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An archive of all the blog's reviews of TV programmes, films, DVDs, plays, audio plays and gadgets. There's also an A-Z index of all reviews.


January 20, 2015

Review: 12 Monkeys 1x1-1x2 (US/UK: Syfy)

Posted on January 20, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

12 Monkeys

In the US: Fridays, 9/8c, Syfy
In the UK: Acquired by Syfy UK. Begins 9pm, 27 February 

For quite some time now, Syfy has been coasting. Gone are the halcyon days when Battlestar Galactica was the toast of the town. Indeed, with a schedule intermittently packed with wrestling, reality shows and knowingly bad B-movies, it was possible to surmise that Syfy had changed its name from the Scifi channel not just for trademarking purposes but so it could avoid having to show sci-fi, with what little it did airbeing anaemic-to-poor knock-offs (Alphas) or imports (Continuum, Being Human, Bitten). 

However, for the past couple of years, Syfy has been trying to raise its game in original programming. Sometimes, the quality's been awful (Dominion, Z Nation), sometimes it's been okay (Defiance, Helix), but so far, nothing's been great.

12 Monkeys doesn't quite change that track record, but given what's gone before it, it's surprisingly good. The film, 12 Monkeys, was a Terry Gilliam classic, itself based on the Chris Marker's 1962 'photo-roman' La Jetée, in which a time traveller from the future comes back to the modern day to prevent armageddon. However, time paradoxes mean that the story has more than a twist or two.

Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, as well as being a movie rather than a series of photos, adds many plots and sub-plots to Marker's story, portraying a virus-devastated future from which Bruce Willis returns to find out the source of the virus and prevent the future from happening. Along the way, he meets a doctor (Madeleine Stowe), with whom he falls in love and convinces he's from the future, and a psychiatric institute inmate (Brad Pitt), who is the head of 'the Army of the 12 Monkeys', the likely cause of the virus. And again, as with La Jetée, there are plenty of timey-wimey twists.

This new TV version moves things on slightly and straightens out some of the twists. Our new hero is Aaron Stanford - best known as Pyro in X-Men 2 but also doing serviceable secret agent turns in both Nikita and Traveler - and he's come from 2043 to find out the source of a viral outbreak that's set to happen in 2017. Why him? Because in the future, the few remaining survivors of the virus find not only a time machine that can 'splinter' someone back in time but also a message from a CDC doctor, Amanda Schull (Louis' helper in Suits), saying that he is the one who must help stop the virus from getting out. Will he convince her of what's going to happen? Will he be able to find who's really behind the viral outbreak? And how many time paradoxes will he encounter along the way

Here's a trailer.

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January 16, 2015

Review: The Man In The High Castle 1x1 (US/UK: Amazon Instant Video)

Posted on January 16, 2015 | comments | Bookmark and Share

The Man In the High Castle

In the US: Free to stream on Amazon Instant Video
In the UK: Free to stream on Amazon Instant Video

Packing more great, mind-warping ideas into even one short story than many authors achieve in their lifetime, Philip K Dick is (rightly) considered one of the best science-fiction authors who has ever lived. However, his stories can be hard to adapt. Even some of his easier, longer novels, such as Through A Scanner Darkly, which could be taken more or less straight off the page, still needed some imaginative thinking to depict faithfully and the end result, with its massively downbeat ending, still wasn’t the most accessible of works.

Most of his stories, however, are shorter and involve small people in the midst of big ideas, making them much harder to adapt. Much of Blade Runner’s source, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, actually revolves around the protagonist’s efforts to please his wife by purchasing a real, rather than synthetic sheep as a pet – and the problems of having children in a radioactive environment, thus necessitating his lead codpiece. Total Recall, based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, involves a man discovering that he’d inadvertently saved the world from alien hamsters, while Minority Report is more an intellectual exercise about how predicting the future can affect that future – as well as future predictions.

Dick’s Hugo Award-winning The Man In The High Castle is as similarly reality- and identity-wiping as the rest of his work, detailing an alternative reality in which the Nazis and the Japanese win the Second World War and take over the world. The two empires partition the US, and the book details the alternative history and examines how Americans, as well as their rulers, live in this reality. 'The Man In the High Castle’ is an author who suggests that this is an alternative reality and that history is actually something completely different – although in true Dick fashion, reality turns out to be more fluid and unreliable under both the characters and readers’ feet. Similarly to Dick’s other stories, there’s little plot per se and much of the focus is on smaller characters with small concerns, such as how to run their business to appeal to the new Japanese rulers and how marriages are affected.

Nevertheless, for the past few years, attempts have been made to turn The Man In The High Castle into a TV series. The first efforts started in 2010, backed by the BBC and Blade Runner’s director Ridley Scott. When that fell through, Scott turned to the Syfy channel in 2013, bringing on board X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz. And when that never happened, Scott went to Amazon where finally he got some traction.

There were three big questions at this point, of course. The first was how to turn such a plot-free and inconclusive but much-revered and also potentially inflammatory source into a multiple-episode TV series. The second was whether Spotnitz, who’s been producing hackneyed action scripts for shows such as Strike Back, Hunted and Transporter: The Series for years now, was someone who still had the skills to adapt it. And the third was whether Amazon, very much the also-ran in online programming compared to Netflix, could produce something genuinely good (Transparent apart).

While we don’t quite have the answer, Amazon so far only giving us a pilot episode, it’s fair to say that Frank has shown us the way and given us potentially Amazon’s first genuine series to match House of Cards. Here’s a clip:

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January 15, 2015

Review: Man Seeking Woman 1x1 (US: FXX)

Posted on January 15, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Man Seeking Woman

In the US: Wednesdays, 10:30pm, FXX

Being newly single after a long-term relationship is wretched. After months or years being with someone, suddenly you’re all by yourself again. Soon, you’re discovering that the world’s moved on without you - everyone decent is now in a relationship and how people date and are expected to act on dates has changed since you were last ‘on the market'. Imagine both the misery… and the potential for comedy.

Indeed, for most TV networks, just that scenario would be sufficient. But FX and new spin-off channel FXX are rapidly shaping up to be the producers of some of the most innovative programming on US TV, even compared to premium cable channels such as HBO and Showtime. While it’s best if we overlook Marriage, You’re The Worst was the uncontested, very edgy winner of last year’s romcom wars and Tyrant, The Strain, The Bridge (US) and The Americans have all at least tried to do something different and equally edgy in their own ways.

Now we have Man Seeking Woman, developed by showrunner Simon Rich from his collection of short stories The Last Girlfriend on Earth. The show has little to do with the book itself, being a continuous storyline about what happens when twentysomething nerd Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel of She’s Out of My League fame) splits up from his girlfriend Maggie (Maya Erskine from Amazon’s Betas) and re-enters the dating scene, although at times it does feel like a collection of sketches thrust together rather than a thematically cohesive whole.

What makes Man Seeking Woman different is that rather than being a series of simple encounters between Baruchel and various women, the show instead highlights how wretched each scenario is using the power of fantasy made real. Worried that your blind date is going to turn out to be less than pulchritudinous? Guess what. She’s a troll. Really - she’s come from the forests of Sweden and eats out of dumpsters. Think that your ex’s new boyfriend is likely to be the worst human alive? Turns out he’s Adolf Hitler who’s faked his own death. What’s he going to make of the fact you’re Jewish, I wonder.

Each of these is played entirely seriously, with no one blinking an eyelid at their improbability - and the fact that Baruchel always ends up having to apologise for his bad behaviour (“I’m not the one you have to apologise to.” “I’m sorry, Hitler” “I don’t think he can hear you.”). Much of the joy of the show is the bizarre directions it goes in that quite often precisely sum up a feeling not previously verbalised but universally recognisable.

But in common with You’re The Worst, it’s slightly male gaze - as the title suggests, this is man seeking woman, not woman seeking man, and the idea, for example, that a woman travelling late on a Friday night on the Chicago L by herself would be delighted to have a guy obviously following her and then would give him her business card is very much an extreme male fantasy. But to a certain extent the show knows it - wait till you see how that encounter plays out - and sometimes turns its gaze on Baruchel, pointing out that while his date may be a troll, it’s not like he goes to the gym much, is it?

The show also tries to get by too much purely on the strengths of its fantasy scenarios, with Baruchel’s character not especially likeable and his best friend (Eric André from Don’t Trust The B----) the kind of guy who calls women ‘gash’. You’re not really invested in the characters, so much as seeing what the next fantasy sketch is.

Man Seeking Woman works best as a sort of longer form, romcom version of Portlandia, rather than as a sitcom per se. But it’s intermittently very funny, incisive and imaginative, so definitely worth a try.

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12 Monkeys

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