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?