Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Dexter, Season 2 (2007)

Dexter Morgan's meticulously neat life has suddenly become rather messy.  His serial killer mojo has been thrown off since the events of season one, and the hits just keep on coming, both personal and professional.  Already on rocky ground with both his lover and one of his colleagues, Dexter must now face the most serious threat to his secret life that he's ever encountered, when the bodies of eighteen of his victims are discovered and a massive investigation ensues.

Dexter Season 2 is a breezy, easy watch, helped along immensely by a wry sense of humour (something I don't recall the latter seasons exhibiting as much) and charismatic performances from the cast.  If you think about the actual plot very much, it quickly becomes obvious how much the writing relies on convenient happenstances and coincidences to drive things forward, but (at least at this stage of the show's history) it carries off those narrative contrivances with enough panache that they're generally pleasingly neat in how they fit together, rather than annoyingly artificial.

If you enjoyed the first season of Dexter, it's a fairly safe bet you will enjoy the second, as well.  The last episode of this season also offers one of several decent "ending" points for the show, prior to the actual, official (notoriously bad) one.

Friday, 16 March 2018

MegaForce (1982)

The Republic of Sardun is frequently raided by its neighbour Gamibia.  Sardun has the military forces to deliver a powerful counterattack, but its leaders refuse to authorise any incursions across the border.  That means that Gamibian raiders can escape with only very limited losses to their own forces.

Sardun has a plan, though.  They want to engage MegaForce - a high tech army drawn from and funded by all the free nations of the world - to goad the Gamibians into invading Sardun at a pre-determined location.  Sardun's army can then destroy the enemy without being seen as the aggressor.

If that plan sounds like political sophistry of the lowest order, well, it is.  On the other hand, it is far from the most ludicrous thing that will happen in this film, and - unlike some of those other things - is probably intended to be at least a little bit ridiculous.  The venality of politicians is something of a theme in the film's script.

Anyway, Sardun sends representatives meet with Ace Hunter, the commander of MegaForce, and ... well, what ensues is exactly the movie you would expect when it has a lead character named "Ace Hunter".  It's gloriously goofy nonsense, played utterly straight and without the slightest hint of being anything but sincere.  I can't help but wonder if the film started out as a spec script for a GI Joe movie and then got shopped around when they couldn't secure the rights.

I found this deliriously good fun, though almost certainly not in the way that the film makers intended.  If you're in the mood for unabashedly 80s stupidity, look no further than MegaForce.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Life on Mars, Season 1 (2006)

Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler is not having a good day.  First the bottom falls out of his seemingly slam dunk murder arrest.  Then his girlfriend gets kidnapped by the real killer.  Then he gets hit by a car and knocked into a coma.

Whereupon he wakes up thirty-three years earlier, in 1973.  Here, he's a Detective Inspector, reporting to DCI Gene Hunt: a hard-drinking, head butts and backhanders kind of cop that the thoroughly 21st Century Sam considers only a step or two away from the criminals he chases.

Has Sam mad?  Has he gone back in time?  Is he in a coma?  He's going to need to find answers if he ever wants to get home ...

This is the original UK Life on Mars, not the US remake (which for a while was actually quite good, and then had the worst finale this side of Dexter).  It was a pretty punishing show for John Simm in the lead role, as part of the conceit of "is this all real?" is that we only ever see things where Sam is personally present - he's thus in every scene.  Sim rises to the challenge well, though, and he's ably supported by the rest of the cast.

The scripts also really deliver: sometimes the progress of an individual episode can be a little slow, but the writers do a great job of integrating the 70s vs noughties conflict, as well as Sam's modern life and possible medical condition, into the case of the week.  It's very solid work all round.  If you don't mind the uncertainty as to Sam's actual situation (and there are no solid answers, at least not in these eight episodes), and you're okay with a slow burn kind of show, then you should check it out.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe (1990)

Abraxas is a Finder; an intergalactic peace keeper, gifted with extended lifespan and superhuman strength and toughness.  Alas, his former partner Secundus has now gone rogue.  Secundus plans to father a child with a human woman.  He calculates that this child will then spontaneously discover the Anti-Life Equation, which Secundus can rip from the kid's mind and use to make himself immortal and omnipotent.

So what we have is a pair of superhuman aliens battling over the fate of a mother and child, with the future of the universe at stake.  Replace 'aliens' with 'cyborgs' and you may feel like you've heard that premise before.  And I suspect it is in fact no accident that this film came out a few months before Terminator 2.

Yep, Abraxas is pretty much the 1990 equivalent of The Asylum's "mockbuster" films, absent only the deliberately easy-to-confuse name and the air of almost spiteful incompetence.  Not that this movie isn't incompetent.  It absolutely is: badly acted, badly written, cheap effects.  It has the whole trifecta.  It even goes for extra credit by stunt casting its heart out: ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura, ex-strongman Sven-Ole Thorsen are the hero and villain respectively, and an evidently desperate-for-cash James Belushi has a cameo as a school principal.

But at least this film feels earnestly like an attempt to make a "real" movie, no matter how ineptly, whereas few Asylum productions show any ambition to be anything other than a cynical cash grab.

Still, this is one only for those who are desperately yearning for the old days of straight to video (as opposed to "straight to SyFy") movie schlock.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Breaking Bad, Season 5 (2012)

Ever since deciding to go into the methamphetamine business, Walter White has managed to stay one step ahead of his enemies on both sides of the law.  But the skein of lies he's built up to protect his double lies is beginning to look increasingly more fragile, particularly as the pressures of his illegal occupation wear more and more heavily on those closest to him.

In my recent review of season five of Burn Notice, I made the remark that most shows wear down a little over time, as their premises get stretched and their narrative patterns get more and more familiar.  Breaking Bad is a notable exception to this phenomenon.  It's one of the few shows I can think of where each season has been stronger than the last (Babylon 5 would be one of the few others, at least for the first three years - uncertainty over the show's future unfortunately had some pretty negative impacts to its final two seasons).  It's a credit to the writing team, as is the fact that they land the ending very solidly: there's no random lumberjack "what the heck?" moments here.

To be honest, the only reason I haven't given this season a full Recommended is that it really needs you to have watched the previous four seasons to get the full effect.  But rest assured, if you've started Breaking Bad and are at least on the fence about it, you should stick with it.  It really does just keep getting better and better.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Feisty single mother Donna has raised her daughter Sophie alone for the past twenty years.  The two women have a strong bond, but Sophie deeply wishes she had a father.  So when she finds Donna's old journal and discovers that there are three different men who may have 'done the deed', she invites them all to her impending wedding.

Songs and shenanigans ensue.

Frankly, whether or not you will be interested in seeing Mamma Mia! probably comes down to how you feel about ABBA's ear-wormy catalogue of hits.  Because the characters will barely take a breath between belting out Swedish pop tunes, and that probably means you'll either be grooving along in your chair, or you'll be running out of the room.

As you probably know, this is a movie adaptation of the stage show.  Having seen both, I can safely say that this is a significantly weaker offering.  The casting has clearly been made more for name recognition than for singing ability, especially with the men.  Pierce Brosnan attracted a lot of criticism for his musical efforts at the time the film came out, but frankly he's not really any worse than the other two guys, he's just asked to do a lot more than they are.

The film also tends to "go big" with the production on most of the numbers, possibly because of the mixed singing talents of the leads, and this has decidedly mixed results.  The transformation of "Dancing Queen" into a girl power anthem is quite successful, but that's the exception rather than the rule.

Mamma Mia! is a fun bit of light entertainment, at least if you like ABBA, but it's hard not to think that it would have been a better film if they'd cast singers that could act rather than actors who could more-or-less sing, since the script calls for a lot more tunefulness than thespianism.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Dexter, Season 1 (2006)

Dexter Morgan is the affable if sometimes slightly distant blood spatter analyst of the Miami Metro PD.  He's also a serial killer, though one who follows a strict set of rules about who he murders: all his targets are killers themselves.

These targets aren't chosen out of sentiment, though.  Dexter has uncontrollable urges.  He has to kill someone, and these are simply the safest targets.  This is a rule instilled in him by his deceased foster father Harry, who also taught Dexter the best techniques to avoid detection: something the older man knew since he was himself a police officer.  Dexter has kept his homicidal life a secret from everyone other than Harry, including all his colleagues, his foster sister Debra and his girlfriend, Rita.

As you might imagine, Dexter's life is pretty complicated.  And it's going to get moreso with the arrival of Miami's latest serial killer, the macabre "Ice Truck Killer", who seems to know all about Dexter's secret activities ...

These days, I suspect Dexter is mostly remembered for its notoriously disappointing eighth season and bizarre lumberjack ending.  But re-watching season one for the first time since it originally aired, I was impressed by how well the show establishes and maintains its rather far-fetched premise and narrative.  While I'd certainly hesitate to use the word "realistic", the writers make it feel at least plausible, no doubt helped by strong performances across the cast.

A show has to be doing something right to get an eight year run, and if you're at all intrigued by the premise, season one of Dexter is most likely worth your time.