Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Orphan Black, Season 2 (2014)

One of the challenges facing any show driven by a core mystery / conspiracy is that it has to find a way to provide some sort of forward progress and answers, without blowing its big question.  It's a difficult line to walk.  For my money most often shows fail this task by devolving into a series of largely meaningless plot twists, losing momentum and my interest along with it.  Yes Lost, I am talking about you.

Season two of Orphan Black doesn't do a perfect job of walking the tightrope, I think.  There's a bit too much wheel-spinning activity where lots of stuff happens, but the end result of all that kerfuffle is that things are pretty much exactly where they were before it all happened; a few too many "dun dun dun!" moments that are resolved less than half an episode later.  I'm reminded in some ways of the old serials that used to play before the main feature at the cinema back in the 1930s and 1940s.  These would often consist of 10-12 twenty minute episodes, but the end of the second episode and the beginning of the second last would have the characters in exactly the same places.  This meant that you could drop all the stuff in the middle and make a movie out of the first two and last two episodes, and the story would still make sense.  So from episode 3 to episode N-2 was just filler.

Now this show doesn't quite go that far, as there is stuff that happens in each episode that advances the story in various ways, but when a character gets kidnapped by group X, then escapes, then voluntarily returns to them, then changes her mind and escapes again ... well, it does feel like at least a bit of padding is going on.

Fortunately Orphan Black has some sharp writing and a fine cast.  On the latter front, Tatiana Maslany has rightly been acclaimed for her performance as multiple characters, but I would be remiss not to also mention Jordan Javaris and Skyler Wexler, who are excellent in their supporting roles.  On the former, pretty much everything this season that involves uptight soccer-mom Alison is pure gold.

There's definitely a wobble or two here as Orphan Black walks the mystery high wire, but it hasn't fallen off it.  I'll be coming along for next season to see if they can keep the balancing act going.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Battle of Britain (1969)

In June 1940, Nazi Germany reigned supreme in Europe.  They'd swept through Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, defeating all in their path, and driven the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk.  All that stood between the United Kingdom and the seemingly unstoppable blitzkrieg was thirty miles of water.

In earlier times, the might of the Royal Navy would have meant that the UK was inviolate, but in this new era of warfare it had already become clear that air power could dominate a surface navy.  If Germany would win control of the skies, an invasion might be possible.  This is a very big "might", to be honest, given the Nazis' lack of proper troop transports, but nobody wanted to test it to find out, so the country's first line of defence became its newest, smallest military service: the Royal Air Force.

For five months, until winter and then Hitler's scheme for an invasion of the Soviet Union rendered British shores safe, a vital struggle was waged in the air.  This film chronicles that conflict.

Like The Longest Day, this is the kind of war movie they don't make any more: one where the progress of the war itself is the focus of the narrative, and the characters we meet exist only to provide a context to that conflict.  They may have their own miniature storylines within the film, but the emphasis there is on 'miniature'.  For instance, we might meet a pilot in a scene, learn some particular tidbit about them in their second scene, and then see some kind of fallout related to that information in the third.

This is not to say that the film doesn't give you characters to care about: just that it does so not by providing us with deep insight into them, but by using instantly recognisable archetypes and scenarios in their individual tales.  We get the struggling marriage, and veteran officer, the plucky young pilot, and so forth.  Many of these characters will experience less than perfect outcomes, of course.  There's a war on, after all.  But the film also injects a few moments of levity to change up the atmosphere, where it is appropriate to do so.

If you've an interest in a period of war that led to one of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches, this is certainly worth your time.  While the style of film-making is one that has gone out of fashion, it is still an effective one.  In addition, being made less than thirty years after the events it depicts, the movie has the advantage that much WW2-era equipment was still available for use on screen, and people who lived through the actual events were on hand to provide expert advice.  This provides it a degree of verisimilitude that I expect a more modern film would lack, even if it ultimately had more spectacular visuals.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Bride and Prejudice (2004)

Yes, this is another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - this time giving it a Bollywood-style makeover.  By this point you may be wondering how many versions of this story I'm going to review, and the answer is ... well, pretty much all of them, really.  I have at least two more to come, though neither is likely to happen for a while as I haven't actually purchased those movies yet.

So we're transported here to Amritsar, India, where the Bakshi family has four beautiful daughters, but not much in the way of dowries to offer with them.  Their mother is desperate to find them wealthy, respectable husbands, and soon sets her targets on British-Indian barrister Balraj, who has recently come to town with his American friend Will Darcy.

Balraj and eldest daughter Jaya immediately hit it off, but the sparks that fly between second daughter Lalilta and Mr Darcy are of the rather more adversarial kind.  She finds him arrogant and intolerant of Indian culture.

And from there, we're basically onto the standard narrative of the book, albeit with numerous musical numbers added - it is a Bollywood style film after all - and with suitable adjustments for the change in setting and time period.  The result is a pleasantly engaging film with a charming cast (I particularly liked the unusually sympathetic Mr Collins-expy), though it is perhaps a bit slight in substance when it comes to resolving the Wickham storyline (which is shame, because it did quite a good job of setting it up).

If you want a feel good diversion and don't mind musicals as a format, this is a sound choice.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Wire, Season 1 (2002)

Avon Barksdale has quietly accumulated control of almost the entire Westside drug business in Baltimore.  He and his people are organised and careful, and they've so far gone under the radar of almost everyone in law enforcement despite being responsible for over a dozen murders.

Baltimore PD are finally going to take an interest in Barksdale, though.  This isn't always entirely willing; many on the force think the investigation is a Quixotic waste of time and money that would be better spent on securing routine 'buy-bust' operations; but if the men and women on the case can thread their way through the political minefield that is the police department, and find the evidence they need to nail Barksdale, they might just manage to land a career-making conviction.  The only question is what it will cost them ...

I originally saw the first season of The Wire about ten years ago.  I quite liked it - enough to buy this DVD set, as well as the other seasons, when they became relatively cheap - but I never felt a particularly strong urge to prioritise the show over other things on my shelves, so it has taken a while for me to get back to it.

Presumably I'm the one who has changed in the decade since my initial viewing, rather than the show mysteriously transforming itself on the discs, but I found it thoroughly compelling this time around.  Complex characters with conflicting agendas; an refreshing absence of 'idiot ball' moments, and a skillful ability to present deeply flawed but still sympathetic people on all sides of the situation.

Excellent stuff.  It may be a bit of a challenge if you struggle with shows that have a lot of bad language, or where there are few if any wholly admirable characters, but it's exceptionally well put together.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Frighteners (1996)

Twenty years ago, when Peter Jackson was still required to make movies that had a sensible run time, he produced this comedy-horror film starring Michael J Fox.  I dread to think what bloated mess we'd get these days, or what contortions would be required to justify 40 minutes of Legolas stealing everyone else's thunder.

Fox plays Frank Bannister, a "psychic detective".  This job is of course a scam, but not in the way you might expect.  Frank really is psychic: or at least, he can see and speak to ghosts.  The scam is that Frank has a couple of friendly spirits stage a haunting for him (though other people can't see them, ghosts can move physical objects around), then he turns up and "exorcises the restless spirits".

Unfortunately for Bannister, not all ghosts are as friendly as the ones he works with, and he is about to stumble across a particularly malevolent one.  This ghastly ghostie likes to squeeze the hearts of human beings until they die from cardiac arrest.  Which would be bad enough all by itself, but (a) the bad spirit's about to go on a tear through people to whom Frank has some connection, and (b) Frank's wife died in odd circumstances some years earlier, all of which makes him the prime suspect in the eyes of local FBI man Milton Dammers.

Side note: Dammers is played by Jeffrey Combs, who should be familiar to pretty much anyone who watches much geek-friendly TV, and he totally steals the show here as the embittered and neurotic agent.  Just a wonderful performance.

Anyway, Frank now has to try and prevent the actual murderer - who no-one else can see, let's remember - from continuing its killing spree, while staying one step ahead of the authorities.

The Frighteners does a good job of blending the comedy and horror genres, mostly by keeping the majority of the former in the first half of the film, and by making the humour that does appear in the later stages be more and more dark and twisted.  The overall result is pretty solidly entertaining, though there are a couple of minor plot issues that you need to hand-wave away, and the final victory is a bit too neat and tidy for my tastes.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967)

There are some obvious similarities between this show and later Gerry Anderson offering UFO, as both feature multinational organisations (called SHADO in UFO, Spectrum here) attempting to thwart a technologically superior alien menace.

There are differences, of course, the most obvious of which is that the later show was live action, whereas this is Thunderbirds-style "Supermarionation".  Also, UFO lacks the superhero-like protagonist we have here: due to his encounters with the Mysterons, Captain Scarlet can recover from pretty much any injury.

There's also the fact that this - despite its more "kiddie" format - is actually a considerably darker show.  In UFO, the aliens' motives for threatening us are unknown, and at the end of each episode their hostile intentions are thwarted by SHADO.  In Captain Scarlet, the Mysterons' hostility stems from the fact that we made a panicked and unprovoked attack upon them.  And while Spectrum often wins the day, the Mysterons do sometimes win a partial or even complete success in their schemes.  You don't often see a kids' show where the bad guys successfully carry out an assassination!

Unfortunately, despite its refreshingly 'grown-up' elements and the inevitable cool model designs that you'll see in any Anderson-led show, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons suffers from two significant issues that prevent me from recommending it.  The first of these is that it lacks any kind of satisfying conclusion: in fact the very last episode is a clip show, while the second last is revealed to all be a dream at the end!

The other major issue is the writing.  Leaving aside that the Mysterons' demonstrable technological advantage is such that they could smash us like bugs whenever they wanted - we could perhaps excuse this by saying that they are deliberately drawing out the process of destroying us as a means of punishment - there's just some sloppy work here from time to time.  Like, you know, after 20 episodes of the Mysterons killing people and then replacing them with evil duplicates, your characters probably shouldn't be shocked when they find the dead body of someone they just saw in a seemingly hale and hearty condition.  And if you have the Mysterons say that there plans rely on capturing someone alive, they should probably not have tried to murder that person in a prior scene of the same episode.

If you grew up with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, I could see buying and enjoying it for the nostalgia factor.  Otherwise you should probably skip it.

I should note that there is a more recent (2005) CGI version of the show, which at the very least addresses the "doesn't have a proper ending" issue.  I may pick it up someday and see if the writing in general is any better.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Patton (1970)

General George S Patton was a hugely divisive figure in the Allied war effort of World War 2.  He was arrogant and insubordinate, frequently clashing with other commanders, and when receiving orders he did not like, was not above claiming that the message had been "garbled" and then doing what he'd intended all along.  He also had a tendency to make controversial statements in public; to openly spurn representatives of the Soviet Union, despite them being allies in the war; and on more than one occasion was known to strike soldiers under his command for "cowardice" when they suffered from battle fatigue.  These misdemeanours, along with his aggressive strategic approach, saw him relieved of command for months at a stretch, and excluded from the D-Day landings in Normandy.

On the other hand, Patton was also an extremely effective commander.  He defeated the Afrika Korps in Tunisia, captured Messina in Sicily, and rampaged through France once finally reappointed to command, culminating in a vital role in defeating Hitler's Ardennes Offensive.  Such was his ability that the wehrmacht considered him to be the best commander the Allies had.

This rather lengthy biopic (it runs over 160 minutes) covers Patton's career from his arrival in North Africa to his final dismissal after the Nazi surrender.  It is anchored by a masterful performance by George C Scott as the man in question, for which Scott justly won an Academy Award.  The film itself also picked up the Best Picture gong and five other Oscars.  It's an engaging and authentic-feeling work, though how authentic it actually is, is somewhat more doubtful.  Patton was long dead and the producers did not have access to his diaries.

As is becoming a theme with this set of films, this is worth seeing if you have an interest in the period it covers.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Breakfast Club (1984)

Back in October I was prevailed upon to watch Pitch Perfect.  There's no formal review of that film since it wasn't my DVD, but the short version was that I liked the music and loathed the characters.

This is relevant to today's review because one of the characters in that film is passionate about music in movies, and cites The Breakfast Club - and in particular, Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" as an example of great music in cinema.  Which reminded me that this film existed, and that I'd quite enjoyed it back when I was a teen.

So I'll kick off by acknowledging that the music in this movie is indeed very good, and that the cast is also excellent.  I'm kinda bummed to learn that John Cusack didn't get the role of rebellious youth Bender - I think he would have nailed it - but I can't really fault the casting of Judd Nelson either.

The film's premise is that a group of five high school students are serving an all day detention on a Saturday.  They're pretty quickly codified into high school cliques: there's the nerd, the jock, the princess, the weirdo and the rebel.  They start the day believing they have nothing in common except their mutual desire to be anywhere else, but of course by the end of the day they're inevitably going to learn an Important Lesson About Themselves And Each Other.

It's a tribute to the script and performances of the film that it manages to achieve this potentially schmaltzy manoeuvre without the saccharine levels rising too high, though I do feel that the kids' transition from confrontation to cooperation is rather abrupt and unconvincing.

Also, be aware that even after the group has become 'friendly', their treatment of the princess character is pretty darn awful.  Though points for a thirty year old film openly acknowledging the ways that society tries to control women's sexuality, even if part of this is done through the bad behaviour of its own characters.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Tudors, Season 1 (2007)

Despite using the name of the dynasty as a whole, The Tudors is really the story of the reign of Henry VIII - he of the infamous six wives.  It thus fits neatly into the period of history immediately prior to that covered by Elizabeth R, with this season for instance focusing very much on Henry's efforts to divorce his first wife and marry the woman who would eventually give birth to Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn.

This is a very different show to the much older BBC production, however.  Elizabeth R was, to use a polite term, produced very 'economically'.  It was also faithful to our best understanding of what actually occurred in those times, to the point that period-appropriate curses were used, and character dialogue was often taken directly from primary sources.  The Tudors, on the other hand, is far more opulent in production.  It is also far less concerned about fidelity to the details.  As long as the broad strokes are right, the creative team here are more than willing to exercise some dramatic license.  Several characters are composites of multiple people, for instance.  I suspect this is done to make things easier to follow - there are already two people named Mary so having a third might be over the top, let's merge some details of her life into that of her sister Margaret - and to keep the cast from growing too much.  The broad strokes are correct, but this is a show much more concerned about being entertainment than about being accurate.

The big question of course, is whether is actually is good entertainment, and I am pleased to say that it is.  Sometimes the dramatic licenses are more than a bit on the soap opera side, and of course everyone is ridiculously beautiful - unless their ugliness is a plot point - and there's a great deal of "we're on premium cable!" raunchiness going on, but the basic narrative is a compelling one.

Some credit for this must go to the performances of the cast.  In particular Natalie Dormer, who is excellent as Anne Boleyn; and Sam Neill, who I generally don't much care for but who really delivers in the role of Henry VIII's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey.  But the writing also is effective: the show does a fine job of making Anne a likable character whom we want to see succeed while at the same time making us feel sympathy for the plight of Henry's first wife Catherine - whose only fault was to not bear him a living son.

As long as you're happy to watch it as entertainment, not history, and you don't mind the sometimes soapy and salacious content, The Tudors is a fine show.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Gemini Division (2008)

Anna Diaz is an undercover cop who unexpectedly falls in love.  When her fiancee is killed, she discovers that he was actually an artificial life form: a "simulant" or "sim", manufactured to serve in the US military and reduce human casualties.  Some three hundred of these sims have escaped and assimilated into society, where it is believed they are plotting terrorist attacks.  A secret organisation - Gemini Division - has been created to stop them, and Anna soon finds herself as their newest recruit.  But could the man she loved truly have been the human-hating monster they claim?

Some pretty cool things have been done in web video.  Stuff like Carmilla or The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, for instance, have shown that very engaging stories can be told with limited resources, if you know what you're doing.  Or there is Sanctuary, which evolved from eight "webisodes" to have a four season run on SyFy.

Like the shows mentioned above, Gemini Division began life as a web series.  It consisted of fifty episodes, each of 5-7 minutes, but for this DVD release has been cut down to a 90 minute film, or about one-third of the original run time.

I never saw the original web show, so I can't comment on whether it was any better than the turgid mess of a film I just endured, but I can say that I have no desire to find out.  The complete lack of story-telling skill shown here, the failure even to pick a format and stick with it ... is this a vlog-style presentation like the first two shows I mentioned above, or a traditional TV style program like Sanctuary?  The creators never bothered to decide, it seems.  Quite how they got Rosario Dawson to take part in this unmitigated mess is a good question, but I wouldn't be surprised if they blew a big chunk of their budget on doing it.  Certainly they didn't have much left over for their FX work, which is embarrassingly bad, or for extras in scenes that desperately needed them.  For instance, there's a sequence here where Anna is in what must be the world's saddest nightclub, as it apparently has all of four customers, including her.

Dreadful stuff.  "I have seen Cyborg 2 and it is twenty times better and fifty times more entertaining than this" dreadful.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Magnum P.I., Season 5 (1984)

The fifth season of Magnum, P.I. is generally considered to be one of the show's weaker years.  It slipped in the ratings while being broadcast (though it was still a top twenty program) and if you check out fan rankings of the seasons you'll generally find it in the bottom three.

'Weaker' is not necessarily the same as 'bad', of course, and there's still stuff to like here.  The opening two-parter, for instance - which guest stars a very young Sharon Stone - is a fun piece of melodrama with a delightfully shocking conclusion.  And the episode where Magnum woos a freelance security consultant is also fun,  Overall, though, the show doesn't work quite so well here as it has in the past.

The program's basic formula remains the same: a preponderance of light, mystery-themed standalone episodes, usually with a strong emphasis on the camaraderie of the main cast, which are then leavened with an eclectic mix of absurdist comedy and some surprisingly dark moments - like the conclusion of that two-parter I mentioned above.  However the mixture of those elements is not quite as deft here as it has been in the past.

In particular, I think that season five goes to the comedy well a bit too often, and keeps going to it even when the humour of a particular situation has run dry.  For instance, they introduce a new 'shyster' character and then use him in exactly the same basic comedic plot arc in three of the four episodes he's in.  It wasn't that funny the first time around.  Or there's the episode where the 'gag' is that a novelist is re-writing Magnum's pedestrian insurance investigation as an over the top espionage pot-boiler.  Again, it's amusing to see the actors playing their alternate selves in this version of events for a while, but the gag gets well overdone by the end of the episode.

Still, there are bright spots here, and even the less good stuff is merely mediocre rather than actively bad (well, except The Love for Sale Boat.  Its pretty awful).  This season is not of a standard with those before it, but it is watchable enough.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Jake Holman is an engineer in the US Navy, recently transferred to the San Pablo, a gunboat in central China during the warlords period of the 1920s.  Jake's looking forward to working on this smaller vessel after some time on larger ships: he figures there'll be fewer people telling him how to run the engine.

On arrival, though, Jake discovers that most of the work on the boat is performed by Chinese labourers, leaving the crew free for military drills.  That doesn't suit Holman, who wants to take personal care of the engine.  Naturally his resistance to the established practice puts him at odds with most everyone else on board, and that gets doubled when he takes an interest in one of the Chinese workers, begins to train the man properly, and even takes his side in a dispute with one of the white crewmen.

So things aren't exactly rosy on the San Pablo, even before China explodes in a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment.  Now the crew must endure an entire winter confined on the ship while more or less besieged by antagonistic locals, which will strain tempers further, even as the danger to the American civilians they must protect becomes greater and greater.

Often the films that get a 'not recommended' tag around here have some obvious technical deficiencies, such as bad acting, awful special effects, annoying protagonists, or even straight up not bothering to provide audible dialogue.  None of these are true of The Sand Pebbles, which has a strong cast (Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna), plenty of budget to get the visual and audio right, and a solid protagonist.

No, The Sand Pebbles instead gets a not recommended for two main reasons: the first is that it is way too long.  The second is that the characters and situation are so overwhelmingly ugly.  The other crewmen are racist, sexist jerks who are willing to throw Holman under a bus when things get tough; the Chinese grievances against westerners are justified, but their actions in response are repellent; and so forth.

Unless you want to spend three hours being reminded that often, people suck, steer a course away from The Sand Pebbles.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Ant-Man (2015)

When Scott Lang gets out of prison he is determined to go straight.  But it's tougher for an ex-con to make a go of it than he expected, and until he's earning money, he can't see his daughter.  So when word of a "sure fire" job comes his way, he reluctantly decides to pull one more heist.

Scott's understandably nonplussed when the only item in the vault he cracks is a strange leather suit. But in pretty short order that's going to seem comparatively tame, as he finds himself thrown into a world of minuscule heroics and a desperate plan to prevent dangerous technology from falling into the wrong hands.

After Guardians of the Galaxy was inconveniently successful, the Marvel Doomsayers turned their attention to this film.  After all, clearly that film had succeeded because it had tapped into rising space opera fever a year out from the new Star Wars, or something.  Nothing of that sort would save this little number, however.  People had to be tired of super heroes by now.  And it was about a hero no-one outside of comic book nerds had ever heard of. And it was helmed by the director of Bring It On.  Who the heck would turn out for that?

Well, I would, for one.  Bring It On was great fun.

Anyway, the "sure-to-fail" Ant-Man would go on to be a modest but palpable financial success, leaving the doomsayers to console themselves with the fact that eventually they're going to be right about a Marvel film flopping.

So why were they wrong about Ant-Man?  Well, probably partly because the so-called "glut" of super hero films is nowhere near as big as people like to make out.  A half dozen or so major releases a year across Marvel and DC is not really so punishing a schedule as all that.  It's certainly not like the torrent of slasher films that eventually eroded that genre's marketability, for instance (though even that was far less total than people like to think; slasher films are still being made and still making money, they've just evolved a bit).

Probably the bigger key to the film's success though, was that Marvel had built up a reputation for delivering solid films, and this movie is no exception.  It has an engaging cast, a fun script, some great action scenes, and some genuine laughs.  As long as you're willing to buy into the whole spandex thing to begin with - and clearly, most people are - then you should enjoy it.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Elizabeth R (1971)

Glenda Jackson justly won two Emmy awards for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in this BBC serial.  Her performance is excellent.  Kind words must also be spoken of the make-up department, who had the job of making then 34-year old Jackson plausibly look 20 in the first episode and nigh-on 70 in the last.

Elizabeth R consists of six 85 minute episodes, each centred around a particular period or event in the queen's life.  Each tale is self-contained, and there are sometimes quite long jumps in time between one episode and the next, so there's less of a narrative flow between episodes than I expected, before sitting down to watch.  I think if you didn't have some prior knowledge of the period, you might struggle to follow it at times.  If you are well informed about the period, on the other hand, you'll probably appreciate how faithful it is to our best understanding of the events of that time.

Episode 1 focuses on the two most difficult periods of Elizabeth's life before becoming queen.  The first was the attempted abduction of her half-brother King Edward VI by her guardian Thomas Seymour.  The second was pretty much the entire reign of her older sister Queen Mary, who was determined to return England to Catholicism, and who feared Elizabeth's popularity with the Protestants in the country.

Episodes 2 and 3 both deal with the question of marriage.  The former deals with the many attempts to find a match during the early years of Elizabeth's reign, and the problems wrought by her conflicting desires - which were, not necessariily in order, to make the best match for England, to make the best match for herself as a woman, and to maintain her independence.  The latter deals with her last serious suitor, the Duke d'Alencon, twenty years her junior and heir to the throne of France.  Elizabeth was 46 at the time, so the chances of the union would have produced children seem small, but it is an interesting historical 'what if'?

Episode 4 centres on Elizabeth's relationship with Mary Stuart, the deposed Queen of Scots, and episode 5 on the Spanish Armada.  The depiction of the latter is refreshingly honest, acknowledging that the vast majority of Spanish losses came from the weather, not the English ships that faced them.

The final episode then covers the Essex rebellion and the last years of the Queen's life.

I enjoyed this series very much, especially Jackson's performance, but it is not without problems.  As noted above, it might be hard to follow without some prior knowledge the Queen's life.  Aloso, the constrained resources of the BBC are sometimes very noticeable.  While the costumes are always good, there is a conspicuous lack of crowd scenes, large scale action sequences, or anything else that would have proved too expensive or complex to film.  When Elizabeth gives a rousing speech to the army assembled to fight the Spanish, for instance, we see only the Queen herself - the "army" exists only as post-production crowd noises.

If one can overlook the "economical" production (which is thematically fitting in a way, given Elizabeth's own renowned hatred of expense), and does not mind doing a little pre-reading on the period, I think this is well worth watching.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Wild (2014)

I was interested in seeing Wild when it was at theatres, but I didn't get around to it and then forgot about the film, and the book on which it was based, until it became a fairly significant plot element in the recent Gilmore Girls reboot.  Put me down as someone who thought said reboot was rather uneven and mildly disappointing, on the whole, by the by, but it did in any case prompt me to pick up a copy of the film at last.

When her beloved mother dies suddenly, at the young age of 46, Cheryl Strayed goes rather off the rails: heroin abuse, anonymous sex, and so on.  She destroys her marriage and alienates many of her friends.  Finally, having hit her personal nadir, she decides to rebuild herself into "the woman [her] mother raised" by walking the Pacific Crest Trail.  Well, the 1,100 miles stretch from the Mojave Desert to the southern border of Washington state, at least.

Strayed plans to do this alone, and with no prior hiking experience, so as you might imagine she doesn't exactly get off to a flying start.  She struggles to put up her tent, has the wrong fuel for her camp stove, and so on.  Slowly, however - often with the help of strangers - she begins to adjust to the task at hand.

Reese Witherspoon carries this film: she's often the only person on screen for large amounts of time.  It's a task as weighty as the pack she carries in the movie, and she handles it well, though I do think she's left a little short-changed by the script.  I found the personally transformative nature of the journey was not communicated as well as the hardship of the physical task was, and the ending of the film felt a bit sudden.  I suspect the book may handle these elements better, since it will be able to give us a much more direct view of what Strayed was thinking and feeling.

On the plus side for the movie though, it does strongly communicate some of the experiences of women in the world, explicitly told from the perspective of one of those women.  That's a disappointingly rare thing, so thumbs up for seeing it here.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Robot Chicken, Season 3 (2007)

That the film 300 came out either shortly before or during the writing of season three of Robot Chicken is immediately apparent, as the show milks the film for several sketches, including one of the highlights of the season.

This will only make sense if you've seen the film, of course.  But if you have, it's about 100x more entertaining than the movie.

Other highlights for this year include a parody of Misery with the characters from Peanuts, Sir Mix-A-Lot helping out King Arthur, celebrities as alien lizard people, and Bob the Builder meets The Sopranos.  And if all that sounds pretty wild and random and bizarre ... well, that's kind of the show's stock in trade.  Their final sketch every year does involve the show getting "cancelled", after all (this year, it was for murdering half of their production team).

Now obviously that sort of craziness is not going to be to everyone's taste.  And to be honest I do think that overall this season is the show's weakest so far.  There are some very funny, very clever moments like the ones mentioned above, but I felt the quality was somewhat uneven as a whole, and had an unfortunate habit of drifting into slut-shaming at times.

Still, if wacky pop-culture-soaked shenanigans sound like your thing, the show definitely still has some shining examples of the form.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

Colonel Ryan is a US pilot who gets shot down over Italy in 1943.  He's transferred to an Italian prisoner of war camp where the British regular army inmates have a virulent dedication to escape efforts.  Their continued attempts have prompted the camp commandant to turn off the water to their showers, deny them fresh clothing, and put them on half rations.  This has just caused the PoWs to escalate, to the point where they are stockpiling anti-malarial medicine for escapees, despite the fact that they have fifty men in the camp hospital suffering from just that disease.

Ryan, who believes Italy will surrender within the next few weeks, is the highest ranked officer among the prisoners, and thus technically their commander.  He bans escape attempts and engages in a more conciliatory approach to the commandant, which earns him the unfriendly sobriquet "Von Ryan" from the other prisoners, but does also improve their quality of life.  And hey, they'll all be out of there in a few weeks anyway, right?

Well, not so much.  Ryan is right that the Italians are about to surrender, but has not allowed for the speed with which the Nazis will seize control of the country.  He's a refreshingly error-prone protagonist all around, actually: normally we can expect the sympathetic point of view character to be right pretty much every time he clashes with someone else over a decision, but Ryan doesn't get such gentle treatment here.  Like a real commander, he has to live with making choices that got men killed when another option might have kept them alive.

And like a real commander, he has to keep making those choices, as he and his men are bundled onto a train destined for Germany.  Ryan's going to have to act fast, if he doesn't want to spend the next few years as a guest of the Third Reich ...

This is a solid war adventure tale, sprinkled with a light mixture of funny or emotional moments to vary up the pace.  Some of the action looks a little old-fashioned and tame by modern day standards, but the film otherwise looks great: the production used real vehicles as much as possible, rather than models, and built an entire life-size prison camp rather than working on a studio lot, and those efforts come across on screen.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

When Guardians of the Galaxy was announced there was a lot of conjecture about whether this would be Marvel Studios' first box office failure.  It's space opera, not superheroes!  The characters are known only to comic book nerds!  There's a talking raccoon!

And then it went on to be one of the top 3 grossing films of the year (whether is 1st, 2nd or 3rd depends on whose figures you use), and the doomsayers started in on Ant-Man.  One day they'll be right, I guess.

This film begins in 1988, with a young boy named Peter being abducted from Earth.  Some 25 years later, he's a minor criminal in the interstellar community, engaged in petty theft and other such endeavours.  Pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

At least, that's what Peter is until he steals a mysterious Orb from a now-abandoned planet.  Suddenly some of the most powerful people in the galaxy are after him ... not to mention his former partners in crime, who are understandably miffed that ol' Pete snuck out to pinch the doo-dad without them.

So there are quickly a whole lot of people gunning either for Peter or for the Orb, and through an anarchic sequence of events he finds himself thrown into reluctant co-operation with an outlandish band of fellow reprobates.  There's Gamora, the beautiful green-skinned 'daughter' of an alien tyrant whom she has betrayed; the musclebound Drax the Destroyer (played by former wrestler Dave Bautista, who based on this really ought to stick to the screen and avoid the ring hereafter), a sentient tree named Groot, and Rocket, the aforementioned talking Raccoon.

Naturally, hHijinks ensue, and the band of vagabonds may find themselves in the unlikely role of heroes by the time all is said and done.

While I think it does have a little too much backstory to unpack in the opening half hour or so, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fine adventure-comedy SF romp.  CGI characters Groot and Rocket are really the breakout stars of the movie, but the flesh and blood characters are no slouches either.  I'm pleased to see that everyone will be back for the sequel, which should be hitting cinemas in a few months.  I know I'll be going!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Supernatural, Season 4 (2008)

Supernatural was originally conceived as a five season story, so it's thus not surprising that the big meta-plot really escalates in season four.  The forces of Hell are working to bring about the a full Book of Revelation style apocalypse, and literal angels now walk the Earth in an attempt to stop them.  Naturally, the Winchester boys are going to be right in the thick of the whole thing.

In the context of this ever-escalating danger, the usual Supernatural shenanigans occur: monsters are fought, angst (so much angst!) is angsted, and there are occasional breaks of goofiness or changes of pace to lighten the whole thing up.  This latter category includes an episode with a giant, magically self-aware teddy bear, one where the brothers are suddenly office drones with no memories of their lives as monster-hunters, and another where they discover a series of novels exist that accurately describe all their adventures.

Season four also marks the point where the show expands its core cast.  Well, Misha Collins is still a "guest star" in the billing here, but since he's still on Supernatural today, and they're up to season 12, I think we can accept that he's going to be a core fixture.  Also, yeah, season 12.  The whole "five season story" does actually happen, I believe, but the program then continued anyway, albeit under a new show runner, on the basis that ratings were good and the cast and crew liked making it.

I'm not sure I'll keep tagging along with the Winchesters past the originally planned conclusion at the end of season five, but I have enjoyed the show to date, and overall I think season four is the strongest they've done so far (the other possible contender would be season two).

If you want broody bad boys battling bombastic beasties, you could certainly do worse.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

3-Headed Shark Attack (2015)

Other than mockbusters, The Asylum's largest body of output is "creature features", where some kind of scientific gobbledygook is spouted to justify an improbably large, dangerous, or otherwise mutated animal going on a rampage.  Stuff like the (surprisingly fun) Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, for instance.

The single animal The Asylum most likes to employ, however, is the shark.  Quite possibly because they're comparatively easy to do cheap CGI for.  They're the people behind the Mega-Shark and Sharknado film series, for instance, and this film represents another dip in the same pool.  So to speak.

So the premise is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (which is a real thing) is causing strange mutations in the animals in the area (which is not).  An underwater research base - portrayed in some of the worst model work of the 21st Century - has been established to investigate this phenomena, but neither the base nor its occupants are equipped to deal with the massive, three headed shark that suddenly appears and goes on a flesh-eating, physics-denying rampage.

All the usual hallmarks of Asylum quality are on show here: a nonsensical and repetitive script (made even more so by the fact that a couple of conversations literally happen twice - great editing job, guys!), weak special effects, and woeful acting.  And I do mean woeful.  Aging pro wrestler and noted stoner Rob Van Dam turns in a performance better than most of the rest of the cast.

But lets face it, no-one's watching a movie called 3-Headed Shark Attack for the nuanced performances, they're watching for the people eating antics.  And as far as those go ... well I guess if gouts of CGI blood are your thing it has you covered.

This is a sequel to (you guessed it) 2-Headed Shark Attack, and quite frankly that earlier film looks like a masterpiece in comparison to this one.  Which is not to say it's actually good, of course, but it's at least a little more inventive with its killer fish antics.  It's still no Deep Blue Sea, though, which remains my go-to suggestion for anyone who just wants to watch some sharks implausibly murder a bunch of folks.