Mini reviews of Television seasons old and new. No fuss. No spoilers. Occasional bunnies.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Frank Herbert's Children of Dune (2003)

Most of the principal players return for this continuation of the Dune saga, although not all characters are played by the same actor/actress. We get book 2 (Dune Messiah) and book 3 (Children of Dune) merged because it makes sense to do so, unfortunately that means it has a lot of story to cover in a short time.

It begins 12 years after the events of the previous miniseries. The political situation is ongoing, and although changed is no less problematic. The religious beliefs that surround Muad'Dib are beginning to take its toll on the reluctant Messianic figure. The "abomination" has grown up and behaves like a Bene Gesserit bitch should, with problems of her own that have little to do with affairs of state. History is written on the sands of Arrakis, but one thing is ever present, "…that every revolution carries within it the seeds of its own destruction."

Things that work: the pacing is good most of the time; Leto II is likeable, and his decision making seems organic and considered; the score, this time by Brian Tyler, is even better than the last one; the relationship between the twins is believable; and the worm design is one of the best I've seen.

Things that don't work: again, the lack of a voice over narration is a huge handicap for the story; the painted canvas backdrops of the previous series have been replaced with bad CGI; the love triangle is underplayed; Alice Krige and Susan Sarandon add star power but they're useless, saying all the right words but with little of the gravitas or understanding needed behind them; the Tleilaxu aren't as mysterious as they should've been; and that damned dwarf!

Don't expect to make sense of everything unless you've seen the first series. Fans of the book will get the most from it, plus they will know the magnificence that follows after the credits roll.

3 episodes, approx 82 minutes each.

2½ sins of the mother out of 5

Friday, January 27, 2012

LOST - Season Two [2005]

"See you in another life, brotha."

After the perfect in every way first season of LOST, showrunners Damon Lindlelof and Carlton Cuse faced the difficult task of recreating and further developing the same sense of mystery, intrigue and compelling character-based stories we had become accustomed to.

With a promising opener that starts off right where the season one cliff-hanger left off, we are treated to some answers that lead to more questions and followed with a run of about 7 excellent episodes in a row. 
After that, things just sort of fall apart and the plot wanders around aimlessly for the most part.  There’s a handful of good episodes scattered in what is a lot of fillers but it’s mostly forgettable and really adds nothing worthwhile to the characters or the story. 

Harsh criticism aside, it never really feels like a huge waste of time to a dedicated fan of the series.  You still feel a little closer to the characters that you’ve all ready started to love and there’s always brief moments in each episode that makes it all worth the spent time.

To add to the all ready impressive cast, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Watros and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are given some interesting roles in the story that make perfect sense but come right out of left-field at the same time.  However the most note-worthy additions would be Michael Emerson and Henry Ian Cusick as two of the most compelling characters LOST has to offer in it's entire run.

Things really pick up in the final 9 episodes as all the characters begin playing a key role in the events that have slowly unfolded over the course of the year.   Many questions are answered that lead to one of the larger mysterious aspects of the series and really give the viewer a sense of ‘what the hell is this show?’

Season Two might be flawed in several areas but with a little patience it still manages to entertain and keep you guessing.  With this being the weakest season of the series, you know you’ve got an excellent show ahead of you.

24 episodes.  44 minutes each.

Episodes To See:  
2x03: Orientation
Locke-centrics are always emotionally draining but so beautifully written and acted.
2x07: The Other 48 Days
An interesting twist on the storytelling that keeps things refreshing.
2x23/2x24: Live Together, Die Alone
What the hell is going on and why am I so intrigued?

Episodes to Avoid:
2x11:  The Hunting Party
Jack-centric.  Zzzzz.  A lot happens...it's just handled poorly.
2x12:  Fire + Water
Charlie-centric. Zzzzz.  Nothing happens...it's handled poorly and stupidly.

Buyer's Guide:
LOST is widely available on DVD/Blu-ray in single season sets or a complete series collection.

3½ Tail Sections out of 5

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Frank Herbert's Dune (2000)

There is a substance, a spice, found in only one place in the known universe, on Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. The spice is the most important substance known to man. It prolongs life and enables interstellar travel. Without it, interplanetary trade would cease and empires would fall. This makes people nervous. Nervous people do desperate things. The Padishah Emperor controls Dune. He's more nervous than most. Those he favours are permitted to mine the spice. Those that oppose him are quickly silenced and left to die. There are a number of political houses that the Emperor can use to keep the spice flowing. Each house has its own agenda. Each house has its own problems. Each house hates the other. There's a prophecy that tells of a time when a man will come - a saviour. That time is now.

Dune is so full of plot that I had to skip ninety percent of it just to type that. I should've used bullet points. It's about politics, religion, love, death, legacies, oppression, socialism, revolution, truth hidden and truth revealed, and so much more. I hate politics, but I love Dune. It makes a dull subject exciting.

In reality, the complexity in the Dune book makes it unsuitable for a film medium, but they try. It lacks the voice-over that the previous filmed version had. Despite what you may think of that other version, Lynch knew that a voice-over was essential; if you've read the novel you'll understand why.

The cinematography is by the renowned Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now; The Last Emperor) but what he's chosen to do with the limited budget will irk some folks. You may laugh at the painted backdrops of the set-bound production, but if you do then you're not seeing the bigger picture.

Visually, each planet has its own unique style, so we can tell instantly where we are without the need for repetitive establishing shots. The costumes follow the same pattern, and the people chosen to wear them are (mostly) well-suited to their book counterpart. A longer running time means it can be more faithful to the original text. It invents a subplot for Princess Irulan that wasn't in the book, but it's woven around the main themes well so it never feels like an intrusion.

3 episodes, approx 98 minutes each.

3½ signs of worm out of 5

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hell On Wheels Season 1 (2011)

"Choose Hate. It's so much simpler."
AMC's latest original drama takes place in 1865 after the American Civil War and during construction of the transcontinental railroad. We follow Cullen Bohannon, a former confederate soldier on a quest for vengeance against the soldiers who killed his family. He finds one working as a foreman working for the Union Pacific railroad based at the titular town Hell on Wheels, so he gets a job there managing an all black cut crew. He will face not just setbacks in his thirst for revenge, but also in his relationships with other characters including former slaves, Irish immigrants, prostitutes, the head of security and the head of the company, Thomas Durant.

So much is going on, it's hard to see how they could have fit it all in just 10 episodes. At times things feel rushed and the central revenge plot seems to get lost in the middle of the season, but the production isn't above just holding off on some plot threads if it would get in the way. This is good when they pick the more interesting ones, freed slaves dealing with latent racism, over the less interesting ones, pretty much everything about the Irish brothers. The feel of the show is less authentic western period drama than it is dramatized excuse to have gunfights in a western setting which is perfectly fine. It makes full use of its drama with bloody gun fights, backstabbing, scalping and racism against both freed slaves and native americans. It starts slow, but, to borrow a pun, it picks up steam later on.

Episodes to See:
Bread and Circuses - Good conflict between Bohannon and Elam.
Revelations - An episode focused on the 2nd main character Elam.

Buyer's Guide:
Available on DVD and Blu Ray box sets and on iTunes and Amazon.

3½ Turning to God doesn't make an alcoholic hate whiskey out of 5

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Martian Chronicles (1980)

TV miniseries based on Ray Bradbury's classic book of the same name. Film adaptations of Bradbury's novels rarely work; they lose the lyrical beauty and visual splendour of his words. This one was scripted by Richard Matheson, so I had higher hopes than usual. They fell away almost instantly and shattered on the floor. I swept them under the rug hoping my sense of enthusiasm wouldn't notice.

The book was a collection of short stories that together documented a history of Earth's attempt to explore and colonise the neighbouring red planet. The miniseries follows that same formula. However, if you weren't aware of the vignette nature of the source material you'd maybe wonder why the TV adaptation feels so lamely stitched together.

The first episode has three tales in sequence. It's a kind of early version of The Ray Bradbury Theatre. It's clearly low budget, but they try. Sadly, they mostly fail. The episode is boring, with bad acting and long periods of dodgy FX. I can forgive dodgy FX, but I can't forgive bad editing of them.

The second episode takes a different approach and mixes two stories together. It manages to be more engaging some of the time. It's still far from successful, but is a thousand times better than the preceding one.

The third episode is even further removed from the source material and does nothing to redress or balance out the failings of the previous two.

There are some familiar faces amongst the cast but they really don't care about the material. The only exception is Rock Hudson who at least tries to emote.

If, like me, you're a Bradbury fanatic and think you want to own TMC, then do yourself a huge favour and rent it first. Better still, read the book again.

3 episodes, approx 98 mins each.

1½ silver locusts out of 5

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bleach : Season 2 : The Sneak Entry Arc (2005)

Ichigo Kurosaki and his team of merry misfits (Ishida, Inoue, Chad and a talking cat) enter the Soul Society in an attempt to clean up the stuff that hit the fan at the end of the previous season. Unfortunately, for the viewer it's anti-climactic after the promise of the Season One ending. It quickly falls into the DBZ trap of having one fight or chase last for three or four episodes. I hate that shit. It feels like filler stretched far beyond an acceptable limit.

Some new characters are introduced and some more new characters are introduced and I gave up trying to remember their names because I had no idea if they were going to be regulars or just in through the outdoor plot necessities.

I'd prepared myself for Bleach to get sucky and overcrowded after my fellow Nut writers warned me it would (thanks guys), but I didn't expect it to drop in quality so quickly after the surprise greatness of Season One.

As I slipped the final disc into my player I was pretty sure of what score I was going to give Season Two, but disc 5 brought back the drama that had been missing all along. It made the memory of the stupid giant gate keeper and the subsequent boring battles seem a million miles away.  It wasn't enough to make me give the same recommendation as I gave before, but if you've decided to give the show a chance, it'll likely be the same spot that you'll thank yourself again. The comedy is still fun throughout, even when the story momentum drops. Similarity, the music is as fantastic as always, and, happily, many of the great cues from before return.

21 episodes (21-41), approx 22 mins each.

3 mysterious masks out of 5

Friday, January 13, 2012

Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 3 (2007)

"The true mind can weather all the lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. Since beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light."
Following the events of season 2, Aang and the others find themselves hiding on a Fire Nation ship preparing to defeat the Fire Lord. To accomplish this they blend in to the Fire Nation population to gather intelligence and prepare for the final battle. While doing so they will continue to help the less fortunate and learn there may be more to the people of the Fire Nation than warmongers and destruction. Also pretty much every character receives some form of character growth as they go on this final leg of the journey. Both sides are equally served here, villians and heroes alike.

The final season of this trilogy of seasons is bigger and better in all respects. Animation and story are kicked into high gear with smooth and consistent quality. Action is packed full with not one, not two, but three multi-part episodes. An excellent run of episodes building up to a huge finale with returning characters and tons of the elemental martial arts to be seen along with the show's fine sense of humor. Quality animation, action packed plot and some good character growth makes this the best season of the three.

Episodes to See:
The Beach - An interlude giving perspective from the villains' point of view.
The Western Air Temple - A big plot point comes to fruition here.
Ember Island Players - The production crew essentially making fun of themselves. Also serves as a nice recap of the series before the finale.

Buyer's Guide:
Available as four DVD volumes or as a box set titled "Complete Book 3 Collection"

5 exhaustion induced hallucinations of samurai duels out of 5

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010)

"Your name...your life, is what we decide."
Starz bloody re-imagining of the story of Spartacus, although this series shows his origins rather than the history he is famous for. Spartacus starts as a nameless Thracian hired to be a mercenary soldier helping Roman legions subdue rival tribes, but things go bad when he disobeys orders to save his homeland leading to a Roman defeat and worse, humiliation for his commander ( at least in the commander's eyes.) His old life is destroyed in retaliation as he and everyone he knows is sold into slavery and he ends up in a training house for gladiators. Now he must try to survive the brutal training as well as the schemes of his ambitious masters; Batiatus and his wife Lucretia.

If you came for dramatic tales of human spirit, you will be mostly disappointed, but if you came for excessive violence (blood fountains) and gratuitous nudity (for the men and the ladies) then you're in the right place. The show starts slow, but once it stops trying to mime 300 it becomes great fun watching Romans fuck each other over and just plain fuck. Helped by a cast full of beautiful people who seem to have no qualms mimicking the more deviant side of Roman culture. Paired with great action makes the show very indulgent.

Also of note are John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as Batiatus and Lucretia playing against type and a far cry from Jonathan in The Mummy series and Xena. You will hate them and root for them all at once and they own every scene they're in. If you let it, the show is very entertaining.

Episodes to See:
Ep. 10 Party Favors - One villain plays their hand very well.
Ep. 12 Revelations - As its title suggests, season long plots come to light.

Episodes to Avoid:
Ep. 1 The Red Serpent - The worst offender of the "300 Syndrome." Rough dialogue and production that might be impressive if it were made by teenagers for a film class. Skip it and any details you need from it can be had from other episodes.

Buyer's Guide:
Available as a 4 disc DVD box set and on Blu-ray.

3 Jupiter's Cocks out of 5

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2003)

The year is 2030. Public Security Section 9 is a counter terrorist branch of the Japanese government, a group of ass-kicking professionals that get the job done no matter what. The world is overly dependent on cybernetic bodies; the web has become the medium of choice for terrorists and as a result there exists a large potential for cyber-crime and hacks. Section 9 specialise in that area. Led by Major Motoko Kusanagi the team deal with corporate terrorism, kidnapping, human trafficking, Ghost hacks (a technique in which the victim's memory is replaced with false memories) and a host of other internal and external problems. They're the people that keep the rest of us safe, often without us even knowing they exist.

GitS: SAC is based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. It isn't a direct sequel to the Mamoru Oshii film, but rather a reimagining of the original idea, almost parallel to it. And while not a part of the continuity it nevertheless owes a large debt to Oshii. Its length gives it the opportunity to explore things the film couldn't.

The show succeeds for a number of reasons: character identities are well-defined, with the human element never far from the surface; the action is explosive; the scripts are clever; the animation is fantastic (no one does movement quite as fluid as Production I.G); and the music by Yoko Kanno is a perfect fit. Put simply, it's the finest and most intelligently scripted anime TV series that I've ever seen.

It's the only anime I would recommend choosing the dub over the sub. The English voices fit the characters much better than the Japanese ones and the delivery is a lot more satisfying and naturalistic sounding than the subtitles give - although when the script requires a lot of exposition it can sound like the characters are reading from a manual; that's not just in the dub, but in both.

The episodes are divided into two types:
  • The Stand Alone episodes have a story that wraps up in a single episode.
  • The Complex episodes are a story arc (The Laughing Man) that need to be viewed in the correct order. They're the exposition heavy ones. The episodes are: 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26.

26 episodes, approx 25 minutes each. Make sure and stick around for the short Tachikomatic Days after the credits roll on each one!

5 chattering tanks out of 5