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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

RoboCop: The TV Series (1994)

Wisely ignoring the existence of RoboCop 2 and 3 (like we all do), the cheapo series is set two years after the events of the first film. It feels like something I'd have sat down to watch on a Saturday evening as a kid after the A-Team had ended and before the crap variety show with Jimmy bloody Tarbuck. If you stumble upon the series while channel-hopping you'll likely give it five minutes before hopping some place else. That's because it takes a couple of episodes before the show begins to justify its existence.

There's a lot of attempted humour; not quite slapstick and certainly not sophisticated, it sits somewhere between and ends up mostly face-palm bad. The one element that saves it from the stop button is the relationships. When it finds the human element that's buried within the machine it gets mildly entertaining and raises itself out of the shit-bin for a time. It's still bad, but it has heart beneath the clumsy scripts and the awful villains.

Robo's partnered with a female cop who knows his real identity, so they've a shared burden and a secret bond. He's also helped by a holographic woman named Diana who's an interesting addition to the team, allowing the writers to pull some quick fixes for bad writing out of their collective asses a number of times. She's a likeable gal and brings some cheer to proceedings, so it's often forgivable.

Each episode has a satirical news bulletin similar to what Verhoven did; it never gets too scathing but is still fun. Better still, Commander Cash, an animated superhero that encourages kids to be good OCP product consumers, is featured regularly. Animation is styled like The Jetsons. It's the best part of the show. The joke would wear thin after a while, but the producers are clever enough to keep it brief and entertaining.

It's not a series I'd recommend to everyone, but if it came up in conversation I wouldn't be ashamed to voice my support for what it tried to do, while acknowledging that it didn't manage to meet its own targets.

Feature-length pilot and 21 episodes, approx 44 minutes each.

2 television has a lot to answer for out of 5

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ghost Hunt: Season One - Part One (2008)

With the popularity of paranormal investigating shows increasing over the past few years, it was inevitable that a similar anime would be produced.  Ghost Hunt, a series about the investigations of the Shibuya Psychic Research team, follows naive high school freshman Mai Taniyama, assistant Shibuya Kazuya and a cast of others who aid in investigating phenomena and exorcising spirits.

The show most resembles Paranormal State, an American reality program where a team of college investigators help families deal with a variety of problems including possession, hauntings, and demonic entities.  GH is similar as it focues more on aiding others rather than collecting evidence.  Because of this, the series has a more sentimental tone as opposed to being something particularly scary.

The investigations referred to as "Files" are usually contained in multiple episodes.  The first file "Evil Spirits All Over" introduces Mai to the arrogant Shibuya during his analysis of a supposedly haunted schoolhouse.  Other characters brought in to help include a monk, a shrine priestess, a catholic exorcist and a medium, all of whom are way too young for their respective roles.
This file struck me as visually uninteresting as most of the show does.  Despite lack of experience, the characters comprehend a vast knowledge which I found quite interesting and informative.  The writers obviously did their homework.

As in any show containing an adolescent female lead, love is in the air as young Mai secretly pines for the narcisstic yet handsome Shibuya.  This is where most of the comedy arises but it's mostly restricted to childish humor.  Ghost Hunt is meant for teenage anime fans with an interest in the paranormal, but with a lack of interesting visual and unconvincing characters, they would be better off watching truly creepy anime series such as Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom or even reality-based paranormal investigations instead.

13 episodes.  Approx 25 minutes each.

Buyers Guide:
Available as a 2 disc box.

2 young to be an exorcist out of 5

Nutted by Borderline

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

John Doe (2002)

While my gifts provided answers for others, I still search for my own. 
My name is John Doe.
A man wakes up on an island off the coast of Seattle and stumbles into the ocean where he is picked up by Khmer fisherman. He is surprised to learn he speaks their language. He is equally surprised when a paramedic asks who he is and he can't answer, yet he can tell what day it is just by looking at the sun. His memories are gone and seem to have been replaced with every bit of knowable information as if he has a search engine inside his head. Taking the name John Doe, he uses this gift to his advantage by using his new knowledge of statistics to win horse races and invest in stocks. Though he is far from omniscient as the races prove by losing to circumstance occasionally. He comes across a police report about a missing girl that he can see in color which is unusual as he is colorblind. Thinking this has some sort of meaning, he helps the police in their investigation which will be one of many while searching for clues to his past life.

The show actually premiered the same day as Firefly which may or may not be related to it's fate though it certainly fared better since it actually got a full season that aired entirely, but was unceremoniously dumped after a huge cliffhanger ending adding to FOX's reputation as killers of good shows. It was a refreshing mix of police procedural, science fiction and drama. Prison Break's Dominic Purcell gives an enthusiastic performance supported by John Marshall Jones as Frank Hayes, a detective who first sees John's potential for crime solving, and Jayne Brook as Jamie Avery, a recently promoted lieutenant who is at first the most skeptical of John. Along with Sprague Grayden as a young art student who encourages John not to be so logically cold all the time and William Forsythe as Digger (don't ask), the bartender at John's favored bar who has a mysterious past of his own, they form John's support and social circle. 

The science fiction parts are the backbone of the story arc, but they are not always as compelling as just the regular crimes and the first half of the season in particular suffers from some technical issues like spotty audio dubbing and jarring reuse of previous footage into new scenes. Purcell also has a habit of talking like he is out of breath when something big is happening. Not always, but frequently. But it had great plots, both regular like kidnapping and murder to great sci-fi ones like remote viewing and immortality achieved through computers. An entertaining run even if a little comedically cheesy at times and it's weird mixing of genres gave it the same ability to confound executives that Firefly did. Only lasted longer I suppose because Dominic Purcell is prettier than Nathan Fillion? Who knows.

Buyer's Guide:
Not available for purchase anywhere as FOX doesn't see it as warranting the effort. Firefly wins in the long run, but all the episodes are available for free on Hulu.

4 Guys in black trench-coats are always assholes out of 5

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (2007)

Adapted and directed by Kenji Kamiyama from a novel of the same name by Nahoko Uehashi, it's the story of Balsa (a bodyguard) and Chagum (a young boy she protects). One thing you should know from the very start is that Moribito is a character piece. There are action scenes from time to time, but they aren't the main focus, so if you're expecting large battles you'll risk disappointment.

Kenji is adept at scripting strong female leads, and Balsa is no exception. She's strong-willed and strong in passion. She could kick your ass if she chose, but only defaults to that when her reliance on her wits is unsuccessful.

Like his previous work, Moribito has a large story arc with standalone episodes interspersed. But it's messy. The 15 core episodes suffer from slow pacing and having no real cliff-hanger. Watch a number of them in succession and you'll see it's one large piece split into tiny chunks. It has an organic flow that needs time to grow. It's best assimilated that way. The episodes that sidestep the main story interrupt that necessary flow. They expand upon characters and the blossoming familial unit but they aren't well integrated.  They range from mildly entertaining to downright boring. There were times I wished the whole damn thing would pick itself up by the sandals and get the hell on with it. Slow and steady has its merits, but slow and boring is just slow and boring.

When it gets back to the main story, you'll maybe realise just how unnecessary half of what you've watched really was. The last half dozen episodes pick up the pace again, but I don't know how many people will stick it out that far.

Animation is by Production I.G, so it's top quality. It's a shame the series wasn't trimmed and tightened to half its length; it may have enabled Kenji to tell the story with more urgency, and certainly more much needed drama.

26 episodes, approx 24 mins each.

2½ saggy middle parts out of 5

Monday, June 11, 2012

Case Closed: Season 2 (2009)

On the second season, detective Jimmy Kudo not only proves "one truth prevails" but that crime is commonplace as his minor self Conan Edogawa faces off against an array of suspects, each one testing his top-notch cognitive abilities through 26 episodes.  The saga continues as young Conan devotes his time to solving cases which emerge at every turn, from Richard Moore's agency to the Junior Detective League to simple random encounters with Rachel, a dull moment is never spent.

While some episodes feel rushed as character designs appear loose and plots fall flat, there are still a number of thrilling stories along the way.  Suspense is added by putting main characters in mortal danger which Rachel finds out in one of my favorite two-part episodes, "Mountain Villa Murder". Introducing new characters such as Rachel's mother (Richard's ex-wife) and a high school detective rival of Kudo while confronting past plot holes like where exactly Conan's parents are, and if Jimmy can ever regain his original appearance, keep the show fresh.  And while the first season established a formula which became tiresome after so many episodes, it gives comedic ammunition to the dialogue this time around as characters comment on past staples.  Richard almost sees his catnaps coming as he drowsily whispers, "here we go again" and sometimes wonders if Conan knows more than he is letting on.

The same Saturday morning cartoon formula does continue but the story contains enough surprises, facing long-running mysteries and introducing new characters who promise to add drama and intrigue in future seasons of Case Closed.

Buyer's Guide:
Available as a 4 disc boxset containing episodes 29 - 54.

4 awkward moments in the bath with Rachel out of 5

Nutted by Borderline

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lock, Stock... (2000)

An off-shoot from Guy Ritche's d├ębut feature Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). It may sound like a no-brainer, but if you didn't like the film, you probably won't like the series. Conversely, if you enjoyed the film, you'll likely feel the same way about the series. It focuses on four guys: Bacon, Jamie, Moon, and Lee. They run The Lock, a pub where shady deals go down daily. They're always trying to make that big score that'll set them up for life, but life has other plans.

Just like the film, it's set in the grimy east end of London, populated by the same kind of colourful criminal types. Each venture follows the same complex structure: it starts with a seemingly easy way to make some quick cash that quickly spirals into a clusterfuck of unforeseen circumstances, leading to much hilarity, usually followed by the four main characters deep in the shit.

The pilot episode kicks things off in style. It's almost as long as the film, and had the budget been higher it could've even been worked into the beginnings of a worthy sequel. The remaining episodes have a visibly smaller budget (the pretend horse is particularly hilarious). The stories are wrapped up a little too quickly in the shorter format, but the characters are strong enough to keep it engaging.

There are some recurring characters, the most prominent of which is 'Miami Vice', a bald, hard-nut mob boss who seems to have his dirty fingers dangling in everything shady, from porn to guns. Miami is fantastic, without him it would have suffered from the villain of the week syndrome. Overall, it's a great series. It's just a shame there are so few episodes.

One 87 minute pilot, and six episodes approx 50 minutes long each.

3½ kebabs out of 5

Friday, June 8, 2012

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)

The magical girl genre holds a special place in my heart. When I was young, Sailor Moon introduced me to an amazing new world and changed the way I perceived superheroes. Fight scenes in shows like Lyrical Nanoha left me enthralled, and Cardcaptor Sakura's unrelenting sweetness could get through to me even at my most cynical. Some shows, like Princess Tutu, took the genre to stranger, sadder places, but very few series strayed far from what fans loved about the genre. Then came along a series that was willing to draw parallels between magical girls and Faust.

I almost hate to review Madoka Magica because I think it's at its best when you don't know what's coming. On the surface, it's sweetness and candy, everything you'd expect a magical girl series to be, but underneath, it's twisted, subverting and deconstructing everything fans know and love about the genre. Even as the show's darkness becomes more obvious, it continues to shock and horrify. Even when you know what might be coming, it's easy for the cuteness to lull you into a false sense of security.

 The animation in Madoka Magica is pretty uneven, but when it's at its best, it's fantastic. The cutout animation is amazing to watch, and incredibly effective. I've hardly ever seen something like it used in an anime, and never in a show like this. Other scenes, especially the simpler ones, suffer from inconsistency and poor movement. While the show's opening theme is fairly forgettable, the rest of its music is fantastic, and really helps to set the mood.

Storywise, Madoka Magica's biggest weakness is that some elements aren't fleshed out enough. There's one arc in particular that really would have benefited from at least one more episode. As is, it feels like some parts of the story are rushed or don't feel entirely earned. It's an ambitious series, and I would have loved to see what the writer (Gen Urobuchi) would have done if he'd had 24 episodes instead of 12. Still, even as is, I found Madoka Magica to be thrilling and satisfying. As cruel and terrifying as it can be, it's still a love letter to magical girls in its own way.

It's hard for me to say how much Madoka Magica relies on the viewer's knowledge of magical girl tropes. I can think of a few moments that might not be that effective if you're not familiar with the cliches they're playing with. Because of this, I can only recommend Madoka Magica wholeheartedly if you're a magical girl fan. But hopefully, even if you have no interest in the mahou shoujo genre, you can still be captivated by a show about magical girls.

12 episodes, approx. 24 minutes in length

Buyer's Guide: 
To be blunt, I wouldn't suggest buying Madoka Magica at this time. Right now it's overpriced, and the release itself isn't very high quality. If you want a physical copy, you'd be better off importing the series (the MSRP prices are pretty close to Japanese prices anyway) or holding out for a better release.

4 lives put on the line for cake out of 5