February 11, 2016

The Flash: "Fastest Man Alive"

Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) begins using his super-speed to help those in need, but soon finds himself suffering dizzy spells and fatigue. He has little time to rest, however, after encountering a second meta-human: in this case a murderous scientist named Danton Black (Michael Christopher Smith) who can split his own body into multiple clones.

"Fastest Man Alive" feels a lot more relaxed than the slightly shaky pilot. It has a defined and clear purpose, and goes about its business in an efficient and effective manner. It is still a fairly superficial and breezy sort of a series, but for now at least The Flash seems content to throw super-powered villains at an appealing protagonist on a week-by-week basis, and not too much else.

That's okay: there's definitely a place for this kind of populist, non-taxing adventure show. It's enjoyable stuff, and not too taxing, and Grant Gustin goes a long way to making it all a pretty entertaining hour of television. It's also manna from heaven for hardcore DC Comics fans.

February 10, 2016

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Just as they are on the cusp of going their separate ways for good, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and war veteran Dr John Watson (Jude Law) are brought back together for one final case: the inexplicable resurrection of the occultist and murderer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong).

Sherlock Holmes, which was released to great commercial success back in 2009, is one of those Hollywood projects that makes so much sense and seems such an obvious idea that the genius was noticing that nobody had attempted it before. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were the blockbusters of their day, so why not translate the characters into an actual Hollywood action blockbuster? There had been a near-countless number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations made for film before, but I am not sure there had ever been one with as strong an emphasis on action as it did on mystery-solving. It also had the sense to bring in actor just hitting the absolute peak of his popularity (Robert Downey Jr) and to hire a director (Guy Ritchie) who had demonstrated a lot of talent but never had the chance to make a big-budget Hollywood film.

Survivors: "Starvation"

It's 4 June 1975, and time for another episode of Survivors.

Greg (Ian McCullough), Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and the kids find themselves trapped in a van surrounded by a pack of hungry dogs. Meanwhile Abby (Carolyn Seymour) meets two more survivors of the plague - and has another encounter with the shift Welshman Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas).

Then the money ran out. I am assuming that is what happened at any rate. Survivors had until this point balanced its shoot between studio recordings on videotape and location shoots using 16mm film. Now the exterior scenes are shot using outside broadcast video, which on the one hand gives the episode a more consistent visual texture but on the other makes the whole enterprise look an awful lot cheaper. The lower budget affects the episode in other ways too. The sound quality is variable. The performances feel rushed and under-rehearsed. A pack of wild dogs, which should in theory be a terrifying threat to the characters, is represented by a small collection of remarkably sedate and friendly group of pets.

February 9, 2016

N64:20 #20: Hybrid Heaven

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Hybrid Heaven was an odd title for Konami to release on the Nintendo 64. Since launching with Super Mario 64 the N64 had pretty much become the de facto console for children, with a growing range of brightly coloured platform titles and racing games, each featuring a different variety of cute anthropomorphic animal or object. Konami, on the other hand, specialised in slightly more mature action-based titles including the long-running Castlevania franchise as well as PlayStation titles like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid. While Konami had released quite a few sports-based and family-friendly titles for the N64, Hybrid Heaven was their first original IP released for the console that actually targeted a more mature audience.

Outlander: "Rent"

Claire (Catriona Balfe) is sent on the road to provide medical assistance to Dougal (Graham McTavish) and his men as they travel the McKenzie lands to collect rents from the people. At first she suspects Dougal of defrauding his older brother, Laird Colum McKenzie, but then she realises that Dougal is working from a different motive - and an entirely new problem becomes clear.

After three episodes within the confines of Castle Leoch it is quite refreshing for Outlander to get on the road itself and stretch its legs. It's an excuse for the series to show off some absolutely beautiful Scottish scenery. It may seen a weak reason to recommend a series, but Outlander really does showcase the Scottish landscape in a manner better than any other TV or film production I've seen before. (Braveheart, for example, was mostly shot in Ireland.) The Scotland Tourism Commission must be loving the series.

Asides from the pretty visuals, "Rent" also introduces what I suspect will be a key plot driver for the series over not this season but the next two or three - the Jacobite uprising against George II.

February 8, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Homefront"

It's 1 January 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

After a terrorist attack kills several dozen people, Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) and Odo (Rene Auberjonois) travel to Earth to help secure the planet from changeling infiltrators. When Sisko's protection measures begin to limit the freedoms of the planet's civilian population, he finds himself butting heads with his wilful and stubborn father (Brock Peters).

There's an old joke about a BBC production of Zulu, in which that broadcaster's historically meagre budgets result in two British soldiers sitting in a tent and one them pointing outside and remarking "There's thousands of them out there!" That is sort of the feeling I got from "Homefront". It is a big story with a very broad canvas, but its budget dictates that it is told on a very small, uncomfortably intimate stage. As a result we have the entire planet Earth being placed under martial law by Starfleet, told via two offices, a park in San Francisco and a New Orleans restaurant. In short, Deep Space Nine's eyes were bigger than its budget, and as a result the episode suffers dreadfully.

Prometheus (2012)

For the past few weeks I have been slowly re-watching the entire canon of Alien and Predator films, including the two Alien vs Predator movies that crossed them over. The final film left to review is Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which burst into cinemas in 2012 cresting a wave of frenzied anticipation and limped back out under the weight of countless negative reviews.

One could really divide the reputation of Prometheus into two halves of 2012. Before the film come out it was just about the most eagerly anticipated science fiction film since Goerge Lucas had returned to Star Wars - and pretty much for the same reason. Original Alien director Ridley Scott had returned not only to the Alien franchise but science fiction generally. As the director of Alien and Blade Runner he had a near-unassailable reputation for building gorgeous fictional worlds, and the idea of a third SF feature from him seemed an outstanding and momentous occasion.

Once the film was actually in cinemas, however, that tune changed pretty quickly. Prometheus is actually a really good example to show people when explaining that it won't matter if a film has strong direction, beautiful photography and a cast of A-grade actors working to the best of their abilities if that film does not have a good screenplay. Prometheus has a messy, unworkable script that requires smart characters to be stupid and audiences to not care about logic.

February 7, 2016

Outlander: "The Gathering"

While Claire (Catriona Balfe) develops a plan of escape from Castle Leoch, the McKenzie clan assembles to pledge fealty to Colum (Gary Lewis). The ceremony proves a dangerous one to Jamie (Sam Heughan), whose unique position could see him executed on the spot should he say the wrong thing. A boar hunt leads to tragedy - and a renewed respect between Claire and Dougal (Graham McTavish).

"The Gathering" is a weirdly messy and disconnected episode, saddled with a wobbly plot structure, some oddly two-dimensional dialogue, and more of the irritating elements that keep getting in the way of Outlander becoming a genuinely brilliant television drama. Of the four episodes viewed so far it is the first that I did not particularly enjoy.

This is not for a lack of decent material. As always the episode is very well shot, and a boar hunt sequence in particular is well paced and plays out in a very dramatic fashion. The problem, in the end, comes down to Dougal.