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February 16, 2015

What have you been watching? Including Gallipoli, The Slap (US) and The Doctor Blake Mysteries

Posted on February 16, 2015 | comments | 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.

Time, I think, for another purge. "Why, Rob?" you may ask. “Lots of shows such as Constantine, Ground Floor, Spiral (Engrenages) and State of Affairs are finishing anyway, so why purge any more?”

Because it’s a good habit to get into, that’s why. Rather than simply watch whatever floats past out eyes, shouldn’t we examining everything, seeing if it’s still worth it, and abandoning anything that really isn’t serving a purpose it might once have? Hence, a purge.

Plus I’m away for a few days next week and there are some new shows starting soon, so I need to claw back a little time.

So dropping off the viewing list this week are the following:

Allegiance (US: NBC)
After the first episode’s cliffhanger ending, we have the most obvious cop-out imaginable that makes super-genius son look a complete idiot. And unless Hope Davis was mumbling for most of last week (possible) or I just wasn’t paying attention and didn’t notice it (possible), this week she seems to have acquired the world’s worst Russian accent. No more of this fresh hell for me, thank you.

Better Call Saul (US: AMC; UK: Netflix)
I wasn’t a fan of Breaking Bad, I’m not finding the first few episodes great so far. Maybe I’ll pick it up again later (thanks, Netflix). But right now, it’s not for me.

Fresh Off The Boat (US: ABC)
I was hoping Nahnatchka Khan’s magic was going to be enough to get the show improving over time. But despite a winning performance by Constance Wu, episode three proved to be laugh-free.

Gotham (US: Fox; UK: Channel 5)
If it hadn’t been a Batman prequel, I would have dropped it by now. But one good episode isn’t sufficient to maintain my interest and although we actually had the Penguin and the Riddler meet this week, it was yet again a brief flash of interest in an otherwise turgid episode.

Hiding (Australia: ABC)
Each hour-long episode probably has about enough plot and laughs for half an hour. Even then, when the show sets up a glorious opportunity to do something good – our ex-crim turned faux doctoral student in criminal psychology given a chance to lecture on what makes crims tick – it bottles it and tries to save up what morsels of goodness it does have for another episode.

Man Seeking Woman is hanging on a thread, too. But I won’t be giving up just yet.

I also tried two new mini-series this week.

Gallipoli (Australia: Nine)
The Gallipoli campaign of the First World War (its centenary is in April) is a strange affair. Rarely mentioned in the UK except perhaps as an example of yet another thing with which Winston Churchill was involved before the Second World War that he inevitably cocked-up, elsewhere in the world it’s of vital importance. An attempt by the Allies to take Constantinople that stalled in Gallipoli, it was the moment for Australia and New Zealand that they decided that being part of the British Empire wasn’t that great, while for the Turks, it was the spur that eventually led to their later independence under the leadership of Gallipoli hero Mustafa Kemal.

Based on the book of the same name, this nine-part Australian mini-series is effectively Australia’s Band of Brothers, attempting to take a balanced approach to the campaign, with Brits, ANZACs and Turks treated equitably by the producers, as the horrors and inevitabilities of war, coupled with human nature, force everyone into untenable positions that eventually results in untold slaughter.

The first two episodes are light on characterisation, largely sticking to re-enacting the war and focusing on one teenage soldier (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he learns to kill and survive, although there are scenes involving famous figures, including British war reporter Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, here played by Gaius Baltar himself James Callis, and Mustafa Kemal (Yalin Ozucelik), although he’s not yet been identified by name.

It’s a very creditable, often moving piece of work, even having been filmed in Turkey, although the CGI (and some of the accents) are a bit flakey. Worth watching if you have an interest in history, particularly history that’s important to people in the rest of the world, and don’t mind a heavy emphasis on warfare.

The Slap (US: NBC)
A remake of the Australian mini-series of the same name, which in turn was based on the book of the same. A Greek-American family and friends all get together to celebrate the 40th birthday of Peter Sarsgaard. Except midway through the party, cousin Zachary Quinto hits a misbehaving child and all Hell breaks loose.

While this is obviously an attempt by NBC to put on a prestige series about a Very Important Topic, with a Very Important Cast (Uma Thurman, Thandie Newton, Brian Cox), it’s creatively flawed at pretty much every level. Some of that is the fault of the source material – assuming, of course, the original thought a 40-year-old man considering an affair with a teenager was in any way a good idea. But a lot of it’s down to casting. Melissa George, who reprises her role from the original, has minimal to do, but attempts by Sarsgaard, Cox and Quinto to demonstrate their Greekness result in some of the worst Greek yet put on screen, with Cox and Quinto often forced to use the time honoured “mumble, talk in someone’s ear or cover my face with my hand when I’m ‘speaking' this language. Oh wait, let’s speak English for no good reason!” technique of ensuring that no one can hear them speaking Greek, lest we all find out how bad they are. Unfortunately, we do.

On top of this, we get Sarsgaard grouching about the fact a woman – a Latina, at that! Heavens! – got the job he wanted and the whole thing feels like some sad, middle-aged white man somewhere got a bit upset that he wasn’t allowed to do sh*tty things with impunity any more, and decided to write a bit of wallowing self-pity about what the world’s come to.

Episode two might be better, though.

After the jump, then, I’ll be looking at last week’s episodes of 12 Monkeys, 19-2, The Americans, Arrow, Banshee, The Blacklist, Constantine, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Flash, Forever, Fortitude, Ground Floor, Man Seeking Woman, Marvel’s Agent Carter, Spiral (Engrenages), State of Affairs and Suits.

I also watched a movie.

Valentine’s Day (2010) (iTunes)
Slightly tepid Gary Marshall (Pretty Woman) ensemble movie that attempts to Crash/Love Actually St Valentine’s Day, with various couples getting together and breaking up on Valentine’s Day as their various stories all intersect each other. Jamie Foxx, Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel, Queen Latifah, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Alba, Shirley Maclaine, Eric Dane and others are among the star-crossed lovers unfortunately trapped in LA, with not a single one of the stories plausible or even especially romantic, with only one or two surprises in the whole thing. The final two couple revelations are almost worth the prize of admission, though.

But last week was Greek week in London. Yes, students at two universities, KCL and UCL, stage a Greek drama or tragedy at this time every year – just for larks, KCL's is in Ancient Greek with super-titling!

The Clouds (KCL: Greenwood Theatre)
Aristophanes’s comedies are always tricky boys to dramatise, not least because a lot of the humour only works in Ancient Greek, but because attempts to make them funny also tend to fall flat. So it’s to director Oliver Harrington’s credit that he managed to make The Clouds, in which a rustic farmer with debts decides to learn sophistry from Socrates so that he can talk his way out his problems, actually very funny. While some of the cast (and the supertitler…) struggled with the Greek a little, Harrington managed to mix the old and new, acting with singing, crude and sophisticated together in one show and for it all to work. I did get slapped by a phallus midway through, though.

Bacchae (UCL: Bloomsbury Theatre)
UCL have it a little easier, working in English, but The Bacchae was no less memorable, with Emily Louizou’s more timeless production managing to bring out the religious aspects of Euripides’ original play, to give us a truly frightening and charismatic Dionysus (Pavlos Christodoulou), who can bend reality to his will and make mortals do the unthinkable.

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February 2, 2015

What have you been watching? Including Gone Girl, Suits, Spiral, The Blacklist and The Americans

Posted on February 2, 2015 | comments | 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.

It's February. How did that happen? Anyway, what with the Superbowl and the fact that no one launches any new shows at the end of January, it's been a relatively quiet week in terms of new shows, with only Sky/Pivot bucking the trend to give us Fortitude. On the other hand, a few old hands have returned with new seasons...

After the break then, all the regulars, including 12 Monkeys, 19-2, The Americans, Arrow, Banshee, Constantine, Elementary, The Flash, Gotham, Ground Floor, Hindsight, Man Seeking Woman, Spiral (Engrenages), State of Affairs, and Suits. The observant will notice that neither Cougar Town nor Marvel's Agent Carter are on that list: that's because I'm watching them with my wife and she only watches TV - get this - when she's in the mood. It's just inconceivable, isn't it? I also tried to watch Backstrom's second episode but failed, as it was even less engrossing than the first episode.

But that relative lull means I've been able to squeeze in a movie this week.

Gone Girl (2014) (iTunes, Amazon Prime)
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike meet, fall in love and get married. Then one day, Affleck returns home to find his wife gone in mysterious circumstances. But it's not long before the finger starts pointing at him. Novelist Gillian Flynn adapted her own bestseller for this slightly meandering, variable piece, shot with the usual visual precision by David Fincher. By turns disturbing, upsetting and even comedically ridiculous, the film veers close to misogyny, but the specificity of Affleck and Pike's characters means they can't be generalised to All Men and All Women or even to reality itself, such are some of the ludicrous twists. It's at its best when analysing the nature of media coverage of criminal cases and allowing the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack to dominate, at its worst when trying to convince the audience that This Could Happen.

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January 12, 2015

What have you been watching? Including Empire, Togetherness, Taken 3, Engrenages (Spiral) and Banshee

Posted on January 12, 2015 | comments | 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.

Slowly, broadcasters have been emerging from the Christmas holidays and into the New Year, like so many blinking cave dwellers faced with the removal of their entrance-blocking rocks. That means not only do we have some exciting (and not so exciting) new shows to deal with, we also have the return of some old favourites.

In the past week, I’ve reviewed VH1’s Hindsight and ABC’s Marvel’s Agent Carter, but I’ve managed to give a couple of other shows a glance over as well.

Empire (US: Wednesdays, 9/8c, Fox)
Compared to the last mainstream black show about hip hop moguls – Starz's depressingly exploitative and unpleasant Power – Fox’s Empire should be a masterpiece. It could well be, in fact. It’s created by Lee Daniels (Monsters Ball, Precious, The Butler) and Danny Strong (best known as Jonathan from Buffy The Vampire Slayer but he’s also the Emmy and Golden Blobe award-winning writer of Recount, Game Change, The Butler and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay [parts one and two]). It’s based on King Lear and The Lion In Winter. And it stars Terrence Howard (Iron Man, Hustle & Flow) and Taraji P Henson (Person of Interest). Howard is a former drug dealer who’s diagnosed with ALS and has to work out how to portion out his kingdom to his three sons.

Sounds quite good, doesn’t it, apart from the drug dealer bit, and it was certainly a whole lot better than Power. Unfortunately, within about five minutes, I began to realise there was going to be a whole load of R&B and hip hop assaulting my eardrums so I bowed out. I said no to Nashville, I’m saying no to Empire. Tough on music, tough on the causes of music, me.

Togetherness (US: Sundays, 9.30pm, HBO; UK: Mondays, 10.35pm, Sky Atlantic, starting tonight)
Most HBO comedies barely warrant the title, and for about the first 15 minutes of this ‘comedy’ from Steve Zissis and Jay and Mark Duplass, you get pretty much the same old, same old HBO. Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) are married but their relationship is struggling, with Lynskey preferring diddling herself with 50 Shades of Grey to having sex with Brett. Meanwhile, Brett’s friend from High School, Alex (Zissis) is being evicted and being fat and balding, his acting career isn’t really going anywhere, so he moves in with Brett and Michelle. At the same time, Michelle’s sister, Tina (Amanda Peet), is breaking up with her boyfriend and ends up moving in with them all, too.

For half the episode’s run, this feels like a standard #WhitePeoplesProblems affair, a somewhat introspective look at actors struggling in LA, marriages failing and the difficulties of dating when you’re older that we’ve seen innumerable times elsewhere. The idea that schlubby Zissis will eventually hit it off Peet, once named by People magazine as being one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, prompts an almost Pavlovian eye rolling, too. However, once Peet and Zissis meet, everything becomes a lot more fun and it actually starts to become a comedy at last. It’s still a bittersweet piece about people disappointed by life and not getting what they want, even when they think they have, so doing what they can to enjoy themselves, but it’s a lot more likeable than it seemed to be at first.

Still in the viewing queue because it’s a mini-series is the first episode of the Canadian Book of Negroes. But after the jump, I’ll look at the latest episodes of Banshee, Cougar Town, Elementary, Forever, Gotham, Ground Floor, The Librarians, Scorpion, Spiral (Engrenages) and State of Affairs, as well as, for no well explored reason, Person of Interest. One or perhaps even more than one is getting dropped this week – can you guess which one?

But first, movies!

Warrior (2011) – Netflix
Tom Hardy is an ex-marine; Joel Edgerton is a high school physics teacher. They’re brothers and former wrestling champions trained by their abusive alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). However, for different reasons, they end up fighting in the same MMA competition. Will they end up facing off in the final, maybe? Hmm. Despite the somewhat inauspicious plotting, Warrior is nevertheless actually a very good sports movie, shot Friday Night Lights style and managing to resist the obvious revelations or even a pat ending. The MMA’s a little basic, but still genuinely exciting. Frank Grillo (Captain America 2, Kingdom) pops up as a trainer, but does surprisingly little fighting.

Taken 3 (2014) - down 't cinema
Surprisingly, given the horror story that was Taken 2 and the fact Olivier “Taxi Brooklyn” Megaton is back directing, actually a much better affair than the second entry in the series was. Liam Neeson’s back but he’s in the US and no one’s been taken in this time, with Neeson framed for a murder and he having to escape from the law while protecting his family and finding out who really did the crime. The script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen touches on all the better aspects of Taken, with Neeson using some of his special set of CIA skills that don’t involve punching. Maggie Grace gets a lot to do for a change, too, albeit forced to play someone who’s about 10 years younger than herself. That’s the good side and everyone seems to enjoy that, even Neeson, although he seems a little tired and in need of a nice sit down and a Bovril at times.

True, the casting could be better, with most of the cast composed of people you’ll recognise from minor roles on TV shows, including Banshee and The Last Ship. Forest Whitaker heads up the cops, but he spends the entire time playing with a rubber band. None of this would be insurmountable, though.

But where it all goes to epic pants – literally at one point – is the action scenes. Even if Megaton, who’s an otherwise perfectly good director, could actually shoot an action scene in a way that was engrossing rather than soporific, it’s as though neither he nor the rest of the cast could be bothered. Every action scene might as well have been replaced with <<INSERT CONTRACTUALLY AND GENRE-OBLIGATED SCENE HERE>>. Ridiculous things happen and no one can even be bothered to explain how Neeson escaped them, lots of the best bits of Taken are reused and whenever something even slightly exciting is about to happen, the camera either looks away or some very bad CGI kicks in. Decent script – shame about the direction.

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