DVD review entries

March 10, 2006

RING 0 (15)

4 out of 5 stars

My expectations, I have to say, were not high. One, it was not directed by Hideo Nakata. Two, it was a prequel. Three, Ring 2 had left a rather poor taste in the mouth and four, who gives a shit about Sadako when she isn’t dead? Nobody really cares about Freddy or Jason’s background, do they? Except that Ring 0 is not only much better than I thought it would be, but also, in a beautiful touch not a story about the birth of a monster but a story about the destruction of an innocent. The Sadako of 0 is not the vengeful monster of the next Ring films, but a shy young wannabe actress who is very much a victim of society. There is most certainly a touch of paranoia of The Crucible about the film, and a nod towards that other film about a girl with extraordinary powers, Carrie. Yet unlike Carrie, Ring 0 is not quite so honest about who is responsible for what and who deserves to get their just desserts. The film is less of a horror film and rather a biopic, a story of a girl in the 1950s and the disturbing effect of her unique abilities on the other members of the cast. Yukie Nakama fills the role of the deeply afraid Sadako, and does so extraordinarily well – there are very few moments where you lack sympathy for Sadako in the film, and her distress at the deaths being involuntarily inflicted by her powers seems extremely real. The disturbing tale starts with Sadako auditioning for a prestigious theatre company, and finds herself attracting the unwanted attention of the leering director, a vengeful woman whose husband was the man seen dropping dead in the flashbacks in the original ‘Ring’ and the tenderness of a lighting technician who develops a fatal love for the young woman. The film becomes ever more complex, the cast become suspicious of Sadako’s rise in favour and the mysterious deaths of those who upset her, although Sadako protests that she has nothing to do with these ‘accidents’. The dynamic is a fascinating one; Sadako’s protestations of innocence combined with the venomous paranoia of her co-stars lulls the viewer into a sense of false security so that, when the truth behind the ‘accidents’ finally comes out, there is something of a genuine twist. The look of the film is quite restricted, since unlike Ring which sprawls over Japan, Ring 0 stays almost completely in the theatre. Then again, there is no need for it to go anywhere else. The horror of Ring 0 lies in the poisonous whispering of the other cast members in the dressing room, the dark corridors of the building at night, and the eerily familiar sounding ‘abilities’ of Sadako. The only time it leaves the theatre is towards the end when the drama picks up a rapid pace; a supposedly dead Sadako is being dragged off into the woods near an awfully familiar well, and it is here that Sadako’s father reveals the truth behind the curse of Sadako. Somewhat ironically, Sadako is the last to die as most of the cast meet their end, including the deeply dislikeable witch-finder general character of the journalists’ wife (but is she supposed to be anything else?), but saddest of all is the death of the only man who would ever love her. The curse of the Ring destroys Sadako, and the final shot has to be one of the saddest in film; Sadako alone at the bottom of the well in the dark, her fate known to us and her chance at returning to her lost love impossible.

The somewhat confusing premise behind Sadako’s true nature (spoilers alert here, but the conceit is she is two people, one of whom is murderous and vengeful, the other is simply Sadako.) does require more than one viewing to understand, but it is fascinating and even somewhat unsettling to see them as separate entities but who are inextricably bound up with each other. The film is dark, inevitable and deeply, deeply sad but the saddest thing about it is the fact the Sadako in Ring 0 is not the evil spirit of the sequels/prequels. Seeing a shy and sweet Sadako contrasted with the cold-blooded dead murderess of Ring and Ring 2, underlines one thing more than anything else in this tragic fall-from-grace; the loss of innocence.

RING 2 (15)

2 out of 5 stars

Nakata followed up his immensely successful ‘Ring’ with this film two years later; and the film serves to show, if nothing else, just how marvellously inconsistent Nakata can be. For every flash of genius (Dark Water) there is a mild work of tosh (The Ring Two). Ring 2 proves that Nakata can take subject matter and produce something beautifully scary and well controlled, but can similarly produce something that suffers from an overabundance of ideas, sloppy pacing and extremely inconsistent story telling. Put it this way, Ring 2 is something of a head-fuck of a horror film. You will spend more of the film wondering what in gods name is going on than you will actually being frightened, which is a shame because the film does have some very scary moments – scenes set in the hospital where one of the only survivors of the video has to be kept behind a curtain, so she cannot see the television that torments her, were so powerful that they were lifted for the American remake. The narrative, as it stands, takes place shortly after the first film; Reiko has gone missing with her son, and Mai Takano, the girlfriend of Ryuji, is determined to find out what happened to her lover. Mercifully, the video plays little role in the film and therefore avoiding a retread of the first. Instead, we get some rather jumbled scenes of exposition, and some unsettling scenes of psychic imprinting, as well as some child acting that is so hilarious at times you wonder what happened to the creepily calm and collected little boy who so dominated the original film at times; I refer specifically to a scene where he ‘knocks back’ some hospital guards with a psychic blast that is as bloody ridiculous as it sounds. Some random character death also happens, and I say random because it can take up to five minutes before you realise a character is dead. Not always a problem in films, but in Ring 2 it just leaves you reaching for the paracetomol. The last twenty minutes has to be the most surreal bookend to any horror film ever; the artistic flourishes are quite extraordinary, but any scene where a dead character from the first film emerges in perfect health at the bottom of a well to demand of his son ‘Give me your fear! Give me your fear!’ leave you either laughing your backside off or leave you as clueless as the lead apparently is. You may have noticed the plot summary is extremely tangled, but it’s the best summary I can manage, because the plot really is that impenetrable. Its ending is fascinating (Sadako climbing up the inside of the well, oh my god that is eerie) and leaves us with a troubling note of doubt, but the preceding hour and forty minutes makes you feel like the ending was a mercy rather than an accomplishment.

Muddled pulp fiction, Ring 2 is a good experiment but an ultimately unsuccessful one, with too much irregularity to make it satisfying or scary viewing.

RING (15)

5 out of 5 stars

Like The Shining, Carrie and The Exorcist before it, Ring has entered the pantheon of truly great horror movies simply by executing a scene so accomplished and powerful that the rest of the film feels like a wonderful and terrifying prelude. The scene is the now legendary TV-set scene that left us forever terrified of girls with long black hair, but we should not forget that the rest of the film is a masterfully constructed piece of suspense horror that is based less around making us jump out of our seats and rather on sucking us into a terrifying and macabre mystery that keeps us hooked all the way through. It is easy to wax lyrical about Hideo Nakata’s 1998 classic, but what exactly is it that made the film such a classic? This film has spawned a prequel, a sequel, a Korean and American remake, a sequel to the aforementioned American remake, a short TV series…and this is not counting Spiral, the official literary sequel to the Ring. Koji Suzuki, the author, cannot have possibly imagined the cultural impact of his effective chiller. The fact is that the film beautifully fillets the slightly over-complicated ‘virus’ theory of the book and instead retains the supernatural elements that are wisely left unexplained; the film gets a beautiful sense of mystery and terror that unfolds, managing to keep the film scary even during long scenes of exposition. The cinematography of the film is also quite striking, a bleak and almost colourless tone that Gore Verbinski borrowed almost wholesale for his remake of The Ring (not that this is a bad thing). It is refreshing to see a world that isn’t presented in rather over-romantic or feudal tones, as in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and The Last Samurai. The film is expertly controlled by Nakata, whose solid and fast-paced direction gives the film an energy that it could have so easily lacked. Nakata’s world is almost disturbingly normal; what we see is a modern Japan with the same concerns and fears that we have. Intrusive press officials, motel owners, teenagers…it has a Japanese lilt to it, but if it were not for the distinctive architecture we could almost be anywhere in the world. In this world, we see Reiko Asakawa, a single mother and journalist who becomes fascinated with a folk-lore story about a videotape that is supposedly cursed, and kills whoever watches it within the week. Once she locates the tape at the motel where all of the dead teenagers stayed for a holiday, the film picks up its pace.

She has a week, and we know it. There is simply no room for the possibility of it being ‘wrong’; the film is kept powerful and lean because there are no scenes where shrieking supporting cast members scream ‘I don’t believe it!’ as basically the entire cast of Final Destination does. Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji Takayama, are very much aware they are living on borrowed time – because they believe it with such conviction, we believe it too. Every piece of evidence and exposition is true because they believe it, and there is no falsity in the film. There is no need for doubt in the film. This isn’t a murder mystery with red herrings and dud clues; it’s a mightily effective horror machine. The videotape leads our desperate heroes – both surprisingly sympathetic – to the disturbing past of a psychic woman and her daughter, Sadako whose psychic power led her to an unimaginably macabre fate. The flashback sequences, although explained in a slightly fudged way by having Reiko experience a bizarre psychic ‘flash of memory’, are in stark black and white and are so chilling that often these scenes are more effective than those set in the present day.

Sadako’s fate, an ugly death at the bottom of a well, serves as the penultimate ending; it could be the end, but Nakata is not prepared to let us off so easily. It is perhaps somewhat amusing that Nakata knows that the simple reburial of a troubled soul’s remains will not suddenly stop everything; revenge, as the film shows, knows no bounds. This sets us up for the simply nerve-jangling scene in which Ryuji watches in disbelief as…gah, no, I can’t say it. You have to watch. The final scene leaves us with a satisfying note of doubt; Reiko has saved her life, but she still has to save her son. And that means a horrible sacrifice in his name.

So, what is the ring? The simplified explanation in the remake is that the ‘ring’ is the last thing you see before you die, but the Japanese explanation is far more chilling; the only way to save yourself is put another in jeopardy, and they have to do exactly the same thing to someone else. It is an eternal loop; a ‘ring’ that keeps on growing. Perhaps it is this, combined with some iconic moments and the scariest child in film history that has made Ring what it is. Perhaps it is simply that the film never lets us feel safe; as I have already stated, revenge knows no bounds. Not even death can hold it.

November 23, 2005

The Brittas Empire (PG)

2 out of 5 stars

Oh dear.

Oh deary me.

It always breaks my heart when I find sitcoms not as funny as I once found them; I remember loving it because of my beloved Chris Barrie, who does such an excellent job in Red Dwarf. It is considered something of a classic mid 90s series; the premise is summed up best by the Amazon review:

_In this classic TV sitcom, Gordon Brittas (Chris Barrie) is the manager of Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre. He means well, wants to do well and desperately wants to be a good manager. Unfortunately his best talent is to continually create recipes for total disaster But Deep down Brittas cares for his staff, but all he ever seems to do is to make their lives more difficult. Trying to rise above this, and to keep the Centre running smoothly, are his assistant Laura (Julia St. John) and of course Colin, complete with boil! Behind every good man, so the saying goes, is a good woman, and behind every maniac, is a good woman losing her sanity! Helen Brittas (Pippa Haywood) is no different as she struggles to cope with her husband's misplaced enthusiasm. _

Okay, why, do you ask, have I pasted a review verbatim from Amazon.co.uk? Possibly its because I don't honestly feel it necessary to sum up the premise of the Brittas Empire on my own – also to showcase the occasionally very poor grammar of amazons own reviewers.

Mainly I suppose its because I want to get down to brass tacks: the show really is not as funny as I remember it to be. The central problem I realise is that despite Chris Barrie's amusing performance, the writers seem to think that having a pratfalling manager whom the staff bad talk every fifteen seconds or so is genuinely funny – with the exception of the highly overrated The Office, this has not translated well. One thing I find completely preposterous is his wife. Her constant infidelity is supposed to be funny and we are supposed, for god knows what reason, to root for this semi-psychotic, nymphomaniacal egotistical hussy. For some other, even more preposterous reason, the staff seem to assist in her escapades – even looking disappointed and crestfallen when his wife fails to say marry a new man mere hours after the supposed death of her husband.

I know Brittas is supposed to be an idiot, but surely even in comedy he wouldn't inspire such loathing from his staff? Even the sensible ones seem to dislike him, even when he is trying to do a good job. Not to say Brittas is entirely sympathetic – he drives everyone up the wall with his absurd pernicketiness, his absurd ideas and appalling customer service. It doesn't really help that the assisting cast, with the exception of Colin and the receptionist Carol, are just insufferably bland. Sensible characters with no flaws are not funny; they don't have to be caricatures, but making a character with virtually no flaws just does not inspire sympathy. A good example is the annoyingly witty, perky and clever Brittas assistant Laura – she is a very dull actress in a very dull part.

It did get funnier later on I recall, with some rather moving episodes regarding Brittas' death and ascent to heaven before being returned simply because he got in St. Peter's nerves too much. It is held together by the comic presence of Chris Barrie, who while admittedly overdoes the smarm a number of times, is pretty much the finest actor of the whole piece – apart from the repugnant Colin, who is the guy we should really be rooting for.

It has pained me to write this review, since I dislike debunking myths of my childhood – especially as I recall avidly watching it from when I was a boy. Sigh. How times change.

October 27, 2005


4 out of 5 stars

Dir. Mary Harron

For those worried about my review trend, I promise this only happens to be because I bought this recently and not because I fetishise serial killers, okay? Good. I also happen to appreciate very dark movies – much like the excellent American Psycho.

The film American Psycho happens to be based on a rather good, if extraordinarily macabre, novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The novel has been stripped down to its bare essentials and is now a lean, dark social satire with a bit of slasher horror thrown in. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a mild, intelligent, charming, hard working, amiable and rich young banker working on Wall Street. He's also a murderous psychopath, who kills call girls and homeless men for no apparent reason. The film charts his degeneration from savvy banker into maniac, and is all the more powerful for its denouement that pretty much emphasizes the entire message of the film – if I told you, it wouldn't be as amusing and flabbergasting as it turns out to be. It's not a twist as such, more just a deeply surprising way of concluding a movie where the ending would otherwise be astonishingly predictable.

With all due credit to the director and writers, the tone is dark and comical with an acidic edge and kept at a decent 98 minutes which makes the film snappy and fast-moving. Unlike the book, where it occasionally goes to town on the detail and gore, the film is conservative about blood being spilled – there is claret to be seen here, but compared to the book it really is nothing in terms of quantity – and draws an interesting contrast between Bateman by day as banker, and by night as murderous lunatic in underwear wielding his chainsaw around. The best shots in AP are the subtle yet shocking ones; a casual conversation reveals Bateman opening his fridge to retrieve some wine, only for the audience to see a severed head in a plastic bag inside he obtained from a woman he met earlier. No violent strings, no screams…just the shot, Bateman talking, and the door closing. Shots like this make the film as blackly comical as it is.

Christian Bale excels himself, the pure embodiment of smirking charm and arrogance and beautifully portrayed narcicissm. He is, essentially, everything you'd expect Patrick Bateman to be. He is well supported too; Reese Witherspoon is delightfully vacuous as Bateman's fiancee, Evelyn, and Chloe Sevigny is nicely understated as Bateman's sweet and bashful secretary. Willem Dafoe does nicely too, although he doesn't really have much to work with – only being in two or so scenes.

The dialogue is great ("I just…had to kill a hell of a lot of people!!") and when a film is as well acted as this, you have a great film resulting. If I have any criticisms, it is that Bateman's degeneration in mental state seems almost too quick, but it is marginally better than the constant bloodletting of the novel. It also lacks some of the more vividly satirical moments of the novel, something that would have worked well in the film, but to be honest you couldn't include the whole book in the film – The result would just be unwatchable.

Mary Harron has done a great job, creating a magnificent villain for the modern era, and the fact the film remains unflinching and makes no attempt at moral judgement makes the film that much more powerful.


5 out of 5 stars

Dir. Tobe Hooper

It has three sequels and one remake, and neither one came even slightly close to the sheer buzzsaw power and terror of the brilliant original. In the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to find films akin to TCSM - largely in the form of rather pointless orgies of bloodletting inspired by Night of the Living Dead (18, 1968). What singles out TCSM is its surprising lack of gore – blood is rarely spilled, but when it is, the effects are shattering.

Made for $500,000 in a sweltering August in 1973, Tobe Hooper's feature length debut was banned in a number of countries, as well as the UK - a campaign sperheaded unsurprisingly by those protectors of moral values, The Daily Mail. It was years before mainstream audiences in the UK saw it, and before it finally got the acclaim it so obviously deserved. It is a horror masterpiece. No, there is no intricate complex plot involved here, it's not The Ring. It does what it says on the tin. A group of teenagers driving through texas are waylaid by a rather 'unconventional' family, out of work since the Slaughterhouse closed down. The first inkling they get of this family is the slightly crazed hitchhiker (Edwin Neals) who hints at what is to come with an amusing lack of subtlety ("My family's always been in meat") before they run out of gas, and poke around an old house before they explore a little too far.

What with there only being five teenagers, the bodycount is low but their deaths are quite awesomely shocking. Deaths are delivered via hammer, chainsaw and meathook – by the insane squealing Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a rather unfortunate name to give a growing young man but hey, it has the intended effect. The sole survivor, Sally (Marilyn Burns) spends most of the remainder of the film running away and screaming – unlike most scantily clad film heroines however, you're actually screaming with her. The chase is truly terrifying, and as the film powers into its final minutes, we're still holding our breath and trying not to scream. As a hysterical, shrieking Sally finally escapes, we see the most chilling shot in all cinema – leatherface screaming, waving his chainsaw around his head in a fit of rage.

It is a horror film with a distinct lack of frills and is probably one of the purest horror films ever. It's the bad guy and his quarry, laced with black humour (seen particularly when Leatherface is in the kitchen, being hounded by 'paw') and plenty of shocks and a constant sensation of dread. The film forces you through one nightmare after another; in fact, some of the most disturbing scenes are where leatherface has no weapons and the whole family are sat around the dinner table, shrieking and laughing hysterically at the bound and gagged girl. Okay, so the film is unlikely to win awards for acting – although Gunnar Hansen is fantastic as the insane and child-like Leatherface – but having Shakespearean actors in a film that is all about getting cut up with a chainsaw is not strictly necessary. The film has dated, but it has never lost the power to terrify. The power of the film was such that it was felt that it needed a remake with higher production values and a larger 'Sawyer' family – but the 2003 effort just couldn't get close. Hail one of the great horror movies of all time, as well as one of the greatest and most frightening villains.

July 26, 2005

Hellsing (15)

4 out of 5 stars

A strangely compact anime series, that consists of only 12 episodes or so, and rather loosely based on the manga by Kohta Hirano. The idea is one of the more basic of anime ones: Arucard (Alucard? It's never made clear – Although for me it makes sense for it to be Alucard as Arucard backwards creates…Dracura. Yeah, not as catchy) is an age old vampire, working for his tough human master Sir Integra Wingates Hellsing, and after an incident in a church that leaves young Seras Victoria dying he turns her into one of his own. The whole thing is set largely in London, which gives the cultural imagery a curious angle – more on that later however, but it gives it a fresh setting.

The anime, as expected, is extremely bloody – hands and arms get lopped off at a quite alarming rate, and it can't help but make you chuckle. The animation is first class; its just stunning stuff. The backgrounds look beautiful, and the characters themselves move cleanly and dynamically. You won't find bloody animated quite so beautifully – with the possible exception of Blood: The Last Vampire.

Voice acting in japanations that are not cast by the big guys (i.e Disney's casting of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) can have results ranging from the hilarious to the plain absurd. Hellsing's is kind of both. The acting from Victoria Harwood as Integra is full of delicious self-assurance and makes for the best accent of the piece, but K.T Gray as Seras Victoria is less worthy. Its not so much the acting is bad or her accent bad, its more that she can't seem to decide which accent she has. Londoner or aristocrat? She manages both, often at the same time. Crispin Freeman does a decent job as Arucard, and the bit parts are played by graduates from the School for Cockney Acting. Perhaps this is too cynical. As an ensemble, it works very well – the fact that every accent is reasonable does give the anime a firm grounding in England.

If the anime has any flaws, its that the overall story is rather limp. The anime is perfectly happy with its beautifully constructed original episodes, but there is no real build up to the explosive 2-part episode finale. It makes up for this by being very well translated; I have rarely seen an anime that has been so well translated into English. Okay, its not literary masterwork, but it does at least make grammatic sense. Each story is fairly simple, but hugely enjoyable. I was tickled particularly by Episode 2, in which two vampire youths go on a murderous rampage around Coventry. As in, COVENTRY. Very entertaining.

We also care about our characters; Arcuard is a murderous lunatic vampire on a leash (exactly as he should be) and Seras Victoria is a frightened, uncertain vampire who knows little about her new place in the world. To be honest, I don't know what she's got to be unhappy about as her turn to the undead has apparently ballooned her bra size by at least several cups – but hey, its a vampire thang. The rather absurdly named Integra Wingates Hellsing probably makes for the toughest female character ever. As in, ever. Cigar smoking, cold and yet also extremely compassionate for the plight of others, this is a woman who shoots herself in the BLOODY HEAD to get the 'vampire infection' out of her blood at some point in Episode 9 (if its 10, I stand corrected). Ripley ain't got shit on Integra.

Its tough, its unrelenting, and its very memorable as series go. It is also a curious cultural creature that seems to try its hardest to be 'British' and yet to any British person watching, will appear as anything but. To be fair, it is not doing what American films do – Use age old cultural stereotypes filled with middle aged women saying 'Oh, how quaint' or cockney thieves. Its rather charming, in fact. Everyone says God Save the Queen, and the Tower of London is the apparent centre of operations for the UK government. Harmless stuff. What it does uniquely, however is the fact that we see ordinary English people in it. There is no absurd polarisation of the villain being British and the hero American (even if Arucard is voiced by an American, but our leads are mostly English sounding). It is very refreshing. The religious aspect is also interesting; Arucard uses bullets made from the silver of a cross melted down from Canterbury (?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and the biggest enemy for the first couple of episodes, to my inherent amusement, is the Militant Wing of the Vatican. It creates a very odd, yet extremely compelling cultural monster that only suffers from a few continuity errors (Seras being told she cannot go out in the sun is followed up badly a few episodes later when she takes a stroll in the daylight), some amusing cultural problems (the SAS attacking a huge, rather isolated castle in the middle of nowhere) and a rather weak overall story.

Each episode however is tight, contained and flows into the other; they are well written, action filled and beautifully animated. Its cool and bloody, and it gets the job done.

July 25, 2005

End of Evangelion (15)

1 out of 5 stars

The highly controversial 'end of evangelion', where Hideako Anno completed his near legendary anime series about bio-mechanical stomping robots and their highly neurotic teen pilots is one of the great debated endings of all anime series. The Angels are defeated, but NERV, the organisaiton that uses the Evangelions, is under attack from the rest of the world. The apocalypse is nigh, and the secret society SEELE is ready for the world to cease to exist. The third impact, the legendary apocalypse that the cast have been hugely afraid of through the entire series, is about to occur. This really is the end. To say it got a mixed reception is an understatement; half of the people who saw it didn't understand it at all, feeling that it went quite supremely up its own backside. The other half thought it had huge art-house value, and sensibly ended the series on a down note.

So which is it?

Its a bloody mess. Sorry, but to be blunt…this feature length season finale is a complete mess. It has a few strong moments emotionally, which really rip at the heart, and also one extremely stirring action sequence that shows Asuka going psychotic in Eva Unit 02 in a moment of love for her long dead mummy. Its a stunning, bloody and explosive sequence. Such a shame that pretty much everything else is a bit of a shambles. I will try and classify its precise problems, since I have tried in the past to sum up in one go what is wrong with EOE, but its problems are multi-faceted.

1) Ideology: A tip, Hideako-san. Complex religious allegories are NOT good plot points – the Wachowski brothers should really have seen this to realise how much of a truth this is. Gnostic Christianity can be obscure at the best of times, and the themes it tries to convolutedly work into an already confusing plot just makes the whole thing a nightmare to comprehend.

2) The death and angst: A 26 episode series that ends with all of its principal characters dead bar one doesn't half make the preceding 25 episodes feel completely pointless. Especially since the various deaths just seem to happen for the sake of 'we need 'em dead' rather than for any logical reason. They just…die. It didn't have to be a happy ending, but a bit more character closure instead of an almost insane (i.e verging on the ridiculous) level of angst would have been nice. I'm also at a loss to explain Shinji's issues, but I don't think 'Oedipal' covers it. The attempt to wrap up all of the series loose ends when they had only been touched on loosely had been made before – the web becomes more tangled than a blind grandmother's knitting pattern. Exemplum: Shinji hates his dad, who hates his son because he loves/hates his wife who loved her son and loved her husband but was hated by Ritsuko because she was clever and her clone was too, her clone being Rei who is loved by Shinji's dad who doesn't love Ritsuko who thought she loved him. And I haven't even touched on Asuka, Miato and Koji's role in this. Did you follow any of that?

3) The second half: Nearly 30–40 minutes of the film is basically a huge acid trip. I had had a spaghetti bolognese the night I first watched it, and was wondering if some sort of hallucinogen had worked its way into my meal such was the Shroom-tastic closing 40 minutes of EOE. The narrative, hardly cohesive at the best of times, at this point completely gives up all together and goes down the pub. Something to do with Shinji choosing whether to live in this world or an idealised world thanks to the world being reborn after Eva Unit 02 was crucified (honestly, this is true). I found it distinctly hard to pick out individual stories…or, come to think of it, any story at all.

4) Shinji's hand shandy: In Death and Rebirth (or the greatest hits of Evangelion, as I like to call it) towards the end we witness Shinji masturbate over the unconscious form of Asuka, who does seem to have unusually large breasts for a girl her age, but hey, its anime. The fact that this scene, which is physically painful enough to watch thanks to both the sound of Shinji grunting over the shot of an 'engaged' lock on the surgery room door, and is followed up by a shot of his semen spread all over his hand appears AGAIN in EoE beggars belief. No, I don't want to watch Shinji have a wank again. Does it have some sort of religious symbolism? The symbolism could be that it is grossing out the viewers by making them watch our hardly mature looking hero ejaculating over his own hand. Just…no. It looks bad enough when pornstars do it, so seeing it in this form makes it that much worse. The low point of the film.

I think I've covered it. The film just isn't good. Evangelion's end could have been SO cool. What we got was this. Shame.

July 22, 2005

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 3 (15)

5 out of 5 stars

Are these glowing five star reviews getting tiring? I hope not, because I'm afraid I can't say enough good things about the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a series that by this time had elevated itself to super-cult status, demand was naturally high to keep the quality consistent. Joss Whedon and his established team of writers, the big stars being Doug Petrie, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, David Greenwalt and David Fury – together, they delivered a stupendous third season. As well as going from strength to strength, it was clear that Season 3 had matured a great deal – our heroes are worrying about college, relationships are becoming more complicated and a great deal changes a the series starts to make the transition out of school life. Again, Buffy succeeds by ramping it up on ever level.

Yet again, this season begins where the previous season left off. 'Anne' is the starter here, following Buffy's adventures in LA now that she has run away from Sunnydale after killing her lover. Back in Sunnydale, the team try to cope with the vampires in Sunnydale – but it is definitely clear that they are struggling without Buffy. Buffy finds herself sucked into a hell dimension thanks to a kindly/murderous church helper, and realises that she cannot cheat her fate. She chooses to return to Sunnydale. Proof that Buffy can go to any territory, 'Dead Man's Party' flirts with zombies, at the same time dealing with the anxiety being felt about Buffy running away from home. Both episodes settle us very comfortably into the world of the Buffster once more. A new bad guy and a very bad girl are introduced in 'Faith, Hope and Trick', in which we meet Mr. Trick ("it's not a haven for the brothers, you know, strictly the Caucasian Persuasion here in the Dale"), a cunning and extremely stylish vampire who is pursuing the drop dead gorgeous Faith, another slayer called when Kendra (badly accented slayer in Season 2) died. Faith is everything Buffy is not, and Buffy clearly resents the way she is working her way into Buffy's life – the chemistry between them is excellent however, and Eliza Dushku fills Faith with pure sexual ferocity that means she will often dominate the scenes she shares with Buffy.

'Beauty and the Beasts' sees the big twist of the season – Angel returns from hell, in a feral state. Buffy's encounter with him is enough to convince her to keep his presence secret, especially in light of the various animal attacks occurring around school. Oz naturally becomes prime suspect, but is left off the hook. We also see Oz finally getting some razor sharp dialogue ("Yeah, but, you know, since the best jazz is improvisational, we'd be going off in all directions, banging into floats… Scary").

From 'Homecoming' up until 'Lovers Walk' we see a brief affair between Willow and Xander, whose 'fluke' kiss in 'Homecoming' becomes a source of consternation for them both. Further smooches ensue until they are caught red handed by both Oz and Cordelia when being held prisoner by Spike (more on him later). The results of this are the painful split of Cordelia and Xander, who share acid and hurtful (if brilliant and often very funny) dialogue for most of the rest of the season. Oz and Willow split temporarily, but kiss-and-make-up after Oz proves more even minded than Cordy. 'Band Candy' is a stand out episode, if because we finally see Joyce Summers (Buffy's mother, played by Kristine Sutherland) becoming a more central character. All the adults in sunnydale are becoming teenagers – and believe me when I say, this episode is worth watching for what happens to Giles and Joyce alone.

'Lovers Walk' sees the welcome return of Spike, who arrives in very much the same manner except this time dead drunk ("Home, sweet… home") and also broken hearted after Dru told him 'they could still be friends'. As well as seeing some vintage Spike action, we see some extraordinary profundity from the punk vamp. The reality of Angel and Buffy's relationship is brought home for the first time by his words in one of the best speeches of the season:

"You're NOT friends. You'll never be friends.
You'll be in love till it kills you both. You'll fight, and you'll shag,
and you'll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you'll never be
friends. (points at his temple) Love isn't brains, children, it's
blood… (clasps his chest) blood screaming inside you to work its will. I might be love's bitch. But at least I'm man enough to admit it."

Hmm, very telling. It is with episode 9 that the third season soars into brilliance with the monumentally cool 'The Wish'. Cordelia, still reeling from her break up with Xander, makes a rather ill-advised wish to the demon Anyanka (Anya of course, who becomes quite prominent in the next season). We see the alternate Sunnydale if Buffy had never been there – scared, subdued by The Master and inhabited by Vampire Xander and Vampire Willow, who burn up the screen with every scene they are in ("I love this part" "You love all the parts"). Naturally this means the master makes a welcome return, and we see a far meaner, more dangerous Buffy who is clearly embittered and cold after her calling takes up her entire life. After a heartbreaking sequence in which each and every one of our heroes dies, all is returned to normal thanks to Giles' actions which result in Anyanka becoming plain Anya. 'Amends' is one of the less well received of Joss Whedon's episodes, but actually handles Angel's despair about his previous sins very tenderly and introduces us to the big bad of Season 7 – the first evil.

'Gingerbread' is a rather stylish retelling of The Crucible, after Joyce comes across two children dead in a park apparently at the hands of witches. At first things seem okay, before student rights are being violated, goths are being picked on for no readily apparent reason and Gile's entire library is confiscated. The witch-burning finale definitely evokes Arthur Miller, as Buffy herself is about to be killed by her own mother – although of course this time the ending is a happy one. Xander-focused episodes are always fun, and 'The Zeppo' is probably his best. An episode that gives Xander his very own adventure after his friends decide he's going to get killed if he helps them avert the apocalypse, works as the best derivative of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' ever created – we see the drama of Buffy's adventure in averting the apocalypse, but the focus is Xander's own problems with an undead gang he inadvertently becomes part of (Giles: "There's something… different about this… menace,
something in the air… The stench of death" Xander: "Yeah, I think it's Bob"). He also saves everyone even as they fight on the hellmouth, though they don't know it of course, and finally realises he doesn't need to worry about whether people consider him useless or not – he knows he saved the day once.

'Bad Girls' and 'Consequences' deals with the downfall of Faith, who by the end of 'Consequences' has shifted sides completely and starts working for the mayor – the fact her Skywalker-esque turn to the dark side never fails to be real is a testament to how Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar play off against each other. it is one of the great tragedies of the season that is touched upon again in Season 4 and even in Season 1 of Angel.

It is probably worth mentioning arguably the greatest and most entertaining bad guy in television – The Mayor (Harry Groener), who wishes to ascend to demonhood and forms the backbone of the season in its superb story arc. The mayor…what can I say about him? There aren't words that can describe how knock-out funny and bizarre this guy is. Obsessively clean, polite and sunny but hiding an evil and vicious soul, the mayor simply blows away everyone in all of his scenes – this does include when he's with Faith, Buffy or anyone else ("This officially commences the Hundred Days. Nothing can harm me until the Ascension. (smiles wide and laughs) Gosh, I'm feeling chipper! (keeps laughing) Who's for a root beer?!"). I feel that I have to mention the scene in 'Bad Girls' in which he ticks his 'to do' list, which includes 'greet scouts, see temp agency, become invincible'. Sorry, but it had to be done. The guy is pure class. His father-daughter connection to Faith becomes a strong sticking point up until the climactic episodes of 'Graduation Day Parts 1 & 2' and, in tribute to Harry Groener's acting, show the mayor conveying a great sense of loss when Faith is…incapacitated. Sheer brilliance.

Willow is also a very strong character in this season; she starts becoming the leader the gang need when Buffy isn't there to do it for them, and we see her in the wonderful 'Doppergangerland' at her best. An attempt to throw off her nerdy exterior by performing a spell with Anya goes somewhat askew, and the vampire Willow from 'The Wish' ("Bored now") turns up in the home reality. The quotes are just endless, so I'll simply put my two favourites in here:

Giles: She was truly the finest of all of us.

Xander: Way better than me.

Giles: (nods decisively) Much, much better.


Buffy: "Aren't you gonna introduce me to your- holy
God, you're Willow."

Also, Willow's "Jeez, who died?" response to her despairing comrades after seeing her as a vampire…pure Joss Whedon and pure beauty. After the fun of 'Dopplegangerland' we return to more serious turf, and in 'Enemies' and 'Choices' we see the further downfall of Faith, and also the build up to the mayor's ascension. Faith becomes more murderous and destructive, and the mayor makes a rather pointed comment about how Buffy and Angel's relationship can never work. 'Earshot' is also a great episode (sandwiched inbetween 'enemies' and 'Choices'), and frighteningly contemporary, as it deals with a mass-murderer in high school that Buffy overhears after becoming a mind-reader temporarily. Interestingly, this episode was to be broadcast one week after the Columbine massacre and was rather wisely shunted forwards as a result. Of course for me, the episode is worth watching for Buffy's reaction to what Joyce and Giles did in 'Band Candy'.

'The Prom' sees Angel break up with Buffy, breaking her heart of course but harks back to The Mayors profound statement about the fact the two can never have a happy life together – he tells her he will leave after graduation day, but not before he shares the prom with her in the last dance they will ever have. There is also a glimpse of the future between Xander an Anya, in the first of many priceless exchanges (Anya: "Fine. Look, I know you find me attractive. I've seen you looking at my breasts." Xander: "Nothing personal, but when a guy does that, it just means his eyes are open.")

The explosive season finale, the two-parter 'Graduation Day Part 1 & 2' sees everything come to a thundering end. Buffy and Faith fight, Buffy wins but needs Faith's blood to cure Angel from a poisonous arrow fired by the eponymous rogue slayer. Now, when I graduated, I was half expecting (half hoping?) for the VC to turn into a giant snake while all the robed graduates removed various medieval weapons and twatted him with flamethrowers and fire arrows before destroying the Arts Centre in an enormous explosion. What a headline that would make. Of course, this is what happens in Buffy. After a great speech by Principal Snyder ("You all proved more or less adequate") the mayor ascends, and the gang stand with the rest of the school to defeat the mayor. Its a great end, and a new beginning – there is no more school, and Cordelia and Angel enjoy their last episode.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention Wesley! Played by Alexis Denisof, the character of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, the new watcher after Giles gets fired in 'Helpless' only stays for this one season but is so memorably priggish and buerkish that he just HAD to become part of the core cast of Angel. Well played friend, well played.

Season 3 proved that TV series don't just peter out after two seasons, and in the case of Buffy continued its very fine tradition of excellent dialogue and compelling characterisation, as well as putting our favourite characters into fruition throughout. After this, its roll on the college years. Buffy was rarely better than this.

July 21, 2005

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2 (15)

5 out of 5 stars

To put a sexual analogy on it, the first series was just foreplay – this is the real deal. Longer, far more intense, sharper and generally more witty all around, season 2 is often considered the best season of Buffy. It is not hard to see why. Since I have explained the core characters already, there's no real need to do a character overview unless I'm mentioning incidental characters and those who 'come into their own' (such as Cordelia and Jenny Calendar).

Buffy returns to Sunnydale after spending the summer in LA with her dad. She is still somewhat traumatised after he final encounter with The Master, and her initially bitchy behaviour threatens to distance her from her friends ('When She Was Bad'). As it moves on, we meet the new bad guys; Spike and Drusilla. Spike and Drusilla are just stunning. Spike, the British vampire who acts like Sid Vicious (and was based on him, no less) and has a wicked sense of humour, meaning you just can't dislike him regardless of how evil he gets. Drusilla is his fruitloop girlfriend who is, in the words of my brother, 'f**king mad'. The Sid and Nancy of vampiredom dominate the first half of the season, making every clash with Buffy they have as memorable as the second half. Standouts of episodes 1–11 include 'Inca Mummy Girl', a variation on the theme of 'Teacher's Pet' except with a beautiful, uh, mummy. Xander falls in love with her, naturally. You'd have thought he would have learned by now. Others include 'School Hard', where Buffy has to deal with both PTA night and a vampire raid led by Spike on the school campus, 'Ted' where Buffy's mother's boyfriend really does turn out to be too good to be true (Ted himself played by the wonderful, but now sadly deceased, John Ritter). Oh yes, and 'Halloween' and 'The Dark Ages' which feature Robin Sachs as the acidic but devilish Ethan Rayne, also gives us more insight into Giles' character and his less than savoury past. It also gives us Xander with a machine gun and Buffy thinking she's from the 18th century. How much more fun than THAT can you get? There is also 'Lie To Me', where for the first time the line is blurred between good and evil when Buffy meets an old flame from LA.

The first of the true two-parters, 'What's My Line? Part 1 & 2' serves to deepen the relationship between Buffy and Angel and also gives us the surprise new romance of the season – Xander and Cordelia, whose loathing for each other breeds….um…love. Ass kicking action all present and correct of course. When 'Bad Eggs' plays, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Season 2 was simply a far cooler and more exciting Season 1 (although I'd dispute that), but when the next two parter 'Surprise' and 'Innocence' comes along, we enter far darker territory. Buffy and the Scooby Gang (they are thus called) fight to enter the plans of Spike and Dru to bring forth a legendary demon called 'The Judge'. The Judge becomes the least of their worries when Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time, and Angel loses his soul. He then reverts to being Angelus, a truly despicable and evil foe. The Joss Whedon scripted and directed 'Innocence', beautifully captures Buffy's heartbreak at the loss of her love to evil and Angelus' obsession with tormenting Buffy and her friends.

It is worth mentioning at this point about Jenny Calendar, the beautiful Computer Science teacher played by Robia LaMorte. The perfect counter (and of course, love interest) to Giles has a few rocky episodes with Giles, but is a loveably feisty presence who cannot help but poke fun at the man she falls in love with. Giles is deeply betrayed to learn in 'Innocence' that Jenny is in fact completely aware that Angel had been cursed with a soul. Not to mention Buffy of course. The other romance appearing at this point is the romance of Oz and Willow. Tired of waking for Xander to wake up and smell the roses, Willow finally becomes the other half of sweet and sensitive Oz, played by the very familiar sight of Seth Green (Scott Evil? You know?). The slight drawback is that Oz happens to be a werewolf ("You're nice and you're funny. And you don't smoke. Yeah, okay, werewolf, but that's not all the time. I mean, three days out of the month I'm not much fun to be around either")

Things take a turn for the shocking in 'Passion' where we see Angelus' true colours in all their viciously violent glory ("It speaks to us… guides us… Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have?"). It is always nice to see episodes that are dark and full of drama, but Buffy never overdoes the darkness. 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' is a perfect counterweight to this, and one of the finest episodes written by Marti Noxon. A love spell goes wrong, and every woman in Sunnydale suddenly becomes rather obsessed with Xander. You have to see it to realise just how funny this episode is. 'I only have eyes for you' is a surprisingly touching episode, involving the restless spirit of a boy who killed the teacher he was in love with in 1955. It is also very sad.

Season finales don't come much better than 'Becoming, Part 1 & 2', where we explore some of Angel's past and where it all spirals towards the inevitable face off between Buffy and Angel – where Buffy must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice. The world is going to be sucked into hell thanks to Angelus' machinations, of course. The emotion is intense, the stakes high and the sheer raw brilliance of it as written by Mr. Whedon never serves other than to give this a truly epic and apocalyptic feel. I dare you not to feel a tear in your eye in the final moments of the last episode of the season. Its truly heartbreaking. Who said Buffy can't do drama?

Season 2 is bigger and badder than Season 1, and also puts in true drama. The theme of tragic love is all pervading, never more so than in every confrontation between Buffy and Angelus after that. Cordelia becomes a more integral part of the group, as does Oz, who both end up putting their lives on the line for Buffy's sake, but the expanded group never loses dynamism.

Its a great season, and prepares us inexorably for the third season. After this season, Buffy finally proved itself as being more than just another teen drama – it was in a cult of its own.

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