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June 9, 2015

Review: Sense8 1x1-1x2 (Netflix)

Posted on June 9, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Sense8

There’s a reason that HBO makes all the best US shows. Lots of reasons in fact. At a basic level, it’s got oodles of cash so it can afford to splurge on high production standards. It’s also a premium cable show, which means that it can show pretty much anything: sex, violence, swearing, drug-taking – whatever it wants, more or less.

But most importantly, it gives TV producers creative control. No network executives monitoring scripts, sending notes, telling the writers to make character x more likeable, character y less gay and situation z less East Coast. Here’s your big pile of money, give us 10 episodes, off you go and don’t come back until you’re good and ready.

Simples.

So naturally Netflix, attempting to burst into the worldwide TV scene and wanting to overturn the idea of Internet TV being cheap and nasty, essentially emulated HBO’s model with its own productions. The slight twist is that it combined the HBO production model with the DVD release model: almost without exception, it’s released all episodes of its shows at the same time, usually on a Friday, so we can binge-watch them over the weekend.

Sometimes this has worked very well, giving us true TV classics such as House of Cards and Daredevil that you almost can’t stop watching as soon as they’re released.

But the model does have flaws, both in terms of production and release. With Grace and Frankie and Bloodline, for example, somebody somewhere needed to tell the shows’ creators that they were spending an awful lot of money on something that wasn’t very good. They really needed a network executive saying character x need to be more likeable, character y more gay and situation z less Florida Everglades. They also needed someone to point out it’s no use structuring a show to be watched in one go, if the individual episodes are so uninspiring, no one can be bothered to watch the next one.

Sense8 is perhaps the epitome of all the flaws of the Netflix model and is so far, quite easily the worst show that Netflix has put out. Two episodes in, it’s getting better, but that’s from a very, very low starting point.

On paper, the show should be good. For starters, it’s created by the Wachowskis, who created and directed The Matrix, and J Michael Straczynski, who’s best known for creating Babylon 5 but was BAFTA-nominated for his script for Clint Eastwood's Changeling. The Wachowskis are also directing it.

The show itself is essentially Heroes, with strangers around the world waking up to discover they have strange new abilities and that they’re all linked somehow. There’s even a Mohinder-alike (played by Lost/The Buddha of Suburbia’s Naveen Andrews) to go around the world to each of them and explain what’s happening to them.

The main difference between this and Heroes is that rather than be able to fly, have super strength, etc, the sensate ‘sense eight’ can share each other’s senses – they can see, hear, feel, taste, etc, everything that the others experience. They can even tap into each other’s knowledge. Or at least they could if they could understand what they are…

…and each other. Because this is a show that celebrates diversity and empathy. Right from its “look at the wonders of the world and humanity” title sequence through to the end credits of each episode, Sense8 wants you to experience the joys of living from every possible person’s point of view. So the eight include a gay Spanish actor, a Chinese female martial artist/businesswoman, a trans, lesbian San Francisco hacker, a Chicago cop, a young female drug addict DJ who’s down and out in London, an Indian bride-to-be, an African bus driver and more.

All of which is admirable and oodles of cash have been spent to give us worldwide filming. It lacks a little bit of local knowledge, giving us a London filled with Mancs and a penniless girl who manages to live in a bedsit within walking of St Paul’s, but it’s all very lavishly filmed, with the Wachowskis' typical flair for the visual.

The trouble is that for at least the first episode and a half, not only is all this taken to be sufficient in and of itself, but clearly no one’s told the Wachowskis that maybe they need to be a little bit more disciplined.

There is an attempt to give us a plot, with Andrews, who is himself sensate, trying to protect the Sense8 from someone called Whispers who’s also sensate but killing off the sensate. Or something.

If that previous paragraph sounds ludicrous, that’s because it is and so is the show.

All the same, despite that plot starting itself and the show off with Daryl Hannah committing suicide, nothing happens as a result of it that’s in any way exciting until the end of the second episode, when we get Andrews doing all kinds of cool things. But that’s two hours in.

Until then, we get not so much a bunch of characters as a bunch of Very Important Characters who represent Very Important Things and only do and talk about Very Important Things. Must go to Pride parade with black lesbian girlfriend. Must make video explaining to the world importance of Pride parade. Must have disapproving parent who doesn’t accept my life choices. Must show importance of women’s rights in India. Must show difficulty of coming out when in the public spotlight. And so on.

In between all these Very Important Things, there is the constant repetition for each of the Sense8 of numerous scenes of them experiencing what the others are experiencing and then shaking it off as an hallucination – “What can it all mean? Am I going mad?” No, but possibly the audience is, having already seen this five times before and confidently expecting it at least another two times.

And in between this epic point underlining are interminable scenes showing off the various cultures and locations. For example, Indian bride-to-be’s fiancé puts on a faux Bollywood dance number for her at their party. It’s a lovely idea, but it only really needed 10 seconds of time to make the point. But the Wachowskis instead choose to give us the entire dance number.

The result of all of this, coupled with some of the worst dialogue since someone put The Starlost through Google Translate and back again, is that the first episode is among the worst things I’ve ever seen on TV. It makes Artemis 81 look vibrant, exciting and unpretentious.

There is just enough of an uptick at the end of episode two that I might try episode three. But I can’t imagine there’s a single human being who made it through to the end of episode one who was cheerfully looking forward to the next episode, unless they were hoping to see more of Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman doing naughty things with her girlfriend while faking an American accent for no good reason.

I guess if there’s a lesson here, it’s that if you’re going to give creative freedom to creators, either be very careful to whom you give that freedom or be prepared for some epic failures as well as successes. Sense8 is a very ambitious, beautiful plea for empathy and tolerance and to learn to love and accept people for all their diversity. It’s also an example of how even the best creatives can need a dispassionate eye to look over their work and reign them in.

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June 9, 2015

Third-episode verdict: Between (Netflix)

Posted on June 9, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerBetween.jpgA Barrometer rating of 5

Even if you are an REM hater, 'The End of the World As We Know It' has never been more boring than in Between. A co-production between Netflix and Canada's CityTV, it sees virtually everyone in the absurdly titled town of Pretty Lake aged over 21 keel over and die of a mysterious, unknown ailment. With thousands dead in just a few days, the government quarantines Pretty Lake, sticking an electric fence round it, leaving behind a town full of kids running riot while surrounded by the slowly putrifying corpse of every adult relative and mentor they've ever known.

The latter point should be a dramatic focus of the show, you'd have thought, with traumatised teenagers and infants blubbing and suffering from shock at their terrifying orphaning. But although episode two managed to give us kids dragging the dead bodies of their parents et al into a communal pit filled with thousands of bodies, followed by a group cremation, generally they've not been that upset. A bit miffed and puzzled as to what's happening; a bit keen to send lots of texts, mope around with their boyfriends and girlfriends, and settle old scores with a bit of glowering. But they were actually all a lot more saddened by their loss of mobile phone coverage in episode three.

As I mentioned in my review of the first episode, the show almost goes out of its way not to be too interesting or Lord of the Flies. None of the characters have anything going for them, having the self-centred entitlement of the typical teenager combined with the collective charisma of Ryvitas and a complete inability to care about the horrific deaths of their own parents right in front of their own eyes - not a Bruce Wayne among this lot, it seems. The show pushes the envelope of plausibility to open up possibly exciting plot scenarios, by giving the small town of Pretty Lake not only its own prison full of murderers but a zoo from which a tiger has escaped. But it's a sign of the pausity of the show's storytelling capabilities that this has so far failed to produce even the slightest thrill. There's an escaped tiger everyone… an escaped tiger. No? Don't really care. Okay.

Between's biggest lure is its mysterious ailment, neither bacterium nor virus, affecting only those over 21 and striking without symptoms or leaving a trace. Yet the show leaves that lying around in the background, barely touching upon it, in the exact same way Revolution chose to ignore its electricity-destroying nanites until it was too late for anyone to give a toss about them.

So after three episodes of enduring mind-numbing tedium, combined with a laughable ability to paint even a slightly plausible picture of either small town or post-apocalyptic life, I'm thinking it's time to give up on this. But, you know, whatevs.

Barrometer rating: 5
TMINE prediction: If Netflix renews this for a second season, I'll eat my hat

May 29, 2015

What have you been watching? Including Ex Machina, 3 Days To Kill, Community and Game of Thrones

Posted on May 29, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

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.

Can you feel it? Can you? The summer season of TV is starting everyone! New things to watch! Hooray!

Okay, it’s starting slowly this week, but next week, we should have even more. Nevertheless, elsewhere, I’ve already reviewed the first episode of Netflix’s Between and previewed both Supergirl and Mr Robot. I’m also planning to review NBC’s new Charles Manson drama, Aquarius, and preview CBS’s new ‘comedy’ Crowded separately. But they’ll have to wait until next week now.

After the jump, the current TV regulars: Community, Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley. But first, a couple of film reviews!

Ex Machina (2015) (iTunes)
Domhnall Gleeson is a programmer working at a very Google-like company of the near future, who wins a employee lottery the prize of which is to spend a week with the company’s owner, Oscar Isaac. There he has the chance to try a new Turing Test variant on gynoid Alicia Vikander. The new question is – despite knowing she’s a robot, will he still decide she’s intelligent and care about her? And will she care about him? Except, of course, all is not what it seems…

Written and direct by Alex Garland, it’s very clever and very beautifully shot, if a little slow and, towards the end, exploitative, with great performances all round. However, it would probably have had a much bigger impact on me if I hadn’t seen the low budget but very similar and considerably more entertaining and action-packed Caity Lotz version The Machine just a few months ago. Watch that instead.

3 Days to Kill (2014) (Netflix)
Sometimes, knowing too much about a movie can either make it or kill it. Or sometimes both. Here, we have what is essentially Taken, with Kevin Costner as an ageing CIA agent in Paris who has to come to terms with the fact that he hasn’t been a great husband or father to his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), all while killing lots of bad guys and occasionally homaging The Bodyguard.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise since the script is by Luc Besson. So on that level, there’s some information that might make you want to watch the movie and actually, if that’s all you had to go on, that would probably be a reasonably good summary of its strengths. If you know what a Luc Besson action movie is like, you’ll know more or less what to expect (comedy, comedy sidekick, French-speaking Africans, kids, insane Paris car chases, women with guns, etc).

So now I’ll add a little extra fact to the mix: Amber Heard is Costner's boss. This may or may not make you want to watch it, although Heard actually does pretty well in the acting stakes here, and there are some funny scenes involving her and Costner determining exactly what ‘young’ means to both of them (“32? Middle-aged, grandpa!”).

So let’s drop the last factette on you: it’s directed by McG. This should send you running to the hills and certainly you can expect a few exploitative and crass McG tropes in here, too. But actually, it’s largely just McG emulating Besson, so forget I just told you this information – if you can do that, you might actually half enjoy it. It’s not brilliant, but it is a lot more Besson than McG.

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