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June 12, 2015

What have you been watching? Including Big Hero 6, The Audience and Hannibal

Posted on June 12, 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.

Life is good. Summer is here. I’ve watched loads of tele. Elsewhere, I’ve reviewed and previewed:

I’ve also passed verdict on the first four episodes of UnREAL (US: Lifetime) and the first three of Between (Netflix). That means that after the jump, I’ll be looking at the latest episodes of: Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal, Sense8, Silicon Valley, Stitchers, Westside and The Whispers.

But before that, not only have I watched a movie, I’ve been to the theatre again:

Movies

Big Hero 6 (2014)
The first Disney animated movie to be based on a Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 sees a group of nerds come together to become science and technology superheroes when they’re faced with a man with an army of tiny robots. Led by a teenager called Hiro, they’re also helped by an inflatable healthcare robot called Baymax who can’t quite get to grips with this fighting thing superheroes do…

It’s actually quite a sweet little film, albeit with slightly traumatic moments that might disturb little children, with ironically Hiro learning from the caring Baymax how to be a better person and hero. Despite being a bit ‘boys and toys’, there are also a few good female nerd roles and some bits that will make you laugh out loud. The East meets West location of San Fransokyo is brilliantly realised, too.

Theatre

I’ve already reviewed The Oresteia (Almeida) elsewhere.

The Audience (Apollo Theatre)
Once a week, in a tradition that goes back to the time of Queen Victoria, the reigning monarch of the UK meets with the current Prime Minister to be updated on current events and to discuss matters of relevance to the both of them. In the hands of playwright Peter Morgan (The Queen), what could be purely a matter of historical interest instead becomes a song of praise to both the institution of the monarchy and the Queen herself.

The play flits between historical periods, giving us Prime Ministers from Churchill through to David Cameron, with the Queen acting as a fixed point in time who can compare Anthony Eden’s misadventures in Suez with Tony Blair’s in Iraq, Cameron’s small majority with Wilson’s, and act as a confessional for all of them. But it also looks at how the Queen herself changes over time, starting from a young, independent woman wanting to be involved in matters of state through to the mature monarch who accepts the needs of the constitution for her to back the government in everything, whatever she might feel personally. She also gets to have her own sounding board. Who, you might ask? Well, who could possibly provide the Queen with an audience except herself?

Rather than put the boot in as The Queen perhaps did, the play, which has been updated since its original run with Helen Mirren to include both Blair and Cameron at the expense of Callaghan, humanises both the Queen and all the Prime Ministers: Churchill is the traditionalist who mentors the new queen but also wants to postpone her coronation for political purposes and forces her not to change her name when she marries; Eden was right about Mussolini and Hitler and is convinced Nassar is the same; Wilson is the upstart socialist from Huddersfield with the eidetic memory who becomes paranoid as Alzheimer’s starts to rob him of his faculties; and Brown is the economics expert who believes his destiny was to lead the country - but who knows that he’s not got the right skills for the job. Even Major is redeemed: the man everyone remembers as little more than the tail end of Margaret Thatcher’s regime is here the man who brokered deals between warlords in the Balkans but who’s constantly undermined by his supposed allies.

And then there’s Margaret Thatcher…

Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as the Queen, having to endure numerous quick changes of costume and jumps between time period, yet still surely making even the most ardent republicans feel something for the most powerful woman in the world, the firm proponent of the Commonwealth who was happy as a mechanic in the war and who would probably vote Labour if she could. In this she’s helped considerably by Izzy Meikle-Small as her younger self, who’ll make you wonder if the Queen is really just a grown up Arya Stark.

Hats off also to David Calder (Star Cops) as Churchill, Gordon Kennedy (Absolutely) as Gordon Brown, Michal Gould as John Major, Nicholas Woodeson (Rome) as Harold Wilson, and Highlander’s David Robb as Anthony Eden.

I’ll happily confess that both my wife and I wept buckets during the play and would happily go and see it again.

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June 10, 2015

News: Channel 4's foreign language service, The Punisher joins Daredevil, Fame rebooted + more

Posted on June 10, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

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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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