Friday, 31 December 2010

Top 10 Pirated TV Shows of 2010

TorrentFreak have released a list of the 10 most downloaded TV shows of 2010. You can read their list below:

1. Lost – 5.9m (downloads)
2. Heroes – 5.4m
3. Dexter – 3.8m
4. The Big Bang Theory – 3.2m
5. House – 2.6m
6. How I Met Your Mother – 2.4m
7. 24 – 2.2m
8. True Blood – 1.9m
9. Glee – 1.7m
10. Family Guy – 1.6m
I just can't imagine people being so desperate to watch House, The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy or How I Met Your Mother that they'd turn to bittorrent. But clearly millions of people do! From a UK perspective, Dexter and True Blood both take 6-12 months to reach these shores (annoyingly), so I'm not surprised they're popular online if other countries have similar waits.

As always, there's one surefire way non-US broadcasters can stop their native audiences downloading shows: shorten the gap after US transmissions. In the UK, Sky continue to be quite good and are even making a point of advertising US drama as arriving "days after the States" now, but let's see if they keep it up.

It'll be interesting to see how quickly Sky Atlantic shows Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire in 2011, as they're a brand new channel designed to entice fans of high-quality US drama. Their audience are likely to be sophisticated young adults who are fully capable of using bittorrent if they're expected to wait a month or more, so they'll need to ensure quick UK premieres.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

My Full-Star TV Reviews of 2010

I'm notorious for rarely giving out "full star" ratings for episodes of the TV shows I watch. I've reviewed approximately 250 TV episodes this year, but only 11 episodes achieved top marks from me. Am I miserly or too difficult to please? Quite possibly. But at least you know the shows that manage to get maximum stars are worth watching, even if they're often highly rated because they mark the culmination of a season/series (and consequently a long storyline.) Below are excerpts from my "full star" reviews of 2010, assembled for your reading pleasure in ascending order of greatness:

'24', 8.23-8.24 – "2:00PM – 4:00PM"

It definitely felt like the end of an era watching a bloodied Jack limp off for his movie adventures. 24's kept the quality surprisingly high for a TV series with such a rigid format, kept on air three years past its prime. Except for the deplorable Day 6, the show never gave us a season of television I didn't enjoy on some level, and the early years were genuine weekly thrills that I'll always have strong memories of. Some of the events and situations 24 presented us with seem passé these days (remember when a terrorist nuke being detonated in a remote desert felt raw and shocking?), but that's a testament to how much the series changed the game and upped the ante for thrillers everywhere. Continue reading...

'CHUCK' 3.18-3.19 – "Chuck Versus The Subway"
& "Chuck Versus The Ring: Part II"

If there's one thing that impresses me about Chuck it's the show's ability to pull off consistently excellent season finales that manage to freshen, evolve and incrementally mature the series. "Chuck Versus The Subway" and "Chuck Versus The Ring: Part II" were two of the best episodes Chuck has produced, which is remarkable considering we've just finished the third season of a show that felt in danger of early suffocation... Continue reading...

'SHERLOCK' 1.3 – "The Great Game"

The episode was stuffed with incidents and the show's trademark deductions, making this episode feel like we essentially got half-a-dozen mini-adventures in one feature-length shebang. The addition of a ticking clock element elicited extra tension, as Sherlock raced around London trying to solve his opponent's mental obstacle course, although perhaps more could have been done to emphasize the against-the-clock element. Occasionally superimposing numbers to show the remaining hours left to crack each mystery worked fine, but I couldn't help feeling a constant ticking clock would have kept the anxiety simmering better. Continue reading...

'DOCTOR WHO' 5.12 – "The Pandorica Opens"

The return of Steven Moffat to guide series 5 to its conclusion worked very well in terms of untangling this year's deeper puzzle, and certainly did a nifty job of retroactively making previous episodes feel more relevant and interesting, with regards to the overall arc. "The Pandorica Opens" delivered an abundance of action, adventure, chills, thrills, explanations, and ridiculously big stakes that actually made sense. It wasn't perfect, but it came damned close, and was certainly an impressive hour of ambitious British sci-fi action that left you desperate to see next week's conclusion. Continue reading...

'BOARDWALK EMPIRE' 1.1 – "Boardwalk Empire"

This confluence of writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) is as prosperous, satisfying, and exciting as you could hope. HBO’s crime epic Boardwalk Empire begins with a fascinating and beautifully-crafted 75-minute drama that introduces Atlantic City (circa 1920), the coastal town’s feted treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, and people whose lives will be changed by the onset of Prohibition... Continue reading...

'BREAKING BAD' 3.13 – "Full Measure"

My overriding feeling is that this was Breaking Bad's finest season, and easily the best drama on television so far this year. The performance are sublime (it was great to see actors other than Cranston come to the fore this year, too), the writers are capable of squeezing tension from the most unlikely of places, and the direction has been exceptional (the Cousins two-pronged attack on Hank's car, Rian Johnson's creative "Fly"). There's always room for improvement, but this episode set the stage for a fourth season of significant change. Walt's professional relationship with Gus is going to be strained (to put it mildly!), so he'll surely have to find a way to appease Gus, earn back his trust, then kill him at some point. The show appears to be headed in the direction of Walt and Jesse becoming the city's drug barons (battle-hardened by the events of this season), and I'm eager to see exactly how the writers get us there... Continue reading...

'BREAKING BAD' 3.12 – "Half Measures"

What can you say? "Half Measures" was another incredible episode; a beautifully simple storyline that got under the skin of Jesse and provoked some interesting decisions and emotions from Walt, too. Walt's been drifting through this season slightly, sucked into Gus's world to be his meth-making monkey, despite knowing his percentage of the product Gus sells is grossly unfair. But there are now signs of a resurgence. Of Walt taking control once again. Skyler is showing a few signs of compromise at home, he may soon have a money laundering business in the Car Wash that's comparable to Gus's fast-food restaurant, and maybe if Gus was out of the picture he could get his hands on the super-lab to use for himself? Is that where all this is heading? Continue reading...

'MAD MEN' 4.7 – "The Suitcase"

Overall, "The Suitcase" definitely ranks as one of Mad Men's best hours; packed full of funny, perceptive and emotional moments. It also marks a clear turning point in the Don/Peggy relationship, symbolized in the final scene when Don tells Peggy she can leave his office door open. He's no longer a closed book to her. Continue reading...

'MAD MEN' 3.13 – "Shut The Door. Have A Seat"

A momentous, emotive and gripping end to what's been a strong third season that only suffered from a relatively slack start and infrequent use of Don. Otherwise, this year's been just as mesmerizing and poignant as always, with some very strong episodes in the latter half especially. "Shut The Door. Have A Seat" saw the razing of the two pillars in Don's life: his marriage and his career, and only one was able to rise from the ashes... Continue reading...

'FRINGE' 2.18 – "White Tulip"

The best episodes of Fringe splice a compelling sci-fi idea to relatable human emotions; a balance the show doesn't always succeed at. But that's why the recent "Peter" was so memorable, with its focus on Walter's grief and guilt over his son's origins bolstering a simplistic, pulp sci-fi storyline. It's also why so much of Olivia and Peter's storylines never seem to ignite. Olivia hasn't had a believable connection to anyone since her fiance died in season 1 (recently she's just been taking advice from a bowling alley mystic), and Peter's main function on the show is to interpret Walter's technobabble and spew snarky rejoinders. But "White Tulip" got everything just right, with a clever and stirring hour of entertainment that ranks as one of my favourite Fringe's... Continue reading...

'BREAKING BAD' 3.7 – "One Minute"

There are no superlatives to do justice to those final moments, and everything prior to that was rock solid character building. This was the kind of episode that reminds me why I love the long-form storytelling of television, where spending so much time with characters results in pay-off that can strikes a hammer to your heart. You're feeling every sting of pain and anguish these characters are going through now, and it's simply stunning to watch. If you're not watching Breaking Bad, you're missing the best thing on television. Continue reading...

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Poll: What did you think of this year's 'Doctor Who' Christmas special?

You've hopefully read my review of Doctor Who's festive special "A Christmas Carol" by now, and many of you have left some interesting comments, but what's the broader feeling out there? Was this a great seasonal treat, a disappointment, or a terrible mess? Vote in my poll below:

The poll closes on New Year's Eve @5pm (GMT). I will reveal the result at the weekend.

Monday, 27 December 2010

'DOCTOR WHO' - "A Christmas Carol"

Steven Moffat delivers his first festive special after he inherited and successfully revamped Doctor Who this year, give or take some rocky patches. "A Christmas Carol" was an obvious riff on Charles Dickens' seasonal ghost story, with uncompassionate Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) the equivalent of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, and encapsulated the pro's and con's of Moffat's vernal tenure...

Things began on a Star Trek-meets-"Voyage Of The Damned" note, as honeymooning companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) were imperiled aboard a space-faring cruise ship on a collision course with a planet shrouded in dangerous fog. The only way The Doctor (Matt Smith) could save the ship's 4,002 passengers is to convince curmudgeonly Kazran Sardick to dissipate the fog he can control, using a machine his father built that protects the population from carnivorous fish that swim within its grey miasma. Unfortunately, Kazran's every bit as selfish and callous as his domineering dad was in life, so has no intention of helping The Doctor save the stricken people plummeting to a certain death from the sky above. Consequently, The Doctor decides to alter Kazran's selfish nature by travelling back in time to manipulate his childhood and make him value his fellow man, effectively placing himself in this story as The Ghost Of Christmas Past...

There's no denying the imagination on display throughout this special: a steampunk Victorian city, an enormous airborne shark gliding through a peasouper, terminally ill citizens frozen inside vertical containers. Moffat's creativity with visuals and ideas is his indubitable strength, and he has the skill to marry them with a story that feels logical enough to pass casual muster. The production designers also have the budget and expertise to craft a TV spectacle that (chintzy CGI composites aside) are surprisingly immersive for what's a transient treat for casual audiences. The care and attention is much appreciated and really helped keep "A Christmas Carol" engaging, while giving it that much-needed sense of specialness.

However, I still found "A Christmas Carol" to be something of a curious disappointment. I was glad the story wasn't so beholden to the Dickens story, allowing for artistic flourishes and diversions along the way, but it still trod a broadly familiar path. And while cozy familiarity is something most people crave as Christmas programming, it was hard not to start accurately predicting the course this episode took -- which was disappointing given how Moffat's narratives are usually so hard to pin down. Nevertheless, the plot bounced around like a pinball within the constraints of its own inevitable arc, and it was good fun at times. But it was also so restless and frenzied that it fell prey to a chief criticism of series 5: the lack of a sharp emotional hook to anyone.

Did we really fear for Amy and Rory's life? Of course not, they were there to be distressed and rescued (in drama that was handled off-screen most of the time.) Did we care about Kazran and desperately wish to see him mend his ways, as many generations have done with stingy Scrooge? Curiously enough, no. He was just a pigheaded pain whose past The Doctor had to temporally manipulate, in a rather unethical manner that geekier fans will gnash their teeth over. (What next, The Doctor takes Hitler on some fun childhood escapades to prevent WWII?) Or how about Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), the blonde inamorata of two younger versions of Kazran (Laurence Belcher, Danny Horn), who's woken from sub-zero stasis every Christmas Eve by The Doctor to melt the middle-aged Kazran's heart with pensive looks and trilling song? Unfortunately, as touching as soprano Jenkins was in her debut acting role, Abigail never amounted to much beyond a beatific plot-device. In fact, The Doctor was denied a decent provisional companion for this yuletide yarn, with Amy and Rory taking a backseat, making him look quite interfering and manipulative throughout.

For me, "A Christmas Carol" was undone by a disjointed storyline, populated by a handful of new characters it was hard to care about in the allotted timeframe. It puzzled me that Michael Gambon was relegated to watching his own past on a wall projection and sifting through photographs of his youth, rather than get stuck into the adventure himself. However, it was certainly a fine showcase for gawky Matt Smith, who capped his freshman year in a manner that makes David Tennant's era seem ever more distant. His bow-tied, bow-legged Time Lord is an impish delight, almost stumbling through scenes like a sozzled dancer in tweed. The Doctor's big entrance, rolling out from a fireplace in a clear echo of Santa Claus (or "Jeff" as The Doctor calls him) set the tone brilliantly for anyone who has yet to make the Eleventh Doctor's acquaintance, as a big chunk of Doctor Who's audience on Christmas Day are friends/family who don't watch the regular series and just want something lighthearted, vibrant, self-contained and fun to pass an hour. On that level it succeeded.

Overall, this was an entertaining and imaginative special that didn't outstay its welcome, but it felt like Charles Dickens simple story was needlessly complicated and smothered by additional ideas and a rather rambling mid-section. For me, "A Christmas Carol" didn't really come together to create a knockout emotional punch; the ingredients were there, the execution was excellent, but the magic just didn't appear.

  • Knowing the media furor that Karen Gillan's miniskirt caused earlier this year, I found it especially cheeky that Moffat decided to give it another appearance. The inference that Amy and Rory have a fetish for dressing up (as a police woman and Roman soldier, respectively) was also an amusing sub-textual joke for the adults watching.
  • I'm sure everyone noticed the JJ Abrams-style lens flares aboard the Star Trek-style spaceship. It was even designated a "Galaxy class" ship, a la The Next Generation's USS Enterprise.
  • Why did The Doctor make no attempt to save Abigail's life? Was there nothing he could do for her condition?
  • "IT'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL!" yelled The Doctor to Amy, just in case you were in any doubt where Moffat was getting his influence from.

WRITER: Steven Moffat
DIRECTOR: Toby Haynes
TRANSMISSION: 25 December 2010, BBC1/HD, 6PM
Coming Soon...

New Year TV Picks: 27 December 2010 – 2 January 2011 ('Eric & Ernie', 'Got To Dance', 'Just William', 'Marple', 'Primeval', 'Rock & Chips', 'Toast', 'Zen', etc.)

Three Men Go To Scotland (BBC2, 8pm) Griff Rhys-Jones, Rory McGrath and Dara O'Briain sail around the Hebrides, inspired by Dr Johnson and his biographer James Boswell.
Celebrity Mastermind (BBC1, 8.30pm) Celebrity edition of the tough quizshow. Stars Mark Lawrenson, Richard Herring, Samantha Giles & Hilary Kay.
Marple (ITV1, 9pm) New mystery for Agatha Christie's iconic elderly sleuth. Continues Wednesday
The Most Annoying People Of 2010 (BBC3, 9pm) Countdown of the year's more irritating people. .
Charlie Brooker's 2010 Wipe (BBC2, 10pm) An irreverent look at the year's television.

Just William (BBC1, 12.30pm) Remake of the children's adventure, based on the books by Richmal Crompton.
Penelope Keith: Lady Of The Manor (BBC1, 1.15pm) Tribute to the actress, who appeared in many classic sitcoms, from The Good Life and To The Manor Born to Next Of Kin and No Job For A Lady.
Smile: This Was Candid Camera (ITV1, 8pm) Special episode to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the hidden camera series.
The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2010 (BBC4, 8pm) The annual tradition returns, with scientist Dr Miodownik explaining materials.
All About The Good Life (BBC2, 9pm) Retrospective on the popular '70s sitcom.
2010 Unwrapped with Miranda Hart (BBC2, 11pm) The comedian cast her memory back over the year's events, with help from Rich Fulcher, Chris Packham, Isy Suttie, Miles Jupp, Jason Lewis & Shappi Khorsandi.

Polar Bear: Spy On The Ice (BBC1, 8pm) Documentary on the polar bear.
Les Mis at 25: Matt Lucas Dreams The Dream (BBC2, 8pm) Documentary following comedian Matt Lucas as he prepares for his role in Les Mes.
Rock & Chips (BBC1, 9pm) Festive prequel to Only Fools & Horses, set in 1960.
Most Shocking Celebrity Moments 2010 (Five, 9pm) 50 of the year's most surprising celebrity mishaps and events.

Kirstie & Phil's Embarassing Bits (Channel 4, 7.10pm) Retrospective on the 10 years Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer have been presenting property shows together.
Toast (BBC1, 9pm) Drama adapted from chef Nigel Slater's autobiography, set in the 1960s. Stars Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Freddie Highmore, Matthew McNulty & Oscar Kennedy.
The Rob Brydon Show (BBC2, 9pm) Christmas special of the chat show. Guests are Alice Cooper, Jack Dee, Jo Brand and singer Bryn Terfel.
Ad Of The Year (ITV1, 9pm) Countdown of the year's best adverts, as decided by a viewer vote.
Shooting Stars: Christmas Special (BBC2, 10pm) Yuletide edition of the madcap gameshow.

The Graham Norton New Year's Eve Show (BBC1, 10.40pm) Countdown to the new year.
Jools' Annual Hootenanny (BBC2, 11pm) Countdown to the new year. Guests are Kylie Minogue, Wanda Jackson, Cee-Lo Green, Roger Daltry, Vampire Weekend, and more.
That Was 2010 (ITV1, 11.20pm) A look back on the year's events.
New Years Live 2010 (BBC1, 11.50pm) Countdown to the new year.

The Magicians (BBC1, 7.30pm) Magic series featuring a different set of illusionists every week.
Primeval (ITV1, 7.30pm) Series 4 of the time-travel monster drama. Episode 2 is broadcast on Sunday at 7pm
Eric & Ernie (BBC2, 9pm) Drama charting the rise of beloved comedy double-act Morecambe & Wise. Stars Victoria Wood, Daniel Rigby, Vic Reeves, Bryan Dick & Reece Shearsmith.
Live At The Apollo (BBC1, 9.30pm) Standup comedy, presented by Lenny Henry. Acts include Mike Wilmot & Tommy Tiernan.
Small, Far Away: The World Of Father Ted (Channel 4, 10.05pm) Documentary to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the sitcom.
Eric & Ernie: Behind The Scenes (BBC2, 10.30pm) Making Of the drama Eric & Ernie.

Got To Dance (Sky1, 6pm) Series 2 of the dance competition. Hosted by Davina McCall.
Famous & Fearless (Channel 4, 8pm) Eight celebrities participate in a variety of tough urban sports games. Presented by Chris Evans & Clare Balding. Competitors are Dame Kelly Holmes, Kacey Ainsworth, Sarah Jayne Dunn, Jenny Frost, Jonah Lomu, Charley Boorman, Rufus Hound & Sam Branson. Continues all week.
Zen (BBC1, 9pm) Three-part drama about Italian detective Aurelio Zen. Stars Rufus Sewell.
Arctic with Bruce Parry (BBC2, 9pm) Five-part documentary where explorer Bruce Parry visits the arctic.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Season's Greetings

I hope everyone had a great Christmas! Turkey was eaten, wine drunk, presents opened, children placated, television watched, and games played -- right? Blog-wise, the next week's going to be pretty slow going, with only a few things actually planned. My review of Whistle & I'll Come To You went up today, my review of the Doctor Who festive special will be up soon, I may have to double-bill Peep Show this week, and the return of Primeval will be covered at the weekend. In-between those events, who knows what's happening! As I said last week, everything's in flux for me right now. Keep checking the blog for updates, but don't expect much until 2011 rolls up...


Creep over to Obsessed With Film, where I've reviewed the Christmas Eve ghost story WHISTLE & I'LL COME TO YOU, based on the classic M.R James story and starring John Hurt, brought to you by the sculptors of creepy porcelain heads:

Previously adapted for television in 1968, renowned author M.R James's classic ghost story "Oh, Whistle & I’ll Come To You, My Lad" is updated for modern audiences by writer Neil Cross and director Andy de Emmony, with the estimable John Hurt as this version’s victim of a restless coastal spirit... Continue reading...

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

OWF: Top 10 TV Shows of 2010

Over at Obsessed With Film, I've posted a list of my Top 10 Television Shows of 2010. You can probably tell what they are from the photo above, but can you guess the order? Click here for the list, and why not leave a comment that includes your own Top 10?

Yvonne Strahovski in Pop Magazine

I thought I'd upload this photoshoot of Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski from the latest issue of Pop magazine. Hey, it's Christmas, updates are slow, and she was recently voted the Sexiest Woman of 2010 by Buddy TV, so why not?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Christmas & New Year Break

As is customary, my output will be restricted over the Christmas and New Year period. Specifically, 21 December - 1 January. This is unlikely to mean a total absence of new content, as there are festive specials I'm likely to review. I may also drop in for some random festive posts, and my New Year TV Picks will kickoff next week, but don't expect 100% normality until January. But, equally, don't expect a blackout.

Incidentally, there's also DMD's revamp to look forward to, as I hope "DMD3" will launch on New Year's Day. This isn't a promise, as it may be delayed by a few weeks, but that's my hope. It may launch in an incomplete form, and then evolve/improve once it's up and running. Otherwise I could wait weeks for every little kink to be ironed out.

If anyone's interested in helping me troubleshoot the existing template, send me an email and I'll select a small "beta-testing group" of trusted regulars to get an early look this week.

Monday, 20 December 2010

'MISFITS' 2.7 - Christmas Special

Last Thursday's finale disappointed me because it felt like Misfits was overreaching and straining credibility (as I fell in love with the show because of its down-to-earth take on superheroes), but this Christmas special was plainspoken fun that ended the year run on a definite high-note.

"I'm going to kill Jesus." –- Simon
Only Misfits could include that line in its festive special. Episode 7 picked up three months after the events at The Grand Hotel, with the gang having finished their community service and trying to make a living in the real world: Kelly's (Lauren Socha) become a street cleaner on the estate; Nathan (Robert Sheehan) is working as foulmouthed Santa Claus; Curtis is still dating Nikki (Ruth Negga) and working behind a bar with Alisha (Antonia Thomas); and Alisha's new boyfriend is Simon (Iwan Rheon), who's busy practicing his parkour skills so he can achieved his destiny as the Superhoodie.

The story mostly revolved around unassuming Elliot (Edward Hogg), a local clergyman growing frustrated with the poor turnout of his community centre sermons, who realized he could boost attendance and transform himself into a figure of respect by pretending to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. To do this, Elliot visited a "power-broker" called Seth (Matthew McNulty) and spent the church donations on super-powers that allowed him to achieve various miracles, such as walking on water. Consequently, "Jesus" amassed a flock of devoted followers, but being so revered inflated Elliot's ego to a frightening extent and he started to abuse his gifts.

Nathan: "I piss and shit myself more times than I can remember."
Marnie: (love-struck) "Me too..."
Concurrently, the gang heard about Seth's ability to siphon people's powers and, for a variety of personal reasons, decided to undergo the process of removal: Alisha understandably wanted to lose her power, so she could touch people without turning them into sex pests; Nathan wanted the cash exchange so he could provide for his new girlfriend Marnie (Gwyneth Keyworth) and her unborn baby; Nikki wanted rid of her frustrating tendency to teleport across town during sex; while Curtis and Kelly agreed that their powers have ultimately been the bane of their lives, so willingly traded them for £20,000 each. However, as Simon warned by referring to the events of Superman II, they almost immediately regretted giving up their powers when it became clear the impostor "Jesus" was a threat to their community who needed to be stopped.

This episode worked well because it utilized two strong story ideas: the group deciding to have their powers drained away by Seth, and the repercussions of someone using super-powers to fake being the Messiah. The religious angle was particularly appreciated because it not only spoke to the Christmas theme of this episode, but it's also something most other TV superhero shows would never tackle -- particularly in the less secular US. While TV/film often uses superheroes as allegories for Jesus Christ, it was refreshing to have an episode where a character actually used his abilities to convince people he's of divine origin.

Nathan: "We may have done sod all with our powers, but we never abused them. We never raped or murdered anyone!"
Curtis: (looking to Alisha) "She raped me and we killed loads of people."
Nathan: "Okay... but we're the good guys!"
Seth's existence also delivered a feeling that super-powers are a kind of underground secret amongst the community of this London estate, allowing for people like Seth to do business with those in the know. The way powers were used as a commodity reminded me of the excellent Juan Carlos Fresnadillo movie Intacto, where "luck" was likewise a product people could trade.

If there were downsides, they were again symptoms of Misfit's brevity and how it therefore leaps ahead of itself, when you'd prefer more believable developments. Nathan became quickly attached to Marnie and accepting of her baby, although it's easier to accept this sudden infatuation given it's in Nathan's character to jump into situations with no thought. Less plausible was the way Nikki's surprise death was handled, after being shot dead by Seth's goon. She's been a significant new character of series 2, only to be accidentally killed and then barely referred to! Nathan's death in series 1's finale packed more of a punch, and this offhanded way to write-out Nikki made her presence this year look irrelevant. Beyond giving Curtis a new girl to chase, so Alisha dumping him for Simon would result in a more amicable split, it's hard to see what Nikki was even created for. Her ability to teleport never even proved useful.

Much better was the continuation of the Alisha/Simon relationship, particularly because Simon's become jealous of his future self and feels like he's competing with "another man" because he's comparatively terrible in bed. Again, it's slightly frustrating that these character became an intem during the unseen three months after episode 6, but the problem with UK shows and their short runs is writers are more likely to cut corners because they don't have time to develop plots at a more natural pace. It's a shame, but beyond E4 being given the cash to commission a 12-episode run we're going to have to put up with these odd leaps.

Overall, the Misfits Christmas special was a very good 70-minute special, and I'm pleased it arrived to take the sting out of the rather muddled finale. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this special was the final scene, with the gang returning to demand their powers back from Seth. Knowing they don't have to be given the powers they lost also facilitates a third series rejuvenation, as each character could be given a different ability. I'm not sure that's a wholly wise move (given that each character's power was a neat extension of their personality), but I'm hoping writer Howard Overman seizes this chance to fix some obvious storytelling problems. Alisha's power has always been a contentious curio, so I'm hoping she'll be given Nikki's teleportation; and Nathan being immortal is fine, but can the assumed rapid healing become more prominent with him? And will Simon be given Curtis's ability to time-travel, thus explaining how Future Simon manages to get back and rescue his friends in the past as Superhoodie?

A fine end to what's been a great second year, even if half its episodes were comparatively weak because that mid-series "trilogy" was extraordinarily good. What did you think?

  • It was actually announced before series 2 even started airing, but now it's 100% official from Channel 4: Misfits will return for a third series next year. Did you even doubt it?
  • Very funny scene with Elliot/Jesus "monologuing" as a supervillain in front of the gang, while receiving a blowjob from a follower wearing a Santa's hat.
  • Is anyone going to try Nathan's oral sex tip involving a Fisherman's Friend cough sweet? I don't expect an answer, but I bet some are curious...
  • Nathan had sex with a Thai ladyboy, and he didn't even have the excuse he was in Thailand and unaware of his lover's true identity! Does anyone else think Nathan's becoming rather distasteful and unpleasant now?
  • You might recognize guest star Edward Hogg (Elliot/Jesus) from the movie The Bunny & The Bull.
WRITER: Howard Overman
DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper
TRANSMISSION: 19 December 2010, E4/HD, 10PM

Christmas TV Picks: 20-26 December 2010 ('Come Fly With Me', 'Doctor Who', 'Peep Show Night', 'Top Gear', 'Upstairs, Downstairs', 'Whistle & I'll Come To You', etc.)

The Nativity (BBC1, 7pm) Four-part drama retelling the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus. Continues Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday.
Miranda: Christmas Special (BBC2, 8.30pm) Festive episode of the sitcom about a single woman in her mid-30s.
Ruth Jones's Christmas Cracker (BBC2, 9pm) Seasonal special where the writer-actress hosts a celebration of Christmas. Guests are Ricky Gervais, Will Young, Miranda Hart and music from The Script.
Come Rain, Come Shine (ITV1, 9pm) Drama about an ex-docker who grows suspicious of his affluent son's finances. Stars David Jason & Alison Steadman.
Jamie's Best Ever Christmas (Channel 4, 9pm) Yuletide culinary special from the chef. Concludes tomorrow.

Children's Hospital At Christmas (ITV1, 8pm) Special episode from the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. Presented by Lorraine Kelly.
The Accidental Farmer (BBC1, 9pm) Drama about a highflying ad exec who avenges her cheating boyfriend by buying a farm using his credit card. Starring Ashley Jensen.
Oz & Hugh Raise The Bar (BBC2, 9.05pm) Special episode where Oz Clarke and Hugh Dennis travel the UK looking for the best independent drinks.
Victoria Wood Presents Angina Monolouges (Sky1, 9.30pm) Comedy special in aide of The British Heart Foundation.

It's Paul Burling (ITV1, 8pm) Impressionist Paul Burling, finalist on Britain's Got Talent, hosts this comedy mix of sketches, impressions and stand-up.
The Comedy Annual (ITV1, 9pm) Retrospective on 2010 by a variety of comedians.
Christmas With Gordon (Channel 4, 9pm) Festive special with Gordon Ramsey.
Louie Spence's Showbusiness Christmas (Sky1, 9.30pm) Seasonal precursor to Louie Spence's new dance reality show.
Chris Moyles's Christmas Quiz Night (Channel 4, 10pm) Festive edition of the comedy quiz. Guests are Pamela Anderson, Kelly Osbourne & Paddy McGuinness.

How Science Changed The World (BBC1, 8pm) Countdown of the 10 biggest scientific breakthroughs, according to Sir Robert Winston.
Being Ronnie Corbett (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary celebrating the comedian's career, with guests Rob Brydon, Bill Bailey, Miranda Hart, Reece Shearsmith, Bruce Forsyth, Tamsin Greig, Jon Culshaw, Ben Miller, Stephen Merchant, and many more.
Live: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (ITV1, 9pm) Special edition of the popular big money quiz show, played live for the very first time. Hosted by Chris Tarrant.
A League Of Their Own Christmas Special (Sky1, 9.30pm) Festive edition of the sports quiz. Guests are Chris Evans, James Martin, Carol Vorderman & Gok Wan.
The Two Ronnies: The Studio Recordings (BBC2, 10pm) Unedited footage of sketches from The Two Ronnies comedy series.
8 Out Of 10 Cats – Christmas Special (Channel 4, 10pm) Yuletide special of the comedy panel show. Guests are Jack Dee, Josie Long, Lorraine Kelly & Christopher Biggins.
Celebrity Juice: Christmas Special (ITV2, 10pm) Festive edition of the comedy panel show, with Jedward, Westlife & Russell Kane.

The Santa Flies With John Sergeant (ITV1, 5.55pm) Christmas special tracing the origins of Santa Claus.
One Born At Christmas (Channel 4, 8pm) Documentary special, broadcast from live from the Princess Ann hospital's maternity ward.
My Family (BBC1, 8.30pm) Christmas special of the family sitcom.
Paul O'Grady's Christmas (ITV1, 9pm) Festive edition of the chat show. Guests are Bette Midler, David Hayes, Cilla Black, Emmerdale's Danny Miller and music from The Soldiers.
Peep Show Night (Channel 4, 9pm) An evening themed on the BAFTA-winning comedy Peep Show, featuring documentaries, interviewes and the latest episode at 10.40pm.
Greatest Christmas TV Moments (Five, 9pm) Three-hour countdown of the best festive moments from the TV archives.
QI (BBC1, 9.30pm) Christmas edition of the comedy panel show. Guests are Daniel Radcliffe, Lee Mack & Graham Norton.
Whistle & I'll Come To You (BBC2, 9pm) Classic Edwardian ghost story. Starring John Hurt.
The Many Faces Of Alison Steadman (BBC2, 9.55pm) The actress discusses her career.
Have I Got News For You? (BBC1, 10pm) Festive special of the satirical panel show.
The Graham Norton Show (BBC1, 10.30pm) Christmas special, with guests Matt Lucas, David Walliams & Matt Smith.

Top Of The Pops (BBC1, 2pm) Retrospective of 2010's music hits.
The Queen's Speech (BBC1, 3pm) Queen Elizabeth II addresses the nation in her annual speech.
Louis Spence's Christmas Message (Channel 4, 3.10pm) Alternative Christmas message from the flamboyant dancer.
The Making Of David Attenborough's Flying Monsters (Sky1, 5pm) Documentary on the creation of this 3D natural history series.
The One Ronnie (BBC1, 5.10pm) Sketch show special with Ronnie Corbettm, joined by a host of stars.
Doctor Who – "A Christmas Carol" (BBC1, 6pm) Festive special of the sci-fi drama. Guest stars Michael Gambon & Katherine Jenkins.
Strictly Come Dancing – Christmas Special (BBC1, 7pm) Special edition of the dance show, with a group of brand new celebrities: Fern Britton, Vince Cable, Ronni Ancona, John Barrowman & June Brown.
All Star Family Fortunes (ITV1, 8pm) Coronation Street versus This Morning.
The Only Way Is Essexmas (ITV2, 8pm) Christmas special of the reality series.
The Royle Family: Joe's Crackers (BBC1, 9pm) Christmas special of the family comedy-drama.
Poirot (ITV1, 9pm) Murder On The Orient Express.
Greatest Christmas Adverts (Five, 9pm)
Come Fly With Me (BBC1, 10pm) Six-part character-based comedy set in a busy airport. Stars Matt Lucas & David Walliams.
Jamie's Christmas Lock In (Channel 4, 11.05pm) Culinary entertainment show. Guests are Jonathan Ross, Louis Spence & Charlotte Church.

Top Gear Special (BBC2, 8pm) Christmas adventure special, where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May travel across the Middle East.
Upstairs, Downstairs (BBC1, 9pm) Remake of the '70s Emmy-winning drama about the servants and gentry of a 19th-century house.
When Harvey Met Bob (BBC2, 9pm) Dramatisation of the events leading up to Bob Geldof and Harvey Goldsmith creating the Live Aid concert in 1985.
Benidorm (ITV1, 9pm) Festive special of the comedy-drama.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

'PEEP SHOW' 7.4 - "The Christening"

This felt like a "bottle episode" (traditionally a budget-saving exercise, using limited locations and cast), although I doubt it was intended as such. But it was further evidence that Peep Show's at its funniest when it's found a way to have Mark (David Mitchell) and Jeremy (Robert Webb) interact with each other for as long as possible. They're a fantastic comedy double-act (which is remarkable when you remember they never share the screen because of Peep Show's POV format), and this fourth episode was a marvelous way to humiliate and frustrate them both in equal measure.

The whole half-hour saw Mark and Jez locked in the "netherzone" between Zhara's (Camilla Marie Beeput) flat and her building's exit, on the morning Mark's son is christened. As Mark panicked ("all I have in the dad-bank is my record of punctuality"), Jez was more laidback and blithely used his mobile phone's remaining battery charge to order a pizza -- which had to be pushed through a letterbox, piece by piece, sandwiched between a newspaper ("periodical pizza shields!")

Many sitcoms have attempted something similar to this episode, forcing characters into a claustrophobic situation (my favourite being Red Dward's "Marooned"), and Peep Show's offering proved an excellent way to accentuate the writing of this show. The plotting of Peep Show is quite rudimentary, but it's the characters and dialogue that are so relatable and hilarious, so this episode worked to its clear strengths.

By the time Mark and Jez had managed to get back inside Zhara's flat, only to then hide in the shower when her boyfriend Ben (Danny Babington) returned home and went for an audibly grotesque bowel movement, the greatness of this episode wasn't in question. The only downsides were the disappointingly abrupt development between Jez and Zhara (who have now slept together, between episodes), which felt rushed and unearned. It's a shame Peep Show only airs 6 episodes every year, because I can't help thinking a few story elements are hastily glossed over because time's in short supply. It would be great to have a situation where the Jez/Zhara storyline was allowed to breathe more.

Overall, this was a highlight of series 7 and a great way to focus the talent of writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, who turned a potentially sluggish and tedious setup into a brilliant comedy situation. They could probably write an episode where Mark and Jez became trapped together in an elevator and it would be a tour de force.

WRITERS: Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong
DIRECTOR: Becky Martin
TRANSMISSION: 17 December 2010, Channel 4/HD, 10PM

'THE EVENT' 1.10 – "Everything Will Change"

I think this is where my reviews of The Event come to an end. "Everything Will Change" was another episode where things happened, but it's hard to care. Leila (Sarah Roemer) and Sean (Jason Ritter) found the whereabouts of her sister Samantha, hidden beneath a hospital (accessible with everyday keycards the staff hand out to visitors?); Thomas (Clifton Collins Jr) once again split from his mother Sophia's (Laura Innes) plans, having created a satellite to communicate with their homeworld and launching it aboard a missile the US mistook as a nuclear warhead; and the episode's stab at a climactic shock was tepidly revealing that Leila's father Michael is an alien -- as he hasn't aged in photos dating back to the '40s. I suppose there's added intrigue now about Leila, who's assumedly an alien-human hybrid, particularly as Sophia seemed to be against her kind procreating with humans. It's evidently achievable, but is Leila unable to reproduce herself, or something? What exactly is the danger? Longterm overpopulation, if Leila and her offspring have similar lifespans to the aliens?

The problem I have with The Event is that it's one of those shows that has a decent enough premise, but doesn't know how to make the audience care about any of it. You can accept the idea that Sean cared about rescuing his fiancé, and then helping Leila find her sister, but do we truly care? On paper we should (a missing sister isn't something to be happy about), but the writers haven't constructed compelling actors and relationships for us to invest in the situation. Also, the fact Sean is ostensibly the lead actor, but has spent the majority of this season stuck in the least interesting storyline, is a disastrous issue that needs to be fixed.

It would be much simpler if Sean was a Jack Bauer-meets-Fox Mulder typ, fighting to expose an alien conspiracy involving the US government. Trouble is, we spend half our time with the President (Blair Underwood), so the government will never be perceived as all-out villains because we're sympathetic towards them. Likewise, Sophia still doesn't seem that unreasonable, so the show's alien leader isn't a menace, and her son Thomas isn't really a dangerous warmonger either. In fact, you get the impression the whole show would resolve amicably if the President, Sophia and Thomas simply had a meeting and came to an arrangement: the aliens give mankind great technology (like a drug to make the elderly live longer, which is why Dempsey has been experimenting on children), and in return the humans will help them get back to their homeworld. Or agree to let some of the aliens remain on Earth as citizens, with caveats. Why is that so impossible?

The overuse of flashbacks has also been a terrible crutch, designed to make the plot feel knottier than it really is. But considering the show's similarities to 24 (which was vehemently linear in structure), why not keep the flashbacks as irregular treats to contextualize things, but keep the show rolling like an unstoppable boulder? I don't see how a sci-fi version of 24 is so hard to achieve, really.

Maybe I'll check-in with occasional reviews next year (if there's a notable upswing in quality that honours this episode's title), but considering all the new mid-season shows starting in the new year, I suspect The Event will be replaced in my blogging rotation with something new... and, hopefully, better.

WRITERS: David Schulner & Nick Wauters
DIRECTOR: Norberto Barba
TRANSMISSION: 17 December 2010, Channel 4/HD, 10PM

Friday, 17 December 2010

'Peep Show' back for series 8 & 9

Channel 4 have today commissioned an eighth and ninth series of their BAFTA-winning comedy Peep Show, which is currently halfway through its seventh year. The bad news is that creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain have so many work commitments next year that Peep Show's return is likely to slip into spring 2012. Is that too long to wait? Well, at least we know its long-term future is secure and, unlike so many comedies around, it's still not showing any signs of fatigue. Long may it continue!


Snoop around Obsessed With Film for my review of BBC4's DIRK GENTLY, starring Stephen Mangan as the eponymous detective created by Douglas Adams, brought to you by the makers of Post-It notes:

A lesser-known property from the late Douglas Adams (creator of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy), Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was nevertheless a novel Adams thought would be easier to film than his revered sci-fi opus. Previously turned into radio plays with Harry Enfield as the gumshoe, BBC4 have decided to put Dirk Gently on-screen for the first time, adapted by in-demand screenwriter Howard Overman (Misfits, Vexed). Stephen Mangan (Green Wing) plays the eponymous sleuth, who believes in "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things", and applies this theory of quantum mechanics to solve superficially innocuous crimes. Continue reading...


The finale was unfortunately a dud comparable to last week's episode, which means Misfits had a mid-series run of extraordinarily fantastic episodes, capped by two hours that failed to intensify and conclude the year's story. Simply put: the riveting Superhoodie storyline ended in episode 4, and Howard Overman didn't know what to do next. In retrospect, given the brevity of this show, it feels like a mistake not to have ensured the Superhoodie plot stretched across the whole six episodes. Instead, it dissolved into a sideline issue by episode 5, although there are signs it'll regain its prominence next year...

This week, the gang watched with jealousy as a round-faced tea boy called Brian became world famous after demonstrating "lactokinesis" (the power to manipulate dairy products with the power of his mind) to the world, after showbiz agent Laura discovered his talent. After overhearing the gang talking about their own powers, probation worker Shaun (Craig Parkinson) exposed the gang's secret to the world, resulting in the community centre being besieged by reporters and photographers, all desperate to interview "The ASBO Five". And while Simon (Iwan Rheon) warned against them whoring their abilities in exchange for fame and fortune, he was outvoted by his friends and the five delinquents became overnight sensations.

There were a lot of problems with this finale; some of its excusable because of budgetary limitations, others just examples of poor writing and unconvincing creative choices. Obviously Misfits can't accurately portray the realities of superheroes being discovered, but the illusion of that event was awkwardly achieved. The gang, together with many other "supers" Laura is representing, were ushered away to The Grand Hotel, which was both a retreat from screaming fans outside and the setting for murder. Nothing about this idea was handled very plausibly, as the show can't afford the narrative scope and large ensemble to pull this kind of storyline off convincingly.

The hotel simply became another insular playground, similar to the community centre. But the oddness of the barren community centre environment works well, as it’s a kind of parent-less limbo for the troublemakers to toil in, whereas nothing about the hotel rang true. It just made no sense that they'd all be gathered there to fraternize and, in Nathan's (Robert Sheehan) case, participate in a TV demonstration of his ability to survive death ("Nathan Young; Oops, There Goes My Brains!") I was hoping this gathering of supers would be revealed as important, perhaps with Laura intending to steal all their powers but needing everyone in one location, but she was actually far less sinister than she appeared to be, and had no great bearing on the story, other than to kick-start it.

The plot truly began when Brian (briefly the most famous person on the planet when his power was revealed), became resentful of the fact he's a comparative joke in the field of superheroes. Far from a unique wonder, he realized his power is actually the least impressive compared to other people's, and his bitterness turned to murder when he decided to take his frustration out on people by making them choke on dairy products they've eaten.

Having a murderous super-powered individual wandering around is fast-becoming Misfits' biggest cliché, which is a shame. There are so many other problems the characters could be encountering, which better reflect real teenager's problems. And the more times the show involves a killer, the more predictable the outcome becomes, especially because Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is the show's walking reset-button, able to reverse time and change any outcome. Which is exactly what happened here, as "Lactose Boy" killed Kelly (Lauren Socha) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas), then put Nathan into a vegetative state, leaving Simon and Curtis to save the day.

Great scene with Simon apparently taking a step towards his Superhoodie persona by symbolically whipping his hood up to avenge Alisha's death, quickly undermined by his swift death with a stab to the stomach. And who didn't see the supposed "twist" with Curtis coming a mile off, after he'd awkwardly sneaked in the fact he's lactose intolerant during a conversation with Nikki (Ruth Negga)? What was more frustrating is that you didn't need to have that foreknowledge, as Nathan simply telling Lactose Boy about his condition made its point without the laboured setup that only succeeded in spoiling things.

The finale just felt very ill-conceived and messy to me. You can blame the budget on a few things, but there was too many problems to lay at the door of Howard Overman himself -- such as the hasty solution to the problem being for Curtis to reverse time and talk his friends into visiting a pre-fame Lactose Boy and punching him in the face. How would that stop anything? It would make more sense to prevent him going outside during the freak storm that gave him his lactokinesis.

Overall, it's a shame Misfits staggered to its conclusion in this manner. Episodes 2, 3 and 4 were some of the best television I've seen this year, but they now feel like their own self-contained arc. Episode 5 and 6 had only a vague connection to that excellent three-episode run, and that was a bad move. In the finale's subplot, Simon discovered Alisha in his future self's lair, so we're definitely going to be continuing this storyline into the third series. But is that a wise move? I was rather hoping the finale would answer some questions about Future Simon, but we're clearly being asked to wait for series 3, and possibly beyond, before things are fully explained.

The thing is, I can't help thinking that the show has straitjacketed itself too much with this Superhoodie plot, as Simon's destiny doesn't seem to be avoidable, and it'll involve changing his character in a fundamental, irreversible way. Is it a good thing that we're headed towards Simon becoming a masked time-traveler, who'll go back in time and sacrifice himself to save Alisha? I hope there are still some twists to come, to avoid what currently feels like a traipse to a predetermined destination.

What did you make of this finale? Do you think I'm being too harsh? Do you agree that it failed, partly because it was so separate from the Superhoodie mytharc? Or was this another marvelous hour of anarchic silliness and ballsy attitude in your eyes?

It's also worth mentioning that the Misfits Christmas Special (essentially a seventh episode) airs this Sunday at 10pm on E4. Hopefully it'll help remove the bad taste of this episode with some festive pandemonium.

  • Simon offhandedly revealed to Alisha that Jessica, the girl he lost his virginity to last week, is no longer seeing him. This felt like a huge missed opportunity, as it would have been fun to see Simon grow more confident thanks to Jessica, while making Alisha jealous. To have introduced Jessica last week, giving her such an important role in Simon's development, only to dismissively write her out, felt like a big waste of time.
  • "The Invisible Cunt". Nathan's typically blunt suggestion for Simon's superhero name.
  • It's becoming more of a problem just how casually people treat the existence of super-powers. I've suspended my disbelief a few times, but having Shaun eavesdrop on the gang discussing their powers and not even questioning things was a step too far. And why would he tell the media, knowing it would turn them into wealthy superstars? Oh, the plot demanded it.
  • Does anyone else think Brian looks like a young Simon Pegg? Seriously, if Pegg ever needs someone to play himself as a teenager, give that actor a call.
  • "I shagged a monkey." Kelly comes clean to Laura about any embarrassing things in her past she should know about. "Technically, it was a gorilla" corrected Nathan.
  • Motormouth Nathan having been turned into a drooling vegetable was quite a haunting moment, reminding me of the similar fate suffered by Skins character Tony between series 1 and 2.
  • Was it just me, or did Nathan's shtick overstep the mark this week? He's usually my favourite character, but some of his hijinks just felt rather distasteful -- pretending to "milk" Lactose Boy's nipples and embarrassing him in public, or trying to get Daisy the healer to touch his penis. Nathan's always done shocking things like that, but it fell flat this week. Maybe it's because it's usually more in jest, or he ultimately makes himself look foolish, whereas here he was just totally tactless.
WRITER: Howard Overman
DIRECTOR: Owen Harris
TRANSMISSION: 16 December 2010, E4/HD, 10PM

Scott Buck promoted to showrunner of 'Dexter'

There's another change of showrunner for Dexter's sixth season next year, as Chip Johannessen steps down for Scott Buck to takeover. Buck, a former writer of Six Feet Under, has been involved with Dexter since season 2, becoming an executive-producer by season 4. He's also been the right-hand man of former showrunners Clyde Phillips and Johannessen, so it's been decided he's the natural replacement.

This is great news, I feel. Buck's episodes are often amongst the best of each season, and it's believed he has a better rapport with the writing staff than Johannessen (who, to be fair, was kind of thrown into the mix for season 5, fresh from working on 24.) But I'm sure having Buck in charge will go down well with the writers he's worked with all these years, and he undoubtedly knows the show extremely well.

I'm not sure why Johannessen had decided to leave, or if he was asked to step aside. Season 5 was Dexter's most successful year in terms of ratings (averaging 5m per episode), but it received mixed reviews because of its creative awkwardness. Maybe there was a feeling behind closed doors that Johannessen's ideas and direction wasn't working? It's obviously a tough show to break new stories for after five years, but hopefully Buck will rise to the challenge.

I still think the best news would be Showtime agreeing to set a fixed end-date for the series, allowing the writers to work towards maximizing the impact of Dexter's vigilantism being exposed to the world. That's undoubtedly a storyline they can only do for the final season, so there obviously needs to be some pre-agreement in place, because at the moment the show tends to get renewed the week its current season's finale airs.

I like to think a cable network like Showtime (traditionally a place for quality over quantity), would be more willing to ensure one of their top shows doesn't dwindle and die, but that's probably naïve. What Showtime really needs is a new show to overtake Dexter's popularity, so they can retire Dexter without feeling like they're shooting themselves in the foot.

What do you make of Buck's appointment as the big boss? Will it really make a difference, or are the problems with Dexter insurmountable if you're constantly asked to tread water instead of attack the natural end-game of a show with this premise?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Salt (2010)

Angelina Jolie's perhaps the best female action star working in Hollywood, and a good dramatic actress to boot. She alternates her roles well (alternating highbrow work like The Changeling and A Mighty Wind with popcorners like Tomb Raider and Wanted), and director Philip Noyce's Salt is definitely in the latter camp. From the pen of Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Ultraviolet), a screenwriter who often appropriates other films and ideas for his own ends (his Equilibrium was The Matrix-meets-1984), this movie is a preposterous escalation of thrills and spills, rarely stopping to catch its breath. Imagine a season of TV thriller 24, mostly told from the perspective of the villains, condensed into less than two hours, and that's what Salt delivers -- in handfuls, forget a pinch.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a highly-skilled CIA agent (once detained and tortured in North Korea until her German husband (August Dieh) arranged her return to the US), tasked with interviewing Russian defector Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) who claims his country's visiting president is going to be assassinated by a Soviet sleeper agent. The twist being that the informant identifies Salt as the appointed assassin, and Salt appears to confirms her guilt by going on the run, chased by her dumbfounded friends/colleagues Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Winter (Liev Schreiber). But is Salt an activated sleeper determined to complete her mission, even if her cover's been blown? Maybe she's a double-agent with honourable intentions? Or does Salt have her own agenda?

Salt is one of those runaway train-style viewing experiences, which doesn't stay still long enough for you to worry about its ludicrous plot and outdated viewpoint. The whole story is predicated on Cold War concerns that make it something of a throwback to thrillers from the '70s and '80s -- but in a media currently dominated by Islamic extremists, Salt's ex-Soviet radicals felt like a welcome change of pace. The downside is that they obviously don't captures a current mood or political anxiety, which means Salt is intentionally dated in its values. Would the movie really not have worked with more apposite villains for this day and age?

Jolie is a strong presence and totally believable as a female Jason Bourne with added iciness, but there's unfortunately no clear delineation between Evelyn Salt (loving wife, patriotic American) and Evelyn Salt (loyal commie, merciless killer), while Jolie herself is perhaps too A-list for you to believe the outcome will be anything too surprising. Still, it could have been worse: Tom Cruise was the original lead, when the script was called Edwin Salt, until he decided flexing comedy muscles in Knight & Day would be a better career move.

Overall, Salt is a wild confection of old-school concerns and modern verve; mainly relying on its pace, succession of tight action sequences, and a few genuine surprises. It's very possible to guess its twists and the ultimate outcome, but the film does a good job keeping you gripped with the unfolding mayhem and consequently distracted from thinking too far ahead. Or at least, that's how I approached this material, and I was rewarded with a gloriously daft but entertaining action-thriller in the 24 tradition.

Blu-ray Review

Picture (2.40:1, 1080p/AVC MPEG-4) The video presentation is very good, if not extraordinary. Detail is sharp and there's a nice layer of film grain, with very deep blacks and strong colour. It's nothing dazzling, but it's a transfer you won't have many complaints about.

Sound (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) The lossless DTS-HD track is excellent; immersive, clear and offering near-constant delights. Dialogue remains crisp throughout, there's great use of rear speakers during the many action sequences, and the music score is distinct and balanced at all times. Fantastic.

Special Features

First, it's worth noting that you get three different cuts of the film on this disc: Theatrical, Director's Cut, and Extended Edition. Is that a record for a movie making its home video debut? I watched the extended edition, figuring it would contain the most material.

Spy Cam (PiP) You can watch this extra within the movie itself, as it offers a rolling commentary from director Noyce and star Jolie, with Making Of footage and interviews. (Note: only accessible on the Theatrical cut)

Commentary: The director Phillip Noyce provides a very good audio commentary that's more insightful and interesting than the PiP track, even if it mostly sounds rehearsed. Noyce includes many anecdotes about his own dealings with the world of espionage (his father trained spies), and Salt's similarities to his '90s flop The Saint.

The Ultimate Female Action Hero (8 mins) A behind-the-scenes featurette focusing on Angelina Jolie and her natural aptitude for action roles like this.

The Real Agents (13 mins) A collection of real stories from genuine spies, including a KGB Major General and various CIA officers. Their stories focus on elements used in the movie, such as sleeper agents and false identities. Interesting.

Spy Disguise: The Looks Of Evelyn Salt (5 mins) Brief featurette about the makeup used on the film, particularly the latex used to turn Jolie into a man.

The Modern Master Of The Political Thriller: Phillip Noyce (10 mins) Essentially a retread of his audio commentary, but briefer and with the visual element. Unnecessary.

False Identity: Creating A New Reality (7 mins) A quick look at the visual effects of Salt, which involved a lot more compositing of fake elements into real shots than you'd imagine. A good extra feature, but deserved more attention.

Salt: Declassified (30 mins) The disc's focal extra is this documentary about the making of the film, which unfortunately recycles lots of footage from the other extras. Still, that means simply watching this documentary covers a lot of bases, fairly broadly.

The Treatment (30 mins) Radio interview with Noyce, which covers things he's already spoken about elsewhere on the disc -- twice! Consequently surplus to requirement.

Extras MovieIQ, if you're so inclined.

DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce
WRITER: Kurt Wimmer
CAST: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl & Daniel Olbrychski
RUNNING TIME: 100 mins (theatrical) BUDGET: $110m