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.

This second act features even further integrated storytelling and development, similar to what is usually seen in Kamen Rider. It 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. Please do not automatically assume that the outlier's is handled badly or is without its merit, however.

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