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

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters (2012-2013)


Following the tribute and cameo heavy 35th anniversary season that was Gokaiger, Toei green-lighted a—temporarily—new timeline in which the energy source known as Enetron was under threat by the malignant AI responsible for the disappearance of the new team’s families, 13 years prior. However, this resource is one of the very few things that are fantastical herein as the threat, the technology, and the stakes are more realistic and grim than most of what Sentai has ever dared to muster.

Toei has argued that Go-Busters was ill-received because of this (especially following the then-recent Tsunami) but I personally believe they should be brave enough to admit when something fails simply because the majority of the fan base did not connect with it, instead of blaming outside factors. Fascinatingly, and thankfully, when a mid-season change in focus was implemented to assuage this, the story continued in exactly the same manner and managed to become even more severe.

While development stalls to a degree for some of the characters in this second act, it still follows a tight, plot-item driven structure which sees the show through to an endgame that features the best mech-choreography I've experienced and an immensely mature, appropriate, and gripping resolution for all but one of the cast.

Go-Busters dwells consistently on the themes of overcoming weakness through partnership (and the family you make), having an acute awareness of what should drive you, finding the beauty in imperfection, resoluteness of action, and sacrifice. These are brought to bear by a relatively small cast of humans in tandem with a wonderful contingent of emotion (and ego) driven automatons that rival and often out-perform the Imagin in Kamen Rider Den-O.

If the ostensive spy motif isn't something that normally captures your interest I would actively recommend putting that to the side as that’s essentially what the writing team does fairly early on. The special task force moniker is far more fitting and a great emphasis is put on scientific and engineering endeavors, as well. In total, the show is so incredibly much about the interactions between the hero characters. The villains of the show are very serial and extravagant in nature (think Dr. Wily) and are allowed snippets of nuance in the endgame, but ultimately exist to set up situations that allow the other characters to grow and shine.

I believe Go-Busters embodies and exemplifies the best Sentai has to offer not only in its characters and story but also in its franchise-defining mecha. Imperfectly perfect.

50 episodes, approx. 24 minutes each.
Their supplemental materials are detailed below the cut.

5 Promises Redefined out of 5

Nutted by NEG.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Blackadder: The Specials (1988 - 1999)

I'm not going to go into every detail about this volume, because it's the weakest entry in the series and will be of very little interest to most people. It's damn expensive to buy singly, so, for the completists who already own Series I–IV, if you must have it your best option is to double-dip and get The Complete Collection Box Set for a fraction of the price.

Firstly, Blackadder's Christmas Carol. It's the Dickens classic given a comedy makeover, featuring some of the best comedic talent in Britain at the time. It's longer than a typical episode. It was a joy to see Robbie Coltrane doing comedy again. He's good at it. What more can I say? Stuff it in your gift sock.

The Cavalier Years is an interesting addition. It's set in 1648, during the English Civil War. It's very similar to Blackadder II. If you picture Lord Edmund with a shaggy-perm wig you'll be close to the mark. It was part of Comic Relief's Red Nose Day in 1988 and is sadly only half the length of a regular episode. It's good that it's a standalone because, while it could've certainly worked as a series, it's much too similar to what came before.

The remainder of the disc is less than impressive. I'll mention Blackadder: Back and Forth because it's presented as the 'final episode in the saga,' but the less said about it the better because it's a piss-poor effort. Rowan Atkinson tries his best but it feels as if everyone else is merely going through the motions for old-times sake. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise great series.

2½ buggered giddy aunts out of 5

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)

In some ways it's business as usual, but in other ways the fourth incarnation is very different. I can't say why without going into spoiler territory, but I'm confident you'll come to the same kind of conclusions if you watch it.

It's set in 1917. Edmund and his companions occupy a WWI trench on the Western Front. They're all a little stir crazy. Edmund being Edmund means he'd rather be elsewhere doing other things, anything, and so spends the entire time trying to achieve that seemingly impossible goal.

It's a kind of reunion of past cast members, each given a military rank. Besides Captain Blackader there's Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson); Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie); Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny); General Melchett (Stephen Fry); and a few more cameos. Fry gets some of the best lines. I'm amazed he managed to deliver many of them without breaking down into hysterics.

While Blackadder II remains my personal favourite, there's no doubt that IV has better production. The sets are more believable and the costumes are beautifully made. It feels less like a comedy sketch show with a tacked on plot and more like an actual sit-com with real, lasting consequences. The actors fit their roles perfectly. The individual episodes are better scripted and the satire is arguably more relevant to our time. The last episode in particular deserves high praise.

6 episodes, approx 30 minutes each.

4 of the best, trousers down out of 5

Friday, December 6, 2013

Blackadder the Third (1987)

The third incarnation of Blackadder jumped forward to the years leading up to the British Regency period (sometime in the late 18th or early 19th Century), making Edmund the personal butler of the Prince of Wales.

The cast was lessened considerably, to just four regulars, and to compensate the dialogue was given even more importance. There seems to have been a conscious effort to make almost every word of Edmund's have some hilarious snide or sarcastic humour attached to it. He really is an acerbic git.

Baldrick is as important to the show's structure as Blackadder himself, so it's no surprise to see him return.

We finally get to see Mrs Miggins, who, no disrespect to actress Helen Atkinson-Wood, was the only new addition that felt de trop. The character simply didn't get anything noteworthy to do.

The final regular is the son of King George III, the Prince Regent who's also called George, played by Hugh Laurie. Laurie is a natural born comedian. He's utterly believable as the epitome of the thick-as-shit, silver spoon-fed toff; he even managed to make Baldrick look relatively smart.

The Royal setting again enabled critique of the upper class and the monarchy, both of whom deserve all they get. Hurrah!

6 episodes, approx 30 minutes each.

3½ turnips out of 5

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Blackadder II (1986)

After the disappointing first series, I'm surprised that Blackadder II ever got the green light, but it did and I'm very glad. Ben Elton joined Richard Curtis on writing duties, which helped matters considerably. Ben was no stranger to cheap alternative comedy having worked on The Young Ones a few years before. The BBC put restrictions on the production, but the two men managed to turn them to their advantage.

It's set in England during the Elizabethan era (1558–1603). The new Blackadder is a descendent of the original Black Adder. That means he can have different characteristics and a different personality. Elizabethan Edmund is a lot more confident and much less of a wet handkerchief. He also has to be more cunning because he's still attached to the Royal Court, and the Queen will have his head if she finds out about his antics. She's impulsive like that.

Both Percy (Tim McInnerny) and Baldrick (Tony Robinson) returned, but there was no Brian Blessed (Boo!). His absence was softened by having some new cast members who brought a new dynamic to the show.

Miranda Richardson played Queen Elizabeth. For two decades now whenever someone mentions Queen Elizabeth she’s the first thing I think of.

The Lord Chamberlain, Melchett, is played by the awesome Stephen Fry.

Patsy Byrne played the bewildering Nursie, the Queen's former nanny.

And finally, cameos from a small number of other famous British comedians kept things interesting. You'll find out who they were if (or when) you watch it.

6 episodes, approx 30 minutes each.

3½ devil's dumplings out of 5

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Black Adder (1983)

The first incarnation of The Black Adder isn't very good, but the ones that followed it definitely are. I wouldn't argue with anyone that says it ought to be skipped entirely in favour of the superior Blackadder II (1986). The only niggle I would have is that the viewer will miss out on Brian Blessed being awesome. The man with the giant's voice gets all the best scenes, and he chews them up fervently. If someone was to make a compilation consisting of just those moments, then that person would be your friend.

It's an alternative history comedy set during the Middle Ages (the years 1485 – 1498) in which Richard III is succeeded by Richard IV after the Battle of Bosworth Field. His son, Edmund Plantagenet, is the Black Adder (Rowan Atkinson), a weasely, snivelling little prick who wants desperately to be King but doesn't have the stones to go about it in the correct manner.

The character does get bolder and more viscously sarcastic as the series nears its end, but the forced, exaggerated facial expressions don't get any less irritating; it's like watching an early ancestor of Mr Bean, only worse.

William Shakespeare gets a writing credit on every episode. I suspect he'd have approved, given the nature of some of the comedy.

6 episodes, approx 30 mins each.

2 Hessian underthings out of 5

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Complete Series (2002)

Wisely taking into account how badly The New Adventures of He-Man (1990) was received, Mattel tried a second MOTU reboot in 2002 with designs that were less of a departure from the original 1983-85 series. Characters and locations were updated but remained instantly recognisable.  The opening title sequence sets the tone perfectly; it references the old series and then cleverly and effortlessly lets you know in no uncertain terms that this one is new.

The rebuilding of the franchise is mirrored in the gradual rebuilding of King Randor’s Kingdom. The threat of Skeletor necessitates that it be fortified and that loyal subjects are recruited to defend it, meaning the core team members return.

Man-At-Arms is his usual dependable self, with a bad-ass 'tache that will surely go down in legend. Teela is more combative but still resolutely feminine. Orko is less irritating, and is occasionally kind of useful. Stratos gets more to do, all the while sounding like the lovechild of Sean Connery and Brian Blessed. The remainder of the team each have a unique talent that the writers play around with to make their inclusion worthwhile, but special mention goes to the Sorceress who is beautifully characterised by her strength and compassion.

He-Man’s musculature is slightly less bloated; he’s not as much of a top-heavy freak as he was before. Aesthetically he’s fine, but there's one major problem with the character: Cam Clarke’s voice work. He does okay as He-Man, but as Adam he makes no effort whatsoever. I'm seeing the young Prince but I'm hearing Leonardo the Ninja Turtle. It’s the only weak aspect of the show.

Skeletor was always the best thing, so I'm happy to report that despite lacking his trademark 'Nyyaaahh' he’s even more awesome and a lot more menacing than his 1980's counterpart. He no longer flees at the first flex of He-Man’s chest; he’ll stand and fight instead. His frustrations are worked out by punishing his minions, which provides some comedy without compromising his new status.
Not having Evil-Lyn at his side would feel wrong, so she’s included. She essentially serves the same purpose as before, but is a little more Maleficent with a pinch of Lady Macbeth (she even casts spells in rhyme).

Combat is exciting, with an anime-style visual flair that settles down over time but never falls away completely. There’s some attempt to add depth to the animation through shadows that doesn't always work but deserves praise for being tried.

Season 1 is really great, but Season 2 raises the bar even higher by adding an additional threat that would've been more prominent in Season 3 had it not been cancelled because of floundering toy sales. Curse you, Matty. I want more!

39 episodes (26 in S1 + 13 in S2) split over 4 discs.

4½ morals at the end out of 5

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Book Group: The Complete First Series (2002)

Clare Pettengill (Anne Dudek) is a neurotic single woman from Cincinnati. After moving to Glasgow she finds herself alone and friendless. In a desperate attempt to connect with someone she starts a book group, but the people that turn up at the meeting aren't the kind of people she was hoping for.

There are seven members in all. Each one embodies a specific trait that acts like a peg to hang the wry sitcom humour on. There’s the pretentious twat, the giggly bint, the track-suited sports fan, etc. The awkwardness attached to meeting new people eventually gives way to the awkwardness attached in getting closer to people and finding out about their troubled private lives. The burgeoning openness helps the stereotypes break free of their rigid pigeonhole.

What’s strange is that the series was written and directed by an American woman (Annie Griffin) while living in Scotland but it’s not solely from her perspective. I expected it to be an outsider’s view of a unique culture, but it mocks both cultures and their idioms effortlessly. Annie seems to have understood her environment better than most would in her situation.

The little things help keep it interesting. There are some universal truths to make everyone smile, but I suspect a British audience will laugh at things that an American audience overlook, and certainly vice versa.

As the series progresses it becomes less about book discussion and more about the individuals and their developing bond. It’s a shame it’s so short, because it’s really quite enjoyable in a time-wasting kind of way.

6 episodes, approx 24 minutes each (139 minutes in total).

3 slices of Vicky Sponge out of 5

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Masters of Horror: Series Two: Volume One (2006)

More of the same kind of hit and miss anthology stories from many of the same people that were involved in Series One. This first half contains the first seven episodes. There may be a difference in running order between the R1 and R2 editions. I'm using the UK R2 editions. As with Series One, NA also got a full season box that included Volume Two.

The first is by Dario Argento and is a strange tale of nature’s revenge on the sins of man. Argento finds an opportunity for some misogynist violence, so I'm sure he had fun making it. — 3 out of 5 —

The second is by John Carpenter. It’s more suited to his talents than his S1 effort because it’s a good old fashioned siege movie. He adds Ron Perlman, a rubber suit monster and Cody Carpenter music to the mix for extra good times. The DoP made a few odd choices, but mostly it’s a successful and non-biased approach to a sensitive topic. — 4 out of 5 —

The third is by John Landis and is typically blackly humorous. In S1 Landis slipped in a reference to his most famous horror film. Here he slips in a reference to his S1 episode during a fantastic opening shot. — 3 out of 5 —

The fourth is by Rob Schmidt. It’s a vengeful spirit tale that’s been done much better by the Japanese, but Schmidt keeps it interesting and it’s the only one of the seven that briefly offers up some actual scares. — 3 out of 5 —

The fifth is by Joe Dante, who seems unable to keep politics out of his MoH contributions. It’s about a very specific kind of plague. It isn't very exciting, but then it turns things around and finishes on a high point. — 2½ out of 5 —

The sixth is by Stuart Gordon. It ticked all the boxes for me. It reunited Gordon with his Re-Animator (1985) star Jeffrey Combs, who portrays a poverty stricken Edgar Allan Poe in a tale woven around Poe’s The Black Cat. Poe fans will happy-clap at the references. It’s visually striking because much of the colour is drained from the negative giving it an aged quality. — 3½ out of 5 —

The seventh is by Mick Garris, loosely based on a story by Clive Barker called 'Revelations' (from Books of Blood Vol IV). It’s a story about imagination and belief that should appeal to fans of storytelling. It co-stars Christopher Lloyd and Tony Todd (who looks like he just stepped out of Midian). — 2½ out of 5 —

Overall, the episodes are of a higher quality than the first half of S1 but the package is let down this time by extras that aren't as extensive as before.

7 episodes, approx 55 minutes each (393 minutes total), split over 7 discs.

3½ friendly neighbours out of 5

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series (2009)

The Machinima Series is an animated prequel set two years before the Terminator Salvation (2009) movie. I've no idea if it improves upon or adds additional depth to the movie's back-story because I haven't watched the feature, nor do I think I ever will, so I'm able to judge the series on its own merits, of which there are few.

It's a CGI animation constructed using the game engine of the movie tie-in video game. Already, alarm bells should be ringing in your head.

It's a bold idea but the result is pretty awful. The movement is stiff, limited by the engine's existing parameters. The environments are structured like a game environment, coloured by the seven shades of shit-brown and six shades of concrete-grey that dominate the uninspired action genre.

Its blandness is matched by its obvious padding out of story. There's a story there but it could've been easily told in one 25 minute short. Instead, they stretched it to 6 episodes, approx 12 minutes each.

When the first episode ended there was a fraction of a second when my brain said it was time to pick up the games controller and prepare for some insipid shooty action. I was unconsciously making ready to target exploding barrels for easy kill points. Thankfully. that didn't happen, which was comforting. Although, what that means is that very quickly the Machinima Series feels like it's a game without any actual gameplay. No, not like Heavy Rain.

1 system crash out of 5

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Under the Dome: Season One (2013)

I am so very, very bored of 'edgy' US dramas, but I'm a huge fan of sci-fi and a sucker for a Stephen King adaptation despite their tendency to have a great build up and then fall flat on their ass in the latter half. Under the Dome bucks that trend by falling flat on its ass even earlier. It kills off the most interesting character in the first episode and leaves the chaff to pick up the slack, meaning that from episode two it drags its shitty heels through the corn.

It's (obviously) the story of a town trapped under a dome. What that means for the people within differs depending on their ability to cope with disaster, the unknown and the depravity of the secrets they want to keep hidden. Their focus is on getting out, but the story's focus is on exploring the inner aspects of each individual and the community as a whole.

It's an interesting premise and a great starting point from which to build something that branches out in many directions but remains centralised by circumstance. It's a shame the makers didn't capitalise on it well enough. Instead, they milk it like a weary tit until there's nothing left but to throw in arbitrary events that may or may not matter in the grand scheme of things. If they do matter, it's because someone decided they liked the idea and wrote something new, not because the core plot demanded it.

A medium sized cast of regular clichés keep you mildly irritated. There's the army veteran with a violent past; a hateful investigative reporter who pokes her nose up everyone's ass; an enthusiastic female police officer who's as thick as two planks nailed together; a semi-genius teenager; a shady politician that only has two emotional states; and a few others that I don't care to remember. None of them are the least bit interesting, but the cast is only a small part of the reason it's so tedious. The bullshit scenarios that are supposed to increase the tension are forced and unrealistic. The ease with which people give in to suggestion is laughable. The amateur acting (especially those kids) is painful to watch.

It cost approx $3 million dollars per episode to make. Just think about that for a minute. $3 million dollars! Christ knows how, why or where the money went.

13 episodes, approx 43 minutes each.

1½ cows out of 5

Friday, November 1, 2013

Masters of Horror: Series One: Volume Two (2006)

Volume Two of MoH contains the final six episodes of the first season. You can find information on Volume One HERE. As before, there may be a difference in running order between the R1 and R2 editions. I'm using the UK R2 editions. NA also got a full season box that included both volumes.

The first is by Dario Argento, adapted from a ten-page comic book story by Bruce Jones. It's about attraction, repulsion and the lengths some people will go to in order to sate their obsessions (or escape from them). — 1 out of 5 —

The second is by Tobe Hooper, adapted from a story by Richard Matheson, and stars Robert Englund! That's sure to be good, right? Nope. The fast editing and edgy in-camera effects rob it of any promise it could've held. — 1½ out of 5 —

The third is by Takashi Miike. What the fuck, Miike? It's the Japanese auteur doing what he does best. It contains some genuinely chilling imagery. It's also sadistic and will be deeply disturbing for some viewers. It loses half a point for not having the Japanese parts spoken in actual Japanese. — 4 out of 5 —

The fourth is by Larry Cohen, adapted from a short story by David Schow. It features a hitch-hiker, a trucker, and a slew of murder victims. Some nice camera movements punctuate the boredom but mostly it remains vapid. — 2½ out of 5 —

The fifth is by William Malone, an attempt to subvert the 'trapped in a basement' nightmare scenario by adding some reasoning to the whole affair. I think it could've worked well as a short story, but as a film, aside from the occasional surreal flashback, it’s mostly dull. — 1½ out of 5 —

The sixth is by John McNaughton, adapted from a Clive Barker short. It’s Haeckel's Tale, the story of a man of science and a necromancer. If not for the painfully disappointing ending it would be great. It doesn't try to reinvent the genre, but instead finds a different way of presenting it. — 3 out of 5 —

Like the previous volume, it’s the quality of the extras included (over 16 hours this time) that helps raise the overall score.

6 episodes approx 55 minutes each (345 minutes total), split over 6 discs.

3 resurrections out of 5

Monday, October 21, 2013

Copper (2013)

If you want the gloves to come off... so be it.
The gloves certainly do come off for season 2 of BBC America's period drama, but it is mostly to the show's detriment. The plot becomes cluttered and haphazard with too many plotlines and characters coming and going that nothing is ever finished. The first episode sets up one character as a terrorizing and fearless villain that could easily have been an interesting arc for Detective Corcoran to go against, but is then dropped by the end of the episode. This could have been a clever bait and switch, but clearly isn't as it happens about 3 more times over the course of the season like the writers got bored or distracted by something shiny and switch to something else at the drop of a hat with all the indecisiveness of a housecat deciding whether it wants to go outside or not. Interesting events that are part of the time period like disease outbreaks and opium addiction are set up as major defining moments and then discarded with no resolution and minimal effect on the main story arc. What resolution there is from season 1 is written off in a rather implausible way just to seemingly get back to the status quo of season 1 like the show-runners finally pulled themselves out of their cocaine and/or alcohol binge haze to notice the colossal mess they were making and tried to clean it up in the worst way.

When the show does get back to what it does best (vicious period drama crimes and character dialogue) there are glimmers of the entertaining show it once was, but it mostly tries to fill the void with extended gore and basic cable nudity. The plots set up aren't even bad per se, just muddled because they were all shoved together into a gelatinous mass instead of spreading it out and letting what worked play through to some sort of closure. All of it is then dropped at the end of the season for an unnecessary and shoehorned bit involving Lincoln's assassination that is cheesy and should really have had nothing to do with the rest of the show. The show comes back to end on a regular cliffhanger, but then it was cancelled making it one more unresolved moment to add to the pile. Donal Logue puts in a decent turn as a sleazy politician, even though despite his actual Irish heritage he seemed out of place at times and Alfre Woodard makes a brief cameo of sorts as a freed slave that was palatable, but could have been better. Though it was one of the few plot threads that actually had a full arc, so that's something. Overall nothing other than the set and wardrobe designers were really on point and what character drama there is to enjoy is not up to snuff for the bar the show set for itself in its first season.

Buyer's Guide:
Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video with a forthcoming DVD release.

2 Sympathetic anti heroes that aren't sympathetic out of 5

Monday, October 14, 2013

.hack//Legend of the Twilight (2003)

An anime adaptation of the Legend of the Twilight manga trilogy that you can read about here: Volume I // Volume II // Volume III. You’ll find there information on the background you'll need to fully appreciate the LotT world.

It starts out the same as the manga, but branches off into something different early on. It finds its way back and then shoots off again into places new. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because the manga was lacking excitement for a long time in the middle section - the anime isn't. I also enjoyed watching a story with characters I felt I knew well being taken in a different direction than the one I'd already experienced; the element of surprise was attached to every situation.

The relationship between the siblings is well-defined. The geographical distance between them is bridged by the game world, and their changing feelings for each other are still developing as the story begins.

The character designs are somewhere between chibi and normal. It's near impossible not to like them. However, even though it has the appearance of being suitable for younger viewers, it's not free from fan-service. The bizarre incestuous undertone in the manga is carried over.

The Japanese voices are excellent and suit the characters well. After I'd finished the final episode I went back and picked an episode at random to check out the English dub. There were a few voices I recognised, and while I may praise them elsewhere, they were very ill-suited to the characters of .hack. Sub beats dub.

12 episodes, approx 24 mins each. There's also a 13th episode that isn't a part of the main story; it's a comedy coda that throws up a few surprises.

3 red threads of fate out of 5

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention (2010)

World of Invention is a science programme with short segments devoted to new inventions, both practical and whacky. It's like an updated Tomorrow's World but with claymation presenters alongside the human ones. At time of writing it's been three years since it was filmed, so some of the inventions may well have already gone into production (or the trash), but that shouldn't detract from the fun.

Wallace is the host. He's the guy with the desk. He introduces the science segments and is Wallace through and through; Peter Sallis knows what he's doing.
Gromit shuffles around in the background serving tea, and narrowly avoiding frequent death; it's business as usual for the pooch.

Each episode has a theme into which each invention fits, such as Nature, Flight, Safety, etc, meaning that each individual episode can be used as a supporting teaching aid for young viewers - you can entertain them while covertly teaching them stuff, without compromising on either aspect. If you're lucky, it'll inspire them to delve further. If you're unlucky, you'll be assaulted with a bevy of questions afterwards about things you know nothing about.

The science is split between cool stuff (jetpacks!) and practical stuff that will change the lives of people all over the world (e.g. a fridge for third world countries that needs no electricity to work). If you have any interest in science whatsoever there'll be something here that grabs you, no matter what age you are. Seriously, who doesn't want to see a fuel cell powered by dead flies?

6 episodes, approx 30 minutes each.

3 curiosity corners out of 5

Monday, September 23, 2013

Spartacus: War of the Damned (2013)

Spartacus... That is not my name.
The 3rd and final season of Starz's bloody and melodramatic retelling of the legendary Spartacus pulls no punches. The action is plentiful and still as over the top gory as viewers have come to expect from the series. The plot is also ramped up with a new and excellent antagonist in Marcus Crassus who is both extremely cunning and intelligent as well as having the resources to enforce his will however he sees fit. Unencumbered by the faults of past romans sent to kill Spartacus makes him a dangerous foe for Spartacus who also must deal with a fracturing of his army as well as the coming winter.

Knowing full well that this would be the last season of the show, the producers and crew spared no expense. Everything from the sets to choreography is much more polished and enhanced while the plot's stakes are raised. It still felt a little rushed given the limited 10 episodes and it's a shame it had to end just as all the actors finally seemed to find the characters and the original melodrama of the show was creeping ever closer to regular drama. The fast paced story and action though is exactly what the show has always delivered and more and won't disappoint fans.

Buyer's Guide:
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray box sets and on iTunes.

History already spoiled it for you out of 5

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Battle Angel (1993)

A cyber-doctor named Ido finds the broken body of Gally on a scrap heap. He becomes her Geppetto, but the Pinocchio similarities end there because the short OVA was concerned with deeper and darker aspects of the human psyche. It may look colourful and adventurous, but it’s definitely not for kids.

To understand Gally it’s necessary to understand the class structure of the world in which she exists. It's an exaggerated version of our own. Scrap Iron City is a dark, violent, poverty stricken semi-slum that attracts those with a love of violence and nurtures its beginnings in others. Spine-thieves and brain-eating mutants are common; they keep the black market stocked with fresh produce.

Situated high above the City, suspended, protected and isolated, hangs Zalem, home to the rich and fortunate. Zalem takes the best of what’s available from beneath and spits out the waste and crap. The extreme class division breeds jealousy and contempt amongst the lower class.

Beneath the social commentary and violence beats a fragile love story. Gally has no past, no memories. In order to find purpose she must live in the moment, meaning her heart guides her actions most of the time. Her determination and love for the people in her life gives her strength. Like Ido, she strives to make life better for the people she cares for, but the human element and her inexperience with emotions mean things don’t always go to plan.

Fights are bloody, and they’re over quickly. The short running time necessities it but it also means that nothing is wasted; there’s no stretching of scenes and no filler. The animation holds up well considering it’s two decades old at time of writing and didn't have a huge budget to work with.

It's a short series (just 2 episodes) but packs in a lot of content. It’s a shame there wasn't more. Think what could've been achieved with 12 episodes!

It's currently OOP in certain territories. This is the part where I’d normally call James Cameron a giant shit for buying the rights to Battle Angel and then halting its re-release, but I don’t want to give him the time of day, so let’s pretend that I went on a tirade and everyone loved it and agreed with me.

4 late realisations out of 5

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Wallace and Gromit's Cracking Contraptions (2002)

Cracking Contraptions is a colourful collection of animated shorts from the award winning Aardman Animations featuring their most successful creations: Wallace, the enthusiastic inventor, and Gromit, his long-suffering pet pooch.

The shorts are best described as slices of life. Each adventure features one of Wallace's crazy labour-saving inventions that go awry. Gromit knows that if he's to ever have the quiet life he craves he'll need to prevent disaster and then clean up the mess. The idiom 'a dog's life' applies to Gromit in more ways than one.

The episodes were created to slot into the BBC's 2002 Christmas TV schedule, between the soap misery and the festive crap, meaning episode length is much too short for any extensive character development to happen. They rely instead on your knowledge of the claymation duo from the previous W+G releases. If you haven't watched those yet, I recommend you do because they're fantastic.

The collection was released as a limited edition R2 dvd that's now hard to find, but Aardman have since posted them all on their YouTube channel (HERE).

10 episodes, approx 3 minutes each.

3 developments out of 5

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Salem's Lot (1979)

SL isn't the first Stephen King miniseries review on Nut Box, but chronologically it was the first ever adaptation from one his books, so I guess we should blame it for starting the ball rolling. It was originally planned as a film but someone clever at WB decided that due to the source text’s length (400+ pages) it would make a better miniseries. Subsequently, as if to prove that respectful thinking and good ideas aren't the same as good business, some cretin butchered it, turning it from a two part series running 184 minutes into a single theatrical cut running just 112 minutes. That’s 72 minutes of footage missing if you go for the theatrical cut! My review is of the longer 184 minutes version.

It’s the story of a man and a place, Ben Mears and the titular Salem’s Lot. Ben (David Soul - the blond half of Starsky and Hutch), grew up in the town before moving away and becoming a fiction writer. He’s the Lot’s very own golden boy.

Childhood experiences shape the adult we become, so it’s because of Salem’s Lot that Ben is Ben, but he can’t resist the urge to unravel the mystery of those early years. Doing so could shake the very core of why he's the inquisitive pain in the ass that he is, but Ben doesn't care, he simply wants to know if the house on the hill is the resting place of evil that he always believed it was.

The house has stood cold and empty for many years but has recently been reoccupied. Hooray for convenient King plot devices.

What follows is a slow-build vampire story that explores the idea of what might happen if the creatures of legend actually existed and occupied small town America; Maine, of course.

Despite the orchestrated pacing of the story there’s a distinct lack of unease or panic most of the time. There are a few exceptions, though. A small handful of scenes are genuinely creepy; they're unforgettable once seen and have become highly influential. Good work, Tobe Hooper.

The same drawing from the past that influenced the story is used in the aesthetic of the F. W. Murnau style creature design, which is good for a TV production. As is the music, which occasionally has a slight Hermann/Hitchcock aura about it.

Ultimately, it's a flawed attempt to modernise a classic genre but isn't without its eerie charms if you're not averse to late 70s TV production values.

3 window peepers out of 5

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Second Season (2009)

I was surprised to see one of the regular cast members leave in the first two-parter of the second Season. It's not Sarah Jane, so the series survives the upheaval, but the relationships that were built up in Season One had a lot more potential depth to them. I'd even begun to try and predict where it would go after the series finale. Happily, the replacement character is a similar shaped peg that fits into the existing format well.

There's nothing that I'd call filler, but most of the stories are weaker than S1. The exception, which was both the highlight and the one that quickly became my favourite episode of all so far, was The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith. It's a powerful story making use a plot device that won't be new to any fan of sci-fi, but that doesn't lessen it. It packs a potent emotional punch that actually benefits from being simplified for a younger audience. If the melodrama had been piled on too thick it could've easily swamped the narrative and made it much too schmaltzy, but it avoided the pitfalls, so sincere kudos to the writers for that.

The notion of 'family' is a recurring theme throughout the season, and ties everything together. It's shown from different sides: responsibility, self-sacrifice, parental abandonment, etc, but it gives each approach the same level of importance. The surrogate mother role that Sarah Jane filled in S1 is put to the test, and her own upbringing is further explored.

Alongside some rather heavy themes is the affirmation that differences in people should be celebrated, not scorned. It's an important message that everyone watching—not just kids—ought to recognise and take on board.

6 two-part stories (12 episodes), approx 27 minutes each.

3½ "amazing things out there in space" out of 5

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tipping the Velvet (2002)

I'd not heard the expression 'tipping the velvet' before watching, but you have to admit it sounds sexy, which ordinarily would make it unsuitable for the BBC, who've carved out a snug little niche for themselves over the years with safe, well-trodden period dramas that placate their target audience. Kudos to them for taking a chance on something so daring.

It's a 19th Century coming of age drama based on the novel by Sarah Waters. It tells the story of Nancy Astley (played by Rachael Stirling). Nancy is from a typical working-class family and, unlike her older sister, she doesn't want to wed a local male suitor. Not because they're beneath her, but because Nancy is drawn more to her own sex. Her passion sees her dragged through glittering lights by love and through lousy gutters by loss in a painful journey of self-discovery.

The dangerous attitude of the story is reflected in the shooting style. It's a style with some bold and expressive camerawork that's a far cry from the norm; it occasionally seems out of place given the era represented, but it's a welcome change because 'Auntie' is so damn boring most of the time.

Ousted was the simpering female template that we've seen a dozen times before; i.e. the girl who longs for husband and maturity, achieves both but then longs for independence and innocence. It was replaced by a rags to riches story with a lesbian slant, and the riches aren't always of the golden coin variety. The Elizabeth Bennets and Emma Woodhouses of the world would not approve.

Part of the reason British costumed dramas work so well is that some parts of London have hardly changed in over 100 years; it's easy to go on location, throw a few set dressings around and achieve almost instant authenticity.

3 episodes, approx 60 minutes each.

3 fierce dreamings out of 5

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Louis Theroux: Law and Disorder (2009)

The four documentaries in this set are perhaps best described as hard-hitting journalism. The focus has become less about the people and more about a specific socio-political situation, and the desire to expose the inner workings of institutions. The situations are fascinating but very distanced from the reasons I started watching Louis in the first place.

Law and Disorder in Philadelphia
The intrepid reporter and his crew spend time with the Philadelphia PD as they go about their business in a violent, hate filled urban slum. America has these kinds of TV shows but I've never watched them, simply because I'm not interested. This one did nothing to change my mind about the format.

Law and Disorder in Johannesburg
This is similar to the episode above but the environment in which it takes place makes all the difference when it comes to punishments; in Philly people got shot or beaten, but in Joburg people get set on fire. Also, the level of corruption of the individuals who are supposed to uphold the law is higher.

A Place for Paedophiles
Louis enters the Coalinga State Hospital in California to interview inmates, all of whom are convicted child abusers. Most of the offenders are open and candid about their crime, which was something I really wasn't expecting. I also wasn't sure I wanted to watch this one at all, but afterwards I felt it was important that someone was willing to give an insight into that world because allowing something to remain hidden is a sure-fire way to allow it to continue unchallenged, especially with regards to how the government deals with it.

The City Addicted to Crystal Meth
Yikes. Meth is bad shit. Louis travels to Fresno, California to meet the addicts, the sellers, the families of the victims and the struggling police officers whose job it is to curtail the availability of the drug. It’s pretty shocking, and presents an almost polar opposite view of California than the media usually puts out.

3 trips in a police car out of 5

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Tommyknockers (1993)

TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel of the same name. It’s a little unusual for King because it’s Science Fiction, not Horror. More accurately it’s a throwback to the kind of stories that were plentiful in the 1950s, with some additional ideas from the 1970s; both of which were eras when sci-fi had something important to say. The main difference is that this version of King’s story has very little to say about anything as far as I could tell. If there was some deep, hidden message then I missed it.

The set-up is why I continually return to these cheap TV adaptations, even though they rarely ever work out. The potential that exists as the story opens and the ways in which King builds drama, by drip feeding the viewer just enough interesting content to keep them in their seat, is always the best part. When it focuses on the effects more than the cause, it’s enjoyable. That enjoyment is both heightened and tainted by the most prevalent unknown factor: when exactly is it all going to turn to shit? The third act? Twenty minutes before the end? Experience says that 'never' is rarely an option. Tommyknockers keeps it together longer than I’d imagined it would, or maybe I'm just more forgiving of something that was so deeply referential to the kind of stories I loved as a kid.

Coincidentally, alongside the classic era sci-fi structure is something akin to a kid’s television drama from the 1980s. That wasn't such a surprise. There’s almost always a reference to childhood concerns in King’s work. It’s not just homage, it’s a nostalgic longing that forms part of the makeup of his characters and quite often it enriches them. In Tomyknockers it’s the parents that dig up something mysterious in the forest, have a secret adventure and hide their new discovery from the townspeople.

It’s not a miniseries that’s bursting with story. I could easily give you the entire plot in one sentence with all the subplots in one additional paragraph, but that doesn't mean it’s dragged out for length. There are enough interesting moments to make it worth watching for a fan of the author or a fan of classic era sci-fi in general. Just be prepared for a traditionally lame ending.

2 episodes, approx 90 minutes each. There's also a heavily cut 120 minutes edition, so check the running time of your version before you watch.

2½ becommings out of 5

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Legit (2013)

You're an asshole, Jim.
Legit is a semi-autobiographical comedy show in the same vein as Louis C.K.'s own FX show Louie which will be even more apparent to anyone familiar with the stand-up of Jim Jefferies. The 1st episode in particular is a straight re-enactment of one of Jim's bits about taking his disabled friend in a wheelchair to his first time with a prostitute (based on his actual experience doing just that).
This may tip you off that the show is not particularly interested in being politically correct. One would be correct in that assumption as the show takes its whole attitude directly from Jefferies stand-up which also can be crass and vulgar, but with some heart underneath.

The rest of the show is an extrapolation of the first episode in that they take the disabled friend, Billy; who is also the brother of Jim's best friend and roommate,Steve; out of the home he was living in so that he can spend quality time living. Jim's roommate is a typical straight man character who admonishes Jim for his behavior, but then frequently becomes part of the shenanigans possibly because of lingering doubts about the straight and narrow lifestyle stemming from his divorce from a cheating ex-wife.

They then go about helping Billy get more life experiences despite his disability which is very sweet and uplifting despite them being frequent users of profanity, prostitutes and drugs. Whether one can enjoy the show seems to depend on if the viewer can look past the non-PC humor particularly those directed at the disabled. For the record, the disabled community has by and large accepted the show because despite the jokes aimed at them in both the show and in his stand-up, Jefferies still treats them like people. So viewers may be irked by Jefferies himself, but the show is solid in its humor and writing.

Buyer's Guide:
Airs on FX and is available for download on iTunes, Amazon and PSN.

Waiting for the dramatization of the "egg in his ass" bit out of 5

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete First Season (2008)

A Doctor Who spin-off aimed primarily at teenagers might not sound very exciting, but The Sarah Jane Adventures is something really special. It addresses questions that every Doctor Who fan has asked themselves more than once: what happens to the travelling companions after they go back to their boring life? How do they readjust after the wonders they've seen?

It was created by Russell T Davies, the man credited with making the parent show such a renewed success, and offers the same kind of action packed flights of fantasy, grounded regularly by relatable emotions, and characters guided by concern for each other. It expands the same fictional universe, populated by the same kind of threats, and through it all remains faithful to the existing continuity, while creating some of its own. You can call it Doctor Who diluted, but it's just as exciting as the real thing, no matter what age you are.

It stars Elisabeth Sladen as the titular character, Sarah Jane. She's a kind of surrogate mother figure to more than one of her co-stars. She first appeared in a 1973 episode alongside the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and stayed as his travelling companion for a while, even after his regeneration into Tom Baker. For adults watching the show, she provides a link to their own childhood.

Elisabeth is fantastic in the role. She has no TARDIS to hop around in, so unlike the Doctor she's localised, meaning you'll need to accept that all the danger happens within close proximity of her house, but it's an easy adjustment to make.

It strikes a comfortable balance between teenage concerns and adult concerns; there are references to growing old that teens won't notice, and there are references to the trials of adolescence that the teens will relate to and the adults will be sympathetic to, provided they haven't forgotten what it was like.

The stories get progressively darker in tone as it nears the end of the Season. It begins to feel more like a regular Who episode that's undergone some minor rewrites. The episode Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? is especially notable.

It launched with a 1 hour pilot that was followed by 5 two-part stories (10 episodes), approx 25 minutes each.

4 fake I.D cards out of 5

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Podge and Rodge Show: Poxy Box (2006 - 2010)

After A Scare at Bedtime ended, the twins from Ballydung (County Ring) weren't ready to lie down and call it a day. Luckily for us and them they didn't have to because some clever fool at RTÉ gave them their own chat show! Guests would join the brothers in their Manor kitchen for a candid chat that was guaranteed to include their public shames. They'd occasionally get lucky and have people with some actual talent (Sinéad O'Connor and… er… Dirk Benedict) but mostly it was a who's who of who the hell is that?

The original incarnation of the show ran for 4 glorious seasons, and each one got its own 'Best Of…' DVD collection that separated the wheat from the chaff. The Poxy Box collects together all the sexy wheat, delivering the cream of the crap pulled direct from the arse-end of good taste.

Podge and Rodge weren't shy about their feelings; if they didn't like someone they told them, leaving no room for doubt. Some guests clearly had no idea what they were getting into. The ones that had watched the show in advance knew the ass-ripping they'd get, and still they came. They earned some respect.
When Foster and Allen guested I almost lost my shit; there was no indication they knew about Fester and Ailin.
Women also got it pretty rough, being subjected to Rodge’s perversions.

The show was a well-deserved huge success. According to Wiki it was so popular that it even beat Lost and Desperate Housewives in the Irish ratings game.

There's a heap of extras on each disc, including a previously unseen pilot, the Ballydung weather report, the Miss Ballydung Pageant, Ballydung Idol, a sex toy show, and obligatory bloopers.

4 discs, approx 145 minutes each (581 minutes total).

4 scuttering gobsheens out of 5

Friday, July 5, 2013

Louis Theroux: The Strange and the Dangerous (2009)

Five compelling documentaries that range from light-hearted fun to uncovering deeply unsettling activity. If you watched any of the Weird Weekends you’ll notice a slight shift in Louis’ methodology this time around. He still relies heavily on that awkward pause in the hope that his target will fill it with candid info, but he’s less passive than before. When children are involved he’s more inclined to struggle with an urge to speak out in favour of common sense, which is something many of the people he meets are deficient in.

Gambling in Las Vegas
Louis hits the Casinos in search of addicts. He tries to understand why they do what they do by throwing some of his own money on the line. It’s not particularly revelatory, but it’s fun in an inimitable Theroux way.

The Most Hated Family in America
Louis boldly goes where no sane person has gone before, through the doors of the Westboro Baptist Church. He struggles to attain any kind of truth or reason beneath the assault of cheaply made signs, weak arguments, dismissive dogma and angry Christians that need to get laid.

Under the Knife
Vanity and shallowness of character go under the microscope. Three months at the gym or fifteen minutes under the knife? Will Louis take the plunge and have his love handles sucked out for the sake of journalistic integrity?

Behind Bars
Louis enters San Quentin to interview both prisoners and guards in the hope of finding out how an individual can carve out a life in such an impersonal environment. It’s depressing. He even eats prison food! That’s what I call taking one for the team.

African Hunting Holiday
Louis travels to a park in South Africa where tourists can pay a set amount of money to kill their animal of choice in a controlled environment with no fear of personal risk. The more endangered the animal the higher the cost. I found this one very upsetting. To everyone who took part in the activity: I wouldn't even piss on you if you were on fire. Bastards.

4 holes in the bank balance out of 5

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Langoliers (1995)

TV miniseries based on Stephen King's novella from the book Four Past Midnight (1990), adapted and directed by Tom Holland. There's no Mick Garris this time.

Imagine waking in a room that had been filled with people before you went to sleep, but is now almost empty. You'd be slightly concerned. Imagine that room is actually an aeroplane cabin and the plane is still in the air. You'd be very concerned. That's the basic setting of The Langoliers.

Part One introduces the characters and sets the template for the way they interact. King's stock types clash with one or two that aren't instantly recognisable. There are ten people in all, meaning there's plenty of opportunity for conflict to arise. Being confined the way they are forces them to open up emotionally and reveal their secret, hidden selves.

The dialogue never sounds naturalistic; it sounds homogeneously scripted at all times. It doesn't take long to realise that all your attention should be focussed on what the characters say, not how they say it. They aren't just actors, they're players in a play that has a stage much bigger than the norm. Of course, that's just one way to look at it. You could take the opposite approach and say that it never feels real and that no one actually talks like that in real life. It's up to the viewer to decide. People who love the art of storytelling should understand. People who just want to be entertained, without needing to explore the mechanics of a thing, will likely find it lacking in any kind of value. I'm okay with that. Viewers that don't turn it off after twenty minutes are the people it was made for.

Part Two deepens the mystery. It continues the same level of ambivalence and frustration for the players. The danger level never really reaches threatening proportions, but the idea of the danger, the unknown factor just beyond the horizon, is really intriguing. It feels like an extended episode of The Ray Bradbury Theatre or The Twilight Zone. You want to get to the end of it but not too quickly because you know the tension is the best part.

Part Three is a disaster. Why do these kinds of things always fall to pieces in the third act? When the credits roll there's been character growth but the consequences of the actions taken to get there are weightless. With the exception of one individual, I got the feeling that five minutes later the survivors would go back to their lives and forget all about their time together.

3 episodes, approx 60 mins each (also available as 2 episodes, 90 mins each).

2½ flat beverages out of 5

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Best of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends: Volume Two (2002)

Louis is a journalist but unusually for someone in that profession he's a likeable guy. What sets him apart from his peers is that he celebrates the weirdness of people, and enthuses about things meaningful to them. He’s non-aggressive and reassuring. He can encourage people to open up in unique ways, while remaining respectful of boundaries. Quite often he’ll get attached to people; he calls them friends and seems to genuinely care about their well-being.

He’s been accused of feigning naïveté but it's hard to make a judgement call on whether that’s true or not. I think perhaps people feel sorry for him, so they give him the exposé he seeks. Doing so also helps them feel superior. He’ll partake of an opportunity to play up a situation but he’s always honest about his feelings, chooses his words carefully, and his methods of eliciting responses are a far cry from the manipulation that the people he interviews often rely on to preach their own agenda. They do a better job of ridiculing themselves than he ever could.

In this collection he meets a happily married Southern Californian couple that host swinging parties in their home; he meets Afrikaner separatists in post-apartheid South Africa (there’s a tension filled interview during that episode that I’d have run a mile from; it seems that scrawny Louis has balls of steel); he meets professional wrestlers from the WCW and gets subjected to actual physical and mental abuse for his troubles; and then he gets hypnotised... or not. He's not quite sure.

Like Volume One the box contains just five episodes (two from S2, two from S3, and a bonus episode from a series called 'When Louis Met...' which saw him visit British celebrities in their homes).

5 episodes, approx 55 minutes each.

4 black and white arguments out of 5

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996)

Animated MK nonsense that did almost everything wrong from the get-go. The animation is awful but I suspect the budget was too, so it'd be wrong to expect something as sophisticated as what Marvel or DC put out. I’m willing to overlook that aspect of it, but there are plenty of other problems to focus on.

Being aimed at kids meant it was bloodless, but it was also soulless and guilty of flat, emotionless dialogue. Kids want to be Batman or a Ninja Turtle, not these clowns. If I ever meet a kid that wants to be Liu Kang, I’ll slap the parents.

The show had some familiar voice talent, such as the always reliable Olivia d'Abo, the bad-ass Ron Perlman and good old Clancy Brown (who’s in every cartoon ever), but the characters they had to voice and the stories they were squeezed into were scraped from the bottom of a very old barrel.

The combatants had a super-secret high-tech base from which they monitored 'dimensional rifts.'  The rifts appeared all over Earthrealm and enabled the bad guys to come through from Outworld (and various other places); they’d then cause havoc and upset the happy equilibrium. If the rift happened to be on the other side of the world, then the team jumped in their super-fast high-tech Dragon Jets (that can even go underwater) and traversed the globe in seconds. Then, destination reached, every episode they’d fight a horde of similar looking villains/creatures/brain-dead henchmen and win. If there was a moral lesson to be learned at the end of it… well, you’d be lucky to get that kind of depth.

The worst aspect, the thing that made me physically wince with pain, was the awful, unending techno music. It accompanied every battle and even sometimes the journey to and from the super-secret high-tech base. Any time a quick fix was needed to fill the emptiness of the story they’d blast the music. Bastards!

It managed 13 episodes before getting the chop, which, frankly, was an achievement in itself. Only 2 of those 13 episodes were passable.

1 pair of bleeding ears out of 5

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Stand (1994)

TV miniseries based on Stephen King's novel of the same name. It was a lengthy novel (either 823 or 1152 pages, depending on which version you have), so a miniseries made a lot more sense than a regular feature length movie.

I haven't read the book yet, so I can't comment on casting or get upset about how faithful it is (or isn't), but the teleplay was written by King himself, so I'm going to assume the characters are at least pretty close to his original text.

It's a traditional story of Good Vs Evil. The battleground is America (just when you thought it was safe to go back to Maine!), and the armies are the survivors of yet another unimaginative post-apocalyptic event.

It's split into four feature-length parts. Parts I and II were good. The many characters each get time to develop; it helps if you're already familiar with King's method of character building, because you'll recognise the types.

It was during the first half that I got to thinking that TV is where Mick Garris should be focussing his efforts, but then Part III happened. With everyone in their proper place and motivations established it was time to get to the meat of the story, but things started to unravel. A weighty action is undertaken that serves no purpose other than to enable a quick fix to be pulled out of thin air in Part IV. Did it make sense in the book? If so, then it lost that sense when it made the jump to film.

By the time Part IV got underway the situations were becoming ridiculous, the motivations unnatural, and the pace, which should've increased and become more critical, slowed to a soupy crawl. Both the story and the production quickly plummeted. It turned into a steaming pile of religious shit stacked as high as the hill of Golgatha, with a neon sign atop.

4 parts, approx 90 mins each (366 mins in total inc. credits)

2 biblical failures out of 5

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Best of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends: Volume One (2001)

Louis is a British investigative journalist that didn't much care for the big story of the day. He set out instead to explore American subcultures; he interviewed the people that front them and the people that hide behind them. He didn't take the usual cold, distanced, analytical approach or rely on researchers to do the work for him, he went gung-ho and joined in with activities to better understand his subjects and their unique kind of weird; he got his hands wet, his feet dirty, and his cock out… literally. In some cases he even moved in with them for the duration, and put himself in real physical danger.

The episodes included in Volume One are pretty varied. He enters the porn industry; he visits some right-wing patriots that shunned city life to live in the hills, with guns, and await the NWO invasion; he travels South to meet some shady characters and has a go at Gangsta Rap; he meets some spaced-out UFO enthusiasts, including one guy who claims to channel messages from a higher being while in a trance.

The Weird Weekends series ran for three years. This first collection contains just five episodes (three from S1, one from S3, and a bonus episode from a similar series called 'When Louis Met...' which saw him visit British celebrities in their homes).

What’s sadly missing is the final episode of S1, wherein Louis gathered together a number of the people he'd met throughout the year for Xmas dinner at his own home. He took a fundamentalist Christian to a porn shoot, and gave a guy who lives alone in an underground hut in the hills (Mountain Mike) a chance to spend time at a recording studio and play live for a bar full of people.

5 episodes, approx 55 minutes each.

5 positively peculiar people out of 5

Monday, June 10, 2013

Masters Of Horror: Series One: Volume One (2006)

Mick Garris, filmmaker, friend and critic of horror cinema assembled thirteen of the genre’s most celebrated directors together for the first Season of MoH. Each director was given one episode, lasting almost one hour. Volume One contains the first seven episodes. There may be a difference in running order between the R1 and R2 editions. I'm using the UK R2 editions. NA also got a full season box that included Volume Two.

The first is by John Carpenter and is the sole reason I bought the series. It’s occasionally interesting because it stars Udo Kier, who’s always fun to watch, but mostly it was disappointing and is uncharacteristic of Carpenter's work. But the music, scored by his son Cody, often feels like a modern interpretation of the classic Carpenter/Howarth sound; I liked that aspect. — 2½ out of 5 —

The second is by Stuart Gordon, an adaptation of a short HP Lovecraft tale titled 'Dreams in the Witch House.' I've not read the story in a long time, but I'm certain HPL didn't have a laptop in his. It tries hard to create tension, but the story is predictable and throwaway.  — 2 out of 5 —

The third is by Don Coscarelli and will likely appeal more to torture porn fans than it did to me. It’s a well-constructed split narrative that feels like it began life as a Texas Chainsaw clone, but it didn't do anything that we haven’t seen multiple times before. — 2 out of 5 —

The fourth is by series creator Mick Garris. Again, it’s interesting in how it’s presented (it’s told in flashback), but it’s the weakest of the seven stories. Garris also served as producer on all of the others, so maybe he was too busy to script anything interesting. Maybe.  — 1½ out of 5 —

The fifth is by Lucky McKee and stars McKee regular Angela Bettis. It plays around with conventions, and even when drifting into other genres it never loses sight of its goal. It’s horror comedy fun from beginning to end and is by far the best damn episode of this entire volume. — 4 out of 5 —

The sixth is by John Landis. Landis is known for injecting a large dose of black humour into his works, and his MoH is no exception. The story is plain ridiculous and goes nowhere, but it’s funny and the ever-reliable Brian Benben keeps it from becoming too much of a parody. — 2½ out of 5 —

The seventh and last is by Joe Dante. It seems as if every horror anthology needs some zombies, so Dante brings them. It’s referential to Romero and uses the Zombies as a vehicle for some kind of socio-political commentary, but it’s as dull as licking paint. —  1½ out of 5 —

Oddly, despite being ‘horror,’ none of the episodes are the slightest bit frightening.

Note: The sharp-eyed among you will notice that my final score isn't an average of all the others tallied, that's because the wealth of extras included, which clocks in at over 21 hours, helped raise it. Alongside the usual making of features, each director, except Landis and Dante, even provide their own commentary track.

7 episodes approx 55 minutes each (388 minutes total), split over 7 discs.

3 bugs before bedtime out of 5

Friday, June 7, 2013

Podge and Rodge: A Scare at Bedtime (1997–2006)

America has ABC. Britain has BBC. Part of Ireland has RTÉ. It's widely available now on satellite, but back in the 90s the channel broadcast to only a small part of the country. To receive it outside of the Southern region you needed an addition to your regular aerial. If you had that little red box then you had old geezers Podge Judas O'Leprosy and Rodge Spartacus O'Leprosy on your TV screen!

Each evening the channel had something called 'A Prayer at Bedtime' to remind viewers that dirty dreams about naked ladies was frowned upon by JC and his lily-white virgin momma. Podge & Rodge’s A Scare at Bedtime was a parody of that. It's also an iniquitous parody of the typical Irish stereotype. It's fun to laugh at the Irish, but no one laughs harder than the Irish themselves. Their greatest attribute is their wickedly self-deprecating sense of humour.

The format had the twins of Ballydung Manor either in bed together or chilling in their kitchen. Podge would tell Rodge a tall tale/horror story with a Poe-esque twist. Rodge would get scared or bored. He'd blaspheme, and then rub his "mickey" at what he considered a particularly sexy bit. If there were no sexy bits, he'd invent his own.

The two perverts and their scabby cat Pox are some of the shittiest constructed puppets you'll ever see, but it really didn't matter. It was all just an excuse to drop lewd jokes and say "Feck" a lot, but quite often the creativity of the two writers/puppeteers, Mick O'Hara and Ciaran Morrison, was comedy gold; it was those two guys that raised it above its limitations and made it so outrageous.

If you want to skip to the best parts go direct to series 7. By that stage they were far out of control by RTE standards. If you want to learn the seedy side of Irish colloquialism, then there's no better place to start.

150 episodes, approx 5–10 minutes each.

3½ feckless eejits out of 5

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

THE KILLING - Season Two [2012]

"Linden, we caught the bad guys."

"Really?  Who's that?"

AMC's under-the-radar crime drama The Killing comes back for a second season of moody lighting, rain, grey area characters, rain, slow-burning suspense, rain, gloomy realistic performances and did I mention rain?

After enraging viewers at the end of the first season by not revealing Rosie Larsen's murderer, showrunner Veena Sud promised that the end of this season would wrap everything up.  Being loosely based upon the Danish series Forbrydelsen and it's three separate narratives, Sud & co. used it only as a inspiration and trailed off into her own direction, making the killer unknown to fans of the original series.  

Just like the first year, season two takes its time unfolding the story and revealing character arcs at a hypnotizing pace that probably won't appeal to folks looking for their "wrapped up in 44 minutes" CSI fix.  The slow-burning reveals are worth it if you're a fan of patient methodical storytelling, as it comes to a powerful conclusion that will rip your heart out, stomp all over it and give it back with the hopes of the wounds making it only more calloused.  There's a few questionable plot threads that threaten to trail off but they all manage to meet up at the end, with the exception of a few character bits that are better left unanswered.  

As much of a critical darling The Killing is, it was never met with much in the way of viewers and was cancelled after this season with the the threat of never releasing it on DVD.   Fortunately loyal fans backlashed and the idiots at AMC opted to renew it for a third season with the promise of the case being wrapped up at the end of the year.  Still, the inevitable DVD release was given a shoddy "manufacture on demand" release exclusive to Amazon.com and that was only after the announcement of a third season.  

It's dark, tragic, honest and beautiful and sometimes that's the comforting place to be.

13 episodes.  44 minutes each.

Buyer's Guide:
Available in DVD box sets only as "manufacture on demand" sets exclusive to Amazon.com.  

4 monarch butterflies out of 5

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Blade: The Series (2006)

Blade's feature-length pilot was written by David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns. Goyer was the man responsible/to blame for writing all three of the films, so it made sense to have him script the series beginnings, too. He set it sometime after the events of the shitfest that was Blade: Trinity (2004). Johns is a veteran comic book writer who’d worked on Smallville, so he was no stranger to the crossing of mediums. What they delivered was a smouldering turd, using the same tired clichés we've seen countless times before. But if you watch the pilot and then stop you’ll get the wrong impression of the series as a whole. There’s one other really shitty episode, but the remainder of the series is very different. Sometime around episode three or four things get good, and when events grow more complicated for the characters things get really good.

The biggest problem is Blade himself. Kirk Jones casts an effective silhouette but falls flat when he tries to be menacing. Worse still, he has problems enunciating. I had to pull up subtitles frequently on every episode just to hear what the hell he was mumbling. I'm a fan of foreign cinema, so subtitles don’t faze me, but they really shouldn't have been necessary.

The other characters are better. Blade’s tech-savvy accomplice Shen fills the Whistler role admirably and is occasionally the voice of Blade's conscience.

The vampires have concerns other than the Daywalker. Internal division between the 12 Houses, bitter rivalries and cold ambitions keep them from uniting.

A third factor (a woman) stops things being simply Blade vs Vamps repeatedly; it adds a level of danger and subterfuge that teeters on a very shaky line.

I thoroughly enjoyed the short run the series had, more so than any of the films, and am sad that it was cancelled after just one season. Geoff Johns has been quoted as saying that the reason for it ending was due to rising production costs for the small Spike TV network, not because of viewing figures.

13 fully uncut episodes, approx 40-45 minutes each.

3½ fake tattoos out of 5

Saturday, May 25, 2013

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT - Season Three [2005]

"You know, 
your average American male is in a perpetual state of adolescence, 
you know, arrested development."

After two years of struggling in the ratings, the critically acclaimed but sadly neglected Mitch Hurwitz sitcom Arrested Development was ready to close shop at the FOX network.  Normally the network would cancel a show with such low ratings after 10 episodes or so but they saw the brilliance and passion put into the series and allowed to tread water for a total of three years, so for once, we can't really blame the network for letting it go underwater.  

The third season continues it's attack of rapid fire jokes, blink and you'll miss them punchlines and twisted characters galore.  With knowledge of being cancelled the writers were able to sneak in as many in-jokes and nods to the loyal fans as they possibly could without ever worrying about having to attract new viewers.  However it didn't stop them from sarcastically pleading the viewer, even though they knew it well past too late, to "tell your friends about this show".  Graced with some wonderful guest stars (including Charlize Theron in probably the funniest thing I think I've seen her ever do) the regular cast are firing on all cylinders which would eventually allow them all to move onto bigger more successful projects but never quite as good as this series.  This season contains perhaps one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen on television, causing me to hyper-ventilate, that has to do with a mole and a jet pack.  One cast member I should mention is Micheal Cera who is constantly criticized for playing the same awkward kid role over and over but this is the first time he does it and where it works best as he's put into these awful situations.  

I can go on and on about how fantastic and witty this show was but it's best you just go out and check it out for yourself from the very beginning.  

13 episodes. 22 minutes each.

Buyer's Guide:
Available in DVD box sets and on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon.

 4 Wee Britains out of 5

LITTLE BRITAIN USA [2009]

"Britain and America:
It's always been us against the world.
If there's a country to be invaded
or a war to be waged, we do it together.
So what if the rest of the world hates us.
...they're all foreign anyway."

Every now and then a television comedy sketch show gets it right, like early incarnations of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, In Living Color, The Kids In The Hall and now British funny guys Matt Lucas & David Walliams' Little Britain.  It was a refreshingly funny and often crude look at British society, politics, commercialism, sports and everyday life, both rich & poor and young & old, all stitched together with Doctor Who's Tom Baker giving a satirical no-nonsense commentary like it were a documentary.   After three years of doing this, HBO asked Lucas & Walliams to bring it over to America and give it a good ol' Yankee spin, leaving fans wondering just what the hell they were going to do with it.

What's great about this version is it's not simply just American satire copying the British series but it's a comparison of the two nations and how similar they are in self-superiority and unwillingness to listen to anybody else.  Several characters are brought over from the British series and placed into an American setting making for some hilarious situations they couldn't otherwise explore in their home country.   A host of new American characters are brought into the mix, taking jabs at obesity, homosexuals in denial, the need to cling to the American "dream", washed-up celebrities and children exposed to a filthy-mouthed culture. 

The series doesn't always work as it could have done with a larger variety of characters and themes to explore and take a swipe at.  They're always funny but with only 6 episodes in the series, you'd think they would try to broaden the cast of characters a bit more instead of repeating themselves as much as they do.  Apparently America didn't think it was as funny laughing at themselves as it was laughing at the Brits and the series was swiftly cancelled without so much as a shriek.  It's a shame because the possibilities were endless but since the first series already started to repeat itself, I don't know if they would ever explore any further.  

6 episodes.  Roughly 30 minutes each.

Buyer's Guide:
Available in DVD box sets and on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon.

3 gun erections out of 5