Whiggles.com Compact
News // Movie Checklist // DVD Collection // Writings and Musings // Other

Sunday, September 17, 2006

See a sneak preview of Whiggles.com v9

A new version of Whiggles.com is coming!

That's right: after sticking with this incarnation of the site for over a year, I've decided once again to go back to the drawing board and cook up something fresh. This time, I'm going back to Movable Type as my news platform. Blogger has been fun, but I've come to the conclusion that I would prefer to have my own site design rather than a pre-fabricated template. That's not to say that I can't do that with Blogger, but I figure that, if I'm going to, I might as well have something that allows me complete control and isn't reliant on Blogger's notoriously unreliable servers being stable in order to post.

The new design, which at the moment is entirely hand-coded, and also 100% CSS and HTML 4.01 Transitional compliant, borrows heavily from the "blog" look of the templates offered by Blogger, WordPress and the like. As such, the design is hardly revolutionary, but it is at least functional and something that I can actually claim I made myself. It's also slightly more streamlined than the current incarnation of the site, which means that more material fits on the screen at any one time, and it loads slightly more quickly.

I'm aiming to make this transition as smooth as possible. As such, all the files for the current design will remain in place until they're no longer needed, and all the page URLs will remain the same, which means that I can move the site over to the new design bit by bit, without any extended downtime. I'll also be retaining the current layout as a means for archiving my Blogger posts. When I switch over to the new design, I'll disable comments on the Blogger posts, but everything will remain for archival purposes - "locked", as it were.

Anyway, you can see a preview of it here. Bear in mind that it's not yet complete, so the news posts are just placeholders designed as a mock-up of their intended look (I haven't actually implemented Movable Type yet, but will probably do so in the next few days), and the only pages currently working are the Blogger (2005-2006) and Vintage (2001-2005) news archive indexes. Still, I'd love to get feedback from anyone who's willing to give it. Let me know if there are any major niggles that leap out at you, or just offer your general thoughts on the design.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episode 5: Life Serial

DVDWritten by David Fury & Jane Espenson; Directed by Nick Marck

It's official: Buffy is now making gay jokes. It's astounding that a show that once prided itself on its witty repartee would stoop this low in order to elicit some laughs. And I'm serious, the Trio have been in the show now for a grand total of two episodes, and already I never want to see them again. The worst offender is Andrew: I assume that the fact that he has a whiny voice, speaks with a lisp and is a dork is meant to be funny. It's not - it just makes him annoying. Sadly, he is around for the rest of the show's duration, becoming a regular in all but name in Season 7 and actually getting more screen time than the likes of Xander and Willow.

Having said that, Life Serial is not without its merits. It consists of three "tests" that the Trio put Buffy against. The one on the construction site, where she has to fight some generic demons, is just lazy writing, but the other two are pretty interesting. Indeed, a case could be made for these being some of the toughest challenges Buffy has ever faced - she certainly never had to deal with time being manipulated before. I also like drunk Buffy. "Bleeeeeeegh!"

Overall rating: 6/10.

Next time: All the Way.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episode 4: Flooded

DVDWritten by Douglas Petrie & Jane Espenson; Directed by Douglas Petrie

How's this for fun: an entire episode of Buffy having wacky adventurous dealing with such problems as... a flooded basement and financial issues. Sound exciting? Good, 'cause it ain't. This is one tedious piece of crap, and it also has the misfortune of introducing our "villains" for the season: the Trio. These are single-handedly the worst bad guys ever created for the show. As a one-off they would have been bad: as Buffy's arch-nemises for an entire season, they're downright appalling. Look, I get it: this season is supposed to be about how mundane and unremarkable real life is. Unfortunately, I like to watch Buffy for its escapism and great characters. Take these away and what do you have left?

Oh, and it occurs to me that Willow and Tara have spent all summer living in Buffy's house, eating her food and spending her money. So why is the total lack of money Buffy's problem? Why don't these two have jobs? At a push, one could make a case for Tara serving as a surrogate mother to Dawn, but Willow doesn't have a leg to stand on. (And who's paying their college bills? Is that Buffy's job too?) Speaking of Willow, why is she wearing a crucifix in this episode? That goes completely against her character on multiple levels.

There are some good moments in this episode - Buffy's reunion with Giles, Willow's loaded confrontation with Giles... actually, all the good moments involve Giles. But this is still the worst episode in over a year.

Overall rating: 5/10.

Next time: Life Serial.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episode 3: After Life

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by David Solomon

This episode has some strong things going for it, namely its genuinely creepy portrayal of possession, but it's just too slow and uninvolving for me to rate it highly. It's almost entirely devoid of humour, and way too much time is spent following a catatonic Buffy around the house as she reacquaints herself with it. Look, we get it: being resurrected is probably a fairly traumatic experience, especially if you were ripped out of a heavenly dimension against your will, but we really don't need 45 minutes of this. Sadly, this is just the beginning - we get an entire season of it.

By the way, it occurs to me that, despite being dead, Buffy somehow managed to dye her hair between Seasons 5 and 6.

Overall rating: 6/10.

Next time: Flooded.

Blu-ray Ben gets the boot

Blu-raySource: High-Def Digest

Benjamin Feingold, head of Sony Home Video and the man commonly nicknamed "Blu-ray Ben" due to his prominent role in garnering industry support for the format, has stepped down. Whether he did so voluntarily or was pushed is unknown, but I certainly wouldn't trust the man who allowed turkeys like the terrible transfers for the Blu-ray releases of The Fifth Element and House of Flying Daggers to be put out under his watch to be in charge of anything video-related. Stepping in is former MGM Home Entertainment boss David Bishop.

Update, 12:53: He was fired. And he was also in charge of the UMD line - sort of speaks for itself.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2: Bargaining

DVDPart 1
Written by Marti Noxon; Directed by David Grossman

Part 2
Written by David Fury; Directed by David Grossman

And so Buffy begins its sixth season, considered by many to be, at the time, the worst. Season 7 pretty much put paid to any notion that Season 6 was as bad as it could get, but that's certainly how it looked back then. I have to admit that the two-part opener has a lot in its favour, although the fact that it's too long, with too much padding and exposition, is certainly not in its favour. It's pretty clear that a lot of this episode was clearly designed to clue UPN viewers into what was going on in a show they might not have been familiar with. Willow and Tara are sticking their tongues down each others' throats all the time (because, hey, they're gay, and do gay things with each other), Xander is wacky and silly but not particularly funny, Anya is inappropriately cheerful and likes money, and at one point Tara actually utters the line "He used to live there, remember?", when the gang are wondering if Giles will be okay back in England. Good god, I know UPN was supposed to attract a big stoner crowd, but I find it hard to believe anyone couldn't work out that Giles came from England.

Yes, Giles leaves. Anthony Head was fed up hanging around with anorexic American brats, so he decided to go back to England to hang around with his own brats (i.e. his children). That's fair enough, and the writers had to work around this problem, but they sure as hell did a terrible job with the character's motivation. Basically, despite the fact that the gang are severely struggling to keep the local vampire population down in Buffy's absence, Giles decides he isn't needed and so buggers off. Guess they now know who his favourite was, huh? I recently read a post on a Buffy-related forum that pointed out an interesting parallel between Joss Whedon and Giles in this season. Both "fathers" watched their "child" (Buffy the character; Buffy the show) die (when Buffy leapt into the portal; when the WB cancelled the show); the child was then brought back to life (Buffy by her friends; the show when it found new life on UPN); the father then didn't stick around to serve as a dutiful parent (Giles abandoning Buffy to return to England; Whedon going off to do other things).

Oh, and if they want to pretend to the local demons that Buffy isn't dead (using the Buffybot as a stand-in), it would help if there wasn't a giant tombstone in the graveyard saying "Buffy Anne Summers, 1981-2001" on it.

Otherwise, there are a number of definite good points about this two-parter. Once it gets going, it's pretty exciting, and the "hell on earth" that the resurrected Buffy finds herself faced with is effective. The biker demons that invade Sunnydale are also kinda neat, but slightly naff at the same time - are we really to believe that these hideous monsters drive around the highways of California, whooping and playing loud music, and no-one finds the sight strange? And the ordeal Willow goes through during the resurrection is strong stuff, despite the sometimes naff special effects. So yeah, as season premieres go, this is one of the better ones, although the dodgy character motivations and plot holes are already creeping in.

Overall rating: 7/10 for Part 1, 8/10 for Part 2.

Next time: After Life.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5 (2000-2001)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5
Season 5 reviews:

- Episode 1: Buffy vs. Dracula 7/10
- Episode 2: Real Me 7/10
- Episode 3: The Replacement 8/10
- Episode 4: Out of My Mind 8/10
- Episode 5: No Place Like Home 9/10
- Episode 6: Family 9/10
- Episode 7: Fool for Love 10/10
- Episode 8: Shadow 8/10
- Episode 9: Listening to Fear 7/10
- Episode 10: Into the Woods 7/10
- Episode 11: Triangle 8/10
- Episode 12: Checkpoint 9/10
- Episode 13: Blood Ties 8/10
- Episode 14: Crush 6/10
- Episode 15: I Was Made to Love You 6/10
- Episode 16: The Body 10/10
- Episode 17: Forever 7/10
- Episode 18: Intervention 9/10
- Episode 19: Tough Love 8/10
- Episode 20: Spiral 6/10
- Episode 21: The Weight of the World 7/10
- Episode 22: The Gift 10/10

Phew! 100 episodes down... 44 to go, if I decide to keep this up. To be honest, I'm not sure. As I already said, I think The Gift is the perfect way to end the series, and I'm not convinced that I'll get much pleasure out of Seasons 6 and 7, unless I can distance myself from them enough to laugh at how ludicrously bad they are, rather than becoming depressed by how hollow and soulless all the characters become.

In any event, it now seems clear that Season 5 is my favourite season. Before I started these personal Buffy reruns way back when, I had Season 2 pegged as my favourite and Season 5 as my second favourite. I was somewhat thrown when Season 3 overtook Season 2 not only in the average "out of 10" ratings, but also in terms of personal enjoyment. I wasn't too surprised that Season 4 had a lower average rating than either Seasons 2 or 3, but I wasn't expecting Season 5 to come out the clear winner both numerically and personally. With an average of 7.91/10, which can be rounded up to 8/10, it has the highest rating of all the first five seasons (and, somehow, I doubt Seasons 6 and 7 are going to steal the crown!). The characters, acting, writing and directing are of an almost uniformally high standard, with no episode dropping below a 6/10 rating, and more episodes rated higher than that than any other season. Yes, it's not perfect, but TV never is, is it?

I think I've said everything I want to say about Season 5 in the individual episode reviews. The only question now, to quote Once More with Feeling, is "Where do we go from here?" Do I watch Seasons 6 and 7 or not. I think perhaps I will - it's been a long time since I saw them, and there a number of episodes that I've only seen once (gee, I wonder why). In any event, I want to see if they're as bad as I remember them being. Who knows? Maybe I'll have an epiphany and proclaim them to be misunderstood classics.

I somehow doubt it, though.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 22: The Gift

DVDWritten and Directed by Joss Whedon

This is it: the 100th episode, the intended series finale, and what the previous 99 episodes were building towards. At least, that's the theory. In practice, we all know that Buffy was renewed for a further two seasons of extremely dubious quality - two seasons that, personally, I could have done without. The Gift's ending is, for me, perfect. Buffy embraces her purpose - which, it has to be said, is not a particularly pleasant purpose, but it's what she knows she has to do, and she goes out a hero, rather than the dismal wreck to which she was reduced in Season 6. And despite the sadness inherent in ending any series with the death of its lead character, it has to be said that The Gift contains enough optimism for it not to be a monumentally depressing experience. Willow restores Tara's mind, Spike proves his worth, Xander proposes to Anya... A year later, of course, all of these points would be negated in spectacular fashion, but hey, I said all along I might just pretend Seasons 6 and 7 didn't exist, and given the choice of dead Buffy, or dead Tara, dead Spike and dead Anya and two seasons of crappy episodes, I'd take dead Buffy any day.

It has to be said that this episode is filled with as many plot holes as the ones leading up to it. In typical Buffy fashion, a bunch of McGuffins are brought out at the last moment to help turn the tide in Team Buffy's favour, including the Dagon Sphere which was brought up in Episode 5 and then never mentioned again until now, and Olaf the troll's enchanted hammer from Triangle, which has now suddenly become Olaf the troll god's enchanted hammer, so the writers can justify it doing damage to Glory. And, of course, we have the whole debacle regarding the fact that, in reality, Buffy giving her life to save Dawn's would not have closed the portal. After all, the phrase is "Until the blood stops flowing, it will never stop", not "Until someone with the same blood jumps into the portal and is zapped to death, it will never stop".

But I think these are minor details. The Gift is a fantastic episode through and through. It has doom and gloom, it has rampant emotions, it has laughs, it has the Buffybot, and it even has a bad CGI dragon (those sort of things are something of a Buffy staple). In his commentary for the final episode of Season 7, Chosen, Joss Whedon pretty much admitted that he'd said everything he wanted to say in The Gift. That, straight from the horse's mouth, pretty much sums up my opinion of everything that followed Season 5: redundant. We got some good episodes (Once More with Feeling being the highlight), but when I ask myself if the monotony, bitterness and plain bad writing, acting and directing, mixed in with the odd decent episode, was worth it to get a further two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my answer is a big fat "no".

PS. This was the last episode of Buffy to be shot by the show's original cinematographer, Michael Gershman. All subsequent episodes were shot by his second in command, Raymond Stella, who tended to cover the episodes Gershman was directing himself.

Overall rating: 10/10.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 21: The Weight of the World

DVDWritten by Douglas Petrie; Directed by David Solomon

Tonight, Willow enters the semi-comatose Buffy's mind to persuade her to return to the real world and do what must be done, in an episode that almost works, but not quite. It's fairly obvious that it's just marking time until The Gift, building up the atmosphere but not actually doing anything earth-shattering. We know that Buffy's deeply depressed, doesn't think she stands any chance of winning against Glory and believes that her own actions will have led to Dawn's death - but really, we knew all that already. Still, at least the "inside Buffy's mind" sequences are interestingly-done, even if the girl playing child Buffy is a pretty bad actor.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: The Gift.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 20: Spiral

DVDWritten by Steven S. DeKnight; Directed by James A. Contner

What an utterly stupid episode this is! Quite apart from anything else, we have the sight of Buffy and the gang in a camper van being chased through the streets by a bunch of medieval knights on horseback. What, that not enough for you? Well, get this: these knights are part of an ancient order devoted to the destruction of the Key. The Key that has only existed for about six months. Ooooo-kay.

We get a whole lot of banal exposition and doom and gloom, and not a whole lot else. The cast is on form as always, and most of the dialogue is fine, but I can't get round the knights. I mean, seriously, who thought they were a good idea? I also can't get over the fact that Glory's less-than-evil alter-ego, Ben, knowing full well that Dawn is the Key, agrees to head out to the garage in which the gang are holed up to tend to the injured Giles, knowing that he is effectively bringing Glory straight to Dawn. It's nothing like as bad as the worst episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, or Seasons 6 and 7 in general, but it's definitely the weakest of this season.

Oh, and Buffy violates her "I don't kill humans" rule in this episode. Odd that the writers didn't make a big deal out of it.

Overall rating: 6/10.

Next time: The Weight of the World.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 19: Tough Love

DVDWritten by Rebecca Rand Kirshner; Directed by David Grossman

Okay, Bad Writing 101: Willow's argument with Tara comes out of nowhere and makes absolutely no sense. These are the sort of problems that plagued the final two seasons, especially Season 7: the writers know where they want a character to go, but they can't accomplish it convincingly so end up making them do things that are out of character. In this case, they need to separate Tara from Willow long enough for Glory to attack her, but was an argument about Willow's "lesbo street cred" the only way they could do it? Okay, I get that Tara's an insecure person, but that argument? Badly written and completely out of character. Which is odd, because, as I've said before, Kirshner usually does good dialogue.

On a side note, it occurs to me that the death of Tara in Season 6 and Willow's ensuing campaign of destruction are in fact nothing more than an exaggerated repeat of what happens in this episode. Here, Glory brain-sucks Tara and Willow goes after her with a bunch of pyrotechnics. Were the writers really that bereft of ideas in Season 6 that all they could do was take the exact same idea from the same episode number (Seeing Red is Season 6's 19th episode) and do it all over again with none of the subtleties?

Anyway, the second half of this episode is definitely better than the first. It essentially sets in motion the chain of events that will lead to the final confrontation with Glory and Buffy's death. For its final three years, each season of Buffy concluded with a drawn-out four-episode arc, and of the three, this is undoubtedly the best. It's not perfect, and it becomes a tad exhausting without any pit stops along the way, but the way that the impending doom is piled on is commendable.

Overall rating: 8/10.

Next time: Spiral.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 18: Intervention

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by Michael Gershman

Normally I don't like it when Buffy does technology, but I'm going to make an exception in this case because the Buffybot is so damn funny. It makes a change to see Sarah Michelle Gellar actually smiling, given that Buffy does precious little of that from hereon in, and the Buffybot certainly does smiles with abundance.

This is initially a deceptively lighthearted episode, which comes as a great relief after The Body and Forever (the reason Season 5's doom and gloom works is that the writers were able to mix the serious with the not so serious, something they utterly fail to do in Seasons 6 and 7), but it's a crucial episode for two reasons. One, the First Slayer tells Buffy that "death is your gift", which will have major implications for both the way Buffy sees herself and for the season finale, The Gift. Two, it proves unequivocally that Spike has changed, since he allows himself to be tortured by Glory to the point of verging on death (excellent make-up effects, by the way) rather than tell her the identity of the Key. Of course, that doesn't do much good, given that Glory finds that out in the very next episode, but as a gesture it speaks volumes.

Overall rating: 9/10.

Next time: Tough Love.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 17: Forever

DVDWritten and Directed by Marti Noxon

No episode is going to look particularly great coming hot on the heels of The Body, but this is a reasonably assured follow-up that, for all its flaws, works quite well. Given the number of resurrections that have taken place in the Buffyverse (Buffy, Angel and Darla spring to mind), I'm glad they approached the issue of bringing Joyce back, given that, in a fantasy world, the natural reaction would be to attempt a resurrection spell. The sight of the shadow of Joyce (or some perversion of her) knocking at the door is actually a pretty unsettling sight, and I'm glad the writers had the sense to leave her dead, given the extent to which resurrections tend to cheapen the original death. I also like that the song Giles is playing on his record player, "Tales of Brave Ulysses", is the same one that he and Joyce listened to in Band Candy. It's a nice bit of continuity that doesn't scream for attention. In the post-Season 5 environment, he would probably have mused "Joyce always loved this song", or something like that.

For all its strengths, though, there is some piss-poor dialogue on display ("We're witches, we know stuff" - I don't know about you, but to me that just sounds silly), and the overly mawkish treatment of the funeral, with its swelling music, slow motion montage and people sobbing their hearts out, is a big step down from the mature and realistic treatment of death in The Body. Noxon was trying, I'll give her that, but if ever there was a clear demonstration of the differences between her method of storytelling and that of Joss Whedon, it's this double bill of episodes. Hopefully we'll see a return to the fun and games of vampire slaying in the next episode, because all this doom and gloom is threatening to turn into Season 6 lite.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: Intervention.

One on Top of the Other

Italy/Spain/France: Lucio Fulci, 1969

Of all Fulci's gialli, the one most crying out for a release is arguably One on Top of the Other. While his others have all been released somewhere in the world in editions of varying quality, this, his first, is the only one that has yet to see an official DVD. I had the good fortune of watching a VHS copy this morning, and, having now seen all of Fulci's gialli, I must now join the ranks of people clamouring for a legitimate digital release.
One on Top of the Other
Susan Dumurrier (Marisa Mell), the invalid wife of the eminent Dr. George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel), dies as a result of suffocation during a violent asthma attack, with her husband inheriting a sum of $2 million in insurance. An anonymous tip-off leads George to a nightclub, where he is entranced by a dancer, Monica Weston, who is a dead ringer for his wife. The two strike up an affair, but when the insurance company's investigations lead to the assumption that Susan and Monica are one in the same, the police begin a full-blown investigation into what seems to be a case of insurance fraud on a grand scale.

There is, of course, more to all this than meets the eye, although the actual explanation is fairly predictable. The allusions to Vertigo are umissable. the San Francisco setting, the blonde doppelganger of a dead woman, the truth about her identity - all of them recall Hitchcock's acclaimed thriller, but Fulci is more interested in sex and the sordid details of his characters' corrupt lives than on the psychological breakdown of his protagonist. Not that this is in itself a problem - the film is well-plotted and the revelations suitably engaging - but we never really get inside George's head, nor is he likeable enough for us to care about his fate. So much could be made of his state of mind - this is, after all, a man who instigates a relationship with a woman who looks just like his dead wife, a subject surely ripe for psychoanalysis - but in the end Fulci chooses to keep us in the dark. Likewise, those expecting a post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage style giallo will be disappointed, as this film, made a full year before Argento's daring debut, is, as Stephen Thrower says, "a melodrama first and a murder thriller [...] second". The closest points of comparison, therefore, would probably be the domestic paranoia gialli of the late 60s, such as Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo and Luciano Ercoli's The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.
One on Top of the Other
Provided you can accept that not all gialli are about black-gloved serial killers, therefore, One on Top of the Other should be a rewarding experience. Jean Sorel, in the lead role, is a bit wooden, but the leggy Marisa Mell gives a stand-out performance as his dead wife's striptease doppelganger, and Fulci captures perfectly the air of middle class decadence he seems to have been going for. These characters seem to inhabit a world in which no-one cares very much about anyone else, and partnerships are entered into only to do harm to others. Likewise, the power games people play with each other as fascinating, especially Monica's relationship with George, who, when he enters her life, is demoted to the status of a "whore's manservant", mirroring the manner in which he previously dominated Susan (again, the credit for this observation goes to Stephen Thrower).

The film unfolds slowly, conducting itself at a leisurely pace even when, by conventional logic, the tension should be rising (especially in the case of the race to save George from the gas chamber in the final act). Still, Fulci knows exactly what he's doing, and his directing is assured. We get the impression that these characters are playing god with each others' lives, and even when George is being led to his death, no-one, not even him, seems to be in any great hurry to do anything about it.

8/10

The Weinstein Company in December

HD DVDSource: AV Science Forum

While we're talking high-def, The Weinstein Company has sent us their anticipated initial HD-DVD release slate, due to arrive in December from distributor Genius Products. If all goes well, look for Clerks II, Derailed, Wolf Creek and Scary Movie 4 on 12/5, DOA: Dead or Alive on 12/12, and Pulse and The Matador on 12/26. We've updated the Hi-Def Release List accordingly. Note that these dates are subject to change.

The only title from that list that interests me is Wolf Creek, which I think I might pick up. Given that that title was actually shot in 1080p high definition, I'm quite curious to see how it actually looks, given that the HD DVD should technically be a pixel-to-pixel replication of what was originally shot.

So where's the Blu-ray Kingdom of Heaven?

Blu-rayBack when 20th Century Fox originally announced its initial slate of 8 Blu-ray titles, I made the prediction that their release of the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven, which, due to its length, would require one of those phantom dual-layer discs that Sony would love us to believe can be reliably replicated, would end up being delayed. And now I'm beginning to suspect that I was right. You see, Fox this morning unveiled the cover art for these releases. Care to guess the one title whose cover art wasn't included in the line-up?

Obviously it's not conclusive, but it is highly suspicious. There's been no outright announcement of delay or cancellation, but the fact that Fox are saying nothing about it says a lot. At this stage, I'd be willing to put money on it not seeing the light of day this year. Which means that the number of Blu-ray titles with a confirmed release date that I'd actually be interested in just fell from one to zero.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 16: The Body

DVDWritten and Directed by Joss Whedon

As was pointed out in one of the BuffyCast podcasts, this is arguably the episode that signalled the end of Buffy as we knew it. No longer hiding behind metaphors and magic, The Body deals with a genuine death of natural causes, with no witty double entendres or wacky quips. This eventually paved the way for Marti Noxon to wield her Baseball Bat of Anti-Metaphor in Season 6, but as a stand-alone episode, The Body is a fascinating experiment and, because it's so different from your average episode of Buffy, extremely powerful. Shot in quasi-realtime, with absolutely no music, it's uncomfortable because it feels so real, and something tells me that people tuning into a show of this name would expect something rather different.

As a side note, this episode contains the show's first ever on-screen same-sex kiss (yes, Buffy and Riley can have sweaty on-screen sex for an entire episode, but Willow and Tara are barely permitted to hold hands). Joss Whedon claims that he threatened to walk if the scene was cut, but given the amount of self-aggrandising crap he tends to spout, I'm less than convinced.

Overall rating: 10/10.

Next time: Forever.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 15: I Was Made to Love You

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by James A. Contner

Not an episode I'm crazy about, although, watching it again, I realise that it's not as throwaway as I first thought. The plot is another of those "Buffy and technology" affairs, which never really work, the story this time revolving around a girl created by slimy little man called Warren (who, unfortunately, returns in Season 6 as one of its rather pathetic villains). The only purpose in the life of April, the robot, is to love Warren, which leads to problems when he tires of her. Watching it again, I started noticing parallels between April and Riley, who devoted his entire life to Buffy but couldn't handle the fact that there was more to her life than placating him. I also now understand why it is that, narrative-wise, it's essential for Buffy to stay with April and watch her "die", because it gives her the closure that is denied to her when she discovers Joyce dead at the end of this episode/start of the next.

Overall rating: 6/10.

Next time: The Body.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 14: Crush

DVDWritten by David Fury; Directed by Daniel Attias

Remember how, in my last post, I said that no episode this season had yet got less than a 7/10 rating? Well, this one breaks the record. It's not terrible by any means, but, considering that it's the famed Drusilla's one and only return to Sunnydale (she just sort of disappears into the great blue nether after this), it's hopelessly botched. The biggest problem is the dialogue: I'm sorry, but Drusilla blatantly doesn't talk like this. What she says makes too much sense and completely lacks the crazy-mystical flavour of her Season 2 dialogue (and that of her stint on Angel too, come to mention it). Now she just sounds like a regular vampire with a Dick Van Dyke English accent and a few half-hearted attempts at her old craziness like "The music's still playing, but you've taken away my chair."

It's an interesting episode for Spike, though. One, he admits his adoration of Buffy, to the point that he is willing to stake Drusilla because he thinks it will make her happy (he's still not really understanding human emotions here). Two, when Drusilla hands him a ready meal (an already dead girl that he can feed on without the chip kicking in), he hesitates for a long time before feeding on her, and looks almost disgusted at the very notion. Of course, he eventually succumbs, which shows that he has a long way to go, but this is a very different Spike from the one we were introduced to back in Season 2 - or even, I suspect, at the start of the current season.

Overall rating: 6/10.

Next time: I Was Made to Love You.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 13: Blood Ties

DVDWritten by Steven S. DeKnight; Directed by Michael Gershman

"Get out, get out, get out!"

Shut up, shut up, shut up! This is the first episode written by Steven S. DeKnight, who is not a popular individual in certain areas of fandom. DeKnight, who wrote this episode as a freelance gig before being offered a more permanent position on the staff, had a pretty thankless role as a Buffy writer, in that he not only wrote what Sarah Michelle Gellar considers her most degrading scene in the entire series (where Spike sodomises her on the balcony of the Bronze in Dead Things), but was also saddled with penning the episode in which Tara is killed (Seeing Dead), which led to many fans demanding his head on a pike. He eventually won himself some credibility by being the first writer to publicly apologise for his part in the Tara debacle (on a message board whose members were baying for his and Joss Whedon's blood, no less), and for requesting that the various homophobes cheering that "the dyke" was dead stop watching Buffy and any future shows he might work on, but he and Drew Greenberg (who penned some truly abysmal episodes in the sixth and seventh seasons) both remain unpopular writers for a variety of reasons.

Anyway, for a Dawn-centric episode, and an unusually whiny one at that, even by her whinyrific standards, I like it. I like that Dawn is smart enough to work out for herself that she's the Key, I like the "adopted child" metaphors in use, and I like the overall dialogue and interaction of the gang. On a side note, I notice that no episode, so far, has received a rating of less than 7/10. As such, I strongly suspect that this one will come away with the highest overall rating when I get to the end of it. It's funny, because although I'm seeing many of the aspects that made Season 6 so downright unenjoyable - such as the increased soap-operafication of the show and the introduction of major plot holes (if Glory knows all along that she has to bleed the Key to open her portal, how come she hasn't yet worked out that the Key is a person rather than an inanimate object) - but I don't particularly mind them here, because everything else is of such a high standard.

Overall rating: 8/10.

Next time: Crush.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 12: Checkpoint

DVDWritten by Douglas Petrie & Jane Espenson; Directed by Nick Marck

Tonight on the WB: Willow calls herself a lesbian! Tune in for rampant lesbian antics and the destruction of wholesome American family values! Or not.

In the feel-good episode of the year, Buffy gives the Watchers' Council the thorough kicking it so sorely deserves when Quentin Travers turns up, underlings in tow, to put Buffy through a series of "tests" (think Helpless in Season 3, only without Giles' cooperation) in order to determine whether or not she can handle the information they've uncovered on Glory. In one of the most satisfying scene in the series as a whole, Buffy points out to them that they didn't come to see is she was competent - they came to beg her for help, but to disguise it as a series of tests in order to save face. Some really nice acting from Anthony Head in this episode, who for the first time in a while gets to do something more than stand behind the cash desk and agree with everything Buffy says.

Overall rating: 9/10.

Next time: Blood Ties.

Studio Canal unveils specs for HD DVD releases

HD DVDSource: DVDRama

Studio Canal has unveiled the cover art and specs for its initial slate of 10 European HD DVD titles, due for release in France from November 20. The good news is that all of the titles listed will cater to a wide variety of viewers, featuring subtitles in numerous languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch and the various Scandinavian languages. Studio Canal are also committed to providing the original language audio track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format (and, at least for The Elephant Man, that means lossless stereo, not some bungled 5.1 remix), with select dubs in DTS-HD Hi-Resolution (lossy). This bodes extremely well for importing, and hopefully we won't have to wrestle with anything as pointless as forced French subtitles when English audio is selected. Given that the discs seem to have been mastered with the intent of being released in multiple territories, this shouldn't be an issue.

Of the titles coming out in November, none leap out as being films that I absolutely must have, but I suspect I'll pick up one just to see what sort of job Studio Canal are doing (as I've said before, it's Mulholland Dr., due out next Spring, that I'm really excited about). Microsoft's Amir Majidimehr has stated that all the Studio Canal titles will play in the American HD-A1, so things are looking good.

The first wave of Studio Canal titles

More comedy sales rankings

HD DVDSource: AV Science Forum

These are Amazon.com's HD DVD sales rankings for Monday September 11, 2006. The highest ranked Blu-ray title is also included for comparison.

1. Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines [HD DVD] Sales rank: 157
2. Backdraft [HD DVD] Sales rank: 974
3. Red Dragon [HD DVD] Sales rank: 1062
4. Space Cowboys [HD DVD] Sales rank: 1686
5. Ray [HD DVD] Sales rank: 1879
6. Serenity [HD DVD] Sales rank: 1889
7. Lethal Weapon 2 [HD DVD] Sales rank: 1928
8. The Searchers [HD DVD] Sales rank: 2032
9. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) [HD DVD] Sales rank: 2204
10. Apollo 13 [HD DVD] Sales rank: 2205

27. Tim Burton's Corpse Bride [Blu-ray] Sales rank: 5415

As someone in the relevant thread pointed out, if this pattern continues into the New Year, then the studios that are in bed with Blu-ray are going to have to start re-evaluating their loyalties.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Gangs of New York release date

EIV's HD DVD release of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York now has a release date, according to Play.com: September 29th, 2006. That's less than a month away!

I sincerely hope that this doesn't have any playback problems in our HD-A1. As many of you probably know by now, the European studios seem to have committed to 24p playback for all titles, but that doesn't take into account standard definition bonus content, which is likely to be PAL 576i rather than NTSC 480i. As it happens, the US HD-A1 can't play standard definition PAL material (a problem that will be corrected when its European variant, the HD-E1, hits store shelves in mid-November), which may lead to playback problems. We'll see - I'd make do with a situation where I can watch the film itself but not the extras, but am slightly wary that this problem might stop the disc from playing at all.

Pretentious Entertainers update

The Pretentious Entertainers and Sven Grundeberg have returned from their world tour, eager to begin redefining musique once more! You can read all the latest at The Pretentious Entertainers' official web site and at Sven's MySpace blog.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 11: Triangle

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by Christopher Hibler

This is a fairly silly, insignificant episode, but it comes as a welcome break after the portentous doom of the last few episodes, and it puts a smile on my face, because it's so completely ridiculous and doesn't take itself at all seriously. I mean, come on: you've got a giant troll with red hair and a hammer the size of his body running around town looking for ale and virgin wenches with whom to make merry. What's not to like?

The episode is also unusual in that it mixes up the characters a little and puts them in combinations we don't normally get to see. Very rarely do we get Willow and Anya alone together, so it's funny to see the two of them snarking and bickering with each other. Ditto with Xander and Spike, and with Buffy and Tara, although the latter two do more talking about Greek Art and the "beautiful love" that Xander and Anya share than snarking and bickering. As I said, funny, entertaining episode, more along the lines of the stand-alone episodes of the earlier seasons - and yet one that still has enough ties to the main storylines that it can't just be thrown away.

Overall rating: 8/10.

Next time: Checkpoint.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 10: Into the Woods

DVDWritten and Directed by Marti Noxon

Captain Cardboard finally sets sail in this episode, leaving in a blaze of flashing lights and whirring helicopter blades. Spike pretty much sums up his problem in this very episode: Buffy needs a man with "some monster in him", which Riley just doesn't have. Basically, he's too normal. This is not an episode I'm too wild about, though, mainly because it has the cringe-inducing moment of Buffy running after Riley's exiting helicopter screaming "Riiiiiiilllllleeeeeeeyyyyyy!" multiple times. Still, there are some moments I like, such as Buffy's clood-blooded torching of the vampire nest, Willow and Anya's argument in the Magic Box, and even Spikes conversation with Riley, where the two enemies finally make their peace and share a bottle.

Oh, and it's taken me this long to get the metaphor of Riley being sucked off (i.e. through an artery) by a lady vampire who's being paid money for the favour. I can be rather slow sometimes.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: Triangle.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 9: Listening to Fear

DVDWritten by Rebecca Rand Kirshner; Directed by David Solomon

This is one of those bizarre episodes that mixes its references so heavily that it ends up feeling like something completely different. Here, we get a combination of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Exorcist, as a giant, slug-like extra-terrestrial crash-lands on earth and goes after crazy people... including Joyce, whose tumour is making her say all sorts of weird things. I've said before that science and Buffy don't mix, and to some extent I think that also goes for UFOs, but at least the idea is reasonably novel, and the slug creature is a guy in a suit rather than a dodgy CGI effect.

As I'm rewatching Season 5, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that, whereas the show in its earlier years was about the supernatural with family life serving as an extension of it, this is year year in which Buffy became more about family life, with the supernatural serving as an extension of it. Of course, in Season 6, the show essentially became a soap opera through and through, but for Season 5, I don't mind the increased emphasis on characters' relationships and domestic problems, mainly because it makes thematic sense, and because the seasonal arc is threaded through it so well.

PS. It's at this point that the "previously on..." recaps start to get ridiculously long, given the level of continuity each episode relies on.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: Into the Woods.

The Hills Have Eyes (remake)

DVD
Aja's version of The Hills Have Eyes is ultimately a remake in the most traditional sense: a contemporary "update" of an older film, with slicker effects and populated by prettier faces more "relevant" to today's popcorn-munching audience. As such, it's by no means a bad film, but it neither worsens nor improves on its predecessor in any significant way. Ultimately, the greatest disappointment of all is perhaps that such a promising filmmaker turned out something so unremarkable.

I've reviewed 20th Century Fox's R1 US release of the unrated cut of The Hills Have Eyes, Alexandre Aja's (Haute Tension) remake of Wes Craven's renowned 1977 exploitation classic. Review courtesy of Loaded247.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Buffy to continue in the comic realm

I know this is probably old news to many people, but I only discovered it recently. Joss Whedon is going to continue Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not as a TV series but as a 6-issue comic book miniseries, which he will be writing himself, to be published by Dark Horse. According to PopWatch, the first issue premiered at ComicCon, but I haven't been able to find out any information yet regarding an actual street date.

This is a pretty interesting idea that will, apparently, effectively function as an eighth season for the show, but, given the problems with Seasons 6 and 7, I'm doubtful as to the quality of the material. Still, I'll definitely pick up the first issue if I can get hold of it, and then take it from there.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 8: Shadow

DVDWritten by David Fury; Directed by Daniel Attias

This is an episode in which quite a lot is happening, but the episode doesn't really have an overarching theme. The key elements, I think, are the discovery that Joyce has a potentially fatal brain tumour, while Riley realises that, no matter what he does, he's of no help to Buffy. The thing about Riley in Season 5, I think, is that, without the Initiative, his whole life revolves around Buffy. (Does this guy even have a job? I think not.) Buffy, meanwhile, has a hell of a lot of other things to concern her, including friends, a family, a demon to fight and a mother who could be dying. And even at this incredibly difficult time, Riley can't deal with that.

I also love Glory coming to the Magic Box and Giles selling her the devices she needs to summon the giant CG snake she wants to seek out the Key (which, while still pretty bad, is at least a step up from the one at the end of Season 3). We also get our first hobbit with leprosy (horrible, horrible idea), who, incidentally, is played by Kevin Weisman from Alias.

Overall rating: 8/10.

Next time: Listening to Fear.

Angel: Season 2, Episode 7: Darla

DVDWritten and Directed by Tim Minear

Not as good as the Buffy episode preceeding it, Darla lacks the "wow" moments of Fool for Love, such as Spike's fight in the subway carriage, but it's a potent one nonetheless and ties quite nicely into Fool for Love, showing the events of the Boxer Rebellion from a slightly different perspective. Chief among the revelations of the Angel half of this two-parter is the fact that, at the time of the rebellion, Angel's spell has already been restored, which explains his less than enthusiastic response to the news that Spike has killed a Slayer. We also learn that, contrary to popular believe, Angel did feed on humans after his soul was restored - generally murderers and rapists, but he remained a killer nonetheless, which helps to explain why he still feels guilty despite the fact that Angel and Angelus are always portrayed as two different personalities. In effect, the line between them is less defined than we were led to believe in Buffy, which I think is appropriate to the whole "shades of grey" attitude to which Angel the series subscribes.

Overall rating: 9/10.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 7: Fool for Love

DVDWritten by Douglas Petrie; Directed by Nick Marck

Here we go with the first 10/10 episode of the season, and for once it's not a Joss Whedon episode. Fool for Love, which Douglas Petrie admits he wrote over a long weekend at the last minute, is surprisingly assured for a rush job. This is essentially the origin story of Spike, which serves as a two-parter with the Angel episode Darla which immediately follows it (and which, therefore, I'll be reviewing next), but despite the focus on Captain Peroxide, it's really more about the essence of the Slayer and the death wish that goes with it. Spike claims that, deep down, a part of every Slayer actually wants to die. Buffy denies this, of course, but it's interesting that, in the final episode of the season, she willingly chooses death in order to save Dawn's life.

Most of the regular gang - Willow, Xander, Anya, Dawn, Giles, Riley, Joyce - all get a couple of scenes, but this is undoubtedly a Buffy/Spike episode. It's also noteworthy in that it's the last time that Spike makes any attempt to kill Buffy (after she tells him that he's beneath her). The scene at the end, where she's crying on the porch and he tries to comfort her, is a clear indicator of how their relationship will progress over the course of the next two seasons, as Buffy grows closer to him and drifts away from her friends.

On a side note, this episode is extremely well directed. Nick Marck had done one other episode of Buffy (Something Blue), but it's odd that one of the "regular" directors wasn't chosen to handle such a key episode. In any event, the fact that someone relatively inexperienced (at least in terms of the Buffy style) was being the camera, because it gives a lot of the material a slightly off-kilter feel that is completely appropriate. The stand-outs are, of course, the flashbacks showing Spike killing his two Slayers (although I believe that the material from the Boxer rebellion, in which the first one dies, was shot by Tim Minear for Angel), especially the second, which takes place in a New York subway carriage and cuts back and forth with present-day material featuring Spike and Buffy "dancing" (i.e. going through the motions of the fight) in a highly effective way. The way in which the fourth wall is broken, with 1970s Spike addressing the camera/audience, is also very effective and further marks this episode as different from the usual fare.

Overall rating: 10/10.

Next time: Shadow.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Multiple HD DVD titles added to Amazon

HD DVDSource: AV Science Forum

A whole stack of HD DVD releases have been added to Amazon.com's database. While no release dates are given, it's definitely exciting news, as it gives us some idea of what titles we can expect to see in the near future, and a number of them (which I've put in bold text) are ones that I'll be picking up:

Dirty Harry
Eraser
The Aviator
Eyes Wide Shut
The Goonies
The Shining
Forbidden Planet
The Matrix Trilogy
A Clockwork Orange
Casablanca
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Ocean's Eleven (2001)
The Green Mile Special Edition
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Heat
King Kong (1933)
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Natural Born Killers
The Polar Express
Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves
Scooby-Doo - The Movie
Singin' in the Rain
Superman II
Superman II - The Donner Cut
Superman - The Movie
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride
True Romance
Under Siege
V for Vendetta
The Visiting
The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season
Ocean's Twelve

Looks like exciting months ahead.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 6: Family

DVDWritten and Directed by Joss Whedon

I'm rating this episode a lot higher than most people probably would, and I can understand the criticisms. First of all, for a Joss Whedon episode, the writing is incredibly perfunctory and the characterisations amazingly two-dimensional. Tara's family are your typical uneducated, woman-hating, southern hicks, and there is absolutely no depth to them at all. As such, you're never in any doubt as to how you're supposed to feel, and one gets the impression that Whedon could have done a lot better if he'd tried harder. The actors playing them are also not particularly good, which hurts their credibility something rotten.

Still, for all its faults, I really like this episode, and that's all down to Amber Benson's performance. I'll never for the life of me understand why some people criticise her acting, because it's clear to me at least that she saves this episode from being a shambolic mess, or at the very least something very mediocre. A good actor can do a lot with decent material, but it takes a truly excellent actor to take weak material and make it sound good. Somehow she manages to take lines like "I'm not a demon" and "He hurt my nose" and make them sound Shakespearean. The rest of the cast are on fine form too, and, for all the failings of the writing, I like the way that, for the first time in ages, the gang all come together for a common cause. Although, interestingly enough, Riley is conspicuously absent from the showdown against Tara's family, while Spike is present (and instrumental to sending them packing), indicating the shifting dynamic of the group. And, for all my criticism of the writing, I do like this exchange a lot:

Mr Maclay: "This is insane. You people have no right to meddle with Tara's affairs. We are her blood kin. Who the hell are you?"
Buffy: "We're family."

Elsewhere, I also like the level of maturity in the Buffy/Giles conversation regarding Dawn's status as the Key during the teaser. The fact that both of them treat each other as adults and converse on an equal level shows how much both of them have changed since the early days. And, for the first time, the score by Thomas Wanker (yes, that's his name) comes close to equalling that of his predecessor, Christophe Beck.

Overall rating: 9/10.

Next time: Fool for Love.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 5: No Place Like Home

DVDWritten by Douglas Petrie; Directed by David Solomon

Ah, so it was Spike that coined the phrase "Captain Cardboard" for Riley. I'd forgotten that.

Anyway, this is the episode that sets the main seasonal arc into action, with the introduction of Glory and Buffy's discovery of the truth about Dawn. I must confess that I have mixed feelings about Glory. On the one hand, she's a considerably more engaging villain then either Walsh or Adam from Season 4, and there's something kind of neat about an all-powerful god who behaves like a petulant little girl. At the same time, though, there's something about Clare Kramer's performance that sets my teeth on edge at times, and the (to quote Xander) "hobbits with leprosy" that follow her around (introduced in later episodes) feel like something out of a much weaker show.

Still, other than that, this is a fine episode and the best of the season so far. The dream sequence in which Buffy realises that Dawn doesn't belong in this world is very atmospheric and even a little creepy, and the season's key themes of family, origin and responsibility are beginning to develop nicely. And there's even a monk who looks like Dario Argento. That's pretty cool.

Overall rating: 9/10.

Next time: Family.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 4: Out of My Mind

DVDWritten by Rebecca Rand Kirshner; Directed by David Grossman

Of the various "junior" writers that joined Buffy in the second half of its run, I think Rebecca Rand Kirshner was the best. To clarify, the distinction I'm making separates the "senior" writers - Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt (for Seasons 1-3), Marti Noxon, David Fury, Jane Espenson, Douglas Petrie - from the often weaker writers that began working on the show from Season 5 onwards - Kirshner, Steven S. DeKnight, Drew Z. Greenberg, Drew Goddard. Kirshner wrote Tabula Rasa, one of the strongest episodes of Season 6, and Help, one of the few redeeming aspects of Season 7. The most notable aspect of this episode is how strong her dialogue is - when Buffy talks Riley into submitting to being treated by the Initiative for his heart condition, her argument actually makes sense.

Elsewhere, the treatment of Dawn is still making me cringe. Sorry, but watching a 15-year-old gleefully emptying a cereal box to get the free toy inside and playing with a stethoscope like a pre-schooler is just painful to watch... although at least the latter serves as a means to an end, since it's used to reveal Riley's heart problem. Oh, and James Marsters seems to have been working on his accent during the break between seasons. A lot of people have criticised his English accent, but I'm personally willing to be a little more forgiving given that, in the context of the show, it's fake (Spike's natural accent, as revealed in Fool for Love, is more of the upper-class variety).

Overall rating: 8/10.

Next time: No Place Like Home.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Literary laughs

The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg
For some reason, I neglected to mention that, on Monday, I at last handed the final draft of my dissertation into the Film & TV department office. It's over! Gone! Out of my life! Good riddance! I suppose it's time to reflect on the past year - or, to be more accurate, the past 11 months, since I that's how long it lasted, despite having paid for a full year course. I have to say that, despite some real headaches and infuriations (such as essays taking an age to get marked), I enjoyed the course. The sustained four months (or thereabouts) of independent study wasn't exactly new to me, since I'd already done something similar a couple of years back with my English Language dissertation, but working through what would have been the summer holidays was definitely different.

It's now time for me to try and get a job. There are a few different avenues that I'm pursuing, including a proofreading/research post that would allow me to work from home and work at my own pace. Obviously this would only be a part-time job, but as I intend to apply to do a PhD part-time, it would definitely be something that I could keep up at the same time, so it certainly makes sense to explore the part-time avenues before I actually start the course (provided I get in, that is).

Anyway, yesterday we went out for a celebratory lunch, which consisted of the Pizza Hut buffet menu at Braehead. While I was there, I took the opportunity to wander into Waterstone's and pick up a couple of books, something I haven't done for a while. I snagged copies of Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion and David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg. In the case of the latter, I have to confess that I'm not completely wild about Cronenberg as a filmmaker (I was really impressed by Crash and Naked Lunch, enjoyed Videodrome, Dead Ringers and eXistenZ, and was distinctly apathetic about Shivers, Spider and A History of Violence), but he makes for a fascinating interviewee, and I devoured the previous Cronenberg interview book, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, with some relish.

EIV goes HD DVD

HD DVDSource: AV Science Forum

So much for Blu-ray exclusives! Entertainment In Video, the UK distributor with the silliest name and logo, appear to have got behind HD DVD and, in doing so, thrown a monkey wrench into the notion of "Blu-ray exclusives", given that they own the UK rights to a sizeable number of Sony, Disney and Lions Gate properties. Gangs of New York, Saw, Saw 2, Basic Instinct 2, Donnie Brasco and Valiant, which in the US are owned by Blu-ray studios, have all been announced for release before the end of the year, and we can expect other "exclusives" such as Underworld: Evolution and Evita somewhere along the line.

I've pre-ordered Gangs of New York, which according to Play.com is out now but not in stock. No doubt this is a typo, though I suspect it'll be available before the year is out.

Colt 38 Special Squad

DVD
Colt 38 Special Squad's release is arguably overshadowed by the inclusion of the elusive and never before seen La Bidonata, although it has to be said that the latter is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. NoShame's 2-disc release is of their usual mediocre standard, although their continued commitment to releasing obscure (in this case very obscure) titles is to be applauded, and many fans will undoubtedly be eager to pick up this very reasonably-priced double bill some of the most little-seen efforts from two Euro-cult regulars.

It's a double bill of Italian crime-filled fun as I review Colt 38 Special Squad, a 2-disc set from NoShame Films containing both Massimo Dallamano's film of the same name and the never before released Luciano Ercoli caper La Bidonata. Review courtesy of DVD Pacific.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 3: The Replacement

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by James A. Contner

This is a notable episode for two reasons. First of all, it's really the last time Xander ever gets any significant character development. Beyond this, he really just falls into a groove and is steadily sidelined all the way until the end of the series. The other is that it features Xander being split into his suave half and his dorky half, the result being that we get to see two Xanders interacting. At first I couldn't work out how they did it, but then I went on to IMDB is discovered that Nicholas Brendon has an identical twin brother, Kelly Donovan, who served as a double in all the scenes requiring both Xanders to be on-screen at the same time. Either the writers were incredibly lucky or, more likely, they tailored the whole episode around this.

Anyway, a fun episode, and one that is only marred by the rather cheesy way in which dorky Xander speaks his thoughts aloud as he follows suave Xander around town.

Overall rating: 8/10.

Next time: Out of My Mind.

Another nail in the Blu-ray coffin

Sony delays Euro PS3 launch till Spring 2007

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 2: Real Me

DVDWritten by David Fury; Directed by David Grossman

Ah, Dawn, Dawn, Dawn. People hate this character, and to be perfectly honest I completely understand why. The whole "introducing a younger character to reinvigorate the franchise" trick is such a cliché that it's virtually impossible to pull off successfully. And you know, I actually think the writers did a pretty good job of it, giving it narrative justification and also making a joke out of the notion of a hitherto unmentioned sibling suddenly showing up out of nowhere with no explanation. I also think that, when given decent material, Michelle Trachtenberg is a fine actor (see The Body, where she does as good as any of the other regulars), although it's completely true that, when the writing isn't up to snuff, she's plain awful ("Get out get out get out!!!").

Anyway, this is a pretty neat episode, book-ended by Dawn's narration, in which she describes how she sees the rest of the gang (I refuse to call them the Scoobies, because Scooby Doo is shit). After becoming so used to them over the course of the last four years, it's interesting to see them through fresh eyes. A lot of people consider Dawn to be a whiny little bitch, but a while ago I read some comments on a message board by a fan that put things into a different perspective. Basically, in the Buffy/Dawn arguments, most people side with Buffy because they like her and are naturally antagonistic towards a new character with whom she is constantly at loggerheads. This viewer, however, only started watching at the beginning of Season 5, so, as far as he knew, Dawn had always been a part of the show. To him, Buffy was completely unreasonable while Dawn was by far the more sympathetic of the two. I'm not sure I can just forget four years of character development, but I can't deny that, over the course of this season, Buffy becomes considerably colder and more unlikeable, and a lot of it is to do with the way she treats her younger sister.

The main problem with this episode stems from the fact that Dawn is written much younger than she appears. Originally, the character was envisioned as being around 10 or 12 years old, but when the then 15-year-old Trachtenberg was cast, the script was changed to make her 14. It doesn't work. She's played way too young, and it's not until a couple of episodes have passed that this problem is rectified. As such, this spoils the tone of the episode, making it seem unneccessarily childish.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: The Replacement.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, Episode 1: Buffy vs. Dracula

DVDWritten by Marti Noxon; Directed by David Solomon

Buffy's fifth season begins, and for the first time the season premiere is not written by Joss Whedon (I'm not entirely sure why - he didn't write the Angel premiere either that year). A lot of people tend to be down on the episode for that reason, and also because of the flippant way in which it uses the character of Dracula, but I don't think it's really all that bad. Yes, it's by far the weakest season premiere since Season 1, but it has its merits. Chiefly, it provides a dry run for the issues Buffy will face throughout the season as she connects with the dark nature of being a Slayer, and, while the portrayal of Dracula does have the ripe smell of Stilton about it, I have to give those concerned credit for going for something other than the usual Christopher Lee-inspired portrayal. I also like how Dracula repeats the "You think you know what is to come?" speech spoken by Tara in Buffy's dream in Restless: it connects that episode to this one very nicely. Some nice stunt work too, with a change in style - Sophia Crawford, the original Buffy stunt double, and her stunt coordinator husband Jeff Pruitt, having been fired after Season 4, a feat apparently engineered by Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose diva nature was at this point beginning to grow.

Otherwise, it all feels a little light and silly. It lays the groundwork for what's to come well enough, but it doesn't go very far and feels remarkably insubstantial for a season premiere. Still, the final scene does herald a major surprise, which I'll discuss when I review the next episode.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: Real Me.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4 (1999-2000)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4
Season 4 reviews:

- Episode 1: The Freshman 8/10
- Episode 2: Living Conditions 5/10
- Episode 3: The Harsh Light of Day 8/10
- Episode 4: Fear, Itself 9/10
- Episode 5: Beer Bad 5/10
- Episode 6: Wild at Heart 9/10
- Episode 7: The Initiative 8/10
- Episode 8: Pangs 6/10
- Episode 9: Something Blue 8/10
- Episode 10: Hush 10/10
- Episode 11: Doomed 5/10
- Episode 12: A New Man 6/10
- Episode 13: The I in Team 7/10
- Episode 14: Goodbye Iowa 7/10
- Episodes 15 and 16: This Year's Girl/Who Are You? 8/10 and 10/10
- Episode 17: Superstar 4/10
- Episode 18: Where the Wild Things Are 5/10
- Episode 19: New Moon Rising 9/10
- Episodes 20 and 21: The Yoko Factor/Primeval 8/10
- Episode 22: Restless 10/10

And there you have it. Buffy's final season draws to a close, leaving a rather eclectic list of episodes, some of which are masterpieces, some flawed but enjoyable, and some that should have been strangled at birth. Combining the scores for each episode gives an average of 7.41/10, which is slightly lower than Season 2's 7.5 and Season 3's 7.67, which, in terms of overall enjoyment, is about right. Looked at as a story of Buffy fighting a formidable opponent, Season 4 is definitely weaker than its predecessors.

As a piece of character drama, however, I'd argue that it's the best yet. By the end of the season, none of the characters are in the same position as they were at the start, and the organic nature of their development clearly shows how strong the writing was at this stage. The biggest changes, unsurprisingly, affect Willow, who from this point on is virtually unrecognisable as the same character that we met in Episode 1 of Season 1. The others change considerably too, with even more minor characters like Anya receiving a fairly comprehensive arc, but the most attention has quite clearly been lavished on Willow. On average, I've written far more material in my reviews for this season than either of the first three, which is almost entirely due to the character development and their increasingly complex relationships.

There are, however, two notable exceptions to this: Riley and Spike. As I said before, Riley is a perfectly harmless guy, and one who would probably be very easy to relate to in the real world. As a fictional character in a television show, however, he's as dull as ditchwater and definitely deserving of the title by which many viewers know him, "Captain Cardboard". The fact that he is strongly connected to the Initiative plot helps to cushion this, since he at least serves narrative purpose, although I suspect that in Season 5, where he really has no reason to exist, he will become considerably harder to tolerate (although luckily he leaves before that season reaches the half-way mark). Spike, meanwhile, is a powerful character when used properly, but he spends much of the fourth season relegated to the role of comic relief. In Season 5, his arc is handled much better, as he begins to redeem himself, but here, I have a hard time believing that the gang would allow someone who has on numerous occasions tried to kill them to live, simply because he can no longer hit back.

I'll be the first to point out that the writers had an extremely hard job this year. In terms of character development, they set the bar ambitiously high and yet managed to clear it with flying colours. At the same time, though, they suffered the inevitable setbacks that result in not one but two actors demanding to be released from their contracts with only a single episode's notice. No-one is going to be unaffected by such monumental problems, and it's something of a miracle that the season holds together as well as it does.

At the same time, though, I'm going to reiterate what I've been saying all along, and that's that the Initiative plot simply doesn't work. It was probably never a good idea, so I'm not going to blame the execution for its flaws. As it stands, Buffy, whose whole mythos is steeped in fantasy and fairytales, simply doesn't work when put up against technology, the military and all the other things that would be more at home on The X-Files. It doesn't help that Joss Whedon's view of these things is extremely comic book-inspired, which rarely gels with the realism conveyed when you shoot a show in live action, and more often than not just looks a bit silly. (And Buffy is always a show that has skirted the line separating comedy from silliness, often successfully, so the fact that I'm calling the Initiative ridiculous just goes to show how botched the whole concept is.)

Ultimately, as a piece of character drama, I love Season 4. Buffy successfully makes the transition from high school into the real world, and the progression of the characters does a solid job of setting up the even greater changes that will take place in Season 5. It's definitely not firing with all its cannons, though, and so, as much as I like what the writers did with the characters, it's impossible to deny that they seriously botched the main villains and their portrayal. As such, while Season 4 contains my two favourite episodes ever, it ranks below Seasons 2, 3 and (I suspect) 5 overall.

Next, it's on to Season 5, which I previously considered to be my second favourite, after Season 2. Given that Season 3 has superseded Season 2, though, it's anyone's guess how things will balance out. Onward!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 22: Restless

DVDWritten and Directed by Joss Whedon

Here it is: the final episode of Season 4 and my favourite episode of Buffy. I'm a big admirer of Mulholland Dr., so it's no surprise that I like this extremely thematically similar episode (although it actually aired a full year before David Lynch's film). The plot is essentially this: Buffy, Willow, Giles and Xander sit down to watch Apocalypse Now. Almost immediately they fall asleep, at which point they are each stalked in their dreams by the First Slayer, who is angered by their having evoked her essence when they merged to defeat Adam.

The great thing about Restless is that, on one level, it doesn't make a blind bit of sense, but on the other, it's probably the most meaningful episode ever created, recapping where the characters have come in the past four seasons and laying out where they still have to go. Everyone's dreams somehow connect to their situation in the past, present and future. Buffy begins to wonder about who she is and what being a Slayer means, which will form a major part of Season 5. Willow is convinced that people are whispering behind her back about her relationship with Tara, while on a deeper level she is worried that the new personality and style she has assumed at college will be revealed as nothing more than a disguise behind which the same shy, awkward Willow from Season 1 hides. Giles struggles with the fatherly feelings he has towards Buffy, and with the fact that he is no longer as important a part of her life as he once was. Finally, Xander struggles with the realisation that his life is going nowhere and that, no matter what he does, he always ends up back in his parents' basement.

Once again, there's a fascinating amount of foreshadowing going on in this episode, much of it hinting at the arrival of Dawn in the very next episode. For example, Tara tells Buffy to "be back before dawn" when she leaves to find her friends, and the bedroom that she stares into in the final scene (and also the one containing the bed which she and Faith were making in This Year's Girl) is what will become Dawn's. Somewhat surprisingly, we also get hints about Anya's going back to being a Vengeance Demon (which eventually happens late in Season 6). Oh, and the whole episode is fantastically shot, employing all sorts of slow motion effects, filters and moments of complete silence.

This is excellent stuff, and I'm afraid I can't really do it justice in words. This guy, however, does a very good job of explaining all the nuances that are taking place in his excellent review of the episode, which describes precisely what is going on for each character and tries to provide solutions to some of the more cryptic imagery. Anyway, Restless is not only my favourite Buffy episode but also, in my humble opinion, one of the best pieces of television ever created, naysayers be damned.

Overall rating: 10/10.

Next time: an overview of Season 4, then on to Season 5.

Blu-ray saga continues

Blu-rayMGM has announced its long-awaited initial slate of four Blu-ray discs... MPEG-2, bare-bones, $40 RRP. Pretty funny, no?

Further comedy can be found over at the AV Science Forum where a bunch of Blu-ray fanboys are throwing spastic fits of glee because they've read a review of a Blu-ray title, Tears of the Sun, in which the only criticisms are noticeable noise and compression artefacts. It's a miracle! Sony has managed to deliver a Blu-ray disc that is almost watchable! HD DVD is dead, I tells you!

Give me strength. Sony screws its customers with an overpriced, underperforming format, and when a single title comes out that doesn't look completely awful they begin drooling all over themselves and praising Sony to the heavens. Oh, and to get their better than awful image quality in MPEG-2 (the format to which Sony claims it has committed for the long haul), they had to drop a number of the extras from the standard definition release.

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm surely convinced.

Video card vagaries

A few days ago, I posted my initial thoughts regarding the GeForce FX5200 I bought for the computer in my bedroom, to replace my malfunctioning Radeon 7000. Specifically, I stated that its deinterlacing capabilities were streets ahead of anything I'd seen from ATI, and that I was seriously considering switching to nVidia when the time came to buy a new video card for my main (downstairs) rig.

Well, it seems that I shouldn't have been so hasty. Yesterday, Lyris pointed me to an article at Hardware.info setting the video capabilities of recent cards from both nVidia and ATI against various stand-alone DVD players. It turns out that ATI has, in recent months, developed their own video playback solution, entitled Avivo, which, judging by the screenshots in the article, outstrips nVidia's PureVideo technology in terms of deinterlacing by a significant margin. Of course, there are other benefits to owning an nVidia card, perhaps most noticeably the fact that their software comes with a much better user interface than ATI's idiotic .NET-powered Catalyst Control Center, as well as the ability to turn off resolution scaling for output to LCD monitors (meaning that you can simply windowbox material in a resolution lower than your monitor's native resolution rather than enlarging it, and therefore lowering the quality, to fill the screen). Still, these things aren't everything, and if Avivo can deliver the best video playback experience, then I think I'll be sticking with ATI.

The bottom line is that ATI need to fulfil two criteria before I buy a new video card: (1) HDCP support and (2) DirectX 10 support. Both of these are going to be pretty much essential before too long, the former if I want to be able to output a digital signal with no downscaling if I choose to play back HD DVDs on my PC (which in itself will probably require a processor upgrade), and the latter if I want to enjoy all the latest bells and whistles in upcoming games (that, too, will require a processor upgrade, as well as a copy of Windows Vista).

Why do my hobbies have to be so expensive? Couldn't I just do something cheap like injecting exotic drugs into every orifice or collecting Ferraris?

Update, 12:25: Or perhaps not. A similar article at AnandTech shows nVidia's technology clearly outstripping ATI's in terms of deinterlacing and 3:2 pulldown detection. Hmmm...

Blu-ray vs. HD DVD video

(Thanks to Lyris for the link)

This ridiculous format war summed up very succinctly:

It's YouTuberific!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episodes 20 and 21: The Yoko Factor/Primeval

DVDThe Yoko Factor
Written by Douglas Petrie; Directed by David Grossman

Who Are You?
Written by David Fury; Directed by James A. Contner

Well, who expected this? The Big Bad is defeated and everything is tied up in a neat package with an episode still to go. The reason, it seems, is that, when Season 4 was drawing to a close, Joss Whedon, for once, actually knew that the show would be back for a fifth season, so he decided to use the final episode to set up what was to come while capping off the themes of the fourth. Another reason, perhaps, is that the Big Bad this season sucked, so probably wasn't the strongest note to end on.

Anyway, with this two-parter, as usual, the material with the Initiative and Adam is pretty bad, but the character stuff, which to me is what matters, is top notch. Here, everything comes to a head as all the tensions that have been boiling for the past year come to the surface, resulting in Buffy, Willow, Giles and Xander having a massive falling-out. That the group were so easily manipulated by Spike of all people only serves to underscore just how thinly stretched their friendship was by this stage.

Of course, the second part has them coming back together, their friendship arguably stronger than ever before, as they realise that defeating Adam will require the cooperation of all four of them. Buffy being a show that loves its overbaked metaphors, this is realised literally with the four friends temporarily merging together to create a single, all-powerful entity, combining the strength of them all (Buffy is the physical power, Willow is the spirit, Giles is the mind, Xander is the heart). The result is a little odd, but it's a means to an end, and luckily the budget is high enough to spare us anything as jaw-droppingly bad as the Season 3 finale's CGI snake.

8/10 for both.

Next time: the season concludes with Restless.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 19: New Moon Rising

DVDWritten by Marti Noxon; Directed by James A. Contner

There's been a general trend this season: character episodes good, plot episodes not so good. This is very much one of the former - it includes a little of the latter, but the Initiative functions only as a catalyst for the main character issues of the episode, namely Oz's brief return and Willow choosing Tara over him. It's interesting to note that, whereas in later episodes Willow identified herself as fully gay (at least when the network finally allowed them to say the words "gay" and "lesbian"), she is pretty clearly portrayed at this stage as bisexual. It's odd that the writers would attempt to do such an about-turn later on, and one that makes little sense to me, since it gives the impression that she simply popped out her "straight" chip and popped in a "gay" chip, but I can, to some extent, understand why they did it, given the overwhelmingly positive response from lesbian viewers and the fact that it probably made it easier to make the statement they wanted to make. (At least until Joss "we're making an important social statement" Whedon turned into Joss "I don't care about the issues I brought up and never did" Whedon during Season 6.)

Oh yeah, and it didn't occur to me until watching The Yoko Factor that the only characters Willow actually "comes out to" are Buffy (voluntarily) and Oz (involuntarily). Everyone else hears about is second-hand, underscoring to the growing fragmentation of the main group and their lack of communication, which comes to a head in the very next episode.

After this episode, which finally spelled out what was going on clearly enough for even the most Neanderthal redneck to work out what was actually going on between Willow and Tara, the hate mail started pouring in, and Mutant Enemy, to their credit, stuck to their guns.

Anyway, very good episode. Solid acting, a palpable dilemma for Willow, and some surprisingly deft writing from the person who brought us the wreckage of Wrecked. Not so solid werewolf effects, but that's nothing new, and I can overlook it given the episode's other strengths. Technically, this is the last time any of the characters see Oz, although he does appear briefly in the final episode of the season in Willow's Dream. Farewell, stoic one!

Overall rating: 9/10.

Next time: The Yoko Factor.

The price of Samsung's Blu-ray player in the UK

Play.com

The words "shooting", "self" and "foot" spring to mind.

Angel: Season 1, Episodes 18 and 19: Five by Five/Sanctuary

DVDFive by Five
Written by Jim Kouf; Directed by James A. Contner

Sanctuary
Written by Tim Minear & Joss Whedon; Directed by Michael Lange

Say what you like about Angel the series or Angel the character, Five by Five contains what is possibly the most powerful scene in the entire Buffyverse: Faith, standing in the pouring rain, begging Angel to kill her. That this scene immediately follows the prolonged torture of Wesley and what is easily the most violent, brutal and bloody fight scene in the entire Buffyverse in no way detracts from its power. Faith's bad girl façade finally crumbles as she realises what she is - a killer - and admits that what she really wants is for someone to put her out of her misery, providing her with the easy way out.

And Angel doesn't buckle: this is because he and Faith are exactly the same. Both are killers who are being tormented by the knowledge of what they have done, and whose only salvation will come through seeking redemption. Angel's redemption comes through "helping the helpless". Faith's comes through handing herself into the police and accepting a murder sentence, despite the fact that she is perfectly capable of busting out at any time she chooses (which she does in Season 4, when called on by Wesley to help). It's too bad, therefore, that the Faith storyline is more or less put on hold for the next three years, and when picked up again is more or less brushed under the carpet.

PS. Five by Five, in flashback, shows that Angel actually tried to feed on humans after he was ensouled. This certainly changes matters somewhat and to some extent helps justify the feelings of guilt he continues to feel despite the fact that soulless Angel is supposedly a completely different person.

Overall rating: 8/10 for both.

By the way, the Buffy episode New Moon Rising, which I'll be viewing next, actually takes place between these two Angel episodes. Chronologically, it doesn't matter much, although it is to be assumed that Buffy left Sunnydale for LA immediately following the events of that episode.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 18: Where the Wild Things Are

DVDWritten by Tracey Forbes; Directed by David Solomon

Watching people slobbering all over each other for a few minutes in an episode is bad enough, so as you can probably imagine, an entire episode of nothing but people slobbering over each other (and more besides) is pretty awful. Strangely, though, I like it more than Superstar, because at least the self-consciousness that invaded that episode isn't present here. Unfortunately, in its place is a spirit that infests a house and gives everyone inside it rampant libidos, so Buffy and Riley begin boning each other pretty much as soon as the opening credits have finished and don't stop until the closing credits are about to start. Okay, perhaps I'm exaggerating slightly, but it's pretty grotesque nonetheless and certainly not my idea of hijynx. For all intents and purposes, this is one of the many episodes that follows the "trapped in a haunted place" formula (see Fear, Itself earlier in the season for a better example of how to pull one of these off) and takes a break from the Adam storyline. As such, it's a fairly non-essential episode, although it does end up giving the Xander/Anya relationship more meaning than it had before, so I suppose you can call that a progression of sorts.

Plus, Giles singing goes some way towards making up for all the screwing.

Overall rating: 5/10.

Next time: New Moon Rising.

Casualty: Series 3

DVD
Despite Casualty's third series in many ways it feeling like the end of an era, being comprised of the final moments on the show for more than one member of the old team, in other respects it also feels like the beginning of a new departure. Stylistically, the show settled into a groove that it would continue to maintain, more or less unchanged, for several years, while the more subtle writing and increasingly downbeat plots demonstrated an increasing awareness of the lack of black and white in the world that the writers would continue to hone for the next several years. The fourth series brought in many other changes, including a new producer and an increased emphasis on patient storylines rather than those of the staff, but, with Series 3, the formulation of the Casualty that came to be an institution of British television in the 1990s was already well under way.

A new atmosphere of pessimism permeates the cubicles of Casualty's third series, with bleaker storylines and more heartache than ever. I've reviewed 2 Entertain's 3-disc box set of the popular medical drama, featuring all ten episodes from Series 3 and two audio commentaries.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 17: Superstar

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by David Grossman

Remember when I said I liked "alternate reality" episodes? Forget I ever said it. This is the "alternate reality" episode to end all other "alternate reality" episodes, and it's horrible. "What's that you say, Captain Whiggles?" I hear you cry. "Superstar is a fan favourite!" It is, and I can't for the life of me think why. Jonathan was never a favourite bit character of mine, and so elevating him to the status of lead, even for a single episode, strikes me as being the single most idiotic decision the writers ever made... after playing Buffy raping Spike for comedy in Season 6, that is. This episode has an incredibly self-conscious feel to it that really grates, even down to the opening credits, into which Jonathan is irritatingly shoehorned.

On the plus side, I like the fact that the main concerns of the season, namely Adam and the Initiative, continue to develop despite the alternate reality nature of what's going on (at least in the background), but this was an episode I could really have done without. I don't care that Jane Espenson is Buffy's official comedy writer - none of this is funny in the slightest. It's all just a bit embarrassing.

Overall rating: 4/10.

Next time: Where the Wild Things Are, where Buffy and Riley have sex for an entire episode. Scared yet?

Casualty: Series 2

DVD
Series 2 of Casualty is probably best described as "more of the same", both in terms of the episodes themselves and 2 Entertain's treatment of them. Image and audio quality are about as good as can be expected, and the commentaries, while clearly an afterthought, are most welcome given that many shows of a similar vintage are being put out in a bare-bones form. The second series is definitely not Casualty's finest moment, but those old enough to have seen it when it originally aired, and younger fans eager to see where it all began, will certainly want to add this set to their collections.

The night shift reopens for a second series of Casualty, as I review 2 Entertain's 4-disc box set of the popular medical drama, featuring all 15 episodes from Series 2 and two audio commentaries.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episodes 15 and 16: This Year's Girl/Who Are You?

DVDThis Year's Girl
Written by Douglas Petrie; Directed by Michael Gershman

Who Are You?
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

One of the things Buffy did very well at this stage was foreshadowing. You definitely got the sense that everything was being planned out months, or even years, in advance, working towards an ultimate goal. This Year's Girl, in the dream sequence between Buffy and Faith, has the first cryptic mention of Dawn. There will be other, similar ones in Restless. There's also a lot of foreshadowing for the Buffy/Spike relationship of Season 6 in Faith-as-Buffy's conversation with Spike at the Bronze.

Anyway, I get the impression that the writers realised the Initiative plot wasn't working out particularly well for them, which is why they decided to shake things up. And who better to shake things up than Eliza Dushku, who, even in the worst episodes of Season 3, never failed to electrocute any scene in which she appeared? Faith comes out of her coma and is out for blood in the first of what is essentially a four-part arc that spills over on to Angel. The first two episodes are on Buffy, and it almost works without watching the Angel episodes, but it's not something I would recommend. The Angel episodes will be reviewed in due course, but tonight I'm focusing on the Sunnydale side of things.

As is so often the case with Buffy two-parters, the second half is noticeably better than the first. This Year's Girl is good, but it takes its time to get going, and there is a lot of padding going on. The Willow/Tara scene, for example, was thrown in late in the game because the episode was running short. I don't mind - it's a good scene, after all - but it doesn't advance the plot sufficiently. Who Are You?, meanwhile, might seem somewhat unambitious given the two other Joss Whedon episodes which flank it (Hush and Restless), but look a little closer and you have some very interesting things going on. The most obvious, naturally, is the notion of Sarah Michelle Gellar playing Faith and Eliza Dushku playing Buffy (in the opening credits, Dushku is even credited "as Buffy"). The two actresses nail the roles, perfecting the characters' very different body language and Gellar even including little quirks like Faith's pronunciation of "out" as "oat". Dushku has a tougher time "being" Gellar given the Buffy character's lack of distinctive speech quirks, but she does an impressive job nonetheless, and when she's speaking it's clear that something is different. As I understand it, Baron Scarpia, whose views of Season 4 I hope to be reading before too long (wink, wink), isn't a big fan of "mistaken identity" episodes, but personally I love them. Those and "alternate reality" episodes. They really give the actors a chance to stretch themselves and help break the monotony that occasionally slips into a 22-episode season.

Other miscellaneous comments. I love Faith-as-Buffy's faces to the camera/mirror. I also like how Tara, who has never met Buffy before, immediately twigs that she isn't "really" Buffy, and how Faith, who has never met Tara before, is the first person to work out that Willow, as she puts it, isn't "driving stick any more". Oh, and I have to wonder, after this episode, how anyone seriously couldn't have worked out that Willow and Tara were lovers rather than friends. Watch the episode, particularly the locator spell scene, and you'll see what I mean. Those are some sexy magicks! Hey, it's even intercut with a sex scene between Buffy and Riley... for at least the second time. How obvious does it have to get?

8/10 for This Year's Girl, 10/10 for Who Are You?

Next time: Superstar.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 14: Goodbye Iowa

DVDWritten by Marti Noxon; Directed by David Solomon

When Seth Green decided that he wanted out of his contract, the writers rolled with it and arguably ended up creating a far better story for Willow than they otherwise would have. When Lindsay Crouse made exactly the same decision, for reasons I haven't been able to ascertain, they weren't so successful. Originally, Professor Walsh was meant to be the main villain of the season, but given that Crouse left after less than an episode in that particular role, she had to be replaced rather quickly. Her replacement, the part-human, part-demon, part-robot killing machine, "Adam", is a bit of a joke. Seriously, he's meant to be incredibly imposing and scary, but he comes across as one giant joke. Still, at least, by this stage, the season has regained its sense of purpose and is moving towards an identifiable place. But the scene between Adam and the little boy? Note to writers: children making profound statements are never a good idea.

On a side note, the first time I saw this episode I wondered why Tara intentionally botched Willow's demon locator spell. It wasn't until I saw Family in the next season that it finally made sense. Odd that the writers would introduce this plot strand and then make no further mention of it for more than five months.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: This Year's Girl, where the season begins to pick up again.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 13: The I in Team

DVDWritten by David Fury; Directed by James A. Contner

Before I discuss the merits of this episode, I just want to say that it contains what is possibly the most bizarre piece of editing in the entire history of the series: Buffy and Riley having sex intercut with them taking down a demon. Set to slow, melodic, vaguely Arabic-sounding music. What was that all about?

This is not in itself a bad episode, lacking the sheer mundaneness of the ones preceeding it, but the Initiative was, as I've said before, never a good idea, and any episode in which Buffy spends most of her time working with them was bound to be a bad, bad idea. Luckily, her tenure with the army boys is short-lived, as Walsh betrays her and attempts to have her exterminated. As a part of the grand scheme of things, therefore, this episode is much more of a mover than many of the ones directly preceeding it, and as such, watching it for the plot is a lot more satisfying than, say, Doomed.

And I find myself remarking, not for the first time, just how hairy Sarah Michelle Gellar's arms are, while the men of the show have a distinct lack of body hair in general.

Overall rating: 7/10.

Next time: Goodbye Iowa.

Pathé fights the good fight

HD DVDWell, it seems that European distributor Pathé has thrown its hat into the HD ring, pledging support for HD DVD. This is big news, not only because Pathé is a major force in Europe, but because they also control the European rights to a number of titles that, in the US, are owned by studios that are in bed with Blu-ray.

Take a look at some of these titles: The Fifth Element, House of Flying Daggers, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Memento... The first three titles in that list are well-known for looking like absolute crap on Blu-ray, so, if Pathé can get better transfers out of the bag (hopefully Microsoft is keeping a watchful eye on them), then egg will truly be slathered on Sony's face.

And that's just some of the titles Pathé could release if they choose to. Others include The Descent, Dances With Wolves, The Virgin Suicides, Pi, James and the Giant Peach... all pretty popular titles, no? Blu-ray bitch Fox's Kingdom of Heaven also seems to be on the cards, given that it's a Pathé film in France, although it's not clear whether or not they own the rights to the director's cut that is being released on Blu-ray on November 14th... or at least it will be release on November 14th if Sony can manage to press readable dual-layer discs by then!

Friday, September 01, 2006

It's done

You know what I'm talking about it. If you want to read it, make some noise.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, Episode 12: A New Man

DVDWritten by Jane Espenson; Directed by Michael Gershman

The season hits its low ebb at this point, I think, in a series of rather forgettable and uninvolving episodes that advance the turgid Initiative plot and continue to develop the various themes of disillusionment and isolation that all the characters are suffering from to some extent. I'm not saying there isn't some good stuff here - the rose-floating scene is a particular highlight - and depending on how willingly you can stomach the sillier aspects of the show, the sight of Anthony Head running around in demon make-up with horns sprouting out of his forehead might give you some short-lived delight. But really, at this point, I can see why many people dislike Season 4. If memory serves me correctly, from now on the only truly great episodes are the Faith two-parter, then New Moon Rising and Restless.

Overall rating: 6/10.

Next time: The I in Team.