Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Breaking Bad, Season 1 (2008)

High school chemistry teacher Walter White discovers that he has lung cancer, and the prognosis is that he'll be dead within two years.  Walter's already working two jobs to try and support his family, and they'll be left pretty much destitute once he's gone.  So of course the obvious thing for him to do (at least on a TV show) is start making crystal meth.  With the proceeds of this illicit activity, he should be able to leave a substantial nest egg ... assuming he doesn't get caught by the cops (who include his own brother-in-law) or killed by an irate criminal.

Armed only with his chemistry skills, and the dubious assistance of a former student who has become a low level drug-dealer, Walter sets out to make a mountain of money, and doesn't intend to let anything stop him from that goal.  Not the fact that he knows pretty much nothing about criminal activity, not that he's suffering from a debilitating disease (and/or its debilitating treatment), and not even that his new partner is a drug-using slacker with impulse control issues.

Naturally, things don't go entirely to plan.

When Breaking Bad is slanted more toward drama and really black comedy, it's very good work.  A fine cast, good writing.  Thumbs up.  Unfortunately, at least in the first season, the writers do seem to throw in a lot of quite slapstick-oriented physical humour, and that's not so successful.  There were a couple of times where I turned to my phone for amusement while waiting out a particularly persistent scene of this kind.

Overall though, so far Breaking Bad is pretty good.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Rocketeer (1991)

Cliff Secord is a struggling pilot in 1930s California.  He makes ends meet with crop-dusting and other odd jobs, but his main goal is to participate in the national aviation tournament.  That seems impossible, however, when his new plane is written off in an accident caused by a pair of crooks trying to escape the FBI.

But then Cliff stumbles across the experimental rocket pack that the crooks were trying to steal, launching him into a new career as "The Rocketeer", just in time for him to tangle with hoodlums, a giant hit man, and Nazis.

When I was seven or eight years old, I used to love re-runs of King of the Rocket Men on TV.  Which makes it pretty surprising that I never got around to seeing this film when it hit cinemas.  It should have been right up my alley.  And it makes it doubly surprising that I'd never seen it at all until now.  Especially since I've seen many people mention it fondly.

Having finally corrected this oversight, I can report that the film is ... okay.  The cast is personable enough (and Timothy Dalton is great) but the script and action leave a fair bit to be desired.  In particular, I think there are several occasions where the film aims for (and misses) laughs when it should have aimed for (and hopefully hit!) excitement.  It's not a bad film: I was more or less entertained through the run time, but - other than Dalton's performance - I never felt it lifted above "modestly enjoyable".

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Archer, Season 4 (2013)

When I reviewed season three of Archer I spent most of my word count talking about the show's commitment to internal consistency, despite the deliberately anachronistic setting it has adopted.  That's because there comes a point with most shows where it's difficult to find much to say beyond "hey, if you liked the previous seasons, you'll probably like this too".  Well, unless said show goes off the rails in some way.

Archer season four does not go off the rails, however, so it's very much in the "if you liked it before, you should still like it now" camp.  It continues with the basic formula of over the top spy show spoofery we've had up until now, as when the staff of ISIS have to protect the Albanian ambassador while he's at a restaurant ... while said restaurant is being broadcast on a Gordon Ramsey-esque reality TV show.  Or there's the mission where Archer is bitten by a snake and has his own Heaven Can Wait experience as he lies near death.  Of course, unlike Warren Beatty, Archer doesn't learn anything from the experience.

This season also features some pseudo-crossovers with Bob's Burgers and SeaLab 2021; I say pseudo since characters and settings from those other shows appear (re-animated in the Archer style), but there's never an explicit acknowledgement of the other show.

Anyway, the short and the long of it is indeed that if you liked the show before now, it's well worth watching this season as well.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Robot Wars (1993)

In 2041, only one of the great mega-robots - titanic armoured fighting machines - is still operational.  This is the scorpion-like MRAS-2, which defends the "North Hemi" from the rebellious "Centros".  Economic times are tough in the west, though, so the giant war machine also doubles as a tourist transport!

North Hemi authorities plan to trade their way out of the financial doldrums by selling "mini-megs", smaller versions of the mega-robot, to the Eastern Alliance.  Given the history of adversity between the Alliance and the Hemi, this strategy carries lots of risks, but the economic situation is bad enough that they're pressing ahead despite the objections.

Of course, the Eastern Alliance might not be satisfied with just a mini-meg, and could have plans of their own ...

Robot Wars comes from Full Moon Productions, who are probably best known for their direct to video series such as Trancers, Puppermaster and Demonic Toys.  They specialised in cheap genre films at a time when expensive genre films simply didn't happen.  We live in a different world now, cinematically speaking.

Robot Wars is pretty standard Full Moon fare: a simple story, acting that varies from poor to adequate, and pretty basic set and costume design.

That's some real 2041 style, happening there

The bulk of the time, effort and money has clearly been kept back for the stop-motion mega-robot sequences (just as it was for the stop motion puppet sequences in Puppetmaster).  These are pretty good, on the whole.  Nothing to scare Ray Harryhausen, mind you, but David Allen and his team have done solid work, especially given the likely budget they had.  Unfortunately, while the work is solid, there isn't enough of it.  We see quite a bit of re-used footage, and the film's climactic battle is somewhat short and underwhelming.

This is a workmanlike relic of a simple cinematic time, but unless you're a nerd of a certain age, as I am, you can safely skip this and go watch Pacific Rim again, instead.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Tudors, Season 4 (2010)

The final season of The Tudors tracks the downfall of Henry VIII's fifth wife, and the course of his sixth marriage.  In addition to Henry's marital roller-coaster, the show touches on the siege of Boulogne, the ambitions of the Earl of Surrey, and the ongoing strife between the 'High' and reformist elements of the Church of England.

As with season three, this season suffers from packing rather a lot into its run time.  This is particularly notable here given the show's inconsistent depiction of time.  Henry himself suddenly ages noticeably in the last two episodes, for instance, and there is dialogue about the length of his last marriage (which in reality was only four years), but almost no other character looks appreciably different from the start of the season.  Well, except the dead ones, obviously.  And there are rather a lot of those.  Henry VIII was not good at moderation.

I definitely think this show's best days were over once the second season concluded, but it remains solidly acted, opulently decadent melodrama, if that sort of sex and murder shenanigans are your thing (and given the success of Game of Thrones, it seems like it is a lot of people's thing).  Just don't watch The Tudors thinking you're getting a documentary: it puts accuracy a very distant second to drama.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Johann Karlo's Gun Driver (2016)

It is 2017, ten years after the great Nuclear-Biological-Chemical War.  Those with the means have escaped off-world to the Martian colonies, while those unfortunates left behind are forced into containment zones.  These zones keep them safe from radiation and other fallout of the war, but also put them at the mercy of any thug with the muscle to take over and run things.

I always raise my eyebrows when I see a film billed as being a specific person's.  Making a movie is a collaborative effort, after all, not the work of a single auteur.  On the other hand, Johann Karlo has no less than fifteen credits on this film, touching pretty much every aspect of the movie, so perhaps he has a better claim than most.  Certainly, it's clear this was a passion project for him.

Alas, you can have all the passion in the world and still make a bad film, and that's very much the case here.  Karlo is clearly a fan of The Road Warrior - and probably of that film's many cheap and nasty 80s knock-offs - and riffing on them pretty heavily here, right down to digging up plenty of era-appropriate technology.  Unfortunately, his reach far exceeds his grasp.  Even if one sets aside the community theatre-level acting and the sometimes near-unintelligible sound, one is still faced with major problems.

For example, there's the laughable 'action' sequences, which are perhaps best epitomised by the 'chase' scene conducted at literal walking speed, or the climactic encounter with the bad guy which is basically just two groups of guys pointing guns at shooting at something off screen.

Then there's the script, which features such gem-like lines as "You can't trust anyone these days, but somehow I know you're different", and a super-awesome-mega-car that doesn't actually matter for the plot.  I mean, yes the hero drives it at the end, but he doesn't do anything with it that he couldn't have done with any other vehicle.  If you make a point of how awesome your car is, film makers, then you need to show the car being awesome.

If you want to watch something that's riffing on 80s apocalyptica, you're much better off seeking out Turbo Kid instead.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)

Francis Underwood is the House Majority Whip in the US Congress.  He's just been instrumental in helping the new President win election, and he expects to be rewarded for his efforts by being appointed Secretary of State.

The President has other plans, however, and Underwood finds himself left in his current role, ostensibly because his skill in getting legislation through the house makes him "too important" to leave Congress.

For an ambitious man with almost no moral scruples, this is like a red rag to a bull, and Underwood sets out to advance his own interests, whatever the cost to those around him.  Of course, there are others who will oppose him, and even his own allies can become threats over time ...

Back when I reviewed the original UK House of Cards, I remarked that I thought this US adaptation was better.  It's longer run time allows more depth to the characters and also for Underwood to face more setbacks and challenges than his UK counterpart ever did.

The show is also helped by excellent performances.  Kevin Spacey is a powerhouse as Francis Underwood - both he and Robin Wright definitely deserve the Golden Globes they later won for the show - and the rest of the cast is very solid as well, without a poor performance to be seen.

I guess some people might find Underwood too unpleasant to be a compelling protagonist, but for everyone else, this is cracking stuff.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

This sequel to 2014's The Maze Runner begins with the teenage protagonists apparently being rescued from the clutches of WCKD.  Because yes, the books were the kind of fiction where the bad guys' name is "Wicked".  Of course, this is YA dystopia, so the apparent deliverance is nothing of the sort, and these "rescuers" are merely the next stage of their captivity.

Thanks to the aid of another teen, our heroes pretty quickly work out that things aren't on the up and up, and bust out of the facility where they're being held.  Their plans beyond that point are in theory pretty simple: head for the mountains and find an organisation called "The Right Arm", which is reputed to be at odds with WCKD.  Of course, WCKD isn't likely to just let them go, and there's also the minor issue that the whole planet's descending into a fast zombie apocalypse, to complicate matters.  Plus, can they really trust all of their number?

The novel The Scorch Trials is one of the (presumably unintentionally) silliest books I can recall reading, and significant props must go to screenwriter T S Nowlin for turning in a script that eschews the most contrived and arbitrary parts of the original work while still maintaining the same basic "shape" to the narrative.  The resulting story might be more conventional in its details than the source material, but it's also a lot better constructed and delivers satisfying action/drama antics.

Production of the third Maze Runner film was delayed due to the main actor suffering an injury during filming, but I'm pleased to see that both the writer and director of this film are returning: I'll be quite interested to see their adaptation of the trilogy's final chapter.  In the mean time, if this is your sort of thing, check it out.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Season 4 (2011)

The final season of Secret Diary of a Call Girl sees Belle/Hannah trying to juggle even more plates than usual.  Not only does she have a new relationship starting up, and her usual gaggle of clients to handle, but she's also forced to become a stand-in madam when her usual boss has a little trouble with the law.  It's not a job Belle particularly wants, and some of her co-workers are more than ready to try and undermine her now she's doing it.  Oh, and there's talk of a big screen adaptation of Belle's book, as well.  Sooner or later it seems inevitable that some of these 'plates'are going to fall and get broken.

This final season delivers much of the raunchy but wry comedy of the previous series, as well as a number of broader, more slapstick style comic elements.  This is offset by even more Drama (with a capital "D") than before, all of which gives the supposedly light entertainment a slightly stressful and ultimately somewhat melancholy tone.

I've enjoyed all four seasons of this show: it's certainly been refreshing to see a program that takes a very clear "as long as you're all consenting adults, have at it!" approach to sexuality.  Even this show is not perfect on that score, but I doubt you'll find many other programs which sympathetically portray wrestling fetishists, say.

If you've got an open mind about sex, and don't mind a pretty big dose of angst with your laughs, then Secret Diary of a Call Girl delivers to the end.