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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

Lain Iwakura is small for her age. She's reserved, quiet and emotionally inexperienced. She has a small group of friends but their connection is tenuous, based more on shared location than on similar interests. That's the nature of the world in which Lain exists. But there's more than one reality; the real world exists alongside the Wired. Among other things, the Wired is a network that allows communication between distant parties. It connects the individual to other individuals and enables information to be passed along. The synergy between the two existences has a profound maturing effect on the young Lain.

I've watched the series twice and I'm positive there are things in it I still haven't found. It's densely packed with subtleties and philosophical concepts. Where do we go when we die? How do we know we're alive? Did God create us? If so, then who created God? It's possible to skim the surface and still enjoy it, but to really get to grips with its message you'll need to delve a lot deeper.

It's vital, even in the early episodes, that you pay extra close attention because sandwiched between the primary narrative and the subtext sits a commentary on how people interact with each other—not just the things they say, but whether or not they were clearly understood or even acknowledged by the recipient(s). That intangible midpoint between speaker and listener, between creator and participant, becomes ever more important to the overall structure.

The audio doesn't always strive for realism. It's frequently used to convey Lain's mood or emotional state in an exaggerated, expressionistic way, but it's always superb. So too is the animation. The depth of emotion that the Triangle Staff studio animators were able to express behind the eyes is remarkable. There are even some scenes that are really quite disturbing.

Don't expect to be given simple, direct answers to all of your questions. If we had all the answers there'd be no more questions, and if that was the case what would be the point of existence?

13 episodes, approx 24 minutes each.

4½ protocols out of 5

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos (1986)

Chuck's cartoon counterpart is a US government operative who moustaches his way through five chucklesome episodes with the help of his ethnic stereotype Karate Kommandos. Chuck and his team fight for freedom against the evil Claw, the leader of VULTURE and owner of a dangerous metallic fap hand. I have no idea what VULTURE stands for, or if it's even an acronym.

The Claw has his own team of subordinates that he sends into battle against the Kommandos; among them is the awesomely named Super Ninja.

It's a good thing our hero has "nerves of steel and strength to match," because his recklessness gets him into all kinds of near-death scrapes. And it's because of him that his friends get into fights, too. Sort your shit out, Chuck.

It's rather worrying that he's a role model who teaches by example but allows a teenager with nunchucks on his team! The kid gets kidnapped more than once.

I suspect the reason it didn't go beyond five episodes is that a lot of kids didn't care about Chuck in the 80s; to them he probably just looked like someone's dad. It's mostly due to nostalgia for bad 80s action movies that he's achieved the kind of fame he now enjoys. If you're one of the people that do care, or that has the nostalgia, then you might get a laugh or two from the short-lived series.

5 episodes, approx 22 minutes each.

2½ breached dykes out of 5

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Star Trek: Fan Collective - Klingon (2008)

A four-disc box set containing Klingon centric fan-picked episodes from each of the live action Star Trek TV series. The selection is excellent (I'll include the full list in comments) and is presented in chronological order, not in actual production order, meaning Enterprise is first.

You'll notice that there are two feature-length episodes and a two-parter; I like that kind of thing, but would it not have made more sense to combine the two-parter into a third feature-length and advertise it as such?

Included are TOS: The Trouble with Tribbles and DS9: Trials and Tribble-ations, which, most people reading will already know, are connected despite being made almost thirty years apart. However, if you'd been buying all the Fan Collective boxes as they were released, then you'd already have that particular DS9 episode in the Time Travel (2006) box. It's great to have it alongside the TOS episode, but it's still double-dipping for the consumer and blatant whoring from Paramount.

Extras include audio and/or text commentaries for some episodes from various writers and producers of the show.

11 episodes, approx 44 mins (single ep) or 88 mins (feature-length) each.

4 good days to die out of 5

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Best of The New Adventures of He-Man (1990)

This is really bad. It's not even funny-bad. It's just shit. If you find it on sale for a few notes and actually buy it, then it's the seller who got lucky, not you. I suffered the twenty best episodes as voted for by fans of the series. It's all I could bear to watch. It would be more appropriate to call them twenty of the least worst. I know because I watched most of it on TV the first time around.

New Adventures He-Man is an imposter with a scaled down physique and a different Power Sword. (He isn't really an imposter, but for my own peace of mind I like to pretend that he is.) It continues the story from the original Filmation series. You'd expect that to mean it's faithful to the character if not the design, but it isn't.

The first episode sets up the series: a small group of humans from a future society travel back in time to Eternia. Their mission is to convince a hero to leave his home and help protect the last humans on the planet Primus from the mutant bad guys of a neighbouring world called Denebria. Adam, never once suspecting an evil plot, is convinced in mere seconds. He bids his parents farewell and sets off for a brave new sci-fi world, and the New Adventures begin.

But wait! Oh no! Skeletor (another imposter who isn't) gets dragged through the portal. Worst luck. If he'd stayed on Eternia he probably could've finally conquered Castle Grayskull and plucked the Sorceress' wings. What a boob!

Stylistically, it's like a late 80s anime tailored to appeal specifically to the West, with space scenes that resemble a poor man's Gundam. He-Man's new allies, the Galactic Guardians, are bland and forgettable.

Voice work is functional; it's better than a typical anime dub of the era but that's hardly a recommendation. The one positive thing I have to say is that there's some continuity from one crap episode to the next crap episode.

"The way of the magic will be my co-pilot." Really, He-Man? Really?

The entire series has 65 episodes, approx 23 mins each (1398 mins in total). If you make it through even half of them, you're a hero.

1 Skeletor birthday cake out of 5

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Mortal Kombat: Legacy II (2013)

The second collection of shorts in the MK anthology has more of a serialised structure than the character-centric vignettes of Series 1. Each story is split over 2 episodes this time, which are in turn part of a larger whole connected by a very specific locale. The contrast between past and present becomes a kind of running theme, while offering up some back story for certain characters.

It starts well. Episode 1 is like a violent HK movie. It doesn't have much of a plot, but focuses instead on showing Liu Kang’s relationship with the world he swore to protect and the one he left behind. It’s like an intro more than anything else, but that’s okay because all episodes have been simultaneously released for stream, so you don’t have to wait from week to week to get your fix.

The quality drops significantly in the middle, with some poor acting from the ladies, but see it through to the end and you’ll be rewarded with some Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. There are a couple of other interesting guest stars, too.

Each episode of Series One had its own visual look, but things are more or less standardised throughout this time. The lighting that Tancharoen or his DP has opted for puts more emphasis on gritty realism than before. It’s certainly a more unified visual experience but consequently a less interesting one if, like me, you happened to like the fanciful parts of Series One.

10 episodes, approx 7 - 9 mins each (some are shorter, some are longer).

2½ ideals worth defending out of 5

Monday, January 6, 2014

American Gothic (1995–96)

Welcome to Trinity, South Carolina, home to ten-year-old Caleb Temple (Lucas Black) and his sixteen-year-old sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson). The home life of the Temple children is far from happy, meaning Caleb's had to grow up fast. He may be only ten but he's a lot savvier than most kids his age, which is a good thing because his future is murky. Events will force him to take a path that can lead to either of two destinations, and that's only if he can fight the conflict that rages within him. His older sister will try to protect him, but she's got problems of her own; you could say she's got the worst problem anyone can possibly have...

One other person has a hand in Caleb's fate: Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole). Lucas is friend to everyone and no one. He'll give you what you want but there'll be a price to pay further down the line. He uses his position as law enforcer to manipulate and coerce the townsfolk; sometimes with and sometimes without their knowledge. What's even more sinister is that Lucas knows things no ordinary person could possibly know, and most of his desires don't stay unfulfilled for long. He's like a Stephen King character.

Alongside the children and Lucas are a moderate sized cast of regulars whose life is affected in some way by knowing one or all three of them. There's the good doctor, the slutty school teacher, the reporter from out of town, and Lucas' deputy, Ben Healy. Ben is a nice guy, but he's Lucas' subordinate, and while he has free will he lacks the courage needed to do the right thing.

The show suffers from a number of continuity errors that hit like potholes in the road; they don't cause it to go off course but they do make the journey a little less enjoyable, albeit only a little. The tug of war between the three main protagonists is always there, keeping everything else relevant.

NOTE: Both the R1 and R2 DVD releases commit one of the worst crimes imaginable when dealing with a story arc: they present episodes in the wrong order. There's some debate over what the correct order is, but most people agree that the list you can find on Wikipedia works. There are a lot of spoilers on the Wiki page, so I've reproduced the relevant info HERE to save you having to venture there.

22 episodes, approx 44 minutes each.

4 judgements out of 5

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jonathan Creek: Series IV (2003 - 2004)

The first three series of JC can be seen as one collective era because they share the same two principal actors, Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin. Caroline chose not to return after Series 3, which left a gap needing filled because Jonathan's character needs an ancillary to bounce ideas off and to get (unintentional) inspiration from. That gap was filled by Carla Borrego (Julia Sawalha).

Carla made the show even better. She's a wonderfully rounded character who brought a similar kind of resourcefulness and determination as Maddie, but with a whole new self-important attitude supporting it. She's vulnerable beneath the hard outer shell, but she goes to great lengths to hide it from the world.

She got her introduction in the 2001 Christmas Special. It's not necessary to have seen it, but it's advisable because it shows the genesis of their relationship and helps explain the boundaries that exist from the offset in Series IV.

They look stern and miserable on the cover. That's really not representative of the pair at all; it's the least flattering image they could've chosen.

Bringing a new woman into Jonathan's life offered an opportunity for new kinds of problems, and she didn't disappoint in that department, either. Maddie used his profile to help sell her books, but Carla uses it to further her TV career, making him a lot more famous in the process, which is something that he'd rather avoid.

She wasn't the only new addition. We'd already had Nigel Planer (Series 1) and Rik Mayall (1998 Xmas Special) as guests, so it made sense to have Ade Edmondson. He gets a quality supporting role and stays for the duration.

6 episodes, approx 60 minutes each.

5 whetted appetites out of 5

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jonathan Creek: Christmas Specials (2008)

There are more specials than what’s included on this release but they weren't made until after 2008, so you'll need to buy them separately if you want them or wait until Auntie groups them all together for a re-release, but who knows if that's on the cards any time soon?

What you do get are two feature-length specials. The first is Black Canary (1998), which takes place sometime between Series 2 and Series 3. The second is Satan's Chimney (2001), which takes place sometime between Series 3 and Series 4.

There are two new characters introduced; one in each of the two episodes.

Firstly, there's Gideon Pryke (Rik Mayall) in Black Canary. Gideon is Jonathan's equal in some ways. He didn't become a regular, but he does make a subsequent appearance in the show, and if things had worked out differently he could've been a great addition. He's woven into a story that involves someone from Jonathan’s past reappearing, and, of course, needing a murder mystery solved.

The second new face is Carla Borrego (Julia Sawalha). Carla gets her introduction in the Satan's Chimney episode. Unlike Gideon, she would become a regular, replacing Caroline Quentin’s Maddie Magellan in Series 4. There's always been an element of the macabre lingering in the background of the show, but this episode turns it up a notch higher.

Both episodes are unequivocally suited to the JC format but have two different approaches: one has the usual 'inside a locked room' scenario, while the other is outside in the open, which doesn't make the deductions any easier.

2 episodes, approx 90 + 120 minutes, respectively.

4 murky waters out of 5

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jonathan Creek: Series I, II and III (1997 - 2000)

Jonathan Creek is a mystery/detective series, but Jonathan (Alan Davies) isn't an actual detective. He designs magic tricks for a stage magician. His knowledge of stage magic, or more precisely his understanding of what it takes to create the perfect illusion, enables him to take available clues from a crime scene and work backwards. He assesses the impossible without ever dismissing the implausible. The show is less of a traditional 'whodunnit', and more of a 'howdunnit' that keeps you guessing right up to the inevitable reveal.

It's not all death and murder, though. There's a lot of comedy, too; much of which revolves around Jonathan's relationship with his partner in crime-solving, the female writer/investigative reporter, Maddie Magellan (Caroline Quentin). He's the reserved, quiet sort, whereas she's the bold, outgoing kind. As the show progresses their relationship deepens and they spend more and more time under each other's feet, and on each other's couch.

An ongoing sexual tension would be too much of a cliché. Instead, Maddie just wants to bang Jonathan to within an inch of his nerdy life. It's not because he's dashingly handsome - it's because she likes a challenge, too.

I'm not suggesting the show is free of clichés, because it isn't. The murder in a locked room scenario pops up often and becomes a kind of running joke. It even relies on a few others of its own making.

Every great detective needs an equally great theme tune to set the mood for what follows. Creek doesn't disappoint. It uses a slightly more fickle arrangement of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns' wonderful Danse Macabre. It's the perfect accompaniment to the show's clever but equally fatuous nature.

Stick around after the credits roll on the pilot for a scene that isn't important to the murder story but is relevant to something else.

S1: Pilot approx 90 mins + 5 episodes approx 60 mins each.
S2: 6 episodes, approx 50 mins each. | S3: 6 episodes, approx 50 mins each.

4½ slow drips out of 5

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Pramface (2012)

I know you're not a slut. A drunk and borderline paedophile, maybe, but not a slut. 
16 year old Jamie has just finished his exams and with his friend Mike crashes a party in the hopes of getting laid. Jamie is the only one to accomplish the task with the help of alcohol and a girl named Laura, a straight A student on her way to university who was just angry at her parents that night and in her drunkenness thought Jamie was sweet. After their night of drunken condom failings, Laura becomes pregnant and must now deal with all the trials and stigma of being a teenage mother as well as the lifestyle differences between Jamie's working class family and her upper class, rich one.

This short little comedy series deals with its subject matter in a very real and relate-able way while still being funny. The characters are actually fun and dynamic with even the secondary characters having some depth to them. Laura's parents are working through an affair by her father and Mike is a heaping load of comic relief with his shenanigans while still being a great friend. Jamie's other friend is a girl named Beth who despite her propensity to take up causes and charity, is rather insufferable about it. Jamie and Laura are the main source of drama as they clash over the pregnancy, but still manage to cooperate (mostly) even though they are basically strangers.

There was a little bit of a learning curve since the show is very British and being an American I wasn't always clear on the slang. I even had to look up the title, which while appropriate could probably still have used some more thought for marketing purposes. This also worked in the show's favor as the unique American prudishness about this type of subject isn't present and adds that more realistic touch whereas things like smoking and swearing would have been excised on this side of the Atlantic. A short and sweet 6 episode run.

Buyer's Guide:
Available to US audiences for free on Hulu. Here.

Interrupted masturbation sessions out of 5

Merlin (1998)

I’m fascinated by the Arthurian Legends, so I admit to experiencing some bias while watching the miniseries. But even without that deeper interest, the writing, the direction and the performances of many of the cast stand out as being somewhat exceptional for the Fantasy TV format of the era.

Merlin (Sam Neill) is wise, sensitive and respectful to the natural order. His inner strength shines through in everything he does. Whereas most other tales of Camelot have him as a supporting character, there to help Kings Uther and Arthur achieve their respective goals, this one focuses primarily on the wizard's own trials. It gets to the very heart of the man, showing that he has hopes, dreams, fears and failings that influence his decisions the same as we all do.

His nemesis is Queen Mab of the Sidhe, played with theatrical aplomb by Miranda Richardson. She speaks in a bizarre croaky whisper, like something that lives underground and far from light might employ.

Merlin receives his power from the same source as Mab, but while her fear of being forgotten has curdled her's to a corruptive purpose, Merlin's is rooted in acceptance. There’s a double dramatic irony at stake, filled with causality.

The remainder of the cast are equally as talented. There’s Helena Bonham Carter, John Gielgud, Isabella Rossellini, Martin Short, Rutger Hauer, Lena Headey and the voice of James Earl Jones, among others. The only weak link is Rossellini’s character. Her role is important to the narrative but she plays it too passive; it needed more passion, given that she's a primary source of conflict.

Beneath the human story is a struggle for dominance between the old Pagan belief system (represented by Mab) and the newer Christian Religion (represented by the Kings of Britain). There will be casualties no matter who wins, but Merlin tries to limit them in number as best he can.

Storytelling is an important factor, and one that it doesn't scrimp on. It’s told in flashback, with a V/O narration revealing the secret things that would normally stay hidden in the human heart. It’s rich in lore but also finds a fitting place for things I'd not seen before in other adaptations.

There’s some dated CGI in places, but it’s there to enhance the action, not take the place of it and it always plays second fiddle to what the cast are doing.

2 episodes, approx 90 minutes each.

4½ turns of the wheel out of 5