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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Covert Affairs Series 5.

Covert Affairs.
Series 5.

Ugh. To be honest, I'd really rather not do this review. I just have so little to say. It feels like Covert Affairs goes in one side of my head and exits from the other five minutes later. I spend every episode going 'who are these main characters? Where are they? Why are they there? Why do I watch this very week?' It's all very alarming.

Should've reviewed White Collar instead, but I'm still a little bitter about that ending. We'll talk about that another time.

Covert Affairs is the story of Annie Walker, a CIA agent dispatched over the world for a variety of missions. In this series, she goes up against chessmaster Belenko, who wants revenge for the death of his brother. He also has other goals, but if they were ever specified then by golly gosh I did not catch them.

Like Once Upon A Time, it feels like Covert Affairs has worn out its welcome a little. It was never the strongest show, but it had things going for it: Main cast members Annie, Auggie and Joan are engaging, charismatically acted, and have a great dynamic with each other; and the espionage premise is one that's overdone, but always popular and with a lot of potential. When it first started airing, I didn't watch it, because commercials had tried to frame it to appeal to the 'tremendous misogynist' market by splicing together about a dozen clips of Annie tripping over and putting comedic music over it. It was odd. I came around at a friend's recommendation, and while I profess I'm not a keen watcher, I do tune in quite happily when it's on.

But hey, bloody pretty guys, I appreciate it.

I think one of Covert Affair's issues is that it has tried to entrench itself a little too firmly in realism, while its companions in the espionage story television show genre, like Chuck and Spooks, veered firmly off into fantasy about halfway through their first series or earlier, replacing believable bad guys with superhuman agents of chaos whose plans required James Bondian feats to defeat. And that's entertaining. A Chechnyan diplomat with a minor grudge and a lot of connections can't quite measure up to those kinds of over-the-top, ridiculous plots, and as a result, Covert Affairs is forced to delve deep into personal arcs and storylines, which it's just not very good at. 

(Another problem it has is that its incidental characters often aren't very interesting. Newcomer Ryan McQuaid is the human embodiment of a cardboard box, and Auggie's ex-military friend is so forgettable that I have, in fact, forgotten his name, face and defining character traits.) 

But for whatever reason, this series has felt tired. Exhausted, even. The plot meanders, Annie's character development comes grinding to a screeching stop in the second half, along with Auggie's, the villain is weak, and there is the distinct sensation that we've seen all of this before with slightly different bells on. 

Is this from this series? Last series? The one before? I just don't know.

It isn't because the premise lacks potential (which is definitely the case with Once Upon A Time), but rather that it feels like the writers aren't putting in their full effort. The episodes seem phoned in, trite, cliche. It's like they have a list of plot turns they can use, and they just run through the list, in order, until they get to the bottom, at which point they start again from the top. It just feels old, and it isn't helped by the fact that this series can't seem to decide where it wants its plot to go. 

Does Belenko want revenge on the US, or vengeance on five or six specific people? Does he want to manipulate Russia for his own gains, or could he not care less about them? Does he want universal chaos or will he be satisfied with just killing the people who killed his brother? These questions are barely answered, if at all, and the actions of any other players in this particular drama are barely explored. Russia supports Belenko right up until the final episode, at which point they turn against him with very little preamble or suggestion that they would, just to give the protagonists some kind of challenge to face in their (very unconvincing and flat) series finale. 

Ah, the doughy-faced ineffectual villain, perfect.

I do still like Covert Affairs, but I think it's time for it to end. It is time for its very talented cast to move on to other things that will, hopefully, utilise their talent better. Either that, or it's time for it to get a major retool to lead it in a more dramatic, and perhaps a more coherent direction. Maybe have Auggie get rocket booster eyes. I don't know, guys, the sky's the limit. 

(Speaking of, does anyone else think it's creepy that CIA agents aren't allowed to have romantic relationships with foreign nationals? I think that's creepy. I think that's really creepy.)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Editorial: How I Came To Love Digimon.

Just a short-ish one today, since most of today'll be taken up with work.

Editorial: How I Came To Love Digimon.

The politics of Pokemon and Digimon were a big thing at my primary school. Pokemon swept it by storm, at a time where schools everywhere were being swept up in that particular craze, enough so that several of them outright banned Pokemon cards on their premises. My school wasn't amongst them, but the craze was still felt there, enough so that it was moderately serious business that caused more than a few spats between students.

(At one point, I got a book with all 150 Pokemon in it. For a few days, I was their god.)

Digimon was seen with some scorn, as a cheap knock-off, and being very vulnerable to peer pressure, I agreed. I'd never seen an episode, but it was surely obvious. Thus, my catching an episode was entirely by accident, the result of happening to tune in during the last ten minutes or so of Episode 4. 

At which point, I was fairly thoroughly hooked, but I'm not sure that if you asked me now I could explain quite what caught me about that episode. Perhaps that it was epic in a way that Pokemon wasn't, and had a danger that was previously lacking from my mon-based entertainment. This was the episode, after all, that involved a man made of fire skidding down a hill to destroy a village, while screaming about how much pain he was in. That's an image that'll sit in any kid's mind.

Still, I tuned in for every episode after that, right up until Tamers, which was about when ITV, the channel that showed Digimon, took it off air (very early in the series, as I recall). Even when my family was taking weeklong holidays on a boat, I made sure to bring along a tiny, black and white TV that cut out if the boat moved too sharply and sometimes failed to get a signal at all, so that I could tune in to that week's episode (Episode 30 of Digimon Adventure 02, never let it be said that my memory for certain things isn't great). In fairness to ten year old me, those were the days of no way to find TV episodes online, and no way to set something to record while you were away, the only method of recording television shows being to use a VHS with about three hours worth of recording space.

When CITV stopped airing Digimon, it was a rather familiar thing. At this point I was well familiar with the dance of Monster Rancher, which aired on the same channel. Every year CITV would air Monster Rancher in summer, starting with the beginning of the summer holidays, and immediately stop once the summer was done, only to start from the beginning next year, resulting in the same twenty-four episodes being aired every year. I was already aware that CITV had a tendency to cut my lulzy monster shows short, so I wasn't particularly shocked or devastated. I kind of drifted off and did other things.

(Other things being Yu-Gi-Oh GX. I had to get my fix somewhere, and thus began another love affair with a ridiculous children's show that would last me well into my twenties, what are you going to do.)

I didn't really get back into it until the summer before I went to university. That was a torturously boring summer in which, bar a very pleasant trip to perform in Edinburgh, there was only pain and dullness and death and a desperation to get any entertainment from anywhere that led me to taking three hour walks around the rather bland rural area that I lived in. So, I filled some of that summer with Digimon. First Tamers, then Frontier, then Savers, and you'd be surprised just how little time the three of them took up, on balance. I had never really fallen out of love with the show, it had always been simmering at the back of mind, but the abrupt one-hundred-and-fifty plus episode marathon really only cemented it. 

My opinion on each of them varied, and none of them could replace the first series for me, but what drew me back every time is the sense of wonder each series provided. It's the same thing that draws me back to Pokemon games every year, over a decade after the anime has lost my interest. Each series of Digimon provides a sense of mystery, exploration, discovery and just awe that is difficult to replicate elsewhere, along with storylines that are usually quite epic and deep (not, as some people might suggest, especially about Tamers, gritty and grimdark, but deep).

Digimon Adventure Tri is coming up, and I couldn't be more excited. It's the kind of thing I didn't know I needed or wanted until it was announced, at which point I realised that this was definitely something I wanted. 

Let's hope it's good. If it's aught like The Hunters That Leapt Through Time, I will not be happy.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Kamen Rider Drive E12: Where Did The White Kamen Rider Come From?

This is going to be another week where Tuesday's post goes up earlier than usual, due to work. Just a heads up.

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 12
Where Did The White Kamen Rider Come From?

Argh, I have some divided opinions on this episode. Before we get into those, let's look at last week's bingo, okay?

I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever get that square on the far left filled. I may have to be a little more lax with how I fill it in.

This episode sees previously sceptical Gen becoming preoccupied with proving the presence of a monster in a brutal case in which a loanshark (landshark?) was beaten with a statue. Meanwhile, there's a cowboy-esque Roimyude on the loose, and Shinnosuke ends up in a competition with an acrobatic and kind of annoying photographer. 

Everyone knows this already, but just in case they don't: Said photographer is Gou, Kiriko's brother and our second rider, Kamen Rider Mach. Like a lot of people, I've been very annoyed at this development: The introduction of a previously unheard of brother for Kiriko feels both like terrible shoehorning and like a terrible missed opportunity, since Kiriko, Hayase, or even Chase seem like they'd be much better candidates for a second rider.

So, how does his debut work out? Well, I'll be honest, I wasn't blown away. There were some good moments: I thought the entire sequence with Gou knocking Shinnosuke's evidence thought screen things out of the air, and Shinnosuke scrambling to pick them up, was a wonderfully surreal moment, and I'd definitely be up for Drive having more moments like that, where the show kind of edges into surrealist metafiction. The fact that Mach's transformation and fight scene has several more moments like that, including producing a rope to perform acrobatic tricks on from nowhere, definitely went over well with me as well.

But in general, I felt like Mach's entrance lacked the drama that previous second rider debuts have had. When Accel, Birth, and Meteor debuted, their respective shows did much to hype their arrivals, in different ways. With Accel, we were introduced to the idea of a dangerous, maverick police officer before he became a rider, and his introduction was also our first proper introduction to Shroud; with Birth, he was hinted at for several episodes prior and debuted during one of the early major battles of the series, and much was made of his being a mercenary agent not aligned with Eiji and Ankh; Meteor also first appeared during a major battle, facing off against then-new villain Libra, and his entrance also brought with it Tachibana, who would turn out to be a major player in the story.

But we did get explosions, and posing, and that's always a plus.

Mach's entrance reminds me more of Beast's. He wasn't there, and then he was, and despite the literal fanfare with sparklers and confetti that the show provided, I felt like it was a fairly nondescript, bland debut that they didn't really play up as much as they could have. 

(If you're wondering why I'm not including Gaim in this round-up, it's because Gaim didn't really have a second rider. That said, almost all of its rider debuts were treated with some sense of drama.)

I don't really like Gou as a character, but I'm open to the entire of him growing on me. I didn't like Nitou, Ryu, or Date at first, either, and they all grew on me sooner or later. So, we'll see. Let's just say I'm not impressed by him for the moment.

I did, however, like our first proper look at Medic. She comes off as distinctly inhuman, in contrast to Heart, Brain and Chase. It's a combination of the strange way of talking and the delicately performing ballet on the battlefield. Also, she obviously makes Brain jealous, and this really only reinforces my idea that Brain and Heart are meant to be a couple.

I also liked that we're seeing some development for Gen, here. He's gone from a total sceptic in the first episode to actively pursuing monsters in this one, and it hasn't really been an abrupt change at all: In contrast, it feels totally natural, the result of his having numerous encounters with monsters, and nearly losing his life to them at least once.

Gou, why do you backflip everywhere?

(Speaking of, how does momentum work during the Slowdown? Because previous episodes have treated it as if the effects of momentum remain the same - a person falling will move slowly but hit the ground with the same force as if they moved fast; a bullet fired from a gun might move very slowly, but when it hits a similarly slowed down person, it will have the same effect as if it hit them during regular time - but this episode treats it as if momentum is suppressed, allowing people to fall safely from very tall heights. I'm a bit confused by that.)

So, I did enjoy this episode as a whole, but Mach's debut - not so much. It'll be interesting to see if I warm to him as time goes by.

Anyway, here's today's bingo:

I don't think there's an episode next week, so I'll take the opportunity to put up the masterpost for the series' first act then. The week after that, we're getting the conclusion of the Gunman arc, and a rider vs rider battle between Shinnosuke and Gou. Should be good. Or not. We'll see.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Shirogane no Ishi: Argevollen (Second Course).

Shirogane no Ishi: Argevollen
(Second Course).

I usually start these reviews by going over what I thought of the first course, but I actually can't remember what I thought about the first course. I think I liked it, but what I am realising is that while enjoyable, nothing about this series is very memorable. It's just kind of there, being aggressively middle of the road. This was the problem that initially turned me away from the first episode the first time I tried to watch it, and it's not really gone anywhere.

Shirogane no Ishi: Argevollen is set in the nation of Arandas, under attack from aggressive imperialists Ingelmia. In this war, young soldier Tokimune accidentally becomes the pilot of a prototype super-mecha, Argevollen. As the second course kicks in, though, all is not well: In Arandas, a conspiracy led by the slimy General Cayenne plans to use Argevollen's data for nefarious purposes; while on the Ingelmian side, ace pilot Richthofen is given his own prototype super-mecha, Sturm Alpha. 

I have to say, while I do enjoy Argevollen, it is almost never particularly striking or memorable.  It's easy watching that you put on in the background while you do other things, for the most part. In this second course, it does occasionally hit greatness, such as during Richthofen and Tokimune's battle in an abandoned structure, where Tokimune goes berserk, resulting in Richthofen delivering a no-holds-barred mecha beatdown on him, including tearing off an arm; or in the final episode where a previously bloodless show suddenly produces a torrent of mild gore. But for the most part, it's calm, easy watching that not only never reaches the heights it could, but never seems to really try.

If this image makes this scene look a touch lifeless, then it's doing its job in this review.

Certainly, it's not that the source material lacks potential. You have a war, giant robots, a romance, the threat of horrifying brain damage, conspiracy: Any one of these plots could lend itself very well to drama, and yet the show shies away from taking advantage of them. Instead, we're left with an ultimately toothless war where the main characters are all safe; rather lacklustre giant robot battles (the battle between Argevollen and Sturm Alpha stands out as the exception, but their rivalry never receives a proper conclusion, as Richthofen dies without the two mechas ever meeting in battle again); a romance which is often shoved unceremoniously into the background and also never receives a proper conclusion; a brain damage threat which is solved without any real fireworks or struggle; and a conspiracy which is interesting, but also never concluded. 

This series had more loose threads at the end than a frayed jumper, and while it might well be so that they have plot threads to pick up for a sequel, there is yet to be any suggestion that a sequel is actually coming.

The animation definitely doesn't help. It's not that its quality is terrible, although I've certainly seen better, it's that every scene looks the same. If they're outside, it's generally lit in bright green and blues, or sometimes the orange of the Ever Recurring Giant Mecha Anime Desert (I grew to hate that desert over the course of watching Break Blade), and if they're inside it's warm blues and reds. The repetition is dull as dishwater, and makes each scene and episode blur together - the few scenes set at night are godsends just because they vary the colour palette up a little. 

I feel like orange is an aggressively bland colour.

The characters are all very likeable, but they don't really develop, with the surprising and welcome exception of severe unit leader Captain Samonji and his second-in-command Suzushiro. They both develop in ways that parallel each other, with Samonji becoming more remote as a leader and a person as he becomes more obsessed with the legacy of his dead girlfriend and with ending the war (something that comes off as a little strange, as we never get it hammered in that this war really has any stakes), culminating in him essentially snapping in two as a person, while Suzushiro grows into a leadership role, becoming more canny and severe in the process while still retaining her core nature. That's some nice parallel development there, and it pleased me.

Some of the more fascinating characters end up getting not nearly as much screentime as they deserve. Arnold Holmes, a cold and Machiavellian Ingelmian colonel who, we are told, intends to overthrow his own government, is interesting to watch but lamentably underused. So too is his subordinate Liz, who eagerly pushes Richthofen towards greater and greater levels of brain damage, but whose motivations for doing so are never clearly established.

Lookin' good, Richie.

In general, while I liked this anime, it feels as though the writers were a bit too obsessed with the 'realistic mecha in a realistic war' concept and forgot that they were actually making a piece of entertainment - and while the result is enjoyable, it lacks any particular depth, and it's totally forgettable. I'll be very surprised if Argevollen gets a sequel, but if it does I probably will watch it.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Doctor Who S34 Xmas Special: Last Christmas.

Doctor Who
Series 34 Christmas Special.
Last Christmas.

Let's ... talk about expectations, shall we. 

Generally, the Doctor Who Christmas specials aren't great. They're kind of oddly placed, coming between series and thus not really tying into the narrative of either, and the relative lack of competition, I think (and make no mistake, there is no competition for audience on Christmas Day), makes the writers a bit lazy, and so the episodes end up a bit lazy. This isn't a Moffat-specific problem: Russell T. Davies' Christmas Specials often had the sensation of being very phoned in as well.

In this year's festive episode, Clara wakes up on the night of Christmas Eve to find Santa Claus on her roof. Being quickly grabbed by the Doctor, they head to an Arctic research base where people are being attacked by dreamcrabs: Mind controlling alien crustaceans that induce a dream state while they digest your brain and take control of your body, and are drawn towards people thinking about them. 

Thankfully, it's not a lazy episode. I might stop short of saying it's good, but it is at least not lazy. Moffat had an idea he clearly loved and he pushed it in this episode, and it feels very much like at least a little bit of a passion project. That's good: Heaven knows, I will let a lot by under the excuse of 'it's a passion project', because I think that things that people are passionate about but are technically flawed always come across better than things which are technically good but which the writers are bored by.

Also: Jesus Christ, Moffat, if you have another fictional species comically
refer to humans being 'racist' against them, I will be vexed.

In fact, he pushes it a bit too far, as in this episode every Doctor Who fan has found the answer to the question "How many times can you use the 'it was all a dream' plot twist in an hour before your audience hates you," and it's somewhere around three times. Moffat uses it four times. Four. It's exhausting to watch, especially as all four are clustered into the second half of the episode, meaning that over the span of about twenty-five minutes, characters are constantly discovering they're dreaming and then waking up.

It also has a lot of the Moffat hallmarks. Oh, a monster whom to escape from you have to control a natural impulse? Please talk to the Weeping Angels, or the androids who could detect you breathing, or the bank monster that could detect guilt. It's a plot device that Moffat uses to create tension again and again, and while I really like the idea of monsters that can find you when you think about them, I am extremely aware that this is just one in Moffat's neverending chain of same-y monsters, presumably soon to be followed by the monsters who will kill you if you scratch that itchy spot on the small of your back.

(The dreamcrab victims are very sinister, though. The episode teases us with the crabs opening to reveal their faces, always stopping just before you can see their eyes, and it is some very effective cinematography. Which makes sense: Moffat has always been a great cinematographer, he's just not a very good writer.

Thing is, Santa is also quite sinister. He switches abruptly from 'cheery chappy' to staring intently and darkly intoning warnings, and that in and of itself makes him seem malevolent. Unlike the dreamcrabs, Santa isn't meant to ever be taken as an antagonist.)

I liked this character. She had a notebook.

The Danny Pink subplot makes a brief return, too, as he shows up in one of the many dreams. I will grudgingly tolerate it this time, as it's brief and fairly unobnoxious, and I actually manage to like him again briefly here. In general, the interactions between the Doctor and Clara are a lot less toxic now that that subplot is out of the way, and that gives me hope that the next series won't be as excruciatingly painful as this one was. 

(It pokes its head in quickly towards the end, too, when an elderly Clara proclaims that she never had a proper relationship with another man after Danny, because nobody could compare with him and the Doctor. Really, Clara? I know it's a dream, and this isn't actually true for your actual life necessarily, but really? Really? Moffat's obsession with women who are breathlessly devoted to his male characters needs to die.)

So, did I like it? Actually, yeah, I did. I wasn't blown away by it, let's put it that way, but it is definitely one of the better episodes of Series 34, as much as that's not really an achievement. I had fun with only minimal frustration for an hour, and given that almost all of the last series was frustration central for me, that is an achievement. 

The Doctor and Clara will both be returning next year, something that may surprise many people, as the BBC had made many rumblings that Clara was going to leave, presumably so that people wouldn't immediately figure out that the elderly Clara dream was a dream. I am - kind of looking forward to that. I guess. Maybe.


Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Just a short review today, it being Christmas and all, and I with my busy schedule of lounging and playing Pokemon and lounging.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and happy not-quite-one year of this blog being around! When we actually hit one year proper, I'll do something appropriately special for it.

The Muppet Christmas Carol.

So here's one of my favourite films of all time. I'm not going to say 'favourite Christmas film', because to be honest I have watched so few Christmas films that it would be a meaningless statement along the lines of 'my absolute favourite member of 5 Seconds of Summer' or 'my favourite series of American Horror Story', but it is a film that I love unreservedly, and which I could quite happily watch again and again.

It was also my first real exposure to the Muppets. I had heard of them before, and certainly they were famous enough for me to recognise Kermit, Miss Piggy and Sam the Eagle, but since I never watched Sesame Street or The Muppet Show or any of the previous Muppet films, this film that I think my parents put on as an attempt to keep my sister and I rooted in place for an hour was the very first time I'd actually seen them properly. 

An adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens' novel (I find the lad to be a hack, but I will grudgingly admit that his work does suit the addition of muppets), the Muppet version follows Gonzo and Rizzo (here Dickens and his assistant) as they, in turn, follow miser Scrooge, played by Michael Caine, as he is visited by three ghosts over the course of a night to teach him the true meaning of Christmas. Also, it's a musical.

One of these people isn't like the others.

To be honest, if you hadn't already seen this film, and I'd warrant most people have, the words 'Gonzo and Rizzo' 'Michael Caine' and 'Also, it's a musical' should have already convinced you to immediately buy a copy and watch it. 

It is, in many regards, a very clever film, deftly balancing both a respectful and thoughtful treatment of its subject matter (although I'll happily grant that the novel is far from a deep, complex narrative) with satire, slapstick, comedy, and a range of musical numbers. While there was certainly potential for it to be blandly soporific, the story is told with enough sincerity to make it genuinely heartwarming. 

Possibly the film's biggest flaw comes in a rather odd edit in some versions by Disney. Believing the song 'When Love Is Gone' wouldn't appeal to children, they cut it out, in awkward, jarring fashion that leaves it very obvious that some editorial shenanigans have been going on. Later releases of the film include the song, and while I can't deny that it's not the most interesting thing, it is rather important to the overall narrative.


The second biggest flaw is that Michael Caine can't sing. He really can't. He should never try.

All in all, a very good film, and one I unreservedly love and recommend. So go watch it.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The 100 Series 2 (First Half)

Here's the review that was going to be yesterday's review but then wasn't yesterday's review. 

The 100
Series 2 (First Half.)

Okay, so I adored the first series of The 100. I tuned into it entirely expecting it to be one of those the CW shows which is just trashy and awful and feels exhausted after half a series - and it was airing in the same season as The Tomorrow People and Star-Crossed, so I don't think you can blame me. I also wasn't the only one who expected this: Several people I know also watched it expecting entirely the same thing. 

I was completely wrong, and it turned out to be a very deep, well-crafted show about people doing their absolute best, and the conflicts that arise both from a clash of different cultures and a clash of different people trying to do what's right for everyone. One thing I loved about the series was that it entirely subverted my expectations: Early episodes were set up to frame Clarke and Abby as the heroes of the two respective storylines, and Bellamy and Kane as the villains. It turned out four or five episodes in that while Clarke and Abby were certainly heroic figures, so were Bellamy and Kane - Bellamy genuinely felt that his draconian, warlike leadership was a necessity for survival, and he and Clarke formed a partnership; while Kane was revealed to deeply and earnestly believe that delaying what he saw as inevitable (killing a portion of the Ark's citizens to save oxygen) would only make matters worse. 

Anyway, Series 2 opens at the exact moment that Series 1 left off: With Clarke trapped in a quarantine facility after being kidnapped by the technologically advanced Mountain People - the mountain, in this instance, being quickly revealed to be Mount Weather, where the 100's dropship was meant to land. While the people of Mount Weather try to integrate her and several others into their comfortable but isolationist society, Clarke's suspicion of them leads her to discover several terrible secrets that they've been hiding. Meanwhile, Abby, Kane and the Ark survivors have arrived on the ground, and must deal with establishing an ordered society in a hostile and dangerous environment. Meanwhile meanwhile, Octavia and Lincoln, on the run after the battle in Series 1 final episode, are waylaid by attacks by the mysterious, savage Reapers. 

Also, Octavia meets Lincoln's mate Steve.

While I have enjoyed this series thus far, I admit I maybe enjoy it less than the first series. While there were no true villains in the first series, the elite of Mount Weather are unambiguously evil, engaging in human experimentation coloured with striking savagery. But it is striking, and for that reason they make effective villains: The veneer of comfortable, 1950s Good Ol' America style warmth contrasted with their concealed barbarism makes them effective villains, and as more is revealed about their activities, the more frightening and unstoppable they seem. But I do, nevertheless, miss the moral ambiguity of the first series.

My other bugbear is that it feels like every character has been getting less time focused on them, and definitely less character development. Bellamy, Finn, Raven and Octavia all seem sorely underused, and while every character underwent some kind of change over the course of the first series, so far our leads of Clarke and Bellamy have remained mostly static, with the lion's share of character development going to Finn, who discovers he has a murder-y side. Possibly he took Murphy's (heh) murder-y side, since this series also has him undergo some development into a functioning and trustworthy member of society.

It's understandable though, if only because the series' attention is split more broadly than before - while the first series had two ongoing storylines in parallel, series 2 has three to five at any given time. That brings with it a certain amount of strain on the writing, and what I'd ideally like to see - and what we appear to be heading towards for the second half - is for that to be condensed back into two parallel storylines again.

One of those being the Mount Weather kids, who need more screentime.

The interpersonal conflicts are often less sharp and engaging than in the first series, but not always: The moral quandary that the main characters faced in the midseason finale was handled well, although I do think a more interesting route would have been to see it go to trial. Similarly, the conflicts between Jaha and Abby were excellently done. 

But I am intrigued to see where the series will go when it returns. Having ended on a rather shocking note, the second half seems set for both massive interpersonal conflicts, and the various issues arising from both a new alliance with a dangerous tribe of grounders, and the coming war against Mount Weather. 

So, overall, while this series sof ar maybe hasn't reached the heights of the previous series, I am still enjoying it a lot, and it remains one of the best shows on US television right now. I'll be awaiting its return next year very eagerly.

Clarke, Octavia, what's ... up with your ... eyes ...

(Also, why do all the promotional materials show Clarke wearing thick, heavy eyeliner? She literally never wears eyeliner that heavy in show. Ever.)

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Sword Art Online II: Second Course.

This was going to be a review of The 100, but then I realised that SAOII totally ended on Saturday, so here you go.

Sword Art Online II
Second Course.

You may well recall that my views on the first course of this series fell somewhere between utter loathing and deep, deep exasperation, so it would be the understatement of the year to say I did not have the highest hopes for this second course. I expected more of the same from Sword Art Online: Kirito as an invincible god mode stu who exists only to fulfil the bizarre and sticky power fantasies of fourteen year old boys.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that after I posted that last review I had a bloody torrent of fourteen year old boys finding me to protest that there wasn't anything wrong with Sword Art Online. Essays were oft included.

Sword Art Online II's second course picks up some time after the GGO arc, and covers two shorter arcs from the light novels: The Excalibur arc, in which a party of characters we know and love to one degree or another chase down a legendary sword in a dungeon; and the Mother Rosario arc, in which Asuna meets enthusiastic swordsman Yuuki and her guild, the Sleeping Knights, who intend to defeat a floor boss all on their own and are harbouring a tragic secret.

It is - kind of perfect, actually. 


Okay, no. It's not perfect, I can pick out flaws if I try, but this course is exactly what I wanted out of Sword Art Online. Lulzy adventures in the online world, in which Kirito isn't a ridiculous Gary Stu and there's a decent ensemble focus. So many of my issues with SAO were addressed in this course: Kirito gets beaten without impossible odds being involved, female characters are given agendas and motivations other than 'pleasing Kirito', we got more Asuna focus, and in general we had a roundly ensemble story.

The first arc was great fun, being a swashbuckling adventure in which the show managed to give decent time to seven characters, which is no easy task. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the focus on Klein, as he has always been my favourite character in the show. It wasn't an especially deep story, but there was no reason why it should be: It was great fun to watch, and my only real criticism is that it could have done with being an episode longer, to push in more character interaction and a few more fight scenes. The fight scenes in this arc were truly sterling, incidentally, with one fight against a pair of bosses standing out (and involving the obligatory 'everyone showing off their special moves' sequence. I'm a sucker for that stuff).

Also, Thor.

It could also have potentially used slightly fewer characters, in order to focus slightly more on the ones left. Kirito, Asuna, Leafa, Klein and Sinon would have made a fine five man band together, leaving minor characters Silica and Lisbeth out. 

The second arc was - well, I teared up about three times. If the first arc was fun and shallow, this arc was tragic and deep, exploring themes of what it meant to live as opposed to just surviving; of parental expectations, disappointment, and conflicts; and of growing up. It's an arc that tackles quite - real issues in a quite real and earnest fashion, despite the ever-present plot element of a totally realistic virtual world. It also very skilfully rouses emotion from the audience, first getting them invested in a group of characters before introducing several tragic plot twists. The last episode of this arc yielded one of the saddest scenes I've seen in anime for a while. 

Oooh, lightshow.

As with the Excalibur arc, my main issue with this arc is length: Specifically, I think it could have been an episode shorter and told a slightly more condensed story. As it is, it was very overtly drawn out, resulting in a too slow pacing at times.

I feel like this twelve episode course kind of showed what Sword Art Online could and should be: A character driven, ensemble story that eschews epic plotlines in favour of smaller scale stories about the effects of this online world on people's lives. I know that's not where it'll go if there's ever a Sword Art Online III, but I found this course well and truly enjoyable, and I think as a full series it would excel. 

Still, no matter what the franchise's future is - and there is yet no hint that there will even be another series - I am glad they adapted those two arcs. Also, that they were so heavy with Klein. Klein's great. Everyone loves Klein. 

Monday, 22 December 2014

Kamen Rider Drive E11: Who Can Prevent The Dark Eve?

Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 11
Who Can Prevent The Dark Eve?

It's time for the third episode of our Christmas three-parter, and the last episode of this act of Drive. I do like that they're dividing this series up into acts, it'll make it very easy to do masterposts as I go along.

First, the bingo, as it was after watching both episode ten and Special Mission - Type Zero:

As you might recall, we left off from the last episode at the climactic moment of a rather underwhelming battle between Shinnosuke and Heart. So it had better have a good conclusion, right? Well, it kind of does, at least within the framework of what you'd expect from a fight between the seeming main villain and the main rider at this point in the show: Chase interrupts them by hitting Heart, causing an explosion that injures all of them.

It's not a terrible way to resolve this problem, in that it involves Heart not losing but still leaves Shinnosuke alive - although Chase and Heart both think he's dead, which is going to get confusing a little bit later.

In general, though, this might be one of the strongest episodes of the series so far. Most of it revolves around hunting for Volt - a hunt which conveniently ties into Type Zero, as the Copycat Pirate (that's just a Batman villain, I'm sure of it) - which worked for me, as I find Volt legitimately terrifying, and seeing him stride through a city, dressed all in white, apparently going completely unnoticed despite the police's best efforts (shown through the medium of montage). 

Of course, that all kind of falls apart when Shinnosuke and Kiriko discover him just by seeing him out of the window while driving. 

Which is weird, because they saw him from behind, and he wasn't dressed like
this when they last met.

Okay, granted it was while they were on the way to the site of his evil plan, but what a horribly undramatic way to do that. I know why they did it: They wanted to have Shinnosuke get into a fight with Chase and Brain, but they couldn't just have the two intercept them, because the Roimyude think that he's dead.

Except neither of them are surprised to see him. Neither of these characters, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, react to or comment upon how a man they thought was dead is actually alive and well. Brain actually just vanishes offscreen for most of the fight. So here's my suggestion: Just don't have them think he's dead. Instead of Heart and Chase sitting up and being like 'He died,' have them be like 'He got away.' 

Then have Chase and Brain intercept Shinnosuke and Kiriko in the Tridoron, to keep him away from Volt. Shinnosuke gets out, we get the fight scene, and Kiriko continues on towards Volt, and the plot continues identically from there on.

(Not that much would be lost without Kiriko pursuing Volt, as all we get out of that is a terrible CGI battle, and a brief, shadowy appearance by Mach, who fires one shot and then doesn't stay to help or pursue when Volt tries to clamber up a building.

I will talk about Mach in next episode's review, by the way. Needless to say, I have views on his identity.)

Speaking of, I caught a continuity error in that fight scene. Kiriko runs out of bullets, then ten minutes later, she has at least one bullet again.

Two things that do stand out in this episode as great, though, are the villain interactions, and Shinnosuke's interaction with Chase. 

Also, here's Shinnosuke putting on a shirt. You are welcome.

In the former case, there is a sense of genuine camaraderie between the villains that I continue to enjoy: Brain is obviously concerned over both Heart and Chase (if also quite exasperated), and even when Brain has turned against Chase, Heart still insists he trusts him. Also, their whole plan was to revive another Roimyude from death or something very much like it, which fits in well with how the villains are meant to be quite warm, caring people who are deeply concerned for each other.

In the latter case - well, I'm getting exhausted of Chase vs Shinnosuke fight scenes, but I liked how this one ended: Shinnosuke makes a heartfelt plea of Chase to let him go this time so that he can stop innocent people from dying, and Chase lets him. The show has set up a nice kind of frenemy-ish thing for them that I appreciate a lot.

We also get to see Chase's un-evolved form, and his number, which is 000. I had expected him not to have a number at all, but this is theoretically close enough. Sort of.

I also thought the episode ended on a great note, with Shinnosuke being disappointed by his combined-birthday-Christmas-end-of-year-work-party, which he had thought was a special birthday date just for him. The show might be trying to make me ship Shinnosuke and Kiriko, but it won't work. In general, the Special Crimes Unit is starting to annoy me a little less now, especially with the slight flash of competency from their chief in this episode.

Next time - which I think might not be next week, but we'll see - we have the debut proper of Kamen Rider Mach, so that'll be an interesting one to cover.

Anyway, here's this week's bingo: 

It vexes me that I can't fill in those last few spaces yet.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Legend of Korra.

Legend of Korra.

I probably should have done this series by series, but in defence, this blog is less than a year old, so that - that might have involved time travel. Or a lot of very belated reviews (because I never do that. I don't have a review for the first Fable hanging around somewhere). 

Legend of Korra, the sequel to popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, is set in a world of four nations, each of whom can manipulate one of the classical elements, and into which an avatar, who can manipulate (or 'bend') all four is born in a cycle of reincarnation. LoK specifically revolves around Korra, a young Water Tribe woman who is the current Avatar, working out of 1920s metropolis Republic City. Over the course of four series, she is drawn into conflict with a masked revolutionary, her uncle, an evil kite from before the dawn of time, a four man band of anarchists, and a self-styled Earth Empress. 

I figure the best way for me to do this review is to run through it series by series, because to say that there is gigantic variation in quality over the course of the four series would be an understatement.

The first series, Air, has a promising start: Korra is a great character, and her supporting cast (stuffy air master Tenzin, cheerful earthbender Bolin and his gruff firebending brother Mako, non-bending tech genius Asami, and grumpy metalbending police chief Lin) is fun and has a lot of potential for development. The villains, Amon and the Equalists, are both intimidating and have the potential for depth and layers.

Also, Amon has a neat mask.

Where Air falls flat is in its usage of time. Instead of the twenty episodes a series that The Last Airbender had, Legend of Korra has twelve to thirteen episodes per series. That's potentially not a problem if you use that time wisely - I reviewed Psycho-Pass 2 yesterday, which managed to weave a compelling story with layered villains in eleven episodes - but Air doesn't. Instead, it focuses almost obscene amounts of time on storylines about bending-related sport pro-bending, and worse, terrible love triangles. I have not met a single person with a kind word to say about the love triangle plotline. In fact, it made a lot of people hate Mako. Including me.

The result is painfully little time devoted to the actual plot of the series, making it feel a little shallow and a little rushed in places. Time more judiciously used could have easily solved that problem. 

Well, that's kinda creepy, Korra.

The second series, Spirits, also has a promising start: We have the love triangle plotline out of the way, and with Korra and Mako now dating, Mako's character starts to morph into something likeable again. Unfortunately, Spirits goes off the rails pretty quickly, introducing a character who is not only so obviously evil that it absolutely boggles the mind that anyone would be able to spend five minutes with him without immediately pegging that he's a wrong'un (seriously, at one point he issues sinister edicts from a shadowy throne), but whose motivations are also startlingly unclear.

As much as the series attempts to provide vague hints at a motive in the form of jealousy or a yearning for a new spiritual age, these all kind of fall flat once a character starts screaming about ten-thousand years of darkness, before merging with a vast, shadowy demon. The result is a series of two villains in which one is boring as beige and the other, being an ancient kite of evil, is just difficult to relate to.

Add to that that the story seems to have no idea where it's going in Spirits, veering off in a dozen of different and ever more bizarre directions (including a return of the love triangle plot, now with added amnesia! Yay), before culminating in two gigantic, glowing giants having a fistfight, in what might be the most bizarre series finale I see for a while. 

Spirits does also bring us Beginnings, though, two episodes that are some of the best of the entire show. Telling the story of the first avatar, Wan, Beginnings manages to tell an epic, sweeping, and perfectly pitched story in just forty minutes.

Wan is too adorable, I can't cope.

The third series, Change, is where the series really starts to look up. All love triangle plots are gone, thank god, and instead Korra gets to face off against some really interesting villains. While Korra has always been an excellent character, even in less than excellent storylines, Change gives her supporting cast some much needed chances to shine, including an airbending duel between Tenzin and anarchist leader Zaheer; Bolin discovering lavabending (still absolutely nothing to do with one of his parents being a firebender, guys); Asami being tech-y and us getting to see her and Korra forming a deep friendship (eheh); Lin coming into conflict with her world leader sister Su; and Mako being gratifyingly quiet. 

The villains are interesting, with their camaraderie and unique personalities much appreciated, and each one comes off as a genuine threat, both individually and as a group. Change also has what might be one of the most brutal series finales I've seen in a while, too, ending with Korra suffering the after-effects of mercury poisoning, along with PTSD and depression. 

Also, here's Korra and Asami.

Lastly, the fourth series, Balance. If Change was where the series started to improve, Balance was where it hit its peak. While there was definitely a larger, world-ending plot afoot, involving new Earth Empress Kuvira (voiced by Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams) instituting a draconian, fascist rule of the former Earth Kingdom, Korra's own plot was for much of the series very personal. She spends half the series struggling with PTSD and depression, both illnesses you rarely see even touched upon in children's shows, and the show isn't shy about showing their devastating effects, or Korra's frustration at not being able to simply recover.

We also get a some excellent subplots. Bolin gets a subplot about being a soldier in Kuvira's army, and a member of her inner circle (although it becomes very frustrating how many situations he's in that could just be solved by melting the ground beneath the feet of his enemies - an ability that only he possesses in the entire world), while Mako gets a subplot about being the bodyguard for deposed and exiled Earth Prince Wu. 

As far as the main plot goes, this was the series where it really struck me how well LoK does for having varied, important and powerful female characters. In the Zaofu arc of the series, every single one of the major players involved is a woman, including three world leaders and one divine entity. This isn't something that should be remarkable, but unfortunately television is gigantically sexist and quite often fails to meet even the bare minimum of passing the Bechdel Test, so I am definitely going to praise that. 

Yay Kuvira.

Balance is well-paced, bar one clip show episode that was unavoidable due to funding issues, and has a stunning conclusion, culminating in a grand battle involving a gigantic robot, a small army of benders, smaller robots, spirit vines, and a duel between Kuvira and Korra. Balance's finale also has what may be one of the most important moments in children's television for a while: A canonical same-sex relationship between two bisexual women.

(Before anyone tries to tell me that the ending was just being friends, I want you to tell me of a single time when the final scene of any show depicted two people going on a holiday for 'just the two of them', before holding hands and turning to each other, while surrounded by golden light, as romantic music swells. I would also remind you that the The Last Airbender's final scene was a romantic moment as well.)

So that made me enormously happy.

Overall, definitely not a perfect show, but one I've enjoyed a lot, and especially so in the past year. The minds behind it haven't disclosed any plans for another series in the same universe, but I'd like them to come back to it. Maybe with a modern day Earth Kingdom avatar, I don't know.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Psycho-Pass 2.

Psycho-Pass 2. 

Ah, I was excited about this. I absolutely adore Psycho-Pass, and although I didn't think it needed a sequel, I was certainly glad to see one. 

Written by Tow Ubukata (something which got many Urobuchi fans riled up - look, I like Urobuchi's writing a lot, but other writers are available) and animated again by Noitamina, the sequel weighs in at eleven episodes to its predecessor's twenty-four, although it does also have a tie in film.

Some months after the death of Makishima and the escape of Kogami, Akane Tsunemori, an 'inspector' in a world where a vast supercomputer, Sibyl, judges its citizens' likelihood of committing crime and pre-emptively punishes them, has acquired a new team of 'enforcers' (latent criminals given the chance to hunt down other latent criminals), including enigmatic Sakuya Togane. Her life is turned upside down once again when she crosses paths with Kirito Kamui, a young man who cannot be perceived by the system, and the leader of a cultlike organisation.

The issue of who would replace Makishima as the villain was probably the biggest one for the series, with many fans speculating that Kogami would take on an antagonistic role to replace him. We had a threefold villain in this series, with Kamui arguably being the main antagonist, and then Sakuya Togane and his mother forming two sub-antagonists. Which works: Kamui is a far more interesting villain than Makishima was. While Makishima was very cookie cutter, carved out of a cliche of 'the urbane, intellectual, philosophical criminal' with no real depth, Kamui is a complex, interesting character who presents a sense of real danger.

He also kind of looks like a goat.

Which is not to say that the handling of the plot is perfect. For starters, this series relies a lot more on gore and squick than its predecessor (which was not precisely gore-free at the best of times). Plot twists like 'Kamui carves off faces, sometimes, and gives them to other people' just come off as a rather childish attempt to make the audience go 'ew.' Sequences like a group of holograms disintegrating in a fire to reveal dead bodies have shades of immature shock tactics about them.

As was the case with Makishima, the writers often seemed unsure how to handle Kamui, too, being unable to decide whether they prefer him as a serene but highly malevolent butcher or tortured fallen hero. The Toganes suffer no such problems as villains, being basically pure evil. 

The protagonists fare, perhaps, less well than the villains. Akane truly shines in this series, having visibly developed as a character from the last series, while still being totally recognisable. She's engaging, sharp, witty, and it's very easy to root for her, which is absolutely a necessary aspect of being the main protagonist. The other stand out star of the protagonists is Saiga. Introduced as Kogami's teacher in the first series, Saiga is brought back this series as an interviewer and analyst (and latent criminal). He has a dry, cynical manner which was very fun to watch, and his character arc of coming to terms with the idea that there's just something about him and the things he knows that raises the crime coefficients of those around him, and what that means for him, was one of the best in the show, even though it wasn't touched upon much. His interactions with Akane particularly stand out as being excellent.

Akane is, in general, pretty great.

There are a few other newish characters, too. Mika, a minor character from the first series, comes back as an inspector who very quickly starts to lose her way, and an adorable enforcer/hologram expert is introduced. They're both fine, although Mika was widely hated by fans for her consistent inability to take any responsibility, but neither of them are particularly striking.

Things which aren't striking stand out a little in this series, because it puts so much effort into being in your face and striking and unforgettable. While the original Psycho-Pass was often content to meander through procedural plots, Psycho-Pass 2 is the meth-taking hard-drinking younger sibling, and takes every episode as a twenty minute opportunity to leave your jaw hanging open. Sometimes this works, such as when a major character was locked in a pharmacy with a madman and a group of hostages, being viciously beaten. Sometimes it doesn't, such as when Kamui was revealed to be a chimera of over a hundred people, a plot twist which was more ridiculous than it was shocking. 

Are you evil, Togane? I can't tell.

With a film shortly coming up, there is a bit of an impression that Ubukata was trying hard not to buck the status quo too much, and the series ends with a philosophical question that falls a little flat: What the result would be of Sibyl judging groups of people, in addition to individuals. Somehow, I think the writers thought that was a more interesting idea than it actually was.

Still, this was a very solid and enjoyable series, and definitely one of my favourites for the year. It's getting beaten out by Nobunaga the Fool, though. I'm sorry, I know, Psycho-Pass 2 was objectively better in a thousand ways, but I really like Nobunaga the Fool, guys. I really do.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Kamen Rider Drive Special Mission - Type Zero.

This might end up being a shorter review than usual. There's only so much that can be said about a sixteen minute special.

Kamen Rider Drive
Special Mission: Type Zero.

I'd make a 'two Drive reviews in one week? Say it's not so' joke, but I'm pretty sure this will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody, given that we did get almost an entire extra episode. Almost: The special mission episode is sixteen minutes long instead of twenty-two, but it also doesn't have the opening credits or any previews.

First thing's first, I am counting this episode in the bingo, so here it is as it stood at the end of Episode 10:

Showing the twelve hours before the Global Freeze event that preceded the series, the episode covers Shinnosuke's attempt to take down a criminal organisation calling themselves Neo-Shade, the beginning of Heart and Brain's revolution, and the activities of Proto-Drive, Shinnosuke's predecessor.

I wasn't expecting a great deal, so I only went and looked up this special when I was bored, short on things to review, and full of whimsy: Which is probably the best way to do it. It is, after all, an optional extra, something fun for fans who bought a DVD. As one might expect, it is pretty rough and hastily put together, and relatively unpolished.

In spite of that, though, I did quite like it. Proto-Drive (whose identity is painfully obvious the moment you hear him speak, as if it wasn't extremely obvious before), on whom it was marketed, appears rarely, but his appearances are always very striking. He comes across almost as a Batman figure: Mysterious, shadowy, and just skirting the edge of being an antihero (and it's odd that I should say that, come to think of it, because he behaves in a completely unambiguously heroic fashion throughout this episode. Something about his manner, one supposes), in contrast to our more brightly coloured and affable regular-flavour Drive. 

(One thing that did make me tilt my head a little was the presence of Mr. Belt. I was under the impression that we established last episode that he died during the Global Freeze, so why is his consciousness inside a belt before it? Is he just communicating through it like a commlink?)

I demand answers, son.

The Shinnosuke plotline, focusing mostly on his relationship with Hayase. I'm still in the 'I love Hayase but he should have died' camp, and this plotline would have had a lot more emotional punch to it if Shinnosuke was responsible for the dude's death, instead of just injuring him. That said, it was good to see their interactions and teamwork, especially in a sequence where Hayase distracts someone while Shinnosuke sneaks up behind them.

That plotline also answered a question that I think all of us have pondered at some point: Whether regular crime in the world of Kamen Rider is as ludicrous as monster crime. The answer is yes, as this special episode brings us two police officers looking at an enhanced photograph and uttering the sentence "It's not Neo-Shade at all, it's a copycat ... In fact, it's the Copycat Pirate." When we see the man, he's dressed up like a pirate in a mask, ranting about being the king of crime. So, that's - good. That question has been answered, then.

(The Copycat Pirate does, in fact, eventually get copied by a monster, thus proving the writers have some sense of irony.)

The last plotline is Heart's, and it's definitely the least meaty of the three, mostly involving him rallying his fellow Roimyude and being generally cheerful and affable and murderous. It's definitely the worst of the three, but it's good fun anyway. 

So, let's take a look at the bingo, updated for this episode:

Great. This is a fun special, so I recommend checking it out when you have time and inclination, and Drive proper has its next episode airing on Monday, I think.