What have you been watching? Including Residue, American Sniper and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

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.

As we sit in the gap between the end of the Fall 2014-15 season and the summer season in the US, Canada and most countries around the world, we discover the horror that is not having any tele to watch. I’ve even been reading books. Gasp!

But I have found a few other things to watch and tell you about, don’t you worry. I’ve already reviewed the first two episodes of 1864 elsewhere, and after the jump, as well as the usual usuals of Community, The Flash, Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley, I’ll be casting my eye over Netflix’s three-part Brit sci-fi/horror gloom Residue. But I’ve actually managed to watch a couple of movies, too. Well, parts of movies…

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014) (iTunes)
The third of the almost interminable Hobbit movies sees Bilbo and the dwarves facing orc armies, dragons and more in a whole bunch of scenes that definitely weren’t in the book. The big Hobbit conclusion – Bard killing Smaug – happens in the first 10 minutes or so, after which it’s all about big armies of CGI beasts smashing each other, and elves being stoic and doing the right thing, all while Thorin (Richard Armitage) fights off his gold addiction. The Hobbit himself (Martin Freeman)? Doesn’t actually do a whole lot…

As I mentioned in the comments on last week’s WHYBW, I did actually start watching this nearly a fortnight ago, got three-quarters the way through then went to bed… and totally forgot I was watching it until this Monday, by which point it was too late to continue watching it without re-renting it. So I’ve no idea if we get cameos from old Bilbo and Frodo (or anyone else) at the end, and probably won’t do until Netflix picks it up. Nevertheless, while you might argue that this all tells you something about me, I’d argue that it tells you something about just how engrossing this third entry in the series really is.

American Sniper (2014) (iTunes)
Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the autobiography of America’s most lethal sniper got a whole lot of attention for something that’s really pretty ordinary at heart. Bradley Cooper does well as the Texan who enlists in the Navy SEALs in the 90s to fight terrorists and ends up shooting an awful lot Iraqis in the 21st century, while Sienna Miller is astonishingly unrecognisable as his long-suffering but tolerant wife.

Eastwood’s direction is relatively pedestrian and matter of fact, and his few forays out into CGI special effects are decidedly ill-advised (did he learn nothing from Firefox?). But the film is notably non-judgemental and reverential of its subject, showing a normal man in a lethal occupation doing his best to defend people and his country, even if he subsequently finds it hard to initially mix with those people when he returns from war.

While it’s easy to criticise the movie for not bothering to make any of the Iraqis anything more than murderers, with scenes at times reminiscent of Zulu’s large-scale slaughter, most members of the audience will be aware of the greys of the situation and that this is just one story about a very complex subject. Worth watching to see just what Bradley Cooper can do as an actor and if you prefer your dramas to have less judgement of its subjects.

Residue (Netflix)
Brit gloom fest designed as a three-part pilot for a second longer season. Set in an unnamed British city (probably York), it sees an explosion blow up a building. Unfortunately, said building is right next to an underground MoD weapons dump and something leaks out, forcing a huge section of the city to be quarantined. The story then follows a number of characters, but primarily civil servant/PR Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones, Vicious, Misfits) and photographer Natalia Tena (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter), as they begin to discover that what leaked out is causing people to do all manner of icky/murderous things… and showing up as ghostly images on Tena’s photos.

Written by John Harrison, who wrote and directed the rather good Frank Herbert’s Dune mini-series all of a decade and a half ago, Residue is nevertheless an embarrassingly poor mini-series/pilot that exhibits all the cliches of indie Brit sci-fi/horror, coming across more like an extended film school project, with most of the action shot at night, lots of scenes of ‘The Street’, characters that speak inane, wincingly bad lines to show how deep they are, and actors that are clearly there to bolster their CVs and get some quick money, rather than perform convincingly. Tena’s the exception, taking everything very seriously, but Rheon’s still stuck in Ramsay Snow/Bolton mode, even though he’s been in similar territory on Misfits with Residue’s director Alex Garcia Lopez.

It took me about three days to get through the first episode, so engrossing was it, so a general ‘don’t watch’ from me. If I was going to salvage anything from this, I’d say that Residue is an interesting demonstration of how Netflix’s production model is changing to include indie production companies producing small pieces of work, rather than huge programmes in the vein of House of Cards.

The recommended list

Community (US: Yahoo; UK: Sony Entertainment Television)
6×11 – Modern Espionage
An episode that just about managed to tread the thin line between loving tributes and overly meta, with this year’s paintball episode homaging action films including Highlander, Mr and Mrs Smith, Iron Man, The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier, to name but a few. Not as funny as it should have been, but with some very clever moments, it’s possibly the best episode of the season so far.
When’s it airing near me?
Reviews: First episode; third episode  

The Flash (US: The CW; UK: Sky 1)
1×23 – Fast Enough
I’m going to go out out on a limb and say this was a tad disappointing as a season finale, after a season that had managed to juggle all its many balls incredibly well. While it wasn’t quite season 1 Heroes bad, it was largely two-thirds people gassing on about whether to make a decision or not, followed by a different decision being made, all while numerous references were being laid down to Legends of Tomorrow, a show that’s not coming out for another year (although I wouldn’t put it past the producers to use season 2 of this show and season 4 of Arrow to put in more set-up for it). A few good touches, such as the Flash’s helmet, the Sisco revelation and (spoiler) the scene with his mum, one big surprise that wasn’t, thanks to so much foreshadowing of it, and some really bad science. The cliffhanger was also a bad choice.

Enjoyable but could have been so much better. I might be in a minority on this one, though.
When’s it airing near me?
Reviews: First episode; third episode  

Game of Thrones (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)
5×6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
A horribly unpleasant end, thankfully played out off-camera, to an otherwise fascinating episode. But other than that, it was a reasonably fun episode with plenty of humour, real depth added to some of the story and some clever politicking thanks to Diana Rigg and co. But that ending…
When’s it airing near me?
Reviews: First episode; first season; second and third seasons

Silicon Valley (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)
2×6 – Homicide
While the SWOT analysis felt a little like the algorithm scene at the end of the first season, another perceptive, clever episode that was as much about the personal as the business side of Silicon Valley. The scenes involving the firm’s two women also showed a surprising level of perception.
When’s it airing near me?
Reviews: First episode; third episode

  • Gareth Williams

    My favourite show of the 1990s was 'The Late Show with David Letterman.' This is a slightly peculiar statement for me to make because if you ask me what my favourite TV programme of all time is I will say 'Seinfeld', and that obviously aired in the 90s. The reason I can say that 'Letterman' was my favourite show is that it aired five days a week for about forty weeks a year, so Jerry was resting on his laurels.
    I even bought an OnDigital box simply so that I could watch the show on ITV2, after Sky, and then the Paramount Comedy Channel had lost interest in it. I was fighting a losing battle however, and after the show disappeared from UK screens, at some point in the noughties, I had to throw in the towel too. If a programme disappears from UK screens today (like the Daily Show has, or is about to, depriving many people from seeing Jon Stewart's farewell) the internet means that nothing has to be missed.
    The truth, of course, is that the 'Late Show' was no longer the programme it was in its heyday of the early-to-mid nineties (If we judge Dave by the tributes from his successors, like Jimmy Kimmel, we probably missed out on his best work on the original 'Late Night' in the 1980s anyway.) Sure cranky Dave sat at his desk railing against some perceived slight was still great, but he was now too old for the physical humour that had made his show so watchable in the first place. The loss had been lessened.
    I still managed to keep up with Dave sometimes via YouTube (the Leno baiting when Jay stole back the Tonight Show from Conan a few years back being a personal favourite) and it was always comforting to know that he was still there. Using today's modern technology I have watched the last couple of weeks of shows, and it's strange to see how little had actually changed. The retrospectives included many clips of my favourite bits which I can remember vividly despite having only seen once, twenty years ago.
    It's strange to think that I am going to miss a programme that I haven't watched in over ten years, and to feel so sentimental about it ending. I do still wear my twenty year-old 'Late Show' t-shirt at the end of wash cycles: There really is no off position on the genius switch.

  • Mark Carroll

    Interesting, I hadn't even heard of it until I moved to the US (in 1996); until reading this, I didn't know it had been shown here in the UK at all, but it does help to explain why the changeover has been so newsworthy here. I do remember Craig Kilborn doing the Daily Show back then though, so I suppose I've not forgotten everything myself.

  • Mark Carroll

    While I much appreciate that you watch bad shows so I don't have to, it occurred to me to wonder about the bad karma I'm thus earning!

    Game of Thrones is proceeding nicely, though I won't be sorry when Ramsay meets a grisly end, his scenes are consistently unpleasant. It's a slightly frustrating show: it's not edifying, it can take quite some time to get around to some anticipated occurrence, and sometimes the potential satisfying payoff gets ruled out. But, I enjoy watching it; the good bits are worth it.

    Given the slow television time this is, I've been watching Planet Earth. The visuals are outstanding. Right now I'm watching penguins. I can skip the “making of” bits at the ends though. The slow time also allowed Spiral to reach the top of the list; I was in two minds about it, to be honest, its big picture gets a bit hopeless at times, but I find I'm liking season five so far.

    Nothing's changed with our regular shows really. At work yesterday (at a university) we received e-mail from upper management that reminded me and my colleague independently of W1A, but I wonder how much more it has to give us at this point. We'll see.

  • GYAD

    Re: RESIDUE, still laughing at the Bren gun at 0.12 (looks terrible).

    COMMUNITY – Gone back to being funny-ish.

    LONGMIRE – The tops.

    VIKINGS – Saxons in burgonets? I'm giving up…

    THE AFFAIR – Good idea but over-obvious choices and OTT story telling make this very sub-French drama.

    ANZAC GIRLS – More military themed Mills and Boon.

    WAYWARD PINES – Like TWIN PEAKS, only inferior in every way.

  • Mark Carroll

    Sorry you didn't like The Affair! I'm curious what you mean by sub-French.

  • Mark Carroll

    I remembered this morning that I had also seen the latest Avengers at the cinema. It probably says something that I'd forgotten!

    It was okay, I could even bear a second viewing if it fell into my lap. Perhaps I partly wasn't into it because for much of the second half my daughter was trying to go to sleep on me but she's a bit too big now to fit (which may say something of what she thought of it), but it did seem to be a bit randomly this, randomly that, rather than progressing in some coherent tied-together sense. That may have been the fault of having to bring in various other elements that tied in with other things, movies or whatever, or it may have been like my problem with The Flash where they bring out some new random significant thing at any moment so it's hard for me to get much invested in how things are at any point. It did feel to be more about the Avengers than about the situation with Ultron, which is okay, but the plot wasn't exactly character-driven … or obviously anything-driven, really, beyond fitting a simple outline.

  • GYAD

    In that it follows in the great French tradition of the well-mannered middle class affair. It's the sort of film they make by the dozen, with a skill & subtlety nobody else can match.

  • Mark Carroll

    Thank you. I don't get the exposure to French media that I once did, but I've really liked some of it, especially the different tone it often has, as if it expects the audience to want something quite different to Hollywood's.

  • Game of Thrones is starting to have more dark, unfun bits than fun bits. You just want things to lighten up a bit.

  • Yes, Vikings progressively loses what historical accuracy it had at the beginning under the cover of 'it's all a bit mythological anyway, so why bother trying?'

    Wayward Pines episode 2 is like The Prisoner, only inferior in every way. Which oddly enough is still more than the AMC The Prisoner remake ever was

  • It's also true that they do it so well and so often that a lot of the French actors try to leg it to Hollywood so they get a bit of variety in their lives!

  • Mark Carroll

    The remake wasn't /that/ bad!

  • I watched the first two or three episodes then gave up. I've read what the ending was though. Oh dear.

  • GYAD


    …although the French film industry has diversified a lot more in recent years. Heck, they even make better action films than Hollywood.

  • GYAD

    Mythological I can live with but the sheer laziness of having Saxons dressed as rodoleros is embarrassing.

    Still, we're got the BBC's upcoming – and probably awful – LAST KINGDOM to fill in that Dark Ages gap in the market.

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  • Not many, though, and usually only if Luc Besson is directing. It's definitely getting better, though.

  • GYAD

    Oh, I don't know. I've enjoyed several in recent years: Colt .45, The Scorpion, Special Forces etc. There's also several action orientated policiers and war films. Still not huge amounts, but then they are expensive and the numbers are increasing.

  • I'll have to have a look at them. Netflixable?

  • GYAD

    No idea, I'm afraid. I found “The Scorpion” in Poundland (!), got “Colt .45” from a French ami and “Special Forces” from Amazon.