Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Sarah Jane Adventures, Season 3 (2009)



Re-watching The Sarah Jane Adventures, I am struck by how many changes the core cast had in the course of the show's comparatively short (54 episode) run.  Sarah Jane obviously stays throughout, but her team of young assistants changes regularly.  I noticed it here because Season Three is the only season where the core cast of the first and last episode are the same.  Even the first season waits until the second story arc to introduce one of the team.

You can however see the writers making preparation for season four's cast changes during the course of the twelve episodes here.  The cast members who will remain next season get more prominent roles in the latter episodes of this one, while the one who will depart has an arc about how they are growing up as a precursor to their departure to university in the next season.

Other than cast stability, what does season three have to offer us?  Well, more of the younger-audience-friendly science fiction adventures it has served up before, frankly.  The show continues to be Doctor Who's, younger, less self-important sibling.  I suspect the relaxed, affable air of the show lets it get away with some hand-wavy resolutions that would probably irk me if they were used in the "grown up" program.

(Spoiler: hand-wavy solutions do get used in Doctor Who, and they do irk me there).

Another effect of the show's more relaxed style is that it can get away with some pretty goofy stuff.  We've already seen aliens trying to take over the world with fizzy soda, and this season serves up the Mona Lisa threatening people with a ray gun.  Yes, I do mean the painting.

For Whovians the big news about this season is probably the guest appearance by the Tenth Doctor in the story "The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith".  He's pretty fun here: and I say that as someone who is not generally a big fan of David Tennant's run after his first season.

Basically, what we've got here is another set of fun family-friendly SF adventure stories, featuring a fun cast of characters.  If you're a science fiction fan and you don't mind that it's clearly pitched at a younger audience, you should check it out.

Monday, 30 May 2016

The Way Back (2010)



September 1939: the Soviet Union has occupied half of Poland.  Suspected opponents of Stalin's regime, such as a young military officer named Janusz, are swept up and sent to the gulags in Siberia.  There he finds himself in a prison which - as the camp commander reminds them - does not stop merely with guards, guns and dogs, but extends to the hundreds of miles of wilderness that surrounds them.

Janusz has no intention of remaining in the gulag, however.  Faced with the choice of being worked like a slave or dying in an escape attempt, he chooses the latter.  Of course, the decision is probably made easier when he finds himself assigned to work that will almost certainly kill him within a few months in any case.

In the company of half a dozen others - most political prisoners like himself, but one a hardened criminal - he makes his escape and begins what is intended to be a one-thousand kilometre trek to freedom in Mongolia.

This is a Peter Weir film: one of only two features he has directed this century.  I'm not sure what attracted him to this project in particular, but whatever it was, I don't think the film conveys it to the audience - or at least not to me.  It's not that the movie isn't well shot and well acted: the scenery is great and the cast is strong.  I just rarely felt all that emotionally invested in the events on screen.  I kept mentally comparing it to other "survival" films like Flight of the Phoenix (either version) and feeling like it came up a little short.

If you're a big Peter Weir fan you should probably check this out as one of the few examples of his recent work.  Outside of that though, I don't see why I would recommend this ahead of any other survival adventure story.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)



I'll freely admit to being prejudiced against Tom Cruise movies because of not caring much for Cruise himself.  So I didn't catch Edge of Tomorrow at the cinemas, despite the nifty looking effects and science fiction action, because of its lead actor.  If it had been say, Chris Evans in the starring role, I'd have been there with bells on.  I like Evans, and it certainly wouldn't have hurt that he's much more age-appropriate to have Emily Blunt as a potential love interest.

But then I got offered this DVD for free, and well; even I am not so much of a Cruisaphobe as to reject that offer.

The premise of Edge of Tomorrow is that Earth has been invaded by a race of aliens that we (for no clear reason) call "Mimics".  The aliens have overrun Europe, but humanity is poised to make a massive counter-attack, our hopes of victory buoyed by the power suits we've developed and the successes of one particular female soldier.

Cruise plays Cage, a media specialist who is horrified to find himself dragooned into the front lines of the invasion.  He stumbles across the battlefield as the entire human force is devastated by the waiting aliens: the operation has walked right into a trap!  After several panicked narrow escapes, Cage himself is killed by a glowing blue alien, though in one last act of defiance he manages to take it with him.

And then he wakes up, back at the start of the day, being dragooned into the attack once more.  How did this happen?  How does the female hero I mentioned above fit into it?  And could it be that Cage is now the key to humanity's success or failure in the war?

Well the answer to that last question is obviously yes, what with him being the protagonist of the film.  But doubtless you get the idea.

There are definitely some things that go unexplained in the plot of this film, but sometimes that's the right call in an action flick - lots of talky-talk could sap the pace too much.  Accept that, and you'll probably have a fine time with this "Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers" movie.  Cruise and Blunt give good performances, and the script offers up moments of humour and empathy amongst all the explosions and shooting.  As long as you aren't even more averse to Cruise than me, or a hater of all things science fiction, you'll probably enjoy your time with this film.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Tribe, Season 4 (2002)



Season three of The Tribe ended with the city under the control of the Mallrats' frenemy Ebony.  She expels her rivals in the tribe but her apparent victory is cut short by the arrival of a new force of black-clad strangers, who come parachuting in from the air.

These newcomers are "The Technos", and at first they appear no more friendly than the recently-defeated Chosen.  They abduct large numbers of people from the streets and aren't shy about using their superior weapons to drive off anyone who challenges them.  When confronted by a city delegation though, their apparent leader insists they don't want to take over.  They just needed to demonstrate their power to ensure they would be left alone to do their "work".

Most people in the city aren't too keen about this of course, and they are soon planning retaliation.  Ebony on the other hand is an adaptable sort, and sees personal advantages in surreptitiously co-operating with the new arrivals.  Of course, that's a potentially dangerous strategy, particularly if it turns out some of the Technos are people she has crossed in the past ... but what is the chance of that, right?

This season of the show is apparently somewhat controversial among the fandom.  Many existing characters are jettisoned or reduced to occasional roles, while a whole host of newcomers - most but not all of them Technos - are introduced in their place.  It also introduces lots of advanced technology, such as energy weapons and totally immersive virtual reality games.  It's a bit like tuning into The Walking Dead one day to discover that the show's introduced a new faction that uses cybernetic battle harnesses to battle the zombie horde.

I'm not intrinsically opposed to the show's decision to reinvent itself, but the execution is  - as is often the case with The Tribe - not terribly good.  It delays rather too long in explaining what it is the Technos are actually after, and frankly said objective is a bit nonsensical.

The show would continue for another year after this, with decent ratings, but was was cancelled due to the creators feeling that their core cast were now too old for the whole "world without adults" concept to continue.  I do own the remaining season, but I have already watched those discs, so the only review of it I will be doing is this: it's not as good as season four.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Elysium (2013)



Neill Blomkamp leapt to international attention with District 9, a film I thought started strongly but descended into mediocrity by the end.  This is not the case with this, his second film.  Instead, Elysium begins with mediocrity and digs energetically toward stupid for every one of its 100 minutes.

In the late 21st Century, Earth is suffering from resource shortages and massive over-population.  So the wealthy build a massive space habitat (called Elysium, naturally) to serve as their private retreat.  There they enjoy opulent plenty, with beautiful homes, decadent food, and insta-healing machines that can cure all illnesses in a matter of seconds.  Where do the resources come from for all this?  Don't ask questions the film won't bother to answer.

Back on Earth we have Max, a former car thief trying to make a go of an honest life.  He would probably have more success in this if he wasn't a complete numbskull.  Now I'm sure we're supposed to see Max as a charming rogue rather than a blithering idiot, but if the skull's numb, the skull's numb: and this skull is numb, brother.

Anyway, due his stupidity - and to Jodie Foster and the guy from District 9 being Evil for the sake of Evil - Maxiboy ends up running around with the keys to Elysium in his head.  Naturally that puts the bad guys on his trail but fortunately for him, they're even dumber than he is.

I'm not kidding about the villains, by the by: Foster's character has some specious dialogue to justify her wicked plans, but they don't hold water for even a few seconds, and she goes on to commit the cardinal sin of "yell at the homicidal nutcase you've employed while the two of you are alone" (guess how that ends up for her?), while District 9 guy is playing said homicidal nutcase.

Don't waste your time.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Lie to Me, Season 1 (2009)



I caught some of Lie to Me back when it was on TV and enjoyed it, but the network did that all too common "shuffle it all over the schedule" thing and I lost track of it.  So when I saw the complete series on DVD I picked it up.

The show was inspired by the work of Paul Ekman, a psychologist regarded as the "best human lie detector in the world" for his work on studying emotions and how we express them.  His in-show counterpart is Dr Cal Lightman, who runs a consultancy which assists the FBI and other government agencies - as well as high-paying private concerns - to find the truth in complicated or emergency situations.  His team are trained to recognise "micro expressions"; tiny physical tics of the face that reveal the emotions we are truly experiencing, no matter how much we try to conceal them.

How plausible this would be in the real world, I couldn't say.  There are certainly people who reject Ekman's methods.  But as a premise for a show, I'm certainly willing to accept it.  It gives Lightman's team a reason to be involved in all kinds of cases with all kinds of clients, and gives them a powerful set of tools without being an instant "I win" button.

So obviously the show is in essence a police procedural, even though the Lightman group aren't actually police themselves.  There are of course many such shows on the air.  For my money Lie to Me rises above the average due to its strong cast, headed by Tim Roth, and by the fun character writing around Lightman himself.  He's a deliberately provocative fellow, always pushing people's buttons - whether those people be suspects, clients or colleagues.  He's abrasive fun to watch (though not, I imagine, to be around!).  The show also does a good job of depicting the friendship between Lightman and his 2IC, Dr Gillian Foster.  Foster is one of the few people who can generally keep her cool around Lightman, and makes a good counterpart to him in any scenes.

If this kind of thing is your kind of thing, you should check out this show.  I wouldn't lie to you, would I?

Monday, 23 May 2016

Gattaca (1997)



I suspect Gattaca was included in this 4-pack as the "bait": the recognisable film you'd be willing to lay out a few bucks for while crossing your fingers the other movies were tolerable.  It definitely feels like the odd film out: it was made 15 years earlier than them, cost many times more, features a much higher-profile cast, and has a much less action-focused storyline.

It is some undisclosed time in the future.  Humanity is making regular forays into the solar system - a mission to Titan (one of Saturn's moons) is about to commence, and there is mention of "a dozen launches a day" - and has mastered command of DNA.  This latter development has transformed society, creating a sharp class divide between those who were genetically engineered in the womb and those who were not.  The former group are (theoretically) free of all genetic imperfections such as heart murmurs, myopia, and so on.  The latter group lack these advantages and, being by definition "inferior", are relegated to purely menial jobs such as being cleaners.

The film follows the tale of one such "in-valid", as they are known.  He's managed to successfully impersonate one of the genetically pure, somehow staying one step ahead of the regular genetic tests run by his employer.  He's now on the verge of embarking on the mission to Titan, transcending the role to which society believes he is limited.  Unfortunately, a murder at his workplace is about to bring renewed attention to him, and jeopardise everything he has fought for.

There's a fair bit to like about Gattaca.  The performances are universally good, and I like the visual style.  I also like the film's costuming and visual design.  It strongly evokes the 1950s and 60s, which I suspect was a very deliberate choice.  The film's valid/in-valid social segregation maps pretty obviously to the racial segregation of that era, after all.

There are also some issues with the film, of course.  The ubiquitous genetic testing seems a bit implausible for one thing: everyone in a company of thousands being tested every week, for instance?  Really?  And here are one or two extremely credibility-stretching reveals later in the film.  So the details of the plot don't really stand up to scrutiny too well, even though the themes the films wants to explore are developed quite successfully.

At the end of the day, your opinion of the film will probably come to rest on whether the details or the themes are more important to you.


Friday, 20 May 2016

Terminator: Genisys (2015)



"The best Terminator since T2", the DVD cover trumpets, which is rather damning with faint praise, if you ask me.  "Better than T3 or Salvation" is an extremely low bar to clear.  It's a shame really because I think Genisys, while far from perfect, deserves better.  "Finally: a worthy successor to T2!" might be overselling things a little, but this is advertising-speak we're talking about so overselling is kind of the name of the game.

Genisys kicks off in 2029 as John Connor leads the final assault on Skynet in humanity's war with the machines.  He's victorious of course, but (equally of course) Skynet uses a time machine to dispatch a lethal T-800 cyborg back to 1984 in an attempt to assassinate Connor's mother Sarah and end the resistance before it even begins.  For their own part, Connor's people get the time machine working and send one of his soldiers - Kyle Reese - back in time to protect Sarah.

So far, so recapping the backstory of the first Terminator film.  And indeed the familiar riffs keep coming as we see recreations of the arrival of the T-800 (featuring more of the 'young Schwarzenegger' CGI magic of the last film), and of Reese, in 1984 Los Angeles.

But then things take a turn for the unexpected.  A hidden terminator attacks Connor as Reese goes through the time portal.  The T-800 is met in 1984 by another (visibly older) Arnold-model terminator: but this one is clearly not on Skynet's side.  And Reese is attacked by one of the 'liquid metal' T-1000 series machines from the second film.

As for Sarah Connor herself, she proves to be far from the naive young woman Reese has been told to expect.  She's been raised from childhood by "Pops", the older terminator mentioned above, and knows more about the future timeline than the man who's lived through it.

Genisys was clearly made with a mandate to retcon much of the now-convoluted timeline of the franchise and move events chronologically so that SkyNet's rise occurs at a later date than 1997 (which naturally looks a bit odd in a film made nearly 20 years after that date).  It does a pretty good job on that front.  It was also given a mandate to be the start of a new trilogy, but it proves to be nicely 'complete' in and of itself (as long as you don't sit through the credits, at least).  This is a good thing given its relatively poor return on investment has put further films in doubt.

This is not a flawless film.  I think it gets off to a bit of a slow start and I'm not all that thrilled by the casting of either Kyle Reese or John Connor, for instance.  As for Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor - I think she delivers the chutzpah the role needs but when it comes to physicality, she is no T2-era Linda Hamilton.  On the other hand, things definitely pick up once Schwarzenegger turns up, there are plenty of good action sequences, and at pretty much two-hours-even, it does not overstay its welcome.

Worth a look if you're hankering for some cyborg-fighting action.  If you haven't seen the first two films in the franchise though, I recommend checking them out first: some of the scenes in this one would definitely not work as well without that context.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Terminator: Salvation (2009)



You may have worked out that there is something of a theme to this week's reviews.

I'll start by giving Terminator: Salvation some props for being the first sequel in the franchise to try and do something materially different to the first film.  There's no time travel here; everything is set in the future of the war against the machines.

Salvation follows the continuity of T3, meaning that it has Judgement Day occurring five years before the film itself came out.  Which feels a tad odd, but hey: points for sticking with the established setting lore.

We begin with Marcus; a criminal on death row in 2003.  He's persuaded to donate his organs for research at Cyberdyne Systems, and then executed.  A year later Judgement Day happens; the war against the machines begins.

In 2018, after a botched raid led by John Connor, Marcus comes staggering out of a subterranean base.  He has no memories after losing consciousness at this execution, and gets a quick - and rude - awakening about the new world in which he finds himself.

Now obviously things aren't entirely kosher with old Marcus, what with him not having aged a day in 15 years and you know, the whole "he was executed " thing.  To the movie's credit, it doesn't really try to pretend otherwise.

You'll have noticed that I've given the film several ticks, but that the tag is "Not Recommended".  This is because despite its good features - and it does have them - the narrative has some serious flaws.  There's an awful lot of trusting someone you've only just met despite having strong evidence of reasons not to trust them, for one thing.  For another, there's an (ugh) attempted pack rape scene with one of the two female characters to get lines.  Finally, the movie didn't really connect emotionally for me.  In particular, there's a character moment for Marcus when he comes face-to-face with Skynet that I'm sure is meant to be triumphant, but which lacks any real impact or weight.  This is probably due at least in part to some pretty large "wait, what?" plot points you have to accept in order to get there.

There are some good action sequences in this, and some neat CGI work, including modelling the facial appearance of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger for a Terminator scene.  But for all that - and despite the nice touches it works in - the picture has too many flaws, especially in terms of the plot, to "click".

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)



So the premise of T3 is that an experimental prototype Terminator is sent from the future to try and kill John Connor, and an Arnold-model Terminator is sent back to be his protector.  If that sounds exactly like the same as it was T2 - which was in itself on a small twist on that of the first film - well, it is.

This film's "innovation"?  The experimental Terminator looks like a woman.  Well; that and the fact that she has been sent to target John Connor's chief lieutenants in the future war, not just John himself.  But the advertising at the time of the release emphasised "LADY ROBOT!", not the other thing.

And oh dear but the whole gynoid thing goes wrong pretty much straight away.  The T-X (as it is known) gets pulled over by a cop.  Why she'd bother listening to him is not explained - the Terminators from the first two films sure wouldn't- but then while waiting for him to approach the car, she inflates her breasts.

Inflates.  Her.  Breasts.

Now this does tie into the later plot point that (much like last movie's T-1000) the T-X can change her form.  But you'll note that the last film didn't decide to demonstrate the T-1000's ability by having it inflate the size of its man-parts.

As a corollary to this, the film makes a couple of attempts, mostly in the early sections, to portray the T-X in a sultry/sexual way, either through dialogue or action (worst offender: the scene where she licks blood off her finger).  Thankfully they mostly stop doing this after the first act and let her be a badass killing machine, but it's not a good start.

Sexism issues aside (and that's what those are, let's not pretend otherwise) the film has three other main weaknesses.  The first is John Connor himself.  I don't know whether Nick Stahl's performance or the script itself deserve most of the blame for the wishy-washiness of the character in this film, but I'm leaning toward the latter because it's at the root of the other two issues.  One of these is the downer ending.  There's some voice-over that tries to pretend otherwise, but (spoiler!) the good guys only success in this film is to not die.  The other, more prevalent issue, is that the 'spectacle over substance' problem of T2 is magnified many times here, to the point where it becomes 'spectacle over sense'.  For instance, John Connor is fleeing the T-X in a van, so she leaps into a massive crane lorry to pursue.  She does this because the script has all these nifty ideas for stunts involving the crane - ignoring the fact that this slow, ungainly machine is pretty much the worst of several options available to her as a pursuit vehicle.

If you can completely turn off your brain, you might find this one tolerable for the extravagant action sequences, but otherwise it can safely be skipped.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)



I was 17 when Judgment Day hit the cinemas, and I loved it.  It was, if not my favourite film of all time, then at least in the top 5.  I preferred it to its progenitor, and if you'd ask me if it was better than Aliens or not, I'd have been very conflicted.

Unlike the other two James Cameron films though, my opinion of T2 has declined over the years.  I still enjoy it for the action-packed extravaganza it is, but that style vs substance thing I mentioned in yesterday's review is beginning to rear its head here.

Now make no mistake, this is a stylish film.  It's packed to the gills with imaginative, well-staged action sequences and is pretty much everyone-being-a-badass-all-the-time.  But substance-wise?  Well, there are a few shortcomings.

First let's talk about the basic premise.  It turns out that Skynet, the evil machine intelligence, sent a second terminator back in time to stop John Connor.  This is an experimental T-1000 prototype made of 'liquid metal', and targets Connor when he is 10 years old.  Fortunately Future-Connor is once again able to send a single protector back in time, only this time it's not a human soldier: it's an Arnold-model Terminator.

So obviously problem one is that this is pretty much the same plot as the first film, only with the addition of a kid.  "Let's add a moppet" is rarely a good idea, but to be fair Edward Furlong does a good job as the young John Connor.  There are other concerns though, such as "how did the no-flesh-included T-1000 travel through the only-things-encased-in-flesh-can-use-it time machine of the Terminator universe?"

There's a also a sense - at least watching it now - that the film is trying just a little too hard to top its predecessor.  Whereas the quotable moments of The Terminator happened organically out of the plot, this one seems to be actively trying to create such 'soundbites'.  "Hasta la vista, baby", I am looking at you.

This is a fun roller-coaster ride of a film ... and I think that's probably why it's not at the level of the first movie.  Roller coasters and fast and loud and exciting, but they're not exactly complex experiences.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Terminator (1984)



I actually purchased and watched the first two Terminator films on DVD over a decade ago but recently realised that at some point the discs had gone missing.  Borrowed and not returned by someone with whom I'm no longer in contact, no doubt.

In any case, this 4-pack proved an easy way to reacquire the DVDs and also to give me a chance to revisit the third and fourth films.  Neither of these left a good impression when I first saw them, but maybe they will improve the second time around (probably not, though).

So this is the 1984 original that started the franchise: not to mention just the second film James Cameron had directed (after Piranha 2) and presumably the one that got him the Aliens gig.

In case there is someone who doesn't know the plot: a cyborg killing machine travels from the future to assassinate Sarah Connor.  Sarah will one day become the mother of John Connor, who has led humanity in a long and bitter struggle with "the machines".  Humanity is on the verge of victory, and the machines' last throw of the dice is to try and prevent the birth of the man who has defeated them.

Fortunately for Sarah, her son has managed to send soldier into the past as well.  This man is charged with protecting her from the cyborg - assuming that is even possible without access to weapons from the future.

The first thing that strikes me in watching The Terminator is that there really was a time when Cameron knew how to assemble a film.  He knows to generate tension; he juxtaposes images cleverly; he even manages to structure the info dump conversations in ways that do not dilute the film's momentum.  I miss this version of Cameron, who gave us spectacle and substance, rather than just the visual extravaganza of his more recent work.

Speaking of visuals, the film does naturally look a little dated now; it is more than 30 years old after all; but you're probably likely to find the costumes more antiquated than the effects.

This is a really well done action film, with - provided you're willing to accept the science fiction premise - a coherent and consistent plot.  Even the casting is spot-on: Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn make a fine leading couple, the script covers well for Arnold Schwarzenegger's then-significant limitations as an actor, and Lance Henriksen is lots of fun in his minor role.

Unless you simply cannot get past the "killer cyborg from the future" premise, you should see The Terminator.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Scavengers (2013)



The previous two movies I reviewed from this pack are ultimately pale, derivative copies of much better films, but they are both competent enough, within their modest low-budget terms.

Scavengers is also derivative of other works, but "competent" is not a word I would apply to any part of it.

Before I begin the litany of fail, however, let's briefly summarise the plot.

A ragtag group of interstellar scavengers find a strange alien doodad, and then have to (a) work out what it is and (b) stay ahead of the homicidal lunatics who are also after it.

Right, with that out of the way, let's deal with everything that's wrong with the movie.  Which is, in fact, everything to do with the movie.

Firstly there's the FX.  I know we're not exactly playing in the Weta / ILM end of the market, but the effects work in this is dreadful.  The CGI reminds me of Babylon 5 ... except worse.  Yes, worse than a TV show which debuted 15 years before this was released.  And then there's the green screen work, which makes me pine for the comparatively high quality CGI.

Second, the sound mix.  I can only assume that the dialogue and effects tracks were done by completely different people on completely different equipment in completely different locations, because finding a volume level where the former is audible without the latter blowing out your eardrums is more or less impossible.

Then we have the acting.  I know at least some of the people in this film can act, but you'd never guess it from their work here.  Sean Patrick Flannery, for instance, has done perfectly serviceable work elsewhere but here he mumbles his way through his lines like he's a very drunk, very sleepy William Shatner.

All sounds pretty bad, right?  Well, trust me, compared to the script, all of the above looks pretty good.  The writing is appalling.  Characters spout dialogue like "Your hatred runs ... seductively deep." and mean it seriously.  Subplots get introduced and forgotten: "This character is a major point of conflict between the hero and the villain!  Now let us never mention this again!".  A totally new enemy turns up in the last ten minutes, cuts a swathe through the good guys, and then gets written out again so the remaining cast can have an ultra-compressed showdown with the original bad guy.

Wholly without redeeming features: it's not even bad in a fun way.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Secret Army, Season 1 (1977)



The 'Comet Line' was a real Belgian resistance group in WW2 that helped about 800 Allied air crew to escape Nazi-occupied Europe and return to the war effort.  Its activities were a major inspiration for this BBC drama, about a fictitious organisation named 'Lifeline', which fulfils the same role.

Lifeline co-ordinates much of its activity around a cafe, where the proprietor and his waitress - who is also his mistress - juggle their resistance activities with the demands of the German authorities and of his invalid wife.

Now if you're thinking to yourself, "wait, that sounds familiar, but wasn't it a bawdy comedy full of ethnic stereotypes?", then you're remembering 'Allo 'Allo, which began a few years after this show ended, and was an unapologetic parody of it.

There's precious little humour to be found in Secret Army itself, which was probably a factor in choosing it to lampoon.  It's a decidedly grim show, with protagonists who are far from white hats, despite (or indeed, because of) the dangerous and heroic work they've taken on.

On a personal level for instance, cafe owner Albert is pretty awful to both his wife and his mistress: not to mention completely absorbed in how difficult the situation is for him.  Meanwhile the Lifeline organisation as a whole must often do some terrible things to preserve the secrecy of their operations.  What victories they win are hard-fought, and often tainted in some way, and they endure more than one outright defeat in the course of the first season.

If you're interested in a WW2 drama that largely rejects any glamourisation of the war, and don't mind the sometimes stridently grim tone, then this is a well put-together piece of work.  If you prefer something lighter, though, then it is probably not for you.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Colony (2013)



This film starts with a similar basic premise to Snowpiercer: human efforts to counteract global warming plunge the world into a new ice age.  Unlike the South Korean film though, there is no magical train as humanity's last hope.  Instead we have small subterranean enclaves scattered around the place.  Each struggles with the necessities of survival, with disease being a particular problem.  Why this is so is not explained - perhaps because of the poor diet?

We begin in 'Colony Seven', an enclave where things are becoming rather tense, as the 2nd in charge keeps pushing for a more draconian approach than his commander is willing to countenance.  Said 2IC is played by Bill Paxton, who you may know best as "Game over, man!" Hudson from Aliens.  He's a fine choice for the role, and I wish he was given more to do in the script.

But we're about to leave him behind for the second act of the film.  You see, Colony Seven has been in regular contact with another base - Colony Five - but the latter went radio silent for a week due to the need to do repairs, and when they came back online, it was to broadcast a distress signal.  The boss of Colony Seven, along with two volunteers, sets out to try and help.

And in some other reality, the film-makers made a choice here.  They either committed to the "power struggle in Colony Seven" plotline they've already set up, using the commander's absence as an opportunity for Paxton's character to go full-on dictator, or they committed to the threat that's overwhelmed Colony Five and will soon threaten Colony Seven.

In my opinion they would have best off with the former option, as the nature of the latter option's threat not only changes the tone of the film from the sombre thriller it has been so far to a much more action-horror feel, but is also deeply, deeply implausible.  Still, at least committing to it would have given the final act a clearer focus.  Instead they tried to keep both threads, thereby short-changing both of them.

The sound cast and solid technical work demonstrate that there were some talented people involved in this production.  Alas, their efforts are rather wasted on this script.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Ben 10, Season 2 (2006)



Back when I reviewed the first season of this show, I made the observation that it was not really about "breaking new ground", in terms of the stories it told.  This holds true of the second season as well: the focus remains on reinterpreting familiar superhero tropes into the show's nominally science fiction setting, rather than in being particularly innovative in any way.

Season two's bag of re-jigged comic book plotlines includes:

  • the mega-powerful who just wants to eat the planet (their Galactus is a giant tick);
  • impersonated by a super-villain;
  • alternate reality hijinks;
  • my superpowers are malfunctioning!;
  • forced into gladiatorial games; and
  • reluctant team-ups with enemies
Of course, an argument can be made that Ben 10's innovation is that it tells superhero stories in a nominally not-superhero setting.  And innovative or not, it's a smart idea.  Superheroes are a pretty rich vein to mine, but doing a straight-up capes cartoon that's not associated with the big 2 of Marvel and DC is likely to be something of an uphill battle.

And then there's the fact that at the end of the day, solid execution often trumps innovation, and the people making this show know what they are doing, so their execution is solid through and through.  I do think this season is overall not quite as engaging as the first - possibly because the character dynamics are pretty much established now and we don't see a lot of change in them during these episodes - but there is still plenty to enjoy.

I mean, at the very least, I have to tip my hat to a show that's willing to include Chekov's Foot Powder.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Stranded (2013)



Hey, remember when Christian Slater looked poised to be the next big thing, back in the early 90s?  Legal troubles put an end to that and he's had a pretty uneven run since then, though things seem to be looking up with Mr Robot.  One of the less upward-looking entries on his resume, on the other hand, is this little number.

It's not that Slater - or indeed any of the cast - is bad in this.  All the performances are solid.  Technically speaking the movie's generally okay too. Some of the model-work is a bit weak but the sets are pretty well put together.  Clearly heavily "inspired" by Alien, but competent work.

A small moonbase is battered by an unexpected meteor storm.  The four crew survive, but the base is badly damaged.  Main power is out, one of the escape pods is destroyed, and carbon monoxide is seeping into the atmosphere: this will eventually be fatal, though it will start causing hallucinations and irrational behaviour well before that.

Oh, and just in case all that wasn't enough to keep them occupied, there are also strange spores on the meteors: spores they promptly bring inside the base to study.  Well, I guess the irrational behaviour got started early!

Anyway, in the space of a few hours the sole female crew-member suddenly appears to be six months pregnant.  The base commander (Slater) actually does the sensible thing and orders her confined, but it does no good.  Something is born from her while she is alone, and then escapes into the air vents.  It's always the air vents, isn't it?

So yeah, as mentioned the Alien is strong with this one.  As long as you don't mind the oh so obvious echoes of that far superior film, or the elements it steals from John Carpenter's version of The Thing, then it actually does a reasonably good job of building up tension at times.  Not too bad an effort when you consider how visually underwhelming its monster is.

The last act, though ... oh dear.  I can't find anything to suggest this was originally intended as the pilot for a TV series, but it definitely feels like one.  About the only way it could come across as more of a "To Be Continued" would be if they'd actually printed those words on the screen.

If you are at all a fan of SF/horror than you've seen this film done better in the past, and you've certainly seen it ended better.  Go watch one of those movies instead of this faded copy.


Friday, 6 May 2016

Noah (2014)



I admit it has been a long time since I read the bible but I really don't remember the story of Noah including a battle between giant rock angels and an army of guys with magic guns.

Of course, if this was the only innovation in the film's narrative, I'd probably like it a lot more than I did.  But no, shortly after said battle, the movie decides that what we really need is twenty minutes of "Noah, wannabe baby murderer".

You see, the film posits that Noah sees the wickedness of humanity and decides that there is no option but to let us all die out.  He figures this isn't going to be too hard since he has three sons, none of whom are married, and an adopted daughter who is barren due to a childhood injury.  So they'll get on the ark, survive the flood, and then slowly die out due to the lack of any breeding opportunities.

This plan comes unstuck when the adopted daughter turns out to be not so barren at all.  Noah, horrified at the thought that she may bear a daughter and thus provide more wives for his sons (yes, the movie really goes there), so he decides to kill the kid if it is a girl.

Now I realise this is probably a reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac, but it is a terrible idea on a number of levels.  You're going to annoy people who value the original story (in the bible, Noah's sons all have grown wives who come onto the ark with them).  You're going to destroy sympathy for Noah with those members of the audience who care about babies (which I'm reliably informed is quite a lot of folks).  And frankly, it's transparently obvious he's not going to do it since if he succeeds it means the end of the human race.  And well ... I think you'd really hear some howls if you re-wrote a bible story to do that.

Not even giant rock angels can save this from sinking under its own stupid in the last act.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Americans, Season 3 (2015)



The Americans is one of the best - albeit sometimes one of the bleakest - shows on TV.  As long as you're okay with the lack of moral certainty or happy endings, you should watch it.

... what, you're still here?  What more do I need to say than that?

Oh okay, I guess I can give you a bit more information.  Deep cover KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip begin this season faced with what may be the most challenging task - both professionally and personally - they've ever been given.  Their Moscow-based handlers want them to start grooming their 14 year old daughter to join them as spy.  This instruction quickly becomes a point of conflict between them.  Philip is dead-set against the idea, while Elizabeth - who has always been more of a Soviet True Believer - wants to comply with the directive.  What neither of them expects is that the decision about what to tell their daughter may ultimately be taken out of their hands ...

Meanwhile, there's still all the usual spy stuff to be getting on with.  These include efforts to infiltrate bugs into FBI headquarters, to get photographs of the stealth bomber, and to sabotage US plans to supply the mujahideen in Afghanistan.  There's also a sub-plot involving South Africa - which was still under apartheid at the time - that is refreshingly frank in depicting the ugliness of that particular situation.

The show also branches out more with its other characters in this season, too: they've always been around but we have previously seen them mostly in the context of how their lives intersect with Elizabeth and Philip.  This season, they get their own sub-plot that is only loosely connected to that of the main pairing.

Like I said above, this is one of the best things on TV.  The writing is taut and tense - they know how to use silence like few other shows around - and it has a fine cast of characters that are played by equally fine actors.  I'm very much looking forward to season four.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Speechless (1994)



There are times when a great cast can take mediocre-at-best material and through sheer charisma turn it into a genuine pleasure to watch.

That this film is not one of those times is in no way a reflection on the actors involved.  They are uniformly excellent.  Leads Geena Davis and Michael Keaton display a fine camaraderie, and they are ably supported by the rest of the cast.  Where they don't get any support is from the script.  This looks to be writer Robert King's only romantic comedy (his career before this was pretty much entirely direct-to-video action schlock, and he's more recently known for creating TV's The Good Wife), and based on his efforts here, it's probably for the best he didn't write a second one.  There's no verve or spark here: just lukewarm leftovers recycled from a thousand previous romcoms.

Insomniacs Kevin and Julia meet over a box of sleeping tablets and are soon making out in his car.  In an example of the oh-so-sidesplitting antics King has to offer, this causes the vehicle's windscreen wipers and lights to switch on and off.  High-larious, no?

Well, no ... though as I said, Davis and Keaton do their best with the shamefully thin and hackneyed material they've been given.

Of course the course of true love can never run smooth in a romantic comedy, and it turns out that the erstwhile lovers are speech-writers for two opposing candidates in a senatorial race.  Naturally their relationship comes to a screeching halt at this revelation, though equally naturally they continue to be drawn to each other despite themselves.

I freely admit that romantic comedies are not my thing, but I suspect that even if they are, you'll find this a fairly humdrum example of the form.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Sopranos, Season 2 (2000)



One of the core threads in season one of The Sopranos was Tony Soprano's often adversarial relationship with his mother and uncle.  This second season backgrounds both those other characters to a large degree, but not the struggle itself.  Instead, their rivalry shifts to be fought out through proxies.  It's a pretty smart way to continue the basic plot-line while changing it up enough to keep it fresh.  And bear in mind these are no ordinary family squabbles: they're the kind where the use of lethal force is a very real possibility.

Of course, his family are far from the only thing making Tony's life complicated.  The FBI continue to be an ongoing threat, for one thing.  They're determined to infiltrate his operations if at all possible, and make multiple attempts to do so in the course of the season.

Compound all this with the usual stresses of raising a pair of increasingly independent teenagers (one of whom is in the midst of applying to college), and it's probably no surprise that Tony's mental health is not the best.  He is therefore keen to continue the sessions he's been having with his psychiatrist, Dr Melfi.  On the other hand, the Doctor herself has good reason to be reluctant to oblige him.  Being so involved in the life of a notorious mob boss - especially one whose formidable temper she has witnessed first hand - is definitely having an adverse effect on her own mental well-being.

The Sopranos remains a solidly-plotted crime show with a strong cast of characters.  My only real complaint would be that the writers are a little too fond of dream sequences as a narrative tool.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)



After I reviewed the first Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film, a friend of mine dropped me a message on Facebook about how much he disliked the second film.  Which, even if I hadn't already picked up the DVD of the second film, would have been like waving a red flag at a bull, really.

I can definitely see why my friend had issues with the film.  It makes two major missteps: one early on that left a very bad taste in my mouth, and a second that pretty much ran throughout the length of the film.

But let's start with the positives, because - even though on balance I wouldn't recommend it - the film does have some.  The leads remain charismatic, and Ritchie remains a deft hand with the action scenes, despite his excessive fondness of slow motion.

Hmm.  You'll notice that's a pretty short list of positives, isn't it?  So does it mean everything else went wrong?  Well ... not necessarily wrong, but some things definitely don't work as well as they might have.  Casting Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes probably seemed like a fine idea at the time for instance.  And Fry certainly seems to be enjoying himself.  But the execution doesn't work for me.  Much like his role in The Hobbit films, I felt he was too much Stephen Fry and not enough the part he was hired to play.  Noomi Rapace, meanwhile, is a fine actor: but she is given precious little to do by the script.

Also not given enough to do, at least in the first hour of the film, is Jude Law.  The first movie did a great job of making his Doctor Watson seem an important part of Holmes's successes.  This film initially makes him an almost clownish figure.  I think the intent is to give a reason for the villain to underestimate him in the later parts of the film, but I can't help but think that sabotaging Watson was not the way to go about it.

None of these issues, however, are the two major missteps I referred to earlier.  Those are coming next, and well: here be spoilers.

The first problem is the fridging of Irene Adler.  Having spent the first film making her a central figure - someone who could outwit Holmes - this movie kills her with unceremonious haste in a pretty blatant attempt to make the new villain (it's Moriarty, of course) seem like a big deal.  Now it's entirely possible that the rumoured third movie will bring her back - such tricks are part of Adler's schtick after all - but this film does nothing to suggest she wasn't taken out like a chump.

The second problem is Moriarty himself.  The characters on screen constantly tell us how brilliant he is, but nothing in the script actually shows it.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I mean, the bad guy in the first film had a goofy plan, but at least the steps he took to enact it were logical.  For instance, he did his utmost to actually kill Holmes when he had the chance.  By contrast, Moriarty has a sound (if improbable) end goal in mind, but his means of achieving it are extravagant and sloppy.  And while it is fine for a villain to be extravagant and sloppy, it's not fine for Sherlock Holmes not to notice that.

Ultimately this is a film that is less than the sum of its parts.