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Pick of the Amazon pilots: The Last Tycoon, The Tick, I Love Dick and Jean Claude Van Johnson

Posted on August 24, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Normally, I don't bother reviewing Amazon pilots for a number of reasons:

  1. They're pilots, so there's no guarantee they're going to end up becoming series.
  2. Pilots aren't always representative of shows, with some shows starting off badly and getting better, or vice versa, as the Barrometer will explain to you if you ever corner it backstage.
  3. Amazon's 'pilot seasons' always seem to come at my busiest times.

However, since August's been a bit quiet and the latest pilot season has had some intriguing entries, I decided to make an exception - just this time.

So after the jump, I'll be providing mini-reviews of F Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Tycoon, superhero comedy The Tick, Kevin Bacon love affair I Love Dick and meta action comedy Jean Claude Van Johnson. No prizes for guessing who stars in the last one.

The Last Tycoon

The Last Tycoon
Plot
From F Scott Fitzgerald's last work, The Last Tycoon follows Monroe Stahr, Hollywood's Golden Boy as he battles father figure and boss Pat Brady for the soul of their studio. In a world darkened by the Depression and the growing influence of Hitler's Germany, The Last Tycoon illuminates the passions, violence and towering ambition of 1930s Hollywood.

Is it any good?
The best of the bunch by far, The Last Tycoon is nevertheless an Icarus-like HBO reject that aspires to the highest peaks of quality, comes close, but crashes and burns. Handsome old Matt Bomer (White Collar) finally gets to appear in his most aesthetically compatible decade, the 1930s, as Stahr, the studio creative whom all the girls love but who's still in love with his dead wife. Meanwhile, studio boss Kelsey Grammer is keen to stay in the good books of one of the few markets that still has money during the Depression, Germany, but he's going to have to make a few compromises to do so, such as getting rid of Jews, both in his movies and in his employment. The Jewish Bomer naturally clashes with Grammer but Grammer's daughter (Lily Collins) might prove to be the thing that brings the two together… or permanently divides them.

It's surprisingly compelling stuff, with moments of crackling dialogue (some ahistorical, some spot on), multi-faceted relationships and some fascinating historical insights, with a distinct Great Gatsby feel, too. It's certainly more of a successful love letter to the movie-making of the decade than Hail Caesar was. There's also top notch acting from Grammer (who thankfully reins himself in, as he could have dominated the show easily) and a supporting cast that includes the likes of Bob Gunton, Rosemaire DeWitt and Brian Howe. 

But it's just a little more potboilery, a little more obvious and a little too casual in the details to truly be a masterpiece.

The Tick

The Tick
Plot
In a world where superheroes have been real for decades, an accountant with mental health issues and zero powers comes to realise his city is owned by a global super villain long-thought dead. As he struggles to uncover this conspiracy, he falls in league with a strange blue superhero, who may or may not be a figment of his own imagination…

Is it any good?
First a comic created and written by Ben Edlund; then a cartoon series created and written by Ben Edlund; then a live action TV series created and written by Ben Edlund; and now, finally, it's here! A live action TV series created and written by Ben Edlund… Oh. Haven't we done this already? Yes, here it is with Patrick Warburton:

Nevertheless, here it is again with Peter Serafinowicz (Look Around You, Spaced, Running Wilde, Markets of Britain, Our Thirties, The Peter Serafinowicz Show) as the child-like, 'mostly invulnerable', superstrong blue absurdist superhero parody. The difference this time is that the show has a dark, dark edge. There aren't that many jokes, The Tick is possibly a figment of the mentally ill, conspiracy-theory nut Arthur (Griffin Newman)'s imagination, and supervillains do things like develop viruses that cause superheroes eyes to dissolve and bleed before shooting them in the head. The pilot's even directed by Christopher Nolan DOP and director of Transcendence Wally Pfister.

There's a few potentially good aspects to this Tick, Serafinowicz being the most obvious, and there is some humour, but it's a hugely misjudged affair that needs some serious work if it ever goes to series.

I Love Dick

I Love Dick
Plot
Adapted from the lauded feminist novel, I Love Dick is set in a colorful academic community in Marfa, Texas. It tells the story of a struggling married couple, Chris and Sylvere, and their obsession with a charismatic professor named Dick. Told in Rashomon-style shifts of POV, I Love Dick charts the unraveling of a marriage, the awakening of an artist and the deification of a reluctant messiah.

Is it any good?
I Love Dick was always going to be a difficult adaptation, given how much it plays with form and medium, it being a musing on the nature of the first-person narrative. I Love Dick tries its best, but despite the presence of leads Kevin Bacon, Griffin Dunne and Kathryn Hahn, I Love Dick is a limp affair in which two moderately odious New York married liberals (Dunne and Hahn) travel to backwater Texas where they met a charismatic dick (Bacon) who fascinates them in different ways.

The show's redeemed a little by giving us a rare outing of the female gaze, as well as some engaging dialogue ("Women's films suck because they're so stuck behind oppression, which means their films are going to be bummers"). But it fails to make us care about any of the characters and doesn't manage to come up with a genuinely equivalent way of dealing with the original's storytelling innovation.

Jean Claude Van Johnson
Plot
Jean Claude Van Johnson stars global martial arts & film sensation Jean-Claude Van Damme playing "Jean-Claude Van Damme", a global martial arts & film sensation, also operating under the simple alias of "Johnson" as the world's best undercover private contractor. Retired for years, a chance encounter with a lost love brings him back to the game. This time, he'll be deadlier than ever. Probably.

Is it any good?
A sort of cross between JCVD, Cover Up and Toast of LondonJean Claude Van Johnson is an odd attempt to satirise and critique Mr Van Damme's career while simultaneously creating something that's a recreation of some of his (and other 80s action stars') lesser efforts (eg Commando). Sometimes it works and is quite funny, sometimes it doesn't, but in roughly equal measures. Choice moments include Jean-Claude disguising himself as someone to infilitrate a top secret base only to bump into his target and try to persuade him that's he a future version of him who's come back in time, prompting a lively debate about whether Time Cop or Looper is a better film and what the exact rules of time travel are. I also enjoyed, "Quick! Attack him! No! One at a time or else it will get confusing!"

Should have been and could have been funnier, but still funnier, cleverer and better judged than The Tick.

Related entries

  • September 5, 2016: What have you been watching? Including En Immersion, Neviditelní, Gomorra and The Collection
    A review of the TV, films and theatre I saw in the past two weeks ending Monday 5th September
  • January 27, 2017: When's that show you mentioned starting again, TMINE? Including Greenleaf, Emerald City, Roots and MacGyver
    The UK premiere dates for Greenleaf, Emerald City, Roots, MacGyver, I Love Dick and 13 Reasons Why
  • April 28, 2017: When's that show you mentioned starting again, TMINE? Including Ransom, Chance, Disjointed and The Tick
    The UK premiere dates for Ransom, Chance, Disjointed and The Tick
  • June 2, 2017: When's that show you mentioned starting again, TMINE? Including Dirty Dancing, The Last Tycoon and Midnight, Texas
    The UK premiere dates for Dirty Dancing, Midnight, Texas, and The Last Tycoon

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