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What have you been watching? Including Humans, Tyrant, Jodorowsky’s Dune and Jurassic World

Posted on June 19, 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 time for a move again. With new shows launching on Thursdays and a couple of Sunday shows finishing, I’ll be switching “What have you been watching?” back to Mondays, starting next week, to give myself time to watch everything. (This was a bad idea. I'm sticking to Fridays for now)

In terms of new stuff, still sitting in the viewing pile somewhere are The Astronaut Wives Club, Complications and Killjoys, which I should be getting round to reviewing on Monday or Wednesday, but I did manage to watch Dark Matter this week, as well as…

Humans (UK: Channel 4; US: AMC)
We’ve discussed this a bit already in the comments section elsewhere, but this UK-US co-produced remake of SVT’s Äkta Människor is a surprisingly good bit of sci-fi, imagining a parallel world where robot humans are being created to replace people in sectors ranging from mining to social care to prostitution. Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr Selfridge, Cabin Pressure) decides to buy a ‘synth’ to help out around the house, much to the annoyance of his often-absent wife (Katherine Parkinson, apparently unable to escape the IT crowd), particularly when her children decide they like the new arrival (Gemma Chan from Bedlam) better than their mum. The problem is that Chan and a few other synths may be a little bit more alive than they’re supposed to be…

The show does a decent job of imagining this parallel world, from all the applications that the robots are put to through to the little details about how they’d operate in practice. It also wisely chooses to focus not just on questions of artificial intelligence but how we react to synths - we might like labour-saving devices that do the cooking for us or even read bedtime stories to our children, provided they don’t look like prettier, younger women whom our children can bond with and prefer. Similarly, in the case of engineer and synth inventor (?) William Hurt (Challenger), we might well want to keep an old android around, even once it’s malfunctioning, if we’re starting to dement and the android has the only memories of our dead wife.

The show’s a little too “made in the UK” for my liking, with its prosaic, unimaginative direction making it look like it has a budget of £3.50. Nevertheless, it’s a smart, sometimes creepy, sometimes touching show that I’ll be making an effort to tune in for next episode.

I’ve already passed third-episode verdicts on The Whispers, Westside and Stitchers, so after the jump, I’ll be looking at the latest episodes of Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal and Strike Back: Legacy, as well as the season finales of Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley, and the first new episode of the returning Tyrant.

But first, movies!

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) (iTunes)
I’ve already given a lot of the background to this elsewhere, so I won’t go into it in great detail, but suffice it to say a very different adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune was developed in the 1970s by surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) and this movie is a documentary that runs through the history behind it.

It’s a fascinating movie, but watching it, one can’t help but feel that firstly, Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been an absolutely stunning but utterly silly movie with often little more than a passing resemblance to the book. Secondly, it’s surprising how much influence a non-existent movie can have, since without it (or if it had ever been made), there’d have been no Alien and a number of movies would have lost some of their most important imagery. Thirdly, it makes you realise just how crazy mental you need to be to produce at least certain kinds of art.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) (iTunes)
X-Men: First Class/Kick Ass’s Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman adapt Mark Millar’s comic The Secret Service to give us a fond homage to Roger Moore-era James Bond, with Colin Firth, Jack Davenport and Michael Caine a bunch of posh secret agents who have to let chav new blood (Taron Egerton) into their top secret organisation when they have to deal with a tech billionaire (Samuel L Jackson) who wants to save the world from nasty polluting human beings.

At times, Kingsman feels like a retread of Vaughn and Goldman’s previous movies, mixing in the school training and spies of First Class with the superbly choreographed fights and ultraviolence of Kick Ass. What largely differentiates the movie is its Englishness, the movie satirising Moore’s Bond and (American) movies’ concepts of what an English gentleman should be while simultaneously taking ownership of it to give something a young, male working class audience to aspire to.

The movie’s final scenes involving a Swedish princess are a little disheartening after the largely good work that preceded it, even if it is another Moore satire, but generally a good viewing and by the end of it, you will accept Colin Firth can be an action hero. Mark Strong is also in there as a Q-like Scotsman, but no Welsh or Northern Irish members of the nation were apparently invited to join the Kingsmen.

Jurassic World (2015)
Bigger but not better retread of Jurassic Park set 20 years after the original that imagines a world now jaded about the return of once-extinct dinosaurs so regarding trips to the expanded ‘Jurassic World’ theme park island as little more than trips to the zoo. Consequently, the company behind it decides to bring the crowds back to create a brand new dinosaur by cross-breeding the more dangerous parts of a whole bunch of other dinosaurs - belatedly bringing in former US navy sailor turned Velociraptor trainer Chris Pratt to check out their security. Want to have a guess if it’s good enough or not?

Despite looking excellent, giving plenty of head nods to the original and some oftentimes smart writing, Jurassic World is nevertheless a little dead inside. Characters are either underdeveloped or plain annoying, so we don’t really care enough about them to feel frightened when bad things start to happen. Indeed, you’ll probably care more about the poor herbivorous dinosaurs getting a pasting at the hands of Indominus Rex than about whether Pratt survives to make it to a second date with the perpetually high-heel clad workaholic theme park executive Bryce Dallas Howard, who turns out not to be too shabby with a gun.

All the same, despite not hanging together well as a movie, there are some good individual moments that’ll stick with you afterwards.

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News: a US IT Crowd (again), Ridley Scott has Ebola, a Quantum Leap reunion + more

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

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  • Joe Thomas to star in eco-rom-com Scottish Mussel

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Third-episode verdict: Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

Posted on June 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerHaltAndCatchFire.jpgA Barrometer rating of 2

In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, AMC

Oh, what a shame. After two episodes that might have led the viewer to believe they were looking at AMC’s new Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire has fallen at the third hurdle.

Set in Texas’s so-called Silicon Prairie in 1983, the show looks at the PC revolution from the vantage point of four people, aiming to go into the PC clone business: a mesmerising salesman (Lee Pace), a punk girl programmer (Mackenzie Davis), a tired hardware engineer (Scott McNairy) and his more talented wife (Kerry Bishé). However, much like Pace’s character, the show promised a lot up front and is now failing to deliver on its promises.

The first episode gave us the set-up, with the near-sociopathic Pace turning up at the fictional Cardiff Electronics with a stunning game plan for how he’ll force the company to take on IBM by entering the PC cloning business, recruiting the brightest and best - McNairy and Davis - to do his bidding. And despite the show relying on an audience that can at least understand what’s involved in reverse-engineering a PC BIOS chip - and maybe even actually be able to do it - it was an excellent and engrossing piece of work. Pace was stunning as the visionary Steve Jobs of the piece and the script was thoughtful and clever.

Episode two continued this, never quite doing what you thought it was going to do. After a slow first half, the episode really took off with a glimpse of the terrifying business tactics IBM used in the 1980s. Pleasingly, the female characters got some rounding out, particularly Davis who got to show off at IT - and proper IT, not the dumbed down TV IT you get on something like NCIS. Pace continued to astonish, too, giving us a barely contained force of nature hiding behind the bland face and intonation of a born salesman, but who steals and has few ideas of his own.

Unfortunately, episode three gave us the first script written by anyone except show creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C Rogers, and it appears they might be the key to the show’s success or otherwise, because the stack of cards came tumbling down. Not completely and to a certain extent, the show was realistic enough to show that genius thoughts don’t necessarily arrive the first time, but may need time, effort and surprising sources for inspiration to be produced, but certainly most of the show’s main attractions got dropped - or at least there weren’t the dialogue and character moments needed to distract from the potentially flawed architecture.

It didn’t exactly help that the episode separated off the characters so they barely got to interact with one another or that Bishé’s character was the only one who got a chance to excel. Meanwhile, Pace’s masterplan was revealed merely to be “Let’s stick it to my old employers”, rather than anything with any real insight into revolutionising the PC industry. McNairy just moped for an episode and was squeamish over an obvious metaphordead bird. And Davis, channelling Tom Cruise in Risky Business, danced around an office all night, looking for inspiration, before heading off with the least convincing punks since Ralph Fiennes in Prime Suspect.

Then, of course, we got that scene, in which Pace (spoiler alert) seduces the husband of a potential investor of whom he disapproves, purely to put her off the deal. It’s a surprising character moment, presumably meant to indicate just what he’s prepared to do, but it comes out of nowhere and massively spins the show away from the plausibility it’s been trying to provide for the previous two episodes.

The show still isn’t without its charms and obviously could still recover. Any show that starts an episode with Gary Numan’s ‘Our Friends Electric’ is clearly full of potential awesome and we could yet see a reason why we should be routing for these characters, other than because they’re the ones the show is about. We have not one but two technically gifted female lead characters - that’s 50% of the main cast - both of whom are fully drawn out people. And when the show actually deals with the technical side of things, surprisingly, it’s extremely compelling, even if it’s just discussing how to make a motherboard smaller or reduce its heat output.

Without wishing to sound like Chris Morris in The IT Crowd, what’s needed is for the disparate characters to act like a team - presumably that’s the end game but the producers are taking their time getting there, and although this is an AMC show, speed is somewhat of the essence, given the nature of the subject matter and the show’s own plot requirements. We also need to be able to root for the team and as most of the characters are already aware, there’s literally nothing exciting about their clone - this isn't Apple, this is Compaq. No one was excited by a Compaq PC, not even Compaq. They’re bored, so we’re bored.

So here’s hoping that from episode four, with presumably (spoiler alert) Bishé’s joining of the team, we’ll be heading for more interesting territory, because a bunch of people griping while producing a dull office product is just not a fun affair, no matter how much empty sex, weird scars and sick wildlife there is along the way. On the other hand, we might just get an episode in which someone forgets to back up their data. Let's hope the producers pick the right option.

Barrometer rating: 2
Rob’s prediction: Hopefully the show can recover but anything more than one season is looking unlikely at the moment

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