Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Sarah Jane Adventures, Season 4 (2010)



The Sarah Jane Adventures has always delivered fun, family-oriented science fiction adventures, but I think this might overall be the show's strongest season.

It's blessedly free of any Slitheen storylines, for one thing.  I understand that kids love fart jokes, but they do get a bit on the nose after a while.  bdum-tish!

Opportunities for me to make bad puns aside, this genuinely is a strong season.  I think the opening story is a little weak, but the other five are all good fun, with two in particular being personal favourites of mine.  The first of these is "Death of the Doctor" (guest-starring the Matt Smith version of the Time Lord) which I enjoy for its mad-cap fun and unusually sympathetic antagonists.  The second is "Empty Planet", which wins points for focusing heavily on the characters of Clyde and Rani.  The self-admitted "hangers on" of the team are a fun pair, and they work really well together.

Ultimately of course this is season 4 of the show and you've probably decided from the previous reviews whether this is something for you or not.  But if you're still on the fence, then I suggest checking out one of the two stories I've called out above, before you make a decision.  Go with the former if you're a fan of modern Doctor Who, and the latter if you're not.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Chanbara Beauty (2008)



Apparently OneeChanbara is a series of video games - mostly for the Playstation - in which the player takes on the role of a scantily-clad woman chopping up zombies.  I've never heard of them before, but then I am not a console gamer.

In any case, this is a - very cheap, based on the second rate CGI effects - movie adaptation of the first game, and features ... well, a scantily-clad woman chopping up zombies.  Said zombies are the result of poorly defined experiments conducted for poorly defined reasons.  I suspect the games aren't real bothered about providing complex backstories to their bikini and blood gameplay, either.

Joining our protagonist - whose name is Ava - are a portly, semi-comedic sidekick, who does most of the talking for her, and a leather-clad biker lady with a shotgun that never runs out of shells (and doesn't act like any shotgun I've ever heard of in pretty much any way).  This trio are after the evil Doctor who created the zombie plague.  In addition, Ava has a score to settle with the Doc's #1 enforcer: a woman who not only killed her father, but also just so happens to be her sister.

If I were to think hard and try to find something positive to say about this movie, I could probably come up with two items.  First: it's pretty much exactly the sort of film you might expect from that image above.  So at least there is truth in the advertising.  Second, the action sequences - while not generally staged in a way I would describe with words like "good" or "interesting", do feel like something straight out of the sort of hack'n'slash game this is based on.

Still, unless you have an almost endless appetite for cheap-o zombie flicks (guilty!) or are a fan of the original games, there's precious little to recommend here.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Odyssey 5 (2002)



A group of astronauts are on a mission to deploy a satellite.  Moments after they complete the task, the entire planet Earth is destroyed in fire, leaving only dust.  Talk about your bad days at work.

Anyway, Plot Happens, and the astronauts end up having their minds transported back in time in a desperate attempt to prevent the catastrophe.  They have five years and one clue: that it probably has something to do with the satellite they were in space to launch.

Odyssey 5 gets off to a fairly brisk start as the group learns that (a) history is most definitely able to be changed, often unintentionally, and (b) humanity's AI experiments have been far more successful than we knew.  Numerous true AIs have been created, escaped attention, and disappeared into the internet where they feed on data - and each other - in a race to become the strongest.  These Sentients, as the show dubs them, operate in the real world through agents both human and Synthetic: the latter look human but are grown in vats and are stronger and tougher than we squishy organics.

(Yeah, it's kind of a lot like the Westworld TV show or the Battlestar Galactica relaunch with this whole 'androids infiltrating humanity' thing)

Our heroes set out to find and confront the schemes of the Sentients and that's more or less when the wheels come off the show.

You see, like a lot of programs built around a core mystery - in this case "who blew up the world and how do we stop them?" - Odyssey 5 largely fails to convince me that it has a answer in mind, let alone a plan to get there.  The team tangles with various Sentients - most hostile, though very few obviously self-destructive to the point of destroying the world they live on - but it all tends to be bad guy of the week stuff, with no real sense of progress or development until the very last episode, where actual progress seems to happen ... for the audience at least, the characters are still in the dark.

Of course, few shows have managed to evolve a core mystery in a satisfying manner over a long period of time, so it's no easy task.  And I might cut Odyssey 5 more slack over it were it not for two other factors.  The first is the show's use of nudity and naughty words.  I generally have no issue with either of these things, but there's a "teenage boy"-ish tone to the way the scripts use them that just make me roll my eyes.  A far worse flaw though, is that the most prominent character in the show is an utter, utter jerk.  He's pretty much horrible to everybody, all of the time.  There's a scene in the second last episode they made where a crowd beats him up and frankly, I was cheering them on.

This is a mystery-focused show that didn't last long enough to come up with any answers, and which features an unpleasant lead.  It would have needed something really special to make me recommend it in those circumstances, and frankly, it doesn't.

Monday, 27 June 2016

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)



Akira Kurosawa made many fine films, but they all tended to be very. very long.  The Bad Sleep Well shares only one of these characteristics.

I'm being a little bit harsh, because there are some skilfully constructed scenes in this film.  But only a little bit, because the moments of cinematic art are overwhelmed by the glacial pace of the script and turgid narration-via-dialogue.

The film starts with a wedding.  A young man has won the heart of the daughter of a senior executive at a major company.  Said company is under a lot of legal scrutiny for corrupt business practices, so the police and press both take an interest in the wedding reception.  They deliver reams of exposition about the cast, in the first of many examples of the film telling rather than showing.

The new groom - Nishi - has a secret even the police and press don't know, though it is going to take the film a while to get around to sharing it with the audience, either.  You see, he's secretly the illegitimate son of a man who died as a result of the company's corruption, and he intends to tear the whole place down from within.

Unfortunately, Nishi hasn't just stolen his motivation from Hamlet, he's also stolen his propensity toward complicated romantic entanglements and even more complicated plans.  Both of which require even more explanatory conversations.  Because we haven't had enough of those already.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's when the exposition finally stops that the film has its flashes of interest.  'Every Frame a Painting' has done an excellent analysis of one such sequence, here, which is what first made me interested in seeing this film.

I suggest you just watch the EFaP video, and leave it at that.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Shakespeare Retold: Much Ado About Nothing (2005)



If you read my review of Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing - though to judge from the Google analytics not many of you did, for some reason - then you'll know my biggest complaint about the film was that Whedon re-dressed it with modern sets and costumes, but then used exactly the same story and dialogue as the original.  It felt like a missed opportunity.

No such problems plague this version of the tale, made for British TV about a decade ago.  It translates the action to a regional TV show in the modern day, updates the dialogue accordingly, and makes the necessary story changes to have events fit the 21st century setting.  Beyond that though, it remains at heart a story of two couples: one who get all the humour, and one which gets all the drama.

Beatrice and Benedick, eternally bickering and thus inevitably lovebirds, are the former couple.  They're also the anchors of the TV show.  The other couple are Hero and Claude, who present the weather and the sports sections of the program respectively.

The fly in the ointment here is Don, who has recently been demoted from his position as director of the show.  Old Don has something of a nice guy stalker thing going on with Hero, who unfortunately made the mistake of having pity-sex with him once.  He sets out to ruin Hero and Claude's impending marriage.

I like pretty much all the changes this adaptation makes.  I won't go into detail about what they are because I think that part of the point of these adaptations is to experience how the change in setting and sensibilities impacts the story.

If you're interested at all in seeing how the play has been re-imagined, or if you're one of those people who just can't follow Shakespearian dialogue, or if you're just in the market for a fairly light-hearted romantic drama, this is a pleasant 90 minute diversion.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Wave (2008)



If it were not for the final five minutes of this film, I would probably have given it a whole-hearted recommendation.  But I feel that the last scene pushes the drama button just a bit too hard and thus undermines the very theme it is trying to convey.

The Third Wave Experiment was conducted by an American history teacher in 1969, to explain to his students how the German people could accept the actions of the Nazi Party during and after its rise to power.  He did this by creating a social movement as a demonstration of the appeal of fascism.  That experiment rapidly escalated out of his control, and after five days he brought it to an end.

As you've probably already surmised, this German film is inspired by that experiment, though it transfers the action to modern-day Germany.  Popular teacher Rainer Wenger finds himself tasked with taking a week-long "project" class with the subject of autocracy.  He's initially less than enthused by the prospect, but becomes inspired when he hears his students dismiss the possibility of fascism ever rising again within Germany.

Rainer's plan is to show the class how essentially positive things; fostering a sense of cooperation and community; can be subverted to autocratic ends.  He tightens up discipline within the class, encourages students to share their work in order to get better grades, and gradually encourages them to demonstrate their growing sense of unity by adopting a standard method of dress: a white shirt and jeans.

Of course, just as in the real life experiment, things grow out of his control.  In particular, by creating an "us", especially an "us" that can be visually identified, he also creates a "them" of everyone who is not in the movement's "uniform".  Will he or his students recognise how dangerous their experiment has become before someone really gets hurt?

Well, that's kind of the point of the movie, really, and my first paragraph might give you some inclination of the answer.

I think this film is at its strongest in its presentation of the allure of "The Wave".  You can understand and sympathise with both Rainer and his students as they get drawn into the experience in a way they never expected.  The script is weaker in presenting a strong character to speak against the Wave, relying on the negative outcomes of the experiment to argue for it.  I can understand that decision, but I do think they go a little too far in that direction at the end of the film, as mentioned in my first paragraph.

Overall though, I am very glad I watched the film.  I've already purchased Lesson Plan, a 2010 documentary on the actual Third Wave experiment, to learn more about the real life event.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Children of Men (2006)



The year is 2027, and there has not been a child born in 18 years.

In this movie, I mean.  Obviously in the real world as I am typing this it is 2016 and women are popping out babies just fine.

In any case, in this alternate 2027 things are pretty grim.  A global flu pandemic took many lives in 2008 - including the young son of our main character - and shortly thereafter global birthrates took a nosedive to zero.

Now obviously this is a fairly extreme and unlikely premise, and its unlikely that a plausible explanation for the phenomenon could be offered.  So it is good to see the script take a leaf out of George Romero's playbook and make no attempt to explain how the global infertility came about.  Characters discuss it of course, but they don't have any answers.

Our main character is Theo, who used to be a political firebrand but has become something of a broken man by the death of his son.  He is contacted by his former lover, who now heads up an anti-government organisation known as "The Fishes".  You see, the UK government has taken to forcing all non-British citizens into work camps.  Why they're doing this is never really clearly explained, but UKIP is a thing, and people do weird things even when they're not part of a slow-burning apocalypse.

But the inevitable death of humanity may not be so inevitable after all.  Theo's ex has found a young woman who is pregnant: the first since 2009.  She wants his help to get this woman to a research group called "The Human Project".  Theo's reluctant to get involved, but we all know he is going to say yes in the end.  There wouldn't be much of a movie if he didn't.  And for much the same reason, this isn't going to be an easy task.

This is not a cheerful film, nor a flawless one.  There are some moments in the script where I was prompted to mutter "that's a bit contrived".  But it's also a film with strong performances, a few genuine moments of surprise, and some very nicely executed exposition: it's rare to see the "let's do some world-building" conversations in a film actually feel so much like natural conversations between the characters involved.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Secret Army, Season 2 (1978)



The second season of Secret Army feels a little bit more upbeat than the first.  Which may seem a strange thing to say, given that it continues to be more than willing to kill off sympathetic characters, but there is definitely a lighter overall tone here.  Bad things do happen, but Lifeline's successes are now more numerous than its failures.  That definitely was not the case in the previous year.

And heck, the Christmas-themed episode they slipped into this series is almost cheerful.  Which is not something I expected to say about any episode of this show.

Now partly I think the more upbeat tone can be ascribed to the general progress of World War II itself.  This season begins in late 1942 and continues through to mid-1944.  The early stages thus correspond with the Allied invasion of North Africa, while the very last episode takes place on D-Day itself.  The fortunes of war are thus clearly turning more and more against Nazi Germany as the series progresses: to the point where some of the German characters begin muttering about the need to depose the Fuhrer and make 'an honourable peace' with the British and Americans.  Which probably would never have happened, but there were certainly many members of the Wehrmacht who thought it would.

So on the whole series two offers more of the same kind of thing as series one, though as I noted with a slightly more optimistic tone overall.  Lifeline continues to assist downed Allied airmen to evade capture and escape to neutral territory (from which they can return to the UK and the war effort), and the German authorities continue to attempt to find and capture them.

While the broad strokes are the same though, the details do change.  Lifeline re-locates its operations from a working class pub to an upscale restaurant, which brings them into more frequent, closer contact with the Germans.  They also go through some personnel changes, and must face a new challenge in the form of a rival (Communist) resistance organisation.

Overall, I think the slightly less grim tone of this season is to the benefit of the show as a whole.  It continues to feel mostly authentic, and to offer a far from black-and-white divide between good guys and bad, but it is a little less draining to watch.

Monday, 20 June 2016

House of the Rising Sun (2011)



Ray Shane was a dirty cop.  After five years in jail for his corrupt activities, he is trying to make an "honest" go of it by working security at a strip club that is also a front for a mob-run casino and brothel.  Hence the quotes around "honest".  The point is, he's actively looking to keep his head down and live a quiet life.  Unfortunately for him, the club's about to be hit by an armed robbery that leaves the owner's son dead and both the mob and the police convinced that Ray was behind it.  Ray's only hope is to rely on the few friends and contacts he has left while he tries to piece together the true story behind the raid.

I don't know about you, but when a film actively bills itself as starring a professional wrestler - in this case Dave Bautista, who is probably best known for being Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy - I tend to expect something of the ilk of Arnold Schwarzenegger's early 80s work: more action than acting, and a role that requires little more than throwing around stuntmen and one liners.  So the rather sombre and restrained tone of this film came as a surprise.  Ray Shane does get into several fights, but I don't think there is ever a time in the film where he throws the first punch.  And unless I missed it, he goes entirely quip free.

In short, this is not a movie in which a two-fisted man of action goes on a spree of personal destruction and then walks away into the night, a woman tucked in his arm and an explosion boiling into the sky behind him.  Things simply aren't that neat and tidy in Ray's world.

If what you're looking for is escapist action entertainment, you're not going to get it here.  House of the Rising Sun feels like it owes more to the film noir aesthetic (up to and including a chain-smoking lead) than to the action blockbuster.  I personally quite enjoyed the surprisingly dour and downbeat tone as an interesting change of pace, but it definitely won't be to all tastes.



Friday, 17 June 2016

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)



If Mary Stuart had borne a son to her first husband, rather than a second, we might live in a very different world.  That hypothetical child would have been heir to the thrones of France and Scotland, as well as a claimant to the throne of England.  He would probably also have been a Catholic, whereas circumstances would dictate that her real life son - who would indeed go on to be King of both Scotland and England - was raised a Protestant.

The 'might have been' I mention above does not get much attention from this film, but it does serve to illustrate the significance that Mary, Queen of Scots had, and why she might make a fine subject for a film.  Doubly-so because her greatest rival was the renowned Elizabeth I.

Producer Hal Wallis was behind Anne of the Thousand Days, which I reviewed a couple of days ago.  That film ended with a shot of Elizabeth as a child, and so it feels quite fitting that he chose to follow up a couple of years later with this film.  For despite its title, this is as much Elizabeth's film as Mary's.  Wallis's film is thus served well by the choice to cast Glenda Jackson as the English Queen.  She had prior experience in the role from the BBC's series Elizabeth R and her work here is excellent.

In any case, Mary Stuart's first husband - Francis II of France - died without issue and she departed France for her homeland of Scotland.  This was a country she had not seen since was five years old and one with deep rifts between those lords who still adhered to the Catholic faith - as Mary did - and those who had converted to the "new religion".  This latter group included her own illegitimate half brother.

This would not be an easy situation for anyone, and Mary would soon make it even more difficult for herself.  In fact, much of this film is a little like watching a fly caught in a web and becoming more and more entangled as it struggles to get free.  For instance, Mary soon entered into an extremely unwise second marriage with a Catholic English lord named Darnley who would ultimately rebel against her and take part in the murder of one of her close friends.  The spider in this 'web' analogy is of course Elizabeth I.

I enjoyed this film and if you are at all a fan of costume dramas it is worth your time.  Jackson is excellent as Elizabeth, and Vanessa Redgrave makes a solid Mary.  The supporting cast is all very good as well.  Just don't go in expecting it to be rigorously authentic in its history - accuracy is definitely sacrificed for drama at times, even if the broad strokes are correct.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Hanna (2011)



Somewhere in the Arctic a man raises his daughter, Hanna, to be a lethal killing machine.  Her mission: to kill the woman who murdered her mother.  This film, of course, covers what happens when Hanna sets out to complete her task.

Hanna sports a very strong cast and some good action sequences, but for my money it doesn't quite work as a film.  Some part of this failure I lay at the feet of the soundtrack, which I found intrusive and irritating.  And some I ascribe to the direction of certain scenes: in particular there's a sequence where Hanna is escaping from an underground rave that comes across more like some kind of rave music video than anything else.

But most of all, the failure is with the script.  The pacing is wonky, and the repeated fairy tale motif has been jammed in without any subtlety or nuance.  Oh hey, let's have the villain emerge from a tunnel entrance shaped like a wolf's mouth.  Yeah, we get it.  She's the evil queen, the big bad wolf, the thing that goes bump in the night.  Maybe you could work a little harder at actually integrating this into your story rather than simply having a bunch of scenes where people reference Grimm's Fairy Tales?

Good performances can't save this one from mediocrity, I'm afraid.


Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)



I watched The Tudors when it was on TV, and one day I'll review it here.  That series took two seasons to cover the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn; this film does it in two and a half hours.  That's obviously going to produce a fairly different experience but even if the formats had been the same, I think the two would feel distinct.

The Anne depicted here is a highly reluctant target of the King's attentions.  She is engaged to a man she loves, and deeply resentful when the Henry VIII vetoes their marriage and attempts to win her to his bed.  However, it takes her very little time to realise that just as Henry has the power to deny her the happiness she sought, she in turn has the power to deny him.  She refuses to become his mistress but subtly encourages him to continue his pursuit, until he is so enamoured with her that he is willing to challenge the Pope to have his marriage annulled and make her his wife.

We know that the real Anne Boleyn did indeed refuse to become Henry's mistress - possibly because she saw how readily he'd discarded her older sister once he'd had what he wanted - but it's very doubtful that he had anything to do with the breaking of her engagement.  So the film has only itself to blame for for failing to convince us that Anne's feelings have really changed when she finally tells Henry that she loves him.  It decided to make her dislike him in the first place, after all.

On the other hand, given some of the later fictionalised interactions it adds, it is entirely possible that we're supposed to question her sincerity.  I kind of like that ambivalence, to be honest.

This film had pretty mixed reviews when it came out, though Genevieve Bujold's performance as Anne was generally well-regarded.  I wonder how many of the negative responses came from male reviewers.  A notable thing in the film is that while Henry has a great deal of power - he is King of England after all - the film makes it clear that he has no strength.  He's a weak man, selfish and shallow.  I think Richard Burton's portrayal of him in this regard is very good.  Anne meanwhile, may end up on the headsman's block, but she goes there confident she has secured the future of her daughter, who would grow up to become one of England's most celebrated monarchs.

This film plays fast and loose with the details of history, but it achieves the more important thing of underlining the exceptional role Anne Boleyn played in English history, and the high likelihood that she was a quite exceptional woman in her own right.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ben 10, Season 3 (2007)



One of the challenges of reviewing the later seasons of a TV show like Ben 10 is finding new things to talk about.  I already noted in my season one review that it is a superhero show in science fiction clothing, and expanded on that in my season two review with some further examples of how it adapts classic comic book stories.  Pointing out that in season three they make use of the old "team up with your future selves" storyline would be factual, but at this point not very informative.

So I thought that in this review I'd talk about the trio of characters at the heart of the show.  Ben himself is pretty much your typical 10 year old boy with the volume turned up; since he really is (sometimes) indestructible.  Brash, impulsive, and occasionally self-centred, he often leaps into action without stopping to think.  Of course, since he's the hero of the show, he's generally well-intentioned and things tend to work out in the end.

Then there's "Grandpa" Max Tennyson, former agent of the elite anti-alien organisation known as the Plumbers, whose role is generally that of the voice of reason, with a dash of exposition delivery on the side.  If the writers need to trot out some explanatory dialogue to get their plot on track, Max is the guy for the job.

I've left the best for last in the shape of Gwen Tennyson.  Ben's cousin and frequent verbal sparring partner is a refreshing change from the common 'girl hostage' we often see in other shows oriented toward young males.  While she lacks Ben's alien-based super-powers, she has abilities of her own, and perhaps more importantly, she's generally much better at lateral thinking than he is, so she finds ways to solve problems that Ben doesn't.  She even gets her own nemesis (any episode featuring Charmcaster tends to focus on Gwen).  It's good to see.

So yeah, it's more of the same basic template as the first two seasons, with a cool trio of characters at the heart.  If animated superhero hijinks are your thing, check it out.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Angel Heart (1987)



Harry Angel is a rather down-on-his-luck private investigator in 1950s New York.  He accepts a missing person case from a certain Mr Cyphre: to find a former singer named Johnny Favorite, who was injured in the war and has been in a coma ever since.  Suddenly it seems Favorite is missing, and Cyphre - who says Favorite owes him certain property - wants to know if the man is alive or dead.  This is a question Harry soon finds to be more complicated than he expected, and which launches a neo-noir horror film that is one half excellent and one half mediocre.

On the excellent side, there's a scene in this movie where Robert De Niro is eating a hard boiled egg and is genuinely intimidating in the way he does it.  It's a pretty amazing piece of writing, acting and direction.  But it wouldn't succeed nearly as well as it does if it was not for the taut, tense atmosphere the film has already generated.

And in the generation of tension and unease, the first hour or so of Angel Heart does everything right.  There's a constant sense that something is off; that danger is lurking and that at any moment blood could be all over the walls ... and the script very sensibly never gives you that moment.  It never even hints at it.  And it certainly never wastes it on the brief thrill of a jump scare.  Instead it just keeps applying the pressure, building up the suspense for the moment when things will snap.

Unfortunately, when the film finally does decide to pull the trigger, it misfires.  It's a real shame, because it had been truly skilful film-making until that point.  But well, once the film gets to its second sex scene, what had previously been deft and incisive becomes rather more mundane and average.

If you're at all a student of how films generate tension and unease, then Angel Heart is definitely worth your time, both for its successes and failures.  Flawed though it may be, it's also worth a look if you're just in the market for a scary movie in general, presuming you're not easily shocked.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Fraggle Rock, Season 1 (1983)




Fraggles are a small, fun-loving creatures who enjoy music and singing and playing games.  They live in a series of underground tunnels they call "Fraggle Rock".  They know little of the world outside the tunnels and basically they divide it into two zones: "The Gorgs' Garden", and "Outer Space".

The Gorgs' Garden is a dangerous place for a Fraggle to venture, because Gorgs consider Fraggles to be pests.  I have some sympathy for the Gorg position here, because Fraggles appears to be a bit fuzzy on the whole "ownership" thing and take radishes from the Gorgs.  Fortunately for the Fraggles - who love radishes - Gorgs are as stupid and self-important as they are large, so avoiding or tricking them is fairly simple.

Outer Space meanwhile, is a truly vast and scary place.  Only one Fraggle has been brave enough to venture out in it: Uncle "Travelling" Matt, who regularly sends postcards home to his nephew Gobo, detailing the strange sights he has seen in Outer Space and the even stranger antics of the "Silly Creatures" (that'd be us humans) that inhabit it.

So this is a kids' show brought to us by the Jim Henson Workshop in the early to mid 80s.  It mostly revolves around the adventures of five young Fraggles.  This include the aforementioned Gobo (who is unusually level-headed for a Fraggle), the gung-ho Red, mellow Mokie, morose Boober, and fretful Wembley.

Generally speaking, each episode of the show follows a pretty standard pattern: the Fraggles learn there is some problem or issue that needs to be resolved, a postcard arrives from Uncle Matt that may or may not provide some insight, some singing occurs, and ultimately the characters overcome the challenge thanks to their mutual friendship and support for each other.  The main appeal of Fraggle Rock is not in the plots however, but in the whimsy that pervades the Fraggles' world.  Kids should enjoy the musical interludes and goofy jokes, while adults will probably get a chuckle out of Uncle Matt's postcards (the humour of which I think is often missed by children - or at least it was by this child, back when the show first aired).

Fraggle Rock is less incisive and definitely far less madcap than Henson's earlier The Muppets, but it's a fun kids' show.  Worth a look if you need to entertain the little ones.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The General (1926)



This film is the reason I bought this three-pack.  I saw The General back when I was high school, and it was on the cusp on its 65th anniversary.  It's now a whopping 90 years old, and I have to say it has aged a lot better than I have.

Buster Keaton considered this to be his finest film, and in the fullness of time critics and audiences (including me) have come to agree with him.  At the time of release, however, The General was a financial and critical flop.  Its reception marked the end of Keaton's independence as a film-maker, and may have contributed to the copyright holder's failure to renew its registration, causing film to enter the public domain in the US.  Which means you can find it on archive.org if you're so inclined.  And in my opinion, you should be.

Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on the railroad.  It is the eve of the Civil War, and when hostilities break out, Johnnie's sweetheart expects him to enlist immediately in the Confederate army.  Since she is pretty much the only thing in the world he loves more than his locomotive, Johnnie immediately attempts to join up ... and is rejected because his skills on the railroad are more important to the Confederacy than one more man in the infantry.  A series of unfortunate coincidences, however, lead his lady love to believe that Johnnie is a coward, and she tell him she does not want to see him again until he is in uniform.

And so it seems all is lost for poor Johnnie.  At least until a year later, when dastardly Union spies steal his locomotive - and accidentally kidnap his former sweetheart in the process - as part of a scheme to wreck the Confederate war effort.  Johnnie sets out in hot pursuit, waging a one-man campaign to recover his steam engine and his lady love.

The General has some mild chuckles in the early going, but it builds up steam - if you'll pardon the expression - as it goes, until the laughs are coming thick and fast.  Keaton's knack for physical comedy, deadpan delivery and finding the absurd in the mundane has never been more on point.

If you only see one silent-era comedy, make it this one.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The L Word, Season 2 (2005)



The first season of The L Word served up heaps of sudsy mostly-lesbian melodrama, culminating in a season finale which saw Bette and Tina end their long term relationship, Alice and Dana possibly begin one - despite the fact that Dana is engaged to someone else - and Jenny still struggling to understand her own sexuality.

Given the nature of the show, I doubt it's much of a spoiler to say that Jenny ultimately comes to realise that she sexually and romantically desires women, rather than men.  The other two plot threads - plus many others such as the purchase of a local cafe and another romantic triangle - continue throughout the season, and deliver more of the soap opera shenanigans you've probably come to expect if you've seen season one.

The writing in The L Word is far from faultless; Jenny's journey of sexual self-discovery never really made sense to a lot of viewers, possibly because the show was trying to convey that Jenny herself didn't really understand why she was doing what she was doing.  Their efforts in this season to try and get her back on track feel like a series of increasingly desperate appeals that we please like her.  She delivers an epic verbal take-down to a complete jackass, gets a cool new haircut, and is revealed to have been sexually abused as a child.  None of it really works.

On the other hand, when the writing is on, it is on.  For instance, there's a great scene where Bette, distraught at having ruined her relationship with Tina, picks up a woman at a bar.  The woman in question is never given a line to speak, and Better refuses to face her as they have sex.  They don't call this out in dialogue in any way: the audience is just trusted to understand the emotional turmoil Bette is experiencing and the (less than healthy) way she is trying to deal with it.

Also, Dana and Alice make a heck of a cute couple, with some great writing as these long time friends first struggle to deny their connection, then to cope with the changes that becoming romantically involved brings to their relationship.

There's also new characters, bitchiness, Jane Lynch!, tears, confessions, pregnancy, and a whole lot of other stuff going on.  They pack a lot into a season.

If you're comfortable with potty mouths and lesbian nooky, and you like your entertainment shamelessly soapy, then The L Word continues to serve up a delightfully cheesy souffle in season two.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Milky Way (1936)



Harold Lloyd was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.  While his movies were not individually as successful as those of Charlie Chaplin, he was much more prolific, which made him the higher-earner overall.  His short films were still being played on British TV (on BBC2) into the early 80s, which is where I was introduced to his work.

The Milky Way is not a silent film however, but a talkie.  Lloyd made a more successful transition to sound films than many silent stars, and this particular movie had the best critical reception of all his post-silent era work.  So it should be pretty good, right?

Well actually, yes.  It's pretty good.  I think the opening act is the best part of the film, and it does sag a bit around the one hour mark, but it has a strong start and it recovers pretty well in the last ten minutes, with some gloriously over-the-top coincidences combining to ensure a happy ending.  I'm not usually one to welcome overly contrived circumstances in scripts, but this movie commits to them so whole-heartedly (and - most importantly - sets them all up very clearly in the earlier parts of the film) that it makes it work.

Lloyd plays Burleigh, a mild-mannered milkman who stumbles into a fist-fight with a boxing champ; a fight that sees the champ KOed.  The press immediately want to know who this stunning new pugilist is, but you may have noticed that I never said it was Burleigh who knocked the champ out.

Throw in a crooked boxing promoter, an illiterate trainer and a pregnant horse and you have a recipe for what I believe they call "shenanigans".

After the painful dud that was College, I'm pleased that this second film in the set was a vast improvement.  The only one left to watch now is the one I bought the set for in the first place.  Here's hoping my fond-but-25-year-old memories of it are accurate and it continues the upward trend.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Supernatural, Season 2 (2006)



The first season of Supernatural had a linking theme of Sam and Dean Winchester's search for their father, and for the demon that murdered their mother.  Outside of the last few episodes though, this was mostly a background thing, with the emphasis placed squarely on the monster-of-the-week antics.

This season on the other hand brings the Winchester family angst much more front and centre.  It's there in the first episode, there's significant narrative callback to it in over half the episodes, and on several occasions it is the focus of the narrative.  While this prevalence does sometimes make the plotline feel a bit drawn out, it also has several positive impacts for the show.  It makes this season seem bigger in scope than the first, it lets the writers wring a great deal of mileage out of the on-screen chemistry of the leads, and it gives them opportunities to build up a few recurring supporting characters.  This helps because - good as the Sam and Dean dynamic is - it's always useful to vary things up from time to time.

All this is not to say that there's no monster-of-the-week action, because the show still delivers that.  In fact, two of my favourite episodes - "Tall Tales" and "Hollywood Babylon" - are emphatically not related to the main arc, and focus tightly on the supernatural critter shenanigans.  Arc-related or not, though, all the episodes have a clear and present danger presented in them; it's just that often the clear and present danger also ties into the lurking background danger.

If you're into action-horror stories, wailing guitars, big black muscle cars, or more bromance than you'd thought possible to fit in a mere 40 minute run time, Supernatural season two might be for you.



Monday, 6 June 2016

College (1927)



I'm a big fan of Buster Keaton's work.  He was an exceptional physical performer, pioneering new and imaginative stunts.  He had a genuine gift for visual comedy, and a solid understanding of pacing.

This is still a terrible, terrible movie.

It doesn't start out too bad, with some mildly amusing tomfoolery around a high school graduation ceremony.  At least as long as you ignore the fact that the cast are clearly well past their high school days.  Keaton is the school Valedictorian.  His farewell speech is a savage attack on sports and athletics and the attention they divert from academia.  This goes down like a lead balloon with his putative love interest, who tells him "Unless you change your mind about athletics, we're through".

And yeah, that's where things hit the skids.  I mean, first of all it's a pretty weak set-up.  We're given no reason to like or care about Keaton's girlfriend before this, and so the entire foundation of the film - his efforts to win her back by finding athletic success at college - rest on very shaky grounds.

More problematic is the fact that the film pretty much then rests all hopes on one joke: that Keaton's character is terrible at athletics.  We'll again have to ignore some things that are staring us right in the face to accept this of course: it's abundantly clear that Keaton is in excellent shape.  But even if he really was the physical no-hoper he's pretending to be, it's not much of a joke to try and stretch for more than a twenty minute short, and this runs over an hour.  I was tired of the gag well before the film stopped using it.

Now one could argue that the film does try to break up the "he's not good at sports" gag with the "he's no good at any of the jobs he gets, either" gag, but (a) it's kind of the same joke, really and (b) includes a cringe-inducing blackface scene.

Eventually of course Keaton's character wins the heart of the young lady and we have the requisite happy ending, but I was mostly happy because it was ending.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Crown and the Dragon (2013)



This is a film from Arrowstorm Entertainment; the people who made the Mythica films I've previously reviewed.  It's an earlier effort, and it serves as a good illustration of the progress they've made in a short period of time.

Which is not to say it's a bad movie.  But it's a couple of notches below the Mythica films in most technical respects - effects, music, acting and so on - and several notches below them in terms of script.  The writing here is significantly weaker: the characters are less developed, the pacing flags at times, there are moments that are clearly meant to be big dramatic events that don't quite come off, and oh my word there is a lot of male gaze.  No actual bosoms or buttocks are shown, but the lead female character spends an awful lot of time scantily clad, or wrapped in only a blanket, and there's a longish bathing scene.  Every single opportunity is taken to linger over her bare back, arms or legs.

The basic premise is that a foreign empire, aided by a dragon, has conquered the kingdom.  A spoilt young noblewoman from the subjugated land must get an ancient artefact to a secret ceremony.  Once this is done, prophecy foretells that a 'Paladin' will come to slay the dragon, and a new king can be crowned to lead the people to freedom from their oppressors.

Yeah, there's a prophecy.  Fantasy plot-crutch 101.

Anyway, our heroine is assisted by a handsome smuggler she meets on the road, and opposed naturally enough by the agents of the empire - including a couple of locals who have switched sides.  There's lots of walking and riding through forests, some sword fights (which to give them credit are actually depicted as dangerous and desperate events), and a climactic showdown with the dragon.

It's all pretty standard 'fantasy potboiler'; stuff, and if that's your bag and you can overlook the limits of the budget, you might like it.  For anyone else, you can skip it.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Sopranos, Season 3 (2001)



Life just keeps getting more complicated for Tony Soprano.  Not only have the FBI finally found something to charge him with, but they're actively trying to build a bigger, "life in detention" kind of case against him.  Which would probably be enough to worry any mob boss, but it is only the start of Tony's troubles.  There's his ongoing panic attacks - which are back with a vengeance after seemingly being under control - and plenty of trouble within both his families.

On the "business" family side of things, Tony can at least be comfortable that his power struggle with his uncle seems resolved ... but that's where the good news ends.  He's got rising tensions between his captains and soldiers to contend with, as well as brash youngsters looking to muscle their way into the action.  And lurking in the background is the spectre of the five families of New York.  They've always maintained cordial relations with Tony's organisation, but can he rely on that to continue?

As far as his blood-and-marriage family goes, Tony's going to see plenty of drama there as well.  Whether it's his mother, his sister, his increasingly independent and - in his eyes at least - wayward children, or his own indiscretions coming back to haunt him, there's pretty much always something going awry at Tony's home.

One of the strengths of The Sopranos is its focus on evolving its story lines.  While the basic themes remain consistent; Tony's struggles with the law, with his criminal competitors and underlings, and with his kith and kin; none of them is allowed to remain stuck in a holding pattern, endlessly repeating the same beats.  For instance, the FBI have been after him from the start of the show but their line of attack has changed several times and the members of the task force have been given steadily larger roles as the show has gone on.  Even when it seems like they might recycle a story (which I thought they might this season with the new character of Ralphie), they actually develop it in new ways and take it in new directions.

If you've watched the first two seasons, the third definitely continues to deliver.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Monkeybone (2001)



Back in the big old 2000, Brendan Fraser seemed destined to be a huge star.  George of the Jungle and The Mummy had both done great business, and if nothing else had set the box office alight, well there was always the upcoming sequel to the latter film to right his ship.  As long as he avoided any more disasters like Dudley Do-Right, he'd be fine.

Enter Monkeybone.

I don't know who thought that spending $75 million on a movie that can be summed up as "over sexed animated monkey and fart jokes" was a good plan, but if you're one of them, please let me know so I can pitch you some ideas that I am sure will be equally successful.  For comparison, the second Mummy film, which came out in the same year as this - and was, remember, a special effects extravaganza and the sequel to a major hit - cost $93 million; only about 25% more.

Fraser plays Stu, a cartoonist who formerly struggled with terrible dreams, but - thanks to treatment and falling in love with the beautiful doctor who helped him - has put the dark days behind him.  He's now on the cusp of marriage to the lady in question, as well as financial success with the launch of an animated series based on his comic character Monkeybone.  That's the animated monkey in the picture above, obviously.

Alas, there's a "comedic" accident and Stu's body ends up in a coma while his consciousness travels to Down Town in the land of nightmares.  There he meets his own creation made manifest, and learns that the only way of returning to the woman he loves is to sneak into Death's domain and steal an "exit ticket".  This he sets out to do, allegedly-comedic monkey in tow.

Now as it happens, the escape attempt doesn't do quite how Stu intends.  It is in fact more or less just the first act of the film, with the second being a very tiresome half hour of "bum and pee-pee"-level jokes before the conclusion finally rolls around and embarrasses itself with some truly terrible green-screen work.

The basic premise of someone lost in a nightmarish world and trying to get back to their own life is certainly one that could work well, either as a drama or as a dark comedy.  But it needs a lot more effort put into it than this lazy, juvenile effort.