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Ancient Egyptians (2003)
A People's History of Ancient Egypt?
The "Ancient Egyptians" miniseries is definitely one of the most enjoyable documentaries of its type. Beyond that, it's one of the best Egypt-related programs I've ever seen, far superior to the Discovery Channel's recent "Rameses: The Wrath of God or Man?." I generally don't like dramatized documentaries since they're usually quite poorly shot and acted (the aforementioned "Rameses," for example) and the actual information somehow gets lost in the shuffle. The usual reason for this is that many documentaries -- especially ones about Ancient Egypt -- attempt to cover too much ground in too small a space of time. Fortunately, this documentary avoids that trap by confining each of its four installments to one specific person or situation. Each section is expertly shot and, as has been mentioned before, the accuracy and attention to detail are stunning. The source material from which these details are derived all offer a fascinating glimpse into the social climate of Ancient Egypt at four distinct times in its history. However, the series is not perfect and the title of my review offers a hint as to why. While excellently done, there is a very annoying Chomskyite political slant to this miniseries that colors the interpretation of these historical events.
The first installment is "The Battle of Megiddo," based on eye-witness accounts written by Tjaneni, a scribe for the then-new Pharaoh Tuthmosis III. The events described in this section took place in or around 1457 BC, and the battle itself served as a proving ground for the young Pharaoh who faced a much larger army of Syrian rebels led by the Prince of Kadesh at the city of Megiddo. Tjaneni's accuracy is rarely disputed by contemporary sources and the show is true to it. However, the writers saw fit to introduce a story about a generic Egyptian peasant named Akhemose who was said to have been conscripted by the army to make war against Kadesh. In a miniseries that prides itself on being based on original historical documents from antiquity, there is a very conspicuous lack of documentation about Akhemose or his sad tale of being stolen away from his family, thrown into a war he doesn't care about, overcoming adversity in the army, and being killed in battle. While obviously these sorts of things happened in virtually every single war ever fought, Akhemose was not a historical figure, he was a literary device. In the following segment, "Tomb Robbers," (1128 BC) we learn that the rich steal because they are greedy and corrupt but that the poor (specifically the worker Amenpenafur, the closest thing to a "protagonist" in this section) steal because they are socially oppressed by the aforementioned rich and must do so to feed their families. The other two segments, "The Priests of Amun" (663-633 BC) and "The Cult of the Apis BUll" (120s BC), are less slanted in this manner and seem to draw more heavily on actual documentation rather than conjecture and social commentary (although much of the same commentary appears in these parts, its sparse use strikes me as more appropriate and gets the point across better).
Despite the misgivings I have about the subtle agenda(s) of this miniseries, it's still a great piece of work whose contributions to the genre and to programming based on Ancient Egypt in general outweigh the annoyances I described. If this is released on DVD, I'd get it in a heartbeat and I recommend that anyone interested in this great, intriguing civilization do the same.
The Jerry Springer Show (1991)
Anatomy of the Worst Show in the History of Television
Most people seem to take it for granted that this show will always have its detractors and that "over-sensitive" types will never "get it." This show wears its quite superlative title like a badge of honor and it makes people feel good to know that they like something that "elitist critics" hate. Something that is very rarely discussed, however, is exactly why this deserves to be called the worst show in the history of television. While I believe there are many other shows that have done more to deserve that appellation (The Chevy Chase Show, the Real World, Touched by an Angel, etc.) the Jerry Springer Show is as good a choice as any given the competition. The fact of the matter is that this wasn't always "the worst show in the history of television," and I'll tell you why.
See, this show has had four distinct phases. In the first phase, it was a pretty regular talk show that didn't really stand out from Oprah, Maury, etc. Then it entered its glorious second phase. They started booking guests that were more -- shall we say -- interesting than what you might find on the competing talk shows. The guests and the topics were obviously different from what they had been before: bizarre love triangles involving crossdressers, Kristmas with the Klan, helping the morbidly obese, and so on and so forth. These are the ones that started the Jerry Springer myth. These are the episodes that got people talking. "Hey man, you've got to see this show." At this point, however, it still looked and felt like a normal talk show and it was conducted like one. And by that, I mean that Jerry actually tried to help his guests resolve their problems with as little heartache as possible. The man really seemed to care. He didn't treat his guests like the freaks most of us in the television viewing audience thought they were.
The third phase is where the trouble started. The producers got cocky. They finally realized how "cool" their show was and they started acting like it. They booked progressively weirder and weirder guests, with a pronounced (and often unsettling) preference for truly bizarre sexual cases. At this point, the show was no longer about conflict resolution...it was pure exhibition. Then the audience started getting in on the act. This is when the show was at the height of its popularity. It was this environment that allowed the disastrous movie "Ringmaster" to be made, not to mention the countless pay-per-view shows and the corresponding "Too Hot For TV" video cassettes. It was at the end of this era that parts of the show were more or less revealed to be fabricated. The state of Illinois told Jerry that if the physical fights on his show were real, that the people involved would have to be arrested on assault and battery charges. If the fights were staged, however, it would be a moot point and nobody could be arrested for pretending to fight. That of course begs the question "are they real or aren't they?" What a predicament; the fights were one of the reasons the show was so popular. If they were real, they would have to stop. If they were staged, they could continue, but what would be the point in watching a fake talk show? Jerry's response was calculated but revealing: "they look real to me." If you can't answer something truthfully and fully with "yes" or "no," it's a pretty good indication that you've been trapped like a rat.
So here we are now in the fourth phase of this show's existence. The show is no longer "hip" or culturally relevant. The show's producer is always seen off to the side grinning and chomping on a cigar, pushing buttons on a soundboard every four minutes. Jerry couldn't care less about the guests on his show or their problems; they're just there to be paraded around like freaks and if something happens to get worked out along the way, whatever. The guests are a fairly sad lot...they're typically presented as retarded hicks and they almost always confirm this suspicion by tearing their clothes off within twenty seconds of reaching the stage. I guess it goes without saying that most of these people are rather, uh, large individuals. There's even an attractive young lady named Angie who does pole dances before and after the commercial breaks. The worst part of this whole 'experience,' however, is the studio audience. I swear these are the rudest bunch of jackasses on the planet. They scream at the guests and belittle them and chant mindless mantras like "YOU ARE GAY! YOU ARE GAY!" or "BARK LIKE A DOG! BARK LIKE A DOG!" They sometimes stand up and challenge the guests to fights. When it comes time for the question segment at the end of the show, they either stand up and insult the guests in the meanest terms possible or they flash the camera for "jerry beads." Sometimes they do both. Anyone with a hint of a southern accent is automatically trailer trash and they hurl insults at these people simply because they know they won't be held accountable for their actions. And god help the poor soul who actually tries to ask a real question! If this is the case, the rest of the audience screams "YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!" or "GO TO OPRAH! GO TO OPRAH!" until the offending person ashamedly sits down. Frankly, the audience members come off as even bigger freaks than the guests. All of these factors coalesce into a single train-wreck to form the backdrop for what is now called the worst show in the history of television. The content of the show has nothing at all to do with the reason it receives that title; it's the spiteful and arrogant way in which it is presented that makes the title an apt one.
Transformer: Super Link (2004)
When I heard about this show, I was rather skeptical. I was sorely disappointed with "Transformers: Armada" (or "Micron Densetsu," depending upon your language preference) and I really had very little hope for the following series. Called "Transformers: Energon" in the English-language version, "Superlink" had been airing for four weeks in Japan before the first Energon episode aired in the States. That being said, there are four episodes by which to judge this series, and I think that's a fair sampling for a preliminary evaluation.
Thus far, Superlink/Energon is superior to Micron Densetsu/Armada in every conceivable way. The animation is just that -- animated. Armada had a very distinct lack of motion that really detracted from it. Armada was more or less a comic book on television with mouths that occasionally opened and closed. Superlink is just the opposite. It looks like an actual cartoon (what a concept!). On top of that, the cel-shaded CGI technique makes it all look quite incredible.
Of course, it would be easy to disregard the inadequate animation of Armada if the writing was worth talking about. I suppose it goes without saying that it was not. Now, however, Superlink seems to have given us Transformers fans something to actually look forward to. Whereas the dialogue and plot of Armada was incredibly stale and not at all engaging, Superlink is very in your face and quick.
The biggest improvement, however, would be the voice acting. Although I have yet to see or hear the English version of this show (Energon), the Japanese version is much better than its predecessor Micron Densetsu and I can only assume that since this major problem has been cleared up at the source, it will be like that when it gets here. The dialogue isn't flat and there aren't awkward silences for no reason. The actors actually sound like they're -- gasp -- acting. Overall, this is a very worthy successor to the holy trilogy of Transformers series (the original, Beast Wars, Beast Machines). Great stuff all around and I can't wait to see what else develops.
Whoever cancelled this show deserves to go to Hell.
A harsh stance to take, perhaps, but it's true. This was a genuinely funny show. You know what I mean; you don't have to force yourself to laugh at this. Unlike most sitcoms, I didn't find myself grasping for reasons to laugh. Maybe my favorite part about this show was the fact that there was no canned laughter. That really means a lot to me as a television watcher...it shows one of two things: first, that the makers of the show have enough faith in the viewing audience to make up their own minds about what is or is not funny without a "live studio audience" or a bunch of laughs edited into the show; second, it might also mean that the makers of the show couldn't afford it. But I digress. This show was great all around. Great characters, great acting, great writing...and then it all goes down the tube. The show also had a lot of heart. There were serious situation that were dealt with in a serious matter. Danny's drug addiction, Lucky's wife's death, his ever-lingering depression...none of these were taken lightly. If the cancellation of this show doesn't show you that there is no justice in this world, I don't know what will.
Confused? You won't be after this episode of Scramble City Hatsudohen!
Well, ok, I lied. You'll still be confused. Ostensibly, this piece of work serves to sort of bridge the gap between the end of the second season and the beginning of the third (this is referred to as an entirely separate series, "2010," in Japan, however). This is important, given that the events of "Transformers the Movie" do not occurr in the Japanese timeline. The premise is pretty simple: Convoy tasks Ultra Magnus with overseeing the construction of a secret superfortress (alternately referred to as Scramble City and Metroflex) to combat the Constructicon combiner Devastar. Megatron catches wind of this and dispatches multiple Destrons to destroy it. Hilarity ensues. As the other reviewer mentioned, this doesn't fit into the American cartoon continuity. What he did not mention, however, is that it also fails to fit in with the Japanese continuity for which it was made. With the exception of "Transformers The Movie," everything that happened in the US cartoon continuity up until the 4th season 3-parter "The Rebirth" happened in the Japanese continuity. This means that Starscream would have no reason for being totally unaware of the Stuntron unit as he was very much present for the construction of it in season 2. Likewise, how is that Dinosaurer is present in the timeline before his own creation which occurred in "2010?" This one-shot video does not do much to clarify anything. Quite frankly, it's a showcase for the third-year figures like the Aerialbots and the Combaticons.
As a one-off episode, however, Scramble City is pretty decent. Fair characterization and great original animation make it come together really well. Not counting continuity, the only major gripe I have with this episode is the voice work. If you can get past the fact that a lot of the voices sound exactly the same, then you're confronted with the fact that many of them are really, really annoying. The combiners have these incredibly low voices that make their words virtually indistinguishable. Convoy is far too melodramatic. Bumble sounds like a 4-year-old child. This is a good introduction to the Transformers mythos, but I honestly can't see myself recommending this to someone who doesn't have at least a little knowledge of the original Transformers series.
Incredibly immature (minor spoilers).
Fans of the Transformers franchise should curse this show's name. This, my friends, is where the rampant childishness that has plagued the various Transformers series of late began. Here's a bit of background on it: while the second season of the Canadian-made "Beast Wars" was being dubbed into Japanese, Takara (the Japanese company that handles Transformers) needed a way to meet the fan demand for "Beast Wars" products and shows. So they created "Beast Wars II." The toyline featured only five new molds, I believe, and the others were repainted from various lines including Beast Wars, Machine Wars, Generation 2, and even the original Transformers line. This cel-animation cartoon was quickly thrown together to satisfy the demand for a medium to tell the story of the toys. The premise is simple enough: the heroic Cybertrons (led by Lioconvoy) must stop the evil Destrons (led by the Emperor of Destruction, Galvatron) from stealing the angalmois (energon) reserves of the Planet Gaia. These events are conveniently overseen by two celestial observers, Artemis and Moon. Artemis is a very loud and obnoxious robot that looks like a teenage girl while Moon more closely resembles a rabbit. This is where it gets a little...well, awful. Artemis is too cute for her own good, always whining and hitting Moon with a mallet. She is obsessed alternately with the sophisticated Cybertron squid Scuba and with the effeminate Destron aerial commander Starscream. This is crucial to understanding the subtext of the show: nature vs. industry. The Cybertrons all transform into animals while the Destrons all transform into construction vehicles and military hardware (except Galvatron, who transforms into a drill-tank as well as a dragon but more on this later). This theme would be explored more eloquently in the Western follow-up to "Beast Wars" called "Beast Machines."
From the getgo, this show is obviously aimed at younger audiences. The jokes are incredibly corny, there is almost nothing resembling a story arc, and it all has a very light-hearted feel. So light-hearted, in fact, it's difficult to take seriously. For example, the Cybertron called Tazmanian Kid pees on a fire to help put it out. How mature. Galvatron hits Megastorm and his head shrinks down into his body. No gripping realism here. Starscream prances around like a 15 year old girl at times (we'd most likely call him a metrosexual nowadays, though). As the show progresses, the original idea of machines vs. animals disappears when Megastorm, Starscream, BB, Dirge, and Thrust are all transformed into cybernetic beasts (Gigastorm, Hellscream, Max B, Dirgegun, and Thrustor, respectively). New bands of characters show up, but it's not like that helps matters. This show is the reason we have such crapfests as "Robots In Disguise" and "Transformers: Armada." If you are not above the age of 8, I do not recommend this show. At all. Western Transformers fans might be interested in it, but if this is the case, I recommend finding an undubbed or unsubtitled version of it...that way you can remain blissfully ignorant of what is being said and pretend they're having deep intellectual discourse instead of whining about brushing their teeth (Dirge and Thrust), getting drunk (Apache), or just being p***ed off all the time (Bighorn).
The weakest of the trinity.
(A few spoilers.)
Western Transformers fans are captivated by the Holy Trinity of Japanese Transformers shows: "Headmasters," "Masterforce," and "Victory." Why? Because we never got them, obviously. Well, thanks the Star TV, we have them...sort of. Ignoring the poor dubbing, this is actually a fairly solid show. Don't let the fact that I call this the "weakest" of the three G1 Japanese-only series taint your perception of it: "Headmasters" must have been brilliant stuff at the time.
Some background: after the third season of the original Transformers show, we in the US got stuck with the miserable "Rebirth" 3-parter. In the East, however, they were fortunate enough to get this series. A lot happens here. We are introduced to both the Autobot and Decepticon Headmasters. Blaster and Soundwave kill each other in mortal combat but are then resurrected as Twincast and Soundblaster, respectively. Optimus Prime dies again. The planet Cybertron is destroyed by Scorponok and the Decepticon Headmasters in a failed attempt to assassinate Galvatron. Ultra Magnus is killed by Sixshot in a climactic battle. Galvatron is killed by the Autobot Headmasters and Scorponok assumes command of the Decepticons. The only real problem is that there is no coherent plot to string it all together. It's a lot to absorb and events just sort of happen over time for basically no other reason than Galvatron (or whomever) doing something nasty. However, there was a strong sense of continuity (no matter what some reviewers say) from episode to episode and there weren't many errors at all in the writing of the series (one important thing to remember is that Transformers The Movie had not been released in Japan at that point and you can't exactly fault them for making errors based on things that hadn't even happened as far as anyone in the country knew).
One reason why I say this series is weak is not because it's bad but simply because the other two are so good. Please keep that in mind when pursuing "Headmasters."
It just gets worse (spoilers).
Man, am I glad I'm not a kid nowadays. When I was young (did I really just say that?), our cartoons were great. Sure, they were basically commercials for whatever toyline was being sold at the time, but they were commercials with substance. Now, however...well, I would call "Transformers: Armada" a case of style over substance except for the fact that there's no real style to speak of here. Just like its predecessor, "Robots in Disguise," this series is acquired animation. And it has been acquired from -- you guessed it -- Japan. So now we get incredibly boring and slow-moving animation as well as some of the most tedious dialogue ever written. The plot moves along at a snail's pace; it makes "The Stand" seem like a fast-paced action adventure romp. One main problem with "Transformers: Armada" is that it is the product of one series of miscommunications after another. The Armada toyline was developed mainly in the United States, but all of the animation and writing for the series was done in Japan. This is because shows that are vaguely anime-like are the "hot" thing...as long as your characters have huge eyes, spikey hair, and sweatdrops, you're a-ok with the kids. Have you ever read "1984"? If you have, you'll remember a passage about books being manufactured by machines for mass consumption. It's a commentary about works of art becoming products; "Armada" is one such product.
Le chemin du retour (2000)
Impeccable instruction but...
When I took college-level French last year, we utilized the "Le Chemin du Retour" film. Through the experiences of Camille Leclair, Rachid Bouhazid and his bitchy wife, and others, we were able to effectively absorb the basics of the French language, of its structure, and of the syntax thereof. As an instructional video, it's quite good. However, let's not pretend that this is fine cinema. The story is vaguely interesting, but frankly not particularly engaging. It never quite manages to rise above its "movie of the week" atmosphere. There's nothing at all really wrong with this movie, but there's nothing especially right about it either. All in all, this is a good resource for learning French, but I wouldn't recommend it for a night of serious cinematic exploration.
Is this the most banal movie of all time? (The answer is "yes.")
I would like to preface this by saying that I did not voluntarily select this movie for my "viewing pleasure;" rather it was selected for me. I had extremely low hopes for this movie when it was presented to me...let's just say that I wasn't really disappointed.
Spoilers below, but I doubt anybody will actually care.
The movie begins with a few vignettes that establish the background of this mystical box called the Loculus. In each instance, the dreaded GRAND MASTER (Udo Kier) is the one at the head of the effort to take it. First he appears as a Roman centurion harrassing a group of Christians. Then he appears as a Catholic knight harrassing a group of Jews. Then he becomes a Freemason. Etc., etc., etc. Then we come to the present with some idiot cryptography whiz kid (James D'Arcy) being released from prison. The idiot has words with his estranged father (Terence Stamp) and he agrees to help break the "code" on the Loculus, which is displayed in vivid detail on several screens, but people still never seem to get over the fact that the idiot figures out that it's a box. Then this alchemist chick named Mira (Natasha Wightman) does some stuff, and some other people do some stuff, and really the movie is just people doing stuff for no real well-thought-out reason. At some point, the plot changes from a haphazardly done McGuffin-search to a religious thing about the Antichrist and Jesus's clone. I stopped caring after the librarian gave Mira a dirty look and said "hrmph, I expect you're alchemists" and walked off snottily. Who says things like that? Nobody. The sex scene in the church/temple/island retreat/whatever is hard to watch because it's so inappropriately done. This is one of the only movies where I've actually felt elated after the death of the protagonist.
Sum total: this movie is dull, boring, and just unnecessary. If you like stupid movies that pretend to be deep and challenging but are really all about the exaltation of style over substance, then this is the perfect movie for you. If you prefer something a little deeper, just do yourself a favor and take a nap.