Horror Review: Sapphire and Steel

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Sapphire and Steel has been getting some buzz amongst fandom lately. Neil Cross, the creator of the BBC series Luther has stated that he wants to do a revival of Sapphire and Steel as his next project.

For those of us who were getting into British Sci-fi shows in the 80s, this is an exciting prospect; however, I’m sure a lot of you have no idea what I am talking about.

So what is Sapphire and Steel and why are some of us excited about a reboot?

Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and Sapphire and Steel were considered the holy trinity of British Science Fiction in the 80’s. Which is interesting because I, personally, don’t consider it Science Fiction; I think of it as horror. Sapphire and Steel is a British TV series created and written exclusively by Peter J. Hammond that aired from 1979 to 1982. It was broadcast on ITV, which was a commercial network in Britain that was often the main alternative to the BBC.

The premise of the series is that if a breach in the fabric of time occurs, other worldly operatives are dispatched to fix the situation before malignant forces from outside of time can take advantage of it.

Most of our knowledge of the operatives comes from the opening narration of each episode:

“All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel.

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.”

It is implied that this corresponds to the periodic table, but since none of the named operatives are named after elements we cannot be sure.

The series follows operatives Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) as they investigate the breaches in time and work to correct them. The two are clearly not of this world. They can communicate with each other telepathically. Sapphire can manipulate time in a limited fashion, rolling it back, as well as having psychometry. Steel is super strong, has limited telekinesis, and in one episode was able to lower his temperature to near absolute zero to defeat a threat, but at the cost of weakening himself. In personality, Steel is cold and a bit rough in his dealings with humans, as opposed to Sapphire who is warmer, although this is implied to be a learned skill when Steel calls her a diplomat.

The time breaches are often caused by some anachronism in the area. An old nursery rhyme book, a party exactly recreating the 1930s, and a doctored photo mixing old and new elements. Once a breach has happened, Sapphire and Steel are dispatched and have to figure out why it happened, what it unleashed, and how to fix it.

Occasionally, in the course of an assignment a third operative will be sent in. The two other operatives we meet are Lead (Val Pringle), a jovial giant who can insulate Steel against the weakening effect of lowering his body temperature, and Silver, a technician who can transmute small bits of matter and can manipulate technology.

One of the features of the series that made it stand out (and makes it excellent horror) is that Sapphire and Steel’s main goal is sealing the breach. While they will attempt to save the humans caught up in it, this is a secondary goal and if letting a human die will ensure the breach is sealed, they will let the human die.

Since the series was on ITV it had what could kindly be considered a micro budget. Consider that Sapphire and Steel’s run was during the end of Tom Baker’s run on Doctor Who and the first year of Peter Davidson’s. People joke about the cheap effects of that era. Now consider that to Sapphire and Steel, Doctor Who’s budget would seem lavish. For most shows this would have been a problem, but Sapphire and Steel turned it into an advantage. Since each episode had limited sets, it was simply that during a breach no one could get out, which was usually Sapphire’s doing. The writing was also very good and made the episodes slow, but well-paced. Tension was built to the point that a pool of light on the ground, clearly created by a stage hand with a flash light, was nonetheless absolutely terrifying.

And then there was the acting. Joanna Lumley and David McCallum were already established when the series was made (Lumley from the New Avengers and McCallum from the Man From U.N.C.L.E.), but still years away from their bigger successes (Absolutely Fabulous and NCIS). In Sapphire and Steel they convey the otherworldliness of the characters and make them sympathetic even when having to make the hard choices their jobs require.

Sapphire and Steel was a serialized program, just as the original run of Doctor Who was. In all there were only six stories made, ranging from an hour and a half to three hours, depending on how many half hour segments each story required.

Be warned that some of the episodes can be very scary. One person online once said a story can go from “give me a break” to “Someone please hold me” with very little warning. And it is famous in fandom for having a downer ending in the final episode.

If you decide you want to seek out the series you are in luck. Shout Factory did a rerelease of the series in 2013. You can go to their site to find it, and the series is available from Amazon for about $26.00 as of this writing.

I am going to give Sapphire and Steel a B. I think horror fans who give it a chance will be pleasantly surprised, but I can see where the slow pacing and cheap effects could detract from others enjoying it.

Review: Flash Season 1

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When last year’s TV season began, The Flash was one of the most highly anticipated shows amongst the geek crowd. When we looked at it here during the beginning of the season it was certainly living up to that buzz, but did it maintain that level?

Well yes, actually it did; no need to beat around the bush on that. But let’s look at how it managed that.

The one thing the Flash had going for it, from the start, was that it embraced its comic roots without shame. It also went against the grain for just about every other DC live action property by not going the grime and gritty route, instead choosing to have an optimistic hero who acted as a symbol of hope.

CW already had the required grim hero in the Arrow. One observation of the two shows is that in the CW DC universe, Superman’s role is covered by the Flash and Batman’s by the Arrow. One episode highlights is when Barry tries to emulate the Arrow’s grimmer way of handling things, only to have it blow up in his face.

One of the factors that influenced the story more than any other was the time travel aspect. Time travel was always a part of the Flash in the comics and the show did not shy away from this in the least. Like any show involving time travel there were questions about what the consequences of changing the past would be, and the creation of a plot hole or two. However, the overall execution was well handled.

So how did the characters evolve over the course of the first season?

Of course, as the main character Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) had the most growth. Starting out as enthusiastic but unsure of himself, Barry grew into a responsible hero who (when it came down to it) would make the choice of serving the greater good. Gustin nailed the character from the start.

If the show rested on Gustin’s shoulders, then his best support came from Tom Cavanagh. As Harrison Wells, Cavanagh portrayed a wonderfully complex character. As Wells, he was Barry’s mentor and a surrogate father figure, but in his true identity of Eobard Thawne (aka The Reverse Flash) he was Barry’s worst enemy who wanted nothing more than to destroy him. Cavanagh was able to portray Wells as both affectionate to Barry and the rest of the S.T.A.R. Labs crew, while at the same time being a threat to them.

While Wells’ goal was to push Barry’s powers to greater heights, Barry’s foster father Joe West (Jessie L Martin) guided him on the path of the kind of hero he wanted to be. The father/son bond between Joe and Barry was easily the series emotional core. Joe cared so much for Barry that he was willing to have their relationship erased from history, if it meant that Barry could get his mother back.

Of Barry’s colleges It was interesting to watch Cisco Ramon’s (Carlos Valdes) arc over the season. Cisco had fanboy glee over Barry’s powers and being part of a team fighting supervillains. It was also interesting watching his bonds with Barry’s father figures. He worshipped Wells and took his betrayal hard. Conversely. over the season. Cisco had a growing working relationship with Joe, being his secret partner in investigating the truth behind the death of Barry’s mother. The revelation that he can subconsciously remember timelines that time travel erased directly opened a door to his (eventually taken on) identity of Vibe from the comics.

On the flip side you have Catlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) whom, thanks to a glimpse of the future, we got to see as her villainous alter ego of Killer Frost.  While she continued her role as caregiver to Barry when injured, the show steered away from having her fall for him, instead bring in her supposedly dead fiancé Ronnie (Robbie Amell), who was still alive, as his comic book alter ego Firestorm. She was also the most resistant of the S.T.A.R. Labs team to the idea that Wells was really the Reverse Flash.

Iris West (Candice Patton) suffered most of the season from being more of a plot motivation, for Barry, than an actual character. For the first two thirds of the season, she was defined by her relationships with Barry, her father Joe, and her boyfriend Eddie. It was only towards the end of the season, when she learned that Barry is the Flash, that she started coming out of that and showing signs of being an actual character. Hopefully in the next season they can build on that and give her some more defining characteristics.

Speaking of Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), for starting out as a bit of a cliché (romantic rival for Barry) he turned out to have an interesting arc. Half way through the season Barry and Joe let him in on Barry’s secret so that he could help with the investigation of Wells. Eddie was not happy that they insisted on keeping it from Iris. But he turned out to be a stanch ally and a tragic hero when he learned that he was the Reverse Flash’s ancestor, and that his romance with Iris was doomed to fail. His arc ended in a heroic manner and I, for one, am disappointed we will not be seeing more of him in season 2.

There were some notable guest and reoccurring characters that warrant mentioning.

Besides Ronnie, you had Professor Stein (Victor Garber) the other half of Firestorm. Garber is a great actor and brought both fun and gravitas to Stein. I look forward to seeing more of him both on the Flash, and in the mid-season spin off Legends of Tomorrow.

John Wesley Shipp, as Barry’s father Henry, was also a great part of the show. Although initially just a bit of stunt casting (Shipp played Barry in the 90’s Flash series), he did an excellent portrayal of a man accepting the bad hand he was dealt and just being happy his son was doing well. He made the pride Henry felt upon realizing that Barry was the Flash radiate.

And of course there was the other great nod to the old series of having Mark Hamill as the Trickster (the character he played on the 90s series, as well as doing the voice on the Justice League cartoon). Hamill is a fantastic actor and I hope we get more of him in the future.

In the end, I give the first season of the Flash an A+. It is the best comic book series ever and we can only hope that others learn from its example.

Review: Gotham Season 1

GothamWith the second season premiere of Gotham just around the corner, I want to take this time to do my season wrap up review of the first season. If you want to check out my review of the first few episodes of the season you can go here.

So did the season improve as it went along?

Well, yes and no.

The problem that plagued Gotham (from the beginning) was its uneven mix of good, passible, and bad elements. As the season progressed the good elements got better, the passible elements improved, and the bad parts generally got worse.

Last time I started with the good, so this time lets lead with the bad.

From the beginning, Gotham’s biggest problem was that it did not know what to do with its female characters. None fared worse than Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith); as an original character, Fish had no predestined arc. This would not have been a problem, but most of her story was always a tonal shift from the rest of the show and would bring everything to a screeching halt. It got worse as the season went on, with a truly awful arc that took her out of Gotham and had nothing to do with the rest of the show. It was literally a waste of screen time. In the final episode of the season she met up with Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) and made the young girl part of her new gang. Since Fish was played like a version of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, if she had been played as a mentor to Selina early on, that would have made sense, be here it was too little too late. Fortunately, Fish was killed off in the finale, which can only help the next season.

The only complete waste of potential was Gordon’s fiancée Barbara Keen (Erin Richards). At first Barbara was just a bland girlfriend for Gordon, with the only tension that she had previously dated Rene Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), who wanted her back, causing friction between Montoya and Gordon. After that was resolved, Barbara left Gotham after getting caught in the crossfire of Gordon’s crusade against the corruption in Gotham. After a bad visit with her parents, she came home, took in Selina (and her friend Ivy), and generally showed signs of not being all that stable. Her season story ends with her actually going insane and becoming a murderer. I don’t mind that they are departing from her comic book depiction, I mind that her arc was so badly written.

As for Montoya, right after Barbara leaves town we never see her or her partner, Crispus Allen, (Andrew Stewart-Jones) again.

On the plus side, the show added Firefly vet Morena Baccarin as Dr. Leslie Thompkins. In the comics, Leslie was a college friend of Thomas Wayne and one of the few people to know Bruce Wayne is Batman as she was the closest thing he had to a maternal figure in his life. Here she is introduced as Jim Gordon’s new girlfriend and the new city corner, after a bad stint on the Arkham Asylum staff. While she doesn’t have a great arc of her own yet, she makes a good compliment to Gordon as she actively wants to help Gordon and understands what he is fighting for.

One character I did not really touch on the first time was Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), the future Riddler. At that time he was a walk-on character who provided exposition and would insist on making it a riddle to remind us how he ends up. His character ended up getting more of an arc when they had him develop a crush on a fellow staff member at the GCPD and kill her abusive cop boyfriend. The problem is that his parts of the story feel shoehorned in.

Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) had his arc improve as the season went on. A lot of that was thanks to having Bruce and Selina meet, as she was the only witness to his parents’ murder. This actually helped both characters as it gave both important interactions and set a lot of foreshadowing to their future selves. It also had romantic tension, which was handled well considering we are talking about two fourteen year olds. Bruce’s scenes were also helped by the presence of Sean Pertwee as Alfred. Pertwee continues to be one of the best things about the show and is arguably the best on-screen Alfred ever.

One of the best interactions that Alfred had were scenes with Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock. Not surprising, as Logue is another of the big reasons to keep watching the show. Harvey’s arc the entire season has been one of the corrupt cop having his former idealism reawakened. Logue plays the conflict perfectly and is always a treat when he is on-screen.

Since we are talking about the best things on the show, we might as well talk about Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor). The Penguin’s story was easily the most engaging as he was always actively working towards something. In this case that something was taking out all the Gotham city mob bosses and leaving himself on top. Taylor did an amazing job with the role, which was also the best written of the whole cast.

And that takes us to our star Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie). I will say this, since I wrote the first review Gordon became less passive and started to truly drive for change in how the GCPD operated. So he is definitely more interesting now, especially with his relationship with Thompkins. Sadly he is stuck with a characterization that is just going to pale in comparison to the presence of Bullock, Penguin, and Alfred.

In the end, I am giving the full first season of Gotham a C+. As I said the first time, it is going to drive the long time Batman fans up the wall with its handling of the characters and story arcs. It probably does better with non-comic fans who are not as invested in the mythos, but even they still have to deal with the uneven mix of good and bad performances, writing, and characters.

Review: Kingsmen: The Secret Service

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I saw Kingsmen: The Secret Service at a preview screening a month ago. There is a pattern to preview screenings, the further in advance they are the more the studio believes in the movie. Kingsmen’s preview was nearly a month before the movie’s release. Anything beyond two weeks is usually a good sign. For comparison, the night I saw Kingsmen the same theater was having a preview of Mortdeci, a film that opened the very next night and promptly bombed. Clearly, 20th Century Fox believed in the film, but was Kingsmen: The Secret Service any good?

Kingsmen: The Secret Service is a loose adaptation of a little known comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. It seems, these days, that Millar mostly makes comic books in order to have them adapted into movies. Fortunately this was one of Millar’s less troubling books.

The plot is a familiar one. Our main character is Eggsy (Taron Egerton) a lower class thug who had shown early promise but threw it away to take care of his mother. However, it turns out that Eggsy’s dad was a member of the Kingsmen, a secret organization tasked with keeping the world safe in total secrecy. Eggsy’s dad died saving the lives of several teammates, including Harry Hart (Colin Firth) aka Galahad who takes it upon himself to see that Eggsy becomes a Kingsman and lives up to his potential.

While Eggsy is training to be a Kingsman with several other potentials under Merlin (Mark Strong), Harry is investigating tech Billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) who seems to be involved in a plot that involves kidnapping, subverting leaders of most nations, and an extreme plan to deal with global warming.

Most of the plot points in Kingsmen are predicable, as it follows a very standard hero’s journey plotline. What makes it work is how the characters are presented and the humor involved. At its heart, Kingsmen is a love letter to the Roger Moore era bond films and the old British TV series The Avengers.

As the main character, Taron Egerton does a fine job making Eggsy work, as both the rough and tumble lad and his evolution into the Gentleman spy.

Colin Firth holds the film together as Harry Hart. He plays the part as more John Steed than James Bond.

Samuel L Jackson is the odd one here. His portrayal of Valentine requires him to forgo his usual bad ass attitude in favor of a man who abhors violence, but is ruthless none the less. He does so, in part, by giving Valentine a severe lisp (which is apparently an exaggeration of one Jackson use to have).

Director Matthew Vaughn does a great job with how the fight scenes are staged and filmed. The overall look of the film is reminiscent of the Spy Kids films but with the violence of a Quentin Tarantino film (minus the blood).

An interesting point in the movie is the use of fashion. The cover of most of the Kingsmen is that they are gentlemen’s tailors. The suits and accessories are part of their spy gear, and code phrases involve fashion. Luxury retailer Mr. Porter has made a line of clothes for the movie and has them for sale.

There is also an in joke for the fans of the comic. The comic opens with an attempted rescue of Mark Hamill who is being kidnapped by the bad guys; in the movie, they have an attempted rescue of a scientist, played by Mark Hamill.

There is one issue that takes away from the film, and it is the question of diversity. On one hand the Kingsmen show that they are just as willing to have women in the organization, and the main female character Roxy (Sophie Cookson) never becomes a love interest, and her arc is not dependent on Eggsy, which is good. The problem is that the good guys in the film are all very white. Any character of any other ethnicity is part of Valentine’s team.

In the end I give Kingsmen: The Secret Service a grade of B-. Fans will love the homage to an earlier generation of spy films and non-fans will still have plenty to keep their attention.

 

Review: The Flash

The-CW-The-FlashIn a season full of comic based TV shows, The Flash has managed to stand out from the crowd. It started building buzz a year before its debut when it was announced that Barry Allen would appear on last year’s fall finale for Arrow. What transpired was one of the best depictions of The Flash’s origin ever, setting the stage for the series.

Originally, The Flash was supposed to get a back door pilot in that later half of that season, but the executives at CW were so impressed by what they had seen so far that they opted to order a full pilot for the show instead. When The Flash premiered, it was the highest rated debut the CW had seen in five years. It has been a strong ratings performer for the network since then, easily gaining a full season order after only two episodes.

I’m going to make a bold statement, The Flash is easily the best comic book adaptation that has ever appeared on TV.

So why is that?

One of the biggest complaints about most adaptations of DC properties is that they seem to be ashamed that they are based on comic books and do everything to say “no, really, we are mature.” Often doing this by going grim and gritty, even if the character in question was nothing like this in the comics.

The Flash doesn’t bother with that. It proudly embraces its comic book roots and presents a hero who is upbeat and optimistic. Even more than the nineties version, this show explores the nature of the Flash’s powers and what he can do with them. The visuals also capture the feel of the comics, complete with the speed force lightning effect that surrounds Barry when he uses his powers.

It’s also a great point that, so far, all the villains have been characters from the comics. Even when the characters have obvious alterations from their comic roots, they are still all great nods to the original versions.

Of course for the show to work, we have to connect to the characters.

As Barry Allen, Grant Gustin naturally has the whole show riding on his shoulders. Fortunately, it is a case of perfect casting. The show takes advantage of his boyish looks to help convey the enthusiasm that Barry has for his powers, while simultaneously highlighting his compassion. As with any modern adaptation of the character, this Flash is a mixture of both Barry Allen and Wally West. Where the nineties version was mostly Barry with some Wally mixed in, Gustin’s is more of a 50/50 mix.

The supporting cast is also strong, with some interesting references to the comics

Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), the Head of S.T.A.R. Labs, is responsible for the Particle Accelerator explosion that gave Barry, and all the villains, their powers. While clearly working to both protect Barry and help him improve his powers, there is clearly much more going on; we are shown that he is faking the need for a wheelchair and is willing to kill in order to protect Barry. On the surface, Wells appears to be an original character, but based on recent events I won’t spoil here, this is likely an alias so we will have to wait and see.

Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) is an engineer working for Wells, who is possibly more enthusiastic than Barry about their crime fighting. He has a habit of giving the villains nicknames, thus bringing their comic book names into the show. He is based on the DC hero Vibe, which begs the question, is he going to get powers down the road?

A similar question hangs over Dr. Catlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) who in the comics is the super villain Killer Frost. Here she is part of Wells team and acts as medic when Barry is injured. She is far more serious than Barry or Cisco, but clearly cares about them. While there has been nothing overt, there are hints that she might be attracted to Barry, which could end up setting up a classic CW love triangle and another case of Chloe syndrome.

And this leads us to Iris West (Candice Patton), the girl Barry carries a torch for. The weakest part of the show is how convoluted this relationship is. Barry had a crush on Iris as a child. When his mother is murdered and his father sent to jail for the crime Barry goes to live with Iris and her dad. As adults, Barry still has that crush on her but, due to the awkwardness of their situation, keeps this to himself. As adults Iris considers Barry to be her best friend, oblivious to his crush, and is dating her dad’s partner; but once the Flash appears on the scene, Iris becomes his number one fan and writes a blog about him. Of course in comic canon Barry marries Iris, so that makes her his destined love. Unfortunately this is the one thing in the show that just rings false.

Swept up in this is Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), Iris’ boyfriend and her dad’s partner on the police force. Eddie is an honest to goodness nice guy who just has the misfortune of being Iris’ boyfriend, thus making him a default antagonist for Barry. Also, there is his name; in the comics Eobard Thawne, a man from the 25th century is the Flash’s nemesis, Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. Since the Reverse Flash is the big bad of the series fans are naturally assuming either Eddie becomes him, or is somehow connected to him. Time will tell.

Rounding out the main cast is Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), Iris’ father and Barry’s foster-father. Where Wells mentors Barry on the practicalities of his powers, Joe mentors him on his behavior as a hero. Honestly, I don’t think the show would be able to hold up the believability of Barry’s development without Joe and I’m glad they had him know about his foster son’s duel identity from the beginning.

Outside of the main cast special mention needs to go to John Wesley Shipp as Barry’s father Henry Allen. Shipp played Barry in the nineties Flash series, and having him as Barry’s father is a nice nod to that connection.

Right now The Flash is by far the CW’s most watched series and with strong episodes and engaging writing, and will hopefully show DC that not all superheroes need to be dark in order to be successful.

I give The Flash a grade of A+. Fans will be overjoyed at how their hero has been translated to screen and non-fans can enjoy the series just as easily.

And, of course, we will revisit the show at the end of the season to see if they are able to keep this success going.

Review: Gotham

GothamThree new TV series debuted, this fall, all based on DC comics characters. With all this comic love on TV this season I will be doing early season reviews for all three in the order they debuted, and follow with season wrap up reviews, just as I have done with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow.

The first of these reviews is Gotham.

Even though it has the highest profile of the three new shows (as it is part of the Batman mythos), Gotham has a huge Smallville shaped albatross hanging around its neck. The premise of the show is that it takes place directly after Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered and follows newly minted police detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as he investigates the murder and deals with the rampant corruption in Gotham. The show also follows the formative years of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), along with several other prominent Batman characters, with special focus on Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).

There is a lot of baggage a series has to deal with when it is a prequel to a well-known story. I have made my feelings about Smallville (and all the things that went wrong there) known previously. It is, however, possible to have a well done prequel (e.g. Hannibal). The challenge is in which parts of the story canon you keep as sacred, and which parts you are willing to change. Above all else, it needs to be a good show, with strong writing and acting.

So how does Gotham do on this front?

The series was created by Bruno Heller, who also created The Mentalist and HBO’s Rome. As such, it does have some decent writing, but it often comes off as uneven; although, to be fair, some of that could also be the acting. Basically, the show is a frustrating mix of wonderful, passable, and awful. On the plus side, you have the Penguin; his storyline is far and away the best thing about the show, and Taylor’s performance is great, showing the Penguin as a grand manipulator – sniveling in one scene and cunning the next, but always with an eye towards getting what he wants. If the show were just about the Penguin, it would be great.

Another of the pluses is Jim Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) who is corrupt, a drunk, and still one of the best cops in the GCPD. Logue is always good in everything he does, and he goes all out here. The best thing about Harvey is that it is clear that Gordon is getting to him and that his story will be one of redemption.

The final gem of the series is Alfred (Sean Pertwee). Unlike previous versions of the character, this Alfred is more of a rough and tumble type, willing to bawl Bruce out, while simultaneously calling him sir. He is portrayed as struggling to figure out how to raise Bruce and help him deal with the death of his parents.

As to the passable parts, sadly we find our lead character Jim Gordon. Gordon is upstanding and unwilling to compromise his principles, but must find a way to navigate the corruption of both the GCPD and Gotham in general. There is nothing wrong with McKenzie’s performance, or how the character is written, it’s that the series seems to just happen to him, rather than him being a driving force.

There’s also Selena Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who is portrayed as a homeless street urchin and thief. She witnesses the murder of the Waynes and becomes somewhat obsessed with Bruce. I really have no problem with Bicondova’s performance, but she has only had dialogue in two of the episodes so far despite appearing in every one. Most of the time we see her silently skulking around either watching Bruce, or tailing Gordon. There is potential for her to be engaging, but they haven’t done anything with her, so far.

And then we have Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) himself. Bruce is portrayed as channeling his grief into an obsession with figuring out why his parents were murdered. They are showing his development as a detective and his scenes do work, with a lot of thanks to support from Pertwee’s Alfred. But he is not the focus of the series and in some episodes only gets one scene.

And then there are the bad parts of the show.

Chief amongst these is Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), lieutenant to mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Doman). Fish wants to overthrow Falcone and goes through a lot of elaborate steps in her efforts to do so. However, her primary purpose is to be a foil for her former underling, The Penguin, whom she ordered killed in the first episode. His defection to another outfit does not sit well with her. Any scene with Fish just drags on the momentum of each episode. Her outfits are crimes against both fashion and logic and her performance seems to be a bargain basement version of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman. This is particularly frustrating because we know Jada Pinkett Smith is a good actress, so I have to assume this is how Fish is written and directed and Jada is just going along with it.

Another drag on most episodes is Gordon’s fiancée, Barbara Keen (Erin Richards). She just seems to be someone for him to worry about, or to create complications for him due to his needing to keep a variety of city secrets. She hasn’t been given any real character traits beyond worrying about Gordon, or being upset with him. Her only other arc is that she had a relationship with Detective Rene Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), which has led Montoya to have an obsession with proving that Gordon is dirty. Beyond that, Montoya herself also has no personality.

And this leads to one of the great fanboy complaints about the series. Most of the characters are from the Batman mythos, but other than Selena and Tommy Elliot (who will become Hush), all of the other characters are all roughly Gordon’s age. In the case of Penguin this works fine, but for Montoya, her partner Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), future Riddler Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), and Harvey Dent (Nicholas D’Agosto), these are characters that are traditionally roughly Batman’s age. Here they are all roughly 15 years older than their usual presentation.

This is where the show falls apart for me. They want to have their Batman villains in a show that does not have Batman himself. And with the rate they are introducing characters, if the show gets multiple seasons I’m afraid they will start advancing arcs that make no sense without Batman’s presence.

This leads me to my final problem. The grade. I am giving Gotham a C – at this time. It is going to drive the long time Batman fans up the wall with its handling of the characters and story arcs. It is actually going to be more enjoyable to non-fans who are not as invested in the mythos, but even they still have to deal with the uneven mix of good and bad performances, writing, and characters.

Universal Horror: The Bride of Frankenstein

brideThe Bride of Frankenstein is a fascinating entry in the Universal Horror universe. Released in 1935, it stands as one of the most iconic films in the Universal Horror library and is one of the rare cases where the sequel is considered a superior film to the original (Frankenstein); each of these films is so ingrained into our pop culture that it is difficult to critique them.

The Bride of Frankenstein starts with a prologue featuring Mary Shelly (Elsa Lancaster) being praised for writing Frankenstein. The story proper begins just moments after the supposed death of the creature (Boris Karloff) in the first film. Its creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), has barely survived the encounter. After being nursed back to health by his fiancé, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), he is visited by his former mentor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger); Pretorius has been experimenting with creating life himself, but feels Henry’s work shows more promise. He strong-arms Henry into creating a female body to house an artificial brain of his creation.

While this is going on, the creature is trying to find its way in the world, each encounter with humanity ending in disaster. His only respite comes when he is befriended by a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who teaches him to speak. Even that ends badly when some hunters come to the hermit’s hut and see the creature. Eventually, the creature is found by Pretorius and convinced to help him force Henry to complete the experiment, with the promise of making him a mate.

The climax of the movie is the creation of the Bride (also played by Elsa Lancaster). The creature tries to woo her, but she is repulsed and rejects him. The creature makes Henry and Elizabeth flee the laboratory, but forces Pretorius and the Bride to stay, saying of the three of them “we belong dead”, after which he destroys the lab.

The Bride of Frankenstein works on many levels. While the movie may not seem as scary to modern audiences, it still retains a great deal of the dramatic tension that is the hallmark of Director James Whale. Unlike the first film, much more of the story is spent following the creature; this time around he is very much the main character and we see him trying to find his place in a world that will never accept him. Karloff brings the pain and longing of the creature to life brilliantly. Colin Clive has much less to do this time as Henry Frankenstein, but still exhibits the mood swings that led me to believe he is bi-polar from the first film. Ernest Thesiger chews the scenery as Pretorius and, unlike the creature, he is very much a pure villain.

Elsa Lancaster’s performance as The Bride is what makes this film truly remarkable. This characters unforgettable image is completely ingrained in our pop culture, yet the character is on screen for less than five minutes. In that short span of time, Lancaster creates a vivid and memorable performance, making The Bride come off as cruel and vicious, while never really doing much more than reacting to what happens around her.

For trivia buffs, it should be noted that The Bride is the only Universal Monster not directly responsible for a death. It should also be noted that during a showing I attended in the last year, when Henry says “She’s alive, Alive!”, three of us sung “Weird Science” under our breath.

I give The Bride of Frankenstein a grade of A+. It is a true classic horror film, and fans of classic horror will love it, and non-fans will still be entertained by it.

 

Review: Hotel Transylvania

hotel_transylvaniaHotel Transylvania is a deviation from our normal Halloween reviews in that it is not a horror movie, but a comedy using horror tropes. However, I expect it to become a Halloween movie staple in the years to come.

The basic premise of Hotel Transylvania is a bit silly; after losing his wife to an angry mob, Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) is left to raise their daughter alone. He builds a five star hotel to serve as both a refuge for the world’s monsters from the human world and a safe haven in which to raise his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez).

On Mavis’ 118th birthday Dracula holds a huge party with all the monsters coming to celebrate. These include Dracula’s best friends Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), Wayne Werewolf (Steve Buscemi), His wife Wanda (Molly Shannon), and their horde of children, Murray the mummy (CeeLo Green), and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade).

Two things complicate Dracula’s plans for the event. One is that Mavis is tired of being confined to the hotel and wants to explore the world. The other is that a human, Johnny (Andy Samberg), has stumbled upon the hotel. Dracula needs to keep the monsters from finding out Johnny is human or they will flee the hotel in terror. Adding additional stress is that Mavis is attracted to Johnny. Disguising Johnny as a monster, Dracula tries to find a way to safely get him out of the hotel, deal with Mavis’ wish to spread her wings, and keep his hotel a safe home for the monsters.

On the surface, Hotel Transylvania is a concept that should not work. It is an animated horror comedy starring Adam Sandler. But it does work. A lot of the credit goes to the script writers (Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel) but the most credit goes to the director (Genndy Tartakovsky, who worked on Powerpuff Girls and created Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack).

Hotel Transylvania is a very fast paced and kinetic movie, but does slow down for some well-done emotional scenes. There is never a scene that drags. The character designs are expressive and inviting, even when they are monstrous. Many of the character designs bear a resemblance to the voice actors playing them.

On the voice acting front there is not a single dud amongst them. Having a cast of comedy veterans and SNL alumni was an excellent decision. Sandler stands out in this group, not only as the main character, but doing some of the best work of his career, even if there is an occasional accent slippage.

Music also plays an important role in the film, even with it not being a musical. There are several occasions where characters, especially Johnny, are performing as part of Mavis’ birthday. The music in the film is done by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) and works well in the film, even if it is not particularly memorable.

Hotel Transylvania is a charming movie that can easily be enjoyed by both children and adults. I give Hotel Transylvania a grade of B. Genre fans should enjoy it, and even non-fans should be ok with watching it with their kids.

Side note: This year my five year old god daughter has decided to be Mavis for Halloween, and so the whole family is going as characters from the film. She decided I would be Frankenstein, and who am I to argue with a determined five year old on Halloween.

 

Horror Review: You’re Next

Youre-Next-posterIt’s time, once again, for our annual Halloween celebration, where everything on the site relates to Halloween or horror for the month of October.

And let’s kick things off with one of the hidden gems of horror films, You’re Next.

You’re Next is from the team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, and is part of the mumblegore subgenre, which strives for naturalism in both performance and dialogue.

The plot set up plays like a lot of standard home invasion films; the main characters are in their isolated home when masked intruders suddenly attack and start killing them off. But unlike most of the films in this genre, there is a significant twist (which I am loathe to spoil) that makes this film stand out from other home invasion films.

This film did not do as well in the box office as it deserved. Once again we have a film let down by its marketing campaign (or as I like to call it, the John Carter Syndrome) it was marketed as a standard home invasion film, with no hint of the twist. And while that makes a certain amount of sense, it is the twist that makes the film worthwhile. I will say this much about it, by the half-way point of the film the invaders are every bit as terrified as the remaining victims.

There is also a very significant focus on the family dynamic at play. The set-up has Paul and Aubrey Davidson hosting a family reunion, in honor of Paul’s birthday, at their vacation house with their adult children. The four children bring their significant others. During dinner on the first night, the bickering and passive-aggressive attacks on each other get so bad that when the first murder happens it comes as a relief.

Wingard sets a great mood by having the family feel trapped, long before the attacks, and giving an increasing sense of claustrophobia as events spiral on.

Sharni Vinson gives a stand-out performance as Erin, the girlfriend of the oldest son Crispian (A.J. Bowen). Erin has a childhood trauma she is trying to get past that informs how she deals with the attack. Her performance forms the through-line of the movie. Another pair of performances that are noteworthy are Nicholas Tucci and Wendy Glenn as middle son Felix and his girlfriend Zee. They are the source of much of the family discord, and this comes into play as the attack commences. One other performance worth pointing out is Barbara Crampton as Aubrey. Crampton is a former Scream Queen, best known as the female lead in Re-Animator. Aubrey’s goal is to have a happy family gathering, and her pain from this not happening is clear even before the attacks begin.

One particularly nice touch is that the entire sound track is variations of the song “Looking for the Magic” by the Dwight Twilley Band.

I give You’re Next a grade of B on the Fanboy News Network Scale. Horror fans should really enjoy the twist on the clichéd Home Invasion story and non-fans should like it for how the twist is carried out.

Review: Penny Dreadful

penny-dreadful-photo-533ab68c096e3Normally when I review a new series I like to watch five episodes, review it, and then do a follow-up review at the end of the season. With Penny Dreadful there was no point doing this as the first season only had eight episodes.

Penny Dreadful is a Showtime production that follows in the footsteps of Wold Newton, by way of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Anno Dracula. It is a cross-over universe set in Victorian London that brings together the novels Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, along with hints of other stories appropriate for the era.

The story follows Sir Malcolm Murray, as he assembles a group to search for his daughter Mina, who has been abducted by a mysterious force. This group includes Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) a childhood friend of Mina’s who is also a medium, Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) an American sharpshooter who clearly has a troubled past, Sembene (Danny Sapani) an African who acts as Sir Malcolm’s manservant, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) who Sir Malcolm brings in for his medical knowledge.

Along the way, these adventurers encounter other characters who further complicate matters: Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who finds Miss Ives fascinating in a way he cannot explain; Brona Croft (Billie Piper) an Irish prostitute, dying of consumption, who Ethan falls in love with; and Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) whom the others are not aware of, but makes his presence felt none the less.

One of the strengths that Penny Dreadful has over The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Anno Dracula, is that not all of its characters are taken directly from the novels. In fact outside of Dorian, Victor, and the Creature, all the other main characters are original to the series. This gives the show much more freedom in how it wants to portray them.

The show has also benefited from the short season. There was no filler. Scenes either advanced the story, or advanced the characters. Next season will increase to 10 episodes, but that should not do any damage to the pace.

It is also clear that series creator John Logan is aware of the difference between gothic horror vs an action story using horror characters. The horror is on full display here, and the mood is pervasive. The monsters here are not portrayed as beautiful misunderstood outsiders, but as alien horrors to be rightfully feared. This is counterbalanced by watching the effect the events have on the main characters and how, in many ways, that is more horrible than the monsters themselves.

The acting in the series is excellent, which isn’t surprising given the experience of the cast. What is surprising is that the standouts tend to be the lesser known actors. Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear give poignant portrayals to Frankenstein and his creation. They are so good that the series could just focus on them and it would still be well worth watching. This is not to take away from the other actors. Eva Green gives one of the best performances of her career as Vanessa, who is conflicted by guilt over her role in Mina’s peril, and the cost that saving her friend is taking on her. Timothy Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm as a man obsessed with saving his daughter, but blind to how his efforts are tainted by that obsession. Josh Hartnett does a fine job with his role, which is often to be the voice of reason, meaning he is often at odds with Sir Malcolm.

Overall, the show does an excellent job of conveying a mood and style consistent with Victorian horror.

I give Penny Dreadful a final grade of B. Fans of the horror genre will enjoy it and non-fans should still find it entertaining.