Pass The Remote! Come on over and share your remote's faves! <![CDATA[ The Ultimate Comparison Between Friends and How I Met Your Mother]]>
Fine. That's not something I have too big a problem with. My problem begins with the fact that so many writers seem so eager to automatically throw the statue at Friends, mostly because they grew up watching it. It's an interesting phenomenon; it's one thing to believe everything was better back in your day, but it's another thing completely to refuse to acknowledge if something may or may not be better based strictly on nostalgia for childhood heroes. So now, it's time to look at both of these shows as empirically as possible. To prepare, I'm binge-watching DVDs and online streams of as many episodes of both shows as I can. I doubt I'll get to them all, but I can get to an enormous chunk of both. So let's do this! Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother. One day, I'll learn.

Friends gave us Rachel Green, Monica and Ross Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, and Chandler Bing. HIMYM introduced Ted Mosby, Lily Aldrin, Marshall Erikson, Robin Scherbatsky, Barney Stinson, and Tracy McConnell (she was one of the main cast characters during her brief stint on the show, so much so that her actress's name was in the opening credits, so yes, she counts). Some of these characters share remarkable similarities to each other, at least in a few ways: Barney shares the fact that no one knows what he does with Chandler and his tendencies with women with Joey; Lily and Monica share some apparent neuroticism and spontaneity; Ross and Ted both have penchants for romanticism. Characters in both shows reach ridiculous low points - in Friends, Phoebe tried to keep one of the triplets, while Ted made Robin get rid of her dogs in HIMYM. Yet, for all the similarities, the characters all took different paths in their development. The characters on Friends developed and matured in a more subtle manner while the HIMYM gang was more up front about their changes of character. On the other hand, the differences between all the characters in the show were a lot more obvious on HIMYM. HIMYM also stereotyped less; Friends had its ditz, its romantic, its career person, and its man's man. HIMYM frequently crossed these traits over from character to character; career woman Robin was also the show's man's man, for example - she loved guns, hockey, scotch, and cigars. Lily, Marshall, and Barney all shared the role of the ditz.
I prefer HIMYM. Issue one: Phoebe. I love her, and she's one thing that could be counted on to rescue Friends when it was having trouble, but she's a waste of space and seemed to be shoehorned in. HIMYM never felt like it was having any trouble trying to fit any characters in, even during the last season, when Tracy was added to the main cast outright. Issue two: The development arcs of Barney and Tracy showed what HIMYM was capable of at its best. Usually when a TV show runs long, all the characters start out as fully realized humans and, as the writers start to feel stretched for creativity, they start to fall back on some of the more unique quirks of the characters, flanderizing them until they're nothing but quirks. Barney went the opposite route; he was a fully realized caricature through the first few seasons with a few glimmers of humanity; as he developed, he matured, and his better side came out as he decided to settle and form a relationship with his estranged father. (This is why I'm always amazed when critics bitch about HIMYM's later seasons; did they really miss the old, borderline rapist Barney that much? His development made the whole series very satisfying.) And while we only had Tracy around in one season which didn't span every episode, her development was so strong that the audience felt totally gypped by the finale. Issue three: The cast of Friends sometimes came across as so interchangeable that it could have melded together at certain times. Trying to tell them apart when they get angry or upset - which happens often enough - can be something of a chore. The characters on HIMYM never fell out of their personas and blended together to such an extent. Of course, that's an issue with Friends, and not exactly a flaw...

Cast Chemistry
It's very possible Friends and HIMYM were cast in two different and very distinct ways. The cast of HIMYM looks like the actors were all tested and chosen purely on the strength of their individual character portrayals before being rounded up and thrown at each other, and it turned out to work for the best. Friends seems to have been cast with character chemistry as the first thing in mind, like the actors were whittled down to a particular selection and then tested against each other. HIMYM cast the most talented actors it could find for its characters; Friends cast good actors who made each other look great. The difference definitely shows in the final products. Friends ended up casting six unknowns and making household names of not only Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but also actors Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. The actors flew off each other like atomic particles and were so closely bonded when the cameras were off that the emotion they felt in the final episode was genuine. HIMYM can counter using the fact that its individual performances were better; Neil Patrick Harris and Cristin Milioti could both clearly act circles around every other cast member on either show, and the others were excellent as well. The particular traits of every character on HIMYM were also highlighted more, so all six actors had to perform an exceptional balancing act to see their characters were able to merge those traits into someone whole, and not just a mess of ideas the writers could flanderize at will. They all succeeded.
This one goes to Friends. While the cast of HIMYM did everything right, it wasn't enough to stop the emergence of Barney Stinson as a breakout character. Although Barney eventually developed into a complete character, it's still his early Bro Code and Playbook musings which dominate HIMYM popular lexicon. In the meantime, Alyson Hannigan's name is still synonymous with Willow Rosenberg, her character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Neil Patrick Harris didn't make anyone forget Doogie Howser; and Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders are both still remembered purely as Ted and Robin. Jason Segel and Cristin Milioti are popular movie and Broadway commodities, respectively. The Friends cast, meanwhile, are still associated with each other, no matter how far away from the show they've gotten. No matter how successful Jennifer Aniston gets, when her name is brought up, she is still just another name among six particular TV actors.

Overdone Romance We Got Sick Of
In the first episode of Friends, we met Ross Geller, a very recent and heartbroken divorcee; and Rachel Green, a runaway bride. Right off the bat, from first to last, the show did everything it could to throw the two of them together. So the two of them took some pretty nasty trips in the ten years Friends lasted on the air before finally settling into their surefire happily ever after in the final episode. The drama between Ross and Rachel took such absurd turns that, at some point, you have to wonder if the writers were intentionally prying the two of them apart and teasing the audience just to prolong the romance. It devolved into soap opera territory. Everything moved right along for the two of them at first; they crushed on each other in the first season; were dating in the second; broken up in the third because Rachel decided she needed an indefinite alone period, in which Ross jumped another girl's bones; and reconciling only to break up again in the fourth. It's a reasonable trajectory, but it gets spoiled by the end of the fourth when Ross marries a rebound fling and says Rachel's name at the wedding, and from there it just got absurd. HIMYM did a bold thing by introducing Ted to Robin in the pilot episode, only to clearly establish in the end that Robin isn't The Mother. It helped free up the show to give a few romance storylines to Ted and Robin because, since it was established that Robin wasn't The Mother, the show was able to try anything it wanted for awhile. Like Rachel and Ross, though, it devolved, and by the eighth season they were dredging up the idea of Ted still being in love with Robin, who had been established as Barney's match for some time by then. Ted's romantic past with Robin, in fact, hadn't been any obstacle between him and Robin or Robin and Barney for a long time, but creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided to shoehorn an ending they had written for Ted and Robin seven years before the show concluded.
You know what? I'm giving the edge here to HIMYM. I know I have every reason in the world to prefer Ross and Rachel; after all, Friends didn't tell us well in advance that Ross and Rachel weren't ultimately each other's other halves. It didn't make a big show of one of them completely letting go of the other one in the final season to show us once and for all that it wasn't meant to be, over and out, only to renege. Friends didn't kill one of the main characters, as if she was an inconvenience to the writers, just to make it happen! But what Friends did do that made Ross and Rachel inexcusable was turn their first breakup into a goddamned punchline! "We were on a break! We were on a break!" I'd like to show Ross Geller a fucking break! Besides, between their drunken Vegas wedding, their love child, and Rachel's final decision to stay with Ross, it's not like they were lacking for drama.

Resonance With Times
For being a voice sitcom sparked from the grunge era, Friends certainly packed a lot of shining optimism. I'm not saying everything was always wonderful for the characters on the show. Hell, Phoebe sang "Smelly Cat," which could have fit right into the Lilith Fair lineup. The characters, however, seemed to develop that great Hollywood character habit of failing upward. Setbacks never seemed to affect them very much, and usually they quickly landed on their feet. Friends also came off geared toward a mainstream audience; right in the first season, Phoebe has a quick fling with a physicist who is a little uncomfortable with the idea of romance and spontaneity. It was the typical trope of the time: Nerds are to be ridiculed. In addition, while Friends did deal with homosexuality, it treated homosexuality like an odd character tick; something which was bad at the time, and absolutely inexcusable now. In HIMYM, setbacks were really that; they properly set the characters back. Although it's treated like an idealistic fairy tale, there is a very dark vein streaming through the world of HIMYM, and the characters regularly end up in compromised positions, frequently embarrassed and humiliated while trying to make the best of what just happened to them. Lily leaving Marshall to pursue her dream of being an artist is one example; Robin's anchor job on early AM TV is another; and Ted trying to start his own architectural firm is a third. There is also the geek factor; HIMYM actually has TV's best attitude toward geeks. Marshall, Ted, and Barney are all huge Star Wars freaks, and Barney even has life-size Stormtrooper armor in his apartment; they love to play laser tag; they're frequently seen playing video games; and they enjoy an annual event called Robots vs. Wrestlers.
HIMYM. Although Friends featured cell phones and laptops long before they were in vogue, and it did improve its view on gays - even showing a wedding between a gay couple long before the current gay rights movement - it still set out to give viewers a look at normal, mainstream people with socially acceptable interests. It perceived outsiders as geeks or thugs in a negative way. Setbacks on Friends barely made any lasting dents in the characters. On HIMYM, setbacks were real stingers, and the characters were frequently seen doing things they wouldn't ordinarily do in mentally broken states. HIMYM also had the more accurate take on geeks - their geek interests, while prominent, aren't caricatures, and they don't define the characters. Rather, geek interests and tendencies are treated as side interests of the main characters, who are able to keep their geek lives and professional lives separate.

Emotional Impact
In any good TV show, we need to be able to sympathize with the characters; otherwise, when we laugh, we're laughing at them instead of with them. Therefore, it helps to have great ways of projecting times and scenes of deep emotions. Friends axed one of the most insufferable tropes that came to define sitcoms in the previous decade - the Full House music, which replaced real emotion with gagging melodrama. Otherwise, emotion was conveyed by the actors and the script, both of which did fine jobs, and music which was performed by professional musicians. Occasionally, the camera would zoom in very slowly on the troubled character or the character would be isolated. HIMYM, being a more surreal show than Friends, would frequently use surrealism to convey a sense of sadness. It was also privy to using its stilted structure to do the same, allowing it to move back and forth between conversations about the character and the affected character. The portrayals of the characters and the music was frequently a big help as well. Friends, however, conveyed its emotion in a straightforward fashion while HIMYM usually had a joke or two waiting to be used to lighten the mood a little bit.
HIMYM. The trouble with trying to provide emotional heft strictly through the affected characters is that it's like describing the symptoms. Sure, you can sympathize, but there's no real relation unless you've personally been there yourself. HIMYM's surrealism is more than a quirk; it's an effective way to paint a very exacting picture of what the characters are experiencing. In one episode, for example, Robin learns she's barren and can never have kids. Instead of simply saying it, the episode cuts to a pair of kids in a living room which are ostensibly Robin's as Robin narrates to them. Then they fade away as the room is replaced by snowy Central Park and the sofa is replaced by a park bench which Robin is sitting in, drinking a carton of eggnog, contemplating what she just learned. One later episode of season eight, "The Time Travelers," so brilliantly captures the true essence of Ted's loneliness that I have trouble watching it: Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, and Lily meet in MacLaren's for a night or Robots vs. Wrestlers Legends. Ted is busy the following day and unsure whether or not to go, and debates the pros and cons of going with Barney as well as future versions of themselves. This might sound odd, but it's a sort of surreal vision the show has come to be known for. Marshall and Robin get into a fight about who named a drink served by the bar. Soon, Coat Check Girl - a guest character from one of HIMYM's first episodes - walks in. Ted recognizes her and starts to wander over to talk to her, but is stopped by two future versions of Coat Check Girl. Both warn him that a relationship with her would be doomed, and he gets distracted long enough for the real Coat Check Girl to leave. Finally, he returns to Barney and says he's out for the night, and in an understated and very eloquent monologue, Barney tells Ted the cocktail incident is a five-year-old memory and the rest of the night was a product of his imagination, and Ted was debating whether to go alone the entire night. Ted leaves, and Narrator Ted imagines his past self running to The Mother's apartment and delivering Ted's now-famous "45 days" monologue to the unseen Mother. The effect is heightened later; of note, "The Time Travelers" is the final episode which involves any interactions with the unseen form of The Mother. Four episodes later, after years of teases, the conceptual Mother ceased to exist, and the actual Mother was finally revealed. Although the reveal was simple - even anticlimactic - it worked because of the sense we received for Ted's sadness over the course of the season and the fact that the story's endgame was now in sight. Ted himself wasn't aware of it yet, but the audience knew he would be meeting his perfect girl within - in the show's time - just a couple more days.

Opening Theme
Friends opens with one of the greatest opening themes of all time: "I'll be There for You" by The Rembrandts. The song is a definite by-product of the 90's, and it has the rough, unvarnished edges of the traditional grunge sound. It's a pretty downcast song, too, describing a lot of bad, serious situations before launching into its memorable hook, which promises that, no matter what happens, they'll always be there for you. It's one of those theme songs that transcended its opening theme status and became a heavily rotated radio hit. HIMYM opens with an iconic "ba, ba ba ba ba" going along with its title card, but what most people don't know is that's the very tail end of a legitimate song called "Hey Beautiful" by The Solids, a band the show's creators play in. Like the Friends theme, the song is a definite product of the times in a musical sense. The lyrics don't make nearly as much sense - I'm surmising the second verse is about the song's narrator trying to gather the courage to talk to a girl he spotted and thinks is beautiful, but the phrasing is a little random and haphazard. It's a great song, though, and it's one of the few millennial rock songs which, while it relies on the slow-driving, smoothly-laid harmony and melodramatic vocals, still lets the background music massage the scene instead of dominating the song and destroying rock music for a decade to come. Also, while the synthesizer is used throughout, it's used in a minimalist fashion.
Friends. The HIMYM theme was an early version of a trend that's setting rock music back decades. The Friends theme is a great song, and its message about optimism and togetherness through even the toughest of times is more resonant now than it was when Friends was the show to watch. Also, "Hey Beautiful" isn't the most technically sound song, either. Even with better lyrics, its time signature changes are less than subtle.

Format And Structure
Although every story has a beginning, middle, and end, Friends and HIMYM both got around to showing their beginnings, middles, and ends in different ways. Both of them also used heavily serialized formats. Friends took its cues from most every sitcom that came before it, which means it tells its stories in a straightforward, linear fashion. While this makes the typical episode of Friends easy to follow, it also makes it a bit more difficult to jump in the middle of an episode. Since the show is serialized, a big secret revealed in an episode with series-changing ramifications could easily be missed. When Friends performs flashbacks, it does them smoothly, skillfully weaving them into the main structure of the show. HIMYM uses a flashback as the very plot of the show. It's prone to jumping and stilting around a lot more; a frequent device seen on HIMYM is to place the audience into the middle of a scene and then go back and explain how the characters came to that point. HIMYM tells stories in a much more freewheeling manner. It will use surrealism, roshamen viewpoints, intercutting, and flashbacks and flashforwards in order to get the point across. Both shows demand your attention, but HIMYM will go out of its way to make sure it has it. HIMYM also based its entire existence on a large story arc, which demanded bold risks from the creators when it worked and ended up sticking around for awhile. Some of those risks were good and allowed the show to keep revealing hidden depths to its characters; some were bad and allowed them to prolong the show (Ted and Robin, ahem).
HIMYM. The format keeps finding different ways of telling stories to emphasize small moments which impacted The Narrator's life. Not only is it an effective way to keep interest in a story, it frees up the writers to splice other scenes into the narrative, make concurrent callbacks, and even reformat the entire show, which is what happened in the final season. Furthermore, the ultimate story arc allowed the creators to gradually reveal the show's big secrets about how Ted met The Mother. Think about it: What did we know about Ted meeting The Mother in the pilot? They met at a wedding. That was it. After the first season finale had Marshall and Lily break up, most of the the subsequent season finales peeled back more big secrets about the wedding and the meeting. At the end of season two, Ted and Robin broke up, which we knew would happen, since Robin was established in the pilot as not being The Mother. In the season three finale, Ted proposes to Stella, but she isn't The Mother. Season four, Ted tells his kids that The Mother was in an economics class he taught by accident. In season six, it started really heating up; the groom, long believed to be an offhand friend of Ted's like Punchy or Ranjit, was shown to be Barney. In season seven, it was the bride's turn to be shown onscreen; it was Robin. The season eight finale gave us our first glimpse of Tracy McConnell. And the series finale the next season, well, I'll be nice and just pretend it never happened.

Running Gags
Every good sitcom has its share of in-jokes which, despite being an eternal theme in the series canon, can be easily picked up and appreciated by newcomers. Friends and HIMYM are no exceptions. In fact, they even share very similar running gags: One is that Barney and Chandler both work mystery jobs which no one else on their shows knows. It works better for HIMYM, though, because Chandler eventually gets promoted while Barney - who seemingly drags in endless oceans of money for nothing - reveals that his "eh, please" response to everyone else's job inquiries is really an acronym for Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything. Basically, if his corporation is ever caught in one of its more unseemly activities, Barney is the one set up to take their fall. Another is they each had a character with a musical career. Friends gave us Phoebe, who sang some of the darkest, weirdest folk songs you will ever hear with an earnestly upbeat attitude. HIMYM had Robin, a former teenage pop star in her native Canada named Robin Sparkles who had one minor hit and was so embarrassed about it that she told outrageous lies to her friends to try to hide it. They both had catchphrase-spewing ladies' men as main characters - Joey and Barney. Beyond those, Friends introduced us to Ugly Naked Guy, a nudist from a neighboring building. HIMYM had The Bro Code and The Playbook. There was Fat Monica on Friends, and HIMYM had Lily's odd sexual fetishes. These lists aren't even close to exhaustive.
This should be even, but I'm giving the edge to HIMYM for a few reasons. First of all, Phoebe's songs are only written to highlight her ditziness, and sitcom ditzes are a dime a dozen. Robin's singing career gave her backstory an interesting twist, and her reluctance to ever talk about it added a dimension to her character. Second, Ugly Naked Guy was originally a hidden character who was there strictly for laughs. At some point, though, Friends decided it had to break that rule and give Ugly Naked Guy screen time. There's a sacred law of sitcoms which have hidden characters there strictly for laughs that says you never, ever show the character. Never, because it would ruin the mental projection of the character the audience built for itself. It's why all the Maris jokes from Frasier worked so well - they never showed Maris, and we were given unlimited depth to project how awful she was. Third, Friends turned "We were on a break!" into a catchphrase for Ross. It's with that one Friends torpedoed any chance of winning a battle of running gags.

Friends just got its ass handed to it. Yes, Friends was great when it was good; upon my repeat viewings, it holds up much better than I expected it to. one of the major cultural voices of its generation, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still a Cheers knockoff which became popular because it came along at the right time. How I Met Your Mother was something that came flying out of the blue, combining Friends with the surrealism of Scrubs, flying hijinks of Malcolm in the Middle, and yes, the emotional gravitas of Friends itself with a groundbreaking story structure. Friends was a product of its time. How I Met Your Mother turned out to be well ahead of it.]]> Thu, 20 Nov 2014 21:16:09 +0000
<![CDATA[ At First Blush: STAR WARS: REBELS Much More Kid-Focused]]>  
Like most fans of the show, I was devastated when it was cancelled.  Sure, I was glad to hear that Disney wasn’t going to completely ignore a regular TV program in Lucas’s universe – STAR WARS: REBELS was announced shortly thereafter – but I’ll always wish for more stories in the war-torn corners of that Old Republic before the Empire took hold.
At first blush, STAR WARS: REBELS would certainly seem like a grand idea.  Set in those fragile days before the events of STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE, REBELS is free once again to explore these dark times when the Empire was closing its fist around star systems new and far, and – if SPARK OF REBELLION is any indication – it should enjoy a long life in the minds of those still young at heart.
See, THE CLONE WARS offered storytellers the opportunity to tinker with some meaty issues.  Understandably, the galaxy was mired in the chaos of war, so this presented an endless scope of opportunities rich for examination.  Conflict.  Allegiance.  Honor.  Duty.  Responsibility.  Sacrifice.  Teamwork.  So on and so forth.  All one need do is thrown in any quality World War II picture in the DVD player, and you can see the inspirations available.  And – in most respects – THE CLONE WARS did a stellar job working through some of its early missteps, eventually settling into broader tales that gave writers two, three, or even four episodes with which to play out character arcs.
By contrast, REBELS felt a bit rushed.  Granted, it’s never easy to launch an all-new incarnation of any franchise, but this one seemed dependent upon action to push the story forward instead of relying on characters easily recognizable and their actions understandable.  The opening – a bit of thievery between two opposing groups – seemed a bit nebulous (somewhat understandably once you know what’s going on), and it doesn’t get cleared up until fairly well invested into the 43-minutes.  While that might work for some, it required a bit of a stretch for me.
Immediately after viewing it, I wondered if the run-time wasn’t the premiere’s greatest disadvantage.  After all, THE CLONE WARS launched with a theatrical outing before settling in to its weekly 23-minute format, so audiences were given more material and the familiarity of established characters and settings to sort through.  I hate saying it but even if TCW wasn’t your particular ‘cup of tea’ then there still was more to digest with which you could reach that determination.  To me, REBELS seemed as if the writers wanted to speed events up to the point wherein the viewer had no opportunity to stop and posit a question as simple as “How did we get here?” and that could be because … well … they only had 43 minutes to work with.  Before the audience even knows all of the essential pieces they were whisked off on yet another chase, another battle, another argument, giving SPARK more the feeling that it was culled together for brevity rather than entertainment’s sake.
When you have a half-dozen new characters AND a new time and place AND new circumstances to establish, that’s a lot of ground to cover.  As I’ve always said when examining movies and television shows, I’d rather a storyteller take a few minutes extra to get something right than trim a few minutes off only to risk getting it wrong.
For all of the hype I’d heard around the new droid Chopper, good ol’ Chop didn’t seem all that feisty to me in this premiere adventure.  Some of that could be due to the fact that with a small handful of characters and only 43 minutes of run-time, scenes were divvied up as needed to keep focus on moving the story forward; as such, SPARK didn’t have all that many character moments.  I, myself, saw a few missed opportunities with which to add in more individual flavor, and that’s never a great thing.
Granted, some of this may seem like I’m nitpicking, and – if it does – then I’ll say I hope that only underscores how important I take my STAR WARS properties.  I’m all for lightening up the mood, and I’m even a pretty big proponent of keeping something kid-friendly so long as there’s no sacrifice to quality storytelling.  REBELS had a few great moments – the ‘big reveal’ regarding the true identity of a lead character, as well as the ominous set-up for the series promised villain – but they were spread out around some frenetic action sequences that looked good though didn’t make much sense.
RECOMMENDED.  Always the optimist when it comes to most things George Lucas, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.  The Force looks strong with this one, but as it’s airing on Disney / DisneyXD it definitely looks at first blush like STAR WARS: REBELS won’t have the intellectual depth of storytelling that populated so much of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS in its five/six season run on television/Netflix.  That may not necessarily be a bad thing as Dave Filoni and his merry band of animators clearly hope to capitalize on the nostalgia factor: I mean, how cool was it to see actual TIE fighters at work again?]]> Tue, 7 Oct 2014 17:18:15 +0000
<![CDATA[ Interesting Variations From The Original Film Just Weren't Interesting Enough To Sustain It]]>  
Is it worth it?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Based on the 1996 cult classic film created by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the 10 episode Original Series is a supernatural crime saga that centers on bank robbers Seth and Richie Gecko, who while escaping across the Mexican border, take a detour to a strip club that is populated with bloodsucking creatures of the night.”
I suppose the worst that could be said – other than the fact that I found most of the expanded material to be very, very S-L-O-W – is that this version of DAWN perhaps stayed a little too close to that original film when it probably could’ve veered off and did something a bit different.  That isn’t a bad thing – I suspect most folks who are tuning in are doing so in the hopes that Robert Rodriguez and his merry band of men and women can recapture the charm of the George Clooney starring vehicle; in fact, I suspect all of this went down quite nicely with those who watched it air in its weekly run.  Some of the stuff?  The vampire blood cult?  The nutty professor advising the Texas Ranger?  What really went down at the bank in Abilene?  It just didn’t feel as ‘organic’ to the tale as the rest, and I think that’s why the pacing for some of the middle-ground episodes feels lethargic.
As far as performances go, DUSK shaped up quite nice.  D.J. Cotrona steps into the Clooney role, and I don’t think most folks would notice much difference.  Zane Holtz inhabits the character original played by Tarantino himself; while both did good work in presenting someone who wasn’t ‘quite there,’ I’d find it hard to compare the two because Holtz was given vastly greater background material to work with for crafting Richie Gecko.  Otherwise, you really have to then go right to Madison Davenport – as the hot little teenage scream queen for the production – to find common ground (picking up the reins where Juliette Lewis left ‘em), and, again, note-for-note cross examinations don’t quite work as well due to the breadth of new stories.  But Robert Patrick, Samantha Esteban, and Wilmer Valderrama each score some highs and lows based on what they were given to work with, though I thought Wilmer was a bit miscast.
I guess the fact that there really wasn’t anything all that fresh, inviting or memorable holds me back in giving it any full-throated high marks.  The pilot hour is terrific, but then you have to wait … and wait … and wait for other moments of greatness to rise above so much of the mundane.  It finds itself again in its last few episodes; that’s just a long time to wait when you’re watching closely.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: SEASON ONE (2014) is produced by FactoryMade Ventures, Miramax Films, and Rodriguez International Pictures.  DVD distribution is being handled by the always-reliable Entertainment One (aka E One Entertainment).  As for the technical specifications?  This is one smartly-produced 10-episode run, and no expense has been spared in giving the entire affair great sights and sounds along with some winning cinematography.  Lastly – if you’re looking for special features – then you’re in store for plenty as this 3-disc set is chocked full of too many to list!  Have at it kids!
RECOMMENDED largely for its technical prowess more so than its storytelling sensibilities, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: SEASON ONE ain’t your father’s telenovela, bubb.  At first blush, it’s a fairly accomplished horror vehicle though I’ll admit it just didn’t strike a chord in me after three episodes.  The pilot is sharp, tightly edited, and sets a brilliant pace … but – by episode 3 – I was quickly reaching for the remote as it ground down to a slow-paced yarn.  Also, D.J. Cotrona plays a better George Clooney than George Clooney did in this transformation from the big screen to the little one.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One Entertainment) provided me with a Blu ray DVD copy of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: SEASON ONE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]> Thu, 25 Sep 2014 23:27:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ Skinning House Hunters International]]>
Welcome to House Hunters International, a show that drives me nuts. This show has a veneer of spoiled mockery and a ring of extreme haughtiness from the One Percent. Ever since this show came to my attention, I've always seen it as the television equivalent of Gwenyth Paltrow – the heiress who reminds us lowly knaves that we are, in fact, nothing more than lowly knaves by offering her opinions on living life to its fullest. There's nothing wrong with that per se. The problem steps in when it appears that the way to live is by spending money. Then spending more money; perhaps on a nice blouse which costs more than my entire wardrobe.

The times I've suffered through this show, I've frequently wondered why all the episodes have commons themes, no matter where they're taking place. One is that the buyers always seem to have budgets which could afford the entirety of South Buffalo. Another is that the cities are all glamor centers. I've never seen House Hunters International make a play at a couple relocating in the other direction – wherever they go, it's always from wherever to your Kyoto, or your Aukland, your Vienna, your Rio de Janeiro, or if the episode is about a non-American expat headed in our direction, it will be New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. None of these are people from the creative class arriving with idealistic visions of turning the place onto its head. You're not going to see anyone trying to move to whatever the non-American version of the Rust Belt is. (Spare me the diatribe about how Europe's decimated economy means the entire continent is basically the Rust Belt now. You know what I'm talking about.) Well, okay, there were one or two episodes revolving around around Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland. Also, the show seems to have a weird bias against single people, families with kids, seniors, gays, and minorities. Are you anything other than a 30-ish straight person in a relationship? House Hunters International will ignore you.

This show is basically selling to people who are viewing the rest of the world through the quaintness lens. I have very little doubt that nearly everyone who appears on it is seeing their new home mostly as tourists who are expecting to makes their purchases with the expectations of finding nothing but an extended vacation. It occurs to very few of them that they're really going to uplift and re-pot themselves in an entirely different culture in which the language is different. Even if they manage to learn the language, they'll also have to learn a somewhat bastardized form of it because whatever language they're learning has slang expressions of its very own. Trickier still will be the unspoken cues which people use from day to day to communicate. There will be things natives will try to convey through between-lines spoken expressions and plenty of gestures they're not going to get.

Another thing I've started wondering in light of that idiot in Valencia up there is, just what do they plan on doing while living in this country? If you're living in Spain, Spanish charm shouldn't be a qualifier for deciding your living quarters unless you're going to go hobnobbing exclusively with your midwestern-accented buddies. I suspect the realtors on House Hunters International are little more than tokens. Afterward, the newly-nationalized residents are going to hang out with other expats or have a cultural pressure breakdown. I've read about non-American cities having America-towns, the same way this country has Greektowns, Little Italys, and Chinatowns.

Basically, this show is a travelogue for rich people planning extended vacations or long excursions for the occasional tax purpose. It's not informing us or giving us windows into the lives of anyone. It's mocking us, and that's all.]]> Sun, 31 Aug 2014 01:40:07 +0000
<![CDATA[ Winning Coming-Of-Age Police Drama Highlighted By Two Impressive Performances]]>  
And it does so quite winningly.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of person who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Set in England’s West Midlands in 1956, WPC 56 follows determined Gina Dawson (Jennie Jacques), the first woman police constable to serve in her hometown, as she struggles to gain acceptance in the male-dominated world of policing.  Allocated a broom closet for her office without a phone in case she chats on it all day and ordered to make endless cups of tea ‘so the men can get on with the real job of policing,’ Gina’s resolve is tested to the limits.  Sometimes dismayed by the patronizing sexism, bullying, corruption and racial prejudice that she encounters every day, Gina remains undaunted and sets out to prove her worth, make a difference and earn some respect.”
Surely – based on that description alone – you’ll probably have a solid idea as to whether or not WPC 56’s period piece storylines appeal to you or not, but I’ll try to give you what I believe are the two single best reasons to give these discs a spin.
First, Jennie Jacques is a revelation.  She brings a kind of sure-eyed realism to the role, as if her character knows full well what she’s getting into and is fully prepared for the emotional ups-and-downs of it all.  Despite the obstacles littering her every turn, she rises to whatever occasion presents itself again and again – be it the obvious sexism of the men around her or the tedious criticisms of society at-large – and she presents Dawson not so much as a woman in pursuit of shattering glass ceilings so much as she is a hardworking soul who only wants to make an impact in doing what’s right, a position that may not always involve following the letter of the law, procedure, or even moral of the time.
Second – and serving as a pretty pitch perfect counterpoint to Jacques’ Dawson – Charles De’Ath stars as Sgt. Sidney Fenton, a somewhat chauvinistic beast common to the era who can be as lewd and crude as he needs to be to (also) get the job done.  More often than not, Fenton bends protocols as far as needed – he browbeats subjects into confession and strong-arms his way through circumstances which would today require much greater restraint – and even when he’s shown to the audience to be crossing a line viewers eventually learn it may not be so terrible as they’re initially lead to believe.  Yes, breaking a law is breaking a law, but Fenton occasionally shows there’s a heart beating under that gruff exterior, and that was a welcome find to a role otherwise presented as entirely stereotypical.
Unfortunately, Series One is only a slim five episodes long; and given the writers’ penchant for exploring some of the more soapish elements of the various plotlines, both Dawson and Fenton aren’t given as much characterization as I would’ve liked to have seen.  They’re given just enough to rise above the assorted clichés of the material – even though Fenton inevitably consents to the merits of having a female constable on-the-job, he never quite accepts Dawson in that role, nor stops trying to make work difficult for her.  As much as I ended up enjoying these 229 minutes for what they were, I would’ve loved to have seen much, much more.  Still, it’s a grand starting point, even though the series’ main premise ends up being a bit convoluted and theatrical by its big finish.
WPC 56: SERIES ONE (2013) is produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by BFS Entertainment.  As for the technical specifications?  This is one smartly assembled period drama brought to life with exacting detail … and it looks terrific from start-to-finish.  Sadly, there is no English-subtitles track for those of us who occasionally experience difficulty with the multitude of accents, but it is what it is.  Also – even more sadly – there are no special features to speak of, a definite miss for such a charming property.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  There are some small moments in WPC 56 when the humor and musical score choice seem a bit out-of-place (i.e. light, comic tune tracking a relatively serious subject matter); while it doesn’t happen often, it does happen with some consistency, enough that would make me question whoever was put in charge of that task.  However, the lovely Jennie Jacques delivers a terrific leading performance as the woman up to the task of being the first female police constable, so much so you’ll find yourself rooting for her even when she’s making a less-than-perfect decision.  Very family friendly.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Ltd. Provided me with a DVD copy of WPC 56 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]> Sun, 17 Aug 2014 22:05:23 +0000
<![CDATA[ Tween-Friendly Werewolf Drama Probably Best Left To Tweens]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Elena Michaels (Laura Vandervoort), the lone female werewolf in existence, is torn between two worlds – the one she was born into and the one she was bitten into … Desperate to start a new life in the city, Elena instead finds herself summoned back to Stonehaven, the werewolves’ ancestral home, when a string of mysterious murders threatens the survival of her Pack.”
First up, let me assure you: I adore Ms. Vandervoort.  I have since she really came on the scene in the WB’s pretty consistent SMALLVILLE.  Her performance as Supergirl was a bit tongue-in-cheek at times, but she embodied the character (as written) with an equal amount of schoolgirl wit as well as that Kryptonian desire to get things right.  I also thought she was one of the only solid reasons to sit through that V reboot a few years back; though I preferred the subtleties of the original show, Laura was minimally a fetching addition to that alien universe.
For my tastes, BITTEN goes heavy on the ‘emo’ and light on the monster.  As produced for Syfy, it feels very much like its producers wanted to push the envelope a bit more – there’s a heavy hint of skin and sex and some very carnal leanings – but because the show is probably trying to shore up a certain demographic (think ‘young adult’) it ends up watering down that reality quite a bit in order to tell these stories.  By contrast, HBO’s TRUE BLOOD gave up making any narrative sense seasons ago in favor of some pretty gratuitous sex and violence; BITTEN feels like the Junior High School equivalent in many ways.
That glaring deficiency out of the way, the show strides perfectly well right down the middle of the lane, choosing to amp up everyone’s angst much like TWILIGHT capitalized on (with steroids!).  All of the men are earthy, brooding types, leaving Vandervoort to be the lone bright spot in their midst.  It’s no surprise to see them drawn to her much as she’s drawn to them; they’re all dogs, after all, so there’s something to be said for red-blooded passion.
Were I about 40 years younger, BITTEN might very well be a show I’d get interested in.  But as old as I am – and with the writing clearly trying to evoke greater psychological weight here than I found credible – it just felt far too safe, far too kid-friendly to amount to more than a TWILIGHT-inspired knock-off done for semi-pay-cable (Syfy).  There’s some quality action to their various fight sequences (though I still don’t understand how being a werewolf makes one an expert in martial arts), and the CGI goes from good to better as the episodes wear on, but at the end of the day I’ll have to still confess: this just wasn’t for me.
BITTEN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is produced by Entertainment One, Hoodwink Entertainment, and No Equal Entertainment.  DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (aka E One Entertainment).  As for the technical specifications?  This is a smartly produced program, and it offers up some very high quality sights and sounds.  If it’s special features you want, then you have some extras to look forward to: there are some behind-the-scenes featurettes along with deleted scenes and some pretty nifty split-screen stunt choreography bits as well as an audio commentary with Vandervoort and the producers.  Seriously, if you’re a fan, there’s a good reason to invest in the season set.
RECOMMENDED.  Anyone with a fetish for the devilishly lovely Laura Vandervoort should have a cause for celebration with Syfy’s BITTEN.  (Apparently) Based on the novels of best-selling author Kelley Armstrong (sorry, I’m completely unfamiliar with her and her work), the program seeks to do with werewolves what TWILIGHT did for vampires … which is to make them all out to look like underwear models and think with their respective genitalia.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it – if you’re thirteen to nineteen-years-of-age.  Adults might find more to laugh at than anything else.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One Entertainment) provided me with a DVD copy of BITTEN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]> Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:40:09 +0000
<![CDATA[ Star Wars: The Clone Wars Is Back With A Vengeance with "The Unknown"]]>
Now that Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 6 is available to those of us who refuse to sign up for Netflix (curse you, Walt Disney!), I purchased my season ticket and have been watching them one-by-one via’s streaming portal on Fire TV.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last paragraph for my final, unblemished assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
This new (and presumably final) season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars certainly begins with a ‘bang’ as Jedi General Anakin Skywalker and two previously unseen and unheard of Jedis mount a major offensive against the Droid Army still under the command of Count Dooku (from afar, of course, the coward!).  The action opens up ferociously as the Republic Forces are about to outmaneuver the Separatists on board a massive ringed space station … only, at the last possible moment, something goes terribly wrong: a decorated Clone Trooper suddenly turns his weapon against a Jedi Master and shoots her dead.  (Parents, don’t fret: the deed is relatively concealed with the way the shot is animated, though the effect remains the same.)
Realizing that the battalion has lost its cohesion in the immediate aftermath, Skywalker orders a retreat so that he can have his soldiers regroup while tasking Captain Rex and Clone Trooper Fives to remove Tup -- the involved clone – from the conflict.  What they learn in these fleeting moments is that Tup appears to be suffering from some unusual neurological illness: he simply keeps repeating the phrase “good soldiers follow orders” and dipping in and out of consciousness.  There is some speculation that perhaps the Separatists have perfected a new weapon that forces a soldier to turn his weapons about in an act of friendly fire, but the rumors are never substantiated.  Once the trooper has been fully sedated, Skywalker demands he be taken back to the planet Kamino for further medical testing.
Once Count Dooku is briefed on this development by his officer in-the-field, he’s convinced that the Republic may have unearthed elements of a sinister plot put in motion by his boss, Master Sidious; with no other alternative, he insists that the droids must seize Tup from the enemy and deliver the clone personally to him so that they may conduct their own investigation.
If any of this sounds a bit confusing, then let me admit I had to watch this one twice to be absolute certain I caught all of the relevant details.  In fairness, this isn’t to imply that I found it hard to follow – it’s a fairly straight forward premise; however, there is an awful lot of action (sabre fights, blaster-play, and the like), so I wanted to be certain nothing had slipped by in all of the pyrotechnics.  (It hadn’t, but there were a few nice character moments I noticed on the second pass through.)
So far as I’m concerned, the episode – titled “The Unknown” – is possibly one of The Clone Wars more ambitious outings.  Without a doubt, it contains some of the most creative animation sequences I think they’ve tried since beginning the show five seasons ago; there are two particularly impressive sequences which involve a constantly roaming perspective as the camera essentially floats through zero gravity alongside the characters moving through it.  (Great work, too, as it’s massively much more interesting than parking the view in one spot and letting all the action unfold.)  Also, the central theme at work here – that there may be a grand conspiracy lurking somewhere inside the Clone Troopers – is far more ‘adult’ fare than what some of the The Clone Wars has explored.
The downside here?
Well, because the emphasis remains on serving up one terrific action sequence after another, there really is no central character to all of this particular tale.  One of the key strengths to this particular incarnation of the Star Wars universe is that, with a broad ensemble of characters, the arcs have been fairly character-specific.  For example, Ahsoka Tano’s various arcs kept a great deal of the narrative focus on her point-of-view, and that effort helped ground the storytelling in one unique perspective.  As much as it tries, “The Unknown” really isn’t so much about a single character as it is the recounting of these events.
Necessarily, Anakin Skywalker seems to take center stage whenever he’s present; yet when he’s not the drama tends to flip between Tup, Fives, and Rex’s different points of view.  Dooku gets a little screen time – nothing all that grand, but he is the only true villain who gets to chew scenery here; but most of his appearances are obligatory to the developing plot.
Once viewers get past that little bit of narrative disconnect, the events unfold pretty spectacularly.  But – because of this uneven focus – I suspect others might need to do as I did and watch this one twice.  An awful lot happens in these 20+ minutes; and I can say with solid conviction that you do need a firm grounding in these details in order to better appreciate what follows in the next three episodes.  (Think of this as the first chapter to a four-chapter novel, and you’ll understand where I’m going with it.)  For those who are aware of the events from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, “The Unknown” serves to bring some heavy foreshadowing to the table … and it does so quite excitingly.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Thank our lucky stars that these last episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars are finally seeing the light of day.  I, for one, will miss this time spent in that galaxy far, far away once I’m done with them; and I’ll definitely be purchasing the DVD set once it streets.  (No dates have been announced.)]]> Tue, 17 Jun 2014 04:37:04 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Fantastic Circularity of Some Peoples' Lives Makes THE RETURNED Worth Many Returns]]>  
I bring this up only because in reviewing some of what’s been written online about THE RETURNED many folks have drawn comparisons to LOST.  True, these characters also get further definition by way of flashbacks.  True, these characters seem to be linked in ways far more surprising than your average, run-of-the-mill neighbor or casual acquaintance.  But as far as I can tell the comparisons generally stop there.  Because THE RETURNED has already crossed that line that LOST’s showrunners refuted for so long – that death and the afterlife is central to the stories being told – I’m willing to keep my disbelief suspended so long as the storytelling remains so richly interesting.
More after the break …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final, unblemished assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In a quiet French town nestled between several mountaintops, those who have died some time ago have suddenly returned to their families.  They haven’t changed.  They haven’t even aged.  They’ve returned looking very much like they did so long ago.  However, they’re still not quite themselves, and the threat they bring with them very well might unravel reality as we know it before all is said and done.
Yes, THE RETURNED resembles LOST in that it presents and develops a quality stable of interesting characters; but one of the chief differences between them is that – to a very high degree – we know what we need to know about them not long after they’re introduced into this mythology.  See, what would appear to matter most is that these characters have died.  In many cases, we’re given the particulars of their deaths, many of them relatively grisly (these are not your average demises, and many of them relate to moments of extreme emotion being attached to said endings).  However, upon their return, these resurrected people essentially begin a quest to make things right so far as their perspective allows them.
While their various friends and family members have moved on – they’ve all basically been through the various stages of grief and to a large degree have found some peace in present day – the Returned have not.  The precious who, what, where, when or why they’ve come back may be modestly shrouded in mystery, but the audience is still given some sort of motivation that leads one to conclude that the journey they’re on relates somehow to ‘resolution’ for whatever troubled them while they were alive.  It isn’t like they’re ‘getting even’; rather, they’re trying to put right what they see went wrong with their various deaths.
That said, this first season of THE RETURNED is probably not going to go down with everyone who stumbles across it like I did (I didn’t watch it while it aired on IFC but instead discovered it via binge-watching the DVD set).  The pacing is quite slow – more so in the early episodes as there appears to be a good amount of backstory the showrunners wanted to establish – and, as the mysteries get introduced one by one, they’re really not given much ado.  For example, there is some possible tie-in to animal carcasses (of which several turn up through-out the season), but it’s never quite sufficiently addressed; instead, a carcass shows up, a question is raised, and then the plot moves forward.  Those who are sticklers for detail (such as those who want to know where the body came from) are likely going to be perplexed very early on.
However, what THE RETURNED does exceedingly well is craft an overwhelming sense of dread throughout so much of these proceedings.  Families once torn apart are suddenly forced back together, and none of this happens without additional heartache, heartbreak, or other dire consequence.  Lives are ripped apart once more, and before they can even begin to adequately deal with their emotions the entire town finds itself imperiled by an even greater threat (which I refuse to spoil for you).
Thankfully, THE RETURNED is the kind of show that lends itself to speculation both wild and mundane.  As I don’t think a review is the place to really expose theories about what’s going on, I will mention one word that kept coming up when I and my lovely wife talked about it after finished the season: resurrection.  There’s something to the circularity of life – as well as the circularity of these people interwoven existences – that gets ample exploration here.  What that’ll all mean once the program’s secrets are revealed I honestly couldn’t say.  But I’d like to think that the eventual destination will be worth the wild ride they took us on.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Yes, it’s always possible that when THE RETURNED returns it may suffer the fate of ABC TV’s LOST, meaning not all of the questions it raised will get sufficiently addressed by the time all is said and done.  But – unlike LOST – it wouldn’t appear as if this program could go on for four, five, or six seasons.  I wouldn’t want to say more out of fear of spoiling it, but – so far as this critic is concerned – THE RETURNED is time well spent ruminating on death and resurrection.]]> Wed, 11 Jun 2014 20:05:02 +0000
<![CDATA[ Terrific Ensemble Brings A Winning Formula To A Contemporary Dramedy]]>  
I’m glad we did!
I won’t belabor what others have already established clearly about ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.  It’s a great character comedy which happens to be set inside what I believe is a minimum security prison.  (I could be wrong on that, but these inmates do seem to have more freedoms and privileges than most of what I’ve seen of OZ.)  Stories show that there is a solitary confinement available “down the hill” (at a separate location), and I would suppose the real hard-core offenders spend much of their time in that facility.  (Again, could be wrong, just stating it for clarity.)
What ORANGE does uniquely well is it borrows heavily from the storytelling format last used (to great effect) on ABC TV’s LOST.  (They are entirely different shows, but they do share this thematic similarity.)  Namely, ORANGE presents a growing roster of characters whose backgrounds and kinda/sorta shrouded in a bit of natural mystery – they’re all inmates, after all, meaning they’re behind bars for doing something society has deemed inappropriate – and their separate history are revealed via some delicious ‘flashbacks.’  In some cases, audiences don’t quite know what Inmate A has done; however, their associated flashbacks certainly point us in on some clues.  It’s a delight watching as their history grows, and we’re allowed to watch how they behave in the present for even more tips.  I suspect – before all is said and done – we’ll know everything about them (it’s not like they’re going anywhere); the real trick is to keep people interested, and I suspect this format will do the trick for quite some time.
As a lead, Taylor Schilling as the unintentionally uptight ‘yuppie’ is wonderful.  Her ‘Piper Chapman’ is a true original with just the right amount of ‘clueless blonde’ and ‘girl next door’ charm that you never quite feel sorry for her, not so much as her misdirected ‘good intentions’ make you want to occasional bonk her upside the head.  Mulgrew is particularly convincing as the Russian matron who relishes the authority she receives by running the prison kitchen, and the remainder of the cast are equally intelligent and likeable despite the fact that every one of them did something wrong in their past.
My personal advice?  Not that anyone on the production staff is reading, but – if you are – then do what you can to deep-six Jason Biggs’ character.  For my tastes, he serves no long-term benefit here – he vacillates far too much about what he should do with himself – and I’d rather he get crushed under an Amtrak if that meant giving viewers more screen time for the ladies in orange.  Or beige.  Or black.  Whatever.  That’s where the real stories are.  That’s where the magic lies.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  My chief problem with ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is that the writers spend far too much time trying to convince me that everyone – whether incarcerated or not – is as ‘damaged’ as everyone else; the only difference between us and the inmates is that the inmates are the ones who got caught.  That’s fool’s gold for the Hollywood jet-set, and it’s intellectually dishonest.  I personally know plenty of people who’ve never been drug mules.  But – when this gem just hones in tightly and focuses on character – it’s actually pretty darn brilliant.  Hats off to you, Netflix.  You’ve got a winner on your hands.]]> Tue, 3 Jun 2014 20:19:29 +0000
<![CDATA[A Tribute List to the Recently-Cancelled Community - My Favorite Episodes]]> In 2009, Jeff Winger's misguided attempt to score with Britta Perry led him to try to form a study group for just the two of them. She spoiled his plans by inviting a group of other students at Greendale Community College to the group, with the impression that it would be, you know, a group. Jeff was stuck trying to do real studying, and so was born maybe the greatest sitcom in history, Community. 


For the next five years, Community was one of the most daring, creative, clever, and surreal shows ever dreamed up. Unfortunately, good things can never last, and it was announced this month that the fifth season of Community would be its last. It suffered from low ratings. We should not, however, take this as a loss. If anything, this is one instance where TV executives went with belief in the show and belief in the strong core of watchers who turned it into a cult phenomenon. That a show as quirky as Community even made it to the air in the first place and lasted as long as it did is a triumph in and of itself. That it was as good as it was for so long is a minor miracle - like the better days of The Simpsons, Community produced such high quality in the first three seasons that it felt like the show's best-ever episode was being aired every week. In the fourth season, when Community took a drastic downturn in quality, it was because creator Dan Harmon had left. He returned in the fifth, final season, though, and while the quality of the first three seasons returned, it was still recovering from the fourth season too, and it showed. 


With a show like Community, it's difficult to pick and choose the episodes that could really be called the essentials collection. There are three and a half years of outstanding viewing, but if I'm up to the task of making the choices, here are the ones I would call my personal favorite episodes of Community.

]]> Fri, 23 May 2014 12:38:51 +0000
<![CDATA[ At First Blush: There's Little Right With ROGUE]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Grace Travis (Thandie Newton) is an undercover detective, torn between her identity as a loving mother and her cold, calculating persona as an agent for crime boss Jimmy Laszio (Marton Csokas).  Tormented by her son’s unsolved murder, Grace conducts her own investigation, convinced that the killer lies somewhere within Jimmy’s treacherous ranks.  Now, in order to uncover the truth and stay alive, Grace must help Jimmy weed out the traitor in his midst.”
ROGUE kinda/sorta made waves in the entertainment biz when it premiered as DirecTV’s first originally programming, and I suppose on that front most audiences might find it acceptable if not tolerable viewing.  Thandie Newton is, at best, a curious choice for a leading lady, much less an emotionally-tortured undercover cop as some criminal mastermind dabbling in international smuggling.  Her performance in this first hour is aptly described as palatable, but maybe that’s not her fault – perhaps she was doing the best she could with what she was given.
I found it pretty difficult to sink my teeth, however, into anything here.  Newton’s command of the screen only surfaces in a few, spare moments as the bulk of this first episode spends far too much time introducing the audience to far too many secondary characters who may or may not mean something in a greater expansion of what’s truly happening here.  As a result, everyone – from her husband and daughter all the way to the seemingly endless line of seaport thug after seaport thug – comes across as very generic.  Not even the usual presence of notable heavy Marton Csokas elevates the material, and he’s arguably got on the best brooding, menacing mugs to come along in a long time.
It’d be easy to chalk up a fair share of the hour’s weaknesses to the fact that writer/creator Matthew Parkhill really has a surprisingly thin resume for one given the task of manufacturing a hit out of a property packed to the gills with familiar faces and themes common to other programs.  Were there something novel, new, or exciting here, then ROGUE might not feel so routine.  To his credit, Parkhill does pack the last few minutes of this episode with a solid cliffhanger – one that less inexperienced audience members might be far more inclined than I to tune in again next week – but that’s 40 minutes too late for this neophyte cynic.  ROGUE’s world certainly could feel more like a place a viewer would want to visit more often, but – at first blush – this one is way too saccharin to find a notch on my busy viewing schedule.
ROGUE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is produced by Entertainment One and Greenroom Entertainment.  DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One Entertainment (aka E One Entertainment).  As for the technical specifications, this is one smartly shot and produced program; the sights and sound are exceptional, perhaps leaving a lingering hint of some hidden greatness to come in the story department.  If it’s special features you’re looking for, then ROGUE’s release offers some script-to-screen featurettes as well as other fodder regarding the program’s webisode production.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  Were it not so bland and uninteresting, ROGUE might be worth more than the investment of a single hour, but with so many opportunities for quality entertainment presented to audiences today I’m more than a bit perplexed why this show’s premiere story is so dimensionless.  Newton is a commodity worthy of celebration, but here she appears as a skinny little waif with some huge, unexplained chip on her shoulder.  To complicate matters, no one else seems remotely interesting, so I’m giving this one a pass for others to cover in greater detail.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One Entertainment (aka E One Entertainment) provided me with a DVD copy of ROGUE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape or form influenced my opinion of it.]]> Mon, 21 Apr 2014 00:06:25 +0000
<![CDATA[ Spectacular 90-Minute Show from May & Ellis]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of person who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Brian May is one of those talents who – quite frankly – changed the face of music.  His work on guitar for Queen helped define a generation, and – alongside the late Freddie Mercury – the band put its stamp on a certain time and a certain place.  Mercury’s passing didn’t slow May down for long, and he’s continued to lend his talents to others who’ve come under his wing.  By contrast, Kerry Ellis is relatively new to music (especially when she compare their respective resumes), and her particular area of specialty (from what modest research I’ve done) is in belting out either pop standards or musical ballads.  Like most small ladies of the stage and screen, she has a huge voice, and while I didn’t think her particular flourishes worked all that well with a few of the songs performed here it certainly wasn’t a distraction.
Together, these two deliver what is arguably one of the most pleasant 90-minute listening experiences I can recall as of late, though I’ll admit I’m certainly not the biggest music buff who’ll probably show up and sound off on this production.  Still, THE CANDLELIGHT CONCERTS is a stellar time to do just as I’ve implied I did: sit and enjoy the show.
May’s guitar work has never been better; he’s restrained when the tune requires it, and he’s big and braggadocio when the audience demands it.  His work on “Last Horizon” is particularly admirable, wringing emotion itself from a few chords as well as a few well-placed plunks of his strings.  Also, at his level of maturity, he’s forgotten more about working a crowd than most musicians will ever learn.
For the purposes of clarity, this is a DVD/CD set, but the recordings feature two different performances.  The Blu-ray experience was recorded in their next-to-last show in Montreux from July 19, 2013; the CD experience is actually from several months earlier (November, 2012).  Several of the songs available on the CD are not part of the Candlelight show, so be sure to take it all in.
If I’ve any quibble, it’s probably that I hate it when performers use their concerts to push whatever their own personal / political agenda may be.  Mind you: I don’t fault them for attaching themselves to causes.  It’s just that I tend to prefer keeping my entertainment and my politics completely separate.  Nothing here that’s said or implied is done at any great length; I only mention it because, as a critic, I’ve always thought my objection (even when mild) remains relevant.
But as for listening?  This is pure dynamite.  It’s a wondrous time by two gifted musicians who care deeply about music, and that definitely shows.
BRIAN MAY & KERRY ELLIS: THE CANDLELIGHT CONCERTS – LIVE AT MONTREUX 2013 is produced by Terry Shand, Geoff Kempin and Jim Beach as part of the Fondation du Festival de Jazz de Montreux under exclusive arrangement to Eagle Rock Entertainment Ltd.  DVD distribution is being handled by Eagle Vision, a division of Eagle Rock Entertainment.  As for the technical specifications, wow!  This is one smartly produced and even ‘intimate’ performance done on such a pretty large scale.  If it’s special features you want, well the package is a bit slim in that respect: there’s a single bonus video regarding their “Nothing Really Has Changed” song.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  I have absolutely no problem admitting that I wasn’t exactly familiar with every musical number selected for performance by these two mavens, but that didn’t impede my enjoyment in the slightest.  Perhaps some of that is owed to the fact that Brian May (of Queen) is a performer I’m relatively familiar with, and, yes, I happen to think he’s one of the geniuses of rock’n’roll.  As for Ms. Ellis?  Her voice and styling didn’t quite sync up with every song perhaps the way an audience might expect, but her delivery of some powerful vocals kept me captivated for the purposes of this wonderful 90-minute gem.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Eagle Rock Entertainment provided me with a DVD/CD copy of BRIAN MAY & KERRY ELLIS: THE CANDLELIGHT CONCERTS – LIVE AT MONTREUX 2013 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 1 Apr 2014 00:01:21 +0000
<![CDATA[ At First Blush: BROADCHURCH Premieres ... With A Vengeance]]>  
Want to know how BROADCHURCH scores?  Stay tuned.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In the seaside haven known as Broadchurch, everyone is on a first-name basis.  The police, the newspaper, the businesspeople.  Everyone is your friend, and everyone is always looking out for his or her fellow neighbor.  But one morning the body of an eleven-year-old boy is found on the beach, leaving newly hired Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (played by a surprisingly grizzled David Tennant of DOCTOR WHO fame) to start asking questions no one wants to ask.  Before all is said and done, he might expose more secrets than any one town should keep.
In the early 90’s, a little show called TWIN PEAKS was all the rage … for all of about fifteen minutes of fame.  That isn’t because the program didn’t have ‘legs’ or characters or good stories; rather, it’s because creator/showrunner David Lynch veered in wildly unpredictable directions, so much so he spent more time confusing viewers with symbolism than he ever did answering any of the mystery’s best questions.  Performances were solid though sometimes unnecessarily quirky, but what also worked for me – its central conceit – was that the ‘small town motif’ was little more than a massive con job on the part of the populace.  PEAKS always reminded us that there were dark deeds afoot when you pulled back that small town veneer, and these were the kinds of things that could get you killed.
BROADCHURCH feels much the same way.  Broadchurch (the town) is meant to be anywhere – any town – with its resident do-gooders and well-wishers.  This first episode is launched with a long sequence of a character walking through the downtown area, greeting every passerby with a welcome nod or a kind word; and it’s all meant to invoke that feeling of serenity common to these storybook streets.  Everyone knows everyone else … but do they really?
Those suspicions continue to mount over this first episode.  Smartly shot and keenly assembled, BROADCHURCH’s initial hour (45 minutes, really) is laced with an eerily haunting scores, characters giving second glances into the camera, and cleverly suggestive cinematography.  Nothing here is what it seems – not the work promotion you were promised, not the safety and security small towns supposedly offered – and I suspect it’ll all start bubbling to the surface relatively quickly.  Even our lead investigator is harboring some secret involving his handling of a past case, so maybe – just maybe – that lone voice of comfort calling the shots might have his own skeleton (or two?) in a closet back home.
While there’s a respectable amount of predictability to a few moments (a grieving father continues to refer to his deceased son with a friendly nickname; too many inter-related characters always spoil the brew), BROADCHURCH is crafted with great care and affection, the kind of which compels the typical viewer to watch closely, don’t look away, for fear of missing some vital link, some important clue, that’ll cast these events in a new light.  Granted, it’s only a first hour, but it’s so smartly made I can give it room to breathe.
Who knows what we’ll find?
BROADCHURCH: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is produced by Kudos Film and Television, Imaginary Friends, and Independent Television (ITV).  DVD distribution is being handled by E One Entertainment (aka Entertainment One).  As for the technical specifications, wow!  This smartly assembled production puts together some terrific cinematography and sterling sound work, all of it capturing an almost macabre undercurrent to such an idyllic seaside setting.  Lastly, if it’s special features you want, then you have a behind-the-scenes short and some deleted scenes to look forward to: not a great package, but at least they threw in something.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Sure, I’m going into this full well with the knowledge that I’ve only seen the first episode, but the first episode of BROACHURCH is a simmering doozy.  It has everything one could want – tragedy, mystery, and misery – and then some, packing in a handful of characters whose motivations might not be as clear as they appear at first blush.  There were a few moments of predictable pathos and even one moment of horribly inauthentic dialogue, but that’s a small price to pay for something that looks to be this inviting.  Murder rarely looks this delicious.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at E One Entertainment (aka Entertainment One) provided me with a DVD copy of BROADCHURCH: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Fri, 28 Mar 2014 05:27:40 +0000
<![CDATA[ Looking Back on FIREFLY: Serenity's Flaws Are Still Fandom's Gain]]>  
Now, FIREFLY was one I wanted to like.  (Again, let me clarify that this had nothing whatsoever to do with Joss Whedon being behind it.)  I love westerns.  I love science fiction.  I’d seen them mixed before to only middling success, and I hoped the program could bring something fresh, innovative, and exciting to the formula.  When it originally aired on Fox (yes, I was one of the few watching those first few hours), it just didn’t strike me as anything special, nor did a few episodes I caught subsequently.  But on a dare from a good friend of mine, I figured I’d take the time to go thru the adventures one by one and in the proper chronological order to see if I felt any different.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessarily solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
I think I can dispense with my normal review format as, having aired over a decade ago, the usual spoiler rules don’t apply.  So instead of summarizing the plot – which is what I’d normally do in this space – let me get right into the nitty gritty: my thoughts on the pilot episode.
“Serenity” opens with a rather elongated character set-up that focuses nearly entirely on Mal (Capt. Reynolds) during his time in service to a cause; I hasten to characterize it as military service (it clearly is) only because, at this point, it’s largely unclear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.  (I “get” that Mal is supposed to represent the “good guys,” but I generally hope for some clarification in the writing so that I know definitively which side is which and who populates said side.  So sue me!)  What strikes me as unusual about it is that, for its length, all that’s really established is that Mal prefers doing things his own way.  No matter how you shake out the other details, it all invariably points to that single sign … and that’s something clearly learned as the show progresses on its own.  Consequently, I just didn’t see those military scenes as being ‘necessary’ at this time and point in the program.  (Of course, not having seen all of the hours, that could change; but – as I stressed above – I’m trying to come at FIREFLY entirely from the proper chronological order as the Browncoats I’ve spoken with about the show assure me that’s the only way the program’s wisdom becomes apparent.)
Sure, you may see another familiar face in there, but, overall, the sequence is dedicated to Mal.
As much as fandom loves Nathan Fillion, I (again) just don’t “get” it.  Methinks much of this affection is due to the rampant love for the greater FIREFLY entity, but, for my tastes, he comes off as largely flat, almost too deadpan throughout his delivery.  Characteristically, it’s almost as if Joss instructed him to channel Humphrey Bogart and Jack Webb (better known as ‘Friday’ from DRAGNET), and, at times, I thought his captain was more caricature than character.  In fact, were I evaluating the program from what a position of what I know is coming, I’d almost be inclined to say that my disappointment with it could be due to the fact that I honestly never cared for his performance.  (Again, haters, this is not to say I didn’t appreciate his character; rather, it’s Fillion’s work as an actor I call into question.)
As the rest of the program unfolds, the audience is treated to everyone else who makes up the crew or the basic thrust of this story; and it seems that they all fall into basic categories (I wanted to use “stereotypes,” but I do think a few of them stretch beyond the formulaic though not by much).  You’ve got an engineer (Kaylee) who displays little to no understanding of, say, engineering; instead, she’s ponied up as a kind of fanboy’s dream – a girl who loves machines and (obviously) strawberries to the point of semi-sexual attachment.  You’ve got a somewhat fallen/disgraced ‘preacher’ who doesn’t ‘preach’ any more … only he does.  You’ve got a whore with (possibly) a heart of gold.  So on and so forth.
At this point, I was certain that Whedon and his crew were entirely interested in tapping the Western genre, as I mentioned at the start.  Because I ‘think’ this way, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Well, if he wanted to do a Western, then why didn’t he just do a Western?”  Why did he, instead, choose to create a Western but set it in space?  Was it because that’s what made the original STAR WARS so popular?  Or am I missing something?
See, the issue regarding the prevalent use of the Western as well as various Western imagery throughout this first episode is what feels entirely incongruous to me.  This is the future, right?  Well, why would they have the props, tools, and clothing of, say, 500 years ago in a spaceship?  For all of its artistic posturing, that idea makes absolutely no sense to me, so the fabric that Whedon presents as ‘charming’ ends up feeling more ‘surreal’ to me.  A wooden table?  Why would a spaceship have a wooden table – picnic style – in its mess hall?  Why would they have pots and pans and utensils and cups and plates that look like they were designed centuries ago?  Honestly, if someone could explain that point to me so that it made coherent sense then I might be able to approach FIREFLY from a vastly improved perspective, but, as it stands, the visuals only further derail my appreciating such uniqueness.
Those issues aside, “Serenity” (the TV program, not the movie) does have some nice touches along with some modest inventiveness.  The plot moves along far too slowly for my tastes, and I was honestly very put off by the fact that Whedon (who penned it) actually lifts significant plot points from at least two other movies (48 HOURS and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) with which to earn a few laughs, but – come to think of it – most folks who appreciate Whedon’s writing probably weren’t even born yet to see how, as a writer, he’d simply shamelessly pilfered somebody else’s intellectual property.
Also, if a spaceship’s engines could actually pull off a Crazy Ivan within a terrestrial atmosphere, wouldn’t the G forces reduce the crew to pulverized jelly?  Seems to me I’ve read that somewhere.  Why didn’t that happen here?  Well, Whedon proves he ain’t all that interested in the ‘science’ of ‘science fiction’ (which is again why I think it’s a Western, not a sci-fi show) as he is the ‘fiction’ of it.
And … Reavers?  They come off as pirates here.  Did we really need to incorporate yet one more stereotypical villain in a narrative already plagued by labels?
In closing, please don’t get me wrong: I’m not doing this – re-watching this program in its entirety as time permits – to further rag on a show I’ve already kinda/sorta ragged on.  Rather, I’m trying to re-examine the property now that time has passed, and I’m doing so as I’ve been told by Browncoats the world over is the way to practically guarantee a different assessment than what I’ve had before.  I didn’t dislike what I watched; rather, I just don’t understand all of the obvious fondness others have for it.  This is my attempt to come to terms with it once and for all, and I thank you for taking the time to read my humble words.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  I’m certainly no Browncoat, nor would I be all that interested in joining their ranks at this point – please keep in mind that I’m trying to watch and review these episodes in the order “alleged” to be the correct one as planned by Whedon and not as they aired on Fox.  Still, I’d seen this one before – it impressed me only a bit more this time than it did the first – and I struggled (as I generally do) when too many characters get introduced in so abbreviated a fashion.  Stylistically, “Serenity” had some nice touches, but it had as many other ones I found utterly confusing.  It isn’t hard to see why this one didn’t light a fire when it aired, but kudos for fans for keeping the franchise alive for a second chance.]]> Mon, 24 Feb 2014 05:32:04 +0000
<![CDATA[ Stylishly Made But Ultimately Uneven Crime Procedurals By Way of the Ace Reporter]]>  
The world of ANNIKA BENGTZON might confuse you.  There’s still an awful lot and glamor and glitz associated to print media.  Though her paper is part of a larger media conglomerate, methinks there’s still a healthy amount of cynicism viewers should use in viewing her responsibilities as an ace crime reporter.  No doubt, Bengtzon is the exception to the rule; the rule itself is a dying business.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Odds are that, if you’re here reading this, then you’re familiar with the Swedish series focusing on an intrepid crime reporter – the lovely Annika Bengtzon (as played by the equally lovely Malin Crepin) – as she goes about trying to not only report on the ‘wrongs’ but see them ‘righted.’  Not only that, but the show gives more than just passing lip service to her other roles in life, that of a mother and a wife.  All that’s really left then is for me to detail to some lesser degree how well each installment here works.  For the record, there are three of them: a good one, a great one, and … well … not so good.
“The Red Wolf” (3 of 5 stars): Bengtzon is drawn into the murder of a fellow journalist who had nurtured a long-time conspiracy theory involving a locally famous terrorist attack from thirty years ago.  Suffice it to say, his demise means he was definitely on to something, and Bengtzon races against time to expose a decades old cover-up before yesterday’s Leftists become today’s ruling elite.  It’s a good story – a bit dreary in tones and setting compared to what’s come before in this series – and, frankly, it’s all a bit muddled come the ending.  Our reporter does suffer a pretty intense beat down in the finale, but – ever the trooper – she’s get back up and still manages to save the day.  (I found that a bit hard to swallow.)
“Lifetime” (5 of 5 stars): Of all the Bengtzon procedurals I’ve seen, this is by far my favorite.  It has everything, and that’s precisely because it allows so many smaller storylines that have been hanging on – Annika’s failed marriage, Annika’s questionable role as a mother, Annika’s obsession with her work, etc. – to come to a head.  What looks like a celebrity murder turns out to have even darker secrets in wait, and our reporter must rely on the assistance of an inexperienced female officer in order to break through some procedural red tape and get to the truth.  What she learns will force her to re-evaluate how she’s lived her life thus far, and it’ll also put her on a path toward (possibly) a brighter tomorrow.
“A Place in the Sun” (2 of 5 stars): Unfortunately, that ‘brighter tomorrow’ I spoke of above all turned out to be a bit of a well-structured creative ruse as Bengtzon is sent off to Costa del Sol, Spain, to investigate the high-profile murder of a former Swedish hockey great.  What looks like a burglary gone horribly wrong quickly becomes something else, and the reporter will be forced to travel into some very dark places in order to piece together what really happened.  For all of its nice moments (great setting, nice romantic subplot, and even the hint of a reconciliation of sorts with her ex-husband) falls apart in the story’s last 15 minutes with a stunningly ridiculous development in the whodunit department.  Suffice it to say, this ‘place’ stretched credibility too far to ever be recovered.
ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: EPISODES 4-6 [2012] is produced by Yellow Bird Films, Degeto Film, TV4 Nordisk Television, Nordisk Film, and Filmpool Nord.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by MHZ Networks.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, here you go: this is a Swedish spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (No, there is no English dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, I’m increasingly impressed with the quality of the sight and sound that goes into BENGTZON; it’s nothing short of incredible, though some of the shooting locations this time around were far from the glamor of past installments.  Sadly – as is too often the case when these foreign productions find release on American shores – there are no special features to speak of.  (Shame on you, Sweden!  For shame!)
RECOMMENDED.  For all practical intents, I’d encourage you definitely to check out “The Red Wolf” and “Lifetime,” but I’m really struggling with giving “A Place in the Sun” even a weak recommendation.  Arguably, it’s the best produced of the three, but it has the weakest narrative because too much of it is centered entirely on coincidences.  In the world of hard reporting, coincidences of this magnitude don’t take place; when they rear their ugly heads in quality fiction, they usually spell certain doom.  Skip it … unless you’d like to see Malin Crepin’s assets (briefly) on display.  At least, there is that highpoint.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: THE RED WOLF by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Wed, 19 Feb 2014 00:59:18 +0000
<![CDATA[ Horribly Convoluted Whodunit Mars An Otherwise Mediocre BENGTZON]]>  
What’s a shame is that it didn’t have to be.  In fact, 75% of it is quite nice.  But that ending?  Did they simply make it up as they were going along or what?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Things at work are starting to change for Annika Bengtzon (the lovely Malin Crepin): her boss is retiring, she’s being eyed for the top spot, but (after her refusal) a rival-colleague takes over the day-to-day operations.  For her first assignment in the new administration, she’s sent to Spain on a quest to uncover what may have been the murder of a former Swiss hockey player and his family.  However, as Bengtzon begins to pry further, she realizes that there’s much more here than meets the eye, including an estranged daughter who has gone missing and the possibility that her wealthy parents were trafficking in drugs!
Oh, poor Annika!  Just when things were starting to actually look up for you, then you decided to invest in A PLACE IN THE SUN.  Despite the sheer lunacy of the ending, there was so very much going for this procedural: Annika was moving on with her life, she came to accept the changes in the office, and the story even gave her a bit of a love story, complete with drinking, dancing, and disrobing.  However, this PLACE in the sun just wasn’t meant to be.
Essentially, there are far more problems I can logically discuss without spoiling it all.  Suffice it to say that there are several plotlines always in play in the episode, and the intent clearly was to draw all of them together in such a way as to deliver a surprising ending, the type of which viewers couldn’t see coming.  Well, what they’ve crafted here does work on that level … but it also smacks heavily of implausibility, and that’s never a good thing.
What does work?  Annika is treated to a new, budding relationship with a Swedish officer who’s been assigned to work with Spanish authorities, and that subplot gives Crepin finally the chance to smile.  I’m talking ‘genuine smiles’ here, as it’s all handled very nicely, very romantically, and very well folded into the larger story.  To complicate matters, her estranged husband shows up (he just so happens to be a conference in the same area), and the two are given as well a setting and circumstance that begins to hint of a possible reconciliation.  Thankfully, it doesn’t happen – clearly, Annika’s better being in no relationship, and one might even question her fitness as a mother – but it’s still only the start of coincidences required to tell the story the way they did.
I’ll leave it at that.  I was disappointed, especially after the brilliance of LIFETIME.  All I can say is Bengtzon’s future looks a bit dim.
ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: A PLACE IN THE SUN [2012] is produced by Yellow Bird Films, Degeto Film, TV4 Nordisk Television, Nordisk Film, and Filmpool Nord.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by MHZ Networks.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, here you go: this is a Swedish spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (No, there is no English dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, I’m increasingly impressed with the quality of the sight and sound that goes into BENGTZON; it’s nothing short of incredible, though some of the shooting locations this time around were far from the glamor of past installments.  Sadly – as is too often the case when these foreign productions find release on American shores – there are no special features to speak of.  (Shame on you, Sweden!  For shame!)
MILDLY RECOMMENDED.  Excellent production values, some terrific but small acting moments, and some of the most exotic locales used in all of the ANNIKA BENGTZON series isn’t enough to save this installment as the complex web spun throughout about 75 of its 90 minutes utterly falls apart with an entirely implausible ‘development’ in the last 15.  The level of coincidences necessary to hold this potboiler together based entirely on whodunit made me wonder if this actually were the shooting script or something a group of half-drunk cast and crewmembers threw together last minute.  An immeasurable disappointment to what had thus far shaped up to be a smart program with smart writing.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER (EPISODES 4-6) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Wed, 19 Feb 2014 00:31:24 +0000
<![CDATA[ The Doctor Faces An Adversary Who Very Well Could've Been His Equal]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
As its been want to do over the years, the TARDIS is suddenly yanked out of its trajectory by a force beyond its control, depositing the Doctor (the aforementioned Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (the lovely but recently dearly departed Elisabeth Sladen) in England, circa 1911.  It would seem that a follower of the ancient Egyptian god Sutekh has discovered that the deity wasn’t vanquished as previously believed but rather he’s been imprisoned on the planet Mars.  Using some alien technology available to him by this contact, this young, disillusioned man has begun the process of releasing Sutekh – who now has his sights set on subjugating all of modern man to his nefarious wishes – only the Doctor might have something to say about that if – in the nick of time – he can close the portal giving the god access to our world.
Wow.  Wow.  And wow.
As I mentioned above, I’d obviously seen PYRAMIDS in my youth, but I honestly had very little recollection of it.  I couldn’t say why particularly, but I suspect it’s that, in my younger days, I was more interested in the episodes that explored space-bound environments, those set aboard a space ship or ones using more and more special effects.  PYRAMIDS has very little of those elements – basically there’s a portal using wormhole like technology opened up between Earth and Sutekh’s prison cell on the red planet, and that’s about it for ‘high tech’ – and what it does have is reduced most to flashing lights enhanced with modest post-production trickery.  But – considering the story – I’m practically befuddled that this one didn’t stick in my brain.
Now, let’s be clear: vintage DOCTOR WHO never had much of what most folks would consider legitimate action sequences, and PYRAMIDS is no exception.  Still, these four episodes definitely had a decided serial quality to them.  There’s the set-up (the scenes of the Egyptologist being seduced to the mission in a newly uncovered crypt), which segues into the Doctor and Sarah being plucked out of time and space to be deposited in England.  Since it happened under curious circumstances, they’re bound to want to know why, which leads them further into the mystery whose answer only draws them deeper and deeper into the action.  As is often the case with some of these older yarns, there’s a fair bit of sidebar involving some Martian mummies – basically, it’s a series of scenes used to establish how lethal they are and could be – that’s a bit extraneous; but, all-in-all, PYRAMIDS is a cracking good time.
Now – it doesn’t exactly pain me to say this, rather it’s something I’ve observed now that I’m a bit older and wiser (at least, I hope I am) – Baker’s stint as the time lord is still one of the best (so far as this reviewer is concerned).  I wanted to admit that hindsight has shown me he may not have always been all that warm and fuzzy with his various companions (his Doctor can be downright impatient, if not overly critical when remarking on ‘human intelligence’), but I tend to chalk that up to how Who evolved.  While those early doctors tended to be much more grandfatherly in look and design, even grandpa could be a bit stuffy when you disappointed him, spilled coffee on his trousers, or refused to pull his finger.  Perhaps that’s what the writers were channeling when they scripted a few of these scenes (Baker gives Sladen more than a few ‘stink eyes’ than I remembered), but methinks it was still all meant to be good fun.
DOCTOR WHO: PYRAMIDS OF MARS (1975) is produced by the British Broadcasting Company (aka The BBC).  DVD distribution is being handled (as well) by the British Broadcasting Company through BBC Home Entertainment.  As for the technical specifications, the sights and sounds still hold up today with studio sets and on-location shooting bridging actually quite nicely given the age of the original elements.  As I’m penning this review after watching the said program via streaming as an Amazon Prime member, I couldn’t speak to the special features available on the disc, though Amazon lists them if you’re interested in knowing what’s available.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Watching classic episodes of the BBC’s enduring DOCTOR WHO can be a bit treacherous for viewers new to the series, but PYRAMIDS OF MARS is one of those rare exceptions that ‘feels’ almost timeless, so much so that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this story fitting in with modern age Who (albeit with less impressive effects work).  The serialized story moves along briskly, pitting the good Doctor and Sarah Jane in a bit of danger involving robotic mummies, crazed henchmen, and an alien Hell bent on escaping his incarceration so that he can take over the big blue marble itself.]]> Tue, 18 Feb 2014 17:13:10 +0000
<![CDATA[ Without A Doubt, This Is ANNIKA BENGZTON's Time To Shine ... And She Does]]>  
How does she do?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
David Lindholm is part local celebrity, part police officer.  He’s built a reputation on quality police work, bridging from the force to a force-to-be-reckoned with as part of a weekly televised behind-the-scenes procedural investigating high profile crimes.  So when he turns up dead from a single gunshot to the head and three to his groin, everyone suspects the media will be interested.  Annika Bengzton (played by Crepin) begins to slowly pull back the layers when she learns that Lindholm’s wife Julia (Sandra Andreis) is hiding a secret, and it may very well involve the identity behind who has kidnapped her four-year-old son!
Simply put, LIFETIME is the best installment of the ANNIKA BENGZTON series thus far.
To my delight, I give it that enthusiastic endorsement for a whole host of reasons and not any individual mark.  For starters, I’ve already mentioned the reservations I’ve had with the character: as one who appears obsessed to ‘get to the bottom of things,’ Bengzton as apparently conceived and portrayed goes about doing these journalistic good deeds with what I felt was an air of detachment to those around her.  Her constant refusal to split time parenting caused her husband to finally leave her (only this past installment), and she’s barely given her two young children an ounce of consideration.  Granted, she’s good at her job (or so she’s written!), but up until this point she hadn’t come across as a person who seemed human.  In fact, each successive story only appeared to have emboldened her quest to proliferate her identity outside her relationship as a wife and a mother, leaving those closest to her only wanting more.
LIFETIME finally gives the ubiquitous reporter a bit of a creative comeuppance – she breaks down from the pressures of it all.  Now parenting alone while fighting her estranged husband for visitation times, she’s forced to take her children along on a newspaper interview … into a home for recovering drug addicts.  Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.  It goes so poorly that her daughter wets herself, finally forcing the woman to realize what a burden her life choices have wrought upon not only the self but also the family.  This pushes her to reconsider her position to limit visitation in the episodes coda.
But the greatness doesn’t stop there.  From the onset, there’s a terrific three-way parallel created between Bengzton, the emotionally frazzled Julia Lindholm, and Nina Hoffman, a young female police officer drawn into the investigation as she’s personal friends with the deceased and his wife.  Within this great story, the audience is presented with three strong women – each who has gone about being who they are with modest similarity, and each who are obviously scarred to some degree by the circumstances of their respective lives.  They’re all trying to do right by those around them – Julia struggles to keep her hyper-jealous husband happy; Nina tries to balance the pursuit of justice against disenfranchising the officers she currently works with; Annika trying to juggle too many personal errands at once – and, despite their best efforts, everything around them only keeps falling apart.  It’s a trifecta of performances – ultimately carried by Crepin – that fuels a tense story to its explosive finish.
ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: LIFETIME [2012] is produced by Yellow Bird Films, Degeto Film, TV4 Nordisk Television, Nordisk Film, and Filmpool Nord.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by MHZ Networks.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, here you go: this is a Swedish spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (No, there is no English dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, I’m increasingly impressed with the quality of the sight and sound that goes into BENGTZON; it’s nothing short of incredible, though some of the shooting locations this time around were far from the glamor of past installments.  Sadly – as is too often the case when these foreign productions find release on American shores – there are no special features to speak of.  (Shame on you, Sweden!  For shame!)
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Without a doubt, LIFETIME is a tale that finally shows what potential there can be behind stories focused on reporters in a world that’s kinda/sorta left the reporting profession in the doldrums.  Bengzton’s personal issues have always simmered beneath the surface – there’s obviously been friction at home and with her extended family – and it took removing her from that nuclear family in order for her to fully realize what was at stake personally as well as professionally.  Kudos to the cast and crew for a deftly structured procedural that managed to pack an emotional wallop in under 90 minutes.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: LIFETIME by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 17 Feb 2014 23:23:49 +0000
<![CDATA[ Never Fear! Annika Bengtzon Is Here! She'll Stop the Revolution ... That Ended Decades Ago?]]>  
But she won’t be there to pick up her kids when school lets out!  No, no.  In Bengtzon’s world, that’s a man’s job … if she can find one to do it.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Forty years ago, an act of terror believed to have been perpetrated by those pesky Russians left one Swedish soldier dead, but, even today, the crime remains an oddity for Benny, a reporter.  Benny believes that either the military or the government conspired to keep the true terrorist’s identity a secret.  As the fortieth anniversary of the event approaches, Benny grows restless and is unwilling to leave it alone … until a parked car pulls away from the curb one night and runs him over.  Now, it’s up to Annika Bengtzon – Crime Reporter – to avenge her fallen comrade with an investigation that might just point toward those in political power today!
As much as I enjoy the BENGTZON mysteries (for the record, this is the second collection I’ve begun making my way through), they do appear at times woefully out-of-step with the times.  As I implied above, reporters don’t typically operate in such dire predicaments these days as, more and more, the truly big news stories are broken by some ace reporter unaffiliated with any individual operation from an internet café.  Such is progress as its come to be known by man.  For the purposes of ‘keeping it real’ (or a reasonable facsimile), Bengtzon harkens back to a kinder, gentler place where reporters at the big paper still have a chance.  (This is, in part, entirely plausible given that these stories take place in Sweden, so I’ll give it a pass.)
But I found it difficult to muster up any real measure of caring about the story on display here.  Rebels disillusioned with the political establishment forty years ago end up being seasoned citizens here.  Though they’re obviously still capable of inflicting some damage by way of “geezer noir” (those of you who know the term can chuckle all you like), it’s been my experience that legitimate hippies sold out two decades back in order to get inside, co-opt the systems, and accomplish the revolution from the inside looking out and not vice versa.  Granted, maybe things are a bit different (in Sweden), but the last I’d looked I thought that tactic was pretty universal.
There are a handful of murders that take place in the tale.  Sadly – as the audience never really truly comes to know any of these victims prior to their assuming room temperature – it’s hard to get riled up about much of it.  In fact, one might make the accusation that the murders became a bit gratuitous (though not bloody), taking place as they did in order to give some hot-looking blonde reporter something to go and report about.  Given the fact that her personal life is in the toilet, maybe she had better give that some attention soon, no?
ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: THE RED WOLF [2012] is produced by Yellow Bird Films, Degeto Film, TV4 Nordisk Television, Nordisk Film, and Filmpool Nord.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by MHZ Networks.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, here you go: this is a Swedish spoken language release with English subtitles available.  (No, there is no English dubbed track.)  As for the technical specifications, I’m increasingly impressed with the quality of the sight and sound that goes into BENGTZON; it’s nothing short of incredible, though some of the shooting locations this time around were far from the glamor of past installments.  Sadly – as is too often the case when these foreign productions find release on American shores – there are no special features to speak of.  (Shame on you, Sweden!  For shame!)
RECOMMENDED though I’ll admit that it was all a bit muddled in the end.  It’s clear that THE RED WOLF tried desperately to take the politics of old (from four decades ago) and transplant them into contemporary times, but I’m not entirely certain if it wanted to say that yesterday’s rebels today are far-sighted, short-sighted, or misguided.  Whatever the case, Bengtzon stayed on the job up until the bitter end, and this time out her dedication to the story finally cost her more than just some petty physical abuse: love is no longer looking out for this reporter.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of ANNIKA BENGTZON, CRIME REPORTER: THE RED WOLF by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Sat, 15 Feb 2014 02:10:20 +0000
<![CDATA[ SMART TALK ON SKIN: If Hentai's Your Thing, MAID SERVICE Is A Real Fling]]>  
You’ve got maids – often defined as “subservients” – and you’ve got “service” – a word that connotes that there’s a ‘master’ in the relationship.  You throw those two words together, and you’re bound to get combustion.  On that point, MAID SERVICE does combust, indeed.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Needing to ascertain some measure of income in order to continue paying for her college tuition, Momoko finds herself duped into serving as a house maid to the charming young man in her class, Takaaki.  The problem is that Takaaki has much more on his mind than just being a nice guy, and, before you can say “put on that maid outfit,” he has her half-removed from said maid outfit in order to satisfy his every sexual whim, perverse or otherwise.  However, Momoko soon realizes that, even with her virginal complexion, she isn’t enough to keep the man happy.  He’s on a path to surround himself with more beautiful women … but why does it seem as though he secretly favors Momoko?  Is she truly important to him in some way she doesn’t understand, or could it be that she reminds him of something that he’s tragically lost?  Temperatures will be raised in her pursuit of getting to the bottom of it … while Takaaki’s getting to her bottom!
The story is rarely what brings any viewer to any hentai: mainly, it’s the action.  Hot & heavy preferred.  And plentiful, so long as the characters are at it.  Rather than mince words about whether or not MAID SERVICE is legitimate ‘hentai’ (tip: I don’t think it is, per se), let’s just agree on the point that it’s definitely sexual, undeniably pornographic, and curiously nihilistic in tone.  Our lovely heroine – erm, victim – is Momoko, who finds herself (based on events which occur before this two-part, one-hour animated drama begin) in dire financial straits.  Enter a young, wealthy suitor – Takaaki – who’s willing to be the answer to her prayers … and voila!  Instant porn set-up!
Of course, what Momoko didn’t know is that nothing in life ever comes for free, and, from the outset, Takaaki dials his amps up to eleven (as they say) in extorting whatever carnal delights he can from the comely lass.  As any wealthy man-of-the-house would be, Takaaki’s appetites are tremendous, and it becomes apparently early on that no single orifice of this young woman’s body will escape his mischievous attentions; eventually, his hunger is so insatiable that he must have other girls brought under his grasp, and – naturally – you can’t have two girls in one animated sex film without there being some girl-on-girl opportunities.
To MAID SERVICE’s credit, the story does actually try to tap into some authentic themes exploring just why, where, and how Takaaki developed these psychological addictions.  Granted, these sixty minutes don’t allow time for any deep analysis; as one might slyly realize, the flick’s plenty ‘deep’ in ways the viewer probably expects more readily.
Still, SERVICE isn’t as bizarre as some other forms of hentai I’ve had the good fortune (and misfortune) of seeing.  The bulk of the action centers on Takaaki’s control – his control of his house, his control of his reputation at school, his control of the ladies who fall under his grip – and he’s always the aggressor, leading to incidents of forcible assault, bondage, and mild to perverse violence.  It’s the other stuff – the potty variety – that I just didn’t care for (nor have I ever) that ends up cheapening what might otherwise serve as visual foreplay for interested couples.  Could it give one ideas?  Sure.  Could it give one inspiration?  No doubt.  Could it interest you in trying everything you see from start-to-finish?  Meh.  I’m guessing “not.”
MAID SERVICE [2004] is produced by Circus and Digital Works.  DVD distribution is being handled by Critical Mass Video.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this material contains graphic adult content and is definitely not intended for minors.  Also – for those needing it spelled out furthermore – this is a Japanese spoken language release, and the disc offers up either subtitles or an English-dubbed track.  If it’s special features you’re looking for, then you’re in store for what they’ve tagged as ‘outtakes’ (clearly produced as part of an in-joke, I hope) along with some animated art galleries and trailers for other Critical Mass releases.
RECOMMENDED.  If MAID SERVICE does anything (other than the obvious titillation), then it reminds us how closely linked our sexual appetite can be to deep-rooted psychological problems.  Whether that be attempting to fill the void left from a lost mother or trying to come to grips with some inappropriately developed control fetishes, the characters in here struggle to let their identity heal and, in the process, work through a lot of hot’n’heavy carnal issues.  Again, I offer these few words not as endorsement of any particular proclivity but rather as an observation of what stories of this nature tell us about ourselves.  (Well, maybe not you or I, but psycho-sexual civilization at a glance.)]]> Wed, 12 Feb 2014 04:27:11 +0000
<![CDATA[ Chris Carter's Newest Show -- "The After" -- Debuts On]]> The best thing that one might be able to say based entirely on the pilot episode for THE AFTER is that – so far as production and storytelling goes – it didn’t suck. Granted, there was very little learned about the world these various characters live in – apparently, it’s the End of the World as We Know It and not everyone feels fine. However, there’s a plot twist to the last half that smacks entirely of creative invention; that isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, but rather it’s to say that based entirely on this episode there’s no way to know with any degree of certainty whether or not the last-stage development plays into a potentially greater mythology to a program.

That said, there’s a handful of things going for it. First, it’s basically filled with a cast of good looking characters, enough so that it wouldn’t be hard to tune in from week-to-week to see what they’re up to. The production qualities are mostly very good, though (again) that assessment is only based on the 50 minutes provided – it could certainly go downhill from there. Still, Carter has proven that he has the smarts to make something work even on a relatively limited budget as THE X-FILES in its infancy made a lot of ground out of very little effects-driven work.

If anything, THE AFTER has a solid vibe going for it – the kind of sense that the big reveal is lurking just around the corner in the next episode. Narratively, it ‘feels’ like a cross between ABC TV’s LOST done by way of FLASHFORWARD but on a vastly lower budget. Again, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering this was basically a ‘pilot’; we’ll see if it’s given legs, though I’d have to wonder if it might be cost-prohibitive for an outlet as limited as (Maybe a joint production?)

As it’s coming from Chris Carter, my guess is that he has some game plan in mind, but if THE X-FILES is any indication I suspect there’s no “end game.” For what it's worth, it kept my interest up until about the last ten minutes, when the story turned into a less cohesive 'adventure' involving gunplay, the usual suspects (a gang incident), and taking it on the lam. Sure, I get that this was all a set-up for the final 'twist,' but as there's no possible way to evaluate the strength or weakness of that 'twist' based on what we're given here that ends up being little more than an academic execise ...

... unless there's a next time, of course.]]> Mon, 10 Feb 2014 19:22:45 +0000
<![CDATA[ KROLL SHOW Regularly Sends Up Reality Programming]]> Have you seen Nick Kroll’s face? If you haven’t, then you’re missing something kinda/sorta special.

That’s not a swipe. He isn’t ugly. His is a unique twist on the ‘everyman’ appeal. He’s got eyes that can balance dramatic subtlety or pop out of his head (figuratively) should the scene require it. He’s got these low-hanging eyelids and a generally lazy veneer that practically screams “loon” or “doofus” or maybe even “slacker.” The corners of his mouth appear crooked perpetually in some secret, sly grin, almost as if he’s trying to hide something from you, me, or all of us. It’s the face of a court jester, a prankster, but with an air of familiarity to make one wonder if you just passed him on the street or had a beer with him last Saturday night.

So if you haven’t seen it, Nick Kroll’s face is picture-perfect-made for comedy.

Fortunately, he’s good at.

Last January (2013), the Kroll Show’s first season premiered on Comedy Central with absolutely no pomp and circumstance. But who can blame the network suits? While most shows on Comedy Central barely register a pulse so far as ratings are concerned, I think they’ve been a fairly respectable barometer on what the mainstream finds either (A) funny or (B) entirely objectionable – depending upon your particular taste for laughter. Granted, that’s a wide range, but comedy remains fairly elusive to quantify or formulate except that it’s something which generates laughs.


Also, the network in particular has suffered an astoundingly awful roster of programs ripe with the “one-and-done” curse, meaning one season and that’s all she wrote … and that’s if they’re lucky enough to see the broadcast light of day. For every South Park, Comedy Central probably had two if not three stinkers that probably should have gone right from the drawing board to the cutting board. In their desperate bid to find the next South Park or Tosh.O, the management has made some curious decisions along the way.

Rather than put himself – meaning his real-life persona – through the comic paces, Kroll has chosen to use his gift to create some larger-than-life knuckleheads to hide behind. The beauty of this approach is it allows the comedian to poke fun playfully at stereotypes too painfully close to reality. These are characters who are absolutely clueless about their cluelessness; thus, they’re a delight for us to study, always safe in the knowledge: “he’s poking fun at somebody other than me.”

Or is he?

This is the same approach Christopher Guest has used in his delightful mockumentaries, starting with This is Spinal Tap (1984) and running up through his last go-round on HBO with Family Tree. Because we’re seated safely in the audience, it’s as if we’re in on the joke. Besides, the enjoyment we get from watching these characters is far more benign than hurtful precisely because they’re completely unaware that we’re watching.

Where Kroll has added his own unique spin to this by placing his clueless characters in their own reality television program, and each one is a bit zanier than the last.


There’s Liz and Liz – that’s right, two young urban socialites both with the same name – working together in their dream profession as publicists for a firm they’ve called “PubLizity.”

There’s two old Jewish men trying to manage what their generation would accept as a version of the modern ‘prank’ show, and it’s all brilliantly staged as if it’s a cable access show in New York. The prank? It’s always the same: they serve their guest a sandwich of too much tuna. Seriously, it’s WAY too much tuna to be a sandwich.

Then, there’s Dr. Armond, the ultimate is self-absorbed plastic surgeons, who splits his time between his narcissist clients and his equally narcissistic family. (Armond was a first season character who hasn’t yet turned up in the second season, which just opened on January 14.)

And – last but not least – there’s C-Czar (though I thought it was just Czar), the ultimate white homeboy with a penchant for face piercing that sadly keep getting infected. In the second season, C-Czar’s about to become a dad, so for his reality show he’s getting helpful advice from six (count ‘em!) fathers, each representing a different aspect of parenthood. All this for a punk also can’t seem to buy a pair of pants that’ll stay up to cover his backside!

What’s clear to me is that Kroll takes particular pride in upending our expectations, and that’s probably why he’s honed in on the current trend toward reality programming. He’s trying to say something about how it all looks, maybe not today, but how it might look tomorrow or the day after or even to the next generation glancing back at us to study.


How can I be so sure he’s obsessed with images?

Check no further than his opening credits. It’s a free-for-all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it assortment of ad slicks – ones you think you’ll recognize but have been altered to put his name or the name of his show in them. Kroll’s reminding us of how things look but tweaking them just so they fit within the construct that is his reality-programmed world.

And it’s definitely worth a look.

Read more at]]> Fri, 24 Jan 2014 20:18:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ Disappointing WHITE HOUSE REVEALED Still Worth A Look, If You Like Kardashian-Style History]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
I’m getting old.  I know it.  The older I get, the more jaded I am when I review certain materials.  I do try not to allow my personal politics (and my personal mores, choices, and beliefs) color my writing, especially when it comes to covering mass media like I do … but every now and then I have to climb up on my soapbox.  After all, that’s what it’s there for, no?
Narrated by Martin Sheen (the actor who would be President), THE SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL: WHITE HOUSE REVEALED promised an in-depth look at the people who serve the White House behind-the-scenes.  It’s called the Usher’s Office – a man no one has ever truly liked – and they are the maids, groundspeople, electricians, and kitchen help who work to make the most important ‘home’ in the world exactly that: a H-O-M-E.  It takes some talent to make the most powerful people in America feel special – itself an idea I don’t quite agree with, but it is what it is – and, while the folks at the Smithsonian may think they’ve done us a service I think they missed the bar quite a bit here.
Instead of focusing on the challenges of remaining at all times as non-partisan as workers can, the Smithsonian Channel decided that what viewers needed to know were the dirty little secrets.  Nancy Reagan wanted her priceless knickknacks arranged a specific way at all times.  Other Presidents required that the staff never (and I mean NEVER) be seen, going so far as to ring a bell in advance to signal the staff to get into hiding.  Granted, there are some frank disclosures in here – how the White House staff dealt with the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and what steps they had to take to assist Mrs. Kennedy in processing her grief – but those moments are too far, too few to elevate this mere 50 minutes “investigation” into anything that appears truly ground-breaking.
And then there’s the fact that so much of the program was spent with the Executive Pastry Chef.
Seriously?  The White House has an Executive Pastry Chef … and that’s all the man does?!?!
Arguably, way too much is being invested (along with way too many tax dollars) if “We, the People” are affording the President of the United States his very own dessert chef.  Yes, I get that there are a lot of executive dinners and whatnot, but couldn’t this be something handled by the general kitchen staff?  I hate to feel like I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill – or is that pasta salad out of mere pasta? – but I felt this truly cheapened the program.  This man’s singular claim to fame to knowing both Bill and Hillary Clinton so well that he knew exactly what to serve them the very night after the media broke the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky.
That’s news?
That’s history that deserves preservation?
“What’s that, Mr. President?  The Twin Towers have been destroyed?  Can I get you a scone?”
Don’t get me wrong: I think the idea of spending some time interviewing these folks IS something I would like to have seen.  I’d like to think that the material of greater substance just didn’t make it into the final cut, and that somewhere there exists a wealth of material that examines in greater detail what it’s like to know what secrets these walls truly hold.  This?  This wasn’t it, so far as I could tell.  This was the usual fluff, and I honestly expected better.
THE SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL: WHITE HOUSE REVEALED was produced by Jody Schiliro.  DVD distribution is handled by Inception Media Group.  As for the technical specifications, the highest quality sight and sound clearly went into producing this documentary.  As is often the case in releases of this nature, there are no special features to speak of.
MILDLY RECOMMENDED.  Really, Smithsonian Channel?  Is this really what history has become?  I’ve no problem with about half of WHITE HOUSE REVEALED – those that stick to the facts of the place and the people who’ve served Presidencies behind-the scenes – because that’s fascinating.  To have been so close to power?  To so many decisions?  To so much history taking place right there where it happened?  Still, did I really need to know what President Clinton wanted to eat the day the media broke the scandal on Monica Lewinsky?  Did I really need to know that Mrs. Clinton wanted mocca-flavored cake to cope with her grief?  That’s history by way of the Kardashians, and that just doesn’t interest me in the slightest.  Perhaps that’s what we’ve become?  Or is it just I who’ve become so jaded I can’t find any greater value in this release.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Inception Media Group provided me with a DVD copy of SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL: WHITE HOUSE REVEALED by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 21 Jan 2014 22:39:02 +0000
<![CDATA[ Ron Moore's Helix Is A Bit Out Of Shape]]> While Syfy’s program was in its infancy, I posted in one forum something to the effect (but not exactly) that I wasn’t all that impressed with Ron Moore’s ‘interpretation’ and that, if pushed to the max, I still preferred the simpler “good vs. evil” tone of the original.
Suddenly, I was the subject of much scorn.
Folks treated me as though I’d made some huge faux pas, like I threatened the life of a sitting President or that I’d said I didn’t get the internet’s collective orgasm over all things Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, and Guillermo del Toro.  (In fact, if you don’t know whom those three folks are, you’re possibly better off.)  Heck, I can remember getting forever banned from one website for saying something as benign as “Firefly just isn’t my cup of tea.”
Methinks fandom and scorn are not a match made in Heaven.
But, hey, back to Ron Moore …
All I’d stated about Moore’s writing was that it seemed too heavily reliant on contemporary events and modern times.  As such, it might prove to be a great barometer for today but might not have great re-watch quality for future generations of TV viewers in syndication.  In other words, Moore’s BSG meant plenty to us, but it may not mean much to our kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids.
To clarify, consider M*A*S*H.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, M*A*S*H was a very successful TV show depicting the drama and antics associated to the doctors, nurses, and general staff of 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  Although it was set during the Korean War, everyone and his mother’s uncle knew that the writers constantly commented on the conflict in Vietnam, something fresh in the minds of its audience.  (Interestingly enough, I pretty much said the same about M*A*S*H, and friends and family thought I was crazy back then, too.)  Like BSG, I don’t feel that M*A*S*H has great viewing significance to today’s audience except for a study of that generation – namely, the 60’s and 70’s.
This isn’t to say that M*A*S*H didn’t tell good stories.  It did.  And M*A*S*H’s characters are some of the most sharply drawn in all of TV history.  My argument is that because of its narrative focus M*A*S*H won’t have the cultural longevity and impact of other series.  M*A*S*H meant plenty to audiences of its day, and it probably meant something for its next generation of viewers … but, as times change, so do tastes and mores and morality; thus, the program’s relevance dips with each successive generation.
Star Trek, by contrast, told stories much the same – used allegory to explore contemporary social themes – but it did so in such a way as to preserve the “good vs. evil” aspect of whatever conflict represented.  As Roddenberry often said, Trek was about the ‘human adventure,’ and he and the writers took great pains to stay relevant and universal (not limited to one culture’s breadth of experience).  Consequently, Trek has arguably had the strongest legs of any TV creation.
Which, hey, brings me back to Ron Moore …
Moore and Syfy have now launched Helix.  It premiered last week to fairly consistently critical praise.  Once again, I find myself it that uncomfortable position of wondering out loud (and in print, no less) if I watched the same show everyone else did.
The premise – a team of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) specialists are called to an arctic research facility when the release of a possible retrovirus defies containment – sounds eerily similar to 1951’s The Thing From Another Planet (which John Carpenter remade in 1982 as The Thing): you’ve got the virus-like creation … you’ve got the arctic … you’ve got a secret research facility … you’ve got the threat to mankind if it gets out, etc.  Perhaps this working similarity is what show creator Cameron Porsandeh wanted to capitalize on – “Why, it’s been 31 years again, and that means it’s time for another look at this story!”
The sci-fi drama stars genre favorite Billy Campbell, who I’ve been told was nearly cast as Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Campbell appeared on TNG as a guest star; he also headlined Walt Disney’s The Rocketeer and was a regular on The 4400.  His Alan Farragut character leads the CDC research team in investigating what went wrong at the base while also trying to stop the spread of infection.  The rest of the cast is populated by not-necessarily familiar faces.
The premiere was, essentially, two individual hours cobbled together to make a pilot movie, and, if it’s any indication of what’s in store, then I suspect Syfy has ‘more of the same’ on its hands … which is to say it isn’t very good.
In crafting a successful program, I’ve always argued that a show needs three things without exception: (A) A solid premise;
(B) An idea relatable to viewers; and
(C) Characters the audiences care about.
Considering I’ve already established the reliability of the premise by drawing its similarity to previous works, let me explain why I don’t think Helix relates to viewers.
Unlike The Walking Dead (TWD) – which presents a reality wherein even those of us who haven’t become Walkers still carry a dormant strain within us – Helix’s germ needs to (apparently) be spread by mouth-to-mouth contact with an infected carrier.  Well, since very few of us have any desire to head to the arctic wastelands and lock lips with these scientists, I think we’re in the clear.  Some critics I’ve read immediately drew comparisons to TWD – i.e. a virus, a contained area, Helix’s own version of Walkers, etc. – and all I can repeat (again) is that they clearly watched some other cut than I did.  I wouldn’t even call Helix’s Walkers ‘walkers’ because it’s clear that they’re possessed of their own faculties, unlike the zombies who are only interested in eating human flesh, not spreading their disease.
So, in my estimation, Helix is an idea foreign to viewers.
Lastly, I couldn’t relate to any of Helix’s characters on any level except for my personal fear of being exposed to some incurable contagion.  In fact, if I didn’t know any better, then I would’ve suggested that Helix’s writing is more akin to the ‘soap opera’ than it is science fiction.  There’s a love triangle between two brothers and their inappropriately shared gal-pal (all scientists?!), and this conflict drives the show’s central themes.  There’s the older female scientist’s dislike of the younger female scientist because of that old tried-and-true “men want younger women” argument.  And within the squad of scientists working at this secret high-tech facility there apparently isn’t one of them who had any trouble lying to the CDC or the greater world outside about whether or not monkeys were used in their experiments!
See what I mean?  For a show presumably centered on science, none of these scientists are acting very much like Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, or even Mr. Spock for that matter.
Still – because I’ve learned my lesson of talking trash about BSG and Firefly – I won’t dismiss Helix as a total failure.  It’s decidedly out-of-shape and had better right itself quickly or I suspect it’ll lose whoever boarded it from the start.  Billy Campbell’s a nice guy and all; Ron Moore’s got game (he’s billed as the producer, and no doubt Syfy is expecting returns from his participation); but this thriller is short in the ‘thrills’ department, though it has ‘chills’ in spades!
(Chills?  Arctic?  Get it?)
I’ll let the passage of time prove me right or wrong.]]> Sat, 18 Jan 2014 08:33:09 +0000
<![CDATA[ Shrek Learns About Christmas]]>
The animation is good and the vocal talents from the Shrek movies do the voices of their respective characters. However, I didn't find the special to be as funny or entertaining as some of the other Shrek specials. I was also discouraged that the special didn't focus much on the "giving" aspect of the season (family is the big catch word in the special). Also, the special is rather short with a total running time of about 23 minutes. Despite this, I did enjoy watching it and found it somewhat entertaining. I like SCARED SHREKLESS better, but SHREK THE HALLS is ok.]]> Sat, 7 Dec 2013 17:29:06 +0000
<![CDATA[ Resistance Is Futile]]>
Disc 1:
STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE – "Regeneration": In this episode, STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE's
attempt at cashing in on the popularity of the Borg by having an artic expedition on Earth awakening an assimilated alien crew and Captain Archer and crew chasing them down before they escape the solar system. Outside of the continuity problems presented, "Regeneration" is actually a good episode of Star Trek.
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – "Q Who?": This is the episode that first introduced
the Borg to the Federation.
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1": The first Star
Trek season cliffhanger, where the Borg capture Captain Picard and turn him into Locutus.
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – "The Best of Both Words, Part 2": continuation of
the series cliffhanger where the Borg prepare to invade and overtake Earth.

Disc 2:
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – "I Borg": the crew of the Enterprise save an
injured Borg drone. Data and Geordi plan to use the drone as a weapon against the Borg, but as time goes on, the drone show individuality and is called Hugh.
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – "Descent, Part I": the Enterprise encounter a
planet apparently ruled by individualist Borg.
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – "Descent, Part II" : continuation of the previous
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Scorpion, Part I": the crew of Voyager and the Borg have to form
an alliance to defeat Species 8472. Seven of Nine is introduced.

Disc 3:
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Scorpion, Part II": continuation of the previous episode, the Borg
and the crew of Voyager's alliance is broken after the confrontation with Species 8472.
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Drone": a malfunction in the transporter chamber with Seven of
Nine and the Doctor causes the creation of an advanced Borg that the Voyager crew help
make into an individual.
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Dark Frontier": the crew of Voyager makes a plan to steal the
transwarp coil of a damaged Borg sphere. Also, Seven of Nine has memories of her parents abduction and comes face to face with the Borg Queen.

Disc 4:
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Unimatrix Zero, Part I": a Fifth Column of sorts is discovered in
the "dream world" of some of the Borg called Unimatrix Zero.
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Unimatrix Zero, Part II": second part of the previous episode
where Janeway plans on using Unimatrix Zero as a way to cause destruction to the Borg.
STAR TREK: VOYAGER – "Endgame": the finale of STAR TREK: VOYAGER where a future
Janeway travels through time to help Voyager get back home sooner.

Other than some text commentaries for some of the episodes, there are no extras on this set.

Overall, this is a good collection of Star Trek episodes featuring the Borg.]]> Fri, 29 Nov 2013 05:18:24 +0000
<![CDATA[ A Boy And His Penguin]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
One day – out of the blue – a penguin comes knocking at a young boy’s door.  As is customary, the boy opens it, and the bird walks in, helping himself to the place and its surroundings.  Believing the small thing is lost, the boy embarks on a journey to see it returned to its home … even at the risk to himself and the loss of a possible new friend.
LOST AND FOUND clocks in at under 30 minutes, and, at that length, I’d imagine it’s exactly the kind of feature that children – especially very young ones – would find outstanding.  Based on the best-selling book by Oliver Jeffers, the film is basically a story about finding friendship in not only the most unlikely place but also how effortlessly friendship develops despite little effort on one’s part.  The boy and the bird – there are no names as none are really needed for tales of this type – find one another completely by chance, and, similarly, they come to rely on one another in much the same way.
The animation is certainly crisp, and the story unfolds at a pace needed to develop the relationship.  It’s not entirely without some danger or intrigue – the boy chooses to row a small boat from his homeland all the way to the South Pole to return to the bird to its family; as such, they do encounter a heavy and dangerous storm at sea as well as the hints of a possible sea monster – but it’s all told in a way that underscores the harmlessness of it all.  Some parents might take issue with that – no one would want their small child embarking in reality on such a journey – but that might be a good jumping off point for discussion should the young one be at that point in his or her development.
Otherwise, this is a tale of whimsy, one narrated by Academy Award winning actor Jim Broadbent, and I imagine most audiences will find it enchanting.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that LOST AND FOUND is the recipient of four awards, including the 2009 BAFTA Children’s Award, the award for Best TV Special from the 2009 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, the Children’s Jury Award from the 2009 Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, and the Politiken’s Short Film Award from the 2010 Buster International Children’s Film Festival.  Hats off to everyone involved!
LOST AND FOUND (2008) is produced by Contender Entertainment Group and Studio Aka.  DVD distribution is being handled through Entertainment One (aka E One).  As for the technical specifications, this animated short film has been delivered with the highest quality sight and sound available.  Special features are usually a rarity when it comes to children’s programming, but there is a wonderful ‘making of’ featurette available – in fact, it’s longer than the feature!  Kids probably won’t be moved by it, but even the most cynical adult among us might find its magic inviting.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Short.  Sweet.  Delightful.  Those are three words to sum up LOST AND FOUND.  It’s a short, sweet, and delightful li’l story of a boy and a penguin who realize that sometimes it isn’t where you’re from or where you’re heading but rather it’s who you’re with.  The fact that you have someone can be a very powerful motivating force in anyone’s life, and that’s a remarkable lesson that certainly should be shared with both the young and the young-at-heart.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One) provided me with a DVD copy of LOST AND FOUND by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Wed, 27 Nov 2013 20:36:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ Smart Talk On Skin: Nearly Plotless FREEDOM Isn't What I Had In Mind]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Ovidie stars herself as reality TV journalist Leonie-Marie, a Barbara Walters for the skin-flick crowd.  She’s dedicated herself to exploring her fascination with what she perceives to be human sexuality … but the truth is that there isn’t much sexuality as there is just plain sex.  However, her latest assignment takes her to a local swingers’ commune where the residents are exploring the latest derivation of “free love.”  Have they truly found it all?  Or are they just hedonists with a good property lease?
Well …
The sad truth to SEXUAL FREEDOM – the third production shepherded under contemporary ‘feminist pornographer’ Ovidie’s efforts – is that there’s really no story.  Rather, there’s a set-up – she’s a journalist photographing sex and speaking to people about their values.  Otherwise, there’s no story.  There is an attempt to give this narrative hook a story – Leonie-Marie talks in the opening about her disillusionment of the subjects she’s been following in her career – but it is little more than a bookend technique to set-up the opening monologue and the closing salutations.
Now, I’m not so much the prude that I can’t appreciate the performances of these players.  I’ve written under the ‘Smart Talk on Skin’ heading for several reviews here at and elsewhere; it’s just that I typically like to spend time watching projects with stories about people.  Here, the sex stories are vignettes – the swingers have their own ‘code of conduct’ that’s honestly little more than ‘anything goes’ so far as I could tell – and it’s all meant to provide some kind of tension and/or conflict for which our tele-journalist might re-evaluate her world and what she’s doing.  It wasn’t enough for this viewer as I found myself (sorry to say) fast-forwarding through the various sexual couplings actually looking for a story.
These STORIES might work well for the bachelor party, but there’s little stimulation for the brain.
Lastly, I haven’t seen the other two installments of Ovidie’s sex stories; based on what I watched here, I probably won’t be inclined to seek them out, either.
SEXUAL FREEDOM: SEX STORIES 3 (2013) is produced by FrenchLoverTV.  DVD distribution is being handled by Breaking Glass Pictures.  As for the technical specifications?  Well, my guess is that if you’re here looking for more details on this title you’re not really all that interested in production quality, but, as a direct-to-DVD product, it really isn’t all that bad.  The sight and sound are above acceptable.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a French-spoken-language release with English subtitles (there is not English dubbing track), and they’re formatted disappointingly bad in here – some of them actually trail off the bottom of the screen, making them difficult to read.  Lastly, the disc comes with a special feature: “Eye of Liza” is an exclusive 90-minute behind-the-scenes documentary featuring the film’s star, Liza Del Sierra.
RECOMMENDED if and only if you’re truly looking for something to kill time with that shows mostly plot-less sexual escapades of folks who really don’t care who or how many partners they’re doing the nasty with.  SEXUAL FREEDOM isn’t so much a film as it is an excuse to explore sex – not sexuality – without the usual contrivances of story, development, and passion (unless hot and heavy is all you want).  See, I like those things – along with a narrative that is worth following – so this one?  It just wasn’t for me.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Breaking Glass Pictures provided me with a DVD copy of SEXUAL FREEDOM: SEX STORIES 3 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Thu, 21 Nov 2013 19:01:45 +0000
<![CDATA[ FARSCAPE Remains An Epic Adventure For Its Growing 'Cult' Audience]]>  
Now, Cinedigm is giving audiences a chance to relive these adventures in a glorious 15th anniversary release of the complete series, so I figured there was no better time like the present to tell you what I thought of it all.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
John Crichton (played with a right balance of sanity and insanity by Ben Browder) is the astronaut at the center of this epic tale.  After finding himself thrown across the galaxy thanks to a wormhole swallowing him up on the maiden voyage of his Farscape 1 spacecraft, Crichton finds himself smack dab in the middle of a galactic prison break.  His entrance into the foray accidentally causes a death that sets up one of the program’s ongoing storylines … but rather than focus on all of the details (trust me: there’s vastly too many for a single review!) I’ll leave it at that and just tell you this is one space journey that’s definitely worth taking.
FARSCAPE lasted for four seasons, all of which is included in Cinedigm’s release.  Hoping to avert any kind of disillusionment, I’m comfortable admitting that all of this ends with a massive cliffhanger (THE PEACEKEEPER WARS isn’t included in this set as it remains the property of different production companies), but, as any ‘Scaper will tell you, the sentiments wrapped up within that cliffhanger are a part and parcel of what made FARSCAPE such an impressive journey.  In short, it was always ‘the little engine that could’ (or ‘couldn’t’, depending upon one’s perception).  It defied the odds – defied the network that always kinda/sorta treated it like a stepchild throughout its stellar four seasons – and is one of those rare shows that’s actually grown a bit in popularity since its cancellation.  Indeed, this release’s press materials reminded me that FARSCAPE remains one of the 25 best Cult TV Shows in history (according to TV Guide).
As opposed to belaboring you with any additional rundown of the materials – if you’re already here looking into it, I suspect this is something you’re interested in purchasing – I’ll throw in a few fresh words on the new content with this release: a 16-page graphic novel called “Backyard Barbecue.”  It’s almost entirely the creation of writer/artist Ramon Perez (there was some coloring assistance provided by Ian Herring), and it’s essentially intended to be a prequel to the aforementioned THE PEACEKEEPER WARS.  The story is basically more of a vignette – a few moments in the life of these occasionally Looney Tunes characters – which shows how they survived when pressed between a rock and a hard place.  The artwork is solid – definitely reminiscent of the tone of the show as it aired – but, alas, it’s an all-too-brief snapshot back at these beloved heroes.  Lastly, the book closes out with a nice interview with Brian Henson, giving him a chance to reflect back on FARSCAPE, its production, and its legacy: truth be told, I enjoyed it vastly more than I did the comic, but that’s only because of the type of person I am.
FARSCAPE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (15TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION) is produced by Jim Henson Productions, Hallmark Entertainment, Jim Henson Television, Nine Film & Television Pty. Ltd., Nine Network Australia, and the Sci-Fi Channel.  DVD distribution for this release is being handled by Cinedigm and New Video.  As for the technical specifications … really?  This is a Blu ray release, and, though I’m led to understand these are the same masters used and prepared for the 2011 release, it’s perfectly clear that the highest commitment to providing the finest quality sight and sound has been taken.  And how about the special features?  Well, the downside is that there’s nothing all that ‘new’ here – countless hours of commentaries, deleted scenes, director’s cuts, behind-the-scenes, and so much more – but there’s a nifty exclusive 16-page graphic novel (see above for my thoughts on it) die-hard fans won’t want to miss.  Seriously, folks … you couldn’t ask for more.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  If you’ve never discovered FARSCAPE, then all I can say is that you’ve no possible idea what you’re missing: for my tastes, it was the boldest, brightest, and most creatively invigorating sci-fi epic to land exclusively on the Syfy Channel (then ‘Sci Fi’) when it aired originally.  Even today, it retains a unique freshness with some modest narrative complexity, its willingness to keep raising the on itself and its various players, and its consuming insistence on seeing these characters through to the end of their days.  I’ve said elsewhere that it is – without a doubt – the show that STAR TREK: VOYAGER probably wanted to be (VOYAGER began a few years prior to FARSCAPE) but, under Paramount’s constant tinkerings, never had the stones to even try (don’t even get me started on the some of the most obvious comparisons).  Make this journey.  Take this mission.  You’ll be glad you did.  Prepare for Starburst!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cinedigm provided me with the Blu ray release set of FARSCAPE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (15TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 12 Nov 2013 17:39:21 +0000
<![CDATA[ A WASTE OF SHAME Proves That the Heart Wants What the Heart Wants (Didn't We Know That Already?)]]>  
Does it do so effectively?  Well, you’ll have to read on for that.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
126 of the Shakespearean sonnets are addressed to a “Fair Youth,” while 26 are directed at a “Dark Lady.”  Just who were these influences on perhaps the greatest playwright in history?  A WASTE OF SHAME posits that Will (played by the reliable Rubert Graves) was consumed with a forbidden passion for another man – William Herbert, a nobleman – while being sexually obsessed with Lucie (Indira Varma), a tavern harlot who resembled the man.  The bard’s heart is understandably broken when he finds that these two driven into one another’s arms instead of his, but, sadly, that’s otherwise about all there is to this tale of two prissies.
SHAME’s highpoints involve the period detail, which is exquisite.  The 16th Century looks as raw here as it undoubtedly was for those who lived it.  In between the filth, the plagues, and the general debauchery, there’s two jilted love stories – three, if you count Shakespeare’s own tragic marriage with the rest – that are used to make some of the finer points the man made about love with this sonnets.  Sadly, the scenes don’t play out with much depth – Shakespeare looks enraptured, Shakespeare looks glum, Shakespeare looks conflicted – and I honestly expected a bit more from something exploring the words of such a renowned writer.
About the best that can be said is that WASTE isn’t entirely a waste; it’s a reasonably entertainment way to spend 90 minutes being transported back to the 16th century.  About the worst?  Well, am I the only one who found it entirely creepy that Lucie and Will (Herbert) looked so much alike?  Besides Shakespeare, I mean?
A WASTE OF SHAME (2005) is produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).  DVD distribution for this release is being handled through BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Ltd.  As for the technical specifications?  Well, it all looks and sounds very solid throughout.  As for the special features?  Well, there weren’t any, and I would’ve liked something – even a cursory ‘making of’ – that explored the production’s technical details, but, alas, this “to be or not to be” was a not to be.
RECOMMENDED.  Lush production values and convincing performances are really the best reasons to enjoy this twist of William Shakespeare and his sonnets, though I didn’t find what A WASTE OF SHAME postulates all that intriguing.  In the end, it’s the story of people not finding love (or finding it too late or decidedly in the wrong places), and it’s given the usual poetic narrative that could be found in any one of the bard’s great romantic works.  Still, it’s lack of insight into the man – most of the focus is here on the deeds of others that he finds himself caught up in – hamstrings the story from finding greater glory … or maybe that’s just what it intended.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Ltd. provided me with a DVD copy of A WASTE OF SHAME by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Thu, 7 Nov 2013 22:06:45 +0000
<![CDATA[ Ring In The Holidays With Lady Antebellum!]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
If you’re a Lady Antebellum fan, then there’s probably very little need to convince you to run out and buy this terrific DVD performance of their renditions on some holiday favorites, so, if you’ll pardon me, I’ll try to fashion my comments for the uniformed.  Lady Antebellum is a contemporary country group; it’s made up of Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, and Hillary Scott.  I don’t know them personally – I’ve only seen them speak in interview snippets – but, based on what I’ve seen, I can tell you that these three represent the average American (albeit possibly with much more musical talent).  They believe in things like family and faith.  They celebrate the good things in life.  They probably love all of the same things most of us are reared to love.  They’re wholesome.  They’re old-fashioned.  They’re just regular Joes.
What they’ve done here with ON THIS WINTER’S NIGHT is they’ve chosen their favorite holiday songs, and they’ve crafted versions that sound like they do on their albums.  To give it that old-fashioned appeal, they’ve backed it all up with the Nashville Schermerhorn Symphony.  Despite performing in a relatively large concert venue, they’ve cleverly choreographed and staged the event to give it a comfy if not intimate setting, and it’s one of the best holiday gigs I’ve ever seen.
Sure, much of that is due to the music – which includes their versions of “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “On This Winter’s Night,” “This Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and a few others.  But the bulk of it is owed to the fact that they’ve sprinkled throughout the event their own memories and reflections on their respective holiday pasts.  They talk about their favorite gifts, their favorite childhood memories, and their family traditions.  Essentially, it’s what each of us does wherever we are on Christmas as we gather with our loved ones; they’ve invited us in to experience some of their best moments, and it’s nothing short of a pure delight.
LADY ANTEBELLUM: ON THIS WINTER’S NIGHT (LIVE) is produced by Lady A Entertainment, LLC and Eagle Rock Entertainment.  DVD distribution is being handled by Kayos Productions, Inc.  As for the technical specifications?  The performance is captured with top notch quality audio and visual – the group’s harmonies have rarely sounded this captivating, and their stage is designed with the crisp, cool hues that complement the holiday season.  Also, there’s a handful of special features, including some acoustic versions of five numbers, a Christmas video, some behind-the-scenes stuff, and even a ‘making of’ short (it really plays out more like a bloated commercial, but that’s harmless).
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Thank goodness for the holidays; they’re the last true bastion of the very best the American family has to offer.  And, while I’m at it, let me say thanks to Lady Antebellum for getting together and performing ON THIS WINTER’S NIGHT.  It’s a wonderfully idyllic snapshot of happy people, happy times, and even happier music.  Their selections are beautiful; their shared memories are the stuff holiday traditions are made of; and it’s all wrapped up in a bow with some beautiful sights and sounds.  Watch this one with someone you love … or, at least, with someone who loves the rich harmonies of Lady Antebellum as much as I do.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kayos Productions, Inc. provided me with a DVD copy of LADY ANTEBELLUM: ON THIS WINTER’S NIGHT (LIVE) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 4 Nov 2013 19:53:39 +0000
<![CDATA[ HAVEN Is A Quirky, Good-Looking Serial But Unchallenging Entertainment]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
FBI Agent Audrey Parker (played by the lovely, fresh-faced Emily Rose) came to Haven for the view, but she quickly found herself drawn into the local mysteries involving all things supernatural.  And why wouldn’t she?  Where else are you going to find alien abductions, dogs turning into people, haunted houses, and time travel all serving as local diversions?  As fate would have it, Parker is quick to learn that she might have vastly more to do with these local legends than anyone would’ve guessed!
HAVEN is exactly the kind of programming made for today’s Syfy Channel (where it airs in the U.S.).  It’s filled with neato-keen ideas, acceptable TV-grade special effects, and actors who all look like underwear models.  I say that not meaning any of it as a slight; rather, it just seems tailor-made to fit into a show designed to appeal to the much sought after youth demo who tend to be a bit more forgiving about what they’ll spend an hour (or 43 minutes without commercials) watching while happily germinating on the couch.
In the 1990s, TWIN PEAKS was all the rage … well, for a short while, at least.  It tapped into some of the same underlying themes – i.e. small town life, local legends, nothing is quite what it seems, etc. – and, for the bulk of its two season run, it managed to eek out a fair share of stories bordering on cosmic coincidence and/or plain spookiness.  HAVEN tramples on similar ground, albeit with much more expectable writing and less active posturing on the part of its players.  Each hour presents a single mystery; tinkers with its various circumstances enough to maintain the viewers’ interest; and then most things are wrapped up within 60 minutes of TV time.  Its writers have cleverly incorporated their own ongoing mythology, but methinks all of those questions won’t be answered until the series’ inevitable finale.  After all, all good things do come to an end, kids.
The idea is based on the book by Stephen King published under the ‘Hard Case Crime’ imprint, and it was called “The Colorado King.”  Here’s the dirty little secret: truth be told, King’s book wasn’t really all that good – it certainly wasn’t much of a mystery, not like the ‘Hard Case’ books that had come before, but that didn’t stop editors from blazing ahead with a King novel hoping his name would spur sales.  “Kid” felt like a knock-off, and I’ve no doubt some might say the same about HAVEN.
Call it what you may, I found it passable entertainment.  It didn’t tax me too much.  It showed me some pretty actors up against some pretty scenery.  And, after 60 minutes, I was free to go about my life looking for something with a bit more meat on its bones.
HAVEN: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON is produced by Entertainment One, Big Motion Pictures, Piller / Segan / Shepherd, Universal Networks International, and CanWest Global Television Network.  DVD distribution is being handled through Entertainment One (E One).  As for the technical specifications, this hourly sci-fi-lite drama is smartly produced, so it’s full of flawless sight and sound.  To its credit, this four-disc set comes loaded with special features, including audio commentaries, a documentary, cast interviews, a Comic Con appearance, bloopers, and even more: well done to all participants because this is what fans love to see.
RECOMMENDED.  It may not be for me, but it’s fine for thee if that’s your tastes.  For me, there was no better exploration of the eerie small town milieu than the oft-maligned and equally misunderstood TWIN PEAKS; still, HAVEN has some respectable if not predictable charm.  Chalk that up to its good-looking cast, its saccharin writing, and its tween-ish romanticism.  No, it may not be perfect, but it’s a Syfy program, after all, so that bar is aptly set low.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (E One) provided me with a DVD copy of HAVEN: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Thu, 31 Oct 2013 21:18:24 +0000
<![CDATA[ Girls-With-Glam Save The World ... Or, At Least, Their Mall]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Sam, Clover, and Alex are three kinda/sorta Valley Girls of the Beverly Hills variety; but they also happen to be teenage spies for the World Organization of Human Protection (WOOHP).  As anyone will tell you, girls just wanna have fun … but these three can be downright deadly when they’re up against some nefarious ne’er-do-wells who happen to interrupt their social lives.
TOTALLY SPIES! would appear to be “da bomb” for ten-to-twelve year old girls.  Certainly, some of the humor tends to gravitate toward puns and/or wordplay of a variety that only the young (or maybe the young-at-heart) would find truly funny.  (I’d imagine my eight-year-old niece would get most of the jokes, but she’d probably be lost on all of the shopping references.)  As for this old dog?  I was only able to make it through a handful of episodes in order to know that this just wasn’t for me, nor was I its intended target.  Still, I appreciate wordplay more than most, and I’ll admit that SPIES had some nice writing.  My chief problem with it – well, despite my not being a ten-year-old girl – is that, like so many other toons from my youth, it suffers from some uneven writing: the girls are all ‘Action Jackson’ only when the script truly calls for it.  Otherwise, they tend to run screaming from any sign of danger chiefly because it’s funny (to the viewer) … but it kept me wondering why they get all Sylvester Stallone once they put on their spy outfits.
Must be a chick thing.
TOTALLY SPIES! SEASON TWO: FAME & FASHION (2002) is produced by Marathon Productions and TF1 Films Productions.  DVD distribution is being handled through Cinedigm.  As for the technical specifications?  Well, this is an entirely animated production, so the audio and video are pretty top notch.  As is often the case when older shows find modern release, there are no special features to speak of, not that this program’s target audience will miss them.
RECOMMENDED.  Look, ladies, if this floats your boat, then I’m going to be the last person to tell you to find something else.  This is perfectly acceptable, harmless, and benign entertainment … all around.  You could a lot worse than explore the adventures and misadventures available here for Alex, Clover, and Sam on these two discs (episodes 14 – 26 of the second season).  Besides, there’s almost five hours of silliness, and time’s a wastin’!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cinedigm provided me with a DVD copy of TOTALLY SPIES! SEASON TWO: FAME & FASHION for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Wed, 23 Oct 2013 17:17:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Popeye the sailor 1933-1938 Quick Tip by RabidChihuahua]]>
Here's two of the best Popeye shorts from the 30's.

]]> Tue, 22 Oct 2013 03:36:01 +0000
<![CDATA[ Half-Baked But Fully Loaded For Flavor, PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD Was Still Kinda Fun!]]>  
Hats off to the folks behind PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD for returning to those sentiments, even if it was only for a scant thirteen episodes of men, monsters, and the mayhem resulting when they met.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
New age wunderkind Evan Cross has lost the love of his life to the most curious circumstances imaginable: while exploring an abandoned building to track down a magnetic anomaly, the two lovebirds can face-to-face with a lumbering Albertosaurus who munches down his would-be bride.  Now committed more than ever, he uses knowledge and his personal wealth to put together a crack team of scientists/adventurers willing to go head-to-head with these prehistoric creatures slipping through portals in time in order to terrorize the world as we know it.
For those who didn’t know, this version of PRIMEVAL is a kinda/sorta spiritual refashioning of a U.K. show of the same name.  This property was set and filmed in Vancouver (where else?), and it was graced with the guiding presence of Judith and Gar Reeves-Stevens.  (This can be good, but, with good, there also comes some bad.)  If you’ve never heard of them, then you’re probably no fan of STAR TREK fiction as they’ve cooperated with William Shatner in bringing some of the brightest and best adventures to life on the printed page.  When it comes to their work in episodic television, however, they haven’t been as fortunate.  While their contributions genuinely feel inspired, their explorations lack the massive narrative scope they’ve successfully mastered in their prose.
For all its strengths – and there are plenty – PRIMEVAL never quite escapes that dead weight sensation of feeling derivative.  While I’m unfamiliar with its predecessor show, methinks I would be a comfortable waters stating that it’s probably superior in several ways; however, I’d put money that the latest digital enhancements in filmdom probably gives this modern incarnation the edge in storytelling.  Therein lies the fatal rub: as the technical grows, it becomes more and more affordable to bring special effects to television audiences, and this unfortunately has produced the net loss of creative storytelling.  After all, when you can fix everything in post-production, why start with a perfect script?  This has plague more TV shows than just PRIMEVAL, mind you, as any network executive will remind you; and I suspect it’ll continue to cause ratings’ nightmares for quite a few more in the decades ahead.
Don’t let that reality interfere with your giving PRIMEVAL a fair shot for your entertainment dollar.  Populating a show with a team of scientists who all look like underwear models probably wasn’t a great way to make kids want to grow up and study physics, but it will bring in that much needed teen and young adult demographic.  The show had a somewhat groovy vibe – a nifty undercurrent – that escapes most short-lived productions, especially those you’ll find on Syfy: the science was more like what you’d expect from INDIANA JONES or JURASSIC PARK and less like what you find on the National Geographic Channel … so there’s something to be said for that.
You want tongue-in-cheek fun?  You could do far worse than PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD.
PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD (THE COMPLETE SERIES) is produced by Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund and Omni Film Productions.  DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (aka E One).  As for the technical specifications?  Hell yeah!  The show looks and sounds pretty awesome with some state-of-the-art CGI doing wonders where other programs have come up a bit short.  As for the special features?  It’s a slim but worthy assortment: you can “Meet the Cast,” go “Inside the Tank,” and enjoy 13 episodic behind-the-scenes features – one for each episode that made this ‘complete series’ what it was for viewers.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  I’ve a history of being pretty hard on many of the series that come to the masses via Syfy, but that’s only because FARSCAPE really was the cat’s meow; everything since has been a pale imitation.  Still, it was hard not to accept PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD as exactly as its writers, producers, and talent intended – a middle-of-the-road monster series with prehistoric creatures given central focus.  Sure, it’s probably plagued by as much saccharin writing as the next series retread / reboot, but the little kid trapped somewhere inside of me still liked it an awful lot.  Thumbs up … but modestly disappointed to learn it wasn’t picked up for more.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One) provided me with a Blu-ray DVD copy of PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD (THE COMPLETE SERIES) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Thu, 17 Oct 2013 01:27:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ FAILS OF THE WEAK: Clever Send-up Of Game-World Failures]]>  
Still, I can appreciate the kind of thing that Rooster Teeth Productions have done.  They’re the wunderkinds behind the laughable RED VS. BLUE.  No doubt that, if you’re here reading this, then you’re aware of that.  This release – FAILS OF THE WEAK: HALO EDITION – isn’t exactly drawn from the same vein, but, if you’re patient, you’ll probably experience the same aching gut from laughter that you did with RED VS. BLUE.  Yes, it can be that intoxicating.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Well … there really isn’t any story here that I can divulge, so perhaps my above disclaimer isn’t all that accurate.  What there is is an amazing assortment of death scenes, all of it captured and narrated by the hosts of a weekly podcast program entitled “Fails of the Weak.”  For the uninitiated like myself, there are some snippets of animated video drawn from the games wherein the narration is definitely needed – having never played the game, I was completely unfamiliar with much of Halo’s tactics, techniques, and infrastructure.  And no, FAILS will not encourage me to give it a try … ‘cause I know I’d just end up being a regular segment for the crew to gain even further laughs!
Still, there’s something wonderfully inclusive about the humor here.  We’re laughing at the misfortunate of others – mom told me never to do that – but it’s perfectly benign.  No one truly gets hurt here – well, at least not physically – except an assortment of pixelized characters … and, like the hosts will tell you, many of them deserved it for what they did.
You’ll probably be drawn in like I was if you give this one time.  It could use a bit of an introduction – the narrators are a crew that simply lurch into the action without any set-up – and I’ll admit that I was a bit ‘lost’ until a few minutes in.  Once I understood the joke, I joined in the merriment.  And I probably experienced more laughs per minute with this modest feature (70 minutes) than I do with most deliberate comedies.  Isn’t that a shame, Hollywood?  You’re been once again shown up by kids on a podcast!
FAILS OF THE WEAK: HALO EDITION (2013) is a production of Rooster Teeth Productions.  DVD distribution is being handled through Cinedigm.  As for the technical specifications?  Well, let me say that the video and audio works exactly in the way this was all intended.  As for the special features?  Well, there are a few items here – some trailers, and some other tidbits no doubt related to the other cinematic affairs of Rooster Teeth (yes, I’ve seen RED VS. BLUE) – but I didn’t spend any time with them.  All I was interested in was the primary feature, and that tickled my fancy well enough to give it a polite nod with the corresponding thumbs up.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Look, I was honest, right?  I have no idea of anything about Halo.  I have no idea of anything concerning gaming, especially online role playing stuff.  But I couldn’t help myself but occasionally laugh silly at the antics captured in FAILS OF THE WEAK.  Much of this is like sitting in the room and accidentally eavesdropping on the hilarious conversations of others; you find yourself slowly being drawn into the joke, and you can’t help but to start laughing with them.  Can I tell you most of what I saw in a way that it makes perfect sense?  Oh, no way … but that didn’t stop me from laughing at it.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cinedigm provided me with a DVD copy of FAILS OF THE WEAK: HALO EDITION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 1 Oct 2013 15:09:02 +0000
<![CDATA[ Dino + Comedy Geniuses + Celebrity Roasts = Pure Unbridled Entertainment!]]> Let’s get something straight right up front: regardless of what your proclivities for political correctness may be, THE DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS were “the” TV comic institution of the 1970’s so far as this reviewer is concerned.  Culturally, there were all about a different time and a different place.  Yes, some of what was said and/or what was lewdly hinted at and/or what was deliberately implied couldn’t, wouldn’t, and (possibly) shouldn’t occupy the airwaves today.  I say “possibly” parenthetically because, in many respects, I don’t think that about everything.  Certainly, anything branded “offensive” as part of Dino’s roasts doesn’t rise to the level of objection of, say, Janet Jackson’s bared breast, Madonna kissing Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus twerking on short or fat people; but, if that floats your boat, then to each his own and put Dino’s version of these roasts back on the air and trash the current trend of bitter, jaded, comic hacks giving it their best on Comedy Central.  At least Dino’s had some class … and booze.


(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)


As I said above before I was so rudely interrupted by my own disclaimer, THE DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS were “the” TV comic institution of the 1970’s.  Everyone who was legitimately funny – sometimes howlingly so – made an appearance at some time or another, and the only folks who were roasted were talented or public figures (from the era) who deserved such accolades.  In fact, even in the 70’s these folks were “legendary”; that’s something the likes of which the current ‘roasts’ apparently no longer give a flying fig about given the fact that Roseanne Barr and James Franco have received treatment normally deserved for entertainment’s mythical figures.


And speaking of disclaimers?  Good grief, they’re all over the place with this release (which makes this ‘old dog’ sad), warning viewers and potential viewers about the dangers of the language and the comedy.  As I hope I’ve clearly indicated, I find so very much of these roasts gutt-busting fun.  Some of the actors don’t appear as themselves but rather appear as ‘characters’ of their own creation for the purposes of sending up the honoree to even more curious heights.  So many of them – Don Rickles, Jack Benny, Rich Little, Phyllis Diller – do appear as themselves because they’d been in the business long enough to have shared some memories and experiences with the objects of their affections, and what they contribute is nothing short of pure delight.


And, for the record, Dean Martin was always the perfect host for this whole affair.  The man was a real mensch – a man’s man, and, so I’ve been told, easy on the eyes for the ladies in the audience.  He’d sit there smoking and drinking having as much time dishing out the barbs as he had receiving them.  Where else could you find (other than the master himself, Johnny Carson, who gets roasted brilliant here) such a more wonderful ‘host’ who made each and every participant (as well as each and every viewer) feel as if they were a special part of the action?  His performance alone here IS the stuff of legend, and it’s no wonder these things lasted as long as they did, enjoying the ratings that they did.


Yes, yes, and yes: there are folks – snobs, PC wonks, and other dim bulbs – who are likely going to be offended by what they see and hear, but you know what?  I don’t hear most of them complaining about the ‘blue ink’ occupying what accounts for so much of “comedy” today.  Sure, we’re a vastly different culture today than what we were four decades ago – but can’t we all enjoy a laugh?


THE DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS: COLLECTOR’S EDITION is the release of StarVista Entertainment, a division of Time/Life Video.  There are several releases – this set clocks in a 6 discs; there’s a single-disc for those interested; and the COMPLETE COLLECTION which sports a massive 25 discs as well as 15 hours of bonus materials and a 44-page collector’s book.  As for the technical specifications, the video and audio are pretty solid given the fact that these have been in the vault for many years; there are some noticeable quirks, but the provided materials provide an explanation on what lengths producers went to to provide contemporary audiences with the best available versions.  As for the special features, there are a handful of celebrity interviews of participants recalling their experiences, some bonus comedy sketches from Dean’s various programs, and three shorts that explore the foundation and the phenomenon of the ‘celebrity roast.’


HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Yes, I watched them (well, I’m still working through them), and they’re a delight.  I watched them when they aired originally, and it’s amazing how many laughs are packed into these hour-long shows.  Of course, some of the material and references are more than a bit dated – no doubt younger viewers will find themselves at a loss from time to time – but much of the humor remains very universal.  And this is talent, folks.  These are geniuses at work, many times at the top of their game.  Let ‘em play.  You’ll be rewarded for your patience.


In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at StarVista Entertainment (and their partner, Foundry Communications) provided me with a DVD copy of THE DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS: COLLECTOR’S EDITION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.

]]> Thu, 26 Sep 2013 00:42:31 +0000
<![CDATA[Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters - Season Three Quick Tip by woopak_the_thrill]]>
To follow through with what season two had done, "Beast Hunters" takes the focus on the Autobots and the Decepticons; the rise of Predaking, the apearance of Ultra Magnus and the evolution of Optimus Prime. The stakes may feel a little familiar, and granted some elements felt like a rethread of season two's hunt for Cybertronian relics, but this offers up enough surprises and turns that proved enjoyable.

This season had a good finale and it also leaves room for another season. Hopefully, they go forward since it pitched an enormous potential. [3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars]

]]> Sun, 22 Sep 2013 04:28:18 +0000
<![CDATA[ FITZ Delivers Unbridled Debauchery At A Non-Stop Pace]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Richard Fitzpatrick (played by a vastly more grizzled former teen heart-throb Jason Priestly) is about as foul-mouthed, dirty-minded, morally-bankrupt used car salesman as you can find.  Not only will he take your cash in a substandard business transaction, but he’ll also ‘bang’ your wife while you’re not looking.  There’s no line Fitz won’t cross, and, so long as he surrounds himself with an even wider circle of con artists, deadbeats, and lowlifes, there will always be another line he’ll be looking for.
I have to admit that I was entirely unfamiliar with FITZ when the release showed up in my mailbox.  I had heard about it via some promotional emails and a brief exchange I had with the distribution company to request a copy, but, otherwise, this Jason Priestley ‘vehicle’ came in entirely under my radar.  Methinks that benefitted my enjoyment of what ended up being one of the most repulsive, most offensive, and most deliberately crazy half-hour programs I’ve ever seen: there’s nothing redeeming about this lead car salesman, nor any of those people he’d call friends.  Trust me when I say that even the most good-natured character audiences meet in these 13 episodes harbors some dark, twisted secret that’ll change the way you see him (or her).
But that’s what makes it work.  Entirely.
The problem I usually encounter in shows of this nature is that the occasional ray of sunlight is never enough to elevate the storytelling and performances to be truly ‘entertaining’ much less watchable, but so much of FITZ is pure, unadulterated, brutal farce.  Each and every character is served up to be properly skewered by any and every morale conviction you think he or she may possess.  The unending parade of comic debauchery ends up being a near-perfect combination of smart storytelling, ludicrous situations, and enough F-bombs to make a rapper blush.
Bravo, Mr. Priestley and your loyal co-stars!  It isn’t often I praise depravity.  But when it works, it works, and there’s enough comic intensity in here to keep a nun’s interest.  Who knows?  It might even bring her to sin!
CALL ME FITZ: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON is produced by Amaze Film + Television, Big Motion Pictures, and E1 Entertainment.  DVD distribution is being handled by E One (aka Entertainment One).  As for the technical specifications, I gotta confess: I almost tossed this set in the ‘junk bin’ based on the horrible audio dubbing of the third season premiere episode – I stuck it out until the second episode, and, thank God, the audio quirk went away.  As for the special features, all I can say is that they’re short but sweet: there’s a surprising lack of anything that resembles a blooper reel in favor of much more basic fodder named “Inside Call Me Fitz,” Meet Melody Gray,” Sizzle Reel,” a Season 3 featurette, and “The World of Fitz,” all of which play out more like bloated commercials than they do true behind-the-scene productions.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  It may not be sweet and it may not be pretty, but there’s some an enchanting mix of crassness and vulgarity that I couldn’t look away … not even for a single episode.  CALL ME FITZ: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON is delightfully wicked, unnervingly zany, and incessantly vulgar in just the right measure – a perfect concoction for those of you who rejoice in all things exactly the opposite of political correctness.  And Jason Priestley?  Who knew that squeaky-clean exterior could so effectively hide one of the most effective users and abusers of unending F-bombs so far as these 328 minutes prove.  No; I’ll stop short of calling it perfect – it has more than a fair share of shtick that so commonly drags lesser shows to their graves – but it’s about as close as this reviewer could, should, or would want.  Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, stink stains: Fitz rules.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at E One (aka Entertainment One) provided me with a DVD copy of CALL ME FITZ: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 16 Sep 2013 03:07:29 +0000
<![CDATA[ Decent Introduction, But Lacks Origins]]>
If you are curious about The Lone Ranger, THE LONE RANGER: 28 THRILLING EPISODES DVD is an ok place to start. The set contains four discs that include 28 episodes from Seasons 1 & 2 of THE LONE RANGER tv show. If you've never seen the tv show, this set gives you an idea about what it was like.

Unfortunately, there are a few flaws with this set. For example, although the film quality is excellent, the editing for many episodes is not done in a very good manner (many sudden scene changes, jump cuts, faster ratios for some scenes, etc.). Also, the opening credits are not the original opening credits. I was disappointed by this because, for the most part, I like watching older television shows with their original openings and closings. Finally, as a set of discs that can introduce people to The Lone Ranger, it's disappointing that this set doesn't contain the episode that actually introduces the origins of the character.

THE LONG RANGER: 28 THRILLING EPISODES is a decent DVD collection of some of the first and second season episodes of THE LONG RANGER tv show. For 28 episodes of classic television, it's a good deal. However, if you're more of a completist, like myself then you will probably be better off with either THE LONE RANGER – 75TH ANNIVERSARY or THE LONE RANGER: COLLECTORS EDITION.]]> Thu, 12 Sep 2013 20:06:23 +0000
<![CDATA[ Can't Live at All....Without Paying the Full Price]]> Serial Experiments Lain”, director Hiroshi Hamasaki’s cyberpunk anime series “Texhnolyze” is a surreal, alienating anime series that seeks to push its limits and can prove to be taxing to the casual anime viewer.

Many years ago, humankind had fled underground and has created a new society. The descendants of those who founded this world is now ruled by the Yakuza alliance called the Organo and kept alive for the purpose of mining Raffia, a miraculous moss that grows beneath the city of Lux. This city is a barely controlled society with the Racan, the Salvation Union and the Organo seeking supremacy. Life in Lux is harsh, but for those who are able to afford it, it isn’t so bad. People can replace lost body parts with the use of a mystic science called “Texhnolozation”.


The focus of the series of the series is an orphan turned pit fighter named Ichise (Satoshi Haga) loses his right arm and left leg, who through the stroke of fate is saved by a woman (Shizumi Miki) through the use of a new form of ‘texhnolyze’ science. With his new limbs, Ichise is taken under the wing of the leader of the Organo, Onishi (Takashi Inoue) as he is drawn to a battle for territory in the city. But things get even more scary as a young girl who can see the future, Ran (Shizuka Ito) guides him through the darkest shadows of a future. Now with the emergence of war, Ichise must learn the secret of the city of Lux and the world above.

Chiaki Konaka’s screenplay sets such a strong brooding and moody tone that proved fitting to this premise. The first episode had almost no dialogue, as Ichise and Ran were introduced; the writing creates a powerful sense of mystery as to the world that surrounds them. Episodes 1-6 keeps details to a minimum, as the viewer becomes privy to the characters that would play a huge part in its story. By episode 7, the viewer is left with no solid answers, but rather is presented with more things to ponder. Questions presents more questions, as the direction creates a sleepy yet magnetic tension. Admittedly, the series’ pacing is very slow and only until it reaches episode 8, does the pace pick up a little, as the blood and violence begin to show its ugly face. From episode 12 and on, the story begins to unwrap and what was seen before reaches its climactic finale.


The series can indeed be alienating and the pacing rather testing. It has an abundance of themes that is relevant to how we see our lives. Technology can indeed be humanity’s friend, but it is also a way to lose sight of what truly is, and it can lead to doom. Humanity requires a form of order to try and hide the possibilities of chaos, even the illusion of order and control may be enough or be important for one to live? There were also several subtle symbolisms that could be seen in the visual imagery. This may aid with the series’ comprehension in many ways. “Texhnolyze” is a series that requires attention, since it has a lot of things to read into, rather than simply watch. It is also quite graphic and even has some things that proved disturbing; incest, rape, and mutilations are rich in the series. However, the writing and the direction makes such things necessary parts in its story. They did not feel cheap or set only to provoke a reaction, but rather the brutality and mature themes were essential parts of its characterization.

There is quite a number of characters in the series, and while the focus was on Ichise, Ran, Onishi and “Doc”, secondary players such as Shinji (Shinya Kitade), Yoshii (Takashi Tsuchida), Toyama and Sage (Takahiro Koyama) proved just as essential to the development of its story. The direction and the script made a successful gamble; while some may see it as being unfocused and rather incoherent, I saw the way the plot was developed through characters’ experiences, just how it created a mystery, and how their motivations were masked, the viewer was given a chance to ponder and be involved with what the characters were going through. The characters were small pieces of what was coming into play, as if a universe governed what was being seen. It is a unique gamble that paid off, as I was made to feel the emotions that could be going through each sequence. Hey, I do have to admit that there were times that I became a little frustrated, and really, this is not the type of anime one should watch after a tiresome day.


The animation of the series had a gloomy aura and it aided with the delivery of its more depressing mood. Colors were muted and there were times that some frames were more grainy than the others. The character designs by Yoshitoshi Abe looked rather photo-realistic, and did not have the over-expressive eyes that has become a familiar staple to anime. Narratively and physically, the direction made a flow as if there is no joy in the world; there is a haunting atmosphere to its cinematography, as he maneuvers his camerawork with a form of reluctance. The story is told with an almost mechanical style, as if the direction was trying to communicate with a foreboding feeling of dread and ruin. The set pieces were very good, they are dirty and depressing, and yet, the artfully stylized atrocities speak a lot of a form of celestial inescapability.

“Texhnolyze” can be rather testing to one who is an inexperienced anime watcher, since it is a form of cinema. It feels as if a gloom had come over its viewer and yet, somehow, the series is magnetic. There is something really smart around the corners of its story, and it does communicate the price of human flesh and just how extinction can come in the form of a whimper even when it comes in a bang. The creators were able to communicate a grand intellectual vision of extinction and its disturbing implications. I mean, with the surface dwellers abandoning their need of flesh, to become technological phantoms in an almost perfect world, while the bottom-dwellers cling to their needs of the flesh has a very mean statement of nihilism. It is a vision of a future that is poignant, intelligent and should not be missed. No, the series is not for everyone, and it is more haunting than entertaining, but having minds provoked is a monumental achievement, whether you agree to this vision or not. Highly Recommended. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]

 ]]> Thu, 12 Sep 2013 05:36:22 +0000
<![CDATA[ HUSS Explores The More Domestic Side of Violent Crime In This Stylishly-Produced Series]]>
As any purveyor of crime stories will tell you, these days the police procedural isn’t so much about the crime as it is the chief detective and his or her ‘team’ of professionals.  In fact, one could argue that, no matter where the crime takes place, what matters most is the ‘local flavor’ or ‘color’ provided by the lead detective.  For example, Las Vegas – with its seedy underbelly – has the criminal forensics experts known as CSI.  The American heartland has Raylan Givens, an old school cowboy tracking down the baddies in backwater Kentucky.  Sweden has its own handful of like-minded sleuths, one of the more popular as of late has been Irene Huss.  I had the good fortune of taking a gander at one of the latest releases from MHz Networks.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Angela Kovacs portrays the smart and mousy Detective Irene Huss, a former European ju-hutzi champion who now splits her time between stopping violent crime and raising two teenage daughters with her chef/husband.  The TV series is based on a series of novels by Helene Tursten, and it explores some of the seedier elements of domestic crime, focusing largely on villains who prey on women and children who can’t otherwise defend themselves.  As a lead, Kovacs does a wonderful job, bringing a largely feminine perspective to a world (police procedurals) all too often dominated by men, and she’s surrounded by a crack squad as determined as she is to see justice prevail.
This set is a collection of three telefilms (episodes 7, 8, and 9), each about 90 minutes in length and each exploring a case neatly tied up in the requisite time frame.  Despite having no seen the first 6 telefilms, I experienced no difficulty whatsoever in joining this run already underway, and neither should you.
“The Hidden Watcher” (Three out of Five Stars):  What starts out as a very solid investigation into modern serial killing ends up devolving into something a bit too conveniently hackneyed when Huss becomes a possible next victim in an otherwise smart script from Stephan Ahnhem.  “Watcher” sports some excellent performances, as well as a few solid turns by the regulars as a new CSI specialist is brought in to round out the team.  The last part, however, borders on a particular stupid conceit – the kind that usually populates a series near the end of its life.  Hopefully, this isn’t a sign of things to come.
“The Treacherous Net” (Five out of Five Stars):  Easily, this is the highlight of these three telefilms.  “Net” explores the ever-burgeoning world of internet stalking with a nefarious killer engaging in some downright despicable behavior even after committing the hunt-and-kill portion of his escapades.  The case is made highly personal when the first victim dies in Huss’s arms, and that fuels her desire to see this dastardly villain get what he ultimately deserves.  Kovacs’ steely determination makes this one of the series’ high points, no doubt.
“The Man With The Small Face” (Two out of Five Stars): This outing involving car thieves, a dead child, and a retired police officer ends up feeling wildly convoluted due mostly to the fact that the script keeps trying to point further and further away from the most obvious suspect, despite an ending that inevitably ties back to the obvious culprit anyway.  After a wonderful set-up, it mires itself all-too-quickly in exploring one false lead after another, almost painfully tying up the loose ends back where it all began.  Seriously, it’s a bit of a slog (surprisingly) to get through, though it does offer some nice personal developments for Huss and her family.
Where I struggled with IRENE HUSS was in the investment of character: frankly, there’s very little.  Ms. Kovacs does what she can to bring audiences into the fold as the lead, but the only story that truly works for me organically of these three is “The Treacherous Net,” wherein it appears Huss’s drive and intensity is finally truly matched by a compelling, interesting, and timely case involving online predators.  Otherwise, these well-written, well-performed, and well-captured crime procedurals are a bit dry – they’re exceedingly well made, but they’re populated by characters not given enough to think, say, and do in order for audiences to invest or care about them beyond the scope of this drama.  As much as I liked and admired Huss as a character, I just didn’t feel personally drawn to her the way I have been to other detectives (outside of the truly exceptional 8th film, “The Treacherous Net,” that was given greater resonance than the other two here).
DETECTIVE INSPECTOR IRENE HUSS: EPISODES 7-9 is produced by Illusion Film & Television, Yellow Bird Films, and Kanal 5.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through MHz Networks.  As for the technical specifications, wow!  These three telefilms look and sound about as solid as anything I’ve ever seen on the boob tube anywhere.  For those needing it spelled out perfect, these are Swedish-spoken-language productions with English subtitles available.  (There is no English-dubbed version.)  As is often the case with TV releases finding distribution on a foreign shore, there are no special features to speak of, not that any are necessarily needed to enhance one’s viewing pleasure of these crime stories.
RECOMMENDED.  You want to see an extremely well-made criminal procedural?  Well, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than these additions to the world of IRENE HUSS.  They’re smart.  They’re relevant.  They’re impressive extensions of what crime looks like in Sweden.  The only shortcoming is that they’re populated with characters almost as cold and clinical as the country’s snowy landscape.  The obvious stand-out here is “The Treacherous Net,” which arguably works as well as any modest thriller you’re likely to find on the big or small screen these days; the other two – while politely entertaining – feel a bit more contrived than I’d like but are still harmless diversions for this amateur sleuth.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of DETECTIVE INSPECTOR IRENE HUSS: EPISODES 7-9 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 3 Sep 2013 15:36:13 +0000
<![CDATA[ ANNIKA BENGTZON: CRIME REPORTER Evokes As Much Nostalgia As It Does Mystery]]>
If American television is any arbiter of modern crime, then it stands to reason that science has become the new Sherlock Holmes.  Any number of CSI programs reminds us to “follow the evidence,” reducing the art of deductive reasoning to matching fingerprints, analyzing DNA, and identifying the requisite fibers.  Long gone are the procedurals wherein a smart and savvy detective underwent sessions of multiple questions with one subject after another, and this has had the singular effect – in my humble of opinion – of removing any real emphasis of ‘character’ on the various players of any mystery while, instead, ratcheting up the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the chief detective.  Sure, there are several hybrids on the air – TNT’s stellar program THE CLOSER and its spin-off MAJOR CRIMES immediately come to mind – but, for the most part, the lion’s share of any hour-long investigation focusing squarely on the science being used to still conclude that “the butler did it” without the butler being asked a single question.
To my surprise, ANNIKA BENGTZON is a throwback to simpler times.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Annika Bengtzon (played by the charming Malin Crepin) serves as the senior crime reporter for a major European newspaper/magazine.  This release includes the first three Swedish telefilms that explore Ms. Bengtzon’s adventures and exploits as the woman who can’t just stop at reporting the crimes: she needs to solve them!
“Nobel’s Last Will” (5 out of 5 stars): While covering the annual banquet celebrating the recipients of the various Nobel Peaces prizes, Bengtzon witnesses a double homicide.  As the key witness, the police defy her writing about the entire incident, which only forces her to dig further and further into the events in order to uncover the secret of a lifetime.  For my tastes, this is the best single film in the package; the story is clearly the most ‘organic’ and/or ‘plausible’ given its construction, and it’s a terrific introduction to a winning character.
“Prime Time” (4 out of 5 stars): A famous TV host is found dead on the eve of her departure from her initial ‘discovery.’  Naturally, everyone in attendance is under suspicion.  Bengtzon bucks the trend of investigating the ‘usual suspects,’ and she learns that a close, personal friend may very well have been tied up in the whole affair.  It’s another solid entry, but the B story – that involving the reporter’s curiously disinterested boyfriend caring for her children while she’s away – weighs down an otherwise solid tale.
“Studio Sex” (3 out of 5 stars): A stripper from a local club called “Studio Sex” is found murdered, but the real tragedy is how the establishment appears to be tied up in a burgeoning government scandal.  In order to uncover what really happened, Bengtzon risks life and limb to get a job inside the club … and she nearly pays the ultimate price!  It’s the least effective of the first three telefilms, mostly because our plucky reporter is given her own dark, personal secret that ignites her passion to know more about “Studio Sex” than perhaps the average reporter would; and much of it ‘felt’ manufactured (to me) as a consequence.
At the heart of these stories is a brilliant main performance by Crepin.  She embodies Bengtzon with perhaps more moral conviction than most reporters these days have, but she’s always insistent on ‘getting to the bottom of it’ because she can’t personally tolerate seeing perpetrators get away with their nefarious deeds.  It’s the kind of thing American TV did in the late 70’s and 80’s, so while some critics might dismiss it as being derivative, this one found it laced with just the right amount of mystery and nostalgia.  Plus, Crepin is easy on the eyes and makes a convincing sleuth, never a bad thing for any program.
ANNIKA BENGTZON: CRIME REPORTER (EPISODES 1 – 3) is produced by Yellow Bird Films, Degeto Film, TV4 Nordisk Television, and Nordisk Film.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through MHz Networks.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Swedish-spoken-language release with English subtitles available.  As for the technical specifications … wow!  This is one smartly produced program as the video and audio quality are consistently superb.  Sadly, there are no special features to speak of, except for the usual trailers for each installment.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  While it lacks the cutting edge science and forensics so popular with most of today’s police procedurals, ANNIKA BENGTZON: CRIME REPORTER is a respectable, excellently produced mystery series done as a throwback to the shows of old when the chief detective – here a schooled journalist – rose to the occasion of fighting crime by way of good, old-fashioned book smarts.  It’s all about dismantling the alibi and uncovering the motive.  On that front, BENGTZON excels.  It may not bring scores of new fans to the genre, but it’ll definitely tide us over until the next murder takes place, and the game is afoot anew.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of ANNIKA BENGTZON: CRIME REPORTER (EPISODES 1 – 3) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Sun, 25 Aug 2013 21:16:55 +0000
<![CDATA[ Super Eruption: A Solid B-Movie Funded By SyFy]]>  
There are few phrases that inspire so much fear in people.  “Direct-to-DVD” is one of them.  “SyFy Presents” is another.  Sadly, both of those monikers can apply to SUPER ERUPTION, and that’s a shame because, as a flick, it works just fine.  No, not all of it makes perfect sense.  No, not all of it is original – many of the story’s central tenets are borrowed wholesale from other films that have served them greater justice.  But there’s something to be said for a telefilm that knows what it is – a telefilm – just doing the best it can to set up, execute, and deliver a story for Saturday night folks with their butts parked firmly on the couch.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
A “super volcano” lying in wait beneath Yellowstone National Park erupts, bringing about an end to life as we know it!  (And that’s only the first ten minutes!)  Then, the audience is given the assurance of “two days earlier” and the rest of our story can be told: Park Ranger Charlie Young (played by the always reliable Richard Burgi, whom I’ve enjoyed all the way back to his days on UPN’s THE SENTINEL) and Volcanologist Kate (the lovely Juliet Aubrey) are trying to piece together the puzzle of some unusual events taking place on Earth when Kate receives a Skyped message from the future version of herself (no kidding), warning her of the coming cataclysm.
SUPER ERUPTION erupts right away, focusing on action right as the credits finish.  Of course, the downside to this is that the characters get no real introduction (not until about 15 or so minutes into the film) so the audience has no emotional connection to these early catastrophes; however, from a narrative standpoint, it works just fine.  In fact, the opening segment does what it can to strike fear into the heart of every viewer, giving the impression that something special could be in the offing once the End of All Things is dispensed with.
Sadly – as you may guess – there really isn’t anything all that special or “super” about ERUPTION.  It sets up its premise rather quickly – that it’s going to deal with the lives of these people trapped near the heart of the blast – and, on that point, it delivers.  Much of the pacing of Rafael Jordan’s script is kept rather lean and mean, thanks to Matt Codd’s ‘obligatory’ direction.  It’s all served up as a grand catastrophe, and much of it works just fine.
Where ERUPTION flounders – even for a B-TV-movie – is that it tries too hard with some secondary plot elements to be something greater than the sum of its parts.  Kate’s messages from future Kate are neither all that cryptic, nor do they make much sense, as she’s allowed to somehow magically email herself specifics of how to save mankind to her former self.  This is a bit of a creative canard that was handled much better the first time audiences saw it in 2000’s FREQUENCY, which starred Dennis Quaid as a father communicating with his grown-up son (PERSON OF INTEREST’s Jim Caviezel) in the future.  Messages from the future sent into the past everyone knows would create an “information paradox” which should cause the universe to implode (and if you didn’t know, well now you do), making the future self no longer possible to exist and thus undo the story.
Too much information?
Thankfully, ERUPTION doesn’t mince words with “real science.”  Instead, it’s mostly an action/adventure story set in a sci-fi universe.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.
SUPER ERUPTION (2011) is produced by Marvista Entertainment and Unified Film Organization (UFO).  DVD distribution is being handled by Arc Entertainment.  As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds about as solid as any direct-to-DVD release can these days on a budget; while some of the effects are close to laughable, I never found them unnecessarily distracting from the dime novel story.  And – as is often the case – there are no special features to speak of, and that’s a shame: it would’ve been nice to have at least a few actors interviews or bios.
RECOMMENDED.  All you need to realize is that this is a Direct-to-DVD release in part funded by the SyFy Channel, and you pretty much have a solid idea of what to expect with SUPER ERUPTION: it’s a far from perfect flick heavily laced with sci-fi elements and made with affordable alternative to big budget stars.  And – for all its foibles – I had fun with it.  I’ll give much of the credit to the reliable Richard Burgi and Juliet Aubrey, who as a pair put a wonderfully human face on all of this madness.  Had it been anyone else, I may not have enjoyed it as much … so, at least, the producers got that right!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arc Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of SUPER ERUPTION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Sun, 25 Aug 2013 20:59:28 +0000
<![CDATA[ TWILIGHT ZONE's "Controversial" Fourth Season Gets The 'Episodes Only' Release Fans Deserve!]]>
While it’s still open to debate, I prefer to argue that there probably is no other program that influenced so many early television producers and stars as THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  It’s constantly cited as the inspiration behind so many people – cast and crew – who got into the business.  Its singular theme music even today evokes exactly the kind of magical, mystical quality it did back in its heyday.  And the acting performances for a television anthology program simply set the standard for what was possible on the device so many dubbed ‘the boob tube’ in TV’s infancy.
RLJ Entertainment has once again done the admirable by stripping away all of the bluster that sometimes accompanies a set’s special features, and they’ve released another “episodes only” installment, this time bringing ZONE’s fourth season front and center for audiences to experience and re-experience again.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
What makes the fourth season so special?
Well, critically, there’s plenty to love about the show.  With guest stars like Bill Bixby, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Duvall, the stories continued to explore the limits of Rod Serling’s imagination; but the real bonus (and modest controversy) involved the show’s expansion from the ½ hour format to a full sixty minutes of programming.  I’ve read some of the scuttlebutt about why the change happened – much of which gets attributed back to the network (CBS) and their tampering with their line-up of the day – and I suppose some criticism is legitimate.  In fact, some of the subject matter involved in these stories don’t have what I’d call the “intellectual weight” to hold up under scrutiny for a full hour – it is, after all, fantasy, and the central conceit of the ‘twist ending’ can be seen a mile away through all of the narrative baggage.  Still, there are some outings – “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “He’s Alive,” and “The New Exhibit” – that benefit from greater exploration afforded by the longer format.  At the end of the day, this’ll probably always be a bone of contention for ZONE purists, but I can clearly see both sides of the argument.
Besides, where else can one get the diversity of storytelling but from THE TWILIGHT ZONE?  Whether it be drawing back the curtain to challenge the reality of everyday life or dabbling in the realm of space exploration and time travel, Rod Serling’s seminal program continues to delight audiences even to this day.  Many of the installments here – due to the expanded time limit – haven’t been aired as often have the shorter ones, and, for that, this may very well be the set to own for those of you who believe they’ve seen everything the ZONE has had to offer.  Mind you, it ain’t perfect, but, as I said, this is just about as good as TV gets.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON is produced by Cayuga Productions and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).  DVD distribution is being handled by RLJ Entertainment.  As for the technical specifications, I’m continually amazed by how well these black-and-white transfers have held up with their age.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this release from RLJ is an episodes-only collection – there are no special features or interviews – so they’re a bargain investment to a viewer like me who typically only has enough time to re-explore the stories and performances over and over again.  Kudos!
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  The fourth season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE endures despite the change in format from ½ hour to full hour storytelling and despite that fact that the modest revamp forced a few of the seams to the surface.  (Don’t fret, as producers returned to the ½ hour format in Season 5.)  What emerged, however, was even stronger character-driven material, a broader palate under which the actors could explore these curious flights of fancy.  (Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of my personal all-time ZONE favorites – a Dennis Hopper vehicle called “He’s Alive” – is part and parcel of why the hour-long format worked as well as it did.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Sun, 18 Aug 2013 19:56:10 +0000
<![CDATA[ King, Queen, and Pawns]]>
And don't let yourself get fooled about it: Geeks are the main audience for Castle. The second executive producers Andrew Marlowe, Rob Bowman, and Barry Schindel were able to cast Nathan Fillion in the title role, they knew they had a massive and fervently devoted built-in audience. While Castle premiered in 2009, sci-fi devotees still know, remember, and love Fillion for his defining role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Joss Whedon's half-season cult classic Firefly. Seven years removed from Firefly as a TV show and another four removed from the big screen version of Firefly, Fillion is a popular icon of the genre who comes across as a man who truly loved his role as Mal and is very happy to indulge fans. It's a great testament to the producers that after landing a major coup like Fillion, they didn't half-ass anything or try to fly on his name alone.

Castle is your basic Murder of the Week premise. There's one major twist: The main character of the show isn't actually a detective or a cop. He's a very popular and well-loved mystery writer named Richard Castle. Awhile ago, Castle decided to challenge himself when he killed off Derrick Storm. This sounds worse than it really is; Derrick Storm was not a human being, but a fictional character who was the lead character in many of Castle's books. Without Storm, Castle is now stuck with a severe case of writer's block. Right around this time this was going on, though, there was a copycat killer running around basing his murders on Castle's books, so Castle is brought in for questioning. Castle gets a spark being part of the case, and so even after everything is all figured out, he uses his friendship with the Mayor of New York City to pull some strings and get him a prime spot on the front lines of crimefighting. He's now shadowing a detective named Kate Beckett, an avid reader of Castle's books. At first she's annoyed by Castle, but eventually Castle wins her over and becomes a useful resource in her team's investigations.

Castle and Beckett. Beckett and Castle. They're the headliners, the ones you're going to watch this show for, and really the only truly developed and interesting characters on it. These two characters ARE interesting, make no mistake about it. On the outside, they're a stereotypical debauched playboy (Castle) and rigid, by-the-book tough detective (Beckett). Yet, Castle is also shown to be very big-hearted, and a loving relative to his mother and daughter, whom he lives with. Beckett's mother was killed, and Beckett has repeatedly shown a dark side which plays hard, loose with the rules, and downright nasty when it comes to tracking down her mother's killer. Big props to Fillion and Katic for bringing such incredible depths to a pair of characters who might have otherwise turned out insufferable on numerous levels.

There are other characters on the show, too. Beckett's team involves guys like Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas), a former Army Special Forces sniper, and Kevin Ryan (Seamus Dever), a former Narcotics detective. Those two characters are partners to Castle and Beckett, and while they have the leads' backs, they also like to tease the two of them and argue about trivial little facts. They like to bait Castle into their arguments, and Castle is frequently more than happy to humor the two of them. Castle's mother Martha (Susan Sullivan) and daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn) tend to have little side plots in any given episode. Martha is a Broadway actress with a flair for dramatization, and Alexis is extremely bright and responsible for a girl her age. Watching the Castle family is always good for a few laughs, and it leaves no question as to why Castle himself can be so gregarious and charming.

I mentioned above that Castle is a Murder of the Weeks show, so you probably already know what that entails. Someone dies before Kate Beckett can make it into work that day, and before you can say "nine one one" she's on her cell phone with Castle, telling him to get his ass to the crime scene in wherever. They meet the body, start with a trail of leads, interrogate suspects - all of whom are initially accused of the murder - a few suspects lie, Castle and Beckett piece together little clues, and eventually everything comes together and points the finger at one final person…. Who turns out to not be the murderer. Afterward, one of them thinks back to an offhand connection using a piece of information which is completely out of left field, and with that, the two of them totally nail the real killer!

There's not a whole lot of deviation on that theme, not even in the canon-changing episodes. In other words, we're talking about a show here that really doesn't make a whole lot in the way of substance. There are times, however, when substance just isn't everything, so instead of that, there are a few other key factors jumping in to make what otherwise would have been a forgettable show which ran maybe six episodes into a wondrous pleasure which is now running six seasons. First of all, there's the writing. The dialogue in any given episode will make the premise, no matter how bad or ridiculous, worth watching. The crisp exchanges between Castle, Beckett, Esposito, and Ryan give the show a bit of a sense of savvy genre-awareness suggestive of the fact that they know how ridiculous they sound, but are having the time of their lives saying it. Then there's Susan Sullivan, who steals every scene she's in by playing Martha with a flair for the faux-melodramatic. Also, the show never made its fans wait too long on the obvious sexual tension between Castle and Beckett.

Also, there are Easter Eggs. Lord, are there ever Easter Eggs. Watching just a few episodes of Castle, one gets the impression that this show isn't just catering to sci-fi geeks, but being written by them as well. Little references to sci-fi shows can be found here and there, but since Nathan Fillion is on the show, the writers have a particular soft spot for Firefly. Little references to the Joss Whedon cult classic are peppered everywhere for those who know where they are. They range from the obvious (Adam Baldwin guest starring in an episode; Castle's suspiciously familiar "space cowboy" Halloween costume) to the obscure (Castle's apparent favor for brown sport jackets; "I was aiming for his head!,"; Castle learning Mandarin from "a TV show I used to love") and many others. In one episode, a man from a vampire coven is killed. In others, Castle and Beckett have to visit a sci-fi convention and a steampunk party. Good Firefly reference compilations can be found on Youtube.

The final twists of the Murder of the Week aren't quite as obvious as they would seem on a show like this, since they always seem to be triggered by something obscure one of the characters just happened to run into or remember. In one episode, the final big twist happened simply because Castle explained his concern over the fact that, if he were writing what was going on, he wouldn't have written it in the way it was happening. I'm willing to forgive the cop-outs a lot of the time, though, because Castle is meant to have a sense of fun. If this was just another Law and Order or CSI edition, Castle could very easily have been lost in the shuffle, but its lighthearted attitude is what makes it stand out. Castle doesn't come off as being as much about crime solving as it is about the absurd idea of a mystery writer helping the Police solve crimes. It's not meant to take itself seriously.

Getting lost in trying to solve the case yourself robs you of what this show is really about: The relationship between Castle and Beckett, and its development. The crime is on the backburner. The reason to watch Castle is because of its two brilliant leads - arguably the two best actors on TV for the time being - who are doing more than anyone else involved with the show to make it enjoyable. And it isn't like the writers and other cast members are slacking themselves. I'm not sure if Castle is going to be as beloved Hill Street Blues, as long-running as Law and Order, or as important as NYPD Blue, but damn, it's a lot of fun. That's what counts.]]> Thu, 25 Jul 2013 16:37:33 +0000
<![CDATA[ Take A Journey With Arthur C. Clarke Through the Uncharted Corners Of Our Own Existence!]]>  
Of course it would.  And what better mind than that of noted science AND science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke to explain these things to you, eh?  That’s what he did in the course of three separate series – Mysterious World (1980), World of Strange Powers (1985), and Mysterious Universe (1995) – that are just now finally seeing the light of day in a home video format, compliments of Visual Entertainment, Inc.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
When I was a young guy, I read a little bit of the works of Arthur C. Clarke.  I was into the whole ‘science fiction’ craze when it really found teeth in the mid-1970’s, and I’ve hung with it practically all of my life (despite some dabbling in the world of vintage crime stories).  While outer space has always been an interest, I’ve always been more intrigued by things down here on Earth.  For example, we have Stonehenge, but we don’t quite know what it was for.  Nor do we know exactly how those early people managed to get those stones to where they are, much less what they did with ‘em once they got ‘em there.
Or have you ever heard about the Antikythera Device?  It’s this little machine gizmo – complete with gears and a crank – that was discovered in a sunken wreck somewhere off the coast of an island in the Mediterranean.  Being submerged under water, it’s all crusted over with decay, but, in dating the object, scientists have found that it goes back approximately the first century B.C.E.  What’s mysterious about that?  Well, the device shows the kind of mechanical complexity that, previously, we thought mankind finally achieved in the 14th century … so how can it exist from way back then?
Of course, I could go on.  There are the Nazca lines.  The atomic blast in Tunguska.  Or how about Ogopogo or the Loch Ness Monster?  Did you realize that there’s actually filmed footage of something in the waters that we can’t explain?  I know most folks tend to dismiss these things as ‘modern day fables,’ but a clear review of the evidence – and, yes, there is evidence – clearly shows that there’s something more there than what meets the eye.
This is the kind of stuff that Arthur C. Clarke committed himself to better understanding later in his life.  He was consumed with these mysteries known to man, and, in the scope of these three programs, he went about trying to ascertain the best probable scientific explanation for them.  He didn’t dismiss them or raise his nose to them as most in the academic community are quick to do; instead, he fathomed how these things could possibly exist in our present understanding of Earth, science, and the greater cosmos at large; and, though I’m just getting started with these programs, I was so excited by what I saw in his first show (Mysterious World) that I wanted to get a review up now.
VEI’s offered up a fabulous collection for those of you inclined to explore the ‘fringes’ of our existence further.  This set includes eight discs with an impressive run-time of over 1,300 minutes.  And I can’t think of a better mind to take us into the Unexplained than Mr. Clarke.
Can you?
ARTHUR C. CLARKE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION is produced as follows: MYSTERIOUS WORLD (1980) was brought to you by Trident Television and Yorkshire Television (YTV); WORLD OF STRANGE POWERS (1985) was brought to you by Yorkshire Television (YTV); and MYSTERIOUS UNIVERSE (1995) appears also to have come from Yorkshire Television (YTV), though I’ve been unable to confirm its specifics via research on the web.  As for the technical specifications, the program largely looks and sounds very solid; there are clearly some ‘conversion’ issues at play here in formatting the video for today’s televisions (there’s even a disclaimer on the front of MYSTERIOUS WORLD to this effect); but none of it’s all that distracting.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  These televised works of Arthur C. Clarke probably won’t be for everyone, but they’re exactly the kind of stuff I like.  His exploration of the greatest mysteries known to man may in some cases be a bit dated, but, for the most part, there’s still very little proven definitively about these subject matters.  This is required viewing for those of us who want to know more!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at VEI (Visual Entertainment Incorporated) provided me with a DVD copy of ARTHUR C. CLARKE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 22 Jul 2013 22:31:11 +0000
<![CDATA[ It's A Pleasant Enough Way To Spend 72 Minutes]]>
I’ve always said that, when it comes to comedy, I’m probably not the best critic on the web.  That’s because what most folks find ‘funny’ I generally find ‘meh.’  I just don’t ‘get’ what makes a comedian all that grand an entertainer, especially when it does seem to me that most of them don’t really offer up any singular vision and/or reflection on our greater society-at-large.  Those who do tend to excel with audiences, but, to be honest, I see a lot of it as just one version’s shtick versus another’s, and that ain’t all that exciting to me.
Still, I can appreciate a fresh voice as much as the next bloke, and there are four voices on display in WOMEN WHO KILL.  While not all of them are all that fresh, there are two of them I’d handily watch again; one that I’d probably tune in for; and one I just didn’t care for, nor find all that funny (though she was talented).
Does that make sense?  If so, read on.  If not, well, you know the drill.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Clearly, the centerpiece of WOMEN WHO KILL is the name commodity of Amy Schumer, who I hate to admit I’ve never found all that funny.  However, her dim-bulb shtick works here, and it works very well.  If you don’t know who she is, then you’ll probably be pleased to make her acquaintance.  Her act – or her ‘approach’ – reminds me greatly of Goldie Hawn: she mixes some clever wordplay with a feigned (or is it?) airheadedness that pushes the boundaries of good taste just far enough to be funny but not quite offensive.
Second out of the gate is Rachel Feinstein who isn’t so much a comedienne here as she is a voice-actor offering up bit performances that she no doubt finds funny but perhaps isn’t quite as winning with the audience.  Her reflections are honestly too mainstream, too everyday to be those belonging to any break-out voice, and, as such, I just didn’t find her funny.  Talented?  By all means.  I’ve no doubt she could be a terrific comedy actress; she didn’t seem all that enamored with traditional stand-up.
Nikki Glaser went third, and her style is much closer to Amy Schumer’s – good-looking blonde trying to make her way through the highs and lows mostly of her own making – but she isn’t as biting as Amy (which might make her more popular with some).  Her dress was an awful choice (in case she’s reading), and, for some reason, it made her look like her hips had wings. (???)  Still, I enjoyed her flair enough to give her a modest ‘thumbs up.’
Marina Franklin was in batting clean-up.  I’d never seen or heard of her before, but she was a delight.  She was my favorite of the four, and that’s probably because she seemed the most authentic voice there: the situations that spark her reactions were very relatable, and it’s her repertoire of expressions that make her a delight to watch.  She’s African-American, and some of her humor even poked fun at race issues (but nothing hard core) as they change from country to country.
WOMEN WHO KILL (2012) is produced by Levity Productions, Inc.  DVD distribution is being handled through Entertainment One.  As for the technical specifications, this is a ‘concert film’ (four comediennes appearing before a live audience), and the audio and video is pretty superb.  For those interested (I wasn’t), there are a few special features: four shorts entitled “The Slumber Party,” Photo Shoot,” Gossip in the Make-Up Room,” and “The Jist of Rachel.”
RECOMMENDED.  While I wasn’t quite won over by the skills of every comedienne here, WOMEN WHO KILL’s greatest saving grace is that it’s only a harmless 72 minutes of time invested.  I probably enjoyed half of it, and that’s really not all that bad.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One provided me with a DVD copy of WOMEN WHO KILL by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 22 Jul 2013 00:52:12 +0000
<![CDATA[ HELL ON WHEELS: An Oater Gone South?]]>
As I hope I was clear when I reviewed HELL ON WHEELS first season, I enjoy the classic Western and even these new-fangled ones wherein the heroes aren’t always as heroic as old Hollywood types would have you believe.  Based on circumstances (some of their own creation), these characters don’t always do what’s right, but they inevitably do what’s just for the situations they face.  That might mean picking up a gun and putting it to good use.  It may mean shooting a man dead in order to stop some greater misdeed from occurring.  Whatever the case, HELL ON WHEELS makes great hay in exploring character who, while flawed, have shreds of common decency buried somewhere beneath their dusty exteriors, and they’re all willing to ignore them if it gets them what they need.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)

When we last saw Cullen Bohannon (played to subtle perfection by Anson Mount), he was on-the-outs with the forces of justice, and he was no longer calling the shots in the rail town of the show’s name.  Elam (Common) had been elevated into a more prominent role by Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), while he and Lily Bell (the lovely Dominique McElligott) pursued their own ‘union’ to see the railroad built.  Of course, that doesn’t last long, and Cullen’s eventually reinstated into Durant’s ranks, but Elam doesn’t go quietly into the night.
It’s difficult to review Season 2 without spoiling some of it, and perhaps the best way to do so would be to explain that – as was often the case in the hard times of the Old West – not everyone makes it out alive.  Forging a nation is risky business; forging a railroad to help build (and re-build) a nation after the Civil War is an even deadlier undertaking.  As such, Season 2 dealt with stories of a more personal nature – Elam trying to find a measure of happiness with the woman in his life, Bohannon and Lily eventually having to take a stand against Durant and his wife (Virginia Madsen, in an underused appearance), the townspeople dealing with more and more racism and bigotry than you can shake a stick at – and the audience is forced to say its goodbye to some of the more noble creations.
Methinks the show was quite probably plagued a bit behind-the-scenes with network suggestions and studio tinkering as creators Joe and Tony Gayton were asked to step down as showrunners for Season 3.  (That’s rarely a good thing in the land of TV executives.)  Last I’d heard John Shiban was elevated from writer to showrunner, but I believe even he’s left the stage for greener pastures as media reports now that John Wirth has been brought in to manage the property for Season 3.
I mention this because I tend to believe this tinkering was probably causing these stories to feel “less connected” to one another than the Gaytons brought to the small screen in the first season.  Who knows?  Maybe the show was running over budget, and the easiest way to get it back under control is to eliminate some of the headcount … and there are an amazing number of cast deaths in Season 2.  (Don’t forget: I warned you above that there would be some spoilers, but I won’t mention any one specifically.)  In the scope of ten short episodes, it’s amazing how the program changed from its central emphasis on Bohannon seeking out the men who destroyed his homestead and killed his wife to essentially being “bottle episodes of the week” about characters facing the deepest, darkest personal crises.
Still, HELL served up some fine moments.  It may’ve felt more than a bit uneven at times, but the production and performance quality remained high throughout.  I’ll tune in for Season 3, if for no other reason than to see what Cullen’s up to these days.

HELL ON WHEELS: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is produced by Entertainment One Television, Nomadic Pictures, (gayton)2, Endemol, American Movie Classics (AMC), Endemol Entertainment UK, and H.O.W. Productions.  DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One.  As for the technical specifications, the show looks and sounds remarkable.  And, unlike the first season set, Season 2’s comes saddled up with a fair amount of special features: there’s a “Back with a Vengeance: The Making of Season 2” short, some materials reviewing where Season 1 left off, cast interviews, a set tour with star Anson Mount, and ten short “Inside the Episode” mini-documentaries that profile the show’s production.
RECOMMENDED.  As much as I was surprised and fascinated with HELL ON WHEELS first season, I thought most of the second was a bit of a mixed bag.  Situations seemed to develop less organically (and with less feeling of authenticity), and the characters felt as if they were being tossed about deliberately by a writing crew instead of by the events and circumstances of the period.  The season finale almost smacks of cancellation – fates of the principles were mightily handled out – and I know from following the news reports that AMC dragged their heels for quite some time on a third season renewal.  In fact, I’d imagine Season 3 won’t look all that much like the first two seasons given the developments, but perhaps that’s a good thing these days.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One provided me with a DVD copy of HELL ON WHEELS: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Tue, 16 Jul 2013 21:38:49 +0000
<![CDATA[ Delightful Legal Comedy RAKE Is Consistently Zany]]>
I’ve never been a fan of shows focusing on the legal system, and I’m happy to tell you why.  Much like medical shows, they tend to use a formula that almost always tugs at one’s heartstrings thematically, and, as such, I dislike feeling emotionally manipulated by a program.  I’d rather watch something as a critic and maintain a respectable level of impartiality so that my examination of it isn’t ‘tainted’ by how it may (or may not) have made me feel.
RAKE – with all its highs and lows – is a bit different as it’s largely a comedy structured to indict the system – as well as the characters who partake of it – in a way that’s entirely infectious.  If you haven’t seen it, then I’d encourage you to seek it out.  I hadn’t seen its first season when I received this second season set, but ‘jumping on’ is pretty stress-free as most of the players and their relationships are easy to figure out for the uninitiated.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Australian criminal barrister Cleaver Greene (played with drunken moxie by Richard Roxburgh) lives a life of his own controlled chaos by representing criminal lowlifes – spouse killers, body choppers, traitors, whistleblowers, and the like – when no one else will.  The problem is he’s good at it!  And when he’s not on the stand, he’s quite possibly in engaging in behavior that would land him up there facing charges of his own.  If he doesn’t mind his business, he’s liable to take a step once too far into territory that just might prove his inevitable undoing, provided he’s not off sleeping with someone else’s wife.
According to the production materials, Roxburgh and Peter Duncan created this program, so it’s understandable how and why the actor was drawn to the material.  And he’s a delight in the role, whether he’s engaged in the lecherous seduction of a girl young enough to be his granddaughter or flirting with the spouse of his professional legal aide.  The scripts are smart, bringing other characters into Greene’s wicked fold in surprising ways, and they continually force viewers to re-examine whatever moral convictions they thought upstanding people should display publicly and privately.
Episode 1: Greene defends a Muslim woman the court believes may’ve been involved in a terrorist act gone laughably wrong only to discover that she might not be as innocent as she seems.  Episode 2: an old friend of Greene’s finds himself trapped in an act of civil disobedience that gets blown out of proportion while another friend struggles to correct an act of embezzlement from a popular children’s charity.  Episode 3: Greene finds himself forced into defending two young film students who may’ve hatched the most curious murder plot imaginable.  Episode 4: Greene’s former mistress – a prostitute – comes to ask him to defend her fiancé – a government whistleblower who’s being sought after by several nations.  Episode 5: when his client is murdered, Greene will stop at nothing to uncover a conspiracy … even if none exists where he thinks one might.  Episode 6: It’s a tale of big laughs when two male feuding neighbors end up losing their penises (literally) in an act of jealous revenge.  Episode 7: Greene’s father passes away practically penniless, and Greene goes after the huckster he believes bilked the man out of his savings.  Episode 8: Arrested for murder, Greene is surprised when all of his friends come to his defense, though it may not prove enough before all is said and done.
These episodes are mostly witty with quick, terse dialogue and some wonderful characterizations.  There are moments when RAKE slows down a bit, and, in my opinion, it just doesn’t quite work as well; for example, episodes 4 and 5 deal with the government whistleblower and a broadening conspiracy, and, as much as I wanted it to work, it didn’t quite feel as solid as the other 6 hours.  Still, there’s some nice dramatizations in there as Greene comes to grips with being true to himself (as bitter as that might be to those who love and know him best) or falling back into an earlier version of himself.  Good for us that it doesn’t last, nor should it given the way the character is written. appears to indicate that there is a third season of RAKE in the offing set for late in 2013.  I’m not entirely certain how that could play out given the events in the final episode of this second season, but I’d definitely welcome a return to Roxburgh and his personal gallery of rogues.  Objections overruled!
RAKE: SEASON 2 is produced by Essential Media & Entertainment, Blow by Blow Productions, Screen Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Screen NSW.  DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Limited.  As for the technical specifications, this series looks and sounds terrific consistently throughout these eight episodes.  For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is an English-speaking production, but as accents can be a bit difficult at times I, for one, like it when there are subtitle track available; unfortunately, there aren’t any here.  And, sadly, there are no special features to speak of – would it have been too much to ask for a commentary or two?  I’d imagine – given the subject matter – these could’ve been delightful.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Despite what some may tell you, RAKE isn’t perfect – there are a few episodes in this 8-episode run that play out a bit slowly for my tastes, and, not surprisingly, it’s when barrister Cleaver Greene is embracing a return to the idealistic days of his early career.  Some of the developments during that phase just didn’t feel as authentic or as interesting as when he was “bucking the system” with greater merriment and frivolity.  Still, the production quality and performances do remain high for this enjoyable ‘romp’ that upends the legal system quite nicely.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at BFS Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of RAKE: SEASON 2 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]> Mon, 15 Jul 2013 20:56:38 +0000