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A. Whitehead "Werthead" (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom)

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Fargo - Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Fargo - Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Billy Bob Thornton
Price: £16.72

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In short: brilliant, 2 April 2015
2006. Chameleonic assassin Lorne Malvo passes through the town of Bemidji, Minnesota. A chance encounter with a put-upon, stressed-out salesman named Lester Nygaard unleashes a chain of chaotic events, culminating in multiple murders. The local police force is eager to sweep the chaos under the rug, but Deputy Molly Solverson realises that there is more going on than first appears. When a Duluth police officer, Gus Grimly, has his own close run-in with Malvo, the two officers join forces to bring the assassin to justice.

At first glance, a TV series based on the 1996 movie Fargo seems like a crazy idea. The film, directed by the Coen Brothers, is idiosyncratic, unique and offbeat. Turning it into a weekly TV series sounds like a lunatic idea, which is why the Coen Brothers initially refused to have anything to do with it. After seeing the first episode, they changed their mind and signed on as producers. It’s easy to see why. The first season of Fargo, the TV series, may be the most genius single season of television produced this decade.

The connections between the TV series and the movie are slim. The TV series uses some ideas and tropes from the film and echoes a few of its ideas, but in terms of actual connective tissue the only element used is a briefcase of money left in the snow in the film, which a character stumbles over in the TV show. If you’ve never seen the film it’s not important whatsoever. It’s also a relief to learn that Fargo, like True Detective, is an anthology series. Each season will take place in a different time period with a different cast (Season 2 will take place in 1979 in South Dakota, for example). The series is set in the same “universe”, so if you watch the whole thing you’ll notice all the little connecting details, but broadly speaking it’s not necessary. You can enjoy this as a single, ten-episode mini-series with no major dangling plot threads.

One of the benefits of these anthology series is that they represent a short-term commitment for major film actors who might balk at a longer stint on a TV show. The result is that Fargo’s cast is peppered with famous faces from film and TV: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne and Martin Freeman as Lester are the main draws and most famous faces, but Colin Hanks also appears in the role of Gus and Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk slotted in his appearance as semi-incompetent police chief Oswalt before filming Better Call Saul. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill Hickock from Deadwood and too many film appearances from the 1970s onwards to count) has a small but crucial role as Lou Solverson (a younger Lou will be a key character in the second season). The show also has time to turn up trumps with a new talent: Allison Tolman gets her big break as Molly and is absolutely brilliant, holding her own against the other actors and turning in a barnstorming mixture of resolve, frustration and not wanting to rock the boat but really going for it if she believes it’s the right thing.

Thornton gets one of the best roles of his career with Lorne, an assassin who likes to keep his targets off-balance with existential and literal-minded musings, an absolute absence of any kind of fear and a thousand-yard stare that has cops backing away from him at traffic stops. At different times he has to pose as other people, or go undercover for months to win over a target’s trust, and Thornton’s ability to spin his performance on a dime is astonishing. Freeman is also exceptional; inverting his usual performance as quiet nice guys to play a hard-pressed working man who initially wins the viewer’s sympathy, but by the end of the season has turned into a loathsome, murderous little weasel. Lester’s descent feels like watching all of Breaking Bad compressed into ten episodes, but never feels rushed or implausible.

What makes the show work is the way it channels the oddness of the Coen Brothers without feeling like a parody of it. Dialogue is written in the same slightly off-kilter way and there’s the same, understated and intriguing tone to the direction, occasionally punctuated by memorable set-pieces: Lorne’s one-man assault on a mafia-filled business is darkly hilarious, amusingly cost-conscious (they can’t afford the full shoot-out so we only hear it as the camera pans up the outside of a building, interrupted only by brief views of the carnage through windows) and extremely audacious. Not many directors or writers could take on the Coen Brothers and match them, especially over ten hours, but the team here manage it. It’s something that continues throughout the series, which is also not exactly reluctant to set up characters for episodes and hours on end and then kill them in off-handed, arbitrary ways that even Joss Whedon might balk at. This, coupled with the show’s short run time, adds a real sense of danger to proceedings which maintains the tension.

There are a few minor flaws. Some story points turn on the fact that the local police force and its new chief (counting the days to retirement) really don’t want to investigate the murders in too much detail, jumping on the most convenient story available to declare it closed. Whilst this closed-minded bureaucratic viewpoint is believable, it does get a little frustrating that supposed servants of the law seem to be extremely uninterested in finding out the truth if it is inconvenient to them. At the same time, it makes us empathise strongly with Molly as she also becomes incredulous at their intransigence, so it works on that level.

The first season of Fargo (*****) is, quite simply, brilliant. The writing is top-notch, the performances are flawless and the series can turn from being laugh-out-loud hilarious to gut-wrenchingly terrifying in the space of seconds. It’s offbeat, different and ambitious.

Wasteland 2 (PC DVD)
Wasteland 2 (PC DVD)
Offered by GAMEFORCE
Price: £11.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Occasionally irritating, but mostly excellent, 27 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Wasteland 2 (PC DVD) (DVD-ROM)
AD 2102. The world is still basking in the afterglow of a devastating nuclear war. In Arizona, a law-enforcing militia known as the Desert Rangers is trying to bring justice and order to a land plagued by bandits, warlords and crazed cyborgs. When Desert Rangers start turning up dead, it becomes clear that someone or something has it in for the Rangers, and their attempt to find out who is responsible will take them to every corner of Arizona, and far beyond.

Wasteland 2 has an interesting history. The original Wasteland was a hugely successful, genre-defining roleplaying game when it was released by Electronic Arts in 1988, featuring a rich story and solid gameplay for the time. Brian Fargo and his team at Interplay later left EA to go solo. In 1996 they tried to get the rights to make an official sequel but EA turned them down. So they had to make a spiritual successor, a similar post-apocalyptic game with a nicely non-copyright-infringing, alternate-history twist to set it apart. The result was a game called Fallout. You may have heard of it, and its increasingly massive, mega-selling sequels.

Years later, after Interplay went down in flames and the Fallout franchise rights were purchased by Bethesda, Fargo and some of his team-mates regrouped as inXile Entertainment, purchased the Wasteland IP rights from a now-more-relaxed EA and raised over $3 million from crowdfunding. The game was finally released in September 2014. To say it represented a labour of love for its creators, who had spent a quarter of a century trying to get it made, is an understatement.

So much for the history, what about the game? Wasteland 2 is a top-down roleplaying title. You create a party of four characters from scratch who can then be joined by up to three additional companions as the game proceeds. You control the development of both the created and original characters, determining where skill points are assigned and what equipment they use. The game demands a fairly broad-based approach and it pays to split skills between party members, so making one a computer specialist, another a master lockpicker, another a medic etc is pretty much essential. All characters need to pour points into their fighting skills as well, with the game providing a nice variety of ranged (rifles, pistols, miniguns, laser weapons, sniper rifles, shotguns etc) and melee weapons. There are also non-violent skills, most notably the conversation skills which can dramatically change how conversations, quests and entire storylines unfold. Roleplayers will enjoy seeing how much combat in the game can be avoided by picking the right dialogue options and using either logic, determination or appeals to mercy as befitting the other character's nature.

Wasteland 2 is reasonably attractive graphically, although the first half of the game is very, very brown. You spend so much time zoomed-out it's not really a problem (the - fortunately very brief and rare - in-game cut scenes are a bad idea), and the game's excellent graphic design shines through at every point. The game employs the old Infinity Engine technique of having some well-designed maps and areas that aren't actually that huge, but cleverly-designed paths and well-placed enemies can make crossing them a lengthy challenge. There's also an absolute ton of them. Wasteland 2 is a massive game, taking most players north of 50 hours to complete (I did in 54, and that included rushing some late-game areas and not exploring every nook and cranny as it was no longer necessary) and does a good job of maintaining interest over that time. I certainly never found myself glancing at the time and wishing the game was over like I did through most of the second half of Dragon Age: Origins, for example.

The writing is pretty good, although inconsistent. Chris Avellone was parachuted in from Obsidian to help on several sections and his Planescape: Torment co-writer Colin McComb played a large role, resulting in a twisting and turning narrative which never shies away from asking hard questions and leaving players feeling that all choices are bad ones. However, some other sections of the game are more pedestrian and more easily resolved through combat. The writing is good but certainly not a major selling-point of the game (as it is for Pillars of Eternity, for example). Combat is more enjoyable, being turn-based and emphasising positioning and cover. XCOM fans will particularly enjoy the fights. As better weapons are secured and combat skills are levelled up, battles become more elaborate and enjoyable. However, towards the end of the game your party will start outstripping the enemies arrayed against it and tactics will become less important as you shrug off massive volleys of enemy fire like gnats.

Although your party does eventually become unstoppable walking tanks, it takes a while to get there. Unlike most RPGs, the game is pretty stingy with ammo and money. Looting items provides only a small return, while the cost of everything is absolutely astronomical. Late in the game I still found kitting my side out with enough bullets to get through a few fights without running dry to be ruinously expensive. It doesn't help that the game is also stingy with its vendors and their bank balances, sometimes necessitating large trips across the map stopping off at every merchant you know to stock up.

The other key weakness is the overly exacting use of skills. Having Safecracking and Lockpicking as separate skills felt like one step too far into pedantry, as was the splitting of Medic and Surgeon. It does force some hard choices in levelling your characters, which is good, but the gap between tough choices and unnecessary busywork is very small and the game does step over it several times.

Still, if Wasteland 2 repeats some of the mistakes of old-school RPGs, it also embraces some of the best bits. There are lengthy, branching storylines with multiple outcomes. Quests with three or four different outcomes which have associated subquests with their own branching endings. Entire storylines can be missed if you don't open the right door. Decisions made in the opening minutes of the game have huge consequences in the endgame. One wrong judgement during a particularly tense, dramatic confrontation with a bunch of warrior-priests can determine if a nearby town is enslaved, left alone or destroyed. Wasteland 2 gives every one of your decisions weight and consequence, and makes you care about those consequences.

Wasteland 2 (****) is occasionally tough, sometimes obtuse and perhaps overuses the brown texture colour a tad too much. It's also brilliantly designed, well-characterised and knows how to gut-punch the player when they're least expecting it. Amongst the recent surge of old-school RPGs it may be the ugliest (although this is very relative) but it's definitely one of the most rewarding. Wasteland 2 is available now on PC from Steam and GoG, with PS4 and X-Box One versions to follow later this year.

Memory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
Memory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.50

4.0 out of 5 stars A little slow, but well-written, 9 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A horrendous error of judgement sees Miles Vorkosigan summoned back to Barrayar to face disciplinary measures from his superior, head of Imperial Security Simon Illyan. As Miles contemplates a future outside of the military, he becomes aware of a growing crisis in ImpSec. Things are going wrong and the cause may be to horrible to contemplate...

Memory is, chronologically, the tenth out of fourteen books in The Vorkosigan Saga and marks an important turning point in the series. For the previous eight volumes Miles Vorkosigan as been masquerading as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, carrying out missions for the Barrayan military with total deniability. In Memory that abruptly comes to an end after Miles - suffering the after-effects of his death, cryo-freeze and revival in Mirror Dance - inadvertently slices the legs off a fellow agent he is supposed to be rescuing and then covers it up. The result is the most game-changing novel in the series. Such long-running series tend to do well out of stasis, maintaining the status quo and bringing readers back each time to enjoy the same cast of characters and the same format. Whisking that away can be creatively liberating for the author, but dangerous if the change does not go down well with fans.

In this case the change is well-judged, although it takes a while to execute. At a bit less than 500 pages Memory joins Mirror Dance as one of the longest novels in the series, but it's also a lot less active a book than its forebear. Mirror Dance had multiple POV characters, clandestine infiltrations, full-scale combat missions and a huge amount of character development packed into its pages. Memory, fitting its title, is more relaxed and reflective a novel. It gives Miles a chance to dwell on everything that's happened to him and what he is going to do with his life now his default position has been snatched away.

This reflective mode works well for a while, but it starts to bog down the book. As amusing as seeing Miles tackling getting a pet cat, hiring a new cook or going fishing is, it goes on for a bit too long. When the mystery kicks in and Miles is granted extraordinary powers by the Emperor to sort things out, it's a relief and soon the mystery is unfolding nicely. However, the longueurs at the start of the book lead to the investigation and resolution taking place quite rapidly and a little too neatly. There also isn't much personal jeopardy for Miles. This may be the point, as the book is more about Miles's growth and maturing as a character, but there is the feeling that this story could have been told a little more effectively as a novella. That said, it does bring about some dramatic changes in the set-up of the series and is among the best-written books in the series.

Memory (****) opens slow but finishes strong and succeeds in its task of resetting the series and giving Miles a new job to do.

Game of Thrones - Season 4 [Blu-ray] [2015] [Region Free]
Game of Thrones - Season 4 [Blu-ray] [2015] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Peter Dinklage
Price: £30.00

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but the strongest season to date, 7 Mar. 2015
In the Seven Kingdoms, the War of the Five Kings is all but over. King Joffrey is poised to marry Lady Margaery Tyrell, placing the bulk of the military power of the continent under his command. Stannis Baratheon persists in his claim to the throne, but his lack of men, ship and gold forces his Hand, Ser Davos Seaworth, to seek allies in unusual places. Meanwhile, the forces of Mance Rayder advance on the critically undermanned Wall, whilst far to the east Daenerys Targaryen seizes the slaver city of Meereen, only to find that holding it will be more difficult than she thought.

The fourth season of Game of Thrones is the most ambitious to date. In terms of structure and plot it draws upon no less than three of George R.R. Martin's novels (A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons), features a battle sequence that dwarfs even the Blackwater from Season 2 and features much more extensive use of CGI for creature effects, establishing shots and even virtual sets.

In overall terms, it may be the strongest season to date. Previous seasons built slowly to massive 'Episode Nine' moments with an extended coda afterwards, but Season 4 features some massive moments and confrontations throughout its run. The Battle for the Wall in episode nine is indeed amazing and may be the best episode of the season, but there are other moments through the season which come close to rivalling it (the "Purple Wedding", Tyrion's trial and resulting duel and multiple moments in the finale). It's certainly a more compelling season than the preceding two, with more substantial moments of plot and character development in early episodes rather than just a lot of slow-building set-up.

Performances are, as usual, superb. The newcomer of note this season is Pedro Pascal as Prince Oberyn Martell, who brings all the deadly grace, measured debauchery, confident swagger and resolute vengeance of the book character to the screen. Other newcomers are less impressive, although this is more down to the writing than performances: the decision to reduce Mace Tyrell to a bumbling oaf only worth comic relief as Tywin ignores him is implausible given how badly reliant Tywin is on Mace's army and support. Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, Conleth Hill and Rory McCann continue to provide superlative performances, and as usual Aidan Gillen's acting is undermined by his ludicrous Batman voice. Sophie Turner steps things up in the last few episodes as Sansa gains some agency and power of her own, but, disappointingly, it feels like Maisie Williams is treading water a little as Arya. She has a few good moments (such as her outrage as the Hound mistreats a family who has taken them in) but she often makes inertness Arya's response to threatening situations.

The stand-out performance of the season, in my book, must go to Gwendoline Christie as Brienne. A little stiff and awkward in the second season (where it fitted the character superbly) and more confident in the third, Christie really comes into her own this year with a series of humourous exchanges with Pod, some human ones with Jaime and a brutal confrontation with the Hound in the finale. These all serve to complicate her character and the actress more than meets the challenge. In a much more limited role, it's also good to see Kristofer Hivju nailing Tormund more as the character from the books (part man, part force of nature), particularly in his final discussions with Jon Snow (Kit Harington being effectively surly and northern, as usual).

So the series is well-paced, with some great storytelling moments and some wise decisions on when to follow the books religiously and when to move away and do their own thing. There are a few missteps when it comes to translating iconic scenes from the books, with them generally being made less powerful and resonant than what was in print. This may be down to a limitation of the medium (Tyrion thinks about Tysha fairly regularly in the books, whilst in the TV show it's unlikely viewers will remember a minor backstory point made three years earlier) but it also feels like sometimes there are changes for change's sake, which hurts the TV show by reducing the full potential impact of scenes.

Another problem in Season 4 is that the ugly spectre of sexual violence rears its head more noticeably than ever before. In the novels, there are certainly unpleasant moments of sexual assault or threatened violence against both men and women, but the TV show takes this to new extremes in the fourth season with an inexplicable (from plot and character terms) sexual assault in the third episode and the disturbing use of 'rape-as-wallpaper' in the fourth. Whilst this is a harsh and ugly world and the urge not to sugar-coat it must be strong, the writers go way overboard in these incidents and seem to be using the very real and distressingly common crimes of sexual violence for the purposes of drumming up controversy and media coverage. The presentation of one of the villains responsible for these scenes, Karl, as a corny villain who drinks blood from the skulls of his enemies (a character and scene not in the books) doesn't really help with the idea that these scenes are meant to be realistic in any way, shape or form. It also doesn't help that the show does sugar-coat the antics of other, more fan-favourite characters so as not to offend the audience. The events of A Storm of Swords pretty much destroy Tyrion as a character, reducing him to a vile-spirited murderer in the finale as he realises how his attempts to be (in his own way) honourable and fair have backfired on him. The TV show doesn't hold much truck with this, making Tyrion a killer only in self-defence and allowing him to retain the veneer of heroism rather than complicating and darkening the character as Martin does in the novels. It's a lazy and obvious choice for a show (and series of books) that shines the brightest when not doing the lazy and obvious.

Still, whilst some elements are hard to swallow or excuse (and nor should we), the fourth season of Game of Thrones is, when it is on its game, still highly watchable, entertaining and the most epic ongoing TV series ever made. The problem is that the series isn't hitting those best moments with the frequency that it really could with some cleverer and more subtle writing, and sometimes lets itself down by chasing controversy which it really does not need to do.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 11, 2015 3:34 AM GMT

Breaking Bad - The Final Season* [Blu-ray]
Breaking Bad - The Final Season* [Blu-ray]
Offered by The Happy Zombie
Price: £12.06

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthy ending to a great series, 7 Mar. 2015
Endgame. Walter White's identity as the crystal meth-cooking mastermind Heisenberg has been compromised, the law is closing in and his life is crashing down around him. White's only hope is an alliance of convenience with a criminal gang far more dangerous and ruthless than he is. But this move proves to be a mistake, leading to tragedy.

Breaking Bad's first fourth (and a half) seasons seemed to be based on one central pillar: Walter White's attempts to balance his 'public' life with his secret criminal identity. As the show approaches its finale that pillar is pulled away, leaving the show free and able to choose how it ends on its own terms. Many recent major serialised dramas - from Lost to Battlestar Galactica - have fudged their endings or (like Deadwood) been cancelled before getting there. Among its peers, only The Wire had really achieved the feat of having a satisfying conclusion that was true to everything that came before.

Breaking Bad shoots and scores. This final run of episodes is a triumph. Emotionally powerful, harshly-written and unflinching in following through the promise of earlier episodes. To borrow from another serialised drama, "If you though this was going to have a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." And Bad delivers on that. As the clock counts down, Walter's plans for a happy ending become increasingly as crazy and outlandish as the theories of some fans anxious to see him somehow get away with everything and achieve what he'd set out to do, making enough money for his family to survive after he's gone.

There are few weak spots in this final run of episodes. Jesse gets a little lost in the mix in the first few episodes and the re-introduction of Elliott and Gretchen after an absence of four seasons is a little abrupt, but it does neatly bookend the series and help provide closure. Also, the bad guys now being white supremacist drug dealers feels a little cliched. The few times the show has faltered in following through on its premise is because it has always had a bad guy far worse than Walter hanging around to excuse his excesses (in the eyes of some viewers), and these new villains have you longing for the days of Gus Fring and his considerably better-written and motivated machinations.

Still, this is a minor issue. The central focus is on White as everything comes crashing down around him. Bryan Cranston gives a monumentally awesome performance, matched by Anna Gunn (as Skyler), Dean Norris (as Hank) and Aaron Paul (as Jesse). A huge amount of praise must go to Dean Norris, who has played his character's evolution from gun-toting lawman hick to a PTSD-suffering investigative genius over the course of the series with total conviction.

Vince Gilligan's writing team also have to be praised for coming up with an ending that is true to the series as a whole and delivering on it. The episode Ozymandias may be one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of any TV series ever made, astonishing in its dramatic power and focus. The actual ending that follows sacrifices any ambiguity for neatness and at least one unbelievable moment of cartoon ultraviolence, but the dramatic and emotional stakes are high and the show does enough to earn its ending. It is not a happy ending but it is an ending that stays true to the show and its themes, and that's rare enough in TV these days.

The final season of Breaking Bad (*****) is an unmissable triumph and a worthy conclusion to a remarkable drama series.

Star Trek:  The Next Generation -  Season 7 (Remastered) [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 7 (Remastered) [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Patrick Stewart
Price: £45.68

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A poor run of episodes, but it bounces back strong for the finale, 6 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The seventh and final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation aired under very different circumstances to when the show began in 1987. Back then it was a tremendous risk by Paramount, an attempt to bring the franchise back to TV and make lightning strike twice. Despite a rocky opening season, the show eventually succeeded. By 1994 there was already one spin-off TV show on screen (Deep Space Nine), with another (Voyager) on the way. Plans were also underway for the first TNG-focused featured film, Star Trek: Generations.

In retrospect it was probably a mistake to have done all of this, plus writing and filming the last twenty-six episodes of TNG, at the same time. The writers, producers and actors were all over-worked and you can see this throughout the season. Season 7 of TNG is the show running on fumes, especially disappointing after the generally excellent sixth season.

The season opens with the disappointing Descent, Part II. Aside from putting Dr. Crusher in command of the Enterprise and defeating a powerful Borg ship, the episode is a huge disappointment, wasting both the Borg and Lore and featuring a poor resolution. Episodes like Liaisons, Interface, Dark Page and Phantasms seem to forget that ST:TNG is a science fiction show and instead spend a lot of time messing around with dreams and illusions. Other episodes like Attached and Inheritance spend time changing character dynamics and relationships when it's simply far too late in the day to resonate strongly. In the midst of the disappointing and mediocre episodes there are also some outright stinkers, like the goofy Genesis and the quite spectacularly horrendous Sub Rosa.

Fortunately, when the show actually remembers it's a science fiction series with an action adventure quotient, things improve markedly. Parallels, which features Worf shifting between multiple realities, is hugely enjoyable. The Pegasus, featuring a pre-Lost Terry O'Quinn as a dubious Starfleet admiral, is a very fine piece of work which makes Starfleet a more morally dubious organisation than previously thought (something Deep Space Nine would later run with). Journey's End and Preemptive Strike do good jobs of both setting up Voyager (although it would later squander the promise shown here) and rounding off the story arcs of recurring characters Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren in expectation-defying ways. Fortunately, the actual series finale itself, All Good Things..., triumphantly pays homage to the seven years of the show and manages the tricky balancing act of engaging in both nostalgia and sentimentality without becoming too over-mawkish. The episode is rammed full of plot holes you could steer the three-nacelled "Super Enterprise D" through, but it's so well done and fun that you don't care. There's also the possible highlight of the season, Lower Decks, which breaks new ground by showing us our familiar heroes from the POV of their subordinates, who aren't always quite so enamoured of them.

The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (***½) finds the show struggling to break new ground and is in danger of becoming moribund when a late burst of quality turns things around and (just about) gives the series a good send-off.

Breaking Bad - Season 5* [DVD + UV Copy]
Breaking Bad - Season 5* [DVD + UV Copy]
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £12.00

4.0 out of 5 stars The weakest run of episodes in the series, but still excellent, 6 Mar. 2015
Having removed the problems caused by Gus Fring and his criminal empire, Walter White is now an independent operator. Aided by the increasingly guilt-riven Jesse, Walter cooks extravagant amounts of meth and distributes it with the reluctant help of his ex-wife. However, the DEA is continuing its investigation into "Heisenberg" and Walter becomes increasingly desperate - and lethal - in covering his tracks.

The final season of Breaking Bad was split in half to give the writers and actors more time to prepare the grand finale of the story. When you're making what a lot of people are calling the greatest TV show ever made, taking some extra time to give it a good send-off is a good idea. However, it does leave the penultimate chunk of the series in a little bit of limbo, with some wheel-spinning to do before the explosive ending can arrive.

The result is probably the weakest run of episodes in the Breaking Bad canon, although this is still very relative. Certainly the show remains almost as well-acted and well-written as ever, with a few more clumsy moments than normal. An odd moment with Walter going Don Corleone and pompously declaring that he forgives his wife for a perceived betrayal feels like self-parody, and early episodes with Mike and Jesse declaring they are out of the meth business, then back in, and then out again feel a little redundant. New character Lydia is also under-utilised, which is a shame as they cast the superb Laura Fraser in the role and gave her some good moments but then nothing more to do.

On the flipside, the show gives us one of its most memorable moments in the train heist episode. Although completely implausible, it is rollicking good fun and capped off by a disturbing, powerful ending that sets the tone for the end of the season (and the whole show). Dean Norris does a great job as Hank finally seems to be easing off from his pursuit of Heisenberg, right up until a masterfully-executed plot revelation leaves the half-season on one hell of a cliffhanger.

The first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad (****½) is the show at its most stretched-out, but it mostly avoids problems by coming back strong after every weaker moment with a powerfully-written scene or piece of dialogue. Events build to a memorable finale which sets things up for the conclusion.

Assail: A Novel of the Malazan Empire
Assail: A Novel of the Malazan Empire
by Ian C Esslemont
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid and enjoyable, but not the earth-shattering conclusion it was billed as, 3 Mar. 2015
South of Genabackis and east of Korel and Stratem lies the mysterious continent of Assail. It is known for its inaccessibility and hostility, populated by tribes and mage-ruled kingdoms who slay outsiders on sight. Clans of T'lan Imass and companies of the Crimson Guard have disappeared on missions there. It has a reputation for being so unrelentingly hostile that even the formidable Malazan Empire has never tried to conquer it.

That has now changed. Across the world, massive ice floes are melting and new sea routes are opening up. Rumours of rivers of gold being found in the Salt Mountains of north Assail are spreading, luring thousands of adventurers, treasure-seekers and merchants to the continent. Converging on the land are the leaders of the Crimson Guard, the Summoner of the Imass known as Silverfox, ex-Malazan mercenaries and foolhardy treasure seekers from distant Lether. In the heights of the mountains they will find their treasure...and something far more dangerous.

Assail is the sixth and concluding book in the Novels of the Malazan Empire sequence by Ian Esslemont. Set on the world he co-created with Steven Erikson, Esslemont's latest book wraps up story and character arcs he set in motion with Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard (written in the 1980s but only published a decade ago), as well as drawing on elements established by Erikson in his own ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence. It's not the best place for newcomers to start, although the primary storyline of the book is contained within this one novel.

Esslemont has a tough job to do here. The continent of Assail is first mentioned in Erikson's Memories of Ice and is reported to be a place of ceaseless hostility where entire T'lan Imass armies are ground to dust in endless battle against remorseless, tyrannical foes. Repeated mentions in other novels only added to its mystique, with even gods and Ascendants urging avoidance of the continent at all costs. As it turns out the reality doesn't quite match up: there are extremely powerful, lethal sorcerers on the continent but they are indolent and not quite up to speed with the magical powers commanded by outsiders. There are fanatically xenophobic tribes who immediately attack outsiders on sight (or after a brief rest-break if they are sufficiently skilled) but who could probably be taken out by a determined-enough Malazan army. Amusingly, Assail not being as quite as lethal as previously hinted feeds into the narrative, with the fact that you can set foot on Assail without dying leading to overconfidence on the part of the invaders. There's also the late revelation that what lurks in the mountains is so potentially lethal to the entire planet that there's certainly a good enough reason to avoid the place.

In terms of longer-running story arcs, Esslemont does a good job here of wrapping up the storyline of Kyle and the Crimson Guard (even if their eventual destiny remains unclear), which has been a consistent thread throughout these books. However, other plot threads are left less clearly resolved. The Malazans now have a diplomatic toehold on Assail and there is still work to be done there, whilst the biggest unresolved plot element is the T'lan Imass. The Imass/Silverfox/Kilava storyline which Erikson kicked off fifteen years ago is still left unfinished at the end of Assail. Hopefully the Imass will return in Erikson's Toblakai Trilogy, otherwise their fate is both underwhelming and unsatisfying.

In other areas the book is a mixed bag. There is a lot of travelogue in this novel, with multiple characters crossing Assail from different directions to get to the Salt Range. However, several groups brave the Sea of Dread (noted for its somnambulist and lethal effects) and, as effective as Esslemont's descriptions of this dangerous route are, it does get a little repetitive. Fortunately, the characters are, for the most part, an interesting bunch. One character in particular, Jethiss, risks cliche by being an amnesiac Tiste Andii who is clearly an already-established character from earlier in the series. When he turns out not to be the character I thought he was going to be, there was a major sigh of relief. Erikson and Esslemont are both guilty of nullifying and cheapening previously powerful death scenes by resurrecting the slain character too easily and they dodged a bullet here by making sure the most iconic character in the series stayed in the ground.

The book ends in a massive convergence, as is traditional, which does two things. First, it establishes a reason for why the whole world has gone to hell in the last few years and how this can be resolved. This does explain what has been a weakness of the series, namely how with so many mages, races and elemental forces rolling around with continent-devastating abilities that the whole planet hasn't been blown up yet. This does suggest that the world will be a calmer place going forwards, at least until Karsa Orlong (not invited to the deal) decides to destroy everything a few years down the line. Secondly, the convergence explains the backstory behind the Crimson Guard's Vow and how they are so amazingly badass. The problem here is that everyone figured this out before Return of the Crimson Guard was done and Esslemont doesn't throw any curveballs into the mix, so this isn't hugely surprising. It also leaves the future direction of the Guard wide open, handy if the authors choose to revisit these characters later on.

Assail (****) is a mostly well-written, enjoyable novel that will satisfy Malazan fans for its resolution of long-running plot threads and its addressing of major backstory mysteries. What it definitely isn't (and it was partially billed as) is the grand mega-finale of the entire combined Erikson/Esslemont series which will out-climax Erikson's Crippled God. With at least three more post-Assail novels from Erikson on the horizon, it never could be this and I'm glad I always took this with a pinch of Salt (Range) as I'd have been more disappointed otherwise. Instead, we have a reasonably good book in the series, although not Esslemont's best. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The 100 - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014] [Region Free]
The 100 - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Eliza Taylor
Price: £17.69

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Starts out corny, gets a lot better very quickly, 26 Feb. 2015
AD 2149. Ninety-seven years after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, more than two and a half thousand people live in refuge on an orbiting space station, the Ark. With life support beginning to fail, the ruling council of the Ark decides to see if Earth is survivable by sending down a hundred criminals. As adult criminals are executed to save food and air, this means sending down young delinquents.

As the hundred exiles fight to survive on Earth - and later against the other survivors they discover living in the woods - the inhabitants of the Ark also fall into an internal power struggle as it becomes clear that the station cannot support them for much longer, and not everyone can survive to make it to the ground.

The 100 is a post-apocalyptic drama that seems to take great delight in its inspirations: the show comes across as the result of a collision between Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Hunger Games and Fallout. The show adroitly fuses its inspirations in fun and original ways and ends up being a lot more entertaining than it has any right being, but it does take a little while to get there.

The show is the product of American network The CW, famed its glossy productions featuring preposterously photogenic young actors engaging in life-and-death struggles whilst also trying to straighten out their elaborately complicated love lives. The 100 somehow manages to turn this tendency up to 11: characters angst about their personal relationships almost at the same level they worry about starvation, dehydration, being impaled by spears and radiation sickness, all of which are constant and simultaneous threats. This would risk being silly, except for the odd hints that the writers are deliberately sending up this aspect of the network's shows. The series also gets away with it because it is also one of the most surprisingly brutal television shows on air. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have made shocking main character deaths more accepted on cable, but for a more youth-oriented series The 100 is startlingly bleak. We get population counts for both the exiles on the ground and the survivors on the Ark and both numbers drop at a rate of knots as the season progresses and the writers gleefully take an axe (or gun, or airlock, or plague, or in one highly memorable moment, a giant metal shuriken thing) to the cast.

The show gets off to a mixed start, being both unafraid to kill over apparently major players from the off but also unleashing some of the most ham-fisted, expositionary and clumsy writing you'll see on television all year. Characters initially come across as being very archetypal (or, if you're less kind, cliched as hell) and the actors initially seem unsure how to handle the material they are given. Henry Ian Cusick, in his first major TV role since playing Desmond on Lost, is both saddled with a dubious accent and some poor characterisation and can only respond by hamming it up for the first few weeks. Dialogue is poor and little reason is given for us to care about any of these characters.

Fortunately, that changes and fairly quickly. By the sixth episode the writers have added a lot of ambiguity and (relative) complexity to the characters, the actors have much more layered material to work with and the show becomes a bit more experimental, not afraid to ditch half the cast for a week or two in favour of flashbacks to add depth and backstory. The writers also become quite good at creating internal conflict within the characters, giving them more to do than just stand around and look pretty.

This is helped by some fairly intense pacing. The series is uninterested in adopting a format and sticking with it, with shifts in factions, locations and motivations taking place on a near-weekly basis. The initial split between the ground and the space station is well-handled, despite it occasionally feeling like you're watching episodes of Lost and BSG that have been fan-spliced together (the presence of actors from both shows - particularly BSG - not helping). When our heroes on the ground find a mysterious hatch in the forest (albeit one that opens immediately and not after a tediously-drawn out 16-episode struggle) and characters in orbit wrestle with their consciences as they have to ration supplies and blast a traitor out of the airlock, The 100 feels like it is risking becoming a parody of those other series. However, the show then moves into other territory, becoming more confident and forging its own path. The season finale, which not so much changes the premise as drives a bulldozer through it and then burns down the remains, is the most game-changing cliffhanger in a series in recent times.

The actors are, for the most part, likable. The younger castmembers bring enthusiasm and gumption, although some are more experienced than others (Eliza Taylor did her time in the trenches of Australian daytime soap opera). More veteran actors are used to populate the Ark and, after that initial writing hurdle in the first few episodes, are great. However, the show's flirtation with killing off Chancellor Jaha gets a little old. Clearly they realised that Isaiah Washington is too good to off so easily, but it'd be better if they stopped putting him in near-death situations every other week. The weak spot is the handling of romance, which is trite. Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Lincoln (Ricky Whittle) fall in love without exchanging a word (although later on they do manage to earn it back), whilst the budding romance between Clarke (Taylor) and Finn (Thomas McDonell) is hamstrung by the utter lack of any chemistry at all between the two actors. Fortunately the writers seem to cotton onto this and use it to their advantage later on. As the season progresses there is also less time for teen stuff as the prospect of all-out war rears its head and some new, more enigmatic enemies enter the fray.

For its first season, The 100 (***½) starts off pretty poor but improves rapidly to become a solidly entertaining show. The writing starts out clumsy and the dialogue jarring, but it gets better. The characters become a lot more interesting and conflicted and the show gleefully subverts audience expectations at almost every turn. Certainly worth a look, especially as the second season so far has been a big improvement.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 28, 2015 4:05 PM GMT

Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga Book 9)
Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga Book 9)
Price: £5.49

5.0 out of 5 stars The best book in the series so far, 19 Feb. 2015
Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural.

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