Friday, 28 April 2017

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons was one of the favourite books of my childhood.  It was adapted to screen in 1974, with Ransome's low key tale of rambling childhood holidays in the Lake District, featuring lots of sailing and camping, being faithfully reproduced with very few changes from the text.

This more recent adaptation, on the other hand, recognises that Ransome's tale is probably a bit too low key and idyllic for modern audiences.  In the books, the four Walker siblings are very capable, get along with nary a cross word spoken between them, and their adventures are much more dramatic in their imaginations than they are in reality.  It's only at the end of the book that a dose of real life danger appears, when one of them witnesses a burglary.

In this version, that burglary becomes part of a much more prominent plotline involving international espionage, and the kids' relationship is much more fractious, with the kind of bickering and misadventures you might expect if you stuck four young people in one place for any length of time.

These story changes have both positives and negatives, I think.  The addition of the espionage storyline definitely adds more excitement, and acts to drive the story along in a much more purposeful manner.  On the other hand, I feel like the Amazons - a pair of local girls whom the Walker children befriend - get rather sidelined by the restructured narrative, which is a shame.

Overall though, it's a nice little movie that does a solid job of adapting an old family favourite for modern audiences.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Wire, Season 4 (2006)

Season four of The Wire continues the show's run of well-acted, hard-hitting law enforcement drama, but expands the narrative's attention quite widely.  Not only do we get an enlarged political element as the Democratic primary for Mayor heats up, but also the addition of a large number of teenage characters as some ex-police characters move into middle school education.

Which doesn't mean that police work is completely ignored, of course: there's an ongoing if badly run attempt to take down drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, and several homicide cases that will ultimately tie back to this operation.

The number of plot threads carried over from season three, and the number of open ones left at the end of this season's thirteen episodes, are the major reason for the "Qualified" part of my recommendation.  Season four of The Wire definitely feels like it is a part of a larger narrative, rather than being a truly standalone story.  It would probably be pretty hard to leap into the show with these episodes and really follow everything that's going on or to understand why the various characters interact in the way they do.

On the other hand, what's likely to be confusing for new viewers is often a joy for long term fans as they see characters and stories evolve organically from previous events.

If you haven't checked out The Wire yet, you should - just be sure to start from the beginning, to really the full effect.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mr Banks likes things neat and orderly, like they are at the bank where he works.  Unfortunately, there is nothing especially orderly about children, as he and a succession of frazzled nannies have discovered.  When he resolves to fix the issue once and for all, however, he gets rather more than he bargained for: the magical Mary Poppins, who flies in on the east wind to set the Banks household to right with a combination of supernatural powers and weapons-grade sangfroid.

Despite what Saving Mr Banks might try to tell you, P L Travers did not much care for this film.  Which I think goes to show you that authors are not always the best people to ask about adaptations of their work.

Not that I'd say Mary Poppins is a flawless film, mind you: I think it's a bit too long, that some of the musical numbers overstay their welcome, and that the ending is a bit rushed (certainly more rushed than an ending should be in a film that runs nearly two and a half hours).  And let's not forget Dick Van Dyke's accent.

But very few things in life are flawless, and the film's combination of visual phantasmagoria, strong performances (special shout out to David Tomlinson's turn as Mr Banks) and bombastic cheerfulness allow it to sail merrily along despite any minor blemishes it might have.  Admittedly, the visual aspects aren't as impressive today as they were when it was released, but they still hold up quite well after all this time: not bad for a movie that's over 50 years old.

A final warning: there's a good chance you'll end up with one or more of the film's songs stuck in your head for a long time after the movie itself is over.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Castle, Season 4 (2011)

Much of season 4 of Castle simply continues the show's basic formula.  So we get a lot of quirky cases, such as one with all the victims dressed as fairy tale characters, another where the killer is a zombie, or a noir homage with much of the action set in 1947.  And we get a lot of simmering unresolved sexual tension between Castle and Beckett.

However, this season does also do some things to disrupt the status quo.  There's a bit more attention put on the supporting cast, which I appreciate since I think they're pretty darn vital to the show's successful light entertainment package.  We see Castle's daughter Alexis transition from high school to college, Detective Ryan get married, and more flexibility in the character balance in the episodes.  Sure, there's still a lot of the Castle and Beckett show, but we also get episodes where Castle is working more closely with Ryan and Esposito, or where a guest star comes in to interact heavily with one of the leads.  Oh, and the season finale has some significant character developments too, I guess :)

Now some of the experiments work better than others.  Anything that gives Molly C Quinn more to do on the show is a great idea, for instance, but the mid-season attempt to do a Frederick Forsyth style thriller is embarrassingly ham-fisted, though there is some entertainment value in guest star Jennifer Beals's ability to make almost every line of dialogue sound dirty.

Season 4 of Castle remains mostly light, frothy fun.  It's not challenging TV, but it's certainly easy to watch.

Friday, 14 April 2017

AfterDeath (2015)

A woman wakes on a beach with no memory of how she got there.  Strange black smoke bursts out of the sand, driving her inland.  Her panicked rush leaves her breathless, but eerily, she cannot feel the pound of her heart: or, in fact, a pulse at all.

Venturing on, she finds a house.  It's occupied by four strangers, most of whom seem rather more sanguine about probably being dead than our more-or-less leading lady, whose name we learn is Robyn.  For her part, Robyn's not intending to just sit around waiting for something to happen: she intends to find her way home.  But the five deceased mortals might not be the only occupants of this strange locale ...

AfterDeath is a UK horror film with basically only six characters and three locations.  That this provides a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere actually works well with the film's plot, though it was probably a mandatory case of budgetary necessities in any case.

The film features a solid cast who perform their roles well.  It's nice to see four of them being female, too: not a common thing in  movies that don't feature a lot of bosoms!

The movie also features decent CGI effects, especially for its budget.  I won't say that the black smoke "looks real", but the cases where it interacts with physical objects are actually implemented rather well.

I won't go into details about what the characters discover about each other and the place that they're in, but like a lot of such films it is squarely founded in a single belief system.  For the purposes of the plot, you'll need to accept that the precepts of Christianity are 100% true within the film's reality.  Which is not to say the movie itself is evangelical at all, but it is something you'll have to go along with to make the story work.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Life in Cold Blood (2008)

David Attenborough was 80 when this, the last of his Life documentaries, was being made.  You'd never know it though, at least not from seeing him roam volcanoes, rainforests and deserts in pursuit of the reptiles and amphibians that are his subject matter.

Life in Cold Blood is a five part series, and as with all of Attenborough's work, it is obvious that considerable time and effort has been spent on planning the structure of the show.  This attention to detail is a hallmark of the Life documentaries and probably a key component of why the shows have been able to be the first to film many previously undocumented activities.  In this series, for instance, we have footage of the tiny pygmy leaf chameleon, and the first known video of a rattlesnake killing and each its prey.

Attenborough begins with an episode that focuses on the diversity of reptilian and amphibian life, showing why they are much more complex and varied creatures than we tend to think of them being. The other four episodes then each focus on a specific subset of creatures.

Episode two covers the first vertebrates to leave the oceans and come onto the land: amphibians.  Attenborough discusses the ways in which these creatures are still linked to the water (in particular, many of them must return to it to breed), and introduces us to the lungfish, which dates back some 380 million years and still lives in Australia today.  He also covers salamanders, frogs and caecilians - limbless, burrowing amphibians.

Episode three moves onto lizards, which are the largest and most diverse group of reptiles.  More time is spent with chameleons here, but we also meet the shingleback lizard, which has long monogamous relationships, as well as the pygmy bluetongue skink, which is so rare and hard to find that for 30 years it was thought to be extinct.

Episode four is the one that a significant subset of people will want to skip: it covers snakes.  This is where we get the rattlesnake footage I mentioned above, as well as see Attenborough interact with the  Mozambique spitting cobra much more closely than most of us would ever want to!

Finally Attenborough turns his attention to the tortoises, turtles, and crocolidians.  This last group prove far more diverse and nurturing than you might expect, with the spectacled caiman being a particularly notable example as it nursemaids an entire creche of young from multiple parents.

If you have any interest in the cold-blooded animals of the world, you should check this out.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Mandingo (1975)

The early 70s saw a lot of revisionist westerns made: films that savagely deconstructed the myths of the United States' early years, such as Soldier Blue or (godawful though it is) High Plains Drifter.  Those years were also the height of the "blaxploitation" craze.  Apparently producer Dino De Laurentiis saw these two flavours of film and decided that they'd be like chocolate and peanut butter if he smooshed them together.

Hence Mandingo, a film where the nearest thing we have to a protagonist is a racist, slave-owning rapist and murderer.  This is Hammond Maxwell, who is presented as a cut above his fellow whites in the film because he isn't violent with his female slaves when he takes them into his bed.  He even goes so far as to become so fond of one particular slave that he promises not to sell the child she's going to bear for him.  What a swell guy. huh?

Hammond's father wants him to marry and have children with a white woman.  Mulatto babies with slave women can't inherit and don't count.  There are precious few marital options out there, and Hammond more or less settles on his cousin Blanche by default.  Spoiler: it's not going to be a happy marriage.

Meanwhile, Hammond has also purchased a new slave, a pure-bred Mandingo named Mede, whom Hammond intends to train as a fist-fighter and use as a stud to sire more slaves.  According to the film, you see, members of the Mandingo tribe are uncommonly strong and docile slaves.

And you can probably work out most of the terrible places the film is going to go from here.  De Laurentiis was never one for subtlety or restraint in the films he produced, after all.

Oddly, that lack of finesse is simultaneously Mandingo's greatest strength and weakness.  It's the latter because the histrionic and over the top dialogue and direction often undercut the impact of the horrible things being done, but it's also the former because it doesn't flinch from showing those horrible things ... and in particular from showing that at the end of the day, Hammond's kindness to his slaves is a very thing veneer over a well of hatred and anger than runs as deep as in him as it does in any of his peers.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 3 (2010)

The real life Belle de Jour created an award-winning blog about her experiences, which she then turned into a series of successful books.  The TV version of Belle skips the weblog stage, with season three beginning just as her first memoir hits the shelves.

Reception to the book is strong, and TVBelle's editor wants her to start work on another straight away.  She's not sure that being an author is really her, but she does know that Duncan (the editor) is quite dreamy.  So she deliberately sets out to try new experiences - fetish clubs, roleplaying, sex with food and even sex as a client - to use for material.  These escapades, together with subplots involving Belle's friends and sister, form most of the narrative drive for this season.  Well, that and the burgeoning romance with Duncan, of course.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl remains irreverent, sex-positive fun.  The awkwardness of certain encounters is certainly played for laughs at times, but any judgmental attitudes from characters are portrayed negatively, and Belle herself is staunchly open-minded.  "We've all got kinks" she opines, "The key is just finding someone whose kinks fit with yours".

As long as you aren't made uncomfortable by the frank examination of varied sexual practices, this is a fun show with a likable cast.  Well, except for the ones who aren't meant to be likable!