Friday, 28 July 2017

626 Evolution (2017)

Two young women - one a badass parkour ninja, the other a middle schooler with a terrible foster dad - are secretly under surveillance by a shadowy organisation.  Neither is initially aware of this, but as things in each of their lives begin to spiral out of control, it is only a matter of time before they find each other ... and the truth about who they are.

One of the main things that I liked about Arrowstorm Entertainment's Survivor, which I reviewed several years ago, was that it had a (mostly) very capable female protagonist who was played by an actor who had the physical chops to convincingly pull off the role.  No "really, Kate Beckinsale is an action star!" awkwardness here.

Said actor was Danielle Chuchran, so when the same production company launched a kickstarter in which they promised a science fiction thriller were "Dani's back in fighting form, kicking butt and taking names", well I figured it was worth dropping fifteen bucks to check it out.

It wasn't.

There are three main problems with 626 Evolution.  The first is the omnipresent and very annoying narration.  I'm sure it is supposed to be sardonic and witty, but mostly comes across like a 14 year old desperately trying to be sardonic and witty, and utterly failing in the process.  To be fair, the narrator is a 14 year old character, so I guess it could be deliberate.  It's still awful, though.

Then there's the action scenes  Much of the parkour and fist-fighting stuff is fine, but there are some gunfight scenes that are ... really not good.  The use of CGI in place of more costly and difficult practical effects is really obvious, and the action has no flow.

Third, there's the acting.  The performances - including from Chuchran, who I have seen be capable in other works - are uniformly poor.  They're not helped by some occasionally murky sound, either.  Some of the problem might be the film's use of a lot of POV shots, which means characters are often talking directly at the camera, but I also wonder if the filming schedule was highly compressed.  It would explain the lack of polish on the delivery.

Ultimately, 626 Evolution is a step backward for both Arrowstorm and Chuchran.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Magnum P.I., Season 6 (1985)

Like season 5 before it, this series of Magnum P.I. is widely considered one of the weakest in the show's eight year run.  In fact, the folks over at the Magnum Mania forums ran the numbers and this season came out bottom in terms of average episode rating, and fewest "great" episodes.  Though, they hastened to add, even a bad season of Magnum is pretty darn good.

I'm not a Magnum Maniac myself, but I can agree with the basic sentiment that even a weak season of the show is still pretty enjoyable light entertainment, on the whole.  Like season five, I think this series does suffer a bit from being a bit too heavy on the humour vs the drama.  Some of the funny episodes are genuinely amusing, but one of the strengths of early Magnum was its willingness to mix things up in terms of tone, and season six leans heavily on the funny stuff.  It's probably no surprise that the episodes rated most highly by the Maniacs in this season are the ones that buck that overall trend: the more sombre episodes, such as the espionage-themed Blood and Honor or the gritty Way of the Stalking Horse.

While the tone tends heavily to the somewhat-silly, the actual scenarios themselves remain quite diverse, as Magnum has to deal with spies, dolphins, carnival workers, castle rustlers (in an episode with a Wild West style arrangement of the theme tune) and a South Pacific coup.  Not to mention yet another of Higgins's many half-brothers.

Basically, if you like the basic light entertainment PI show feel that Magnum is all about, then you should enjoy this season: but it's probably best to watch it at staggered intervals, rather than binge watching it, as it's certainly not designed with the latter approach in mind.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

In box office terms, Mockingjay Part 2 was the worst performing of the Hunger Games series.  The producers blamed Star Wars, despite episode 7 opening several weeks later (and despite, you know, them knowing full well when it was coming out).

I personally tend to blame the two preceding films, neither of which are particularly good.  Sure, they all have fine action sequences, solid effects, and decent acting ... but the narrative framework in which all that occurs is flaccidly-paced and often rather farcical in its details.  It's difficult to truly care about characters who are placed in such obviously artificial situations.

So does this film rise above these failures?  Well, in a word: no.  The entire final hour makes that good and clear.  This sees the rebels fighting their way into the evil guys' city.  Said evil guys have festooned the place with murderous devices called "pods", which we're told in narration are so densely distributed that there's one "every ten paces".  And if these devices were just the pop up flamethrowers that we see the first time one is activated, then sure I guess I could accept that the villains somehow had the time and resources for this.  But in a later sequence, a pod does the following:

  • seal off an entire city square with seventy foot (20 metre) tall iron doors; and
  • flood said square with some sort of tech liquid to a depth of ten feet or more (and said liquid apparently has the ability to turn into razor wire if it touches someone, or something); and
  • after a while, pump the liquid out again
All of which succeeds in killing exactly one rebel soldier, by the by.  Sure sounds like a plausible and effective use of resources in an apocalyptic final stand against your enemies!

Now sure, the premise of the Hunger Games has always been pretty silly, but the original story kept the stakes very personal and the focus sufficiently narrow that this didn't matter overmuch.  By increasing the stakes and widening the scope, the later entries magnify the story's weaknesses and minimise its strengths.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004)

Garth Marenghi was a prolific author of lurid horror novels in the late 70s and early 80s.  It was perhaps inevitable that he would turn his pen to writing for TV, but only a man of Marenghi's over-weening talent would have been able also direct and star in the resulting series.

Marenghi played Dr Rick Dagless, the leading MD at Darkplace Hospital; a medical facility which just happens to sit over the gates to Hell itself; and together with his colleagues he was planned to face epic evils over the course of more than fifty episodes.

Alas, production issues - up to an including the death or disappearance of cast members - plagued the show.  When every TV channel refused to pick up the series, Marenghi revealed that a secret government agency known as MI8 ("three levels above MI6") had deliberately sabotaged Darkplace for being "too radical".

Fortunately for all of us, Marenghi managed to preserve six episodes of the program in his basement, and in 2004, with the quality of TV at an all-time nadir, Channel 4 finally agreed to broadcast the surviving shows.  They are presented here with the additional bonus of introductions from Marenghi himself, as well as interviews with the author and the other surviving cast members.

... and if you believe all the above, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is of course a parody, presenting the kind of cheap, tacky 80s TV show that an egomaniac might have produced if everyone around him was a creeping sycophant.  If you imagine the deformed union of General Hospital and the 1990s reboot of The Outer Limits, then ... well you're still far shoot of this show's lunacy, but you are kind of on the right track.

Here's fifty seconds to show you what I mean

If utter absurdity is your thing, check it out.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Katniss Everdeen awakes in the supposedly-destroyed District 13, having been spirited there by a secret resistance cabal that had somehow infiltrated pretty much to the heart of the Capitol's oppressive regime.  Once there, she's reunited with her family and with prospective love interest Gale, but separated from other prospective love interest Peeta, who is still in the hands of the enemy.

Impromptu revolts have already broken out in several Districts and District 13's leader wants Katniss to serve as a figurehead to merge these isolated bands of rebels into a single force dedicated to the overthrow of the Capitol.  Our heroine is initially reluctant, but the Capitol's decision to flatten her home District and murder something like 90% of the population goes a long way to changing her mind.

The Divergent and Maze Runner series of books get steadily sillier and sillier as they reveal more about their setting (and in the Maze Runner's case, it starts pretty silly to begin with).  I've not read the Hunger Games books after the first one, but if these movies are anything to go by, the same progression holds true with them as well.  For example, the film cites the pre-massacre population of District 12 as ten thousand people: which is a farcically low number given the size and opulence of the Capitol that oppresses it.  Slave caste societies - which is what this plainly is - need more people on the bottom than on the top.  And the less said about the actions of the Capitol throughout the film, the better.  Certainly their planning department seems to value "is this action evil?" far more than "will this action actually help is?"

On a more personal note, I'm also annoyed that the most interesting character introduced in the second film - crazy axe lady Johanna - is relegated to about 20 seconds of screen time in this one.  Boo, I say.  Boo!

Mockingjay Part 1 includes some pretty decent action sequences, but it fails to situate them in a satisfying narrative context.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Americans, Season 4 (2016)

The Americans may well be the best show on TV that you aren't watching.  Its been listed in the AFI's Top Ten shows every year since it debuted, but has never found a significant audience.  I've seen other fans of the show make the wisecrack that "the only people watching it are the critics - but thankfully they all love it".  And I am thankful, since it is probably the critical acclaim that has kept the adventures of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings available for me to enjoy.

Season four finds their situation becoming ever more precarious.  This is true both personally, because their secret lives as Russian spies are becoming known to an ever wider group of people; and geopolitically, as the Soviet Union finds itself ever further behind the West in the development of new weapons and technology.  There is an ever-mounting pressure to uncover American secrets and send them home, with an ever-mounting pressure to take risks that could do further harm to the Jennings family's personal safety.

The Americans is unusual in that it is not afraid to have expectations of its audience.  When it asks the cast to sell the immense emotional stress they're under, they don't do it with anything more than a moment of silence and a slight twist of the mouth.  The show trusts and expects the audience to understand what they are seeing, just as it trusts them to remember characters without the need for pace-destroying expository recaps, and to join the dots between separate plot-lines for themselves.

This is not a show you can watch without paying attention, which I suspect is one of the main things limiting its audience, but is also the thing that makes watching it so worthwhile.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Nice Guys (2016)

Los Angeles,  1977.  A young woman hires Jackson Healy to put a beatdown on the PI that's been following her.  This he duly does, but when two guys with guns turn up as Healy's place, looking for this self-same young woman, it seems the investigator he just beat down might be Healy's best bet to keep his erstwhile employer alive.

Quite how this ties into the case of a dead pornographic film star, neither Jackson nor his not entirely ethical new partner could ever foresee.

The Nice Guys is a fun action-comedy film.  It derives most of its laughs from pratfalls and other such physical humour - not exactly high brow stuff - but it executes it well.  It's also helped along by a strong cast who are well suited to their roles.  While neither Ryan Gosling (as the PI) nor Russell Crowe (as Healy) are exactly going to be stretched by their respective characters, they certainly execute them well.  There's also a fine performance from young Australian actor Angourie Rice, who plays the PI's daughter.  IMDB tells me that Rice has a role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which I am definitely A-OK with, based on her work here.

If you're looking for a fun action-comedy romp and don't mind that it has a relatively juvenile sense of humour, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Tudors, Season 3 (2009)

Spoilers for six-hundred year old history below.

The first two seasons of The Tudors were focussed around a single narrative: the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.  For some viewers, the end of that story could well be the right place to quit watching the show.  Certainly, if the presence of a strong female character at the centre of things was a selling point for you, you may find this season a much less engaging experience.  It also deprives the show of its most sympathetic character.

The writers appear to have tried to compensate by packing the show to the gills: the eight episodes here cover several significant events of Henry VIII's reign, not least of which are the king's third and fourth marriages.  There's also rebellion, betrayal, the long-awaited birth of a son, and further religious controversy as those who champion the reformation come into conflict with Henry's basic religious conservatism.

That's a lot of content for the shortest season of the show, and it definitely feels a bit cursory in its depiction of certain aspects.  The longer form story-telling of the first two seasons allowed for more richness of characters, whereas this season relies in large part on the fact that most of the cast are already established.  The few new faces are only fairly briefly defined: all we really know about Sir Francis Bryan, for instance, is that he wears an eyepatch and likes sleeping with other men's wives.  Though perhaps in this case, the lack of character definition is appropriate: Sir Francis was one of the few courtiers never to incur Henry's wrath, mainly because he was so proficient at altering his own opinions to match those of the king.

I don't think this series is as strong as the first two were, but if you enjoy opulent costume drama - and don't mind that The Tudors puts accuracy a very distant second to 'entertainment' - then there's still an engaging if rather grisly tale being told here.