Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Weeds, Season 3 (2007)

There's a scene in this season where Nancy Botwin asks someone "Am I a bad person?".  She gets a reassuringly negative response in the episode, but the actual answer is "Of course you are a bad person.  You're a character on Weeds."

Because make no mistake, while many of the characters in this show are likeable, and even have some admirable traits - such as Nancy's protectiveness of her sons - they are none of them good people.  Nancy herself is reckless and impulsive, frequently instigating the very situations from which the boys must be protected.  Her accountant Doug is kind of oafishly charming, but he's also petty, selfish, and - probably unsurprisingly, given his willingness to cook the books for a drug dealer - an inveterate embezzler.

This season of the show follows the same basic shape as the previous two: Nancy's illicit activities put her family in jeopardy of some kind, prompting her to make dubious decisions that stave off disaster for now at the cost of even greater disaster in the future; and then when the chickens come home to roost, repeating the process with ever greater risks.

While the outline remains the same, Weeds does a pretty good job of changing the colouring within those lines, so that (at least so far) things haven't felt too repetitive.  They shake things up pretty well as they go, and the season finale here is a particularly big one in that regard.  In fact, it has repercussions that mean it works pretty well as a series finale, should you decide to not watch any further (and I've seen more than one person say that you should in fact do just that).

If the basic premise of a black comedy about a suburban soccer mom turned drug dealer appeals to you, then you should at least give Weeds seasons one through three a watch.  Whether you should continue after that or not ... well, I'll be back for a review of season four at some point, and we can discuss that then!

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Great Escape (1963)

On the night of 24-25 March 1944, 76 prisoners of war escaped from Stalag Luft III.  This was far short of the hoped-for goal of over 200, but still represented the second largest mass escape during the war.  The largest was by French prisoners, which may explain why it's much less well-known in the English-speaking world.

The escape was the brainchild of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell.  It was his third escape, and presented the culmination of his explicit plan to force the Nazis to divert men and material from the war effort to hunt down large groups of escapees.  even if none of the men actually made it safely to neutral territory, therefore, the escape would serve a valuable purpose.

This 1963 adaptation of these events plays rather fast and loose with the specifics of history.  Bushell is renamed to Bartlett, for instance, and many other characters are amalgams of multiple real-life persons.  Also a number of American characters are added to the escapees.  There were none in reality, because the American prisoners had been moved to another camp some months earlier.  In broad strokes however, it is accurate: the escape was made via a long, deep tunnel, and the methods used in the tunnel's construction, as well as of concealing that activity, are largely as depicted.  The film also shows the creation of the clothing the men would wear on their escape, and of the falsified papers they used (though in reality not everyone had the latter).

If one accepts the various liberties taken in the name of excitement - and I think one should - then this is a fine film, though at close to three hours in length it may be a bit long for some people. The actual escape itself does not take place until around the two hour mark, and the rest of the film being dedicated to the PoWs' efforts to make it out of Nazi territory.  It's probably not a spoiler to say that for most of them, this does not end so well.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies (2012)

At the age of 10, Abraham Lincoln sees his mother succumb to the zombie virus and his father commit suicide.  So young Abe takes up the family scythe, decapitates mom, and helps the people of his hometown defeat the undead scourge.

Somewhat over forty years later, in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, the now President of the United States learns that a Union attempt to capture a vital Confederate fort has failed.  Only one of the 30 men dispatched returned alive, and he turns into a ravening zombie while giving the President his report.

Believing that the undead plague is an even more vital threat to the Union than the Civil War, and that only someone with his personal experience of zombies can lead the operation to destroy it, Abraham Lincoln once more takes up his trusty scythe ...

So this bit of schlock is an Asylum mockbuster of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and like most such films, it's terrible.  But even in the cesspool of Asylum mockbusters, there are varying depths of awfulness.  And measured purely in those terms, I'd have to say that this particular movie at least manages to be one of the turds floating at the top of the pool.

You see, if one can overlook the low quality of the majority of the acting; and the cheapness of the costumes and sets; and the lack of action in the so-called action scenes; and the trite and repetitive script, there are three entertaining things in this film.  Which is frankly at least two more things than the average Asylum mockbuster.

The first thing is the film's sublime disregard for history.  Stonewall Jackson was dead by the time the film is set but that doesn't stop him meeting Honest Abe in this.  Teddy Roosevelt was five at the time of these supposed events; he turns up as well, looking at least 10.  And apparently John Wilkes Booth wasn't just touring the country as an actor at this time, he was also a Confederate double agent working in the President's secret service.

The second thing is a howlingly silly scene where future president Teddy Roosevelt snipes zombies with a rifle, while perched on current president Abraham Lincoln's shoulders.

Now you'll notice that neither of those entertaining things were about being good.  The third thing is the odd one out in that respect.  Frankly, it's the odd thing out in every Asylum film I've ever seen, since any entertainment value they usually offer has nothing to do with quality.  You see, Bill Oberst Jr's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is actually a pretty solid one.  He looks, frankly, like he's in a completely different class to the rest of the cast (that class being "competent").  It's not enough to save the film from being rubbish, of course, any more than the other two items were, but Oberst deserves credit for his efforts nonetheless.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The L Word, Season 5 (2008)

This season of The L Word continues the escalation I mentioned in my review of the previous series.  Which is to say that it gets even crazier.  Helena gets sent to prison, then hooks up with a butch inmate (played by kickboxer and boxer Lucia Rijker) and runs off with her to a remote island in the Pacific.  Alice outs an professional basketballer on her podcast and becomes the host of a TV show as a result.  A new lesbian bar opens down the road from the gang's favourite hang-out, prompting a bitter rivalry when Shane inevitably can't keep it in her pants.  Oh, and then there's the major plotline involving the movie adaptation of Jenny's book.  A film the increasingly narcissistic Jenny is set to direct, having somehow got the ear of the guy who is financing it.

Trust me when I say I haven't even scratched the surface of the shenanigans that take place in the twelve episodes herein.  It's chock full of nutty stuff.  Heck, even the DVD cover gets in on the wacky hijinks by including Janina Gavanka in the cover montage, despite her character not appearing in the season.

The key to making all this ever escalating melodrama work - and it does (mostly) work - is the efforts of the cast.  They're a talented bunch, and they treat the increasingly absurd situations with far more dignity than they deserve.  Still, even they can't patch over every single one of the show's increasingly obvious logic holes.  So the qualification on my recommendation for this season is an especially strong one: this is worth your time if you've been watching all along and have grown to like these characters, but it's not something I'd suggest you check out as an introduction to the show.  Now of course to some extent that's going to be true of pretty much any program in its fifth season, but I think it is particularly true here.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Of all the properties to get multiple films since Marvel Studios was launched, I think Captain America has been the most consistently impressive.  Make no mistake: I've enjoyed many of the other offerings from Marvel.  But they've either only had one entry to date (Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy), or there's been some uneven patches (Iron Man 2Avengers: Age of Ultron).  Cap's delivered a winner three times out of three so far.

A big part of these movies' success must be laid at the feet of Chris Evans, as he has consistently owned the role of Steve Rogers.  However, one can't overlook the excellent support he's got in each film: Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan in the first film; Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie in this one; and a whole bunch of people in the third (in fact, arguably the third film is an ensemble piece, given how many other characters have significant roles).

This second Captain America film shows Steve Rogers slowly adjusting to life in the 21st Century, while continuing to work with international law enforcement agency SHIELD to combat terrorists and other threats to the world's liberty and safety.  However, some of SHIELD's own operations are troubling to Rogers.  In particular, there's the plan for a trio of what amount to flying battleships, able to stay aloft indefinitely and dominate the globe thanks to a network of satellites providing them with pinpoint accurate bombardment capabilities.

And naturally he's right to be worried: not everyone in SHIELD has benevolent intentions for these new weapons, and if Captain America tries to stop them, well, they'll just have to get him out of the way.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a solid central plot-line, great performances from the whole cast, some nice moments of humour, and plenty of inventive and impressive action sequences.  I could find a few things to complain about if I really tried.  For instance there's one new character introduced who I didn't think got enough to do in the film.  But overall, this is a top-notch Marvel Studios film, and there are few things more entertaining being made these days than a top-notch Marvel Studios film.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Burn Notice, Season 3 (2009)

As season three of this show begins, things seem to be looking up for Michael Westen.  He's finally in a position to start reversing the burn notice that was placed upon him, and it also seems like he and Fiona might now be able to develop their relationship.  Whether those two goals are mutually compatible is a question he may not have considered.

That's not the only cloud on the horizon, either.  As long as they thought they would be able to use him, the people who burned Michael were protecting him from many of his previous adversaries.  Now they've removed that protection, he could be in for a stormy time.  And of course, there's always the question of whether Michael is really as free of them as he believes ...

Burn Notice has a pretty simple formula: (1) collect a group of fun characters, (2) put them in individual episodes that have satisfying self-contained "jobs", and then (3) weave those episodes into a loose over-arching narrative that progresses in meaningful ways over the course of the season.

Simple though the formula may be, it's not an easy one to pull off.  Plenty of other shows can't even manage on of the three components, let alone all of them. The ongoing success of this show in hitting the trifecta is a tribute to both the writing team who put the stories together and the cast who bring them to life.

If you're in the mood for a light action dramedy, this is good stuff.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The Longest Day (1962)

They don't make war movies like this any more.

I don't mean this as a subjective remark about quality.  I mean that they quite literally don't make war movies in this manner any more: sprawling, strategy-level epics that focus down on individual characters only to the extent necessary to give recognisable faces to the various vignettes.  And a great many recognisable faces there are, too: Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum and John Wayne, to name just a few.  There's even a just-about-to-become-James-Bond Sean Connery in a minor role.

None of these big names - or soon to be big names - get more than 15-20 minutes on screen, however, which is only a small fraction of a near three hour film.  The movie's focus is very much on the grand strategic sweep of June 6th, 1944: D-Day.  It covers the preparatory work undertaken by both sides prior to the Allied invasion, and then the progress on all five landing beaches, the assault on Point du Hoc, and the various airborne attacks.

Modern war films tend to have a narrower but deeper scope: the grand battle scenes tend to play as a supporting act to the experiences of a small group of individual characters.  In this film, the exact opposite is true.  For instance, Mitchum plays General Norman Cota, who rallied the demoralised troops on Omaha Beach and spearheaded the breakout into the interior.  In a modern film we'd learn about Cota in detail: his opposition to a dawn attack for D-Day (he favoured an attack at night), his relationship with his subordinates, and so forth.  He'd also be central to a majority of the scenes in the movie.  In this film, he's a guy who gives orders that we then watch other men carry out.

I can definitely see why the change has happened: it's much easier to get the audience invested in characters whom they know well.  And easier to structure a single, coherent narrative, which is something that this film somewhat lacks except in the broadest of terms.  Still, I do miss seeing movies with this kind of sweep and scope, and this one is a fine example of the now-neglected form.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Attack the Block (2011)

A young woman is mugged by a gang of youths.  They take her phone, purse and jewelry, but then something falls from the sky and smashes a nearby car.  This distracts the gang long enough for the woman to escape.  The youths immediately go to search the now accessible interior of the car for valuables, but are attacked by a strange-looking beast about the size of a chimpanzee.  The gang kill the creature and parade around with it as a trophy, but they're about to find out that there are more of these things falling to Earth, and the second wave is a whole lot bigger and nastier ...

"From the producers of Shaun of the Dead"is not actually much of a selling point for me.  I found Shaun to be one-half funny comedy and one-half solid zombie apocalypse, and somehow significantly less than the sum of its parts because of its failure to synthesise those two components.

That failure of synthesis is important here because Attack the Block also combines comedy elements with a main narrative that's all about the apocalyptic onslaught of dangerous monsters: though in this case said monsters are alien "gorilla-wolf" things, rather than the walking dead.

I'm pleased to say that this film avoids Shaun's failure.  Comedic elements are included throughout the film, and integrated well within the story, managing to both feel natural in how they occur, and to not distract from the tension and excitement of the action sequences.  It's never as funny as the funniest parts of Shaun, but it is funnier more evenly and more consistently.

If inner city kids vs alien monsters sounds at all like your cup of cinematic tea, then this is a film you should check out.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Castle, Season 3 (2010)

This third season of Castle mainly delivers more of the same light dramedy crime investigation with outrĂ© elements.  This season we've got a dead psychic, some steampunk enthusiasts, and an astrophysicist killed by explosive decompression, just to name a few.  And as usual, this is all set to the tune of Beckett and Castle (in the pic above) bickering with each other in an increasingly futile effort to conceal their growing attraction.

To the show's credit, however, it does do some stuff to evolve its characters, particularly in the supporting cast.  We see a change in the type of subplots being used for Castle's daughter Alexis for instance, as well as romances bloom for Detectives Ryan and Esposito.  And even the main pairing aren't completely stuck in the same holding pattern.  There are pretty major developments regarding Beckett's backstory that lead to a very dramatic season finale, for one thing.

Season Three also introduces the "Triple Killer", who will return to be a thorn in the characters' sides on several further occasions.  I'm not generally a huge fan of the whole "serial killer mastermind" schtick myself, but it is at least another movement away from the show's genial murder of the week format.

With a likable cast, quip-filled dialogue, and fun mysteries, Castle remains entertaining if undemanding viewing.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Jake Blues is released after three years in prison to discover that the world has changed in his absence.  His brother Elwood has sold the old Cadillac; their band is broken up; and the Catholic orphanage where they were raised is on the verge of closure.

But then a visit to a gospel church leaves Jake with a new purpose: to reform the band, raise $5,000 in the space of a few days, and save the orphanage.  Sure, that'll mean stealing gigs from other bands, crossing paths with Illinois Nazis, and staying one step ahead of both the law and a homicidal ex, but nothing can stop the Blues Brothers now, not when they're on a mission from God!

I first saw The Blues Brothers back in the late 1980s.  I was probably about 15 years old.  I laughed like a drain and thoroughly enjoyed all the musical numbers.  When the sequel came out about a decade later, I was one of many who felt it was much less funny than the original (though the music was still great).

I may in fact owe Blues Brothers 2000 an apology.  Not because it's suddenly become funnier in the past eighteen years, of course.  The change is in the audience, not the film.  And for this audience member at least, as I re-watched the original, I was struck by how few laughs there were, and how unexciting the famous chase scenes are.  On the latter front, I blame the Fast and Furious film franchise, as it has pretty much completely transformed expectations of car chases in movies.

This isn't the first time I have re-evaluated a film over time.  It happened with the original version of The Parent Trap, which I loved it as a tyke but find it quite uncomfortable to watch today (still love the mid-90s remake though).  I'm sure it will happen again in the future.  The simple fact is that we change as we grow older and what we enjoy changes with us.  Scenes in this film that I thought hysterical as a teen - such as Jake and Elwood misbehaving at a restaurant to force one of their former band members to quit his job there - I now find quite off-putting.

If you like blues music, then this film is certainly still worth watching, because it has a rocking soundtrack and plenty of great musical numbers in it.  And there's some historical value there for anyone who is into thinking about film and culture.

Just don't expect to find it all that funny unless you're a 15 year old boy.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Archer, Season 2 (2011)

Narcissistic man-baby Sterling Archer is back for a second season of espionage-themed shenanigans, along with his equally dysfunctional supporting cast, including self-proclaimed sex addict Cyril, possible clone of Hitler Doctor Krieger, and rubber cement sniffer Cheryl.  Not to mention Archer's overbearing and equally self-involved mother, Malory, who of course just happens to be head of the spy agency for which he works.

This season reveals the back-stories of various members of the various characters, such as the WW1 service of Archer's butler Woodhouse and the nature of Cheryl's family.  It also features a two-episode arc where Archer first discovers he has cancer, then goes on a "Chemo Rampage" when he discovers his anti-cancer drugs have been replaced with sugar pills, and another two-parter where Archer travels to the USSR to try and discover who his father might be.

Season two of Archer is as filled with people being awful to each other, anachronistic technology and world-building (is it the modern day?  The 60s?  The 80s?  The answer is: yes, all at the same time), and sly (and not so sly) pop culture references as the first season was.  My favourite such reference in this season was the Magnum PI riff at the end of the aforementioned "Chemo Rampage".  It also remains unabashedly crass and off-colour, but also very smart about how it is crass and off-colour.

If you enjoyed the first season of Archer, it seems almost certain you'll enjoy the second.  I know I did.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

This is a film that is undone by its age.

Released a bare four years after WW2 ended, Twelve O'Clock High is an account of an American B-17 bomber squadron operating out of England during 1942.  The specific unit featured in the film (the 918th) is fictional, but both it and its personnel are heavily inspired by a real life unit (the 306th) and real life people, as you can read on the wikipedia page for the film.

At the outset of the film we find the 918th in dire straits.  Casualties in bombing raids are outpacing replacement rates, morale is terrible, and the unit is getting a reputation as a "hard luck outfit".  To Brigadier General Frank Savage the problem is obvious: the 918th's commanding officer has become too personally attached to his men, making excuses for mistakes and overlooking lapses in discipline that in turn lead to higher casualties.  This has created a vicious cycle that could lead to the unit's complete collapse, which might then spill into the other bomber units and cripple the US Air Force's precision bombing campaign against the Third Reich.

To ensure that this does not occur, Savage assumes command of the unit, utilising what can best be described as a "shock and awe" command approach.  He demotes multiple men, closes the officers' bar, and demands constant drills.  Naturally this creates considerable animosity from the men, who miss their more genial former commander, but just as naturally (given Savage is our main character), the improved discipline leads to a sharp increase in survival rates.  Over the course of the ensuing months, Savage molds his men into an effective and efficient fighting force - but of course there's still the question of just how much any man can take in a war like this; even a man like Savage.

The reason I said that the film is undone by its age is two-fold.  The first is a question of narrative style.  Although a war film, this is a movie that is pretty much entirely about men arguing and speechifying at each other.  Only right at the end of the film are there any action sequences, which are mostly real WW2 footage.  I suspect that most modern audience members would probably find it pretty slow and tiresome, with only real WW2 enthusiasts being likely to stick with it.

Which brings me to the second problem, which is the entire core narrative thrust of the film.  "We cannot allow the 918th to fail, because it could mean the end of our precision bombing campaign". You see we know today that the precision bombing campaign was never actually successful in its intended goal.  In the supposedly triumphant mission at the end of the film, for instance, the real life losses for the USAAF were so severe that raids on Germany itself were suspended for several months, and they failed to do any significant damage to the manufacturing capacity of the target (in general less than 1 in 5 bombs fell within 1km of the designated target), and damaging the target would have had no positive effect on the outcome of the war in any case, as the Germans had massive stockpiles of the equipment being produced there.

In other words, despite what the film would have you believe, the efforts that Frank Savage expends, and the cost paid by both himself and his men, are ultimately all in pursuit of a chimera.  In 1949 of course that probably wasn't acknowledged, but today it is, and it made the film leave rather a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, 13 January 2017

A Plague So Pleasant (2013)

It has been about a year since the zombie apocalypse: a nightmarish twelve-hour period in which two billion people died at the hands of flesh-eating undead.

So far, so typical, but the twist in A Plague So Pleasant is that the apocalypse came to an end when human authorities realised that the zombies only enter a homicidal rage when attacked.  Leave them alone, and they're just so many inconvenient obstructions to navigate around on your way to work.  Attack just one, though, and thousands of them all around will go on a rampage of violence.

So now there are reserves set aside to try and keep most of the zombies contained - there are simply too many to keep them all caged - and strict laws against any act of violence against an undead.  There are also procedures in place in the event someone breaks those laws.  Should the zombies rampage, the rules are to hide, stay quiet, and wait for the all clear to sound.  If not resisted with violence, the zombies will calm down after only a short period.

The reality of zombies has thus become rather mundane: the kind of thing that you have to sit through boring meetings at work about.  But the undead do cause some other problems.  It's much harder to say goodbye to a dead loved one when they're still upright and walking around, for instance.  And thus we have the conundrum faced by Clay.  His sister Mia can't let go of her boyfriend Jeffrey, even though the boy is dead and rotting.  Clay feels like he has to take action ...

This film suffers from some uneven pacing and acting, but it was made on a shoestring budget (I've seen figures of $1400-$3000 reported), so such technical flaws are perhaps to be expected.  More important, I think, is that it manages to deliver a satisfying zombie film that is also not just yet another zombie film.  And at a mere 75 minutes long, its not exactly outstaying its welcome.

Worth your time if you're an undead aficionado.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Life in the Undergrowth (2005)

I recently had the annual pest inspection at my place, which is apropos since this 2005 entry into the "Life" collection focuses on invertebrates: insects, arachnids, crustaceans and molluscs.

In other words, if you're squeamish about creepy-crawlies, you might find this particular series a tough one to get through!

As is the usual approach with the "Life" shows, each episode focuses on a particular theme.  We begin with the information that invertebrates were the first animals to emerge from the seas onto the land - probably about 100 million years earlier than vertebrates such as ourselves - and the first episode then looks at how these creatures adapted to the new environment, and adapted it in turn.  Earthworms, for instance, were vital to encouraging the growth of plant life.

Episode two examines the invertebrates that have developed flight, including beetles, bees and dragonflies.  Episode three turns to those that produce silk - an ability that only invertebrates share.  Obviously this includes spiders, but there are many other creatures which use the material, and for many different purposes.

Episode four examines how invertebrates interact with other animals or plants, either to mutual benefit - such as ants which protect the plant which in turn grants them a home to live in - or for parasitical or predatory purposes.  This latter group includes for example a number of species of wasp which inject their eggs into fertilised oak tree flowers, mutating the acorns into "galls" which protect the larva when it hatches.  Well, protect it except from another type of wasp that specifically seeks out galls and injects its eggs into the larval chamber, and whose young then consume the original larva.

Finally in episode five Attenborough discusses invertebrate supersocieties: the collective organisation of bees, ants and termites that allows them to achieve extraordinary feats comparative to their size.

There is a wealth of fascinating information here, and as long as hours of close-up footage of "creepy-crawlies" isn't going to gross you out, it is well worth a look.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Zombies have been quite the "thing" for the last decade or so, and back in 2009 they invaded the regency romance milieu via this mashup with Jane Austen's famous novel.  As a fan of Austen's book and its various adaptations, as well as something of an undead junkie, I was naturally pretty keen to check out this big screen version of the tale.

A plague brought back from the colonies has left England beset with the walking dead.  Society continues, however, with its whist parties and balls and other such entertainments.  Its just that now, in addition to dance and needlework, young ladies are expected to learn swordplay, martial arts and the use of musket and pistol.  The five Bennet sisters are now Shaolin masters who just happen to be in the market for husbands, with Fitzwilliam Darcy is now an expert monster hunter in addition to being obscenely wealthy.  Shenanigans, both romantic and zombie-themed, ensue.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half hour or so of this film, which not-so-coincidentally is the part that sticks closest to Jane Austen's original novel, just with the occasional undead attack thrown in for some spice.  The more it ventures into being its own thing, however, the more I felt it lost its way.  And it should be noted that the film is very much its own thing: while I haven't read the book on which it is nominally based, the synopsis I browsed shows that it hews much more closely to the basic Pride & Prejudice narrative than does this screen version.  This is particularly true in the final act, which is basically entirely original to the film, and for which I did not much care.

It is in its characters that the film delivers its best moments (though I do think Charles Dance was criminally underused as Mr Bennet).  Lily James and Sam Riley are a fine lead couple, and Matt Smith is wonderful as the odious Mr Collins.

However plot-wise the film falls into an uncomfortable mid-point between genres.  I suspect it would have worked better if it had fully committed to being either a romance film that happens to have zombies in it, or a zombie film that happens to have a romance.  Instead we get something where the first half is the former and the second half is the latter and the film-makers never quite seem to sew those two parts together properly.  Which is a shame, because there are some very entertaining segments to the film: it's just not quite as good as the sum of its parts should make it.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Marvel's Agent Carter, Season 1 (2015)

Peggy Carter was an important part of the WW2 operation that created Captain America, but with the war now over she finds herself - as do many other women - being pushed aside to make way for returning servicemen.  While Peggy technically still has her job as an agent at the "Strategic Science Reserve" (a fictitious war agency which in the Marvel Universe was formed to counter Nazi super weapons), she's not being allowed to do it.  Her new boss doesn't trust her to do more than answer the phones and buy the office lunches.

Fortunately - though this is perhaps not an entirely appropriate word, given the circumstances - Peggy is about to have a chance to show her capabilities.  Dangerous weapons have begun appearing on the black market: weapons designed by industrialist Howard Stark.  It is assumed that Stark has turned traitor, and the SSR's #1 priority is to bring him in.

Peggy isn't invited to take part in the investigation by her superiors, of course.  She has phones to answer and lunches to fetch, after all.  But she is secretly recruited to the investigation by Howard Stark himself.  They worked together during the war, you see, and she's the only person in the SSR that he trusts to discover how his inventions were stolen, and by whom, and thus clear his name.  Of course, she's going to have to do all this without her SSR colleagues knowing what she's up to, and her only ally will be Stark's butler, Edwin Jarvis.

Agent Carter got rave reviews (though mediocre ratings) when it aired on TV, so I was keen to check it out when it became available on home media.  There's certainly a lot to like: Hayley Atwell is great in the lead role, the supporting cast is strong, and the characters are all sharply drawn and realised.  On the other hand, I do think the core plot falls a little short of the other elements.  The bad guys' plot is dastardly enough, and I liked that their motivations extended beyond "because we are evil", but their methods of executing it seem rather over-complicated, let's say.  It's not an issue in the moment to moment while watching the show, and it is something of a common narrative conceit in such comic book fare, but if you're the kind of person to think about shows after you've finished them you may uncover a few niggles with the plot here.

That caveat aside, however, this is a fun show.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Hymns (2016)

This is another project I backed on Kickstarter.  It was produced by the same people who made NSFW, which I rather liked, though I thought it's potential audience niche was rather small.  SO I was eager to see whether I'd enjoy this as much.

The answer, alas, is no.  I think this largely comes down to expectations.  Hymns seems to be a reasonably well executed film on the whole - although the writing's a bit clumsy and didactic - but it's not the film I thought I'd signed up for.

Here's the kickstarter pitch: "The film focuses on three women, living together during wartime of an anonymous foreign war. The women, while at home, try to create a sense of the nuclear family while dealing with their own feelings of loss, identity and desire."

However, the film that was actually made only delivers a couple of minor nods to the whole "nuclear family" thing, to the point where you could pretty much excise the last of the three women from the film and not notice any real change.  Instead it seems to me that Hymns much more about one woman's struggle to come to terms with the absence (and potential death) of her husband, with the other characters mostly existing as surrogates or spurs to this yearning/grieving process.  The husband is in fact a much more significant character in the plot than either of the other two women.

Now "pining for / worrying over a lover" is a perfectly sound thematic core for a film if that's your thing, but it's not really mine, and not something I would have backed, and I think it's a shame that we didn't get the more female-centric story the kickstarter suggested.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Wrestling School (2016)

I supported this half-hour documentary on Kickstarter back in September, and my copy of the film arrived just in time for the new year, which was nice.  I sat down to watch it today and found it an entertaining thirty minutes.  It is clearly aimed more or at the casual fan or curious outsider than anyone who's really familiar with the 'behind the scenes' fabric of the industry, but that's a perfectly acceptable market to pitch to and this does a sound job.

The documentary is about the staff and students of the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles.  We're introduced to the people who run the place first, with them explaining first how they got into the professional wrestling industry at all, and then how they gravitated into running a training school.  We then get to meet the trainers and students, who talk about how their interest in pro wrestling began, why they've chosen to go from mere fan to participant, and what the actual experience of being in the ring is like (spoiler: it hurts).

Wrestling School offers up some engaging characters.  I'm particularly fond of the two guys who form a tag team known as the "Study Buddies".  Anyone who portrays a Nerdrific "Technical Wrassler" is okay by me.  There are also some just plain fun stories here, and the film does a good job of conveying the passion of these people for what they do.

If you fit into the target market, Wrestling School is worth a watch.  You can find the film's Facebook page, which will hopefully soon have details of where folks who weren't kickstarter supporters can get it, here.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 2 (2008)

Almost no-one knows that supposed legal secretary Hannah Baxter is actually a high-priced call girl under the nom de guerre "Belle de Jour".  Other than the lady herself in fact, it's pretty much just a couple of other people in the sex industry and her best friend, Ben.

The challenges of juggling the world of Hannah - stuff family gatherings, hanging out with friends and (mostly centrally for this series) pursuing a relationship - and the world of Belle, which is rather more about boob jobs, butt plugs and girlfriend experiences.

It's pretty safe to say that of the two, our protagonist finds her work life much easier to manage than her personal.  Belle has the singular advantage of not only being very good at her job, but also of thoroughly enjoying her work.  She's careful about the clients she takes on and expert at providing them with an experience that both she and they enjoy.

Being Hannah, on the other hand, is something she finds rather more complicated.  This is particularly true of romance, which lacks the clear-cut roles and rules of prostitution (at least prostitution the way Belle does it), relying instead on unspoken conventions and intuitions.  Plus of course, there's the sticky question of what to say when a guy asks what she does for work ...

In addition to these questions, Belle's also taken a new working girl under her wing and is showing her the ropes: not always easy when dealing with an impulsive young neophyte.

The second season of Secret Diary of a Call Girl is sometimes shocking, sometimes touching, often funny, and always entertaining.  It must have been quite a demanding show for lead Billie Piper, who is in almost every scene.  Fortunately, she is up to the challenge of making time with Belle worth spending.

Obviously the subject matter is not going to be to all tastes, but if you're pretty open-minded, this is worth checking out.  It'll help if you've seen season one of course, but even if you haven't, the few paragraphs above should give you all the context you need.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

A pair of outlaws stumble into the territory of a degenerate race of 'troglodyte' savages.  One of them quickly ends up dead, but the other manages to flee.  Unfortunately for him - and for those he meets - he disturbs the tribe's burial grounds in the process.  Their warriors thus track him all the way to the small town of Bright Hope, where they abduct him and two others and take the trio back to their isolated lair.

A local native is able to tell the sheriff roughly where this lair might be.  He also shares the unfortunate news that the troglodytes are cannibals, so a rescue mission is a matter of urgency.  The sheriff puts together a small posse, including the husband of one of the missing townsfolk, and the four men set out in pursuit of the savages.  Unfortunately, they may find themselves quickly switching from the hunters to the hunted in this particular case ...

Let's get the warnings out of the way first: there are some very confronting images of violence in Bone Tomahawk.  I saw it with friends, and one of them was made very uncomfortable by a particular scene.  You'll know it when you see it, I think.

However, most of those confronting moments come in the last act, and the majority of the film is a much lower-key affair; more of a character study in a lot of ways, with plenty of scenes that allow us to see characters interacting with each other and establishing their relationships.  This is all very deftly handled and may be one of my favourite elements of the film.  In just a few short scenes between the husband and wife before she is abducted, the movie establishes that a strong and sincere bond of love connects the two of them.  This makes the hardship he undergoes to attempt her rescue feel much more plausible and real.  The friendship between the Sheriff and his 'back up deputy' is also very nicely drawn.

If you can handle the grisly parts, I think Bone Tomahawk is worth a look.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Fraggle Rock, Season 3 (1985)

There appears to be some dispute over exactly how many seasons of Fraggle Rock there are, and how many episodes each season contains.  Everyone seems to agree that the first two seasons have 24 episodes apiece, but thereafter opinions diverge.  Although Wikipedia says season three has 21 episodes and Muppet Wiki says it has 22, this DVD box set has 24: presumably because it leaves a further 24 episodes of the show to go in the final "season 4" box set (which both wikis claim is actually a combination of seasons 4 and 5).

Whichever season and episode count you choose to accept, however, this is definitely the third quarter of the show's run, and they've definitely got their basic formula sorted out and chugging along smoothly.  Every episode has the same basic structure:

  • A short vignette of Doc, the man who lives in the house above Fraggle Rock itself, as he and his dog Sprocket confront some challenge in their lives.
  • A Fraggle (or Doozer, or Gorg, or other inhabitant of the Rock) encountering a similar issue.
  • Said Fraggle or Doozer or whatever not handling the situation very effectively.
  • A mid-episode scene of Doc and Sprocket also struggling.
  • The Fraggle Rock creature finding a resolution to their issue.
  • Doc and Sprocket also solving their problem.

Each episode also continues to feature a postcard from Travelling Matt, the Fraggle who is exploring the human world.  These postcards always tie into the theme of the episode in some way, and not infrequently offer some insight into how to resolve the problem.

Despite the fixed structure, however, the show continues to be fresh and interesting in other ways: mostly due to the wacky and fantastical world of the Fraggles giving plenty of opportunities for weird situations and surreal antics.

 Also nifty musical numbers.

If you're looking for solid kid-friendly entertainment, the Jim Henson people know their stuff.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Mythica: The Godslayer (2016)

The Lich King's hordes are overrunning the world.  Our ragged band of heroes have been rent apart; some staying to lead the doomed resistance to the undead onslaught, the others desperately seeking the one weapon which might allow them to break the Lich King's power before he murders everyone in the world, kills the gods, or both.

The Mythica films have generally followed a pattern of the odd-numbered entries being stronger than the even-numbered ones.  I'm pleased to say that the fifth and final volume mostly follows that pattern.  I say 'mostly' because it's definitely not a flawless film: there's a plotline about the main character being tempted by the villain that I think is handled a bit clumsily, and the final act is a too drawn out.  It is however really nice to see the ambition shown here.  That's something that I felt was lacking from the fourth film, and when a film's flaws stem from it really trying to be something special - as I feel is the case here - then I'm much more inclined to like it than when I don't feel it is trying in the first place.

The Godslayer signals its intentions from the opening scene, with a strongly executed battle scene.  Any scene involving many people is a challenging thing to do on a small budget, and to mix that with convincing fight choreography is an impressive achievement.  Bravo to the Arrowstorm team for that!

Bravo too for Melanie Stone, who does a grand job as Marek, the film's central hero and possible doom of the gods.  While I found the storyline of Marek's temptation by the Lich King to be a bit clumsily written, Stone sells the emotional conflict of the character well.

The whole cast is good, in fact.  Having seen many other examples of indie film-making where the acting rarely even aspires to the giddy heights of mediocrity, it's a real credit to the production that all the performances here are solid, even amongst the minor players.

I'm certainly not sorry that I got aboard the Mythica bandwagon back when the series began, and I look forward to seeing what the people involved produce in the future.