Friday, March 23, 2012

A Dangerous Method Blu-ray review

There’s only one thing I can guarantee you’ll take away from A Dangerous Method, and that’s, for better or worse, a whole new opinion of Keira Knightley. Years from now, when people dissect her career, I believe this movie will be recognized as the one where it all changed and she proved she was more than just a pretty face. Mind you, the “years from now” part is key, because she’s received virtually zero critical recognition for this work, which should perhaps not be all that surprising. When an artist we think we know unexpectedly delivers this kind of fearless, ferocious work, it can be easy to dismiss as “ridiculous” or “overacting.” She rants and raves and stutters and does something with her jaw that could only be found in a David Cronenberg film. It’s polarizing, like great performances can be, and unfortunately many viewers won’t move past what she does here to see the bigger picture.

Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, who in 1904 is admitted by her mother to the Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich for bouts of hysteria. She finds herself in the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who, unusually for the time, uses the “talking method” of treatment. These days we call it psychoanalysis. Slowly, Jung helps Sabina to realize the roots of her problems and the pair forms a friendship. Enter Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a free-thinking, cocaine-sniffing psychoanalyst who encourages Jung to explore a sexual relationship with Sabina, which Jung does, complicating his own psyche, as well as his marriage to Emma (Sarah Gadon). Perhaps the only person that can help him is his mentor and father figure, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose views only make the situation that much more complex, as does Sabina’s own interest in psychoanalysis, at which she herself is becoming more and more adept.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Telstar (The Joe Meek Story) DVD review

Joe Meek is not a figure many Americans have ever heard of (me included), but sit down for a viewing of Telstar, a rock and roll biopic which details the highs and lows (mostly the latter) of his life, and you’ll likely never forget him. Few such biopics have a happy story to tell, and Meek’s is as bleak as any I’ve seen, and yet it may be worth a gander, if for no other reason than the riveting performance of Con O’Neill, who portrays its central figure.

The history of art is riddled with one hit wonders, and while Meek, a producer, seems to have been quite the innovator in his time, from today’s vantage point, he’s largely known for one thing, and that’s the 1962 instrumental tune “Telstar,” which he wrote and recorded with his studio band The Tornados. The song was a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching #1 in both the U.S. (a first for a British band) and the U.K. Unfortunately for Meek, a French film composer sued him for plagiarism over the song, and the millions of dollars in royalties he would have received from “Telstar” were held up in court for years, forcing Meek to struggle with his art and money over the following years. On February 3rd, 1967 – the eight year anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, a figure with whom Meek was borderline obsessed – Meek pulled a shotgun on his landlady, Violet Shenton (Pam Ferris), and killed her. Then he killed himself. Three weeks later the French courts ruled in favor of Meek. The movie Telstar aims to show how it all went so wrong for Joe Meek.

Pam Ferris as Violet Shenton and Con O'Neill as Joe Meek
Telstar has its roots in the theatre, as it was first a 2005 stage play, written by Nick Moran and James Hicks, with O’Neill playing Meek. Moran helms the film version, and though he seems eager for the material to shed its staged roots, much of the movie is still set in Meek’s flat, which doubled as his recording studio (no doubt this was the primary set used in the play). It first premiered at the London Film Festival in 2008, so Telstar is also several years old, and now, nearly three years after its U.K. release, it quietly makes its debut on DVD here in the States. While this might normally indicate an inferior film, I think what’s really going on here is that Telstar was found to be a nearly impossible film to market to American audiences. Kevin Spacey is part of the cast (as Major Banks, Meek’s financial backer), yes, but a small part, and not one the movie could be sold on. The rest of the players are nearly as foreign to U.S. audiences as the story being told here. (Fine, fine, fine...yes, James Corden does indeed have a fairly important part as drummer Clem Cattini.) 

O'Neill and JJ Feild as Heinz
The movie offers up numerous reasons for Meek’s downfall, with his money problems being only one of them. His interest in the occult plays a part. He held séances on a regular basis, and thought that Buddy Holly was speaking to him from the grave. He was addicted to pills; a steady regimen of uppers and downers. He was tone deaf, which, as you might surmise, wasn’t a good thing for a music producer. He seemingly had the inability to recognize mega talent when it was presented to him. The movie highlights his dismissing of The Beatles when Brian Epstein sends him a demo reel (while his Wikipedia page also mentions David Bowie and Rod Stewart as artists he could’ve worked with, but chose not to). Meek was also a homosexual at a time when it was illegal to be a homosexual in England, and in one scene he’s arrested for cruising public bathrooms. However, what Telstar really seems to indicate was the cause of his demise, was his blind faith in Heinz Burt (JJ Feild), his lover and musical protégée. Here, Meek seems to believe that Heinz will rule the pop music world, never seeming to notice that audiences can’t stand the guy, and view him as a joke.   

Kevin Spacey as Major Banks
Clearly O’Neill had several years to hone his performance before going before the cameras, and it shows. He attacks the role of Meek with fearless gusto, and in doing so creates a character who’s almost impossible to like, yet enormously easy to sympathize with. The movie itself is a rambling affair, with what feels like at least a couple dozen characters, veering in and out of Meek’s life. Many of them are present for only a scene, and it feels as if they’re going to be important to the proceedings, but then they quickly disappear (much like in life, I suppose – though it doesn’t necessarily make for easy to follow filmmaking). I honestly couldn’t tell what the filmmakers thought of Joe Meek, as they didn’t go out of their way to showcase him in much of a positive light, and the entire film builds and builds toward the murder suicide. Yet they’ve shepherded this material a long way, and O'Neill's dedicated a large chunk of his career to the role. (A commentary track would've been a welcome inclusion on this disc.)

Telstar has a great central performance from Con O’Neill, but a flawed execution of the film itself. It’s nearly impossible to recommend this to anyone except those who’ve an interest in pop music history, however they may very well love it, especially as the movie is jam-packed from beginning to end with all sorts of oddball British music from the era it chronicles. The DVD has no extras outside of a theatrical trailer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Robots of Death, and The Three Doctors Special Edition DVD reviews

“The Robots of Death,” “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” and “The Three Doctors”  have all previously been released on DVD, and these special edition double dips are akin to last month’s “The Caves of Androzani,” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which came out late last year. Those two titles were originally bundled together with “Doctor Who: The Movie,” and sold as a box set entitled “Revisitations 1” over in the U.K. This month’s three special editions were sold as “Revisitations 3,” and here in the States, we’ve still not gotten the content of “Revisitations 2,” although beginning next month, that’s going to change with the release of the special edition of “Carnival of Monsters,” and then the June releases of both The Seeds of Death” and Resurrection of the Daleks,” all of which together made up the second set in the U.K.

So beyond potentially making more money off of you, the loyal customer, what’s it all about? I’ll try to explain based on what I know. Do the powers that be intend to rerelease the entire catalogue on DVD a second time? Not to my knowledge. As I understand it, there will be no more “Revisitations” sets released in the U.K., although there will be some single story rereleases such as “Vengeance on Varos.” Is the video/audio quality an improvement? In some cases, yes, but in most cases upgrades in those areas are negligible at best, an assertion based strictly on my perception, mind you. (Much of what can visibly be done for old videotape was fixed for the original releases.) Recently, Dan Hall, the head honcho at 2 Entertain, was quoted as saying something along the lines of how his goal was to make the DVD range similar to a set of encyclopedias, and indeed, anyone who basks in the special features of the classic series DVDs will know that typically each disc offers up a substantial amount of extras that explore each story from numerous angles – commentaries, making of documentaries, vintage interviews, and so forth and so on.

From "Girls, Girls, Girls - The 1970s"
The range has been going on for such a long time (since 2001), that back when it started, the supplemental material prepared for each release wasn’t nearly as thorough as it would be today. The real problem this presents is that some of the most popular and best classic Who stories were released in those early years, so there are some big holes in the ongoing building of this video encyclopedia (the making of docs in particular go a long way toward achieving this goal). So, for the most part, what the special editions are about is providing you cool bonus features that you didn’t have before, and they are frequently really nice additions. If you don’t care about that kind of stuff, then more often than not these double dips won’t be of much interest to you...which brings me to the first special edition of the month, which is well worth picking up, even if you owned the original release and don’t care about extras, and that’s Patrick Troughton’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen.”

Surely you’re at this point familiar with VidFIRE, the process that’s applied to the Hartnell and Troughton stories so they look closer to their original, broadcast form? Well, it’s been used on all[1] of the existing released ‘60s stories except for one: “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” and that’s because the title was such an early release in the range that the process was only in its earliest testing stages. So now, finally, after all these years, VidFIRE has been used on “Tomb,” and the results are  predictably wonderful. It’s been a long, crazy ride for “Tomb”; I can still remember when this lost story was found in Hong Kong back in ’92, and subsequently released on VHS. To have discovered such a holy grail was indeed the Who equivalent of a religious experience (it’s probably the best existing Troughton story, and it may even be the best Cybermen story, period), and here we are, 20 years later, and it’s looking better than ever. Back then, on the cusp of that find, it felt like lost stories would start popping up right and left…but it was not to be. While individual episodes of various stories have since been discovered, no lost story has been found in its entirety since “Tomb” in ’92.

“The Tomb of the Cybermen” Special Edition DVD Extras: First things first: those who upgrade may want to hang on to their original release, because while most of the extras from the old disc have been ported over to the new set, not all of them have. In particular, the 30-minute “Tombwatch” documentary is gone from the new set due to rights issues. This was a piece that featured many of the story’s cast and crew gathering together after having watched “Tomb” after it was found in ’92. Also missing is a featurette entitled “Remastering for DVD,” although since that specifically addressed the work put into the first DVD release, it’s understandably excised, and the “Who’s Who” text featurette, which in this day and age of Wikipedia isn’t important anyway.

Deborah Watling as Victoria
What’s new to the encyclopedia? In addition to the commentary track from the first release (which featured Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines), there’s a new commentary track with both of those actors, as well as guest actors Bernard Holley, Shirley Cooklin, Reg Whitehead, and script editor Victor Pemberton, all moderated by Toby Hadoke. There’s a new 27-minute making of entitled “The Lost Giants,” a 15-minute piece entitled “The Curse of the Cybermen’s Tomb,” which explores the influence of mummy lore on the story, and a 32-minute featurette hosted by Matthew Sweet entitled “Cybermen Extended Edition.” This traces the history of the Cybermen from their beginning up to their reintroduction during David Tennant’s first season (a few clips from later new Who seasons dot its landscape as well, but there’s not much talk about new series Cybermen outside of the first “Rise of the Cybermen” two-parter). Even if it’s a tad incomplete, it doesn’t feel like it, and it’s a wonderful piece. There’s also a short featurette on VidFIRE, a lovely color TV commercial for Sky Ray popsicles featuring the Daleks battling a Second Doctor double, a coming soon trailer for “The Face of Evil,” and an Easter Egg on Disc One. In addition to the usual Radio Times listings in PDF form, that section of the disc also features tons (over 100 pages) of material centered around the Sky Ray popsicles, including Doctor Who’s Space Adventure Book.     

One of the most enduring and popular classic Doctor Who stories is surely “The Robots of Death” - so popular, it was chosen as one of the first three Who DVDs to be released here in the States way back on that horrible date of Sept. 11th, 2001 (yes, that’s as true as Who’s Kennedy connection). It’s easy to see why the serial is so memorable, too, as it’s a murder mystery (albeit one set in outer space), in which its characters, one by one, get picked off, all while the viewer wonders who the killer is. As TV tropes go, you almost can’t find one more accessible and easy to understand than that. Yet that all too familiar trope could just as easily have been turned into a boring stinker. Thankfully, “The Robots of Death” rises to the occasion by sporting an alternately witty and horrifying script by Chris Boucher, one of the best guest casts the series ever assembled in one studio, and costume and set design work that’s truly out of this world.

A Host and a Voc
If you don’t like “The Robots of Death,” then you probably don’t like classic Doctor Who. The Robots themselves have become iconic Who imagery, and they were an obvious influence on the Heavenly Hosts from the 2007 Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned” (one could even make an argument that “Voyage” was influenced by “Robots” on a number of levels). I simply cannot recommend highly enough doing a marathon of the consecutive stories “The Face of Evil,” “The Robots of Death,” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which is a nearly perfect unofficial classic series trilogy.

“The Robots of Death” Special Edition DVD Extras: Aside from the “Who’s Who” bit and the Howard Da Silva intros, the important stuff’s been ported over from the first release (of course, for some American fans, those Da Silva bits are gold), including the Philip Hinchcliffe/Chris Boucher commentary track, which I believe remains Boucher’s sole contribution to the DVD range. But there’s a lovely new commentary track with Tom Baker, Louise Jamseon, Pamela Salem, who plays Toos, and director Michael E. Briant. It’s worth buying this disc for this track alone, as its four participants seem to be having a wonderful time. “The Sandmine Murders” is a 32-minute making of featuring numerous people involved in the production of this serial, including Baker and Jameson (unlike “The Face of Evil” DVD, there’s plenty of Baker on this go ‘round). “Robophobia” is an hilarious 12-minute piece starring Toby Hadoke that’s one of “those” comedy bits bound to divide fans on its merits. There’s also an unsweetened scene of a Voc Robot for comparison purposes, a continuity bit, PDF Radio Times listings, and the coming soon trailer for “The Face of Evil.” While this may not seem like an extensive double dip, keep in mind that it’s a single disc release, and what is new here, is a lot of fun.

Finally we come to “The Three Doctors,” and I’ve spoken about multi-Doctor stories before (both here and here), and don’t feel the need to rehash those thoughts. Further, this is my least favorite of the multi-Doc stories, and, from a direction, design and script standpoint, may even be one of my least favorite stories of the Pertwee era. Nevertheless, how can I truly hate a story that brings together onscreen the Second and Third Doctors, as well as features the last work William Hartnell did in his life? Answer: I cannot, nor should I. “The Three Doctors” as they say, “is what it is” and I’m not here to pee all over it, and if you enjoy it, then by all means that’s your prerogative, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to try to talk you out of it. All that said, this set has a couple of really sweet new bonus features…

“The Three Doctors” Special Edition DVD Extras: As with the “Tomb” DVD, there’s a pretty good reason to hang on to your old copy of “The Three Doctors,” even if you buy this special edition, which doesn’t port over a 30-minute panel from the convention PanoptiCon ’93, which featured Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, and Nicholas Courtney. As you might imagine, this will be coveted by those who didn’t own the original release. 

Also excised is the “Who’s Who” bit, but everything else from the old disc seems to be intact. There’s no new commentary on this disc, which is unsurprising given how many of the important people involved in the making of this story are no longer with us; two of the participants (Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts) from the old commentary track have even passed since its recording. New to this edition is a 23-minute making of entitled “Happy Birthday to Who,” and a 14-minute piece called “Was Doctor Who Rubbish?,” which is a defense against detractors of the classic series, that I thought was really rather excellent, even given its brief running time. “Girls, Girls, Girls – The 1970s” is a 21-minute piece that on first glance looks like it will be a letdown. After all, how can we have this discussion without Elisabeth Sladen? (Including either of the Romanas sure wouldn’t have hurt, either.) However, Caroline John, Katy Manning and Louise Jameson have a fantastic, funny, revealing conversation comparing and contrasting their respective times on the series. This featurette’s a keeper, folks. There are also Radio Times Listings in PDF format (which, as you might imagine, are rather nice for this particular tale), and once again, that same trailer for “The Face of Evil.”

And since I didn’t throw out these old standbys, which should, by this point, go without saying, all three of these DVDs feature the usual production notes subtitle option as well as photo galleries.

[1] I've been reminded by a reader that, for technical reasons, “The Time Meddler” was not able to have the VidFIRE process applied to it.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil DVD review

As I’ve written before, there are certain Doctor Who stories about which I simply cannot be objective, and 1977’s “The Face of Evil” may be at the top of that list. It’s easily Top Ten Who for me, but I’ve discovered time and again that few have the same kind of admiration for it that I do. Screw it. Right here, right now - let’s give “The Face of Evil” its proper due. It’s just as tight and smart as the rest of Season Fourteen, of which it’s a major, important component, and it goes a long way toward cementing that block of stories as very possibly the best straight run of the classic series.

Having said goodbye to Sarah Jane two stories prior in “The Hand of Fear,” and having recently engaged in an epic battle against a decaying Master on their home planet of Gallifrey in “The Deadly Assassin,” the Doctor (Tom Baker) is now roaming the universe solo and seemingly carefree. The TARDIS lands on an unnamed planet, in a dense, alien looking jungle. There the Time Lord encounters two opposing factions: tribal warriors known as the Sevateem, and the restrained technology-based Tesh. Their mutual hatred and distrust is spurred on by their god, Xoanon. After he’s repeatedly recognized as “The Evil One,” the Doctor soon learns that he’s been here before, and the situation is something only he can fix. Along the way he forms a close bond with a Sevateem woman known as Leela (Louise Jameson)…

It couldn’t have been an easy task to find someone to take the place of Sarah Jane Smith, and, in fact, Tom Baker wasn’t keen on having a companion at all. Despite the fact that Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe were able to make the Doctor operating solo work in “The Deadly Assassin,” his first scene in “The Face of Evil,” in which he talks directly to the camera, sort of proves the necessity of a companion. It’s a novel, mildly funny moment for sure, but not something the series could’ve relied on over the long haul. Luckily he bumps into the savage Leela not long after arriving. She’s been banished from her tribe for speaking out against their god Xoanon, and claiming that it doesn’t exist.

Right off the bat Leela grabs attention, and not just because of her revealing costume and stunningly natural looks. I’m not entirely sure if the character’s ever been given her proper due, probably for a couple reasons, such as the fact that she was a companion for only a season and a half, and also because when she wasn’t written by Chris Boucher or Robert Holmes (between the pair they wrote five of her nine stories), she wasn’t written to her true potential. However, if one is to judge Leela on those five stories alone, she comes out looking like one of the most dynamic and engaging companions in the history of the show, partly because she was so unlike any of the others (although a case could probably be made that she shares a fair amount of traits with Jamie McCrimmon before her), but also because of her violent, primal behavior, and the Doctor’s reactions to that behavior. Likewise, Jameson seems very sure of herself coming out of the gate (even though she admits that she was anything but), and it would have been so easy for this character to have been a misfire, especially if the wrong actress had been cast in the part.

Jameson's knack for the role aside, Leela is given such a perfect introductory storyline – one that ideally serves the essence of the character - that it’s difficult to imagine it having gone any other way. “The Face of Evil” is about the triumph of science and reason over religion and superstition, which mirrors the journey Leela takes with the Doctor over the course of their travels. I’ve said before that these types of stories are amongst my very favorite in Doctor Who, because they reflect my own world view, and “Face” was the strongest piece of science fiction I’d experienced (at the age of 13) that explored these ideas, and therefore it has stuck with me ever since.

I’d already seen “Pyramids of Mars,” “Planet of Evil,” and “The Masque of Mandragora” (the latter shares some of the philosophy of “Face,” but the method of storytelling isn’t as intricate) and several other “classic” classic Who stories that preceded it, but “Face” is the one that, after having viewed it, cemented my lifelong relationship with the series. In speaking about this particular serial, I can think of no higher testimonial than the idea that while I enjoyed the bejeezus out of “The Brain of Morbius” (and would also place it in my Top Ten) it was “The Face of Evil” that taught me that this show really was about something beyond battling monsters and aliens (possibly because this serial doesn't really feature either).

Perhaps I’ve gotten too serious here, and forgotten to explain that “The Face of Evil” is also loads of fun. All the little hallmarks that define the era are present here. Baker is in prime form, working his way back and forth between deadly serious and whimsically humorous. One of the most priceless, memorable moments occurs when he threatens to kill a Sevateem tribesman with a jelly baby. He’s aided by a truly spectacular guest cast, all of whom seem to totally believe in the world they’re playing in. The Sevateem in particular are smartly written, most notably Leslie Schofield’s duplicitous Calib and David Garfield’s high priest Neeva, who goes through a dramatically calculated breakdown upon realizing that his entire belief system is a sham. This is the sort of sensitivity Boucher – here, a first time Who writer – imbues the proceedings with; most Who scribes before him would’ve glossed over such an angle.

The psychically endowed Tesh don’t get nearly as much screentime, as they aren’t introduced until Episode Three, but they are undeniably strange and creepy, partly because of the fact that never once do we see a female Tesh. Further complicating this issue is the claim by the captain of the Tesh guard, Jabel (Leon Eagles), that they “deny the flesh so that our minds may find communion with Xoanon.” And yet somehow, as a race, they’ve been reproducing for survival for numerous generations. These are the kind of weirdoes who very likely keep their women locked away and out of sight, to be used only for procreation. Granted, none of this is seen or even hinted at onscreen, but on this viewing of “Face,” my mind began to ponder such issues, and that’s where I arrived. Judging them on their fashion choices, however, one might think that the Tesh have escaped en masse from the Emerald City, which was another unsettling fictitious arena lorded over by a false god.   

The working title of the serial was “The Day God Went Mad,” and many a fan, myself included, has bemoaned the fact that it wasn’t used. It would have been a fucking fantastic title, and indeed, had it been used, the perception of this story would be entirely different today. It would not be thought of as just “Leela’s first story” or as the filler in between “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Robots of Death.”  Yet let’s not entirely discount what makes the title they did use almost as cool, and that’s the fact that the face in question is that of the Doctor’s, and there are numerous moments in this story where Tom Baker’s visage and voice are used as chilling emblems of darkness, and it totally works. It’s difficult to imagine the gimmick working with most of the other actors to have played the Doctor, such is the strangeness of Baker’s face (although by all means, it’d be a debate worth having).

Sometimes it's tough to know where to stop talking in a DVD review, especially for a story that I’m as enthusiastic about as this one. Many people reading this will not have seen this serial, and the way it operates and unfolds is too clever to ruin by line listing everything there is to adore about it. (Honestly, I feel as though I’ve only scratched its surface; I didn’t even talk about the spectacular design work or the atmospheric film sequences.) Last month of “The Caves of Androzani” I said “there surely cannot be any safer Doctor Who DVD purchase this year.” On a logical, critical level I stand by that, but on a personal, emotional level, “The Face of Evil” trumps even the might of “Androzani.”

DVD Extras: Perhaps rather appropriately, the extras here are very Louise Jameson heavy, playing almost as homage to Leela. On the other hand, Tom Baker is completely absent from the proceedings as is, unfortunately, Chris Boucher…well, mostly absent. A revolving commentary track moderated by Toby Hadoke features Jameson and Hinchcliffe as well as actors Schofield, Garfield, Mike Elles (Gentek) and Harry F. Fielder, who has a small role as a Sevateem assassin in Part One, as well as film cameraman John McGlashan. Hadoke, it turns out, has been in contact with Boucher and periodically reads e-mails from him, so the writer is at least there in spirit.

There’s also a making of entitled “Into the Wild,” which runs for 25 minutes as well as nine minutes of leftover film footage. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Fourth Doctor” is another in the ongoing series that takes a look at press reaction to the show. Given that the Baker era lasted for seven seasons, at a mere 14 minutes, this particular installment feels a bit on the brief side. “Doctor Who Stories: Louise Jameson” is a 17-minute interview with the actress from 2003, and there’s also a short vintage interview with her with Noel Edmonds from Swap Shop. A Denys Fisher Toy commercial is a cool little tidbit, and there’s also a tremendously impressive trailer for next month’s release of “The Daemons,” which any Who fan will tell you has been a long time coming. Finally, there’s the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitles option, and PDF material that includes Radio Times listings, loads of advertising tie-ins for a product called Ty-Phoo Tea, and an extensive collection of comics, stories and articles from a vintage magazine called The Amazing World of Doctor Who, which was part of the Ty-Phoo promotion.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Fades: Season One Blu-ray review

Knowing virtually nothing about it outside of a few enthusiastic remarks, I dove into The Fades. This is increasingly becoming the way I go into things these days: With the least amount of knowledge possible, having only heard something positive. It’s the opposite approach of the me of 15 or 20 years ago, who often devoured everything he could find on a topic before even experiencing the topic itself. It must be, more than anything else, a matter of developing a brand of patience over the years. It’s a good thing, I think, in the case of The Fades that this is how I came at it, because if I knew ahead of time what I know now, I might not have bothered.

The Fades is the origin story of an unlikely superhero (as they so often are) – a teenage boy who is awkward with girls, has a single mother, a sister who thinks he’s a dork, and a best friend who’s an even bigger dork than he is. Powerful forces begin popping up around him, and it’s at this point it dawns on him that he’s not like everyone else, and it scares the hell out of him.

Iain De Caestecker as Paul
The teenager in question is Paul (Iain De Caestecker), who realizes he has the ability to – just like Haley Joel Osment - see dead people. The dead people in question are called Fades, and they’re caught between our world and the next, having failed to “ascend.” But some of the Fades are getting restless, and they’ve found a way to become corporeal again, and it involves eating human flesh. It’s explained to Paul that he’s an Angelic, with the power to see what the normal person cannot. The Angelics, led by the flawed Neil (Johnny Harris), form a group of resistance fighters whose goal it is to stop the vicious Fades. But Paul has powers above and beyond the other Angelics, including, but certainly not limited to, the ability to sprout wings after he orgasms.

Johnny Harris as Neil
That description admittedly ended on a pretty goofy note, but when it happens to Paul in the series, it too is played for laughs. A show like The Fades needs the occasional laugh, otherwise it would get too bogged down in itself and be less easy to appreciate. The series is essentially a graphic novel made for the small screen – the way it’s lit and shot, the grandiose manner in which its layered mythology unfolds, how the myriad characters interact with one another – all of it feels like a comic book brought to life, even though it is not. Indeed, The Fades is more of a comic book than a lot of comic book adaptations (like, say, The Walking Dead, which seemingly trades in its roots for a sort of realism). The show was created by Jack Thorne, who previously wrote for Skins, and the entire six-episode first season is written by him, giving the whole thing almost an auteur vibe, though since he didn’t direct it, that word can’t actually be applied here. That said, the direction, from Farren Blackburn (“The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe”) and Tom Shankland, is arch, over the top stuff, but always highly effective, with shots often resembling comic book panels.

Like many protagonists at this early stage of their development, Paul is not the most interesting character, but rather it’s what he’s going through that makes him worth following (though certainly by the final episode, he’s got far more going on than he did in the first). His best bud, Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), however, is amusing in the extreme, which should come as no surprise, since he’s a raging geek. Check out the following exchange:

Mac: "Your friend is quite the mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything, or anybody."

Neil: "What?"

Paul: "He's quoting 'Star Wars.' Ignore him."

Mac: "I'm not quoting 'Star Wars!' I'm quoting Leia. You can't quote a film! You can only quote a character in a film!"

Daniel Kaluuya as Mac
It’s not enough for Mac to simply quote a movie, he has to dissect the process of quoting. Mac exists on something of a meta level. His presence is practically a necessity in this sort of story, in this day and age. Zombies, demons and vampires (all mythologies from which The Fades borrows bits and pieces to form its own original whole) are presently so commonplace in pop culture, that when a show goes down roads like this, it can help to have a character reference what the audience is thinking. One of the show’s most genius flourishes is to have Mac - in person and talking to the camera - provide the recap at the top of each episode (just wait until you get to the recap at the start of the last installment!). But if the show was all just one big in-joke, it would work even less effectively than if it had no jokes at all. As it moves forward, Mac changes and grows along with the other dozen characters who find themselves suddenly dealing with the notion that death may not be the final word after all.  

I have an irrational resistance to comic book fare these days, which is something of  a shame because I often discover that I’m missing out on some quality stuff (a recent first-time viewing of Thor was further proof I need to stop being so close-minded). Had anyone told me The Fades was a comic book, I’d have immediately zoned out. Thankfully, that never happened. The Fades is  also quality British horror television, replete with blood, profanity and even some nudity, so definitely don’t go into this if you’re on the squeamish side. But the rest of us, after devouring this first season, will be anxiously awaiting the second, as this one finishes up on a nice cliffhanger.

Blu-ray Extras: The Fades comes to Blu-ray with a crisp gorgeous transfer (the screen captures in this piece are not taken from the Blu-ray), though the DTS HD audio mix is unfortunately only stereo. It gets the job done, but one would like for the audio portion of the experience to match the frequent immersiveness of the visuals. There’s a fair amount of bonus material, such as extra scenes, deleted scenes & outtakes and a series of bits called “Mac Explains,” which delves into the mythology of the series, which are all presented in SD. However, there is a selection of behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew which runs about 18 minutes that's presented in HD. All in all the extras add up to about an hour.      

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Taste of GCB

It’s only makes sense that ABC would try to find a series to fill the void that the end of Desperate Housewives is going create in its Sunday night schedule. That show was a ratings juggernaut for its first couple years, maintained a healthy audience over the next few, but has at this point pretty much fallen out of the Top 20. Given that the series lost a great deal of its initial edge and creative steam, that should come as no surprise, but what if the net could concoct something as juicy and fun to watch as Housewives was back in its heyday?

GCB, which sounds like a chain of health food stores, is an acronym for Good Christian Bitches, the title of the bestselling book by Kim Gatlin, upon which the series is based, and the sooner we all forget the sanitized placeholder title Good Christian Belles, which ABC had some time ago considered using, the better. Is it a terrible move to have reduced the profane into something squeaky clean and network TV safe? Hasn’t ABC simply done what fans gabbing on internet message boards will do within hours of the show’s premiere, anyway?

After her Ponzi-scheming husband is killed in a fiery crash (blowjob interruptus, of course), Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) must move back to Dallas with her two teenage children, and in with her bible-thumping socialite mother, Gigi (Annie Potts, playing yet another version of the same woman she’s been exploring for years). Gigi still lives in the same community she raised Amanda in, and her neighbors are the same girls her daughter tormented in high school 20 years ago. Though Amanda has changed, ladies like Carlene Cockburn (Kristin Chenoweth) and Cricket Caruth-Reilly (Miriam Shor) hold some serious grudges against her, and the new life she’s attempting to carve for herself and her children will be anything but a hayride.

The overt subtext of the series involves heaping loads of hypocrisy, frequently of the religious kind. While the “bitches” attend church every Sunday, their actions are all too often awfully un-Christian. Do unto others takes a backseat to doo-doo onto others, and Carlene is the clear ringleader. The characters’ antics are so over the top it seems unlikely that anyone could take the goings-on too seriously, but then the writers don’t seem to have taken into account (or perhaps they simply don’t care) how sensitive half of the country might be to the show’s repeated condemnation of the double standards of church-going folk.

Part of the key to the success of Housewives was in its bleached approach; the only thing offensive about that show was that it wasn’t even remotely offensive. It was a series that everyone could like. That isn’t the case with GCB, which potentially satirizes a rather large and influential portion of the country. “Potentially” because you never know where viewers will draw the line between seeing themselves and insisting “that’s nothing like me.” It’s anyone’s guess how the religious right is going to react to the show, but I’ll venture out on a limb and say it’s not something they’re going to embrace.

Yet the series is hell-bent on being liked, and as long as you don’t live in Highland Park, the affluent Dallas suburb GCB is lampooning, maybe it won’t be so offensive after all. Tall, tan, and athletic blonde Bibb is an ideal lead for GCB, looking identical to so many women I’ve known throughout the nearly 25 years I’ve lived in Texas. Though the supporting players often come off cartoonish, Amanda is grounded in a reality, and she’s such a thoroughly affable lead, it’s difficult to even imagine her as the high school bitch everyone else knows her as. When roadblocks are put in the way of her career, she sees no shame in getting a job at a fictionalized version of Hooters, despite the fact the Gigi is well enough off to take care of the entire family. When a mystery donor sends her a truckload full of expensive, designer clothing, she sends it all back.

Chenoweth chews every bit of scenery she can get her teeth on, and even her infamous vocals play a sizable role, as she’s a prominent member of the church choir. Carlene commits some pretty loathsome acts, yet given that she was, essentially, bullied by Amanda in high school, you have to sympathize with her on a certain level. Indeed, this is a series about what happens when the bullied strike back, only we’re supposed to side with the bully, which is quite the daring angle to take in this political climate.

On the flip side there’s Jennifer Aspen’s Sharon Peacham, the former high school beauty, now overweight and insecure, and a true grotesque. She’s severely underwritten, and the butt of one too many of the same kind of jokes over the course of the first two episodes. Shor’s Cricket doesn’t fare much better in the pilot, but the second episode reveals something decidedly more complex about her, and she just may be the character to watch over the long haul (and as an unrecognized treasure, Shor certainly deserves it). Rounding out the main cast is Marisol Nichols as Heather Cruz, a woman caught between Amanda and Carlene. GCB doesn’t yet know exactly what it wants to do with her character, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at this early stage of the game. However, by the end of this mid-season run, we really need to see where all of these people are coming from and have a vague idea of where they might be going.   

GCB is the kind of TV programming that snobs like me go into wanting to dislike, and yet cannot because the show, by prime time network standards, is taking some major risks, and also because, well, it’s just so damn much fun, much of which is due to sharp dialogue such as “Why would anyone leave Texas for southern California? I mean, we’ve got the same weather without the liberals.” The show is far from perfect, and maybe it never will be, because of what it is, where it is, and when it plays, but it gets far more right than wrong, which quite frankly, isn’t something I’d have expected from an ABC Sunday night series at this stage of the scheduling and producing game.