September 22, 2014

What have you been watching? Including Scotland in a Day, Red Oaks, Doctor Who and The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there's Locate TV - they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

The deluge is about to begin, with a whole slew of new US shows going to kick off this week, more the following week. Fortunately, I’m braced and prepared, and have got right up to date with all my tele. Elsewhere, I’ve reviewed the first episodes of a few shows that have begun to air:

Also starting this week, but which I’ve miraculously already reviewed is Forever (US: ABC; UK: Sky1), which premieres tonight. But that’s it so far.

I have also watched a couple of other one-offs.

Scotland in a Day (UK: Channel 4)
Timed nicely to coincide with the referendum, Scottish comedian Jack Docherty – you may remember he had Channel 5’s first late night chat show – shows us various famous Scottish actors (e.g. John Hannah, Dougie Henshall) and various famous not-Scottish actors (e.g. Doon MacKichan, Isy Suttie) pretending to be real people in an attempt to be funny that largely falls flat on its face. It’s one saving grace is that Docherty resurrects the marvellous McGlashan from Absolutely for the piece.

Red Oaks (Amazon Prime)
Yet another attempt to do 80s nostalgia (cf The Americans, The Goldbergs), this time giving us a young Jewish guy at college trying to work out what he wants to do in life, so becomes an assistant tennis pro at the Jewish country club where his girlfriend works as an aerobics instructor. Were it not for the occasional Walkman and old car, you’d never know this was set in the 80s, and were it not for the fact it says so on the description, you’d never know this was a comedy either. There’s plenty of Jewish jokes (“A C is a Jewish F”) and bonus points for casting Paul Reiser and Jennifer Grey, but the lack of fun, insight and decent female roles make this a considerable waste of time, and Craig Roberts is incredibly miscast.

Even more excitingly, I watched a couple of movies:

The Amazing Spider-man 2 (2013)
If there was one thing that made The Amazing Spider-Man any good, it was the chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. Naturally enough, Sony wanted to make the most of this so created a 2h20m film that separates them for most of it, filling that run time with not one, not two but three classic Spider-Man villains, all of whom get perfunctory characterisation and storylines. And then right at the end, it stupidly repeats the ending of the first movie. I’m slightly at a loss for how so many elements can have been so badly misused, whether it’s Jamie Foxx as Electro, Paul Giamatti as Rhino (yes, they got one of America’s finest actors to play a Russian in a rhino suit) or both Stone and Garfield. It does look very good, I’ll admit, with some excellent use of bullet time to illustrate Spider-man super agility, but they really needed to spend a lot more time on the script (while simultaneously spending a lot less time on it, if you see what I mean).

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013)
My sister had really raved about this, as had Mark Kermode on Radio 5, the trailer seemed really funny and the cast seemed epic (Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, F Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, et al), so I was really looking forward to Wes Anderson's latest. All those plus points were even enough to convince my wife to watch it. However, she fell asleep halfway through and I was seriously bored. While it looked and felt beautiful, and there were some great individual lines, the big laughs were almost all confined to moments shown in the trailer, and were few and far between in the movie itself. Disappointing, with the exception of Ralph Fiennes who turns out to be a superb comic actor.

After the jump, the regulars: Legends, Doctor Who and You're The Worst.

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Review: The Code 1x1 (Australia: ABC; UK: BBC4)

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The Code

In Australia: Sundays, 8.30pm, ABC
In the UK: Acquired by BBC4
In the US: Acquired by the Audience Network  

If you watch Australian drama, you’ll notice that almost all of it is set and shot in Melbourne or Sydney or perhaps the Outback. The nation’s capital of Canberra hardly gets a look in, largely because it’s mostly only people who work in the government who live there, whereas most of the nation’s film and television industry are based in – you guessed it – Melbourne and Sydney. Plus getting permits to film in Canberra is tricky.

So ABC’s new political thriller The Code is going to be a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar for both Australian and overseas viewers. The story is split into two halves, one set in the more familiar Outback, where a school teacher (Lucy Lawless from BSG and, of course, Xena: Warrior Princess) is busily trying to find two of her missing students, who eventually turn out (slight spoiler for the first episode) to have been murdered; meanwhile, back in Canberra, all kinds of exciting political fun and scandal is going on involving the deputy prime minister (David Wenham from Top of the Lake), the foreign minister (Ian Bradley) and a mistress or two.

Investigating both plotlines is a journalist for online publication Password (Dan Spielman – The Secret Life of Us), overseen by Adam Garcia (best known in the UK as one of the long-standing judges of Sky1 show Got To Dance. I wonder what the overlap between viewers of that and viewers of this on BBC4 is going to be? Me?) and his Asperger’s brother (Ashley Zukerman – Rush), who’s supposed to stick away from computers, thanks to all that naughty hacking he got up to.

Doing its level best to ape just about any top-end conspiracy thriller, including State of Play, Homeland and The State Within, the first episode doesn’t exactly sell itself, throwing at us half an hour of slow-moving jerky-cam and uninvolving and even off-putting characters with little explanation. But as the story begins to unfold, the conspiracy elements start to play in and explanations begin to emerge, it does become a whole lot better.

The journalism side of things is pretty good: not absolutely accurate but more in the State of Play realm than the Anchorman realm. But where the show does really well is in computer hacking, which is what most of the story revolves around. Now while 'Aspie hacker who gets into trouble for hacking the wrong people' isn’t new in either real-life (Gary McKinnon) or fiction (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), usually being very cliched in the latter, The Code makes a bold attempt at getting the syndrome right, down to sensory integration problems. It’s still all headline weirdness stuff to highlight the ‘other', even before it’s made obvious by the dialogue, but Zukerman does a good job with the portrayal, as does the script.

But more importantly, the actual hacking looks right. Following the path of Sherlock and every other show that’s needed to have what’s on a screen on-screen, The Code is frequently a mess of CGI text overlaid on various scenes. But in contrast to the general meaningless guff that you see in most shows, if you know your UNIX, you can see what’s going on is pretty accurate, with greps, ffmpegs and rsyncs aplenty (although I couldn’t swear to all the switches being correct…). Even when it’s made up, such as when a Mac-based Trojan turns up, the naming convention is right.

However, the rest of it needs work. Lawless’s plotline is just developing and the politics is veering more towards the humdrum and ordinary at the moment. But I’m going to hold out for episode two at least, since things willstart to kick into high gear with spies and torture, just for starters. I worry that given the Lawless storyline seems to hinge on a particular truck belonging to a fictional company and said spies are going to be working for a fictional Australian government agency, we’re going to be heading into Salamander territory in terms of plausibility and relevance to real-life. But maybe The Code might just have some import, beyond being one of the few shows to get approval for Canberra-filming.

PS BBC4: if ABC can show this one episode per week, you can, too.

Review: Madam Secretary 1x1 (US: CBS)

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Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary

In the US: Sundays, 8.30pm ET/8pm PT, CBS

Have you ever watched a show and really wanted to like it, but found yourself disliking it instead, despite all your best intentions? I’ve just had that experience (again) with Madam Secretary.

On the face of it, it’s got a lot going for it. It’s got a good cast, for starters. I’ve always liked Téa Leoni (The Naked Truth), who plays a former CIA analyst turned university lecturer, who gets recruited by her friend the President (the always great Keith Carradine) to become the new Secretary of State when her predecessor gets killed in a plane crash. At the White House, she then has to deal with the pressures of not just international diplomacy but also internal politics, thanks to chief of staff new enamies Željko Ivanek, who instantly elevates any show he’s in, and her own chief of staff Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers). In this, she has the support of her theology lecturer husband Tim “the voice of Superman” Daly but her teenage children aren’t so happy with her new job.

All good so far - apart from the kids - and the show also tries to take in elements from more obviously linked, top quality shows such as The West Wing, with its “important liberal issue of the week”, and Veep, with that show’s comedic gaggle of support staff. You can also see CBS trying to play it to the same audience as its Sunday-night partner show The Good Wife: as well as the politics and in-fighting, it also deals with the relationships of those involved and how Leoni’s new job affects them, as well as the more Hillary Clinton-esque questions of how a woman is judged differently in the role, from the need for a stylist to how she’ll be analysed on The View.

The trouble is that these high ambitions are let down by both the nature of the hour-long, issue of the week format as well as its network. Madam Secretary fair oozes shallowness and naivety. Two American teenagers arrested in Syria and threatened with execution within a week? We can fix that in an hour, can’t we? We’ll just threaten sanctions and a few diplomatic expulsions and everything will be sorted by the end of the episode. Because we know how well that's all been working in real-life. King of Swaziland turning up to dinner with his many wives in tow? A simple joke about how busy he must be and he’ll be rectifying his commitment to AIDS treatment by the end of the main course.

On top of that, there’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory to deal with, concerning a mole in the White House and whether the ex-Secretary of State’s accident really was an accident or an assassination. Was he on a secret mission in a small light aircraft? Only in TV world is that even a slight possibility.

Léoni is also a little wobblier than she should be at this stage. Largely she’s very good - a firm, strong, intelligent presence. But she’s best at comedy and there are times when certain comedic mannerisms pop through when they shouldn’t. The script also wants her to be likable and largely unthreatening to the older CBS audience so emphasises the comedy more than it should. Given time, I’m sure she’ll acclimatise, but it’s harder than it should be to take her seriously at the moment.

So despite my best wishes, I found myself watching the clock and rolling my eyes a lot with Madam Secretary, as a female Dave tries to show that America really could control the world if it just had the right person in charge, doing things in an honest, non-political way - assuming she can escape assassination by the CIA, who are always assassinating members of the US government, of course.

Over time, the show might pick up, but I suspect it’ll have to focus more on one of its many themes, ditching its conspiracy theory and becoming more of a Veep, turning to West Wing-esque, character-led, wide-eyed optimism with minimal connection to reality or going in a harder, more realistic direction. At the moment, though, it’s a frustratingly weak show that squanders a good cast on a set-up that tries to be all things to all women (and men).

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September 19, 2014

News: Deadpool's back, Tyrant renewed, Ben Whishaw is a spy, Jessica Raine is a detective + more

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September 18, 2014

Mini-review: The Mysteries of Laura 1x1 (US: NBC)

Posted 4 days ago at 14:01 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Mysteries of Laura

In the US: Wednesdays, 8/7c, NBC

How much do you love Debra Messing? A little bit? A lot? Don't worry, it's not a crime to admit it. Okay, she was somewhat overshadowed by Megan Mullally on Will and Grace, which should probably have been called Jack and Karen by the end, but objectively she was a lot of fun in that and you might well have a soft spot for her because of Prey, too.

All the same, unless on a scale from 1-10 you rate Messing as "11! 11! How could it be anything but 11, you damn fool! She's a goddess!", you're probably going to want to give The Mysteries of Laura a wide berth. To start with, the show is adapted from Spain's La 1's Los misterios de Laura, which isn't itself the finest piece of work ever to hit the airwaves.

But this NBC take elevates a slightly tedious, obvious show about a single mother who's also a cop to whole new levels of pain and misery for the viewer. I mean McG (Charlie's Angels, This Means War) not only exec produces but is also the director of the pilot episode, and having his name attached to anything is pretty much a guarantee of horror greater than a rabies infection. Even given that terrible baseline, though, the writers and producers work ever so hard in partnership with McG to give us something of almost weaponised toxicity.

The show's one big joke is that Messing's character brings her police skills to bear on her private life and her mothering skills to bear on her work life. So Messing goes around investigating the 'crime scenes' caused by her children while simultaneously mothering and wiping clean the victims of crime. In pretty much every scene. It wasn't funny in the first scene; it wasn't funny in the last.

It flags pretty much everything about a mile off, has insulting characters with the depth of the average dew drop and although it's clearly supposed to be a comedy drama, rather than a procedural per se, has an approach to plausibility and police work on a par with Trumpton. There is almost no gender or racial stereotype the show isn't happy to exploit (sassy black woman? Check. Bitchy Latina? Check.), no subtlety or change in working conditions since the 1970s that it isn't willing to ignore. It is the pan-galactic gargle blaster of crime shows, but without the benefits of alcohol.

But Messing's good. I like her.

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September 17, 2014

The Wednesday Play: Destiny (1978)

Posted 5 days ago at 14:19 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

David Edgar is one of the most prolific playwrights of modern British history. So far, more than 60 of his plays have been published and performed on stage, radio and television around the world, but his best known work is probably the prize-winning Destiny, which was also the first play he wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company and which Colin Chambers, literary manager of the RSC, calls "the best modern example of the English dramatic tradition".

The play was inspired by Edgar's work as a journalist in Bradford, where he came across a group led by an ex-Conservative councillor that called itself the 'Yorkshire Campaign to Stop Immigration'. This group, which later merged with the National Front, apparently "addressed many real needs and some real fears" by holding meetings… at which they showed films upside down with no sound. 

Destiny tries to address the question of how such a group could gain purchase, given that Britian had fought against fascism during the Second World War. It starts in India, on the day of independence, introducing four main characters whose lives intercept 30 years later in a small town in the English West Midlands: a colonel who later becomes a Conservative MP; a major who is hoping to succeed him; a sergeant who is a candidate for a far-right party; and an Indian who works in a local foundry. During the election campaign, a strike breaks out at the foundry and a local by-election is transformed into a multi-cultural battleground, which results in the fascists turning for protection and support to the forces they oppose.

The play went on to win the John Whiting Award, presented by the Arts Council for new dramatic writing and was televised by the BBC as part of the Play for Today series in January 1978, with Frederick Treves as the colonel, Nigel Hawthorne as the major, Saeed Jaffrey as Gurjeet Singh Khera and Colin Jeavons as the sergeant. And it's this week's Wednesday Play. 

Have a look at the Liam Neeson kill map

Posted 5 days ago at 13:10 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

I don't know if I was the first person to spot that Liam Neeson has slowly turned from being an actor's actor, who appeared in movies such as Schindler's List, Husbands and Wives, The Mission and A Prayer For The Dying, into a full-on action movie star, but I was probably the first to nominate him as Hollywood movies' greatest martial arts actor. Five years on, though, pretty much everyone has realised it, with 'Liam Neeson' actually becoming a genre in its own right (ie "Now that's what I call a Liam Neeson movie: guy looking for a family member goes on killing spree to get them back. Doesn't star Liam Neeson though.").

In fact, there's even a "Liam Neeson Kill Map" that you can use to find out where in the world Liam Neeson has killed people, in what movie and how many. Handy, hey?

The Liam Neeson Kill Map


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September 16, 2014

Weekly Wonder Woman: Superman Unchained #8, Sensation Comics #5

Posted 6 days ago at 09:00 | comments | Bookmark and Share

I misspoke a little last week when I said that DC had postponed all its important Wonder Woman comics until last Wednesday. In fact, Superman/Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman, et al are due out this week. So last week was actually kind of quiet, too.

Superman Unchained #8

If you’d been expecting Superman Unchained to deliver any Wonder Woman action, given she was in the previous issue, you’d have been disappointed since this issue, she didn’t feature at all, except through Superman wondering how best to fight a baddie called Wraith – perhaps he should emulate Diana?

Fight like Diana

But after creating a level playing field for them both, Superman then decides the big difference between him and Wraith is that Wraith has always had an army at his back, whereas he has always fought alone so has had to learn how to fight… presumably a new development for which he has Diana to thank, because as we remember from Superman/Wonder Woman #5 when faced with some warriors from Krypton, Superman sucked at fighting.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor turned out to be an intellectual dilettante, who claims to have read The Iliad but doesn’t know that the Trojan Horse only appears in Homer’s other poem, The Odyssey, and then only in flashback (the full tale of its construction is in The Little Iliad, one of the lost poems of the Epic Cycle). Or it might just be a parallel universe where The Iliad’s a bit different – in which case, I’d love to read the new 52 version of the Aithiopis.

Lex hasn't read The Iliad

That means the only Wonder Woman comic of note last week was Sensation Comics #5, which turned out to be quite interesting indeed.

Continue reading "Weekly Wonder Woman: Superman Unchained #8, Sensation Comics #5"

CBS forces its stars to dance for it like so many performing monkeys

Posted 6 days ago at 08:07 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Thankfully, some refused to move so much as an inch.

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