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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 24, 2017

Review: Iron Fist - Season 1 (Netflix)

Posted on March 24, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Netflix's Marvel's Iron Fist

Marvel took the movie world by storm with The Avengers, a little film one or two of you may have seen. One of the most important aspects of The Avengers was the fact it wasn't the first movie to features its protagonists, all of whom had appeared in the preceding movies Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, either as the leads or as co-stars.

A staple of the comic book world, the crossover was something that had never really been tried in the movie world before and audiences loved it.

With a few reservations. The most notable of these was that there wasn't a huge amount of diversity in that superheroic line up: lots of straight white men as leads and usually as the villains, too, but women, people of colour et al were either in the supporting cast or completely absent. And while the movies have slowly added black characters such as Falcon and Black Panther and bumped up the role of supporting superheroine Black Widow to the point where Captain America: Winter Soldier was as much about her as about Captain America, solo movies with black or female superheroic leads are still a little way off.

So, when Netflix and Marvel announced they would produce a series of comic book TV shows together, three things were almost compulsory. The first was lower budgets. That meant having none of the movie universe characters in any of the shows, which meant having to pick completely new characters. The second was that there would be crossovers, which in turn would lead to one great big TV series featuring all the new heroes. The third was diversity would be key.

And thus we have a new group of superheroes: 'The Defenders'. Not to be confused with 'The Avengers', obviously. The Defenders is also the name of the ultimate TV show at the end of the list.

The sequence started with Daredevil, a really superb opening featuring probably the one character many people would have heard of, thanks in part to the Ben Affleck adaptation over a decade ago. Daredevil's also blind and a lawyer who does pro bono work defending the poor and helpless from big business.

That was quickly followed up with the suprisingly excellent feminist deconstruction of the entire genre, Jessica Jones, and then Luke Cage, an affair almost plotless because rather than being a superhero show, it largely was more interested in discussing black culture, history and what is the true and correct course of action for the modern black man of honour. A quick second season of Daredevil proved less satisfying, as it ditched gritty reality to pit our hero against a bunch of immortal ninja called 'The Hand'.

All the same, for all their pros and cons, diversity - globs of it everywhere.

Which makes Marvel's Iron Fist something of an odd choice. Because although it fits well with Mark Zuckerberg's idea of diversity, it's almost a slap in the face to the other shows' efforts.

Young Danny Rand, the white male son of white corporate mogul billionaries, is on their private jet to China when it crash lands in the mountains of Tibet. Coincidentally, that's just as the mystical city of K'un-L'un appeared from heaven on its 15-year regular cycle, journeying between planes of existence. Taken in by the warrior monks who guard K'un-L'un, the orphaned boy is trained in their ways and eventually succeeds all trials to become 'the Iron Fist', K'un-L'un's 'living weapon' who uses the power of the heart of the Shou-Lao the Undying dragon, to defend the city from the Hand, whenever it appears on Earth.

However, when K'un-L'un returns to the Earthly plane again 15 years later, Danny abandons his post and heads to New York where he discovers the Hand are already in residence at his parents' company, Rand Enterprises. Soon, he must prove who he really is, take back his company from the bad people who now run it, and stop The Hand.

Yep, that's right: Iron Fist wants you to care about boardroom politics and a spoilt, immature billionaire who wants to clear his family name.

Bad decision by Marvel and Netflix? Well, actually, despite some very odd decisions, a very shaky start, and a very long list of flaws, Marvel's Iron Fist turned out to be really, really enjoyable stuff - due in part surprisingly because it features Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced24, The Tractate Middoth, Line of Duty, An Adventure in Time and Space) as a sarcastic warrior monk named after a Swiss ski resort.

Big spoilers after the jump…

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March 22, 2017

Review: Snatch 1x1 (US: Crackle)

Posted on March 22, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Snatch

In the US: Season 1 available on Crackle

Guy Ritchie is the sort of director who wants not nuffin to do with not none of that auteur theory. That's lardy dah, ponces' talk, that is.

Yet you can spot a Guy Ritchie movie a mile off, innit? You got the hypermasculinity and the sexual objectification of women, ain't ya? You've got the obsession with and eulogisation of working class, English crims - the kind that only someone ultra-posh who's the son of a baronet has, right? You've got the casting of proper working class, hard actors, who hopefully are crims, too. You've got the slow-mo, you've got the rhyming slang, you've got the monickers, and you've got the stylisation that lets the audience know it's not quite for real, that it's all just a bit off from real-life - that it's all just a bit of bantosaurus rexing.

Case in point, guv'nor - like anyone in London's used guv'nor seriously since The Sweeney - is Snatch, Guy Ritchie's 2000 movie about a diamond heist and a 'pikey' boxer (Brad Pitt). Bants and sexual objectification right there in the title 'cos it has a double meaning, don't it? And all as authentically East End as the Islington filming locations.

So what happens when you take the auteur out of the auteured, which is what we now have with Crackle's Snatch? You get something as soft as a soufflé, that's what.

Owing almost nothing beyond its general feel to the original movie, it sees Luke Pasqualino (born: Peterborough) playing the Cockney son of notorious banged-up Cockney bank robber Dougray Scott (born: Glenrothes). He's doing his best to pay off the debts, but his get-rich schemes with posh boy Ruper Grint (born: Harlow) aren't working and the local Cockney lone shark's going to take his Cockney mum's flower shop off him if he doesn't pay up - and quick.

So he puts everything they have on a fight involving his 'half-pikey', half-Cockney boxing star Lucien Laviscount (born: Burnley). Except that makes everything worse. 

Fortunately, Cockney moll Phoebe Dynevor (born: Manchester) is still miffed at Cockney Cuban-wannabe Ed Westwick (born: Stevenage) for taking her share of the takings at his club, so enlists them in a cunning scheme to rob Westwick that should help Pasqualino, Grint and Laviscount make thirty grand, easy. It just involves a heist…

Now, not for a second does any of this ring true, from the Manchester filming locations masquerading as the East End because the East End doesn't look like the East End any more through the wobbly accents through the idea that Pasqualino is in any way related to Scott through the action scenes through the amiable Cockney geezers that populate this florist-envying underworld through the laughable prison Scott's banged up in through every other thing that happens in the show.

But unlike Ritchie's Snatch, which was clearly sending itself up while simultaneously worshipping at its East End altar, this Snatch clearly half-believes in its nonsensical vision of the E postcodes that would make EastEnders seem like a Ken Loach documentary. Not totally, but the self-satire has been very clearly bleached out of the formula. Some of the cast are even taking it all seriously.

It's also a very pale imitation of Ritchie's style. Snatch seems to get bored of trying anything visually exciting after the title sequence, after which it's business as usual. There's very little humour, Laviscount is completely comprehensible, and the minimal action in the show fails to excite even slightly. In the least Ritchian move possible, Dynevor even gets lines, character and motivation, while never having to take even some of her clothes off. Not once.

However, as Dynevor and indeed most of the cast seem to be about 15 years old, playing dress-up in a modern-day, London-based Bugsy Malone, that's not such a bad thing.

And yet… there's still a grudging "not bad" quality to it. Sure, writer/creator Alex De Rakoff (The Calcium Kid, Dead Man Running) is British, the cast are British, Rupert Grint is an executive producer and it's filmed in Britain. But this is Crackle, a US internet network, not BBC Three.

Sure, there's a token American supporting character (Stephanie Leonidas from Defiance - ironically, the only member of the cast who is born: London), but there are no lingustic concessions, no forced explanations for dialogue or settings. It's probably the most authentically British TV show made for a US network that I've ever seen. It's just that for Brits, it's not properly pukka, y'know?

If you like weak, semi-comedic crime dramas, Snatch might work for you. If you want to see Rupert Grint doing something a bit different from Harry Potter for a change, it's worth a punt.

But if you're a fan of the original movie, a fan of Guy Ritchie or - heaven forfend - a proper Londoner, born and bred, best to steer clear of this one, me old china and head out for a cheeky Nando's instead.

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Featured Articles

Marvel's Iron Fist

Season two of Daredevil but done right