It’s the End of the World as We Know it

Supervolcano and End Day are currently available on instant Netflix.

Supervolcano

 

Supervolcano (2005) – TV-PG

This explosive docudrama imagines what would happen if the supervolcano on which Yellowstone National Park sits erupted.”

Standard advice to people was that they store enough food and water for three days. Today is day three.”

Other than die-hard doomsday fans, I am unsure who this is made for. I will say that I was thankful that this wasn’t an Asylum production. In some ways, it is anti-Asylum. The special effects however are exactly what you would expect from Asylum – namely serviceable but about a decade behind current norms. This is intercut with a fair amount of actual volcano footage.

Supervolcano is listed as a BBC series but it is actually only an hour and forty-five minutes total, broken into two parts. The first part gives us an overview of Yellowstone, an introduction to our scientists, a fair amount of discussion of other volcanic events, and the growing threat of an eruption. The second part is obviously the eruption along with the aftermath.

While the special effects are nothing to write about, the scenarios are handled in a fairly realistic manner and the graphics support that. It doesn’t try to stuff every possible type of volcanic activity and phenomena into one movie (Dante’s Peak) and it doesn’t use man-made landmarks for sensationalism (Volcano).

This is done as a docudrama so don’t expect it to focus on individual stories of heroism. If you want that, wait for San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson. While they get some things right, I did have to laugh when they mentioned evacuating the President to a bunker in Florida. As anyone who lives in Florida knows, the water table is high enough to prevent basements in most areas, much less a bunker. Also BBC, no one in the US would give a distance in kilometers.

Acting is of course way better than anything the Asylum has ever put out but that is not saying much.

End Day

End Day (2005) – Not Rated

A fictional scientist travels from London to New York experiencing a multitude of doomsday scenarios, about which various experts provide commentary.

Another disaster docudrama from BBC, End Day is less than an hour long. In this time, writer and director Gareth Edwards constructs a series of disaster scenarios and links them in Groundhog Day style. A scientist wakes up in the morning and, during the course of trying to get from London to New York, encounters a disaster. He then wakes up back in his motel room and the day starts again with a different disaster encountered. Edwards even acknowledges his source by having Groundhog Day listed on a marquee. These are Edwards first writing and first directing gigs. He has gone on to write and direct Monsters and to direct the most recent Godzilla.

The disasters are all quick and dirty since each is only about ten minutes long, and that includes the repeat scenes of the scientist trying to get to New York. The first does not fit the doomsday storyline but is just a story of a tidal wave striking the East Coast, New York in particular. The others are potential doomsday events, leading up to our scientist arriving in New York to start up a Hadron like collider.

Both Supervolcano and End Day are strictly for those of us who are fascinated by the apocalypse. There are no characters to care about, no jaw-dropping special effects, and probably no particular extra knowledge to be gained.

House of Cards Falls Down

Ugh. I missed a Friday posting because I apparently have the plague. I’ll try and stay on top of things this week if I can stop hacking up a lung. Three seasons of House of Cards is currently available on instant Netflix

House of Cards

 

House of Cards (2013-5) – Rated TV-MA

This Emmy-winning original thriller series stars Golden Globe winner Kevin Spacey as ruthless, cunning Congressman Francis Underwood, who will stop at nothing to conquer the halls of power in Washington D.C. His secret weapon: his gorgeous, ambitious, and equally conniving wife Claire (Golden Globe winner Robin Wright).

I loved the original BBC miniseries House of Cards (1990) and its two followups, all currently available on instant Netflix. It was a brilliant updating of Shakespeare’s Richard III, complete with breaking the fourth wall. Star Ian Richardson was a marvel. It was so perfect that I approached Netflix’ Americanization of the series with some trepidation.

I need not have worried. Kevin Spacey is an absolute delight as Francis Underwood. Robin Wright makes for a marvelous Claire Underwood/Lady MacBeth. The changes in politics do not undermine the story at all. The first two seasons of House of Cards are marvelous exercises in the use of power.

This brings us to the recently released third season of House of Cards. Bless Netflix for releasing their series a season at a time. My wife and I far prefer to binge on series than to watch from week to week. The third season/series of the BBC House of Cards was not as good as the first two but was a fine and fitting end to the series.

The third season of Netflix’ House of Cards is just awful. Let me clarify. The show itself isn’t awful per se and Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and the rest of the cast are still superb. It just appears that whoever wrote the first two seasons disappeared and was replaced by a hack or certainly someone who did not understand what made the first two seasons work.

Francis and Claire Underwood were able to manipulate their way to the top through various acts of subterfuge, backroom deals, blackmail, and the devotion/ambition of various underlings. Third season Francis is no longer bright, much less brilliant, and goes out of his way to alienate everyone who could possibly help him. Stamper, one of the more fascinating characters from previous seasons, is given enormous screentime while at the same time is essentially sidelined for the entire season. We get to watch him eat, go to AA meetings, sleep, and generally wait over and over again for someone to use him.

One of the writers comes up with the America Works program, clearly someone fresh off a course on Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Russian premier is a Putin-like thug. There are some callbacks to previous seasons but mostly ones that will have you scratching your head as you thought that topic had already been settled. There are so many moments where the screenwriters spent all their time figuring out if they could do something, without stopping to think if they should.

Third season Francis is basically a high-functioning idiot and Claire is little better. No spoilers but I will say that they have Claire do something (several somethings actually) that no First Lady has ever done. It doesn’t smack of bold writing so much as fantasy land. Do yourself a favor and stop at the end of season two.

Good Television – Breaking Bad and Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake is currently available on instant Netflix.

Top of the LakeTop of the Lake (2013) – Rated TV-MA

When pregnant, 12-year-old Tui tries to kill herself in a freezing New Zealand lake, Detective Robin Griffin has plenty of questions for the girl. But when Tui suddenly disappears, Griffin finds herself knee-deep in small-town secrets.”

Normally I vette the shows I put on for my wife. We loved Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect and enjoyed Mireille Enos in The Killing. Seeing Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss headline a mystery set in scenic New Zealand seemed a no-brainer.

Top of the Lake is quite good as is Elisabeth Moss. Holly Hunter steals the show as a guru of sorts. The scenery and cinematography are wonderful.

I do have to warn you though that we were surprised as the story deals frequently with rape, incest, child abuse, sexual identity, and sexual abuse. In other words be prepared for a lot of adult content, very little of it of a happy nature.

Breaking BadBreaking Bad (2008-12) – Rated TV-MA

Emmy winner Bryan Cranston stars as Walter White, a high school science teacher who learns that he has terminal lung cancer and teams with a former student to manufacture and sell high-quality crystal meth to secure his family’s future.

Netflix just released the first half (eight episodes) of the last season of Breaking Bad (just in time to catch up for the final eight episodes). I have to say that I loved these eight episodes. Each season of the show has gotten better and better and I’m really glad that it looks like they’re going to go out while they are at the top of their game.

I’m not sure how it will all end but they tease us in the first few minutes with where they are headed.

Copper Orange is the New Ripper Black Street

The wife and I have been indulging in some adult television on the nights where we don’t watch our precocious grandchild. First let me cover the one that we only got two episodes into.

CopperCopper (2012) – TV-MA

Set in 1860s New York City, this gripping crime series centers on rugged Irish cop Kevin Corcoran, who works the notorious Five Points neighborhood — and who’s on a mission to learn the truth about his wife’s disappearance and his daughter’s death.”

When I first read about Copper, I thought, “Wow! A police show taking place in the same era and location as Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. That will be awesome.” The reality is…not so much. I intend that to have a double meaning as Copper’s major weakness is its unreality. In the 1860s, during the height of the horse and buggy, not to mention urban expansion, the streets of New York, including the notorious Five Points, are pristine.

Okay I immediately realize that this will be some idealized version of New York circa 1864. They immediately touch upon child prostitution but they treat it in an exploitative manner, as though it were mere window dressing. This extends to the Paris-trained African-American doctor who feels very out of place, especially as he is the only doctor they can rely on as all the other doctors are hacks.

The main character, Corcoran, engages in James Bondian derring do and  fisticuffs in the second episode WHILE sporting a freshly broken leg and taking drugs. This was the point at which, for us, there could be no suspension of disbelief. The ending of that episode, going against all common sense, was the finisher. Jenny and I found that episode both laughable and groanable and gave up on Copper, which is a shame because the lead actor is quite likable in his role – too bad it was so poorly written.

Orange is the New BlackOrange is the New Black (2013) – TV-MA

From the creator of “Weeds” comes a heartbreaking and hilarious new series set in a women’s prison. Piper Chapman’s wild past comes back to haunt her, resulting in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper trades her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit and finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates.”

Another of Netflix’ productions, Orange is the New Black lacks the familiarity of Arrested Development or the dizzying chutzpah of House of Cards (with a bravura performance by Kevin Spacey). What it does have is a wonderful authentic feel, quirky but real characters, and an uncomfortable sense of humor. We’re thoroughly enjoying this and are about halfway through.

Ripper StreetRipper Street (2013) – Rated TV-MA

In April 1889 — six months after the last Jack the Ripper killing — East London is emerging into a fragile peace, hopeful that the murderer’s reign of terror might have finally run its course.

We tried Ripper Street after bailing on Copper. We were afraid that it was going to end up being about Jack the Ripper but were thankfully surprised when it wasn’t, although the Ripper’s presence and legacy can be felt throughout the season.

Ripper Street does suffer from some of the unreality that plagues Copper. The English police are well written but the American is a doctor, forensics wizard, crack shot, thief, gambler, rake, and former Pinkerton agent – did they just fold several characters into one to save money on casting?

Other than the American and an unfortunate tendency to try and show us the first case of x (no spoilers but there are several different x’s), Ripper Street is entertaining and engaging.

Mid-Month Update – Excellent Television

The second season of Downton Abbey is finally available. Unfortunately it is not on Netflix or Amazon (unless you want to pay by the episode) but Hulu Plus has all of the second season episodes. I can’t wait to watch this with my wife. If you haven’t seen it yet, catch the first season on instant Netflix.

Titanic (2012)

“Follows the lives of the ship’s passengers, from all walks of life, as they travel on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated Titanic. From the wealthy family of the Earl of Manton, the designers of the ship, to the stokers in the engine room – who will make it onto the lifeboats? “

This is NOT the James Cameron blockbuster but rather a British miniseries. Each of the first three episodes begin before Titanic launches and tells the story of different characters. The fourth episode deals with the sinking of the Titanic and presumably the fates of the characters from the first three episodes. I’m looking forward to this mainly because it is from Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey). Available on instant Netflix.

After watching this, do not even consider viewing Titanic II. Titanic II is NOT a sequel but the usual Asylum ripoff.

Breaking Bad Season 4 (2008-2011)

“Emmy winner Bryan Cranston stars as Walter White, a high school science teacher who learns that he has terminal lung cancer and teams with a former student to manufacture and sell high-quality crystal meth to secure his family’s future.”

I’ve recommended this series before but now we get the fourth season. This is another one I’m looking forward to watching with my wife. Too many shows, too little FREE time. I also think that it’s a mistake to premiere the fourth season on instant Netflix on the same day the fifth season premieres on AMC. This doesn’t give viewers enough time to catch up.

Aliens Attack! Downton Abbey Edition

Okay obviously aliens do not attack in Downton Abbey but my wife and I just finished the first series of Downton on Netflix and I thought I would interrupt to post a quick review.

One line review: Upstairs, Downstairs on steroids.

Downton Abbey (2010)

“Exposing the snobbery, backbiting and machinations of a disappearing class system, this series chronicles the comings and goings of the upper-crust Crawley family and their assorted servants.”

Downton Abbey was in my queue forever. I had heard how good it was but it is not a genre I would normally watch and BBC series (the better ones) require your full attention. Downton Abbey is a prime example. If you like doing other things while watching TV (reading, surfing the net, etc.) then this is probably not a good choice for you.

Downton Abbey is amazing. The acting is superb – I thought every character was well-realized and there was not a weak performance in the bunch. Maggie Smith is wonderful as always BUT part of how she is wonderful is that she reacts well to the other actors and underplays her character when necessary.

I have never seen a show with so many significant glances – another reason you have to pay absolute attention to everything going on. A lot of what is going on is actually different from what is stated.

All of the characters are highly complex, although they do make it clear who you should root for and which characters are villainous. The only exception to this seems to be Lady Mary as the show puts her in a sympathetic position yet she makes one heinous decision after another.

Creator/writer Julian Fellowes chose a wonderful period to set the series. Downton Abbey runs seven episodes and covers the period from April 1912 (Sinking of the Titanic) through July 1914 (the start of World War I). While issues pertinent to the era are mentioned (suffrage being the most prominent), the majority of the show is just showing the life and times of Earl of Grantham’s family contrasted with that of the help at Downton Abbey.

The budget for the show must be phenomenal. Costuming is marvelous and all the ladies wear incredible hats. A few anachronisms aside, the attention to detail is amazing. It would be easy to watch this show just for the eye candy but then you would miss the superb acting.

Please be aware that not much actually happens in the show – this is primarily a British acting showcase and secondarily a look at life among the rich pre-World War I.

THE FUTURE OF DOWNTON ABBEY: The second season/series of Downton Abbey is supposed to be available on Hulu starting July 7th. No word yet on Netflix or Amazon instant. There is a Christmas special and the third series is just about to start filming.

British Mysteries Galore – Sherlock, Cadfael, Luther, Waking the Dead

I love British mysteries but I seldom have time for them. Prime Suspect, Cracker, and Inspector Morse are some of my favorites but they are not available on instant Netflix. Netflix does have a large number of streaming BBC mysteries though.

I thought I would single out just a few of the many available. There are tons more including plenty of literary adaptations from the works of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ruth Rendell.

Sherlock (2010)

“In this updated take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved mystery tales, the eccentric sleuth prowls the streets of modern-day London in search of clues. At his side — though hobbling — is flatmate Dr. John Watson, fresh from the Afghan War.”

This is one I did find time for and it is quite a bit of fun. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Sherlock as is Martin Freeman as Watson. Benedict Cumberbatch recently appeared in the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Martin Freeman is Bilbo in the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.

I’m lucky to have some good friends feeding my Cumberbatch addiction. They not only loaned us the first story of the new season of Sherlock (Surprise! I haven’t had time to watch it!), they also picked up tickets for Jen and I to see Cumberbatch in Frankenstein. Fathom Events is broadcasting this at select theaters June 6th and 7th. Grazi!

Cadfael (1994)

“In this unique mystery series based on the bestselling books by Ellis Peters, renowned British actor Sir Derek Jacobi stars as Brother Cadfael, a compassionate seeker of truth and justice in chaotic medieval England.”

I have loved Derek Jacobi ever since his incredible performance in I, Claudius. Strangely I have yet to find the time to watch this series. Only the first season/series is currently available on instant Netflix but it should be sufficient to whet your appetite.

Luther (2010-11)

“John Luther is a dedicated detective trying to keep from losing grip on his personal life in this innovative police drama that spotlights the psychological factors underlying the crimes the sleuth has been assigned to solve.”

Idris Elba headlines this British series that I have yet to make time for.

Waking the Dead (2000)

“This acclaimed cop drama follows Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd and his cold-case unit as they use the latest advancements in forensic science, psychological profiling and other investigative techniques to crack unsolved murders.”

A Touch of Frost (1992-2010)

“An arrogant nonconformist who despises following the rules, keenly observant Det. Jack Frost (David Jason) avoids serious trouble with his disgruntled superiors by consistently solving his hometown’s most perplexing criminal cases. This gripping police procedural finds the master sleuth, who rotates through sidekicks on a regular basis, investigating a girl’s disappearance, a string of home invasions and a multitude of murders.”

All 15 seasons of A Touch of Frost are now available on instant Netflix.

 

 

Terra Nova vs. BBC Outcasts

My daughter and I enjoyed the TV series Terra Nova. I love apocalyptic scenarios and she loves dinosaurs. The only problem is that of other shows. Terra Nova was carefully paced and got really interesting with the final episode. Sadly I think that really was the final episode as I don’t think it had the viewership to justify the expensive effects budget for another season. We had watched it on Hulu but for some reason, it is no longer available there.

The other day I started watching Outcasts on instant Netflix (not to be confused with the UK film Outcast – also available on instant Netflix).

Outcasts (2011) – TV-14

“Set in 2040, this BBC sci-fi drama focuses on the residents of the frontier town of Forthaven on the planet Carpathia — a region colonized by a hardy group of settlers who rocketed away from Earth in the wake of war and nuclear devastation.”

Terra Nova is about a colony set up on an alternate Earth. This colony may be the last hope for mankind. Opposing the colonists are a group of outcasts from the colony – now living in the wild. There are many other problems including a shortage of supplies and a lack of communication from Earth.

Terra Nova is run by a gruff leader with a shady past played by a known actor, Stephen (Avatar) Lang. The protagonist is a police officer for the colony. He works for a female head of security. The leader’s son is an unreliable super genius.

But enough about Terra Nova – what is Outcast like?

Outcast, made the year before Terra Nova, is about a colony set up on alternate to Earth. This colony may be the last hope for mankind. Opposing the colonists are a group of outcasts from the colony – now living in the wild. There are many other problems including a shortage of supplies and a lack of communication from Earth.

Forthaven (Outcast’s colony) is run by a gruff leader with a shady past played by a known actor, Liam (Game of Thrones) Cunningham. Both of the protagonists are police officers for the colony. They work for a female head of security. There is also an unreliable super genius.

While Terra Nova is clearly a blatant ripoff of Outcasts, it does have dinosaurs, Stephen Lang, and a really nice effects budget. At least as of the third episode Outcast has none of these things.

The indoor shots of Outcast look soooo cheap – all cardboard and aluminum. Every shot looks like they are shooting on a set. By contrast the outdoor locations, filmed in South Africa, are absolutely gorgeous.

Acting is good as is typical for a BBC production. Jaime Bamber of Battlestar Galactica shows up in the first episode. Daniel (The Adventures of Tintin) Mays and Amy (Being Human) Manson play our peace officers. Eric (Resident Evil) Mabius plays a quasi-religious leader.

Three episodes in, I’m enjoying the series. It moves slowly (again typical of BBC productions) but intelligently. There is no second series so there are only eight episodes in toto. If you particularly like post-apocalyptic scenarios then I recommend it. Otherwise it is just okay.

BBC, Netflix, and House of Cards

* Netflix has added an odd new feature. If you search on particular networks (NBC, Comedy Central, MTV, Discovery Channel), there will be a hyperlink at the top of the page asking to take you to “Genre:NBC”, “Genre:Comedy Central”, etc. Most of the major networks aren’t there yet but it is a neat new feature. BBC is only there as BBC comedy so far.

* Speaking of BBC, they are planning to launch a video download store a la iTunes or Amazon. No word yet on whether this will be global. BBC states that it will be for “a relatively modest fee”. So far though download prices for movies on iTunes, Amazon and the others are ridiculously high, especially for a product with no resale value. Heck for catalog titles (i.e. non-new releases), they are often more expensive than their DVD (and sometimes Blu-Ray) counterparts.

House of Cards

“Set in Britain’s Houses of Parliament, this political satire follows the career of a ruthless MP (Ian Richardson) whose election campaign has been plagued by a number of mysterious deaths. The politician’s scheming knows no bounds, and he manages to ensnare a member of the royal family in his quest for power. This series was controversial in Britain for its close depiction of Prince Charles’s actual life.”

Netflix calls this three seasons but it is actually three different mini-series. The first, House of Cards, details Francis Urquhart’s rise to power. The second, To Play the King, details Urquhart’s power struggle with a Prince Charles-type character and the third is The Final Cut. House of Cards is excellent, To Play the King is brilliant, and The Final Cut is very good but a little haphazard as if it were a but rushed.

Ian Richardson is amazing as the scheming Francis Urquhart. He consistently breaks the fourth wall with snarky asides and is wonderfully ruthless. The supporting cast is wonderful as well but everyone plays second fiddle to Ian, even the earnest Michael Kitchen as the King. Don’t worry if the politics are a bit different from those in the U.S., this is great fun and not that hard to follow.

I’m really looking forward to Netflix’ remake of this next year with Kevin Spacey in the lead. It also stars Kate Mara and Robin Wright and, according to imdb, is being directed by David Fincher.

The Day of the Triffids – Nature Gone Wild! week

Well it’s time to wrap up Nature Gone Wild! week. The Day of the Triffids is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Day of the Triffids

WATCH: The Day of the Triffids (1981) – NR – Not rated.

“A brilliant meteor shower blinds most of the population, making them vulnerable to attack by triffids: ambulatory, carnivorous plants accidentally freed from a lab. Still able to see, Bill Masen (John Duttine) and Jo Payton (Emma Relph) team up to fight the menace. As they discover more sighted survivors, they find that civilization is crumbling around them from the triffid attack. This chilling BBC miniseries is based on John Wyndham’s book.”

“…And if you want to quibble, communicates, that means somewhere inside it is intelligence.”

John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids was first adapted as an entertaining, if some what disjointed, movie in 1962. While it bore little resemblance to the source novel, it was a fun monster movie.

In the 1962 film they goofed filming the main story and made it too short. Normally this would necessitate some reshoots. Instead they went back and shot a whole, mostly unrelated, subplot with new characters.

Pardon the digression. The BBC decided to do an adaptation in 1981. Please note that while this is a BBC science fiction show, it is not silly like Doctor Who. Even if the premise is a bit absurd, the science fiction is quite serious.

As with most good science fiction, this show is only superficially about its main plot (in this case the Triffids). The core of the show is about the breakdown of society and societal norms in the face of a crisis.

If you have seen Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later then you might be surprised at how many of his ideas appear to have come from this miniseries (or perhaps from the source novel).

The acting is just fine. It is a typical BBC ensemble piece – no one here is showy or especially noteworthy but neither is anyone off their mark.

Designer Douglas Burd came up with a nicely haunting and somewhat trippy title sequence. He died during production when his homemade plane crashed.

Unfortunately with the story broken up into less than 30 minutes chunks, repeatedly sitting though the credits becomes quite annoying. It would have been nice to have edited mid-story credits and recaps out to bring in a nice two hour run-time (as was done with Felicia Day’s series, the Guild).

That aside I found this to be an excellent meditation on politics and society. I recommend this miniseries.

Last year the BBC again remade this as a miniseries. The new version stars Eddie Izzard, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Dougray Scott. Hopefully that will be available stateside sometime this year.

People Watch: British TV fans will notice Maurice Colbourne (Jack Coker) as Tom Howard from the series Howard’s Way.