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

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