination of everyday drama and possibly otherworldly experiences.  Any film that can creep you out just from seeing someone walk across a room is doing something right.

I think in part the scare scenes in this movie are so effective because it's not a horror film.  The Eclipse constantly lures you into the "mundane" story it is telling, which means that the creepy just genuinely surprises.

If you're at all a fan of well-told romantic drama, and don't mind occasionally being a little bit freaked out, The Eclipse is well worth your time.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Trick 'r Treat (2011)

Anthology films are common enough in the horror genre that Horror Movie A Day has totted up an impressive 48 reviews of them during its lifetime.  Many of these tend to just string a series of short films together, one after the other, such as with Tales from the Darkside.  This film, on the other hand, takes a more complex approach with four different but related stories each evolving over the course of the movie.  It does a pretty good job of this integration, and - probably even more importantly - the individual stories are also pretty fun.

So as you might deduce from the title, Trick 'r Treat is a Halloween-themed film, which made it a natural choice for my review on October 31, really.  All four of its stories revolve around Halloween festivities in the same small town, with the characters from each subsection interacting with each other in more or less significant ways.

Without going into too many spoilers, the four basic subsections of the film involve a serial killer, a group of young women on the prowl, a bus full of murdered children, and the charming little fellow in the image above.  His name is Sam.  Sam takes Halloween seriously.  Sam does not like it if you don't treat the holiday with respect.  And you trust me, you don't want to upset Sam.

Deftly balancing creepiness and (dark) comedy, Trick 'r Treat is a fun little horror film with a surprisingly recognisable cast.  If you like the spooky and the ooky, give it a watch.