Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957)

This is that rare beast: a sequel that's better than the first film.  Now it's true it gets a fair head-start simply from the fact that it doesn't need to do all the setup that the first film featured, but the film (a) makes the most of that head-start, and (b) steps the farce and shenanigans up to a whole new level.  A fact that make clear from the outset, with a rousing rendition of the school song over the opening credits.

Maidens of St Trinian's, gird your armour on.
Grab the nearest weapon; never mind which one.
The battle's to the strongest; might is always right.
Trample on the weakest; glory in their plight!

Blue Murder at St Trinian's opens with 'Flash' Harry spruiking the charms of the sixth form girls to an Italian prince who is looking to marry.  It's certainly true that they're an attractive group of young women, and the prince can't pick between their photos.  He asks that they come to see him in Rome so he can select a bride.  The only catch is that he has to see them well before the school term ends, and the only way the girls could get to Rome would be to win a national scholastic competition, a possibility which seems rather remote.

Of course, the St Trinian's girls are rather more resourceful than people give them credit for.  And they're going to need to be, with a diamond thief about to drop into their laps, the police hot on his trail, and them lacking a headmistress to 'supervise' their European excursion ...

This is absurd, slapstick stuff.  And it's jolly good fun.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Danger Mouse, Set 2 (1981)

Danger Mouse is the world's greatest secret agent.  From his base in a post box in Mayfair, London, he protects the world from the wicked schemes of evil-doers.  He's "aided" (for want of a better word) in this by his cowardly assistant Penfold.  DM's major adversary is the wicked toad Baron Silas Greenback (who is as clearly inspired by Ernst Blofeld as Danger Mouse is on James Bond), though he also has run-ins with the vampire Count Duckula, as well as other guest villains.

Like a lot of kids' cartoons, the original DVD releases of this show grabbed a more or less random assortment of episodes and jammed them onto a disc.  This "box set" is actually just a collection of the 4th, 5th and 6th such random assortments.  As you might surmise, box set 1 (which I also own, but watched before this blog started) collected the first through third.

This set of 22 episodes sees DM and Penfold transported through time (twice, in fact), encounter aliens, and thwart villainous plans involving giant chickens or the theft of stock from a bagpipe farm.  It's all very silly stuff on the whole, packed full of puns, randomness, breaking of the fourth wall, and what these days come across as quite a lot of offensive racial stereotypes.  I mean it's no Mind Your Language, but it's quite noticeable.

Six minutes of "Mind Your Language".  I doubt you'll get to the end.

Given the advances in animated TV fare in the past thirty years; which has given us well written, well constructed shows like Justice League, Avatar the Last Airbender or My Little Pony; I can't really recommend Danger Mouse except for those for whom it is a treasured childhood memory.  It's quite badly dated both visually and in terms of its content.  Though on the plus side, if you do want to purchase it, you can get all 161 episodes in a single box set.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Machine (2013)

There are a number of DVDs on my shelves that made it there purely because they were cheap.  Generally such movies prove to be, shall we say, "less than good", which goes a long way to explaining why they had the price tag they did.

The Machine, on the other hand, proves to be one of those rare-but-happy occasions where the film is significantly better than its discount price point suggests.  It also proves to be a happy coincidence that I watched it so soon after Ex Machina, since the two films are thematically much more similar than I expected.

You see, the blurb I read before purchasing this DVD was basically "In the near future a cold war between China and the West threatens to turn hot.  Britain's Ministry of Defence has developed a robotics soldier that looks and sounds human, but has strength, speed, and ruthlessness beyond that of any living person. The project is near completion when a bug in the programming causes the prototype to malfunction in a spectacularly violent fashion." Based on that, I was expecting an action movie with a killer robot on the loose and a bunch of humans trying desperately to stay alive.

However, despite the details above all occurring in the film, and there being a number of action sequences within it, this is not an action movie.  It's a film that explores questions like "when does a machine become truly self-aware?", "how do we tell?", "what rights does a self-aware machine have?" and "what would such a machine mean for humanity?".  As with Ex Machina, it doesn't necessarily have neat answers for all those questions, and there are a couple of shall we say "convenient for plot purposes" coincidences in it, but it is overall an entertaining examination of the concepts it explores.  Overall, I'd say I actually liked it more than I did Ex Machina.

Friday, 25 November 2016

The Immortal One (1963)

Alain Robbe-Grillet's debut feature is elegantly shot - quite an accomplishment given that members of his crew were actively working to undermine his direction - and features some interesting use of sound.  There's deliberately intrusive aural interjections on several occasions, for instance, and equally deliberate repetition of dialogue.  It's very stylish.

On the other hand, it's also narratively opaque, with events depicted out of order, characters lying without explanation of their motives, and frequent snippets of dialogue about the unreality of the city in which the events take place - clearly a none to subtle reminder that just because a scene appears in the film doesn't mean it actually happened to the characters shown in it.

Now sure, all this obfuscation of the basic plot - man meets woman, has probable sexual relationship with her, then searches for her when she disappears, with tragic consequences - is just as deliberate as the discordant soundtrack.  But obfuscating narrative doesn't impress me very much.  It doesn't require much skill to write a story that's hard to follow, after all.  Plenty of people do it entirely by accident.

If you're the kind of person who can set aside the film's deliberately obtuse story-telling and just savour the dreamy atmosphere, you'll probably enjoy The Immortal One.  But for me personally the film's strengths were not enough to overcome its weaknesses.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Ex Machina (2015)

Caleb is a young programmer who wins a competition to spend a week with his reclusive employer, on the other man's private estate.  When Caleb arrives, he finds there is more to this prize than just seven days of luxurious surrounds.  He'll also be participating in a Turing Test - interacting with an AI created by the other man and assessing whether it truly possesses consciousness or if it is simply performing a good simulation.

Because this is a movie, said AI has a female robotic body and the face of Alicia Vikander.  Caleb and Ava - as the AI is known - quickly strike up a rapport.  Certainly he seems to find her company more enjoyable than that of his decidedly odd employer, Nathan.

Ex Machina is a film that attempts to tackle some big issues about morality and humanity: if a machine is self aware, is it murder to wipe its memory banks?  How do we identify that self awareness to begin with?  And how does the way an entity looks impact our assessment?  And if the movie doesn't present empiric answers to most of the questions it asks, well I don't think that providing answers was actually the point (Nor do I think you'd get good ones in a 100 minute film).  The questions themselves are the point.

Overall I liked Ex Machina quite a bit.  It's not without weaknesses, mind you.  There are some pretty prosaic "wait, how does that work?" elements to the estate that get rather glossed over, for instance, and Nathan does come across as the kind of character who only exists in fiction - though credit goes to actor Oscar Isaac for making him as plausible and engaging as possible.  I also felt like the film fumbles things a bit in the final act.  I'm not referring to the very end, which I quite liked, but to the twenty minutes or so before it.  The film's one action-y scene doesn't work too well, and there's a longish nude scene that feels like it lingers rather longer that it needed to for its narrative purpose.

In the final assessment, if you're interested in a more cerebral kind of science fiction film - particularly one that would pair well with Blade Runner - then this is worth your time.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Belles of St Trinian's (1954)

Ronald Searle was a satirical cartoonist who produced a prolific amount of work from the period of the 1940s-1960s.  His most famous creation was St Trinian's, an all-girls boarding school where the staff were all sadists and the students all juvenile delinquents.

There have been seven film adaptations of these cartoons; four in the 50s and 60s, then one in 1980 and two more in the first decade of the 2000s.  The Belles of St Trinian's is the first of the seven, so it bears most of the burden of establishing the basic concepts of the series.  Fortunately those principals are simple enough.

St Trinian's is a boarding school for 'young ladies', run by the largely ineffectual Miss Fritton (who is played by a man).  Fritton's approach to discipline in either her staff or students is pretty much non-existent, so everyone there more or less runs riot.  The school is eternally in dire financial straits due to the extensive damage it suffers from these exploits, and is kept afloat by pawning the hockey trophies the students win (it being hard to lose when you've hospitalised the entire opposition before the half time bell).

Entering this anarchic world is the Princess Fatima, daughter of the Sultan of Makyad.  The Sultan picked the school mostly because it is close to his race horses, and Fatima is frankly about as important to the film as she seems to be to her father.  It's those race horses we care about.

Miss Fritton's brother, you see, is a bookmaker who has a lot of cash riding on an upcoming race, and he wants to make sure the Sultan's new horse isn't about to upset his plans.  He's aided in this by his daughter, a student at the school, and her 6th form cronies, whose penchant for figure-hugging attire was probably considered quite racy in 1954.

On the other side of the equation are 4th form girls, who have pooled their pocket money to back the Sultan's horse, and Miss Fritton herself.  It seems the 10:1 odds she was able to get would be enough to (temporarily) restore the school's finances.

Throw in missing inspectors from the Ministry of Education, and an undercover policewoman, and blend at high speed without the lid on, and you've got the basic recipe for a St Trinian's film.

Given the film's age, some of the humour in this is understandably dated, but The Belles of St Trinian's is still a fun bit of farce.  It's kind of like an all ages version of one of the (better) Carry On films, right down to featuring several of the same actors.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Supernatural, Season 3 (2007)

The 2007 Writers' Strike cut this season of Supernatural down to 16 episodes instead of the usual 22.  Given that the season's major story arc gets a mite repetitive even at this leaner length - mostly because said arc's inclusion in any given episode is generally just a retread of the two Winchester boys having the same conversation over and over - the loss of 6 episodes might be a good thing, overall.

If you've read my previous reviews of the show, you know the basic concept we have here: two brothers roam the US, finding and dealing with all kinds of supernatural beasties.  Demons, vampires, witches: they're all in here.  The show then mixes this "monster of the week" formula with longer-running plotlines; the first two seasons were largely about chasing down "The Yellow-Eyed Demon" for instance, while this one is driven largely by the repercussions of their final showdown with him.

This season also introduces two new recurring characters.  The first is Bela, a thief who specialises in occult items, and who becomes something of a thorn in the brothers' sides.  The second is Ruby, a (nearly ten-year old spoilers!) demon who aids the brothers against her own kind.  Of the two, I think Ruby works better - the writers seem to have been a little too fond of having Bela get one over on the Winchesters, which gets a bit wearing.

On an episode by episode basis, this season has its ups and downs.  "Mystery Spot", for instance, is probably my least favourite episode to date, because of how dreadful the last fifteen minutes or so are.  "The Kids Are Alright", on the other hand, is deliciously creepy, while "A Very Supernatural Christmas" and "Ghostfacers!" are both fun change-of-pace episodes.

Overall, if the whole "wandering monster hunters" premise sounds like your kind of thing, Supernatural remains worth a look.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Tekken 2: Kazuya's Revenge (2014)

Yes that's right.  Like "Mortal Kombat", the "Tekken" series of games have somehow managed to spawn two feature film adaptations.  How this can happen when the wondrously goofy DOA: Dead or Alive movie never got a follow-up, I don't know.

Also like "Mortal Kombat", the first of the "Tekken" films was a tolerable bit of schlock, while the sequel (which in this case is actually a prequel) is a hot mess.

We start out with a young man with amnesia, which may be the least imaginative premise they could have used for this film, short of basing it around a martial arts tournament again.

The world's worst SWAT team attacks amnesia-boy in his hotel room.  He fights them off and escapes, but it is hit by a car.  When he awakes, he finds himself the unwilling recruit of a gang warlord named 'The Minister'.  The Minister gives him two pieces of information: an explosive device has been implanted in his chest, and will be detonated if he does not obey orders, and since he doesn't know his own name, he's now called 'K'.

K is initially not real keen on being the Minister's hitman, and on several occasions refuses an order to kill other recruits, on the basis that he's "not a murderer".  But when he's given his first assassination order, his resistance to killing vanishes.  Sure, he executes the guy (via chopstick to the cranium) only after being told the target is a child molester ... but given the source of this accusation is The Minister, it's pretty dubious justification.

Anyway, K kills some guys, meets and beds a woman, and finds a way out from under the Minister's thumb.  And you're probably expecting that he then has a big showdown with his former master, but nope, the movie commits its entire third act to resolving the whole amnesia angle, and introduces a new antagonist for the climax, instead.  Not that K gets to fight him, either, just some of his flunkies.

Structure: not the film's strong point.  But then nor is anything else, really.

So are there any upsides to Kazuya's Revenge?  Well, the subtitles are unintentionally entertaining.  Never did I expect to read the text "Pulls out chopstick: squish" in the course of watching a movie, of instance,  And there were several occasions where the subtitles contain information not in the audio or video.  In particular, they include a reference to Sparta that's actually quite significant to the amnesia plot-line.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Future Force (1989)

So this is my third low-budget SF film for the week, so the question is obvious: is this a case of third time lucky, or three strikes and you're out?

Well, it's the latter of course.  I knew that going in, since this is a David Carradine film from a period of his career when he was sleep-walking his way through roles in such cinematic dross as Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II.  The chances it would be good were about as remote as Carradine's if he'd had to fight Bruce Lee for the lead role in Kung Fu.

Future Force posits a future in which rising crime forced the abolition of government-supplied police forces, in favour of a private crime-fighting force.  Well, a private criminal shooting force, at least.  Because of course we never see the "Civilian Operated Police Systems" (yes, "COPS".  really) do anything as mundane as actually investigating  a crime.  They just get a name and a bounty and go out to collect on it at the end of a gun.

Top dog among these latter-day bounty hunters is John Tucker (Carradine), a straight shooter (pun fully intended) who takes a $100,000 bounty to bring in a news reporter who has been convicted of treason.

Now if you've been thinking that the 'legal system' I described above sounds like a recipe for disaster, well, take a gold Sheriff's star, pilgrim!  Privatising 'justice' has simply made a new market for crime, and the head of COPS is aggressively positioning himself to be the new kingpin.  The news reporter had threatened an exposé about his illicit activities, and rather than handle it quietly this dingus chose this method of handling it.

Badly written, and even more badly acted, Future Force's few moments of entertainment are wholly inadvertent (the news reporter's attempts to portray fear during a car chase, for instance, are comedy gold).

Oh well, I guess they can't all be Death Race 2000.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Alien Intruder (1993)

A gun battle rages aboard a terrible model of a spaceship.  One man carves his way through the rest of the crew until he finally faces down and executes the captain.  He does all this at the behest of a woman whom he belatedly realises is a malevolent hallucination.  Unable to cope with what he's done, he turns his weapon on himself.

Back on Earth, four prisoners are offered the chance to get out of their lifetime sentences if they'll go on a mission to recover this missing ship.  Why a regular crew is not available is not specified.  Presumably we're supposed to be too excited that the man recruiting them is Lando Calrissian himself, Billy Dee Williams.

Anyway, the foursome aren't sold on the very vague mission until Lando throws in one last incentive: every weekend of the eight month mission, they'll be allowed to hook into wish-fulfilment VR machines that deliver them their dream woman and lifestyle.

Of course, when they get close to the missing ship, a certain other woman starts popping up in their supposedly private fantasies ...

Despite the obvious cheapness of the film, Alien Intruder starts out moderately entertaining: though I admit part of that is from playing "spot the semi-celebrity" in the cast, since we've got Lando, the guy who played Alan Rickman's henchman in Die Hard, and a couple of people who would go on to be Babylon 5 alumni.  Unfortunately it rather founders in the second act and really unravels in the third.  A shame really, as I was starting to get hopeful I might be able to recommend it as a guilty pleasure.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Space Fury (1999)

There's a scene in this film where Michael Paré's character kind of slumps his head forward and looks at the floor, and I was like "You're thinking about your career right now, aren't you?"

Which yes, is cruel of me, but frankly Paré does seem to be dying a little inside with every dreadful line he's forced to deliver and I had to get my entertainment from somewhere, because it certainly wasn't going to come from this film.

Our setup is that two American astronauts are arriving via shuttle at a Russian-operated space station (the Tesla).  There's a problem with the docking procedure, which causes some minor damage to the station, but eventually the newcomers are safely aboard.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, a prostitute is found killed.  Clutched in her hand is a pin that could only have come from one of the two Americans who just arrived on the base.  One of them is a murderer!  Not only that, but it's likely that terrorists have co-opted him for some mad plan involving using the station as a weapon of mass destruction.

Having set up a mystery with all of two possible culprits, the writers apparently decide that there's not much point concealing which of them it is and immediately move into cut rate "psycho killer" shenanigans.

With acting that varies from serviceable to dreadful (the 'effort' to portray one character as French is hilariously bad) and sets that range from mediocre to non-existent, Space Fury is 90 minutes you will never get back.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The L Word, Season 4 (2007)

So yesterday I remarked that there was only one reason to watch Premiers Désirs, and that in this day and age you can get it from media with much better acting and writing.  It's therefore apropos that this TV show happened to cycle into my schedule right after it.

Now let's be clear up front.  The L Word is sudsy melodrama (even more this season than ever before), and it certainly has its share of writing missteps over its 70 episode run.  "Pretty much the whole of season six" being most of them (but we'll get to that).  The thing is, in the context of sudsy melodrama, the show delivers.  Scenes that aim for laughs are actually funny; those that aim to be awkward will leave you feeling uncomfortable, and so on.  And the cast is uniformly strong, delivering solid performances that make you care about their characters' fates.  Sometimes because you want them to die horribly, mind you, but you're certainly not ambivalent.

Plus I guess there's quite a lot of sexy naked ladies, if that's a thing you like.

Overall, season 4 of the show is basically more of the same shenanigans we've had before, but a bit crazier on the whole.  That's mainly because this is where the writers finally gave up on getting the audience to like Jenny Schecter and just turned her into the narcissistic nutjob that most viewers already considered to be.  Oh, and there are subplots involving Shane becoming an underwear model, and Helena becoming a professional poker player, as well, because that kind of thing happens all the time.  Plus in the season's final episode Alice either (1) hallucinates an entire conversation or (2) gets visited by a ghost.

So yeah: sudsy melodrama.

If you've enjoyed the show so far, and don't mind that it's veering more over the top, you'll probably enjoy season 4 as well.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Premiers Désirs (1983)

Google Image Search failed to turn up a single "suitable for all audiences" DVD cover for this film, so today you get a image of the title from the film itself.

Given the above paragraph and the title of the film (which translates to "First Desires"), you probably won't be surprised to learn that this movie contains a considerable amount of nudity.  Heck, even the end credits manage to feature a whole bunch of topless shots of the two women who do most of the disrobing during the film itself.

Premiers Désirs popped up on my recommendations at the main site I use for purchasing DVDs.  Why, I don't know.  My initial thought was that it looked like soft core erotica, but it was cheap and I have poor self control and I figured maybe knew something I didn't.

As it turns out, no they don't.

Three young women try to row out to a romantic island, but get caught in a storm.  Two of them are washed overboard but the third, Caroline, struggles on long enough to wash ashore alone.  A young man rescues her but is absent when she awakes.  She finds the friends she thought had drowned - the film never explains how they survived or the coincidence that they are the first people she sees - and the three of them look for assistance.  The first house they try is home to a beautiful pianist and her handsome husband.  Caroline, despite any real supporting evidence, decides that this must be the man who saved her.  She will continue to believe this even after he denies it.

Now you might be expecting the film to now follow a pattern where Caroline pursues the married man, but eventually learns who really saved her and ends up with the real 'hero' (though frankly since was already on the beach by the time he found her, he didn't actually do all that much).

Alas, your assumption makes far more sense (and is considerably less icky) than what actually occurs in the film.  You're also assuming that the film is capable of a great deal more narrative clarity than it actually has.  Characters appear and disappear from the so-called "narrative" here without much rhyme or reason.

There's only one reason to watch this film, and frankly in this day and age you can get it from media with much better acting and writing.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Wanderers (1979)

The protagonists of The Wanderers casually use racial slurs that would code them as bad guys in a film made today, and there's a quite uncomfortable scene where they harass women in the street, yet we're still expected to see them as basically sympathetic characters.  No doubt when it was released some four decades ago, their behaviour was viewed much less harshly than it would be today (see, we are making progress as a species!).  These are the disconnects we sometimes face when watching older films.

It is 1963, and "The Wanderers" are a gang of Italian-American high school boys.  Their school days are drawing to an end and the murky challenges of adulthood are looming.  Not, at the start of the film, that most of them are thinking about that.  They've got their minds fully occupied with proving their machismo through the twin mechanisms of violence and sex.

But life, of course, has a habit of happening whether you're planning for it or not, and each of the Wanderers; whether it be Richie deciding between the two women in his life, Joey facing the problem of his violent father, or Turkey with his desperate desire to find somewhere to fit in; will have to make decisions that will profoundly impact their respective futures.  It's not a coincidence that the film is set in 1963, either - this is a time of profound upheaval and change in the United States, mirroring the upheaval and change in the lives of the characters.

With an engaging cast and a stonking 60s soundtrack, The Wanderers is an entertaining coming of age tale with the courage to not give its characters any pat answers to their troubles.  If the opening paragraph didn't put you off (and I understand if it did), then it's worth a look.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Maleficent (2014)

I thought the concept of Wicked - telling the "true" story of Elphaba, the "Wicked" Witch of the West - was an interesting one.  However when I read the book I was not much impressed, as it essentially deprived Elphaba of any agency in her own story, as well as turned Oz itself into rather a miserable place.

So when Maleficent was announced - telling the "true" story of the villain from Disney's Sleeping Beauty - I was hopeful we'd get "Wicked done right".  I never got around to seeing it at the cinema though, but I eventually picked up the DVD to see if it hit the mark.

Alas, the short answer is no.  It's true that it does avoid Wicked's flaw of deprotagonising its protagonist, but it is structurally a very flawed film.  This is a shame, as the basic storyline is solid enough.

The film's biggest flaw is the narration.  Oh good grief, so much narration.  It feels near constant for the first 15-20 minutes or so, and returns several times thereafter.  I think it's used because they're trying to cram an awful lot of stuff into their 90-minute running time, and narration is a fast way of conveying information.  But the fact is that almost every time it happens, it doesn't actually speed things up.  The same information could have been conveyed just as efficiently, and much less intrusively, by characters on screen.  The constant breaks to have an omniscient third party narrate events and motivations is a terrible decision.

So the basic plot line is that Maleficent is a powerful fairy in the magical realm known as the Moors.  She befriends Stefan, a young man from the generally-hostile human realm on their border, but he later betrays her in order to gain the crown of his own country.  Justifiably enraged, Maleficent subsequently lays the familiar sleeping curse on Stefan's daughter, Aurora.  However as Aurora grows up, Maleficent comes to believe the young woman might be the key to forging peace between the kingdoms ... can she find some way to thwart her own curse, and avoid retribution from the increasingly unstable Stefan at the same time?

Maleficent would be much improved by a thorough re-write.  The pacing is off throughout most of the run time, and it feels like narration was thrown in as a sloppy patch job for the problem, rather than say, actually fixing it.

For now, I'll keep hoping that one of these days we will get a genuinely impressive "from the eyes of the villain" re-telling of a familiar tale.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Catwoman (2004)

Patience Phillips is a timid graphic designer who accidentally discovers that her employer's new product is dangerously toxic.  She gets murdered for her trouble, but is mysteriously brought back to life by an Egyptian Mau cat.  Now blessed with feline-themed superpowers, she sets out to expose the people who murdered her.

So this film is notorious for its awfulness.  It won no less than four "Golden Raspberry" awards.  Halle Berry even turned up to collect hers in person.  It must therefore be a complete train wreck of a movie, right?

Well ... not really.

Now Catwoman is in no way a good film.  I'm certainly not saying that.  For instance, it introduces themes - "the Catwoman is an eternal paragon of female independence, passed down through the ages!" - and then just kinda forgets about them shortly thereafter.  And whenever it tries to be funny, it more-or-less embarrasses itself.  The final showdown with the villain also features some of the lamest superhero battle banter ever written.

But the simple fact is that it's not the extravaganza of terribad that you've probably heard.  Zombie Hunter is a terrible film.  As is Scavengers.  Or Grizzly Rage.  Anyone who thinks Catwoman deserves its opprobrium simply doesn't know how pee-filled the cinematic gene pool gets when you're down in the shallow end.

In actual fact, Catwoman is merely pedestrian and mediocre.  Now that's certainly pretty inexcusable from a $100 million film starring an Oscar winner, and it means I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but it doesn't put it anywhere close to the same shameful category as the three films listed above (and frankly, I've seen worse even than them, in my time).

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Burn Notice, Season 2 (2008)

At the end of the first season of Burn Notice, Michael Westen finally made contact with the secretive organisation that "burned" him as a spy.  Westen's agenda is to get the evidence he needs to be reinstated by the CIA.  The organisation's agenda ... well, they're not big on sharing what it is they're up to, but now that Westen's found them they resolve to use him to complete some business for them.  And if he doesn't cooperate, the handler they've assigned (Clara, played by Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer) will ensure that "unfortunate events" befall his friends and family.

And thus the basic thread of this second season is put in place.  Westen tries to get the goods on Clara; Clara uses him for her own obscure purposes; and Westen tries to sabotage those purposes without really knowing what they are or getting caught doing so.  And of course in the meantime he has to keep putting food on the table, which means taking more odd jobs when they pop up.

Naturally all of these goals are often going to be working at cross-purposes and Westen – aided again by his trigger-happy "ex" Fiona, old buddy Sam, and (whether he wants it or not) his mother – must often keep multiple, ready to explode agendas in motion at the same time.

Season 2 of Burn Notice continues to deliver fun characters, neat "heist movie"-style storylines, and an engaging overarching plot that evolves in visible and meaningful ways over the course of its sixteen episodes.  Whether it can keep this up for its entire seven season run is yet to be seen, but it's definitely hitting the mark here.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Shock Treatment (1981)

Although The Rocky Horror Picture Show was not initially well-received, it became a cult favourite at midnight cinema screenings and went on to a long and lucrative run.  It was still being shown once a week at a cinema here until the early 90s, for instance, a good fifteen years after its release.

Sort-of sequel Shock Treatment has never achieved that same level of success, and it's not that hard to see why.  For one thing, it has some fairly significant structural flaws, such as "who the heck is actually the protagonist in this film?"; and then there's the fact that while it is as stylised and over the top as the earlier film, it lacks the titillation factor as an attraction.

I think its lack of success is a shame - though I'm pleased to read that there is some level of cult following for the film - because Shock Treatment is a much more ambitious film in terms of its narrative themes.  It lampoons pop psychology and televangelism, and makes some pretty prescient observations on 'reality TV', which was not yet a thing at the time it was made.

The film joins Brad and Janet several years after they got married.  They're living in the all-American town of Denton, where the the people are passionately proud of their community, and express that passion through a compulsive obsession with locally produced TV shows.  Brad doesn't really fit in, and his awkwardness is a constant embarrassment to Janet.  When they are called to participate in the show 'Marriage Maze', it sets in chain a series of events that threaten not only their relationship but their whole community.  Events that are being orchestrated by the mysterious sponsor of the TV station, Farley Flavors, who has an agenda of his own.

If you're at all a fan of off-the-wall, quirky musicals, I think Shock Treatment is worth your time.  Just don't expect Rocky Horror 2, or anything resembling a traditional film, really.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Killer Robots! Crash and Burn (2016)

Apparently "The Killer Robots!" are a Florida-based "theatrical rock band", who take the stage dressed as ... well, as Killer Robots ... and who produce a variety of multimedia materials that encapsulate their passion for both music and science fiction.  I didn't know any of this when I impulse-bought this film from Google Play, but I did know it by the time I got around to actually watching the film.

The film begins with a group of robots press-ganged into fighting in gladiatorial battles.  They prove much tougher than the arena owners expect, however, and destroy three monstrous opponents before attempting to escape.

Said attempt ultimately ends in their own destruction, and if this had just been a short film that ended there, I'd probably have given it a qualified recommendation for its manic energy and memorable (if uneven) visual design and special effects.

However, that's only "chapter one", and the film continues for a good many chapters more.  The robots are rebuilt in part two, and tasked with a mission: they must travel to a distant world with a cure for the terrible virus that has swept the population.  That's a computer virus, of course, since said population is also robots.  Unfortunately, the virus also causes everyone infected by it to become homicidal, and there's also a bad guy chasing them for not terribly well-explained reasons, so the task is not an easy one.

This film is pretty much all about the cheap-but-often-interesting visual design and the goofy humour, with the plot being very much a secondary concern.  That steadily becomes more and more of a weakness the longer the movie continues.

So overall, I'd have to say skip the film, and maybe just watch the trailer, which packs in pretty much all of the movie's selling points in a handy two-and-a-half minute bundle.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Cobra (1986)

So the qualification on my recommendation of this film is that you must truly, truly love cheese.  This film delivers high absurdity with total earnestness.  There is not a single moment in the script that suggests that Stallone (who wrote the script from a novel by Paula Gosling) is remotely aware how ridiculous the whole thing is; no sly aside, no wink at the camera, no lampshade in sight.

Of course, the 1980s were a time when people seriously thought Dungeons & Dragons was a recruitment tool for satanists or dispatched 24 boats to scour Loch Ness for a monster.  So it was clearly a very different decade.

But one way in which the 1980s and today are similar are that both are times with considerable popular angst about violent crime rates.  Angst that was much more justified in the 80s than it is today, to be fair.

Cobra is part of the Hollywood reaction against that angst (real world reactions included much harsher sentencing practices).  And since the film comes from Golan & Globus, whose other mid-80s output included American Ninja, Invasion USA and Delta Force you can probably guess for yourself how nuanced and insightful said reaction might be.  But just in case you need some detail ...

There's a secret cult at work in LA.  Their hobbies include gathering in derelict factories to bang axes together, preaching about the "new world", and random acts of murder.  One such act is witnessed by a model named Ingrid.  The cult tracks her down; an easy enough task given that one of their number is in the LAPD; but their attempt to add her to their list of victims goes awry.  They're really going to regret missing on that first attempt, because now Ingrid has come to the attention of police detective Marion "Cobra" Cobretti.  And well, you just have to look at the image above to see how things are likely to progress now.

Cobra is wonderfully terrible.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Grosse Point Blank (1997)

I first saw Grosse Point Blank shortly after it was released, when I rented it from the local video store.  I liked it a lot and later purchased a copy on VHS.  But time and media formats move on, so I now own it on DVD.  And per the rules of this blog, that means I need to watch the film again.  What a hardship :)

Martin Blank is a killer for hire; a profession at which he's very adept.  However, his mantra of "if I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there" seems to be starting to wear a little thin for him, and he's contemplating retirement.  It's a notion that becomes even more attractive when rival hitman Grover approaches him with a "take it or die" offer to join up with a new "union" of professional assassins.

Unfortunately for Blank, he can't quit quite yet: a job goes awry and he's forced to take on an additional contract with the same employer as a "make good" favour.  Said contract takes him back to his childhood home of Grosse Point, and the woman he left without a word on prom night, just as their high school ten year reunion rolls around.  It seems Martin's past and present lives are on a collision course.  The question is, will he survive the experience?

So obviously from my comments above I'm a big fan of this film.  It has a great cast, a fine script with a lot of wonderful deadpan dialogue, and a soundtrack that really scratches my tragically 80s musical tastes.

If you like your humour a bit on the blackly quirky side, Grosse Point Blank should hit the target.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Castle, Season 2 (2009)

Much as with season two of The Americans, the qualification on my recommendation here is a simple one: if you liked season one of Castle, you're almost certainly going to like season two, and should check it out.

The basic premise of the show is unchanged: wealthy crime novelist Richard Castle works with NYPD detective Kate Beckett to solve murders.  Ostensibly, Castle does this because he's using Beckett as the inspiration for his new fictional heroine, "Nikki Heat", but it's pretty clear that he does it because he enjoys both the challenge of the cases and the company of Ms Beckett herself.  As for the NYPD ... well, they go along with Castle's participation because the Mayor believes it is good PR.  And sure, Beckett may slowly becoming accustomed to having the irreverent but charming Richard Castle in her life.

One of the things I said in my review of the first season of this show was that I hoped they would do more with the supporting cast in later seasons, and apparently someone heard my comment, invented a time machine, and went back to 2009 to make sure my desires were met.  Which was nice of them, I am sure you will agree.  Castle's mother and daughter both have a more substantial presence in this season, and "sidekick cops" Ryan and Esposito also get more attention.  I approve.

Outside of the fine supporting cast, Castle continues to deliver the quirky cases that are very clearly a part of the show's formula.  It seems no-one in New York ever just gets murdered as the result of a simple argument turning violent.  There's always some tangled skein of secrets to sort out, often involving some outré element such as vampire cosplay, BDSM clubs, or an amnesiac who may be a witness.

Castle is a fine light dramedy show, where the trappings of the police procedural are mostly there to drive the character and dialogue-based humour.  It's definitely stronger when playing for laughs than for drama, but it's fun TV overall.  Well worth a look if you're in the mood for something light.