30 April 2011

Movie Series: Bourne Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum

The Jason Bourne series -
The Bourne Identity (2002)  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0258463/ ,
The Bourne Supremacy (2004) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372183/  and
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0440963/

First off I have never seen the first made-for-tv 1988 Bourne Identity film starring Richard Chamberlain, so I can't even begin to compare that film to this series. Nor have I read the books, so I am not able to discuss the similarities/differences/merits.

Second off, I'm not going to attempt any sort of in-depth 'review' of each of the films, pretty much everyone has seen some or all of these films.  This is just a dump of the thoughts that I had after watching all the films again.

These films revolve around Jason Borne, played by Matt Damon. When we first meet him he suffers from amnesia. He can't remember who he is, why he speaks multiple languages, why he can kick people's asses without thinking, why he had a safe deposit box in Switzerland filled with multiple passports with multiple names, currency for multiple countries, a gun... As time goes on we (and he) find out he was part of a secret CIA covert-ops assassination program and they're trying to track him down and eliminate him because he's gone rogue and they don't know if he's defected or what.  Even when they know about his amnesia they fear their old weapon will be back to take 'em out.

I really like this series of flicks. They are very consistent with each other as they continue Bourne's story, and each film makes a good stand-alone movie that doesn't require having seen the preceding flicks to understand what is happening. Ultimatum is probably the most dependent on its predecessors than Supremacy is, but could still stand alone.   Another good thing is that the amount of time elapsed between when the movies were released didn't diminish the quality of the later movies. They just resulted in an older-looking Matt Damon in the third film vs. the first film.

The only complaint I ever had was about the handheld cam work in Supremacy. It is probably the most shaky and distracting of the technique used out of the three flicks, but with multiple viewings I'm able to get past it now. Aside from that - most of the time we as viewers are right in the middle of the action.

Regardless, they're great cloak-and-dagger stuff, great characters with depth played by great casting choices.  Awesome work by the behind-the-scenes crews as well.  Easily a series I can keep returning to from time to time.  Even though I remember the whole story as laid out in the 3 films, they're still very good film rides that I return to probably at least once every year or so.

If you haven't seen these films and enjoy good action/adventure/intreague films with car chases and hand-to-hand combat scenes, why haven't you seen them? Get them. Now.

Side Note ------
There's a fourth Bourne movie in the works, titled The Bourne Legacy. This won't have Jason Bourne, or Matt Damon, in the flick. This one will star Jeremy Renner. It isn't a reboot or a prequel or recast either. It's set in the same world as the first three films, and supposedly builds on events from the first three films but shows a wider view of the conspiracy.  I'll probably watch the film to see how it fits with the first three, but it will be weird having a Bourne film without Jason Bourne in it except in spirit.

Adam Savage (Mythbusters) owns THE red Switzerland bank bag prop from the first film - Bourne Identity.  The contents are a mixture of found and replicated items. He trotted it out for a MB episode where they tested the magazine in a toaster + natural gas in the house = big explosion scene from the Supremacy film.
And by "trotted it out" I meant he practically came out skipping and giddy with excitement like a little girl holding a pet white fluffy bunny. I mean that in a good way. That's part of what makes MB work so well - Adam's exuberance contrasted with Jamie's deadpan.
He talks about it in the after show video at about the 2 minutes 4 seconds mark.

28 April 2011

Movies: The American

The American (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1440728/

A crime drama with a bit of mystery/suspense. Stars George Clooney as The American, be he named Jack or Edward. Neither is probably his real name. We meet him in a remote location in Sweden with his gal, they go for a walk and find a single set of footprints in the snow.  He gets all paranoid and runs them to cover, only to be fired upon. After he dispatches his attacker we suspect he's an agent of some sort. A tiny bit more story later we learn that he is an assassin. He calls his contact to get his next assignment and announces that's the last one for him and he's out of the business. He wants to retire, to have a real life, to not have to look over his shoulder anymore. He gets sent to a small village in Italy. This time he's not doing the killing, he's building the weapon for another assassin to use.  Not only is he an assassin, he's a master craftsman of weapons for his trade.

This film moves at a pace that probably feels glacial to the general American moviegoer sensibilities. There's hardly any action. No explosions. The car chase scene has Clooney on a moped.  That may read as being comical, but it isn't.  This isn't the type of film that happens in front of you and explains everything at a 6th-grade reading level while you munch snacks and let sound and picture pour into your head.  This one takes a little bit of paying attention. That may sound like a snoozefest for some - but I enjoyed the film. What made the film enjoyable to me was working with minimal information, having to piece together the present and past events in the film, understanding the undertones of the sparse conversations.

What really helps this film work is Clooney's performance. He portrays a calm surface, but you soon see the underlying paranoia required of a man in his profession. He's constantly aware of everything going on around him, and rarely exposes anything about himself or what he's really thinking to others. He never directly answers a question that attempts to plumb deeper than his surface cover story. But at the same time when we see him by himself you can also see the loneliness he endures, again because of his profession.
This isn't the George Clooney you're used to seeing in most of his roles. He really makes this character work in everything he doesn't do and in everything he subtly does. A great example of 'less is more'.

Despite outward appearances there are suspenseful moments. As slow as things may seem to be moving on the surface there's a lot more going on below that surface. And that's what kept the film going for me, kept it moving even when it didn't seem to be.  Kept it suspenseful and thrilling in moments. It works because it is subtle - that subtlety is what draws you in and builds the suspense.  Kindof like ducks on a pond -they seem to glide along effortlessly, but when you see what their feet are up to it's rather furious motion.

Outstanding locations for this film. Visually beautiful at times.  The supporting cast does well in their roles too. The film score is unobtrusive. I didn't notice any weaknesses in the technical aspects of the film. Except, yes,  mercury-filled bullets make an appearance, which sends gun-nerds into a froth about technical accuracy. I'm not a gun nerd, I understand their argument, I can watch the film without worrying about that detail. It has no bearing on the film.

I truly enjoyed the film. It might not work for folks who want action packed assassination thriller films like the Bourne films. This film isn't an amusement park ride, it's more like crawling through grass to avoid lions.

26 April 2011

Documentary: Waste Land

Waste Land (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1268204/

Artist Vik Muniz decided to  to undertake a new art project that would the make the world aware of Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.  He also chose to highlight the catadores, the folks that pick through the landfill daily for recyclable materials, making a meager living off of their pickings.  Vik starts off meeting catadores and taking their pictures and listening to their stories. He then enlists the help of a few of them to work with him to make giant mosaic representations of the best of the photos taken.  Basically the photo would be projected on the floor and under Vik's guidance the catadores would fill out the image with recyclable items brought to the studio from the landfill. Once a giant image was constructed a large-format photo was taken from a height.

You can see some images from the film at http://www.wastelandmovie.com/gallery.html

The documentary isn't only about his process. We meet the people Vik meets. We learn about their lives, and we see how their lives change while they assist Vik in crafting the giant images in the studio.  While transforming trash into art we see how the people themselves transform as a result of the artistic process.  They move from living a life of accepting the status quo to rejecting the life they've been living and striking out to make a life better for themselves.

The end result? Good art that sells well at auction, proceeds from those sales go back into helping the catadore community, and we see good people improve their lives along the way too. You get to care about these folks as you learn their past and present lives, and you get to see what sort of future this art project opens for them.

This documentary works so well because we as an audience get to follow the process and project from its inception to execution and into the payoff. It is edited together well, moves at a good pace that doesn't tire the viewer. The wide shots probably can't capture the immense size of this landfill and do it justice, the tight shots put you right next to the catadores. Conversations in Portuguese are subtitled for us English speakers, and there are some long stretches of Portuguese so be prepared to do some reading.  As a viewer immersed in the film I forgot I was reading captions while I watched, so it isn't a bother.

If you're a sort that enjoys a good documentary with a positive message from time to time, check this one out.

If you happened to watch Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" you'll be pleased to see Simon de Pury in this documentary. He's running the auction in London of one of the works from this project and gives a little bit of interview time.

I happened to catch this gem of a documentary on PBS's Independent Lens series.

25 April 2011

Movies: Resident Evil : Afterlife (plus Resident Evil series)

Resident Evil : Afterlife (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1220634/
Action / sci-fi / horror films with zombies of the outbreak variety.

Resident Evil : Afterlife (RE:AL) is the fourth installment in the Resident Evil series of films.  The first three being:
Resident Evil http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120804/  (RE)
Resident Evil : Apocalypse http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318627/  (RE:A)
Resident Evil : Extinction http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0432021/  (RE:E)

My opinion on the series as a whole:

The series of films is based on the Resident Evil video games. If you haven't played the games that sentence is meaningless. The overarching story is the evil Umbrella Corporation develops a virus that causes mutations within people and some animals.  Almost all infected beings end up dying, then coming back to life as violent flesh-eating zombies.  The virus escapes the lab and pretty much wipes out the population of Earth, except for a few stragglers here and there that have been able to successfully stay infection-free.  One survivor, Alice, actually survived an infection without dying and ended up a super being, a living weapon, as a result. The Umbrella Corp wants to capture, study and make use of her, of course, so they can control what the virus does for their own nefarious plans.
Technically this is classified as an "outbreak" film series, not a true "zombie" film series. The zombie purist nerds can explain the difference much better than I can.

As a series it is not a terrible video game to movie franchise. There's been worse, much worse. Which is mostly Uwe Boll's fault.

The first movie was the strongest of the series, and it pretty much takes a bumpy ride downhill from there.  Paul W. S. Anderson wrote the scripts for all four films. He also wrote and directed the first film (RE) and the fourth film (RE:AL). That brings consistency and continuity to the story that runs through the films. Each film connects to the previous film events in some way.  Milla Jovovich plays Alice in each film, which strengthens the continuity. One could say the series could be titled "The Chronicles of Alice".
The most infuriating thing about the films is there is a decent core story inside the films that carries from film to film, but some of the outer layers - yeesh.
In a nutshell, as a series it starts out pretty good (slightly above average for its genre) and continues to degrade as each new film comes out. Still, if you enjoy outbreak/zombie films these do have some redeeming entertainment value. If you're a Resident Evil purist, probably less so.

Now that I'm done with the series, on to Resident Evil : Afterlife itself.
The Good:
The opening sequence nicely sums up graphically the spread of the virus as it wipes out the world. It starts with one person, the virus takes her over, she attacks someone else, then the camera slowly zooms out to a satellite view as the virus spreads - as indicated by the ever increasing circumference of cities' lights winking out. This places viewers who haven't seen the films into the world the film inhabits quite effectively in a short amount of time.
Some flashbacks to prior movies are used to show new viewers, and remind prior viewers, significant events that have impact in this film. The technique is used very sparingly and only when absolutely necessary, which is a good thing.

The Bad:
Milla Jovovich is slowing down. Granted she's been playing Alice through four films spanning 8 years now. But Alice just fought and moved much slower than she had in the prior films.  And I'm talking about even before she got injected by Umbrella Corporation rep. I call Mr. Shades because I have no clue what that character's name is.
Actually I didn't care about any of the character's names. I didn't care about the other characters at all. Probably a by-product of my disappointment so early in the film (outlined in The Ugly section). Plus I didn't care much as I figured everyone else Alice encountered was going to be fodder, except for a select couple of folks, which is how the other films operated.
The 'cleaning up' of the 'situation' the audience is left with at the end of the 3rd film. Yes, something is done about it, but boy is that an unsatisfying way to toss it aside.
The zombies are able to think, plan and execute complex coordinated attacks. Didn't expect to see that.
All the Umbrella Corp security folks are graduates of the Stormtrooper School of Marksmanship.
K-Mart appears, does something significant, disappears, then just shows up later.
The core of the story and it's advancement of the series story arc felt weaker than prior films' contributions.

The Ugly:
Filmed for 3D - thus there are plenty of action shots set up specifically to throw things in your face, regardless of any sense it makes.
The sequence bringing Alice into the film, her taking out the Tokyo Umbrella Corp headquarters, borrowed heavily from the Matrix. This includes a hallway with columns, plenty of bullets flying every direction, slow motion wire-fu. Even the evil Umbrella Corp dude (Mr. Shades as I call him, I have no freakin idea what his name is) reminded me of Agent Smith.
The wire-fu (action fighting sequences enhanced by wires and harness) was mostly terrible.  For example watching a forward momentum leap capped with an abrupt stop, 360 rotation midair, followed by gentle landing on the feet.
The computer generated anythings are very obvious - apparently expense was spared in that department.
The CG shot post-injection - the stupid - it burns. A nit I pick mostly because at this point I'd already facepalmed a couple times. Plus the injected cells looked like the squids from Matrix.
Not only was Matrix heavily borrowed from, the film borrowed from Silent Hill and brought in a very Pyramid Head-like character. A giant mutant with a giant axe/hammer. He's called Axeman, but he really just looks like Pyramid Head with a potato sack over his head.
Physics aren't only bent, they are generally ignored at every opportunity.

One super breaking of physics event: While Alice and Mr Shades are fighting in an aircraft, thus distracting Shades from his piloting duties, the plane crashes into a mountain. Instead of being turned to paste from the impact Alice stumbles out of the wreckage.
Another super breaking of physics event: the folks with Alice on the roof pile into an elevator, she tosses an explosive on the elevator winching mechanism which is about 5 feet above the occupant's heads. The explosive detonates, the elevator falls 30 or 40 stories down into water and everyone survives. They not only survive the explosion above their heads with no negative effects of the concussive force, the elevator gently splashes into the water.
Two words: Airplane landing.
There's plenty more - but those events were so shockingly absurd I forgot what happened immediately after, I even almost missed Alice's tarzan act. I can forgive some bending of physics, to a point, but geez.

In the end, the only worth to me of seeing the film is to complete the watching of the series. If you enjoyed the series up to this point the film might not be particularly satisfying except in that it wraps up the end of the third installment, nudges the story arc forward a tiny bit, then leaves you hanging for a probable fifth installment.
If you haven't watched the prior three films, definitely do not start here. I won't discourage watching the series, overall it has its entertainment value.
Thus RE:AL is entertaining in one or two aspects, and rather not in many others.  Especially the disappointingly heavy borrowing from other films.

22 April 2011

Movies: Devil

Devil (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1314655/

Supernatural horror flick. Produced by, and story by, M. Night Shyamalan. Yeah - the 6th Sense guy.
The screenplay was written by Brian Nelson (writer of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night) and it was directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine - not too bad a flick IIRC).  So you aren't going to get the full M. Night experience, but you can still feel M. Night's fingers wriggling through the script.

Story: Two cops are investigating a death, most likely a suicide. Obviously the person had jumped from a great height and landed on a truck, but the truck was sitting near a two-story building. One cop realizes that there's no glass on the ground so he guesses the truck may have rolled to its current location. They backtrack to a skyscraper up the street, the one with glass on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, five folks (two women, three men) get in an express elevator. Partway up the elevator stops.  While building security and maintenance try to get the car operating again strange things begin happening inside the elevator. The lights flicker on and off, during a dark moment the younger woman suffers a savage bite to her back, one that draws blood. People start really freaking out.  During another lights on-and-off episode a mirror in the car shatters and a shard is stabbed in the neck of one of the men, killing him. The security folks see the aftermath on the car security monitor and call the cops to report the murder.Remember the cops investigating the suicide? Well, it just so happens that the stuck elevator car with the murderous mayhem party is in the same building as the suicide jumper's origin. So those cops set aside their suicide investigation and get in on observing the elevator murder car.

Things I liked about the flick:
The opening sequence is rather unsettling. Granted, it is just a flyover over the city, but it is upside down. After a bit it started to unsettle even my stomach, and usually I'm not bothered by such things. I liked that.
The premise of the film was pretty good, as supernatural horror flicks go. Five folks stuck in an elevator. Random killings start taking place, whittling the number of living occupants down. Folks watching helplessly from outside, unable to halt the killings, unable to identify the murderer, scrambling to figure out who is in the elevator and track down their pasts.
Apparently red herrings were on sale when they wrote this film. Keeping the audience guessing is a good thing.  I almost guessed who was the Devil incarnate and almost guessed how they were pulling it off, but then I second-guessed myself out of the answers just as soon. The red herrings did their job.
We know who the murderer is from the get-go. They named the film after him. But that premise worked within the framework of the film.  It's supposed to be a supernatural horror film, so supernatural away.

Things that detracted from my film viewing experience:
At times the dialog just sucked.
The acting was varying degrees of mediocre to almost effective.  They weren't terrible actors, just competent ones. Except Jenny O'Hara - she's been in tons of stuff and her experience clearly set her performance apart from the rest of the cast.
Elevator occupants freaked out and started grousing at each other too quickly after the elevator stopped.  Instead of a steady escalation of people getting irritated and increasingly taking it out on those around them it seemed like everyone jumped to "you're on my last nerve" almost immediately.
Yes, plenty of horror flicks in the past have been able to successfully thrill an audience by engaging their imagination with scary violent acts performed off-camera and in the dark. This film tries the same tactic. For some reason it didn't work for me. I didn't feel the escalation of suspense the film was going for.
We know who the murderer is from the get-go. They named the film after him. But even though the premise was fine, the security guard who tells us the mythology behind the Devil's motivations irritated the heck out of me. I realize he has to tell us the mythological framework - that's an M. Night 'thing'. But toast landing jelly-side down = the devil is killing people in the elevator? It's bad enough the guard believes that, it's worse anyone else takes him seriously and considers that a valid logical conclusion.
We get to know very little about any of the characters, except one. We get a big dose of one character's past. So thank you script for clubbing me over the head and saying "pay attention to this guy's back story because it ties in with everything else by the end of the film."* When only the one character gets such an extensive back story it is very obvious what the twist is gonna be in light of the mythology bludgeoned into the story by the security guard.

I don't know why the film failed in its thrill/suspense factor for me. Maybe I'm too desensitized by (Hitchcock) films that pull it off so much better.  This film fell short especially contrasted with Buried, as a most recent example, which seemed to do fine with suspense building.

However, despite the things I considered to be irritants, the movie still worked on some levels. I did stay interested for the most part, mostly because I wanted to see how it played out, especially to see if my suspicions on connections were correct.

The film is entertaining in its way, kindof weak in other ways, kind of tired in an M. Night** way.
If you feel like you can enjoy a horror film that is somewhat tamed, minimal blood, light on the violence, this should be an okay film to watch. If the only horror that works for you are the gory slasher-style horror flicks you probably will be less thrilled by the film.  Not a great nor groundbreaking film, not a terrible film. Smack in the middle.

*One thing I always keep in mind when watching films: Checkov's Gun.  If the film shows us or tells us something, there usually is a reason, and I watch for it and try to anticipate it's significance. Yeah - less surprises that way, but a fun way to try to 'win' by figuring out the film before the film shows it to ya.

** The M. Night way: tell us the mythology, the film follows the mythology, we get a Twist.  And it's corollary: Checkov's Gun us, red herring us, Twist!

21 April 2011

Movies: Buried

Buried (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1462758/

Thriller about a man (Paul) that groggily wakes up inside a wooden box, apparently buried alive.  He has a Zippo lighter, a small hip flask, an empty wallet and a cell phone.  We soon find out he was a civilian contract truck driver working in Iraq when his convoy was attacked. He was knocked unconscious during the attack and woke up inside the box. And his captors demand ransom.

Stars Ryan Reynolds as Paul. And he's the only actor you get to see in the film.

The whole film takes place inside the box.  I knew that ahead of time and was a little skeptical that an entire film stuck in a box would be watchable. Especially a whole film stuck inside a box with Ryan Reynolds. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on your opinion of Reynolds as an actor.

First off - if you are claustrophobic you might have trouble watching this film.  Sometimes it is lit by lighter or cell phone, other times it is dark. The camera angles place you inside the box with little room to move or breathe, and the minimal lighting just makes it that much more cramped.
Lucky for us viewers the whole film didn't consist of Reynolds breathing heavy and straining to get himself out of the box.  The cell phone keeps him in contact with his captors, various employer representatives, his wife's answering machine. So there are conversations to follow; conversations which fill out details of the unfolding story and continue to build suspense.  Every time the events seem to begin to relax and you get a chance to slow your breathing down something else happens to drive the thrill some more.  Then we get to the end of the film. Ooof. The director said he was inspired by Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Rope. I can see that.

Verdict? I was pleasantly surprised with the film. Directed well, filmed well, edited well. Reynolds did good, especially considering the film works or fails on his performance.  I have to amend that - a bad plot or script would've ruined it no matter who was in the box, but those worked too. But you can't sell a decently scripted film with an actor that can't deliver the goods.
Out of the whole of the film one sequence seemed unnecessary to me and could have been cut without hurting the film, but I can forgive it as being a one-time thing. I won't say which. Spoilers, you know?
Overall, the film does quite a bit with very little.

If you don't mind a claustrophobic thriller, take a chance on it.

19 April 2011

TV Series: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0944947/

New medieval fantasy series on HBO is an adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels by George R. R. Martin.  I've never read the books, so I can't even begin to compare whether or not the series is faithful to the books.  Probably plenty of folks out there doing that right now.  Perhaps not knowing the books will work to my advantage? I'll be surprised by everything, and won't be looking to see if they include parts or contrasting their portrayal of book events with my imagination.

Season One summary:
Episodes 1-3 introduce you to major players in the fantasy world Westeros.  Episode 4 acts as sort of a recap of the world, its history, and the people we need to be paying attention to. Episodes 5 through 10 just keep punching the viewer with event after event. It's not tiring at all.  I actually ended up re-watching episodes 6 through 10 because they were so good and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss details.

To put this as a chess analogy: The first four episodes are the opening of the chess game, putting the pieces in place to lead up to the battle for control of the center of the board.
The fifth episode is the capture of the first major piece, equilibrium is lost.
From the fifth episode through the 10th, the season finale, piece after piece falls, gambits are won or lost.
The analogy falls apart at this point. Chess has an end in sight, I'm not so sure the politics of Westeros does.

What I learned is that the stories and events happening in and out of the kingdoms are much bigger than any individual character/cast member. The show isn't so much about the people, it's about how seemingly unrelated actions by different people end up having unforeseen influence and consequences that rock the kingdoms from edge to edge.  However we do get to watch characters develop throughout, and we learn tidbits of history that have bearing on events now and in the future.

Great acting, great writing, great sets and costuming. A compelling story to watch unfold. We didn't get any Lord of the Rings sized battles, actually the only real swordplay shown was generally between two or three folks. Little bits of magic here and there, especially near the end. It is a fantasy world, and there are some fantasy components. But they aren't the focus, just additional characters in a multi-charactered world where the viewer can't take anything for granted.

I loved watching the first season and look forward to Season 2.  Great job HBO.
Recommended watching for anyone who enjoyed Lord of the Rings, fantasy books or fantasy games.

Season 2 and Season 3:
I didn't summarize either season, but production and story lines continue to be compelling and watchable. Great scenes, great "gotcha" moments. The show is as strong as it started, if not seemingly moreso after knowing the characters and the world of Westeros better.
Hands down no delay in recommending watching this show.

Season One: notes taken as the season progressed
And, as I mentioned in a different review, as the World's Worst Movie Reviewer in the World I don't have access to the pre-screening sites that real critics have access to, so I can only blather on about the episodes aired at this point. I do know of other critics that have seen the first six episodes already.

What I took away from the first episode: The first bit of show before the opening credits rolled completely blew away Camelot in terms of production value. Totally hooked me from the get-go. Yeah, I'll keep watching Camelot, but Game of Thrones seems to be on a whole higher level when it comes to medieval-fantasy series.

The first episode seemed devoted to introducing us viewers to the major players in this fantasy world, with the laying of groundwork for some of the political intrigue involved in its multiple kingdoms.  I suspect we're in for more. From what I've read the series is going to be about lords and kings and kingdoms and politics. A "Sopranos meets Middle Earth" sort of series. Possibly an apt description as Sean Bean getting top billing cashes in on his 'household name' status gained as Boromir in The Fellowship of the Rings. 

As I currently only have the vaguest idea who the characters are and what their relationships are it might take a bit to really grasp everything going on. But I'm ready for that. It looks like it will be a fun ride.  The world they set the stories in seems interesting, the major players and their relationships seem interesting, and I'm ready to see more.  My recommendation - if you have to choose between HBO or Starz as the one source of medieval fantasy, choose HBO's Game of Thrones.

I heard HBO already requested a season two. Great! Hopefully this series doesn't get the abrupt cancellation treatment that Carnivale and Rome encountered. Rumor has it that Game of Thrones' budget is as big, or bigger, than Rome. Which kindof scares me considering one of the reasons HBO listed for canceling Rome was it was too expensive.  I hate being left hanging in the middle of a good series like that.

Update: after 5 episodes in :
The first four episodes seem to be about introducing us to the major characters, giving them depth, showing us some of the regions, establishing world history base line, glimpses of the current politics and partial information on events that led up to now. As today's politics progress we also get hints at events stirring and beginning to build across the narrow sea - which may just spill over in to full scale war.

Early standout characters: Arya Stark - this youngest of the Stark daughters is a very interesting character, she wants to swordfight and not wear dresses. She's feisty. And played well by young Maisie Williams.  Her episode 5 dressing-down of a couple of palace guards was something to behold.
Tyrion "The Imp" Lannister - awesome portrayal by Peter Dinklage. He's the most likable of the Lannister family by far, and probably the most intelligent. I expect big moves from this little man.
And a nod toward Daenerys Targarian and the actress that plays her, Emilia Clarke. In four episodes she goes from a commodity sold into her marriage by her brother to acquire an army into a developing force to be reckoned with. She took a situation where she was the naive victim and started turning it into a position where she rules.  It's been a very interesting transformation to watch happen.

And that was over the first four episodes. Episode 5 - stuff really gets going.

I would classify the first 3 episodes as training the viewers about the world, its peoples and its politics. Episode 4 is sort of a recap and refresher to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then episode 5 really launches us into what might be the beginnings of war between ruling families. Yes, seeds for the events that occur in ep.5 have been planted in the first four episodes, so those first four episodes aren't devoid of moving along story. It is just a big world, with big politics and many families with agendas.
Sortof like getting on a roller coaster - the first four episodes are the trip up the first hill and episode 5 is that feeling you get when you first crest the top and starts going into the first drop. As to whether or not we get that drop I have to wait to find out...

Edit: 7 Episodes in
Yep - once that ball got rolling it continues to pick up speed. If one were to liken to a chess game, all the opening moves with the pawns are over, the big boys are coming out and pieces are beginning to fall. Political maneuverings, back stabbings, drum beats of war on two fronts, money and power and new and old grudges. Nice. HBO is doing great with this series so far - from my point of view not having read any of the source material. My interest is not flagging in the least, I look forward to the next episodes and dread the season finale because it means months until season 2 begins.

Edit: Season Finale
Nice. A cliffhanger-y end to a great first season.  Although I was sold on the series in the first five minutes, the series continued to pay back dividends episode to episode. Loved it.

17 April 2011

Movies: Hereafter

Hereafter (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1212419/

Fantasy/Drama that gives us three stories revolving around three people's involvement with death. 

Stars Matt Damon, Cecile De France (if you've seen High Tension you might recognize her), twins Frankie and George McLaren as the primary cast at the core of the film. Includes a bit of Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard and Richard Kind. Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Granted Ms. De France and the McLaren twins are probably the most obscure, but they hold their own in the production.

The first story revolves around George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a man that used to be a psychic of sorts- specifically he could touch somebody and then talk to the dead folks special to them. He quit that business - it was too much for him mentally and emotionally and his ability is not a gift for him, it's a curse. His brother keeps pushing him to get back into the business, mostly because Lonegan made a lot of money when he did the psychic bit and the brother wants to get back on that ride.  Lonegan is lonely, he has trouble connecting with people because once they figure out who he is they want a reading, and then if he gives them one it isn't necessarily what they want to hear and they tend to run off.
The second story revolves around Marie Lelay (De France), a hard-hitting television reporter that barely survives a tsunami. She died, momentarily, during the tsunami before being rescued and revived. During her 'death' she came in contact with the other side.  After she returns home her work life is affected as a result so she takes time off to write a book. Only the book she writes isn't the one she plans, she ends up exploring her 'brush with the afterlife' experience.
The third story revolves around twins Marcus and Jason (the McLaren twins).  One dies, the other is lost without his brother, and is seeking out some way to contact him again. To feel whole again.

We get snatches of each story as they move to the inevitable intersection of their lives.
But even though we know from the outset that because we're shown these three stories, taking place in the US, France and Britain, ultimately they will intersect somehow near the end, that isn't a disappointment. The film isn't one to watch for surprises so much as it is one to watch to explore the lives of these people and the impacts events have upon them.

One thing I liked about this film was its treatment of Lonegan and his struggle with his ability.  In the film's world he's the real deal in an ocean of fakes. He hates that he can't escape the ability and it's destroying of his life. The film drives home that he's the real deal by contrasting him with the "cold reading" method employed by bullshit psychics (like John Edward) out there.  Lonegan tells folks exactly what the dead tell him, only allowing his subject to say 'yes or no' in response. Cold readers - they fish around generically until they get a hit. Granted the film exaggerates 'cold reading' with a clumsy example, but it isn't inaccurate - just exaggerated for the audience to see the difference.

I also appreciated that the film brings the three stories together in a way that doesn't ring false. The paths they all take to where they come together make sense within the establishment of the characters and their motivations.

Considering I had high expectations just seeing who made the movie, in cast and in the director, I could've set myself up to be disappointed. In the end I felt it delivered quite nicely on the expectation.  Great technical moviemaking including the eye-popping special effects at the start of the film, good tripod of stories, good acting by the cast, a slightly predictable but acceptable end.

Aside from the excitement at the opening moments of the film, the film generally moves at an easy pace that almost borders on plodding, but not quite. It keeps moving by switching focus between the stories, which leaves you hanging and keeps you interested when it starts up again. Had it not switched up the way it did it probably would've felt like it slogged along.  Strong performances by the cast really drive the film forward too. Any failure in casting would've derailed this film. 

I enjoyed the film. If you like good character dramas that aren't melodramas it's a good watch. If you need a breather between action flicks, horror flicks, comedies and action-horror-comedies, it's worth a viewing. Even if one is skeptical of psychics and/or an afterlife one can enjoy the film - because it's a good fantasy story acted by a good cast backed by a good director.

14 April 2011

Documentary: Marwencol

Marwencol (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1391092/

Documentary of Mark Hogancamp and the 1/6 scale fictional WWII town he built named Marwencol.

Back in April 2000 Mark was attacked outside a bar by 5 guys that beat him so badly the brain damage he suffered put him in a coma for nine days. When he emerged he'd lost memory of almost everything in his life prior to his waking up. His rehabilitation stopped after his medical coverage was exhausted, so he started his own therapy by collecting and painting 1/6 scale figures and using them to populate a WWII-era town he calls Marwencol. 
The town is more than a playset - reality and the reality he makes in Marwencol overlap in many ways. He has a tenuous separation of the two, he's aware they are two different worlds, but sometimes that separation blurs. He has to build his own memories, he builds them through Marwencol. He works out his emotional issues as he poses Marwencol's population and takes pictures, documenting all the events that happen in Marwencol. The doll population includes a doll representing himself, it has fictional  occupants, and dolls representing significant people in his real life including his mother, coworkers, a neighbor lady he fell in love with, and even the attackers that destroyed his memories.  As it's a WWII-era town, his attackers are represented by the Nazi SS that came to Marwencol and beat and tortured the "Mark" doll living in Marwencol. The stories are many, documented in thousands of photos, and he knows all of them intimately.

It's an unflinching yet touching insight into Mark's life and process of healing. It also describes the discovery of Mark and his town by a local photographer that eventually led to a show at an art gallery of some of Mark's photos and a building from Marwencol. It documents Mark's turmoil over whether or not he should attend the showing, what he should wear, and how much of his inner self can he expose to the public.  He seems a little mystified that others consider what he does is "art". Which is kind of the beauty of the whole thing.

I'm a fan of This American Life, both the weekly PRI show and the brief Showtime series. The human condition in general is interesting to me.  I also enjoy watching good documentaries on various subjects. I heard some buzz about this film over the past year and decided to give it a viewing.  Glad I did. 

If you enjoy documentaries this is a very good one to see if you have the opportunity. It is filmed well, edited together well, tells Mark's story as he remembers it before and after the beating, and puts you as the viewer in a place to understand Mark's relationship with Marwencol.

And I'll tell you what - right near the end of the film I was blown away when I saw what the 1/6 scale "Mark" doll living in Marwencol does to process his beating at the hands of the SS.

Check out the official site: http://www.marwencol.com/
Learn a little more about the film, see some of Mark's photos, even watch a trailer for the documentary.

13 April 2011

Movies: The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0938283/

Fantasy film. Set in a world that is separated into four kingdoms representing the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water.   Some of the folks in each kingdom are capable of "bending" their element - sort of a mix of martial art with magic - they can bend the element to do their will. There is one being capable of bending all four elements, called the Avatar. When that being dies they will reincarnate, so only one Avatar exists at any time.  The Avatar is capable of communicating with the Spirits that make elemental bending possible and maintained balance and peace between the nations.
In the story, 100 years ago the Avatar disappeared, nobody knows where. No new Avatar was born, so the Fire nation decided to dominate the world by eliminating all opposition, starting with the Air nation.  We join the story as the Avatar reappears in the southern Water nation, learns of what happened after he disappeared, and begins a journey to upset the violent dominance by the Fire nation and reestablish harmony in the world.  We find out that the Avatar had only learned his airbending skills and still needs to train to learn how to bend the other elements. The Fire nation is pursuing him to stop him as he makes his way to the northern Water nation kingdom to train.  Plus the banished son of the Fire nation king is trying to capture the Avatar to please his father and regain his position in the kingdom.

I've never watched the animated series this film is based on, Avatar: The Last Airbender, so I had no idea what to expect from the story. I'd seen all the negative reviews and hate directed at M. Night Shyamalan, the writer/director of the film. But I wanted to judge the film for myself.

My impression: I like the storyline and plot background. It seems like an interesting fantasy world with a defined mythology and a decent plot-mover: Fire nation wants to subjugate the world to their rule, the young Avatar has to overcome and give up his personal selfish desires to live up to the responsibilities of his station in order to restore harmony to the world.  Seems interesting enough and big enough for a lot of play in the realm.
Effects: pretty good. Easily could have been terrible, but ILM does good work.The fight choreography wasn't entirely terrible either.  Most times the choreography was for the benders to send their elements against others or up as shields. 
Story - seems hurried and stilted in places. It felt like there was a whole lot of story to be told, not enough time to tell it, and we were left wanting.  Especially when they encounter some Earth nation folks, but didn't bring any Earthbenders along? I don't understand why they wouldn't, unless it was some sort of faith to the original storyline?
Dialog - wavers between mediocre to bad.  Very inconsistent.
Acting - whoo boy. I know it's possible to be worse on the scale of good to bad acting, but dang sometimes the acting, along with the dialog, was painful.  The best scenes involved nobody talking.
Characters and Casting - I think most of the casting was based on a compromise between martial art skills and acting ability, except maybe the Fire nation king, the prince, and the king's brother.  The background folks were probably cast more as stunt personnel than anything.  The minor supporting characters were paper-thin, even the major characters had rather skimpy depth to them.
Plus I didn't quite understand the ethnicity of the casting.  It looked like the southern Water nation folks looked primarily Inuit or Mongolian, except for Katara, her brother, and her grandmother, and any other significant talking Water nation character. Those folks looked like white Western Europeans for some reason.  The Fire nation folks looked a little more ethnically homogenized and Southeast Asian. Couldn't tell by the Earth nation folks, didn't see near enough of them. The Air nation folks looked primarily Japanese-ish.  I would imagine each kingdom would be ethnically homogeneous within and distinct from the others. Which would be a more visual cue to see the separation of the kingdoms.

But, despite all that, I also recognize this is a film targeted at a younger audience than me, with a PG rating. Definitely for kids. And probably would go over well with kids. They aren't going to overthink things the way I tend to. They probably wouldn't notice the dialog problems or dizzying leaps in story progression. I have no clue how kids who've watched the animated series would take it. But I understand why it's possible for kids to like the film. Heck, as a kid I liked watching Land of the Lost every saturday, even though as an adult I would probably feel like gouging my eyes out. Which is why I won't ever rewatch that series - the memories formed as a child are probably best left undisturbed by the lens of oldfartness.

As I mentioned before, I did like the fantasy world and the mythological framework they presented.  I could look past the negatives and still enjoy the film, to some extent, as a whole vs. the sum of the parts. The parts themselves have their failings, but overall it wasn't that bad. Not as bad as some of the internet hate I've seen aimed at the film. 
If anything this film makes me curious to actually watch the animated series it is based on. I realize this has the potential of solidifying hate toward the film as I would have a context to compare the two, but if the animated world is as interesting as the live-action film makes it seem, it'd be worth it.

11 April 2011

Movies: Four Lions

Four Lions (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1341167/

Dark comedy/farce about a group of inept British jihadists hatching an ever-changing plan to set off explosives to rally the rest of the Muslims to their cause.

This is a sit back and watch the hijinx unfold film. Watch as these misfits interact with each other, try to hatch and carry out their master plan, build and transport their home-made explosives.  Faisal is trying to train crows to fly explosives into buildings instead of martyring himself because his sick dad started eating newspaper; Barry is a white convert that's gone off the rails; Omar seems most committed to the task and has the support of his wife and child; Waj is an idiot that follows everything the Omar does.  There's also a fifth, Hassan, that gets recruited into the deal by Barry while Omar and Waj went to Pakistan for training. Eventually they decide to bomb the London Marathon to make their statement.

I can't reveal much because the humor is in the conversations, the situations and the process of events unfolding.  The characters' actions and dialog stay true to their established selves. The actors deliver not only comedy but a realistic humanity in their characters, at times even sympathy is warranted. Part of the funny is how Omar is just another guy to his coworkers and not once does it even occur to them he could be a terrorist, even as the credits roll.
Side note: As a way to explain that his upcoming martyrdom is noble Omar has been telling his son the story of Disney's "The Lion King" with a jihadist-parallel bent. In response Omar's son has one of the funniest lines in the film and he delivers it with such vigor and sincerity: "He'll be in Heaven before his head hits the ceiling."

It's dark, it's funny. It's mostly in English with some subtitled Urdu.  And the funny continues as the credits roll. It's almost a mockumentary type film, akin to Spinal Tap.  There aren't winks to the audience to let you know something is funny, it just happens. It isn't non-stop funny, it has its highs and lows, but overall it is worthwhile to see.

Give it a view if you have a chance to see it.

09 April 2011

Movies: Outlander

Outlander (2008) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0462465/

When I noticed this film was getting near the top of my Netflix queue I could have sworn I've already watched it sometime in the past few months. However it doesn't show in my Netflix streaming history, so somehow or other I watched it, didn't review it, nor did I tell Netflix or IMDB I saw it. I'm pretty good about rating films on Netflix and IMDB so that if I forget I saw something I have a way of checking up on myself. This one must've slipped through the cracks.

One good indication this film left some sort of impression is that I do remember it. There's been a few flicks, mostly stinkers, that register zero on the recognition or remembrance scale. This isn't one of them so that's a good sign.

From what I recall a space ship crashes into a Norwegian lake on Earth somewhere around 700 AD.  Three occupants make it out of the ship. A creature that had stowed away on board and two soldiers, one soldier dies from his wounds. The other, Kainan, sets up a homing/rescue beacon, uses the ship's technology to load his brain with local language and other information, and prepares to set off after the creature. However he gets captured by some locals and held hostage. He tells them he's hunting a dragon, but they are skeptical, until something starts killing off rival villages and they claim it was a dragon that did it. He teams up with the locals to hunt the thing down and kill it, only to find it has started reproducing. We gain insight into what the creature is, Kainan's history with it, and how it got onto his ship in the first place via flashbacks.

A sci-fi action thriller.  I'm not sure how many other films out there explore the "scary alien creature and humanoid looking alien meet Viking warriors" angle.  If done well there's nothing wrong with the "what if" situations like this.  There's plenty of civilization eras to choose from, might as well ask away in film. I am looking forward to the Cowboys & Aliens flick coming out later this year.

This film sortof drudges around for about half the film before we finally get into the Vikings vs. Alien fights, so it is more a sci-fi thriller at first. Once they get to battling the action picks up. Visually its shot with the standard "cold bluish by day and amber glow by night" look. The creature sortof looks like an amalgam of most modern film scary space creatures. It has its thrilling and action-packed moments, its moments of despair and almost hopelessness.

My memory is fuzzy on the dialog in the film, I'm only recalling events as pictures and outcomes.

It's an entertaining enough film, and if you're the type of film viewer that likes a decent sci-fi flick once in a while you won't go wrong watching this. 
Either that, or enough time has elapsed I'm only remembering the best parts of the film and have forgotten the rest.

Stars James Caviezel as Kainan and John Hurt as the local Viking king Hrothgar.


Edit January 2012:
Weird. I still haven't re-watched this film. When it came to my attention this review was getting views recently I was reminded the film exists. I read what I wrote and I'm starting to re-remember I liked the premise, didn't mind some of the execution, but other bits were somewhat corny and I think I felt more disappointed by the end of the film. Weird that all that bubbles up.
What's worse is it's making me think maybe I should re-watch it so I know where I really stand on the film. Did I like it or not? The words up there above the edit sounds like I thought I did, but re-reading them I start doubting myself.  If I watch it again and realize I really didn't like it after all I'm probably gonna kick myself for not remembering in the first place.

Movies: Stone

Stone (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1423995/

Robert De Niro and Edward Norton team up again. By again I mean they were cast together in 2001's The Score. If you haven't seen it I suggest watching that sometime.  It's a good movie and worth seeing.

Based on the enjoyability factor of The Score, coupled with the talent of the main cast, one would think seeing De Niro and Norton together again would be instant win.  Especially when mixing in a bit of Milla Jovovich.

De Niro plays Jack Mabry - a parole officer that's at the end of his career and ready to retire,   he just wants to see his final cases through.  Norton is Stone Creeson, an inmate on a 10-15yr trying to get paroled at the 8 year mark, and the parole board's decision hinges on Mabry's analysis.  Jovovich plays Mrs. Creeson, she really wants her hubby out of prison and is willing to do anything to make sure that happens.

This, however, isn't a movie designed for you to just sit back and be entertained. This is drama as drama gets; a deep exploration into people's psyche. It may be billed as a thriller but don't let that fool you.  This is a film that requires paying attention and seeing past the surface of what happens otherwise it's an exercise in boredom.

The main story thread is rather predictable, but it isn't about that. It's about about the character's lives, inner demons, motivations.  The strength of the film is seeing the characters, seeing how they operate, seeing how they change or don't change over time, and where they end up in the end.  There's a lot of parallel and metaphor stuff going on, and chances are appreciation of the film may hinge upon realizing there is the literal prison, and there are the metaphorical prisons, and which characters are where during the film. Most of the film is discovering which characters are in prisons, which characters get out of prisons, when characters got in their prisons, when characters got out of their prisons.

Yes, the cast does great in their roles.  The sets are good and believable, as are the characters.  Technically a sound production. But the film trudges along, step by step, from start to finish. There are no moments to snap you to attention if you start to fade. It just isn't that sort of film.

My advice - only if you're in the mood for heavy brain-using drama, like sussing out character arc parallels, and enjoy analyzing the characters minds/motivations/souls on the screen. On some levels I liked the film, others, not so much.

I have to applaud the casting of Enver Gjokaj as a young version of De Niro's Jack Mabry character.  If you watched the TV series Dollhouse you'll recognize him as Victor. He was probably the best actor on that series - he was able to convincingly become any role they put him in, even when he played as other major characters in the series (if you know Dollhouse's premise you'll understand).  And he does a good job of playing a young De Niro in this film.

Plus, see The Score if you haven't - it's a memorable action and intrigue crime thriller.

07 April 2011

Movies: Salt

Salt (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0944835/

An action/thriller/espionage film starring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt, also starring Liev Shreiber as Winter, Salt's boss at the CIA,  and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, a CIA counterintelligence agent. You'll recognize the folks if you don't recognize the names.

Basic storyline: A Russian walks into a building that's a cover for CIA operations.  Salt and Winter are called in to do the interrogation. The Russian (Orlov) states there will be an assassination attempt on the Russian President while the Russian President attends the Vice President of the U.S.'s funeral. The attempt will be carried out by a Russian agent that's been embedded in the U.S. since the Cold War. And that agent is Evelyn Salt.  Immediately the CIA spirits off Orlov, Salt begs the CIA to put a protection team on her husband, Winter places Salt in an interrogation room, Orlov kills his guards and escapes, then Salt escapes during the mayhem to go protect her hubby.  Winter and Peabody give chase, Winter wanting to give her a chance to redeem herself against the charges, Peabody to lock her down just in case.

And we're in the middle of a modern Cold War espionage thriller action film.  Which is rather a rarity considering the Cold War has been over for a couple of decades now and most films of this type in this day and age would be pitting the U.S. against China or North Korea or radical jihadist Muslims from Somewhereistan.

Can't say a whole lot without revealing obvious and less-than-obvious plot points and twists. No complaints on any aspect production.  The film is pretty much what one would expect out of an espionage/thriller/action flick that doesn't go too over the top. The viewer is clued in as to how much suspension of disbelief is required and the film didn't violate that agreement.
There are actually three versions on the DVD - the theatrical version, the extended cut which is only a minute or so longer than the theatrical version, and the director's cut, which is about 4 minutes longer than the theatrical version.  There are some end-of-the-film differences between all three cuts, and some story and fleshing-out-character differences. I didn't watch them all, but the differences are documented and easily found via Google search. Not posting a link, because, you know, spoilers.

The film is an entertaining ride, good for popcorn movie night. Enough action and non-existent technology and perfect confluences of events. Not bad, not great, but good enough.

04 April 2011

TV Series: The Killing

The Killing on AMC http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1637727/

Who killed Rosie Larson?

Season 1 summary:
I liked how the season started. Initially I didn't mind the false starts and dead ends the detectives encounter during their investigation, having to back up and work a different lead. But more and more, as the season progressed, events and people and their actions and motivations started seeming more random or not thought out or wasteful distractions from the question at hand. I ended up watching just to get the mystery solved. But no such luck by season finale. 
And the person I suspected is the perp just did something that should completely eliminate them as a suspect. If they end up the perp after all they better have a good explanation for their actions.

I gave this show all the chances I could give it.  I ended the season feeling that the expectations I formed during the first two episodes weren't met.
There's at least one more season in the works, and it's almost irritating that in order to get the question answered I'd end up having to keep watching.

I'll be so glad when "Breaking Bad" and "Walking Dead" get back on air.

Season 2 Summary:
Pretty much like season 1 with lots of dead ends, other things going on in characters' lives that rarely contributes anything to my enjoyment of the show because I just don't care at this point. In the season 2 final episode we do find out who killed Rosie Larson.  Thankfully.

Honestly they could have compressed this whole story into a single season. There is a lot of stuff that could have been shown more succinctly. They could have covered two or three days per episode, cut back on a lot of the complicating circumstances. Heck - the whole Mitch leaving her family and coming back just in time for the reveal could have been cut out - her being gone and Stan macking on his sister-in-law added nothing to the show and, like many other things shown us, get dropped and forgotten quickly.

If the Killing comes back I hope they change the format to a single murder solved per season and a bit more succinct storytelling. I liked the show for the performances and settings and production quality, but was really not liking the dead slow pace with characters and storylines that dead end and are forgotten as quickly as they appear.  It was a mixed experience.

Season 3:As of this posting Season 3 just started. 4 episodes in and Season 3 "The Killing" is a much better show. It's much more watchable, much more interesting, paced better, and has tighter side story development. And, as with seasons 1 and 2, the cast is doing a great job. Can't blame the cast for seasons 1 and 2.
I hope this trend continues through the end of the season.
And, hopefully, the story arc is wrapped by season's end this time. That would keep the show more watchable and more interesting.

Season 1 as it unfolds notes:
Episode 1 notes:
It's a new mystery / whodunit / almost police procedural series on AMC, based on a Danish series that's been a big hit on the BBC. Based on how good the premier was, it isn't just a way to fill time while waiting for AMC's Breaking Bad to start its next season. This could be a series worth watching on its own merit.

The premier is actually the pilot episode and the second episode of the season. On homicide detective Linden's last day on the job before she moves away, a bloody sweater and an ATM card are discovered in a field. While the cops try to find the previous occupant of said sweater, homicide detectives Linden and her replacement Holder track down the name on the card.  But as the cops track down leads and eventually find a car with a high-school girl's body in the trunk the mystery doesn't get clearer, it deepens.

These first two episodes introduce us to the major characters, the two detectives, a City Councilman running for Mayor and some of his staff, the parents of the dead girl, a couple of the high school acquaintances and a teacher. Most of those connections are obvious, and the connection for the councilman - one of his campaign cars was stolen and the body was found in its trunk. The characters don't seem to be two-dimensional cutouts to fill archetype slots, instead they seem to have depth with more revelations under the surface we haven't seen yet, even at this early point in the series. Discovering what makes them all tick might be as interesting as the solution to the mystery.

The premier hooked me almost right away. The show's pace of doling out clues here and there, leading us to either dead-ends or potential breakthroughs just make it that more compelling. Each episode seems to cover a day's worth of the investigation, by episode end we're left with a cliffhanging clue to compel us to watch the next episode for the answer. When we get to the next episode we find the clue gets followed up on, was a red herring, and then we get a new potential case-busting clue by the end of that episode. We as viewers are flies on the wall, we find out details as the detectives do. The cast, the locations, the crew, the look - all handled well. It sucks you in and keeps you wanting more.  Stylistically it reminds me of the Swedish/UK series Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh, although The Killing is tuned a little more toward American audience sensibilities.

If it helps, Detective Linden is played by Mireille Enos, who you might remember as Kathy Marquart and her twin Jodean on Big Love. There's a few other instantly recognizables, including Michelle Forbes. The cast are doing well in their roles so far.

One thing, however. If this were a mini-series I would know up-front there is an end in sight.  This is a series, so I don't know where it will go. Will we ever find out who the killer is? If we do, where does the series go from there?  If it follows the original series I suspect we'll get a solution by the end of season one, with a new mystery for season two. Hopefully that or something similar will be the case. I don't want to be strung along for years.

If you don't have the premium movie channels (HBO, Starz, Cinemax, Showtime, etc) at your disposal, but do have AMC, you don't have to miss out on all the new series that are coming out.  This one is good and worth watching if you like a story-arc mystery/whodunit TV series that keeps you engaged and isn't neatly wrapped up in each episode.

Update:  Six episodes in to season one. This series is still going good, keeping the viewer guessing.  They've settled into a pattern of investigate something, figure out it was a false lead, leave a red herring to sniff out next episode. However, episode Four's red herring of the week (RHOTW) stuck around for another episode, then another, then another tangential lead got added. So just when the series seemed to be getting in to a RHOTW rut they changed it up a bit and strung us along a couple of episodes on the same fish.
But that isn't a problem. They keep the investigation moving and we as viewers are hanging on any hints at resolution or dismissal. What enhances the effect that compels us to watch each week is the little drips and drops of our various major characters' histories. Histories that make them more interesting people. And as viewers we're compelled to try to tie how those histories shape their actions today.
Thus far I like the series. I still want to know who killed the girl, I'm intrigued by trying to figure out what drives the characters, and that keeps me watching.
I realize that Rosie Larson is the MacGuffin that keeps the series moving, that ultimately the series isn't about her. But I accept that. It's all about the ride. And so far the ride is worth it.

Update: Skipping eps 7 and 8. Lots of going nowhere fast.

Update: Nine episodes in:
Whoa. with that beating shit just got real. the series title just got meta. Or not.
Then again, we've been led down so many false paths it's approaching tedious. Knowing there are more episodes meant that before the reveal I'd already put together that the missing Somali girl-Bennet-Mohammed connection was going to be a big stinky red herring that ends up that the two guys were spiriting the girl out of country to save her from something or other.  Still haven't figured out how exactly the political race factors into the whole story to warrant all the screen time it is getting. Right now the political thread just feels like a distracting time filler that takes away from things like exploring the Larson family dynamics and history, the Linden character's history, the Holder character's history.
Maybe the series is giving us all this extraneous crap to keep us as in the dark about the real killer as the cops are. I'm pretty sure we've already seen the killer, I have my suspicion who it is, but we aren't really given anything to really single him out at this point. Just behavioral clues.

Tedious as it's beginning to feel, I also think this series is still a lot better than worse series that have been on air much longer. I'll keep watching - I want to see where this goes.

Update: Ten episodes in
slapped by the next red herring. maybe?
Three more episodes and season one is over. If the Rosie Larson killing isn't solved by the end of this season this series is going to be irritating.  The 'episode is a day in the investigation' format is fine if they're going to have it solved in 2 weeks or less, otherwise the wheel spinning is going to go beyond tedious.  Despite the interesting little peeks into the major character pasts there isn't enough movement. The Killing's lack of movement is almost approaching the opposite of "24" - where "24" packs more crap into a 24 hour period than feasible, especially the seasons where Jack gets knifed, shot, whatevered to the brink of death yet he recovers and kicks ass in mere hours.
I like The Killing as a concept, and I liked how it felt out of the gate. I want to give it a chance and hope it gives us something to make slogging through the middle-to-end series of episodes worth the wait.

Update: Eleven episodes in
The investigation comes to a standstill. We don't see anyone but Linden and Holder and spend the whole 'day' trying to track down Linden's kid, then end of the episode punts the Rosie Larson investigation in a new direction.  We got to learn a little bit more about Linden, Holder had some great lines, and the two of them seemed to really bond as partners. At least some character development happened.
It's looking like there's two more episodes - #12 and #13 - I hope that the Rosie Larson case is solved by then.

Update: Skipping ep 12. Nothing real important happens except to present what is probably another great big fat red herring.

Update: Season one finale (ep 13)

Season 2 as it unfolds notes:

Okay. I can't help but keep watching this show. I made a point to not read up on its original Danish series so I don't spoil this incarnation. I want to know the answer, I want to see if it makes sense in the end.
Odd side note - it is exactly one year to the day from my first Season 1 commentary that I start this commentary on Season 2.
I watched the first season's final three episodes to re-familiarize myself with the show before the season 2 premier. Kind of a mistake as I only needed to see the final two episodes. I didn't read the schedule ahead of time to see that they were both contained in one two-hour episode, thus wasted an hour re-watching the 11th episode. Perhaps it wasn't so much a waste in that it reminded me why I got so frustrated last season in the first place. Frustrated because I just don't give a shit about Linden's kid. Yeah, I want to know some more about her back story, the one that keeps getting alluded to, but I don't care about what's going on with her kid or her ex.  If she just gave custody over to her ex and I never hear about the kid again I'd be happy. But I don't see that happening any time soon.

Season 2's first episode was actually two episodes mashed together in to a 2 hour broadcast. That's fine enough for me. It answered some of the dangling questions left by the season 1 finale, opened a couple more cans of worms, expanded the breadth of potential conspiracy that may or may not be another big red herring.
But I'm prepared. I survived season 1 (though I didn't get a T-shirt or GetGlue sticker to show for it).
The show continues a "one day per episode" pace, so we are actually only about two weeks in to the investigation. And a lot has happened in those two weeks, and a lot didn't happen in those two weeks and we were forced to watch it not happen anyway.

I have to reluctantly admit that yes, I am hooked enough to speculate on story direction and a desire to know answers that I'm willing to sit through other stuff that doesn't matter to me and seems to drag the story down. This two-episode premier did just that, caused more speculation and desire to want to know answers, so I'll keep watching.  It also shut down a couple of herrings left on the hooks from last season.

I'll try to be less grumpy this time.

Update: Season 2, 3 episodes in:

I'll try to be less grumpy this time. Why did I write that? I really should have known better than to make a statement like that.
I'll amend that. How about, "I'll try to be more amused by this slow motion paint-drying experience."
Let's see if that works.
We've been put on the trail of a new possible group of suspects, still follow the story of people eliminated as suspects, watch the mother of the deceased Rosie Larson continue her irrational behavior with self-inflicted poor decision making spree across the Pacific Northwest, catch glimpses of Linden's terrible and boring relationship with her son. It's endless. At this point Holder is the most interesting story arc.
I still haven't figured out how Linden could finally finish the quitting of the police force she started in episode 1 of season 1, get on a plane to be gone forever, throw a fit so bad she's removed from said plane and be back to work without having to do anything more than show up at the station. One would think mounds of paperwork and weeks of wrangling, especially now that there's new folks in charge after her old boss was 'retired' for allowing the investigation to be so botched up.
And we're only 16 days in to the investigation.
In that time Rosie's dad has beat the crap out of a suspect, been to jail, been bailed out of jail, and is now getting re-mixed-up with the mob he left so long ago.
Rosie's mom insisted her hubby beat the crap out said suspect, then blames him for doing so and going to jail, then shut down to the point where she abandoned her family, starts driving with no direction, fantasizes about her dead daughter after seeing a hitchhiker of similar age on the road, forces herself to one-night-stand a random textbook salesman after suppressing her initial (and probably only rational thought in recent memory) 'wtf am I doing' response.
Meanwhile in that same 16 days Rosie's dad's employee has beat the crap out of a rock while Rosie's dad beat the crap out of the suspect, shot a different suspect, then shot himself. At least his arc is done, but I'm sure he'll still linger on in spirit.
Councilman Rocketman has been around the block a bit, is pretty much eliminated completely as a suspect, had an active and probably participating interest as a Beau Soleil prostitution client, got shot, is paralyzed in the hospital, stabbed his leg deep to confirm he can't feel anything below the waist after he didn't realize the cute nurse had grabbed his junk to swap out his catheter until after she was done.
Linden has moped about, tracked down leads to their dead ends, lost track of her kid, crap I don't even wanna talk about it any more.
There's plenty of side things that were brought up then lost track of during the course of investigation.
All said, most of the cast is doing well in their parts considering what they have to work with.
Yeah, I'll keep watching. I'm just going to have to enjoy it for reasons more akin to schadenfreude.
I'm actually having more fun reading the weekly commentary on the Onion's AV Club about the show.

Update: Season 2, Ep 4:
Probably the best cold open this series has delivered in a while. I was almost excited to watch the rest of the show, but that settled down.
It feels like the story is almost starting to move again, though I'm sure the latest fish on a hook is just another red herring. The show had a couple of amusing moments too.
I will reiterate that the cast does great in their parts. The technical aspects of direction, camera work, settings, all top notch.

Update: Season 2, Eps 5, 6:
The series is back to its old tricks. Not much movement. Basically a whole lot of "yada, yada, yada".

To date significant things: Rosie was killed. After the councilman was shot and in the hospital someone left her backpack in front of the Larsen's home, not only exonerating the councilman but lending a possible personal connection/motive to the crime. Holder was smart enough to put his own backpack to the lab in as evidence to out the first police chief's obstruction to the case, but only told Linden. I dunno or dunremember how or if they resolved that pesky 'chain of evidence' thing that would result, but it was smart on Holder's part to do so at the time.
And that's about it.

Mitch (Rosie's mom) is still out and about. Her keying in on the hitchhiker as a surrogate for her dead Rosie backfired as I imagined it would.

Mere days after being shot and crippled Councilman Rocketman has gone from near death to plumbing his most desperate lowest lows and peeing himself in public to back in the saddle and on track to be elected mayor.

Earlier I likened watching this show to watching paint dry. That's probably the wrong analogy.  Perhaps a more accurate analogy would be  watching a glacier calve icebergs. Here we sit hoping that at some point a big ol' iceberg will bust off this glacier. Up to now it's been sitting in the cold watching little chunks of ice falling off in to the water. Perhaps by the end of the season a giant berg will bust off with great cracking and groaning and splashing.

Update: Season 2, Eps 7-10
Yeah, I didn't bother writing anything about these. Barely anything happened except for Holder's getting committed to the insane hospital ward and a little exposition on that previous case that drove her nuts the first time.

Update: Season 2, Ep 11
Thank you "The Killing". Finally some real movement on almost all fronts. We find out for sure if Rosie's dad killed Rosie's friend-that's-a-boy's dad and what the repercussions of that action are. We find out about Mitch, who we haven't seen much of lately. We find out a little more (that is actually helpful) about the real casino connection, the casino connection to the waterfront project, the mayor's connection, Councilman Rocketman's campaign, his alibi for the night Rosie was killed, all sorts of stuff.
Yes. Real movement that looks to finally begin paying off in the final two episodes of the season. If the final episodes pay off big I'm sure many folks will forgive them for jerking them around for two freaking seasons. I still think they could've told the story in one season. There's a lot of things they showed us up to this point that don't seem to have any bearing one way or another on the story.
Still - it's going to end. And that's the best part. I just hope it ends well.

Update: Season 2, Final episodes (12,13):
We FINALLY find out who killed Rosie. Yay. It ties the threads of story together between the mayoral race, the candidates and campaign workers, the casino, the extended Larson family and their past, who did what when and how everything culminates in Rosie's death.

03 April 2011

TV Series: Camelot

Camelot on Starz  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1672189/

Update: 2 July 2011: Per this article  Starz has decided to not renew Camelot for another season. The series has ended.  A few more details here.

Season 1 summary:

The season opener, comprised of episodes 1 and 2, told me two things. This show has a decent cast, settings, good production values, and looks to be entertaining.  It also told me that although the stories were going to be Arthurian-legend based, they were going to rewrite the legend in some ways.  The first two episodes showed a lot of promise for an engaging and entertaining season, but by episodes three and four there seemed to be a downward shift that continued through the middle of the season. A shift to fits of primetime soap-opera stylings with little bits of engaging story. The season finale felt a step above the middle of the season.

Early stand-out characters were Joseph Finnes as Merlin and Eva Green as Morgan le Fay.  Honestly they made the show work through its first season. Jamie Campbell Bower's young king Arthur was played a little inconsistently. But I haven't figured out if that was due to writing and direction or the actor's fault. I'm thinking it's a bit more of the former. The rest of the supporting cast did well acting what was expected of them, you can't really blame them for the writing.

I noticed that production quality seemed to wane a little in the later episodes of the season, probably due to budget concerns. Just little things, sometimes in episode extras casting, new locations set dressing.  Places started feeling smaller. Villages felt dropped in a location instead of organically grown there over time. Even the battle over the pass in the final two season episodes was small. Not armies, just 20 or 30 guys at most. The whole kingdom was endangered by 20 or 30 guys at one location? Yeah - had to be budget really cutting in to what they could do.

But those are all superficial things I noticed of the run of the first season.  The core, the story, that's a whole other thing.  When they stuck with Arthurian legend, or came up with some great variations to the original mythology (Sword in the Stone, Lady of the Lake), the show does fine. When pitting Morgan against Merlin (specifically) and Arthur's throne (her bigger goal) the show does great. The Arthur-Guenivere-Leontes love triangle thing - that just sucked. I realize the writers were trying to show the beginnings of Camelot, its promises to be the new center for everyone and the new way of running a country and all that.  I know what they wanted to do, but it just didn't come off so well this first season. The main story arc of contention (Morgan-Merlin) went so well during the season, the secondary story arcs not so much, and the filler stuff really felt like filler.

This darn show - starting off promising, irritating me throughout its mid-season with its soap opera wheel spinning laced with hints occasional good story bits, then winding up with a decent enough season finale. By decent enough I mean in comparison to itself, not other shows.  One of those "it's the best show at 11pm EDT on Friday Night on Starz" things.
I think that Camelot being aired during the same period of time as Game of Thrones probably really negatively impacted my view of the show. In comparison Game of Thrones was so much more engaging, so much better produced, so much tighter writing and consistency. Camelot probably would have looked a lot better if its run wasn't near another medieval-styled fantasy show.

Yeah - I will watch Season 2 if it comes about. The show is entertaining enough. There's something that compels me to keep watching despite its issues.
Perhaps I'm too optimistic? Too needy for dark aged Arthurian/Camelot themes?

Nah - if I was too needy for an Arthurian TV series I would have continued to watch "Merlin" after the first two episodes.  I'm going on the record to say that "Camelot" is a better series than "Merlin" - only because "Camelot" actually stays in the same ballpark as Arthurian legend.  "Merlin" is on a whole different planet.

I'll give Camelot another chance if it returns for a second season.  Maybe they'll find more solid footing during season 2 development.  I'm hoping they jump a year or two in time to get past the "establishing of Camelot" growing pains, and thus give themselves for a little room to reboot some of the weaker aspects of the series.

2 July 2011: Nevermind. Series got cancelled. You already saw the note at the top of the post.  Bummer in some ways, I would've watched it. But then again its cancellation isn't going to leave a hole in my life either.

Meanwhile the series Merlin, which has no ties to Arthurian legend except for series character names, continues on. What can we learn from that? I dunno. Probably nothing important.

Season 1 notes as posted during its run:

As the World's Worst Movie Reviewer in the World I don't get access to the pre-screening feeds that real critics have access to, thus I'll update this post from time to time as I get more episodes under my belt.

The first giant chunk of text was written after I watched the series premier - back when I was really optimistic about the series.
Further down the page I have added bits and pieces based on later episodes in the series.  Those sections are led with an "**Edit: x episodes in" type wording.

** Series premier afterthoughts
Everyone has probably seen some version or other of the King Arthur mythology, be it Disney's 1963 animated classic "The Sword in the Stone", or 1981's "Excalibur", or the TV series "Merlin", or any number of other tellings of the story. Well, "Merlin" probably is a poor example because about the only thing it has in common with Arthurian legend is they took the character names from the stories, which is why I stopped watching it after the first couple of episodes. Couldn't stand it.  I didn't mention Monty Python and the Holy Grail on purpose - that's in a class by itself and untouchable.

Now admittedly the Starz version of the Arthurian legend in "Camelot" has been rebooted as well - changes to Arthur's relationship with his adoptive family, a change to the whole "sword in the stone" biz, Morgan le Fay is the daughter of Uther's first wife instead of Igraine, Igraine didn't have other children besides Arthur, and probably many more I won't notice because I'm no scholar of Arthurian legend.  But I didn't particularly mind these retellings. Historically Arthurian legend has been told and retold with shuffling of people and relationship changes, pick any one legend and it differs from its precedent. Thus Starz is just one retelling in a long line of retellings, revolving around the core of the legend. Plus the retooling of the myth pares down the number of players some in comparison to the seemingly massive number of interconnections of folks in the historical legends.

The reason I didn't mind the retelling of the sword in the stone bit of the story is I could understand the purpose behind the change. Instead of Excalibur in a stone in a field where everyone could see, the sword is The Sword of Mars which has been stuck in rock at the top of a waterfall for hundreds of years. Same business though - the prophecy states if you pull out the sword you're fit to rule the Britons. Arthur has to climb up the cliff to get the sword, a feat nobody has been able to accomplish and many died trying.  Of course Arthur makes it up there, figures out how to pull out the sword, predictably falls into the pool of water below, and survives after Leontes saves him from drowning. But that isn't what is important. What is important is with this process, not only are the locals impressed by Arthur doing the seemingly impossible and ready to pledge loyalty as a result, Merlin uses the exercise to mold Arthur. By Arthur completing the task, he now begins to believe he really is destined to be the King of all Britons; the path Arthur takes in the future is shaped on the confidence he gains. He is convinced. His character now has even more impetus to accept the mantle bestowed upon him.
There has been no indication of the Lady in the Lake yet. Let's see where the season takes it.

Thus far I like the casting, especially the way Eva Green plays Morgan le Fay. She plays Morgan as a hungry, conniving, fearless, strong, terrible force to be reckoned with. Joseph Finnes brings his bombastic touch to the role of Merlin. Some might complain about including Finnes, especially on the heels of his recent too-huge-for-the-role performance in Flash Forward, but I think Finnes plays a good Merlin in this way. Merlin isn't supposed to be like normal people anyhow, and Finnes clearly places Merlin outside the norm established by the surrounding cast.  I find his performance a healthy and complimentary contrast with the measured and finessed performance Green portrays in Morgan. Morgan and Merlin should be contrasting characters, and I am waiting to see how similar they become as the series unfolds. They're both trying to manipulate control of Briton: Morgan for herself, Merlin through Arthur, and both have sorcery at their disposal to influence the outcome.

Considering that Merlin can see the future, he knew Uther was going to be poisoned.  He didn't rush to Uther's side to save him, he went there to get Uther to sign the kingdom over to Arthur and recognize Arthur as his son.  Merlin saw that the best future of Briton was for Uther to be out of the way. He allowed Morgan to be his unwitting pawn in his own agenda.  Hopefully the series continues to mine Merlin and Morgan against each other.
But, seriously, Morgan le Fay kicks ass and is already my favorite character of this series.

I don't know if they'll go into the story line of Morgan seducing Arthur to spawn Mordred. It would make sense if they did, concerning their establishing of Morgan as quite the sorceress. As this telling already has Arthur knowing Morgan is his half-sister, I could easily see them have Morgan transform herself to pull off the seduction, paralleling what Merlin did with Uther.

As for the kid playing Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower, I'm on the fence at the moment. He looks rather young and spindly, and even Merlin comments that the kid's hands are a little too dainty for his kingly role.  The kid protested his situation, seemed unsure of the task before him, yet stepped right into his role as King in public settings as if he already owned the throne. He seemed to naturally give exactly appropriate public speeches without hesitation, which felt a little off considering he was just dragged across country and thrust onto the throne with zero preparation. I did get more used to him as the show progressed, so there may be hope for him. It is possible the show may be wanting to concentrate more on his growth after he takes the throne than watching a kid deal with finding out he was adopted, is the blood heir to the throne, watch his adoptive mother killed, take the Sword of Mars from the cliff, and fight off the first challenge to his throne, see his adoptive father die, all in the space of a week.  That's one big week for a kid from the boonies. Hopefully he can pull off the transformation into a commanding presence.  In the premier episode he seemed dwarfed next to King Lot.

Guinevere - well we didn't see much of her, thus far her job is to look pretty. Actually we saw all of her, naked, but that wasn't what I was talking about. Arthur dreams of her, Merlin spies on Arthur's dream, the non-dream Guinevere chances upon Arthur on the beach (similar to his dream, only clothed), Arthur falls for her, then we find she's betrothed to Leontes, the very knight that already saved Arthur's life once and quickly became one of Arthur's most trusted allies.  I suppose as more episodes come out we'll get to find out if she's more than just a pretty plot driver.  There was so much going on in the premier episode there wasn't room to stuff more of her in too.

We are treated to a little insight into an aspect of Arthur's character when we first meet him, an insight that should be foretelling when it comes to the betrothed Guinevere issue.  When we first meet Arthur he is nailing a girl that his brother Kay had relationship interest in. Even though he knows that's bad form, he doesn't seem to have a sense of not boinking the gal that's in a relationship with someone you trust.  As Guinevere is betrothed to Leontes we're set up for some love triangle-type drama to unfold in the future, because we know from legend that Arthur has to have Guinevere at his side.  Just one of those drivers of the machine that is Camelot.

Two other cast members, James Purefoy as King Lot and Sean Pertwee as Ector, lasted disappointingly too short a time in the series. Both are fine actors and will be missed. 

The sets and locations are sort of in the middle ground between gritty and "hollywood-pretty gritty".  Sort of like the middle ground between Deadwood-style old west towns and John Wayne movie-style.  But so far they've been effective.  Costuming and props seem appropriate.

There are hints of sorcery. Like in the story of how Arthur was born of Merlin changing Uther's appearance so he could rape Arthur's mother Igraine, in hints that Merlin may have been around a lot longer than people should be, Merlin's spying on dreams, and in flashes of the past/future that Merlin has. We get more sorcery in the tools used by Morgan le Fay to infiltrate her father Uther's castle and kill him, and the dark forces she is consorting with to take the throne for herself.  I'm hoping these aspects continue to factor into the series without getting obnoxiously cartoonish.  The subtle portrayal used so far works in the framework of the series. I hope it stays that way instead of fluctuating between steampunky pseudoscience or devolving into CGI-heavy lightshows.

I liked the premier episode. Hopefully the series continues on to have strong stories, strong intrigue, strong performances. And I hope that it continues to improve, much like Spartacus continued to improve as the series matured. I have no idea where in Arthurian legend Camelot plans to go, at this point I look forward to find out. I also like that the series has a dark feel to it. I suspect the Starz series will pick and choose bits from various legends and modify them to fit their story arcs as needed.  Hopefully it stays dark with drama, consistent in character actions and motivations, conflict arcs intertwined with planned grand arcs and doesn't meander about aimlessly week-to-week. And, if as the season plays out it goes into a death spiral or something I'll call that out. But if the premier is any indication this series should be entertaining.

**Edit: after Four episodes in
Okay - the show is kindof wavering between serious and borderline camp.  I think Joseph Finnes and Eva Green understand the show is to be somewhat fantastical - and they're doing a great job. I don't know if Jamie Campbell Bower is in the same headspace as them. Either that or he's supposed to be seriously whiny/bratty.

- Merlin didn't know Morgan poisoned Uther ahead of time. He must've just known Uther was gonna die and was prepared with the paperwork. Merlin was surprised when he found out Morgan did the deed.

- So far Guenivere meets Arthur on a beach, meets him as King Arthur at Arthur's coronation celebration, sexes him up, then marries Leontes.  Love-triangling has commenced. Arthur's being a whiny bitch about her marrying off, Guenny is unconvincingly telling him she's happy and he should leave her alone.
- Merlin got his magic on - using fire to grab a swordsmith and fry him, then using ice to walk across water and accidentally drown said swordsmith's daughter. Then we get to see Merlin make up the "Lady in the Lake" myth to cover what really happened. I actually liked that. Nice twist - and furthers my suspicion that Merlin has an agenda and is using Arthur to carry it out, to the point of inventing mythologies to convince everyone else that Arthur is the chosen king.

So - best way to watch this is sit back and let it happen. Don't over think things, don't try to make the show into anything it is not. It's entertainment. It isn't a historical drama. It is a dark-ages/medieval era retelling of mythology. And thus far still trying to settle into it's 'groove'.

** Edit: 7 episodes in
the show is somewhat inconsistent in its progression. Sometimes it's moving forward quite well, other times it requires some patience waiting for it to move forward again.  Arthur's character exposes moments of great wisdom and hints at one day achieving legendary King Arthur greatness only to slap himself down by his youth and inexperience. The contrasts are stark between the two Arthurs - mature in public and adolescent in private. I don't know if they're going for such a black and white emphasis over a gradual path of greys, but that's how it feels. There's little gradient overlap between the two.

What I'm still liking:
- I continually look forward to watch Morgan devise her way into taking Arthur down. Her story unfolding is the most interesting aspect of the show for me.
- glimpses into Merlin's plotting and shaping Camelot, opposite Morgan's plotting to take the throne, is a good contrast. Divining what makes Merlin tick is next in line for interesting after Morgan's development.

I noticed that overall the camera shots are a of a lot more stage work and not as much outside work. There are still some outside shots, but not near as many sweeping ones as at the start of the series. Plus the shots are tighter, which means less CG painting in backdrops and painting out of skies and airplanes and such. The sets are moving away from an organic feel to more of the 'pretty version of dirty' feel.  I think the budgetary restrictions are beginning to show.

** Edit: 8 episodes in:
a lot less Arthur in this episode. I think. Either that or I'm just tuning him out at this point. The three most interesting characters remain Morgan and Merlin. HAH see what I did there? Morgan was Igraine in this  episode. Forlani playing Morgan playing Igraine made Igraine a lot more interesting. Props to Claire Forlani for effectively pulling off playing Morgan pretending to be Igraine. She 'let slip' some of the Morgan mannerisms and speech patterns. She doesn't overtly play it up, she plays it with a recognizable subtlety. Good on her.  And shame on me for not recognizing her from "Mallrats".
The series as a whole seems to be treading water at this point, I'm not entirely sure where it is going. It has moments that seem to move in some sort of a direction, but they are fleeting.
Other than that, Camelot remains an entertaining distraction in comparison to the seriousness of the Borgias and the attention-grabbing and ever-improving Game of Thrones while waiting for Spartacus and Dexter and True Blood to come back.

** Edit: 9 episodes in:
at this point - best way to watch this series is have no expectations. I think production is still trying to figure things out. There is some story arc, driven by Morgan. The rest just fills in time.  Pretty much "blah blah blah Morgan vs. Merlin blah blah blah Arthur is a whiny bitch blah blah blah".
I keep watching because I'm invested but not disappointed enough (yet) to cut my losses.  It still holds some entertainment value.
Some battling takes place as Arthur and the guys defend a small outpost against invaders - invaders in Morgan's employ. After a couple of folks on Arthur's side get injured everyone leaves except Arthur, who remains behind to cover the retreat.  I'm not sure what the strategic advantage of the place actually holds. It's called Barton's Pass, but it really looks like anyone could just walk around the place.
This particular episode was noticeably short in time.  The odd editing of of some scenes leaves me to wonder if perhaps that's what shorted the time, and perhaps they edited things out to allow for story arc changes?  Or I could be giving them too much credit.
First thing I noticed when Ulfius (?) got killed during the battle he was wearing red. Red shirt reference perhaps? Doesn't matter - second thing I noticed was I barely remember seeing the guy before the "oh no he got killeded" bit.

** Edit: Season 1 Finale:
Okay - the previous episode coupled with this episode were probably the two best episodes of the season after the opening episodes. Or I just got beat into viewer submission by the time between episodes and their fading memories.
But - there was real movement in story. Arthur stayed behind at the pass to keep them occupied while all the knights escort a wounded gal away.  During the night Arthur "Home Alones" his makeshift bulwark area with booby-traps,  and sure enough first one scout, then four scouts fall to Arthur's devious planning. One gets away with Arthur's sword, which is then spirited to Morgan's hands to prove Arthur's death. By morning the attackers received reinforcements and they rush the place.  That's when Arthur puts his hands on his cheeks and makes the "O" face.
Meanwhile after Morgan receives Arthur's sword she goes into the motions to declare herself Queen.

Some drama happened this episode. Some fisticuffs and sword fights. Good on them! About time to really move stories along!
A major character I've been expecting to die by season's end actually dies in the season finale. Another major character dies that I wasn't anticipating. A third one announces they are leaving (but are they? hmmm). A fourth one that showed up mid-season ends up dead too.
Whoa - about half the major characters - poof gone. Just like that.

The knights start building the round table. They reserve a spot at the table for a fallen comrade they all respected so much. My prediction: that seat is going to eventually be filled by Lancelot, who we'll probably get to meet in season 2.  I wonder if they're going to incorporate the Siege Perilous into the story? That'd be cool. (whoa - wikipedia's entry on the siege perilous was seriously edited down from its multi-page glory).
Also - Morgan finally does what I've been waiting for her to do from the first episode - she takes on Guenivere's face, visits Arthur in his chambers, and gets her sex on with her brother. Mordred should be on the way!  But -- will Mordred be Arthurs? Or Merlins? hmmm?

This leads me to wonder if Season 2 of Camelot will take place years in the future as opposed to starting where Season 1 leaves off. Actually I don't even know if there is going to be a Season 2 at this point.