Back to the Future: The Musical is nothing short of miraculous. It’s not that it took more than a decade to put together or that it was the movie’s original writer, director and composer who developed it. It’s not even that having found its lead cast in 2018, the show managed to keep them all for three years while we all waited out Covid. Because with this cast, you would want to hang on to them.
No, the miracle is that it’s just so good.
I tell a lie. Bad Nat. There are two miracles. The second is that they appear to not only have cloned Michael J Fox from 1986, they’ve improved him at the same time.
As usual, the gulf between my ambitions and the practical realities has been vast. I had a big list of things I wanted to review but my Monday and Tuesday work schedules told me something different, which is why it’s three weeks later and I’m only just about to write something. All the same, there has been viewing going.
First up, I went to the theatre. Yes! A theatre! A local production of Photograph 51, in fact. It wasn’t exactly the West End but it was theatre and I actually thought it was really good, in terms of both the writing and the production values, serving science, history and Rosalind Franklin well.
From the regulars pile, I’ve been watching Loki (Disney+), Evil (US: CBS), Superman & Lois (US: The CW) and Mythic Quest (Apple TV+). I’m a bit behind on Loki, so I’m two weeks behind, but I’m enjoying the new female Loki (or is she?) and will be sticking with it. Evil… has got a bit silly. The fun of Evil was that it was horror with smart humour; now it’s gone the way of The Good Fight and is downright implausible. That said, the arrival of an archangel in episode two was really very good. All the same, I might well abandon it because it’s not what I signed up for.
Superman & Lois is on hiatus right now but ended with a broke up with a doozy an episode, the cliffhanger of which is still haunting me, but in itself, was a lovely trip through Superman history while simultaneously giving us a dark mirror image version of it, as well as a two-fingered salute to John Cleese.
Meanwhile, Mythic Quest, which has arguably been a bit pedestrian this season, both went out on a high and managed to come up with an in-story reason for its own insipidness. Equally arguably, that wasn’t a real explanation since the show’s main problem this season is that it had little to say about games, much to say about the problems of having good ideas and writing well.
In terms of new things, it’s largely been about movies. Movies on streaming and at the cinema. Ooh! Remember those?
Kevin Can F**k Himself (US: AMC)
But I did try the first episode of Kevin Can F**k Himself (US: AMC), which stars Annie Murphy as a woman with the usual overgrown manchild husband you’d expect of a studio-filmed sitcom. Except Murphy is only in a studio-filmed sitcom when he’s around; whenever he leaves, she’s suddenly in a bleach out single-cam real-world of impoverished working-class Massachusetts life, having to deal with all the indignities of life without the safety net of comedy writing conventions.
However, that’s a very positive spin on what is basically just a miserable show about people with miserable lives. The high concept doesn’t really work – there’s no explanation for it, no real consistency in its use and it’s not even a good critique of bad sitcoms. Murphy is fine, but the other actors are having to deliberately mug for the imagined conventions of the sitcom, so she’s effectively the only one.
Black Widow (2020)
The highlight of the past three weeks’ movies has undoubtedly been the much-delayed Black Widow, the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, serving as a sequel to Captain America: Civil War and a prequel to Avengers: Infinity War with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) on the run but brought back to the spy game she threw aside by her ‘sister’ and fellow Red Room graduate Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh).
It’s an oddly standalone piece that is more background story for Natasha, taking in everything spyish from The Bourne Identity through to The Americans. Despite its plot arc and big bads somewhat mirroring Captain America: The Winter Soldier, without quite having that movie’s directorial power, and despite never really giving its heroine a chance to truly shine, it’s a really enjoyable affair that has a lot to say about the abuse of women. The Russian elements are a little Rocky and Bullwinkle at times, but the script manages to throw in some genuinely nasty moments, some drawn from the Black Widowcomics and you get a real context for Natasha’s character. The end-credits scene is genuinely moving and given both the movie’s dramatic and box office success, you do hope that somehow, we’ll still get to see more of the Black Widow.
A decent second place is Nobody, written by the guy who wrote John Wick and essentially John Wick again, just with Bob Odenkirk being funnier and doing fewer fights. Odenkirk is a nobody – and a Nobody (cf The Odyssey) – who breaks bad and returns to his former violent ways when his house is broken into and his daughter’s Hello Kitty bracelet is stolen. He then obviously has to go and fight some Russians, using the very special skills he’s built up.
It’s not in John Wick’s league by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s actually a lot of fun, Odenkirk is surprisingly plausible and an unstoppable death machine and the fights are decently executed.
The Tomorrow War (2021)
Coming unquestionably in third place is Amazon exclusive The Tomorrow War, a sort of horrendous mismash between Starship Troopers and The Edge of Tomorrow in which soldiers from the future arrive in our time to draft the current generation as soldiers against a nasty species of aliens that have invaded the Earth. For some reason, only 40somethings are suitable for drafting – something to do with paradoxes – and former special forces soldier turned science teacher Chris Pratt gets enlisted. In the future, he then has to team up with Yvonne Strahovski to take on the nasty things and maybe find a way of defeating them once and for all.
And it’s daft. Very, very daft. Pratt struggles, unable to do anything but his usual routine, but he doesn’t struggle anywhere as much as the script does as it tries to convince us that a 16 year old volcano obsessed nerd is our best hope for saving the human race. The third act weirdly is more like The Thing (From Another World) that what went before it, and actually better than the non-stop CGI firefights that preceded it. But it’s very far from engaging or exciting, even when emptying an entire magazine into your face.
TMINE has been busy/stuck under something heavy for the past few weeks, which means it’s hideously behind on its viewing. A whole bunch of new shows arrived last week, and I’ve not had a chance to watch any of them: Republic of Sarah (US: The CW), Whitstable Pearl (US: Acorn), Kevin Can F**k Himself (US: AMC), The Unusual Suspects (Australia: SBS) are all looking at me, shiftily, waiting for me to grace them with my attention. I’ve not even caught the first episode of the new season of Evil (US: CBS).
But that’s okay. I’m going to put the effort in this week. And I really, really, really hope to review them as well. Ooh.
Instead, my viewing has mainly consisted of Mythic Quest (Apple TV+), La Haine (1995), Fleabag, Superman & Lois (US: The CW), Loki (Disney+) and the whole of part two of Lupin (Netflix) – I could actually review a whole boxset on a Monday like I used to! If I had the time. Sorry. Things will settle down again soon, I promise.
Mythic Quest has been pretty decent, but none of the subsequent episodes have quite lived up to the delights of the 70s flashback episode, even the two-hander between William Hurt and F Murray Abraham a couple of weeks ago (although that was pretty great).
Superman & Lois, meanwhile, has been nothing but magnificent. I am now going to officially declare this the best superhero show I’ve ever watched (although there are some very close runners-up to that title, to be fair). Everything is just so well done and it’s great that they can really mess around with the Superman mythos as much as they like since it’s so far along in the character’s story now.
Loki is the latest spin-off Disney+ Marvel spin-off from the MCU, explaining what happened to Loki after Avengers: Endgame when he gets hold of the Tesseract thanks to some bad time travelling cock-ups by the Avengers. He’s soon intercepted by an agency dedicated to keeping the timelines intact who want to recruit him to stop… him. Yes, another Loki is going around messing with the the timelines.
If I hadn’t already seen Legion (US: FX), I’d probably be blown away by Loki since it is visually magnificent in more or less the exact same way Legion was. The visuals – and the timey-wimey plot, particularly the arrival of (spoiler) (spoiler alert) Lady Loki or is it the Enchantress? in episode two – are what make the show, since it’s really quite a talky affair that largely relies on Tom Hiddleston’s massive charisma to get by otherwise. It could do with more than that, for sure, but that’s enough to keep me going and I’ll happily watch the rest of it, since it’s certainly better than Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
La Haine (1995) wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. A French classic set on a Paris banlieue, where a few youthful inhabitants get hold of a policeman’s gun after it’s dropped in a riot and events unfold from there. But despite that premise and the film’s name (‘The Hate’), it’s actually a pretty funny, hopeful affair about people finding a way through life, even in a crappy environment like a banlieue, while it simultaneously dissects racism, police brutality and more. Equally, it’s amazing to see the likes of Vincent Cassel and Saïd Taghmaoui back when they were young unknowns.
That’s on the BFI Player, at least, and probably elsewhere, too.
Fleabag, which is currently on Amazon Prime, as part of a National Theatre collection of plays – the National Theatre now has its own app, BTW – is a pretty dark affair. The source of the TV show, it’s a really interesting, not especially funny look at lack of intimacy leads to lack of self-worth and ultimately self-destruction, particularly for women.
The second set of episodes of the first season of Lupin were solidly decent. After a slightly shaky start, the show started to pick up again reverting to our gentleman thief doing more hijinks and capers in a very well executed way. There are some very clever reveals, too, and I did enjoy the various references to Lupin stories – and the fact that copyright being laxer then, Lupid could meet Sherlock Holmes…
The Twilight Zone is one of the most famous shows in US TV history. Although not quite the original US ‘anthology show’ – indeed, it started off as an episode of precursor CBS anthology show The Desilu Playhouse – it is the best known.
A science-fiction, fantasy, psychological-supernatural horror anthology show created by Rod Serling, it ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1964. Each standalone episode depicted characters dealing with paranormal, futuristic, Kafka-esque, or otherwise disturbing or unusual events that are said to have taken place in ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Famously, of course, each story typically featured a moral or surprise ending. I say famously, but there are few people who could probably tell you even one of those endings without prompting, since it’s one of those shows that’s famous without many people actually having seen any episodes of it – or of its numerousremakes, of which a new one is being developed even as I type.
At a push, people might remember its later theme tune and title sequence:
They’ll have forgotten the original one completely, mind.
They might also remember creator Rod Serling’s frequent on-screen introductions and conclusions to episodes.
But individual episodes? Not so much.
For the most part, The Twilight Zone has entered the realm of the meme – a shorthand for the weird and unexplainable, and stories with weird aliens and stings in their tails. Although, to be honest, that’s more The Outer Limits people are thinking of. Indeed, you can reduce the ‘stings’ of all 156 episodes down to just 10 minutes if you try really hard.
Adapting The Twilight Zone for the stage
Which makes adapting it for the stage, as The Almeida Theatre in North London has done, potentially both easy and hard. Easy, because if no one can remember the episodes, no one’s going to be fussed if you either simply stage one as written or divert from it and change it in some way; hard, because you’ve little to latch onto.
So the TV show was like a kind of theatre, and in turn the theatre show is based on TV. It’s a strange transference of forms. There are certainly many questions that arise when thinking about the legacy of the show and its new manifestation on stage.
How do you do a pre-commercial break cliff-hanger onstage?
How do you create a high-concept perspective twist with no camera?
What is the best form for building tension?
What is the best form for creating a sense of the paranoid, the mysterious, the genuinely strange?
But at a more basic level, even if you think of each episode as a play, it’s still a play that’s only 50 minutes long and that relies on filmic rather than theatrical techniques for the most part. And which can be pastiched as a mere twist.
John Landis and others showed us one way of doing it back in 1983 with The Twilight Zone: The Movie. That simply took three classic episodes of the show, added in a new one, and then created ‘bookend’ scenes around them.
What does writer Anne Washburn do at The Almeida? Well, let’s just say not only is a bit different to that, it’s also a bit more North London.
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 Legendsof 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.