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March 8, 2017

Review: Making History 1x1 (US: Fox)

Posted on March 8, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Making History

In the US: Sundays, 8:30/7:30c, Fox

Every nation has moments in its national consciousness that are not only important, they're so important they take on the status of mythology and begin to transcend actual facts.

England has many of these moments, such as the Battle of Hastings - "The last time we were invaded! The English fought like dogs to defend liberty as we always do!… apart from during the Glorious Revolution when the Dutch invaded, everyone defected to the invading side and King James ran away to Faversham, leaving William of Orange to become the new king without having to fire a shot."

For centuries, we ran around the world inventing concentration camps, committing genocide and war crimes, and partitioning countries arbitrarily, leading to all manners of disasters. But because we fought on the right side against someone even worse during the Second World War, we can ignore all that and decide not just that we're the good guys now but that we have been and always will be, leading to Dr Liam Fox, our current Secretary of State for International Trade, to claim this week that "The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history." Despite literally all the facts.

However, as I've said, we're not alone in having these mythological, almost 'cleansing' moments that extinguish unhelpful facts. The US, for example, has its War of Independence, in which the bravy plucky colonists fought back against an evil empire (ie England) in the pursuit of liberty and freedom, establishing true democracy, which otherwise would never, ever have happened anywhere, let alone in the US.

Never mind that New Englanders in the 1770s were about the wealthiest people in the world, with per capita income at least equal to that in the UK and more evenly distributed. "No taxation without representation"? The average Briton in 1763 paid 26s a year in tax, while the average Masachusetts taxpayer paid just 1s. The Boston Tea Party? Organised by wealthy tea smugglers set to lose out thanks to a recent rebate given to the East India Company that made tea the cheapest it had ever been in America - as someone wrote at the time, "Will not posterity be amazed when they are told that the present distraction took its rise from the parliament's taking off a shilling duty on a pound of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?"

You can tell within just a few minutes exactly how faithful Making History is to actual history, when college professor Adam Pally (Happy Endings) returns to 1775 Lexington and discovers not only that Paul Revere hasn't raced around on his horse screaming, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" but also that some "British soldiers" are now stationed in town.

Historically, of course, at this point in time, it wasn't the plucky 'Americans' against 'the British' - everyone still thought of themselves as British, not Americans - so Revere actually warned that "The regulars are out!", the regulars being the standard name for the British soldiers.

But that's not what mythology says and for the rest of the episode, the regulars are about five seconds away from committing war crimes and inventing concentration camps a few centuries early à la mythology (cf The Patriot). They might do more if they ever learned that muskets and pistols needed to be reloaded after every shot in those days.

Still, Pally has travelled back in time inside a sports equipment bag so that he can woo Revere's talented, forward-thinking daughter, Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) by singing her Céline Dion songs he's pretended to have invented. But by doing so, he has distracted Revere so badly, he has to drag history professor Yassir Lester back in time to 1775 to help sort things out and ensure the American Revolution still happens.

Yes, unlike Timeless, which largely wanted to be accurate while still upsetting the timeline, Making History is not really trying to do much more than play with US mythology in order to have a laugh.

The trouble is that it only knows how to do broad humour and even then, it's not that funny. Sure, you have the absurdity of the duffel bag time machine and the singing, which raises a reasonable laugh. You have the idiocy of Pally, who jumps to the conclusion that he's stopped the Revolution, because Americans are drinking tea in Starbucks and eating fish and chips in the local canteen when he returns to 2016.

But mostly it's things like Lester vomiting copiously when he arrives in 1775 because everywhere smells like manure or because John Hancock and Samuel Adams trick him into drinking their 'new beer', which is actually the contents of the chamberpot.

Ho ho, if you're still in middle school. Not so ho, ho for everyone else.

The show does at least try to deploy the occasionally more sophisticated joke, usually about an anachronism, although far less succesfully and it never surprises the audience with anything they don't know already. But most of the time you have to rely on Pally's performance to find any real humour in the show. Lester's just there to gurn at Pally every time he does something unconscionable or dim, such as introduce him as "Queequeg", a former slave who can only say "Hello".

Meester's plucky, doing what the incompetent modern men can't do for themselves, speaking Dutch, firing pistols, riding horses and more. But she's underserved by script - she's less knowing, the constant source of historical information that's always designed to counterpoint modern-day information the audience already knows ("We could buy a house together for $5!"), yet never getting to deliberately make jokes herself.

Making History is a nice idea at heart but poorly implemented, failing to do more than elicit a few cheap laughs with schoolboy humour and a few wry smiles when it does modern commentary. I have little faith that subsequent episodes, which promise travel to different time periods and the chance for Meester to crack her own jokes, will be that much better, but you never know.

Pally and Meester both deserve better, as does America, to be honest. Don't you know it won the Second World War all by itself?

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February 28, 2017

Review: Taken 1x1 (US: NBC; UK: Amazon)

Posted on February 28, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Taken

In the US: Monday, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon

Pierre Morel's Taken is a classic action thriller. For those who by some miracle haven't seen it, it features Liam Neeson playing an aging former spy who's now down on his luck now he's divorced from his wife Famke Janssen. He also doesn't get to see his teenage daughter Maggie Grace (Lost) very much. But when Grace goes on a holiday to Paris with one of her friends and is abducted, Neeson puts into practice his 'very particular set of skills that [he's] acquired over a very long career' to find Grace and rescue her.

As I mentioned quite some time ago now, it's basically the movie that cemented Liam Neeson's reputation as one of the West's top action and martial arts stars. It's not without flaws - certainly the idea that Neeson would go into paroxysms of panic at the thought of his daughter going to Paris as she would be far safer in her home town of Los Angeles is a little bit laughable. But it's much smarter than you'd think and has some great action sequences. Just don't watch Taken 2 or Taken 3 since they are not good movies.

Taken obviously has some unique features: Neeson isn't a spring chicken; he's a family man but has an estranged wife and daughter; he operates virtually alone, with only a friend or two with equally useful special skills to help him; the film is set in Europe; and Neeson has all manner of dead-drops, contacts and tradecraft to draw on in his challenge.

Strangely, NBC's Taken uses none of this to try to tell a story that probably didn't need telling - how Leeson got his special skills. Except it doesn't even do that.

A prequel series, it stars Clive Standen (Vikings) as the young Liam, now revealed to be an ex-Green Beret who served in Colombia fighting drug cartels. Now back in the US, he's on a train with his sister when she's killed during a shootout with some men Standen thinks were after him. He then has to go on the hunt to find the man who sent them and who wants to punish him for some of his past actions. 

Although he doesn't know it, he's drawn the attention of a covert unit headed by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Chicago Code, Proof) that operates outside the rest of the US intelligence community. Wanting to get to said bad guy, too, she's happy to use Standen as bait but if he can get there by himself, that's a win, too. 

Guess whom she wants to hire by the end of the episode…

Taken is as much a prequel to the movie as Bates Motel is to Psycho, being resolutely set in modern times rather than the 70s or 80s, right down to ubiquitous iPhones. But at least Bates Motel aspires to set up the events that lead to its parent movie in some way. Here Standen arrives fully formed as an action hero, in little need of building up an already potent skillset that nevertheless seems unlikely even for a Green Beret. There's the occasional reference to his not being married or having children yet ("Pray you never have a daughter"), but that's about it.

Neither does it embody any of those unique qualities of the movie. The show's clearly setting up Standen becoming part of a undercover team to fight drug cartel actions in North America (and possibly South America), so is going to be almost nothing like the movie. Indeed, rather than being a prequel to Taken it's better to think of the series as NBC's attempt to do its own version 24, since it has a more or less identical set-up, with Standen basically Jack Bauer in the Kim-less seasons, Beals and co the CTU of the piece.

Standen is at least a decent stand-in for both Sutherland and indeed Neeson - a former international Thai boxer and fencing gold medalist, he was also born in Northern Ireland and actually makes the effort to do a sort of blended American-Northern Irish accent à la Liam. Also among the cast is The Unit's Michael Irby, who's obviously got a good action pedigree to draw on, too.

Although there are plenty of moments during the pilot where you find yourself asking "Why doesn't he just…?" or "Why did he do that, FFS?", Taken also does at least have some surprisingly good action scenes (unlike Taken 2 and Taken 3) and from time to time, actually does something surprising, different or unusual from the usual beats and twists of action TV plotting.

Nevertheles, Taken is largely still a generic series that offers little to really differentiate it from any other semi-ensemble action TV show. It could be worth watching if later episodes take the show in new or unusual directions or make it more similar to the movie, but at the moment, Taken is Taken in name-only.

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February 24, 2017

Review: The Good Fight 1x1 (US: CBS All Access)

Posted on February 24, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Good Fight

In the US: Sundays, CBS All Access

Spin-offs are a tricky business. You want to try to attract as many people to watch them as possible. Yet if you make the spin-off too different, maybe the fans of the original show won't like it and won't watch; meanwhile, those who didn't watch the original won't watch because they know it's a spin-off. But if you make the spin-off too similar, the fans might get bored of seeing more of the same, while everyone else won't watch for exactly the same reasons they didn't watch the original.

The Good Wife was an ultimately much raved about drama in which Julianna Margulies returned to work as a lawyer after her cheating husband got locked up. I quite enjoyed it but I ended up watching only a few episodes, since it wasn't so good I wanted to stick it out beyond episode three, so I never really got to learn why everyone ended up loving it so much in later episodes.

Now we have The Good Fight, a spin-off from The Good Wife that's also the first show put out exclusively on CBS's new online-only Hulu rival, CBS All Access. And it all seems a bit familiar, even to me.

For starters, it sees Christine Baranski reprise her role as one of Margulies' mentors at her law firm, from which she's just about to retire. However, before you can say "well, how are they going to have a legal show if she's retired?", her accountant (CSI's Paul Guilfoyle) is revealed to have possibly been the architect of a Ponzi Scheme and all her money is now either missing or tied up in the investigation. Retirement? Not for you.

Trouble is, her old firm wants her gone and her association with Guilfoyle means none of her clients want to go with her if she leaves. Fortunately, there's another law firm for which Delroy Lindo and Good Wife regular Cush Jumbo work that might be interested in hiring her, so she can do good works, instead of defending the indefensible. Will she join the good guys and fight The Good Fight?

Well, duh.

Coming with her is Rose Leslie (the red-headed wildling from Game of Thrones), Guilfoyle's newly graduated lawyer daughter and former golden girl, who's now as toxic as Baranski, so it's basically The Good Wife again, in which an older female lawyer partnered by a younger (gay) woman rediscovers her worth and ambitions through a new job. There are what felt like a lot of references to that show and a certain degree of foreknowledge required of the viewers, such as the opening scene of Baranski watching the Trump inauguration silently devastated which is never referred to again, but I'm assuming is a reference to her political sensibilities. But it wasn't so debilitating that I couldn't understand or enjoy what was going on.

To be honest, while it's not hugely different from any number of other legal dramas, The Good Fight is at least well written, has a good cast and is occasionally funny. Possessed of no fewer than three Brits in its line-up pretending to be American (Lindo, Leslie and Jumbo), it's happy to mock that fact for the audience's pleasure by getting Delroy to ask Jumbo to answer phones in a London accent. Lockhart's loss of her retirement plans is a source of pathos, as is the fact the show also frequently has much poorer people who suffered from the Ponzi scheme explaining they've worked for 20 years and got nothing to show for it, too. TMZ investigations of Leslie and her girlfriend also enable Jumbo to offer friendship in a time of need by offering advice from Margulies' experiences, and Lockhart's relationship with her possibly soon to be ex-husband (Gary Cole) is actually quite touching.

But The Good Fight is nothing that new as a legal drama, even less so for anyone who's watched The Good Wife. Maybe that's why it's on CBS All Access - it would probably get cancelled quickly on broadcast TV but being quite cheap to make and on the Internet, it could find a niche quite easily. 

I'll probably give episode two a watch at least to see if takes the show in a different direction. Nevertheless, I suspect that just as with The Good Wife, I'll be out after three, even though there's nothing that wrong with it.

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