Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

I've never really liked Sharon Stone in anything, and 'The Quick and the Dead' does little to change that. In fact, I'd say she was the weakest link in 'The Quick and the Dead', Sam Raimi's unique and entertaining take on the Western. Stone plays "The Lady", a grim and mysterious woman who enters the town of Redemption to take part in a gunfighting contest held by the town's tyrannical overlord John Herod (Gene Hackman). Her reasons for taking part are initially unclear, but it soon becomes apparent that she has vengeance on her mind, and that she can shoot with the best of them. A wide variety of colourful characters also enter the elimination based contest, many of whom have agendas of their own, including "The Kid" (a young Leonardo DiCaprio), a reluctant preacher named Cort (pre-fame Russel Crowe), and a braggard named Ace Hanlon (Lance Henrikson). That's pretty much the plot - what follows is the interactions between the trigger happy contestants that typically culminate in a series of tense shootouts.

Not only do I think that Stone is miscast, I also think she delivers a weak performance. That and the fairly basic plot and characterization are the major drawbacks of the film, though they aren't all that significant when you consider that this is first and foremost an entertaining action film with larger than life characters; characters that are wonderfully brought to life by a fantastic cast. Hackman, Crowe, DiCaprio, Henrikson, Keith David, Tobin Bell, and Gary Sinise (in a bit part) all deliver, and infuse their sketchy characters with a lot of personality. There are bristled egos aplenty that result in scenes full of posturing, glaring, shouting, and of course shooting. The signature action sequences are the shootouts, and they are realized with great style and energy by Raimi. Restrained this film ain't; there's a surreal, alternate universe like over-the-top feel to it. Visually the film looks great in a "hyper stylized Western" kind of way, and there's a pretty decent and lively score from Alan Silvestri.

As far as distinctively stylized Westerns go, there aren't many to choose from, giving 'The Quick and the Dead' the edge as it's quite good and very entertaining. There are no real surprises, but the fun is in seeing how things play out, and in that regard the film works.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Yet another reason to love Google

The BBC reports that "Search giant Google is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy technologies." You can add that to their exemplary array of online services and applications, their good behaviour (yeah yeah there have been a few supposed blips like the whole China thing), their book digitizing project, their open standards mobile phone platform initiative, their unobtrusive use of ads, their association with other cool projects (like Firefox and OLPC), and their generally fun corporate image.

The Office (US) - Season 1 (2005)

The Office (US) - Season 1 (2005)

The first season of the US version of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's brilliant comedy 'The Office' gets off to a shaky start, initially mirroring the UK show before branching off into its own stories. Stylistically it's the same - a faux documentary following the goings on in a fictional paper company and focusing on its inept manager Michael Scott and the hapless employees who have to put up with him.

Unfortunately, at least in this first season, it doesn't even come close to the hilarity of its British cousin. It is funny, but not quite in that painful, uncomfortable way that makes you squirm in your seat. And Michael Scott just doesn't seem to have the same pathetic humanity that David Brent embodied so well - it's hard to feel any pity for Scott, as he just comes across as a buffoon. I think the same is true of all the characters really, there was something endearing about the originals that this version just doesn't capture in quite the same way, though it does try. It's well made and features good performances, but the subtle differences in writing and interpretation of characters prevent it from being great.

'The Office' is good, and worth watching; I'll be sure to check out the second series as well and see if it gets better and finds its own voice.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Flash - The Complete Series (1990-1991)

The Flash - The Complete Series (1990-1991)

I loved this show as a kid, but I can now relegate it to the ranks of crappy shows that prove I was an idiot and had no taste while growing up (a crime all kids are guilty of!). Not that I'm not an idiot now, but it's all a matter of degrees. I digress, let me get back to 'The Flash'. Based on the famous DC Comics character who can move at incredible speeds, the show stars John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen, a forensic scientist who in the pilot episode gets struck by lightening, causing him to be endowed with the power of super speed. The lovely but bland Amanda Pays plays his friend and confidant Tina McGee, a scientist working at the 'Star Labs' research facility. After putting on a costume that can resist the wear and tear of his speed, Barry takes on the persona of "The Flash", fighting crime in the seedy city of... Central City.

'The Flash' clearly tries to evoke Burton's 1989 Batman film, with a similar aesthetic - dark, grimy, stagey looking city - and a terrific Danny Elfman theme. Only this series is way more flawed then that landmark film. First, the good. The acting in general is decent, and the visuals and effects are impressive for their time. The costume looks pretty cool. And the theme, as I said, is pretty darn great. Now for the negative. The stories are, for the most part, rubbish. Formulaic, derivative, predictable, and downright boring at times. The writing is painful, full of exposition, weak characterization and silly gags. The show reeks of the eighties - and it came out in the nineties!

The plotting is terrible and juvenile, and really for the first half of the season many of the storylines could have come out of your average lame cop or 80s sci-fi/action show. Most of the episodes demonstrate one thing - how incompetent the Flash is. If there's one thing you'll learn watching this show, it's that the Flash is a moron who, despite the incredible advantage he has over his adversaries, time and time again gets taken down by someone sneaking up from behind and conking him on the head. Seriously, I began to watch each episode eagerly anticipating the moment when The Flash falls for the same trick that undid him in each of the previous episodes. Or the old 'normal human somehow reacts faster than the Flash' maneuver, which also works whenever it's convenient for the plot and the sneak up from behind trick has already been used in the episode.

Problem is that the villains were too lame for the show, and the only way to create conflict was to have The Flash make an ass of himself. If he applied himself with even a modicum of competence, the villains would be behind bars before the first ad break. So instead of seeing awesome Flash action, we get to see him waste his powers on banal things. A crappy hallmark of the show is were Barry does speed cleaning or speed chores for comedic effect. This seems to be where most of the effects budget went. Things improved in the latter half of the season with stronger super-villain types showing up, most notably Mark Hamill as 'The Trickster', but it still wasn't enough.

'The Flash' is a sometimes entertaining but all too often infuriating show, and one that deserves to be skipped, I'm sorry to say. I looked forward to seeing it since my nostalgia tinged memories informed me that it was a TV classic. I now know better. Curse you, memory, curse you! Hopefully the upcoming movie will help to elevate the live action status of this iconic hero.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Closer - Season 1 (2005)

The Closer - Season 1 (2005)

'The Closer' starring Kyra Sedgwick is one of my favourites from the stuff I've been watching over the last few months. Which is quite odd, given that taken at face value it's just a formulaic police procedural.

The story revolves around Sedgwick's character, Brenda Johnson, who moves from Atlanta to Los Angeles to head the new 'Priority Murder Squad' of the LAPD. She's brought in because of her track record for getting results (she 'closes' cases, hence 'The Closer') through her phenomenal interrogation techniques. The season wide arc of the story involves Brenda acclimatising to her new environment while dealing with the hostility towards her from her colleagues (who don't like the fact that she's an abrasive outsider placed in a senior position within the department), her friendship with the Assistant Chief of Police Will Pope (J. K. Simmons), and her romantic involvement with an FBI Agent, Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney). The typical episode starts with a murder, which leads to an investigation and rounding up of suspects, and a series of interrogations where Brenda manipulates and breaks people down to get at the truth and to get the culprits to admit to their crimes.

While it sounds formulaic, I found pretty much every episode to be gripping from start to finish. It's a very well made show from top to bottom, and the writing - both plotting and characterization - is excellent. The mysteries are varied and interesting, and are well plotted even when they're far fetched; they rarely tax suspension of disbelief. The stories also touch upon various cultural (and racial) aspects of society and raise ethical and moral issues, but never in a heavy handed way. The show appears to adhere to the realities of procedural work and the legal issues involved, which is always a huge plus in my book. The show's hook, the interrogation scenes, really seal the deal; they are terrific and are usually the highlight of every episode. Sometimes it's possible to see what's coming in advance, and sometimes it isn't, but the way Brenda plays people is always fascinating to watch.

All of this is fine but would be for naught without a strong cast. And the one here is uniformly excellent, from top to bottom, but the one I want to talk about is Kyra Sedgwick, who is simply phenomenal in the central role. Superficially she comes across as a quirky, sweet, oddball character with an incongruous Southern accent and strange idiosyncrasies. But she's also a tough and uncompromising firebrand and it's easy to see why she aggravates people, but at the end of the day the viewer (and the other characters on the show) are left with little doubt as to her sense of justice and her genius when it comes to getting results. I guess the fun part is that the character of Brenda Johnson really is these seemingly disparate personalities rolled into one, and Sedgwick does a terrific job making her both believable and likable right from the get go. The interactions between her and the various cast members bring a lot of levity to the show and act as a perfect counterweight to the gruesome crimes.

'The Closer' took me by surprise by being so good - I seriously can't think of one element of the show that I don't like or see as a flaw. It's fantastic and absolutely compelling, and I can't wait to catch up with the next two seasons.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Doctor Who - Season 28 (2006)

Doctor Who - Season 28 (2006)

The second season of the new adventures of Doctor Who (28th season overall!) is about on par with the first one. Which is to say that it is fantastic! Christopher Eccleston departed the show at the end of the first season and was replaced by David Tennant, who I'm thankful to say more than lives up to his predecessor. Tennant's Doctor is different, and yet the same - his performance is quite remarkable. I think I'll still have to give Eccleston the edge, particularly in the dramatic moments; Tennant is a bit more goofy and can't quite match Eccleston's world weary demeanour. But again, it's a minor thing and probably down to personal preference more than anything else. Billie Piper plays off of Tennant just as well, and there are even romantic undertones between her and this new younger model Doctor.

Everything I said about season one applies again here, so I'm going to cheat and say just refer to that review. Once again, Steven Moffat delivers one of the most memorable episodes of the season (The Girl in the Fireplace), there are several two parters, and there are hints scattered throughout the series that lead up to the season finale. Season one reintroduced the Daleks, and season two follows that up by reintroducing another of the Doctor's classic foes, the Cybermen. The finale is big and spectacular, and as with the first season ends on quite a poignant note (though there is some deceptive build up thrown in there, truth be told).

All in all a terrific season, and I understand that the third (and latest) season continues the trend, so that's something to look forward to. In the meantime, I plan on checking out the Torchwood spin off series next.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Coupling - Seasons 1 & 2 (2000-2001)

Coupling - Seasons 1 & 2 (2000-2001)

'Coupling' is sort of like Friends, only with all the sentimentality and friendship stuff taken out and all the sex and relationship stuff taken up to 11. Oh, and it's British, not American. Created and written by Steven Moffat, the half hour show chronicles the escapades of its thirty-something main characters to hilarious effect. They are a diverse bunch of oddballs who are brought together under bizarre circumstances in the first episode.

The show often divides a story between the men and the women, usually recounting events from both their perspectives. It is incredibly funny, full of ludicrous and improbably brilliant situations. Moffat's writing is terrific, deftly balancing the puerile and silly elements with the more mature elements, and the dialogue is very sharp with each character having a distinctive and memorable voice (my favourites are without a doubt Jeff and Jane). The performances are great overall, though I feel the guys come off a bit better than the girls (Jane excluded). Sarah Alexander's performance as Susan in particular is sometimes weak, with her lines often sounding unwieldy. Richard Coyle as Jeff is the complete opposite though, with every line uttered to perfection, and the rest of the cast is almost as good.

In short, 'Coupling' is brilliant and absolutely worth the time, though I must confess that the constrained subject matter doesn't always lend itself to watching episodes at a stretch as it can sometimes feel a tad repetitive. That's just a very minor quibble though. I'm now keenly anticipating watching the remaining two seasons, and hopefully will have the time then to write a more cogent review*!

* I finished watching this over a month ago, and only got around to blogging about it today!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Superman III (1983)

Superman III (1983)

Superman III is a bad movie. It's a shame too, because it has some really standout elements, but the overall impression is one of overwhelming negativity. Director Richard Lester takes over the franchise fully, and shows us where the weaker elements in the original cut of Superman II came from (as opposed to Donner's much better but flawed Director's Cut). Even the first two movie had a goofiness to them, but this Superman is way too comical and the fact that Richard Pryor is the star is testament to that fact.

The story begins with Pryor's character Gus Gorman teaching himself to become an Über-computer programmer and subsequently getting employed by the villainous Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) to manipulate computer systems to wreak havoc and make money. Superman (Christopher Reeve) intervenes, so the villains hatch a plan to get rid of him by 'creating' kryptonite. Their kryptonite isn't quite right and it winds up making Superman evil instead of killing him; he then goes around the world causing trouble and making himself hated in the eyes of the world. A sub-story involves Clark Kent reuniting with his high school crush Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole, who went on to play Martha Kent in the TV series Smallville).

As a comedy it just isn't that funny to be honest, although there are some hilarious moments. Pryor is clearly the focus of the movie instead of Superman, which is unfortunate seeing as how it's a Superman movie. The plot meanders in near random fashion and is about as absurd as it gets (an impressive feat given some of the stuff that happened in the first two films). The Superman stuff in the film, it must be said, isn't half bad, and Reeve's turn as the evil Superman is fantastic and culminates in a pretty terrific fight sequence in a junkyard. He evidently relished doing a new take on the beloved character, and his performance here once again solidifies his status as the perennial Superman. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is hardly in the film, but Annette O'Toole is a more than satisfactory replacement and her 'poor single mother trying to get by' storyline is fairly tolerable.

The production has a cheap look and continued the gradual degradation in quality of the series that began with Superman II and that culminated in the spectacularly awful Superman IV. The effects work is fairly mediocre overall. And as for the music, the renditions of John William's original themes are downright awful.

Superman III is enjoyable at some levels, both as a comedy and as a superhero adventure, but is never fully satisfying as either. It's one for Superman completists only, and isn't really something I'd recommend to anyone, though if it's on TV and there's nothing better to watch one could do far worse.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

I love the original 'Jurassic Park' and regard it as a classic monster / adventure movie. Spielberg's follow up, based on Michael Crichton's sequel to his book, goes for more of the same but isn't a patch on the original. The premise is that there was a second island where the dinosaurs were created, and where they have survived and thrived in their own little ecosystem. Two teams are sent to the island, a large well equipped one sent by the Ingen Corporation to capture dinosaurs for a theme park, and a smaller one sent by ousted honcho John Hammond to document the dinosaurs. Needless to say, the two groups clash but subsequently end up joining forces to survive the island when things go disastrously wrong.

The sense of awe and wonder is gone in the sequel, which honestly feels like a paycheck endeavour. It's just more of the same, and while it is still spectacular and immaculately put together, the script and characters are somewhat lacking, to put it kindly. While it wasn't going to win any awards, the original had a decent cohesive plot and memorable characters. The sequel's plot about corporate intrigue and sending in teams to a dinosaur island where the beasts roam freely is asinine. There's also a really irritating eco-warrior slant that bugs the hell out of me, mainly because one of the 'heroes' engages in acts of vandalism that create most of the problems in the first place, and yet we're meant to be on his side! The stupidity of the characters is beyond belief (wearing headphones in the middle of a Jurassic jungle? huh?) and it's almost comical. Add to that the jokey behaviour of the dinosaurs - the fearsome raptors now toy with their victims and struggle to finish off a group of people whom the raptors of part one would have torn to shreds in a few heartbeats - and the whole thing comes out sub par.

Despite annoying characterization, the cast do a fair job, and it was interesting having the pessimistic Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) as the lead. Julianne Moore is as solid as even in her role as the tenacious Sarah Harding. Vince Vaughan is irritating from start to finish as the eco-photographer Nick Van Owen. One of the standouts is Pete Postlethwaite as the hunter Tembo, one of the select few smart humans in the movie. Supremely annoying is Malcolm's teenage daughter Kelly, played by Vanessa Lee Chester, who manages to defeat a raptor with the power of gymnastics.

The special effects are of course excellent, though the saying less is more seems applicable here, as the dinosaurs lose some of their mystique once they are over-exposed on screen. There are some memorable and exciting sequences, and the T-Rex rampage at the end (events that feel detached from the rest of the film) is very entertaining. On a final note, John Williams' score isn't as memorable this time round.

So overall, an entertaining film that delivers the requisite thrills but doesn't leave the indelible mark the original did. And in fairness, how could it possibly have? Still, one can't help but feel that it ought to have been just a little bit better. Worth watching, but I wouldn't call it a keeper.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Another in a long line of Philip K. Dick adaptations, 'A Scanner Darkly' joins the ranks of "the good ones". Scanner is a bit different in that it's a rotoscoped animated film, which means it uses a type of animation that involves painting over live action performances to create a distinctive stylized look. Richard Linklater employed this technique in his film 'Waking Life', and he uses it again here to good effect.

The film tells the story of a man named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who works undercover for the police to find the source of a deadly new drug that's out on the street. Arctor's true appearance is unknown to his colleagues because of the use of a 'scramble suit', a type of personal cloaking device that obfuscates a person's features; the 'scramble' effect is rendered quite nicely via the animation. He infiltrates a small group of drug users, comprising his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), James (Robert Downey Jr.), and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), but things start getting complicated when it appears that Arctor himself is a prime suspect amongst the group (and the cops don't know that 'Arctor' is the undercover cop because of his anonymity). Paranoia, fear, and confusion creep in as the effects of the drug, which he has also been consuming, begin to cause Arctor to lose touch with reality and his own identity.

I guess the question that comes to mind regarding this film is, 'is there a point to it being animated'? The answer to that would be yes - I think the stylization is appropriate for the hallucinogenic subject matter, and it certainly comes into play in big way with the scramble suit. Overall the film is very good; it's a thought provoking mystery, it's funny, and with its frenetic energy it's quite engaging. There's also a lot of dialogue heavy scenes that are a lot of fun, particularly those involving Robert Downey Jr. It's a weird, twisty tale and there are some nice surprises along the way, and the ending is surprisingly poignant. The performances are quite good, with Reeves yet again managing to land a role that suits his particular persona to a T. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent, and is provided a strong foil in the form of Woody Harrelson. Winona Ryder is probably the weakest of the bunch, but even her performance is more than adequate.

Ultimately 'A Scanner Darkly' is a worthwhile film. The interesting visuals and energetic soundtrack together complement a unique story to deliver a very memorable sci-fi experience. Now I just have to read the book to see how it compares!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jarhead (2005)

Jarhead (2005)

Sam Mendes' follow up to American Beauty and Road to Perdition is a war movie focusing on a bunch of marines during the first Gulf War. It's structured somewhat like Full Metal Jacket, starting off with boot camp before shifting to the 'action' in the Middle East. And I put action in quotes because, for the most part, the film is about soldiers waiting around to see some real combat! All of their training goes to waste as they sit around running drills, going on patrol, and preparing indefinitely while missing out on the killing that they're all clamouring for. All the waiting eventually begins to take its toll on their mental well being.

The film doesn't really go out of its way to be anti war per se, but the absurdity of the situation and a few choice lines and scenes make its stance on the subject quite clear. It's a well crafted (as are all of Mendes' films) and darkly humourous film, and features a fine performance from Jake Gyllenhaal (though I still find it hard to like the guy in anything), but like Road to Perdition it didn't connect with me as much as I had expected. It's good, and worth seeing, but don't expect it to blow you away.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers (1997)

Quick review (though I suppose since I'll be sure to watch this again, I can review it properly later! How I love these trapdoors I can use to escape from my self imposed blogging obligations!) - Paul Verhoeven's violent adaptation of Robert Heinlein's book apparently strays from its source material considerably (yeah, another classic on my 'to read' list), but is a remarkable film nonetheless. Part action film, part horror, and part comedy, Starship Troopers is a thrilling and entertaining satire that tells the tale of a future in which the military of a fascistic planet Earth wages war against an alien race of giant insects. It's gory and funny, which makes for an odd mix, and its lampooning of fascism and the militarism come on thick and fast. The bizarre cast is effective in a tongue in cheek way (Casper Van Dien?), and the action sequences are spectacular, helped along by some tremendous special effects that have aged quite well. Basil Poledouris' excellent bombastic score is the icing on the cake. An excellent and strangely underrated film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

30 Rock - Season 1 (2006 - 2007)

30 Rock - Season 1 (2006 - 2007)

Tina Fey's '30 Rock' commenced last year in parallel with a similar show, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60. Many had anticipated Fey's show to be bowled over by the one from the more renowned and acclaimed Sorkin. Seems like David conquered Goliath once again, as '30 Rock' won the little contest by being renewed for a second season (despite having even lower ratings than its competitor) while 'Studio 60' went the way of the dodo.

'30 Rock' is a half hour sitcom about a sketch show produced by NBC and created and run by a geeky woman, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). At the start of the season, a managerial type named Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) takes over the show and introduces some changes, including the hiring of nutty actor Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to be the show's new star. This doesn't sit well with current star Jenna (Jane Krawkoski) and the rest of the show's staff, but they all have to try and get along to keep the show going.

That's the setup. '30 Rock' is basically about the wacky escapades of its crazy characters, both in terms of dealing with producing their show and in terms of their personal lives. And it is brilliant, often approaching Arrested Development levels of greatness. Like that landmark series, it features surreal storylines, bizarre unhinged characters, and smart jokes that come thick and fast (including flashbacks and digressions); all these elements gel together perfectly. The show revolves around the central trio of Lemon, Donaghy, and Jordan but also gives plenty of juicy stuff for its equally memorable supporting characters. The cast is uniformly great, particularly the central trio, with the real scene stealer being Alec Baldwin as Donaghy - every scene with him is golden. Add some lively music and colourful visuals to the mix and the end result is a future classic comedy series.

I'd love to write a more in depth review, but I've fallen way behind (I finished watching this ages ago) and don't have time to do so. Fortunately there's a second season (after which the show will probably be cancelled given its anemic ratings) that will give me the opportunity to review it properly at a future date*!

*Assuming the writers' strike doesn't impact it too heavily.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Climate scepticism: The top 10

The BBC website has published a pretty good article on the claims made by global warming sceptics, and presents counter arguments to those claims made by scientists in agreement with the IPCC (i.e. virtually all of them). An interesting read.