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An archive of the blog's film reviews. There's also an archive and an A-Z index of all reviews.


March 27, 2017

What have you been watching? Including The Arrangement, Midnight Sun, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Posted on March 27, 2017 | 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 and your chance to recommend anything you've been watching.

After last week's Marvel's Iron Fist (Netflix) and Snatch (US: Crackle) action, with only a verdict on Making History (US: Fox) for a bit of variety, I've had time to play catch-up with my viewing. After the jump, I'll be talking about the latest episodes of The Americans, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, The Good Fight, Imposters, Legion and The Magicians.

But that's not all. We're nearly up to date (shucks) with Westworld now, but I'll save my comments to next week, when there's a good chance we might have finished it by then. I also should have reviews of Shots Fired (US: Fox) and Nobodies (US: TV Land) up this week, as well as possibly Amazon's first German-language show You Are Wanted

On top of that, I've even been to the theatre and watched quite a few episodes of some new shows that I don't have time to review in full:

The Arrangement (US: E!)
E!'s choice for its first venture into scripted television was slightest unwise: The Royals, a slightest farcical, hugely unfunny piece about the British royal family. The Arrangement is a slightly wiser pick that plays to E!'s core competencies: salaciousness and celebrity.

A thinly veiled allusion to… (hey libel lawyers - can I say who? No. Oh. Okay…) a certain celebrity couple, it sees Christine Evangelista (Lucky 7) playing a smart but careerless young actress. One day, she attracts the attention of superstar actor Josh Henderson (Desperate Housewives, Dallas) at an audition for his new movie and before you know it, he's whisking her off in his private jet to buy islands. 

However, looking after Henderson's career are producer Lexa Doig (Arrow, Andromeda, Continuum) and Michael Vartan (Alias), the proprietor of a self-help institute that has rather a few similarities to Scientology. Before Evangelista's even on her second date, they're getting her to sign a $10m marriage contract that plots out the two love-birds' relationship, including pretty much every aspect of what Evangelista can and can't do with her life. Should she sign it, become world famous as Henderson's wife and kick start her career in his movie? Or is the creepy weirdness of it too off-putting?

The show is actually surprisingly credible and even a bit of slow burn, clearly intent on showing how an actress and definitely not a specific one who's smart and talented and who raps about Shakespeare in her spare time could walk eyes-open into a relationship with a charming actor who's still famously a nut-job, in preference to waiting tables and dealing with her two-timing beau.

The first episode is quite a delightful little romance in its own right, as Evangelista and Henderson 'click', have a whirlwind romance and then have a lot of basic-cable sex in Venice and Mexico. It's not perfect - I didn't know whether I was supposed to be laughing when Evangelista excels at her audition by crying through lines like "I got close to you so that I could devise the perfect plan to kill you", after which Henderson chases after her to say "That's what acting is supposed to be" in a way supposed to indicate how deep he is - but it was quite sweet, quite fun and it felt like a certain degree of E!'s collective knowledge about celebrity lifestyles had gone into it.

It's over the course of the next couple of episodes that the show becomes a bit more mundane and darker, as we see Henderson punching out photographers who come after Evangelista and Vartan getting heavies seemingly to take out ex-girlfriends of Henderson. The third episode feels less about the ongoing themes and more about "Gosh, wouldn't it be nice to have a lot of money. Oh no! People might sell old photographs of me for money now I'm famous!" There's still a degree of smartness to proceedings, including time jumps in the narrative, and the leads are all still firing on all four cylinders, but it's less fun than it was when it started.

Whether the show will become simply a modern-day Cinderella, with Henderson throwing off Vartan the Wicked Stepmother in favour of true love, or whether it'll all end in divorce, murder investigations and recriminations, isn't clear at this point. But there are enough hints that it's not going to be all ball gowns and coaches that it might well be worth sticking with.

Barrometer rating: 3

Midnattssol/Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) (France: Canal+; Sweden: SVT; UK: Sky Atlantic) 
A curious bit of Nordic Noir that feels like SVT (Sweden) wished it could have more episodes of Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Canal+ (France) wished it could have more episodes of The Tunnel (Tunnel), so the two of them sat down together to create a weird French/Swedish/English hybrid of the two. Midnattssol/Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) sees a bizarre murder involving a French national take place in rural Sweden. Lead investigator Peter Stormare (Swedish Dicks, Fargo, Prison Break) asks the French police for their help and they send Leïla Bekhti (Paris je t'aime, A Prophet). But soon it turns out that it's not the only murder and that the murder victim was a member of the French Foreign Legion.

Midnight Sun is strange. Even before the title sequence has rolled, we have "Death by being attached to a helicopter rotor and whirled around a lot", which is just plain nonsense. Then at the end of the first episode (spoiler alert) Stormare dies of a stroke after the entire ground opens up in front of him - the nearby iron ore mine is so huge, so important that the fact it's causing quakes and other problems means that rather than the mine be closed down, the town itself is being moved instead. Which is an odd choice that suggests a bit of funding money was needed.

After that, the focus is more on Bekhti's relationship with Stormare's deputy, Gustaf Hammarsten (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), which is a far more comedic partnership, although Stormare's relationship with his wife is still both warm and amusing. By contrast to the experienced Stormare, however, Hammarsten is inept, constantly joking and constantly has problems with his teenage daughter.

The show also plays to cultural differences. Bekhti speaks French back in France and with other French people; Hammarsten and Stormare speak Swedish; none of them speak each other's languages so the rest of the time, the dialogue is in English. But that still leaves plenty of time for jokes, with Bekhti's request to Hammarsten to say a Swedish place name results in "It's spelt as it's pronounced", which results in Bekhti telling a colleague to "just Google it". Meanwhile, Hammarsten and Stormare's boss is advising about the use of the French word 'bordel' (brothel) as a way of meaning 'it's a mess' (well, it does but… What could possibly go wrong?), which is something a French audience will certainly have fun with. As the name suggests, Bekhti also has to deal with the Insomnia-esque issue of the constant daylight in her new home away from home.

However, the central dynamic of the two investigators isn't that compelling, Bekhti's having to deal with the news of her brother's death and occasional desire to impale her hand on spikes usually makes her a little joyless, and I'm a bit tired of grotesque deaths and mutilations by genius killers, even if you aren't. I'll probably watch some more of it, because later episodes look at the local native culture more, but this isn't the instant classic Broen/Bron was.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Old Vic - Until 6 May)
The play that made Tom Stoppard's name, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead takes two minor characters from Hamlet who appear in a few scenes and are then declared dead, and catapults them into their own play, imagining what they got up to in between scenes and using those dialogues to discuss the nature of fiction, the nature of theatre, what it is to be a thinly drawn supporting character and to critique Hamlet itself. The play is an amazing piece of work, clever and witty, written in modern day English except whenever it meets up with the mothership again, where it uses the original's dialogue.

However… the two leads are Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively (or is that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?). Whichever way round it is, it was the wrong choice, because while McGuire is perfectly good and has decent presence, Radcliffe, who has the more passive character, is… passive and uncharismatic as the role demands, but far more so than necessary, resulting in a chemistry-less pairing and McGuire doing all the heavy lifting. Director David Leveaux also allows the two to rush the dialogue, perhaps to keep the play to its very tight two and a half hour runtime, meaning that it's almost impossible to savour the writing and sometimes to even hear it.

Both McGuire and Radcliffer, however, are eclipsed by the more seasoned David Haig (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Yes, Prime Minister) as the leader of the strolling players. Direction is fine, although quite sexualised, and the party of teenage schoolkids behind me couldn't quite cope, so spent the whole time commenting on it. Try to ensure you don't have an audience of easily embarrassed schoolkids behind you if you're going to watch it.

To be honest, not a great production, but a perfectly solid one and enough of the text shines through that it's still no failure. Try the movie instead, though.

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March 13, 2017

What have you been watching? Including Arrival (2016) and The Americans

Posted on March 13, 2017 | 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 and your chance to recommend anything you've been watching.

Grrr. Aargh. Sundays. They really make this whole thing harder. As of last week, there was already The Good Fight, Billions, Time After Time and Making History, but now American Crime is back and there's The Arrangement to watch, too. So, given I do actually have a day job and the whole of Marvel's Iron Fist is coming out on Netflix this Friday, let's face facts and accept I'm going to be a week behind with everything that airs on Sunday from now.

Soz.

All the same, Time After Time will be getting a third-episode verdict later this week, seeing as I reviewed the first two last week; and I'll be casting my eyes over the first two episodes of The Arrangement (US) as well, so there is at least hope in sight.

Elsewhere this week, I reviewed the first episode of Making History and passed verdict on The Good Fight, which means that after the jump, I'll be looking at the latest episodes of: 24: Legacy, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Imposters, Legion, Lethal Weapon, The Magicians, Powerless and Taken, as well as the season finale of Man Seeking Woman. The observant will notice I haven't watched Fortitude or Prime Suspect 1973 this week. Sorry about that, although it probably says something about both them that I haven't pushed myself to watch either.

However, I did watch the first episode of the new season of The Americans, which I'll also be covering after the jump. And in other news, I'm going to drop not one but two regular shows this week. Can you guess which?

I also managed to watch a movie at the weekend, mind.

Arrival (2016)
Mysterious aliens 'the heptapods' arrive on Earth, but they don't speak Earth languages. It's the job of linguist Amy Adams and theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner (a 'Christmas Jones' on the plausible casting scale) to try to learn how to communicate with them and find out what they want.

Arrival was heavily hyped as the new 2001 of intelligent science-fiction movies, so we went into this with high expectations, particularly given what language nerds lovely wife and I both are. Disappointed we were. Disappointed.

While there was a little bit about the difficulties of learning any language, this was a bowdlerised version of the original book's linguistic intrigue…

The heptapods have two distinct forms of language. Heptapod A is their spoken language, which is described as having free word order and many levels of center-embedded clauses.… Unlike its spoken counterpart, Heptapod B has such complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence.

…in much the same way as The Martian changed the original book's constant Macgyvering-in-extremis into a far simpler tale of surviving against the odds.

Even so, despite some beautiful visual direction, Arrival is largely a film in which Renner and Adams repeatedly go into a room, see some circles, then go away again, interspersed with Adams thinking about her dead daughter. Tension and excitement there are not.

That said, there is a point in the movie when Adams finally learns the aliens' language where Arrival comes together, everything becomes clear and the movie becomes a much more interesting piece thanks to a couple of properly genius ideas. There are a couple of scenes that probably will linger for a long time in the memory, too.

Not so much the new 2001, then, so much as the new (spoilers, because they're very, very similar) Interstellar.

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January 23, 2017

What have you been watching? Including The Magnificent Seven, Shooter, Lucifer and The Man in the High Castle

Posted on January 23, 2017 | 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 and your chance to recommend anything you've been watching. 

I know there are a lot of new show coming soon. They really are. They're just not here yet.

That means that in the past week, I've only reviewed Six (US: History) and passed a third-episode verdict on Emerald City (US: NBC; UK: 5*). I'll be deluged again soon and complaining about it, I know….

Anyway, a few oldies are back in the schedules again, which means that as well as The Great Indoors, Lethal Weapon, Man Seeking Woman and Son of Zorn, I'll be covering Lucifer and Timeless and the season finale of Shooter. I also managed to squeeze in a few episodes of The Man in the High Castle. And I watched a movie.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Antoine Fuqua's insipid remake of the classic 1960 Western, in which black-clad gunslinger Denzel Washington puts together a group of similarly iconic gunslingers to help protect Haley Bennett's village from powerful rich guy Peter Sarsgaard.

The film goes through most of the same motions as the original, from the introduction and recruitment of each of the remaining seven (Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Vincent D'Onofrio and Martin Sensmeier) through the training of the villagers to the eventual battle with the baddies, but without ever really making you care about any of them, beyond the fact they're Lee Byung-hun, Chris Pratt and Vincent D'Onofrio. Indeed, unlike both the original and the film's ultimate antecedent, Shichinin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai), the film only really comes alive when it's an action scene, the characters proving otherwise unendearing or even interesting.

A few lines from the original ("If God had not wanted them shawn, he would not have made them sheep") manage to sneak in, but they only sure up the rest of the script's ultimate emptiness, and the frequent clichéd homages to Westerns in general only serve to make the movie look hackneyed.

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