28 March 2011

Highlander: The Series Season 4

Still Plenty of Goods for Highlander Season 4
By Kristin Battestella

The goodness continues in 1995 for the fourth season of Highlander: The Series.  In fact, the immortal angst just keeps getting better and better- and dare I say it- even great.
Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) and his on again off again immortal love Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen) must face deadly rogue immortals and even a Dark Quickening while 5,000 year old Methos (Peter Wingfield) falls in love with a dying mortal woman.  When the Watcher Tribunal investigates watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) for his friendship with Duncan and fellow immortal Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch), Joe must fight for not just his status in the secret organization sworn to observe immortals but never interfere- but also for his very life.  

Well, Highlander: The Series is now a class unto itself, complete with some seriously sweet opening credits.  Everything you need to know about immortals, Duncan MacLeod, and the Watchers is swiftly tressed out in style with this introduction!  At this point, Highlander: The Series is a completely separate entity from the inferior sequel films, even the sword sparring shot of theatrical Highlander Connor MacLeod is gone from the opening designs.  Season 4’s opener “Homeland” rekindles Duncan’s Scottish roots in fine form, exploring not just immortals freely beyond the film series’ restraints but also filling in Duncan’s timeline with both new places from the past and contemporary individual dilemmas.  Not oft touched subjects such as Vietnam are mixed with lovely immortal examinations on war, death, and revenge.  Mental illness is debated in “The Innocent,” creativity and human genius versus immortality are questioned in “Timeless,” and immortals seeking fame compared to those who are best left forgetting their immortal transgressions are contrasted in “The Immortal Cimoli” and “Through a Glass, Darkly.”  I think I’ll stop there; otherwise, I may end up chatting about all 22 episodes! 

 Oh dear oh dear, Duncan MacLeod can certainly be a melancholy bloke, can’t he? His continued somber stance and high road in each weekly dilemma is a wonderful contrast to his dishing out periodic beheadings.  Can he be both a warrior and loyal to moral oaths he has promised to himself and other immortals over the years? “Reluctant Heroes,” “The Wrath of Kali,” and “Chivalry” put Mac between the mortal rock and the immortal hard place again and again.  Sure, there may be great action and battles when we meet an immortal villain of the week, but Highlander: The Series is more wonderful when it brings immortal friends together and puts MacLeod in the middle.  Naturally then, it’s just great to see Mac go bad in “Something Wicked” and “Deliverance.” Not only can Paul- who also directed two episodes this season- be crazy cool, but it is so sweet to see Duncan knowingly struggle against doing wrongs he has fought against for centuries. Golly, Dark Duncan does a lot of using and abusing of any and all in his wake!  Likewise, the restored MacLeod pains over being called to assassinate in “Promises.”  Wow, immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be- who knew?   

Fortunately, MacLeod’s sexy run and gun lady foil Amanda adds some much needed cheerfulness and fun in “Double Eagle.” We even get to see a more tender and loving side to Elizabeth Gracen’s vixen in “Reunion,” where she bonds with Mac’s pregnant ex, Lisa Howard guesting as Dr. Anne Lindsay. “The Colonel” provides some great WWI action that comes back to haunt Mac- with Amanda being the one who saves the day for a change! By contrast, Peter Wingfield as Methos is wonderful as the angry and pesky advocate to MacLeod.  Despite his often sidelined observant and pacifist stance, Methos is not afraid to do what Mac cannot for the good at hand- or even the personal if it suits him.  He wouldn’t have gotten very far without being selfish would he? It’s never out right stated, but you have to wonder if Amanda and Methos have met before. “Methuselah’s Gift” may be one of the best non-MacLeod centric episodes of the series, and every time I watch it, it drives me insane that Wingfield and Gracen are not series regulars.  Why can’t they be in the credits?  These two appear in the same amount of episodes, if not more, than credited regulars Stan Kirsch and Jim Byrnes do. If all four were listed, it wouldn’t seem like such a disparity, but rather a rotation of supporting players.  Yes, its stupid things like this that keep me up at night!  

And yes, Richie finally has something to do in “The Innocent” and “Leader of the Pack.”  Even if it’s goodness at the time, he always ends up disappearing. Lisa Howard’s final appearance as Anne in “The Blitz,” tells us so much more than Richie’s sporadic appearances. If Kirsch is actually used like a guest star as needed, then why does he get to be in the ^&*(%#@ opening credits? Ahhh!   Fortunately, Roger Daltry and Roland Gift also return for “Till Death” and “Double Jeopardy.”  Even if there are 7 immortals in one episode, it seems no more than 4 or 5 are ever onscreen together- what’s up with that? Is that some sort of rule like Holy Ground that we don’t know about? This season I also feel like we don’t get enough of Joe Dawson- especially because what we do get teases us with the notion that there’s so much more to tell.  “Brothers in Arms” wonderfully highlights how Dawson came to the Watchers while also giving closure for Philip Akin and his Charlie DeSalvo.  Although they are almost clip shows recapping some of the immortal and watcher hijinks, the two-part finale “Judgment Day” and “One Minute to Midnight” recap the best parts of Highlander: The Series thus far. All those times you have questioned how Joe and MacLeod got away with all the death and secrecy have indeed come back to haunt them. 

I’ve already commented previously that some of the Quickenings in Highlander: The Series seem a little orgasmic, to say the least.  However, in this recent rewatching, I’m also seeing more homosexual innuendo and gay subtext than I used to notice.  Bare butt shots and picking out wallpaper together? Some of the relationships implied here and in Season 5- both male and female- even the entire notion of men cutting off each other’s heads to take one’s essence, the swordfights themselves, each immortal having a teacher or mentor who shows them the ways of it all.  Dear Lord, the way they hide on Holy Ground and become Priests with secrets!   Maybe I’m just older and wiser on seeing such themes onscreen now, or perhaps it is bemusing for some to look for such tongue in cheek goodness. It isn’t so overt to ruin Highlander: The Series for those not interested in such topics, but audiences who enjoy the male bonding and non traditional relationships may find some frank discussion of true companionship- with immortal twists of course.  For the series not to acknowledge the special life long relationships immortals can share would simply be unrealistic.

(This is how MacLeod greets Richie?) 

Again, I must say those opening credits are sweet- capturing the essence of the show in proper 90s style.  We simply don’t get fine introductions like this anymore! The period designs are again great, from the French Revolution to the Old West and World War II.  The house that Mac rebuilds is also neat- even if the real estate prices and square footage given onscreen don’t quite match up! The leather jackets and trench coats still look cool and timeless compared to some of the more colorful and crazy fashions from some immortals. What were they thinking?  The jazzy period music and Swing styles are also sweet as are new times and places like India.  Even past places we are used to seeing look good, more than good, high end even.  Fans who want to know all the behind the scenes ins and outs are again welcome to a smorgasbord of features.  Almost every episode offers some or all of the following: an audio and/or video commentary, a 5 or 10 minute behind the scenes and/or retrospective interview with cast and crew, Watcher’s Chronicles, deleted scenes, bloopers- and there’s a CD with every script and the series call sheets.  Mother Hubbard!

Simply put, if you are a fan of intelligent timeless action and adventure fantasy, there is no reason you shouldn’t love Highlander: The Series.  We’re done Season 4 now, come on get with it before you loose your head!

27 March 2011

Soldier (1998)

Soldier a Nice Little SF Movie
By Kristin Battestella

It took fore-ev-er for the 1998 film Soldier to arrive from Netflix, and I confess I held onto it a little bit longer than I should have just to make someone else have the ‘very long wait’.  For such a relatively dismissed and unloved sf action yarn, somebody is obviously still watching!

Bred from birth to be a soldier, Sergeant Todd (Kurt Russell) is replaced after forty years of deadly service by the new, elite model Caine 607 (Jason Scott Lee).  Thought dead, Todd is dumped on the waste planet Arcadia 234.  He survives the brutal conditions there and is rescued by Mace (Sean Pertwee) and his wife Sandra (Connie Neilson) – members of a community of crashed space travelers building a meager life out of the junk dumped on the planet.  Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs) wants to test Caine and his new soldiers and chooses Arcadia 234 as the site of his training exercises.  Despite initial resentment from the community, Todd helps defend his newfound society now that they have been deemed hostile by his replacements.

Perhaps because it was supposed to be a big budget action fest, we expect something more from Soldier and director Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) and writer David Peoples (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke, Twelve Monkeys). Though I don’t know why- thus far I’ve actually liked everything I’ve seen Anderson involved with; and the source screenplay and story are originally from sf literary master Harlan Ellison- and Harlan Ellison is, well, Harlan Ellison. When looking at the film with an intelligentsia perspective, it’s actually quite an intriguing little science fiction dilemma.  Yes, some of Soldier plays small like its Ellison predecessor- an original Outer Limits episode. This is probably why the action and design style look kind of hokey and not up to cinematic par.  But what’s wrong with having a science fiction action film that provides as much- if not more- food for thought over run and gun fighting eye candy? Are genetically engineered soldiers better than those trained to kill at birth?  Do those out-dated not deserve the right to defend their existence?  Can such extreme conditioning be overcome with something so seemingly useless as compassion? If compassion can defeat all ills, then why not let it?  It’s perfectly acceptable for a society to cut out its ills if it must- yet the crash survivors’ initial reaction is to help a man in need.  Which is right? Why does either have to be wrong? I just love sociological science fiction allegory!

SoldierWell, if it really came down to Kurt Russell (Escape from New York, Overboard, Stargate) and Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, The Jungle Book, Rapa Nui) in a fight, it would certainly be very easy to put your money on the younger and pumped Lee.  This is the exact dilemma that Soldier presents.  Russell, however, makes it very easy to feel for his character, and Lee likewise enjoys the villainy. Can one change once he is deemed obsolete? Are you truly superior if you lose all essence of the human condition? Russell conveys Todd’s badass and his somber in cool moves and little dialogue. Sure, his clipped delivery is a little stilted and often hokey, but Todd is not meant to handle conversation. And when was the last time we had the lead in a big flick speak so clunky and so little- Conan the Barbarian? Maybe someone else could have done a better job, but Russell does all right. His awkwardness at kindness, children, even hugging wonderfully says more- and the way his soldier style benefits his new community is also delightful.  See the bigger picture, people! Can a man have both affection and strength and not be weak or out of date? Lee’s ruthless steamrolling mentality is a wonderful contrast as well.  Where Todd seems almost a broken, traumatized case, Caine is styled as an unyielding sociopath- and that is supposed to be the efficient next step. Where one can be fixed, or at least accepted, the other cannot.

Naturally, a woman goes a long way in creating house and home, doesn’t she? Connie Neilson (Gladiator, The Devil’s Advocate) is lovely and warm and you have to wonder on the latent kinky possibilities between Sandra and Todd.  Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers, Camelot) and Michael Chiklis (The Commish, The Shield) are also great at being middle of the road guys who accept and befriend Todd, extreme conditioning and all. As much as we have teased Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story, Under Siege) in recent years or love to see him play the crazy jerk, his aptly named Captain Church is actually a wonderfully harsh good guy.  Of course, oft baddie Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter) is typecast as a villain, yes, but he’s just so dang good at it!  

Loud bangs and booms, naturally, are super loud against the soft dialogue- but there are enough chunks of both action montages early and quiet conversations in between to relax on the volume control.  Fortunately, there are subtitles on the DVD to fix all that, too.  The outer space shots and distant, supposedly otherworldly panoramas, however, look kind of crappy.  Yes, they live on a bleak and trash heap ridden dusty planet, but ergo Soldier also looks like a load of junk.  If you were flicking through the channels and came across the supposedly big and dusty action finale here, you’d probably snark and pass on by- especially in comparison to our much beloved CGI. Thankfully, the effects aren’t meant to be the essence of the picture here, coughavatarcough, and the drama of a well told concept wins.  Though there’s good old R violence and some innuendo, tweens and anyone who can appreciate substance with their sci-fi can enjoy Soldier. Though elusive, the DVD is well worth the wait- er hunt.

23 March 2011

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 5

More Goodness in Buffy Season 5
By Kristin Battestella

As if slayerage, college, and boyfriends weren’t bad enough, Buffy perhaps faces her toughest foe yet in 2000’s Season 5.  No, it’s not Spike’s unrequited love or hellgod Glory’s might, but rather the horrors of a new little sister named Dawn.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) scales back her college plans when her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) is diagnosed with cancer.  Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) help take care of Buffy’s unknowingly mystical 14-year-old sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), who has a little crush on Xander (Nicholas Brendan).  Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) gets used to the retail life when he opens The Magic Box, and Anya (Emma Caulfield) discovers her love of money.  Unfortunately, Spike (James Marsters) has fallen in love with Buffy- but she has bigger demons to fry.  Fallen god Glorificus (Clare Kramer) wants The Key so she can return to her hell dimension and thus break down the barriers between worlds, and you know, destroy the universe.

Well, “Buffy vs. Dracula” had to happen eventually, and creator Joss Whedon puts plenty of nice spin on the season opening traditional vampire lore whilst keeping the story familiar and fun. Again, there’s a little bit of filler at the start of the season- cleaning up the Riley mess in “Into the Woods”- but we need to get to know Dawn in “Real Me” before the introduction of Glory and the big plot this season in “No Place Like Home.”  The Previouslies get a little long in the tooth as the season goes on, but it’s intriguing how seemingly unrelated events from “Shadow,” “Triangle,” and “Listening to Fear” come together.  Of course, “The Body” is the most awesomest episode and certainly my favorite hour of Buffy.  One might even argue that Joyce’s illness is the mini bad of the first half of the season.  Year 5 is best as it twists the realistic cruelty of cancer along with the fantastical fight against Glory.  From “I Was Made to Love You” thru the finale “The Gift,” every episode leads off one right after the other, creating the tightness and intensity of a miniseries.  It’s all so wonderfully juicy because unlike end of the world apocalypse terrors from previous seasons, we have bads that actually best Buffy.  “Tough Love,” “Spiral,” and “The Weight of the World,” perfectly lead to her ultimate answer in “The Gift,” and it’s just dynamite.

Yes, it’s great television when the titular Buffy can’t prevent death and hell on earth. We’ve seen her not deal before; but it’s nice to see some sort of proactive non-dealing or mistakes that make things worse.  She tries with Riley and screws up, she fights with kid sister Dawn, and she gets her butt kicked by Glory.  Buffy also clings to the notion that her mother’s illness is supernatural, because supernatural is something she is supposed to fix and make better. Oh, if only that were true! These intelligent and heartfelt dilemmas set off the monster hijinks and keep us rooting for Buffy. We all fight demons of one kind or another, don’t we? It’s inspiring that a show that should give us more fantasy allegory instead takes time to keep it personal and real.  And in addition to all the heavy, props to Gellar for also having some honest but no less tongue in cheek fun as the BuffyBot in “Intervention.”

Unfortunately, you just know from the opening episode’s sunshiny beach funfest, that stinky do-gooder Riley is not right for Buffy.  He just isn’t her type of guy, no matter how hard she tries for him to be, and eventually even Buffy seems annoyed by his presence.  Why are we wasting time with Riley’s weak and unloved issues when there are more important things blooming? When he goes medically AWOL in “Out of My Mind,” no one but the trying to hard Buffy seems to care, so why should we give a hoot?  Would be- at least in his mind- boyfriend Spike is once again far more interesting. He does more in his “out for a walk…bitch” quip then the wasted Riley centric episodes.  The “Fool for Love” crossover and its visits from David Boreanaz as Angel, Juliet Landau as Drusilla and Julie Benz as Darla looks period piece cool while intercutting with Spike’s revisionist and love blind narration. We need to know where Spike comes from in order to accept his moving forward and the character changes to come. Even if some dislike his direction in the last two seasons, his growth here and the juicy fighting with Buffy have more depth and chemistry than the ho-hum Rileyness. Spike sees right thru his rival for Buffy’s affections, and he uses his insights and manipulations to his own advantage in “Crush.”  While he certainly isn’t without feeling or morals, Spike is, after all, supposed to be evil, so how does he end up doing so much good sans a soul?

Giles also initially wonders where he fits in Buffy’s world- only to realize how critical he becomes to her and Dawn.  He gets to have some fun, too, with the new Magic Box angles and a mid life crisis sweet car. Sometimes it even seems like the show could be Giles in the Magic Shop with merchandise and customers gone awry and still be cool.  Little touches such as how after such a relatively patron-less and traffic free library, Giles is at first overwhelmed by capitalism adds new purpose for him beyond Buffy.  The juxtaposition also works great for Magic Box clerk Anya.  It’s about time Caulfield became a full fledged cast member, and Anya is given more to do then just being Xander’s girlfriend. Although I don’t understand why she’s always changing her hair, it’s great how Anya says bad and untimely but perfectly pertinent things. A lot of her role still hinges on Xander naturally, but their relationship has also progressed into seemingly solid coupledom. 

Xander, of course, is the only person who could get away with using a word like “quell.”  However, it’s a little bit of a retread to have him so intrigued by the potential lesbian action and his crappy useless selves in “The Replacement.” Fortunately, Xander seriously grows up and proves his worth to the gang and even forms a quirky, almost dare I say it friendship with Spike. But why, why, why is Amber Benson not a regular cast member?  “Family” wonderfully and firmly places Tara in the Scoobies - even if the allegory of closed mindedness and lesbians must be demons!  is a bit much. For her soft strength and support and what she goes through in “Tough Love,” Tara becomes far more likeable as an individual and as part of a couple than Riley had been.  Her alternative lifestyles aren’t forced upon the audience or in your face- and Benson does wonderfully when things get drastic for Tara. Willow and Tara’s romance is portrayed with skill, kindness, and sympathy instead of golly gee shocks macho. Their groundbreaking kiss in “The Body” isn’t played for lesbian hurrahs, just honest and natural affection amid such grief.  Likewise, Willow takes care of Tara, as any one in a relationship would do.  She takes charge late in Buffy’s absence and grows into a powerful witch proving her might against Glory.  Willow has come a long way since high school indeed.

Some viewers may be shocked, even pissed at Dawn’s sudden entry this year, but the foundation had been laid for those that were paying attention. Yes, she is a little juvenile and annoying to start, to say the least; going for the treat in the cereal and not understanding the true extent of Willow and Tara’s relationship. However, Dawn is supposed to be clueless, new, and annoying.  Nowadays we’re probably used to scratching our heads over drawn out, seemingly meandering series like Lost and Heroes.  But even audiences who are upset with Dawn’s random placement early in Season 5 should hang in there and have faith.  Everything is explained all in good time, and debate about whether her presence is good or bad and how Dawn feels about it all adds sweet human touches to the mystery and mysticism. She doesn’t know; it’s not her fault.  Our sympathy over “Blood Ties” and “Forever” wins out because Buffy does what she does best with Dawn- give compassion and protect the innocent.  

Kristine Sutherland is also a delightfully bittersweet Joyce Summers, and Clare Kramer (The Thirst) is equally love to hate worthy as Glory.  Her bridezilla style and ultimate bitch ways are great against Charlie Weber (Everwood) as Ben- the good guy who isn’t really good. At first, we can say his behavior isn’t his fault, but later his survival instincts take over his morality in a nice antithesis to Dawn’s innocence.  Mercedes McNab is again fun as Harmony, the big bad in her own diluted unicorn-loving mind.  Adam Busch (Sugar & Spice) as Warren will of course return for more in Season 6.  His robot designs are considerably more advanced in the Buffyverse, but the snake effects always kind of stink on this show.  At least the Knights of Byzantium look sweet, and Buffy has a lot of nice action filming, lighting, dream like sequences, and slow motion designs this season. Of course, the lack of the traditional effects and bells and whistles in “The Body” are ingenious.  Its simplicity never gets old, unlike some of the bemusing effects for Glory.  Thankfully, the new Magic Box is cool- even if they can talk about end of the world secrets at their Scooby round table in the middle of a commercial venue full of customers!

Naturally, thanks to renewal wars and rights technicalities for The WB, the future move to UPN, and the downhill trend of the subsequent two seasons, some enjoy debating the merits of “The Gift” as Buffy’s would be or should have been series finale.  The possibility is intriguing, and the great opening clip reel sums up the entire show in speedy fun. Are enough character arcs and series long storylines rectified in Season 5 and the finale itself to create closure? I believe so.  Buffy does her duty, Willow uses her witchy ways for good and saves Tara, and Xander takes pride in his “glorified bricklayer” self. Like a true guardian and father, Giles does what Buffy cannot in order to help her and Dawn, and even Spike almost becomes a full-fledged Scooby: “Till the end of the world. Even if that happens to be tonight.”  Perhaps a few things are left unanswered in the wake of “The Gift,” yes. But these postscripts also work wonderfully.  Like life, not everything is going to be resolved, and no one knows what will happen next or if they can handle the real life dilemmas or monster drama.  Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.

Again, some of the juicy and/or bland sex between the couples in Buffy is getting a little mature and not always appropriate for the youngins.  However, the introduction of Dawn and the return of youth through her while our core players really grow up is a nice element for newer audiences to join in.  In fact, Season 5 of Buffy almost plays like a contained season; one need not begin prior or proceed after.  Of course, after seeing the finale, you can’t not watch Season 6, even if it’s just to see how the hell they get Buffy out of this one! Return to the Hellmouth and save the world with Buffy Season 5 one more time.

21 March 2011

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 4

I Really Like Buffy Season 4
By Kristin Battestella

Despite some of my uneven misgivings on Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s third season; for the most part, Year 4 twists the pains of college, Scooby dissention, and monster military corruptions just right.

Slayer Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) brave the new and bright halls of UC Sunnydale despite the usual vampires, demons, and evils above the Hellmouth.  Pal Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and former watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), however, can’t quite find themselves without Buffy.  Of course, she’s too busy potentially romancing Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), psychology Professor Maggie Walsh’s (Lindsay Crouse) seemingly All-American teaching assistant. Unfortunately, back in town vampire Spike (James Marsters) is captured by The Initiative, a secretive and possibly nefarious military unit also hunting demons on campus.

Joss Whedon hits the ground running with “The Freshman,” the 1999 debut of Season 4, and remains solid and filler free straight thru to the brilliant finale “Restless.”  So, college changes life for the slayer, who knew?  Buffy’s shell shock amid continually fighting the forces of evil, battling “Beer Bad,” sleeping with bad boyfriends, and turning on scary roommates is all balanced wonderfully with Willow’s academic happiness and Xander’s ho-hum basement living.  College experimentations on sex, alcohol, and well, experimentation works this season- the real life issues mixing with monsters and demonic government interference put the supernatural angst a step above the rest.  Individual episodes range the spectrum on all our emotions and players superbly, from “Fear, Itself” and “Something Blue” to “Pangs” and “Superstar.” The three-fold finale with “The Yoko Factor” and “Primeval” wraps everything delightfully. Of course, I could spend an entire thesis talking about the near silent gem “Hush,” too, so I’ll just stop there!

Well well, four years in and come to find out, Buffy isn’t perfect.  Having our superhero suck at the college lifestyle is sweet.  Her mistakes are just so realistically superb in how un-heroic they are.  The mid-season two-parter “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You” also gets the Faith antithesis angle done right this time- and the reflection on Buffy is dynamite.  So, bad slayer Faith would really like to be Buffy and gets very used to walking in the do-gooder shoes of The Blonde One.  After seeing Buffy deal with so much crap, it’s delightful to see someone else think her life is so grand.  Toss in the ongoing theme that she is still superior in demonology compared to The Initiative and yet can’t deal without her core support group is just…well, it’s so dang real. I love it when science fiction, fantasy, and speculative genre make such great true to life allegories!  

Naturally, Willow makes the biggest strides this season.  Firstly, her relationship with Seth Green’s Oz comes to a hairy and angsty head in “Wild at Heart.”  In his departing storyline, Oz is finally given something to do and this pushes Willow into her full-fledged witchcraft. “New Moon Rising” and the brief return of Oz again do more than all his episodes combined.  Instead of the hey, wolf okay, no big from Season 3- his affliction causes conflict in his person and his relationship with Willow. Awesome. Where high school held her back in many ways, UC Sunnydale gives Willow room to bloom- both in positive and heartbreaking ways. Fellow Wicca Tara’s introduction in “Hush” is also just lovely.  Yes, the gay and magic exploration amalgams are a tad obvious thanks to stupid network censorships substituting the latter for the former. However, overall the feeling between the ladies is developed nicely in honest, personal, realistic ways.  What’s more telling than the network innuendo is that Willow doesn’t share her new friendship with Tara right away.  Not only is the awkwardness great when Oz and Tara meet, but it’s juicy when everything comes into the open. The situation is understandably askew and shows us so much about everyone.  Buffy’s reaction to Willow’s relationship with Tara is also handled wonderfully- although it is ironic that Faith saw it coming  a mile away yet the Scoobies didn’t even notice. This romance works for Buffy because it strengthens all the characters involved and isn’t played for the sake of some lesbian gimmick- and props also to Amber Benson (The Crush) for being beautiful, real, and not super Hollywood thin. Africkinmen.

It’s actually a little ironic that both Xander- in a post high school crisis- and Giles- in a mid life limbo- struggle to find their place in Season 4.  We would never think these characters are so similar, but the parallels work nicely. Xander’s run around with jobs and back and forth with sex addicted Anya seem so youthfully aimless against Giles’ fears of uselessness.  His different sides of the same view similarities with the wonderfully crotchety Lindsay Crouse (Slap Shot, Places in the Heart) as Maggie Walsh cast further doubts, too; Professor Walsh’s even demeans Giles’ endearing and fatherly way with Buffy. Ouch! Ethan Rayne’s (Robin Sachs) taunts of the dark side in “A New Man” are great as well. There’s just so much subterfuge with significant life changes, isn’t there?  Unlike the mismatched presentation in Season 3, “The I in Team” captures the division of the Scoobies and The Initiative perfectly.  All this crap and there’s still a Big Bad to handle!

And no, the Big Bad of Year 4 is not, despite what many viewers may think, Buffy’s new dreamboat Riley Finn.  Coming off the favored boyfriend Angel, Riley has not been popular, to say the least.  While we do need the good guy possibilities for more Buffy angst, Riley seems a little incomplete as an independent character.  His first half of the season recurring status with Forrest (Leonard Roberts, Heroes) and Graham (Bailey Chase, Saving Grace) seems like a more interesting triumvirate, rightly or wrongly asking demonic questions and debating military strategy! Riley’s a homeboy do-gooder- but he can’t compete or fit into Buffy’s world and it destroys him.  Even clouding his image doesn’t make Riley any more intriguing, and the audience doesn’t like it when Buffy is with someone just because she thinks she should be.  It’s a little too depressing and real world to be likeable.  And excuse me, it’s also unfair that Riley just shows up and becomes a regular in the span of a few episodes. The far more significant Anya and Tara must wait several seasons for their opening credits and storyline dues.  The apparently too good to be Riley is thrust upon us too soon, his relationship with Buffy never goes anywhere, and in the end, he is kind of a big waste.  At best, he should have been recurring and, well, briefer. Swap him and Oz and maybe things would have been a-okay. I didn’t think I hated Riley, but I do find myself zoning out during his screen time.  Perhaps that is more telling?

By contrast, it’s about damn time Spike stuck around.  Even when he doesn’t have much to do- at first it seems like the writing team didn’t really know what to do with Spike- his great antagonism and sardonic humor do far more than googly eyes Riley.  There’s certainly more history with Spike, we’ve at least grown to love him or hate him over several seasons.  We know his style and the audience needs someone to tell it like it is.  His outside the gang perspective also adds some fun and innuendo.  Where the censors didn’t like lesbians really being lesbians onscreen, Spike’s Brit bits, gestures, and witticisms escape the radar. His expressions in “Hush” are classic, and his need to cause petty trouble is just so dang human. We all know a wannabe follower who thinks he’s something that he’s not, and we wouldn’t expect this layered flaw in a previously ruthless vampire. Spike is “formerly dangerous and currently annoying” as Buffy says, and it’s bloody refreshing!   

Not to be out done, guests and recurring players add to Season 4’s fun and angst. Former classmates Mercedes McNabb as the dimwitted vampire foil Harmony and Danny Strong as Jonathan have some delightful moments, as does our old spin-off friend David Boreanaz in “Pangs.”  I do however, wish we saw more of Phina Oruche (Footballer’s Wives) as Giles’ visiting girlfriend Olivia.  Emma Caulfield is also wonderful in distinguishing her sardonic style from the departed Cordelia.  George Hertzberg (Friday Night Lights) as Adam is a little dry and wooden in his delivery, sure, but he’s a mixed bionic Frankensteinion demon dude, we shouldn’t expect so much.  At least his effects and design look good.  The styles are actually catching up now on Buffy- except for some of the weird patterned pants and boho long skirts.  Those fashions were a little too brief even then!  Guest werewolf Veruca (Paige Moss, Beverly Hills 90210), however, gets a minus in the music department. 

Although it is risky when a series does a big lifestyle or location change, Season 4’s new UC Sunnydale college design works better than the now seemingly dark and small high school library of Seasons 1-3. Of course, that library was sweet at the time, but the big and bright campus is both a refreshing step up and yet new and overwhelming.   The kick up of sexual relationships, unfortunately, may be a bit much for super young folks.  Though Anya’s sexual comments are pretty funny and all of it’s probably tame now, maybe “Where the Wild Things Are” is an episode you might want to clarify with the kids before watching.  Some of the crossover episodes and storyline references may also be a little confusing to some newer viewers if they aren’t also watching Buffy’s spin-off Angel. However, most of that is explained in the Previouslies when needed; and fans who still can’t get enough can always tune in for double the fun.  Actually, now that we’re rolling along in Season 4, there’s nothing to stop you from watching Buffy. Go, shoo!

18 March 2011

Highlander: The Series Season 3

Yes! Highlander Season 3 Rocks.
By Kristin Battestella

After a few growing pains and struggles to find its footing and players in its first two seasons, Highlander: The Series’ third year sends the heads rolling with plenty of fine drama, sweet action, and immortal style.

Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) once again faces Kalas (David Robb) - an evil immortal enemy from his past- in a battle that threatens to expose the existence of Immortals and the secret Watcher organization to the world.  Watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) struggles between his oath to not interfere with immortal confrontations and his continuing friendship with Mac.  Richie (Stan Kirsch) takes up bike racing- a risky prospect despite his immortality while 1,200-year-old thief Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen) just can’t stay on the right side of the law.  However, is Dr. Anne Lindsey’s (Lisa Howard) budding romance with Duncan just as dangerous or is it the exact solace he needs?

At last, Season 3 establishes some internal consistency for Highlander: The Series and the result is a damn fine season with nary a bad episode in sight. The mortal crimes and drama in “Blackmail” and “Take Back the Night” are fresh and dynamic, tying in nicely with the immortal deceptions and relationship angles presented in “Line of Fire” and “Shadows.”  The Watchers are made useful and brought into the forefront, particularly in “Those Who Serve,” where we get a chance to see the Immortal Game from their supposedly uncolored perspective.  Consequences to one’s actions and inactions are investigated wonderfully this season with immortals debating their ability to change for good or evil. Can worthwhile redemption for horrid past doings be found for them? Whose place is it to forgive and judge immortals?  Religion, spiritual motifs, and even immortal drug use are examined in “Courage,” “Blind Faith,” and “Mortal Sins.”  Normal life issues such as parenting and the difficulty with computers also carry through Season 3, along with thoughts on the extreme price of perpetual youth in “The Lamb.”  While die-hard Highlander fans may know an episode title when they see it- even if you don’t recognize the titles, almost every show had me saying, ‘Oh yeah! I remember this one!’

We learn a lot about our titular Highlander this season, beginning with the 1994 opener “The Samurai” and going straight through to the two-part “Finale.”  Paul shows plenty of layers in Duncan through his past loyalties and contemporary justices. The sword fights and kick ass are without a doubt kick ass indeed, but there’s plenty of time for questioning immortality and space for 400 years of melancholy to get to someone. While he’s often shown enjoying himself in the flashbacks, Mac is afraid to open up again to another mortal girlfriend like Anne Lindsey.  Of course, the audience knows there will be trouble thanks to all those pesky immortal secrets!  While some may not like Anne simply because she follows Tessa in Duncan’s heart, its nice to have someone unaware who can be good for MacLeod.  Howard (Earth: Final Conflict) keeps Anne independent, intelligent, confident, and likeable.  But could the good doctor deal with immortality? Her job is to save lives, so a man devoid of a medical history and no immunization scars is just too much of a mystery for Anne. Fortunately, Elizabeth Gracen adds some spice and familiar fun as Amanda in “The Cross of St. Antoine” and the two-part season ender. Her duck and run immortal loyalty and devotion to MacLeod are perfectly at odds with her inability to go legit and not screw things up.   

Unfortunately, once again Richie and Philip Akin as Charlie DeSalvo get the short end of the supporting stick.  Charlie is written out of Season 3 nicely- not that his leaving is super good, but the episode “The Revolutionary” is sublime.  The character should have been a guest player as necessary all along, rather than been squeezed in willy nilly.  Likewise, Richie, despite being in the opening credits, only appears in half the episodes this year.  While the youthful immortal needed to go off and explore, sure, it’s tough to care again when he does come around for some motorcycle action.  The stock footage for the races and the intercut of Richie and his pals getting rough doesn’t help either. Why not let him have a season off so we can enjoy when he returns with heavy, living forever angst? Sometimes we see recurring players more than the folks actually in the opening credits.  Despite such a cool opening scheme, Highlander: The Series never seems to balance its core players or its ensemble repertoire properly in its listings. Michel Modo’s lovable but often drunk chef Maurice is also downgraded to a guest star this season, and it’s wonderfully that his few special appearances give him respect and something to do.

Watcher Joe Dawson again doesn’t appear as much as I might have liked, but the growth of the watchers as a help, hindrance, or detriment comes along wonderfully in Season 3.  Dawson is there for MacLeod despite the rules, and Duncan likewise.  Joe’s new bar is also a great place for mortals and immortals to mingle, and the neat introduction of Peter Wingfield (24) as Methos adds a separate watcher buddy angle for Dawson to explore.  Thankfully, this crack team unites wonderfully against David Robb (Swing Kids, I Claudius) as the Highlander’s bane this season, Kalas.  His midseason trilogy of “Song of the Executioner”, “Star-Crossed,” and “Methos” is perhaps when Highlander: The Series truly becomes great TV.  There’s not a crappy Renegade knock off plot in sight- just awesome immortals like Hugh Fitzcairn and Xavier St. Cloud- both played by cool rockers Roger Daltry and Roland Gift.  By time things get juicy for the two-part “Finale” there isn’t anything in this season of Highlander: The Series not to like.

I dare say it, but even the styles this season are catching up, with toned down dojo action, great blues music, and sweet French locations.  But my goodness they use that same Tudor house for every frickin’ thing!  Anne dresses a little edgy for a doctor- with short skirts and tall boots; but hey, it looks good and is actually still in relatively recent fashion.  Of course, the period piece scenes are top notch again, and we spend more time in the past- even having flashbacks within flashbacks. The times and places we visit also vary it up some, but a few return nicely to places and people we’ve already seen.  The transitions to the flashbacks are also nicely done; sometimes they are set up in crafty ways but other times they know the viewer knows and just cut right to it.  The audience isn’t underestimated with excessive montages and unnecessary action anymore.  Although sometimes entire swordfights and quickening flashbacks from previous episodes are revisited, I’m glad they now put the dates, times, and places onscreen for the past storylines. Some of those orgasmic quickenings still amuse me - but there are some seriously good ones this season as well.  I must, however, quibble: where do those industrial stairs stuck in the middle of Joe’s bar go? Why does their register face out from the friggin’ bar?

Once again, the DVD features for Highlander: The Series Season 3 are packed to the gills with bloopers, deleted scenes, interviews, audio and video commentaries, scripts, and more.  The interface is a little dated, but its fun to go through the embedded Watcher’s Chronicles and look for all their treats within the episodes.  Again, new fans or those who wish to remain unspoilt are better served with rental or online options or a features marathon post- series.  If you’ve been remiss on the first two seasons, new audiences can still jump in here as well.  Honestly, there’s no reason for anyone not to give this season a chance.

16 March 2011

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 3

Buffy Season 3 Falters, but Turns Round Right
By Kristin Battestella

I stalled for a bit in my rewatching of Buffy the Vampire Slayer over other things, but I also have never been super enthusiastic over Season 3.  After great strides in villainy and growing up in its sophomore season, round three seems somewhat uneven in its portrayal of rogue slayers, corrupt politicians, and romance run amok.  Thankfully, the latter half of the season hits its stride and says goodbye to Senior Year in style.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) returns to Sunnydale High a little less than on the ball after running away last year.  She competes with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) for Prom Queen, hides the resurrected Angel (David Boreanaz) from school librarian Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and butts heads with new watcher Wesley Wyndam Pryce (Alexis Denisof).  Oz (Seth Green) still struggles with being a werewolf and Xander (Nicholas Brendan) can’t find where he fits in the Scooby Gang.  Willow (Alyson Hannigan), however, takes a liking to witchcraft- and faces newfound guilt over kissing Xander.  As if Buffy’s world couldn’t get any worse, bad girl slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) comes to town and corrupt Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) has more than a few demonic tricks up his sleeve.

Creator Joss Whedon takes Buffy on a slightly darker path this season.  The core cast is a little older, somewhat wiser for the wear, and the first fractures of the gang show thanks to love, slaying, and graduation.  Perhaps I’ve been watching too many mini series or short British shows, but Season 3 here is weak to start with moody, melancholy episodes that seem more like filler then a slow brooding build up.  Plots pick up with the introduction of wayward slayer Faith and the villainous henchman Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman, The Dark Knight) in “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” but the first half of the season spends more time on individual character episodes and high school allegories.  Some are a little slow and dated like “Homecoming” and “The Zeppo”- this season seems uneven and fractured itself because it has the uneasy task of showing us our gang as individuals.  What alternatives are their outside of the group?   What are the possibilities beyond high school? Is the season about the individual standouts and explorations of characters or is it about the slayer antithesis and the political Big Bads?  There are some seriously dazzling one off gems here including “Band Candy”, “The Wish” and its follow up “Dopplegangland”, and of course the controversial but brilliant and still relevant “Earshot”.  Beginning with “Bad Girls,” however, every episode speeds up the season long storyline and continues to build on the Mayoral villainy.  Once we return to the strong bond and relationships being the glue against the monsters of life and high school, Season 3 conclude on a great two-part “Graduation Day” whopper.  

I imagine there are some fans that prefer the dark and wild slayer Faith to our titular blonde cheerleader. It’s not that I don’t like Faith, but her up and down appearances don’t do the character justice.  Faith should have been much more involved early in the season; and with the considerable amount she is there for the later half, why isn’t she in the opening credits? Now that we’ve had a few years to know Buffy and her world, why not always have a bad girl slayer around to further antagonize and remind us how uneasy Buffy’s balance between life and school and good and evil is?  Interesting notions on how Faith should take up the primary slayer mantle while Buffy goes on with her life are dismissed for other ho-hum explorations before Faith goes too uber bad too quickly.  Some of her physically different dark looks and style to Buffy’s sunny charm is also obvious, and her angry over Angel all the time and latent yet still totally jealous thing gets annoying, too. Her storyline is wonderful once it gets rolling, but it seems there are more Faith, bad Faith, and Buffy versus Faith opportunities to explore.  Fortunately, later seasons do rectify some of the Faithy goodness, and it’s refreshing to have someone who doesn’t always do the right thing or has her own motivations for doing so. Faith- despite being so strong and capable- is so quick to err and get on everyone else’s bad bandwagon.  How could two slayers be so much alike yet so truly different? In many ways, Faith is correct in her ideas that Buffy’s got bad in her blood and a secret joy at killing just below her do-gooder sensibilities.  Her antagonism does indeed push Buffy to put her claws out and do the extremes she wouldn’t have previously done.  In some shows, the writers would just keep going and going with nothing major ever really happening for these opposites.  For each slayer to be true to herself, however, their relationship has to come to an end.  Faith’s mirror half to Buffy serves to strengthen our fair leader.  Buffy thought she wanted out of the Hellmouth, but her stance against Faith fully allows her to accept the slayer as who she is and will be. 

Adding nicely to the somewhat uneven slayer dynamic is the great fatherly relationships and examinations with both Giles and Mayor Wilkins. Giles supports Buffy wholeheartedly in her schooling and her slayer training only to have their bond fracture thanks to her secrecy over Angel and the Watcher’s Council interfering in “Helpless.”  For better or for worse, everything seems to break at some point this season- and it all leads back to the Mayor. Wilkins takes a while to build up exactly what he is - almost all season in fact.  However, his equally fatherish dynamic with Faith is kind of refreshingly bizarre.  Because they are bad and crazy, we expect neither to care; but Wilkins supports Faith the way the Scoobies uphold Buffy. Their affection is no less genuine-even bad crazy people can have feelings.  I actually can never decide if I like Mayor Wilkins or not.  He’s the evil politician with a hand in everything dirty in Sunnydale- and yet he is obsessed with cleanliness.  Groener (Las Vegas, Dear John) plays it all a little too tongue in cheek and ironic- a corrupt official who is actually eevvviill!  Perhaps one could find something kinky between him and Faith, sugar daddy jokes and all that.  It’s also creepy that the Mayor sees many truths Faith seeks to hide- as well as the real dynamic between Buffy and Angel.  Competent villains with a seed of the right are the scariest of all, even with the snake monsterness aside.  In fact, if it weren’t for the monster bits, Wilkins might have been a good guy.  He provides frank advice to the gang and even delivers the Class of 1999 commencement speech.  His solid rearing and giving Faith the attention for which she so yearned also comes back to bite Buffy, too.  

The ambiguous pairing explorations continue as our secondary players get somewhat deduced thanks to make ups, break ups, and illicit kisses. Xander spazzing over kissing Willow seems very annoying to me now.  Cue the sappy music every frickin’ time, too, as if we don’t get it!  Likewise, Willow gets weird with the make out guilt, and her ugly pink clothes and orange graphic shirts with overalls seem like a geeky regress- especially when we meet her cool vampire doppelganger. Again, it’s this antithesis what if I were bad possibility that allows Willow to come out of her shell more than silly boys. These seeds of witchcraft and gay leanings do nicely in combining the good, bad, positive, and negative characterizations that are to come for Willow much more than the smooches could.  Unfortunately, the overplayed Xander and Willow attractions completely cheapened Oz even more. Hasn’t this character been disused enough? He’s barely a part of the gang, and his werewolf issues only appear sporadically as the plot requires. While we explore all these new difficulties with everyone else, we still know next to nothing about Oz.  He’s in a band, likes Willow, and is a werewolf occasionally. Wow. One wonders why they graduated Seth Green to the opening credits if Oz was going to be so abused this season. 

Angel’s return from the hell dimension is also a little slow and sometimes painful. Outside of his stand out episode “Amends” and a critical point between Faith and Buffy in the finale, I’m not really sure why they went through these repeated motions of the slayer and the vampire making googly eyes at each other.  That part of Buffy’s life seemed over, why reopen old wounds?  Frankly, this is a stagnant relationship that can’t go any further, and it is very nice that Whedon was able to spin off the character into something much more than Buffy’s wannabe boy.  By contrast, the once shallow and one-dimensional Cordelia grows up plenty.  We spend more time with her beyond the weird relationship with Xander and see that the popularity, wealth, and fashion of high school are behind her.  Buffy, Xander, and Willow may learn up and down lessons about themselves in Season 3, but Cordelia is the one who has completely changed and developed into an adult ready to move on.  

I know I’ve been very picky and probably whining and uneven and annoying just like my Season 3 complaints.  Nevertheless, the players both regular and recurring and the guest stars do wonderfully all around.  In addition to his pertinent observation, “Why couldn’t you be dealing drugs like normal people?”, we bid adieu to Armin Shimerman’s Principal Snyder in style. Kristine Sutherland’s Joyce also has some fun and becomes a more equal figure with Giles for Buffy’s slayer welfare. Robin Sachs as Ethan Rayne has always been more entertaining to me then Mayor Wilkins, and future Angel cast member Alexis Denisof’s Wesley is greatly repressed fun compared to how uptight we thought Giles originally was.  Of course, James Marsters’ lone appearance this season as Spike in “Lover’s Walk” is sweet- simply because he isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. And future importants Emma Caulfield (Beverly Hills 90210) as Anya and Danny Strong (Gilmore Girls) as Jonathan make their presence known in memorable Buffyverse fashion.

Again, we may find quibbles with such old television effects in our CGI stylized eyes.  However, the dusting designs in Buffy are more than tolerable; and though the “Graduation Day” finale would look a lot different if made today, the visuals in Season 3 are better than previous years. Boys will still eat up the dual gal slayer action and fight sequences, but fashions again have not stood the decade. Some of the short skirts and skimpy dresses are iffy at best and mostly kind of hoochie. Dingoes Ate My Baby is also still dumb, and most of the music presented has become really nineties dated now.  There’s also a slightly different credit design and remix for Buffy, and sometimes, you just like to watch the opening sequence for all the cool action and sound effects, admit it!    

Budding vampire fans looking for some quality examinations or old school audiences returning to the ups and downs of high school can find what they are looking for in Buffy’s Third Season.  With so many characters coming and going or changing with too many things happen here, perhaps Season 3 is not the place to introduce one to Buffy.  However, returning fans can revisit Senior Year and walk down memory lane with Buffy anytime.  After all, only she can blow off high school in such style, literally.

15 March 2011

Death Race 2

Death Race 2 Is Actually Really Cool
By Kristin Battestella

Okay, there are certain series where I would not recommend one watch the after the fact prequels first: coughstarwarscough.  However, I decided to take in the 2010 Death Race 2 prequel before its 2008 pseudo predecessor Death Race, which itself is a remake of the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000.  While some fans may find faults here or in the original and its recent update, Death Race 2 was actually fun, entertaining, and pretty dang cool.

Carl Lucas (Luke Goss) drives heists for Markus Kane (Sean Bean), but is arrested during one job turned wrong and sent to Terminal Island Prison.  Run for profit and entertainment, these anything goes prisons are controlled by Weyland (Ving Rhames) and his Weyland Corporation.  Luke’s fellow prisoners Lists (Frederick Koehler) and Goldberg (Danny Trejo) are forced to compete in Death Match- a televised fight to the death orchestrated by Weyland’s ruthless and profit minded host September Jones (Lauren Cohan).  When ratings begin to fail on Death Match, Jones ups the deadly action and drama with Death Race, where prisoners compete in remodeled vehicles with the likes of machine guns and napalm. Survive five races of auto carnage and you win your freedom. Luke reluctantly competes in the race- but Kane fears he will testify against his criminal enterprises and orders a $1 million hit on Luke, making the Death Race even more, uh, deadly for Luke and his navigator, female prisoner Katrina (Tanit Phoenix).  

Death Race 2 [Blu-ray]Despite being just an action racing direct to video sequel at face value, director Roel Reine (The Marine 2, Black Ops) adds some interesting concepts and onscreen stylings to put Death Race 2 a cut above the rest.  Corporate penitentiaries run for profit with built in ways for keeping down their population- i.e. let them kill each other.  Of course, it is a preposterous notion; but one might not expect to find some intelligence and debate here about whether death and entertainment incarceration is any better than traditional attempts at protecting society and rehabilitating criminals.  There are also intriguing possibilities with freedom for the victor- you could end up releasing some seriously wicked people!  However, this offer of renewed opportunities and hope could be just the salvation for which these imprisoned men are looking.  Death Race 2 kind of reminds me of The Quick and the Dead actually.  Is this not a 21st century take on Wild West themes of revenge and redemption and gunfights with style? It’s really neat the way we see the Death Match television design onscreen- even if the announcer does sound like they borrowed him from Ultimate Fighting or something.  Yes, writer Tony Giglio (Chaos) and franchise producer Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) know who their audience most likely is- that ever precious 18 to 34 male demographic.  Nevertheless, it’s again pleasantly surprising to have this film within a film attention to detail not often seen in the usually made on the cheap action genre.  Death Race 2 does indeed have all the action and sex and treats today’s hip shows need, plus some fun and wit in the dialogue, too.  We can’t take all this prison stock car racing super seriously! Although this is certainly better than the Episode 1 pod race, I’ll tell you that.  And hey, isn’t the Weyland Corporation causing all the trouble in Aliens? 

I didn’t think that much of Luke Goss in One Night with the King, but he seems cool enough for Death Race 2.  Is he as worthy as his predecessor Jason Statham in the minds of B kick ass action aficionados? Perhaps not yet, but he’s getting there.  Goss’ accent is tolerable- not necessarily American but unable to place elsewhere- certainly not like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie where his French ways must always figure into the plot.  Again, unlike One Night with the King and the weird straggly hair, I personally think Goss looks much better with a shaved head; was his casting and style meant to mirror Statham? It need not. Carl Lucas is quite likeable, with a firm sense of honor and loyalty despite his criminal of all trades profession. This future Frankenstein is a completely different character that comes into his own here and needs no comparison.  Likewise, Danny Trejo’s (Desperado, Predators) Goldberg is a lot of fun as the seemingly big and scary but lovable and sardonic pit manager.  Not a lot of people could get away with lines like, “Mother fucker’s crazy. But cool.”  The cast is very well rounded and perfectly international, too- even if some are only given room to serve in the usual stereotypical roles.  Frederick Koehler (Death Race, Oz) as the annoyingly innocent Lists is just as cool as Deobia Oparei’s (Doom, Dredd) ruthless Big Bill.  Also returning from Death Race, Robin Shou as 14K sticks to a fine code of honor- in some ways, the folks in prison aren’t half as wicked as the people on the outside!

Speaking of juicy and corrupt, Lauren Cohan (The Vampire Diaries) is love to hate worthy as September Jones. Yeah, she’s kind of bad, but it’s the so bad its good type. How wicked is it when she looks at market shares while sending men to fight to the death for entertainment? Of course, it’s all bitchy and shallow and meant to be sexy, even nasty in all the good ways; but it’s nice to see some leading lady ruthlessness. Although, if she’s going to show some balls, September also has to wear some ridiculously boobs out slutty corporate suits, naturally.  Fortunately, there’s also some cheesecake round card girls to be had, too. Tanit Phoenix (Lost Boys: The Thirst) has plenty of physical action presence, but either her dialogue is really bad or she can’t deliver her lines very well.  We get quality talk about healthy sex, for sure, but naturally, there’s also a lot of rape potential in these prisons where my goodness the chicks wear so little! Hot prison sex is only good when it’s consensual- and my goodness isn’t anyone concerned about diseases in this place? At least the navigator girls are included in the racecars for equal opportunity deaths!

Now then, in addition to all the other unexpected goods of Death Race 2, any film listed as “with Ving Rhames and Sean Bean” is a-okay in my book, oh yes.  It should be understood that Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, GoldenEye) can and should open any and all films by having breakfast with an unnamed topless girl fresh out of the pool. I’m just saying.  Even the talk of soccer being the greatest sport in the world earns a free pass thanks to that introduction!  Bean also has the sacrilegious privilege of destroying a flat screen television- but who knew such destruction could be so cool? Oh, and his relatively quiet woman can also be found later in an equal state of undress on top of the kitchen counter.  Bean’s got a full service- if a little unsanitary- household, eh? Thankfully, Kane isn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the violence while still delivering some aptly badass dialogue.  Bean is in the film for a respectable amount of time-unlike some of his recent stateside appearances coughpercyjacksoncough- but there should have been more. Kane’s cruel and deceptive and we know he will get what he wants. Hot diggity dog. Likewise, Rhames’ (Pulp Fiction) pimpin’ corporate suits and business attitude is sweet.  We know he can put Miss Jones in place when needed, damn straight.  He sees the bigger and much more interesting possibilities of playing with prisoners’ lives rather than their deaths and has the know how to do it.

While I like cars, I don’t know anything about how authentic all the weapons and armored car designs are here.  However, they look damn sweet and most of the super duper car information, ammunition, and modifications are displayed in the Death Race onscreen graphics.  Sometimes, it’s tough to tell who is who in the race, but the graphics are used to name everyone and amusingly mark off the fatalities accordingly. The Terminal Island design is also high tech future apocalyptic and yet crappy destruction with dangerous rusty metals at the same time.  The dark and dirty street design juxtaposes nicely with Bean’s sunshiny sweet pad, too.  The filming and race choreography is fast paced, but the camerawork is not so herky jerky in design that nothing can be seen.  The use of slow motion is actually nice as well- being reserved for the stillness, somber, and sweet or deadly mistakes. It’s not the badass slow-mo of 300 with pimpin’ music narrating, but rather time is allowed for the viewer to breathe and pay attention to more than just the cool car chases and violence.  Dare I say it; Death Race 2 seems longer and deeper than it probably really is. Who knew all this could be done in a ninety minute direct to video action prequel?

It might be possible to make a big screen serious action science fiction drama with this material- at least it used to be done with the great Escape from New York types.  Then again, perhaps the eighties and early nineties superior action heyday is truly past? For as low end as Death Race 2 is supposed to be, it isn’t half-bad.  With some of the poor quality theatrical releases in recent years, it’s easy to say this film is better than the likes of The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift or some of those Nicholas Cage movies that go to the cinemas just to go bust. Perhaps Death Race 2 could have been released in theaters; but it probably would have gone unnoticed anyway and not made as much money as the DVD designs can.  Looking smashingly, the unrated blu-ray edition contains both rated and unrated versions. Although, I think it is somewhat strange for a direct to video release to have two versions plus deleted scenes, but it’s nice it’s all there. Super intrigued fans can enjoy the featurettes detailing all the stunts and cars glory, too.  I am, however, becoming more and more annoyed by all the BD live ‘fresh preview from the internet’ things that hog up the blu-ray rental discs.  Actually, I’ve yet to rent or own a blu-ray in which I’ve been interested in accessing all the instant interactive magic.  When you only want the movie, the blu-ray interface sometimes seems more trouble than its worth.  Subtitles are of course also necessary here for the low dialogue, and handy volume control is a must as the damn menus and action are so effing loud. I think I woke the neighborhood!

In addition to the language and female treats, some unsightly male prison nudity frames keep this one out of the youth viewing column.  Some of it is hot- like when the pretty men and women end up in the showers- but some of the other flabby prisoners on display, eh, not so much.  Some of Death Race 2’s also a little flawed in its overall need to be cool WWE badass design.  There are audiences that will eat all that up, but there are also viewers who can find more substance here. Fans of the cast, tantalizing T-n-A, sweet action, cool cars, and some surprising credibility should give Death Race 2 a chance.  It won’t win any Oscars, sure, and I might or might not follow up with Death Race.  But I can certainly think of far worse ways to spend ninety movie minutes!  Cool.