Monday, 31 March 2008

My DVD Shelf #6

These little insights into my head-space, by way of my DVD collection, seem quite popular (judging by web-stats), so here's another one. This time the shelf is brought to you by the letters "G" and "H"... oh, and a "I".

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966, dir Sergio Leone) I've never liked Westerns, but I had an unfathomable urge to buy this when I saw it – hoping to be blown away by a classic of the genre. I turned it off after 20 minutes. It took 3:10 To Yuma (2007) to get me interested in this genre.

The Green Mile (1999, dir Frank Darabont) A great film based on a Stephen King novel, directed by Darabont, who also adapted King's prison-set Shawshank Redemption story for the movies. I like the performances and there are some memorable moments along the way, but it's just a shame it’s far too long.

The Grudge (2004, dir Takashi Shimizu) A guilty pleasure, really. This is the US remake with Sarah Michelle Gellar. I know it's cookie-cutter Americanized J-Horror, but it's from the same Japanese director, and there's a special reason I bought it: I have very fond memories of watching this in the cinema. The audiences I was with yelped, screamed and laughed throughout – and it actually helped the film. You don't get that experience with the DVD so much, but the cinema experience is still seared into my memory. I had good fun with this film.

Guillermo Del Toro Collection: Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth (1993, 2001, 2006) I never usually buy box-sets like this (as you're usually better off buying each film individually, in terms of extras at least), but I couldn't resist three Del Toro classics for £30. I didn't care much for Cronos (nice ideas, just too slow), Devil's Backbone was interesting and creepy at times, but Pan's Labyrinth is the stand-out. A great fairy tale for grown-ups (as every review mentions), but it's true. Not a masterpiece, though, sorry. I saw this box-set in HMV for £15 recently. Grrrr. Bargain, if you haven't seen these films. , ,

House Of Flying Daggers (2004, dir Yimou Zhang) One of the better examples of the post-Crouching Dragon vogue for Chinese wire-fu historical action romances. Sumptuous scenery, an entertaining love-story, and some great fights. Recommended.

Hostel (2005, dir Eli Roth) I can see why so-called "torture porn" made a splash after Saw, but Hostel really disappointed me. It would have made a brilliant short story from a horror writer, in an anthology of creepy tales – but it doesn't really sustain a film. The idea is great, there are a few nasty scenes, but it's all a bit too obvious for my taste.

Hannibal (2001, Ridley Scott) After reading the book (which I enjoyed), I thought Ridley Scott could whip Thomas Harris' story into shape. He didn't. But, at the time, I kind of enjoyed Hannibal on a superficial level, and Anthony Hopkins gives a fun performances. I love Julianne Moore, but she's miscast here, and there are some scenes from the book I wish had made it into the screenplay. Flawed but watchable, if a pale shadow compared to Silence Of The Lambs.

Harry Potter & The Sorceror's Stone (2001, dir Christopher Columbus) I've never read any of the Harry Potter books (viewing them as The Worst Witch with a boy for many years), but I do enjoy the films. And I'm sure the books are every bit as great as people say they are. The first film is a great accomplishments (in terms of providing a spine for the entire franchise), but is pretty bland and empty compared to the more recent efforts. And yes, this is the Region 1 Sorceror's Stone, not the Region 2 Philosopher's Stone. The shame.

Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets (2002, dir Christopher Columbus) It's more of the same, really – but with a more elaborate, even sillier plot. I enjoyed it more than Stone, but only just.

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004, dir Alfonso Cuaron) Ah, now this was more like it! Cuaron shakes up the Potter aesthetic to chilly levels and gets decent performances from the cast, helped immensely by the more immersive plot. A really great film.

Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire (2005, dir Mike Newell) In the cinema, I really enjoyed this, but it doesn't withstand multiple viewings. Still solid, but only really worth watching for the excellent graveyard confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.

Hellboy (2004, dir Guillermo Del Toro) I wasn't very familiar with the Hellboy comic-books, but loved Del Toro's work with Blade II. This is a fun film, but the plot isn't very interesting – meaning there are cool creations, performed well by the actors – all running around not doing much.

Hero (2002, dir Yimou Zhang) Excellent Chinese martial arts drama with Jet Li; once again gorgeous to look at, with an interesting storyline and some more snazzy fight sequences. I preferred House Of Flying Daggers, but I reckon Hero's better than overrated Crouching Tiger.

Hollow Man (2000, dir Paul Verhoeven) Okay, it's bad, but the effects are excellent, and the logic of someone turning invisible was great fun to watch. Finally, visual effects could do justice to the concept. But, despite Kevin Bacon's attempts, and Paul Verhoeven behind the camera – it's just kind of limp. A special effects showreel in need of a story.

Hulk (2003, dir Ang Lee) I like it. It was different. It took a chance. The extended finale is fantastic, and the integration of "Absorbing Man" into the plot took me by surprise. It's just not what peopled wanted from a Hulk film (hence this year's gruffer, dumber reset/sequel). I can see why people hate it, and why people love it. I'm somewhere in-between.

Identity (2003, dir James Mangold) A good example of a little-known, under-the-radar cinema release that found an appreciative audience on DVD. It's a solid, entertaining, mysterious piece of horror, with good performances and a script that hangs together surprisingly well. It's basically one of those films you catch on late-night TV, or take a chance on with a DVD, then find yourself recommending it rabidly to friends. Great ending, too. I'm glad I took the risk. And keep an eye on Mangold -- he went on to do the excellent 3:10 To Yuma remake.

A shelf dominated by Harry Potter, Guillermo Del Toro and Yimou Zhang, which is no bad thing. But yes, I kind of gave up buying Potter DVDs when Order Of The Phoenix came along. All a bit dark and fairytale-esque on this shelf, isn't it. Shelf #7 will be along soon.

Normal service has resumed!

Yes, I'm back from Easter break, so the blog should get back to normal. I managed to keep updated with Torchwood, Mad Men, The Fixer, Ashes To Ashes and the return of The Apprentice while I was away – so that wasn't bad going!

Oh, and thanks to everyone who took part in my week-long poll. Hmmm, The Prisoner narrowly won as the TV show most want to see remade. Very interesting, as Prisoner fans are generally against any form of remake and very protective of Patrick McGoohan's brainchild.

I reviewed last Sunday's Lost today, but last night's Mad Men review should arrive tomorrow, 2 reviews for Moonlight will appear mid-week, and 2 reviews for The Prisoner repeats should be posted later this week. Everything else should run to the normal schedule.

I'm in two-minds about persevering with Dirty Sexy Money. I'll try to find the time to review last Friday's second episode. Is it worth getting tangled up in yet another US drama? Oh yeah, and I'll try and catch-up with the Mitchell & Webb I missed last week, before their last episode airs on Thursday. It hasn't been very good so far, though. UPDATE: What? The last episode was on last week? I'm muddled. Oh well, I'll try and review it. I hope episode 5 wasn't a work of genius that slipped me by...

LOST 4.8 – "Meet Kevin Johnson"

Writers: Elizabeth Sarnoff & Brian K. Vaughan
Director: Stephen Williams

Cast: Harold Perrineau (Michael), Ken Leung (Miles), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond Hume), Josh Holloway (Sawyer), Emilie de Ravin (Claire), Michael Emerson (Ben), Terry O'Quinn (Locke), Naveen Andrews (Sayid), Jorge Garcia (Hurley), Tania Raymonde (Alex Rousseau), Mira Furlan (Danielle Rousseau), Cynthia Watros (Libby), M.C. Gainey (Tom Friendly), Blake Bashoff (Karl), Marsha Thomason (Naomi), Kevin Durand (Keamy), Anthony Azizi (Omar), Fisher Stevens (George Minkowski), Grant Bowler (Captain Gault), Galyn Gorg (Nurse), Jill Kuramoto (Female Anchor) & Starletta DuPois (Mrs. Dawson)

Sayid forces Michael to explain why he's working undercover aboard the freighter...

"I want you to compile a list of names: every person
on your boat. When I call again, you'll give me that list."
-- Ben (Michael Emerson)

It's the last episode before a quick break, until the last episodes of this strike-shortened fourth season, and Meet Kevin Johnson promises big revelations regarding the fate of Michael (Harold Perrineau), who earned freedom from the island way back in season 2's finale. Sadly, while interesting and pleasantly perplexing at times, there's very little here you couldn't have guessed...

The problem facing Lost's writers is trying to constantly sidestep audience expectations, particularly a fan-base who predict events with increasing accuracy. As such, a few of season 4's big revelations have been painfully obvious from the start (Charles Widmore owns the freighter, Michael was Ben's spy), and characters have been discovering things the audience already know.

We open with Locke (Terry O'Quinn) hosting a group meeting designed to be open and honest about recent events. Miles (Ken Leung) is brought along (minus that grenade Locked shoved in his gob) to admit the "rescuers" are only here to find Ben. Everyone has already guessed that, and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) thinks they should hand him over, until Ben (Michael Emerson) makes it clear they'll kill everyone on the island once he's caught. And Ben knows all this because his spy on their boat told him: Michael.

The question of what happened to the rest of the Others is revealed, as Ben tells his daughter Alex (Tania Raymonde) and her boyfriend Karl (Blake Bashoff) to head for the sanctuary of "the Temple" – with her birth mother Rousseau (Mira Furlan) to protect them. This Temple is apparently the only safe place on the island, and a nice moment follows when Rousseau finds herself strangely touched by Ben's gesture to keep Alex safe.

The real guts of the story is on the freighter, with Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) being woken by an alarm. Some men are attempting to leave the freighter on a tender, but have been stopped by Captain Gault (Grant Bowler). Deckhand Kevin Johnson is called to clean up, and Sayid uses the opportunity to confront "Kevin"/Michael – who explains he's here to die.

Later, Sayid and Desmond find Michael in the Engine Room and pressure him to explain exactly what happened after he left the island. Flashbacks reveal Michael got off the island safely with Walt, but had to assume a false identity and has never explained to his mother (Starletta DuPois) what happened during the 2 months they were both missing. Consequently, Mrs Dawson has taken custody of Walt – who it's revealed has been having nightmares since the ordeal.

Michael's life has deteriorated so badly that he attempts suicide by driving a car straight into a shipment container near a pier. In hospital -- after a false awakening where murdered Libby (Cynthia Watros) appears to him in a dream as a nurse (I have that same dream!) -- Michael wakes up to find he miraculously survived the car crash...

After pawning his watch (inscribed with Korean writing on the reverse) for a gun, Michael tries to kill himself again in a back alley – but is interrupted by Tom (M.C Gainey), the stocky Other from the island. After a brief scuffle, Tom reveals the Others have been keeping tabs on him – and guesses correctly that Michael told Walt he killed Ana-Lucia and Libby to secure their freedom, causing a painful split in their once-close relationship. Tom also reveals the reason Michael survived the car crash: the island won't let him die. Before leaving, Tom invites Michael to visit him at the Hotel Earl.

At home, a despondent Michael tries to blow his brains out with his gun again, but the bullets won't fire – despite every chamber being full. Just at that moment he catches sight of a new report about the discovery of Flight 815, with all 324 passengers found dead inside.

At Tom's hotel room, Michael demands answers. Tom confirms that Flight 815's discovery has been faked by a man called Charles Widmore (showing him receipts to prove Widmore's elaborate hoax), and explains that Widmore has discovered the location of the island is has sent a freighter there. Tom wants Michael to join the freighter's crew under the alias "Kevin Johnson" and kill everyone onboard, before they reach the island and kill the inhabitants.

At the port of Suva in Fiji, Michael joins the crew of the Kahana and meets Minkowski (Fisher Stevens) and Naomi (Marsha Thomason), before taking receipt of his possessions in a mysterious crate. Once they're on their journey, Michael opens the crate and finds it contains a bomb. Realizing what he has to do, Michael primes the bomb and detonates it – but it only produces a note with "NOT YET" attached.

Later, Michael is told by Minkowski he has a call from someone called Walt in the radio room. Excited, Michael takes the call, but is disappointed to find it's actually Ben – who was amazed Michael actually used the bomb, as there are innocent people aboard the freighter, and he doesn't kill innocents. Ben asks Michael to compile a list of everyone on the freighter, disable the radio room, and then sabotage the engines.

His story told to Sayid and Desmond, they drag him to Captain Gault's quarters and reveal that "Kevin Johnson" is actually "Michael Dawson", the ship saboteur and a traitor.

On the island, Alex and Karl are walking through the jungle with Rousseau, before stopping to take a break. Suddenly, silenced bullets begin whizzing through the air, hitting trees around them, until Karl is hit and killed. Rousseau rushes to Alex's aide, and calms her down enough to make a run for safety – but is killed herself mid-stride. Alex has no option but to surrender to the unseen attackers, screaming that she's Ben's daughter.

Meet Kevin Johnson is one of the simpler episodes in terms of narrative, and there's not much here to get excited about. Michael's fate after leaving the island wasn't very interesting, or even plausible at times (why would Michael tell Walt he's a murderer?), while the continuity problems with rapidly-aging Malcolm David Kelley meant Walt's appearance was reduced to a brief, silhouetted appearance in a window. I also fail to understand why Michael didn't go to the authorities, have his identity as a Flight 815 passenger confirmed, and try to coordinate a genuine rescue of his friends on the island.

The most interesting aspect of Michael's story, stripping away the nudge-nudge moments when he interacts with dead cast members (Libby, Naomi, Minkowski) and that silliness of the "fake-bomb", was the revelation that he can't die. Just when you thought Lost couldn't get any stranger, we now have to swallow the idea that the island "won't let him die"? All I can say is; the writers better have a good reason for that piece of mythology – as it's quite a leap to believe the "island" (or Jacob?) has that level of supernatural influence on the island, let alone off it! The idea seems to be muddying already dirty waters very unnecessarily. I hope I'm proved wrong.

The on-island story essentially consisted of a few very brief scenes, and the only one of note was the ending. Who was firing at Alex, Karl and Rousseau? Was is "the hostiles" – the assumed indigenous people of the island? I don’t think anyone's interested in Alex's character, and it was inevitable that limp Karl would be killed-off sooner or later -- but Rousseau's death was a big surprise (if, indeed, the shot was fatal.) But I was mostly angry we won't ever get the looong-awaited Rousseau flashback. Well, probably not from her perspective, anyway. Maybe we'll get the flashback via Ben, showing the circumstances surrounding his stealing of Rousseau's baby daughter 15 years ago?

Overall, Meet Kevin Johnson was a disappointment – mostly because of the huge expectation that built up around Michael and Walt when they left the show. Lost usually does a great job of avoiding expectations, by taking a twist into something more amazing than you could imagine – but not here. The answers presented weren't that inspired, and any genuine surprises demanded heavy suspension of disbelief. I mean, seriously; the island can stop people killing themselves from thousands of miles away now? And for its next trick...

As a make-shift "mid-season finale", this was pretty poor. But, viewed as a regular mid-season episode, it was enjoyable and contained a few important pieces of mythology. The Alex/Rousseau relationship has been badly handled since Alex learned who her real mother was, but it seems the writers had no intention of doing anything interesting with Rousseau once she found her daughter.

Hopefully the irritations of this episode will be smoothed over during the last 5 episodes, which start airing in about a month...

Burning Questions

-- How was the island able to prevent Michael killing himself?

-- Why is the Temple only for the Others, and who built it?

-- Who was shooting at Alex, Karl and Rousseau, and why? Did Ben expect that attack, perhaps as a way of getting rid of Karl and Rousseau?

-- Are Karl and Rousseau definitely dead?

-- Who are the "innocent" people aboard the freighter Ben intends to spare?

23 March 2008
Sky One, 9.00 pm

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Box Office Charts: w/e 28 March 2008

In the US: Dr Seuss CGI animation Horton Hears A Who stays strong at #1... Americans really love their cruddy African-American comedies, with Meet The Browns in at #2... horror Shutter scares up average business to debut at #3... Drillbit Taylor, Owen Wilson's first movie since his suicide bid limps in at #4 with a meagre $10m... and Mexican comedy Misma luna, La scrapes in at #10.

In the UK: Dr Seuss may not have the same grip on British childhoods as it does in America, but Horton Hears A Who still bags #1 over here... family fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles is edged out at #2... dance drama sequel Step Up 2 The Streets shimmies in at #3... but thankfully gets the better of laugh-free dirge Meet The Spartans (which still cons 1 million of our country's British pounds...)... Bollywood thriller Race creeps in at #9... Guillermo Del Toro produced horror The Orphanage peeks in at #10...


(1) 1. Horton Hears A Who $24.6m
(-) 2. Meet The Browns $20.1m
(-) 3. Shutter $10.4m
(-) 4. Drillbit Taylor $10.3m
(2) 5. 10,000 B.C $8.93
(3) 6. Never Back Down $4.83m
(4) 7. College Road Trip $4.7m
(6) 8. The Bank Job $4.19m
(5) 9. Vantage Point $3.81m
(-) 10. Misma luna, La $2.77m


(-) 1. Horton Hears A Who £2.9m
(-) 2. The Spiderwick Chronicles £2.5m
(-) 3. Step Up 2 The Streets £2.3m
(-) 4. Meet The Spartans £1.1m
(1) 5. 10,000 B.C £1.03m
(2) 6. Vantage Point £741k
(3) 7. The Game Plan £562k
(4) 8. The Other Boleyn Girl £483k
(-) 9. Race £365k
(-) 10. The Orphanage/Orfanato, El £329k


A woman who has been a bridesmaid 27 times wrestles with the idea of letting her younger sister marry the man who may be the "one". Romantic comedy starring Katherine Heiglm and James Marsden.

Two kids hire a low-budget bodyguard to protect them from school bullies. Comedy starring Owen Wilson, Troy Gentile & Nate Hartley.

Two bungling petty criminals plan to rob their church to pay off a debt. Crime comedy starring Ice Cube, Katt Williams, Tracy Morgan & Loretta Divine.

A guy tracks down his sexy childhood sweetheart, but has to contend with her ugly, ever-present sister. Comedy starring Paris Hilton, Joel Moore & Christine Lakin.


"I know if I was to speak to a professional fishmonger
he would kill himself laughing..."

Sir Alan Sugar's back on his insatiable quest for another apprentice, and 16 brand new well-educated people (most with common sense bypasses) have arrived to participate in big Al's "12-week job interview". You don't fix what isn't broken, so this opener was the same Apprentice we know and love, with the only twist being how quickly Sir Alan dropped the candidates into the deep end...

The 16 were immediately divided into two teams of boys and girls, and each given a van of fish with a wholesale value of £600. After deciding their team names (something that always seems to encourage more debate and loss of time than the actual task, it seems), the girls ("Alpha") and the boys ("Renaissance") set up separate market stalls in Islington. They had to identify their fishy produce using photos, settle on reasonable prices based on a wholesale cost list, and offload the seafood to make a profit. Simple, no?

Alex Wotherspoon, 24, was the team leader of the boys, a Regional Sales Manager who didn't do too badly really. He certainly managed to delegate effectively enough, and I could relate to his disdain as other teammates let the side down. But, truth is -- whoever was put in charge of identifying the fish and pricing them had the most difficult task. Step forward fish-identifier Raef Bjayou, a smart-mouthed 27-year-old entrepreneur, and Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, 23, a toffee-nosed barrister and property developer. Surely the board room awaited?

Claire Young, 28, was the team leader of the girls, a burly Senior Retail Buyer who didn't make much of an impression during the programme itself. But she must have done something right, as the girls' prices were more accurate and they managed to secure the best pitch at the market.

Raef incorrectly labelled three boxes of fish, Nicholas thought they should be charging £4.90 per lobster (instead of £4.90 per pound of lobster), losing the boys £10 every time they sold one. Towards the end of the trading day, both teams tried to offload their remaining stock by selling it to local businesses. The boys wound up in a jewellers and a solicitor's office (wha--?), where Michael Sophocoles, a 25-year-old telesales executive, decided to sell £130 worth of stock for a measly £50! Hmmm.

As if you couldn't guess, the boys were informed at the board room debrief that they had lost the task – after only making £32.69 profit. The girls hadn't fared much better, making just £153.98 profit – and most of that came from the last-minute offload to a local businessman. But, "a win's a win" as Sir Alan put it – so the girls were driven back to their luxury pad to eat a meal cooked by Jean Christophe Novelli. Oooh. Would the boys have got Nigella?

Team leader Alex brought Raef and Nicholas back into the board room with him the next morning – as it was past Sir Al's bedtime by now. That actually worked quite well for the show, as the boys could experience a night in their luxury home and had to chew over things in their minds. And plan their strategy to save themselves under the bearded glare of Sir Alan.

Sir Alan tore into the boys' poor performance selling the fish, but Alex's bewildered nice-guy nature seemed to hold him in good stead. And Sir Alan often gives the benefit of the doubt to team leaders, particularly one who had to manage a team of very competitive strangers. Raef came across as a motormouthed, petulant pain in the arse (the new Sayid?), while Nicholas did himself no favours by just attacking Alex's leadership with bizarre issues of a "cultural division".

I don't think Sir Alan liked Nicholas' snooty demeanour and silly reasoning -- but whatever possessed Nicholas to tell former Spurs chairman Sir Alan that "I find it very difficult to have conversations about… football"? Verbal suicide.

So it was bye-bye barrister, as posh-boy Nicholas de Lacy-Brown was the first candidate to be fired. And it's particularly galling to be kicked out in the first week, isn't it? "I've been made a scapegoat", Nicholas moaned as he headed to his taxi. And the thing is, as none of the boys realized a sub-£5 lobster is ridiculously cheap, I do think that Nicholas was lumbered with a key role none of the boys would have excelled at. Which doesn't bode well for their group!

The search for Sir Alan's new apprentice continues...

26 March 2008
BBC1, 9.00 pm

ASHES TO ASHES 1.8 - "Alex's Big Day"

Writer: Ashley Pharaoh
Director: Jonny Campbell

Cast: Philip Glenister (DCI Gene Hunt), Keeley Hawes (DI Alex Drake), Dean Andrews (DS Ray Carling), Marshall Lancaster (DC Chris Skelton), Montserrat Lombard (WPC Sharon "Shaz" Granger), Amelia Bullmore (Caroline Price), Stephen Campbell-Moore (Evan White), Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Scarman), Andrew Clover (The Clown/Tim Price), Sean Harris (Arthur Layton), Geff Francis (Viv James), Joseph Long (Luigi), Matthew Baynton (Tom Robinson), Jim Creighton (Angus Ashton), Andrew Brooke (PC), Lucy Cole (Young Alex), Grace Vance (Molly Drake) & Paul Anderson (PC Murder Suspect)

Alex tries to prevent the death of her parents, as Gene prepares CID for inspection by a VIP...

It's the day of reckoning: 10 October 1981. The day a young Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) escaped from a car bomb that killed her parents; only now, she has a chance to stop history repeating itself (well, in her "mind's eye"), but is forced to take drastic measures to ensure a better outcome...

Co-creator Ashley Pharaoh makes his writing debut on Ashes To Ashes to cap the season-long storyline of the puzzling car bomb that kills Tom and Caroline Price (Amelia Bullmore), which has been glimpsed in gradually less-confusing flashes since episode 1. The show has failed to make Caroline a very likeable person, though -- meaning the prospect of her imminent death instead filled me with a ghoulish sense of glee throughout his finale.

As usual, Alex makes the going unnecessarily tough -- trying to prevent a bomb going off whilst rambling like a lunatic. Is she compelled to make bizarre statements whenever she opens her mouth? She might at well just regale everyone with the truth about her situation, as it hardly matters: all the characters blithely ignore her or, in the case of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), shrug her twittering aside with a sneer.

Mind you, one scene between Alex and mother Caroline managed to achieve some semblance of a realistic reaction to Alex’s nuttiness -- with Caroline insisting Alex is "confused" and in need of therapy. But even then, Caroline doesn't think it strange Alex sobs at the briefest mention of her daughter/family, and still isn’t freaked-out by how Alex has imposed herself on the Prices since they first met.

Much of Alex's Big Day (why the childish-sounding title?) involves Alex trying to prevent the car bomb she knows will happen on a certain stretch of road, in a certain type of car, beside a certain billboard for soap. After faking a phone call from an informant about the approaching blast, Alex manages to get help from Ray (Dean Andrews) in helping her stop the Prices death. I was actually rather refreshing to see Alex partner someone other than Gene, for once.

After deducing that the Prices will be borrowing a car belonging to family friend Angus Ashton (Jim Creighton), a man currently taking part in a Gay Pride march, Alex takes drastic measures to ensure Angus' vehicle can't be used as an instrument of death -- by crushing it in a big, pink tank she commandeers at the march. Yes, it's silliness for the sake of silliness, with Alex the only person in the world who can drive a tank from standing in the gun turret. Just how long were heels in the 1980s?

There's also the return of criminal Arthur Layton (Sean Harris) to contend with -- the creepy guy who shot Alex in 2008, causing her "jump" into this imaginary-'81, where she arrested him in episode 1. Ray discovers that Layton is being represented by the Price lawyer team and also has a bomb-making background -- so could he be involved in a plot to murder the Prices? After a face-to-face confrontation in prison, Alex becomes convinced Layton knows more than he's letting on, but he's at least safe behind bars where he can’t do any harm...

With the car crushed, prime suspect Layton incarcerated, and advertisers confirming they have no intention of erecting a billboard near the bomb site, Alex is hopeful she's managed to annul the threat. But, just to be sure, she plants drugs inside the Price's home and arrests her own mother and father. After throwing the Prices in jail (which is currently full of Gay Pride marchers singing the Village People’s greatest hits), surely Alex can sigh in relief and be whisked back to 2008, job well done? Well, no…

Unfortunately, Gene releases the Prices early and fate quickly conspires to wreck Alex’s plan. Layton is bailed from jail by Evan (Stephen Campbell Moore), and the Prices resume their car journey, with young Alex (Lucy Cole) carrying that portentous red balloon. As Alex and Gene arrive at the scene, Alex notices the billboard ad she remembers – actually stuck to the side of a truck -- but it’s too late to stop the terrible event unfolding. As her younger self leaves the car to chase after her balloon, with Arthur Layton watching from a safe distance, Tim Price is revealed as the real architect of disaster – his face slowly morphing into The Clown who terrorizes Alex in visions, as he triggers the fatal car explosion himself.

Young Alex runs to the safety of Gene’s embrace (not Evan, as adult Alex remembered), although Evan has also arrived on the scene, staring in disbelief at Tom’s extraordinary suicide. As the flames from the wreckage lick the sky, Alex screams in fury at her failure, and information is delivered in ensuing scenes to plug gaps -- primarily through a video-tape confession Tom left behind. Alex’s dad was apparently aware Evan had slept with his wife, and thought it best to end all his families' lives now the sanctity of his marriage had been broken. Layton was freed from jail purely to construct the car bomb required to do the deed.

Overall, the finale wasn’t too shabby when all’s said and done. I certainly didn’t guess Tim would be the villain, although it was perhaps obvious in hindsight because his character was kept suspiciously on the periphery. Was that to hide the fact Clown actor Andrew Clover was playing Tim, too? I wasn’t convinced an intelligent man like Tim would think killing his family in a would be a good idea, but I can suspend my disbelief. But why bother bailing Layton from prison just to build a car-bomb? That seemed a bit too coincidental to Alex’s own "history" with Layton, and aren’t there easier ways to kill your wife and daughter anyway?

Ashes To Ashes’ continuing struggle with its premise reared its head on a few occasions again – with elements once again wobbling between treating Alex’s situation as genuine time-travel and imagined reality. Why would Alex be amazed to discover Gene was the one who hugged her younger self in '81, following the bomb? He wasn’t. Gene’s just a "construct" of her imagination (as she always reminds us), so it must have been Evan in the real ’81 incident. The revelation of everything was certainly plausible (particularly why Evan would never tell Alex the awful truth) – but because we’re not dealing with actual time-travel, the events were ultimately just a theory based on Alex’s childhood memories and a fantasy of '80s pop-culture. Oh, and characters created by Sam Tyler.

The subplot was disappointing, with CID facing inspection from a visiting Lord Scarman (Geoffrey Palmer), which resulted in Chris (Marshall Lancaster) having to pose as a pest jailed for indecent exposure. Scarman later decided to sit in a cell to understand the prison experience (while the jails were full of crass gay stereotypes), before being on the receiving end of a Gene rant clearly directed at every liberal politician watching the show and arguing for the return of old-fashioned policing.

Gene’s tub-thumping got the full orchestral treatment from the soundtrack, but it felt forced and simple-minded to me. After all, there were good reasons cops like Gene died out, although it’s easy to see why we feel nostalgic for "the good ol' days" – even if it’s through the rose-tinted spectrum of the Gene Genie’s 70s/80s adventures.

So where does episode 8 leave us? Alex’s parents are dead. Her younger self will be adopted by Evan. Shaz (Montserrat Lombard) made a full recovery. Gene and Alex’s relationship took a step forward with a romantic meal. But Alex is still stuck inside her imagination, despite solving the mind-game she had set herself here.

A second season has been commissioned, and I’m guessing Ashes To Ashes might even push beyond that – if only because Keeley Hawes isn't as jittery as John Simm about starring in a long-running drama. There are certainly plenty of avenues left to explore with the cultural disparities between '81 and '08, but is there a way to extend the Prisoner-style trappings of Alex Drake* -- with the freaky Clown, and her quest to get back to daughter Molly? The scenes of her hallucinations were already beginning to bore me.

Overall, I think its unfortunate Ashes To Ashes is a spin-off from Life On Mars. If the show is judged separately, it does a number of things better than Mars -- Alex is more exciting than Sam, and the marriage of cop drama and sci-fi is handled with more sophistication -- but it’s ultimately crippled by a premise that grows staler by the episode. And Gene Hunt went from mesmerizing brilliance to predictable caricature sometime between 1973 and 1981.

27 March 2008
BBC1, 9.00 pm

* Incidentally, is it just coincidence that Alex Drake has the same surname as Number Six’s assumed name (John Drake) from The Prisoner? And Alex Drake sounds very similar to Alice Drake from Prisoner sequel comic Shattered Visage.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Quentin Tarantino: A Film Montage

There are hundreds of compilation videos on YouTube, but this one celebrating the films of Quentin Tarantino is definitely one of the best. Great editing and smart choices of music from QT's back-catalogue. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

DIRTY SEXY MONEY 1.1 - "Pilot"

Writer: Craig Wright
Director: Peter Horton

Cast: Donald Sutherland (Patrick "Tripp" Darling), Natalie Zea (Karen Darling), Samaire Armstrong (Juliet Darling), Zoe McLellan (Lisa George), Glenn Fitzgerald (Brian Darling), Jill Clayburgh (Letitia Darling), Peter Krause (Nick George), William Baldwin (Patrick Darling), Seth Gabel (Jeremy Darling), Victoria Pratt (Naomi Leeds), Tommy Nelson (Young Brian), Elle Fanning (Kiki George), Alexa Gerasimovich (Young Karen), Laz Alonso (Colin Davidson), Michelle Krusiec (Mei Ling Hwa Darling), Kiersten Warren (Ellen Darling), Candis Cayne (Carmelita), Selenis Leyva (Detective), Shawn Michael Patrick (Clark), Daniel Cosgrove (Freddy Mason), John Ellison Conlee (Duncan McAndrews), Brooke Smith (Andrea), Rae Ritke (Clare George), Laura Margolis (Daisy), Tamara Feldman (Natalie Kimpton), Roxana Brusso (Maria) & Trevor St. John (Dutch George)

A man is persuaded to follow in his dead father's footsteps, and become the family lawyer to multi-millionaire family the Darlings...

"You have all the money you're ever gonna need. You're never gonna have
to work a day in your life. 30,000 people die of starvation every day.
Did you know that? Every day."
-- Nick George (Peter Krause)

It's another flashy new US drama; this one revolving around the fantastically rich Darling family of New York, headed by patriarch Patrick "Tripp" Darling (Donald Sutherland). But the emphasis is actually on idealistic lawyer and family friend Nick George (Peter Krause), who grew up with the Darlings because his father worked tirelessly as their lawyer...

The Pilot opens with Nick watching his father's light aircraft being winched out of the sea. His father's body is missing, but is seems clear that he has died in these mysterious circumstances. Early on, the episode does a brilliant job at highlight how the media-frenzy over the Darling family comes at the expense of everything else, as Nick has difficulty gaining access his own father's funeral purely because the Darling family's presence has resulted in a huge crowd and police protection.

There are a lot of characters to meet in the course of this episode, and Craig Wright's script does a good job of introducing us to the Darling family without it becoming tiresome or stunted. Tripp Darling, as played by the snow-haired Donald Sutherland, is the well-meaning figurehead who offers Nick $10,000,000 a year to takeover his father's position as the family lawyer and general "fixer". Together with his graceful wife Leticia (Jill Clayburgh), Tripp exudes the American dream of success, power and family -- but the truth is that their children are unruly and cause them nothing but problems...

The eldest of their children is Patrick Darling (William Baldwin), the attorney general for New York, whose political career could possibly take him all the way to the White House. The only potential hitch is that his girlfriend Carmelita is a transexual (played by real-life transgendered actress Candis Cayne).

Next up is Karen Darling (Natalie Zea), a beautiful woman who runs the family foundation. We meet her current fiance Freddy in this episode, but it's clear that Karen has unresolved feelings for Nick that causes him discomfort around his wife Lisa (Zoe McLellan). Brian Darling is the reverend of an Episcopal church who actively hates Nick and considers him a leech the family should squish underfoot.

Juliet Darling (Samaire Armstrong) is the typical spoiled rich kid in her twenties, who longs to be taken seriously as an actress but doesn't have the talent. This episode sees Tripp buy her a role in a theatre production, which causes her great distress when she finds out. Unlike many of the others in the Darling dynasty, she can't wait to break free of them and find her own path in life.

Jeremy Darling (Seth Gabel) is the youngest Darling, and twin of Juliet, who is basically wasting his life away in the lap of luxury. As a disaffected youth, Jeremy spends his days playing high-stakes poker and getting into trouble with the police; escapades that requires Nick to bail him out.

As mentioned, Nick himself is happily married to Lisa, a curator at a SoHo art gallery, who isn't a fan of the Darling family, but can't really let him turn down a £10-million-a-year salary to be their personal lawyer. Nick and Lisa have a 7-year-old daughter together called Kiki (Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, who co-starred with Peter Krause in The Lost Room.)

With so much to cram into the first episode, it's little more than a steep learning curve at times, but the performances all twinkle and Krause makes for an engaging lead through the mega-rich world of the Darlings. I can already sense Dirty Sexy Money is going to be a glossy, excessive, guilty pleasure of sorts; with the Darlings a modern-day equivalent to the Ewings from Dallas, with Donald Sutherland as the new J.R.

By the end of the Pilot, Nick has agreed to replace his father as the Darling family lawyer, but is shocked to learn that his dad had a 40-year-long affair with Leticia Darling. Is that secretive relationship connected to his father's mysterious fatal air crash? Did Trip discover his wife's affair with his trusted lawyer and confidante? No, that's too obvious. Did he uncover a family secret one of the Darlings were willing to kill over to protect?

Dirty Sexy Money doesn't really appeal to me on a surface level, as watching the misadventures of wealthy socialites isn't something I can get that excited about. I like Krause as an actor, although it's worrying to note the similarity between Nick George and his role as an undertaker in Six Feet Under (with both characters taking over their father's "business".) Donald Sutherland is a great actor who deserves a TV "rebirth", and there are signs William Baldwin may come out from under brother Alec's shadow (who also decided career longevity lies in TV, scene-stealing in 30 Rock.)

Overall, the Pilot was slickly written and worked well as a fast introduction to the dynamics of the show's "dead father" mystery and the Darling/George family units. There was nothing here to demand I tune in for more, but I can see potential in the premise, I enjoyed the performances, and it should provide the kind of soapy fun of Desperate Housewives and Dallas combined.

21 March 2008
Channel 4, 9.00 pm

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

EASTENDERS: Goin' Underground

Every once in a while, EastEnders pulls out a ridiculous storyline that will undoubtedly pull in big audiences, but cause its actors difficulty in making the storyline "play". One such moment arrived last night, when Max Branning was buried alive by wronged wife Tanya and her scheming lover Sean...

Good plots tend to be cyclical on soaps, with most actors spending a few months standing around as glorified extras until they get their chance to shine in something meaty. A few actors are lucky enough to roll straight into the juicy repercussions of previous plots -- and that's what happened for Jake Wood (Max) and Jo Joyner (Tanya)...

After discovering her serial-cheat hubbie was having an affair with his own son's teenage wife on Christmas Day, Tanya has been involved in a bitter divorce ever since. Of course, 3 months is long enough in soapland for a divorce to drag on for. There's only so much you can do before a divorce story gets samey and irritating, so Tanya began to devise a far-from-perfect murder: drug her husband's wine, get loverboy Sean to pick up a coffin, and bury her husband alive in the local woods...

Well, it beats a drawn-out custody battle for the kids, I guess! It's a shame Max hadn't seen Kill Bill Volume II, but the episode just about managed to avoid total stupidity. I have a tough time believing cuddly Tanya could become so demented to murder, or vindictive enough to recreate her husband's worse childhood nightmare, but it was still a memorably bonkers episode.

After filling the grave in, Max's groans were still audible (no, they didn't bother digging six feet down), but Sean and Tanya still headed home. It was perhaps inevitable that the story wouldn't end there, though -- Tanya looked like a conspicuous mess when she arrived home to be confronted by her kids wondering where dad was. Sean's sister Stacy saw him changing his clothes into uncle Charlie's grey jumper (a definite sign of a distracted mind!), and guessed something had happened with the Brannings. Stacy arrived at Tanya's to confront her, but convinced her Max was asleep upstairs. Conflicting the story she'd told her girls.

You could already visualize the Judge sending Tanya and Sean down for life in a summer episode. I'm sure some dog-walker would find that grave soon enough. And why did Sean take receipt of a coffin on the night Max went "missing", your honour? And why was the accused's white van seen on CCTV heading towards the gravesite? Etc, etc.

Sean lay on his sofa, contemplating the night's awful activities. Tanya did likewise, alone on her double-bed. Hours passed. Surely Max would be dead now, with only a coffin full of oxygen? Tanya went downstairs and was reminded how much her girls love their dad after spotting some school-made sweets they'd made for him. After vomiting in a sink, extreme guilt took over and she drove back to the woods.

After digging down to the coffin and pulling off the lid, Max was revealed. Dead? No. A gasp and a lunge signalled his survival, and Tanya pulled him out of the hole. After regaining his breath, he tried to strangle her (well, do you blame him?), before a heart-to-heart chat with buckets of tears changed his outlook on things. Disgusted that his affair has led Tanya to take such chilling steps, Max agreed to leave Tanya and the kids, not challenge the divorce, and let her have custody of the kids.

After arriving home (the most uncomfortable car journey ever, surely?), Max lived up to his word -- and left with no fuss. Much to Sean's disbelief, as he reaized Tanya really was just using him all along. Himbo.

I defy anyone not to have been gripped, even if the storyline was unquestionably silly and OTT. Much of its success was down purely to actress Jo Joyner (whose fine performance kept the crazy storyline just about credible), and Jake Wood made Max's change of heart work in a fantastic graveside scene with Joyner.

So yes, it was a sensationlist idea and ridiculous in its quick construction, but EastEnders just about got away with it because of the strong performances.

24 March 2008
BBC1, 8.00 pm

MAD MEN 1.4 - "New Amsterdam"

Writer: Lisa Albert
Director: Tim Hunter

Cast: Jon Hamm (Don Draper), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy), Vincent Kartheiser (Pete), January Jones (Betty), Christina Hendricks (Joan), Rosemarie DeWitt (Midge), John Slattery (Roger Sterling), Michael J. X. Gladis (Paul), Aaron Staton (Ken), Rich Sommer (Harry), Bryan Batt (Salvatore), Maggie Siff (Rachel Menken), Christopher Allport (Andrew Campbell), Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell), Barbara Kerr Condon (Mrs Lyman), Emelle (Secretary), Zachariah James-Jadon Evans (Robert Draper), Rene Hamilton (Elaine), Stephen Jordan (Dan Bishop), Kiersten Lyons (Charlotte), Haley Mancini (Wendy), Julie McNiven (Hildy), Joe O'Connor (Tom), Sarah Jannett Parish (Secretary), David Pearl (Ad Agency Exec), Sheila Shaw (Jeannie Vogel), Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper), Darby Stanchfield (Helen Bishop) & Andy Umberger (Dr Arnold Wayne)

Pete faces pressure while searching for a new apartment with his wife, leading to him alienating Don and endangering his position at Sterling Cooper...

Roger: I bet there were people in the Bible walking
around, complaining about "kids today."

: Kids today, they have no one to look
up to. Cuz they're looking up to us.

It's not the swiftest piece of drama on television, but it's a delight to get lost in Mad Men's sumptuous world of pristine suburbia, twinkling skyscrapers, bright fashions and razor-sharp suits every week. New Amsterdam focuses on go-getter Pete (Vince Karthesier), turning our sympathy for him into mild contempt...

It all begins after we're introduced to Pete's new bride Trudy (Alison Brie), who takes Pete to view a luxury apartment in Park Avenue. But Pete isn't sure he can afford the deposit on his $75-a-week salary, so will have to get help from his parents. Unfortunately, Pete's father Andrew (Christopher Allport) doesn't understand his son's line of work and it's clear Pete isn't the "favourite son", so he brushes off Pete's sensitive request for a short-term loan...

Don (Jon Hamm) is once again in the middle of an important contract, proposing an advertising campaign to Walter Bethlehem, the rich owner of Bethlehem Steel. Don's idea involves posters with America's greates cities, which were all built using steel, but Walter isn't so keen -- believing the ads are marketing the cities more than the product. As Don tries to salvage the meeting, Pete interjects and ushers Walter away, promising they'll come up with something better by tomorrow -- irritating Don.

At Don's home, his wife Betty (January Jones) takes their dog for a walk and notices a strange man banging on neighbour Helen Bishop's door. He asks to use Betty's phone, but Betty refuses. Later on, Helen stops by to thank Betty for not helping her ex-husband Dan (Stephen Jordan), revealing they broke up because of his many affairs in the city.

The next day, Helen (Darby Stanchfield) asks Betty for a favour: to babysit her son Glen as she helps out at the Kennedy election HQ. Betty agrees, arriving to find Helen's house a mess, with laundry piled on a chair and newspapers strewn about the place. Helen leaves, kissing her son Glen goodbye as he plays piano.

Pete and Trudy's search for finances have hit a dead-end, with Pete pretending he just didn't ask his father because of his ill health. While the newlyweds have dinner with Trudy's parents, her father Tom Vogel (Joe O'Connor) offers to help them pay for the apartment. Pete isn't happy about being indebted to his in-laws, but grudgingly accepts their kind offer.

Betty has a creepy night at Helen's, as she leaves Glen watching television to use the bathroom, only to find Glen peeping around the door at her as she sits on the toilet. After shouting at him to go away, she finishes her business and storm downstairs to demand an apology. Introverted Glen says sorry, hugging her tightly, before complimenting Betty's good-looks and asking for a lock of her golden hair. Confused, Betty obliges, then sends him to bed.

At night, Pete is busy schmoozing Water in a hotel bar, proposing the slogan "Bethelehem Steel Is The Backbone Of America" to replace Don's idea. The next morning, Don's presentation resumes and he shows Don the same basic poster design, but with the slogan "Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem". Walter is unhappy with it, but agrees to use the slogan Pete pitched him last night. After they all shake hands and Walter leaves, Don has no choice but to fire Pete for going behind his back and making him look stupid and ill-informed in front of a client.

As Pete stews in his office, aware that he world is collapsing and he won't be able to afford his new apartment, Don tells his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) about what happened. Roger agrees with his decision to sack Pete, but after discussing it with co-owner Mr Cooper it becomes clear that firing Pete wouldn't be in the company's best interest. Pete's mother is Dorothy Dykeman -- whose family used to own everything north of 125th Street. Therefore, Pete is their ticket to securing marquee interested in that area of the city. Roger gives a grateful Pete his job back, pretending that Don talked his decision around.

Pete and Judy go to view their new apartment, meeting their new neighbour Mrs Lyman (Barbara Kerr Condon), who seems starstruck to learn that Pete is related to the Dykeman's. As Trudy delights in regaling Mrs Lyman with some family stories, Pete finds himself staring out at the steel-built city, into nothingness...

Like most Mad Men episodes so far, the storyline gradually thickens and becomes more intriguing at its goes along, with Pete's financial woes particularly interesting. I'm still not sure if Pete's an opportunistic slimeball, or simply a younger version of Don Draper -- as his blank stare out the window (avoiding social reality with his wife), is very similar to Don's own behaviour at home these days.

It also seems clear to me that divorcee Helen Bishop is basically Betty in a "there but for the grace of God, go I" storyline. Their husbands even have vaguely similar names: Don and Dan! Mind you, with Helen involved in John F. Kennedy's election campaign, will JFK's eventual march to the White House see Helen's fortunes turn around -- putting the shoe on the other foot, as Betty's homelife with Don disintegrates? If so, I hope Betty's built enough goodwill with her neighbour to get some help.

There's just a pleasant vibe about watching Mad Men. It's something of a rose-tinted look at 60s America, but the performances are all top-notch and the simple storylines manage to justify every episode's run-time, despite chugging along at a very relaxed pace compared to most US dramas. I'm really enjoying the Pete/Don storylines at the moment, while Betty's "Desperate Housewives, 60s-style" subplot grows more intriguing by the week. And just how creepy was Helen's kid, spying on Betty using the loo and asking for some of her hair to keep?

Overall, Mad Men seems incapable of doing a "bad" episode -- there are just episodes with fewer compelling incidents than others. New Amsterdam was very watchable and entertaining, and I'm already invested in the plots and characters, and bracing myself for the fireworks when the veneer of normalcy finally explodes.

23 March 2008
BBC Four, 10.00 pm

Monday, 24 March 2008


Writer: Ben Richards
Director: John Strickland

Cast: Andrew Buchan (John Mercer), Tamzin Outhwaite (Rose Chamberlain), Liz White (Jess), Jody Latham (Calum McKenzie), Peter Mullan (Lenny Douglas), Simon Kassianides (Saban Zira), Pedja Bjelac (Tarek Sokoli), Badria Timimi (Adelina Sokoli), Oliver Paxton (Uli Sokoli), Philip Wright (Paul), Elisa Terren (Manuela), Ian Burfield (Stevie Kent), Naida Babic (Iliriana) & David Graham (Albanian Man)

A notorious Albanian gangster arrives in London, but Lenny has plans to ensure his swift return to his native land, with his tail between his legs...

"I want people to say ‘there goes Tarek Sokoli, the
man who came to nothing in London'..."
-- Lenny Douglas (Peter Mullan)

So far, so good. The Fixer is doing an admirabl job of refusing to take easy options with its storytelling, and I've yet to be bored by an episode. This week, Lenny (Peter Mullan) instructs his "unit" to scare away an Albanian crimelord called Tarek Sokoli (Pedja Bjelac), who has arrived in London to take his drug-running and prostitution racketeering to an international level..

Mercer (Andrew Buchan) and Calum (Jody Latham) initially try to embarass Sokoli by freeing the women he's forced into prostitution -- by providing one gir, Iliriana (Naida Babic), with stolen passports and contacts. Unfortunately, Iliriana uses some of their money to buy drugs and her escape plan is discovered, leading to her murder. Mercer is particularly angry, as he objects to "collateral damage", especially when handler Lenny treats such unfortunate deaths as par for the course.

Another death occurs after Mercer warns a local heroin importer to stop doing business with the Sokoli's -- with Sokoli's right-hand man Saban Zira (Simon Kassianides) executing the dealer soon after. Killing Sokoli would have been far simpler than trying to discredit him. Rose (Tamzin Outhwaite) tries next, by threatening the life of Sokoli's son after meeting his wife Adelina (Badria Timimi) at a playground. Unfortunately, Sokoli discovers Rose's identity thanks to a contact who knows ex-policewoman Rose's new "profession", and Rose is kidnapped from her home by Sokoli's men.

Of course, Mercer comes to her rescue by single-handedly walking into the building Rose was taken to, down to the basement where she's being held a knife-point, and firing a single bullet into Zira's head, after a simple diversion. It's the first time Mercer has actually lived up to his reputation on the show, and Buchan in general seems to be settling into the conflicted killer role much better now. He glowers and broods more than anything, and his somewhat cherubic face doesn't really strike fear into me, but he at least brings a smooth efficiency to bear with the action stuff.

The character relationships also get a nice polish, as Mercer and Rose grow closer throughout this episode, culminating in Rose's damsel-in-distress moment to solidfy things. Of course, they both admit to a mutual attraction by the end, but Mercer can't yet trust her -- as she's too far in Lenny's pocket. Buchan and Outhwaite work well together, and their chemistry should hopefully sustain this love-on-hold relationship the show has manufactured. It's not so much "will they/won't they" as "they want to/but won't".

Mercer's relationship with wideboy Calum is also defrosting, as his world-weary sniping at Calum's reckless nature and cavalier attitude seemed more affectionate this week. And Calum's not a bad lad -- he's actually quite funny and endearing behind his cheeky persona. It was also nice to see his sensitive handling of prostitute Iliriana; a meeting he exaggerated into a hoary tale of sexual conquest to Mercer and Rose to maintain his reputation.

Peter Mullan has less to do this week, but it was great to see Liz White get a few decent scenes as Mercer's sister Jess. White certainly seemed more at ease, and Jess wasn't such as aloof and drippy as in previous episodes. It'll certainly be dramatic when she learns what her brother is doing these days -- as the price he's paying for killing the aunt and uncle who abused her as a kid has been very steep! White has an emotional openness about her, but I really hope she rises to the challenge when something more complex heads her way.

Overall, episode 3 was another commendable slice of drama from Kudos/ITV. Sure, it's little more than a gritty, British version of Charlie's Angels (name-checked by Calum) at its core, but it's managing to deliver stories that aren't too predictable and balance black-hearted drama with light banter and dark humour. Buchan is improving steadily, Latham's a regular highlight, Mullan is excellent in these small doses, and Outhwaite is making the most of a role that's gradually beginning to gel.

After just a few weeks, this Monday night drama is already a regular fix.

24 March 2008
ITV1, 9.00 pm

Prison Break's back

Co-executive producer/writer Nick Santora confirmed on his blog that Prison Break will return for a fourth season, following the strike-shortened season 3 (which only ran to 13 of the planned 22 episodes).

Santora commented:

"So we got word on Wednesday that we are officially picked up by the network for Season 4. This is great news. We are all very excited. We are moving offices onto the Fox Studio Lot next week and we had to say goodbye to the offices that were our home for the past 3 years... not really that sad because, well, c’mon, it’s just a frickin' building. But my new office is about half the size with just a tiny window which normally would suck except for one thing... I get to go to work everyday with people I love and respect and I get to be creative."

"So I don’t really give a rat's *** what our new offices look like! For those of you who celebrate Easter, have a great one. I will be at my home having Easter dinner with family (visiting cousins) and friends (including Prison Break writer Kalinda Vazquez) -— it should be a nice weekend leading into an even better week of diving head-first into Season 4! Best, Nick."

Saturday, 22 March 2008

TORCHWOOD 2.12 - "Fragments"

Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Jonathan Fox Bassett

Cast: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Burn Gorman (Owen Harper), Naoko Mori (Toshiko Sato), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), James Marsters (Captain John Hart), Paul Kasey (Weevil/Blowfish), Nariko Aida (Toshiko's Mother), Amy Manson (Alice Guppy), Heather Crany (Emily Holroyd), Skye Bennett (Little Girl), Julian Lewis Jones (Alex), Simon Shackleton (Bob), Gareth Jones (Security Guard), Clare Clifford (Milton), Andrea Lowe (Katie), Richard Lloyd King (Doctor), Catherine Morris (Nurse) & Selva Rasalingham (Psychiatrist)

After a booby-trapped building explodes, trapping Jack, Owen, Tosh and Ianto in the rubble, it's explained how each member came to join Torchwood...

The pentultimate episode from writer-producer Chris Chibnall is a welcome breath of fresh air for Torchwood; shedding light on the main characters' murky pasts, in four entertaining vignettes that explain their backstories and help pull together various elements of the show...

Events begin with Jack (John Barrowman) leading Owen (Burn Gorman), Tosh (Naoko Mori) and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) into an abandoned building, looking for two unidentified life-forms. However, it soon becomes clear that they've been tricked, with the readings actually belonging to multiple bombs -- which explode, trapping each team member beneath the rubble. Fortunately, Gwen (Eve Myles) was not amongst them, and quickly arrives at the scene with husband Rhys (Kai Owen), assisting each of her colleagues as their lives flash before their eyes...

Jack is discovered with a bottle thrust in his stomach, living in Victorian times. His immortality has been noticed by early-Torchwood operatives, Alice Guppy (Amy Manson) and Emily Holroyd (Heather Crany), who are particularly intrigued by Jack's overheard references to "The Doctor" (who they consider a danger.) After tying Jack to a chair and trying various methods to kill him, nothing seems to work, and they'rr forced to agree that he isn't a threat.

Instead, Jack is offered a job with Torchwood, which he declines -- until a visit with a young Tarot card reader (Skye Bennett), the same girl seen in Dead Man Walking, has her confirm he won't find The Doctor for another 200 years. Jack decides to join Torchwood, becoming the staple of the investigative team through the ensuing years.

In 1999, in the middle of millennial celebrations, Jack returns to the Hub to find the current Torchwood team murdered in cold blood by a mentally-unstable colleague called Alex (Julian Lewis Jones). Alex reveals that he's been made aware of "the storm" that's coming in the 21st-century, signalling when "everything changes", and decided it was an act of compassion to kill his colleagues to spare them. He commits suicide himself, leaving Jack as the sole survivor to tell the tale. As a side-note: can we take it that Jack recruited treacheous Suzie sometime after this purge?

Tosh's flashback reveals she used to be a workaholic (what's new?) member of a top-secret government facility. We find her staying late one night to steal the blueprints for a "sonic modulator", which she recreates at home after hours of work. Having eventually reconstructed the hand-held device, Tosh takes it to some criminals to exchange for the safe return of her kidnapped mother (Noriko Aida).

Unfortunately, Tosh has impressed the kidnappers so much that they require her continued cooperation. However, Tosh is arrested by UNIT for stealing the sonic modulator plans and thrown into a tiny cell. Help is at hand when Jack arrives to offer her a job at Torchwood -- revealing that the modulator's blueprints contained small errors which she managed to correct instinctively. Tosh has to agree to Jack's proposal.

Ianto's flashback paints him as a faintly-irritating thorn in Jack's side -- an ex-employee of Torchwood One at London's Canary Wharf (before it was destroyed in the events of Doctor Who's Doomsday). Ianto helps Jack placate a Weevil and spends the next few days trying to endear himself to Jack while asking for a job at Cardiff's Torchwood. Jack is adamant there are no jobs available, but Ianto eventually wins him over when he invites Jack along to a huge warehouse to snare themselves a pterodactyl that came through the Rift.

Owen's flashback has him happily engaged to girlfriend Katie (Andrea Lowe) while working as a regular doctor. Tragedy strikes when Katie begins to exhibit signs of memory problems, and specialists find a tumour after conducting an MRI scan. Katie has to undergo dangerous surgery, with an anxious Owen waiting outside during the procedure. However, Owen soon realizes the surgical team have all been rendered unconscious -- and a strange, tentacled creature can be seen attached to Katie's exposed brain. In shock, Owen finds himself face-to-face with Jack in the operating theatre -- who explains Katie has an alien parasite, which has to be removed. Shocked and angered, Owen's violent reaction forces Jack to chloroform him...

When Owen awakens, he's alarmed to discover an elaborate cover-up has been implemented. CCTV footage has been manipulated to erase Jack from events, and nobody remembers things the same way as Owen. Concerned for his mental health, Owen is given 3 months compassionate leave to grieve for his fiance. Later, at Katie's grave, Owen is amazed to see Jack across the graveyard -- there to explain the reasons for his actions. Cleary seeing potential in Owen, Jack offers him a job...

Back at the half-demolished building, Rhys and Gwen have managed to free their colleagues (nobody called the fire brigade?), and the battered team reconvene outside to find their SUV is missing. Then, Jack's holograpic transmitter relays a message -- from Captain John (James Marsters), who reveals he planted the bombs to kill Jack's team, before showing the holographic image of Jack's long-lost brother Gray (now an adult), and vows to tear Jack's world apart...

Fragments will surely rank as a fan-favourite, and not only because of its surface-level injokes and fun, time-jumping format. It's about time we learned how this disparate group came to be, as we spent season 1 playing catch-up through the eyes of Gwen, and prior episodes of season 2 were just content to bubble along with the relationships established. Chris Chibnall's not much of science-fiction writer, but he has a good sense of pacing, and each vignette proves to be revealing, interesting and enjoyable on some level.

Seeing how Jack was recruited into Torchwod was good fun, particularly as the early-Torchwood ladies who captured him were quite sinister. I think we forget that Torchwood were actually written as rather villanous when they were introduced on Doctor Who, and only became the sex-obsessed force for enlightened good when Jack took over. Mind you, it makes me wonder what Jack got up to under the leadership of Torchwood in the 2 centuries years before his takeover. It was a relief to see "The Doctor" referred to properly (the allusory nature was really becoming irritating), and also strange to see that the mysterious Tarot Girl (used as a weak plot-device in Dead Man Walking) might have some greater significance to play in the show. Or is she basically just a weak plot-device for the ages?

I enjoyed Tosh's story more than I thought I would -- primarily because the vignette made her look super-intelligent and impressive by fixing that sonic modulator, and not just a glasses-wearing social butterfly with a tragic love life, as she's usually written. In fact, one overriding thought stuck with me after watching this episode: I wish today's Torchwood characters were more like they were before they joined!

Even Ianto had a swagger about him that was more amusing than his contemporary "cynical doormat estate agent with a gun" personality. Unfortunately, if you had to point the finger at the weakest vignette -- it would definitely be Ianto's. The story didn't really add much to his character, and only highlighted how dedicated and loyal he is. And we knew that already. It would have been better to see his relationship with girlfriend Lisa before she became a Cyberwoman (if only to justify David-Lloyd's teary performance in season 1's Cyberwoman), but a "romantic vignette" was reserved for Owen. Still, at least we finally got to see how, and why, Torchwood have a pet pterodactyl!

Owen's story carried a decent emotional punch, as Burn Gorman is very good at looking anxious, nervous and generally upset, and you find yourself getting drawn into his performances. It looks like Owen's jack-the-lad nature seems to have been a recent construct -- possibly a defence mechanism against getting too close to someone and losing them again? The surprise of fiance Katie having a squid-like alien lodged in her brain was also brilliantly handled, as was the fallout of there being a cover-up only Owen knows the truth behind. But I did wonder why Jack didn't just retcon Owen's memory, too -- but I think it's safe to assume Jack had already decided to recruit him.

So yes, Fragments was definitely a very entertaining episode and certainly a series highlight. I sometimes think Torchwood has pacing problems with stories (with episodes either running out of steam after 25 minutes, or rushing to an unconvinging end in the last 10), but the narrative trick of multiple flashbacks worked brilliantly to combat that here. It held my interested throughout, made the characters take on fresh dimensions, and the series itself looked more cohesive as a result.

We even got a clearer reminder of some terrible tragedy befalling humanity in the this new century -- which is always alluded to in Jack's opening narration every week, but always seemed vague until now. It's still ominous and unspecified, but at least Fragments makes it clear the writers have some explanation for Jack's prophetic claim now. But I'm sure this apocryphal "storm" event will only reveal itself when Torchwood reaches its natural conclusion as a series finale, so don't hold your breath for answers.

I'm not happy with how Captain John has been handled through this season, really. He seems to be written simply as Jack's jilted lover out for revenge, which just sounds like a silly for such murderous acts -- although Marsters works well as Barrowman's "evil twin", in a clear Torchwood equivalent of The Doctor and The Master (The Marster?). Likewise, the mystery of Gray hasn't been as instrumental in the development of season 2 as I'd expected after its episode 1 mention, but I'm hoping next week's season finale manages to take what little we know of the Jack/John/Gray situation and bow out in style.

21 March 2008
BBC Three, 10.35pm