Monday, April 23, 2012

If Malcolm Tucker was a Doctor...

Malcolm Tucker is a character played by Peter Capaldi on a British series called The Thick of It, which is very similar in tone and execution to HBO's Veep. Both series are created and co-written by the same man, Armando Iannucci, who's very clearly a master at creating artful vulgarity. Somebody, somewhere on the internet, created these panels which I happen to find endlessly amusing, so I'm reposting them here.

At the moment, The Thick of It is nearly impossible to find if you live in the U.S., but a couple years ago Iannucci refashioned the concept into a movie called In The Loop, which is very easy to get your hands on.

Updated on 08/04/2013!: So, not only has Peter Capaldi been cast as the Doctor (a casting decision clearly sent down by the gods of comedy and tragedy), but also, The Thick of It hits R1 DVD on Tuesday, the 6th of August, in a big, fat complete series box set (yes, it includes the two Christmas specials in addition to the four seasons and loads of extras).

Also, check out my new piece for Vulture, "Why Peter Capaldi Is the Ideal 12th Doctor" by clicking here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Treme: The Complete Second Season Blu-ray review

What’s so sensational about Treme is how unsensational the show is. This is storytelling that shies away from phoniness, yet it’s unveiled via a medium that’s all about pretense. Now, that isn’t to bag on the rest of television, but you just have to tip your hat to Treme, which seemingly goes out of its way to break the established rules so it can do its own thing.

Season Two, which kicks off 14 months after the storm, sees the show heading into darker territory, with sporadic acts of violence erupting throughout the city of New Orleans. Meanwhile, the myriad residents that we came to know through their struggles in the first season are trying to move forward and get their lives back to places of normalcy, as the city itself enters the post-Katrina recovery stage. There will be food, there will be dancing, there will be misfortune, and there will be bliss, but most of all, there will be music.

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

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Doctor Who: The Daemons DVD review

And the hits just keep on coming. “The Daemons,” the onscreen title of which is “The Dæmons” (note the “æ” ligature), is yet another serial deserving of the label classic. It’s one of the most memorable and popular storylines of Jon Pertwee’s era, and probably the first Doctor Who tale to so clearly take mankind’s belief in a higher power to task, via that old chestnut from Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The tale turns on the opening of an ancient burial mound in the tiny village of Devil’s End. The event, which will take place at the stroke of midnight on April 30th (Beltane), is to be broadcast on BBC Three, which, in reality, didn’t come into existence until many, many years later. The whole thing is reminiscent to someone of my age of Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s vaults…only in this instance, something is found, or more precisely, unleashed. The Doctor and Jo (Katy Manning) head to Devil’s End to investigate, only to discover the Master (Roger Delgado) is behind the sinister goings-on. He’s summoning forces that have existed since the dawn of man – an alien called Azal, who belongs to a race known as the Daemons, and he’s very displeased with mankind’s lack of progress.

Since most everything that happens on Doctor Who must have some sort of scientific explanation, Barry Letts couldn’t do a straight-up horror tale, but with “The Daemons,” he gave viewers the next best thing, and that’s a tale of science masquerading as, or rather being mistaken for, mysticism, and according to “The Daemons,” which Letts wrote with Robert Sloman under the pen name Guy Leopold, it’s been going on for centuries. The central premise of the story is a great one, and “The Daemons” drips atmosphere and sports one memorable moment after another. There are many different reasons to appreciate all the many different classic Doctor Who stories, but for sheer fun, “The Daemons” is right up there with the best of them. Certainly if you appreciate Hammer horror films – especially fare like The Devil Rides Out, written by Dennis Wheatley, whose work was a clear inspiration for “The Daemons” – then this you just gotta see. (Of course if you know who Dennis Wheatley is, maybe you already have.)

Now all of that said, don’t peel the curtain too far back, otherwise you’ll notice that “The Daemons” is riddled with what I like to call “Yeah right!” moments; the sort of stuff you have to deal with when viewing an action movie, which, when it comes right down to it, is what “The Daemons” basically is: a low budget sci-fi/horror/action film. For instance, in this five-episode tale that’s set entirely within the confines of a tiny English village (which in turn is enveloped by a massive heat barrier for most of the story, so nobody can enter or exit Devil’s End), the Doctor and the Master do not meet until the final episode. It’s mind-boggling that the Doctor never marches several hundred feet over to the church (the Master’s base of operations) to simply confront his enemy head on, especially since he’s been battling the Master in story after story throughout all of Season Eight, which “The Daemons” closes out. To my eyes, that’s a pretty serious “Yeah right!” aspect of the story.

Also to my eyes, neither of the monsters in this tale are realized as well as they could’ve been, due mostly to ill fitting tights. Bok, the stone gargoyle come-to-life, is cuter than he is threatening, and Azal is one of those great examples of how much more effective it is to not see the goods. “The Daemons” does such a fantastic job of teasing the viewer as to Azal’s appearance, that it almost has to be a letdown when he’s finally shown. It sort of is (seriously – keep an eye out for the tights), and the less said about Stephen Thorne’s booming, one note performance as the beast, the better. (This is the same guy who played Omega in “The Three Doctors,” FYI.)

Now all of that said (ahem…), “The Daemons” remains benchmark, must-see classic Who. It’s one of the best UNIT stories, with the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sgt. Benton (John Levene) each getting their moments on the spotlight. The Doctor and Jo are both in prime form, with the story thematically being something of a culmination of her season-long introduction to the world of the Doctor, as well as their mentor/student relationship. The script is crammed with great one-liners, with my personal favorite being the moment in which one of the townspeople thinks the Doctor is part of the BBC TV crew because of “the costume and the wig.” To which Pertwee, aghast, replies, “Wig!?”

Then there’s the local white witch, Miss Hawthorne, played to utterly kooky perfection by Damaris Hayman, a character that’s sort of emblematic of how much fun this story is. Another great character is Professor Horner, played by Robin Wentworth. He only appears in Episode One, but every single utterance that comes out of his mouth is priceless. It’s almost a shame he wasn’t kept around for the rest of the story. Words escape me for how perfect Roger Delgado is here. But then, words always escape me for how good he was as the Master. There have been many Doctors, and there have many fine debates over which is the best, but anyone, with any amount of taste, must surely admit that Delgado’s Master has never been bested (and maybe, at this point, never will be). “The Daemons” has finally found its way to DVD, but there’s more to the matter than just the quality of the story. What of the disc itself?         

There’s no question that with this release, “The Daemons” looks and sounds better – much better – than ever before. This is a story with a problematic history of video and audio quality, and I grew up watching it in black and white, because for years all (well, mostly all…but we’ll get to that shortly) that existed were tapes made from the 16mm monochrome telerecordings. In the early ‘90s, “The Daemons” became one of the Restoration Team’s first projects. Using their own “black magic,” a color version was released on VHS in ’93. I remember being pretty bowled over by it at the time, but by today’s Who DVD standards, it would no doubt look pretty creaky. So another round of work has gone into “The Daemons,” although I’ve honestly no idea what exactly was done to it, or how they got it to the level of quality displayed here. Sorely missing from this release is any kind of featurette on the restoration. Perhaps such mini-docs are considered redundant at this point? They shouldn’t be, as not every fan buys every Who DVD. The Team has recently started updating their site once again (after a period of inactivity), so hopefully they’ll put up an article on this release some time in the near future.

Back to “mostly all,” from above…Episode Four has always existed in its original PAL color videotape form, and as a result, Episode Four looks and sounds amazing on this DVD. The problem is that one ends up comparing the other four episodes to it, and they can’t help but come up a little short in comparison. The location film sequences, of which “The Daemons” has many (more of this story was shot on location than in the studio), still look somewhat muddy at times, but presently this is surely about as good as it gets. It’ll break both of your Whovian hearts to know that, if not for archaic BBC shortsightedness, the entire serial could look as great as Episode Four. Mind you, that’s not a specific criticism of this DVD, just an observation of the cruelty of fanboy life. On the flip side, the videotaped studio material looks really nice, although every once in a while there seems to be some brief color bleed, but I’m talking matters of split seconds here. On the scale of "massive overhaul" type restorations, I’d put this one ahead of “Terror of the Autons,” but still not as near-perfect as “Planet of the Daleks” Part Three, which (for me anyway) remains the gold standard.

DVD Extras: It is in this area that “The Daemons” DVD truly falls short. Although the commentary track featuring Manning, Franklin, Hayman, and director Christopher Barry is a nice one (particularly the contributions from Damaris – the woman’s a hoot), it’s a massive oversight and shame that Barry Letts and Nicholas Courtney weren’t secured for participation. I know for a fact this was Letts’ favorite story, because he told me as much when, upon meeting him back in the late ‘90s, I asked him what his favorite story was. Nicholas Courtney went so far as to call his autobiography Five Rounds Rapid!, after a piece of dialogue from the story – one that is quite possibly the Brigadier’s most famous.

Now there’s a competent enough making of on here (amusingly) called “The Devil Rides Out,” which features the same folks that are on the commentary, plus a few others, including some archival interview footage with Letts (yet not nearly as much as one might’ve hoped for), yet Courtney’s nowhere to be seen. It sure would have been nice if the ’96 doc “Return to Devil’s End” could’ve been secured for this release, as it isn’t owned by the BBC, but its inclusion would’ve made up for some of the other oversights. Rarely do I complain about what’s not present on a classic Who DVD, but this is a case where I feel I must, as the extras here just don’t quite feel like they’re doing “The Daemons” justice.

Aside from the commentary and the making of, also present is a very nice 33-minute documentary called “Remembering Barry Letts,” which traces the man’s career, and features both of his sons discussing him at length. This is a sweet, warm piece, and even though there’s nothing in it that’s “Daemons” specific, it’s a welcome addition. There’s six minutes worth of silent “amateur” 8mm film footage that was made during the original “Daemons” shoot; doesn’t sound all that interesting, yet it really rather is. The entirety of Episode One is also presented as it looked after the very first colorization test in 1992, along with a short piece on the ‘92 colorization from a show called “Tomorrow’s World.” These seem like somewhat baffling inclusions (talk about redundant!) given that they don’t reflect the current work put into this story, although the ability to do a “now and then” comparison of Episode One 1992 vs. Episode One 2012 is fairly enlightening in regards to the strides that have been made in technology over the past 20 years. (Again, here’s where a short piece on the current restoration would’ve fit in nicely.) Finally, there’s the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitle option, Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Nightmare of Eden” which will be out next month.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Torchwood: Miracle Day Blu-ray review

Here I am, in the unenviable position of having to defend the fourth season/series of Torchwood, also known as Miracle Day, not out of a sense of duty, but because I was genuinely enthralled by its story arc (twice – last year upon its broadcast on Starz, and now again on Blu-ray). “But Ross…it’s a Doctor Who spinoff. No wonder you love it. How can your opinion on the subject be even remotely objective?” That might be sort of true if not for one thing: I never felt similarly inclined to champion The Sarah Jane Adventures, which starred freakin’ Elisabeth Sladen, and detailed the further adventures of my favorite Who companion ever. Captain Jack Harkness - though I appreciate, nay, adore numerous aspects of his character - isn’t even in my Top Ten.

Miracle Day, as I understand it, was loathed by more fans than it was tolerated. Hasn’t this always been the case with Torchwood? People always seem to be so wronged by this series, as if it’s gone out of its way to attack them personally. Even Children of Earth, arguably the jewel in its crown, had its detractors – mostly those who couldn’t bear to see Ianto killed off. Russell T Davies allegedly got death threats over that one, the poor man. These are the same people who refer to the first two seasons as the “real” Torchwood, yet everything that comes after warrants no reference at all. Still others would argue that Children of Earth was the only decent thing ever produced under the franchise name. The real truth, it seems, is that there is no real Torchwood. The series is like Russell T Davies’ personal narrative playground, to do with as he pleases, with whomever he pleases, as the revolving talent roster (both in front of and behind the camera) seems to suggest. Miracle Day further proves that it’s an ongoing experimental work in progress, as it once again offers up storytelling that’s quite unlike all that’s come before.

(l-r) Mekhi Phifer, John Barrowman, Kai Owen & Eve Myles
Miracle Day is the most audacious series of scripts the show has yet rolled out, but the problem with audacity is that, if one isn’t game for it, it tends to leave one at best uncomfortable or at worst dismissive. There are moments in Miracle Day that’ll have viewers shifting in their seats, and many more that those same viewers will fluff off as laughable. The premise, for those few of you who are unaware, is that one day, all of a sudden and without explanation, nobody on Earth dies. Then another day goes by, and the same thing happens. And so forth, and so on. This is dubbed “the miracle.” The first six of its ten episodes are an exploration of humanity’s reaction to this brand of immortality. Davies says on a commentary track here that much of the idea was to explore the way mankind would overreact to such a scenario, which, if taken into account, might put a considerably different spin on the events. Either way, as Torchwood is wont to show us, humanity comes off looking ugly and self-absorbed. Give humanity immortality, and they’ll immediately find ways to kill themselves or one another. There’s a grim, joking outlook to much of the proceedings, but that’s only when it isn’t offering up genuinely horrific material. Miracle Day puts knots of various types in my stomach, and that’s why I love it, flaws and all.   

And there are flaws. It’s never discussed or mentioned how the miracle affects life on planet Earth outside of mankind. How about plants and animals? Surely they, too, should play a huge role in the proceedings? Alas, we never find that out. The concept is potentially so vast, that the season could have taken twice as much time to explore the idea and still come up short. The oft-tossed about notion that ten episodes was too long a time to tell this story is, dare I say it, horseshit. Many viewers will immediately want to know why the miracle is happening, but the answer to that isn’t revealed until Episode 10. This is likely part of the reason folks started tuning out en masse when the series was broadcast last summer; for many viewers it was simply taking too long to find out why all of this madness was happening, and the myriad red herrings along the way were probably frustrating. Misguided though this line of thinking is, it nevertheless, as of late, seems to be a real problem. (See also AMC’s The Killing.) Blu-ray or DVD alleviates this problem. You don’t need ten weeks. You just need ten hours.

Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes & Lauren Ambrose as Jilly Kitzinger
The character of Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) is one such red herring. Since the series doesn’t have a villain proper until the eleventh hour (or the tenth, as the case may be), it gives us pedophile Danes as a through line substitute (mind you, this narrative contains many other “short-term” villains along the way). Danes was the first high profile figure to escape death, and has since used the entire situation to his benefit. The idea of Oswald is maybe a good one, but the execution of the character less so, and even after two viewings I’m not sure if this is because of Pullman’s performance, or because of how the character was (or rather wasn’t) written. For the first couple episodes, Pullman is mesmerizing, playing the character with tics and vocal inflections that are quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen the actor do before. However the gimmick becomes stale, and we care less and less about his story as the show marches on (he probably should’ve been written out halfway through the season, but no, he’s there, unwanted, ‘til the very end).

There’s other stuff the season probably gets wrong, and certainly in tone it shifts wildly all over the place from one episode to the next, but as is always the case (or at least always my case) with Torchwood, it gets more right than wrong. It’s the journey that makes Miracle Day alternately fun and horrifiying, not the destination. That’s why even if the finale feels a little off, or maybe doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, or, alternately, is perhaps too damn convenient, I’m not inclined to bash those aspects. Its divisiveness is exactly what makes this must see sci-fi TV. This is a story that’s about the ride, and first time viewers need to know, going in, that it's simply not about what happens at the end.

(l-r) Alexa Havins (as Esther), Phifer, Myles, Barrowman
Fans worried about involving American money and talent in Torchwood, and the effect it would have on the production. They needn’t have, and clearly Starz knew the show they were getting involved with; if anything, Torchwood is bolder here in its outlook than ever before. It’s bloodier and more violent. It’s as bleak as ever. You want gay sex? An entire episode revolves around Jack’s relationship with a man in 1927, featuring some very graphic sex scenes, and an emotionally engaging storyline to go along with it. (It’s certainly not exploitative just for the sake of it.) The only way the show has been “Americanized” is in its look and location, as there’s no mistaking it’s now being made with American money and equipment, with the bulk of it being shot in L.A. (although much of the story is still set in Wales, and the production did spend three weeks there).  

I’ve become accustomed to believing, over the years, that Torchwood is Captain Jack’s show, and that without John Barrowman, there is no series. With Miracle Day, though, I’m starting to see that maybe that’s not the case, and in fact this concept is even more flexible than I’d previously given it credit for. While new team member Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), with his awesome swagger, might be part of that train of thought, what really led me down this road is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). Miracle Day is far more Eve Myles’ show than it is Barrowman’s. She’s the character who’s grown and learned throughout the entirety of Torchwood, not Jack. She’s always the character who’s got the most to lose, and never more so than in this story arc.

Let’s be honest: John Barrowman isn’t a great actor. He is, however, a great screen presence, and aspects of his personality have been used over the years to help create Jack. On the other hand, Eve Myles is one hell of an actress, and she gets to do stuff with Gwen in Miracle Day that it feels as though she’s been waiting for years to do. Here she’s not someone with whom to fuck, and even Jack learns that. She’s gone far past being the student. She’s his equal, and just as adept at deciphering the cruel way the universe operates as he. On the watch of Miracle Day, Gwen Cooper has become every bit the central figure that Jack Harkness is. If, for whatever unfathomable reason, Barrowman wasn’t available, or no longer wanted to do the show (hey, the thought was prefaced with “unfathomable”), at this point Torchwood could easily continue on with Gwen as the central figure.

Perhaps the most polarizing character in Miracle Day, though, is Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose), who, like Oswald, is another surrogate villain, although I wonder if people realize she’s supposed to be this crazy bitch in heels? I mean, you do get that the idea here was to create a camp, over the top villainess, right? Jilly’s a publicist who finds herself thrust in the middle of the miracle madness, and with every step she takes, she finds herself enmeshed deeper in the conspiracy, until finally, at the end, she’s at the very center of it all. I’ve been a fan of Ambrose since her days on Six Feet Under, so I was perhaps predisposed to appreciating her work here, although Claire Fisher Jilly is most certainly not. However, she attacks this role with the same kind of ferocity as she did Claire for five seasons. Unlike Children of Earth, Miracle Day doesn’t end with a complete sense of closure. Although its storyline is tied up nicely, its characters are left dangling, and Jilly is one of them. I don’t pray, but if I did, I’d pray for more Torchwood and more Jilly Kitzinger, because I had so much fun with Miracle Day, and this just simply cannot be the end. Yes, like the best professional entertainers, Russell has left me wanting more.

Blu-ray Extras: This is a crisp, beautiful sounding and looking Blu-ray that to my eyes and ears replicates the experience of watching it in High Def last summer. The star attractions here are probably the two commentary tracks, on the first and last episodes, featuring Davies and Julie Gardner. They’re a reliably fun and informative couple of hours, which cover a great deal of ground and are well worth a listen. Only problem is, they were recorded after only the third episode had aired, so neither of them have any idea that the general public isn’t going to be eating this material up, although Davies confesses that he’s unsure if it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Next up is the bonus web series entitled “Web of Lies,” which is similar in style to one of those animated motion comics. I don’t know exactly how this was presented on the internet, but here all the bits and pieces are edited together into one 30-minute piece. It tells two alternating tales – one in the past with Jack and Gwen, and another set concurrent with Miracle Day, featuring the voice of Eliza Dushku. 

There is also a series of character profiles, a behind-the-scenes special, a special effects featurette, and a short selection of utterly worthless deleted scenes. The most annoying aspect of this set, however, are the intros for each episode featuring Davies and Barrowman talking directly to the camera. These are lowest common denominator type bits, for the dumbest viewers in audience. I can sort of see why they were made for the TV broadcasts (though I'll be damned if I can remember them playing on Starz), but here they're nothing more than an intrusion, taking you out of the drama each and every time. They can be skipped with your remote, yes, but the set should've offered up the option to not play them at all. Your mileage may vary.