Strange Angel
US TV

Review: Strange Angel 1×1 (US: CBS All Access)

In the US: Thursdays, CBS All Access

Aleister Crowley’s one of those people who you assume must be fictional. Just take this sentence from the opening paragraph of his Wikipedia entry:

An English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer, he founded the religion of Thelema, identifying himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century.

Bonkers, hey? Yet this Satanist-magician was real and if you’ve ever heard the phrase “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” you’ve heard the words of Crowley.

Also real was Jack Parsons, a US rocket scientist who helped to found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and invented the first rocket engine to use a castable, composite rocket propellant. So far, so plausible, too. However, Parsons met Crowley in the late 30s and joined Thelema. He even ended up hanging around with L Ron Hubbard.

Bonkers, hey?

And now we have a biopic of Parsons that is actually all too easy to believe.

Bella Heathcote, Jack Reynor and Rupert Friend in Strange Angel
Bella Heathcote, Jack Reynor and Rupert Friend in Strange Angel

Do what thou wilt

The first episode introduces us to Parsons, who’s played with a certain glee by Sing Street‘s Jack Reynor – one of many members of an almost exclusively non-US cast. Parsons didn’t graduate college, as he needed a job during the Depression to look after his wife (Neighbours’ Bella Heathcote), so has been working in a chemicals factory instead. Nevertheless, he and buttoned-down Caltech student Peter Mark Kendall (Chicago Med, The Americans) have been working together to create a new kind of rocket that might even take man into space.

As we quickly find out, Parsons is something of a dreamer, being a reader of lurid stories that typically involve a Chinese, harem-owning, tiger-fighting king, although Heathcote isn’t quite so approving of his reading matter. Then into their lives comes furtive new neighbour Rupert Friend (Homeland). He encourages Reynor to live a little, “Do what thou wilt” being the only law that really counts. Before you know it, Reynor’s burgling houses, nearly drowning in a swimming pool, coming up with exciting new ideas for rocket propulsion, taking all kinds of risks, and nearly blowing up Caltech professors (Rade Šerbedžija) in an effort to get much-needed funding.

Then one night he follows Reynor to a local church and discovers him in a congregation, watching while Aleister Crowley (The Crown‘s Greg Wise) is busily sacrificing a naked virgin. Soon, stabbed to his and Heathcote’s door, is a satanic symbol. Are they in danger? Might they even want to join in?

Jack Reynor, Rade Šerbedžija and Peter Mark Kendall in Strange Angel
Jack Reynor, Rade Šerbedžija and Peter Mark Kendall in Strange Angel

Happy satanists

For such a potentially exciting and lurid subject matter, this sure is tame stuff. Exploding mini-rockets are the most exciting parts of something that could have been a Satanic sexfest on AMC where it was originally pitched, but here feels like it’s a group of neighbours in a gated community getting shocked by an Ann Summers party.

There is some great attention to period detail, as well as rocket science, surprisingly enough. The cast fit their parts well, even if Wise is vastly too handsome to be Crowley. But if you were expecting something a bit more exotic, the first episode avoids every opportunity presented to it and the trailer for the rest of the season suggests two women kissing is about as exciting as it’s going to get.

All of which means that this is going to be at most a vaguely interesting biopic about a probably far more interesting man. I’d give it a miss if I were you.

Cloak and Dagger
US TV

Review: Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger 1×1-1×2 (US: Freeform; UK: Amazon)

In the US: Thursdays, 8/7c, Freeform
In the UK: Fridays, Amazon

Variety is the spice of life and that appears to be the case with superhero TV shows. On the one hand, you have DC’s current roster of shows on The CW. Perhaps because they’re all from the same production company (Berlanti Productions), they air on the same channel or DC wants something tonally similar for crossovers et al, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Black Lightning all have a certain common feel. Sure, Black Lightning‘s a bit edgier and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is deliberately stupider, but largely they do the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways.

Marvel’s a bit different, both in its movies and its TV series. There’s no way you’d suspect Legion of coming from the same creators as Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD or any of Netflix’s roster. That’s very welcome – who needs to watch the same show, just with a few variants?

That said, there are some commonalities. The Netflix shows do have a similar vibe, and if you’ve watched Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways, you’ll have a least a little touch of the déjà vus when you watch Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger. But not too many.

Marvel's Cloak and Dagger

Cloak and Dagger

The actions starts in the long distant days of the early 00s (aargh), with a young white girl being taken home from ballet classes by her rich scientist dad. Meanwhile, a young black kid from the same city is hanging out with his brother, looking to steal back a car stereo whose rich owner hasn’t paid for its installation. Sadly, things go wrong for both of them and both dad and brother end up dead in the water – literally – along with the two children, who make an odd connection of sorts.

Fast-forward to the modern day and their fortunes have reversed. White girl (now played by Olivia Holt) is making ends meet by stealing from rich boys she drugs after seducing them in nightclubs. Meanwhile, black boy (Aubrey Joseph) is an athletics star at a posh private school, looking to go on to great things after school.

Everything seems normal until they meet again at a party and Holt, without remembering who Joseph is, steals his wallet – and they make a supernatural connection again. What’s going on, why them and what are these new powers that they have?

Continue reading “Review: Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger 1×1-1×2 (US: Freeform; UK: Amazon)”

HBO's Succession
US TV

Review: Succession 1×1-1×2 (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic. Will air later this year

Normally, you can guarantee that whatever airs on HBO in the US will end up on Sky Atlantic here in the UK. Sky does, after all, have an exclusivity deal with HBO, and advertises itself as the home of both HBO and Showtime shows in the UK. It’s also so eager for kudos and ratings unaffected by illegal downloads when it comes to the likes of Game of Thrones and Westworld that it airs them the next day in the wee small hours after they’ve aired in the US.

Yet the channel is mysteriously quiet about when it will air Succession. A first glance at the show’s credits might make you wonder why. Directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short). Exec produced by Will Ferrell. Created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show). Written by Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche (The Thick of It, Veep, In the Loop), Jonathan Glatzer (Better Call Saul), Lucy Prebble (Secret Diary of a Call Girl), et al. Starring Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck, Matthew Macfadyen et al.

Should be a natural for much hype and instant transmission, you’d have thought. Yet Sky is quiet. Why?

Well, you don’t have to be the most media-savvy viewer in the world to work out why after only a few minutes’ viewing, because Succession is a very thinly veiled satire of the Murdoch empire. Very thin. It’s a veil that must be made of some kind of nanomaterial, it’s so thin.

December 32nd 2018 then?

Succession

Succession

The show sees Brian Cox playing Rupert Murdoch – let’s not pretend otherwise – or at least an 80-year-old mogul with a vast media empire that encompasses every continent of the world. As well as growing health problems and a foreign wife (Hiam Abbass), he has a whole bunch of moderate to no-talent children. Like I said, let’s not pretend otherwise.

Eldest son Ruck is more interested in saving the planet than working for the family business, so that leaves Jeremy Strong, the James of the piece, as Cox’s most likely successor. However, while full of MBA talent, he lacks his dad’s sociopathic killer instincts for the deal. Sarah Snook is the Elisabeth of the piece, although this Elisabeth fancies being a politician instead. Meanwhile, youngest son Culkin fancies himself for the top job but is a spoilt brat and “not a serious person”.

Just as everyone’s expecting Cox to hand over the reins of the company to Strong, Cox drops a bombshell – he’s not going to retire after all, since he doesn’t think Strong is ready. Maybe another 10 years – and if all you kids could sign over management of the trust to Abbass by 4pm, that would be just peachy. Needless to say, the kids don’t take well to this and when Cox suffers a possibly fatal stroke at the end of the first episode, the next episode is all about them jockeying for position, deciding whether to honour their father’s wishes or maybe even to pick randomly arrived cousin and theme park management trainee dropout Nicholas Braun as their neutral interim CEO.

Jeremy Strong in Succession

The Thick of NI

Succession is more or less exactly what you’d expect from “The Thick of It‘s Jesse Armstrong” – it’s not extensive winter location filming in Iceland à la Game of Thrones so much as lots of two-way conversations in non-descript rooms and corridors, in which a bunch of related idiots hurl colourful insults at each other and behave incredibly childishly. And it’s correspondingly funny, too.

Everyone is very well cast. Strong is pitiable as a man with big ambitions but with not quite the character needed to obtain them. Culkin is a brilliantly unpleasant rich kid, who’ll offer a small child $1 million if he makes a home run in a softball game, but refuse to pay up when he just misses out – and then taunt him. Macfadyen is amusing as Snook’s weak husband, ambitious but perpetually inept at politicking so endlessly picking the wrong moment to do things, while dumping on Braun because he doesn’t need anything from him. Braun you just know is going to end up running the company, purely by accident.

It’s not totally compelling, though. The put-downs don’t all work and sometimes just become “F*ck off!” “No, you f*ck off!”, rather than anything more artful. Having so many useless, venal characters makes it hard to root for anyone. And it is all about the Murdochs, at the end of the day. Do you want to watch a Rupert Murdoch biopic? Probably not.

Still, I went from having no interest in this to looking forward to the second part and now the third part, so it’s definitely got some compelling qualities and it is consistently amusing. Give it a try. Assuming you’re up at 2am on December 32nd.

Sweetbitter
US TV

Review: Sweetbitter 1×1 (US: Starz)

In the US: Sundays, Starz

Coming of age stories about a young person’s love for a particular profession – and their discovery that the path to achieving their dream might be rocky – normally have two facets:

  1. The young person actually wants to be a member of that profession
  2. The obstacles on their path are partly a cautionary tale to put people off from their dream.

Starz, the network behind the latest ‘dream job’ drama Sweetbitter, has form for this itself with the ballet-and-sex drama Flesh and Bone. Watch that and you’d be surprised that anyone would want to be a ballet dancer at all.

But Sweetbitter largely throws both of the two main genre tenets away – at least in the first episode. Based on the novel of the same name by showrunner Stephanie Danler, it sees Ella Purnell (Ordeal by Innocence) playing a midwesterner who decides to quit her small town backwater before she blinks and 10 years of her life disappears through doing nothing. Seizing the day (and, given it’s 2006, a print-out from Mapquest), she heads to New York with little more than a car to her name. When she starts looking for a job, however, she ends up trying the only thing she’s got any experience of at all – waitressing.

Unfortunately, in the swanky world of New York restaurants, having served in a diner doesn’t normally get you through an interview where you’re asked, “What are the five noble grapes of Bordeaux?” Nevertheless, Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards) is willing to give her a trial period. Training at first seems minimal and a baptism by fire, with Purnell expected – yet also not expected – to hold the hands of dementing diners who only come once a week for a bit of company, as well as anything else that comes her away. Everything’s a little too much for her at first, but soon ice queen Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) is taking her under wing and showing her where the mops are.

And very quickly, Purnell begins to love her new job – and the people around her.

Sweetbitter

Chefless

In contrast to most dramas set in restaurants, Sweetbitter is all about the waiting staff, rather than the chefs, who barely get a namecheck. There are hierarchies, in-fighting and more, but largely the show gives us a sense of growing camaraderie, rather than back-biting, professionals who have no time for amateurs but who respect someone willing to learn. It’s also a paean to fine dining and bottles of wine that cost $200 a throw. And while it’s not glamorous, it’s an appealing atmosphere for those who can cope with the workload.

So far. But problematically (for me at least), future episodes are billed as depicting “a world of drugs, drinking, love, lust, dive bars and fine dining”, which is where we start to return to the genre clichés I mentioned at the beginning.

But at the same time, the show highlights its own problems even within the first episode, when FitzGerald tells Purnell that she’s always been able to get away with being charming, so has never had to develop character. In other words, Purnell is boring. She may have run away from home in search of adventure, but she doesn’t know what to do with her life and spends most of the first episode being pretty reactive and unassertive. FitzGerald is right – she may have charm, but she lacks any real spark.

Which leaves everyone else to be more interesting. Not hugely interesting yet, since Purnell is the focus of the first episode, but there are sparks there, particularly with Sparks, that could be kindled in later episodes. Just not in Purnell.

All of which – together with the synopsis for later episodes – makes me wonder if I’ll watch later episodes. It seems fine and life working in the ‘front of house’ of a restaurant isn’t usually the focus of a drama, making it novel viewing at the least. But it could do with being more interesting, and not by adding sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The cast of The Terror
US TV

Boxset Tuesday: The Terror (season one) (US: AMC; UK: AMC UK)

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, AMC
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, AMC Global. Starts today

Some things just seem to be cursed. The British expedition in 1845 to find the fabled northwest passage didn’t really stand a chance, given the two ships sent were the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Sure, they were technologically advanced for their time, with hardened hulls to brace against the ice and carrying railway steam engines to power propellers. But those names? ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’, Greek myth’s darkness beneath the world? That was just courting disaster.

Both ships disappeared and later expeditions were unable to find them, although ultimately, it seems like the crews abandoned their vessels after they had become stuck in the ice, after which they tried to make the trek over ice and land to an outpost hundreds of miles away. Ill and running out of food, they might even have resorted to cannibalism to try to survive.

When Dan Simmons wrote his best-selling novel about the expedition in 2007, he must have thought he was on relatively easy territory. The ships had been missing for nearly a century and a half – surely he can write about them safely, imagining whatever he wanted. Yet oddly enough, in September 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was found, submerged in what is now known as Terror Bay in Newfoundland, Canada. The Terror itself remained unfound, however, despite further investigations.

When a TV adaptation was announced in March 2016, that must have kicked the curse back into life because just a few months later, the Terror was found on an island in the middle of Terror Bay – 100km from where historians had previously thought it had wound up. How did it get there? No one’s sure…

Who knows what will turn up, now we have the TV series itself airing.

The Terror and the Erebus
The Terror and the Erebus

The Terror

For the most part, The Terror is simple conjecture about what might have happened to the crews of both ships, based on the evidence available. It sees Ciáran Hinds (Rome) playing the lead captain of the expedition, Sir John Franklin, while Jared Harris (Mad Men) plays the captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier. Also aboard are Ian Hart and Tobias Menzies (Outlander). Initial episodes focus on the ships’ stranding in the ice, with subsequent episodes showing the events that lead to the abandoning of the ships and then the trek itself, as well as the rescue missions mounted back at home by loved ones, including Greta Scacchi.

However, seemingly just to gee things along a bit, there’s also something out there in the icy wastes of the Arctic. Stronger and bigger than a polar bear and as smart as a man, it’s invisible against the icy tundra and in the eternal night of the Arctic winter. It’s also extremely murderous. But what is it?

Two ships of sailors are about to find out…

Continue reading “Boxset Tuesday: The Terror (season one) (US: AMC; UK: AMC UK)”