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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Blood and Sex

As established very early in the life of this blog, I have something of a fondness for the fairer sex; I can't help it, and I long ago stopped trying to hide it. For the most part though, this fondness manifests as a slightly pathetic childlike crush, which I feel is so innocent, if not mockable, as to not require any apology. The truth is, while I joke about my 'pervy' tendencies a lot, when it comes to nudity, or full on sexual activity in my viewing, I barely notice it, unless it's gratuitous, and then it gets more of an annoyed, disapproving 'tut' than any kind of titillated response.

Which is why I tutted a fair bit at the opening episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but by the end of the season, I was barely aware of the (copious amounts of) flesh on show.

I came to Spartacus, as I did Edge of Darkness, as a stopgap while I was waiting to resume my viewing of Supernatural. In all honesty I didn't expect it to be anything particularly special, partly because it had aired in the UK on a channel not known for importing the most high brow of shows, and partly because I had seen a segment on You Have Been Watching which had made it seem, to be blunt, like blatant homo erotic soft porn. Not that there's anything wrong with soft porn aimed at the homosexual male, but it's not what I look for in a serious drama. Of course, as you watch the beginnings of the series it soon becomes apparent the show is very much a 'something for everyone' provider of naughtiness. Men and women both, wandering around with their bits out, indulging in some quite shocking sexual (hetero and homo; in fact the terms are somewhat redundant) shenanigans, make up a large proportion of the screen time. It all seems a little bit 'try hard' at times, as though the writers and directors were doing it as a sop to Starz (or were indulging the novelty value of being allowed to do it, by said network).

It's sad really, because there really are some very good looking people in the cast, and while I can't speak for the men; both because of my own sexual preferences and because their costumes are restricted to togas for the nobles and almost nothing for the Gladiators; the women were, to my mind, far better served by the costumes than by any amount of nudity; Viva Bianca especially looks stunning in some of the gowns she sports. Maybe that's just me being a prude, I don't know.

Lets leave behind the sex and nudity though, and talk about more dignified matters; namely, violence. Many moons ago I was talking to a gentleman of my acquaintance who doesn't watch a lot of television, and he was bemoaning the fact that he had stumbled across an episode of 'some kind of historical thing, and this bloke was in an arena and he chopped this other blokes head off with a shield; it was disgusting; how was that allowed on the telly?' He was talking, of course, about Rome, and I mocked him hugely for his attitudes, but I was reminded of that incident, and was slightly more sympathetic to his views, when watching Spartacus.

I have no doubt that the violence of the day; be it in the war of the first episode or the gladiatorial combat we see subsequently; was every bit as brutal and bloody as we see here, but the relish with which it is depicted leaves one once again wondering whether the makers may have been better off heeding the sage words of Jeff Goldblum, in that movie about dinosaurs (I forget the name but you've probably seen it; it was a modest hit). Now, I'm far from a gorehound and I don't believe there are many stories, especially good stories, that need it, but at the same time I'm willing to tolerate it to get at a good story; the early Saw movies being good examples; but here the story was sadly lacking, leaving me with the undeniable feeling that the gore was being used to mask this fact.

The biggest problem with the gore, at least to my mind, was the oceans of CG claret that would flood the screen at times. I'm not one of those so ignorant of film making conventions as to assume it was meant as a literal depiction of the amount of blood spilled (and was surprised to learn that some did assume this); I knew it to be a stylisation, used for effect to emphasise the violence; I just didn't think it was a particularly good attempt. The CG looked cheap (rightly or wrongly), and the effect tacky, so all in all a bit of a failure. Luckily as the series progressed this effect was used more sparingly, although it does recur throughout. In the commentary tracks on the DVD the producers have cited this effect as an attempt at 'The Graphic Novel' look. They mention 300 as an influence and since I've neither seen the movie nor read the book upon which it's based it's possible I'm not the best judge of how successful they may or may not have been. That said though, even if they've got it bang on, they haven't really based it on 'The' graphic novel style, they're basing it on 'A' graphic novel style. A distinction worth mentioning I think.

And so to the story. Because despite the impression I may have given up until now, the show does have one. Not just a story, but a tightly plotted, intricately crafted story, with an awful lot of twists and turns, some constantly shifting loyalties and a number of elements carried through from the pilot that pay off in the finale. A good, honest, proper serial; albeit one swamped by sex and violence.

We follow, as you might expect from a show called Spartacus, a man called Spartacus (Andy Whitfield). Or rather, a man who has his name stripped from him and is renamed Spartacus by his new masters. The pilot finds him living life as a loving husband and proud warrior, and follows him as he loses everything and ends up as a slave, bound for the arena, before the series proper charts his rise in popularity with the spectators, rise in privilege within his masters house, and rise in respect amongst his fellow gladiators.

There's more to it than that though. The show is as much about the people surrounding Spartacus as it is the man himself. The House of Batiatus is a hotbed of political intrigue, with Batiatus (John Hannah, playing one of the most entertaining sociopaths you'll ever see) and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, who isn't far behind in the scenery chewing lunacy) leading the way, although clerk (and former gladiator) Ashur could give them a run for their money.

Ashur (Nick Tarabay) is a bit of a favourite character of mine on the show; even though we know from very nearly the outset that he's a conniving little prick, you can't help but feel for him as his injury heals and he thinks he's about to re-enter the arena, before his dreams of glory are stripped from him by Batiatus, who thinks he's more useful as a back room man. All the poor guy wants to do is get his sword back, but he's denied at the last minute, and he's crushed. Of course, the other gladiators see his new position as being unworthy, and he is mocked, so his willing and sometimes even gleeful participation in fucking with their lives (and orchestrating their deaths) is perhaps understandable.

Anyway, Batiatus promises Spartacus that he'll reunite him with his wife if he fights well and remains loyal. Spartacus agrees and all goes well, even past the point where his wife (Sura, played by Erin Cummings) is killed. The way he figures it, Batiatus tried his best and it's not his fault she's dead. Ah, Sparty, how naive you are. There's a lot of that going on, with a number of seemingly permanent cast members, like Sura, getting killed off unexpectedly, and in very nasty ways, as the series progresses.

Spartacus' best friend Varro, for instance, who volunteered to become a gladiator to pay off his gambling debts, is dispatched in a tearjerking (read: emotionally manipulative) scene, which is spoiled only by the antagonist being played by a truly truly awful actor. Console yourselves though, because that guy gets what's coming to him as well. In fact, by the end of the run, I defy anyone to predict who is or isn't coming out of any given episode alive. And by this point, we care, which was far from the case early on; had you told me after 2 or even 3 episodes that I'd give a toss for any of the characters on this show, caricatures that they were, I'd have laughed in your face but by the home straight every death is a gutpunch (so the finale, bloodbath that it is, is very uncomfortable viewing, albeit in the right way).

Creator Steven S DeKnight came up in the Joss Whedon camp, so it's hardly surprising that the characters engender strong emotions in the viewer; what's surprising is that it took so long. DeKnight is responsible for the incredibly poor early episodes here, so there really is no excuse. He pulls it out of the hat though, and delivers a truly shocking finale, that opens up some very intriguing new avenues for the surviving characters going into S2.

Ah yes, season 2. The illness of leading man Andy Whitfield led to a postponement of S2, with a prequel mini-series, that didn't require his presence, going into production to maintain the brand, which if you want to look on the bright side of a very dark situation at least allows for a little more John Hannah, since we're unlikely to see him going forward. Sadly though, as I'm sure most people know, shortly after S2 did finally go into production, Whitfields illness returned and took his life. When we do see the second season, this time called 'Vengeance', it shall be with a new face in the lead role.

That's a ways in the future though; more so for me than for most, as I predict I shall remain a year or so behind with this show all the way (I have yet to watch the mini series). Why? Well, because when you are watching on DVD, waiting a while means the price drops, 'tis as simple as that. I picked up S1 when the mini came out, and I'll likely pick up the mini when S2 comes out. I'm not made of money, you know.

I have no idea what I'll be waffling about next week, but I'm sure it'll be just as insightful, well researched and scholarly as this piece was. So, you know, probably best to read Ally Ross instead. (Joke. Please don't read Ally Ross.)

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Dude Turns Into A Tree? Are You mad?

There are few things more exciting in this life, or at least in my life, than the chance to watch, after years of listening to awed conversations and reading reverential magazine articles, a true classic of television. Shows that can evoke such extreme reactions are rare; The Prisoner is one (McGoohan version, lest anyone think me insane), Robin of Sherwood another; Twin Peaks is up there of course, and more recently the likes of Firefly and Smallville (joke!) have staked their claims as likely to be on the list in 10 years.

A Great Show

A Great Show

Not A Great Show

Of the shows mentioned above, I've watched all but a handful over the years. The only one not completely 'checked off' when it comes to the Quest is Twin Peaks; I saw it when Sci-Fi (as was) ran it about 10 years ago, but for reasons too complicated to go into here, I missed a number of episodes at various points in the run, which is far from ideal with any show but as anyone who has actually watched Twin Peaks will attest, with this show it's an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, the modern age has come to the rescue and I now have the complete series on DVD, sitting on my shelf, calmly awaiting it's chance to shine (which should be when I get to the end of Supernatural S5, barring any last minute change of plans).

When I was faced with a derailment of my viewing of Supernatural at the end of S3, I didn't want to delve into Twin Peaks straight away since I hoped that I'd be back with the brothers Winchester as soon as possible, so I picked up a couple of quite short lived shows just to tide me over. The first was Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and the second was another show that belongs on that list of classics above; Edge of Darkness. And it's this show which I plan to talk about here.

I went into Edge... with something of a tinge of regret; I had, after all, been pre-spoiled simply by virtue of the fact that the show was so old and so well regarded. I worried, as I often do with shows of this type (I had similar qualms when I started watching the aforementioned Twin Peaks for the first time), that the impact of the spiritual/mythological aspects would be lessened on me because I knew they were coming, rather than approaching the stories as murder mysteries and having the, for want of a better word, crazy, take me by surprise. Of course, then I realised that if it weren't for having foreknowledge of these elements, I probably wouldn't be watching the shows at all, so, you know...

Anyway, as is my totally arbitrary policy on here (me like, me no spoil; me no like, me spoil the shit out of), I'll not be spoiling this show. This poses something of a dilemma though, since discussing the plot past episode 2, in even the vaguest of terms, is going to result in pretty massive spoilerage. All I'll say is that it's about a copper who, whilst in the process of investigating a particularly personal murder, gets led down some pretty dark, and unexpected, paths; oh, and the people doing the leading are pretty much the epitome of shady.

Our hero is Ronnie Craven, played by perennially, if not underrated by those who actually know of his work then certainly under recognised, actor Bob Peck. Craven is everything you'd expect from the lead in an 80's British cop show; he's middle aged, he's gruff, grumpy and dour, and he leads a relatively dull life of domestic normality. Sonny Crocket he most certainly isn't. What he is, despite all that, is loyal, honest and surprisingly funny when he chooses to be, which is mostly in banter with his daughter. He's also, once he gets his teeth into the case, doggedly persistent; perhaps unsurprisingly given the deeply personal connection he has to it; and it's this quality that leads the various shadowy factions at play in the plot to choose him as their agent, whether he knows about it (or likes it) or not; they know he's going to get to the bottom of the situation, whatever the cost.

Getting second billing is Joe Don Baker, as Darius Jedburgh, an attache of some kind at the American Embassy. Now, we all know what 'attache at the American Embassy' inevitably means but as I say, no spoilers so I'm confirming nothing. What I will say is that it's an absolutely stunning performance that has you liking the guy when you're sure he's a baddie, thinking he's a tit when you're sure he's a goodie, and just plain admiring the guy, good or bad, flaws and all, by the end; layered is not the word for this performance. Of course, he likes Come Dancing, which is almost enough to turn you off him, but we're none of us perfect.

Future Mrs Batman Joanne Whalley plays Cravens daughter, Emma. Emma is something of an activist, and her politics are somewhat (radically) at odds with those of her Father, but theirs is not an antagonistic relationship; they obviously care a great deal for each other, aren't estranged to any great degree, and seem to take great delight in debating (and baiting) each other on the issues of the day. It's a healthy relationship, and it's only when watching this show that you realise how rare that is; it's so easy to go down the route of generational differences leading to ideological differences leading to estrangement and bitter conflict, both in drama and in comedy. It's refreshing to see a couple of people who accept each others views and still manage to live together in relative harmony.

Emma is an important character within Edge of Darkness for... a number of reasons, but it's as her Father's sounding board that she makes her presence most keenly felt; throughout the running time we see him venting his thoughts, feelings and worries at her, while she plays devils advocate, as well as urging him on in his quest. It's an effective means of dramatising the thought processes (and crisis of conscience/confidence) of an otherwise very taciturn man.

Beyond those main three, the cast comprises a veritable who's who? of British television. Look, there's Ian McNeice and Charles Kay! Oh, and isn't that Tim McInnerny? Why, that woman looks a lot like Zoe Wannamaker! Greatest of all though, it's only Brian bloody Croucher! Of course, several of them weren't the household names they are now, but it's still a damn fine collection of thesps, who know what they have with this script and give it everything it deserves; there isn't a duff performance in the six episodes.

Edge of Darkness is murder mystery, political thriller, exploration of grief and... something else as well. What it really is though, above all of those things, is a classic piece of television. Regardless of country of origin, genre or age this is a show which, if you consider yourself a lover of good television, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch. I'll say no more.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Busty Asian Beauties

Welcome one and all to The impossible Quest, back up and running at last (albeit a week later than advertised because wouldn't you know it, as soon as I committed to a start date real life got VERY complicated for a little while). That's by the by though and we're here now, so without further ado, let's kick proceedings off with a look at everyone's favourite show about wisecracking dudes in a cool car fighting monsters.

It's an odd one, Supernatural. I watched S1, way back in the dim and murky past, when it first aired in the UK and I remember it being a really dull, repetitive, stuck in a rut throwback. I wasn't kind to it, in my comments at the time, but luckily this was before my all-conquering assault on the internet (Klout score of 43, baby - no, I don't know what that actually means either), so my hasty criticisms were not recorded for posterity. Fast forward a few years and I decide that the time has come to bite the bullet; The Quest will not be denied and besides, this show has been going for yonks now and everyone seems to love it; it must have something going for it, right?

I realised quite quickly, when I slapped in the first DVD, that other than some pretty iconic imagery; the flaming title card, the Mother on the ceiling, the Impala cresting a rise in a road, and of course the Winchesters themselves, I had very little memory of anything from that first batch of episodes. I had watched them, but their events had slipped from my memory like so much pus from an infected wound. As, it seems, had my ambivalence. You see, it soon became apparent that yes, it does have something going for it; an awful lot, in fact. I look back at the 'me' of all those years ago and I'm thinking 'what the Hell are you on, mate'? (For the record, I wasn't 'on' anything. Just say no, kids.)

Is it flawless? Of course it isn't; it's formulaic in the extremis and is severely hampered by having such a small cast, but those are problems that are mitigated by the chemistry between that cast (and it is small, with only two regulars and occasional visits from their Dad, with his visits being, by necessity, brief and infrequent, since his absence is a core aspect of the shows premise). Big name guest stars, or at least big names in genre circles, help a little more, (I'm particularly fond of the Amy Acker appearance, but then; Amy Acker!) and of course a bit of gratuitous blood and gore never goes amiss. All in all though, I seriously doubt that the show would have enjoyed the longevity that it has, were things to have carried on in the same vein indefinitely.

Things improve immeasurably with the introduction of Sebastian 'I'm in everything but hardly anyone knows my name' Spence and Nicki 'I got my kit off in a rubbish show about soldiers' Aycox, as a pair of recurring villains, along with an almighty mcguffin in the shape of a Demon killing gun. These factors, combined with the return of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as John Winchester, mean that the show closes out it's first season on a reasonable high.

It's with Season 2 though, that the show really begins to show signs of what it's capable of. Old family friend Bobby (the only one of the Brothers oft mentioned but never seen support network not to be killed off at the end of S1) becomes a recurring presence, new allies are introduced in the (shapely) form of a kick-ass bar owning Mother/Daughter combo (and their geeky Tin Dog), and the boys are newly re-energised in their mission to take out the Big Bad, thanks to some additions to the mythology that widens up the scope of the show nicely. And while all this is happening, the human authorities are starting to notice the trail of unexplained deaths left in their wake; that'll be back to bite 'em.

As a serial whore, I make no apologies for enjoying S2 far more than I did S1 (and I enjoyed S1 just fine). The additional cast members and increased reliance on the over arching plot was always going to appeal to me more than the almost anthology nature of the previous year.

Serial structure vs episodic? Check. Recurring support cast instead of relying on the leads alone? Check. Deep and ever expanding mythology? Check. Hot chicks and violence? Check (Come on, I'm not gonna deny that's a motivating factor). The show had arrived. This was the year that I really felt like a fan for the first time.

The improvements continue into S3, with a new enemy being introduced as well as some intriguing new characters (one of whom would be given short shrift by the writing strike mandated curtailed season, with her storyline ending without the necessary build-up; a missed opportunity).

Of course, as all true Supernatural fans will tell you (or at least, all the Supernatural fans I've dared talk to, given my spoilerphobe leanings) the show really kicks into high gear with the dawn of S4. Why? Because it's here that we see the introduction of a certain Angel, going by the name of Castiel (as played by Misha Collins). He's the canine danglies, by all accounts, and I'm very looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table. As it stands right now though, I can't really venture an opinion because I've only actually seen his first couple of episodes.

You see, as much as I might have wanted to immerse myself in S4 immediately after the slightly rushed but still very very good cliffhanger ending to the 3rd year, I couldn't. Why? Well, I'll tell you why. Not a single shop in my near vicinity could see their way clear to selling me a copy. 3 different branches of HMV in 3 different cities and numerous smaller retailers all failed me. They all had S1-3, and 5-6 as well, but for some unfathomable reason that no-one could explain to me, not a one of them had 4. I was distraught. (One of them actually tried to convince me to buy S5 without seeing 4 first. I considered getting the guy sacked, I'll be honest with you.)

All is well with the world now though, because whatever caused the drought has been fixed and my last little excursion netted me a copy. So it'll not be long now until I;m singing Cas' praises with the rest of you. Or, you know, slagging him off; I'm a contrary bastard you know. Until then, in a blatant and cynical atempt to drag in views, have a picture of him. You're welcome.

WHEN I was blasting through the first 3 seasons of this show, and ruminating on what I'd write on this here blog about it, I asked a couple of questions on my beloved twitter. I figured, the show has a lot of very dedicated fans online, I may as well attempt to tap into that and cater the blog visuals accordingly; every view counts, right? The first question I asked was which of the two Winchester Brothers was considered hottest by the ladies (or gay men, I don't discriminate). The answer surprised me in it's vehemence, because I didn't get a single reply favouring Sam (Jared Padalecki). Bit of an ego blow for him, I'd think, if he ever, you know, gave a shit about a tiny little 5 minute poll on a twitter account with no folowers. Dean (Jensen Ackles) on the other hand; he'd get trampled in the rush. In the end I featured both of them anyway; it seemed wrong not to.

The 2nd question was whether people would rather see a picture of the iconic Impala, or a picture of Jeffrey Dean Morgan? If it's possible, the response was even more emphatic. And so, as a parting treat, to say thank you for reading this waffle, I give thee:

Daddy Winchester