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

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Knightmare (1987–94)

As a young Faustus I loved all things fantasy and supernatural. Fighting Fantasy books, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, HeroQuest gaming sessions, etc, so it's no great surprise that Knightmare fit perfectly into my life.

Four adventurers (kids under 16) entered the Castle of Confusion in the hope of conquering its dungeon. One wore the Helmet of Justice, which limited what he/she could see, and entered the dungeon proper. The remaining three stayed behind to act as guides, able to see on a screen where their friend was, to direct and keep the Dungeoneer from falling into imaginary pits of doom and suchlike.

The rules of the game were overseen by Treguard the Dungeon Master, pictured above, a noble(ish) born Saxon, he would give occasional clues and hints to either help solve a puzzle or feed the team's nervousness. Treguard rocks!

Even though it was all for the children, the adults were the real stars. They treated the chroma key (blue screen) locations as a kind of stage, treading boards that weren't there as enthusiastically as they would if they actually did exist. In short, they were a theatre troupe doing what they do best: bringing theatrical life to an otherwise empty space. In addition, they had to ad lib when the kids turned out to be more stupid than they'd anticipated for, which was often. It's not unfair to say that some of the contestants hit every branch of the stupid tree when they fell.

Each year the dungeon would shift, offering new challenges and presenting new recurring characters. Even Trequard (Hugo Myatt) got himself an aide or two, my favourite being the elf Pickle (David Learner), who started out a little annoying but grew into a truly memorable part of the show in his second year.

The rules were unevenly enforced; it could be overly-harsh one minute and too forgiving the next, depending on how thick the kids were. It started out pandering to them, but soon got bored with that approach. In S3 the cast toyed with humiliating them, successfully, and in S4 the level design almost sent a few of the clumsier ones to the casualty ward. When a team who knew what they were doing featured, the show became the thing that it was envisioned to be: magical.

112 episodes, approx 25 minutes each.

4½ watchers of illusion out of 5

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Lipstick on Your Collar (1993)

You've maybe already guessed by the cover that Lipstick is set in the 1950s, which means music plays an important role. Dennis Potter has a peculiar knack for making existing music and lyrics fit his narrative in unusual ways. He plays with them, opens them up and in doing so changes the intent in an often playfully ironic way. It's so successful that in the future when I hear many of the tracks used in the production I'll be smiling while thinking of the scenes they're attached to.

Of all the Potter TV Miniseries I've reviewed so far, Lipstick is my favourite for a number of reasons, the first of which is mentioned above.

There's also the top-class characterisation to consider, and the way some of the principals drift into their own fantasy realm when life bores or distresses them. In a few of the author's other works the fiction spills over into the reality, but here the reality becomes a part of the fiction; boring old farts who would rather be dead than caught dancing in their underwear are launched into spotlights to spin and twirl their stuffy stuff in a hilarious manner.

At the centre of a majority of the daydreams is Pte. Mick Hopper (Ewan McGregor), a clerk who's desperate for his national service term behind a translator's desk at the Foreign Office in Whitehall to end so that he can live life to the full.

The blonde girl is Sylvia Berry (Louise Germaine), the kind of beauty they paint on the side of bombers, but she's as common as muck when she talks. Nevertheless, a number of people are utterly besotted with her, which invariably leads to trouble.

The lives of workers and residents intertwine at various points along the timeline, deepening our understanding of their situation and even on occasion changing our opinion of them. There's occasional nudity and the politically incorrect notions of the era aren't overlooked, so folks that are easily offended probably will be.

6 episodes, approx 60 mins each.

4½ barely bloody drinkables out of 5

Friday, November 13, 2015

Kamen Rider Kiva (2008-09)


Most of you are going to walk away when I tell you that Kiva is a vampire fangire. 1.) You didn’t see that coming with a name like Ki(ng of) Va(mpires)? 2.) Good riddance~

While many Rider and Sentai series carefully balance humor and drama, Kiva aims for extremes and hits both marks. In general, my gripes stem from trivial things like ephemeral CGI equipment. Even so, there's enough Kuuga homages in play to make me quickly hand-wave the annoyance away. There's also massive final form spam, but I just don't care. Kiva’s default suit is said to have been too heavy or awkward for the actor and Kiva Emperor is so gorgeous and functional that they could have gone full Showa and had it be his only form.

Conversely, Wataru himself is the weakest link character-wise. While true, it’s a disservice to state it as such because he’s impossibly adorable and there’s nothing particularly wrong with him. It’s simply a game of comparisons and he’s up against the entire family of Riders inhabiting the series’ other mainstay system, IXA. I adore virtually all of them, and, because I am who I am, I have to mention that one of their number is without question my favorite female Rider. In fact, if it wasn’t for Tiger from Blade, she’d be my favorite female character in Rider, outright.

Contrary to when I'm choosing to bring this up, it's tantamount to note that the series takes place in both 1986 and 2008 and jumps between them rapidly. Thankfully, there are unmistakeable transitions in place. There's also time-travel of the infinitely convenient variety. However, it's done to bring the casts together for crucial character moments and so I simply roll with it, unquestioningly. If you can’t, then you can’t.

More than anything, Kiva is about the power of love. What sets it apart from the Twilight series is that it takes the time to explore the concept in all of its facets, in all of its myriad forms. It’s always genuine and Inoue Toshiki is entirely unafraid to present it in realistic, often imperfect, ways. Love changes and it changes the people who share it with one another. It can save and it can damn.

It's all about learning to navigate the twists and turns, when to hold on and when to let go, much like life itself.

48 episodes, approx. 24 minutes each.

4 Strangely Unexpected Neck Fetishes out of 5

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Kamen Rider Kuuga (2000-01)


“Believe. When the time comes, everyone does what they can.”

In the current and immediately preceding decades of tokusatsu, even the most noble and worthy of Riders and Senshi have had at least a small taste for battle, for its own sake. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this and that very proclivity is often conducive to their success. Godai Yuusuke, however, does not and his reluctance is subtly on display from the very outset of this narrative, even when he has to put on a resolute face for those who would doubt his commitment to the task. As I’ve stated in the past, a Rider’s greatest nemesis is often themselves. Much like its sequel series, Agito, Kamen Rider Kuuga is dominated by an exploration of not only the ways power can be used but also how it can use those who wield it.

While these two series are unique from both eras, in my eyes, Kuuga does mix Showa and Heisei execution ideals in that while Godai is the sole Rider he’s also given a bevy of forms and an expanded arsenal to carry him through the show’s run. These are all doled out with quiet, deliberate care. In terms of cast, he's joined by a large contingent of characters springing from the police force fighting the Grongi alongside him, as well as a host of his own personal acquaintances. Together, they comprise an elaborate, seamless tapestry organically depicting the reasons Godai fights even though he has no innate personal desire to, as such.

When pressed to compare the two programs, I usually respond thusly: Kuuga himself is superior as a titular character, whereas Agito has the edge as a series because of its tightly-wound mysteries and the interactions afforded by its larger cast of Riders. These facets jigsaw together in my mind to place them on an equal footing, befitting of their connection.

Odagiri Joe’s career went on to blossom in ways that handily eclipse tokusatsu (in most people’s minds) and though he has even stated that the role was quite difficult for him, the truth remains that he will always be remembered as this selfless, endearing, paragon of a Rider by those who have taken the time to view and appreciate the series that properly re-birthed the franchise in the Heisei era.

49 episodes, approx. 23 minutes each. There's also an abbreviated, joke episode and a summary special joining the Hyper Battle Video as extras.

4½ Soft-Focus Glances Towards An Endless Blue Sky out of 5

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Imagin Sentai Kamen Rider Den-O (2007-08)


I tend to hold the more philosophical pieces of media I love as my favorites. However, there are some straight-forward, heartfelt, and often ostensibly goofy efforts that I consider to be the truest litmus test of one’s character when it comes to finding like-minded individuals with which to associate. Den-O is undeniably one of the most important of this number. While there is absolutely no denying that the series as a whole is full of incredibly silly characters and situations, the truth is that they simply overlay one of the most sincere and moving narratives I’ve personally experienced, acting as a deterrent to those who are not willing to peer deeply (or simply long) enough into a work to ascertain and appreciate its true purpose.

Similarly, the nomenclature I choose to use when referring to this series is not as frivolous as it may seem at the outset. Den-O centers around two human Riders who have allied themselves with an entire troop of wish-granting beings known as Imagin. While most Imagin provide this service in return for a chance to travel back in time and wreak havoc, those who have chosen to possess Nogami Ryoutarou and Sakurai Yuuto instead fight their own kind to protect both the present and the future. Also, for the chance to continuously drink Noami’s colorful coffee. Each of them provide Den-O and Zeronos with new forms and abilities, as well as trains. Having written both Shinkenger and Go-Busters, Kobayashi Yasuko IS Sentai to me and she imbued Den-O and its associated films with exactly the same spirit. Consequently, I feel that this series straddles the bounds between the franchises perfectly and I will always refer to it as I have above.

As the story involves time travel, it was inevitable that there would be inconsistencies and while I can effortlessly think of a few off the top of my head I simply do not care. I believe that errors are unavoidable when entering this realm because of its very nature and therefore the only thing I tend to concern myself with is whether or not the thing in question succeeds in what it sets out to do in terms of story, character, and emotion. Does it? Absolutely.

Den-O embodies and exemplifies themes and touchstones of both Rider and Sentai while also bringing a number of unique ideas to the table that I haven’t personally seen in either of them. 

It’s a siamese iceberg that paradoxically warms my heart and lifts my soul.

49 episodes, approx. 23 minutes each.

5 Identical Finishers, 4 Well-Intentioned Lies, 3 Honorable Beasts, 2 Yay-yays, and a Swan in a Swank Train-car out of 5

Monday, September 14, 2015

Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (1996)

The second part of Potter's final work requires you to have seen all four episodes of the first part, Karaoke (HERE). I won't drop ruinous spoilers about CL's plot, but I'll need to refer to Karaoke, so please think carefully before reading anything beyond this point if you've any interest in watching Karaoke and have yet to do so.

As we saw previously, armed with the knowledge of his failing heath, Daniel Feeld prepared for the future of the people he felt close to. In contrast, the author was unprepared for what awaited him in his own future, 374 years after his death.

The introduction of cryogenics into Karaoke's plot may have seemed odd in isolation, but it makes sense when you consider CL. Scientists unearth the frozen remains of Daniel and plug him into a machine that translates activity in his brain into visual images that can be recorded and analysed by a people who've lost sight of what it means to be human. Their society is in chaos and, for reasons that aren't fully explained, their historical records are inadequate. They believe that memories of the past may help them better understand their present.

The fact that memory, being the subjective construct that it is, is an inherently unreliable source of information is addressed a little but not enough to build a foundation for the entire process to stand solidly on. Similar criticisms can be applied to various parts of CL's plot. At times its reach overextends the length of its component parts, and the whole suffers. When it isn't doing that, when it sticks to more relatable concerns, it explores the nature of free will and deepens our understanding of why Daniel was the person he was in Karaoke.

The scientists are an odd bunch, only a few of whom are any good at acting, but luckily it's those few that get the most screen time. They're at the mercy of a hedonistic evil bitch named Martina Masdon, played with zeal by Diane Ladd. Martina is one of the most memorable characters, and yet many of her scenes are largely superfluous. I'm unsure if that was a kind of commentary in itself, but I'm convinced that some of the subtext is purposefully imbalanced.

On the flip side, some views are so blatant that they're like a punch in the face. I can imagine the author having one final laugh as he contemplated the BBC's reaction to a story about a corporate attempt to control a dying writer's mind.

4 episodes, approx 50 minutes each.

3½ button pushers out of 5

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Dennis Potter’s Karaoke (1996)

The first part of Potter's final work was broadcast two years after his death. He wrote it with the full knowledge that he was dying, which makes viewing it a deeply poignant experience. You might expect the situation to have pushed him towards tapping into the bleaker side of his talent, but there's a huge amount of darkly wry humour in the script. There's also a feeling that inevitability can't be conquered, so it should be thoroughly mocked instead, as best we can.

The main protagonist is a screenwriter named Daniel Feeld. Daniel, played with intensity by Albert Finney, is diagnosed with the same painful medical condition that killed Potter in real life, so it's fair to assume that it's at least partly autobiographical in nature. His most recent work is causing grief for both himself and the director of the TV adaptation (Richard E. Grant). It's fiction but, as is already established, fiction often has a modicum of reality in it.

When Daniel, in his real life, encounters people who resemble his written characters he begins to feel somehow responsible for what happens to them.

The director, the one filming Daniel's burgeoning fiction, is tethered to a single scene that repeats over and over for both him and us. As he struggles to make sense of it, the wider story and the parts each person plays within it, like we do in our actual lives everyday, begins to resonate more and more, driven forward by Daniel's need to prevent his words becoming someone else's reality.

The journey toward completion sends tendrils of consequence into the fates of everyone involved. The people at the centre of the drama obviously get it the worst, but even the ones on the periphery are affected.

I mentioned at the beginning that Karaoke is the first part of Potter's final work. The second part is Cold Lazarus (see HERE), which came out the same year.

4 episodes, approx 50 minutes each.

4 artistic temperaments out of 5

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kamen Rider Blade (2004-05)


Blade goes from 0 to 500mph and never once thinks about slowing down. The type of events that occur in the first episode are the sort most series would build up to over the course of thirty or even forty weeks. I want to say more things happen here in a single arc than typically happen in entire programs but deciding where those begin and end is difficult as everything flows together rather seamlessly.

I used to say it felt like they threw 10,000 things at a wall just to see what would stick, but having seen it again, in full, that is no longer the case. As with Agito, I’m loathe to share many details, not because there are intricate mysteries but rather I’d prefer that individuals travel this long and winding road for themselves. What’s critical to know is that the conflict at hand revolves around the modern-day iteration of the Battle Fight, a redundantly named Battle Royale that occurs across time to grant dominion and propagation to the species of the participant that can best all comers. These challengers are discrete in number and are tied to each category and suit of a standard deck of playing cards. They move in and out of the plot at breakneck speed but there is so much purpose hinged on them that seeing any of the events as being left to chance (by the writers or in the context of the show itself) is now an impossibility for me.

Those who are defeated become sealed in Rouze cards and their abilities are used both individually and in conjunction with one another for finishing attacks by each of the four Riders. As outlandish as the concept may seem on paper, the truth is that the scenario lends itself immensely to the examination of the human spirit and what besets it both on a daily basis and across time. This is carried out via a wealth of ancillary characters and most especially the Riders and the two individuals who are brave enough to support them.

The list of characters I relate to more than these four men in particular is markedly short and my bias for this series knows very scant bounds. Herein, I found so incredibly much of myself and even more about how I should live.

49 episodes, approx. 23 minutes each.

NOTE: The series was given an alternate ending in the form of a feature film, which has been covered here. There’s no real clean point at which to follow that path as opposed to the one presented in the show. You’ll simply have to watch it completely after the fact.

5 Successful Evolutions out of 5

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Hammer House of Horror: Volume 1 of 4 (1980)


The House That Bled to Death
A haunted house story set in a modest home on a typical suburban street. The studio uses the lower budget to its best advantage; the familiarity of the surroundings being more relatable to many folks than an ancient and gothic castle on a hill. It strives for a perpetual sinister aura but falls a little short of the mark most the time... until the blood! — 2½ leaky pipes out of 5 —

The Silent Scream
Hammer Films regular Peter Cushing brings his talents to the small screen alongside another fine actor, Brian Cox. Cushing is a pet store owner. Cox is an ex-con, fresh from the big house.
The camerawork is solid throughout and there's an occasional dramatic flair from the lighting department.
It's certainty a horrifying experience for the characters, but is more of a suspense story for the viewer, even providing some audible triggers that move us closer to the edge of our seats each time they ring out. — 4 natural instincts out of 5 —

The Two Faces of Evil
Director Alan Gibson had worked for Hammer more than once prior to The Two Faces, but the single episode is without a doubt his best work for the studio. It's really amazing. I'll even go so far as to say it's almost Nic Roeg quality at times.
The hospital setting was beautifully lit and shot; the blinding white existing alongside the gray and black was reflective of certain parts of the story. I found the daylight scenes there intensely creepy; a feeling brought on by more than just the canted camera angles.
Like the previous episode, it's not cut from the traditional gothic horror template. It's a psychological terror experienced by a woman in her role as wife and mother as the world she knows and trusts begins to change. — 4 upturns out of 5 —

3 episodes, approx 51 minutes each.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

HANNIBAL: SEASON TWO [2014]

"The most beautiful quality of a true friendship
is to understand and be understood with absolute clarity
."

Bryan Fuller's grotesquely beautiful psychological horror series Hannibal returns for a second helping of disturbed mind-games, exquisitely prepared stomach-turning feasts and bloody nails digging dip into the troubled psyche of it's characters and viewers alike.  Inspired by novelist Thomas Harris' characters from Red Dragon & Hannibal, the series builds into a discomforting world of it's own and seems to transform into a creature far apart from the films most folks are quick to compare it to.  

The season starts off, directly where the previous year left off at, with the heavily damaged crime scene profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) incarcerated in a mental hospital, framed for the atrociously violent crimes that his brilliantly manipulative flesh-eating psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) set him up for.  Not a single soul believes Graham (who questions himself) is innocent, even his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) who blames his own agenda for pushing Will too far into the minds of the deranged killers they chase.  Here we're invested in a clever reflection of what is come, as we see Graham & Lecter speak to each other through bars, politely playing each other ever so carefully with love, hate and everything in between.   The tale digs deep in to a some darkly rich storytelling about human weaknesses, coming to terms with oneself, unhealthy obsession and where the thin line between friends and enemies is drawn.  

With a lesser talented cast, some of the more absurd moments wouldn't really work but with Fuller's imagination it places it in a nightmarish world we know doesn't exist but it feels right somewhere deep within our minds.  Unlike last year, we aren't so focused on individual cases and instead the writing is more interested in digging into the psychological aspects of the characters and how they slowly twist and turn into what Dr. Lecter wants them to be.  It's a difficult but successful task to make us believe Hannibal is as intelligent as he is but what is even more impressive is we never feel the other characters are dim-witted to not even suspect him in the slightest.
   
The show is wise to rarely ever show Hannibal's murders committed on-screen, so we do feel something for him but when we do catch the odd glimpse here and there, we're absolutely terrified and shocked at the violence erupting from the normally calm-mannered man we've grown attached to.  That's not to say there isn't any violence because the blood comes in the gallons, so much that even as a horror-hound myself, I find myself very uneasy in several moments.  It's like they break your mind down with psychological horror then absolutely traumatize you with graphic violence and to say the least, it works so very, very well.  This is especially proven in the heart-breaking bloodbath of a season finale that will leave you aghast and most likely very upset long after the credits have rolled.

The cinematic photography, on-the-nose editing, moody yet vibrant color palette and effectively frightening soundscapes from composer Brian Reitzell, makes Hannibal a rarity among the legions of more accessible shows it bumps shoulders with.  It's the cable TV show snuck onto basic cable that critics and fans alike have constantly called the best series on network television that no one's watching.  Seeing as season one and two combined play like a first chapter, it seems to be just the appetizer to what can only be an intriguing main course.  

4  man-eating pigs out of 5

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Engine Sentai Go-Onger (2008-09)


Go-Onger is the very definition of an ensemble-cast production. There’s seven Senshi, twelve mecha, a navigator robot, and three central villains. The mecha, known as Engines, are sentient creatures that all have copious amounts of dialogue and play a central role in all of the proceedings. There really are twenty-three assholes running around for the vast majority of the show. I assure you, I mean that in the most loving way possible. Every single Go-Onger is brash and impetuous in their own way, even the ones that appear cool and collected when only given a cursory glance.

Failing to conquer the Engine’s home of Machine World, three Gaiark ministers travel to Human World on their quest to pollute and conquer the 11 Braneworld dimensions composing the Go-Onger universe. However, don’t be alarmed if you find yourself developing a genuine affection for these bumbling antagonists. M.A.S.K.’s second season incomprehensibly had both of its factions chummily competing in races. That would actually make sense if it occurred for this series.

Consequently, a number of auxiliary villains appear for brief arcs to pick up the slack. This isn’t problematic because they’re logical choices and provide background, character-development, and contrast for the three mainstays. Small plot continuations also occur between episodes, especially early on. However, it’s ironically the stellar late-game one-offs which stand amongst the greatest episodes I’ve seen of any show, period.

The structure of Go-Onger’s sub-teams is worth addressing. While Green and Black are designated as back-up members they appear from the first episode and are consistently present giving it their absolute all. Position swapping and vague camera work are used to demonstrate their equal standing. In contrast, specificity of several sorts is utilized to roughly balance the two Go-On Wings. While the first female Sixth may not have a stand-alone mecha, neither does her male counterpart. They exist as a Sixth Team and given that this was Toei’s first attempt at both things, they did a very respectable job.

Though clearly segmented in terms of minutiae and classification, the Go-Ongers go on to become a startlingly unified team. No, it’s far more telling and appropriate to say that they come to be a grossly extended but genuinely indivisible family. In my experience, the series with the most humor tend to have the most sincere wealth of heart hiding underneath. Go-Onger is a prime example.

50 episodes, approx. 25 minutes each.

4 Minute Long Roll-calls out of 5 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

HANNIBAL: SEASON ONE [2013]

"Here we are:
a bunch of psychopaths
helping each other out.
"

When it was first announced that Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter character was being developed into a prequel television series all were very leery of it's presence.  It was even stranger when Bryan Fuller, creator of such quirky quality shows as Wonderfalls & Pushing Daisies, was to be the showrunner.  Or how could a series about a cannibal ever pull off what it needs to, in order to be successful in a primetime slot on network television?  To add to all that, it's widely considered that Sir Anthony Hopkins already exquisitely defined the character in it's own popular film franchise.
The series had everything running against it and much to everybody's surprise it's a wonderfully developed adaptation that's much more than anyone could have ever imagined.

We've already seen Dr. Lecter imprisoned on film, so Hannibal takes us back to the days leading up to his arrest, following most of the characters introduced in Harris' Red Dragon novel.  Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is given the daunting task of filling the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and he re-imagines it with a subtle yet immensely creepy grace.  British actor, Hugh Dancy (who co-starred with Mikkelsen in 2004's King Arthur) plays FBI special investigator Will Graham with a truly complex and memorable sense of anguish, heart and frightening confusion.  Veteran actor Laurence Fishburne does a magnificent job at portraying Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford while Fuller interestingly takes the male characters of Dr. Alan Bloom and tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds, then gives the roles to actresses Caroline Dhavernas & Lara Jean Chorostecki.  A recurring slew of genre guest stars round out the cast, including Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Scott Thompson, Anna Chlumsky, Kacey Rohl and Gina Torres.  They all play psychologically disturbed people, good & bad, who are all drawn to each other for one reason or another and it's quite interesting to see the dynamics at play.  

Great acting and characters aside, the series is also blessed with some tightly wound storytelling that is both horrific and beautiful.  The dizzying conversations between the characters gives one a lot to think about, which we quite often find ourselves uncomfortably exploring long after the episode is over.  At first it appears the series wants to focus on the crazy killer of the week but as the story progresses we slowly learn that each case has it's dangerous repercussions on the trembling psyche of it's characters and it all meets up for a jaw-dropping finale.

Aesthetically the series is top-rate.  In fact, I'd go so far as to call it Pushing Daisies' evil twin, with it's strong focus on set design, color and ever-present music.  They might be working on a very low budget but you would never guess it as it really is one of the most gorgeous looking shows on the air at this time.  

The violence and gore is another thing.  I really have no idea how they get away with the things that they do here.  It really is stomach-turning, so much that Fuller himself actually pulled an episode from airing because he felt he went just a little too far.  As horrific as some of things are that we see on screen, Hannibal is at it's most terrifying as a psychological horror.  It wraps it's icy hands around your neck and suffocates you, leaving you haunted for the days to come.  Obviously, it's not a show for everyone due to it's extreme subject matter but should you partake in it's all it's bloody hypnotizing glory, you'll find this is televised fine dining at some of it's best.  

4 pendulums out of 5

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Transporter: The Series: Season 2 (2014)

Much changed between Season One and Two and not all of it’s good change. Frank’s attitude toward his job is the same—he’s still a practical, matter-of-fact guy with a plan that tends to go tits-up before the halfway point—but now he’s more like James Bond in how he goes about things. I suspect that behind the scenes someone actually said ‘Let’s make him more James Bond,’ and they did, unfortunately. The B-Movie charm that existed previously is compromised, replaced by a TV production with aspirations of being a secret agent movie.

There are personnel changes, too. Carla Valeri (Andrea Osvárt), the woman that functioned as a mysterious liaison between the transporter and the often shady customer, is replaced by the foxy Catarina Boldieu (Violante Placido).

Catarina does a similar job but she’s more active. Her multilingual skills are an asset to Frank, so he occasionally has a need for her to accompany him on jobs. Her role is well-defined and not shoehorned in if there's no need for her presence in the field. The chemistry between the pair is more interesting than it was with her predecessor. Of the changes made, she's the most successful.

As before, Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand) cameos from time to time.

There's a more global focus to the stories. Frank hops borders frequently, travelling to places like Libya and Belarus, coming into contact with regional gunmen all trained at The A-Team school of villainy and marksmanship.

Somehow, people do actually get killed and because we're now in dark, thuggish, modern Bond mode there's not always a happy ending.

It’s mostly stand-alone episodes, but the beginnings of an ongoing arc creeps in and a nemesis for Frank is highlighted. It feels a little forced but also shows a confidence in the material and a willingness to make things even more personal in the next season, if it isn't cancelled before then.

12 episodes, approx 45 minutes each.

3 variables accounted for out of 5

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Samurai Sentai Shinkenger (2009-10)


Shinkenger wasn’t just my first Sentai series, it was my first exposure to tokusatsu in its purest form, period. It taught me everything I believe the franchise should be about. It taught me about myself, and that I should never have to compromise when it comes to either of those things.

This is ironic, in its way, because the creative team handed Kobayashi Yasuko an outline, power-set, and toy-line that focused intensely on the show’s Red Senshi. Shiba Takeru is a modern-day samurai lord and was meant to be literally kneeled to by his retainers. It happens, but not because they feel obligated or because he himself demands it. He never does. Halfway through the show, the power-up which was clearly intended to be Red-only and allows command of every single mecha to its user is NOT used to turn Shinkenger into a one man show. Instead, Takeru uses it to turn the power structure on its head. He, of his own accord, puts his life into the hands of the ones who put theirs into his. Ryuunosuke, Mako, Chiaki, and Kotoha are not assistants or side-kicks, they are not inferiors. 

Through Takeru, Kobayashi molds Shinkenger into the truest definition of sentai I could ever fathom. Goseiger is more egalitarian, but Shinkenger shines ever the more because it itself had to overcome the circumstances of its creation and everything that assailed it through its development. It’s a microcosm of the spirit of toku and the impact it can have on its fans, the change they can bring about in themselves, for the better.

There has only ever been one point of contention I’ve had with the series. A singular act herein could be viewed as the result of sexism, but I believe that it can only be interpreted as such if someone is simply aware of it in a complete and utter vacuum. Knowing the characters involved, and having witnessed everything that is said and SHOWN, I grew to see it in an appropriate light. Further, without spoiling, I will simply assert that Shinkenger is actually astoundingly progressive in this arena and that a plot point and character that could have been executed in a gimmicky manner were instead handled with remarkable grace and respect, both in the series proper and in subsequent movies.

In fact, it is Shinkenger’s three ladies and Sixth, Umemori Genta, who most exemplify the series’ far-reaching philosophy that traditions alone cannot assure victory. They must often be challenged and always supplemented with new practices, convictions, and technology. Sometimes they must be outright broken.

Thank you for teaching me so much. Thank you for changing my life. Please continue to, always.

49 episodes, approx. 25 minutes each.

5 (No, 7!) Earnest Feelings Combined out of 5

TWIN PEAKS : SEASON ONE [1990]

"I'll see you in my dreams."
"Not if I see you first."


“Who killed Laura Palmer?” became one the most asked questions in the land of water cooler conversations for a very brief time in the early 1990's.  Created by Hill Street Blues' head-writer Mark Frost and film-director David Lynch, Twin Peaks' legacy grew into a pop culture phenomenon that would go on to influence many other hit cult-TV shows for several decades to follow. 

In simple, it's about a small Pacific Northwest town that is turned upside down when the homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, is found dead, wrapped in plastic.  Enter FBI Agent Dale Cooper who whisks in and innocently begins unravelling not only the mysterious murder but several of the community's seedy little secrets. 

Half quirky satirical soap-opera and half dark twisted mystery, Twin Peaks came at just the right time when television was becoming overly boring and predictable amongst it's hordes of stand-alone episodes. 
Right off the bat, the series proves itself to be a very unique addition to the primetime line-up with it's gloomy cinematic feature-length pilot episode.  Filmed near Seattle, Washington, Lynch made the best of the grey rainy skylines, the wind dancing through the haunted dense forests and the ever-present foghorn in the distance.  The moody atmosphere is instantly hypnotizing but lures the audience even further down the rabbit hole with it's humorously bizarre dialogue, oddball character quirks and now-iconic music that switches between cool-cat jazz to melodramatic soap opera themes with great ease.

Sadly, after the pilot episode, the series opted to film in California and, like The X-files after it, it loses quite a bit of it's mood amid it's bright and sunny woodlands, which look nothing like the Pacific Northwest.  Thankfully the quality of the writing upholds, with the exception of some red-herring storylines that seem like a lot of the characters were created to add to the strangeness of the town but could never find anything worthwhile beyond that.  Hints of the supernatural begin emerging, especially with the introduction of the unforgettable Red Room and the backwards talking dancing dwarf, which completely separated Twin Peaks from anything that had ever been seen on American network ever before.   

In just 2 months of airing the entirety of it's first season, Twin Peaks was that show everyone was talking about and most couldn't wait to what was next after it's cliff-hanging season finale.  The question was, could it keeps it's perfect balance of unpredictable weirdness and high quality writing?

4½ Douglas Fir Trees out of 5

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Kamen Rider Agito (2001-02)


While Agito and its preceding series, Kamen Rider Kuuga, are the literal beginnings of Heisei Rider, they exist to me in their own unique pocket of time between Showa and Heisei in terms of aesthetics, ideals, and execution. Agito is more or less a direct sequel to Kuuga, as it carries forth and develops ideas set in place there and has several thematic similarities. One does not have to have seen Kuuga, however, to enjoy or understand Agito. Simply know that when they refer to Unidentified Life Form No. 4, they’re talking about Kuuga himself.

One similarity between the programs informs Agito’s structure: In Kuuga, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the members of the police force that worked alongside its sole, titular Rider. That carries over, with one of their number actually becoming a Rider, here. The narrative focuses on three heroes, each being one of the three basic categories of Rider. Agito is powered by a mystic force that’s little understood, even by himself. Gills is an organic Rider, whose body mutates when he is roused to battle. The G3 system is a man-made mechanical suit of armor developed by an engineering genius working with the police.

This diversity is key to the series as it centers around a mystery, at the heart of which is the interplay between regular humans, those capable of evolving into something more, and the forces that wish to protect both. I can say very little beyond that as the details are slowly and masterfully unwound over the course of its astounding 51 episodes, movie, and special.

Near the end, there is a sharp shift in the behavior of one faction and while some have complained about this, it is naturally set up through dialogue a decent number of episodes before it occurs. Further, it is a staggeringly logical move given the nature of our species and is something that needed to be addressed to complete the picture being painted.

The themes touched upon are quite universal and are designed to make the viewer question their own prejudices and actions. However, it is made clear that lofty, macrocosmic thinking and behaviors are informed by the choices we make on a personal level. The value of power is dictated by what we use it for. How we choose to live our lives—what we temper that power with—decides its flavor.

4½ Cabbage Cakes Made with Unwavering Love out of 5

Nutted by NEG

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (2010)

A three-part TV documentary in which author/actor Mark Gatiss explores the evolution of Horror in cinema from a biased perspective. I don't mean that in a poisonous way; he's upfront about the focus, admitting that it's "unashamedly selective". I was personally disappointed that the German Expressionist movement was completely overlooked, but I found myself agreeing with his choices the rest of the time. There's only one film that I'd not seen, so I had to skip it. Why skip it? Because there's MASSIVE spoilers every time, mostly by showing the ending of each film. If you're comfortable with that, then there's much to enjoy.

Pt 1: Universal Studios: The golden era of American horror, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, et al. The 'Universal Monsters', as they've come to be collectively known, reflected society's needs at the time. It examines the stories in a social context, exploring why scares that stopped when credits rolled were both thrilling and calming for different reasons. The episode contains mini-biopics of each actor, interviews with surviving cast members or their descendants, and an occasional rummage through the archives and props of the day.

Pt 2: Horror Europa: The second episode crosses the waters to focus primarily on the British horror industry, of which Hammer Productions were the most prolific. After Universal had run their Monsters into the ground with increasingly-weakening sequels and diminishing returns they allowed Hammer to have a go, expecting them to fail just as hard. But Hammer dug up the sleeping corpses and gave them new life in glorious Technicolor. It was within that framework that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing emerged as genre greats.
The X Certificate promised danger and cleavage, so Hammer delivered. For a time, at least. The same waning of interest happened to them years later, but they carved out a well-deserved place in history right alongside Universal.

Pt 3: New Wave USA: Episode three returns to the States for a look at films by the likes of George Romero, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter, men who pushed the genre further than ever before into realms of dubious acceptability. It gives the Independent films the credit they deserve while acknowledging that the Majors were also doing their bit to herald change with films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) hitting mainstream theatres.

3 episodes, approx 60 minutes each.

4 suggestive shadows out of 5

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Kamen Rider W (2009-10)


To borrow Riderman’s phrasing, Riders carry with them their sins, always, often fighting alone, until the end. Even though they will typically have noble intentions, Riders’ greatest enemies are decidedly themselves. There’s a bit of a twist on that, present here. Kamen Rider W is notable in that while Rider systems have previously been used by two or more individuals, a singular system has never been used by two human protagonists simultaneously. Hidari Shoutarou’s body becomes a shared host to Philip’s consciousness when they pair up two of their six base Gaia Memories. Gaia Memories are flash drives containing the Earth’s data on things ranging from the elements to beasts to concepts such as terror and speed. Monsters known as Dopants spring from the general populace of Fuuto, as unpurified memories are pedaled to individuals seeking power for their own purposes by an organization known as Museum.

Fuuto is crucial to W’s very being, and success as a Rider, as the two detectives composing him stake their lives on protecting it and its people. It’s brought to glorious life via a sea of establishing shots that litter every single episode and inform much of W’s mythos. In the course of their journey, they’re joined by a secondary Rider known as Accel, who starts on his own path but becomes seamlessly enmeshed into W’s own on his way to becoming a Kamen Rider—the name given by the city to those who selflessly defend it.

The purple and green of W’s base form speaks to the fundamental theme of the series: one does not exist without the other, because they exist within one another. Philip’s sins mirror Shoutarou’s and their strengths and weaknesses compliment and compensate for one another’s. The concepts of compassion, justice, human frailty, fear, loss, and community are examined, but far eclipsing of those is the exploration of the true nature of family.

Kamen Rider W is an engaging and equally heartbreaking and joyous ride that should be taken by anyone who’s interested in entering the world of Rider. One should know, however, that its story-structure, plot-points, form conventions, and even merchandizing have been copied by every single subsequent series, save one. W’s legacy cannot be forgotten because it is being ceaselessly thrown into the faces of Rider’s fans. However, to allow Toei’s lack of integrity and shameful profit maximizing to taint one’s perceptions of W itself and Rider as a whole is the greatest crime of all. Heisei Rider was largely astounding and it ‘ended,’ for me, at an all-time high.

5 Hearts Beating as One out of 5

Nutted by NEG (with a little help from his friends)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015)

(exasperated) Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker.
Kimmy Schmidt was forced into a cult and locked in an underground bunker for 15 years with 3 other women and the cult leader who told them that an apocalypse had destroyed the surface. When they are rescued by the police, they gain instant celebrity status. This doesn't sit well with Kimmy who just wants to live a normal life and decides to stay in New York where she can blend in easier than back home. She is very upbeat and unlike other fish-out-of-water tales isn't stupid or incredibly naive(only a little), just out of touch. She will attempt to overcome this with the help of her new roommate Titus, a gay black man with aspirations to sing, but who instead passes out flyers while in costume and her landlord, a seemingly sweet older lady who still slings drugs and is not quite all there either because of age or aforementioned drugs. Kimmy's uplifting enthusiasm is a perfect role for Ellie Kemper and there is a surprise in Jane Krakowski who expertly plays a rich trophy wife who meshes pretty well with Kimmy as they are both out of touch. Kimmy because of kidnapping and Mrs. Voorhees because she is super rich and has long forgotten how to take care of herself.

The show was originally made for NBC who passed on it probably because it was just too weird and oblique for a mainstream audience, but it has all the trappings of a broadcast sitcom until it eventually doesn't have to be. This works both for and against it as the jokes can flow much more freely without fear of censors, but the pacing gets off track and disjointed. There isn't a whole lot of focus on the various plotlines and either because of budget and/or writing, characters and stories come and go haphazardly. Krakowski especially disappears mostly in the middle and only reappears for the final storyline in the end which is a shame since her and Kimmy's dynamic was among the funnier bits. While there are clever jokes and the random naive outbursts from Kimmy (like unknowingly using "urethra" instead of "Eureka") are funny and plentiful, there is just as much humor drawn from the well of bland and offensive stereotypes whether it be Titus flipping through all the tropes of a stereotypical gay man or an immigrant friend with an unconvincing asian accent (intentional or not it is just annoying). It is still very watchable and since the Netflix deal guarantees a 2nd season, here's hoping any problems can be ironed out.

Buyer's Guide:
Available now streaming on Netflix.

viral video remixes out of 5

Monday, March 30, 2015

Le Portrait de Petite Cossette (2004)

In many cultures there’s a belief that everything has a soul: trees, flowers, mountains, etc. It’s often referred to as animism, but that’s an umbrella term that doesn't give enough attention to the nuances of a particular society or culture. In some parts of the world, Japan for example, there’s a religious/spiritual belief held by some that even household objects can attain a soul after a set number of years. Knowing that is necessary to understanding Le Portrait de Petite Cossette.

The main protagonist is art student Eiri Kurahashi, who spends much of his time at a quiet antiques store. Eiri is enchanted by a piece of Venetian glassware that he finds there. He’s drawn to how it catches the light and the feelings it stirs when he holds it close. As he retreats further into his private world of obsession with the object the captive soul of a young girl enlists his help in a very unusual play, and the danger to his person increases.

The change that occurs in Eiri is a mix of aggressive abandonment and age-old tragedy. His tale contains within it the kind of sad beauty that sometimes accompanies rainfall. The subsequent washed-clean feeling we long for is never guaranteed; it’s as fragile as the feelings that it provides a soundtrack to.

There are a small number of other characters in Eiri's life, characterised by their relationship to the young artist, but they offer little beyond an anchoring function and a basic display of concern. It’s not a problem, because the OVA has only three episodes; had it been longer they’d have needed more depth.

The animation by Studio Daume is stunning. Colours are all-important to the beguiling mood. It uses an amber light to communicate the unspoken (amber preserves), and an even greater amount of light diffused, brought to life as it shines through painted glass. The perspectives are also unusual. The objects in the antique store see with the eyeless soul that haunts them; the view we have of the action is often theirs, existing in the same locale but distanced, not unlike Eiri’s relationship with Cossette. Subtlety is key.

It’ll be too mysterious for some folks, and that’s fine, but should appeal to the kind of viewer who doesn't require their every narrative be clearly labelled and served on a familiar plate. The story is unclear at times, but the elegance and beauty of the work will hold you until you can figure it out.

3 episodes, approx 40 mins each.

4 vanishing points out of 5

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blackeyes (1989)

Apologies for the blurry picture used above, but in some ways it emphasises a point about the availability of Dennis Potter’s 'Blackeyes' miniseries: no proper box art exists because it's been denied a commercial release. It's been hidden away in the BBC vaults for twenty-six years. An image search returns precious little other than a bootleg DVD and the covers of Potter’s original novel (1987) to work with, hence my crude cut-n-paste job from a VHS copy.

The story's typical of the author's work, which is to say it's a complex arrangement of layers presented in an unconventional, creative manner; a non-linear narrative that ebbs and flows; a sensual tide that takes as much as it gives.

The titular character is a representation of a writer’s fascination with his niece’s past profession, unattainable except in fiction. He takes parts from her time as a fashion model and creates a tragic, self-reflective, male fantasy that walks off the page. She's a sullied depiction of reality whose very existence taunts.

Her blank slate personality is being written and rewritten by more than one author at any one time, from various perspectives, including, but not limited to, ownership and revenge. Some of the character types are lifted piecemeal from other genres, further blurring the lines between what’s written and real, what’s imagined and what’s being or has already been lived. Nothing is simple.

The unseen narrator—the voice that critiques even itself—is the voice of Potter, uncredited in the role, but inherent, more than just a passive element in his own fairytale playground. The shifting voyeuristic and intimate commentaries are by turns enlightening and disturbing, but always controversial.

Potter was also the director, so the camera is his eye, a part of the space it helped create, moving god-like through it and inside of it. In that, he also excels.

Many critics of the era panned it. The need to label it as either misogynist or satirically damning of misogyny placed them on an uncomfortable fence. Perhaps they recognised elements of themselves in it or it highlighted their own slavish failings? It's even possible that the dislike was unconsciously fuelled by a sociopolitical consciousness change that was happening at the time. But most likely—in not having the benefit of hindsight that we have now—they simply didn't understand it. That's nothing of which to be ashamed. Achieving complete understanding isn't a prerequisite for viewing. I suspect Potter is the only one who ever really could've comprehended every daring facet of it.

4 episodes, approx 50 minutes each.

4 tangles of prose memories out of 5

Friday, January 23, 2015

Titus Season 3 (2001)

Horrible, heinous, brutal stuff happens to everyone. So if something tragic happens in your life, go ahead, take some time and grieve. *DING* Time's up! Movin' on.
Christopher Titus is working on regaining his reputation and getting his finances in order for his failing hot rod business. That is the overarching plot, but it is actually largely unimportant and mostly forgotten later in the season. The show continued with its dark subject matter, moving on to episodes focused on child abuse, murder, severe mental illness and hate crimes against LGBT. The latter actually won the show a GLAAD award since even though the characters were crass about it, it still put forth that gays deserve equal rights. Pretty radical stuff for 2001 TV. The latter half of the season is probably the best, both in laughs and subject matter as the severe mental illness of Titus' mother affects almost everything in the show. The black comedy was in fine form with hilarity mixed with a sincerity that comes from Titus having actually gone through real life situations that inspired the show.

The show was hitting a stride despite the networks' continued objections to the crude content that caused a few episodes to air out of order and mixed with a plot about a disturbance on a plane in THAT year caused a delayed airing that further threw the schedule out of whack and a meeting with executives that Christopher has talked about several times caused the show to be cancelled. As Titus puts it, "Call your boss an idiot enough times and they will fire you." The silver lining is the show went out before it became too formulaic like other shows that also have heavy use of cutaway jokes and flashbacks, but the theatrical play filming was still fairly unique. Like the other seasons, it can feel a little dated now, but still worth the time to watch.

Buyer's Guide:
Only available on out of print DVD box sets that at least have some decent extras.

4 taking out 4 armed guards with a pair of tweezers out of 5

Monday, January 12, 2015

Cilla (2014)

I was born in the decade after the swinging sixties had swung their last, so my experience of Cilla Black while growing up was primarily as the woman on TV who said “lorra lorra laughs,” and “…here’s our Graham with a quick reminder.” I knew her musically from having performed the emotionally stirring theme song to the film Alfie (1966), the UK version at least, but I knew nothing of how she rose from being a music fan to embracing fame as a singer, so watching 'Cilla' was a real eye-opener. It’s also damn good. It ought to be because it's from the same writer, producer and director team that made Mrs Biggs (2012).

It begins in 1960, Liverpool, the same year and location in which The Beatles formed. Cilla’s own evolution runs parallel to theirs and even overlaps on occasion. As you’d expect, almost everyone speaks in a Liverpudlian accent. The hard ‘g’ and ‘–ckk’ sounds are better performed by some of the cast than by others, but everyone is easily identifiable as being Scouse.

Cilla is played by Sheridan Smith. She’s not a dead ringer, but when topped with the famous red hair and outfitted in the correct period fashions she definitely looks the part. The aesthetic trappings could've been all for naught if the voice wasn't authentic. Thankfully, Sheridan can really sing. She performed all tracks live on set, in both of Cilla’s unique styles, and it’s genuinely superb. I’d link an example on YouTube but removing them from context wouldn't be a good idea.

While the miniseries is primarily about the titular character, she didn't make the journey alone. It’s also the story of the devoted Bobby Willis, who played a pivotal role, and to a lesser extent the record producer Brian Epstein.

Directly after viewing the final episode I went looking for clips of the real Cilla singing in the studio to see how Sheridan compared. Doing so was instrumental in my developing a new appreciation for Cilla's talents. I see her now first and foremost as an artist, whereas before it was as presenter of crap TV.

3 episodes, approx 45 minutes each.

4 edge of the step moments out of 5

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Kingdom Hospital (2004)

aka Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital

American author Stephen King took Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s eight episode miniseries, Riget (1994), turned it into a thirteen episode English language series and relocated it to Lewiston, Maine. There's sure to have been many other changes too, but since I've not seen the original I can’t say what they are. Von Trier shares an executive producer credit, suggesting he was agreeable to the adaptation or at the very least happy to whore the concept out.

Peter Rickman, the person we’d traditionally most readily identify as the main protagonist, is admitted to the titular hospital after a serious accident. An accident, incidentally, that mimics King’s own hospitalisation almost verbatim; although I suspect the talking anteater is very much fiction. Peter is a painter, not an author, but his onscreen role is similar to King’s background role: both men help rewrite a story as it happens from a point that's both distant and crucially central. Even though he's a key player, perhaps even the most important one, he’s only one part of a larger whole, one small element in the daily workings of the institution.

The building is modern but has foundations that extend backwards in time to the Civil War era. Before it was a hospital it was something else entirely, and before it was a place of saving lives it was a place where many lives were lost. Yes, it’s the old 'I built new shit atop some old shit and now the ghosts won’t leave me alone,' scenario. Part of what makes it different is the aforementioned talking anteater. It’s CGI but it’s really rather good considering it’s a TV production.

The show's appalling camerawork, direction and oddly placed music made me hate it. If not for Diane Ladd’s character, self-professed psychic Sally Druse, and the mystery surrounding the little girl pictured on the cover (Jodelle Micah Ferland) I’d have given up long before the end. Things do start to get better by episode four, but there’s so much wasted potential that it’s a struggle to make it that far.

A large percentage of the many subplots serve little purpose other than to extend the running time or increase the level of weird. More effort to make them a valuable counterpoint to the core story would've helped tighten the narrative.

The highlight of the whole endeavour is the opening credits that resemble a Dave McKean and JK Potter-esque hybrid of imagery that does eventfully have some relevance even if it appears not to for the longest time.

13 episodes, approx 40 mins each (the first and last are double length).

2½ jonesing rats out of 5